Every year in December I briefly review some of the books that I read in the past year that came out that year. Share some of your most memorable reads in the comments below!
For me, this year’s books had some real highs and lows and one notable trend: This year, the publishing industry has caught up with modern news enough that present-day books are starting to include references to covid. It was jarring to see in fiction, even though I knew it would roll around at some point. It was just odd to see covid make the transition from YouTube sketches to the printed word. The first 2022 book I read dealt with a group of college-aged kids, so there were references to them having gone through the pandemic and having classes over Zoom, even if that’s not the focus of the book. The second book barreled right in with a story of a lockdown-era delivery driver, with talk of all the masks and vaccines and financial woes that the pandemic entailed. Even a mystery story had one character obsessed with masks and other marks of our current society. They weren’t all like that, but you get the idea.
The books I’m reviewing this year are…
- Portrait of a Thief by Grace D. Li – 2/5 [Crime]
- The Kaiju Preservation Society by John Scalzi – 3/5 [SciFi]
- What Happened to the Bennetts by Lisa Scottoline – 4/5 [Thriller]
- The Diamond Eye by Kate Quinn – 4/5 [Historical]
- Zelensky by Andrew L. Urban and Chris McLeod – 1/5 [Nonfiction Biography]
- A Rip Through Time by Kelley Armstrong – 2/5 [Fantasy]
- The Woman in the Library by Sulari Gentill – 4/5 [Mystery]
- Extension Squad, Vol. 1 by R.M. Scheller – 4/5 [SciFi Light Novel]
- A Magic Steeped in Poison by Judy I. Lin – 3/5 [YA Fantasy]
- The House Across the Lake by Riley Sager – 4/5 [Paranormal]
- Babel by R.F. Kuang – 3/5 [Fantasy]
Portrait of a Thief by Grace D. Li – 2/5
This is the slowest-moving heist book I’ve ever read. I had some hopes for it going in. The premise is that five young Chinese-Americans steal Chinese art from the West to return to China (for a sizeable fee). That sounded like it could be interesting, but the premise is all it has going for it. While the Chinese art restoration does inform the characters’ motivations to some extent, having a motive is the bare minimum bar for a crime novel to clear. The bulk of the novel was spent on slow, extremely repetitive musings. I wasn’t invested in these characters who agreed to this major life decision on a whim and then just fumbled through it.
As far as action goes, things start to happen about halfway through the novel, but it’s not the focus. For instance, there’s a street race with a lot riding on it, but instead of delivering action or excitement, the race is about a page of the driver thinking about her past and then cutting to the aftermath of the race. In the end, the heist crew found a fine and realistic resolution to their problems, but by that point, I just wanted the book to be over. If you’re looking for a fun heist book, this is not for you.
The Kaiju Preservation Society by John Scalzi – 3/5
Like the last book, this one sounded like it could’ve been interesting but didn’t deliver. It’s fine as escapist entertainment, but there’s not much to it. This one was a quick read, at least.
It has a fun premise for a world: a parallel Earth full of nuclear-powered kaiju that make up their own little ecosystems. Unfortunately, it spends most of its time on worldbuilding rather than storytelling, and that worldbuilding usually comes in info-dumps. It needs more “show, don’t tell.” The book is dialog-heavy and often falls into the “talking heads” trap where we just get people talking back and forth without other actions or descriptions. Most of the characters speak with the same quick, quippy voice, making this an even worse strategy. When there are so many characters introduced at the same time without other defining characteristics, they become interchangeable and unmemorable. None of them even seem too freaked out when they’re introduced to the monster world. They’re just placeholder people.
I wanted more descriptions the world, especially the titular kaiju. Mostly, the descriptions of these creatures were various ways of saying that they’re really big. I also would’ve liked a better picture of the environment and the characters. A couple outfits were described, but no people at all from what I can remember.
This book didn’t leave much of a lasting impression. It was fine to pass the time with (especially since it was so short), but it lacked substance. This made sense when I finally got to the end and read the author’s note. In it, Scalzi says he was writing a completely different book but couldn’t meet his publishing deadline. KPS popped into his head, and he conceived it and wrote during the span of a couple months. The rush job shows, but it could be the outline of something good if it ever gets a redo.
What Happened to the Bennetts by Lisa Scottoline – 4/5
This book, about a family who goes into witness protection after a violent encounter with a gang, kept me hooked from beginning to end. There are a few little things that I would’ve liked to go differently, but I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend the book to most people.
I say most people, because the book starts off with a member of this loving family getting murdered. The first half of the book is mostly about the family grieving, so not everyone would be in the right frame of mind to read this. This half of the book is where the author shines. She digs into the psyche of this family and gets her audience to feel their pain. I was surprised that this part of the book went on so long, since it was advertised as a thriller, but I enjoyed it all the same.
Then the thriller arrives in the second part of the book, with the dad running around trying to get answers and running into bad guys. This part was more by-the-numbers, and nothing special stood out about it. In one sense, it was better than many thrillers, since I already cared about the lead and his family, but the clues and twists were average. I also would’ve liked to see his wife contributing more, since we spent so much time with the whole family in the beginning. When the book pivoted from the whole family to focus on just the dad, it was a wasted opportunity. That being said, I was still invested, and I was satisfied with the book and its ending.
The Diamond Eye by Kate Quinn – 4/5
This story, very loosely based off the life of Lyudmila Pavlichenko, a successful Russian sniper who befriended Eleanor Roosevelt, made for a fascinating read. It captured the desperate feeling of an era. It fleshed out the lead character as she tried to do everything she needed to do and be everything to her son. My only complaints would be that the descriptions of side characters got repetitive, and the obligatory love story annoyed me. In a novel about war and assassination attempts, this was the only part that dragged. The conflict with Mila’s ex-husband added tension in a way that made sense and added to the story. I understand what the author was doing with her other romantic suitors, giving Mila people that she could connect with, but the author could’ve hit all the same story beats if they were just friends or brothers-in-arms, and it would’ve made the story shorter and tighter.
Zelensky: The Unlikely Ukrainian Hero Who Defied Putin and United the World by Andrew L. Urban and Chris McLeod – 1/5
Like many people these days, I’d like to learn more about Volodymyr Zelensky, one of the most newsworthy figures of the year. Unfortunately, this book seems like it was rushed through production to quickly fill that niche without any regard for quality.
I’d advise other readers to wait for a more in-depth book. I only finished this one because it was short, and some of the chapter headings looked like they’d have interesting information. Unfortunately, snippets of information are heavily padded by repetition and filler. Most of the content is information that’s easily accessible online without much research. Large passages of the book text are lifted straight from speeches and other peoples’ blogs. I could understand quoting speeches from Zelensky and other notable figures, except that these quotes are used over and over. The frequent blog posts are even worse, since the authors lean on these posts instead of analyzing or opining much on their own. The author voices moly appear to make partisan comments about American politics.
The book begins with information about Russia and Ukraine with bits about Zelensky in there. (Like I said, there’s a lot of filler, like a chapter that goes on and on about different companies that have imposed sanctions on Russia.) About halfway into this biography, there’s some information on the man himself, followed by chapters that read more like appendixes. For example, there are brief summaries of other related world events. These are relevant, but they’re very surface-level and clearly only in there to make the book longer. The book also has some editing errors, but that’s the least of my concerns.
All in all, the authors didn’t seem to spend much time on this book, and I wish I hadn’t, either.
A Rip Through Time by Kelley Armstrong – 2/5
While I was looking forward to a time travel mystery, I mostly found a pretentious slog. The main character, a policewoman who’s attacked by a stranger and sent back in time, spends way too much time musing over class, race, and gender. It would make sense to have these worked in thematically, but not delivered as a lecture. Any time a character defies a stereotype, the policewoman (Mallory) points it out. She also thinks of herself as clever. For instance, one of her less-than-helpful observations was that kids who start off in a bad situation can have trouble later in life. She points out (in her internal narrative) that she knew because of her sociology degree. I think the reader is supposed to find insights like this profound, instead of common sense. Besides that, the villain was obvious, and the plot points were predictable.
On the positive side, the book picks up about halfway through, as Mallory finds allies and we have people besides her to follow. The end was set up to leave room for sequels, so maybe it’s best to treat it like the awkward pilot episode in a TV series, since those never really count. There’s a chance I’d pick up a sequel to see if it got better, since it was at least headed in the right direction. I think I’d enjoy some of the side cast if the author/narrator didn’t go through such pains to point out whenever they had layers or were outside what she would’ve expected. If she stops doing that, I’d like to see how some of these people develop.
The Woman in the Library by Sulari Gentill – 4/5
While books about books tend to be overdone fanservice, this is the exact opposite of that, since the premise serves a purpose. The main storyline and the framing device are cleverly woven together for a unique and enjoyable experience. The biggest drawback for me is that there aren’t enough descriptions to make the world rich or real. It seemed like an intentional choice by the author, but the result was that I only had a vague idea of the people or space. I couldn’t picture anything, and none of it felt lived-in. The main character didn’t have much of a personality, either. Still, it was a quick, twisty journey that I enjoyed, and I’ll be looking for more of this author’s books in the future.
Extension Squad, Vol. 1 by R. M. Scheller – 4/5
This is the first in a new light novel series, which revolves around death row inmates with superpowers. In this world, criminals can push back their execution dates with difficult or dangerous acts of community service. The world and premise work well together, and the diverse characters react to their situation in a variety of ways. They all have different ways of coping with the environment, and they had good chemistry. This first volume did a solid job setting up the characters and setting, and I look forward to seeing whatever disasters await the squad in future books.
A Magic Steeped in Poison by Judy I. Lin – 3/5
This YA fantasy revolves around a tea-brewing magic system. A girl named Ning enters a competition to be the royal tea-making magician in order to win a favor from the princess. (Ning’s sister is suffering from a tea-related poison that’s sweeping the empire, and Ning is hoping the court holds the antidote.)
For the whole book, I was going back and forth about how I felt about it. To start off with, tea magic is a cool concept. The book also leans heavily into atmosphere, especially in regards to tea, food, and the history of the world. I enjoyed this to some extent, since atmosphere and sensory details can suck the reader in. However, it dragged on in a lot of scenes, bogging down the story. The plot and characters themselves were standard YA fare. The story beats were obvious, and as soon as a character appeared, it was clear what role that character would play. There were a few moments here and there that struck an emotional chord, especially involving tasks that characters perform during the competition. That plus the world-building was enough to keep me engaged. In the end, I’m not sorry I read it, but I’m also not rushing out to buy the sequel.
The House Across the Lake by Riley Sager – 4/5
This was a fun ride with interesting twists and turns – some of which I didn’t see coming – but that’s it. There’s not much reread value. I might glance back at earlier chapters to see some of what I missed, but there’s nothing else to come back for. I’m not invested enough in the characters or world. However, I’ll probably try other books by this author to see if he can surprise me again.
Babel, Or the Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution by R.F. Kuang – 3/5
Babel is an alternate-history fantasy novel that has a lot of text and no subtext. The text itself was a mixed bag, with some pros and cons.
The magic system and world around it were creative and thought out to their logical social conclusions. In short, magic is done using silver bars with the spell written in two languages, so whoever casts the spell must be fluent in both. The book explores how people, knowledge, and resources are all used as commodities, giving the book a message and purpose beyond entertainment. However, most of the world-building and societal themes explored in this massive book come through a series of lectures, with slivers of action squeezed between these.
As I read this book, I was constantly on the verge of quitting it, but it was always just promising enough to keep going. It was a book of contradictions, mixing hints of magical prose with blocks of tedious info-dumping. The author was clearly passionate about languages and history and society. She obviously put a lot of thought into research and invention, but it was presented joylessly. The book came across like an essay – one padded with references to other works, historical sidebars, etc. By nature, the work is going to be grim, since it’s a dark academia book addressing colonialism, racism, sexism, and other social issues, but it should still have a spark of life to it. It should also have subtext and nuance, which it lacked. Again, there were some passages that showcased great skill with descriptions and ideas, and this made the rest of the book that much more disappointing by comparison.