As preview of what lies ahead, following is 2022’s list with all titles linked to their Amazon page:
- The Stranger in the Lifeboat by Mitch Albom (2021)
- Everything Sad Is Untrue by Daniel Nayeri (2020)
- On Writing Well, 30th Anniversary Edition by William Zinsser (2012)
- The Bomber Mafia by Malcolm Gladwell (2021)
- Noise: A Flaw in Human Judgment by Daniel Kahneman, Oliver Sibony, and Cass R. Sunstein (2021)
- South to America: A Journey Below the Mason-Dixon to Understand the Soul of a Nation by Imani Perry (2022)
- Paul, Women & Wives: Marriage and Women’s Ministry in the Letters of Paul by Craig S. Keener (2004)
- Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger (2013)
- Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith by Jon Krakauer (2004)
- Algorithms to Live By: The Computer Science of Human Decisions by Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths (2017)
Plus a bonus listing of some great fiction series and authors I discovered in 2022:
- The Line Between Series by Tosca Lee (2019)
- Red Rising Series by Pierce Brown (2014-2019)
- The Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells (2017-2021)
2022 started with a
bang! (Uh, edit that. It’s not only cliché, but wrong.)
I got my big break in 2022!
No, it wasn’t a sweet deal from a traditional publishing house. I broke my leg on the third day of January, which put me out of work and on recovery road for the next five months. The end result of my unplanned sabbatical was the completion and ultimate publication of my second Gypsy Spy novel, Valley of Wolves, as well as some extra reading time.
I chewed through sixty-eight titles in the year, which made choosing only ten to highlight difficult. So, I decided to cheat and give you a bonus. This year’s list includes literary fiction, hilariously heartwarming autobiography, a classic on the craft, riveting history, true crime, practical theology, and behavioral science. The bonus pack contains thrillers and meaty science fiction. If you are looking for your next great read, this list is for you.
The Stranger in the Lifeboat by Mitch Albom
This is the first book I’ve read by Mitch Albom. He is a household name to many. He was a stranger to me until I opened his lifeboat. Albom is a master of the craft with deep insight into the struggle of being human and the hope God can bring. This is allegorical fiction wrapped in an exquisitely crafted mystery. I’ll refrain from revealing anything more (to avoid potential spoilers) except this one line of dialogue to give you a taste: “Despair has its own voice. It is a prayer unlike any other.”
Everything Sad Is Untrue by Daniel Nayeri
Born in Iran in 1982, Daniel arrived in Oklahoma at the age of eight with his mother and older sister. This autobiographical work, written through the eyes of that eight-year-old, is a magic carpet ride. It’s a real life mythically told.
Nayeri’s narrative has a masterfully directed stream of consciousness flow. Enchanted childhood creeks twist into sibling sewage pranks, become blood-soaked flows of promise straddled and crossed by the running refugee trying to return even as he moves on. This is poetry disguised as prose, faith hidden behind doubt and profound rejection, love learned in sacrifice, and the most beautiful Mother’s Day card I’ve ever read. Thank you, Koshrou!
On Writing Well, 30th Anniversary Edition: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction by William Zinsser
If you’ve ever attended a writing workshop, you’ve heard this title recommended. After reading it, I now understand why. Though a guide for writing nonfiction, Zinsser’s principles, methods, and forms are about the craft and thus apply to all writing. Like Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, this is a book that needs to be on every writer’s shelf. Along with technique, Zinsser addresses the heart of the writer. For instance, with regard to identity and audience, he writes:
“Soon after you confront the matter of preserving your identity, another question will occur to you: ‘Who am I writing for?’ It’s a fundamental question, and it has a fundamental answer: You are writing for yourself. Don’t try to visualize the great mass audience. There is no such audience—”
To the perfectionist in us all, he says:
“You won’t write well until you understand that writing is an evolving process, not a finished product.”
The Bomber Mafia by Malcolm Gladwell
This work developed from four episodes in the fifth season of Malcom Gladwell’s Revisionist History podcast. Though classic Gladwell in style, it marks somewhat of a departure for the author as it is a focused work on a narrow period in history versus an eclectic examination of human behavior.
Gladwell encouraged his readers to get the audio version instead of traditional print because of its enhanced production value. If you know me, you know I’m a Malcolm Gladwell superfan, so I did as instructed. This audiobook is like listening to his Revisionist History podcast, only better. It is an insightful examination of the morality of war and technology and the men who saw beyond their times to envision the means to bring national disputes to a quicker close. The Bomber Mafia lost the battle of precision bombing in World War II to the lack of sophisticated technology (as genius as the Norden bombsight was) and succumbed to napalm and the A-bombs in Japan. But they won the war as technology in the 21st century reached the scope of their dreams.
Grab this title from your preferred bookseller (or your local library, like I did) and play it on your commute to work. But be careful, you might miss your highway exit as your mind tries to zero in your bombsight on the munitions factory dead ahead.
Noise: A Flaw in Human Judgment by Daniel Kahneman, Oliver Sibony, and Cass R. Sunstein
Most are aware that biases can warp judgment into wrong conclusions and bad policies. Few are aware of or pay much attention to noise, the scattered conclusions of experts one would expect to agree based on the facts on hand. This book is the authors’ attempt to rectify that neglect.
Their exposure of noise in criminal sentencing (life or parole? That depends on the time of day, the weather, or who won the football game), finger print evaluations (“It’s a match, his fingerprints are on the knife…or it might be this other guy”), and medical analysis (“Your PET scan indicates that you should get your affairs in order” or “Take some antiacid, it’s just gas”) gave me to most pause. Overall, it demonstrated to me in objective fashion how poor we humans are at predicting the future and the degree to which we feel we should be able to.
Of great benefit to organizational managers in multiple fields, it is also a must read for anyone interested in behavioral economics.
The mike-drop quote of the entire book:
“People cannot be faulted for failing to predict the unpredictable, but they can be blamed for lack of predictive humility.”
South to America: A Journey Below the Mason-Dixon to Understand the Soul of a Nation by Imani Perry
South to America is a beautifully written, bitter little pill. The author’s premise is that one cannot understand America without a fuller knowledge and understanding of the South. Perry does a great job documenting the injustice done to Blacks over the centuries, but any gains made post-slavery and after the Civil Rights Act are somehow turned into further grievances. No way forward is shown. White is wrong. Period.
Now, if you are white (as I am) and saw yourself personally accused of being in the wrong by virtue of having been born white, you heard White wrong—and right. A couple of samples might help to explain what I mean.
Regarding Black people, she states:
“We are people who see no necessary conflict between loving individual White people or the agape love of all human beings, including White people, on the one hand and hating Whiteness and what it has meant for us on the other.”
In my reading journal, I wrote “how odd this would sound from my pen with the adjectives reversed.” But the truth is, I can’t reverse the adjectives and express an equal (or equivalent) sentiment. Though my paternal grandfather was an immigrant, he hailed from Norway. He was a bona fide, pale skinned, northern European. Though my maternal grandmother came from Spanish colonial stock (as in “residents of Alta California in the Empire of Mexico”), I bear the redheaded and freckled morphology of her Scotch-Irish husband. I have only been White, which in America is an inheritance Whites—even poor ones—have great difficulty appreciating.
I discussed the citation above and the one following with one of my Black coworkers. I wish I had recorded his responses because they were thoughtful, sensitive, and sublime. His concluding comment ran something like this, “These are attitudes and habits that develop from having to live life cautiously.”
Let that sink in as you move to the next scene. Imani Perry gets in a taxi at the airport. The driver is a complete stranger. She records her sentiment and thoughts about him:
“He is the man I have known to distrust. He is the one whose race and manhood once (and maybe still) made him my ruler and me his mule. He could kill me then, and if he had a badge, he could kill me now. I tasted venom in my mouth when he spoke. I won’t even say he hadn’t earned it because the odds were good he had. I can guess the words he wouldn’t say to my face but most certainly would say.”
My coworker agreed with me that this sentiment was raw racism. Perry doesn’t know this man. That said, she does know history. She grew up in the region she travels. Regardless her economic status, she knows what it means to have to live cautiously.
I don’t agree with her paint brush or conclusions. But the beauty and power of her prose is undeniable.
Paul, Women & Wives: Marriage and Women’s Ministry in the Letters of Paul by Craig S. Keener
If the role of women in the church isn’t controversial to you, then perhaps you have been sheltered from some seemingly harsh verses like 1 Timothy 2:11-12.
1 Tim 2:11-12 NKJV
11 Let a woman learn in silence with all submission.
12 And I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man, but to be in silence.
These verses, and others like it, have been the grounds on which women’s ministry to the church has been unduly restricted. Reading scripture in context means not only seeing how the verse fits in the letter and testament, but also how it communicated in its cultural context. This book helps us understand that historical context as well as a broader view of the role of women from the whole counsel of God.
Keener’s spirit, scholarship, and evenhandedness shine throughout the entire work. Ideologues may remain unconvinced, but the arguments and expositions regarding 1 Corinthians 11 (head coverings and women speaking), 1 Timothy 2 (women teaching), and Ephesians 5 (women submitting) align statements that may seem harsh to our ears with the greater gospel and show a way of appropriate obedience for all saints.
Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger
Don’t let the title fool you, this is an exquisite murder mystery wrapped in the elegance of historical literary fiction. A self-admitted departure by the author from his usual style and genre, Ordinary Grace sings with the beauty and anguish of humanness and sincere trials of faith.
A bit of a warning for those who gravitate to “clean” fiction: though as an author I avoid using profanities, Krueger does not. But unlike other authors who drop F-bombs and curse words on every other line, Krueger’s use of them in the mouths of his characters is an appropriate reflection of their times, circumstances, and placement.
The story is set in Minnesota in 1961 and centers on two preacher’s kids living through tragedy as their father holds onto his faith. I do not know if Krueger is a believer in Christ (everything I have read about the author paints him as spiritually curious). That said, this book contains one of the most beautiful presentations of the Incarnation that I have ever read. His writing brough me to tears more than once.
Following is a taste of Krueger’s delicate touch.
“Part of it was the music itself but it was also the way Ariel played it. To this day there are pieces I cannot hear without imagining my sister’s fingers shaping the music every bit as magnificently as God shaped the wings of butterflies.”
Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith by Jon Krakauer
Hulu recently broadcast a docuseries based on this book, which was published in 2004. A colleague of mine asked if I had seen the show. Since I’m not a Hulu subscriber, I checked the book out of my local library.
Krakauer delves into the vicious murder of Brenda Lafferty and her fifteen-month-old daughter by Ron and Dan Lafferty in 1984. But it is impossible to understand this horrendous crime without a deeper understanding of the roots of Mormonism and the beliefs and behaviors of its various polygamist adherents. The author provides this information in spades.
One could be tempted to believe that Krakauer’s exposé on Mormon history was crafted to amplify a few salacious and bloody instances in its infancy for pure shock factor. But this is not the case. No clear-eyed view of Joseph Smith can avoid his scandalous behavior or his revolutionary ideas.
If you are a fan of true crime or have an intellectual curiosity about Mormonism, this book is for you.
Algorithms to Live By: The Computer Science of Human Decisions by Brain Christian and Tom Griffiths
How long should one look before signing the rent agreement? How long should an employer entertain candidates? How many dates before you pick the one? It turns out that the figure is 37%. Once you’ve spent 37% of your allotted looking time, choose the first option that beats what you’ve seen thus far.
This is the first example given by the authors and they build from there. Algorithms utilizing solid data standardize decision making. They simplify life and bring a measure of consistency to outcomes. The authors make this technical subject matter approachable and applicable. You’ll find plenty here for life and business.
I read with red pen in hand to underline and annotate. The more a book engages me, the more red ink lands on the page. I probably drained half a pen on this one. Below is a sample from their chapter on overfitting under a section titled “The Idolatry of Data.”
“The First Commandment, for instance, warns against bowing down to ‘any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven.’ And in the Book of Kings, a bronze snake made at God’s orders becomes an object of worship and incense-burning, instead of God himself. (God is not amused.) Fundamentally, overfitting is a kind of idolatry of data, a consequence of focusing on what we’ve been able to measure rather than what matters.”
Fiction Bonus Pack
The Line Between Series by Tosca Lee
I’ve been aware of Tosca Lee for years, but The Line Between, published in 2019, is the first novel I have read by her. I shouldn’t have waited so long. As a writer, former cult member, and a young fan of Stephen King’s The Stand, this book hit all the right notes for me.
Lee’s description of the viral spread, rapid societal disfunction, social distancing, and instances of official government communication regarding a pandemic seemed at first to me a capitalizing on the COVID-19 pandemic until I realized she wrote this at least a year before the outbreak. Goosebumps. She was spot on. This is a great tale of someone coming out of bondage and looking for the light with real life emotion, challenges, and faith crises on the backdrop of tense, thriller scenes and story arc. I highly recommend it for all readers, especially Christian authors who want an example of how to do it well. As a taste, check out how she starts chapter one:
“Conventional wisdom dictates that there’s an insurmountable divide―an entire dimension of eternity and space―between Heaven and Hell. Lucifer managed to make the trip in nine days, at least according to Paradise Lost. That equates to a distance of about 25,920 miles, assuming standard rules of velocity.
But I can tell you it’s closer to a foot and a half. The distance of a step.
Give or take an inch.”
Exquisite. Read this book. And read the sequel, A Single Light. Lee is an author unafraid to upend her own conventions and brings the story home with no promises unanswered.
Red Rising Series by Pierce Brown
I was looking for some new science fiction and happened upon Pierce Brown’s Red Rising. I opened the page and Darrow, the Helldiver of Lykos, grabbed me by the throat with his clawDrill and pulled me into the depths of Mars in a way I haven’t felt since I was a child reading Edgar Rice Burroughs’s A Princess of Mars.
Red Rising is epic space opera meets Hunger Games dystopia wrapped in Ender’s Game deceit. It’s the realpolitik of The Expanse on the cultural background of Romans meet Vikings in space. It is Dune’s breeding program amplified to amazing ends. Each book is a wild ride.
The series currently has five volumes. All Howlers (fans know what I mean) eagerly await the publication of the sixth, slated for November of 2023.
The Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells
Is cozy science fiction a genre? If not, I think Wells might have just invented it. Don’t let “cozy” put you off. I haven’t met a robot I liked this much since The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Murderbot is an introverted, self-aware SecUnit that just wants to watch its entertainment feeds and not have to deal with humans. Currently, there are six titles in the series. Five are novellas and one is a full-length novel. A seventh is slated for publication in November 2023.
These books are not only funny, they are a fun read. Wells dives into the potentials of AI and the meaning of personhood and sentience. It comes through in the voice of an android who confesses, “As a heartless killing machine, I was a complete failure.” Buy the ticket and get on a Company transport. SecUnit has your back.
There they are, dear reader. My bifocals are clean and my eyes currently clear. January 2023 is behind us and we’ve nearly bit off the first week of February. I have one title down, two in the reading, and multiples in the stack. 2023’s list promises to be epic.