I thought I might be able to convince the kids to give you some middle grade recommendations but no such luck. Maybe next year.
As for me, I have my Honorable Mentions list for you, which is basically the catch-all list for all the things that are also Best but didn't make the One True List that will come last. This year's list has a surprisingly high amount of Sci-Fi, Speculative, Fantasy, and Historical Fiction, which is surprising because I didn't read that much in any of those genres this year. But what I did read clearly made a mark!
I know sometimes the short sell on these books makes them sound like they will be hard to read but I cannot emphasize enough that I have been extremely demanding of my books this year, I need to be grabbed and I need to be shown something interesting. They all delivered.
A lot of the books on this list really didn't get the attention they deserved this year, which is really frustrating for me as a reader. So please, if something sounds like it might be of interest, seek it out!
Once again we'll go in alphabetical order, and then my usual new reads at the bottom.
I wasn't sure if this book was going to be for me, with its wildly ambitious three-storylines set a thousand years apart each, built around Aztec mythology. But I just couldn't ever quite put it down, I found the future worldbuilding in particular to be really interesting and I just found myself sticking with it through over 600 pages. I particularly enjoyed the way religion is weaved into the narrative, evolving as humans change.
Another wildly ambitious three-storyline book set across a vast timeline with major climate themes, this one with more of a science-fiction bent. Bell builds utterly full worlds for the reader, so you can watch humans destroy them. Weaving in biblical and Greek mythology, as well as American folklore, it reminded me of Louisa Hall's Speak, which is a very high compliment.
My literary fiction sweet spot: engrossing and interesting, playing with language and structure while keeping you grounded in a character you care about. This covers around 20 years in Vidya's life, examining class and gender and colorism in India, that also incorporates Kathak dance and the importance of art.
This fantastic debut is about two sisters grappling with their family and their faith after their father, the pastor of an evangelical megachurch, is revealed to have had an affair. It is so good on the different ways people deal with a faith crisis, and it really lets you live with these two sisters and get to know them. It's a book that understands the complications of everyday life intimately.
A little bit of everything in this novel. A coming of age story of a 2nd generation Indian American teenager, a twisty surrealist story about gold and its powers in both Indian and American folklore, there is even a heist! Very sharp, very funny, but also working in its big literary themes.
A gorgeous and rich novel about what it means to be free. Set just at the close of the Civil War, our protagonist Libertie has only ever known freedom, the daughter of a female doctor in her Black Brooklyn community, but she bristles against her mother's wishes for her and strikes out on her own. A novel about being young and angry and having to make your own way, taking the long way to learn every lesson. Libertie is one of my favorite angry protagonists, I loved her spiteful will.
There are so many amazing novels about motherhood right now, and this slim but poignant novel does a little to even the scales with a story about fatherhood. (More please, I beg you, my children they are starving.) This taps so well into the complexities and paradoxes of raising a child, the monotony and the joy, and the very hardest decisions. It also somehow manages to be a book about abortion and I was not totally sure a man could really do it but Davies really did.
If you can manage an apocalypse book, this has the perfect mix of humor and pathos, it feels like a very good HBO series in a book. When a massive power outage hits a New Jersey suburb, one family goes from a very bad day to potentially a very bad forever. It is so well balanced, knowing when to be funny and when to be serious, for me the optimism-to-bleakness ratio was just right.
I have been a little hit and miss with Lauren Groff so I was not feeling like a novel about 12th century nuns was gonna work for me but oh boy did it. Our protagonist, Marie, is a woman at a time when women had no power or independence, except for the very small spaces carved out in a convent like the one she is sent to. And here Marie, over many years, builds a sort of separate society made entirely of women that everyone else ignores. (Yes, it IS gay, don't worry.) On paper this sounded so dull but I tore through it.
A speculative novel in a world very similar to ours where monsters have been hiding among us and are suddenly revealed. This has a very complex structure with multiple narratives that don't always appear to connect together. But Turnbull guides you through them with a knowing hand and I devoured each new story. It's great on misinformation and hoaxes and it has a great, diverse cast of characters. First in a series, and certainly horror-adjacent.
You know Elizabeth Strout is a very good writer because she got me to read a book about a man I do not like at all in just one sitting and I cried. Ugh, damn her. (Read My Name Is Lucy Barton first.)
If The Circle was the internet novel that asked "What have we done?" then Version Zero is the internet novel that asks, "How do we stop it?" Really didn't see this coming from Yoon, whose previous novels were enjoyable contemporary YA. This is a capital-t Thriller with absolutely bananas twists that keeps overwriting what you think you know to become something else. So much fun.
Okay I know I said I have been asking for books to really take me on a ride but this was not a plot book. It is about Sammie, a lesbian in a mediocre marriage raising a son who she sometimes wonders might have psychopathic tendencies. But it's Sammie that is our concern first and foremost. And it's hard to write this book because by the end you not only know Sammie so well, you see the difference between who Sammie really is and who Sammie thinks she is. A dark but riveting character study.
Look! Can you believe it! A nonfiction on my list! Amber Ruffin is very charming and I highly recommend doing this on audio to get to hear Amber and her sister Lacey laugh through these stories. Somehow they get the tone and balance here just right, where the stories are so ridiculous you laugh, and yet they're also so depressing that you wonder how these people exist in the world.
What I've Been Reading
Release Date: Out now
Shelves: Audiobooks, Authors of Color, Horror, Historical Fiction, YA
An In Cold Blood-esque crime novel with a supernatural twist based on a real killing spree in the nidwest committed by two teenagers in the 50's. After one of them is found at a crime scene, she chooses to tell her story only to Michael, a high school student and aspiring journalist.
I knew from the beginning that this one would frustrate me a little, that I would want to know Marie's full story and not get everything through someone else's eyes, but Blake really convinced me that she knows what she's doing and it's surprisingly satisfying. By making Marie the center of the story but not the protagonist we follow, we get to see all the ways in which other people impose their own narratives on Marie. She is a bad girl who will lie about everything and stop at nothing, she is young and innocent and incapable of committing such horrible crimes, these two ends of the spectrum repeat often, never letting her be a full person rather than a figure of girlhood or womanhood. She is framed whatever way suits the speaker to make their point, sometimes shifting within the same argument.
And, at the end of the day, do we need Marie to tell us all of it? We have enough of the pieces to understand. And we see much more than Michael does. It's also interesting to watch Michael himself, the ways he is vulnerable to Marie's charms, the stories he tells himself about her. I also liked the supernatural elements, making things feel spooky but you're never 100% sure if there is something spooky going on.
The weaknesses for me really came down to the time frame and pacing of the story. It claims to take place over the course of several months, but it's hard to imagine how there could be any of Marie's story left to tell when we know there are still large gaps. It would have worked much better for me condensed to a few weeks, and I think it could have added some elements of tension.
I read the audiobook and it has one of those narrators I don't much care for, who keeps getting cast as a teenager despite not sounding like one in the slightest.
Content warnings mostly around violence (there is a lot) as well as sexual assault of a child.
Release Date: February 8, 2022
Shelves: Horror, In Translation
Okay first let me say this is too long. That is my major note, well above all other notes. I am not opposed to long horror novels, but there about 40% in I wondered aloud, "But what else is left to happen?" and really it was not all that much. Everything is so drawn out and the pacing didn't work for me. I would have adored this if it had been tightened up.
Loved having a gay couple as our protagonists, and it's saying something that this still feels unusual in the genre. We really get a feel for Sam, in particular, the more effeminate one to Nick's hunky athlete, and it is nice to see it on the page without it being made into a whole thing. It is simply who Sam is. (Note for queer readers: I don't recall any queer suffering in this book at all, maybe at some point someone looks at them sideways, but it is basically nonexistent.
At first when you get to the thing of this book you are a little bit like, "Excuse me, what?" but even if some of the specifics are unusual it is quite easy to pick up and go along because this is a horror novel that understands horror novels even while it's trying to go a little outside the box. It's really not all that far if you stick with it.
I liked the elements, the first chapter is creepy as hell, but it does lag and start to feel a bit repetitive. Both Sam and Nick get pretty stuck, not willing to take any action, for a good chunk of the book and I really felt that.
Release Date: Out Now
Shelves: Audiobooks, In Translation (If I'd read this a week earlier, it would've been on my Best Backlist reads list!)
I had been saving this one, the only Ferrante novel I hadn't read yet, but I finally caved and read it before the film. It's slim, with a very simple plot, but the themes are just as broad and hefty as ever. I will never understand how she can tackle so much with so little.
There are echoes of her other work here, but that didn't bother me at all. (Though it has been a few years since I read the end of the Neapolitan Quartet, so perhaps that helped.) It is not as dark as The Days of Abandonment, which felt like an almost surreal fever dream, this feels like real life.
Leda, now in her late 40's with her own daughters grown and moved away, spends the summer on the beach. There she watches a young mother with her own young daughter, and through them sees an ideal and also an earlier version of herself. She wants to help them, she wants to save them, she also wants to hurt them, she feels the same conflict towards them that she felt in her own time raising her children.
This book loves contradiction, loves opposing forces and impulses, loves a feeling that you have one moment only for it to repulse you the next. This willingness to take opposition straight on, to let a feeling be relished and then despised is one of my favorite things about Ferrante and her characters. They are so often disgusted, usually by their own actions and desires. There is a sense of freedom or release I always have when I read her fiction, that something true opens up in me. And I feel lucky to have read so much of it after I've already gone through so many of her characters' conflicts myself, I can't imagine reading them in the midst of it, too much power.
I did the audio, and it has the same narrator as the Neapolitan novels, whose tone and turn of phrase for Ferrante understands the almost monotonous quality of her prose.
Release Date: January 18, 2022
Shelves: Authors of Color, Speculative
This is definitely one of those reviews where I remember just how subjective they are. This was a 3 star book for me, but I think it's objectively a better book than that.
Objectively, it's ambitious and interesting, emotionally intimate but structurally similar to bold books like CLOUD ATLAS. Centered around a strange pandemic that spreads around the world, it stares mortality straight in the face. Most of it takes place within the same period of time, but some of it is vastly farther in the future or almost infinitely back in the past. And I love having a book through interconnected stories where most of the characters were Japanese or Japanese-American even though the scope of the book is about a worldwide calamity. (Most books with this kind of structure tend to be mostly about white people so I don't see why we can't have this.)
Personally, despite me enjoying "dark" books I found this was another thing entirely and scaled more towards "bleak." I admit I had a hard time finishing it because it was hard to muster the energy to pick it up. Especially in the first half of the book, many of the dead and dying are children. And even though the disease can take on some unusual and even fantastic symptoms, it is still a book about the way we approach death when there is so much of it staring us in the face every day. I can be a pretty pessimistic person and reading this as a pessimist was rough, I will not lie. But I also can't say it was bad, it was beautifully written and I found Nagamatsu's style unique.