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AARP’s 10 Favorite Books of the Year

2023 brought gems from Ann Napolitano, James McBride, Jesmyn Ward and more

spinner image collage of five different books
Photo Collage: MOA; (Book Photos: Noah Willman)

This year was packed with fantastic reads but these 10 managed to stand out, for different reasons: Some were engrossing, beautifully written novels; others were moving memoirs or eye-opening explorations of lives past. My favorite book from 2023? A novel, Wellness, by Nathan Hill. Read on to find out more. 


spinner image book cover with words daniel mason, north woods
Photo Collage: MOA; (Book Photo: Noah Willman)

North Woods by Daniel Mason

This novel is a must-read for fans of historical — or any kind — of fiction, who will appreciate its unique premise, wonderfully executed. It’s the story of one farmhouse in Western Massachusetts and its various inhabitants, from the pre-Colonial era to modern times. The past ends up haunting (sometimes literally) the people who cycle through the home, including the twin daughters of an apple farmer and a man with mental illness who can perceive the ghosts that still live in his midst. Mason also offers rich, evocative depictions of the changing wooded landscape, which evolves along with the humans it harbors.


spinner image book cover with words hello beautiful, ann napolitano
Photo Collage: MOA; (Book Photo: Sue Tallon)

Hello Beautiful by Ann Napolitano

Ann Napolitano, 52, author of the 2020 bestseller Dear Edward (now a TV series on Apple TV+), introduces us to two young people, Julia and William, who fall in love and marry. Julia and her three sisters embrace William, but as time passes his depression creates a rift and their paths diverge. Hello Beautiful is a must if you’re looking to sink into an emotionally complex family story. It received some nice early publicity when Oprah Winfrey chose it as her 100th book club pick. (“Once you start, you won’t want it to end,” Oprah told her followers, “and be prepared for tears.”) You’ve got to love that beautiful cover too.


spinner image book cover with words king, jonathan eig
Photo Collage: MOA; (Book Photo: Sue Tallon)

King: A Life by Jonathan Eig

Jonathan Eig, 59, the author of 2017’s Ali: A Life, about Muhammad Ali, dives into the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s family history, childhood, accomplishments, private life and more, hoping to create “a more intimate kind of biography,” Eig told Library Journal. Obviously, King’s life has been plumbed by countless historians, but King: A Life may rise above those other bios. In The New York Times, Dwight Garner offered a glowing review, calling it “supple, penetrating, heartstring-pulling and compulsively readable.” Universal Pictures has bought the movie rights, according to Deadline, with Chris Rock set to direct and produce.


spinner image book cover with words wellness, nathan hill
Photo Collage: MOA; (Book Photo: Noah Willman)

Wellness by Nathan Hill

This brilliant novel by the author of 2016’s also wonderful The Nix features a couple, Jack and Elizabeth, who meet in Chicago and fall wildly in love … then out of love when we revisit them as parents of a somewhat difficult child and at a point of middle-age exhaustion and disenchantment. The novel ends up being a thoughtful, often humorous, cultural critique and exploration of why we believe the things we do, why we love who and what we love and so much more. It’s another Oprah Book Club pick (she really does have good taste!).


spinner image book cover with words the country of the blind, andrew leland
Photo Collage: MOA; (Book Photo: Noah Willman)

The Country of the Blind: A Memoir at the End of Sight by Andrew Leland

“Blindness is a radically distinct way of being in the world,” writes Leland, 42, a Massachusetts-based writer, in this thoughtful story about his own transition to blindness. His loss of vision began in high school, due to what was eventually diagnosed as retinitis pigmentosa, an incurable condition marked by a slow reduction of sight. The author explains it as a narrowing of his vision, where he eventually felt like he was looking at the world through a narrow tube. Publishers Weekly raved that the book, “enriched by its sparkling prose,” is “an extraordinary and intellectually rigorous account of adapting to change.”


spinner image book cover with words the heaven and earth grocery store, james mcbride
Photo Collage: MOA; (Book Photo: Noah Willman)

The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store by James McBride

The latest novel from the author of 2013’s National Book Award winner The Good Lord Bird is set in the 1970s, in the fictional town of Chicken Hill, Pennsylvania, where Jewish and Black Americans live side by side. When a skeleton is found at the bottom of a well, the investigation that follows reopens local wounds and uncovers a long-held secret. It’s a murder mystery, of sorts, but also a warmhearted portrait of a community described with humor and compassion. Barnes & Noble recently chose it as its book of the year (Grann, below, is the company’s inaugural author of the year).

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spinner image book cover with words david grann, the wager, a tale of shipwreck, mutiny and murder
Photo Collage: MOA; (Book Photo: Sue Tallon)

The Wager: A Tale of Shipwreck, Mutiny and Murder by David Grann

David Grann, 56, is the author of the gripping 2017 bestseller Killers of the Flower Moon (now a Martin Scorsese film), so you know the guy — a writer for The New Yorker — can really tell a story. And he tackles a doozy of a tale in his latest bestseller The Wager, about the 18th-century British warship that wrecked off the coast of Patagonia, leaving its men marooned on an island. Two separate groups of castaways managed to patch together boats and make it to safety — but each arrived with wildly conflicting tales, including accusations of murder and mutiny. The guilty party would be sentenced to death, Grann notes, yet “the only impartial witness was the sun.” He used the men’s own written descriptions, among other sources, to piece together this vivid account. Word is that Scorsese has plans to turn this one into a feature film too.


spinner image book cover with words my father’s brain, life in the shadow of alzheimer’s, Sandeep Jauhar
Photo Collage: MOA; (Book Photo: Sue Tallon)

My Father’s Brain: Life in the Shadow of Alzheimer’s by Sandeep Jauhar

Author of 2018’s Heart: A History, Sandeep Jauhar, 55, is a practicing physician, but that didn’t prepare him for the emotionally wrenching experience of watching his dad’s gradual cognitive and physical decline from Alzheimer’s, as he recounts in his moving memoir, My Father’s Brain. Anyone who’s been a family caregiver, or has a loved one with the disease, will relate to the author, who describes his family’s long, difficult journey with tenderness and candor (“I loved him, cared for him, and hated him, too,” he writes).


spinner image book cover with words jesmyn ward, let us descend
Photo Collage: MOA; (Book Photo: Noah Willman)

Let Us Descend by Jesmyn Ward

The two-time National Book Award winner (for 2017’s Sing, Unburied, Sing and 2011’s Salvage the Bones), Ward takes us inside the mind of Annis, a young woman — enslaved by the white man who fathered her — who is separated from her mother and the woman she loves and forced to travel from the Carolinas to a new enslaver in Louisiana. Annis is strengthened by stories of her warrior ancestors as she struggles to retain her sense of self through the pain and terror of her grueling journey. The novel is a finalist for the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence, presented by the American Library Association.


spinner image book cover with words the covenant of water, abraham verghese
Photo Collage: MOA; (Book Photo: Sue Tallon)

The Covenant of Water by Abraham Verghese

The Covenant of Water is a doorstopper at more than 700 pages, but you won’t regret diving into this complex, beautifully written novel by Abraham Verghese, 68, the Stanford University School of Medicine professor known for his 2009 bestseller Cutting for Stone. His new bestseller takes us from 1900 to 1977, weaving multiple storylines throughout — including that of a family in Kerala, on South India’s Malabar Coast, with what appears to be a kind of curse: Someone from each generation dies by drowning. The audiobook version is narrated by the author, who has said the story was in part inspired by his own family’s history.


Honorable mentions

Age of Vice by Deepti Kapoor: Kapoor’s stunning, action-packed page-turner begins with a tragic traffic accident in New Delhi, then shifts back in time to detail how the three main characters’ lives become entangled.

The Vaster Wilds by Lauren Groff: This gripping story is about a girl who exchanges starvation and violence in 17th-century Jamestown, Virginia, for the trials of surviving alone in the wilderness.

Lady Tan’s Circle of Women by Lisa See: Set in 15th-century China, See’s latest novel follows a wealthy woman through the decades as she learns the basics of medicine from her grandmother, then goes on to practice it in an era when elite women had few freedoms.

Poverty, by America by Matthew Desmond: A Pulitzer Prize winner for 2016’s Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, Desmond writes here about why the poor stay poor in this country, including over 12 percent of U.S. children.

Zero-Sum: Stories by Joyce Carol Oates: This collection of dark, powerful new tales is by the masterful literary icon. Many of the characters are rather unhinged (like the troubled protagonist in her recent novel, 48 Clues Into the Disappearance of My Sister). I’m not usually a big fan of short stories but was drawn in by nearly every one here.

Love our picks? Think we missed something? Scroll down to the Conversation section and share your favorite books.


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