Embark on a literary journey into the heart of 2023 with our curated list of the best contemporary books this year had to offer. From compelling narratives to thought-provoking tales, these works promise to captivate readers and define the literary landscape of the year.
The votes are in from this year’s She Reads Best of Awards and the book that won over the hearts and minds of Contemporary audiences is…
Old Enough by Haley Jakobson
As she enters her sophomore year of college, Savannah “Sav” Henry is starting to feel like she finally knows herself. After coming out as bisexual, she is more at home in her queer community. But when her childhood best friend announces her wedding, she must come to terms with the past, hold strong in her present and think about her future as she crushes hard on a classmate named Wes.
Now, check out all the Best Contemporary Books of 2023 from the She Reads editors.
The Half Moon by Mary Beth Keane
Malcolm Gephardt has been a bartender at the Half Moon for a long time. When the owner decides to sell, Malcolm is excited about the idea of turning the bar into a bigger success. However, he finds out that his customers don’t like change and his dreams may be harder to achieve than he thought. His wife, Jess, is a smart and successful woman who is dedicated to her law career, yet still struggles to accept that her dream of being a mother is slipping away. Over the course of one eventful week, the town endures a blizzard while a customer at the bar goes missing, and Malcolm finds out shocking news about Jess, in a skillful exploration of family and marriage.
The Survivalists by Kashana Cauley
Since the death of her parents, Aretha has only cared about one thing – success. As a single Black lawyer, she focuses on her dream of making partner. That is until she meets Aaron, a coffee-entrepreneur, and his roommates. Aretha’s dreams and moral code are questioned when she moves in with Aaron in his Brooklyn home, and is introduced to an underground world of doomsday training and selling guns.
Maame by Jessica George
Maddie’s life in London has pushed her to be a self-acknowledged late bloomer. Her mother spends most the time in Ghana, leaving Maddie as the primary caretaker of her father who suffers from advanced Parkinson’s disease. Where she works, Maddie’s boss is a nightmare and she is fed up with being the only Black person in every meeting. When Maddie’s mother returns from Ghana, Maddie uses the opportunity to start living her own life. She starts pushing from recognition at work, says yes to drinks with friends, and even enters the world of internet dating. But when tragedy strikes, Maddie is left torn between two cultures as she faces the perils and rewards of an unconventional family.
What Happened to Ruthy Ramirez by Claire Jimenez
For twelve years, the Ramirez women of Staten Island have dealt with the absence of middle-child, Ruthy, who disappeared at the age of thirteen without a trace, leaving the family scarred. When the oldest sister, Jessica, spots a woman on a raunchy reality show with a birthmark that she’d recognize anywhere, she calls youngest sister Nina right away asking: could it be? When Dolores, their mother, learns of their plan to find their long lost sister, she insists on coming along, and bringing her best friend, Irene. The search for Ruthy becomes a family road trip that will finally force the Ramirez women to face their past and heal their future, whether it is with Ruthy or not.
Dust Child by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai
Desperate to help their parents pay off their debts, sisters Trang and Quỳnh leave their rural village to become “bar girls” in the city of Sài Gòn, flirting with American GIs in exchange for pay. It is 1969, the war is moving closer to the city, and Trang finds herself falling in love with an American pilot. Decades later, a veteran comes back to Việt Nam with his wife, struggling with PTSD and secrets from his past. Phong, his father a Black American solider and his mother a Vietnamese woman, grew up in an orphanage being called “son of the enemy.” Hoping for a better life for his family in the United States, he embarks on a journey to find his birth parents and a way of out of Việt Nam. As the two come together, past and present collide as they come to terms with decisions made during a time of war.
Hello Beautiful by Ann Napolitano
William Waters grew up in a family where his parents could hardly look at him, so when he goes to college and meets Julia Padavano, his whole world feels brighter. Julia and her three sisters, Cecelia, Sylvie and Emeline, are inseparable. Within their bond, Walter witnesses a love he hasn’t experienced before. But as darkness from William’s past creeps in, Julia’s plans and the sisters’ once unshakeable bond threatens to break, changing their lives forever. Will they be able to solidify their bond when it matters most?
Yellowface by R.F. Kuang
June Hayward and Athena Liu are authors breaking into the publishing industry, and both graduated from Yale. But June couldn’t even get a paperback deal, and Athena is a literary darling, telling more than boring stories about white girls. When June witnesses a freak accident involving Athena, she steals her almost-finished manuscript, telling the story of Chinese laborers during WWI. June convinces herself that the story needs to be told, and edits the work as her own. Rebranding herself using an ambiguously ethnic author photo and the name Juniper Song, June finds herself very protective of her secret, convinced she deserves her stolen success.
The Late Americans by Brandon Taylor
In Iowa City, a circle of lovers and friends spends a year leaning about each other through a volatile means of self-discovery. At the center is Ivan, a dancer who dabbles in pornography but aspires to be a banker. Fatima, who has complicated relationships with her friends and mentor because of her fierce independence and work ethic. And Noah, who doesn’t seek out sex but still it approaches him “like an anxious dog in need of affection.” Preparing for a future that is uncertain, the group heads to a cabin to bid farewell to their former lives, a moment that leaves each of them forever changed.
The Last Beekeeper by Julie Carrick Dalton
Sasha Severn’s father was the Last Beekeeper. Now that he is incarcerated, Sasha must return to her childhood home to retrieve his mythic research. When she arrives, she sees that her idyllic farm has been taken over by squatters, hoping to escape state housing. Threatened at first, Sasha soon forms a kinship with the strangers, discovering a sense of security and hope. When she witnesses the impossible, a honeybee, presumed extinct, Sasha is certain they are linked to her father’s missing research. Will the truth save them, or shatter the sense of security that Sasha has with her newfound family?
The Bandit Queens by Parini Shroff
Five years ago, Geeta lost her no-good husband. He walked out on her and she has no idea where he went. In her village in India, everyone thinks she killed him. Which actually has its perks; people leave Geeta alone. Until the women of her village start to seek Geeta’s advice in husband disposal, and suddenly her dangerous reputation is a double-edged sword. When plans go south for a widow-to-be, everything changes for Geeta and the other women in the village.
Love Scribe by Amy Meyerson
Alice finds a new and magical talent as a love scribe when she writes a heartfelt story for her best friend, Gabby. Reeling from a breakup, Gabby reads the story and magically meets the man of her dreams. When she shares the story with her sisters and friends, the same happens to them. Soon Alice is summoned to a mysterious mansion in the woods where she meets Madeline Alger, her most challenging story yet. While Alice struggles to harness her gift, she discovers her own love story is still yet to be told.
Lady Tan’s Circle of Women by Lisa See
In this story of women helping women, Tan Yunxian was born into an elite family, yet her life has been riddled by tragedy. Raised by her grandparents to be useful, Yunxian learns early on about Chinese medicine from her grandmother, one of the only female doctors in China. She learns about the Four Examinations and all about women’s illnesses, most relating to childbearing. Yunxian forms a fast friendship with midwife-in-training, Meiling, and they vow to be friends forever. When Yunxian enters an arranged marriage, she is forbidden to see Meiling, to help the women and girls in the household, or to leave the family compound, the Garden of Fragrant Delights. Yunxian must question what it takes for a woman to break free of the traditions that hold her back from healing and treating women from all walks of life.
Evil Eye by Etaf Rum
Yara was raised by a conservative Palestinian-American family in Brooklyn but is determined to write the script of her future. She married an entrepreneur, moved to the suburbs, and obtained her bachelor’s degree, but still feels there is something missing. When disturbing instances begin to occur, filling Yara with uncertainty and her mother’s superstition, Yara finds herself second guessing everything. As Yara reflects on her carefully manicured life, she ponders how influential one’s past can be on their future.