Best Backlist Reads of the Year
Like many bloggers, I’m irresistibly drawn to the new books released each year. However, I consistently find that many of my most memorable reads were published years or even decades ago. These 16 selections, in alphabetical order within genre, together with my Best of 2022 post (coming up tomorrow), make up the top 9.5% or so of my reading for the year. Three of the below were rereads.
First, a special mention for this trio:
Birds of a Lesser Paradise by Megan Mayhew Bergman
Delicate Edible Birds by Lauren Groff
Birds of America by Lorrie Moore
It’s unusual for me to fall so wholeheartedly for short stories. I intended to write up these three “Birds” collections as part of my short story focus in September but ultimately decided to spend more time with the latter two (and then fell ill with Covid before I could write them up, so look out for my full reviews early in the new year). The word from the title is incidental, really; the books do have a lot in common in terms of theme and tone, though. The environment, fidelity and motherhood are recurring elements. The warmth and psychological depth are palpable. Each story feels fleshed out enough that I would happily read an entire novel set in its world, but also such that it is complete unto itself. Two of these writers (Bergman and Moore) are best known for short stories; the third, to my mind, should be.
Falling Angels by Tracy Chevalier: I’ve read all of Chevalier’s novels and always thought of this one as my favourite. A reread didn’t change that. I loved the neat structure that bookends the action between the death of Queen Victoria and the death of Edward VII, and the focus on funerary customs (with Highgate Cemetery a major setting) and women’s rights.
Julia and the Shark by Kiran Millwood Hargrave: Julia and her parents are on an island adventure to Unst, in the north of Shetland, where her father will keep the lighthouse for a summer and her mother, a marine biologist, will search for the Greenland shark. Hargrave treats the shark as both a real creature and a metaphor for all that lurks – all that we fear and don’t understand. Beautifully illustrated, too; a modern children’s classic in the making.
We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson: A brooding character study of two sisters isolated by their scandalous family history and the suspicion of the townspeople. I loved the offbeat voice and unreliable narration, and the way the Blackwood house is both a refuge and a prison for the sisters. Who is protecting whom, and from what? There are a lot of great scenes, all so discrete that I could see this working very well as a play
Foster by Claire Keegan: A delicate, heart-rending novella about a deprived young Irish girl sent to live with rural relatives for one pivotal summer. It bears all the hallmarks of a book several times its length: a convincing and original voice, rich character development, an evocative setting, just enough backstory, psychological depth, conflict and sensitive treatment of difficult themes like poverty and neglect. I finished the one-sitting read in a flood of tears.
Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan: One good man’s small act of rebellion is a way of standing up to the injustice of the Magdalen Laundries, a church-sanctioned system that must have seemed too big to tackle. Keegan fits so much into so few pages, including Bill working out who his father was and deciding what to make of the middle of his life. Like Foster, this is set in the 1980s but feels timeless. Absolutely beautiful.
The Murderer’s Ape by Jakob Wegelius: Sally Jones is a ship’s engineer who journeys from Portugal to India to clear her captain’s name when he is accused of murder. She’s also a gorilla. This was the perfect rip-roaring adventure story to read at sea (on the ferry to Spain in May); the twisty plot and larger-than-life characters who aid or betray Sally Jones kept the nearly 600 pages turning quickly.
Honorifics by Cynthia Miller: Miller is a Malaysian American poet in Edinburgh. The themes of her debut include living between countries and feeling like an exile versus finding a sense of home. There’s much variety here, and so many beautiful lines and evocative images. Miller incorporates a lot of unusual structures, some of them traditional forms and others freer: a numbered list, columns, dictionary definitions or prose paragraphs. Flora and fauna references plus a consideration of the expat life meant this was custom made for me.
The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown: The University of Washington rowing team in general, and Joe Rantz in particular, were unlikely champions. Boatbuilding and rowing both come across as admirable skills involving hard physical labour, scientific precision and an artist’s mind. All along, Brown subtly weaves in the historical background: Depression-era Seattle with its shantytowns, and the rise of Hitler in Germany. A classic underdog story.
My Life in Houses by Margaret Forster: Having become a homeowner for the first time earlier this year, I was interested in how an author would organize their life around the different places they’ve lived. The early chapters about being a child in Carlisle are compelling in terms of cultural history; later on she observes gentrification in London, and her home becomes a haven for her during her cancer treatment.
Sightlines by Kathleen Jamie: A reread started on our July trip to the Outer Hebrides. I’d forgotten how closely Jamie’s interests align with my own: Scotland and its islands, birds, the prehistoric, museums, archaeology. I particularly appreciated “Three Ways of Looking at St Kilda,” but everything she writes is profound: “if we are to be alive and available for joy and discovery, then it’s as an animal body, available for cancer and infection and pain.”
Reflections from the North Country by Sigurd F. Olson: Olson was a well-known environmental writer in his time (through 1970s), also serving as president of the National Parks Association. This collection of passionate, philosophically oriented essays about the state of nature places him in the vein of Aldo Leopold – before-their-time conservationists. He ponders solitude, wilderness and human nature, asking what is primal in us.
Smile by Sarah Ruhl: These warm and beautifully observed autobiographical essays stem from the birth of her twins and the slow-burning medical crises that followed. Shortly after delivery, Ruhl developed Bell’s palsy, a partial paralysis of the face. Having a lopsided face, grimacing and squinting when she tried to show expression – it was a minor problem in the grand scheme of things, yet provoked questions about whether the body equates to identity.
Owls of the Eastern Ice by Jonathan C. Slaght: Slaght has become an expert on the Blakiston’s fish owl during nearly two decades of fieldwork in the far east of Russia. Slaght thinks of Russia as his second home, and you can sense his passion for the fish owl and for conservation in general. Amid the science, this is a darn good story, full of bizarre characters. Top-notch nature and travel writing; a ride along on a consequential environmentalist quest.
Some of the best backlist reads I own and could lay my hands on.
What were your best backlist reads this year?
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
20 Books of Summer, 12–13: Black Narcissus & The False Rose
I’m limping towards the finish line with my flora-themed summer reading. Expect the reviews to come fast and furious over the next week and a half. Today’s novels aren’t about flowers, per se, but the title references do play a role. Both: (Public library)
Black Narcissus by Rumer Godden (1939)
I saw the Deborah Kerr film version of this way back in my teen years but had never read anything by Rumer Godden. My interest was renewed by Laura’s post on nun books. A group of idealistic English nuns sets up a convent school and hospital in the mountains above Darjeeling. “They were going into the wilderness, to pioneer, to endure, to work; but surely not to enjoy themselves.” Much of the appeal of reading about small communities is seeing how different personalities play off each other: aloof leader Sister Clodagh, pensive Sister Philippa, impetuous Sister Ruth. The land belongs to the General, whose teenage son Dilip Rai comes for lessons (he’s a bit of a dandy and wears Black Narcissus perfume); the General’s caretaker, Mr. Dean, is a go-between between the nuns and the natives. Though cynical and often drunk, he pulls through for the sisters more than once.
There are vaguely racist attitudes here, perhaps inevitable for the time this was written, but the English characters do start to change: “[Sister Clodagh] was fond of these people. She could not remember when it was that she began to think of them as people; not as natives, persons apart, but as people like themselves, and she was beginning to see with their eyes.” An erotic undercurrent explodes into a couple of obsessive crushes that threaten the entire mission. I read the first third of this on a bus in the Highlands and when I tried to get back into it a month later, it couldn’t recapture my attention despite an enticing Indian atmosphere.
The False Rose by Jakob Wegelius (2020; 2021)
[Translated from the Swedish by Peter Graves]
This is why I shouldn’t read sequels. The Murderer’s Ape was a pure delight and perfect companion on my long sea voyage to Spain back in May. Its every character and plot twist twinkle and the pages flew by. By contrast, this was … fine, but unnecessary. The plot turns on a pearl necklace Sally Jones the gorilla and Captain Koskela find hidden on their boat. Its centerpiece is a carved mother-of-pearl and silver rose and it belongs to Rose Henderson, the estranged daughter of Shetland Jack. They decide to return it to the rightful owner, but before they can track Rose down the necklace is stolen and a whole spiral is set underway. Once again, Sally Jones is separated from her captain and has to survive by her wits. Held prisoner by Glasgow bootleggers, she has to let them think her deaf and dumb, but makes friends with a former boxer named Bernie, who’s in thrall to his sister, harsh gang boss Moira. The final 100 pages or so, as everything finally unwinds, is satisfying, but it took me forever to make it there. I missed the supporting characters of the first book and gangster stories aren’t my jam.
10 Days in Spain (or at Sea) and What I Read
(Susan is the queen of the holiday travel and reading post – see her latest here.)
We spent the end of May in Northern Spain, with 20+-hour ferry rides across the English Channel either way. Thank you for your good thoughts – we were lucky to have completely flat crossings, and the acupressure bracelets that I wore seemed to do the job, such that not only did I not feel sick, but I even had an appetite for a meal in the ship’s café each day.
Not a bad day to be at sea. (All photos in this post are by Chris Foster.)
With no preconceived ideas of what the area would be like and zero time to plan, we went with the flow and decided on hikes each morning based on the weather. After a chilly, rainy start, we had warm but not uncomfortable temperatures by the end of the week. My mental picture of Spain was of hot beaches, but the Atlantic climate of the north is more like that of Britain’s. Green gorse-covered, livestock-grazed hills reminded us of parts of Wales. Where we stayed near Potes (reached by a narrow road through a gorge) was on the edge of Picos de Europa national park. The mountain villages and wildflower-rich meadows we passed on walks were reminiscent of places we’ve been in Italy or the Swiss and Austrian Alps.
The flora and fauna were an intriguing mix of the familiar (like blackbirds and blue tits) and the exotic (black kites, Egyptian vultures; some different butterflies; evidence of brown bears, wolves and wild boar, though no actual sightings, of course). One special thing we did was visit Wild Finca, a regenerative farming project by a young English couple; we’d learned about it from their short film shown at New Networks for Nature last year. We’d noted that the towns have a lot of derelicts and properties for sale, which is rather sad to see. They told us farm abandonment is common: those who inherit a family farm and livestock might just leave the animals on the hills and move to a city apartment to have modern conveniences.
I was especially taken by this graffiti-covered derelict restaurant and accommodation complex. As I explored it I was reminded of Cal Flyn’s Islands of Abandonment. It’s a wonder no one has tried to make this a roadside eatery again; it has a fantastic view!
It so happens that we were there for the traditional weekend when cattle are moved to new pastures. A cacophony of cowbells alerted us to herds going past our cottage window a couple of times, and once we were stopped on the road to let a small group through. We enjoyed trying local cheese and cider and had two restaurant meals, one at a trendy place in Potes and one at a roadside diner where we tried the regional speciality fabada, a creamy bean stew with sausage chunks.
With our meager Spanish we just about got by. I used a phrase book so old it still referred to pesetas to figure out how to ask for roundtrip tickets, while my husband had learned a few useful restaurant-going phrases from the Duolingo language-learning app. For communicating with the cottage owner, though, we had to resort to Google Translate.
A highlight of our trip was the Fuente Dé cable car to 1900 meters / ~6200 feet above sea level, where we found snowbanks, Alpine choughs, and trumpet gentians. That was a popular spot, but on most of our other walks we didn’t see another human soul. We felt we’d found the real, hidden Spain, with a new and fascinating landscape around every corner. We didn’t make it to any prehistoric caves, alas – we would probably have had to book that well in advance – but otherwise experienced a lot of the highlights of the area.
On our way back to Santander for the ferry, we stopped in two famous towns: Comillas, known for its modernist architecture and a palace designed by Gaudí; and Santillana del Mar, which Jean-Paul Sartre once called the most beautiful town in Spain. We did not manage any city visits – Barcelona was too far and there was no train service; that will have to be for another trip. It was a very low-key, wildlife-filled and relaxing time, just what we needed before plunging back into work and DIY.
What I Read
On the journey there and in the early part of the trip:
The Murderer’s Ape by Jakob Wegelius (translated from the Swedish by Peter Graves): Sally Jones is a ship’s engineer who journeys from Portugal to India to clear her captain’s name when he is accused of murder. She’s also a gorilla. Though she can’t speak, she understands human language and communicates via gestures and simple written words. This was the perfect rip-roaring adventure story to read at sea; the twisty plot and larger-than-life characters who aid or betray Sally Jones kept the nearly 600 pages turning quickly. I especially loved her time repairing accordions with an instrument maker. This is set in the 1920s or 30s, I suppose, with early airplanes and maharajahs, but still long-distance sea voyages. Published by Pushkin Children’s, it’s technically a teen novel and the middle book in a trilogy, but neither fact bothered me at all.
& to see me through the rest of the week:
The Feast by Margaret Kennedy: Originally published in 1950, this was reissued by Faber in 2021 with a foreword by Cathy Rentzenbrink – had she not made much of it, I’m not sure how well I would have recognized the allegorical framework of the Seven Deadly Sins. In August 1947, we learn, a Cornish hotel was buried under a fallen cliff, and with it seven people. Kennedy rewinds a month to let us watch the guests arriving, and to plumb their interactions and private thoughts. We have everyone from a Lady to a lady’s maid; I particularly liked the neglected Cove children. It took me until the very end to work out precisely who died and which sin each one represented. The characters and dialogue glisten. This is intelligent, literary yet light, and so makes great vacation/beach reading.
Book of Days by Phoebe Power: A set of autobiographical poems about walking the Camino pilgrimage route. Power writes about the rigours of the road – what she carried in her pack; finding places to stay and food to eat – but also gives tender pen portraits of her fellow walkers, who have come from many countries and for a variety of reasons: to escape an empty nest, to make amends, to remember a departed lover. Whether the pilgrim is religious or not, the Camino seems like a compulsion. Often the text feels more like narrative prose, though there are some sections laid out in stanzas or forming shapes on the page to remind you it is verse. I think what I mean to say is, it doesn’t feel that it was essential for this to be poetry. Short vignettes in a diary may have been more to my taste.
Two favourite passages:
into cobbled elegance; it’s opening time for shops
selling vegetables and pan and gratefully I present my
Spanish and warmth so far collected, and receive in return
smiles, interest, tomatoes, cheese.
We are resolute, though unknowing
if we will succeed at this.
We are still children here –
arriving, not yet grown
With thanks to Carcanet Press for the free copy for review.
I’d also downloaded from Edelweiss the recent travel memoir The Way of the Wild Goose by Beebe Bahrami, in which she walks sections of the Camino in France and Spain and reflects on why the path keeps drawing her back. It’s been a probing, beautiful read so far – I think this is the mild, generically spiritual quest feel Jini Reddy was trying to achieve with Wanderland.
Plus, I read a few e-books for paid reviews and parts of other library books, including a trio of Spain-appropriate memoirs: As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning by Laurie Lee, Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell, and A Parrot in the Pepper Tree by Chris Stewart – more about this last one in my first 20 Books of Summer post, coming up on Sunday.
Our next holiday, to the Outer Hebrides of Scotland, is just two weeks away! It’ll be very different, but no doubt equally welcome and book-stuffed.