Season’s Readings everyone! Well, 2022 has continued our progress into our strange and brave new world (with respect to Gene Roddenberry and Aldous Huxley) as we, hopefully, move out of the pandemic years and into whatever the future may hold. And just as in the last few years, we all need books that provide not only a break from reality, but also insights into our larger world. Like last year, I can’t help but think of Neil Gaiman’s observation that “fiction gives us empathy: it puts us inside the minds of other people, gives us the gifts of seeing the world through their eyes. Fiction is a lie that tells us true things, over and over.” So, as was true last year, many of the truths and understanding that we seek can and will be found in the fiction books we enjoy as well.
Below I’m sharing the titles from 2022 that I feel most compellingly offer bits of truth about ourselves, others, and the world in which we live in ways that are both entertaining and enlightening. I’m following the format I used in earlier years with a small twist. I was simply unable to provide one book that I believed was the best book I’ve read in 2022. So, I’ve listed these books in alphabetical order by title, until the final two. I find both of these books compelling, but for strikingly different reasons, which will be explained at the end of this post. But I wanted to warn you that when you get to what appears to be the end, it isn’t. There’s one more title!
As in previous years, you will find interviews with the authors of many of these titles on the LAPL Blog and more in-depth reviews on LAPL Reads. I hope you will enjoy reading these titles as much as I have enjoyed reading and sharing them with you now. Happy Holidays, and Happy Reading!
In Acts of Violet, Margarita Montimore, author of the marvelous Oona Out of Order, explores fame, fortune, and family dynamics. Montimore creates a larger than life character in Violet Volk, a striking stage presence from a young age who becomes a world-wide sensation and then mysteriously vanishes, leaving behind a rabid fan-base who refer to themselves as the Wolf Pack, (a reference to Volk’s last name being the Russian word for wolf) and a large portion of the general population all clamoring for answers. Montimore uses newspaper clippings, tabloid articles, email exchanges and podcasts to explore Volk’s tempestuous career and reserves traditional prose for relaying her sister Sasha’s experiences as someone who has lived for years under the microscope created by interest in Violet and her career. The result is a mostly unflattering look at the lengths and depths to which those spurred by personal interest will go to find answers to which they may feel entitled, but actually have no right. She illustrates the capriciousness of fame and how everything in entertainment is driven by the money. Sasha also shows the downsides of fame, or being fame adjacent, through years of people parsing every word she says and attributing unintended meanings, providing the same unwanted opinions when she says nothing, and how, often times, there is simply no way to win when someone who has never sought the spotlight suddenly finds themselves under its glare.
Montimore also cautions how childhood slights and misunderstandings can grow, and sometimes fester, into nearly unbridgeable gulfs.
All of this infused with a nearly tangible sense of wonder and magic. Montimore has herself pulled off the nearly impossible, a sophomore novel that is every bit as good, if not better, to her debut!
In The Getaway, Lamar Giles tells a terrifying, near future tale about a world on the brink of dystopia and how easily it can be coaxed over the edge. He illustrates the wide range of reactions people exhibit when confronted with systemic societal collapse and existential threats from pride in having participated in the creation of the chaos to those who refuse to acknowledge the truth and danger right in front of them.
Giles’ depiction of the end of civilization as we know it is horrifying and it seems all the more believable because he never asks readers to suspend their disbelief by portraying the events in the novel over- or melodramatically. Instead, Giles creates a fascinating exploration of privilege and class, examining how they intersect with race, age, and ideas of servitude in which some horrible things happen, but are all believable because they reflect behaviors that were once considered normal. Giles illustrates just how far segments of our society will go in pursuit of power and greed.
The Getaway is a 21st century Masque of the Red Death where, as Poe before him, Giles warns us of the dangers that are lurking in the future and the lengths some among us are willing to go to save themselves.
In The Kaiju Preservation Society, John Scalzi offers up a dose of much-needed fun. And if The Kaiju Preservation Society is anything, it is fun! But it is fun liberally spiced with some harsh social commentary. Scalzi comments directly on how the previous Presidential administration bungled completely in the early days of the COVID pandemic and their steadfast refusal to rely on science or listen to the scientists and their recommendations when creating policy. He also illustrates the dangers of tech billionaires running rampant, using science when it suits them, ignoring it when it doesn’t, and using their riches to do things because they can, never questioning if they actually should.
This harshness, however, is seamlessly blended into a novel that is fun! There are great characters, snappy dialogue, and, above all else, almost literally, skyscraper sized kaiju that actually do need protecting! This is Scalzi's most fun book since 2012's Redshirts, and who couldn’t use a "pop song" of a novel right about now?
Lavie Tidhar’s Neom is a story of extremes: the past and the future, solitude and companionship, wealth and poverty, war and peace. Tidhar sets his story in the dream city of Neom, an actual city being built in the Tabuk Province of northwestern Saudi Arabia. And he populates the novel with characters, not always biological, living in an undesirable extreme and follows them as they attempt to gain what they desire. He speculates about the measures we all take to gain what we feel we are lacking and raises questions for which there are no easy answers. All of this is done with marvelously drawn characters, sparkling prose, a strong sense of humor, and a growing sense of impending dread, because if some of the characters achieves their desires, it could mean the end of all life in Neom for ages to come.
Neom is a thoughtful, beautifully written story about what we have, what we want, how we achieve our desires, and what, and whom, are we willing to risk for our own benefit.
In One-Shot Harry, author Gary Phillips provides not only a top-notch mystery/thriller, but he also provides a window to the past that clearly illustrates, simultaneously, how much things have changed and how much they remain the same in both the city of Los Angeles and our world.
Phillips highlights numerous Los Angeles locations and businesses that have disappeared in the decades since the early 60s, when the novel is set, conjuring an almost tangible sense of what living in Los Angeles would have been like.
Writing over five decades after the novel is set, Phillips is able to make sly commentary on some situations and developments through the speculations between his characters about their world and their future. Knowing how things will play out as history unfolds, Phillips is able to highlight concerns for people of color in Los Angeles that still exist in the present and have yet to be adequately addressed.
One-Shot Harry is a taut and thought provoking mystery filled with ambiance, thrills, and a new amateur detective readers are going to love.
In 2021, Becky Chambers introduced readers to the moon of Panga, where, centuries ago, the civilization's robots gained consciousness and, en masse, walked off into the surrounding wilderness and were never heard from again. Until the day a robot named Splendid Speckled Mosscap walked up to Sibling Dex, a tea monk, and asked, "What do people need?"
In A Prayer for the Crown Shy, Chambers returns to Panga and follows Sibling Dex and Mosscap as they travel through the different areas and settlements of Panga on their way to the City. Like its predecessor, A Psalm for the Wild-Built, A Prayer for the Crown Shy is a quiet novella that is quirky, thoughtful, and hopeful. Chambers expands the world, or more properly, moon building beginning in the first novella to show more of Panga's inhabitants, how they live and how they have recovered from the ecologically disastrous period that almost destroyed their world, moving to live in harmony with it and its eco-system. Panga was very much like Earth's present and represents a future we would be lucky to achieve.
In A Prayer for the Crown Shy, there is no "sophomore slump" but a strong continuation of the thoughtful and hopeful explorations begun in the first book in this series. One can't help but remain hopeful that the next entry will live up to the high bar set by the first two.
In The Quarter Storm, Veronica G. Henry provides a top-notch mystery along with an interesting spin on urban fantasy. Henry mines the world of Vodou for the fantasy elements, allowing her to recount and comment on the history of Africans in America while also illustrating how Vodou has been co-opted, vilified, demonized and misrepresented in dominant culture for use and amusement while simultaneously damning its practitioners for their beliefs. The Quarter Storm is the first of a proposed series, which is off to a marvelous start!
Spanning 15 years and ranging from a small community in rural Georgia to the metropolis of turn of the century Chicago, in Redwood and Wildfire, Andrea Hairston paints a moving, joyful, and disturbing portrait of our past and a mirror of our present. She doesn’t shy away from the racism that was, and continues to be, rampant in our country and our culture, nor does she allow her characters to be defined by it. Hairston explores the various types of entertainment that existed at the turn of the century, including minstrel and wild west shows, vaudeville, and a motion picture industry in its infancy. She illustrates how the songs and stories of minority cultures were mined, adapted, co-opted, and often perverted for the enjoyment of white audiences.
While Hairston does not turn away from the darkness of the world, neither does she limit herself to it. Her portrait of our world is also filled with wonders, both scientific and cultural, illustrating how vibrant, varied, and rich our world is made by the differences of the people that inhabit it. The resulting novel is much like life itself, moving between soaring heights and despair defining depths, bridging the gaps between those two extremes with hope, resilience, and just a bit of powerful magic.
Redwood and Wildfire is a novel of creation, destruction, and most importantly of all, possibilities.
In Secret Identity, Alex Segura, himself a comic book writer, deftly captures the atmosphere of comics in the mid-1970s. It was a time when comics were a niche interest on the verge of becoming a global obsession in just a few decades. This includes the "old boy" network that pervaded the publishers and the rampant and blatant misogyny that permeated both the offices where comics were created and the pages they produced.
Segura paints a vivid picture of an industry trying desperately to decide who and what it is. Are the writers and artists that produce the monthly books hacks or artists? Is their product disposable ephemera or something more substantial? These are questions for which we now have answers. Segura does an admirable job of exploring the fears, concerns, and resignation of his characters regarding their chosen field.
In addition to the comic book industry, Segura does a marvelous job of capturing 70s New York City, describing perfectly how it was simultaneously an inspiration for dreams and nightmares, dangerously teetering on the brink of financial ruin.
Part history of the comic book industry, part noir influenced murder mystery, and part coming of age story, Secret Identity is a genre bending/blending novel that is greater than the sum of its parts.
Both Anthony Horowitz, the actual author and his fictional doppelganger, are back with, and in, the fourth book in the Hawthorne mystery series. As A Twist of a Knife opens, Horowitz is anticipating the London premiere of his debut effort as a playwright. But when the play is savaged by a critic, who is found dead the morning after the play’s opening, Horowitz is the prime suspect. Will Hawthorne be able to clear his partner and identify who actually killed the critic?
Horowitz combines elements from golden-age mysteries with his own style of storytelling and compelling characterizations to provide another top notch read to the series. Readers will definitely be wondering when the next case with Hawthone and Horowitz will be and what will happen next.
In Wrong Place, Wrong Time, Gillian McAllister tells a traditional mystery story but from a decidedly different angle: can someone prevent a murder from happening? McAllister forces her amateur detective to travel backward in time, gathering information and clues, to determine why the murder in the present took place. It is an intriguing concept. And McAllister has populated her novel with compelling and complex characters. The result is a novel that operates on several different levels: mystery novel, time travel novel, relationship novel, a meditation on motherhood, and a reminder of the importance of priorities when struggling to maintain work/life balance. The novel excels on all levels while deftly sidestepping the possibility of becoming maudlin or overly sentimental. McAllister also reminds readers of the importance of what is happening now and how even the smallest occurrences may begin ripples that will reach far into the future.
In The Children on the Hill, Jennifer McMahon exhumes some of the "bones" of Mary Shelley’s most famous work and breathes new life into some of the enduring questions about what makes someone a monster. In her novel, McMahon pays homage to not only Shelley, but also the most famous, and enduring, portrayals of Frankenstein’s creature: Boris Karloff and the Universal Horror movies of the 1930s-50s. McMahon illustrates how those classic portrayals of the monsters have been the genesis of inspiration for generations of kids, and how, for some, obsessions with classic horror may shift and change but never really go away.
She also illustrates how, even into the digital age, interest in monsters has not waned. McMahon plays with how, in the age of the internet with nearly everyone armed with cellular phones with cameras and digital audio recorders, there is now more “evidence” than ever before of monsters. There are more people than ever who have seen (or know someone who has) strange, local creatures haunting the woods, streams, lakes, and mountains everywhere.
All of this is threaded with a growing sense of terror and dread.
The Children on the Hill is a marvelous exploration and celebration of the monstrous!
In his debut novel, Hawk Mountain, Conner Habib tells a tragic story of deception, manipulation, repression, and violence. Habib lays bare our culture’s systemic toxic masculinity and homophobia, and illustrates how they are delivered in near lethal levels during high school, leaving wounds that may never really heal and can fester into adulthood. He also demonstrates how a single moment or action, at the right time, can have life-altering after-effects.
Habib’s characters are well-drawn and nuanced. They are believably human, with character traits both admirable and shameful. There are no heroes in Hawk Mountain, but there are also no villains. There are simply damaged people struggling to live their lives as best they can and to make the emotional connection that they desperately need. It is telling that one character’s strongest emotional connection seems to be with a corpse, which is, ultimately, part of the true tragedy of the novel.
Unsettling, brutal, and, ultimately, heartbreaking, Hawk Mountain is more than a little disturbing, but it is also bleakly beautiful.
For the first time since I have been posting these lists, I have two books that I feel equally strongly are the best books I’ve read this year, with markedly different reasons for each. The Children on the Hill by Jennifer McMahon is a wonder. McMahon captures perfectly what it was like to be a "monster kid" in the 1970s and tells a marvelous tale about who we brand with the title monster. As said by Edward Van Sloan at the opening of 1931’s Frankenstein: "I think it will thrill you. It may shock you. It might even horrify you." And it was going to be my pick for my favorite book of the year. . .until I read Hawk Mountain.
Conner Habib’s debut novel shares many attributes with McMahon’s The Children on the Hill. It certainly may shock and horrify readers. It is also heartbreaking in its depiction of the brutality that high school students can, and are, subjected to regularly and how those wounds sometimes never heal. Hawk Mountain is a novel that stayed with me long after I read it and was the genesis of several long conversations with library staff and friends regarding the themes within the novel and Habib’s writing of it. Habib is a writer to look for and anticipate what he releases next.