Welcome to my review of books read in 2022. I read over eighty books and it’s always fun to look back over the year and spot trends. I discovered many brilliant UK YA books compared to 2021 when the market seemed dominated by the US. MG writing is also still amazing and exciting, and it’s great to know that there is such choice out there for younger readers. It’s also been another year of discovering new, exciting crime and thriller writers. I read less sci fi/fantasy, but what I did read was incredible, and in fact all of these books were categorised by their publishers as mainstream, sitting out there on the front tables amongst general fiction; no visiting geeky bookshops for these. Of course as always I discovered some brilliant general fiction, as well as having a bit of a binge on the lighter chick lit stuff.
1. Again, Rachel by Marian Keyes Let’s start with the chick lit. I’m sure Marian Keyes hates that definition but her book covers put her squarely in that genre. After discovering her writing back in 2008, I devoured her back catalogue and have always treated myself to her new books in hardback the day they emerge. This year she was launching a sequel to one of her early books – Rachel’s Holiday – so I began 2023 with re-reading all five previously published Walsh Family books in preparation. I finished just in time for publication day, and Rachel Again did not disappoint. Usual brilliant humour mixed with dark stories of addiction and recovery. If you’ve not discovered Marian Keyes before, I’d recommend starting, as I did, with This Charming Man, and from there find your way into the Walsh family via Watermelon.
2. Do You Remember the First Time? by Jenny Colgan. Jenny Colgan has been around for a while but I’ve not read her before; however the premise of this book intrigued me: ‘Life doesn’t have a rewind button. Ever wished it did?’ 32 year old Flora idly wishes she was 16 again, and her wish comes true. I loved this book and during the year, went on to read quite a few more books by Jenny Colgan. They usually have that standard Pride and Prejudice romantic trope, but they’re also funny and have memorable settings. Try The Bookshop on the Corner.
3. Moonflower Murders by Anthony Horowitz. Last year I discovered Anthony Horowitz’s clever take on the classic murder mystery, and listed Magpie Murders in my top books of the year. It was one of the inspirations for November’s blog about unusual crime narratives. This year I read the sequel, Moonflower Murders, which is another book within a book (technically this is called an embedded narrative – I like to think of them as meta crime novels). I really liked this one too. In Magpie Murders, a crime writer – Alan Conway – is murdered and his editor can only solve this crime by reading the writer’s work in progress and following clues within that. In Moonflower Murders the same editor is invited to stay at a hotel where a murder took place eight years ago, but a member of staff, having read one of Conway’s novels, realises the author used the crime in his book and his narrative shows that the wrong person was convicted. Classic closed setting crime, with a clever add on.
4. The Man Who Died Twice by Richard Osman. Another delightful discovery of the year was that Richard Osman can write. I started, as you do, with his first book, The Thursday Murder Club, which was fun but really was trying too hard, and the twists at the end were convoluted and complicated. However, The Man Who Died Twice, his second book, was brilliant, really enjoyable. He’s already written and published his third – The Bullet that Missed – and in this one he feels assured, confident, and his dry wit comes through. Although I think The Man Who Died Twice was the best to date, you probably need to read the books in order to get to know the characters, an eclectic bunch of people living in a retirement community who like to solve crimes.
5. No Time for Goodbye by Linwood Barclay. Last year’s big find was Linwood Barclay, and so this year I continued to seek him out and so far have not been disappointed. Trust your eyes was about an autistic boy obsessed with maps who realises he’s seen a murder on Google Earth, which I loved, Never Look Away has a child disappearing at a funfair and things just get worse and worse and more twisty, but my favourite of the year was No Time For Goodbye. A teenage girl wakes up to find all her family has disappeared. Twenty years later and there still are no answers. And then things start to go wrong…
6. Orpheus Builds a Girl by Heather Parry. Usually the latest Stephen King makes it onto my best reads of the year, but although I enjoyed his latest – Fairy Tale – it was not my favourite. Instead it is a debut author’s blending of Frankenstein, eugenics and obsession which got my vote. Heather Parry also interviewed debut author Julia Armfield at the Edinburgh Book Festival, about her own debut horror novel, Our Wives Under the Sea, and so I had to read that as well; I mean, a horror set in the deep ocean? What’s not to like? It was well written and creepy, but maybe a bit slow, and certainly for me, not as gripping as Orpheus Builds a Girl.
I know some of you skip this section because you think sci fi/fantasy is not for you. Honestly none of the books I have categorised as such were sold as genre fiction, which is interesting in itself. Publishers are either trying to avoid that turned-off gut reaction, or they just think that good stories defy categorisation. Or both. Even if you’ve never read sci fi/fantasy, do consider these books.
7. Sea of Tranquillity by Emily St John Mandel. I’ve raved about this author before – adored her flu pandemic aftermath Station Eleven (the screen production of which was ironically halted midway through 2020 ….) but this is even better. A short, beautifully crafted time slip novel with undertones of the Matrix.
8. Piranesi by Susanna Clarke. I have a confession to make. I did not much enjoy Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell while The Ladies of Grace Adieu is still waiting in my to-be-read pile. However Piranesi is unputdownable. Ethereally strange, captivating, slow and dreamy, it’s really a book to savour like dark chocolate. And if you liked this book, then try The Gifts by Liz Hyder, whose debut novel for young adults, Bearmouth was in my top reads of 2020 The Gifts is a strong follow up, dark magic realism set in Victorian times, about women who grow wings.
9. How to Stop Time by Matt Haig. I also raved about Matt Haig’s The Midnight Library in my 2020 top reads. In How To Stop Time, our protagonist seems like an ordinary London history teacher, but he was born in 1581. This story is not just about immortality, but also about how to live your best life without fear.
I mentioned at the outset that I had read a lot of YA fiction this year – well over twenty books, all of which were brilliant, making the choice pretty difficult, especially with an astonishing range of genres, themes, settings, characters etc. And there wasn’t even a new Patrick Ness on offer! I’ll try to give you a selection.
10. The Great Godden by Meg Rosoff. Reminding me of We Were Liars by E Lockhart, the characters in this book are all wealthy beyond most people’s imaginations, enjoying their summer vacation in their beachfront houses, and yet the sense of impending disaster keeps you reading. Also – and this is so subtle I did not notice it all until someone pointed it out to me long after I had finished reading – the gender/sex of the main character is never defined.
11. Gay Club by Simon James Green. I did a binge read of Simon James Green this summer as he appeared in an event at the Edinburgh Book Festival which I chaired, and I’m delighted to have had this opportunity to discover him. This book I loved – funny, outrageous, sad, human and real, it follows an unlikely hero in secondary school as he tries to become the chair of the school’s gay club. (And if you like this, then check out Noah Can’t Even)
12. Cane Warriors by Alex Wheatle. Inspired by a real life rebellion in British-owned slave plantations in Jamaica in 1760, this follows one teenage slave through the heroic uprising to its inevitable conclusion, in the process creating some memorable characters and giving us an insight into how life must have felt for people growing up enslaved.
Goodness there are so many others I’d love to mention! A shout out to S.T.A.G.S. by MA Bennett, a thriller set in an exclusive boarding school, Concentr8 by Will Sutcliffe, a near future dystopian fiction imagining a world where we drug our teenagers to ensure compliance, and Eight pieces of Silva by Patrice Lawrence with its unforgettable MC whose sister goes missing. And if you hate spooky dolls, I must mention the dark, creepy fantasy, Cuckoo Song by Frances Hardinge.
While there are some amazing fantasy books being written for the pre-teens, many of my favourites this year were historical or even contemporary.
13. Boy, Everywhere by AM Dassu. In these dark days of refugee crises, this is a very human and relatable book about a boy from a wealthy Damascene family who flee to the UK. It’s also a fantastic, exciting read.
14. Roof toppers by Katherine Rundell. A baby adrift in a cello case after a shipwreck; is she an orphan? Or did her mother somehow survive? Katherine Rundell does historical MG so well.
15. The Escape Artist by Jonathan Freedland I’m not a great non-fiction reader, but I saw a review of this and thought it sounded interesting. I picked it up in town, started reading it on the bus, and missed my stop. The same thing happened on my journey the following day. What a fabulous book, telling the story of a teenage Jew who managed to escape from Auschwitz.
16. Fifty words for Snow by Nancy Campbell. I’ve always believed that I’m one of those people who can’t get on with audible books. I’ve tried listening to them in the car and found I missed whole chunks when I was distracted by road signs. (Just joking! But you know what I mean). However in November I discovered that non-fiction works just fine for me on audible – no plot to miss! My first excursion into audible was to listen to Fifty words for Snow by Nancy Campbell. It was ideal: soporific voice, bite size chapters, just the thing to listen to when you’re wandering about town. Each of the 50 chapters focuses on a different word for snow in various languages and gives you some background to the word and culture. Expect more non-fiction next year!
General contemporary fiction
So many good books this year! I’ll do my best to narrow them down.
17. Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin. Her book Elsewhere – published in 2005 – has to be one of my favourite YA books of all time, so I was excited to see this new work, and it did not disappoint. It’s about male/female friendship and the growth of computer games, which doesn’t sound that exciting but it is a novel which surely tells the story of the 21st century.
18. The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O’Farrell. My favourite author of all time, so any time she has a new book out, I’m there, waiting. This one is about the short life of Lucrezia de’ Medici, who was reputed to be poisoned by her husband aged 16. I wasn’t sure I was going to enjoy this – who wants to read a book when we know that the heroine is going to die right from the start? But it’s Maggie, so I must, and once again I loved it. She is a genius.
19 Even the birds grow silent by Alex Nye. A collection of tales told by Mrs Death, which could feel like short stories, but there is a coherent thread running through it which pulls it all together. I’ve read other books supposedly narrated by Death (The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak, for instance) but this one is humorous and engaging.
20. Unsettled Ground by Claire Fuller. A deserved winner of the Costa, this slow burn novel reminds me of Barbara Vine at her best. A brother and sister, now in their late 50s, have always lived with their mother, but when she dies, they are set adrift in a world which they are singularly ill equipped to deal with. I adored Our Endless Numbered Days, and after reading Unsettled Ground, I bought and read Swimming Lessons and Bitter Orange. Claire Fuller is definitely an author to discover if you have not already done so and if you like slow burn thrillers about people coping on the margins of life.
Favourite of the year? Really, really hard to decide, but I guess the acid tests are, which ones still resonate with me as I write this? And which ones would I read again? Here they are.
- Sea of Tranquillity by Emily St John Mandel
- Unsettled Ground by Claire Fuller
- Orpheus Builds a Girl by Heather Parry