I didn’t think I’d be putting together a list of My Top Books of 2022 because I felt I hadn’t read enough this year. Hell, it’s been months and months since I finished back to back novels. But, upon further review, and to my surprise, I discovered I’d read about 80 titles this year, most 2022 releases. So it turns out I CAN put together a list of my favorites after all.
If you’re looking for a good book, might I recommend any of the following…
Once Upon A Time in Russia: The Rise of the Oligarchs by Ben Mezrich
Written with the heart-stopping pacing of a thriller—but even more compelling because it is true—this story of amassing obscene wealth and power depicts a rarefied world seldom seen up close. Under Berezovsky’s krysha, Abramovich built one of Russia’s largest oil companies from the ground up and in exchange made cash deliveries—including 491 million dollars in just one year. But their relationship frayed when Berezovsky attacked President Vladimir Putin in the media—and had to flee to the UK. Abramovich continued to prosper. Dead bodies trailed Berezovsky’s footsteps, and threats followed him to London, where an associate of his died painfully and famously of Polonium poisoning. Then Berezovsky himself was later found dead, declared a suicide.
As a big fan of true crime books with a focus on organized crime, I was expecting to really enjoy this book. And I really did. It’s a fascinating account of the rise of Russia’s oligarchs on the heels of the Soviet Union’s dissolution, revealing how a group of men, mostly born into poverty, used their contacts to the Yeltsin presidency to stake their claims on a chaotic, rapidly evolving socio-political and economic restructuring. We follow the ascent of one of these oligarchs, Boris Berezovsky, from the car-bombing that almost claims his life to his eventual exile to London, tracking the various players who helped and hindered him along the way including Alexander Litvinenko (an officer with the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation initially tasked with investigating the attempt on Berezovsky’s life), fellow oligarch Roman Abramovich, and, of course, Vladimir Putin.
Like many true crime authors, Mezrich makes use of recreated dialogue, drawing from interviews and research to craft scenes that paint an intimate picture while, at the same time, remaining true to the spirit of past events. I, personally, feel a little of this goes a long way and that the more detailed the descriptions, the more distracting. While I don’t mind so much when it comes to dialogue, I find it less tolerable when it comes to insights into inner monologue or thoughts, or the minutiae of things like body positioning. On the other hand, there’s a seemingly surprising reticence on the part of the author to question some of the more clearly suspect occurrences. For instance, in an interview about the book, the author mentions an incident where an old-guard Russian general who was proving problematic to one oligarch’s ambitions, died under mysterious circumstances after “going for a swim” in Siberia. His bodyguard, the only witness to the presumed accidental drowning, was killed in a bar that same night. In retelling the story for the podcast, the implication was clear – and chilling. In the book, however, the incident is presented in somewhat less sinister fashion. The general goes swimming to impress his girlfriend and drowns in his inebriated state. It’s a plausible, albeit convenient development. The death of the bodyguard is mentioned, but there is no hint of potential nefarious doings. There are several incidents like this throughout the book and, in fairness, I have to wonder if there was a reluctance to skate too close to the truth given the ruthless nature of some of the individuals profiled.
Ultimately, if you can embrace the clear dramatizations, and are willing to take the time to do a little research to help connect the dots on a few of the little mysteries touched upon, you’ll be rewarded with an informative, entertaining, and at times surprising read.
Last Resort by Andrew Lipstein
Caleb Horowitz is twenty-seven, and his wildest dreams are about to come true. His manuscript has caught the attention of the literary agent, who offers him fame, fortune, and a taste of the literary life. He can’t wait for his book to be shopped around to every editor in New York, except one: Avi Dietsch, a college rival and the novel’s “inspiration.” When Avi gets his hands on it, he sees nothing but theft—and opportunity. Caleb is forced to make a Faustian bargain, one that tests his theories of success, ambition, and the limits of art.
A young writer, Caleb Horowitz, lands his first big book deal. But complications arise in the form of a friend, Avi Dietsch, whose short story formed the inspiration for Caleb’s novel. As both authors grapple over rights and renumeration, the reader is treated to an exploration of the volatile, ego-bruising, paranoia-inducing craft of writing. Caleb makes some terrible decisions that land him in trouble and seeks a compromise that seems to work, until it is revealed that Avi too made an equally unwise decision that could doom them all. Both of these characters are driven by pride, greed, and a personal rivalry that proves incredibly self-destructive. In some way, Last Resort was reminiscent of the works of Herman Koch, an author who excels at writing about terrible people doing terrible things. And yet his books, like this one, are complusively readable because its protagonists sow the seeds of their own destruction in fascinating ways. It all culminates in a perfectly fitting ending.
Mickey 7 by Edward Ashton
Mickey7 is an Expendable: a disposable employee on a human expedition sent to colonize the ice world Niflheim. Whenever there’s a mission that’s too dangerous―even suicidal―the crew turns to Mickey. After one iteration dies, a new body is regenerated with most of his memories intact. After six deaths, Mickey7 understands the terms of his deal…and why it was the only colonial position unfilled when he took it.
On a fairly routine scouting mission, Mickey7 goes missing and is presumed dead. By the time he returns to the colony base, surprisingly helped back by native life, Mickey7’s fate has been sealed. There’s a new clone, Mickey8, reporting for Expendable duties. The idea of duplicate Expendables is universally loathed, and if caught, they will likely be thrown into the recycler for protein.
Mickey7 must keep his double a secret from the rest of the colony. Meanwhile, life on Niflheim is getting worse. The atmosphere is unsuitable for humans, food is in short supply, and terraforming is going poorly. The native species are growing curious about their new neighbors, and that curiosity has Commander Marshall very afraid. Ultimately, the survival of both lifeforms will come down to Mickey7.
Stanley Kubrick once said: “Everything has already been done. Every story has been told. Every scene has been shot. It’s out job to do it one better.” And I would argue not objectively better, but exceptional in its exploration of the familiar subject matter. The premise of Mickey7, for instance, draws immediate parallels to Duncan Jones’ Moon but the novel sets itself apart by proving exceptional in its story-telling. The heart of the novel is Mickey7, the seventh incarnation of an Expendable, a human who can be expected to sacrifice himself for the common good because, after all, he can just return as a clone with most of his memories intact – provided he remembered to back himself up. A beloved friend and fellow crew member to some, an unnatural freak to others, Mickey takes on dangerous missions with a certain acerbic resignation. There’s a humor to the character that makes him not only instantly likable but very grounded and very human, navigating life on the Niflheim ice world colony, a reluctant replaceable cog in an unforgiving machine. There’s some wonderful world-building here and plenty of cool sci-fi concepts and technologies, but it’s the dialogue that truly sets this book apart. It’s smart, sharply comedic at times, and does a great job of realizing the memorable players in Mickey7’s life. Still, I did have a few quibbles. The haphazard plan hatched by the two clones to keep their duplicate existence a secret feels a questionable and highly problematic game plan doomed to failure, while the mystery of the planet’s dangerous denizens (the subterranean-dwelling creepers) isn’t really developed so much as it is touched on now and again before being abruptly resolved, but there’s a terrific twist in the telling and our hero’s clever actions ultimately lead to a dramatically satisfying conclusion. One of the type of books you take note of the author’s name so you can track down their other titles. Recommended.
Black Cake by Charmaine Wilkerson
In present-day California, Eleanor Bennett’s death leaves behind a puzzling inheritance for her two children, Byron and Benny: a black cake, made from a family recipe with a long history, and a voice recording. In her message, Eleanor shares a tumultuous story about a headstrong young swimmer who escapes her island home under suspicion of murder. The heartbreaking tale Eleanor unfolds, the secrets she still holds back, and the mystery of a long-lost child challenge everything the siblings thought they knew about their lineage and themselves.
Can Byron and Benny reclaim their once-close relationship, piece together Eleanor’s true history, and fulfill her final request to “share the black cake when the time is right”? Will their mother’s revelations bring them back together or leave them feeling more lost than ever?
Byron and Benny, the son and prodigal daughter of the recently deceased Eleanor Bennett, gather at a lawyer’s office to hear their mother’s final message to them. But the recording she has left them proves as illuminating as it is surprising, a lengthy recap of Eleanor’s life, from her humble childhood in the Caribbeans to the tragic event that drastically changed her life and set her on an unexpected path. The novel offers shifting narrative POV’s that chart the struggles of Byron, Benny, and a mysterious woman who is introduced late in the story but whose true identity ultimately impacts the lives of all. Eleanor’s chapters, however, are this book’s strong point, detailing an inspiring tale about friendship, conviction in the face of adversity, and secrets. Lots of secrets. There are times when it feels like this book stretches itself a little thin in its attempts to touch on varied social issues. While most are well-integrated into the story, a few feel like missed opportunities, simply presented and then glossed over in the telling. Still, wonderfully crafted characters, strong, nuanced relationships, and a central mystery that is only resolved in the closing pages make Black Cake a compelling and rewarding read.
How High We Go in the Dark by Sequoia Nagamatsu
Beginning in 2030, a grieving archeologist arrives in the Arctic Circle to continue the work of his recently deceased daughter at the Batagaika crater, where researchers are studying long-buried secrets now revealed in melting permafrost, including the perfectly preserved remains of a girl who appears to have died of an ancient virus.
Once unleashed, the Arctic Plague will reshape life on earth for generations to come, quickly traversing the globe, forcing humanity to devise a myriad of moving and inventive ways to embrace possibility in the face of tragedy. In a theme park designed for terminally ill children, a cynical employee falls in love with a mother desperate to hold on to her infected son. A heartbroken scientist searching for a cure finds a second chance at fatherhood when one of his test subjects—a pig—develops the capacity for human speech. A widowed painter and her teenaged granddaughter embark on a cosmic quest to locate a new home planet.
A collection of stories spanning centuries, linked by a mysterious viral plague that sweeps across the globe, claiming lives and forever altering others. On the heels of our own pandemic, it can make for a very sobering read at times, yet moments of despair are counter-balanced by instances of humor, heart, and hope. Although these tales are interconnected to varying degrees, they serve as effective stand-alone narratives. As a result, some may resonate more than others. Two of my favorites were, arguably, the most bittersweet entries. In one, we follow a young man who lands a job at a theme park that helps sick children “move on” from this physical world. There, he meets and falls in love with a young mother whose seriously ill son has come to the park to live out his final fun-filled days. In another story, researchers discover their test subject, a pig, has the ability to talk. And he has a lot of questions for them.
Interestingly, despite my sci-fi background, I responded more to the smaller, grounded, near-future character-driven stories over the far future narratives involving aliens and space travel. Chalk this up to Nagamatsu’s deftness in crafting sympathetic characters facing seemingly unimaginable scenarios that, given the past couple of years, prove surprisingly relatable.
Very Cold People by Sarah Manguso
Once home to the country’s oldest and most illustrious families–the Cabots, the Lowells: the “first, best people”–by the tail end of the twentieth century, it is an unforgiving place awash with secrets.
Forged in this frigid landscape Ruthie has been dogged by feelings of inadequacy her whole life. Hers is no picturesque New England childhood but one of swap meets and factory seconds and powdered milk. Shame blankets her like the thick snow that regularly buries nearly everything in Waitsfield.
As she grows older, Ruthie slowly learns how the town’s prim facade conceals a deeper, darker history, and how silence often masks a legacy of harm–from the violence that runs down the family line to the horrors endured by her high school friends, each suffering a fate worse than the last. For Ruthie, Waitsfield is a place to be survived, and a girl like her would be lucky to get out alive.
The entirety of the story is told in a series of short paragraphical observations, diary-like missives from our protagonist as she reflects back on her childhood growing up in a dysfunctional family. This unique narrative approach was, to be honest, a little difficult to appreciate in the early goings but, as the story and these character developed, it was something I fully embraced. In retrospect, it’s a deceptively clever structure that reads like a darkly humorous reminiscence but gradually strips away the nostalgia to lay bare the horrifying secrets underlying the whole.
The Good Wife of Bath by Karen Brooks
England, 1364: When married off at aged twelve to an elderly farmer, brazen redheaded Eleanor quickly realizes it won’t matter what she says or does, God is not on her side–or any poor woman’s for that matter. But then again, Eleanor was born under the joint signs of Venus and Mars, making her both a lover and a fighter.
Aided by a head for business (and a surprisingly kind husband), Eleanor manages to turn her first marriage into success, and she rises through society from a cast-off farm girl to a woman of fortune who becomes a trusted friend of the social-climbing poet Geoffrey Chaucer. But more marriages follow–some happy, some not–several pilgrimages, many lovers, murder, mayhem, and many turns of fortune’s wheel as Eleanor pursues the one thing that all women want: control of their own lives.
A feminist retelling of Chaucer’s Wife of Bath’s Tale follows the life of the titular character, from adolescence to old age, through the Black Plague, the Peasants Revolt, and five husbands. Our heroine is an endearing protagonist, whip-smart and determined in the face of enormous obstacles She’s a woman who struggles to make the best of the bad hand dealt her by a male-dominated 14th century society. Yet despite the odds, she enjoys several victories, big and small. The author does not shy away from the more controversial aspects of the original tale, choosing to address issues like child marriage and domestic abuse, and passing harsh judgment on their reality. Despite the rather somber subject matter, the book has plenty of humor, which makes for an immensely entertaining read, at least until the late goings when things take a dark turn following the death of one of the book’s best characters. After that, the story, robbed of the core relationship that propelled the early narrative, loses momentum enroute to a somewhat drawn-out conclusion. Overall, a little too long, but a pretty fine read nonetheless.
The Swimmers by Julie Otsuka
The swimmers are unknown to each other except through their private routines (slow lane, fast lane), and the solace each takes in their morning or afternoon laps. But when a crack appears at the bottom of the pool, they are cast out into an unforgiving world without comfort or relief.
One of these swimmers is Alice, who is slowly losing her memory. For Alice, the pool was a final stand against the darkness of her encroaching dementia. Without the fellowship of other swimmers and the routine of her daily laps she is plunged into dislocation and chaos, swept into memories of her childhood and the Japanese internment camp in which she spent the war. Narrated by Alice’s daughter, who witnesses her stark and devastating decline, The Swimmers is a searing, intimate story of mothers and daughters, and the sorrows of implacable loss, written in spellbinding, incantatory prose.
The crack at the bottom of a communal pool becomes the symbolic fracture of Alice’s mind, a mild inconvenience at first that, slowly but surely, proves impossible to ignore, leading uneasy patrons to abandon its familiar, once comforting environs. It’s in much the same way that Alice’s mental lapses grow increasingly more concerning, ultimately leading to her admission to a care facility. Partway through the novel, the story switches to Alice’s daughter’s POV and she chronicles the disease’s insidious advance, the effect it has on their immediate family, and the slow, inevitable erosion of the woman she once knew. This book never strays into melodrama, offering an exacting and honest depiction of loss and loneliness – which makes it all that more tragic.
The Selfless Act of Being by JJ Bola
As a charismatic teacher living in London, Michael Kabongo strives to alleviate the injustices he sees around him: for the students who long for better lives, in memory of his father’s tragic death, and to end the violent marginalization of Black men around the world.
But after a devastating loss, he decides to embark on an adventure in the land of the free—the United States of America. From Dallas to San Francisco, Michael parties with new friends, engages in fleeting romances, splurges on thrilling escapades, all with the intention of ending his life once all his savings run out.
As he makes surprising new connections and faces old prejudices in odd but exciting new settings, Michael alone must decide if his life is worth living after all...
Michael Kabongo quits his job as a teacher in London to travel the U.S. Disillusioned, and with a little over $9000 to his name, he embarks on one final voyage of self-discovery before ending it all. The novel progresses along two parallel timelines: the first, in the present, accompanies Michael on his journey through San Francisco, Los Angeles, Oakland, Dallas, Chicago, and New York City where he makes new relationships and experiences that cause him to re-evaluate his life; the second, in the past, tracks Michael in London where he serves as an emotional anchor to those around him – friends, family and co-workers who, while dependent on him, are ironically incapable of recognizing Michael’s descent into depression. Michael is an incredibly well-developed character, grounded and sympathetic, his inner dialogue easy to connect with, his actions valid and understandable. The conversations that run throughout this novel are authentic and sharp, interspersed with humor, but with a very human dynamic at their core. You can’t help but feel for Michael, root for him, as he meets someone special that offers him hope while, slowly but surely, his funds are depleted and he must make a choice. What will it be? No spoilers but suffice it to say this book is well worth your time.
Black Bear Lake by Leslie Liautaud
Adam Craig still has nightmares about the last summer he spent on the shores of northern Wisconsin’s Black Bear Lake.
The Chicago stock trader thinks he has it under control — until fallout from that explosive August in 1983 threatens his marriage. So Adam returns to remember that month-long family reunion, where he was busy wrestling with overwhelming hormones, dealing with a parent’s failing health, and watching his cousin Dannie’s desperate cries for help. At 14, Adam’s fear and anger were constantly threatening to pull him under while the current running through his family flowed inevitably toward tragedy.
It was too much to bear back then. But will reliving those painful memories hurt or help Adam as his adult life teeters on the edge of collapse?
Wow. This one packs an emotional wallop. Our protagonist, Adam, is struggling in his marriage, emotionally burdened by events from his past. He ends up making a trip back to Black Bear Lake, the site of a momentous family reunion decades earlier, whose tragic ramifications have haunted him ever since. The bulk of the novel is a flashback to that summer of 1983, a beautifully written story whose characters come alive on the page in ways elusive to most authors. There’s a warmth and honesty to young Adam that draws you into his journey, his extended family, and makes you care about them. On the surface, it seems like a simple task, getting the reader to fully invest in your characters, something every book seeks to accomplish but, as a voracious reader who averages about 100 books a year, I find that few fully succeed. Black Bear Lake is a rare exception. One of 2022’s best.
Cyclorama by Adam Langer
Evanston, Illinois, 1982. A group of students at a magnet high school meet to audition for the spring play. They are eager for the chance to escape their difficult everyday lives. Declan, an experienced senior, is confident he’ll get his first-choice role, but when the capricious, charismatic drama director casts Franklin, an unknown underclassman-and the two are seen alone at the director’s house-a series of events that will haunt the cast for years begins to unfold.
2016. The actors have moved on with their lives. Some are wildly successful, some never left their hometown, and some just want to be left alone. Everything changes, however, when one former cast member comes forward with an allegation dating back to the time of the play. The consequences of this public revelation will be far-reaching and complex, reverberating through all of their lives in unexpected ways.
A 1982 stage production of The Diary of Anne Frank forms the backdrop for one of 2022’s best novels, a wry, character-rich study of the complex power dynamics inherent in teacher-student relationships, and the consequential reframing of past actions within our contemporary social context. Every one of the teen cast members revolving in the orbit of their colorful drama instructor, the eccentric Tyrus Densmore, is so fully realized and memorable that one can’t help but connect with them through their early juvenile struggles, and then sympathize when we check in with them in their later adult years, wiser yet infinitely wearier. Adam Langer delivers a thoughtful, heartfelt and humor-filled novel about authority, gaslighting, and the complex, often inadequate, nature of deferred justice. A rare 5 star review from me.
Joan is Okay by Weike Wang
Joan is a thirtysomething ICU doctor at a busy New York City hospital. The daughter of Chinese parents who came to the United States to secure the American dream for their children, Joan is intensely devoted to her work, happily solitary, successful. She does look up sometimes and wonder where her true roots lie: at the hospital, where her white coat makes her feel needed, or with her family, who try to shape her life by their own cultural and social expectations.
Once Joan and her brother, Fang, were established in their careers, her parents moved back to China, hoping to spend the rest of their lives in their homeland. But when Joan’s father suddenly dies and her mother returns to America to reconnect with her children, a series of events sends Joan spiraling out of her comfort zone just as her hospital, her city, and the world are forced to reckon with a health crisis more devastating than anyone could have imagined.
Some thirty pages into Joan is Okay, you might be forgiven for assuming our protagonist is a sociopath, so devoid is she of empathy in her dealings with others. But as our story progresses, we come to realize that while she may be introverted and socially awkward, Joan is a complex woman wrestling with a plethora of emotions beneath her stoic surface. She’s an incredibly endearing character, deadpan and acerbic (often unintentionally so), bewildered by a lot of the every day occurrences we take for granted. She’s a brilliant doctor, dedicated to her profession and revered by her peers, yet things like small talk and parties are beyond her ken. Still, she seems to have her life in calm control – until an impromptu visit from her mother, who has traveled all the way from China following her husband’s death, upends her quietly ordered existence, forcing her to reconsider some of the cultural contradictions she has long ignored.
Joan’s relationship with her Old World mother resonated with me, the son of an immigrant, landing spot-on in its observations of family obligations and frustrations. I absolutely loved these characters as well as Wang’s prose which is spare but punchy, packed full of humor and wry observations, yet with a meaningful mission in its exploration of identity, what gives it form, and how it remains immutable in the face of life’s unexpected challenges.