A serial killer counting down the minutes on death row. A dystopian future where books by Asian authors are banned. The family of America's most famous assassin grappling with the aftermath. A sexy, sizzling summer on Cape Cod.
They've little in common, except they're all subjects of some of this year's best books.
The year delivered an embarrassment of literary riches: George Saunders, one of the world's best short-story writers, returned with a practically perfect new collection; Marianne Wiggins overcame a massive stroke to write a great American novel; and two fan favorites were reunited in what just might be the best "Star Wars" novel ever written.
They are among the 18 books USA TODAY critics gave perfect ★★★★ (out of four) reviews. Here's the complete list of this year's best reads:
'A Heart That Works': Rob Delaney 'started with anger,' ended with 'love' writing about 2-year-old son's death
'In Love: A Memoir of Love and Loss'
By Amy Bloom
Bloom’s life, and that of her husband, Brian, was changed forever when an MRI confirmed the worst: Brian had Alzheimer’s. The couple then made the decision to go to Dignitas, an assisted-dying facility in Switzerland. "Bloom, a psychotherapist as well as an author, brings to her heart-rending task the skills of both professions: a clinician’s intimate knowledge of diseases of the brain and a novelist’s intuitive understanding of the human heart." Read the review.
'Star Wars: Brotherhood'
By Mike Chen
Set just after the events of "Star Wars: Attack of the Clones," "Brotherhood" finds even-keeled Obi-Wan Kenobi and hotheaded Anakin Skywalker investigating a devastating explosion on Cato Neimoidia. As peace hangs in the balance, the master and apprentice must overcome the friction in their relationship to stand together as brothers. "'Brotherhood' is one of the best 'Star Wars' novels to date, exploring the familylike bond between two of the central characters in the Skywalker Saga." Read the review.
'Don't Know Tough'
By Eli Cranor
Billy Lowe is the star running back for the high school football team in Denton, Arkansas. When his troubled home life causes him to act out on the field, head coach Trent Powers is determined to save him. Think “Friday Night Lights” with a Southern Gothic twist. “A major work from a bright, young talent." Read the review.
By Karen Joy Fowler
The PEN/Faulkner Award-winning author of “We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves” returned with a novel about the family behind one of American history’s most notorious figures: John Wilkes Booth. “'Booth' doesn’t hold anyone in judgment; like all the best literature, it seeks to better understand the human heart in all its flawed complexity. It’s a haunting book, not just for all its literal ghosts, but for its suggestion that those ghosts still have not been exorcised from this country." Read the review.
'Notes on an Execution'
By Danya Kukafka
A gripping story about a serial killer on death row primarily told from the perspectives of the women in his life as the clock ticks to his execution. "A career-defining novel – powerful, important, intensely human, and filled with a unique examination of tragedy, one where the reader is left with a curious emotion: hope." Read the review.
'Sea of Tranquility'
By Emily St. John Mandel
The author of “Station Eleven” and “The Glass Hotel” returns with a fantastical novel that sweeps across time and space, taking readers from Vancouver Island in 1912 to a lunar colony 500 years later. " 'Sea of Tranquility' is full of grandeur, but without even a whiff of grandiosity. It’s transporting and brilliant and generous, and I haven’t ever read anything quite like it." Read the review.
By Ian McEwan
From the bestselling author of "Atonement" comes the epic but intimate story of one man's life over decades and set against historical events. "McEwan, who is steeped in the sounds and rhythms of English literature, and for whom novels and poems practically assume the importance of characters, has written a masterpiece of a novel that is simultaneously about the business of growing up and getting old, and the business of writing fiction." Read the review.
By David Milch
The creator of "Deadwood" and "NYPD Blue" reflects on his life and art as Alzheimer’s starts to take hold. "'Life’s Work' is a brave piece of writing, a taking of stock that digs uncommonly deep, from a man much closer to the end than the beginning. If all memoirs were this honest, it would serve the genre well." Read the review.
'Read Dangerously: The Subversive Power of Literature in Troubled Times'
By Azar Nafisi
The author of “Reading Lolita in Tehran” returned with a book championing the power of literature to guide and galvanize in contentious political times. "Books have a rare power to generate empathy, to connect people on a level of humanity, rather than ideology. To many, especially those who live for power, this makes books dangerous. For others, it’s what makes them magic." Read the review.
'A Thousand Steps'
By T. Jefferson Parker
In 1968 Laguna Beach, California, 16-year-old Matt Anthony’s big sister has gone missing. The cops mark her as a runaway hippie, but Matt knows better, especially after another missing girl is found dead on the beach. "A compelling coming-of-age thriller that will entrance you with its ’60s vibe and backdrop and captivate you with its engaging storytelling and a believable cast of characters – including one heroic kid you can’t help but root for." Read the review.
'Our Missing Hearts'
By Celeste Ng
In this dystopian tale set in the near future, when Asian Americans are marked by the government with distrust and their art is destroyed, 12-year-old Bird doesn’t ask too many questions after his mother, a Chinese American poet, leaves the family. But a mysterious letter sends him on a quest to find her. "Coupled with the humanity and sweetness of the unbreakable love between a mother and her child, it is a book you won’t be able to put down, nor stop thinking about long after you do." Read the review.
By George Saunders
The Booker Prize-winning author of “Lincoln in the Bardo” returns with a new collection of short fiction, bringing his hilarious, absurdist prose and humane touch to subversive stories that get to the heart of what it means to be alive. "Through nine stories ranging wildly in tone and content, warping reality in the funhouse mirror of genre-bending high concepts, Saunders seems to ask over and over: What does it mean to be a good person? And how can you be one in a world that makes being good so very hard?" Read the review.
'The Revolutionary: Samuel Adams'
By Stacy Schiff
The Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer brings her masterful touch to an American revolutionary, bringing out the excitement in a subject too often viewed as dusty. "These pages contain great drama and constant motion; Schiff lets the stakes build and build until the dam is ready to burst. To read this book is to immerse oneself in a very particular and thrilling time and place." Read the review.
'The Church of Baseball: The Making of Bull Durham: Home Runs, Bad Calls, Crazy Fights, Big Swings, and a Hit'
By Ron Shelton
From the Oscar-nominated screenwriter and director of the 1988 Kevin Costner film “Bull Durham” is an entertaining behind-the-scenes look at the making of the baseball classic that’s arguably one of the all-time best sports movies from a writer who spent six years in the minor leagues. "Its ground-level tone and attention to detail strip away the romance of moviemaking, with only minimal rancor. In contemporary parlance, Shelton keeps it real." Read the review.
'The Summer Place'
By Jennifer Weiner
From the master of the summer beach read comes the story of a family in all its messy glory forced to face its issues – secrets, misunderstandings, regrets and unhealed wounds – as a Cape Cod beach house wedding looms. "With its Cape Cod setting that evokes seashells, cool water, melting ice cream and summer bliss, it's sure to be the must-have beach bag item this year." Read the review.
'Properties of Thirst'
By Marianne Wiggins
In Wiggins' sweeping WWII-era historical novel, the Rhodes family, who've long fought to protect their California ranch, are left reeling when the government builds a neighboring Japanese American internment camp. "This is a big, bold book, generous of spirit and packed with prose that gleefully breaks the rules." Read the review.
'Now Is Not the Time to Panic'
By Kevin Wilson
Romantic (and creative) sparks fly in the 1990s when 16-year-old aspiring writer Frankie Budge meets Zeke, a talented artist just as awkward as she is. Together they create a poster that goes viral before virality was a thing and sets their small Tennessee town abuzz. "Frankie and Zeke are wholly original characters, their lives painful and true, and while this is a novel you can read in a single sitting, it is best devoured slowly, a treat for the heart and mind." Read the review.
By Hanya Yanagihara
From the author of the celebrated “A Little Life,” a new epic spanning three centuries – with a trio of stories set in 1893, 1993 and 2093 – about life, love and the American experiment. "'To Paradise' is a novel of the highest order. Yanagihara writes with elegance, evoking emotion and rendering believable characters who move the plot. Her perceptive eye is evident in the three separate settings, placing the reader in each time frame through multiple narratives, which she orchestrates with great acuity." Read the review.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Best books of 2022: 'Our Missing Hearts' and other favorites