Here we go again! Christmas 2022 is nearly here. In a year when we all have had to tighten our pursestrings, I can’t think of a better present than a book. It’s relatively cheap, give hours and hours of pleasure (sometimes even years), can be shared and is plastic-free – what more can you ask for? 2022 has been a year of new discoveries for us. Most of the books on our list are by authors we hadn’t heard of before or debutants. We have also dug in the pile of classics – some of which we had read before and wanted to re-experience, others that were new to us. Neither have disappointed. We also have a range of children’s books suitable for different age groups and tastes and there’s loads more in our Young Readers section. So here it is, the list of Bookstoker’s best reads this year. Wishing you all a happy holiday season!
Set in 1985 in an Irish seaside town, Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan feels like it might as well have been set in 1885. We meet protagonist Bill Furlong, a coal and timber merchant, as he delivers goods to his freezing clients in the run up to Christmas. Poor but happily married with five bright daughters, Furlong takes nothing for granted. Bill was born outside wedlock and owes his relatively harmonious upbringing to the kindness and acceptance of his mother’s employer. Up at the abbey, not everyone has had the same luck. A Dickensian story which, despite its brutal undercurrents, has a sweet tenderness.
A dazzling debut coming-of-age novel set on the meanest streets of Oakland, California. This is 17-year-old Kiara’s story, technically still a child, but with adult-sized problems. When a dire financial emergency pushes Kiara into prostitution, her ‘baby ho,’ status renders her irresistible to a certain type of man, some of them even sporting Oakland Police Department uniform. Nightcrawling by Leila Mottley is a blistering study of corruption, abuse of power, and young black womanhood.
The Rabbit Hutch is the nickname for a low-cost housing complex in Vacca Vale, an imaginary rust-belt town in America which God (and the car industry) have abandoned. The inhabitants include a mix of outcasts, loners and a quartet of foster children who are trying to get on with their lives after a rough start. Central amongst them is Blandine, whose elf-like beauty seems to have a magnetic effect on the wrong kind of man. The Rabbit Hutch by Tess Gunty is a searing portrayal of contemporary America and a stunning debut by a promising author.
Set in Renaissance Italy, The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O’Farrell, is loosely based on Lucrezia di Cosimo de’Medici’s disastrous marriage to Alfonso, Duke of Ferrara. As many aristocratic girls of her time, poor 13 year-old Lucrezia becomes a chess piece in the political game of strategic unions. Farrell gets under the skin of our bewildered heroine as we follow her from one golden cage to the next. Her writing transports us to a different time with evocative descriptions of landscapes, interiors, clothing, smells and sounds. Addictive reading.
Briefly A Delicious Life by Nell Stevens is an intoxicating debut novel, blessed with a brilliantly inspired storyline. Set in a Mallorcan former monastery in 1838, it tells the story of Blanca, the ghost of a teenage girl. A three-hundred plus years interlude is interrupted the day George Sand and Frédéric Chopin come to stay. Smitten by their creative, free-thinking ways, Blanca finds herself falling in love. Based on real events in Sand’s life, Stevens tells us of a wintry sojourn taken by the legendary French writer and her lover, Chopin. Clever and richly imagined.
Fans of Madeline Miller’s Circe and Song of Achilles will like the sound of Stone Blind by Natalie Haynes, a retelling of the story of Medusa. If you’re passionate about Greek mythology, you’ll love this. If you, like me, fell asleep during the lessons on Greek myths, this is a chance to catch up in a more entertaining way. Growing up as the only mortal in her family of gods, Medusa realises she needs to take advantage of her time on earth. A disastrous meeting with Poseidon changes her life forever and she’s turned in to a gorgon with snake for hair and a, literally, fatal stare. This has pole position in my TBR pile for Christmas.
When 34-year-old Fuyuko Irie catches a glimpse of herself in a shop window, the drab and defeated figure she sees reflects her shrunken spirit. The only thing that sparks joy in this sad young woman’s heart is the luminosity of Tokyo at night, its dazzling lights a bitter irony when she considers how the monotony of life has extinguished any glimmer of brightness within herself. In All the Lovers in the Night by Mieko Kawakami, we join Fuyuko as she reaches crisis point and a chance encounter shows her the potential for change. An intriguing and memorable read.
A drug addict and prostitute about to be murdered in the most gruesome way imaginable, invisible to society until, for a fleeting moment, she grabs the public’s attention as a victim of a horrific crime. In Sara Stridsberg’s The Antarctica of Love, Inni talks to us from the afterlife, taking us through the day of the crime and how she got there. It’s a tough read this book, mainly because of the graphic violence but perhaps even more because it holds up a mirror to ourselves and our society’s failure to see people like Inni. Shell shockingly good.
A female English professor and writer loses her best friend and sometimes lover to suicide. A few days later she’s asked to take over the care of his dog, an enormous Great Dane. No small ask as the writer lives in a tiny flat in a Manhattan building where dogs are prohibited. This is the plot of the otherwise plotless but strangely mesmerising The Friend by Sigrid Nunez, a story about love, loss and being an artist, which can easily be read in one sitting.
A distinctly European novel, the award-winning Time Shelter by Georgi Gospodinov combines philosophy and satire with a fascinating premise. Enigmatic therapist, Gaustine, opens a pioneering dementia clinic in Zurich, wherein each floor recreates a different decade, allowing patients to find peace and comfort in their own temporal sanctuary. As the business gains in reputation, even healthy clients begin flocking to this clinic of the past, desirous of escaping their dysfunctional present. In Gospodinov’s emblematic take on 20th century Europe, Gaustine’s experiment morphs into something dangerous as he notes ‘…when you have no future, you vote for the past. A stimulating and admirably distinctive read.
Irresistibly billed as a combination between a Kafka story and a Wes Anderson movie, What Happens at Night by Peter Cameron is a mesmerising work of psychological fiction. The action, inaction, and plain weirdness centres around an unnamed, middle-aged American couple and their quest to adopt a child. Dying of cancer, the wife wishes to provide her husband with someone to love when she’s gone. Their destination is an orphanage located in the chilliest reaches of northern Europe, but first they must navigate the peculiar world of the Borgarfjaroasysla Grand Imperial Hotel and its eccentric inhabitants. A hallucinatory and often droll novel.
Books don’t have to be new to make good presents. A well-chosen classic or unusual discovery is often just as exciting. Here are some that made an impression on us this year.
If your experience of transformative insect fiction is limited to the Kafkaesque, then it’s high time you met the ‘heralding quiver’ of cockroach antennae in The Passion According to G.H. by Clarice Lispector. A novel that demands the utmost concentration, this Brazilian modern classic tells the story of a somewhat intense sculptress, who discovers a large cockroach in her home. Her initial attempt at extermination leaves the creature slowly dying in front of her eyes, a protracted process that sparks a full-blown existential crisis. Enlightenment, madness, or possibly both, await.
A novel of doomed love in 1920’s Berlin, Madonna in a Fur Coat by Sabahattin Ali is a Turkish treasure. It tells the story of Raif, an introspective and solitary young man who leaves Turkey for the bright lights of Weimar Berlin. In this city of flourishing intellectual and cultural freedoms, he encounters Maria, an enigmatic artist who will come to transform his melancholic life. Told in two parts by an unnamed narrator, we follow Raif’s journey of discovery, as the free-thinking Maria challenges his notions of romantic love, gender roles, and self-reliance.
The Tenants of Moonbloom by Edward Lewis Wallant is an unjustly neglected American gem. A deliciously peculiar novel, comic and melancholic in equal parts, it takes us to a down-at-heel New York at the turn of the 1950’s and the dreary life of daydreamer and rent collector, Norman Moonbloom. Norman’s days are spent chasing rent from hapless tenants, whilst attempting to dodge their numerous demands, complaints, and often riotous domestic dramas. Too sensitive for the world of the mercenary slumlord, he will undergo a quiet epiphany against a disintegrating backdrop of leaking taps and treacherous wiring.
The artist Marina Abramovic’s endorsement of Life for Sale by Yukio Mishima piqued my curiosity and, sure enough, this book really is something else. A fast-moving, surreal noir novel originally published in 1968, Life for Sale is about a man who offers his life up for sale. What he expects to be a carefree albeit lethal experiment, turns out to be a whole lot more complicated involving gangsters, vampires, hallucinogenic beetle powder and poisoned carrots. Darkly comic and totally twisted, this book will appeal to all fans of surreal fiction and Japanese literature.
Revisiting novels can be a tortuous affair, sometimes bringing the painful realisation that we’ve outgrown favourite books and writers. Happily for me, The Folded Leaf by William Maxwell has provoked the opposite response. Maxwell’s nuanced and tender tale of male friendship remains a quiet triumph. Set in 1920’s Illinois, it charts the adolescence of pals Lymie Peters and Spud Latham, whose alliance hinges on Spud providing protection and social acceptance in exchange for Lymie’s devotion. In an era before male platonic love was considered questionable, their intense bond is fatally tested instead by misunderstandings, boyhood trauma, and the scarring silence of things left unsaid.
If you haven’t yet acquainted yourself with Annie Ernaux, this year’s Nobel Prize Winner for Literature, now is the time. Ernaux is a memoirist with a twist, her books describe events of her own lives but in the context of communal experiences. The Years is the memoir for her generation, those in their 80s now, and maps the personal story of Ernaux alongside the social and political history of France (and the world) between 1940 and 2006. Simple Passion tells the story of her own passionate love affair with a married man and is an unashamedly honest portrayal of desire. Both unforgettable reads in their own way.
First emerging from the oceans to live on land over 350 million years ago, the humble moss plant is an evolutionary pioneer. The natural world is blessed with an amazing 22,000 varieties, and yet its entry in the English Dictionary insults with its miserly wordage.The splendid Gathering Moss by Robin Wall Kimmerer introduce us to the humble moss, or as the author so beautifully describes it: ‘rainforests in miniature.’ A scientist and proud Native American, Kimmerer combines biology, cultural history and indigenous philosophy. In this deliciously unexpected bestseller, we learn not only the history of an unsung plant hero, but the forgotten practice of true attentiveness.
An Immense World by science writer Ed Yong is a fascinating journey into the world as it is perceived by animals. There are some incredible insights here that will make you reconsider your understanding of animal intelligence. It not that animals lack intelligence, Yong argues, rather their intelligence is tailored to how they experience their surroundings within their ‘own unique sensory bubble’. In fact, there’s a whole world out there which animals experience but humans can’t see, hear or smell. There are plenty of examples: snakes smell with their tongues, butterflies taste with their feet, dogs breath in and out at the same time, and on it goes. How scientists know all this is a a mystery to me but I’ll take Yong’s word for it.
We can’t get enough of Patti Smith, can we? And neither can the thousands of followers on her Instagram account, the starting point for this book. As a visual guide to Smith’s life, A Book of Days is enjoyable, for a more in depth dive into her artistic and personal life, I still prefer the brilliant Just Kids (a perennial recommendation in this post). Either way, Patti Smith will be worth your while.
The spirit of George Orwell hovers over the memoir A Waiter in Paris by Edward Chisholm. Indeed, when Chisholm first arrives in the city in 2012, a copy of Down and Out in Paris and London is nestled in his suitcase, set to provide succour for his subsequent years of living unexpectedly on the brink of destitution. His account of life as a poorly paid, highly stressed waiter, surviving almost literally on coffee, cigarettes, and filched bread rolls, deglosses the elegant façade of one of the world’s most iconic cities.
First published in 1962, Travels With Charley by John Steinbeck captures a momentous period in the writer’s life. Ageing, ailing, and concerned that he has lost touch with the American spirit, Steinbeck invites us on a road trip. Complete with customised camper van and a poodle named Charley, we motor thousands of miles under wide skies, in search of the essence of modern America. In this gem of a travelogue, we’re in the finest of company.
A hero for some and villain for others, Haile Selassie cuts a controversial figure. Emperor of Ethiopia from 1930 to 1974, Selassie stood up to white imperialism, introduced a wide range of reforms and courted Western powers who showered him with foreign aid. He also ignored millions of starving Ethiopians while spending lavishly on himself and his courtiers, imprisoned or executed his own people on a whim and built up a considerable fortune in Swiss bank accounts. The Emperor by Ryszard Kapuscinski is a collection of interviews with some of his surviving courtiers conducted clandestinely after Selassie’s fall and an absorbing study in what power can do to people.
Katy Hessel’s disillusionment with the lack of female artists in art history books, museums, galleries and art fairs around the world gave birth to The Story of Art Without Men. You can see why. According to the author, in 2019, 87% of art works in major US museums were by men. Only 1% of London’s National Gallery collection are made by women. Hessel, a 28 year-old art historian and rising star in the art world, re-writes art history, this time with only female artists in mind in this very well-reviewed and beautifully illustrated book.
The Zebra’s Great Escape by Katherine Rundell (5-8 years). Ideal for precocious young readers seeking a wordier picture book experience, Rundell’s deliciously colourful tale takes us on an adventure with a spirited girl named Mink, and an agitated zebra. The zebra’s parents have been kidnapped by a moustachioed scoundrel intent on committing a hideous alphabetical crime. Adults are rightfully relegated to the sidelines as Mink and her stripey friend embark on a quest to rescue his beloved parents and foil the villain. A joyful zoological caper.
A Dinosaur a Day by Miranda Smith (5-10 years). Forget about the boring old t-rex and take this daily dip into the world of 365 amazing dinosaurs,many of them unheard of. They would also be unpronounceable (the eustreptospondylus anyone?) if Smith hadn’t thoughtfully included a pronunciation guide. From burrowing dinosaurs with snouts to sea creatures with enormous orb-like eyes, we’re given key characteristics, habitat and history, and many alarming descriptions of ‘long, terrible claws,’ and flesh-shredding teeth. It’s painfully clear that the herbivores got the rough end of the stick!
A Wild Child’s Book of Birds by Dara McAnulty (5-10 years). Teenage naturalist McAnulty’s latest work is a beautiful expression of his love for our feathered friends. On this journey of a year in the life of UK birds, we travel through seasons while learning about everything from beaks and birdsong to patterns of migration. McAnulty’s wonderfully informative book also embraces the poetic, sharing Tennyson’s thought that ‘the music of the moon sleeps in the pale eggs of the nightingale.’ Including space for birdwatching notes and collected feathers, this makes a lovely gift for budding ornithologists.
Our Tower by Joseph Coelho (5-10 years). Our new Children’s Laureate honours urban kids in this wonderful tale, where tower blocks and estates are reclaimed as a place of magic. Three children searching for the ‘waves of greenery’ they can see from the windows of their flats, embark on an adventure involving a supernatural gentleman, an enchanted tree, and the discovery that beauty is where you find it. A gorgeously illustrated fable, dedicated to high-rise dwelling children in the hope that the heights of their homes will ‘reveal endless horizons.’
The Last Bear by Hannah Gold (8-11 years). Winner of the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize 2022 and our stand-out read of the year, this suspenseful adventure tale is also an exquisitely lovely read. It tells the story of 11-year-old April, who lives near the northernmost tip of the world, a place where the ice caps are melting and the polar bears are gone. Except for one, a starving and wounded bear who will change her life. A moving clarion call for our changing planet, Gold’s debut dazzles like snow under the Arctic sun.
Unstoppable Us, Volume 1: How Humans Took Over the World by Yuval Noah Harari (9-14 years). The acclaimed writer and historian turns his talents to writing for children and answering the fundamental question of where we came from and why our species rules the world. From our obsession with sugar to questions of God and war (unfortunately often intertwined), readers are given the tools to consider their own place in history. Creativity and cooperation have always been the key, and how we got from basic tool making to rocket building is engagingly documented with accompanying maps and illustrations. A unique and revelatory read.
You Don’t Understand Me by Dr Tara Porter (Teen/ Young Adult). Teenage girls today have a freedom and power that their foremothers could only imagine, and yet with it has come an unprecedented level of pressure and expectation. Thankfully, Dr Porter is on hand with a roadmap to equilibrium. Her handbook for the 21st century girl is frankly indispensable. Written with clarity, empathy, and a refreshing emphasis on free-thinking, she covers family, relationships, body image, and the corrosive effects of our high-octane 24/7 world of social media and celebrity culture. A brilliant gift for the teenage girl in your life.
Nothing More to Tell by Karen McManus (Teen/ Young Adult). We’ve loved McManus’ previous novels. Here, the queen of teen crime presents us with another thrilling high-school murder tale, where we join ex-student Brynn, an intern on a true-crime show. Revisiting the scene of her English teacher’s unsolved murder, she uncovers a clutch of murderous motives and the startling realisation that the killer has never left town. This cold case has suddenly become smoking hot. A twisty plot delivered at breakneck speed makes this another McManus triumph. The perfect festive sofa-read.
Still looking? For more inspiration try…(this list will be updated as newspapers publish their lists)