Best books of 2023

The Times’ book critic picks her favorites from the books she covered this year.
"Small Mercies" by Dennis Lehane
"Small Mercies" by Dennis Lehane [ HarperCollins ]
Published Dec. 21, 2023

It’s that time of year again, when Santa’s elves email me to say, “What was the title of that book you reviewed about. ...”

So here they are, the best 2023 books I wrote about for the Tampa Bay Times. Coming next week, the best books I didn’t review in 2023!

Best Florida fiction

Dave Barry has been writing about Florida his whole life, yet still finds fresh foolishness in his latest novel, “Swamp Story,” which whips together melon-headed cryptids, invasive pythons, TikTok stardom and preening politicians to hilarious effect.

T.C. Boyle might be a California guy, but he nails a darkly funny and chilling vision of Florida’s near future in the grips of climate change in his riveting novel “Blue Skies.”

Ana Menendez captures Miami Beach from the 1940s to the present in “The Apartment,” a collection of exquisite linked short stories about the tenants who move in and out of a single apartment.

Best nonfiction debuts

After a storied career as a newspaper editor, Martin Baron writes an insider’s view of former President Donald Trump’s unprecedented relationship with the press in “Collision of Power: Trump, Bezos, and The Washington Post.

Rebecca Renner makes an impressive mark with “Gator Country: Deception, Danger, and Alligators in the Everglades,” a skillful melding of true crime, natural history and heartfelt affection for a vanishing Florida.

Best pandemic novels

Ann Patchett turns the COVID-19 lockdown into a beautifully crafted story of a family shaped by a mother’s secrets in “Tom Lake.”

As scary as the pandemic was, Stephen King finds a way to make it even scarier in “Holly,” a straight-up crime story that needs no supernatural elements to terrify.

"Crook Manifesto" by Colson Whitehead
"Crook Manifesto" by Colson Whitehead [ UNCREDITED | AP ]

Best fiction

Some of the best contemporary American novelists turned to the past this year with books that arc across the nation’s history.

Lauren Groff’s breathtaking, brilliant “The Vaster Wilds” is the harrowing tale of a teenage girl who flees the failing colonial outpost of Jamestown in the winter of 1609.

James Lee Burke, whose crime novels have long touched on the echoes of the Civil War, plunges into the period in “Flags on the Bayou,” a moving novel about the terrible impacts of war told from multiple points of view.

Luis Alberto Urrea based his novel “Good Night, Irene” on the real-life experiences of his mother, who traveled with the troops as a Donut Dolly during World War II, and the book bursts with relentless action and heartbreaking emotion.

Colson Whitehead follows up his 2021 novel “Harlem Shuffle,” which was set in the 1960s, with the immersive “Crook Manifesto,” revisiting main character Ray Carney, who has succeeded in putting his criminal past behind him — mostly — in the boisterous 1970s.

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"Through the Groves" by Anne Hull
"Through the Groves" by Anne Hull [ Henry Holt and Co. ]

Best memoirs

Anne Hull, a former Tampa Bay Times writer, draws a warm, witty and thoughtful portrait of growing up in Florida half a century ago in “Through the Groves.”

Julie Buckner Armstrong grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement. She became a scholar of the subject, and in “Learning From Birmingham: A Journey Into History and Home,” her personal story and the history illuminate each other.

Best psychological thrillers

In Megan Abbott’s “Beware the Woman,” a 21st century twist on the Gothic novel, a pregnant bride’s journey to visit her husband’s family turns into a frightening struggle over her right to make decisions about her own body.

Lisa Unger uses holiday scenes to sharpen the horror of “Christmas Presents,” about a young woman for whom the season recalls a terrible event she survived but hopes to forget — until a true-crime podcaster comes to call.

Michael Koryta kicks off “An Honest Man” with a huge yacht with seven dead men aboard found floating off an island in Maine — a discovery that has life-threatening effects on a young man and a boy who live nearby.

Best advice for aspiring journalists

Times staffer and Pulitzer Prize winner Lane DeGregory gathers 24 of her most memorable articles in “The Girl in the Window and Other True Tales: An Anthology With Tips for Finding, Reporting, and Writing Nonfiction Narratives” and annotates them with how she practices her craft.

Best crime fiction

Michael Connelly brings together his two best-known characters, Harry Bosch and Mickey Haller, for a terrific duet performance in “Resurrection Walk,” as they team up to free a woman convicted of murdering her husband and learn much more about each other in the process.

S.A. Cosby continues his roll as a superstar of Southern noir with “All the Sinners Bleed,” the propulsive story of Titus Crown, the Black sheriff of a rural Virginia county where the long history of racism erupts in new violence.

Dennis Lehane’s first novel in six years is the stunning “Small Mercies,” set amid the brutal reaction to school desegregation in Boston in 1974 and centered on an unforgettable character, a middle-aged mom named Mary Pat Fennessey, who is not what you expect.

Rebecca Makkai’s smart, compelling “I Have Some Question for You” follows true-crime podcaster Bodie as she returns to her high school at age 40 and is drawn into an investigation that’s way too close — the murder during senior year of one of her classmates.

Best wakeup call

Paul Lynch plunges the reader into an ordinary Irish family’s experiences amid a takeover by an authoritarian government in the bone-chilling, and all too believable, novel “Prophet Song.”

"The Maltese Iguana" by Tim Dorsey
"The Maltese Iguana" by Tim Dorsey [ William Morrow ]

Best unintended farewell

When I reviewed Tim Dorsey’s 26th novel, “The Maltese Iguana,” back in March, there was no way to know it would be his last. Since Dorsey died suddenly on Nov. 26, many readers have asked me whether he had written another book, but his publisher hasn’t announced one. If he didn’t, “The Maltese Iguana” will stand as a fitting farewell for the occasionally homicidal Floridaphile Serge Storms and his well-medicated buddy, Coleman — and for their beloved creator.