Best Books Read in 2022 (Shallow Thoughts)

Akkana's Musings on Open Source Computing and Technology, Science, and Nature.

Sat, 31 Dec 2022

Best Books Read in 2022

It's the last day of 2022, so I guess it's time for a "Best Books" list for 2022.

Note that these are books I read in 2022, not books published in 2022.

2022 was actually a disappointing year, book-wise. I only finished 36 books, about half of my usual number (though only one was a re-read). I'm not sure why the number came out so low. Worse, none of them really excited me or was in the running for an all-time best list. But there were a few worth recommending, plus a couple I want to mention for other reasons, even if they don't really deserve a "best" label.

I've added Amazon links for the books I list. Full disclosure: I get a small kickback if you buy a book through my Amazon link.

Nonfiction

I didn't read that many nonfiction books this year, but a few stand out:

Chasing the Thrill, by Daniel Barbarisi

This is a New Mexico story, at least partly: the story of the hunt for Forrest Fenn's treasure. In 2010 Fenn, a Santa Fe resident, hid a treasure chest somewhere in the Rocky Mountains, then published a memoir, The Thrill of the Chase, containing clues to where the treasure was hidden. Over the next decade, treasure hunters from all over flocked to the Rocky Mountain states hunting for the treasure. It became a phenomenon, as hunters traded theories and stories over the internet and at occasional in-person gatherings.

I first learned about the Fenn treasure hunt a few years after moving to New Mexico, when a Fenn treasure hunter was lost after his raft, and his dog, turned up on a pullout beside the Rio Grande. His put-in had been at Buckman, just across the Rio from where I live in White Rock, and his body was eventually found a few miles downstream.

Barbarisi spoke about his book at one of our library's "Authors Speak" talks. He had tried hunting the treasure himself, and his stories add color to the narrative and give an inside view of what the hunt was like. I found the book entertaining and highly readable.

Breathless: The Scientific Race to Defeat a Deadly Virus, by David Quammen

This COVID story showed up on a "best books" list in, I think, The Atlantic. Although I didn't find it quite as riveting as last year's The Premonition, it was still a well written, interesting narrative of the hunt for COVID's origins: did it come from Wuhan? Did it escape from a lab? Which animal(s) were the intermediary, and what animals are the reservoir now?

Trail Solutions: IMBA's Guide to Building Sweet Singletrack

Los Alamos county has had a lot of heated debate this year over open space. The county wants to encroach into natural areas currently used for hiking trails with new golf course holes, mountain bike racetracks, tennis courts and various other development schemes aimed at luring tourists. (Tourist-focused planning in Los Alamos is basically insane, given that our hotels cost 150% of similar hotels in neighboring towns and most of our restaurants aren't open on weekends, both effects of the town's focus on the national lab. But that doesn't stop county staff and the county council.)

All this debate has spawned two new groups advocating for trails and open space, and on one of them, near the end of the year, someone discovered that somewhere in our county code it says that our trails should be designed to IMBA's specifications, according to a manual IMBA puts out called Trail Solutions. Some people were concerned that that meant our trails would become bike-focused, designed for high speed bombing runs scaring the horses and hikers off the trail.

The book wasn't in our library, and I thought a book referenced by county code should be freely available to anyone in the county, so I put in a request. A week later, I got a notice that the book was available for checkout. How's that for service? Really, I can't say enough good things about the Los Alamos County library system and its friendly and hard-working librarians.

The book is excellent. It takes into account all trail user groups, not just bikers, and one of the points it makes repeatedly is that trail systems should be designed so that multiple types of users can interact without conflict. It has a lot to say about how to design trails to resist erosion so they won't require so much maintenance, how to design a trail system so that all users are happy with it, as well as topics I didn't expect, like how to propose a new trail and work with land managers to construct and maintain it.

Of course, I'm a mountain biker as well as a hiker and birder, so it's possible non-bikers won't agree with my assessment, but I don't think so. After reading Trail Solutions I'm happy that it is the book referenced in the county code.

Fiction

I didn't do as well with fiction as with nonfiction this year. I read a lot of fiction, but there weren't many standouts, and most of them weren't even new books. I'll start with the newest:

The Recovery Agent, and Going Rogue: Rise and Shine Twenty-Nine, by Janet Evanovich

I love Evanovich's Stephanie Plum series, and she had a new one out this year, Going Rogue. I'm not sure it has quite the sparkle of the earlier Stephanie Plum books, but it's still a good read: Evanovich has an amazing ability to come up with fresh stories even after twenty-eight books in the series.

The Recovery Agent is something else: a new series, featuring Gabriela Rose, a cool and competent heroine who specializes in finding and returning lost or stolen treasures. Think Stephanie Plum meets Indiana Jones. Which really isn't all that easy to imagine, is it? Anyway, I enjoyed the first Gabriela book and will happily read the next one.

The Law of Innocence, Michael Connelly

Well, it's almost a new book: the latest in Connelly's "Lincoln Lawyer" series. I find the Lincoln Lawyer books much more enjoyable than Connelly's Harry Bosch novels; the early Bosch books were pretty good, but in the later books I call Bosch "Mister Grumpy" (though Connelly dilutes that a bit by introducing a new character, Renée Ballard, and the latest Ballard/Bosch, The Dark Hours, is pretty decent).

Anyway, The Law of Innocence is the best Lincoln Lawyer book yet. Lincoln Lawyer Mickey Haller is framed for a crime he didn't commit, and as he fights to clear his name we see the extent to which the legal system is slanted against the accused, and the obstacles a defendant needs to overcome to get a fair hearing. Lots of social justice issues covered, as well as the clever tricks we expect from Mickey.

Appaloosa, Robert B. Parker

As long as I'm admitting to my consumption of crime/thriller series, I enjoyed the late Robert B. Parker's Spenser series (particularly the character of Spenser's friend Hawk). This year I discovered that Parker also wrote a few westerns, so I went back and tried the first one, Appaloosa. I enjoyed it; not quite as fun as Spenser and Hawk, but with some similarities.

Smilla's Sense of Snow, Peter H√łeg

An old book (1992) and not a great one, though it has its points. So why mention it?

A decade ago, Dave and I watched a movie called "Smilla's Sense of Snow". It popped up on some Netflix list and sounded intriguing enough to try. And indeed, it was: a woman raised in Greenland who was able to contribute to solving a crime through her detailed observations of tracks and patterns in snow and ice. Very different from your typical mystery/thriller, less violent and more thoughtful. And then, halfway through the movie ...

... suddenly we were in a low-budget horror movie, with space monsters (or something, I don't remember the details) issuing from an "energy-producing meteorite" (we've been making fun of that phrase ever since). The movie just got worse and worse from there, an incoherent mixture of every bad horror movie trope you can think of.

So for a decade, Smilla was just a joke to us. Then earlier this year we were out with our hiking group talking about books, and although I can't remember the context, our group leader, not the sort you'd expect to be a fan of bad horror movies, mentioned Smilla's Sense of Snow as a book worth reading. We were dumbfounded. The same Smilla as the one with the energy-producing meteorite? Surely there couldn't be two unrelated stories with that title.

Anyway, the library had the book (have I mentioned our terrific library?) And indeed, it's much better than the movie. It does have a meteorite causing some problems, but it's not "energy producing" and there are no monsters or crawling eyes or any of that. You learn a bit about snow and ice, and a bit about what it's like to grow up in an Inuit village in Greenland, and a lot about life in Denmark as viewed from an semi-outsider's perspective, and assorted tidbits of other stuff here and there.

I'm not putting it forth as great literature. But it was interesting, and different, and the contrast with the terrible movie was so striking that I felt it deserved a mention.

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