Top 10 Books Of The Year 2022 – Part One (10-6)

I read 61 books this year which is a bit down on the last couple of years and short of my Good Reads goal of 70.  I retired from paid employment in 2022 and I thought that would mean I would have more time for reading – that obviously hasn’t proved to be the case.  Out of these 61 books, 15 got five star ratings which I think is the highest figure for top ratings I’ve ever given, which made picking the Top 10 from these very worthy books very difficult.  As always, if I’ve read it this year it is included, even if it was published in a previous year, or in the case of one of the titles below, due to be published in 2023.  There are 3 books on the list which were published in 2022, which seems to be the typical figure in these Top 10s. 

So, 61 books, 15 five star ratings, 31 four star reads and also 15 three stars.  59 of these have already been reviewed on the site and they can be found by scrolling through or using one of the two indexes – two titles, including one of the top 10 have not yet had their full reviews appear as I am holding out to nearer to the publication date in January 2023.  I spent quite a considerable time thinking about the books I’d  read this year in forming my Top 10 and once I had assigned positions I felt a little uneasy.  Last year I had a diverse list with a 50-50 gender split, 40% black authors and 30% identifying as LGBT+.  Although the latter figure stays the same there is a drop in both female and black writers (and no black female writers).  In fact, I thought the gender imbalance was unprecedented but this list matches my 2014 choices with which I launched reviewsrevues.com.  I’m not sure whether this is just a blip this year, I must admit some of the big female authored titles did not appeal to me, for example Bonnie Garmus’ “Lessons In Chemistry” was a title I’d had recommended to me and I know it’s one which will feature in many end of year lists but I couldn’t get beyond the very female orientated cover (nor the title actually).  I like to read a balance of books, fiction, non-fiction, newly published and backlisted titles written by a diverse range of authors and this will continue in 2023.  Three of the Top 10 are non-fiction and there are two debut novels and a chunky 50% of the authors have previously featured in my end of year best of lists, which may illustrate that in a year when I have had a lot of upheaval, moving house, relocating to a new area and leaving work I have been more likely to choose authors who have impressed me in the past. 

Here is the first part of the list 10-6.  Don’t be too shocked by the lack of female authors, there is more of a balance in the Top 5.  If you would like to read the full review (and I hope you do as these are the books I want to clamber onto rooftops and shout about) just click on the title.

10. The Queen Of Dirt Island – Donal Ryan (Doubleday 2022)

(Read in July, reviewed in August)

This is Irish author Donal Ryan’s second appearance in my Top 10.  His debut “The Spinning Heart” was my runner-up in 2013.  He has a real skill with characterisation.  In both the books of his which have blown me away he brings a whole community to life.  He is able to establish rich characters in a short space of time and he certainly does this here with his tale of four generations of a family from rural Tipperary.  It is set in the same location and with some of the same characters as “Strange Flowers” which won the Novel Of The Year Awards at the Irish Book Awards.  This was also shortlisted for the same award in 2022 but lost to “Trespasses” by Louise Kennedy.  I think it is a superior companion piece to “Strange Flowers” (and also works fine as a stand-alone).

9. My Revolutions – Hari Kunzru (Penguin 2007)

(Read and reviewed in December)

This is also British writer’s Hari Kunzru’s second appearance in my end of year Top 10, with his 2004 novel “Transmission” making it to number 3 in 2010.  This was perhaps my biggest reading surprise as I wouldn’t have thought this tale of radicalism in late 60’s/ early 70’s England would have appealed.  I was totally captivated by the story-telling and thought it was so rich a novel.  It skipped around in time, which I know some readers do not like but I think it worked really well here and each time-frame was as interesting as the others.  I described it as a book which explores “fighting for what you believe in and how easily idealism can become tainted so that the brave new world once thought possible goes increasingly out of reach.” In terms of scope I felt echoes of Ian McEwan’s 2022 publication “Lessons” but I think this is the stronger novel.

8. Let’s Do It – Jasper Rees (Trapeze 2020)

(Read and reviewed in April)

The authorised biography of Victoria Wood- this is a big book which I knew I was going to like, enough to get me forking out for a hardback edition.  Rees gets the split between the private and public person across so well and this was a big thing for Victoria, who privately was far removed from the bubbly confidence of perhaps the greatest British comedian of all time.  Rees celebrates her as a pioneer, which she undoubtedly was.  I described this as “the definitive biography of Victoria Wood, no one else need bother.

7. Dickens- Peter Ackroyd (Sinclair Stevenson 1990)

(Read and reviewed in March)

And talking of big books, this was my only 1000+ page read of the year, so thank goodness I loved it.  I suspected I was onto a winner as Ackroyd is my third most read author of all time and has made 6 previous appearances on my End of Year list (although not since 2010).  In fact, I had read this before in an edited edition but this full account of the life of Dickens is the real deal and made a greater impression.  It is just so thorough and really got me wanting to revisit the work of Dickens (as well as more Ackroyd).  It’s not actually the author’s best book- I’ll still give that to “London: The Biography” which was my book of the year in 2002 but it is extremely impressive and in the lengthy time it will take you to read this book (five weeks for me) you will be in the hands of a master biographer.

6. The New Life – Tom Crewe (Chatto & Windus 2023)

(Read in December. To be reviewed)

Advance warning for this outstanding debut which will be published in the UK on 12th January.  The author is a former editor of the London Review Of Books and he puts his literary awareness into play with this Victorian set novel which is described as “a daring new novel about desire and the search for freedom in Victorian England.”  My full review of this will follow in the New Year.  Expect comparisons to  “The Crimson Petal & The White” and “The French Lieutenant’s Woman”- two of my all-time favourites.

I hope this has whetted your appetite for my next post – The Top 5

The Queen Of Dirt Island – Donal Ryan (Doubleday 2022)

Donal Ryan’s last novel “Strange Flowers” (2020) was voted Novel Of The Year at the Irish Book Awards.  Do not be surprised if he does it again with this which I think is even better.

I absolutely loved his debut “The Spinning Heart” (2012) a book voted “Irish Book Of The Decade”.  By the winter 2015 edition of NB magazine I was putting it forward as my choice for “Best Book Of The Twenty-First Century So Far”.

“Strange Flowers” took a while for me to get into.  I felt the narrative style chosen with its very matter of fact fable or fairy story feel initially held me at bay and it wasn’t until about two-thirds of the way through that I realised the extent this canny author had immersed me into the book.  Here, in what is very much a companion piece to “Strange Flowers” (although it works fine as a stand-alone) I was with him right from the start.

It is set in the same location with some of the same characters in a more supporting role this time but moving on a generation as we meet four generations of a family from rural Tipperary.  Main character Saoirse is brought up by her mother with daily visits from her grandmother who supports her daughter-in-law widowed at the very beginnings of motherhood.  Nana and Mother are the lifeblood of this novel, squabbling yet totally supportive, both have been let down by families in their past but they are not going to do that to the current generation.  The last novel was dominated by the superb characterisation of Alexander, who I loved, here it is the relationship between the two strong women who pull the others through the ups and downs of life.

And what I really like about this book is that life just goes on, the community faces some quite shocking events and keeps going.  Towards the end two characters who were central in the last book give their perspective to Saoirse in a way in which she thinks they might break out into the old Doris Day hit “Que Sera Sera” but this viewpoint does permeate the lives here.  So much is subtle and underplayed and you don’t expect that from what is ostensibly a family saga. Nothing is laboured.  Most of the characters would not even understand the relevance of the title, relating to a piece of land held by Mother’s family which has little part to play for most of the novel, other than it informs her personality.  The narrative style gives a lightness of touch I wasn’t as aware of in the previous novel.

Characterisation is so rich, Donal Ryan has created a set of characters who are so well developed within a short space of time.  He brings a whole community to life.  In a way (although the characterisations and location are completely different) it felt to me just a tad reminiscent of what Armistead Maupin was trying to achieve in his “Tales Of The City” series, but I think Donal Ryan’s handling of this is stronger.  He carried this off brilliantly in the talking heads approach of “The Spinning Heart” and has achieved it here within a very different narrative style.  It is totally involving and very impressive writing.

The Queen Of Dirt Island is published by Transworld Digital as an ebook and Doubleday as a hardback on 18th August 2022  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

Strange Flowers – Donal Ryan (Doubleday 2020)

When I read Donal Ryan’s debut “The Spinning Heart” in 2013 I was so impressed.  I completed it very early on in the year and it still managed to make the runner up spot in my Books Of The Year (behind Robert Lohr’s 2007 “Secrets Of The Chess Machine”. What an under-rated book that was).  I felt like I was really at the start of something when I was sent Ryan’s debut to review.  My thoughts about it featured alongside an interview with the author in Newbooks (NB) magazine and the novel won the Guardian First Book Award, The Book Of The Year at the Irish Book Awards amongst other accolades and was later voted “Irish Book Of The Decade”.  I made my own claim to the lasting power of this book in 2015 when I put the title forward in the winter edition of NB/Newbooks as my choice for the Best Book Of The 21st Century So Far.

Here’s the strange thing- despite my great love for this title I have not got around to reading anything else by this author who has since published  a short-story collection and three novels (his last “From A Low And Quiet Sea” making the 2018 Costa Novel Shortlist).  I was delighted to be offered a chance to advance review this, his fifth novel, by his publishers to put my previous oversights right.

The thing I have to get over first of all is that it didn’t blow me away like the debut did, so there’s unfortunately already a trickle of disappointment creeping in.  This was added to slightly by the narrative structure chosen, the debut drew the reader in with 21 people telling their tale creating a community with wonderful, economic writing which really brought these characters alive. Here we have a very factual narrative, written like a fable or fairy tale, which makes obviously for good story-telling but holds the reader at arm’s length and delays an emotional attachment with the characters developing.  This is obviously a popular style at the moment as Edmund White has surprisingly utilised something similar in his latest “A Saint From Texas”.

We begin in the early 1970s in Tipperary and the novel focuses on three generations of the Gladney family.  Paddy, a postman who also works on the land of the Jackman family where his cottage is situated and his wife, Kit, are reeling from the disappearance of their daughter Moll.  This can be seen as a novel about returning home and being satisfied with one’s lot as characters seem happiest when they have returned home to live a simpler life in the Tipperary countryside.

For the first half of the novel I was impressed by the quality of the writing but not totally involved but perhaps by two-thirds of the way through the undeniable genius of Donal Ryan had worked its magic and despite writing in a style which was keeping me at a distance I discovered  I really cared for some of these characters (I adored Alexander) and ended up feeling quite misty-eyed by the end.  I’m not sure how the author did this to me.  Once again it is a deceptively simple work which is much richer in characterisation and symbolism than it first appears- perhaps working in that subliminal way in which we as children relate to fantasy and traditional stories which the structure of this ultimately satisfying work echoes.

Strange Flowers was published in hardback by Doubleday on  20th August 2020.  Many thanks to the publishers for selecting me to review an advance copy and to Netgalley for making that available.

2018 – What I Should Have Read

I am fairly certain that I am now reading my last book of 2018.  This is because I am just mid-way through the massive “Count Of Monte Cristo” which I have never read before and the Penguin edition amounts to 1276 pages of pretty small print.  If I get through these it will end up being perhaps the longest book I have ever read.  I’ll let you know how I get on but that will unlikely be before the new year.

With newspapers, bloggers, websites coming up with their favourite books of the year I thought I would delay my choices until the very end of 2018 but look at some of the books I have missed out on reading this year.  So here is my Top 10 what I should have reads.

Snap – Belinda Bauer (Bantam Press)

snap

The first popular crime novel to be longlisted for the Man Booker Prize but it seems not even the presence of huge fan Val McDermid on the judging panel could get this onto the shortlist.  I read Bauer’s dark debut “Blacklands” in the year it was published and enjoyed it but have not read any of her others.  Luckily, I found a copy of this on the library shelves and have borrowed it so Alexandre Dumas-willing I will get round to it before hoards start reserving it because of its regular appearances on “best of the year lists”

Chalk Man – C J Tudor (Penguin)

chalkman

Another one I have out from the library.  This debut has been compared to Stephen King and is set in 1980’s Britain. Now out in a paperback edition featuring high praise from writers of the calibre of Lee Child, John Boyne, Celia Aherne, Kimberley Chambers, Julia Heaberlin and King himself.  Can’t wait to read this one.

Seven Deaths Of Evelyn Hardcastle – Stuart Turton (Raven)

sevendeaths

Another much praised debut.  Val McDermid had it as one of her books of the year.  The little I know about it sounds a bit like Kate Atkinson’s “Life After Life” in structure (an all-time favourite) within a classic murder mystery frame.  I saw this going cheap one day as a Kindle Daily Deal so it is sitting there waiting for me.  This has been shortlisted for the first novel Costa Awards, a National Book Award and scooped the independent booksellers Books Are My Bag novel award.  Not sure why there is an extra half of a death in the American title.  Suppose I will have to read it to find out.

Washington Black – Esi Edugyan (Serpent’s Tail)

washington

A Booker shortlisted roller-coaster of a novel and the only one that made me feel sorry I did not read the shortlisted titles before the winner’s announcement this year as I have done the past couple of years.  I do have this Canadian author’s earlier novel “Half Blood Blues” unread on my bookshelves and I may just have to start to this but I am certainly looking forward to discovering her writing in 2019.

Warlight – Michael Ondaatje (Jonathan Cape)

warlight

A book which is certainly popping up on best of the year lists.   It was championed by Kamila Shamsie in “The Guardian’s” look back on the year.  I have never read any of  the Sri-Lankan born Canadian novelist Ondaatje’s 8 novels before, not even “The English Patient” (nor have I seen the film version) but this novel set in London in the aftermath of World War II seems to me to be a tempting place to start.  I had this as one of my 2018 highlights at the start of the year.

From A Low And Quiet Sea – Donal Ryan (Doubleday)

donal

I loved, loved loved this Irish writer’s debut  “The Spinning Heart” and was published in NB magazine citing it as one of the best books of the 21st Century, but since then, amazingly I have not got round to reading any of his three subsequent novels.  This was championed by Jonathan Franzen in The Guardian and is on the shortlist for the Costa novel Award.

Transcription – Kate Atkinson (Doubleday)

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This British author’s “A God In Ruins” is well in the running for being named my best read of 2018.  I wanted to read her Jackson Brodie series of novels next but then I borrowed this as a library e-book.  I’ve not noticed it much on end of year lists and a few people I know who have read it have been a bit lukewarm about it but she is one of our greatest living novelists so I really should find out for myself .

Lethal White – Robert Galbraith (Sphere)

lethal

I’ve read all the others so of course I’m going to get round to this but I’m a little put off by the sheer size of the hardback so may need to wait until it arrives in paperback.  It does seem to be generally getting the thumbs up but most seem to mention that it is too long.

Take Nothing With You – Patrick Gale (Tinder Press)

gale

Admittedly I’ve got the odd Gale gap in my reading history but he is one of my Top 10 most-read authors.  I would imagine that this is a quieter, understated, less showy novel than some on display here so I might need to get myself into the right mood for that.  He can absolutely blow me away as a writer but this does not happen every time.

My Love Story – Tina Turner (Century)

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My pick of all the non-fiction I’ve missed this year.  I was a little concerned that this autobiography might have been a little air-brushed but reviews seem to say that this is not the case.  This living legend and performer of one of my 100 Essential CDs got huge publicity for this publication as it was her version of what has been an incredible life.  I haven’t rushed to buy this because I did read “I, Tina” written alongside Kurt Loder and I wondered how much of this was a rehash of that.  But I will get round to it.

Anyone looking for a last minute Christmas present for this reviewer could start here….!

 

 

 

100 Essential Books – The Spinning Heart – Donal Ryan (2012)

imagesspinningheart

This is an extraordinary debut novel. It is set in small-town recession-hit Ireland where everyone knows everyone’s business and the departure of a bankrupt builder leads to a great hole in the community. Ex-foreman Bobby, the central character is given first shot as narrator and then the tale is told by twenty other narrators, developing the plot. No one is given a second bite of the cherry. This unusual device works so well, as within a few pages Ryan superbly creates each character through their own narration.  It is a book of voices, every one clear and vibrant. Each section could be read separately as a high-quality short story but when read as a whole it becomes a compelling first-rate novel of contemporary Ireland. It is a slim book and deceptively simple. Reading groups would love that a little analysis shows what a complex piece of work this and marvel at how a whole community , could be created in so few words: Wonderful, economic writing. “The Spinning Heart” is a superb achievement by Donal Ryan. fivestars

This review first appeared in New Books – the magazine for readers and reading groups.