Happy New Year, everyone! Normally I like to get my top reads posted before the end of December but this year–for the first time since the pandemic began–I had a busy holiday travel schedule and just didn’t get to it amidst all the festivities. I’m also mixing it up a bit from past years, and posting a combined fiction and non-fiction list since my reading leaned heavily towards fiction this year. Without further ado, these are my favourite books read or reviewed (not necessarily published) in 2022.
by R.F. Kuang
Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this title from the publisher.
When his family dies of cholera in 1820s Canton, a boy whose birth name we never learn finds himself healed by magic, and spirited away to England by his mysterious benefactor, Professor Lovell of Oxford’s Institute of Translation. The boy becomes known as Robin Swift, and learns that there has been a purpose behind the English books and British nanny that have been a feature of his home for as long as he can remember. Translation and silver power magic, and Robin is fated for Babel, the Oxford college that trains the translators that fuel the silver industrial revolution. But ultimately the university serves the empire, and as Robin completes his degree, the First Opium War is looming, placing him in an impossible position between the country of his birth, and the Empire he has been groomed to serve. Babel is a meditation on loving something—a place, a language, a literature—that cannot love you back. In fact, it may hate you and people like you, but you love it nonetheless. Robin and his cohort must grapple with that love, and with their place at the university because violence lies only slightly beneath the polished surface of Oxford’s seeming gentility.
Note: Babel is published by HarperVoyager, an imprint of HarperCollins. Please note that the HarperCollins Union has been on strike since 11/10/22 to get a fair contract for their workers. Visit the HarperCollins Union linktree to learn how you can support their fight for a fair contract. The union has NOT asked for a boycott on purchasing HarperCollins titles at this time.
by Zen Cho
After nineteen years in America, Jessamyn Teoh and her family are moving back to Malaysia. With a freshly minted Harvard degree, Jess feels like the next chapter of her life should be starting. She should be finding a good job and moving in with her girlfriend, Sharanya. Instead she’s broke, unemployed, and moving into her aunt’s house with her parents, where she needs to remain deeply closeted. The last thing she is expecting when she arrives back in Penang is to be visited by the spirit of her estranged grandmother, Ah Ma, who was in life the medium for the god known as the Black Water Sister. Ah Ma has unfinished business and she has chosen Jess to be her medium to help her resolve it. Failure means facing the wrath of the god, but success may be no less costly. Black Water Sister is a standout fantasy about magic, superstition, and family secrets. Through her time in Penang, Jess learns many things her parents have been hiding from her, even as she is keeping the secret of her own sexual orientation from them. She must contend with her family’s history and her own decision to lie by omission before she can open the next chapter of her life. It is only by returning to Malaysia that she can confront what has been holding her back.
by Harmony Becker
Nao’s family left Japan for California when she was young, but in many ways her heart remained behind. Recently graduated from high school, she decides to spend a gap year in Japan, trying to regain the mother tongue that has largely slipped away from her in America. She moves into Himawari House, where she meets Tina and Hyejung, who have come to study in Japan, and Masaki and Shinichi, two Japanese brothers who also live there. For Nao, Japan was once home, but now she feels cast adrift, an adult with the language skills of a young child. Together the girls navigate life in a foreign country, taking their first steps into adulthood cast free of the expectations they left behind at home. The story takes place over the course of a year, and is a series of slice-of-life chapters capturing different seasons and experiences. The sensibility mixes Japanese manga style with the Western graphic novel tradition. Although the through-line of the graphic novel is in English, Himawari House is a story as multilingual the characters who inhabit it, incorporating Japanese and Korean into this tale of found family.
Categories: Graphic Novel
The Empress of Salt and Fortune
by Nghi Vo
This is the first in a series of novellas that will follow the non-binary cleric Chih, a disciple of the Singing Hills abbey. Chih is an archivist and keeper of stories, and they are trained to find and record the most interesting tales—perhaps especially those tales that some people would rather were never told. Following the death of the formidable Empress In-yo, Chih is drawn to Old Woman Rabbit, and soon finds that they are in the company of the Empress’s long-time handmaiden, companion, and confidante. The relationship between the foreign bride who seized a kingdom and the servant girl who opted to follow her into exile is one of choices, about what they are and are not willing to sacrifice for one another, and for ambition. In this short but perfectly honed novella, Chih quietly peels back the layers of Rabbit’s life, until they uncover a secret that could bring down a dynasty.
by Malinda Lo
Growing up in 1950s San Francisco, in the heart of Chinatown, Lily Hu has always known her place as a good Chinese daughter. But when she spots an ad for a male impersonator in the San Francisco Chronicle, she feels a strong pull, and discovers a question about herself that she hardly knows how to ask. But it isn’t until she meets Kath Miller that Lily finds the nerve to visit the Telegraph Club to see Tommy Andrews perform. There they discover a whole community of women living lives they could barely have imagined. In Kath, Lily finds not only someone she might love, but someone who helps her see herself more clearly, not just her sexual identity, but also her dreams for a future career at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. But even liberal San Francisco is not a friendly place for two girls to be in love in the 1950s. It is a story about growing pains—growing up and apart from childhood friends, and coming to question the values your family and community taught you to hold dear. But at the core it is a story of first love in the face of adversity.
by Trung Le Nguyen
Thirteen-year-old Tien doesn’t know how to come out to his mom and dad. It’s more than just the fear of rejection; he literally does not know the Vietnamese words to explain what he’s feeling to his immigrant parents. But if there’s one way Tien has always been able to connect with him mom, it’s through the many books they borrow from the library, particularly fairy tales. Through the power of stories, Tien and his mother find a way to bridge the language gap, and communicate the things that have been allowed to go unspoken for too long. Blended with Tien’s coming-of-age story are three fairy tales. Trung Le Nguyen uses three types of colour panels to emphasize the different aspects of this interwoven tale. Blue for the fairy tales Tien and his mother read together, red for their real life, and yellow for his mother’s past in Vietnam. Nguyen does amazing work within the confines of these limited colour palettes, employing shading and texture to great effect, alongside his beautiful line work. The Magic Fish combines striking art with a moving family story for an unforgettable read.
by Erich Schwartzel
Money has always shaped what gets made in Hollywood, but with the American box office stagnating, profits from global markets have become increasingly important. The most powerful overseas market is China, with its large population and growing middle class. Author Erich Schwartzel reports on Hollywood for the Wall Street Journal, and in Red Carpet he examines China’s complicated relationship with the American film industry. It begins with two controversial 1997 films about the Dalai Lama: Kundun directed by Martin Scorcese and Seven Years in Tibet directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud. These films marked a turning point, with China flexing its increasing economic power to influence releases that were never intended for the Chinese market. Schwartzel chronicles the growing difficulty of getting American films into China amidst opaque censorship rules, and the difficulty of predicting which American movies will be popular with Chinese audiences. Meanwhile, the Chinese film industry has been growing, with a better bead on what domestic audiences want, and what authorities will allow. Schwartzel’s in-depth reporting highlights the unexpected effects of globalization on one of America’s most notable exports.
by Shelley Parker-Chan
China has been under Mongol rule for the better part of a century when a drought sweeps through the Central Plains, shortly followed by a terrible famine. In Henan province, a peasant girl scrapes by on the edge of starvation as all the other village girls perish around her in a society that feeds its sons first. According to the local fortune teller, she is destined for nothingness, while her brother possesses a fate that “will bring a hundred generation of pride” to the Zhu family name. Following the deaths of her father and brother, she lays claims to her brother’s name, and his fortune, becoming Zhu Chongba, destined for greatness. When the Mongol overlords burn the monastery where Zhu has taken refuge, she finally sees the path to the great fate she has claimed, and joins the Red Turban rebellion. The Great Khan has lost the Mandate of Heaven, and a new dynasty must rise to take its place. Having stolen her brother’s fate, Zhu grapples with imposter syndrome at every turn, while at the same time realizing that she has time and again overcome challenges that would have destroyed her brother. The strength of her desire to survive burns at the heart of this story, and the dark side of her character lies in the discovery that there is very little she will not do in the name of first self-preservation, and then ambition.
At the time I wrote my initial review back in May, the sequel had no confirmed title or release date, but He Who Drowned the World is now due for a August 2023 debut!
by Alexandra Rowland
Prince Kadou has no interest in the throne; his older sister, Zeliha, makes a much better ruler for their kingdom. All Kadou wants is to support his family, help his sister take care of their people, and see his niece grow up to succeed his sister as a wise and just leader. After a deadly incident during a hunting party, Kadou is assigned a new bodyguard. Evemer is freshly promoted to the core guard, the highly trained soldiers that serve and protect the Mahisti royals before rising to become government ministers of Arasht. Evemer has pledged his life to the crown, so he is disappointed to find himself in the service of a prince who seems flighty and unreliable. Nevertheless, he will do his duty to try to help Kadou solve a mysterious break-in that may be connected to a counterfeiting ring. Arashti currency is trusted by traders throughout the world precisely because a large percentage of its citizens can touch-taste precious metals, thus making counterfeit coins all but unusable within the country’s borders. Kadou and Evemer must work together to solve the counterfeiting mystery before it undermines the country’s reputation. Despite the court politics set dressing, and the counterfeiting scheme, A Taste of Gold and Iron is largely joyful and tropey and soft. In fact, if you don’t enjoy tropes this is probably the wrong book for you, given that we start out with a prince/bodyguard, enemies-to-lovers romance, and then add in a fake-out make-out, and some hair washing and bedsharing, and really it’s just tropes all the way down.
This is Not a Book About Benedict Cumberbatch
by Tabitha Carvan
Australian author Tabitha Carvan’s memoir, which I read twice in 2022, is subtitled The Joy of Loving Something–Anything–Like Your Life Depends on it. And that in a nutshell is what the book is actually about; the theft of joy, and how we can counteract it by refusing to be ashamed of the things that make us happy. Yes, even if that thing is a celebrity crush on British actor Benedict Cumberbatch. Carvan is the stay-at-home mom of two young kids in Canberra, Australia, when she finds herself unexpectedly seized by Cumbermania. This new obsession was special not in and of itself, but because it roused Carvan from the “stultification of early motherhood” and forced her to examine the ways society encourages adults–but particularly women and mothers–to give up joy and hobbies and fun. Author Gretchen Rubin has described enthusiasm “a form of social courage. It’s often safer to criticize than to praise; it can seem cooler and smarter to be ironic, detached, or critical. Enthusiasm is more fun, however. It’s brave, generous, unself-conscious, warm-hearted, and a bit goofy.” Carvan’s memoir examines this social courage, and the social and emotional benefits we can reap from unabashed enthusiasm
That’s it for me! What were some of your favourite reads in 2022?