Each year, I write about 50 book reviews for the Tampa Bay Times. Some cover more than one book, so my review total is usually somewhere around 60 books.
But I read more books than that — I average three per week — and some of them really stick with me. So here is my year-end roundup of the best books I read but didn’t review in 2022. If you were lucky enough to score a bookstore gift card for the holidays, consider these.
The Hero of This Book, Elizabeth McCracken
McCracken walks a tightrope between fiction and autobiography with this brief, elegant novel. Its narrator recounts the life of her mother, a brilliant woman with serious physical disabilities and an indomitable will. During a trip to London that retraces one they took together, the daughter reflects on their complex relationship and faces her own grief in this sometimes funny, sometimes wrenching, never sentimental book.
A Heart Full of Headstones, Ian Rankin
Confidence, Denise Mina
I devour mysteries, and some of the tastiest are by Scottish authors like Rankin and Mina. “A Heart Full of Headstones” finds Rankin’s series character, fierce former detective inspector John Rebus, retired and hating it. (Like Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch, Rebus has aged more or less in real time in 24 books.) But Rebus is drawn into an investigation of corrupt cops that leads to what might be his final confrontation with crime boss Big Ger Cafferty in this satisfying novel.
Mina’s “Confidence” is a fast-paced tale about a pair of true-crime podcasters who might have inadvertently become involved in a crime they’re trying to cover. Anna McDonald and Fin Cohen go looking for a missing young woman who’s tied to the rediscovery of a mysterious religious relic. They join forces with an antiques dealer who, it becomes clear, is a con man — but how far will he go?
Constructing a Nervous System: A Memoir, Margo Jefferson
Jefferson’s 2015 memoir, “Negroland,” was a nuanced, beautifully written study of race, feminism and social class. This book continues those themes, but with a brilliantly improvised structure that bursts the bounds of memoir and social criticism. Even as a child, Jefferson saw connections between jazz music and Greek mythology; this book expands that web of influences in a fascinating performance by the Pulitzer Prize-winning critic.
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Remarkably Bright Creatures, Shelby Van Pelt
Tova Sullivan has a somewhat unlikely best friend: a giant Pacific octopus named Marcellus. Tova is mourning the recent death of her husband and that of her son, who vanished long ago as a teen. But she finds solace as a volunteer at Marcellus’ home, the aquarium in her small town near Puget Sound. This debut novel’s depiction of the dilemmas of aging is warm and witty, but its real gem is the voice of Marcellus, who narrates some chapters in first person (first cephalopod?) and always has something intelligent to say.
An Immense World: How Animal Senses Reveal the Hidden Realms Around Us, Ed Yong
Yong, a staff writer at the Atlantic, has won the Pulitzer Prize and George Polk Award for science writing, and this terrific book demonstrates why. In it, he explores how animals other than humans perceive the world, and it’s a world of wonder. Each type of animal, he writes, lives in a unique bubble, often perceived with senses we humans have only limited versions of or don’t have at all, like the sea turtle’s ability to navigate vast distances by magnetic fields or the bat’s astounding echolocation. Yong explains the science of how all that works in bright, accessible prose.
Complete Poems, Jim Harrison
The Search for the Genuine: Nonfiction, 1970-2015, Jim Harrison
My reading year was bookended by two collections by the late, great Harrison, one of my all-time favorite writers. In December 2021, Copper Canyon Press published the handsome poetry collection. Although he wrote in almost every form, Harrison thought of himself as a poet first; when he died in 2016, he was at his desk in Arizona, in the midst of writing a poem. I’ve taken the 944 pages of “Complete Poems” slowly, reading one almost every day as a kind of meditation. Happily, I have enough left to last me a couple of years more. “The Search for the Genuine,” published in November by Grove, collects his exuberant, startlingly original nonfiction writing on food and drink, travel, writing and writers, the natural world and more. I’m taking its essays one by one as well, just to have his inimitable voice in my head for as long as possible.