Whether you’re celebrating the end of this seemingly endless year with a big shin-dig or planning to see the holidays through on your couch in your fluffy socks, you’ve got holiday presents to buy…and nothing fits better in a UPS envelope or a Christmas stocking than a nicely-wrapped book. Here are my recommendations for your shopping list, twenty-three of the best books I read in 2023, though not all were published this year. Some of these were written by friends and colleagues, some by authors I only hope to meet someday—but all were fabulous reads, and would make a great holiday gift for someone in your life. I’ve even given you some help figuring out who…
1. Murder By Degrees by Ritu Mukerji
This debut historical mystery stars a capable, likeable heroine in Dr. Lydia Weston who battles for acceptance every day as a female doctor in 19th century Philadelphia, and when one of her favorite patients turns up apparently murdered Lydia will need all her diagnostic skills to unmask the killer. A heartfelt ode to the historic women who blazed a trail in medicine, as well as a wonderfully entertaining mystery.
Buy for: your niece finishing up med school, who always rants about inaccurate depictions of medical processes in books. She’ll revel in all the true-to-life details, since the author is a practicing physician herself.
2. The Disappearance of Astrid Bricard by Natasha Lester
Three generations of women carve their mark in the world of fashion: Mizza Bricard, muse to Christian Dior in the forties; her daughter Astrid Bricard, struggling to carve a place among the American designers taking Paris by storm in the seventies; Blythe Bricard, haunted by her mother’s Versailles disappearance. Splashy fashion-world fun stitched together with incisive observations about women’s roles in the industry.
Buy for: your fashionista cousin. She’ll die for all the dishy behind-the-scenes details of the fashion world, and come away with some heated opinions about how the women of that world are punished when they dare to create and not just inspire the male designers.
3. Our Wives Under The Sea by Julia Armfield
Miri is at first ecstatic to discover that her marine biologist wife—presumed dead when her submarine sank on an undersea expedition—has returned to the surface unharmed, months later. Ecstasy turns to disquiet at the realization that Leah came back . . . different. I finished this at 3am, nails bitten to the quick—elegant, literary horror wrapped around a tender f/f romance.
Buy for: your little brother going off to college. Maybe he’ll re-think that desire to get a marine biology degree and explore the Mariana Trench. He really needs to re-think it.
4. A Bakery In Paris by Aimie Runyan
A confection of a novel wrapped around a serious core, as two generations of women—Lisette, a restless 19th century heiress trapped by the Prussian siege of Paris, and Micheline, WWII orphan trying to keep her family afloat postwar—risk their fortunes on the same tiny Parisian bakery in hopes of turning life around, with astonishing results.
Buy for: your Great British Bake-Off-loving neighbor. If only to send her on a French baking spree from all the delicious vintage recipes in this book, and find yourself awash in baguettes by New Year’s.
5. The House on Biscayne Bay by Chanel Cleeton
Recently orphaned Carmen makes the journey from Cuba to Miami where her married sister lives in splendor at Marbrisa, a gilded estate with a haunting past. Intrigued by a painting of the house’s last mistress, Carmen discovers that women have a habit of dying at Marbrisa, and she might be next. A splashy gothic thrill ride.
Buy for: that church/synagogue/mosque friend frazzled by the home renovation from hell. She’ll read this and reflect that even if her house currently has only one working faucet and holes in the ceiling, at least it’s not overrun by murderers and aggressive screaming peacocks.
6. The Hidden Things by Jamie Mason
Fourteen-year-old Carly goes mega-viral when a home security camera broadcasts her epic takedown of a would-be rapist. But the video also records a glimpse of a stolen painting that should very definitely not be hanging in a suburban foyer, and when the wrong people catch a glimpse of it, Carly’s life—and that of her secret-keeping stepfather—will change forever.
Buy for: your dad who lives for unsolved historical mysteries. He’ll love the connection to the famous art heist of the Gardner Museum in the nineties.
7. The First Ladies by Victoria Christopher Murray and Marie Benedict
In the shadow of Jim Crow and the Great Depression, an epic friendship blossoms between two equally epic women: civil rights powerhouse Mary McCleod Bethune and newly-minted First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. History—and America—will never be the same.
Buy for: your BFF, of course. Cue the long thoughtful discussions on friendship, race, politics, power, and all the places those four intersect.
8. The Book of Essie by Meghan MacLean Weir
Esther Hicks is the button-cute youngest daughter on “Six For Hicks,” a twenty-season reality show revolving around the family of a megachurch pastor. Essie’s pregnancy threatens the family ratings, but a public courtship with hastily-chosen high school footballer Roarke should bring things around for a big season-finale wedding . . . if Essie wasn’t secretly planning public revenge on the family that has exploited her for her entire life.
Buy for: that one friend still scarred by an uber-churchy upbringing that went wrong. They’ll cackle with schadenfreude glee at the way Essie string-pulls her takedown of the entire hypocritical system which so horrendously wronged her.
9. Queen of Exiles by Vanessa Riley
Marie-Louise Christophe is crowned queen of the newly-liberated kingdom of Hayti in the wake of the Haitian Revolution, but kingdoms can fall as fast as they rise. Fleeing to England with her daughters a decade later, a widowed Queen Louise struggles to find a happy ending for her family as equal to the crowned heads of Europe who would look down on them.
Buy for: your cubicle-mate who’s on her third rewatch of Queen Charlotte. She’ll swoon for this real-life story of a Black queen who charted the course of her life on her own terms.
10. All You Have To Do Is Call by Kerri Maher
Honors the 1970s heroines of the Jane collective who provided safe, clandestine health services in the pre-Roe v. Wade era. Three very different women become involved with the network—its founder leading a double life under a housewife’s facade, a young professor and new volunteer, a straitlaced mother faced with a hard choice—and Maher sketches all three women with compassion and sensitivity.
Buy for: your firebrand grandma who remembers the seventies all too well. Listen to her stories about living as a woman in the Jane era because believe me, she has them.
11. You Can Trust Me by Wendy Heard
Sharp, twisty good fun with a pair of spiky yet lovable female con artists who grift their way unabashedly through California’s elite—but they meet their match when they set their sights on a tech billionaire and one of the pair disappears. How far will a girl go for her partner in crime?
Buy for: your old college roommate. Follow with a long catch-up texting session about how life would have turned out if you’d turned professional cons on that cross-country road trip instead of just drinking too many Long Island Iced Teas.
12. Peter Darling by Austin Chant
Peter Pan supposedly returned to England because of Wendy Darling, but the real story isn’t that simple . . . and when Peter returns to Neverland after ten years in the real world, he grapples with how things have changed in his absence. Including his hatred (or is it really hatred?) for Captain Hook.
Buy for: that teen in your life who is struggling or has struggled with gender identity. They’ll love the unexpected twist where a fan-favorite character in the Peter Pan canon is sensitively re-imagined as transgender.
13. Winterland by Rae Meadows
When eight-year-old Anya is tapped for the famous 1970s Soviet gymnastics program, she and her family are thrilled. It’s a ticket to glory and prosperity, not to mention a way out from under the suspicion cast by the disappearance of Anya’s mother. But Olympic glory comes with a heavy cost, and as Anya trains she must decide what she really wants.
Buy for: your gymnastics-mad goddaughter who binges Simone Biles clips on YouTube. She’ll be looking up clips of Olga Korbut’s dead-loop next.
14. Olive, Mabel, and Me: Life & Adventures With Two Very Good Dogs by Andrew Cotter
Were you glued to the YouTube adventures of Labrador retrievers Olive and Mabel during the pandemic, as their food-bowl escapades and beach-walk hi-jinks were narrated with hilarious intensity by their Scottish-sports-announcer human Andrew Cotter? Now you get Olive and Mabel (and Andrew) in book form, and they’re as funny and touching as ever.
Buy for: your dog-loving aunt who watched Olive & Mabel videos all through the pandemic and now watches golf because of Andrew Cotter’s accent.
15. The Cartographers by Peng Shepherd
The Young family business—and passion—is mapmaking, and a simple gas station road map becomes the key to mending a family rift when Nell Young realizes she may have the only copy left in existence . . . and that someone is willing to kill for it, starting with Nell’s father. The mystery unravels from there, revealing the fascinating world of cartography in the process.
Buy for: your grandpa who has never met a map he doesn’t love, or a map he can accurately fold.
16. The Gentleman’s Gambit by Evie Dunmore
Don’t worry if you haven’t read the three previous books in Evie Dunmore’s League of Extraordinary Women series; this one stands on its own—a whip-smart, sparks-flying Victorian romance between introverted scholar Catriona who struggles to balance her work and her suffragette activism, and charmer Elias who has newly arrived in England to classify antiquities but secretly plans to steal them back to their home countries. Sexy and thoughtful, the best kind of romance.
Buy for: the romance-loving mom in your carpool group, the one always toting a Beverly Jenkins or Eloisa James along to her kid’s soccer practice.
17. Black Cake by Charmaine Wilkerson
Adult siblings Byron and Benny are brought together by their mother Eleanor’s death, which turns into a last request: listen to her voice on tape telling the story of her past, and share the last black cake she ever made. Eleanor’s story, starting with a young island girl fleeing home unders suspicion of murder, brings profound changes in its wake.
Buy for: your mother-in-law, who will love the story of secrets and recipes being passed through the generations. Bonus points if you include an actual black cake with the book, or at least your Hulu password so she can watch the “Black Cake” miniseries.
18. Only The Beautiful by Susan Meissner
An exploration of the little-known American eugenics movement through two women: a pregnant teenager institutionalized in the thirties for her unique ability to see colors attached to sound, and a compassionate nanny newly returned from Europe with deep scars from Hitler’s annihilation of the genetically impure. Shocking and moving, like the best historical fiction.
Buy for: the nurse in your book club. She’ll be horrified by this dark chapter in America’s medical history, but uplifted by the hopefulness on which the story closes.
19. Slade House by David Mitchell
A mysterious house in London with a door that only opens every nine years, each time luring a different guest who is greeted by name, tempted inside . . . and never seen again. Jumping from the seventies to the present, the horror builds in meticulous layers as the house’s appetites—and inhabitants—are slowly revealed.
Buy for: your ghoulish nephew who has already read all of Stephen King. He’ll sleep with a nightlight for a month.
20. Vera Wong’s Unsolicited Advice For Murders by Jesse Q. Sutanto
Most women would be fazed finding a corpse on the floor in their faltering tea-shop, but not Vera Wong. Taking it on herself to find the murderer (clearly a Chinese mother with time on her hands and a son who never calls will do a better job than the police), Vera assembles a list of suspects—and hilariously, builds a family in the process.
Buy for: the bossy sixty-something lady who works the local coffee shop and converted you from espresso to chai. Because she could totally solve murders too.
21. The Whalebone Theatre by Joanna Quinn
When a whale washes up onshore near the Seagrave manor in 1920s England, the three Seagrave siblings build a theatre—and a world—within its skeletal rib-cage. War interrupts their childhood paradise and catapults two of the three into occupied Europe as spies, but the skills learned running wild inside the whale’s ribs can never be unlearned. Quirky, magical, moving.
Buy for: Your histfic-loving sister, who complains she’s tired of WWII spy books. She hasn’t read one like this.
22. Beasts of Prey by Ayana Gray
Two Black teenagers—a young soldier-in-training desperate to uphold his family legacy, and an indentured servant determined to win her freedom from the Night Zoo where she labors to care for fearsome magical creatures—join forces to hunt a vicious legendary beast called the Shetani. But as they plunge deeper into the jungle surrounding their home, they are forced to question who the real prey is.
Buy for: your office Secret Santa who loved “Fourth Wing.” Tough heroine, magical beasts, lushly depicted world? This ticks all her boxes.
23. Yellowface by R.F. Kuang
Athena Liu is a New York Times bestseller while her frenemy June Hayward is a struggling Z-list author. When Athena dies in a freak accident, June steals her latest manuscript and submits it under an ambiguously Asian pen name and author photo, winning the fame she has always felt she deserved . . . until the rumor mill begins to churn. A scathing, wincingly-funny takedown of the publishing industry.
Buy for: that person in your life who’s always wanted to write a book. They won’t be able to look away from this literary train-wreck-in-motion.
Happy shopping, and happy holidays!