Best Backlist Reads of the Year

Like many bloggers, I’m irresistibly drawn to the new books released each year. However, I consistently find that many of my most memorable reads were published years or even decades ago. These 16 selections, in alphabetical order within genre, together with my Best of 2022 post (coming up tomorrow), make up the top 9.5% or so of my reading for the year. Three of the below were rereads.



First, a special mention for this trio:

Birds of a Lesser Paradise by Megan Mayhew Bergman

Delicate Edible Birds by Lauren Groff

Birds of America by Lorrie Moore

It’s unusual for me to fall so wholeheartedly for short stories. I intended to write up these three “Birds” collections as part of my short story focus in September but ultimately decided to spend more time with the latter two (and then fell ill with Covid before I could write them up, so look out for my full reviews early in the new year). The word from the title is incidental, really; the books do have a lot in common in terms of theme and tone, though. The environment, fidelity and motherhood are recurring elements. The warmth and psychological depth are palpable. Each story feels fleshed out enough that I would happily read an entire novel set in its world, but also such that it is complete unto itself. Two of these writers (Bergman and Moore) are best known for short stories; the third, to my mind, should be.


Falling Angels by Tracy Chevalier: I’ve read all of Chevalier’s novels and always thought of this one as my favourite. A reread didn’t change that. I loved the neat structure that bookends the action between the death of Queen Victoria and the death of Edward VII, and the focus on funerary customs (with Highgate Cemetery a major setting) and women’s rights.


Julia and the Shark by Kiran Millwood Hargrave: Julia and her parents are on an island adventure to Unst, in the north of Shetland, where her father will keep the lighthouse for a summer and her mother, a marine biologist, will search for the Greenland shark. Hargrave treats the shark as both a real creature and a metaphor for all that lurks – all that we fear and don’t understand. Beautifully illustrated, too; a modern children’s classic in the making.


We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson: A brooding character study of two sisters isolated by their scandalous family history and the suspicion of the townspeople. I loved the offbeat voice and unreliable narration, and the way the Blackwood house is both a refuge and a prison for the sisters. Who is protecting whom, and from what? There are a lot of great scenes, all so discrete that I could see this working very well as a play


Foster by Claire Keegan: A delicate, heart-rending novella about a deprived young Irish girl sent to live with rural relatives for one pivotal summer. It bears all the hallmarks of a book several times its length: a convincing and original voice, rich character development, an evocative setting, just enough backstory, psychological depth, conflict and sensitive treatment of difficult themes like poverty and neglect. I finished the one-sitting read in a flood of tears.


Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan: One good man’s small act of rebellion is a way of standing up to the injustice of the Magdalen Laundries, a church-sanctioned system that must have seemed too big to tackle. Keegan fits so much into so few pages, including Bill working out who his father was and deciding what to make of the middle of his life. Like Foster, this is set in the 1980s but feels timeless. Absolutely beautiful.


The Murderer’s Ape by Jakob Wegelius: Sally Jones is a ship’s engineer who journeys from Portugal to India to clear her captain’s name when he is accused of murder. She’s also a gorilla. This was the perfect rip-roaring adventure story to read at sea (on the ferry to Spain in May); the twisty plot and larger-than-life characters who aid or betray Sally Jones kept the nearly 600 pages turning quickly.



Honorifics by Cynthia Miller: Miller is a Malaysian American poet in Edinburgh. The themes of her debut include living between countries and feeling like an exile versus finding a sense of home. There’s much variety here, and so many beautiful lines and evocative images. Miller incorporates a lot of unusual structures, some of them traditional forms and others freer: a numbered list, columns, dictionary definitions or prose paragraphs. Flora and fauna references plus a consideration of the expat life meant this was custom made for me.



The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown: The University of Washington rowing team in general, and Joe Rantz in particular, were unlikely champions. Boatbuilding and rowing both come across as admirable skills involving hard physical labour, scientific precision and an artist’s mind. All along, Brown subtly weaves in the historical background: Depression-era Seattle with its shantytowns, and the rise of Hitler in Germany. A classic underdog story.


My Life in Houses by Margaret Forster: Having become a homeowner for the first time earlier this year, I was interested in how an author would organize their life around the different places they’ve lived. The early chapters about being a child in Carlisle are compelling in terms of cultural history; later on she observes gentrification in London, and her home becomes a haven for her during her cancer treatment.


Sightlines by Kathleen Jamie: A reread started on our July trip to the Outer Hebrides. I’d forgotten how closely Jamie’s interests align with my own: Scotland and its islands, birds, the prehistoric, museums, archaeology. I particularly appreciated “Three Ways of Looking at St Kilda,” but everything she writes is profound: “if we are to be alive and available for joy and discovery, then it’s as an animal body, available for cancer and infection and pain.”


Reflections from the North Country by Sigurd F. Olson: Olson was a well-known environmental writer in his time (through 1970s), also serving as president of the National Parks Association. This collection of passionate, philosophically oriented essays about the state of nature places him in the vein of Aldo Leopold – before-their-time conservationists. He ponders solitude, wilderness and human nature, asking what is primal in us.


Smile by Sarah Ruhl: These warm and beautifully observed autobiographical essays stem from the birth of her twins and the slow-burning medical crises that followed. Shortly after delivery, Ruhl developed Bell’s palsy, a partial paralysis of the face. Having a lopsided face, grimacing and squinting when she tried to show expression – it was a minor problem in the grand scheme of things, yet provoked questions about whether the body equates to identity.


Owls of the Eastern Ice by Jonathan C. Slaght: Slaght has become an expert on the Blakiston’s fish owl during nearly two decades of fieldwork in the far east of Russia. Slaght thinks of Russia as his second home, and you can sense his passion for the fish owl and for conservation in general. Amid the science, this is a darn good story, full of bizarre characters. Top-notch nature and travel writing; a ride along on a consequential environmentalist quest.

Some of the best backlist reads I own and could lay my hands on.


What were your best backlist reads this year?

21 responses

  1. I’ve had a memorable reading year – but just now, titles escape me! Owls of the Eastern Ice and Small Things like these will definitely make the cut, and there are a lot of your own Honourable Mentions that will make it onto my TBR list, for sure.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Falling Angels must be the one early Chevalier I haven’t read. I feel I have a copy somewhere! Having adored the recent Keegan, I must read Foster too, and more Shirley Jackson – loved this one. Looking forward to the rest of your best of…

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Great selections. I loved Boys in the Boat [and the documentary that followed]. Falling Angels is superb.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thank you for this post. My reading year was filled with so many new releases; I am drawn now to older titles. Many in your list I’ve read and loved and will now seek out others. After Jackson’s Castle, I read The Haunting of Hill House but my very logical mind keeps reaching for answers: did the groundskeepers do it to guarantee their employment?

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I treat backlist titles as new books if they’re the first time I’ve read them, so they’ll all be rolled into my books of the year! I must re-read the Groff and read the Moore short stories.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Good list! I’m afraid that by the time I post my reviews, all of them are backlists.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I’m just finishing some Lorrie Moore stories on audio – Like Life – which I’ve really admired, though I fell more in love with her novel Who Will Run The Frog Hospital.

    The Ruhl sounds fascinating – putting that one on my wishlist.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Falling Angels was one of the first Chevalier books I read – it’s still oen of my favourites.

    I’m also finding new releases to be less than satisfying. Often they seem to lack substance so I get to the end and think “so what” and never remember them. Older books on the other hand do tend to stay with me

    Among my favourites this year have been Patrick Gale’s A Perfectly Good Man and Sacred Country by Rose Tremain

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sacred Country was a memorable read for me a few years ago.


  9. I like the sound of the Olson (particularly for my brother, an earth science teacher), and I might try the Chevalier (I’ve had mixed experiences with her work thus far). Backlist reading is more and more a thing for me!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I can imagine your reading might shift more and more towards backlist! I had completely forgotten that backlist reading was my goal for 2022. Tomorrow’s stats analysis will show whether I achieved that or not!

      Liked by 1 person

  10. I’ve has so many good backlist reads this year – most of my reading usually is backlist. My top one this year is probably Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer. We Have Always Lived in the Castle is phenomenal. I’d like to reread it someday.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The Kimmerer was certainly a standout read and probably just missed being on my best-of list (I only featured books I rated 4.5 or 5 stars).

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Both of the Keegan novels made my ‘best of 2022’ list. Really loved them (and thanks to Novella November for the Keegan introduction!).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Snap! That’s wonderful to hear.


  12. A lovely set of books! I don’t split mine into new and backlist but I believe 9 out of my 26 top reads out of my 187 reads were published in 2022.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. One-third new to two-thirds backlist seems about right to represent your reading tendencies.

      Liked by 1 person

  13. I still plan to read the Claire Keegan books. Maybe next November!
    I’m very curious to read about that gorilla…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Novellas in November is a great excuse!

      If I can get a few more people to read The Murderer’s Ape, that’ll be a good accomplishment for the year 🙂

      Thanks for catching up on my posts. It’s very sweet of you!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I love them! And I hate it when I get behind!


  14. […] I read these three collections one at a time over three and a half months of last year, initially intending to write them up as part of my short story focus in September but ultimately deciding to spend more time with the latter two (and then falling ill with Covid before I could write them all up in 2022). They topped my Best Backlist Reads. […]


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