2022 Top 10 Books halfway through the year

2022 Top 10 books so far

The most impactful ten books so far this year are not representative of my overall reading, which was filled with pacey mysteries/thrillers and “deep and meaningful” literary novels. The eclectic list below looks like a magpie’s bookshelf: four nonfiction books, four very different literary tales, and two genre offerings. You can’t go wrong with any of them.

The links below take you to my review.

Bedtime Story (10/10) by Chloe Hooper—a short memoir of illness, children, and literature/stories, told in a pacey yet lyrical style that is wondrous to read on every page. The most impressive book of the year so far. Moving and illuminating.

Journalist Frank Bruni’s “graceful and profound” memoir of eyesight loss, The Beauty of Dusk (9/10). Very different in style and approach to Chloe Hooper’s memoir, it also lingers long after reading.

Simon Mundey’s eyewitness-to-climate-crisis tour de force, Race for Tomorrow: Survival, Innovation and Profit on the Front Lines of the Climate Crisis 9(/10) will lift off any remaining scales on your eyes.

Frank Kennedy is unwinding the longest, most complex, most involving space opera saga in years, and fourth in the series, The Heartless Hinds (9/10), is my favorite so far. Of course, you’ll need to begin at Book 1, but treat yourself, why don’t you?

Forgive me if the roster of excellence so far this year tilts toward the serious, but the times are serious indeed. John Doerr’s Speed & Scale: A Global Action Plan for Solving Our Climate Crisis Now (9/10) is “a timely, brilliantly conceived and superbly written treat.” Has roughly the same ambit as Bill Gates’s similarly targeted book but is so much more germane.

The Books of Jacob (8/10) by Olga Tokarczuk is a thousand-page-plus “avalanche of a book” that requires readerly persistence that more than rewards.

Don Winslow’s City on Fire (8/10) is a bluntly written crime gang thriller, the first in a trilogy, that whooshes from start to end. If you’re looking for raw human plot, look no further.

A History of Dreams (8/10) by Jane Rawson is at once a deep, quirky literary novel that addresses today’s headlines and also a counterfactual modern historical novel. Very different to my normal reading but most memorable.

Lavie Tidhar’s Maror (8/10) reads like a feverish, violent James Ellroy thriller. Pell-mell yet profound, it looks at the hidden history of the modern state of Israel.

Fight Night (8/10) by Miriam Toews is an immersive, brilliantly written coming-of-age story involving three generations of females.

Bedtime Story by Chloe Hooper [10/10]

Chloe Hooper Bedtime Story review

In my humble opinion, Chloe Hooper is one of Australia’s most sublime writers: evocative, in control, and always true to her story. “Bedtime Story” transcends the genre of grief/loss/illness memoir with an ease that stuns. When the author and her husband, famed (and equally brilliant) writer Don Watson discover he has a rare and potentially fast-ravaging leukemia, the mantle of illness and foreboding descends upon her family of four, in particular her two young boys (they must be aged about three and seven). Achingly addressing this slim volume to the “you” of the older boy, the author grapples with the question of how to explain the threat of imminent death. As befits a scrupulous investigative journalist, she turns to the world of children’s literature: can it assist her and her husband, can it ease, can prepare the young for a new future? As her husband embarks on the by-now-ubiquitous debilitating journey of aggressive treatment, as the boys increasingly sense the pall in their worlds, she gropes toward explanation and myth-making.

Interweaving investigations into the world of kids’ books, an acerbic account of the world of scans, hospital, and drugs, and young souls’ responses, Bedtime Story is both achingly sad and, somehow, extraordinarily, liberating. Injected personal poems made me gasp. Ghostly watercolors by Anna Walker are perfectly placed.

My book of the year so far, Bedtime Story startled me and then graced my own inner turmoil with rare, precise insight and beauty.

Silverview by John Le Carre [8/10]

John le Carre Silverview rview

I skipped “Silverview,” John Le Carre’s final spy novel, because it was released posthumously. Too many bad experiences with novels from the grave had soured me of the strong desire to make sure I left no Le Carre unread. But praise from friends sent me backtracking to this final outing from late last year. Such a correct decision! Despite being, at 224 pages, only a little longer than a novella, Silverview is a perfect expression of one of the finest modern stylists we have seen. From the opening scene, I gasped at the bravura skill, the perfect pacing, the eloquent capturing of place and person, the musical ear for dialogue (especially between Briton and Briton). Le Carre has always been the master at unveiling his tricky plots just so slowly, just so fast, so that the reader has to work hard to keep up. We read in awe as Julian, ex-London-banker now running a bookshop in a tiny English seaside town, seemingly bumps into a charismatic, engaging but slippery Polish emigre residing in a mansion (named, of course, Silverview), while at the same time an anonymous-looking spy in London receives an unusual visitor, setting off a convoluted chain of events mysterious and duplicitous. Le Carre’s more recent output, while always brilliantly penned, has suffered a little from outraged messaging. Not so with Silverview, concise and set in the world he began with, the tricky corridors of spydom. A must for every fan and recommended for any reader.

Bitter Fruit by Frank Kennedy [8/10]

Frank Kennedy Bitter Fruit review

Can the panoramic, multi-character, multi-world multi-universe Beyond the Impossible series grow even more complex? On the basis of Book 6, “Bitter Fruit,” the answer is “yes indeed!” Earlier volumes have focused on different strands: Kara Syung and Ham Cortez aboard the warship Scylla; ex-Earthling and now super immortal Michael Cooper and his young crew on terraformed Aeterna; devious Bonju Taron; Royal, the assassin’s assassin; and the enigmatic Inventor. In Bitter Fruit the conflicting parties uneasily unite to deal with the most invidious foe of all, the Swarm. The book is a whirl of negotiations, plans, action, battles, manipulations, and, ultimately, further existential puzzles.

An intoxicating cauldron of a space opera, Bitter Fruit at last yanks the patient reader toward some unidentified cosmic climax.

Trust by Hernan Diaz [7/10]

Hernan Diaz Trust review

The second novel by American novelist Hernan Diaz is a matryoshka of stories about a New York financial tycoon in the 20s and 30s. “Trust” presents four aspects of the aloof monetary titan’s biography. The first, an unauthorized biography, relates how the mastermind builds his fortune and then blossoms during the 1929 Crash, possibly contributing to the crash. A second short tale seems closer to the subject, then we’re placed in the reflections of a female writer who had begun to ghost write an official version. A final set of diary entries upends all the other accounts. The author segues smoothly into the new voice and masterfully depicts the world of high finance circa 1930, and the novel can also be read as a barbed indictment of financial engineering. But the main concern of Trust is the nature of retrospective storytelling and the power of money to warp truth.

During the reading, other novels, never identifying themselves, seemed to hover behind the words I read. I realized Trust is a very old-style novel, that of retellings and retellings. As a mystery genre reader, the climactic twist was no shock at all, but I still enjoyed witnessing the author patiently unveil the truth.

Truth is a fascinating puzzle book that flows like water. Recommended.

Devotion by Hannah Kent [6/10]

Hannah Kent Devotion review

Devotion” captures the imagination, line by line, page by page, with fervent, lilting prose, but surrenders readerly ground by telling an overly mild tale. When Hanne, a young, introverted, nature-loving girl, meets Thea, they fall in love. From Prussia, her Lutheran community is forced to undertake the onerous ship passage to South Australia, and the love of the two girls is tested in strange ways. Hannah Kent, noted for her research, offers fulsome, fascinating portraits of community life in Europe, on the long ship’s voyage, and as pioneers in the exotic South Australian bush, and I consider this to be the novel’s core strength. Although many readers may swoon over the science-fiction-style love story, yoked as it is to wonderful prose, I found the backbone of the plot to be flimsy; put frankly, not much happens. I can commend Devotion, especially to all those who adored her previous strong novels, but note my caveats.

City on Fire by Don Winslow [8/10]

Don Winslow City of Fire review

Don Winslow blasts out stories violent, troubling, and real as houses. This incendiary saga, “City on Fire,” is part of a trilogy modeled on Homer’s The Iliad, and tells of an Irish crime clan on Rhode Island during the mid 1980s. When Danny Ryan, a loyal gang foot soldier, finds himself thrust into a spiraling war against the Rhode Island Morettis, an escalating, unpredictable battlefield between the Italians and the Irish, he hesitates at first, then feels his way toward into leading. Reluctant minion turned strategist and havoc-reaper … the influence of The Godfather and The Sopranos is writ large. But City on Fire is no paper mache copy, The author is a direct, strongly voiced stylist who does not waste a sentence and can conjure up worlds in a paragraph. The cast of grappling combatants and insiders is large, and Winslow’s dominion of them is so intertwined that subtle characterization is not the order of the day; even hero Danny remains elusive to the reader, revealed only slowly through transformative actions. Similarly, the author captures Providence and Rhode Island in a forensic, spartan fashion, as if imagining a film. But this reader never noticed any shortfall in character depth or location lyricism, because Winslow is a master plotter. Impossible to foretell, so sweet afterward, the plot surges and twists, surges and twists, exploding its violent canvas. City on Fire is a pleasurable tonic of raw human thrills, drawn from ancient tropes, and it shall surely figure on many highlight lists. One sitting, reader, one sitting.

The Raven Song by J M Dalgliesh [8/10]

J M Dalgliesh The Raven Song review

A sparkling genre procedural with a difference, “The Raven Song” is the eleventh in the fast-deployed Detective Inspector Tom Janssen series, set this time in Hunstanton, one of the places in Norfolk that I have actually visited. When a troubled single woman is found dead, her disabled young daughter missing, Janssen’s ensemble homicide team, by now well familiar to the series reader, races to solve and rescue. Suspects multiply, the plot twists, the reader’s pulse clocks high … this is a familiar pleasure to use crimmie readers and author Jason Dalgliesh has penned another winner. Get with the flow, folks, snatch up The Raven’s Song!

The Match by Harlan Coben [5/10]

Harlan Coben The Match review

Harlan Coben is a legend among thriller writers, penning 31 books by now, starting with his wonderful Myron Bolitar series and lately triumphing with one-offs that have spawned five successful Netflix series. He is a polished writer in the school of “less is more,” with an entertaining turn in sardonic dialogue, and his plotting is nonpareil. All those strengths are on full display in “The Match“. It is the second book to feature Wilde, “the boy from the woods,” an accomplished ex-soldier who prefers to reside in the wilderness. In this outing, Wilde follows up leads toward his unknown parents, at the same time as an altruistic hacker group targeting vicious trolls attracts a serial killer. The Match is a rocket of a read, and in time-honored fashion, the author provides plot twist upon plot twist until a denouement that wraps up all the loose ends. So, yes, a fun read, but this reader parsed the final para and looked back on the careening plot and wondered, “what was the point?” Marrying DNA, social media trolling, hacking, and a cast revolving around unknowable Wilde … all these plot elements served to mystify but never cohered with any overarching logic. The characters disappeared into a warm bath of baffling turns of logic. Reader, I was disappointed, but I turned the pages.

Once There Were Wolves by Charlotte McConaghy [7/10]

Charlotte McConaghy Once There Were Wolves review

Once There Were Wolves” follows hot on the heels of Charlotte McConaghy’s lyrical, propulsive Migrations (my review here) and has a similar mix of dramatic plot, conservation backdrop, and natural world depiction. The hero is Inti Flynn, part of a team of visionaries reintroducing over a dozen wolves into remote Scottish wilderness. Battling opposing locals, venturing into love, and protecting her battered twin sister, Inti’s overweening focus is the wolves and the precarity of their fate. The author is a beautiful stylist and I sank into the wonderfully portrayed scenes of wolves in the wild, bumping into the ravenous world of humans. The feverish plot is less successful, IMHO, perhaps too wild in pace and extent, but that storyline meshes well into the thematic one. The central character of Inti is brilliantly portrayed. Snap up Once There Were Wolves, I’m sure it will figure in the awards season.