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Sarah Polley Getty 2.jpg

The Best Books of 2022!

By Kayleigh Donaldson and Dustin Rowles | Books | December 28, 2022 |

By Kayleigh Donaldson and Dustin Rowles | Books | December 28, 2022 |

Sarah Polley Getty 2.jpg

Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel — I make no secret of my love for the work of Emily St. John Mandel. She’s one of the few writers working today who is an instant release day buy for me. I’m always taken in by the way she weaves stories with seemingly disparate strands, only to bring them together seamlessly and with such grace. Sea of Tranquility sees her return to the speculative genre for the first time since her breakout hit, Station Eleven, but where that novel delved into the dystopian, her newest novel aims for the stars.

There are, as is typical with Mandel, several plot threads at play here: a young British immigrant is sent to Canada in 1912 and experiences something otherworldly; a modern-day composer in New York finds video that seems to show this event; in the 23rd century, a writer leaves her home on the Moon to do a book tour on Earth; 200 years after that, an investigator must figure out what pieces it all together. This summary doesn’t do Mandel’s work justice, and to reveal any more would be to spoil the magic of seeing how the author crafts her tale. Like Station Eleven and The Glass Hotel, Mandel understands that, regardless of how time and distance separates us, humanity is all part of the same small, unexpected world. What made Sea of Tranquility so special for me — and what made me cry quite heavily while reading it — is its oddly hopeful message. What is the meaning of life? Why are we here? What if we aren’t in control of anything? So what? I didn’t expect to find that as moving as I did, but wow, did I need this book. — Kayleigh Donaldson

The Kaiju Preservation Society by John Scalzi — Several readers here recommended Scalzi’s novel in one of Kayleigh’s book posts this year, and though I’m not usually into sci-fi novels, I devoured this one. It’s not the premise that won me over — set during the pandemic, it’s about a guy who takes a top-secret job in an alternate world where Kaiju’s roam — but Scalzi’s fast-paced and crackling writing that absolutely buzzes. I loved Scalzi’s sense of humor, and though I do not typically like action-packed novels, either, this one made for a helluva fun and deranged Jurassic Park-like adventure, and I’ve since become a devoted follower of Scalzi on Twitter. — Dustin Rowles

A Lady For a Duke by Alexis Hall — What a great year for romance. I subscribe to the Ripped Bodice’s subscription box and get sent two books a month, and receiving a copy of A Lady For a Duke couldn’t have pleased me more. Alexis Hall has made a real name for themselves over the past few years thanks to a prolific output, a skill across romantic subgenres, and a focus on inclusivity. This novel takes on the well-worn territory of Regency romance, but with a trans woman at its heart.

When Viola Carroll was presumed dead at Waterloo she took the opportunity to live as her true self, even if it meant giving up her past life, wealth, and title. It’s been a tough journey, in part because she cannot see Justin de Vere, the Duke of Gracewood and her best friend. When their families reconnect, years after the war, Viola sees how much grief and trauma has broken Gracewood. She determines to bring him back to his old self, even if she cannot reveal her identity to him as the sparks begin to fly.

One of the reasons I love literature so much, especially romance, is that it offers a chance to fill in the gaps of history. We constantly hear from transphobes and bigots that LGBTQ+ people are some sort of new-fangled invention that sprung to life when the first brick was flung at Stonewall. Even though our stories have been told throughout the centuries, they’re frequently obfuscated or outright erased to fit a bigoted narrative. Fiction allows for an opportunity to reclaim that and to find the joys and nuances that didn’t make their way into the memoirs or history tomes. A Lady For a Duke, on top of being very well-written, charming, and romantic, gets that. All that and it offers us a heroine whose transness is part of the story but not its exclusive focus. This book could be a game changer for the romance world, and for good reason. — KD

Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin — Gabrielle Zevin’s novel came into my life after 12 mediocre-to-disappointing novels in a row and, as the best books will often do, renewed my enthusiasm for reading. Set over the course of 30 years, it’s about two creative partners, the video games they design, and the way their lives weave together into something of a platonic love story. It’s beautifully written, enchanting, wildly entertaining, spectacularly geek, and occasionally heartbreaking. It was also the book I found hardest to put down in 2022. — DR

The Book of the Most Precious Substance by Sara Gran — We all know that books are magic, but what if they literally were? Sara Gran’s newest novel, a curious thriller with strains of the occult and erotic, asks that very question, and with unexpected answers. Former novelist Lily has turned to selling rare books to keep herself and her sick husband afloat. A potential customer asks about The Book of the Most Precious Substance, a 17th century sex magic guide that is rumored to be one of the most powerful books ever written. Lily’s note sure it even exists, but there’s good money on the line if it does, so she hunts for a copy.

Gran has a keen ability to tap into the innermost urges and sicknesses of humanity. Come Closer, her astonishing horror novel which was re-released last year, was like picking at a scab: you couldn’t help yourself but it only hurt you more to continue. The Book of the Most Precious Substance isn’t horror but it has a similar sense of dread, that impossible to ignore but enticing thrill of willingly descending into the unknown. The book offers Lily a freedom from her stifling life, but at what cost? Gran is as strong at depicting amazing sex as she is the agony of Lily’s husband’s illness, which often brought tears to my eyes. Points also for the most melancholy ending of 2023. — KD

Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus — Garmus’ debut novel is an absolute delight, a tender, funny, and enjoyable book about a woman in the 1960s who insists on being taken seriously as a scientist. After a series of men mistreat her and steal her work, she falls into hosting a cooking show to help support her daughter. In the cooking show, however, she applies science to the art of cooking and housewives across the country take notice. It’s a lovely and winning novel and will make for an excellent series in 2023 starring Brie Larson on Apple TV+. — DR

Ducks by Kate Beaton — There aren’t a lot of ducks in Ducks, cartoonist Kate Beaton’s moving memoir of her time spent working on the oil fields of Alberta. Best known for her witty and highly literary comics published on Hark a Vagrant, Beaton digs into an achingly personal and difficult part of her life, exposing a system of misogyny and isolation that permeates every aspect of life. Her sketchy and warmly inviting artistic style is used to a very different effect here, a means for Beaton to invite the reader into something most of us would avoid.

While working in the majority male oil industry, hoping to pay off her student debts before beginning a life as an artist, Beaton experienced sexual assault, depression, and long periods of loneliness that left a stain on everyone around her. There’s anger here but also a sense of empathy, an understanding but not justification for those who fell into the system. Men are casually cruel to her but they’re often the same ones helping her out of bad situations. This naturalistic approach, scattershot at times to convey the lost time of this cloistered world, shows how nobody is exempt from the pain. Beaton also takes time to note the devastation of big oil, from its environmental damage to the ways it disproportionately impacts First Nations communities. It’s a stunning piece of work, even by Beaton’s high standards. — KD

The Violin Conspiracy by Brendan Slocumb — I read a ton of mystery novels, and most of them center on murders. My favorite of 2023, however, is about a stolen violin. I’ve never felt so invested in the recovery of a musical instrument, which belongs to a Black classical musician on the verge of his big break after struggling with racism in his profession, as well as the doubts of his family, who prefer that he get a job at Popeye’s. Slocumb himself is a Black symphony orchestra violinist, so he speaks from the experience of working in a white-dominated field where Black musicians are either ignored or their success is falsely attributed to affirmative action or diversity initiatives. While the writing is not perfect — he’s a trained musician, not a novelist — the story itself is beyond absorbing and the villains so detestable that I had a difficult time putting the book down. — DR

Run Towards the Danger by Sarah Polley — Sarah Polley is having one hell of a year thanks to her excellent film, Women Talking. On top of being a celebrated actress, screenwriter, and director, she’s now revealed herself to be an exciting and eloquent essayist, with her debut collection, Run Towards the Danger. Polley has lived a very interesting life: a former child actress who became hugely famous in her native Canada thanks to the TV series Road to Avonlea, she eventually worked with major auteurs like Atom Egoyan before moving behind the camera and earning Oscar nominations for her work.

With this book, she offers insights into various parts of her past, from her anxious experiences playing Alice on-stage to being sexually assaulted by a famous Canadian host to living with the aftermath of a major head injury for several years. Each essay is dense in detail, unflinching in revealing Polley’s emotional turmoil and questions over the situations she found herself in. While starring in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, the only child on a very tough set, she often feared for her life due to the director’s seeming disinterest in basic safety measures.

It’s a testament to Polley’s immense empathy and creative insight that, even when she dives head-first into topics of trauma, abuse, and illness, she seeks to find the deeper context beyond her own experiences. While detailing her own assault, she places it in the wider circle of not only the epidemic of misogyny that has tainted us all but the lack of safeguarding in an industry that cut her loose in a deeply adult world as a child. The instability of her own memories are endlessly dissected, as are the ways her pain is diminished, deliberately or otherwise. By the end of the book, you understand Polley to be a woman of immense resilience, someone who wants to ensure that things will be better for her own kids and generations who follow in her footsteps. — KD

The Winners by Fredrik Backman — Backman has been my favorite contemporary novelist since A Man Called Ove (which has been adapted into Tom Hanks’ A Man Called Otto), and the biggest reason why is The Beartown trilogy. I’ve written about it before , but it’s basically Friday Night Lights set in a Swedish hockey town, and it takes on hockey-town culture, which can make or ruin a town, or both, as is the case here. The Winners is the third and final book in the trilogy, and over the course of the series, I don’t think I’ve ever felt as invested and connected in a series of characters than I have in the people of Beartown. It’s a phenomenal, warm-hearted, and bittersweet trilogy, and I genuinely can’t recommend it enough (which I have done here several times). — DR

Lapvona by Ottessa Moshfegh

The newest novel from Ottessa Moshfegh, a critical darling and BookTok icon, was reviewed divisively from the offset. Even those who loved it seemed eager to preface their acclaim with a note that it wasn’t her strongest work. It doesn’t top Eileen, to be sure, but Lapvona still fascinated me in ways I haven’t been able to shake since I read it. This Medieval-set black comedy isn’t exactly a satire but it does tap into some curious and prescient ideas of modern political rule that don’t paint our world in a wonderful light.

Moshfegh is excellent at portraying the alluring and almost lethargic descent into oblivion. Her characters aren’t hopeless but seem uninterested in even trying for optimism. Plot takes second place to the dense, often smothering exploration of humanity’s worst urges. Sometimes it’s not even our lowest moments so much as our ease with settling for pure nothingness. Lapvona is certainly Moshfegh’s most grotesque novel, which is saying something given that this is an author who’s never been shy about depicting bad hygiene or excess bodily fluids. It’s De Sade-esque at times, only without the cheeky satirical wink of the infamous Marquis. There isn’t a redeemable character here, only sideshow displays in an eternal world of church corruption and weak rulers who care only for their own gratification. You’re either with Moshfegh or you’re not and I’ve long been signed up for anything and everything she offers. Lapvona is hellish but I’m already descending into her stupor.

Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver — I am ashamed to say that it was not until 2022, the Year of Our Lord, that I read my first Kingsolver novel, but Demon Copperhead immediately turned me into a fan. Copperhead is David Copperfield, but set in the present in the mountains of Appalachia. It’s about a very poor kid orphaned at a young age by his parents and is forced to endure his teenage years in the homes of abusive foster parents, friends, and family members. It’s people with a collection of misfits who we invariably get attached to before the entire community is ravaged by the opioid epidemic. It’s bleak, but there’s enough wit and heart to keep readers invested in Coppherhead and the rest of Kingsolver’s brilliantly rendered characters. — DR