Kat’s 2022 Book List

Fiction

  1. The 10th Muse, by Catherine Chung. I’m not sure how I chose this novel, but I’m glad I did. I thoroughly enjoyed it and found the storytelling exceptional. Given my utter lack of facility in math, it’s a bit surprising that The 10th Muse was the second novel about a female mathematician I’ve read in the last 12 months. I had to do a bit of research on Chung, given that she shares the protagonist’s first name and Chinese roots. Apparently Chung did study math for a time, but did not become a mathematician. I couldn’t locate her birthdate, but from her photo, I’m guessing she is considerably younger than her same-named protagonist, who was born during WWII. Setting Catherine’s story in a somewhat earlier time than her own gave Chung a better opportunity to explore the extreme sexism of the mathematics academic discipline. The other major story, an engrossing one, is Catherine’s quest to learn about her biological parents. Terrific novel. I recommend it.
  2. Rutherford Park, by Elizabeth Cooke. This novel about British aristocracy just before WWI in 1913 took me a while to get into, and I had a few false starts. Ultimately, it didn’t knock my socks off but was a pretty good read with lots of family drama in which the Lord and Lady seem to have a loveless marriage, their heir has an unfortunate dalliance with a maid, and their daughter gets mixed up in a revenge plot related to her father. I perked up when an intriguing American entered the picture and started wooing the Lady. I wasn’t in love with the narrator.
  3. I, Eliza Hamilton, by Susan Holloway Scott. Those who know my reading habits will not be surprised that I read a novelized bio of Eliza Hamilton even though I’d already read a novelized bio of Eliza Hamilton (My Dear Hamilton: A Novel of Eliza Schuyler Hamilton, by Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie). I’ve also read Ron Chernow’s dense bio of Alexander himself, from which the blockbuster Hamilton musical was derived. Both the earlier Eliza novel and this one are written in first person. They have similar narrators. My Dear Hamilton was one of my favorite books of 2020, but I don’t recall it clearly enough to be able to say one Eliza book is better than the other. I enjoyed both. The only real difference I can point to is that the authors of My Dear Hamilton devoted much more space to Hamilton’s death in a duel with Aaron Burr than Scott did. Hamilton, of course, was really the focus of both books, and alas, Eliza wouldn’t have much of a story without him. Eliza steadfastly supports him and believes he can do no wrong (even when he does) in both books. Maybe the world is due for a re-imagining of the Eliza and Alexander story.
  4. The Sentence is Death, by Anthony Horowitz. This was my fourth novel from the extremely prolific Horowitz (80+ books) and a perfectly pleasant, serviceable but unremarkable whodunnit. What I have most liked about the Horowitz books I’ve read are his clever gimmicks, such as making himself a character in his books, tucking a novel within a novel. Horowitz also makes himself a character in The Sentence is Death, so the gimmick didn’t feel especially fresh. The novel was the second in a series about a private investigator; I didn’t read the first one.
  5. The Woman in White, by Willkie Collins. I always strive to read at least one literary classic annually, usually from the 19th century. I knew almost nothing about Collins, but the book, from 1860, sounded intriguing. Willkie’s writing is marvelous, with wonderful turns of phrase. A humble drawing teacher falls in love with his aristocratic pupil, but she is betrothed to a baron at her late father’s behest. Once she marries said baron, a complicated conspiracy unfolds. The story is intricate and compelling but probably could have been shorter. The tale is told through multiple narrators, and by that I don’t mean Audible narrators but narrators specifically designated as such by the author. Two Audible narrators – one make and one female – cover all the narration roles.
  6. Sisters One, Two, Three, by Nancy Star. A dysfunctional-family story told in dual timelines. This story, in which three sisters confront a long ago tragedy, was reasonably absorbing. Narrated by Cassandra Campbell, a prolific narrator who has narrated many books I’ve read.
  7. The Parted Earth, by Anjali Enjeti. This book, which won a 2021 Audie Award for Best Female Narrator for Deepti Gupta, falls into one of my favorite genres – women of India and Indian-American women. I always learn something about Indian culture and history when I read books in this genre, and this one was no exception. In particular, I learned about extreme discrimination against Muslims and overall violence in the late 1940s in India, fomented by the partition of India in 1947, which divided British India into India and Pakistan along religious lines, with Muslims in Pakistan and Hindus in India. I had heard the term “partition,” but really didn’t know the details. Like most of the books I’ve read in this genre, this one was culturally rich and narratively satisfying. I found the narration perfectly fine, but honestly, nothing special.
  8. The Match, by Harlan Coben. After six Cobens in 2021, my first Coben of 2022. This one convenes two characters that, not only has Coben written about before, but one of them is from a Coben book that has been turned into a Netflix series – but with gender changed (The Stranger). The Netflix Cobens are also set in the UK. I had thought the other character, Wilde, was also part of a Coben Netflix film but must have mixed it up with another UK-set series. Wilde was found as a boy living feral in the woods, with no memory of his past. The ending of The Match explains how he got there. I will now need to read the first Wilde book, The Boy from the Woods (see next entry). I’m wondering if it will reveal how Wilde supports himself. He doesn’t seem to have a job but does a fair amount of traveling to solve mysteries. Coben likes to build his storylines around trendy topics; this time it’s genetic genealogy. The Match was one of Coben’s better books, though I’ve liked them all to one extent or another. He seems to have tightened up his storytelling over the years. While his earlier books seemed unnecessarily long, this one is just the right length.
  9. The Boy from the Woods, by Harlan Coben. This first entry in the Wilde series does, in fact, answer the question of how Wilde makes a living; he was one of the founders of a private-security company. While he’s no longer active in the firm, he’s still a silent partner, enjoying profits from the company. The trendy topic in this Coben novel is a Trump-like presidential candidate from the realm of reality TV (the book was published in 2020). He’s not meant to be Trump, as Coben mentions Trump as a real person, but he has many of the same characteristics. The plot involves high-schoolers caught up in this candidate’s efforts to keep scandalous videos, especially one that seemingly shows the candidate committing murder, from becoming public. Like Trump, the candidate is Teflon and suffers no consequences for his misdeeds. I didn’t like this one quite as much as The Match, but I enjoyed the familiar characters and precursors to the plot of The Match.
  10. Still Lives, by Maria Hummel. A thriller set in the art world is a good combo for me, and this one was decent. Narrated by a reliable (though sometimes breathless) member of the Audible stable, Tavia Gilbert, whom I’ve listened to a number of times, the story concerns the disappearance of a famous photographer just as her first exhibition in 10 years is opening. Once the killer was unveiled, the novel continued for 40 minutes, which usually indicates a twist – that the killer was not the killer. But not in this case. The extra 40 minutes amounted to little and could have been omitted.
  11. Dear Mrs. Bird, by AJ Pierce. This novel, set in London during WWII, is mostly lighthearted and even humorous, but also provides dramatic and horrific glimpses into the air raids of the London Blitz by the Germans. The protagonist is an aspiring war reporter who lands a very entry-level job selecting and typing letters for a picky advice columnist, Mrs. Bird, who refuses to advise on anything touching on “immoral.” Thus, our heroine, Emmy, embarks on helping the likes of unwed mothers, victims of affairs, and girls considering “going all the way” with their beaus. She also works for the fire brigade that handles fires during air raids. In fact, the book turns out to focus almost more attention on the lives of young women during the Blitz than on Emmy’s work with Mrs. Bird. An author’s note at the end affirms this attention was her intention. She was inspired to write the book after coming across a stash of women’s magazines published during WWII and was especially fascinated with what advice columns revealed about women’s lives at that time. I’ve always been struck by how the British seemed to carry on normal lives even as they were been bombed regularly; it calls to mind the tragic situation in Ukraine as I write these words.
  12. Seven Perfect Things, by Catherine Ryan Hyde. This was the fourth book I’ve read by Hyde, an author I like for her old-school style and heartwarming subject matter (e.g., kids, dysfunctional families, animals, curmudgeons). I enjoyed this one, about the intersection of an unhappy wife trapped in an abusive marriage, a grieving widower, and a teenager who rescues a litter of puppies from being drowned in a river. Authors who manage to create suspense even when the outcome is predictable deserve credit in my book.
  13. Mislaid, by Nell Zink. I’m giving this novel a “meh.” Just not sure what the author was trying to get across with it. I suspect it was meant to be humorous, given the line in the publisher’s summary that refers to a “comedic finale worthy of Shakespeare,” leaving me wondering if I read the same book they published. I do have a high humor threshold but didn’t find anything comedic anywhere in the book, which is set in the 1960s and 70s. It’s a dysfunctional-family story about a gay man and a lesbian (who may have been less aware of her gayness than her husband was of his) who marry. For unclear reasons, when the wife leaves her husband, she decides that she and her daughter will both identify as Black. Overall, the book was just narratively deficient – not enough story for me. Another Cassandra Campbell narration.
  14. Widow Walk, by Gar LaSalle. I was attracted to this piece of historical fiction because it’s set in the Pacific Northwest, specifically Washington Territory, albeit,the western/coastal portion, rather than eastern part where I live, in 1857. I enjoyed references to places I’ve been – Bellingham and Port Townsend – and places I haven’t (Whidbey Island). No mention of Seattle, which was only 6 years old at the time. To me, the book reads a lot more like history than fiction, largely because the author employs minimal dialogue. He does, however, draw from true events and real people (at least some of his characters are real). A major focus of the book is atrocities committed both on and by indigenous people. I liked the fact that the widow of the title is portrayed in empowering fashion. I learned a lot but found the storytelling lacking.
  15. Nine Lives, by Peter Swanson. Swanson seems to have published a book every year since 2015 (though he skipped 2016), and I’ve read five of the eight. I’ve written numerous times about his first book, the super twisty The Kind Worth Killing, which he has yet to surpass or even equal, but I’ve enjoyed all but one (All the Beautiful Lies, which was pretty bad). Nine Lives is peppered with pop-culture references, especially nods to famous mystery writers and their books. At least two other books of his celebrate these legends. Characters in Nine Lives liken the plot in which they find themselves to two of Agatha Christie’s books, 10 Little Indians (alternate title – one of several – And Then There Were None) and The ABC Murders; Swanson’s latest bears a resemblance to but is not exactly like these two. Though I often complain about books that are unnecessarily long, I wish Nine Lives had been longer; it whizzed by. I guess I’ll just have to dip into the three Swansons I haven’t read while waiting for next year’s entry. I’ll characterize Nine Lives the same way I did Anthony Horowitz’s The Sentence is Death above: “perfectly pleasant, serviceable but unremarkable whodunnit” as well as a “whydunnit.” No major twists, but a small nice one at the end.
  16. What Was Mine, by Helen Klein Ross. I was engaged in this story of an unhappily childless woman who impulsively steals a baby while its mother isn’t paying attention at an Ikea store. The book was somewhat marred by a preposterous premise that led to its climax, but I was intrigued by the fact that the reader (or at least this reader) has a modicum of sympathy for the kidnapper woman even when no real excuse or redemption for her heinous act is present. The ending is also abrupt, but somewhat satisfying.
  17. The Widow, by KL Slater. This psychological thriller was recommended to me by my good friend Holly Reslink. I was engaged in its no fewer than 4 mysteries, none of which came out the way the reader might have guessed based on early evidence (although I did guess one murderer). The novel also explores the choices a widowed spouse may make in trying to protect the deceased spouse’s reputation and reverse public opinion.
  18. The Cape Doctor, by E. J. Levy, is inspired by the life of Dr. James Barry (born Margaret Anne Bulkley), who performed the first recorded Caesarean delivery. In the book, the “character” is Dr. James Miranda Perry. The author notes that she changed the name simply to underscore that the book is fiction. Barry lived as a man in both public and private life, at least in part to be accepted as a university student, and to pursue a career as a surgeon. SPOILER ALERT: The same is true of Perry. Barry’s biological sex became known to the public and to military colleagues only after an autopsy, which also seemed to show pregnancy stretch marks, suggesting Barry had given birth at some point. The details of Barry’s life align closely with the story of the book’s protagonist. After entering the military, Barry was posted to Cape Town, South Africa, in 1816. Barry had a letter of introduction to the Governor, Lieutenant Governor General Lord Charles Somerset. In real life, Barry had a close relationship with Somerset and was considered part of his family. In the novelization, for Perry, the relationship with Somerset becomes something more. Somerset discovers Perry’s true gender, and they become lovers, Perry’s alleged pregnancy is thus explained as a result of this affair. Barry (and Perry) live another 30 years after Somerton’s death, but Levy devotes only 1:47 minutes to those years. I enjoyed the novel, especially how closely it hewed to the truth.
  19. The Good Left Undone, by Adriana Trigiani. Trigiani may just be my current favorite author, and her 2022 novel does not disappoint. I strongly agree with the description in one review – that The Good Left Undone is an “immersive saga.” To that I would add, an “immersive family saga.” I believe this is her only novel in which the US plays virtually no part; the story is set in Italy, Scotland, and France. The centerpiece is Domenica, a nurse who comes of age as facism is growing in Italy, and Europe is moving toward war. Domenica is temporarily banished from her beloved family and Italy when a kindness she offers a patient offends the Catholic church. Her return to her homeland is significantly delayed by the onset of WWII, and the reader (this reader anyway) gains insight into the shabby treatment Italians in other countries received during the time. In a current-day storyline, Domenica’s story is rediscovered, and her influence felt on her descendants. Trigiani’s writing and storytelling are top notch; a shipwreck scene is especially gripping. As an aside, I am reasonably sure the author has produced no novel that fails to mention Golden-Age movie star Myrna Loy, and this one is no exception. I had a heat-warming exchange with Trigiani in Facebook over this quirk. The first book I read of hers, All the Stars in the Heavens was an “old Hollywood” tale and remains my favorite of hers. I hope she someday features Loy in an “old Hollywood” story.
  20. Scarlet Feather, by Maeve Binchy. The late Irish author Maeve Binchy was one of my mother’s favorite authors, and I always had the sense I would also enjoy her writing. My first dip into Binchy’s extensive oeuvre affirmed my hunch. Binchy plunges us (or at least me) into a world we don’t want to leave, even though it’s about everyday family life. Sure, this world features twists and turns and conflict, and it’s engaging and enjoyable. Because the book is relatively lengthy, we can spend a good long, satisfying time in that world. At the center of Scarlet Feather are and male and female pair of partners in a Dublin catering business; they were once romantic partners but have each gone on to new loves. A set of neglected 9-year-old twins also play a large role and evoke empathy. Binchy left about 20 novels when she died in 2012; I know I’ll be reading more of them.
  21. Mildred Pierce, by James M. Cain. Cain’s writing – and this 1941 novel – are described as “hardboiled,” but I’m not really sure what that means. One blogger (Eric McMillan) characterizes “hard-boiled” as consisting of “tough protagonists in cynical works suited to film-noir adaptation.” McMillan also cites Mildred as a great example of social realism. Mildred Pierce is a quintessential novel of the Depression and a rare-for-its-time story of a woman achieving economic success, especially as a single mom. The novel includes a fair amount of social commentary about gender roles, the end of Prohibition, unwed pregnancy, politics (Mildred is an FDR fan), and more. I’ve never seen the the 1945 Joan Crawford film made from the novel, but I did see the 2011 mini-series with Kate Winslet. I enjoyed the plucky-entrepreneur aspects of the story but felt unsettled by the coarse and nasty verbal bouts Mildred had with her boyfriend and her cold, cruel daughter. Many reactions, conversations, and behaviors were likely normal for their times but seem off-kilter today. In any era, it would be hard to understand Mildred’s obsession with her rotten daughter.
  22. The Social Graces, by Renee Rosen. This historical novel about late-19th century New York society aligns nicely with my viewing of “The Gilded Age” (which I LOVED) on HBO, and covers many of the same historical figures and time period (1880s). While the narrative aspects of the novel are not that strong (better toward the end), I find myself fascinated by the social mores of that time and the clash between old money and the nouveau riche. Rosen tells a version of a story presented in “The Gilded Age” (Wikipedia calls it an “oft-repeated story”) in which queen of New York society Mrs. Astor must humble herself to get her daughter invited to a ball put on by new-money rival Alva Vanderbilt, suggesting that the Mr. and Mrs. Russell characters in “The Gilded Age” are modeled on the Vanderbilts (one source suggests they are instead modeled on Jay Gould and his wife). If they are modeled on the Vanderbilts, why not just make them the Vanderbilts in the series since many other characters are real people? Possibly because the writers needed the Russells to have adult children for romantic and dramatic purposes; the Vanderbilt offspring at this time were young children. I had read and liked Rosen’s previous novel, Park Avenue Summer, set in a much more contemporary historical period, the early 1960s. It’s possible Rosen’s storytelling was more restricted in The Social Graces because she was working with many more real historical figures; the only one I recall from Park Avenue Summer was Helen Gurley Brown, as the protagonist worked at Cosmopolitan.

Non-Fiction

23.The President and the Assassin, by Scott Miller. I’d long wanted to read a biography of McKinley as I knew very little about him. While perhaps McKinley’s successor, Teddy Roosevelt, was the first true 20th-century president, McKinley certainly ushered in the century in which I was born. I still want to read a straight bio of McKinley, instead of just one focusing on his assassination, but all those available on audio are rather short, and I prefer to get better value for my Audible credits by consuming longer books (resulting, however, in a rather sluggish start to my 2022 reading). Plus, I was interested in learning more about his assassination as I knew as little about it as I did about the man himself. As it turns out, I may not have learned a lot about McKinley’s pre-presidential life, but I did learn a lot about his presidency and general US history as the 19th century gave way to the 20th. I had known very little about the Spanish-American War, for example. Every time I read US history, I am struck by the many aspects that are still the same. Gun violence. Political gridlock. Racism. Nationalism. One very striking McKinley characteristic was how exceedingly uxorious he was; his wife was the centerpiece of his life. Not long before his murder, McKinley went on a THREE-MONTH working vacation; can you imagine a president today doing so?

24. The Last Leonardo, By Ben Lewis. The title work is Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi, the recently discovered masterpiece that sold for a staggering $450 million and the quest to verify its authenticity. The book was quite interesting in its discussion of preparation and painting techniques from Leonardo’s time, as well as latter-day restoration, attribution, and authentication methods. The author offered a fair amount on biographical detail on Leonardo, but I found I had the opposite reaction from the preceding McKinley book. I would have preferred the book to focus solely on the Salvator Mundi and leave biography to others, as it dragged when not about the painting. The book also dragged when detailing the provenance (ownership) of the painting over the centuries, especially into the 21st century with various ownership machinations and legal wranglings. I almost quit the book toward the end, but I stuck it out. The real kicker of the book is that the painting sold for $450 million, but still has not been 100 percent proven to be a Leonardo. Almost immediately after I finished reading it, I watched the similarly titled documentary, “The Lost Leonardo,” which mostly covered the provenance issue. The woman who did the restoration work on the painting noted that there’s no way to ever know for sure.

25. Upstairs at the White House: My Life with the First Ladies, by J.B. West. This was actually a re-read for me, yet I feel, a legitimate part of my current list because of how long ago I read. In my memory of reading it, I was about 12, and I came across the book at some point when I wasn’t at home. However, I must’ve been older than that, in fact, past high school, as it was published in 1973. I still believe I read it at a place other than home. West was an usher from 1941 to 1969, spanning the latter part of FDR’s administration up to a tiny slice of the beginning of Richard Nixon’s. I really enjoyed the book back then and just as much today, although I would have liked the Audible narrator to have a little more lighthearted delivery. He sounded a bit too dour and had some odd pronunciations, such as Jack-a-Leen for Jackie Kennedy. Initially, I felt a vibe that the Kennedys were not the author’s favorite White House occupants, but by the end of that chapter, he seemed much more sympathetic toward Jackie. West is tasteful and restrained in the more gossipy elements of presidential life. Apparently, the Kennedys were into afternoon delight. The Trumans broke the bed slats.

26. The Movie Musical, by Jeanine Basinger. I feared this tome, 24 hours on audio, would be a slog as fat histories sometimes are. It benefits, however, from a sassy writing style (the publisher’s notes rightly call it “wit and zest”) enhanced by vocal variety from an equally sassy, zesty narrator. It’s also not a straight history of movie musicals, as I later realized, since it takes side trips, such as a chapter on big-box-office stars of their respective eras – starting with Al Jolson, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, and Elvis Presley, and including many others. Basinger includes plenty of incisive analysis. This woman knows her musicals; I marvel at how many thousands of hours she had to have spent to be as widely knowledgeable as the book suggests. I wish I had thought to write down each title as she discussed it so I could check some of them out on Turner Classic Movies. Basinger’s premise is that the ongoing dilemma of movie musicals is how they handle the unrealistic concept of people bursting into song and dance. Musicals have been declared dead at numerous times, but if they handle the unreal concept well, they can succeed. The book is really quite well done.

27. Seven Days in the Art World, by Sarah Thornton. This well-written and informative book devotes a day/chapter each to auctions, student-art critiques, art fairs, art prizes, art magazines, studio visits, and The Venice Biennale. Some chapters were more accessible than others, but overall, I enjoyed book. I’d love to know what’s changed in the art world since the book was researched (2004-2007) and written (audio edition was in 2014, but I suspect print editions were around 2008). I almost had a Tavia Gilbert narration/art world double-feature, but had a book between this one and the fiction-set-in-the-art-world of Still Lives.

28. Emergency in Slow Motion, by William Todd Schulz. This self-proclaimed “psycho-biography” of photographer Diane Arbus got off on the wrong foot for me, or at least the narrator did, by pronouncing the artist’s first name in the traditional DYE-Ann way, instead of DEE-Ann. The author references this pronunciation dichotomy but suggests that the choice of which way to pronounce it was made by those who addressed Arbus rather than Arbus herself (or perhaps her parents). Whatever source imbued in me the DEE-Ann pronunciation – either Patricia Boswell’s 1984 bio of Arbus or my beloved art-history professor Roberta Favis – I became convinced the correct pronunciation, the one Arbus preferred, is DEE-Ann. I am probably especially sensitive to the issue because my stepmother was also a Diane pronounced DEE-Ann. While not totally unusual, the narration by a woman of a book written by man was a tad disconcerting; the choice was probably made because the subject is female. While most biographies seem to strive for objectivity, it seems to me that most biographers hold at least some admiration for their subjects. I’m not sure that’s true of Schulz, whose psycho-biography of Arbus makes her seem pretty messed up, albeit as the result of a seemingly loveless childhood. Naturally, he uses psychology to explain Arbus’s artistic intent behind her photographs. In a nutshell, Schulz believes, Arbus’s photos say little about their subjects and everything about Arbus. He also spends quite a lot of time dissecting her suicide. It all feels a bit harsh, and even bordering on misogynistic. Not a particularly pleasant read.

29. Failure Is Not an Option, by Gene Kranz. This memoir was the first book of 2022 to fall into the category of what I call “comforting narratives,” topics I read over and over again even though I already know a lot about them. In this case, it’s the US space program, of which Kranz was Flight Director at a pivotal time, during the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs. Kranz was an engineer, so he includes a significant amount of very technical material that pretty much went over my head and didn’t interest me that much. I more enjoyed the people aspects of the story. Did I learn anything new? A few conflicts between astronauts and between astronauts and mission-control people. I didn’t recall before having heard about how sad Ed White was to go back to the capsule after the first American space walk. Some interesting insight about leadership and teamwork, especially during the Apollo 13 crisis (which never gets old for me). Talk about working remotely! These guys were pioneers. Given the length of the book and percentage of wonkiness, much was tedious, but I don’t regret reading it. The narrator made me a little crazy by pronouncing “rendezvous” with the accent on “vous.” Kranz concludes the memoir with eloquent words about the US abandonment of space exploration. The book was published in 1999 and Kranz is still living; I wonder if he sees any improvement in the situation today.

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