2022 went quickly, didn’t it?! As always, I’ve read some brilliant books this year, even though my MA studies and some health issues meant I didn’t read quite as many books as in 2021.
It’s been a very novel-heavy year, mainly because I’ve been looking for inspiration for my own novel-in-progress in terms of structure and themes. Did I find any? Sort of – but most importantly, I discovered MANY excellent novels and writers!
One thing I’ve noticed in compiling this list is that I haven’t read anywhere near as many fantasy and sci-fi books as usual, which is something to rectify next year and is probably because my own novel falls into the contemporary genre.
Also, I’m definitely going to read more short story collections and anthologies in 2023 – I can’t believe how few I’ve read this year! In my defence, most of my TBR books in this category have been under wraps for most of the year due to ongoing work to redecorate the living room, so I’m looking forward to reacquainting myself with those next year.
Read on for my top picks, organised into three categories: novels and novellas, short stories and anthologies, and non-fiction. This year I’m linking to Bookshop.org for most titles, as well as direct to indie publisher websites for some titles. As always, I don’t get any commission if you buy books using these links.
Novels and novellas
Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead
This book FLOORED me! Great Circle is an epic, gorgeously written historical novel about the dramatic, thrilling life of Marian, a female pilot, and Hadley, the present-day actress tasked with playing her in a film.
Shipstead digs into characters’ heads so well, bringing the reader as close to them as possible. I was hooked from the outset and, despite the fact that it’s almost 700 pages long, I honestly didn’t want to stop reading it.
I was most engaged with Marian’s story but I also thought Hadley’s contemporary plotline was really well done as a way of giving us an outside perspective on Marian’s life. Shipstead has done so much research into early female pilots and aviation that I honestly feel as if Marian was a real person! I still think about this story a lot, and about how it made me feel, which is a sign of a bloody good book if you ask me.
Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin
I think this is my book of the year… What a beautiful, heart-rending novel this is! Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow follows Sam and Sadie from their meeting as children in the 80s through to their thirties, tracing the ups and downs of their friendship and game designing partnership in a non-chronological narrative peopled with a wonderfully drawn supporting cast of non-playable characters.
This is a warm, funny and sometimes sad love letter to video games and friendship that doesn’t require any prior knowledge of games at all, but is greatly enhanced if you too find yourself smiling at references to the likes of Harvest Moon and Maniac Mansion.
I’ve been looking for an excellent novel centred on video games and the people who make them for years, and I’m so glad that I’ve finally found it! It’s a gorgeous read and I’m so looking forward to reading it again soon.
Tell Me How to Be by Neel Patel
It feels like there are more and more novels being written by people from a similar background to myself, which is so very welcome! Tell Me How to Be is one of these novels and is a beautiful, gripping story of lost love and secrets among East African immigrants of Gujarati descent living in the US.
Tell Me How To Be follows two characters: Akash, a young gay would-be music producer and addict who has never come out to his family, and his widowed mother Renu, who seems to favour her eldest son over Akash and is keen to live in the way expected by the rest of the Indian immigrant community in Illinois.
I absolutely LOVED this novel! I was hooked from the outset and felt such an affinity with the family. The chapters are short and easy to whip through, and there’s plenty of humour despite the difficulties experienced by the characters. I also really enjoyed the references to 90s and early 00s music, a lot of which I remember from my teen years.
A Prayer for the Crown-Shy by Becky Chambers
As you probably know, I’m a huge admirer of Becky Chambers and her wonderful brand of quietly devastating sci-fi, so I always pounce on her new releases as soon as I can. Happily, A Prayer for the Crown-Shy is a delightful, thoughtful follow-up to the excellent A Psalm for the Wild-Built, a solarpunk novella exploring a future world that’s a bit like ours.
We rejoin Sibling Dex and Mosscap as they continue their travels in a land where the news of Mosscap’s existence has quickly spread. Dex is no longer doing tea service for reasons that become apparent towards the end, and are a quiet nod to the limbo most of us endured when the COVID pandemic started.
Like the first book, this sequel gently encourages the reader to take joy in the small things when bigger events threaten to overwhelm us. A lovely read overall.
Piranesi by Susanna Clarke
A tantalising mystery in an eerily huge house that seems to go on forever…
I’m not going to say too much about Piranesi because the less you know, the more enjoyable it is (in my opinion anyway!). But it’s a cracking novel that’ll appeal to anyone who loves a possibly unreliable narrator in a wonderfully realised otherworldly setting.
I did wonder how on earth *anyone* could successfully follow up the wonderful Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, but of course Susanna Clarke knows exactly what she’s doing!
Love Marriage by Monica Ali
A love story with a difference! It’s 2016 and London doctors Yasmin and Joe are engaged when their respective parents finally meet each other.
Yasmin’s parents are Indian immigrants with conflicting views on their Islamic faith (or lack thereof) while Joe’s white, divorced, glamorous mother prides herself on her close relationship with her son and her history of outraging people with her political and cultural views. That first meeting sets off a chain of events that uncovers a series of life-changing secrets, passions and frustrations…
I loved this book so much! The characters are memorable and human, and the plot compelling; this is very much accessible literary fiction. There’s plenty of humour alongside high emotion and mental turmoil, but above all, I loved the depiction of Yasmin’s family – they leap off the page and subvert the stereotypes of what is deemed a ‘typical’ Muslim/South Asian immigrant family. The depiction of the NHS doctors in both families is clearly very well researched and speaks so thoughtfully to the challenges faced by the NHS in current times.
- Buy Love Marriage from Bookshop.org
Boulder by Eva Baltasar
Permafrost was one of my favourite reads of last year, so I was delighted when this translation of Boulder, the second book in Eva Baltasar’s triptych of woman-centred novellas, dropped on my doormat.
Boulder is another nameless protagonist who gets her nickname from Samsa, the woman she settles down with. Samsa is ambitious and knows exactly what she wants, while Boulder is looser in spirit; she misses her previous life as a ship’s cook but is genuinely in love with Samsa, so she goes along with her wife’s drive to have a baby even though she herself is ambivalent about the whole enterprise.
I won’t say too much more about the plot, which is simple yet compelling. Baltasar’s language and Julia Sanches’s excellent translation are, again, the stars of the show for me (again). As in Permafrost, Baltasar has a gift for turning everyday feelings and images into surprising, impressive pieces of poetic prose. Reading both books was like being violently yet pleasantly shaken awake for me, showing me how the most familiar things can be rendered anew.
Appleseed by Matt Bell
Appleseed is an ambitious, slow-burning and thought-provoking novel that explores climate change and the relationship between humans and the wild through three main point-of-view characters in three different time periods: Chapman, a faun roaming America with his human brother as European settlers arrive to populate the west; John, a scientist and activist in the near future who is disillusioned with the allegedly benevolent megacorporation he helped to found; and C-432, the lone inhabitant of an Earth that is undergoing another ice age in the far future.
What I appreciated most about Appleseed is the way that it avoids painting a black-and-white picture of the problems of and possible solutions to manmade climate change. In this respect, the novel reflects a lot of the discourse we see around the issue today, with differing opinions of what might help the world to avoid the sort of futures we see in Appleseed – rewilding, technology, new laws and governments, and so on.
I also loved the blend of myth, history and science-fiction – it’s not something I’ve seen that much of before, and I think Matt Bell really pulls it off and creates a strong sense of wonder as a result. This is another book that I still think about from time to time.
- Buy Appleseed from Abebooks (it doesn’t seem to be in print in the UK)
Grown Ups by Marie Aubert
Grown Ups is a story translated from Norwegian by Rosie Hedger, about a 40-year-old woman on a difficult holiday with her sister’s family.
Ida is single and yearning for a perfect life with a partner and children, a yearning that intensifies when she spends a few days with Marthe, her husband and his daughter in the family cabin – resulting in some secrets being spilled.
I loved Ida’s voice – she is clearly frustrated and wistful at the same time, jumping between despair and hope for her future. Her relationship with her sister is beautifully conveyed as a mixture of resentment and gentleness on both sides. Aubert has managed to do so much with so few words! This is a really good, short read that touches on some important truths about family and parenthood.
Mrs Death Misses Death by Salena Godden
I think this was my first read of 2022, and what a book to start the year with! Mrs Death Misses Death is a thrilling piece of experimental fiction in which death takes the form of an older black woman.
Godden uses prose, diary entries, poetry and transcripts to tell the story of Mrs Death and a young poet called Wolf who collects Mrs Death’s stories through what seems to be a magical desk. Wolf is orphaned and should have died in the same fire that took their mother, but Mrs Death chose not to take them too.
I don’t really know how to describe this book. Godden is a poet and it really shows in the writing, which is beautiful yet urgent. There’s not that much of a plot – the novel is definitely more of a polemic urging readers to seize life and remember the dead who were taken too soon. It was quite something reading this in a pandemic that has unnecessarily killed so many people.
For me, it was like a drink of ice cold water on a sweltering day, from the very first page. I didn’t know where the story was going to take me, and I’m still not quite sure where I ended up, but I loved the ride and wanted more!
You People by Nikita Lalwani
You People is a gripping and evocative novel told from the point of view of two characters: Nia, a half-Bengali half-Welsh 19-year-old who has escaped from a brutal home environment to London, and Shan, a refugee from the war in Sri Lanka. Both are employed by Tuli, the owner of a pizza restaurant who seems to be in the business of helping estranged people like Nia and Shan.
Shan has the clearest plotline of the two POV characters; he left his wife and son in Sri Lanka with the intention of sending for them when he is settled in London, but instead loses touch with them and is worried that they have been caught up in the war. Nia is more of an observer than anything else, but she is compassionately painted by Lalwani nonetheless.
The first half of the novel was a it of a slow burn for me, but I was thoroughly gripped as the story headed towards the climax. This is such an important novel for opening readers’ eyes to the real problems faced by those escaping to Britain in search of a more stable life for their families, particularly in the sadly hostile environment that refugees are forced to endure when they get here.
Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart
A devastatingly bleak but gripping novel about a young boy growing up with an alcoholic mother in 1980s Glasgow.
I found it had to settle into the book at first, purely because of the dark subject matter, but I was soon swept up in the complex and tenderly depicted relationship between Shuggie and his mother. This is definitely one for those who love to have their heartstrings tugged by an emotional story.
A deserving Booker winner!
Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield
I read this recently as winter started to bed in, and it was perfect for these cold, dark times: a thoroughly enjoyable and spooky Victorian mystery set on the banks of the Thames.
The mystery is set in motion when a strange man, photographer Henry Daunt, arrives at the Swan with a girl in his arms. He collapses and the girl is assumed dead – but then she comes back to life. Yet Henry doesn’t know who she is, or how exactly he came to rescue her. The child, who never speaks, exerts a strange pull on the local people and more than one claim is laid to her.
Surrounding all of this is the ebb and flow of stories – some true, some not, most somewhere in between – and the endless pull of the river itself…
I LOVED this book – it’s the perfect read for this time of year and the various characters are written so well. The multiple mysteries unravel in a highly satisfying manner while still leaving room for speculative musings like those of the regulars at the Swan. If you’re looking for an atmospheric novel to immerse yourself in during the winter, you can’t do much better than this one.
An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
A totally gripping read that fully deserves all the high praise!
Roy and Celestial are a newly married Black couple whose lives are overturned when Roy is convicted for a crime he didn’t commit, and sent to prison for 12 years. His conviction is overturned, but the consequences for Celestial and their marriage are not so easily reversed.
I loved this book – Jones must be a genius to pull off three different first-person narratives! She does such a great job of making them distinct from each other and making each character leap off the page. It’s a masterclass in understated writing that manages to pack an emotional punch.
More novels and novellas I enjoyed in 2022
- Sea of Tranquility by Emily St John Mandel
- How Saints Die by Carmen Marcus
- A Spindle Splintered and A Mirror Mended by Alix E Harrow
- Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason
- Still Born by Guadalupe Nettel
- The Seep by Chana Porter
- I’m A Fan by Sheena Patel
- Here Again Now by Okechukwu Nzelu
- Young Jane Young by Gabrielle Zevin
- Wyrd Sisters by Terry Pratchett
- Still Lives by Reshma Ruia
- In the Seeing Hands of Others by Nat Ogle
- Kaikeyi by Vaishnavi Patel
- The Galaxy, and the Ground Within by Becky Chambers
- The Key in the Lock by Beth Underdown
- Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson
- Somebody Loves You by Mona Arshi
- The Buddha of Suburbia by Hanif Kureishi
- Sealed by Naomi Booth
- The Most Fun We Ever Had by Claire Lombardo
- Utopia Avenue by David Mitchell
- Writers & Lovers by Lily King
- Uprooted by Naomi Novik
- Disobedient Women by Sangeeta Mulay
- Eulalia! by Brian Jacques
Short stories and anthologies
Come Let Us Sing Anyway by Leone Ross
I picked up this excellent collection with high expectations after absolutely loving Ross’s most recent novel, This One Sky Day, last year.
I’m happy to say that I wasn’t at all disappointed – her talent for creating unforgettable characters and putting them in weird, wonderful and sometimes tragic situations may have been rawer in Come Let Us Sing Anyway than in TOSD, but the stories are still engaging, funny, thought-provoking, sexy and so very clever.
I think my favourites were ‘Breakfast Time’, about a woman in hospital who has undergone surgery to help her lose weight, and the penultimate story ‘And You Know This’, which is a wonderful ode to female friendship set in a future where humans can live to 250. I always find it fascinating to see how novelists approach shorter forms, and Ross has demonstrated that she can master stories of all kinds of lengths.
Of Myths and Mothers ed. by Isabelle Kenyon
I bought this after attending a launch event for the book, and it’s an *excellent* collection of distinct but connected stories.
Editor Isabelle Kenyon first read stories by award-winning author Gaynor Jones and poet Sascha Akhtar and saw a climate change theme emerging. However, stories from Clayton Lister, Helen Nathaniel-Fulton and Kenzie Millar also offered distinctive takes on motherhood and mythology.
Ranging from fairy tale retellings to haunting portraits of possible futures, all of the stories are compelling and deftly told – I really enjoyed reading such great tales from a diverse range of writers.
The Guts of a Mackerel by Clare Reddaway
This is an excellent short story set in 1981. Eve is an English teenager on holiday in Ireland with her family. She’s excited about resuming a holiday romance with local boy Liam, but political events have changed the landscape, with consequences for Eve’s family.
It sounds a serious, grim read, but it isn’t – I enjoyed being in Eve’s head, unpredictable teenage-ness and all, and the political context (the Bobby Sands hunger strike) is treated sensitively. I’m really enjoying this series of shorts from Fly on the Wall Press and now need to read the rest!
Snapshots of the Apocalypse by Katy Wimhurst
This is an entertaining, thoughtful and sometimes dark collection of stories featuring characters striving to live in the aftermath of an apocalypse.
I loved the strange, unsettling nature of many of the stories – some of the plots are really quite novel and I admire Wimhurst for coming up with such wonderful concepts! Everyday pursuits like knitting and gardening clash with the unreal feeling of living in a dystopia – something I think that a lot of us can relate to right now…
More short stories and anthologies I enjoyed in 2022
- Into the Wilds: an anthology of short stories and poetry from British South Asian writers
- Demos Rising
[Disclaimer: I have stories in both of the above anthologies, but I’m recommending these books for all the other pieces in them!]
Terry Pratchett: A Life in Footnotes by Rob Wilkins
A brilliant, heartbreaking insight into the life of one of our greatest authors…
Rob Wilkins was Terry Pratchett’s personal assistant and friend for many years, and therefore well-placed to use Pratchett’s notes for an autobiography to create this wonderful account of his formative years and early writing ambitions through to the final months of his life and career as a bestselling, much-loved author.
There is so much of Pratchett’s humour and personality throughout the book, even while we’re aware it has been written from the perspective of someone else. It’s right and proper that the book doesn’t focus on Pratchett’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis and subsequent decline until close to the end of the book, because this is only one element of an incredibly rich life that gave joy to so many people, and it’s also right that Wilkins very much focuses on his own relationship with Pratchett rather than that of the family.
In the Shadow of the Mountain by Silvia Vasquez-Lavado
This is a moving, inspiring memoir about one woman’s attempts to face up to the demons of her past by getting to the top of the world.
Silvia Vasquez-Lavado grew up in a comfortable home in Peru with a strict father and loving mother. As the book opens, she’s on her way to summiting Mount Everest. She alternates between the climb and her past to show how she ended up attempting to scale the highest mountain in the world, beginning with the sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of a family friend as a child and going on to relay her adult life in the US, her struggle for acceptance as a gay woman and an almost life-long struggle with addiction.
I was totally gripped from the outset, although the parts about her abuse are really hard to read. Vasquez-Lavado’s writing is emotional and engaging, and she had all my sympathy from the beginning. Above all, this is a very human story about the ups and downs of life, and the impact of trauma on our sense of who we are. It’s incredible that she’s managed to salvage so much of herself after coming to terms with her losses. I’m just extremely admiring of her strength and will to keep going.
I would totally recommend this book if you’re in need of inspiration, even if – like me – you are very definitely not the mountain climbing type! It’s brilliant.
Mixed/Other by Natalie Morris
Mixed/Other is a thoughtful, nuanced exploration of the experiences of mixed people in Britain today. Morris draws on both her own life and the experiences of a variety of mixed contributors to show just how complex the mixed experience is, and how it’s impossible to lump all mixed people together to turn them into one homogeneous mass.
With chapters focusing on identity, family, romantic/sexual relationships, exoticisation, different ‘types’ of mixed backgrounds, passing, and work, the book draws on both research and anecdotes to make for an accessible, thought-provoking read.
The book has definitely led me, as a monoracial minority, to question my own assumptions about mixed people and look beyond stereotypes and physical appearance to consider individual experiences more. An essential companion to Afua Hirsch’s similarly excellent book Brit(ish).
Cold Fish Soup by Adam Farrer
Cold Fish Soup is a memoir in essays about Adam Farrer’s relationship with the seaside town of Withernsea, which is set on top of crumbling cliffs that are being gradually eroded by the sea.
The book is largely about Farrer’s fascination with the town, which his family moved to from rural Suffolk, and the people who live there. But Farrer puts a highly personal slant on the stories that he comes across, focusing on mental health through his own previous experiences and through the suicide of his older brother.
The results are moving and funny, but never overly sentimental or self-pitying. His tales of being bullied at school and never quite feeling like he fit in anywhere until he met his best friend at college are relatable, and his witty portrayals of his family, particularly his mother, are full of warmth and love. A really great, engaging read!
Once Upon a Time I Lived on Mars by Kate Greene
Kate Greene is a science journalist who took part in an experiment that recreated the experience of living on Mars with several other ‘astronauts’. This book, which takes the form of a collection of essays rather than a chronological narrative, is partly an account of the mission. But the story is also interweaved with Kate’s own thoughts and experiences as a queer woman who first became obsessed with space as a child.
It’s a brilliant, thoughtful hybrid memoir full of interesting facts about space missions and experiments gone by. It – along with the news of the incredible images taken by the James Webb Space Telescope – has reminded me of my own mild obsession with space and why I find it so fascinating.
More non-fiction I enjoyed in 2022
- Glorious Rock Bottom by Bryony Gordon
- No Man’s Land: Living Between Two Cultures by Anne East
- Burning My Roti: Breaking Barriers as a Queer Asian Woman by Sharan Dhaliwal
- Checkpoint: How Video Games Power Up Minds, Kick Ass and Save Lives by Joe Donnelly