The Best Books I Read in 2022

January is almost over, so I’d better post this before it’s too late! I’ve long wanted to do a “Best Books I’ve Read” post, but in past years, I’ve hesitated because, since my reading taste is so varied, it makes it difficult to compare books to one another. Still, as an avid reader, I want to recommend my favorites, especially since many of the books I enjoyed last year are less well-known than those you might find on other, similar lists.

Overall, I read 65 books last year, which was more than I read in 2021, though I read slightly fewer pages. Many of those books were 19th central novels, as I was doing researching for a major writing project. Related to the same project, I also reread all of the original Sherlock Holmes series, and, because of the Netflix adaptation, I reread the entire Sandman comics series as well. Many of the Holmes and Gaiman books would have made the list if this was the first time I was reading them, but I decided not to include them below. Also, while I thoroughly enjoyed each of these chunks of my reading list, it meant that I didn’t get to read as many contemporary books or books about writing craft/the creative life as I usually do. I intend to read more of these in the coming year, as well as to read more diverse authors, more poetry, and more non-fiction in the coming year.

I’ve divided the best books I’ve read into categories below to help you find what you’re most interested in reading.

Best Book I Read Last Year Overall: Fables, by Robert Louis Stevenson

Fables, by Robert Louis Stevenson

This lesser-known Stevenson book is a collection of short fables, which while they play off of traditional fables and fairy tales, are subversive in their intent. These stories, which vary in length, criticize people who blindly follow societal and religious conventions, flipping the traditional purpose of the instructive fairytale on its head. They are also read really modern for a book written so long ago, with some stories, like “The Person’s of the Tale” where characters from Treasure Island debate morality during a “break” between two chapters, bordering on the post-modern. The stories, as you might imagine from a master like Stevenson, are beautifully written, and I found the anti-groupthink message particularly relevant given the current social and political climate. There is also, an excellent podcast, Evening Under Lamplight, where Robert Louis Abrahamson reads and discusses each of the fables. He covers Stevenson in season 3, and if you are a fan of audiobooks, this may be the best way to consume Stevenson’s Fables.

Best Poetry Book I Read Last Year: Baseball Haiku: The Best Haiku Ever Written About the Game, edited by Cor Van Den Heuvel and Nathan Tamura.

Baseball Haiku book

I picked this one up on whim from a free giveaway table, in the snow, outside of a baseball card shop in Cooperstown. The store was about to close for the season, and was giving stuff away. This book includes a selection of both Japanese and American Haiku about baseball, including Jack Kerouac’s first haiku (super cool) and haiku by many historical Japanese masters. The poetry is excellent, but what really sets the book apart is Van Den Heuvel’s introduction which is, by far, the best introduction to haiku I’ve read. I learned so much both about the technical craft aspects of writing haiku and about the history of haiku in each country from his essay, and the information and analysis he provided enhanced my enjoyment of the poetry that followed.

Best Novel I Read This Year For The First Time: Daniel Deronda, by George Elliot

Daniel Deronda, by George Elliot

I read this book as part of my above-mentioned research. I was searching for a compelling female character from the second half of the 19th Century who survived until the end of her book (harder than it sounds, btw), and this book features two of them (no spoilers). Though I went into it for research purposes, I ended up really enjoying this book. It’s a big book, which we might expect from Elliot, and unlike her other books, it is set close to the time period in which she wrote. It reminded me of a Jane Austen book, but one which featured a double plot with a twist, similar to a Charles Dickens novel. If that’s your type of thing, you should check it out. It is also one of only two “classic” British books with a fair and sympathetic depiction of Jewish people, which I appreciated as a person of Jewish descent (the other being Ivanhoe). More so than other book in the canon, it gets the Jewish parts rights. The research into Jewish history and culture is impressive and accurate, which only added to my enjoyment.

Best Independent/Small Press Book: Dark Black, by Sam Weller

Dark Black, by Sam Weller

The first thing you will notice about this book is how beautifully it’s put together. Each of the gothic horror short stories is accompanied by a hauntingly exquisite black and white illustration. Beyond the presentation, the stories work. They are deceptively sparse, but linger long after they’ve been read. Weller is Ray Bradbury’s biographer, and clearly, he learned something from the great master’s early, gothic work.

Best Comic/Graphic Novel (Non-Reread Division): Barbalien–Red Planet, by Lemire, Brombil et al.

Barbalien—Red Planet

While this book is part of the Black Hammer universe, Barbalien is basically a self-contained story which you can read without having read the rest of the Black Hammer books. It is an original take on a superhero comic, and deals with the AIDS crisis in the 1980s. It deals with weighty issues like persecution against the gay community without being preachy, and somehow tells an entertaining story while dealing with a big, dark societal issues. The art is retro as well, right down to the number of panels on each page, which fits the story well. I always try to read at least one book from the New York Public Library’s Best Books of the previous year. (I started 2023 with the ambitiously original My Volcano, by John Elizabeth Stintzi), and Barbalien was a worthy selection on the 2021 list.

Best Non-Fiction Book: Dinosaurs in the Attic, by Douglas J. Preston

Dinosaurs In The Attic, by Douglas J Preston

I’ve been going to the American Museum of Natural History essentially since I was born. I know the museum like the back of my hand, and still enjoy going there. I picked up this book in the gift shop the first time I took my kids back to museum after the pandemic. It is essentially a narrative history of the museum’s founding and early history, and it not only taught me about the museum’s past, but made the experience of going to the museum after I read even more enjoyable. The sections about dinosaurs and gems are particularly good, but I also enjoyed the smaller anecdotes, such as the story of the chimpanzee whose stuffed body sits near the third floor bathroom outside of where one of the current temporary exhibition galleries lets out. That monkey used to run around the museum offices and ride its tricycle through the city!

Book That Helped My Writing Craft The Most: Tolkien: Maker of Middle Earth, edited by Catherine Mcllwaine

The books which help my writing most aren’t always books about writing. A couple of years back, it was a book of interviews with the painter Joan Miro. This year it’s an exhibition catalog.

I often purchase the exhibition catalog when I particularly enjoy a show at a museum. Often, these books, while they are good reminders of the show, are, ultimately, disappointing, as something is lost in terms of scale and texture when the art is translated from the wall to the printed page. This is not an issue in this book, however, as the Bodleian traveling Tolkien exhibition this book is based on consists of largely of Tolkien’s manuscripts, letters, and ephemera. Tolkein’s watercolors and drawings also translate well to this format because they are generally on a smaller scale and do not rely on texture and brushstrokes as much as, say, a Van Gogh or a Jackson Pollack. Thus, this was one of the best exhibition guides I’ve read.

The reason it is on this list, however, is because of the scholarly and biographical articles which are included in this volume. Tolkien is my favorite writer, and the reason started writing myself, but I still learned a lot about his life and about his group The Inklings while reading this book. Moreover, there were articles which directly affected the way I approach my craft. These articles explored Tolkien’s use of language. I wrote about one of them here.


Well, that’s my list. What were some of your favorite books you read last year? Let me know in the comments.

Happy New Year From Famous Writers

Happy new year. Each of the last few years, I’ve written a blog post about resolutions during the first week of January. While I encourage you to read those posts—you can find last year’s here—I feel I said what want to say about the topic. So, I’m going to do something different this year. Here are a series of memes I made which paraphrase quotes from famous writers as messages, wishes, and yes, even resolutions, for the new year. I hope you enjoy them.

Wishing you a surcease of sorrow in the new year, Edgar Allan Poe
Another year has passed. So it goes, Kurt Vonnegut
The new year dwells in possibilities, Emily Dickinson
Wishing you the best of times (and not the worst of times) in the new year, Charles Dickens
Wishing you a new year in which you rise, Maya Angelou
Wishing you a year full of unexpected journeys, JRR Tolkien
Wishing you a year free of war and full of peace, Leo Tolstoy
Be fearless and therefore powerful in the new year, Mary Shelley

Once again, a happy new year.

My Ultimate Fantasy Questing Party

Last week, I promised to reveal my ultimate fantasy questing party. The rules of the exercise were covered in that post, but to summarize the rules for this exercise briefly, the party must consist of nine members (like the fellowship in Lord of the Rings), be selected from fantasy literature (books, including comics, not movies, tv, or other mediums), and consist of only one member from each book or series (no doubling, Gandalf and Samwise could not both be included, for example). The party would go on a hypothetical high-fantasy quest, involving magic (rather than technology). It was a more difficult task than I thought, and it taught me a lot about the types of characters to which I gravitate. (Apparently, I am a big fan of talking animals. Who knew?) It was a fun exercise, and I encourage those of you who have not yet tried it to do so, and to post your traveling parties in the comments.

A few notes before I reveal the members of my questing team:

–There were some difficult decisions, some of which I explain in the comments. When unsure of which character to include, I often considered the role the character would play within the group: hero, mentor, muscle, friend, foil, etc. My team would have a better chance to succeed if all of these traditional roles were covered.

–I also considered team chemistry. How would the members interact with each other? Who might like or work well with whom? Who would, potentially, not get along? Who would improve the party’s moral in the tough times, etc. Ultimately, these questions are subjective, but then again, so is this entire exercise.

–I only included characters in series that are completed. Therefore, though I love many characters in Marlon James’ Dark Star trilogy, the series is not yet complete, and therefore I have not included any characters from either of the first two books. I do not know what will happen to those characters, so I cannot yet include them. Same for George RR Martin’s Song of Fire and Ice (remember we are dealing with books exclusively, not the TV program).

–I also did not include any characters from series with which I, personally, have not yet finished reading. For example, I came late to NK Jemisin, and am in the middle of her Broken Earth series. I loved the first book. It was one of the most literary fantasy novels I’ve read in a good long while, but I have not finished it, and therefore I do not know the fate or development of the characters. The fault is mine, but, alas. Maybe my list will change in a few years.

–I strongly considered both Sherlock Holmes and Abraham Van Helsing. Each of these characters would be brilliant on a quest, however, neither really comes from a fantasy novel, even though Van Helsing does come from a speculative novel.

–The most difficult omission for me was Dune. Though there are many fantasy elements in Dune, ultimately it is more of a scifi universe than a fantasy one. Thus, no Paul, no Gurney, no Lady Jessica, no Stillgar, etc.

–My final cut, so to speak, was Sir Tristan. Le Morte de Arthur is the godfather of the genre, but I decided to stick to more modern titles.

–It goes with out saying that these choices are based on the original, literary depictions, not any of the versions from various adaptations.

Without further ado, here are my nine:

Iorek Byrnison (His Dark Materials): An armored polar bear is the ultimate enforcer for my traveling party. He is strong, principled, and though he does manifest a daemon, he has as much soul as anyone. He also has smithing skills, which will come in handy. Iorek is the ultimate protector for my hero, and even though it meant I couldn’t include Lyra, including him was an easy choice.

Lucy Pevensie (Narnia): She will be the young heroine of the quest. I’ve been reading the Narnia books with my 8 year old daughter at bedtime each night, and rereading the books as an adult, it is clear to me that Lucy is the best character in the series. She is brave, smart, and true. She is willing to stand up to and go against her older siblings when she knows that she’s right, and yet she’s humble and isn’t seeking power. She also possesses a magical healing potion, which will certainly come in handy on any quest.

Tenar (Earthsea): It takes a lot to give up power, to go against the conventions of society in the name on right, to abandon the only traditions and systems you have known–the very systems that have brought you power–to do what your conscience says is right. Tenar does all of these things. This was a tough one for me, as I really wanted to use Ged Sparrowhawk as my wizard, but there are many great wizards throughout fantasy literature. There is only one Tenar.

Samwise Gamgee (The Lord of the Rings): The ultimate friend. Sometimes the obvious choice is the right one.

Belgarath the Sorcerer (The Belgariad, etc.): Perhaps some of you can relate to this: There was a writer whose books were essential to my falling in love with fantasy. I read all of their books in high school, mostly as they were being published. It was just the second fantasy series I read. It fanned the flames of my nascent ideas about wanting to be a writer. Later, as an adult, I found out some very disturbing things about the author. I try to separate my nostalgia for the books from my opinion of the person who wrote them. No, it’s not the one who immediately springs to mind for most of you. It’s David Eddings. Anyway, Belgarath is just as powerful as any other classic wizard. He has the same types of powers, and generally fits the archetype, but he’s more down to earth and fun. You’d rather have a beer with him than with Gandalf, for example.

The Fox (The Little Prince): “And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.” ‘Nuff said.

Lu Tze, The Sweeper (Discworld): There are many fine choices across Terry Pratchett’s Discworld. Sam Vimes would probably be the most popular with his blend of street smarts and combat experience, but Angua the Werewolf, DEATH, Granny Weatherwax, or even Rincewind (sometimes running is the best option) would make fine choices as well. Ultimately, Lu Tze is my choice. He is a 6000 year old Time Monk who does not hold rank in the hierarchy of the order. He just sweeps floors (hence The Sweeper). Yet those who know, know his kung fu–snafu to be precise–is better than anyone else’s. He is irreverent as well and would make a fine mentor and foil for Belgarath. Anyone who disagrees should remember rule number one.

Inigo Montoya (The Princess Bride): Book Inigo is much like the movie version, except there is way more background about his father in the book (which is at least as hilarious and awesome as the movie). A skilled sword master should balance out the fighting skills in the party. With Iorek as the brute strength, The Sweeper as the unarmed combat specialist, and Inigo as the skilled swordsman, all phases of battle are covered. Also, much like Samwise, Lucy, Tenar, etc, Inigo is principled as well.

Door (Neverwhere): The last choice is always the hardest. I had planned on including a character from Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. I’ve been doing a reread since the show came out, and it is reminding me of how much I love that particular fantasy framework. The question is, who to pick. Dream is right out. He would get bored and leave. He prefers to quest alone. Death has other responsibilities. My favorite character in the series is Hob Gadling, but while he does bring a wealth of experience, I don’t think he quite fits. I would have loved to include Barnabas, Destruction’s sarcastic talking dog, but that seems like overkill the way my party is currently constructed. We already have two other talking animals. Destruction himself is really interesting. He has abandoned his position in the Endless, and is living as a mortal, almost. He writes poetry, paints, and cooks. He seems like a good guy, and everyone seems to get along with him. The problem is that as the embodiment of destruction, destruction follows him around. People die. Things get destroyed. We don’t need that hanging over the quest. Therefore, I decided to pivot to another Gaiman work, Neverhwere. Door has the ability to open and create doors. That is a skill that will no doubt come in useful on a quest.

So, how did I do? Let me know in the comments.

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Who is your Ultimate Fantasy Questing Party (Part 1)?

With the release of Prime Video’s Rings of Power, I’ve been rereading a lot of Tolkien recently. Tolkien was the writer who first sparked my interest in writing, and hanging out in Arda, whether in the pages of his books or through the portal of an onscreen adaptation, always leaves me wiser and happier than I was before. Revisiting Middle Earth has also reminded me of one of the great debates I used to have with my nerdy friends (such as they were) in my youth: If you had to pick the ultimate fantasy traveling party to go on a magic-filled quest, who would you include?

A couple of ground rules:

  1. For the purposes of this exercise, we are going to assume that you are building your party to go on a traditional fantasy quest, like the one described in The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings. Your quest will consist of an epic, episodic adventure, involve a magical object, feature a mentor, etc. A nefarious, evil entity will try to thwart you, and you will probably lose at least one companion along the way. There will be magic. There will be monsters. Your hero will change over the course of the journey. The FATE OF THE WORLD will be at stake.
  2. For the purpose of this exercise, your party will consist of nine. Why nine? First, because we need an equal number for the sake of comparison and evaluation. If every party is the same size, the game is fair. Why nine specifically? Any number would, technically, do, but we’ll go with nine in honor of the nine walkers in the Lord of the Rings. These things tend to be traditional.
  3. The members of your traveling party MUST originate in a fantasy novel or series of novels. Graphic novels are ok for the purpose of this exercise; TV shows and movies are not (use the books upon which they were based).
  4. You may only choose one character from each book or series. Choose wisely. If you choose Gandalf, you will not be able to also include Samwise Gamgee. If you choose Hermione, no Harry Potter, etc.
  5. We’re using traditional high fantasy as our setting. Magic is ok; technology is not.
  6. Consider the different archetypes traditionally found on a fantasy quest. You need not use all of them, but they exist for a reason. A party of Gandalf, Ged Sparrowhawk, Dumbledore, etc, might seem really powerful and cool, but there is a reason why we don’t see many such parties in fantasy novels. Who will play the role of the mentor? The hero? The muscle? Which characters will be able to use magic? Which will not?

I will post my answer next week in this space. Truthfully, the members of my party will likely change many times between now and then. In the meantime, please put yours in the comments. I might even include some in next week’s blog. I look forward to hearing your ideas.


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Reading the Dictionary With Sauron’s Eye

Lately, I’ve been thinking about warm up exercises. Athletes warm up before competition, musicians warm up before performance, so it stands to reason that writers should warm up before they write.

There are many warm up exercises for writers, ranging from freewriting to Ray Bradbury’s noun exercise (the subject of a previous blog in this space), but today I would like to focus on an exercise recommended by a number of successful writers, which I’ve come to see in a new light recently: reading the dictionary.

I first heard about reading the dictionary during Chris Bohjalian‘s keynote address at the Rutgers Writers Conference a few years ago. Paraphrasing from my notes, Bohjalian recommended browsing the dictionary to find the “good” words, making a list of those words, and then trying to incorporate those words into your writing that day. I read the same advice in John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction, which is, in my opinion is the best book currently available on the craft of writing. Naturally, I tried incorporating this exercise into my practice, but, admittedly, I was not consistent with it, and it became something I only did sporadically.

That all changed about a month ago when I read an article in the Tolkien: Maker of Middle Earth exhibition guide from the Bodleian Library. I had picked up the book when the exhibit traveled to the Morgan Library in New York, and the guide finally made it to the top of my TBR pile this year.

The exhibition guide contains images from the exhibit and biographical information about Tolkien, as one might expect in a coffee-table book from a museum exhibition, but it includes a number of scholarly articles on Tolkien’s life and work as well.

In the article “Fairie: Tolkien’s Perilous Land,” Verlyn Flieger discusses the etymology of the words “fairy/fae” and “forest” as they relate to Tolkien’s use of the terms in both The Hobbit and The Lord of The Rings. While I, personally, disagree with some of Flieger’s critique of Tolkien’s treatment of fairy land, I found his discussion of the forest fascinating, not only in relation to Tolkien’s work, but also in its implications for the enchanted forest/woods in fantasy stories generally.

The word “forest” derives, through French, from the Latin word “foris” which means “outside.” The English word “foreign” has the same root. The native English counterpart is “wood” derives from the middle English “wode” which means both “forest” and “mad.” Thus it is not just the freudian symbolism of the shadows and the darkness that make the forest the perfect entry point into the magical realm, but the connotation of the English words “forest” and “wood”–outside/foreign and madness–as well. Tolkien, the consummate linguist surely was aware of these connotations, considering how precise he was in weaving his own magical spell (a word which, as Tolkien reminds us in his non-fiction writings means story in addition to formula for power).

Upon reading the article, I was immediately reminded of Bohjalian’s keynote and the dictionary reading exercise. I have begun to incorporate the exercise into my practice again, except this time I look beyond the words’ definitions, into the etymology section as well. (My Shorter Oxford English Dictionary has a robust etymology section relating to each entry.) While I may never achieve the precision of Tolkien, I hope to incorporate some of the deeper magic connoted by the “good” words into my writing in the future.


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Some Publishing News, And Happy Birthday To Me

Today is my birthday. For one year at least, I have become the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything. What’s the best present you can give an author on his birthday? Read his work. Luckily, I have some new publishing news to report. I have work in two anthologies you can buy, and a free poem online as well.

My story “The Forgotten” is included in the Remnants shared world anthology from Kyanite Press. Remnants presents a post-apocalyptic world overrun by two different types of monsters. Each of the stories, written by a different author, takes place in the same universe. It’s a really interesting collection, and there is such diversity in the stories that, if you’re a fan of sci-fi, horror, or post-apocalyptic fiction on any stripe, there’s something in there for you.

My story, “The Forgotten” deals with a group of orphans who have banded together to fight the monsters. It’s a dark psychological tale that celebrates the power of childlike imagination even in the darkest times. Here is the opening paragraph to whet your appetite.

For the third year in a row, I have flash fiction in the Serious Flash Fiction anthology. This anthology, is one of my favorites. Each year on twitter, The editor, runs a contest to find the best tweet-length stories. Once again, my work was selected among the winners. This is one of my favorite anthologies each year, and I have discovered some of my favorite writers through this competition as well. The anthology also collects the previous years’ winning entries, so, if you buy the book, you’ll get my microflash from previous years as well.

The Serious Flash Fiction Anthology

While the previous two publications are for purchase, I also have a present for you on my birthday. My high fantasy ballad, Forthwith Flies The Mage, a long narrative, poem about a mage and his dragon battling the forces of darkness is now available for free as part of the “Healing Worlds” project from Kyanite Press. It is one my favorite pieces, and if you enjoy fantasy in the mode of JRR Tolkien or Ursula Le Guin, I know you’ll enjoy it.

Be sure to connect on facebook, twitter, and instagram, and let me know what you think in the comments.