Usually . . . I share a post with my quarterly Top Five books on or near the solstice or equinox. Because I was in the midst of my advent calendar when my last Top Five post was “due,” I didn’t share it then. But. It’s time to catch up! Better late than never, here’s my . . .

. . . for fall 2023!

I just want to frame my post with this: I had some weird reading going on last fall (mid-September through mid-December). I was kind of in a . . . reading slump. I read some really good books, and I read some real clunkers. When I look back, I can see that I awarded a lot of the books I read 4 or 5 stars. But . . . that doesn’t always mean I liked reading them! That may sound kind of weird. But . . .  as a reader, I can appreciate the artistry of a novel – its importance and its effectiveness in the world of literature – while not enjoying it. And that happened to me a lot last fall . . . 5 stars, but I didn’t actually like reading the book.

For my Top Five list? I need to appreciate a book — AND I need to like a book.

That said, let’s begin!

First up, I’ve got Wellness by Nathan Hill – one of my favorite books of the year. At it’s heart, Wellness is about love and marriage dynamics — but it also includes mini deep dives into topics as diverse as fitness trackers, social media algorithms, art appreciation, child rearing practices, placebos, photography, the early 1990s Chicago music scene, the advent of the internet, and orgies. The writing is terrific – it’s fluid and poignant and frequently laugh-out-loud funny. The characters are well-developed, slow-to-unfold, and completely and believably . . . consistent. The storyline is engaging and compelling and just keeps leading you deeper and deeper into the heart of it all. And as for the setting? Well, I’m quite partial to books set in Chicago (my kind of town, for sure). Bottom line . . . Wellness is pretty much a perfect novel — a modern love story full of . . . hope. I gave this one 5 stars. (It’s a fabulous audiobook, too, if you like listening to books.)

Then, I’ve got one of my other favorite books of the year, Margaret Renkl’s The Comfort of Crows: A Backyard Year. This lovely collection of essays is a . . . balm for this gardener’s soul! Like Margaret, I garden for the birds and the pollinators, the frogs and the toads and the snakes, the bunnies and the opossum and the squirrels in my yard. (Even the deer. I’ve dedicated parts of my garden to them. Sigh.) I try my best to counter the impact of my neighbors’ quests for mosquito-free living by creating a haven in my own garden. I regularly weep at the lack of butterflies these days (and don’t get me started on the lightning bugs). So reading The Comfort of Crows was rather like sitting down to commiserate – and celebrate – with a like-minded friend! Written and laid out as a series of essays representing each week of the year, I love the gentle flow through the seasons of Margaret’s garden. After devouring the entire book in a week or so when it first came out, I read the whole thing again – a bit slower the second time through. Then I decided I’d try reading one essay each week, beginning on the winter solstice, and follow along with Margaret’s year. But nope. Before I knew it, I’d read the whole thing through again! Clearly, it speaks to me! Beautiful essays. Beautiful artwork. Beautiful message. I gave this one 5 stars. (See a picture of my copy, below.)

Next, I’ve got a book that isn’t coming out until next June . . . Bear by Julia Phillips. I know that a lot of you enjoyed this author’s debut novel, Disappearing Earth, a few years ago (in fact, it appeared on my very first Top Five book post back in summer 2019). Anyway, I was eager to read an ARC copy of her forthcoming new novel, Bear, set to be published in June 2024. Bear is stylistically similar to Disappearing Earth. The writing is engaging – but on the edgy side, with characters struggling under the weight of crushing circumstances in a lush, atmospheric setting. From the start, there is an underlying cadence of impending doom, and it just grows louder and louder until we reach the surprising conclusion. It all comes together brilliantly to make for an absolutely propulsive, riveting read! This is a story of obsession, love, jealousy, trust – and the claustrophobic reality of having no way out. Until a bear arrives . . . bringing change and upheaval, and a reckoning, of sorts. I gave this one 5 stars (and read it in 2 days).

Then, I’ve got Richard Osman’s The Last Devil to Die, book #4 in his Thursday Murder Club series. I have enjoyed this series as a fun little “break” since it first debuted, but this latest installment really . . . turned a corner for me, and provided a new appreciation for this clever, captivating “lighter” mystery series. Osman’s Thursday Murder Club series certainly picks up steam with each new addition. The characters are familiar now – but also much deeper and nuanced than readers (including this one) may have initially thought. I just love seeing characters living smart, vibrant lives well into their 80s!  The series is well-written and well-paced, with endearing characters you can’t help but care (deeply) about. An enjoyable read that makes me look forward to further installments in the series. (Warning: have some tissues ready.) I gave this one 4 stars.

Last, I’ve got a biography for you . . . The World According to Joan Didion by Evelyn McDonnell. I have long been a fan of Joan Didion’s writing. (Since the early 1990s, in fact, when I first read her ‘Sentimental Journeys’ essay — which totally blew me away at the time.) I appreciate the crisp wordplay and absolute clarity in her writing. As a fan, I was eager to dive into Evelyn McDonnell’s The World According to Joan Didion, a not-quite biography. (One reviewer called it a “biographical assessment,” and I agree — that’s really more what this book IS.) I enjoyed this lovingly written deep-dive into Joan’s life, which is interspersed with personal stories and perspectives from both those who knew Joan well and from the author herself. The book is beautifully written, well-researched, and wonderfully insightful. It’s a lovely tribute to Joan Didion, and perfect for both long-time fans and for newer Didion readers. I gave this one 4 stars.

And . . . there you have it! My Top Five Books from fall 2023.


How about you?
What books would make it onto YOUR Top Five list for last fall?


If you want to see what I’m reading now, or if you’d like to check out my recent reviews on Goodreads, just check out the sidebar on my home page.  You can find me here on Goodreads.

If you’re looking for my previous Top Five lists, I’ve moved them. Now you can find them in my Field Notes (just click in from the menu bar at the top or bottom of any page) — or click the link.


And just for fun . . . I thought I’d show you what my copy of Comfort of Crows looks like . . . after 3 complete reads.