My Favourite Books of 2023
The faves for fiction and nonfiction books
In what has become a Field Notes tradition,1 I’m sharing my favourite reads from 2023 with you today. As of right now, I’ve read 139 books, give or take, this year but these are my own ten best for fiction and non-fiction apiece plus a few honourable mentions and my favourite poetry/blessings books of 2023.
Open up your library request page or online/local retailer of choice 2and let’s build up that To-Be-Read pile or a Christmas wish list made of entirely books like the pseudo-hermit bookworms we are at heart.
My Favourite Non-Fiction Books of 2023
Enchantment: Awakening Wonder In An Anxious Age by Katherine May - I underlined so much of this beautiful, wise, and well-paced book. Offering up the possibility of enchantment, or wonder, as an antidote to this age of fear and anxiety, her prose is magnificent, yes, but the seed of truth in the pages is also healing. Read with a good pen in hand.
You Could Make This Place Beautiful: A Memoir by Maggie Smith - I absolutely adore Maggie Smith’s poetry. In this memoir, she writes through the end of her marriage and her own reluctant but powerful rebirth. I love how Maggie writes about art and her children, music and the natural world in particular but I underlined so many lines throughout the entire book. She’s luminous - in real life and on the page. I’m so grateful for writers like her, who show us how to navigate our own inner landscapes by so fearlessly going first. (Also, holy hell, can this woman write.)
Everybody Come Alive: A Memoir in Essays by Marcie Alvis Walker - Beautifully written prose and a bittersweet lament - yet so joyful! - throughout the story of growing up as a Black woman in the 70s and 80s, told with honesty and care, invitation and demand.
True Reconciliation: How to Be a Force for Change by Jody Wilson-Raybould - A follow up to her bestseller “Indian” in the Cabinet: Speaking Truth to Power, JWR tries to answer the question she is asked most often: “What can I do to help advance reconciliation?” Her answer is excellent, practical, helpful. Particularly appreciated her oral history of Canadian reconciliation until present day in particular, it’s so powerful.
Tell Me The Dream Again: Reflections on Family, Ethnicity, and the Sacred Work of Belonging by Tasha Jun - A beautifully written memoir of growing up and into one’s full and complex cultural heritage as half-Korean and half-American, I loved this one - especially loved how often she wove her faith and understanding of scripture into her revelations on belonging, family, culture, and even joy.
Woven: Nurturing a Faith Your Kid Doesn’t Have to Heal From by Meredith Miller - Rooted in God's goodness and a deep respect for the dignity of children, I think this book is exactly what so many of us parents have desperately needed as an alternative. In contrast to the shame and fear-based models of parenting or discipling children - with which many of us are sadly familiar, this warm and wise book operates from a practical, graceful, trust-based paradigm which makes room for your own questions, wrestlings, and story even as you seek to raise your kids in a faith that honours their agency and truth, too.
All My Knotted Up Life by Beth Moore - Beth cracks open her heart and life with humility, vulnerability, and wry self-awareness as she covers her childhood trauma, her family, her complex marriage (with an honesty, tenderness, and frankness that most Christian leadership cannot fathom), and her experiences leaving the Southern Baptist church. At the end of the book, I was left with the deep gratitude that she still just loves Jesus like she does.
On Repentance and Repair: Making Amends in an Unapologetic World by Rabbi Danya Ruttenburg - What a brilliant, fantastic book. It is such a powerful, practical, instructive book about harm, apologies, atonement, and so much more. In an age of “cancel culture” and public reckonings, she gives us an ancient path towards forgiveness that feels so necessary and relevant right now. It’s rooted in ancient Jewish concepts but very accessible and actionable for pretty much all of us. Highly recommend especially for anyone in some form of leadership or ministry.
Curveball: When Your Faith Takes Turns You Never Saw Coming (or How I Stumbled and Tripped My Way to Finding a Bigger God) by Peter Enns - Pete is brilliant at taking the big topics, those Christian ideas that usually scare us or intimidate us or worry us, and then make those very places a meeting place with a God who is bigger and wilder and more wonderful and trustworthy than we ever could have guessed.
Becoming a Matriarch by Helen Knott - What an incredible book. When she is left in the default position of “matriarch” for her Dane Zaa family, Knott explores the differences between martyrdom, codependency, freedom, and carving a new path of womanhood. Wry, wise, sometimes funny and then heartbreaking, it’s a story of becoming an elder, sooner than you thought you should, and how to carve a new path that integrates ancient indigenous wisdom with new revelations, reclaiming family stories and embracing possible healing.
My Favourite Fiction Books of 2023
Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan - Whew. Some books tell a better story in 70 pages than most can tell in 700! Set in an Irish town at Christmas and in the context of the Magdalene “laundries,” this compassionate but unflinching novella was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and it is every bit as brave, brilliant, and quietly profound as promised. I saw that The Times called Claire Keegan “all killer, no filler” and that is not a word of a lie. I can’t stop thinking of it. (Also loved her spectacular and beloved book Foster this year.)
The Thursday Murder Club series by Richard Osman - This was my obsessive series read of the year. I binged all four in a matter of weeks this fall (is it cheating to include four books under one line item? No matter.). Listen, if you followed me to our beloved Three Pines (Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache series) then trust me and please join me at England’s own Coopers Chase Retirement Village. There, we meet four of the best fictional septuagenarian characters ever along with a delight of two cops in the village. Funny, clever, warm but not sappy, not-at-all-gory, interesting, and a genuine joy to read with characters for which I would lay down my life.
The Berry Pickers by Amanda Peters - A debut author I heard about through writer Katherena Vermette, this was one I finished in a literal day. Could not put it down. A four-year-old Mi’kmaq girl goes missing in Maine and the unfolding parallel stories of the two families at the heart of this story is complicated, brutal, tender, and compelling. The themes of forgiveness, reclamation, wonder, and healing were beautiful and difficult at the same time; it puts the systemic loss of culture, family, and agency into stark relief through a particular family.
We Are The Light by Matthew Quick - I don’t know if it’s a recommendation to say “this book shattered me” but if it IS, then YES. Because it did. Whew. The story is so incredibly sad and beautiful, profoundly hopeful and yet completely devastating. It confronts the wounds of masculinity well - while exploring art, grief, friendship, therapy (interestingly through Jungian theory?!) and what it even means to heal those wounds. And it has such a beautiful portrayal of faith in a couple of the secondary characters there, too - it was refreshing to see a healthy, kind person motivated by faith there in the mix, too. (CW: gun violence)
Homecoming by Kate Morton - Let’s get this out of the way: I’m a sucker for Kate Morton’s books. Decades-old non-gory mysteries to solve + old homes with sad stories + dual timelines + generations of complex women in a family saga, you can always sign me up! This is an old-fashioned page-turner, lost-in-a-good-book one with layers of secrets and skillful revelations.
Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin - I came into this book with very little understanding of it’s plot or purpose, just recommendations from some fellow readers whose taste I trust. And in a way, I think that might be the best way to go into it? It’s a love story, yes, but the kind of love that isn’t often acknowledged: the love that we have for our companions at work and our creative partnerships (also lots of themes on identity, disability, even failure which was refreshing). The entire time I read it, I was filled with wonder - the writing is incredible, the characters very real - but by the time I finished, I realised that it was one of the best books I read all year.
Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger - It seems weird to call a book about a 1961 murder in a Minnesota town and its impact on a family and community “beautiful” but somehow, this book manages. It’s incredibly written, that’s for sure. I love the complicated but loving portrayal of the community, no one is a caricature or a stereotype, but a fully realized human with a story. It was sad but lovely story of growing up, boyhood, community, and tragedy all at the same time.
What Strange Paradise by Omar El Akkad - This won the Scotiabank Giller Prize a few years ago so I’ve had it on my radar for a while, but didn’t read it until this year. What a gorgeous, heartbreaking, unforgettable book. Journeying through the global refugee crisis with 9 year old Amir and 15 year old Vänna, it tears down borders, denials, and arguments through a deeply moving story.
Beartown by Fredrik Backman - I love hockey and I love novels so a novel about hockey sounded good to me. He writes a particular sort of manhood so intimately and well but he also explores marriage, town dynamics, friendship, growing up, and parenting really, really well. And it turns out that the similarities between hockey culture in Sweden is very similar to Saskatchewan/Alberta. It’s a difficult book (CW: sexual assault) but honest and profound, complicated and even deeply beautiful at times.
Before The Coffee Gets Cold by Toshikazu Kawaguchi - What a quirky, unexpectedly charming read! A nondescript old cafe in Tokyo can send you back in time - for a moment, and with a lot of rules but still. Time travel! It was a heartwarming and even mystical story about memory, story, loss, and being resolutely human that was just a lovely read this year.
Favourite Poetry or Blessings Books
God Speaks Through Wombs: Poems on God's Unexpected Coming by Drew Jackson - This was such a beautiful and strong book, written in such a way that I literally found myself reading whole pages out loud to myself, just to savour the words.
Seasons of Wonder: Making the Ordinary Sacred Through Projects, Prayers, Reflections, and Rituals: A 52-week devotional by Bonnie Smith Whitehouse - I know a lot of us have Big Feelings about devotionals but this is a lovely and healing reintroduction to rhythms of ritual for our faith through the lens of embodiment and wonder.
The Book of Common Courage: Prayers and Poems to Find Strength in Small Moments by KJ Ramsey - If your heart is pretty bruised by church and religion and life, this is a gentle salve.
Scars and Stars: Poems by Jesse Thistle - Loved his memoir From the Ashes in last year’s list and this revisits the poetry that emerged from his story.
Poetry Unbound: 50 Poems to Open Your World edited by Pádraig Ó Tuama - A strong, diverse, beautiful collection of poetry.
Things You May Find in My Ear by Mosab Abu Toha - Written by a Palestinian poet, this was haunting, necessary, devastating, and deeply human.
The Lives We Actually Have: 100 Blessings For Imperfect Days by Kate Bowler and Jess Ritchie With blessings for an ordinary life, this tired life, this lovely life, this grief-stricken life, painful, overwhelming, this garbage life, for others, and onward.
God Got A Dog by Cynthia Rylant - What a joyous book of incarnational poetry for all ages! I picked it up when I came across the poem, God Went to Beauty School because it was just glorious and quirky and delightful.
(AKA Why I shouldn’t be in charge of narrowing any list down or rankings of any sort because I want to add all of these, too!)
Good Inside: A Guide To Becoming The Parent You Want To Be by Becky Kennedy
Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands by Kate Beaton
Holy Unhappiness: God, Goodness, and the Myth of the Blessed Life by Amanda Held Opelt
The Life Council: 10 Friends Every Woman Needs by Laura Tremaine
The Book of Delights by Ross Gay
The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
Happy Place: A Novel by Emily Henry
The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin
Nettle and Bone by T. Kingfisher
And Julie Van Rosendaal’s three cookbooks were in heavy rotation this year, too.
And Thank You
I’ve heard from so many of you who have been reading my own books over this past year, telling me how those words are intersecting with your own stories and lives right now. It means the world to me. Truly. Thank you for all of you who have picked one up at the bookstore, asked for your library to bring it in to borrow, gave them to your friends, and shared your thoughts on social media as well as online reviewers/retailers. Thank you for your comments, notes, emails, reviews, and social media tags, I appreciate this more than I could express.
Now here’s where it gets fun….
YOUR TURN: What were your own favourite reads of 2023? Fiction, non-fiction, or beyond, we’d love to hear.
If only reading was a full-time job,
P.S. Speaking of Instagram, in honour of the 60th anniversary of Doctor Who, I decided to go ALL IN with my deep geekery for the show in this post and subsequent Stories (all saved in a Highlight if you’re coming to this later). I’m sorry and you’re welcome. Allons-y!
In case you missed these recent Field Notes:
Good morning!: We are often testifying everyday resurrections in the mornings and the daily meals of our lives.
🍲 We're in our homeyness season now, folks: Let’s wander in from the cold together, eh?
Jesus Feminist, ten years later: Behind the scenes stories, my own evolving journey, a few regrets, precious memories, and our shared testimony
Ordinary Work: All I know to do when I don’t know what to do.
As usual we’re using Amazon for our links for books. After many attempts to direct folks elsewhere or find better indie options, this has been the most consistently accessible for everyone regardless of income, location, and accessibility needs. Email links in your inbox are not affiliate links but if you are here on the webpage itself, the reading list affiliate links and the Kindle Deals are to Amazon which does kick a few pennies back to me. However, you can often and preferably find these books at your local library or local bookseller or through an indie bookselling link.