Let’s look back at some of the most beloved books of 2022 and decide which should be added to your TBR. Thankfully, it was a great year for fiction, and the literary world is still seeing a sort of post-pandemic renaissance. The spirit of cautious optimism is in the air, but what does that mean for your year-end reading list? Whether you’re looking for a gift for a fellow book lover or just want to keep up with what’s hot, here are some of our favorite must-read recent releases.
The Philosophy of Modern Song
Bob Dylan’s unique creative poise comes through in The Philosophy of Modern Song, his first piece of writing since 2004. The book is less a memoir about his own career and more a collection of lessons he’s learned from other artists he’s met. With reverential riffs sprinkled between them, each of Dylan’s essays talks at length about the nature of writing music, pitfalls of rhythm and melody, as well as the challenges of the music industry. Dylan’s reflective, easy-going, down-to-Earth nature comes through in every verse and story. As with all of Bob Dylan’s art, The Philosophy of Modern Song has a meditative feel to it, and feels like a humorous conversation with an old friend.
I’m Glad My Mom Died
This provocatively-titled memoir has been a hot topic since it’s release in August, and those who’ve yet to check it out should know that the hype is warranted. Author Jenette McCarthy is best known for her role as Sam in the hit Nickelodeon sitcom “iCarly”. But McCarthy had been pushed to become a child actor by her overbearing mother, whose controlling methods and obsession with fame completely dictated McCarthy’s childhood. McCarthy earnestly recounts how she spiraled after her mother’s death of cancer, and how all the beliefs her mother had forced onto her had made her miserable.
The book’s title encapsulated McCarthy’s journey of self-love and acceptance, recognizing her mother’s faults and making her own life after picking up the pieces. Witty, relatable, and inspirational, I’m Glad My Mom Died is a must-read for any one of us who struggle shirking the effects of childhood trauma.
The Rabbit Hutch
If you’re a sucker for insulated fictional stories that prioritize dynamic characters over a world-ending conflict, this book is for you. In author Tess Gunty’s debut novel, we follow a woman named Blandine, living in her first apartment after growing out of the foster care system. She lives with three boys in a similar situation, though Blandine doesn’t care for them very much. In fact, there are a whole host of eccentric neighbors living in the building – an obituary writer, a mysterious young mother, and a woman at war with rodents.
But Blandine knows nothing about any of these people, and over the course of a week, will learn more about her odd neighbors that perhaps she’d like, all culminating in a shocking climax. The Rabbit Hutch is all about the absurd, interconnected lives of these people living in a deteriorating town. The realistic yet uniquely odd traits of Blandine and those around her are beautifully detailed.
Sea of Tranquility
This novel comes from the acclaimed author of The Glass Hotel and Station Eleven, the latter of which spawned a critically masterful television series. Emily St. John Mandel’s expertise for writing speculative fiction reaches its full potential in this story, which begins in 1912 with a young lord exiled from his home. He hears a strange violin song in the wilderness, the very same dreamlike experience that will be described in Olive Llewellyn’s novel two centuries after. Llewellyn’s near-future reality consists of a humanity that lives on a number of moon colonies, one expounded upon even further into the future with a detective named Gaspery.
Across these multiple centuries lies a common thread: that anomaly the young lord faced in the past seems to repeat and grow with each new protagonist’s perspective. A blip in time and space that Gaspery time-travels to find the root of.
Sea of Tranquility has very little of the typical sci-fi flare, but nonetheless crafts a complex future society plagued by pandemic and colored by many lives. While the time travel plot device is a challenge to wrap one’s head around, Mandel reveals each new layer to the splitting fabric of time with care. Is our reality simply a simulation, or is it a universe connected to many others? Mandel’s discussion of these existential questions will be a joy for fans of Mandel’s previous works.
Nightcrawling is the incredible debut novel for author Leila Mottley, one of the youngest recipients of the Booker Prize. The book follows a young woman named Kiara, 17 years old but burdened with the care of her brother after the abandonment of their mother and death of their father. Kiara has no time or reason to think about teenager things, not when she’s desperate to find a way to support them as well as the young boy in her building whose mother neglects him. As Kiara wonders how she’ll make ends meet, a drunken encounter with a stranger leaves her $200 richer, and Kiara takes up night-crawling.
Nightcrawling is as much a story about hope as it is about depravity. It’s about the silent struggle of those too often ignored, those who suffer and die to the ignorance or the apathy of the system meant to protect them.
Mottley’s incredible semantics are such a joy to read, poignant enough to illustrate the tragedy of the characters’ lives without waxing poetic. Ever in Mottley’s prose there’s the necessary maturity of trauma, Kiara’s unwitting contemplation of the streets and how they’re doomed to consume them. This novel perfectly encapsulates the human condition, the author so earnest in her portrayal of the absurd and repulsive norm of her characters that every one of Kiara’s victories is a critical one.
Prisoners of the Castle
Author Ben Macintyre is no stranger to historical fiction, as his previous works retelling wartime myths and spy epics are fully on display in Prisoners of the Castle. The real-life castle in question is Colditz Castle, a prison used by the Nazis for housing their most defiant POWs during WWII. Within this prison, and under the harsh hand of their German jailers, are an array of Allied heroes. Macintyre blends true history with his own touch of intriguing fictional writing to unravel the many lives of these prisoners, their escape attempts, their pasts, and the horrors of life under Nazi control.
Unlikely friendships and heart-wrenching tragedy transform these many different stories into one dramatic tale about those at the heart of WWII. When Germany begins to crumble, the stakes for these POWs couldn’t be higher. The bonds they’ve formed, and their motivations to survive this war, make Prisoners of the Castle a riveting read.
Lessons in Chemistry
Lessons in Chemistry is a colorful, comedic yet hard-hitting book about a female chemist trying to find her footing in the 1950’s and 60’s. Disrespected and downright harassed by her male peers, protagonist Elizabeth Zott must struggle constantly with being taken seriously in the scientific world. When her star-crossed relationship ends in divorce and a child for her to raise by herself, Elizabeth finds herself the reluctant host of an insanely popular cooking show. The popularity of the show stems almost entirely from her uniquely scientific methods of cooking, but her shattering of the status quo is making many people unhappy.
Any woman reading Lessons in Chemistry will find multiple occasion where the character’s experiences are all too relatable. Author Bonnie Garmus plays off of the hilariously ridiculous stereotypes of the time, the archetypal expectations women are constantly meant to uphold.
Zott’s self-assured wit challenges the status quo not by renouncing it, but by facing it with confidence and optimism. Throughout the story are similarly relatable struggles of juggling work with life as a single parent. Through the game of love, Zott relates to those like her. This book is funny, down-to-Earth, inspiring and a downright blast to read.
City on Fire
If you’re a fan of historical fiction about love, fate, and crime empires in the throes of war, City on Fire is the right book for you. The first novel of Don’s Winslow’s latest series focuses on the story of Danny Ryan, whose father is leader of the Irish crime empire in Providence, Rhode Island. It’s the 1980s, and the Irish mob shares power over Providence with the Italian mafia. But that alliance is forfeit when the two crime bosses begin fighting over a woman, while trying to stay independent from the syndicates in New York and Boston. All the while Danny tries to find his way, desperate to separate himself from the dynasty and live a normal, honest life.
Winslow’s tone and narrative structure has all the tragic awe of a burning building, and that cynicism extends to Danny’s own attempts to separate himself from his criminal identity. Raw, contemplative, and suspenseful, City on Fire is a must-read crime thriller.
The Marriage Portrait
Another novel of great popularity in the latter half of the year is The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O’Farrell. Fans of the author will find the time period and subject matter familiar, and O’Farrell takes advantage of her obvious knowledge of this time and place in history. The story, set in Renaissance Italy, follows the third daughter of the de Micini Grand Duke, Lucrezia. Lucrezia, not even eighteen, quite enjoys her lower standing in the palazzo, but is forcibly thrust into the limelight when her elder sister dies.
The Farranese Duke set to marry her demands Lucrezia take her place, and the young girl finds herself a duchess in the thick of political intrigue. She’s perturbed by her new husband, who flips from playful socialite to ruthless politician, and is despised by the noble court. Lucrezia struggles to perform her primary duty: providing an heir to the Farranese dynasty.
Lucrezia is a relatable and inspiring protagonist, as shaken as anyone could be by the constant political pitfalls. Nevertheless, the young woman continues to set a brave foot forward in everything she does, from preserving her image as Duchess to satisfying her strange husband. O’Farrell does an excellent job immersing the reader into this fictional version of 1500’s Florence. We’re all rooting for Lucrezia to survive this crazy life, where challenge lies even in sitting for a marriage portrait. Scandal, determination, love and murder make The Marriage Portrait the period piece page-turner of the year.
Babel: Or the Necessity of Violence
Love dark academia? Interested in a historical fantasy wherein Hogwarts meets Victorian-era Oxford? Then R.F. Kuang’s hit new novel Babel might just be the next read for you. We begin with an immigrant boy from China named Robin. Robin is down on his luck in unfamiliar England, and discovered by a professor at Oxford University. This Oxford, however, has a magical twist: its department of translation, otherwise known as Babel, magically inscribes texts lost in translation using silver bars.
This power of knowledge gives Britain its unprecedented power, a power that looks to threaten the sovereignty of Robin’s home country. An underground organization meant to combat Britain’s imperialist takeover tries to recruit Robin, who battles between his learned love of Oxford and the desire to aid his people.
Over 500 pages long, Babel is a slow burn of carefully unraveling context that makes the pay off that much more incredible. Robin’s relationships and his split allegiances are the portrait through which the magic of this fantasy reality is painted. The realistic aspect of this history, told by an author clearly well-versed in true events, creates such an immersive world that gradually evolves with the human condition at its core. Is violence required to spark change, or is an intellectual reset possible? Brilliantly written and deeply unique, Babel is an instant New York Times Best-Seller for good reason.
The Candy House
Jennifer Egan takes science fiction fantasy and transforms it into a vessel for discussing social media in The Candy House. Bix Bouton is a character of fiction whose real life inspirations we can readily recognize: a tech giant whose a household name that’s created a device too enticing not to buy into. The device is called the Mandala Cube, which utilizes a technology that allows you to “Own Your Unconscious”. Essentially, anyone can use the device to access any and all of their memories, whether consciously recalled or not, and share them with others online.
The disjointed points of views we follow throughout the novel offer various opinions and lifestyles all influenced by the technology commonly referred to as ‘The Candy House’. Some excerpts are simply a string of fictional Twitter threads while others follow the existential spiraling of “eluders,” or those who staunchly criticize the Candy House and refuse to use it.
All of it is a modern, abstract discussion on the nature of social media. Egan ponders what determines one’s identity, what can and should be recalled from one’s life, and how these experiences affect how one relates to the outside world. Hanging over the personal trauma or salvation of being privy to all of one’s memories is the presence of those seeking to exploit them. If you’re up for an existential reflection on how the interpersonal nature of the internet influences you, than The Candy House is just the right mind-bending read.
Round Up Your Must-Read Favorites!
It’s a great time for fiction, especially speculative fantasy. With current events being what they are, many authors are prioritizing self-reflection in the context of humanity over sprawling epics. But who knows what the future of critically-acclaimed literature will look like. Whatever the case, we’ll be on the lookout for more show-stopping works!