The year is halfway over, and we’re ready to name Book Riot’s Best Books of 2023 (so far)! These are our favorite reads that were published between January 1st and June 30th. We’ve got historical romance, mermaid transformations, lots of queer stories, comedic horror, pirate adventures, and more. We love them all and we hope you will too! Happy reading!
Any Other City
Hazel Jane Plante’s debut, Little Blue Encyclopedia (for Vivian) is one of my favorite books ever, so I had high expectations for her new one. They were met. They were exceeded. They were smashed to pieces. This novel, written in the form of the fictional memoir of a semi-famous trans punk musician, Tracy St. Cyr, is a magical trans healing spell. It’s sexy and funny and whimsical and weird. It’s about music and making art and queer friendship and queer and trans community — the real, hard, nourishing, complicated work of it. This book is messy, uncontainable, untranslatable trans brilliance. It’s one in a million. Don’t wait.
Beguiling Her Enemy Warrior
I heard about Lucy Morris’s Viking romance novels from the podcast Fated Mates. I quickly read all of them. And Beguiling Her Enemy Warrior has been my favorite so far! Rhys is a Welsh prince who abducts a Viking healer named Helga because he believes her family kidnapped his sister. Helga dreamed of Rhys as a child and believes he is her destiny. There are obviously big obstacles to their happily ever after (like the fact that he hates Vikings and kidnapped her!) but that makes the story move so quickly. If you like historical stories or are interested in the fast pace of a Harlequin category romance, I highly suggest reading this one!
I’m always on the lookout for the perfect fantasy romance, filled with unforgettable characters and staggering emotion. Mia Tsai delivers all that and then some with Bitter Medicine. Elle Jiang is a descendant of the Chinese god of medicine, but she’s in hiding, keeping her magic secret while creating protective glyphs for clients, including the handsome Luc. Luc is half-elf, bound by his true name to his unrelenting boss, and haunted by a curse of a past mission. Luc and Elle both fear their past trauma, yet are desperate for happiness, seeking possibility and freedom in each other. This book will shatter your heart and put it back together.
Calling this book a dystopian novel feels too simple, but Adjei-Brenyah’s debut novel is exactly what dystopian novels should be: thought-provoking, as wonderfully character-driven as it is plot-driven, and a shocking reflection of our contemporary world. CAPE (Criminal Action Penal Entertainment) is a program that sees prisoners competing in death matches to win the ultimate prize: their freedom. Loretta Thurwar and Hamara “Hurricane Staxxx” Stacker are teammates, lovers, and stars of the program. Thurwar is just a few matches away from her freedom. But that fight to the finish comes at a cost.
Luna was my favorite character by far in TJ Alexander’s debut Chef’s Kiss as Simone’s confident, snarky roommate. I was thrilled to hear she was getting her own book. She and Jean-Pierre are perfect for each other, and their love story brings a fresh voice to the fake relationship trope. As Luna and Jean-Pierre work together to help him prove himself to his family as a rightful heir to their culinary legacy, their growing confidence in finding a future together that brings them joy no matter what other people think was very satisfying to me as a reader.
Ren Yu is a mermaid, even though right now she’s stuck in the body of a high school swimmer. Despite the fact no one believes her, she believes in herself, and as such, she slowly and painfully begins the transition from human to mermaid, culminating in a transformation that no one sees coming. This is the queer mermaid book you did not know you needed. If you like weird horror, you’ve found your next treat.
Crossing the Line
Erik is desperate; ever since his dad died he has felt alone. Troubled and lost, he is soon taken in by a group that offers him acceptance and more importantly, money. When the jobs get more dangerous, and his family’s life is threatened, Erik must make a choice that will mean life or death. A fantastic YA verse novel that is brutally honest.
“Dust Child” is the name given to the children of Vietnamese women and American male soldiers, conceived during the war but looked down upon by society for various reasons. In this book, Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai talks about the aftermath of the Vietnam War combining a love story taking place during the war, a dust child looking for his father and fighting for a better life, and a war veteran returning to Vietnam to confront his demons. Dust Child is a result of years of Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai’s research, and a fervent attempt to acknowledge the lives and experiences of these children, all coupled with a compassion that’s unique to her alone.
Gay Poems for Red States
Just after Willie Edward Taylor Carver Jr. won Kentucky’s Teacher of the Year Award in 2022, he left his job as an English teacher. Kentucky’s public school system had become too hostile for him to continue teaching as an openly gay man. His collection Gay Poems for Red States presents the harsh realities of being a gay man during this time of rising hatred towards LGBTQIA+ teachers across Appalachia and the rest of America. Simultaneously, Carver’s poems are an outpouring of love for a place that doesn’t love him back. Carver conveys such tenderness for Appalachian culture and the rural communities that raised him.
Hi Honey, I’m Homo!
I’ve loved sitcoms for as long as I can remember, mostly for the ways they can make you both laugh and think at the same time, which I think is their precise power. And there’s a surprising number of classic American sitcoms that were addressing queer issues long before it was cool to do that. Matt Baume makes us consider these series from a different vantage point by incorporating what was going on in queer history at the time that specific episodes were airing, which provides a uniquely fresh perspective. I definitely recommend this book if you grew up on classic sitcoms and have always wondered why they end up so influential in pop culture.
How to Sell a Haunted House
This was my most anticipated book of 2023 and, well, here we are. This novel — by one of the best comedic horror writers out there — is about a set of estranged siblings who are forced to work together to sell their childhood home after their parents pass away. The house, however, is resistant, as are the possessed puppets their mother left behind. Sure, it sounds over the top. But I was swept away by the high stakes, truly enjoyed the high camp, and was blindsided by the emotional resonance at the heart of this family story.
Oh, Imogen. This character broke my heart. She’s the epitome of the enthusiastic ally to bisexual pipeline. She’s so entrenched in queer discourse that she’s tied herself in knots. She thinks having a maybe-crush on a girl must be her secretly, inside her own head, appropriating queer culture. I just wanted to give her a hug. This has a cute F/F romance, and I loved the queer community in this novel, but what shines is Imogen’s anxious processing of her own identity — something so many bisexual people can identify with. This is also one of several books with queer Jewish main characters out(!) this year!
This is a memoir + true crime blend where Cristina Rivera Garza not only recounts her sister Liliana’s murder, including getting the case files, but shares with the world who her sister was, in part through diary entries. It’s also a scathing look at femicide cases in Mexico and the protests that are shining a light on women fighting back against gender-targeted crime. It’s beautifully written and Victoria Villarreal does a fantastic job narrating the audiobook.
Ali Hazelwood proves herself once again as a funny, engaging writer of STEMinist romance. Theoretical physicist Elsie Hannaway is brute-forcing her way into an academic position. Her side-gig for sustenance is playing a fake girlfriend, but she finds herself in trouble with her favorite client because his brother is her physics nemesis, Jack Smith. Like all of Ali Hazelwood’s men, Jack is disarmingly hot and difficult for Elsie to ignore. Though they are not chemists, the attraction is undeniable and leads to sizzling romance. What really elevates this book is the attention to detail about the misogyny women face in the academic job market.
Lesbian bars are an endangered species in the U.S., shrinking from over 200 in the 1980s to only 20 today. In an effort to celebrate the importance and unique magic of lesbian bars, Krista Burton decided to visit each of those 20 remaining bars and write about their past, present, and future. Burton strikes an absolutely perfect balance of queer history, humor, and heart. This book draws you in from the first page and makes you feel right at home, just like a beloved neighborhood lesbian bar. I laughed, I cried, I read passages out loud, I made a “lesbian bars to visit” list, and I still can’t stop talking about it to everyone I encounter.
Once Upon A Book
Alice longs to escape a winter day indoors in this delightful picture book that will speak to readers of all ages. Spying an open book with a beguiling jungle, Alice begins to read. The birds inside invite Alice into the book so, much like Alice in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, she steps into the portal of reading. She visits many lands in her quest to find the perfect spot — deserts, oceans, the moon. In the end, she winds up back home to a dinner of dumplings with her parents. Clever illustrations depict the book within the book, telling the story, and Alice’s dress of words from the classic inspiration, which alter to match the plot.
Our Share of Night
Enríquez is a treasure, and this book about a mysterious magical cult doesn’t disappoint. Juan is grieving his wife’s death and suffering from his always-failing heart, but his primary goal is to hide his son, Gaspar, from the cult’s clutches. This hefty, simmering gothic novel is all pounding migraines and gnarly scars, dark shadows and cinematic haunts, rich and queer and frightening — everything Enríquez does best. The book pulls on Argentina’s history of oppression and disappearances, and asks what it takes to obliterate a seemingly unbreakable capitalist-driven power structure. I couldn’t put it down.
Some Desperate Glory
I’ve never read a book outside of fan fiction that does what this book so effortlessly pulls off: an alternate universe narrative set within an original story. And wow does Some Desperate Glory do it well! The book follows a girl raised by a radical human sect and indoctrinated to hate the aliens who destroyed Earth long ago. But when she’s selected to become a mother rather than a soldier, she begins to ask questions she refused to consider before. It’s a must read for sci-fi fans. The fact that the title is taken from one of my favorite WWI poems is just icing on the cake.
This historical romance is a dose of nonbinary joy that unpacks the complexities of found family, aromanticism, and financial security. Peggy Delancey drops everything when Arabella Tarleton, distressed that she can’t fall in love, asks for her help seducing the flamboyant opera singer Orfeo in London. Still partially in love with Belle, Peggy arrives to discover an instant connection with Orfeo instead. Now, Peggy is falling for her best friend’s last chance at love. Peggy and Orfeo also cannot resolve the different futures they imagined, but they might both trade anything for being well-loved and well-known in a nonbinary relationship.
Something Wild & Wonderful
I’m always looking for sweeping romances, the kind I read breathlessly and prioritize over all other obligations. This stunning book fits the bill perfectly. In it, we follow Ben and Alexei, who meet while hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. Alexei’s trying to work through some religious trauma. Meanwhile, Ben’s sworn off relationships, hoping to transition to an era of good decision making. It’s a terrible time for them to fall for each other, but it’s also perfect. Ben and Alexei are on the adventure of their lives, and you absolutely want to witness every beautiful moment through their eyes.
A retired pirate goes on one last adventure to track down a missing girl for a wealthy woman who promises a vast sum of money to return the girl home. However, Amina al-Sirafi soon finds not all is what it seems; there’s terrible magic afoot and it leads back to a dark past she wants nothing more than to forget. This is a stunning and engaging story of high-sea adventure, magic, and some of the best characters I’ve ever encountered. A true must-read book that you won’t want to put down.
In a season of my life when few novels were able to fully engage me, The Daydreams had me at the first sentence and kept my attention throughout. Laura Hankin is a great storyteller, and I especially love her ability to create vivid and real characters and keep twisting what we’ve guessed or what we think we know. If early 2000s nostalgia is your thing, or you love reading about fame and its consequences, don’t miss this one.
The Haunting of Alejandra
If you don’t know the legend that’s been keeping Latine kids up at night for centuries, La Llorona (Weeping Woman or Wailing Woman) often appears as a ghost on a riverbank, a grieving and murderous woman condemned to wander the earth after drowning her children for reasons that vary with each version of the tale. The Haunting of Alejandra is the story of a woman haunted by La Llorona as she unravels dark secrets in her family history. Follow it into the dark, and should you encounter a woman shrouded in white weeping for her children there…don’t think, run.
The Mimicking of Known Successes (Mossa & Pleiti #1)
Malka Older writing a gaslamp, Holmesian whodunnit set on Jupiter was one of the most welcome surprises of my reading year thus far. It’s moody and atmospheric, our two narrators Mossa and Pleiti are perfect foils for each other (and their romance is one you can’t help but root for), and the mystery unfolds with skillful pacing. The colony on Jupiter is perfectly drawn, and completely unlike any other interstellar story I can recall reading. I’m so delighted that this is just the start of a new series from Older! New readers will find themselves drawn in, and my fellow fans of The Centenal Cycle will be astonished by the breadth of Older’s range.
The Neighbor Favor
There’s been a lot of focus on enemies-to-lovers romances in recent years, but my personal fave is a good friends-to-lovers story, and The Neighbor Favor is that and more. Forest starts with a You’ve Got Mail premise — Nick is secretly an author that Lily had an email connection with — and Kristina Forest adds in details about both publishing and bookish nerdiness that any dedicated reader will love. Even when the secret identity obstacle sits between these two characters and their HEA, the joy they each find in stories and storytelling jumps off the pages. The Neighbor Favor is truly as much about finding your people as it is about finding your person.
The Postcard is simply an unforgettable, life-changing read. It is a novel but tells the true story of Anne Berest’s mother receiving a postcard in 2003 with the names of her parents and siblings who died in Auschwitz. The photo shows the Paris Opera, the headquarters of the Gestapo during the war. Who sent it and why? Berest and her mother embark on a journey to find the identity and motive of the sender and dive into her own Jewish heritage. It’s an incredible story, and I honestly cannot recommend this book enough.
When Gareth Inglis is made a baronet by the sudden death of his deadbeat dad, he also inherits an estate on the remote Romney Marsh, a surprise family, and a dangerous conspiracy. As if that wasn’t complicated enough, Romney Marsh is a hotbed of smuggling — and Joss Doomsday, the head of the local smuggling clan, just happens to be Gareth’s ex-lover. KJ Charles excels at both finding unique, fascinating settings for her historical romances, and building in rich, complex layers of external and internal conflict that make the eventual HEA that much more satisfying. Gareth and Joss’s story was no exception. I can’t wait for the sequel.
The Seven Year Slip
Book publicist Clementine has a gorgeous apartment she inherited from her aunt Analea and a huge hole in her heart from Analea’s sudden death six months ago. Then it turns out that Analea’s stories about the apartment slipping through time were true, and Clementine meets Iwan, who is living seven years in her past. She can’t fall in love with him — the timing is all wrong. But maybe she can find him in her present day. Ashley Poston proved that she can write a stunning romance balanced with tremendous grief with last year’s The Dead Romantics, and she’s done it again here. This book? It’s perfect.
Vera Wong’s Unsolicited Advice for Murderers
This cozy mystery is as hilarious as it is heartwarming. Vera Wong is a spunky elderly woman whose San Francisco tea shop may be dying, but when she discovers an actual dead body, things spiral out of control in the best of ways. From using a Sharpie to draw an outline around the corpse to stealing the flash drive from the dead man’s hand, it’s clear from the start that Vera’s not going to sit idly by while the cops do their jobs (which, in Vera’s opinion, they’re not very good at). Each of the characters in this zany murder mystery are lovable in unexpected and complementary ways. Vera and her newfound friends deliver in droves!
In 2018, a white couple and their six adopted Black children died when their minivan went off a cliff. It was ruled a murder-suicide, but this isn’t just a story of that event. It’s an eye-opening look at the foster care system in America, and why those children never should have been taken from their families in the first place. You won’t be surprised to learn that placing kids in foster care with families other than their own lines the pockets of the people in charge of such matters. This is a book about a broken system and six young victims of that system. This is not a book that you will want to read but you should. No one should look away.
R. F. Kuang swerves from her usual genre of fiction into this satirical literary thriller that I just loved. June lives in the literary shadow of her friend Athena, an Asian American superstar author. But when Athena dies in a freak accident, June swipes Athena’s unfinished draft, tweaks it, and passes it off as her own. Full of biting insights and literary inside baseball, this novel is fun and horrible all at the same time.