It is a little weird to start the "oh hey books are coming out" train after it slows down so much at the end of the year. But if the extremely anecdotal evidence of my galley stacks are to be believed, January is going to be a very big month. There are a lot of excellent books coming this month, truly.
Today has two of my favorites so let's just get right to it.
Definitely an occasion to post my first Best of 2022 book already. This is not about death (the title is from a poem) but wow does it hit a lot of our-current-moment spots. Set mostly in 2017 as one hurricane after another hit Puerto Rico, the story centers on Olga, the daughter of two Puerto Rican activists, brought up in Brooklyn, and now an extremely successful wedding planner. Also big in the story is her brother Prieto who has moved up from a city councilman to a congressman. Olga and Prieto are both outwardly successful but internally they are a mess. They have chosen their paths in life in large part as a counterpoint to their mother, whose belief was so deep it led her to abandon their family while they were still kids. Now in their 40s they both find themselves stuck, having to work out their own lives as well as how they fit into their community.
This all sounds rather high minded but honestly this book was such a delight, I absolutely tore through it. (To the extent that you can tear through an audiobook. And also I recommend on audio!) I wanted to read it all the time. It was funny and wise and I wanted so much for Olga and Prieto to get their shit together and make better choices. And they did! I love a character arc where we actually get to see people change, all the little factors that help them get there, and the way people discover more honest versions of themselves.
But its pleasures are not just those, they also come from the way this book sees not only the individual but the big picture, too. If there is anything many of us have struggled with in the last 5 years, it is how we fit into that big picture and that is a very real question for the characters in this book.
I know I have mentioned I've been slumpy lately and it has had me thinking about Fiona and Jane a lot because I could have read 200 more pages of this book and been happy. I have wanted it back, wanted to get books just like it, to make that slump go away.
It is an unassuming book, a novel in connected stories centering on the two titular best friends. It hops around in time in a way that feels loose but also packs an emotional punch. The friendship is a big part of the book but we get a chance to spend a lot of time with the characters separately, particularly over a stretch of years where they live on opposite coasts and don't see each other much. They are both so vivid and real to us, and you can see the ways they do and don't understand each other.
I particularly appreciated the character of Jane, whose sexual identity shifts over time and is never really pinned down. That is a very real queer experience but one I haven't seen depicted often.
What I've Been Reading
Release Date: March 1, 2022
It's time for me to break up with Catriona Ward. Her books always sound like they will be right up my alley but they never work for me. And with three of them under my belt now, I think it's time to make it official.
Once again on paper this sounded right for me. But while it didn't turn me off as much as NEEDLESS STREET, which had far too much mental-illness-as-plot-twist for my liking. I called that one a "trauma-fest" in my review and at first this seemed very different but by the end, it was another trauma-fest. Just throw everything in there. Torture (of children and dogs) and the domestic violence (between spouses, between parents and children, between siblings, you name it it's there) are the building blocks of this whole story. And I think what really gets me about Ward is that she's not interested in opening up these things and illuminating characters who are going through them. They are just twists, they are just ways to manipulate the reader. (The entire character of Irving makes no sense, nothing he does feels like a person, it all feels like a device.) Throw on top a final third that relies entirely on bad science that all these characters accept as gospel and I just can't do it. (I can't spoiler tag here but I do have a spoiler-y note about the science in my GR review. )
I love dark reads. I read a lot of horror. I like diving into the depths. But it has to be for a reason and Ward never gives me one. There has to be something about the human condition that the author and I are going to observe together. But no one in Ward's books feels like a real human. They aren't relatable and I don't care about them. They feel too much like pawns in a chess game.
Release Date: March 29, 2022
Shelves: Science-Fiction, Speculative
The Wanderers with a little bit of The Circle thrown in. I do like a space book, not just for the space stuff but because the close quarters inevitably gives some interesting drama and this book is that in a nutshell. The interpersonal dynamics between our characters and the way they interact with the corporation that put them in space is the real heart of this book.
It gets impressively messy in ways that feel true to life. There are multiple points in the book where you don't know how things can get messier, and then they do!
Our characters are all tied to the space station Parallaxis, funded by Sensus, a massive corporation owned by the Son sisters. In this near future story, Sensus created a new kind of phone that implants in your ear to let you see your screen constantly. Parallaxis is one of their other projects, imagined as a retreat for those who can afford it. But before the billionaires can get there, a small crew has to get it ready, and for good measure they've thrown in a few scientists whose work they think will be beneficial and that is where our cast of characters comes from. But on top of that we also have Tess, a sociologist, brought in secretly to develop a new algorithm to read and even anticipate human behavior by observing the crew through their phones. It's a lot of interesting pieces and Scherm handles both the science elements and the near future elements well.
It wasn't quite 4 stars for me because there were a few things that just didn't gel all the way. I have read several books about science in a row where the scientist works alone which is really not how any of this works, so I am a bit peevish about it right now. And the ending felt loose, whereas so much of the rest of the plot felt tight and meticulous. (Also I have read a few not great books in a row and it gets me grumpy and I may have taken it out on this book a little.)