I still award a score to all the books I read – recorded on my Reading List page. I score out of 10, including half points (so out of 20 really!). Those scores are only snapshots of course, and some books fade from your memory as others, which maybe scored lower initially, stay or grow. I read 135 books this year, of which I awarded 10/10 to 19 – that’s just over 14% – fewer than last year, but due to good reading choices, an awful lot of titles got eight and above. I’m allowing myself 15 best books this year with a few runners up. So here are the titles that resonated with me this year, whatever their initial score.
Best Re-Read: Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow by Peter Høeg was the first book I read for my 2022 Nordic FINDS project, revisiting one of the first Scandi books I ever read, and I’m glad to say that it stood up to a reading for a second time, and now, post-pandemic, its final secrets are no longer quite so far-fetched.
Coldest novel: The Ice Palace by Tarjei Vesaas – You can’t not love this Norwegian novella from 1963 from one of the country’s greatest authors with magical writing about the snow and ice, it’s the stories of two girls, a budding friendship, but one of them gets lost in the ice.
Best Second Person Narrative: Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson – Set in South London, this Costa First Novel winner tells the story of a friendship which develops into love through the eyes of a young photographer. The use of the second person narratives parallels his protagonist’s job, both documenting and observing. I loved the beauty and tenderness of his writing about their relationship, again the second person allows neither to be named.
Best East-West doomed romance: Iron Curtain by Vesna Goldsworthy – When a Red Princess from a Soviet satellite state falls for a British poet, defection for love is in the air, but life in the West is very different to her privileged-with-limits former lifestyle in the East. When her husband turns out to be a rat, what is Milena to do? An elegant human drama.
Best science in fiction: Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus – Much to love in this wonderful drama – comedy, pathos, a super-intelligent dog – plus a shout-out to the women in science in the mid-20th Century who were always overlooked and treated poorly. Elizabeth Zott doesn’t stand for it.
Best use of folklore, myth & legend: Mischief Acts by Zoe Gilbert – This novel story cycle set around South London’s ‘Great North Wood’ told through its history and incarnations of the legend of Herne the Hunter spoke volumes to me! Coming from the South London borders, I was particularly interested in the psychogeographical aspects as well as the folkloric and wrote a companion piece about them here. Runner-up: Villager by Tom Cox
Most thought-provoking NF: Through a Vet’s Eyes by Dr Sean Wensley – Subtitled ‘How We Can All Choose a Better Life for Animals’ – this book really did make me think. Wensley, an animal welfare expert vet, takes us through all the different animals we raise to eat, pet, ride etc. explaining how things have changed since his vet training, how we should improve them still further and look after them better. The mixture of memoir, nature writing and polemic made for a fascinating and eye-opening read.
Best Memoir Concept: Good Pop, Bad Pop by Jarvis Cocker – I’ve read a lot of memoirs in my NF reading this year, including fab ones by Justin Webb and Minnie Driver, but Jarvis Cocker’s book wins the prize for not just having a brilliant concept – looking at Pulp’s genesis and early years through the contents of his attic, but it is also a work of art – beautifully produced.
Best pandemic novel: Under the Blue by Oana Aristides – The pandemic hadn’t happened when Aristides began writing her novel exploring the aftermath of a deadly virus which turns into a road trip, and in a parallel strand the education of an AI at an Arctic research station. There is an elegance and intelligence to her writing that echoes Mandel, leavened with wit, but burning with environmental passion. Runner up: Phase Six by Jim Shepard.
Most perfectly formed novella: Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan – I was disappointed that this didn’t win this year’s Booker, for it says so much in its 116 pages. A touching story, so skilfully told.
The book that waited so long on my shelves and was brilliant: The Cutting Room by Louise Welsh – I can’t believe this paperback sat on my shelves for a full 19 years before I got round to reading it. Spurred on finally by Welsh having written a sequel, which I will read soon I hope, I was wowed by this debut novel featuring the shady auctioneer Rilke and his adventures in the Glasgow underworld.
Best thriller: Sometimes People Die by Simon Stephenson – A classy medical thriller which puts it drug-addict junior doctor narrator in the frame when patients start to die in an understaffed, underperforming East End hospital. It explores the dark side of the medical profession, by interspersing the action with a history of doctors who kill from antiquity to Shipman. Runners-up: Fish Swimming in Dappled Sunlight by Riku Onda, and Whatever Gets You Through the Night by Charlie Higson.
Best Children’s Classic: Greenwitch by Susan Cooper – My favourite of the five novels that make up Cooper’s classic children’s adventure fantasy series, this volume puts young Jane at the forefront, and has more ‘Wild magic’ (I prefer Earth magic) at its folkloric heart as the women take centre stage. Runner up: The Silver Chair by C S Lewis.
Most mind-bending novel: Psalms For the End of the World by Cole Haddon – A sprawling, virtually uncategorisable novel! If I said take David Mitchell’s history-hopping Cloud Atlas, add a dash of the Man in Black and world-hopping doors of Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, sprinkle with a bit of Westworld and The Matrix and infuse liberally with a love of David Bowie, you’re nearly there if you entangle the whole lot in a quantum sense! It’s a bit SF, a bit spec fic, a bit historical fic, a tiny bit fantasy, and there’s a love story, but Psalms for the End of the World is perhaps more a thriller than anything else. Loved it.
Best Sense of Place: Total Chaos (Marseilles Trilogy #1) by Jean-Claude Izzo – I must read the other two parts of this trilogy now. Izzo’s writing set in the mean streets of Marseilles in which a cop tries to find his best friends’ killers. The city just comes alive in this slice of noir.
These were all wonderful reads, but there was one stand-out one for me, so without further ado, my book of the year is:
MISCHIEF ACTS by ZOE GILBERT
Zoe Gilbert, Mischief Acts (Bloomsbury, 2022). 978-1526628800, 448pp., hardback. BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link (free UK P&P)
Do let me know what you think, which you’ve read, which you’d like to read, and any recommendations for me.