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  • Writer's pictureDavid Crow

My Best Reads of 2023

Updated: Dec 20, 2023


9 fiction and nonfiction books from my 2022 reading list
Top fiction and nonfiction books from my 2023 reading list.

I read a number of outstanding fiction and nonfiction books this year, and it was a challenge to select my favorites. I was finally able to winnow the list down to my top 11.


I hope you find some new gems to add to your TBR.


Shane Stevens


Shane Stevens wrote masterful historical fiction and crime books in the 1960s and ’70s. He was involved with crime and lawbreakers during his troubled life—he embodied a rare combination of superb writing skills and personal understanding of violent and criminal subject matter.

 

In By Reason of Insanity, the fictional character Thomas Bishop believes he is the son of Caryl Chessman, one of San Quentin’s most notorious criminals, who was executed for rape and kidnapping in 1960. Stevens takes us into the frightening life and minds of father and son, a serial killer who commits grotesque murders and repeatedly evades capture.


This page-turner, released in 1979, is as good as or better than any contemporary crime novel.


 

Harry Crews


The opening line alone could recommend A Childhood: “My first memory is of a time ten years before I was born, and the memory takes place where I have never been and involves my daddy whom I never knew.”

 

Harry Crews takes you to rural Georgia during the Great Depression, where he barely had enough to eat but was rich with people, custom, and surroundings. His greatest thrill, like my own as a child, was reading a Sears and Roebuck catalog because it provided visual representations of the “normal” abundance he longed for.  

 

Harry Crews paints a compelling picture of how he found his way out of this poverty, though his troubles were never behind him. His love for the land and the rural life and his quest to find meaning in a place that could barely exist is moving and deeply thought-provoking.

 

S. C. Gwynne


Empire of the Summer Moon is the true story of Cynthia Ann Parker, captured by Comanches as a young girl when they massacred members of her family and their party.


Despite the cruel introduction, she became a Comanche in every sense of the word, including marrying the Comanche chief, Peta Nocona. Their son, Quanah Parker, became the greatest chief of all, striking terror across the plains of Texas and beyond.

 

Americans hoping to settle the Southwest had the formidable task of surviving Comanche attacks. Many didn’t, including my direct ancestor, Malcolm Lafayette Dalton, who ranched with Charles Goodnight beginning in the 1840s until he was killed in a Comanche ambush in 1870.

 

Known as the Lords of the Plains, the Comanches mastered warfare on horseback, and they reigned supreme until repeating rifles and large numbers of settlers overwhelmed them.

This riveting, well-told story is an integral part of American history and belongs in any avid reader’s TBR stack.  

 

Shane Stevens


I picked up Go Down Dead and couldn’t put it down. Never, ever, have I read something so startling, so raw, so rough, and so descriptive.


Every word was like a punch in the mouth about life in Harlem, Hell’s Kitchen, the poverty, the drugs, the promiscuity, the gangs, and the utter hopelessness of black life in the inner city. Stephen King called Shane Stevens one of his biggest influences.

 

No one, and I mean no one, has written like this author. The reader is dragged into the nightmare of this hopeless life from the first sentence and held tight until the final page. Stevens’s ability to capture the dialect, the mood, the action, the vibe in Harlem is unlike anything I have ever read.


I will read all of his works and wonder about his life. There’s not much on it. But this guy understood at the gut level about the characters and action. Simply extraordinary.

 

Jeff Guinn

The story of Bonnie and Clyde is among the best known of the Depression-era bank robbers. The violence and their romanticized love for each other have spawned many books and movies. But Jeff Guinn tells the real story—which is far less glamorous than the myth.

 

Guinn takes the reader into the desperation of poverty and hopelessness in Dallas, Texas, felt by the underclass who lived on just enough not to starve. Bank robbers were considered heroes by the many people who had no savings or had lost what little they had kept in the bank.

 

There is no beauty here, only fleeting fame. Bonnie and Clyde’s sensational crime spree ended with the murder of a young policeman days before his wedding. From that moment on, the public turned against the starstruck villains, and their death was inevitable. This book is a great look into a bleak story in America’s past.

 

Erik Larson


Larson is one of my all-time favorite authors, and he never disappoints. As in all of Larson’s books, he writes two stories in one and weaves them together with the mastery of a true artist.


In the Garden of Beasts is the story of US Ambassador William Dodd’s tenure in Germany during the rise of Adolf Hitler. He experienced firsthand Germany’s sleepwalk into the Nazi regime that would bring world war and the complete devastation of Germany.

 

It is also the story of his vivacious and promiscuous daughter, Martha, who became intimate with more than one Nazi and a Communist.  Martha’s social life brought her into constant contact with the very men who would lead the war against the Allies. The Dodds saw what was coming in the 1930s but couldn’t convince the United States of the consequences.


This spellbinding story is hard to believe, but it’s true. If only the world had listened.

 

Erik Larson


Erik Larson takes us into America’s deadliest hurricane at the dawn of the US Weather Service. A series of highly unusual weather incidents, not unlike those happening today, were troubling, but no one knew what to make of them. Isaac Cline, a meteorologist with all the latest technology and reports, was in Galveston, Texas, in 1900 when the devastation struck.


Cline didn’t believe the reports showing widespread destruction in Cuba or the signs that the storm would hit Galveston with even greater ferocity.

 

People gathered on the beach in Galveston and saw fantastic waves and a lovely pink sky. Only hours later, somewhere between six and ten thousand people would lose their lives and many more would be hanging onto rooftops, trees, and anything else they could grab onto. One man’s hubris and refusal to believe sound information led to death and devastation.

 

This minute-by-minute account will keep you hooked until the end—and wondering if people today are any different. Another Larson masterpiece.

 

Malcolm Braly


During my dad’s last years, I tracked down many books about San Quentin, including ones about his warden, Clinton Duffy, and the chief medical officer, Dr. Leo Stanley. He loved reading about the men who ran “the Q.”

 

He thought many of the books about the prison were mediocre at best. One day, I gave him On the Yard by Malcolm Braly, who wrote the book while doing time in San Quentin. He read it in one sitting and couldn’t wait to talk about it. He immediately told me how authentic it was without the usual hype, overstatement, and outright fabrication. He also said a guy this smart could have done anything he wanted, but his early brush with stealing never got out of his blood.

 

Braly tells the story of prison life through the eyes of fictional characters Society Red and Chilly Willy. It’s a story of sex, drugs, gangs, and the guards, who allowed it all to happen. It’s also a deep look into why criminals like Braly often return to prison—it’s the only secure thing they know. This book was turned into a movie and is crime writing at its finest.

 

Erik Larson Larson does his usual masterful job of weaving two stories together. This is a book about Guglielmo Marconi and his relentless quest for a wireless device that could instantly transport signals thousands of miles.


He was a man blinded by ambition, recklessness, and fearlessness. He also faced nearly insurmountable obstacles and fierce competition. Would he succeed?

 

Thunderstruck is also a murder mystery about Hawley Crippen, a doctor who seemed incapable of such a heinous act. He nearly pulled off a murder with a complete escape—but wireless technology enabled his capture in the nick of time.

 

Larson’s two-in-one story, as always, does not disappoint.

 

Marty Ohlhaut with Grace Ly


The Ohlhaut family is up for adventure, if you count grizzly bears, camping, hiking, and wandering the outdoor world as fun. Tent for Seven is a powerful story that reflects deep love for family, friends, nature, and seeing the outdoor world.


This is a family you get to know, and want to spend time with, even if roughing isn't your thing. The heartbreaking chapter where tragedy strikes will have your heart in your throat. But all’s well that ends well for this wonderful family.

 

I loved the adventures and couldn’t wait to find out about their next one. This story will linger in my mind for a long time to come.


 

Stephen Greenblatt


William Shakespeare is the greatest playwright of all time—his influence unmatched hundreds of years after his death in 1616. How could a man with no formal education, wealth, or social connections have achieved so much? And why is so little known about him?


Born in 1564, Shakespeare appears as if a meteor in the night. There are far more myths about him than truths.


Stephen Greenblatt changed that by examining the world Shakespeare lived in. He dove into the dull and dreary life of mid-1500s England and pieced together an outline of the man and his times.


This book’s brilliance is hard to overstate. Greenblatt shows us how Shakespeare did the near impossible. Even so, it’s still a marvel that a man of his greatness could have emerged in such a time. But perhaps that is exactly the time when a man like Shakespeare should come along.



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