The 39 best books MPR News staff read this year

A collage of book covers
Here are the top reads from MPR News for 2023.
Courtesy images

Updated 8:30 a.m.

From Minnesota authors to BookTok recommendations, our staff has a ranging taste for their favorite read of the year. Note: Not all of these books were released this year. We instead opened submissions to include any book a staffer read this year.

Adult Nonfiction

‘A Fever in the Heartland: The Ku Klux Klan’s Plot to Take Over America, and the Woman Who Stopped Them’ by Timothy Egan

Egan has written a gripping narrative that captures how powerful the Klan became in the Midwest in the 1920s. I knew something about the Klan’s history of hate in the Midwest, but I didn’t realize the scale and scope of its influence in the region for much of that turbulent decade.

The author pins much of the collapse of the Klan in the region on the conviction of its Indiana-based leader for his sadistic sexual attack and murder of Madge Oberholtzer. There’s more to the story than that, of course, but it’s a history well told.

Chris Farrell, senior economics contributor

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‘Paradise Falls: The True Story of an Environmental Catastrophe’ by Keith O’Brien

This is THE book that tells the story of Love Canal, through the eyes, noses and fears of people who lived there. The Niagara Falls, N.Y., neighborhood was a high-profile environmental disaster in the 1970s, but the pollution dated back decades.

O’Brien has written a deeply reported and vivid book focused on the heroic efforts of the neighborhood’s residents in the face of less laudable corporate and government action and inaction. You’ll get caught up in it like a good novel. 

— Tom Crann, host of All Things Considered

‘The High Sierra: A Love Story’ by Kim Stanley Robinson

Kim Stanley Robinson is known as a fantastic science fiction writer, but in this book, he combines real-life science, history and personal stories to paint a mind-blowing portrait of one of the most beautiful places on earth.

Reading it was an escape into a rare ecosystem and inspired me to observe my surroundings here in Minnesota more. It’s part nostalgia for past adventures, part musing on land and politics. 10/10!

— Ellen Finn, associate producer for Minnesota Now

‘Drama Free’ by Nedra Tawwab

The author of this book is a well-respected therapist who I have interviewed twice on my talk show. 2023 was all about healing for me, both physically and mentally. And actively chasing joy. Managing unhealthy family relationships played a role in that.

— Angela Davis, host of MPR News with Angela Davis

‘Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Transform Your Life’ by Dacher Keltner

My favorite non-fiction books of the year center around the theme of awe. Dacher Keltner’s book “Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Transform Your Life” explores the science of this oft-overlooked emotion.

Keltner is a great storyteller, so his research is interwoven with examples and his own history. It’s like a TED Talk in book form. For a more romantic take, pick up Katherine May’s “Enchantment: Awakening Wonder in an Anxious Age.” May is a lyrical writer. Her musings on awe light the way. I will be seeking more awe in 2024.

— Kelly Gordon, producer of Big Books and Bold Ideas and North Star Journey Live

‘How Far the Light Reaches: A Life in Ten Sea Creatures’ by Sabrina Imbler

I’m nervous in the water and embarrassingly jumpy when it comes to ocean life. But this book gave me a chance to learn about the strange, fascinating animals of the deep sea from a safe distance.

It’s also a gorgeous memoir that shows the surprising ways humans are connected to these creatures and what we can learn from their lives.

— Alanna Elder, producer for Minnesota Now

This book burrowed into my brain and keeps popping up at the oddest of moments like a barnacle grabbing for food.

It’s a collection of essays about creatures often living in the remote, hostile parts of the ocean. It’s laced with wild facts about the lives of these wondrous beings and how different their reality is from our own.

I mean, octopuses who will starve for years while watching over their eggs? That there really is such a thing as marine snow, and it's an important part of the ecosystem — and wait till you learn about whalefalls.

But what makes these essays sing even more are Imbler’s reflections of the similarities between the sea creatures and their own life. As a queer, mixed-race writer Imbler has clearly spent a lot of time in deep self-examination, and their writing is filled with moments of joy, sadness and understanding.

They invite the reader into the sea creatures’ world, as well as the Sabrina Imbler world. Both are fascinating and thought-provoking. Reading this left me with a profound sense of gratitude for Imbler's talent.

One of my reading resolutions this year is to build a “To be read again” section on my bookshelf. “How Far The Light Reaches” sits there already.  

— Euan Kerr, regional editor

‘Die with Zero: Getting All You Can from Your Money and Your Life’ by Bill Perkins

This book changed my perspective a bit on how to balance saving for retirement without missing out on the present.

— Brian Bakst, politics editor

‘Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia’ by Sabrina Strings

I wouldn’t call myself an avid nonfiction reader. I’m glad I gave this one a try. It’s a fantastic companion piece to podcasts like “Maintenance Phase,” or for anyone looking for the “why” behind the odd societal obsession and stereotypes surrounding our bodies. I’m relatively tuned into the topic, but I learned a lot. And in a new world where Ozempic is king, it’s even more interesting.

— Gretchen Brown, interim senior producer for MPR News with Angela Davis

Adult Fiction

‘Horse’ by Geraldine Brooks

As the host of Ask a Bookseller, I hear recommendations for awesome books from indie booksellers every week, which means my to-read list is generally about as long as my arm. Here are two of my favorite novels so far from this year’s list of recommendations.

This is a gorgeous, sweeping historical novel about race and horse racing in the Civil War era through today. I don’t particularly care about horse racing, but this book made me care, and I simply couldn’t put it down.

— Emily Bright, newscaster, host of Art Hounds and Ask a Bookseller

‘Kala’ by Colin Walsh

It’s a fantastic combination of literary fiction — gorgeous writing, deeply drawn characters — and heart-pounding thriller. It’s written from the alternating viewpoints of three characters, with three easily distinguishable voices. I listened to this one as an audio book for the added bonus of hearing the Irish accents.

Tune into for a new book recommendation on Ask a Bookseller every Saturday morning on MPR News or follow the “Ask a Bookseller” podcast. One book, 2 minutes, every week.

— Emily Bright, newscaster, host of Art Hounds and Ask A Bookseller

‘My Ántonia’ by Willa Cather

A sweeping and intimate story about immigration, the “settling” of the American West, the aching caused by the passage of time, and, most importantly, friendship. Willa Cather’s prose feels crisp and warm, like linens fresh out of the dryer.

— Alex V. Cipolle, senior arts reporter and critic

‘The Woman in the Window’ by A.J. Finn

Could it be I read the book even faster than the film’s run time? What a velvety, sinister, I’m-afraid-to-turn-the-page book with themes of mental health, home and memory. It’s been years since I’ve devoured pages like this.

— Amy Felegy, associate digital producer

‘BIOGRAPHY OF X’ by Catherine Lacey

It is an audacious critique of the art world and a mind-boggling alternative history of the United States. Simply one of the greatest novels I have ever read. Funny and brilliant in equal measures. Don’t skip the footnotes. 

— Stephanie Curtis, program director

‘The Frugal Wizard’s Handbook for Surviving Medieval England’ by Brandon Sanderson

I had a lot of fun reading “The Frugal Wizard’s Handbook for Surviving Medieval England” by Brandon Sanderson, one of four novels Sanderson released through a record-setting Kickstarter fundraiser.

It mixes in some fantasy elements that Sanderson is known for but with a sci-fi twist mixed with some corporate and “legalese” satire. Simply put, if a business advertises “your own personal medieval pocket dimension,” you might want to check the fine print.

— Matt Mikus, digital producer

‘Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow’ by Gabrielle Zevin

“Life is very long, unless it’s not.” 

“Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow” by Gabrielle Zevin provided me with a form of escapism; I read it at my dad’s house as he died of cancer. I think he would have agreed with this quote from the book: “It isn’t a sadness, but a joy, that we don’t do the same things for the length of our lives.”

My very short summary of the book: three friends make a video game together, and the book follows their paths and their friendship after that fateful decision. I think some people might skip over this book if they aren’t a gamer, but you don’t need to play video games to appreciate Zevin’s worldbuilding and complex characters. 

— Lisa Ryan, evening editor

‘The Whalebone Theatre’ by Joanna Quinn

I can’t stop thinking about “The Whalebone Theatre” written by Joanna Quinn. This historical fiction is set in a Downtown Abbey-esque family in England that is grappling with seismic societal changes at the tail end of World War I.

The adults are self-absorbed and tragic, so this story is told through the eyes of the children. Three-year-old Cristabel takes the spotlight and orchestrates adventures and dramas for herself and her half-sister Florrie and close-in-age nephew, Digby.

As the children grow up, they are pushed onto the stage of World War II, where their imaginary exploits become dangerous reality. The history is real and sobering, the characters are captivating. I was charmed and then engrossed.

— Kelly Gordon, producer of Big Books and Bold Ideas and North Star Journey Live

‘Demon Copperhead’ by Barbara Kingsolver

I was spellbound by the writing and the main character’s adventures/misadventures, plus what it all had to say about Appalachia and America and what we value. So good!

— Elizabeth Shockman, education reporter

‘The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo’ by Taylor Jenkins Reid

Taylor Jenkins Reid works in the era of old-Hollywood glamour while depicting multiple strong representations of minority communities. The focus on feminism, the LGBTQIA+ community, and the fact that some of the characters were actually quite unlikeable at times made the entire novel feel incredibly real to me; the protagonist’s continual claim of being “a bad person” was striking and at times valid.

While the book is structured to be representative of Evelyn’s experience with seven husbands, it was also able to capture nearly every social concern a woman might face throughout her life.

— Kyre Johnson, digital intern

‘Lady Tan’s Circle of Women’ by Lisa See

This powerful, researched and, at times, unsettling book was an eye-opening introduction into the world of traditional Chinese women's medicine and the girls and women who keep these traditions alive.

The book was both a story of familial duty, love and self-reflection and a story of ancient medical advancements and the plights of women in 15th-century China. I’m really looking forward to reading more of Lisa See's books!

Honorable mentions of books I read this year so, far: “None of This is True” by Lisa Jewell and “Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow” by Gabrielle Zevin. Both books I'm not sure I liked, but I CAN say I couldn’t put them down while reading and they are undeniably well-written.

— Kyra Miles, early education reporter

‘The Dictionary of Lost Words’ by Pip Williams

This fictionalized account of the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary honors the real women who labored on the massive project in obscurity. The protagonist rescues “lost” words – often women’s words – that are not deemed worthy of inclusion in the dictionary. The story reminds us of the power of words to oppress or liberate.  

— Lorna Benson, deputy managing editor

‘The Covenant of Water’ by Abraham Verghese

Vivid and immersive, Abraham Verghese has a way of hurtling us into another space and time, and I simply didn’t want this novel to end!

— Kerri Miller, host of Big Books and Bold Ideas and Talking Volumes

Everyone in my book club groaned when we realized the book we wanted to read was a whopper with more than 700 dense pages. But no one was complaining once we dug in. This gorgeous, tragic, multi-generational story about a family curse is full of unexpected twists. I blubbered like a baby about a dozen times while reading it. Verghese himself started crying about one of his characters when he was talking to Oprah about the book. That’s how good it is.

— Heidi Raschke, senior producer 

‘In the Time of Our History’ by Susanne Pari

I have read over 100 books this year and it was my job to bother everyone in the newsroom for their favorite read, so this is a hard question for me. The books I enjoyed the most were contemporary novels that followed the ebb and flow of womanhood. “In the Time of Our History” by Susanne Pari delivers that and more.

It is a beautiful story about mothers and daughters set to the background of Iranian culture. I think it can be really easy to forget that older people in our life, such as our mothers, were once just girls like us.

— Sam Stroozas, digital producer

Minnesota Authors

‘Brotherless Night’ by V.V. Ganeshananthan

This book is beautifully written and incredibly researched historical fiction. This story is set during the decades-long Sri Lankan civil war, which I (embarrassingly) knew little about, so I learned a lot.

It made so many end-of-year favorite book lists. And we should be proud: V.V. Ganeshananthan lives in Minnesota and teaches creative writing at the University of Minnesota.

— Jessica Bari, senior producer for Call to Mind

‘Yours Truly’ by Abby Jimenez

Abby Jimenez is the incredibly successful founder of Nadia Cakes and somehow also keeps getting better at delivering the perfect guilty pleasure romance novels. Not only is this a heartwarming quick read, it’s set in Minnesota, too!

— Carly Berglund, digital intern

‘The Sentence’ by Louise Erdrich

It’s a ghost story set mostly in a Minneapolis bookstore during 2020, when COVID and the murder of George Floyd are roiling the city. Erdrich captures the complicated chaos of that time in a way that helped me process it. Also, it’s a very funny book with very flawed yet lovable characters.   

— Heidi Raschke, senior producer

‘The Seven Generations and The Seven Grandfather Teachings’ by James Vukelich Kaagegaabaw

I recently read “The Seven Generations and The Seven Grandfather Teachings” by James Vukelich Kaagegaabaw and loved it. Vukelich is known for his “Ojibwe Word of the Day” posts on social media.

In his book, he explains how Ojibwe words are encoded with directions for living a good life. He reflects on The Seven Grandfather Teachings — which are truth, humility, respect, love, courage, honesty and wisdom — and shares insights he gained from talking with elders. The book is brief yet powerful.  

— Erin Warhol, assistant program director

Young Adult

‘Firekeeper's Daughter’ by Angeline Boulley

I was convinced to read this young adult novel and am so grateful I did! Beyond being a thrilling murder mystery, it taught this Midwest transplant so much about Ojibwe knowledge, language revitalization, and philosophy.

— Ellen Finn, associate producer for Minnesota Now

‘Good Different’ by Meg Eden Kuyatt

Seventh grader Selah has rules for what “normal” behavior means, which includes holding in all her feelings until she gets home. That works until one moment the stimulation gets to be too much, and she hits a fellow student. Can she stay in her beloved school when she feels so different from her friends?

“Good Different” is a lovely novel-in-verse in the voice of an autistic student that celebrates the things that make us different and underlies the importance of asking for accommodations when we need them. Plus, it’s about the power of poetry.

— Emily Bright, newscaster, host of Art Hounds and Ask a Bookseller

Audiobooks

‘Sure, I'll Join Your Cult: A Memoir of Mental Illness and the Quest to Belong Anywhere’ by Maria Bamford

This book is not only a fascinating read or listen (read by Maria herself) in the unique way it was built, but it is incredibly honest and real about the author’s relationship with mental health. There is a great local connection as well, as the author grew up in Duluth and has many key life moments in Minnesota.

— Denzel Belin, newsroom coordinator

‘Atlas of the Heart: Mapping Meaningful Connection and the Language of Human Experience’ by Brené Brown

Not only is the printed version beautiful, but the audiobook is unabridged and read by the author in a conversational manner. This is a bona fide map to human connection that I will reference for the rest of my life.  

— Jess Berg, technical supervisor

‘Cutting for Stone’ by Abraham Verghese

The best book I finally “read” this year was the audio book of “Cutting for Stone” by Abraham Verghese. I enjoyed learning some things about medical history and Ethiopia within the context of a sweeping, multigenerational historical fiction. The language is poetic, and the audiobook’s narrator, Sunil Malhotra, made it a great companion on some long summertime runs.

Craig Helmstetter, managing partner of the APM Research Lab

Graphic Novel

‘Heartstopper, Volume 5’ by Alice Oseman

Without a doubt, the piece of media that made the biggest impact on me this year was “Heartstopper.” I learned about it through the release of the second season of its TV adaptation on Netflix in August and immediately became obsessed, binging both seasons twice and then sprinting through the source material.

The story about two teen boys falling in love is delightfully warm, kind and innovative. I’ve read all of the webcomics online but for Christmas my husband gifted me the entire printed set including Volume 5, which just came out on Dec. 19. I was over the moon and can’t wait to dive in again.

— Kaila White, digital editor

‘Lupus’ by Frederik Peeters

This 2020 graphic novel by Swiss artist Peeters tells of a druggy pair of once-close-but-growing-distant friends knocking around the galaxy. It has a shocking twist in the first act which leads to characters taking it on the lam to increasingly odd alien spaces while struggling to grow up in increasingly hostile circumstances. Beautifully illustrated, often very cosmically strange and unexpectedly moving.

— Max Sparber, arts editor

‘Monica’ by Daniel Clowes 

Even if you’re not a graphic novel fan, you’ve likely seen Clowes’ crisp, bold and colorful work before — from his comic-turned-movie “Ghost World” to a Yo La Tengo album cover or artwork for the short-lived OK Soda from the 90s.

His latest work, titled “Monica,” focuses on the story of one woman’s life, but intertwines the tales and recollections from others in such a way that you will keep wanting to turn the page.

The book is divided into nine chapters that are sometimes obviously related to the story and other times seemingly out of nowhere, which adds to the fun of solving the mystery of Monica’s past. Clowes’ artwork is great, still his classic style, but honed and refined in a way. It’s a growth you can see, both in his art and writing, if you look over his nearly 40 years of work. 

— Anna Haecherl, digital editor

‘Check, Please!’ by Ngozi Ukazu

Somehow, on a trip to my local bookstore, I came across the charming graphic novel series “Check, Please!” Told in two volumes, the story follows a group of hockey players at a fictional university in Massachusetts.

It mainly focuses on a gay figure skater turned hockey forward named Eric “Bitty” Bittle, as he bakes his way through school, struggles with physical injures and his mental health and yes, his troubles in the romance department. Writer and illustrator Ngozi Ukazu captures so well the fun of trying to fit in and finding where you belong, and how often it can happen in unlikely places.

Jacob Aloi, arts reporter

Fiction Series

‘Ask the Dust’ by John Fante

Arturo Bandini is one of the most conceited figures in American letters. The penniless writer lives in a shabby motel near downtown Los Angeles, proud of a single short story he’s published: “The Little Dog Laughed.” He leaves copies of the magazine in which the story appears around the motel, then waits to see if any of his fellow tenants read it. None do.

His landlady is also unimpressed; she just wants money. Yet he continues dreaming, imagining a future book, featuring his name, propping up the Bs in a library. He often refers to himself in the third person, steals milk, writes absurd letters to his editor, and fawns over a waitress.

When he nearly drowns in the Pacific Ocean, he describes the scene this way: “Then I was in water to my waist, limp and too far gone to do anything about it, floundering helplessly with my mind clear, composing the whole thing, worrying about excessive adjectives.”

Of course he was. Nothing is worse than excessive adjectives! Bandini is the creation of John Fante, a novelist from the last century. He wrote several Bandini books. “Ask The Dust” was published in 1939.

Todd Melby, newscaster and interim weekend editor

‘The Secret Hours’ by Mick Herron

Herron is a master of espionage tales, as anyone who has read any of the Slow Horses/Slough House stories will tell you. These books form the basis for the “Slow Horses” series on Apple+.

They are about subpar MI5 spooks who have messed up and are now condemned to the mindless drudgery of pointless tasks at the decrepit Slough House. They all hope they will be able to redeem themselves, but deep down they know that’s unlikely to ever happen.

Every once in a while they do get pulled back into the spy world, more by accident than actual need. The plot lines take off in seemingly unrelated directions only to coalesce in some unexpected place. Herron’s stories pack tension and excitement laced with a gallows humor usually provided by the Slow Horses unkempt foul-mouthed leader Jackson Lamb. Herron published eight Slow Horses novels before “The Secret Hours” and the new book is described as a standalone.

Like the other books, it’s a gripping tale of spycraft, crushed idealism, double-crosses and too much alcohol, all mixed with troubled political realities.

It is also a brilliant move by Herron to give new fans drawn in by the TV series. It will allow new readers to get their heads around the shabby charm of the stories and reveal a few glimpses of the issues and people readers will meet in the other books. “The Secret Hours” is well worth some of your precious reading time.

— Euan Kerr, regional editor

‘Fourth Wing’ and ‘Iron Flame’ by Rebecca Yarros

As of Dec. 19, I’ve read 82 books in 2023, and my favorites were “Fourth Wing” and “Iron Flame,” books one and two of the “Empyrean” series. I’m a sucker for a good fantasy read and, working in journalism, I welcome a little escapism once in a while.

Rebecca Yarros’s books are set in an elite war college and tell the story of dragon riders, with a disabled, rebellious and whip-smart female protagonist leading the prose. It’s worth the combined 1,000-plus page investment! 

— Gracie Stockton, lead producer for Morning Edition

This activity is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment’s Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.