Best Pop Fiction of 2023

The best pop fiction novels of 2023 journey to self-realization and survival, untangle family ties, slay social shibboleths, and uncover hidden histories.


Cravens, Claudia. Lucky Red. Dial. ISBN 9780593498248.

Debuter Cravens skillfully blends Western tropes—outlaws, sporting women, gam blers, cowpokes, rattlesnakes both reptile and human—into her queer coming-of-age story. In 1877, 16-year-old Bridget Shaughnessy arrives in Dodge City, KS. Her father died on the journey west, and she’s alone and destitute. She finds employment, love, danger, and adventure at the town’s woman-run brothel, the Buffalo Queen. A fast-paced, sure-footed stunner of a tale.

Haydock, Sophie. The Flames. Overlook: Abrams. ISBN 9781419766312.

Haydock’s assured, passionate debut depicts the art movement of the Vienna Secession, giving voice to four real-life women—“flames”—who swirled around provocative expressionist painter Egon Schiele. His sister, Gertie, relates their difficult childhood; neighbors Edith and Adele, two respectable middle-class sisters, watch his bohemian antics from across the street; Vally (a.k.a. Walburga) meets Schiele through Gustav Klimt and becomes his model and lover. Death hovers nearby,from both a world war and a devastating pandemic.

Jiménez, Claire. What Happened to Ruthy Ramirez. Grand Central. ISBN 9781538725962.

Twelve years after 13-year-old Ruthy Ramirez disappeared, her sisters think they’ve found her—she’s “Ruby,” a contestant on a trashy reality TV show. The sisters plan to drive from Staten Island to Boston to rescue her. They’re joined by their mother and her church friend as the road trip reveals the Ramirez women’s hardships, fears, dreams, and hidden strengths. Jiménez’s powerful, effective first novel is a humor-laced, keen-eyed observation of a fractured Puerto Rican family.

Kuang, R.F. Yellowface. Morrow. ISBN 9780063250833.

Kuang skewers the publishing industry, social media, and cultural appropriation in this unputdownable and stinging novel. Struggling white author June envies the runaway success of her Chinese American frenemy, Athena. They are celebrating her latest triumph when Athena dies suddenly. June takes Athena’s manuscript home, edits it, and passes it off as her own, under a racially ambiguous pseudonym. As the book soars, June seesaws between fear that she’ll be found out and deluded self-justification.

Makkai, Rebecca. I Have Some Questions for You. Viking. ISBN 9780593490143.

In 2018, podcaster Bodie Kane is invited to teach at the New Hampshire boarding school she attended in the 1990s, when her roommate Thalia was murdered. A Black staffer at Granby was convicted, but many question that verdict. Her students’ investigation stirs Bodie’s memories and her suspicions about a teacher whose behavior now seems predatory. Makkai’s “then and now” narrative is expertly layered, and her indictment of society’s morbid interest in incidents of violence toward women is incisive.

Meissner, Susan. Only the Beautiful. Berkley. ISBN 9780593332832.

The horrors of the eugenics movements in Austria and the United States before and after WWII are movingly conveyed in Meissner’s four-hankie story, told with finesse through dual narratives. In California in 1938, 16-year-old Rosanne is seduced and betrayed, committed to an institution for being different—she sees sounds in color—and sterilized after giving birth. Nine years later, Helen, the sister of the man who impregnated Rosanne, returns from Europe to try to find Rosie and her daughter.

Millner, Denene. One Blood. Forge. ISBN 9781250276193.

Millner’s tour de force traces the joys and sorrows of motherhood and adoption as well as the legacy of Black survival from the 1960s to the early 2000s. In 1965, racial violence tears young Grace from her Virginia home. She’s sent to Brooklyn to live with a cruel aunt, gets pregnant, and reluctantly gives up her baby. LoLo and her husband adopt and raise the child, Rae. In the 2000s, Rae faces an unfulfilling marriage and too many family secrets.

Porter, Michelle. A Grandmother Begins the Story. Algonquin. ISBN 9781643755182.

Métis scholar, memoirist, and poet Porter’s fiction debut tells the interconnected and disconnected stories of five generations of Canadian Indigenous women, some already moving to the Afterlife. Joining the chorus is the land where the women live, the creatures on that land, some wise dogs, and even a car named Bets that transports its octogenarian owner to rehab. Porter deftly pulls together each component of this heart-wrenching, beautifully written family saga.

Stokes-Chapman, Susan. Pandora. Harper Perennial. ISBN 9780063280021.

This delightful debut mixes adventure, romance, and mythology, immersing readers in the sights, sounds—and smells—of Georgian London. Plucky orphan Dora dreams of being a jewelry designer, but her hateful uncle, who has run her late parents’ antiques shop into the ground, is just one of many obstacles. When he brings home a mysterious vase and hides it away, she and antiquities scholar Edward warily team up to discover the object’s powers and provenance.

Weiner, Jennifer. The Breakaway. Atria. ISBN 9781668033425.

Avid plus-size cyclist Abby’s safe, comfortable boyfriend wants them to move in together, but she’s uncertain. An invitation to lead a 12-day bike trek seems the perfect getaway to think it over, until her fat-phobic mom and a smoldering one-night stand from the past join the group. Abby’s life-affirming journey to selfhood is sprinkled with Weiner’s trademark wit, timely subplots, family dynamics, and body positivity.

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