As I start this post, I haven’t decided how many books it will feature. Last year, I did a neat ten, so perhaps the question is, did 2022 fit itself into a tidy box, or not? As years ago, it had an unpleasant rollercoaster vibe, and I’m not sorry to say goodbye to that arbitrary parcel of time.
Here are some of the 59 books I recorded on my list, which does feature a handful that I didn’t finish, because I’m old now and I don’t keep reading things I’m not enjoying. I did make an exception to this rule for Jasper Gibson’s A Bright Moon for Fools,, and I was right to do so. My list is once again swelled by audiobooks, which I listen to while I’m running and sometimes when I’m doing stuff around the house. I never thought I would get into audiobooks, but it’s been wonderful this last couple of years, to have their company.
Names for the Sea, by Sarah Moss
Sarah Moss writes slightly dark novels, as far as I can tell; I listened to the audiobook of The Fell, set in lockdown, which I also enjoyed. Names for the Sea is non-fiction, the story of her family’s short emigration to Iceland. I found it very relatable, the sense of bafflement trying to figure out life administration in a foreign language, always on the verge of committing some cultural offense, discovering delightful things but mainly finding it all really, really difficult. I’d like to visit Iceland and this didn’t entirely put me off.
Pandora’s Jar, by Natalie Haynes
Natalie (I call her Natalie because I have seen her on stage at Also so many times, she’s like my mate) features on the list twice this year (wait for it…). Pandora’s Jar is non-fiction, but within her usual remit of retelling myths and legends where the female characters are more than just foils and plot devices. She unpacks the origin stories of Medea, Pandora, Medusa, Jocasta, Helen and Penelope, not only through her knowledge of the early Greek writings, but also with reference to contemporary texts – and we certainly share opinions on Clash of the Titans, which pleases me. This was a good warm-up for this year’s Book of the Year.
We Need New Stories, by Nesrine Malik
I’ve done a lot of Very Serious Reading again this year, because at work I have a big Equity, Diversity & Inclusion element to my role (and also because I find it interesting and improving), and I think actually I’ve always exposed myself to diversity in my reading. We Need New Stories slices through such toxic and divisive issues as Brexit and identity politics, showing what nonsense we have told ourselves in order to get to where we are. It doesn’t matter how liberal you think you are, there will be stuff in this book that hits you in the humilities, and makes you re-examine your thinking. I need to read it again.
The Beekeeper of Aleppo, by Christy Lefteri
This is the story of refugees, and was just sad, sad, sad. I couldn’t put it down.
Lessons in Chemistry, by Bonnie Garmus
I am looking at my list and there are just so many strong novels on it this year, it would be quicker to list the bad books. If you’re in the mood for engaging fiction with a feminist punch, and who isn’t, then you might enjoy the tale of a female scientist in the 1950s, who makes it big as a TV chef – the first TV chef – and her refusal to alter herself to fit the world’s expectations. It also has one of fiction’s best dogs.
Notes on an Execution, by Danya Kukafka
This is an intense and disturbing tale that deconstructs the life and growth of a serial killer, through the stories of the women in his life. Gripping, moving, and so absorbing that it’s perfect to listen to while running. Really got my distance up while I had this playing.
Piranesi, by Susanna Clarke
Another audiobook, another utterly absorbing tale. Piranesi is a character trapped in a strange world, perhaps some dystopian future, where familiar objects and events make more sense to the reader than they do to him. His quest for survival and his search for understanding are heartbreaking, and the answers that he finds feel dissatisfying – I didn’t love the ending, but the vast majority of the book was so wonderful that it still features on this list.
Klara and the Sun, by Kazuo Ishiguro
Ishiguro has the lightest touch, leaving the reader/listener to figure out what’s happening in this sci-fi future, described only from the perspective of an AI being. Klara and Piranesi have a lot in common in their telling, with characters who invest meaning in the mundane, without fully understanding why those things matter. As with many of Ishiguro’s novels, none of the characters are fully likeable, and yet the reader is emotionally invested in their fates.
The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, by Natasha Pulley
This is a charming and absorbing steampunk novel, with a wonderful cast and a satisfying set of twists that you absolutely do not see coming. I say that, I expect you probably would see them coming; I didn’t. Reminded me in lots of ways of The Night Circus, without the actual magic.
Light Perpetual, by Francis Spufford
I read Golden Hill back in 2017, and if I had written a books of the year post that year, it would have been on it. I had high hopes for Light Perpetual, and it lived up to them. I love a cleverly structured novel, and it’s quite remarkable to be reading a book where you know the ending from the start, which is that none of this can happen, and yet be completely absorbed in the intertwined journeys that the characters never really take. Just read it, it will make more sense.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane, by Neil Gaiman
I was a late-adopter of Gaiman fandom, possibly because I associated him with Terry Pratchett and never liked those books much. I’m sorry, I know that’s practically heresy, I can’t account for what I feel. Nevertheless, when I finally did first pick up a Neil Gaiman novel, it was a bit of what-were-you-waiting-for moment, and I’ve enjoyed most of what I’ve read by him, and I’d really like to see this at the theatre; I understand it’s touring at the moment. Gaiman gives me just the right amount of fantasy, laced with the world that I know and sometimes understand, and I find his writing quite magical.
Shuggie Bain, by Douglas Stuart
This autobiographical novel of growing up in a poor Glaswegian family in the 70s and 80s seems like a throwback to the Sad Irish Family genre that was popular a couple of decades ago, except it’s not softened in any way at all. The description of the mother’s alcoholism is brutal and at times difficult to read, and I found the violent, philandering, gaslighting father just as horrible. The setting is bleak and there appears to be no possibility of happiness for any of the characters. I don’t think I can honestly say that I “enjoyed” this book, but I did finish it with a sense of having been through something. I guess I am wishing that on you, too.
But don’t despair, you can follow it up with my Book of the Year for 2022. Ideally, listen to Stone Blind on audiobook, as it’s read by the author, and yes it’s Natalie Haynes again, a seasoned performer and the perfect person to read you her own brilliant words. Stone Blind tells you the tale of Medusa, the youngest of the Gorgon sisters, raped by Poseidon, cursed by Athena, murdered by the brat Perseus. The question asked in this novel is, who are the real monsters? I think you know where we are going with that. Once again bringing the women back into their own stories, as though the perspective of half the planet’s population is a radical new lens with which to see the world: any good book will make you think, but this year hasn’t there been a rich crop of books that ask you to really question your place in the world and everything you’ve ever assumed to be true?
Anyway, I’m doing a PhD now, so I won’t be able to read so much in 2023. Have a good one.