Sunday, January 01, 2023

Favorite Books of the Year: 2022

Every year, I post something like this on New Year's morning - a listing of the books I liked best the previous year. Some years I've read less, and keep it simple, but usually I pick a book as a favorite for each month (and some also-rans worth mentioning) and pull them all together at the end into a list.

I'm doing it again; I read slightly more books in 2022 than in 2021. The numbers aren't what they were back when I was an editor, or during my periodic Book-A-Day binge years, but I read 191 books in 2022, which is enough to find some themes and favorites.

First, though, I feel the need to link back to those past posts: 2021, 2020, 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, and 2005.

But, before I get into the list: I'm idiosyncratic (that monthly thing, for example), and I feel the need to explain those idiosyncrasies every year, so....

Rules & Explanations:

  1. This list is finalized on December 31 on purpose; it includes everything I read this year.
    1. I occasionally cast shade on people who do "best of the year" lists as early as Halloween; they are slackers and will get theirs eventually.
  2. These are favorites, not "best."
    1. I can't define "best." I can definite "favorite."
  3. This is not separated or compartmentalized by genre; it's everything I read all in one stew.
  4. Each month gets some also-rans; the bolded book is the favorite.
  5. I try to chose to newish books for the favorites, so this is roughly similar to other people's lists; it doesn't always work.
    1. I do not only list books published in 2022, for example - that would be nice, and the part of me that used to work in publishing wants to do that, but I just don't read enough, or in that focused a way.

January

I'll start by mentioning that I've been reading Joan Didion's non-fiction over the past eighteen months or so; I read The White Album in January. Under my rules, it's not really eligible, but it's a great collection of interesting thoughts presented well, and still worth reading forty-plus years after it was written.

Everything else I have to mention is a comic of one kind or another - Guy Delisle's affecting memoir of his youth, Factory Summers, the gorgeous and thorny The Golden Age, Book One by Roxanne Moreil and Cyril Pedrosa, and R. Kikuo Johnson's deep No One Else, a book I still think needs to be read at least twice.

My favorite is the lovely, sunny, wonderful Always Never by Jordi Lafebre, a love story told in reverse.

February

The old book worth mentioning this month was Lord Emsworth and Others, a collection of Blandings Castle stories by P.G. Wodehouse. It contains "The Crime Wave at Blandings," and if you read nothing else ever by Wodehouse, you must read that story.

I was very taken by Dennis Duncan's Index, a History of the, which is exactly what it says it is, and which is exactly as good as you hope it would be.

My favorite, though, came from the field of comics: Mikael Ross's The Thud, the story of a life-changing event and the young man whose life was already much different from what most people would have hoped for.

March

I don't think I'll keep up this pattern the whole year, but I'll start by mentioning Elizabeth Bishop's The Complete Poems: 1927-1979, a great collection by a great poet. There is a newer, probably more complete Poems available, which is probably the place to go.

Also old is John le Carre's second novel, the murder mystery A Murder of Quality. It's set in a world alien to most people who might be reading this - a "Great School" of England in the early 1960s - and relentless in its searching eye on that world.

My favorite is once again a comic: The Strange Ones, a long-gestating story about punky kids in the early '90s by Jeremy Jusay.

April

OK, this time I'll start with something memorable that I'm not exactly recommending: Gilbert Hernandez's polymorphously perverse Blubber, which is like nothing else ever...and I'm not sure if that's a complement.

On the more positive side, Tardi's 1970s story The True Story of the Unknown Soldier is still strong and focused. And Pete S. Beagle's recent novel Summerlong is a mythic gem, a small novel about a small group of people and one extended, unexpected summer.

My favorite for the month was Brandon Graham's SF graphic novel Rain Like Hammers, for its depth, its complexities, for its refusal to do the obvious thing, and for its wandering, discursive story.

May

First: something indescribable. Jim Woodring's The Frank Book collected his earliest stories about Frank and his world - they are the closest to understandable, the simplest and most obvious works in Woodring's corpus, and yet they are still utterly sui generis.

Second, something ending: John Allison's The Case of the Severed Alliance, collecting the tenth and last plotline from his "Bad Machinery" webcomic. All good things must end, especially good stories - it's what makes them stories. Allison is exceptionally good at both of those things.

Last, my favorite: Daniel Pinkwater had a new novel, Crazy in Poughkeepsie. I don't know how much more I need to say, or could say.

June

A big clutch of things to mention: I'll start with Charles Stross's novella Escape from Yokai Land, a return for his series character Bob Howard and a vision of a different part of his nearly-apocalyptic Laundry world.

From the world of comics: Manuele Fior's deep SFnal story Celestia; Darryl Cunningham's well-researched and entirely committed Billionaires (hint: Cunningham is not in favor of billionaires); Rutu Modan's complex and complicated Tunnels; the fabulous and large Alone in Space, collecting a whole bunch of Tillie Walden's earlier work; and Brenna Thummler's already well-known middle-grade story of grief and next steps, Sheets.

My favorite was a quirky novella, something like a sequel and something like a religious apologetic: K.J. Parker's Inside Man, the story of one demon and his human nemesis.

July

I read two old SF novels - one a re-read, one for the first time. J.G. Ballard's The Drowned World was still deeply Ballardian, his second novel but the one that crystalized how he would write from that moment forward. And Algis Budrys's Michaelmas was even more adult and complex than I expected, a smart novel from the era when SF had to be short and so good novels crammed in depths to every word.

Paul Theroux's travel book On the Plain of Snakes was a deep and intriguing look at many facets of Mexico, from the point of view of one old gringo driving through it and trying to be as honest as open as he could be.

Walter Jon Williams launched a fantasy trilogy with Quillifer, featuring a roguish first-person narrator with a marvelous voice, reminding me that there doesn't seem to be anything that Williams can't write brilliantly.

And I read a cluster of excellent graphic novels by women: collections of short pieces by Carolyn Nowak (Girl Town) and Lilli Carre (Heads or Tails), the climate-change mid-life crisis bandee dessinee Amalia by Aude Picault, Jade Khoo's Miyazaki-inspired YAish adventure Zoc, and Lee Lai's deep and affecting story of sisters and lovers Stone Fruit.

The most memorable book is not part of that cluster, but maybe can be seen as related to it: I was trying to read outside my own life and experiences, so I came to Maia Kobabe's resonant and thorny memoir Gender Queer, in which e tries to explain eir entire relationship with gender and the world at large, and largely succeeds.

August

I was reading a lot of old books this year, wasn't I? Two memoirs came in close sequence this month: Tim O'Brien's If I Die in a Combat Zone, an early Vietnam memoir from the years just afterward, and Joseph Heller's Now and Then, a more traditional whole-life memoir published barely a year before he died.

Frances Larson's Severed was my "serious" non-fiction book for the month, a comprehensive look at severed heads throughout history - smart, interesting, and sneakily funny quite a lot of the time.

From the visual side, I enjoyed the deeply affecting story of ghosts and family history Ghost Tree by Bobby Carnow and Simon Gane. I finally saw new stories in the Trese series from Budjette Tan and KaJo Baldisimo in Trese, Vol. 4: Last Seen After Midnight, after years of waiting and hoping. And the nutty fast-paced thriller Omni-Visibilis by Lewis Trondheim and Matthieu Bonhomme was a massive hoot.

My favorite for the month was another collection of comics stories by a woman - maybe a late entry in the batch from the previous month - the chilly and thoughtful and formally brilliant Press Enter to Continue by Ana Galvan.

September

Most of what I have to mention this month is fantasy of one sort or another, so let me start with one story collection and one novel, both by formidable women writers: Prophecies, Libels and Dreams by Ysabeau S. Wilce, gathering the smaller pieces of her Califa sequence, and Palimpsest by Catherynne M. Valente, an early, dreamy, erotically-tinged story of other worlds and impossible desires and what we give up to get what we have to have.

Somewhat in the same vein is Dionysos: The New God, the last in George O'Connor's twelve-book retelling of Greek myths - they're ostensibly for middle-grade readers, but don't let that scare you away.

I don't think Bastien Vives's bandee dessinee The Blouse is actually fantasy, but you could make an argument in that direction, if you want. It has a stark, unblinking camera eye and an uneasy view of sex and power and visibility. Vives was also part of the team, along with Florent Ruppert and Jerome Mulot, creating the souffle of a caper story The Grand Odalisque, which is lovely and deeply enjoyable and about as serious as a random Bond movie.

My favorite for the month was back in the fantasy realm: Ralph Azham, Vol. 1: Black Are the Stars, a solo omnibus of three albums by the very prolific Lewis Trondheim. It's much like the Dungeon series co-written by Trondheim, with some twists of its own: a smart, adult series set in a big, complex world where anything can happen.

October

Old things: Roy Morris Jr's excellent '90s biography Ambrose Bierce: Alone in Bad Company and P. G. Wodehouse's wonderful '30s Blandings novel Heavy Weather.

Graphic things: the affecting and down-to-earth A Journal of My Father by Jiro Taniguchi; Max de Radigu├Ęs's two-track tale of young love and confusion, Simon & Louise; the complex memoir of a frightening illness, Parenthesis by Elodie Durand.

Josh Ritter's long-gestating second novel, The Great Glorious Goddamn of It All, was a big-hearted and open and wild as its title implies.

And my favorite was a new short novel by an old favorite: Tom Perrotta's multi-viewpoint Tracy Flick Can't Win, a book that is both a sequel to Election and a smart book about middle age and choices that stands on its own.

November

I'm very slowly reading old novels by John Le Carre, and got to his mid-Sixties The Looking Glass War this month. It's a devastating look at deluded men and the damage they cause.

Jasper Fforde's much newer The Constant Rabbit had a similarly hostile aim, but much more obviously - it's a coldly angry novel, tangling up a dozen modern issues into an unexpected fantasy framework.

Megan Kelso had a new collection of her comics with the long pieces collected in Who Will Make the Pancakes - it was welcome, reminding me of her subtleties and deceptively simple drawings.

Speaking of subtleties, my favorite book was from Bastien Vives - the puckishly-titled A Sister, which is not a memoir but was inspired by his own life, and which has the same unblinking eye I admired in The Blouse earlier in the year, but in a more focused, personal story.

December

Starting with the old, once again, let me mention Manix Abrera's wordless comics collection 12, which I was happy to see has finally been published "in English" (strange to say about a wordless book, but you know what I mean) and re-read with pleasure and joy. I also, after a decade and a half, finally read Brave New Words: The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction edited by Jeff Prucher.

Similarly old, but which I only just discovered: Michael Wex's lively and culturally-centered tour of the Yiddish language, Born to Kvetch.

Also old, and finally coming down from the shelf for a read at the end of the year: Ian Frazier's discursive, personal, thoughtful On the Rez, the story of a friendship and a people and a time and, a bit, about Native life in the USA.

I got to the second of the Ralph Azham series by Lewis Trondheim, The Land of the Blue Demons, which was just as good as the first.

Tom Gauld's new collection of cartoons, Revenge of the Librarians, came from the bookish side of his work, and was just as smart and enjoyable as his work from the scientific side, or elsewhere.

And that leaves me with two novels to choose from for the last slot of the year. Both are sequels, of their own kinds. Both are genre books, by their own lights. Both are fun - one is lighter than the other. 

Silver goes to the unexpected The Burglar Who Met Frederic Brown, written and published this year by the indefatigable Lawrence Block, funny and quick and also an excursion into a different genre than most readers would expect.

And my final favorite is Lavie Tidhar's Neom - a SF novel set in an indefinite future but a mostly-positive one, a world full of wonders and dangers, full of minds human and otherwise, full of people living quirky and interesting lives, full of opportunities and threats and surprises.

Top 12 of 2022

And then, to pull that unwieldly long ramble into an actual list:

  • Always Never by Jordi Lafebre
  • Crazy in Poughkeepsie by Daniel Pinkwater
  • Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe
  • Inside Man by K.J. Parker
  • Neom by Lavie Tidhar
  • Press Enter to Continue by Ana Galvan
  • Rain Like Hammers by Brandon Graham
  • Ralph Azham, Vol. 1: Black Are the Stars by Lewis Trondheim
  • A Sister by Bastien Vives
  • The Strange Ones by Jeremy Jusay
  • The Thud by Mikael Ross
  • Tracy Flick Can't Win by Tom Perrotta

That's what I read that was worth celebrating and remembering; I hope you have high points of your own, and, maybe, that my list above gives you some thoughts for your 2023 reading.

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