First, a brief commercial. You can get a free browser plug-in called “Library Extension” that is pure magic: any time you load a book’s page on Amazon.com, the extension will show you if your local library has it in its collection, and then let you place a hold on it with a click or two. This has absolutely increased my reading rate while simultaneously saving me money.
This year I didn’t read as much non-fiction as I have in some past years, and, of what I did read, most of it was solidly average. This year featured four standouts:
Extra Life: a marvelous recounting of the history of life extension, wandering off along the way into epidemiology, statistics, actuarial science, and a variety of other goodies. Captivating.
Running the Dream: suppose, as an amateur runner, you put your normal life on hold and went to train with elite professional runners. How much could you improve? Funny, moving, and motivating, all at the same time.
Bonk: the delightful Mary Roach, our national literary treasure, turns her wit to the topic of human sexual behavior. Five stars. Anything else I say would be a spoiler.
Full Spectrum: you might not think a book about the science of color would be that interesting, but Adam Rogers has tied together color theory, physics, chemistry, optics, archaeology, economics, and history to tell the story of how humans perceive color and what influence that’s had over the centuries on commerce, art, science, and society.
Now, on to fiction. This year (so far, anyway), I read 128 works of fiction. Some were disappointing (Stross’ Dead Lies Dreaming, Burke’s Every Cloak Rolled in Blood); others were good, but not exceptional. This year’s best from my POV:
Damascus Station: a tense, taut, tradecraft-y thriller from a former CIA case officer, set in the unfamiliar territory of modern-day Damascus. A standout choice because of its plotting and tension.
American War: vividly imagined tale of a future America after the second Civil War. It is simultaneously exactly what you’d expect (north vs south, anyone?) and nothing like you’d expect.
How Lucky: like Hitchcock’s Rear Window, but set in Athens, Georgia — a wheelchair-bound man sees something that might be evidence of a crime and chaos ensues. Booklist said “beautifully written and suspenseful, at the same time being all about goodness and caring without once being sappy, or, well, sentimental,” and I can’t improve on that description at all.
The Deep Blue Good-By: why, oh, why, hadn’t I read any of the Travis McGee books before?!
The Oracle Year: imagine that you woke up one day with foreknowledge of the future, but it’s things like “the bodega on 34th Street will be robbed on June 9th”. What would you do? Probably not what the characters in this book did. Very cleverly plotted, with terrific and memorable characters.
Termination Shock: finally, a Neal Stephenson book where he returns to his old form. After his last couple of stinkers, it’s nice to know he hasn’t completely crossed the Heinlein-Clancy line, or the point in an author’s career in which commercial success leads to the mistaken belief that editors are superfluous.
The Fifth Season: it took me a while to warm up to this book, but the more I read, the more engrossed I was with the characters and the world that Jemisin has built. I’m looking forward to the other books in the series.
Cold Water: the next installment in the fantastic “Fractured Europe” sequence that started with Europe in Autumn. I went back and re-read the first 4 books in the series and was delighted with how much more I enjoyed them after a decade of travel throughout Europe; my expanded experience added a lot of flavor.
Amok: the latest installment from Barry Eisler goes back to the early 1990s to provide a back-story for Dox, one of my favorite characters in his other books. It is at once an origin story, a meditation on forgiveness and growth, an exploration of the Indonesian civil war, a travelogue, and a love story. It’s been a real pleasure to see Eisler’s characters grow and evolve, along with his storytelling skill, over the years.
Noble House: 1300+ pages of soap opera set in 1963 Hong Kong. This book was perhaps the best I read this year from a standpoint of evoking a sense of time and place as I read it. Michener and Clavell (and maybe Wouk) practically invented the 1970s genre of “massive doorstops of historical fiction” and this is probably the ultimate example of the genre.
I’ve already got quite a backlist for 2023, so expect to see another list around this time next year!