Book recs incoming!
Y’all, I have been reading up a STORM.
You might guess that flight attendants are big readers. We do spend an awful lot of time on airplanes, after all, and reading is a great way to pass the miles and the hours. For me, reading comes in waves. In the summer, when I’m spending a lot of time laying on the beach, I tend to read more. When I am super busy with writing or house projects, I tend to read less. I’m fine with the ebb and flow of this, how reading fits naturally into my life. But I’ve got to say, it feels so, so good to be on a good streak of reading.
I counted the other day and realized that I’ve finished 10 books since the start of the new year. I’m about to finish my latest fiction read, The Song of Achilles, and if I finish one of the two paperbacks I’m currently reading (yes, I read three books at once.) then I’ll be at 12 for the quarter and three books per month. For people like my brother Derek, who buy books like I buy Starbucks, who always have the best book recommendations and seem to know every author by name, this will sound like no big deal. But considering all the things I’ve done this quarter—the travel, the ultra, the move—I’m really proud and pumped for this higher-than-normal book tally. So let’s talk about it.
I’m sharing my Q1 Roundup with all the books I’ve read from January-end of April 2023, and I’m also sharing what I think of them. Some were definitely better than others. And since I’m a paper and audio reader, I’ll be sharing in which format I consumed each book. I’m putting my favorites first, because I hope you’ll read those ones. The books I loved less will come later in the post. I didn’t hate any of them, buuuuut I might not spend my money on the last few. Read on for my best book recs (so far) of 2023!
Speaking of spending money on books…
I want to take a moment, before giving my reading list, to preach the gospel of libraries. Public libraries rule. Libraries are essential parts of a community. They allow kids, teens, and adults with few resources to have access to books, education, and new ideas. I remember spending a ton of time at my local library as a child and today they are still some of my favorite places to hang out and write. (Though my loud typing probably irritates other patrons.)
I know in our phone-based online-shopping culture, not all of us feel like going to the physical library all the time, and that is totally fine. Public libraries have come a long way since the ‘90s. Today, when you sign up for a library card, you’ll have access to e-books and audiobooks as well as physical books. You can get on a waiting list for a popular book with a press of your phone screen. It is so easy and SO convenient.
I have no problem with supporting authors by buying their books, I applaud and encourage it! But if you want to read more and are finding a $24.99 jacket price prohibitive, this is an alternative. If you like audiobooks like I do, you’ll know that Audible is crazy expensive. This is what finally got me switched over, and now I use the Hoopla app with my library card to listen to tons of FREE books. Again, I’ll reiterate, I support paying authors for their work. But I also think we need libraries to ensure the next generation of authors learns to read, and think, and create beautiful stories.
That’s the end of my rant about libraries. If you don’t know where to start just search “Your city,state” + “Library”.
Lastly, on the topic of spending and book sellers, I have included links to buy each of the books I’m listing. If you do want to purchase one of my recs instead of renting from the library, consider doing it through the links below. You won’t pay more, but I’ll earn a tiny commission to help keep this site running. Win, win, win! IF you prefer to buy from smaller, independent book stores, more power to you. I support that, too.
My Favorite Books (So Far) Of 2023
The Winner’s Circle
The first five books on my list are in the winner’s circle. I thought of ordering them from favorite to least, but to be honest I liked all of these books a lot. The top 5 are all great books, all worth reading. Call it a tie.
1. Mrs. Everything, Jennifer Weiner
I found this book on an airplane and though it is a thick hardcover, tough to fit in a suitcase and heavy to carry around, I claimed it anyway. I am so, SO glad I did!
Mrs. Everything is the story of sisters Jo and Bethie throughout the course of their lives. Beginning in 1950 and ending in 2022, it highlights a slice of time with significant social shifts. Topics of race, religion, sexuality, a woman’s place in the world and workforce are all tackled with poise. This is not to mention the interpersonal issues like divorce, sexual abuse, eating disorders, drug and alcohol use, child-rearing, and frayed family relationships. If that sounds like a lot for one book, it seems perfectly reasonable when reading. It is over the span of two lifetimes, after all. How many societal changes have your mothers and grandmothers witnessed? How much have things changed from one generation to the next? How many secrets can one family hold?
The story bounces back and forth between the two sisters, changing voice chapter to chapter. For me this worked well. It allows the reader to feel connected to both story lines and feels like catching up with an old friend each time a new chapter begins.
Mrs. Everything was an unexpected win and one of my favorite books I’ve read this year. Buy it, read it, share it with a friend. (Or a sister!)
2. The Dutch House, Ann Patchett
Audiobook, narrated by Tom F*cking Hanks
The Dutch House was the first book I read this year and it has really stuck with me. For one thing, it was my first foray into Ann Patchett’s work (I told you, I’m late to every party.) and for another, the story was just really good. The characters are compelling, the relationships wind and tangle, the house looms in the background of each page.
The Dutch House is about a brother and sister, Danny & Maeve, abandoned by their mother, and being raised by their austere father in the lavish, museum-like Dutch house outside of Philadelphia. A stepmother enters the picture and, eventually, the children, once wealthy with servants and caretakers, find themselves on their own, struggling to make ends meet, no one but each other to rely on.
We see the sacrifices Maeve makes for Danny, the pressure he is placed under as result, and how neither can outrun their past for good. The story stretches into adulthood and we see the effects of the past lingering within the two functioning, outwardly successful adults. It is an ad for therapy if I ever saw one, but I’m already on that train.
The Dutch House does a brilliant job of shining light into the nuance of people. Who is fully bad? And who is all good? Not a single one of us. Patchett shows us the humanity of the characters we hate, and it honestly annoyed me at times. But isn’t that real life? Admitting there are glimmers of decency in even the worst of us.
Perhaps it is the strain I feel from my frayed relationship with my own brother that made me so invested in this book and the siblings’ bond. Perhaps it is because I was listening in the winter, while I took down Christmas decorations, organizing glass bulbs of memories, tucking them away, tidying up the cheer and warmth for normal, clean surfaces. Maybe it is that Patchett is a genius, or maybe it was Tom Hanks’ narration. Whatever it was, The Dutch House got me. I hope you will give it a try.
3. People We Meet on Vacation, Emily Henry
I started seeing this book last year, its bright orange jacket sat on laps and tray tables and tucked into carry-on bags on the airplane. It seemed to be the book everyone was reading. Then in January, on my birthday trip to Colorado, my bestie Corey gifted me a stack of books, one of which being the bright orange, oh-so-trendy People We Meet on Vacation. I knew I wanted to read it on vacation, and I spent the beginning part of March in Mexico, learning to scuba dive in Tulum, hitting museums and street markets in Mexico City, and reading Emily Henry’s novel.
Y’all, this book was CUTE. Part of me hates to like something everybody else likes, but I can’t help it. I was sold. I loved the simplicity of the language. How accessible and relatable the character Poppy, and Harvey’s writing, felt. I loved the vacation highlights and the thing simmering underneath. I loved that it wasn’t that deep. That it didn’t require a clear head or a vat of caffeine or a lot of thought to follow along. I was drawn to the vivid images of Poppy’s family and wardrobe, and of Alex’s, too. I loved the slow start and heating up as it moved toward the end.
People We Meet on Vacation follows Poppy, a travel writer at a big-time publication who has achieved everything she wanted in her career… and still isn’t happy. Ahhhh the human experience.
Not only did this bitch start out as a blogger, making her personally relatable, but this wondering when achievements will bring satisfaction is something I am constantly struggling with. I felt like this book was hand-picked for me to love. The travel, the romance, the inner struggle between work and fun, outward success and inner contentment. I could not have asked for a better main character to follow and I could not have loved the fun, zippy style of writing for this vacation book any more.
The book alludes to something that went awry in Poppy and best friend Alex’s friendship two years ago, and along the way we see highlights of their trips and learn the secret of what’s really going on. Will they figure their shit out? Take the plunge from friends to more? Or put their hormones to bed to salvage real, true friendship; the kind worth saving?
Pick up this book before your next beach vacay. You won’t be sorry.
4. These Precious Days, Ann Patchett
Audiobook, narrated by Ann Patchett
The Dutch House was my introduction to Ann Patchett and it was a banger. When These Precious Days popped up on my recommendations in my Hoopla app, I was pumped. I know of Ann Patchett as an excellent writer from living in the culture, reading my first book of hers only confirmed it. But I had no idea she also wrote non-fiction.
These Precious Days is a collection of essays that had me laughing, crying, and nodding my head “Yes.”
Essays are a form of writing I love to read and write. It might be my favorite way to write, in fact. This might be because it’s easier than fiction, or it might be that I’m following in footsteps of writers who have written so poignantly in this form. People look at me confused when I tell them “I’m working on a collection of essays.” They remember high school and think distastefully about book reports and research projects.
But reading work from great contemporary essayists—David Sedaris, Glennon Doyle, Ann Patchett—will take you to a different place, will change your mind and have you loving this form, too.
An essay takes an ordinary moment and connects it to something bigger. It highlights deep, hard truths, and hilarious intricacies of the human experience. It makes you see the mundane, the every day, in a new way. Things we normally wouldn’t think to write about at all. I say that every story is a good story, as long as it’s told well. And the authors that do this can blow your mind with a new perspective on a tired-old subject or a should-be “boring” story.
I can go on and on in this gushing about the art form of good, solid essays, but I won’t.
I will tell you this book is beautiful. Simple and complex. Human as fuck. And it gives a wannabe writer like me—one who especially likes writing essays—a lot of hope. It offers words of wisdom for all writers, in fact, and all creatives, and all people trying to make their way in the world. Modern family structures, choosing to be childless, sexism in academia, cancer, cover art, and tripping on mushrooms are all tackled in this collection. Also, Tom Hanks.
Please read this. Please, please read this. If you get the audio version, Patchett narrates it herself and she is an excellent speaker. READ THIS. (& Lmk what you think!)
5. Remarkably Bright Creatures, Shelby Van Pelt
Audiobook, narrated by Marin Ireland
Remarkably Bright Creatures is a remarkably cute novel. It follows Tova, a woman in her 70s, who has lost both her husband and her son, Marcellus, a Giant Pacific Octopus living in the Sowell Bay aquarium, where Tova works, and Cameron, a young man with little going for him, who might just be able to turn it all around. The book is about family, hard relationships, when to hold on and when to let go, unlikely friendships, and second chances.
Though it is, at its heart, a human story, the book does give just enough information—and enough humanity—to Marcellus the Octopus, that the reader inevitably finds themselves interested in the creatures outside of the book’s pages. I became ever so slightly obsessed with octopuses while reading Van Pelt’s book. I searched for documentaries, and watched videos on Youtube. (I watched My Octopus Teacher on Netflix, but am interested in finding a doc specifically about the Giant Pacific Octopus—the species Marcellus is.) I found myself telling little factoids to people in my life “Do you know an octopus has three hearts?” “Did you know Octopuses are super smart, can problem-solve, and have excellent long-term memory?”
Six chapters in and I’m a wannabe octopus expert.
I loved the evolution of the relationships in this novel, hearing more of Tova’s back story, seeing Cameron’s progression– though I confess I couldn’t stand him for most of the book. There were a few threads I would have liked to tug on that the author didn’t tie up as much as I would have liked: Tova’s brother, the woman on the pier. But overall the book was solid and enjoyable to read. It is classified as literary fiction which brings forth images of the “Great American Novel” and difficult prose. This book is not that. The prose is simple in the best way possible, the characters are endearing, and it was easy to suspend my disbelief when Marcellus the octopus narrated. (Also, the quality of the audio version was excellent.)
Remarkably Bright Creatures was one of my favorite books of the year. It may not go down in history as a “Great American novel”, but it was so enjoyable to read.
6. The Song of Achilles, Madeline Miller
Audiobook, narrated by Frazer Douglas
I haven’t finished this book yet, but I will have by the end of April, so it’s making the cut.
“How can you review a book you haven’t finished,” you ask?
Easy. I don’t care how this book ends, I am still going to love it. I read Miller’s book Circe a couple years ago and raved about it afterward. This book is written in the same style, and no matter what happens in the last few chapters, it won’t shake my thrill of reading, my investment in the characters, and my reverence for the way Miller tells a story.
For me, the hallmark of really liking a book is thinking about it when you’re not reading. Just as I became obsessed with octopuses while reading Remarkably Bright Creatures, I am similarly obsessed now with the Trojan War. (Which no one knows for sure really happened, BTW. So mysterious!) I have been searching for documentaries on the subject and planning (in my head only) a trip to Turkey to see the ruins of what likely was the city of Troy. I’ve always nerded out on Greek Mythology, so it’s no surprise that Miller’s books, which are so fucking well-written, would get me.
Most of you have heard of Achilles in some capacity—the hero from Greek mythology, a fierce fighter, who dies tragically, against all odds, from the one little spot on his body left unprotected—his achilles heel. He’s the reason we call the tendon on the back of our ankle “achilles.” Those crafty Greeks.
Miller’s version tells of Achilles’ life, from childhood, to hero-hood, from the perspective of Patroclus, his closest companion. She does a wonderful job of humanizing heroic figures and even the gods. The great Odysseus of the Odyssey and the Iliad, is portrayed as clever, cunning, not fully trustworthy. Achilles begins not as a boastful hero, thirsty for war and blood, but a thoughtful young man with a weight on his shoulders—the pressure to become the greatest fighter Greece has ever produced, a prophecy which everyone knows, and from which there is no hiding. He evolves, of course. War changes a man, even when he is half god. And we see the terrible nuance of what happens to people when there are hard decisions to be made. Choices of honor or morality, life or death, love or reputation.
I’m nearing the end of the Trojan War at the moment, so I’m still rapt in what’s going to happen next, but I can say whole heartedly, this book is worth reading. Miller’s other book, Circe, is worth reading. This author is so competent at what she does, it seems like these are the true stories, and every other interpretation must be wrong. I’m calling Miller the Queen of the Greeks.
The Okayest Books
I enjoyed both of these books, but the competition was stiff this quarter. With so many incredible titles, these two fell slightly short of the Winner’s Circle.
7. When You Are Engulfed in Flames, David Sedaris
David Sedaris is the man that made me fall in love with essays. Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls was the one that got me hooked, and this was the latest Sedaris book I read. Truth be told this book has been somewhat of a decoration for the past year, sitting coolly on my nightstand, its cover art making the whites and pale purples and mauves of my bedroom look edgier, ever so slightly cooler. I would pick it up and read an essay every now and again, but mostly it sat next to my bed, making each of my lovers believe I was dark and mysterious by association.
It is hard to review this book, since it was a long process of reading, but overall I liked it. He embellishes his stories, some of them flagrantly, for the purpose of entertainment. The humor is dark and witty, though I enjoyed it more in ‘Owls’. Spiders, robberies, and death, neighborly quarrels, unexpected friendships, and finding the feeling of home, quitting smoking, and learning to speak Japanese are just some of the themes you’ll find amidst Sedaris’ essays.
8. One True Loves, Taylor Jenkins Reid
Audiobook, narrated by Julia Whelan
I read Taylor Jenkins Reid’s smash success The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo last year and was rapt from the first word to the last. I stumbled upon One True Loves in my Hoopla app, after finishing a book and wanting to start another immediately, and decided to give the author’s earlier work a try.
One True Loves is a story of love and loss and hard decisions. Emma Blair married her high school sweetheart, Jesse, and thought they’d live happily ever after, until the unthinkable happens and he goes missing somewhere in the Pacific while away for a work trip. After debris from the helicopter is found, Jesse is presumed dead, and Emma, ever so slowly, must begin the process of accepting his death and finding a way to go on with her own life. She moves back to their hometown, away from her and Jesse’s big city dreams, and starts over. A quieter life, a settled one. She runs into an old friend, falls in love again, and is on track for a second chance at happiness… when she gets the call that Jesse has been found—alive.
Which “One true love” will Emma choose? And which life—the big, adventure-chasing one, or the small-town cozy she’s come around to? You’ll have to read it to find out. 😉
This book was cute, and I enjoyed listening to it. The only reason it comes toward the bottom of my reading list is because the first five books were SO good. It is obvious, having read Evelyn Hugo, that this book was written by a younger Taylor Reid. The story is good, the plot moves along nicely, but there is a sophistication missing that is so prominent in Evelyn Hugo. It’s like listening to one of Taylor Swift’s first albums after consuming Midnights or Folklore—you may have liked the earlier genres better, but the growth in Swift’s writing abilities from then to now is undeniable.
If you like a good love story, a cute romance, or watching characters s-t-r-u-g-g-l-e with big decisions, then you just might like this book.
The Take it Or Leave It
I’m not mad at any of these books. I didn’t throw them across the room or wish they’d never been written. But I could probably go my whole life without having read them. I wouldn’t recommend them to others (except maybe the Sheila Heti title, just for curiosity’s sake.) but I figured I may as well review them here. If one of these is your favorite, go on and defend it in the comments. We all have different tastes and I think it’s really interesting to see who likes what and why. Here goes.
9. Under the Whispering Door, T.J. Klune
Audiobook, narrated by Kirt Graves
This book is about death and life, relationships and missing pieces, what’s really important, and what makes a good life. It is about regret and priorities. It asks “Can people ever change?”
Under The Whispering Door was recommended to a friend of mine, and I, looking for something to read in a pinch, latched on to her must-read list and rented it from the library. I had high hopes because of the good reviews and interesting concept, but I have to be honest, the experience was pretty lukewarm for me.
The thing I liked was this book takes a unique look at death, offering a scenario that I haven’t heard before—one comforting and endearing. I HOPE death is like a T.J. Klune book.
Now for the not so good…For me, Under the Whispering Door felt “just okay” throughout most of the book, and towards the end I was annoyed. I never mind suspending my disbelief for a book. (I had to for Remarkably Bright Creatures, below, and LOVED doing it) But when the author changes the rules of engagement toward the end of the book it feels very annoying. Like wow, how convenient this *very important to the story* thing can just change when we want it to. This made me pretty bitter about the ending.
My friend who was reading the book at the same time as me also felt tepid about it, and she ended up throwing in the towel. I’m not mad I finished it, and it was not the worst book I ever read, I just didn’t love it at all. I listened to UTWD with my Hoopla app, and I cvan’t help but wonder if some of the “meh” I felt for this book was directed at the narrator and not the story itself. I always wonder when listening to an audiobook how I would feel about it if I read the paper version. A voice can shape a character, create the cadence, literally set the tone. Maybe I would have liked it better on paper? Imbuing the characters with my own voices? My friend was e-reading, and we had a similar experience with this book, so maybe not. Under the Whispering Door got a lot of praise when it was published, so who knows, maybe I’m the asshole. Let me know what you think if you’ve read it.
10. How Should A Person Be?, Sheila Heti
A friend gifted this to me in January, and, knowing nothing about it, I popped onto Goodreads to check out the reviews. The result was intriguing. I have never seen such polarized reviews for a book—people either loved it, rating it 5 stars, or they HATED it, giving it a single star and complaining that they couldn’t give less. The positive reviewers called the book profound and the negatives said it was self-indulgent and “Nothing happens.”
Maybe neither opinion is wrong. Maybe it is self-indulgent, but maybe some people can glean true epiphanies from the mundane. Maybe there is profound symbolism everywhere, or maybe, truly, nothing happened at all.
I still can’t put my finger on how I feel about this book.
How Should A Person Be? is “experimental fiction”—memoir meets literary fiction, I guess. It is narrated by Sheila, a 20-something playwright trying to figure out who she is, how to create, and how a person should be, after a divorce. We follow her through some trying—to finish a play, to find love, to be a decent friend, to hold down a job—and failing. The struggle to create, the uncertainty about what makes a life, and a person, good are themes I can get on board with. This resonates with me. The parts of the book where her character is intolerable looked to me like a warning sign. ‘Don’t take yourself too seriously, or if you do, do something worth talking about.’
Some of the sex scenes were difficult and this main character is messy. But I think that’s what the positive reviewers liked. In the same way that we cheered on those assholes in HBO’s Girls (Everyone but Shoshanna was an asshole, I will die on this hill.), readers might be cheering on Heti’s main character—hoping she’ll find her way out of the muck, bowl of popcorn and full attention ready in the (likely) chance she doesn’t.
I still can’t put my finger on how I feel about this book. I didn’t hate the process of reading it, I like it, actually. But the work itself, I’m happily confused about. If you have read it, or if you do in the near future, let me know what you think. Seriously would love a book club on this one. Post in the comments or DM me on Instagram.
11. The 10x Rule, Grant Cardone
Audiobook, narrated by Grant Cardone
Okay. So, I like to listen to self-help books sometimes. This was a random pick that came up while I was looking for something to motivate me into goal-accomplishing high gear. I had heard this guy on a real estate podcast and was pretty skeptical about the book. In the real estate world there is a lot of scammy stuff, bootstrappy garbledy-gook, and icky world views. This book is no exception– it strikes a similar tone to Kim Kardashian’s famous “Get Your Ass up and Work. Nobody wants to work these days” refrain, but it’s not all bad.
I think with most self-help books, the power lies not within facts or step-by-steps, or even truth, necessarily. Instead, it’s about how the book makes you feel. And there were some good nuggets in this otherwise “meh” book.
One of the messages that resonated with me was the fact that we underestimate how much work and resources it will take to achieve a specific goal. Because of this, when we start to meet resistance, when we run out of money, when we run out of stamina, when getting to where we want to be is really freaking hard, we think we’ve tried enough and then we give up. If we had simply estimated a higher amount of pushback, money, time, and effort, maybe we would see our circumstances differently. “I’m right on schedule,” rather than “If it hasn’t happened now it is never going to happen.”
I heard something like this discussed in a podcast once. The self-help podcaster (yes, they are all problematic in some way, yes I still love them.) was talking about this principle with the example of dating. “If you knew with 100% certainty,” the podcaster said, “That you would meet the partner of your dreams and fall in love, but with the caveat that you had to go on fifty first dates before you did, you would go on the 51 dates.” If there was a start, an end, and a way to get there, you would do the thing all the way to the end. But we have no guarantees, so instead, people go on three bad dates and throw in the towel.
They start a blog and don’t acquire new readers quickly enough, so they stop writing. They make a goal to run a marathon, have one really shitty 2-mile jog, decide they can’t do it and lower their goal to a 5k.
There is nothing wrong with a smaller goal. But in the process of meeting your actual goal, you’ll face days where you suck. You thought you’d be rich and famous by now, but you’re struggling to make the ends meet. You believed your insanely good business idea would be a hit, but it’s harder than you expected to break through the market or to get people to even notice your product. You thought that attractive person you swiped on, with the witty in-app banter, could be the one, but it turns out they bite their fork when they eat and have never left their home state.
This was one of the positive takeaways from The 10x Rule. It’s not you, you don’t suck, you just didn’t budget the right amount of time, energy, money, or hustle into your big plan. It’s encouraging to think about. I was listening to this book while ultramarathon training, and self-help is SUCH a good genre to get you through a frigid five-hour training run in the middle of winter.
I didn’t love this book, and I especially did not love the author’s narration of it. But there were some encouraging and useful bits that I will try to incorporate into my daily life when working towards goals.
If you want to check out The 10X Rule, click here to buy it on Amazon.
And there you have it, folx. My reading picks for Q1; the good, the bad, and the douchey. Most of them were enjoyable to read, and none of them were completely terrible. But we all have our favorites, so now you’ve heard mine. Writing this post made my brain wander to all the other excellent books I read last year, made me want to get off topic and gush about those, too. I’ll write another book post one day, of my actual favorites and best recommendations. But for today, we’ve got a mixed bag.
I’m still in the process of reading the last three books, so perhaps my Q1 count will creep up to lucky number 13 by the end of the month. If not, the 11 I have finished were a fun ride.
Please write in the comments if you’ve read any of the books mentioned and tell me what you think. Agree with me! Tell me I’m wrong! Fight me on Under The Whispering Door! And what on earth did you make of How Should A Person Be?
What were YOUR favorite books so far this year? Share them with the class! You can write them in the comments or DM me on Instagram.
Thanks for stopping by for this impromptu first meeting of Toni’s Book Club. (Anyone interested in doing a real book club?) I hope you’ll come back to swap more book recs or pop in for some regularly scheduled flight attendant content soon.
Love ya long time.