For the fourth year running, we asked Powell’s booksellers to recommend the book that helped them the most through this past year — 2023 was another rough year in a long line of them, so it should be no surprise that the books that came in were escapist and heartfelt, redemptive and generous, wise and filled with the healing power of love. The books on this list nourished us, taught us how to exist and persist, and examined the “quiet inner lives of people and animals.” Although, of course, there’s at least one story of “perfect revenge” — a necessary antidote — and even one sensational mussel.
We’re grateful for all of the books we’ve listed below — and for books and bookstores and booklovers in general! — and hope you find books on this list that sustain and comfort you, just like they did for us.
Most people know Spears through the warped lens of the media. After reaching her breaking point, the “Princess of Pop” was forced into a conservatorship, made to take dangerous medication, had her kids taken, and even became the victim of human trafficking. All this was done by her family to make them millions. In The Woman in Me, Spears finally regains control of her narrative, free from conspiracies, paparazzi and even social media. — Stephanie L.
Gentle Chaos is a memoir and a mirror in equal parts. Though it debuted closer to the end of 2023, it was the perfect book to carry me toward the lull of winter and a hopeful look toward warmer days. Tyler has crafted something so deeply personal that it seems it was written for me in particular. I hope you get the same special feeling when you read it. Profoundly calming, diabolically tender — an exquisite gift. — Stacy Wayne D.
This book perfectly captures the intricate, surreal, awkward, obviously painful, but also often weirdly funny moments that come with taking care of a sick parent and grappling with their death. On every page there was something that made me say, out loud, "Wait, that is *exactly* how I feel." This book is perfect for anyone 13+ who feels alone and isolated in their grief and I want to personally thank Tyler Feder for writing it; I am truly so thankful that this book exists. — Sarah B.
I saw Richard Osman on a British gameshow and he was just a delight. I'm not a mystery reader, but I wanted to give his book a try. His charm and wit fill the pages, and his writing is clever, imaginative, and often quite poignant. Each of the four main characters is wonderfully unique, and as members of Coopers Chase Retirement Community's Thursday Murder Club, they are an unstoppable force. This (and the three books that follow) were bright spots throughout 2023! — Lesley A.
A city kid through-and-through, this book gave me new reasons to fall in love with my birthplace of New York City, and also renewed my affection for living cheek-by-jowl with hundreds of other uniquely beautiful urbanite lives, regardless of the city. — Kat H.
Solenoid is autofiction for termites. Told from the perspective of a young Romanian paranoiac with a penchant for parasites, dreams, and indecipherable manuscripts, the story whirls like a slow hurricane, unearthing the shards of rare gems and piecing them together mid-air to form lost temples and monuments, like gifts from a god you've never heard of. Incantatory, vivid, and surreal, this book kept me company on early morning bus rides, each one slightly darker than the last. Crowded with the ghosts that continue to haunt Eastern Europe, Solenoid is the story of a city ruined since birth and the many delusions it continues to inspire. — Nadia N.
2023 was the year I started reading romance because things were hard and I needed a little extra love and happiness and whimsy, which means 2023 was also the year I discovered Anita Kelly. I love cooking, and I love love, and this book was the perfect mix of those two things. Kelly writes characters who are messy and beautiful and perfect. Mental health and queerness are also explored in a very positive, but real way — acknowledging the hardship but also mining the beauty in it. Highly recommend to anyone who needs a break from the heaviness of reality. — Carrie K.
Like everything by N. K. Jemisin, these stories stayed with me because they made me think, and feel, deeply. Her writing inspires us to believe that a better world is possible, and to fight for what's right when it's not. The response to Ursula K. Le Guin's The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas is particularly thought-provoking. — Rachael P.
This book gave me all forms of joy. I was elated to see a healthy portrayal of two gay teens in love. It's giving wholesome. — Ash W.
Every once in a while, the setting of a book completely sweeps me away. This marvelous first book of the Books of Babel series introduces us to a fantastic, terrifying, mysterious, violent, miraculous setting in the Tower of Babel. Wonderful escapism and a main character to cheer for, I loved this book with my whole heart! — Anna B.
The titled character is faced with an untenable situation and seriously considers ending his life, but a flash of memory saves him and he goes on to create a life for himself despite the formidable odds. I'm trying not to give anything away here, so just trust me that this story is a heartfelt and redemptive page-turner. I couldn't put it down and now I want to read it again. — Marianne T.
Alexandre Dumas’s classic novel, The Count of Monte Cristo, turns 180 years old in 2024. Though it’s been nearly two centuries since its completion, it remains one of the most remarkably entertaining works of fiction ever written. Reading about forty pages a day, you’ll devour this tale of perfect revenge in a single month (and will still wish you had another thousand pages to spend with Edmond Dantès!). Be not deterred by its length, this unforgettable adventure story is as riveting and rewarding as they come! — Jeremy G.
Any time a fiction author publishes a work of nonfiction, I feel the novelty of it like a magnetic pull on the shelf. Here it is, what we often wish for from artists but don't always find: a look into their interior lives. Often, I have found in these rare pages a renewed belief in my own creative capacity; in Maggie O'Farrell's memoir-in-essays, I found a renewed belief in my own capacity to breathe, to move, to exist and persist. This is the year that COVID finally got me, and it got me good. O'Farrell's book found me at just the right time, as I was recovering from extended illness and trying to remember how to feel safe in my body. Her book helped to reorient me by describing all the times 'safety' was catastrophically missing from her life, and all the existing she did anyway. — Katie P.
Joshua James Amberson is the best Portland writer you probably don't know about. His published output thus far has included many entertaining zines and a handful of engaging small press books. His newest book of essays offers not only a personal deep dive into his own vision diagnosis, but also features some thoughtful cultural criticism that is generous and wise. The vulnerability and wit of Staring Contest made me appreciate not only Amberson's singular voice, but the beauty and wonder of the world around me. — Kevin S.
Janina is lovably cranky and lives alone in a remote Polish village. She seems a bit lonely, though she would likely deny this. When her dogs disappear, I want to wrap my arms around the pages and hug her. Later, when some villagers turn up dead, she is certain that she can find out who is responsible. — Paul S.
Living in a world built on speed and progress, it's nice to slow down and examine the quiet inner lives of people and animals. Doyle gently reminds us that humans are not the only players on this stage of life, and that each being is full of their own beauties and struggles. I would recommend this novel to anyone feeling overwhelmed by conventional societal pressures and wishing for a simple story filled to bursting with deep emotion. — Corey S.
I spent most of 2023 too stressed out, too scatterbrained, and too swayed by the ease of television and podcasts to make much of a dent in my TBR pile, so our Managing Editor kindly granted me a special dispensation to add this little non-book guy to the Books That Got Us Through 2023 list. Soft, quiet, always smiling… he’s a constant, calming presence I look to throughout the day (he lives on my work desk), who made my 2023 a little less heavy. I named him Kurt Mussel.
Note: I'm not the only Powell's bookseller who found comfort in Jellycats this past year — each new addition to the Jellycat catalog is an EVENT around here and my coworker, Charlotte, wrote a whole blog post about them. — Tove H.
Enduring what ended up being A Very Tough Time Of It this year, I turned again and again to this volume of poetry. I'd read the words like they were scripture, and, during a short time when reading wasn't an option for me, I'd watch Andrea's videos over and over, letting the words soothe and strengthen me. "Like I know my blood is red, when it's red, at least partially because of love." Their words reminded me of the healing power of love, of the light that is present in every darkness, and I am grateful to have had this book to guide me through it all. — Deana R.
This delightful and affecting novel by Tania James was just what I needed to absorb my attention, yet lighten my mood. It centers around Abbas, a young carver in Mysore, India whose ingenious toys come to the attention of Tipu Sultan. He is apprenticed to a Frenchman at court, and they set about making a great automaton at the sultan's behest. Then their world is upended as the English conquer the area and the court scatters. It's fascinating to follow their paths from there and the colorful characters they encounter, all skillfully drawn by James, a consummate storyteller. — Jennifer R.
I love how these characters believe in goodness so deeply yet rarely have hope. In this final book of the series, they generally think they're fighting for a lost cause against overwhelming evil and they fight for it still. I needed that this year — that you don't have to actually feel optimism in order to act optimistically and do what should be done. Something as simple as a mouthful of food with a friend or the sight of one star on a bleak night can keep you turned towards the good. All we can do is hold on to each other and move forward, hope or not. — Claire A.
An inspiring memoir about two brave souls, pulsing with the spirit of adventure, who undertook a bicycle trip from the top to the bottom of the Americas. I love the relatability of this book, primarily because Kristen and Ville Jokinen were amateur cyclists, who had never undertaken any sort of trip even close to this kind of difficulty before this. With Kristen's humorous storytelling and vivid place descriptions, Joy Ride both provokes the reader to consider taking such life-altering journeys and also helps to reignite faith in humanity through the kindness of people they met along the way. — Nicholas Y.
A joint biography of Jorge Luis Borges, Werner Heisenberg, and Immanuel Kant — or more accurately, of their ideas — this book is rich with their thoughts about the nature of the universe and our experience of it, but is immensely readable to readers unfamiliar with any or all of its subjects. As someone who has studied all three men at various times, this book was an absolute feast and has kept me well-nourished all winter. — Keith M.
Zoe Thorogood, a cartoonist, recorded six months of her life as it fell apart as an attempt to put it all back together. I can't say whether or not this worked for her but it was certainly helpful to me. This story chronicles her struggles with mental health, her family, and her art as the endless wave of day-to-day trials and tribulations make these struggles easier or harder to keep a grip on. Though some parts of this story are silly and we may occasionally get off track, that is part of what makes this such a real and moving story: Zoe takes us on side quests, and tells jokes, and at one point literally starts the story all over again, all of which brings warmth and extreme honesty to this book. She also manages to skillfully combine several artistic styles and even photos in a way that moves with the story and adds to the other elements. If you are an artist or you struggle with your mental health or if you're just a little strange sometimes, then this book is definitely for you. — Aster H.
Living in the end stage Anthropocene is an intellectual and emotional whirlwind, and I've taken to soothing my grief by reading different takes on what comes next. Simak's 1967 vision of a frugal, puritanical society saving every penny for an afterlife (here called Forever Center), that isn't guaranteed to come, echoes current sentiments. Why ARE we still working and paying bills and having kids when we know the planet will be nearly uninhabitable in a generation's time? Unlike Simak's cast of characters, our deaths are not promised to be followed by reanimation into an overpopulated world where only the wealthiest will survive. Sadly, if that promise were real, it's likely we too would spend our last days overworking, scrounging, and saving for the hope of Forever Center, instead of making the most of the precious time that's in our hands right now. — Mary O.
This year, I lost two very close friends in close succession. While going back and forth to the hospital and then grieving them both, I was, in my side gig, designing the book cover for The Queen of Steeplechase Park. Sinking deeply into the detailed design work helped me find some joy inside a horrible time — but more than this, the book itself, Bella’s voluptuous, audacious tale, was the best kind of distraction in a year filled with hard things. I can’t wait for this joyful gem, with all its sparkle and magic, to be out in the world. — Gigi L.
Look, BTS has been my answer to “what got you through this year” for a few years running now and when I tell you that the secret-shrouded announcement of this book and subsequent waiting/theorizing game got me through a big part of the middle of the year I really mean it! Powell’s let me throw a whole party about it!
I’ve gotta pair it with Lenika Cruz’s excellent On BTS from Zando Project’s Atlantic Editions. I’ll need both to get me through the next 18 months. IYKYK. — Sarah R.
I am a Samantha Hunt stan — have been ever since I read The Seas years ago, and each subsequent book (The Dark Dark! Mr. Splitfoot!) has just managed to make me an even bigger fan. I didn't know what I was getting into when I started this book, but found it absolutely staggering. She points her wildly empathetic and expansive eye toward an unfinished book project of her father's, the life her father led, her own role as a mother, One Direction fandom, mediums and psychics, and everything in between. This book feels like the stuff of life, which would feel absurd and rhetorical to say for any other book but feels more than true of this one. — Kelsey F.
Work Won’t Love You Back is a lesson I’ve learned over and over again in different workplaces — gaining short-term satisfaction in working on projects that would keep me up all night, burning out, and watching those companies go public or get purchased and net the top executives (hundreds of) millions of dollars. I have described my current role as “something close to a dream job,” (high praise, as a person who knows but doesn’t always feel that no job is a dream job); and I have spent most of this last year on the union bargaining team representing my fellow workers. Sarah Jaffe’s book is a balm and a bomb that helped me make sense of what I was experiencing in negotiations and what I have experienced throughout my adult working career. The love of labor that modern workplaces are designed around is not a sustainable way to build a life — it positions the individual to feel at fault when the work is not fulfilling, and when the work does not pay you enough to live. What really got me through this year (and all future years) was solidarity, and an increased awareness that the labor I put into labor work is how I build that sustainable, fulfilling life. — Michelle C.