Janine’s Best of 2022
2022 was a challenging year for me when it came to reading. The DNFs were frequent but at least I got through my reading list faster because of them, and yay, ended up with a full ten books to include here.
In order of how much I liked them, here they are:
1. The Long Game by Rachel Reid
In Rachel Reid’s direct sequel to 2019’s Heated Rivalry we witness NHL superstars Shane and Ilya’s relationship twelve years on. They are no longer two horny young guys hooking up for the thrill of a secret relationship in the midst of a public legendary rivalry, but partners in a long-term yet still secret relationship. That secrecy is taking its toll on them, especially on Ilya.
So many sequels where the relationship hits a rocky patch take away from how wonderful the connection between the leads is, but here Shane and Ilya’s emerged stronger than ever. Ilya’s struggle with major depression is the best representation I have ever seen in a work of fiction, bar none, and I’ve experienced this illness personally. His and Shane’s growth, as individuals and as a couple, was well-developed and beautiful. Tender and at times painfully moving, this portrait of partnership did the near-impossible: made the conflict in a long-term romantic relationship indeed romantic. It was the level of devotion and commitment that Shane and Ilya brought to resolving the conflict that did that. I read this book four times, back-to-back. A.
2. All This Could Be Different by Sarah Thankam Mathews
Sneha is a recent college graduate who has landed a corporate job in Milwaukee. She is overworked and capable; her boss values the first more than the second. Sneha’s fellow millennials are struggling to find jobs at all, but Sneha’s life is far from charmed: she desperately needs her boss’s sponsorship to gain American citizenship. She’s also lesbian, and though she decides to happily “be a slut”, she’s conflicted about telling her parents she’s queer.
Though Sneha is the flawed, prickly, perceptive and unreliable narrator at its center, her friends, the supportive Tig, the alternately chummy and chilly Thom and the kind Amit, all play an important role in this #ownvoices literary novel. So do her self-involved boss, her racist apartment manager, and her parents, who love her but expect her to enter an arranged marriage with a nice Indian man. Should she come out to them? Share another devastating secret?
The prose here is concise, and as sharp and insightful as Sneha. In 320 short pages Mathews captures what it’s like to be young and just starting to figure out what kind of adult you’re going to be; to be an immigrant and vulnerable to the vicissitudes of your boss; to have a small group of tight-knit friends and friendships that are messy and flawed but nevertheless supportive and well worth hanging on to; to have blind spots, make unfair judgements and unwise choices, expect more openness than you’re comfortable giving, yet be worth caring about. All This Could Be Different brought back my early twenties like no other book has, and I’m so glad I read it. A-.
3. The Golden Enclaves by Naomi Novik
When we last saw her in The Last Graduate, El and her boyfriend Orion were separated and he was consumed by a maw-mouth, the worst kind of monster in the Scholomance world. But when El is called upon to destroy another maw-mouth in The Golden Enclaves, the final book in the Scholomance YA fantasy trilogy, she begins an odyssey to save Orion from eternal suffering, even if it means killing him.
Will she have to? That’s the question that powers the novel, but the book is also about much more. About the Scholomance world and its huge power disparities, secrets El never knew yet part of her was always aware of, El’s friends and classmates, including Liesel, her sometime lover and comrade-in-arms. About the prophecy that has haunted El since childhood, and doing the right thing, finding a better way, even when it’s not easy.
Novik she has constructed a book that upended my expectations but in such a way that almost everything fit and very little was inconsistent. The ending was rushed and the book was almost too dark for me, and yet, I reread it and appreciated it more the second time.
4. The Devil You Know by Elizabeth O’Roark
Gemma is a lawyer at a firm that handles sex discrimination lawsuits where she butts heads with her sexy and infuriating colleague, Ben. For most of the book we have only Gemma’s POV and experience firsthand her fear of trusting Ben even after they give in to their conflicted attraction and become lovers.
Gemma was burned by her father and a past lover, both lawyers, and now she thinks a gentle vet is more her type. Her yearning for nurturing is belied by her barren apartment and her refusal to give herself good things. She’s not only the defender of harassment victims but harassed herself, and there’s Ben’s fury over it too, so O’Roark’s examination of harassment is multidimensional.
Then there are the flirty zingers, hot sex, and emotional vulnerability. The big (though a bit over the top) gestures, and in the end, the hard-won trust. At the time I read it, I hadn’t encountered such a good m/f contemporary in three years. A new Elizabeth O’Roark is now an automatic purchase for me. B+/A-.
5. The Hourglass Throne by K.D. Edwards
I’ve described K.D. Edwards’ books as urban fantasy a bit like Ilona Andrews except darker, more twisty, and queerer. The first book, The Last Sun, was a solid B. Book two, The Hanged Man, was near-perfect and catapulted the series to my must-read list.
In the third book, The Hourglass Throne, Rune, Brand, and Rune’s boyfriend Adam are thrust into a violent, dangerous investigation that begins with impossible murders. The book contains romance, action, camaraderie, humor, bonding, familial relationships, a riveting long-term mystery, unexpected twists and turns, and snappy dialogue. Events here get darker than in the previous books and Rune and Adam’s relationship reaches a new level of closeness.
Although the book hits a slow patch around a third of the way in, I still loved it. I have theories about what comes next and can’t wait for book four. If you decide to pick these up, do read them in order. B+/A-.
6. Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel
This literary science fiction novel is book three in a kind of triptych that began with Mandel’s Station Eleven and continued with The Glass Hotel. Within those two books Mandel explored a pandemic, civilization, poverty and wealth, loners, ghosts, art, and alternate universes. Sea of Tranquility touches on these themes too, and also on time travel, kindness, and another, startling, theme. It also revisits a few characters from The Glass Hotel.>/p>
The book is ambitious, with four storylines and a unifying thread is about a tree that may connect different places and times, characters who have experiences they can’t explain, and an investigation into these things.
There were inconsistencies and unanswered questions in Sea of Tranquility, but also a lot of pleasures, including a central character whose heroism is all the more touching for being unsung.
7. Only a Monster by Vanessa Len
For the first half of Len’s debut, the first book in a new #ownvoices YA fantasy trilogy, I wouldn’t have imagined it would end up on my best of 2022 list. Early on, Joan, the British East Asian heroine, seemed bland, the love triangle a YA fantasy cliché, and the labels of “monster” and “hero” reductive. But my initial impression was so, so wrong.
In fact, two big themes of the book are that a character labeled as the “the hero” isn’t one and that Joan discovers both heroic and horrifying qualities in herself. She starts out unformed but her experiences in the book forge her into a stronger person and a distinctive character. To change the timeline and save her family from a massacre Joan has to steal time from other people’s lifespans, though she finds the act monstrous.
This book’s suspense, tension, and quality ramp up as the story unfolds and Joan and the reader learn more about the world and the people around her. There are classic time travel themes, hidden allies and scary foes, political machinations, a destructive attraction and more. The ending is a tour de force, and has the rare quality of feeling both surprising and inevitable.
8. What Souls are Made Of by Tasha Suri
Tasha Suri is one of the most impressive writers to appear on the fantasy genre’s horizon in a long time. What Souls are Made Of, a YA historical novel, is a departure for her. With care for history and for the source material, she retells Wuthering Heights as a book for today’s teens.
I am a Wuthering Heights fan and almost never touch retellings of favorite classics, but this one worked for me. The questions of what happened to Heathcliff after he left the heights, what he found away from the Yorkshire moors (both good and bad) and why he came back for Cathy, as well as what Cathy did and experienced during his absence are explored. Suri explores the history of South Asian sailors in Britain, and the story is grounded in themes of racism, identity, diversity and inclusivity, and they feel entirely organic. The characters are indelible and the writing moves from punchy to folkloric depending on the POV.
If not quite as atmospheric as Wuthering Heights (that would be a tall order), What Souls are Made Of is nevertheless moodier in atmosphere than most YA novels. When Jennie and I reviewed it I gave it a B, but it’s stuck with me long after other books I read this year have faded, so I think it deserves a B+ and a place on this list.
9. Liberation Day by George Saunders
George Saunders’ fourth collection of literary short stories was a mix of mostly fresh and interesting if not always successful glimpses into ordinary lives of (often) quiet desperation. Some characters were generous and caring, heroic in their own small and confused ways. Others were self-centered and disappointing not only to the people around them but also to me. But I am a picky reader when it comes to this form; literary short stories often don’t work for me.
Two of the nine were spectacular and a handful more very good. A few didn’t live up to their potential (the female characters in lacked the dimension of the male ones), but that still puts this literary collection head and shoulders above most for me. I’ve read “Love Letter” twice and am sure I’ll read it again, probably “Elliott Spencer” too. These two stories are good enough by themselves that I’m giving Liberation Day a B+.
10. Storm Echo by Nalini Singh
Nalini Singh’s twenty-first psy/changeling book begins with a sweet courtship. A separation caused by amnesia follows. Feline shifter Lei wants to confront the man she believes killed her pack members. Psy Ivan has his own vigilante quest. After they reunite they team up but Ivan has to grapple with a brain structure that may cause him to kill innocent people.
Lei made this book for me. She is open and sunny, warm to almost everyone she meets, and she has a love of colorful sundresses that Ivan indulges (her full name, Soleil, even means sun). She’s also a good match for quieter Ivan.
I love the amnesia trope and it was well-executed here both in terms of its role in the plot and in terms of how it’s portrayed. I’m tired of the impending doom trope and the last-minute solution to it but there’s much else I enjoyed, including Lei’s encounter with the DarkRiver pack and Ivan’s touching relationship with his tough-as-nails grandmother, Ena. Ena is one of my favorite characters in the series and she features heavily in the book, another big plus. B+ for me.
If you’ve read any of these ten books, I’d love to hear how they worked for you. Let me know in the comments!