Best Books from 2022
I’m keeping it simple this year with one post covering a baker’s dozen from all genres: the 13 current-year releases that stood out to me the most. (No rankings this time; anything from my Best of First Half post that didn’t make it through to here can be considered a runner-up.)
Groundskeeping by Lee Cole: In Cole’s debut novel, two aspiring writers meet on a Kentucky college campus and form a romantic connection despite very different backgrounds. There are stereotypes to be overcome as Owen introduces Alma to Kentucky culture and slang. Trump’s election divides families and colleagues. The gentle satire on the pretensions of writing programs is another enjoyable element. Three-dimensional characters, vivid scenes ripe for the Netflix treatment, timely themes and touching relationships.
Stories from the Tenants Downstairs by Sidik Fofana: Fofana’s novel-in-stories orbits a Harlem apartment complex and spins bittersweet tales of ambition and disappointment in a range of vibrant voices. Endearing scoundrels are the focus in a number of stories. Minor characters from some go on to have starring roles in others. Though these tenants’ lives are filled with difficulties, their optimism and sheer joy shine through in their picaresque antics. A stellar debut from a very talented writer; Fofana should win all the prizes.
Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel: This dazzlingly intricate novel blends historical fiction, up-to-the-minute commentary and science-fiction predictions. In 2401, the Time Institute hires Gaspery-Jacques Roberts to investigate a recurring blip in time. Fans of The Glass Hotel will recognize some characters, and those familiar with Station Eleven will find similarities in a pandemic plot that resonates with the Covid-19 experience. How does Mandel do it? One compulsively readable hit after another.
Very Cold People by Sarah Manguso: The aphoristic style of some of Manguso’s previous books continues here as discrete paragraphs and brief vignettes build to a gloomy portrait of Ruthie’s archetypical affection-starved childhood in the fictional Massachusetts town of Waitsfield in the 1980s and 90s. The depiction of Ruthie’s narcissistic mother is especially acute. So much resonated with me. This is the stuff of girlhood – if not universally, then certainly for the (largely pre-tech) American 1990s as I experienced them.
Body Kintsugi by Senka Marić: This intense work of autofiction is all the more powerful due to the second-person narration that displaces the pain of breast cancer from the protagonist and onto the reader. Coming of age in a female body was traumatic in itself; now that same body threatens to kill her. Even as she loses the physical signs of femininity, she remains resilient: Her body will document what she’s been through. As forthright as it is about the brutality of cancer treatment, the novella is also creative, playful and darkly comic.
The Hero of This Book by Elizabeth McCracken: Is it autofiction or bereavement memoir? Both and neither. In 2019, an American writer wanders London, seeing the sights but mostly reminiscing about her mother, whom she describes through bare facts and apt anecdotes. London had been a favourite destination, their final trip together falling just three years before. As well as a tribute to a beloved mother and a matter-of-fact record of dealing with ageing parents and the aftermath of loss, this is a playful cross-examination of literary genres.
The Swimmers by Julie Otsuka: Otsuka’s third novel of the Japanese American experience again employs the first-person plural, as well as the second person – rarer perspectives that provide stylistic novelty. The first two chapters are set at a pool that, for the title swimmers, serves as a locus of escape and safety. On the first page we’re introduced to Alice, whose struggle with dementia becomes central. I admired Otsuka’s techniques for moving readers through the minds of the characters, alternating range with profundity and irony with sadness.
Which Side Are You On by Ryan Lee Wong: Wong’s dynamite debut novel weaves timely issues of racism and protest into a pacy, funny story of idealism versus cynicism. Reed, an Asian American college student committed to social justice, rethinks how best to live out his values in the real world when he goes home for a few days. Wong probes the generational gap between him and his parents through snappy dialogue and enjoyable scenes that constitute an incidental tour of multi-ethnic Los Angeles.
Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin: Sam and Sadie’s friendship, which over the years becomes a business partnership that also incorporates Sam’s college roommate, Marx Watanabe, is a joy. Their creative energy and banter are enviable. Marx is the uncomplicated, optimistic go-between when Sam and Sadie butt heads and take offense at betrayals. Underneath their conflicts is a love different from, and maybe superior to, romantic love. An immersive story of friendship and obsession; nostalgic, even cathartic.
In Love by Amy Bloom: Bloom’s husband, Brian Ameche, was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s in his mid-60s, having exhibited mild cognitive impairment for several years. Brian quickly resolved to make a dignified exit while he still, mostly, had his faculties. This achieves the perfect tone, mixing black humour with teeth-gritted practicality as Bloom chronicles their relationship, the final preparations, his assisted suicide at Dignitas in Switzerland, and the aftermath. An essential, compelling read.
Sinkhole: A Natural History of a Suicide by Juliet Patterson: This gorgeously written family memoir approaches its subject matter with brave tenderness. In December 2008, poet Patterson’s father died by suicide near his Minnesota home. He wasn’t an obvious risk. Yet there was family history: both of Patterson’s parents lost their fathers to suicide. She returns to Kansas on research trips to unearth her grandfathers’ lives. Throughout, sinkholes, common in Kansas, are both reality and metaphor for the chasm a suicide leaves.
Blurb Your Enthusiasm: An A-Z of Literary Persuasion by Louise Willder: A delightful bibliophile’s miscellany about ways of pithily spreading excitement about books. Over the last 25 years, Willder has written jacket copy for thousands of Penguin releases, so she has it down to a science as well as an art. (Reviewing is an adjacent skill.) The art of the first line, serialization and self-promotion, guidelines for good writing, differences between British and American jacket copy, the use of punctuation, and so much more. Very funny to boot.
Inside the Storm I Want to Touch the Tremble by Carolyn Oliver: Carolyn used to blog at Rosemary and Reading Glasses and won the Agha Shahid Ali Prize for this debut collection. Every line feels tirelessly honed to elicit maximal meaning and a memorable sound. Traditional forms are adapted to great effect. Chronic illness, gardening, and everyday sexual danger are themes, but the poems that pierced me most were about her son: quirky things he says, but also the reality of modern parenting, where active shooter drills are de rigueur.
This year’s best-of selections (the ones I own in print, anyway; the rest were read on Kindle or have already gone back to the library).
Have you read any of my 2022 favourites?
What releases do I need to catch up on right away?
Some 2022 Reading Superlatives
Longest book read this year: To Paradise by Hanya Yanagihara (720 pages)
Shortest book read this year: Everything’s Changing by Chelsea Stickle (37 pages)
Authors I read the most by this year: Nicola Colton (4), Jakob Wegelius (3), Tove Jansson and Sarah Ruhl (2)
Publishers I read the most from: (Besides the ubiquitous Penguin and its many imprints) Canongate, Carcanet and Picador – which is part of the Pan Macmillan group.
An author I ‘discovered’ and now want to read everything by: Matthew Vollmer
My overall top discovery of the year: The Murderer’s Ape by Jakob Wegelius
My proudest non-bookish achievement: Giving a eulogy at my mom’s funeral (and even getting some laughs).
The books that made me laugh the most: Revenge of the Librarians by Tom Gauld, Undoctored by Adam Kay, Forget Me Not by Sophie Pavelle, Blurb Your Enthusiasm by Louise Willder
The books that made me cry the most: Foster by Claire Keegan, The Hero of This Book by Elizabeth McCracken
Most useful fact gleaned from a book: To convert a Celsius temperature to Fahrenheit, double it and add 30. It’s a rough estimate, but it generally works! I learned this from, of all places, The Hero of This Book by Elizabeth McCracken.
Best book club selections: The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown, Falling Angels by Tracy Chevalier, Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan
Best first line encountered this year: “First, I got myself born.” (Demon Copperhead, Barbara Kingsolver)
Best last lines encountered this year:
- “Darling, that’s what life’s for – to take risks.” (Up at the Villa, W. Somerset Maugham)
- “The defiant soul of the city doesn’t die. It stays alive, right below the surface, pressing up against the boot heels, crouched like the life inside an egg, the force that drives the flower, forever reaching for its next breath.” (Feral City, Jeremiah Moss)
- “Until the future, whatever it was going to be.” (This Time Tomorrow, Emma Straub)
A book that put a song in my head every time I picked it up: Heaven Is a Place on Earth by Adrian Shirk
Shortest book title encountered: O (a poetry collection by Zeina Hashem Beck), followed by XO (a memoir by Sara Rauch)
Best 2022 book title: I Want to Die But I Want to Eat Tteokbokki by Baek Se-hee (No, I haven’t read it and I’m unlikely to, not having had great luck with recent translations of work by Japanese and Korean women.)
Favourite title and cover combo of the year: Briefly, A Delicious Life by Nell Stevens
Most fun cover serendipity: Two books I read in 2022 featured Matisse cut-outs.
Biggest disappointment: The Book of Form and Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki ( for me)
Two 2022 books that everyone was in raptures about but me: Trust by Hernan Diaz and Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver (both for me)
A 2022 book that everyone was reading but I decided not to: The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O’Farrell – since I thought Hamnet her weakest work, I’m not eager to try more historical fiction by her.
A 2022 book I can’t read: (No matter how good the reviews might be, because of the title) I’m Glad My Mom Died by Jennette McCurdy
The worst books I read this year: The Reactor by Nick Blackburn, Treacle Walker by Alan Garner, Anthropology by Dan Rhodes, Bonsai by Alejandro Zambra (1-star ratings are extremely rare from me; these were this year’s four)
The downright strangest book I read this year: The Magic Pudding by Norman Lindsay
Book Serendipity, Mid-August to Mid-October 2022
It’s my birthday today and we’re off to Kelmscott Manor, where William Morris once lived, so I’ll start with a Morris-related anecdote even if it’s not a proper book coincidence. One of his most famous designs, the Strawberry Thief, is mentioned in Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin, and I happen to be using a William Morris wall calendar this year. I will plan to report back tomorrow on our visit plus any book hauls that occur.
I call it “Book Serendipity” when two or more books that I read at the same time or in quick succession have something in common – the more bizarre, the better. This is a regular feature of mine every few months. Because I usually have 20–30 books on the go at once, I suppose I’m more prone to such incidents. The following are in roughly chronological order.
- There’s a character named Verena in What Concerns Us by Laura Vogt and Summer by Edith Wharton. Add on another called Verona from Stories from the Tenants Downstairs by Sidik Fofana.
- Two novels with a female protagonist who’s given up a singing career: Brief Lives by Anita Brookner and What Concerns Us by Laura Vogt.
- Two books featuring Black characters, written in African American Vernacular English, and with elements of drug use and jail time plus rent rises driving people out of their apartments and/or to crime (I’ve basically never felt so white): Stories from the Tenants Downstairs by Sidik Fofana and Nightcrawling by Leila Mottley.
- Two books on my stack with the protagonist an African American woman from Oakland, California: Red Island House by Andrea Lee and Nightcrawling by Leila Mottley
- A middle-aged woman’s hair is described as colourless and an officious hotel staff member won’t give the protagonist a cup of coffee/glass of wine in Brief Lives by Anita Brookner and Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout.
- There’s a central Switzerland setting in Mountain Song by Lucy Fuggle and What Concerns Us by Laura Vogt.
- On the same day, I encountered two references to Mary Oliver’s famous poem “The Summer Day” (“what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?”): in Mountain Song by Lucy Fuggle and This Beauty by Nick Riggle. (Fuggle and Riggle – that makes me laugh!)
- In the same evening I found mentions of copperhead snakes in Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver (no surprise there), but also on the very first page of Birds of a Lesser Paradise by Megan Mayhew-Bergman.
- Crop circles are important to What Remains? by Rupert Callender and The Perfect Golden Circle by Benjamin Myers.
- I was reading two books with provocative peaches on the cover at the same time: The Secret Lives of Church Ladies by Deesha Philyaw and Butts: A Backstory by Heather Radke.
- A main character is pregnant but refuses medical attention in The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh and What Concerns Us by Laura Vogt.
- An Australian setting and the slang “Carn” or “C’arn” for “come on” in Cloudstreet by Tim Winton and one story (“Halflead Bay”) from The Boat by Nam Le.
- Grape nuts cereal is mentioned in Leap Year by Helen Russell and This Time Tomorrow by Emma Straub.
- A character wagers their hair in a short story from Bratwurst Haven by Rachel King and one from Anthropology by Dan Rhodes.
- Just after I started reading a Jackie Kay poetry collection (Other Lovers), I turned to The Horizontal Oak by Polly Pullar and found a puff from Kay on the front cover. And then one from Jim Crumley, whose The Nature of Spring I was also reading, on the back cover! (All Scottish authors, you see.)
- Reading two memoirs that include a father’s suicide – Sinkhole by Juliet Patterson and The Horizontal Oak by Polly Pullar – at the same time.
- Middle school students reading Of Mice and Men in Ms. Hempel Chronicles by Sarah Shun-lien Bynum and Stories from the Tenants Downstairs by Sidik Fofana.
- A second novel in two months in which Los Angeles’s K-Town (Korean neighbourhood) is an important location: after Which Side Are You On by Ryan Lee Wong, Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin.
- The main character inherits his roommate’s coat in one story of The Dinner Party by Joshua Ferris, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin.
- The Groucho Marx quote “Whatever it is, I’m against it” turns up in What Remains? by Rupert Callender and Blurb Your Enthusiasm by Louise Willder (where it’s adapted to “we’re” as the motto of 3:AM Magazine).
- In Remainders of the Day by Shaun Bythell, Polly Pullar is mentioned as one of the writers at that year’s Wigtown Book Festival; I was reading her The Horizontal Oak at the same time.
- Marilyn Monroe’s death is mentioned in Sinkhole by Juliet Patterson and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin.
- The types of standard plots that there are, and the fact that children’s books get the parents out of the way as soon as possible, are mentioned in And Finally by Henry Marsh and Blurb Your Enthusiasm by Louise Willder.
- Two books in quick succession with a leaping hare (and another leaping mammal, deer vs. dog) on the cover: Awayland by Ramona Ausubel, followed by Hare House by Sally Hinchcliffe.
- Three fingers held up to test someone’s mental state after a head injury in The House Is on Fire by Rachel Beanland and The Fear Index by Robert Harris.
- A scene where a teenage girl has to help with a breech livestock delivery (goat vs. sheep) in Belzhar by Meg Wolitzer and The Truants by Kate Weinberg.
- Two memoirs by a doctor/comedian that open with a scene commenting on the genitals of a cadaver being studied in medical school: Catch Your Breath by Ed Patrick wasn’t funny in the least, so I ditched it within the first 10 pages or so, whereas Undoctored by Adam Kay has been great so far.
What’s the weirdest reading coincidence you’ve had lately?
Blurb Your Enthusiasm by Louise Willder
At last, I’m caught up reviewing September releases! It’s one of the busier months in the publishing calendar, so I shouldn’t be surprised that I had such a bounteous crop. Now I can pay more attention to R.I.P. selections, catching up on others’ blog posts, and getting ahead before the start of Novellas in November.
Blurb Your Enthusiasm is a delightful bibliophile’s miscellany with a great title – not just for the play on words, but also for how it encapsulates what this is about: ways of pithily spreading excitement about books. The first part of the subtitle, “An A–Z of Literary Persuasion,” is puzzling in that the structure is scattershot rather than strictly alphabetical, but the second is perfect: from the title and cover to the contents, Louise Willder is interested in what convinces people to acquire and read a book.
Over the last 25 years, she has written the jacket copy for thousands of Penguin releases, so she has it down to a science as well as an art. Book reviewing seems to me to be an adjacent skill. I know from nine years of freelance writing about books, in which I’ve had to produce reviews ranging from 100 to 2,000 words, that the shortest and most formulaic reviews can be the most difficult to compose, but are also excellent writing discipline. As Willder puts it, “Writing short, for whatever reason you do it, forces rigour, and it reminds you that words are a precious and powerful resource. Form both limits and liberates.”
How to do justice to the complexity of several hundred pages of an author’s hard work in just 150 words or so? How to suggest the tone and contents without a) resorting to clichés (“luminous” and “unflinching” are a couple of my bugbears), b) giving too much away, c) overstating the case, or misleading anyone about the merits of a Marmite book, or d) committing the cardinal sin of boring readers before they’ve even opened to the first page?
it can be easy to forget that a potential reader hasn’t read it: they don’t know anything about it. You can’t sell them the experience of the book – you have to sell them the expectation of reading it; the idea of it. And that’s when a copywriter can be an author’s best friend.
[An aside: Literary critics and blog reviewers generally see themselves as having different roles: making objective (pah!) pronouncements about literary value versus cheerleading for the books they love and want others to discover (a sort of unpaid partnership with publicists). I’m in the odd position of being both, and feel I engage in the two activities pretty much equally, perhaps leaning more towards the former. There’s some crossover, of course, with bloggers such as myself happy to publish the occasional more critical review. But we aren’t generally, as Willder is, in the business of selling books, so unless we’re pals with the author on Twitter we don’t tend to have a vested interest in seeing the book do well.]
Each reader will home in on certain topics here: the art of the first line, Dickens’s serialization and self-promotion, Orwell’s guidelines for good writing, the differences between British and American jacket copy, the use of punctuation, and so much more. I particularly loved the mock and bad blurbs she cites (we’ve both commented on the ludicrous one for The Country Girls!), including one an AI created for this book, and her rundown of the conventions of blurb-writing for various genres, everything from children’s books to science fiction. She frequently breaks her own rules (e.g., she’s anti-adjective and -ellipses, yet I found five of the one and two of the other in the Crace blurb; see below) and is very funny to boot.
Here’s some of the bookish and word-nerd trivia that captivated me:
- J. D. Salinger didn’t allow blurbs on his books.
- The American usage of the word “blurb” is for advance review quotes that fellow authors contribute for inclusion on the cover. I didn’t realize I used the word interchangeably for either meaning; in the UK, one might call such a quote a “puff.”
- Marshall McLuhan invented the “page 69 test” – to decide whether you want to buy/read a book, turn to that page instead of (or maybe in addition to) looking at the first paragraph.
- A New York publishing CEO once joked that Lincoln’s Doctor’s Dog would be an optimal title to appeal to readers (respected president + health + animal), but there are actually now six books bearing some variation on that title and all were presumably flops!
- “Wackaging” is the word for quirky marketing that has products talk to us (Innocent Smoothies, established in 1999, is thought to have started the trend).
- I pulled out my copy of Jim Crace’s Quarantine to see how Willder managed to write a blurb about a novel about Jesus without mentioning Jesus (“a Galilean who they say has the power to work miracles”)!
Some more favourite lines:
“There’s always something to love and learn from in a book, especially if it lasts as long as these books [children’s classics] have, and part of the job of people like me is to pick out what makes it special and pass it on.”
“always ask yourself, what’s really going on here? Why should anyone care? And how do we make them care?”
For all of us who value books, whether we write about them or not, those seem like important points to remember. We read to learn, but also to feel, and when we share our love of books with other people we can do so on the basis of how they have engaged our brains and hearts. This was thoroughly entertaining and has prompted me to pay that bit more attention to the few paragraphs on the inside of a book jacket. (See also Susan’s review.)
With thanks to Oneworld for the free copy for review.