Welcome to my annual reading list. Below are the 15 most memorable books I read in 2023.
First, the question most new readers ask me: Why most memorable?
Because “best” and “top” in my opinion aren’t helpful when it comes to book recommendations. Your best and my top will be completely different for different reasons: mood, taste, interests, etc…
But memorable is more universal. ‘Memorable’ means a book made an impact on me and if you’re reading this, it will likely make an impact on you, too.
One quick note:
As you’ll see, some of these books were not published this year. A few were holdovers from last year that I never got to and a few more were books that I’ve always wanted to read that I finally made time for.
And remember, I’m not a book critic. I’m a book champion. I know how hard it is to put books into the world so you won’t see me knocking other authors. If I love a book and it sticks with me, you’ll hear about it. That’s always been my rule of thumb for Books & Biceps.
The following books, as the title reads, are memorable. If you’re interested in reading 2022’s list you can check it out here.
Empire of the Summer Moon by S.C. Gwynne
This book is, simply put, the bloodiest, hardest R for violence book I may have ever read. And the fact that it’s non-fiction, written by a Pulitzer Prize-level writer and based on thousands of sources makes it all the more amazing.
If you have ever wondered what life was like in the real old west, before Texas was a state, when the territory was caught between the Mexican Army, the Apaches, the homesteaders, the land swindlers, the frontier families and the US government, this is the book to read…
Why is it so bloody?
Because every entity I listed above was scared to death of the most brutal and lethal warriors perhaps ever on horseback: the Comanche Indians.
What I didn’t know before reading this, and what they don’t teach you in school, is that when the American settlers tried to push west and the Mexican settlers tried to push north through what is now Texas, they essentially ran into a civilization whose entire society was built around war and warfare and who had practiced nothing else for hundreds of years. The Comanches did not grow food. They did not have towns. They had no central leadership. They had no laws. They hunted. They roamed. They fought. Who? Everyone. Indians. Americans. Mexicans. French. Each other.
This is a stunning, eye-opening read that will have you rethinking what you thought you understood about the United States expansion in the mid to late 1800s. Get it here.
Life’s Work: A Memoir by David Milch
This is a memoir written by one of the most iconic TV writers and creators of all time, David Milch. If you loved NYPD Blue or Deadwood, then you’re familiar with his work. This book is worth it alone for the behind-the-scenes stories on NYPD Blue, Dennis Franz, Jimmy Smits, David Caruso and more.
Deadwood was incredible, but personally, even though I might be one of only 14 fans in existence, my favorite Milch show was John From Cincinnati. Yes, most of you don’t remember it. And yes, it only lasted one season on HBO… But it combined surfing and family and the supernatural and friendship and it was brilliant.
In fact, I actually flipped to the part in the book about John first because I’ve always been curious about what Milch dreamed of as the best case scenario for the show.
This line got me:
“The argument of John was that the universe somehow cares about the outcome of our species’ adventure, that it wants us to live.”
Trippy stuff. As an added wrinkle to the book, Milch is writing it as he battles with Alzheimers. It’s his way of trying to keep track of his memories as his family helps him sort through his life. It’s poignant and beautiful to read.
Also, if you liked any of Milch’s shows, this book is for you. If you enjoy wonderful storytelling and behind-the-scenes creator stuff, this book is for you.
City on Fire by Don Winslow
Confession: I’d never read a Don Winslow book before this one. I’ve obviously heard amazing things over the years, especially about his Cartel Trilogy, but for some reason I hadn’t pulled the trigger on one of his big best sellers.
This year I was busy reading wrestling books for my upcoming Macho Man biography (out Spring ‘24) among a string of non-fiction books and I found myself in the mood for some high quality storytelling and crime writing and dialogue. Something Elmore Leonard-esque.
When I saw that Winslow’s second book in his new “City” series was coming out, I dove into the first and I gotta say… man… I hate to throw around words like ‘sweeping’ and ‘epic’, but that’s what City on Fire is. The book reads like a Scorsese movie.
The characters are New England mobsters. The storyline goes from Providence to Vegas to LA and back. The stakes are family versus family and brother versus brother. I’ve seen it compared to the Godfather but I’d say it’s more of a mix between Goodfellas and Casino with a dash of The Departed. Yeah. All that. It’s big boy, big time book. Read it.
And an honorary mention to the sequel to this book (Part II in the trilogy), City of Dreams. Another excellent read.
Drowning by T.J. Newman
Every summer there seems to be one fiction book that rises above the other blockbusters and becomes the book everyone is talking about. You’ll see people reading it in airports, at the beach, around the pool, in coffee shops… It’ll be everywhere.
This summer, that book was: Drowning by T.J. Newman.
T.J.’s personal success story is remarkable. She was a career flight attendant who wrote her first novel, Falling (which I recommended last summer), while her passengers were asleep on overnight flights. The manuscript was rejected by dozens of publishers until it finally found a home and became a massive NY Times bestseller and soon to be major film.
Falling was the perfect fast-paced, high concept thriller about an airplane pilot whose family was kidnapped just before takeoff.
Drowning is also about an airplane, only this time, the flight crashes into the ocean and a dozen passengers have to survive in a section of the plane that still has air 200 feet below the surface.
It’s a classic ticking clock / “how will they make it?” pulse pounder that has been endorsed by nearly every legend on the block: James Patterson, Don Winslow, Patricia Cornwell, Brad Thor, Meg Gardiner and me, your humble meathead writer. Buy it now.
The Come Up: An Oral History of the Rise of Hip Hop by Jonathan Abrams
Statistically speaking, roughly 80% of the music blasted in the Flex Factory is either 90s rap or 80s rap, which kind of makes Jonathan Abrams the official music historian of the Flex Factory.
I’m a huge fan of Abrams and he is no stranger to our yearly Books & Biceps list. His oral history of The Wire is a must-read and was on a few years ago, as well as his book, Boys Among Men, which chronicled the rise of Kobe, LeBron, KG and other NBA stars who went straight to the association from high school.
Abrams is an impressive researcher and he finds the sources and stories that flesh out remarkable themes and eras in our culture. If you grew up listening to hip hop at all, whether you started with Grandmaster Flash or LL Cool J, Run DMC, NWA or whoever was in your age range, this book will blow you away.
Hidden Genius: The Secret Ways of Thinking that Power the World’s Most Successful Peopleby Polina Marinova Pompliano
I’ve been following Polina on Twitter and reading her awesome profiles on interesting people for a long time. She’s an excellent interviewer and writer and it’s been fun to watch this book develop over the past year.
In an awesome twist, I met Polina in person this year when I was a guest on my new buddy Pomp’s podcast (perfectly named, The Pomp Podcast) hosted by her husband (you can listen here).
Hidden Genius is Polina’s debut book and if you’re reading this, it’s right in your wheelhouse. She examines dozens of people at the top of their game, both modern icons and historical ones, and breaks down what made them tick. There are great observations on how Leonardo Da Vinci observed his world, how Einstein’s “eureka moments” came in everyday activities and more.
She covers everyone from Sam Adams beer founder Jim Koch to “Silicon Valley’s Godmother” Esther Wojsicki and even Spanx billionaire Sara Blakely. You’ll find terrific little anecdotes about brilliant minds that will have you figuring out how you can tap into your own genius.
The Midnight Library by Matt Haig
When I fly, I bring a book or two I have lined up to read and I have a few I’m looking forward to getting to, but I also cruise the airport bookstore to see if something jumps out at me on a whim. Sometimes nothing hits me.
This summer, The Midnight Library caught my eye. I’ve passed the book a thousand times. I’ve seen references to how great it is but I never picked it up. This time, I picked it up, flipped through a few pages and got hooked.
The gist of the book is that before you die, you get stuck in an in-between period, AKA, the Midnight Library. In the library are an infinite number of books about your life, each with how your life played out if every single decision you made was different. To help guide you, you can read your Book of Regrets that has been written your whole life and is a list of, you guessed it, all the things you regret: a job you didn’t go for, a skill you quit, a person you broke up with or never asked out, a trip you never took or did take, etc…
As you read all the regrets you’ve piled up, you can sample other lives you’ve lived in other universes. Also, the main character in this book is a swimmer.
The book is fun and brilliant and makes you think about your life. It’s a fast read, but lingers in your mind for a long time. Loved it. Check it out.
This may be the most “Books & Biceps” book I’ve ever recommended in Books & Biceps. It’s definitely a first ballot B&B Hall of Famer.
Not only do we have an in depth look at all of our favorite action heroes (Arnold, Sly, Norris, Willis, Seagal, Lee, Van Damme, Snipes, etc…) but we also have A+ writing and research by author Nick de Semlyen.
In short, he wrote this book for us.
From the personal paths to fame for all the stars mentioned above, to brilliant behind-the-scenes stories and hijinks and drama and ego clashes on the sets of Commando, Conan, Predator, Rocky, Rambo, Die Hard, Hard to Kill, Bloodsport, Delta Force and on and on, you’ll be saying “that’s awesome” to yourself 100 times while reading it. Read it here.
BONUS: After reading this book, I reached out to Nick and he was kind enough to do an exclusive Books & Biceps Q&A. You’ll love it and can read it here.
The Underworld: Journeys to the Depths of the Oceanby Susan Casey
Susan Casey is one of my all time favorite authors in general – and when it comes to writing and chronicling the ocean, she’s the best there is.
If you aren’t familiar with her or haven’t read any of her books, start with The Devil’s Teeth: A True Story of Obsession and Survival Among America’s Great White Sharks
Her book The Wave, about big wave surfers following and searching the globe for enormous rogue waves and white rhinos (unique, absurdly giant waves) is incredible, and her book Voices in the Ocean about the secret world of dolphins, their families and their underwater societies is also mesmerizing.
But today, I’m writing about her newest book that came out this year: The Underworld, which is amazing.
The best way to describe this book is that it’s like you’re on an adventure exploring outer space and you’re on an adventure exploring an alien planet – except you’re actually just exploring volcanoes, mountains and trenches deeper than Mt. Everest’s height on our own sea floor.
What we don’t know about the deepest parts of the ocean could fill a book – and that’s exactly what Casey did. She filled it with wonder and awe and science, but also runs through the history of deep sea exploration, legends, and the most famous myths and mysteries about the deep: shiny creatures the length of a football field… 400 year old sharks… giant squid… It’s awesome. Grab it here.
Let me paint this picture for you:
You’re a veteran mountain climber and you decide to trek to the summit of the Grand Tetons in Wyoming at 13,000 feet at the end of July. The weather has been nice, with one of your buddies having reached the peak in shorts and a t-shirt a few weeks prior. It’s a beautiful climb with spectacular views.
You camp near the base of the mountain and wake up super early to begin your hike. As you near the summit, the wind shifts, the temperature plummets and within minutes, a fierce electrical storm rolls in.
You make the smart decision to bail on the summit and head back to base camp. Because of the conditions, you rope together with six climbers to begin your descent, a few hundred feet from the top.
As you climb down, a 300 million volt bolt of lightning smacks into the first climber and charges through all six people, instantly killing one person, nearly killing another and knocking four others straight off the mountain, leaving them dangling and struggling for their lives over a deep chasm.
Fortunately, a member of the climbing group at a lower altitude contacts the Jenny Lake Rangers, one of the most elite mountain climbing rescue teams in the world… And within hours, they’re battling the elements, daylight and nerves on a near-impossible rescue mission with a half-dozen lives on the line, including their own.
Pretty awesome premise for a book, right? It’s a bad ass read.
It’s like Cliffhanger, but true, and author Jennifer Woodlief, a former Sports Illustrated vet, nails it. Pick this one up.
The Wager: A Tale of Shipwreck, Mutiny and Murderby David Grann
The Underworld (mentioned a few books earlier) was a fascinating deep dive (pun intended) on the people exploring the bottomless depths of our ocean. Several times in the book Casey interviewed and shared stories of treasure hunters who searched tens of thousands of feet deep for sunken pirate ships filled with gold.
I Googled a few of them after I finished the book and then, as often happens, ended up down a Mike Leach-level rabbit hole about pirate ships, man-o-war ships, Spanish galleons and the various famous captains, crews and adventures on the high seas in the 1500s, 1600s and 1700s. And as I plowed through the vessels and wrecks and insane survival stories of marooned sailors on rickety rafts surviving months in the open ocean…
One story and one book kept being mentioned over and over: The Wager.
I bought it and the night it arrived I planned on just flipping through the first few pages to get a feel for it… and ended up reading for about 90 minutes.
The story begins with two different groups of starved men, barely alive after surviving thousands of miles on makeshift rafts in the open ocean, landing in two different ports six months apart. Turns out, they’re from the same ship, The Wager, and their stories are wildly different about what happened.
Then we track back to how these massive ships are run, the society and hierarchy and types of people who work on them, what life is like on board (brutal, taxing, cramped, pressure-filled) and what happened to the ship.
We’ve got storms, ocean battles, arguments, typhus outbreaks, chases, cannons, guns, lies, court rooms, treasure, disaster, survival, starvation, hubris, heroism and more.
The book is an action movie, a history lesson and economics lesson all rolled into one and it’s expertly written. Check it out here.
My favorite thing about our Books & Biceps community is that it’s just that…a community.
Yes, I share book recommendations each week with thousands of you, BUT, many of you write in and share books right back. And I buy and recommend a bunch of them.
Case in point, today’s book was recommended a few weeks ago by longtime reader, Mark C.
I’d never heard of The Professor in the Cage, but the title intrigued me so I bought it right away. I planned on adding it to my growing ‘unread book’ pile and figured I’d eventually get around to it… But then I began flipping through the beginning and just… kept reading.
The author, Jonathan Gottschall, is a professor in the English Department at Washington & Jefferson College. One day, an MMA gym opened up across the street from his office and it piques his interest.
At the time he was almost 40 years old and admittedly out of shape… He’s also kinda bored with his life. He’s longing for…something. A challenge, perhaps? Something to test him both physically and mentally. Something he can do to prove to himself he has the fortitude of his ancestors…
And so he sets out on this painful, occasionally humiliating journey from academia to ass kicking… from a cubicle to a cage fight. And he chronicles the whole thing while giving a great history of combat sports, the philosophy of physical combat and so much more.
The book is funny, honest and truthfully, if you’ve hit a bit of a wall or plateaued in your day-to-day life, this might be the kick in pants you need to try something – anything – new to reignite that fire inside.
Great recommendation, Mark. You all can check it out here.
Empire of Shadows: The Epic Story of Yellowstone by George Black
First, this is NOT a book about the show Yellowstone. Has nothing to do with it, in fact. And yet, Empire of Shadows is bloodier, deals with vast fortunes being won and lost, has a far higher bodycount, has bigger egos featuring real mountain men and hits you with a triple dose of adventure, exploration and tragedy.
This is the definitive, true history of the entire Yellowstone region, from pre-United States up to the modern day and it’s exceptional.
From towering mountaineers and figures like John Boseman and Jim Bridger to the Sioux and Blackfeet Indians, this book covers the clash of civilizations and the war over the land from Lewis and Clark on up.
It delves into the geological wonders of the region, how it was settled, why the cities are where they are and how it opened up a new gateway to the west after people passed through St. Louis.
I bought this book before we took our bucket list, 10-day trip with the kids exploring this whole region, and I LOVE to be the dorky dad who already read up on the area and drops annoying (yet cool) facts about the region as we drive around Yellowstone lake, hit the Grand Tetons and explore the geysers around Old Faithful.
If you want to learn about the region that the show is based on, buy this book.
Action Hero Scouting Report by Shea Serrano
Longtime readers know that New York Times bestselling author Shea Serrano is a first-ballot Books & Biceps Hall of Famer.
We’ve recommended his books Movies (And Other Things), Basketball (And Other Things), his recent novella The Abduction and yet… it was all a warm-up… a prelude, if you will… to this, his new project, Action Hero Scouting Report, which breaks down and ranks 27 action heroes in kick ass categories like “Inciting Event”, “Determination”, “Skills Training” and my favorite “Wishnificance” (a made up word that makes sense when he explains it).
This is, without question, Shea’s most Books & Biceps book ever. And if I can paraphrase Christopher Walken explaining John Creasy in Man on Fire: “Serrano’s art is action movies… And with AHSR, he’s about to paint his masterpiece.”
BONUS: You can read our Books & Biceps Q&A with Shea right here.
A History of Basketball in Fifteen Sneakers by Russ Bengtson
From the minute I heard about this book I couldn’t wait to read it for three reasons:
One, it’s written by Russ Bengtson, the former Editor-in-Chief of Slam Magazine (one of my favorite magazines ever) and a hoops historian, excellent writer and storyteller.
Two, I love books that tackle a giant topic in a unique, interesting way. A book on the history of basketball? Eh. A book on the history of hoops sneakers? Eh… But a book on the history of basketball in 15 sneakers??? Sign me all the way up.
Three, basketball shoes. I flat out love them. I find the making of them, the branding of them and the entire culture and ecosystem around them fascinating. From Bob Cousy’s PF Flyers to Walt Frazier’s Pumas to Jordans and Kobes and Currys and beyond. I’m curious about all of it and this book delivers.
BONUS: Check out this exclusive Books & Biceps Q&A with Russ right here.
You know the “Wooooooo!”… You know he’s the “stylin’, profilin’, limousine riding, jet flying, kiss-stealin’, wheelin’ n’ dealin’ son of a gun!” You know the sunglasses and the suits and the robes and the flowing white hair.
But what you don’t know is how a bored insurance salesman named Richard Fliehr became Ric Flair, one of the most charismatic professional wrestlers and entertainers of all-time. Everyone from professional athletes to musicians to other wrestlers have credited the 74-year-old with inspiring their personal swagger and style.
In The Last Real World Champion, famed wrestling historian and author Tim Hornbaker tackles Flair’s life in this sprawling, amateur-to-apex wrestling story. Tim’s research is impeccable and he pulls from an incredible number of resources and interviews to detail the raucous rise of Flair, from his early years learning the sport to his first world title to squaring off against the biggest names in the WWE and WCW for over three decades.
I’ve read plenty of Tim’s excellent work over the years and even cited his previous books in my upcoming Macho Man biography… And as luck would have it, we have the same publisher.
Undisputed Truthby Mike Tyson
I’ve been meaning to read this book for a long time and it took an incredible feature story in GQ by Joseph Bien-Kahn to remind me that Tyson is one of the most unique icons we have living right now. He’s equally compelling as the subject of a story and as the storyteller himself.
First, you should read Bien-Kahn’s profile here. It’s an old school, thoughtful, sprawling profile that we don’t see much of anymore in sports journalism. I miss it, frankly. We used to get these regularly in print, but with digital not so much. Either way, this piece is phenomenal, which leads me to the book…
If you grew up in the 80s or 90s and remember how much of a megastar Tyson was… how every single fight was an event… how his knockouts were devastating… how you couldn’t take your eyes off him from the second he appeared out of the tunnel for a fight, then this book will deliver. Check it out here.
2 Bonus Books I Loved that I Bought Because Their Covers Were Amazing – then the Book was Amazing:
Lowdown Road by Scott Von Doviak
The phrase “don’t judge a book by its cover” is flat out stupid. I’ve always hated it. It makes no sense. The whole entire point of a book cover is for it to be judged! That’s why it exists: to entice you, intrigue you, make you curious and make you want to pick up the book. Full confession: I ALWAYS judge a book by its cover.
In the case of this recommendation, I bought Lowdown Road precisely because I loved the cover so much. There is simply no way a cover this good could have a bad book inside.
Now, I saw the cover because a friend of mine, Mike Dolan shared the book on his Twitter feed… And then after clicking on the book I saw that none other than Stephen King blurbed it by saying, “This book is a fucking blast!”
BUT, I would have known none of this if I hadn’t seen the cover and immediately thought, “I want to read this” even thought I’d never heard of the author, Scott Von Doviak before.
Turns out, the book is awesome. Like a Tarantino movie set in the mid-70s. Drugs. Road trips. Car chases. Cool dialogue. Tough guys. Money. Fun characters. This is my first book from Von Doviak and it won’t be my last. Check it out here.
Whalefall: A Novel byDaniel Kraus
If there was ever a trial in court to find the answer to the question:
“Do people really judge books by the cover?”
And if I was the lawyer presenting the case for ‘yes, people do all the time’, then Whalefall would be my ‘Exhibit A’.
I mean… Click on the link and LOOK at that cover. It’s glorious. It’s intriguing. It tells a story in itself. In fact, I had never heard of Whalefall or the author before the cover stopped me dead in my tracks at Barnes & Noble.
Then I picked it up and read the quick log line and I was in:
“The Martian meets 127 Hours in this “powerfully humane” (Owen King, New York Times bestselling author) and scientifically accurate thriller about a scuba diver who’s been swallowed by an eighty-foot, sixty-ton sperm whale and has only one hour to escape before his oxygen runs out.”
Done. Bought it right there.
This is why I spend so much time making sure the covers for my books are compelling and have a killer log line.
Rarely is a cover amazing and the book sucks. Case in point: Whalefall. It’s awesome. It takes you deep into the world of scuba diving and whales and adds in the element of redemption and a ticking clock and both of the main characters (a son and his gruff, legendary diver dad) are distinct and excellent… It’s a very fast read, but only because you’re flipping pages quickly to see what’s next. Such a cool concept. Get it here.
THANKS FOR READING THIS YEAR’S LIST!
I hope we helped you find your next favorite book and/or author this year.
And of course, if you’re looking for your next great book, I’m happy to offer one of mine.