My Goodreads reading tally this year puts me over the eighty book mark. I read an array of books from bestsellers to indies, fiction to memoir and, of course, poetry.
I’ve also read some gruesome crimes in mystery. In fact one of the books I read (In Sunlight or In Shadow: Stories Inspired by the Paintings of Edward Hopper—Lawrence Block, editor) was an anthology of short stories inspired by Edward Hopper, one of my favorite painters. Never did I expect them to be so bloody or grotesque. No thank you for me but for those loving that genre, a clear win to put on your list.
This list is not a best of 2022 because not all the books were written this year. It is a list of my best reads during the past year. They aren’t in any particular order either. Ranking books is not one of my favorite things. Nor is the star system. What they all have in common is that I either loved the stories and/or characters, learned from them, was haunted afterwards, escaped in them, participated in book groups to discuss them and reviewed some of them.
I would also suggest trying to look for books this coming year that may not be on the bestseller lists. I’ve found that just because they are selling well through the vast resources of their publishers does not mean they are worth reading.
The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett (Riverhead 2020)
Brit Bennett produces a complicated family tale in this rich novel. While it is a story of family, the reader is opened to the implications of passing— the difficulty and heartbreak of crossing racial lines.
The Vignes are identical, light skinned twin sisters. While they will always be physically identical, they make very different choices. Having grown up in a small, southern black community that prides itself on light skin residents, they dream of a better life in a bigger world. When they turn sixteen, they run away.
After experiencing life outside of their small town, one sister returns home with her very black daughter, an anomaly in this town. The other passes, never telling her white husband anything about her past. It is both a painful and enlightening read.
2. A Town called Solace by Mary Lawson (Knopf Canada 2021)
Sixteen-year-old Rose has a fight with her mother and runs away. Her seven-year-old sister Clara is bereft and superstitiously stands guard at the front window certain that her vigilance will bring Rose home. Isolated by her parents’ trauma and efforts to protect her from the realities of Rose’s disappearance, Clara is both confused and distraught. She seeks comfort in Moses, a cat, she is looking after for Mrs. Orchard, her elderly neighbor who is in the hospital. Enter a man, new to this small town, who takes up residence in Mrs. Orchard’s house.
Told through three points of view, the novel seamlessly moves back and forth among these well drawn characters to explore the layers of grief, remorse, and love that connect them. A Town Called Solace is storytelling at its best.
3. The Paris Library by Janet Skeslien Charles (Atria 2021
This novel is loosely based on the true story of librarians who saved the American Library in Paris from the Nazis during WWII. It alternates between past and present but they are both Odile’s story. First as a young librarian, then as an aging widow of an American GI, living in Montana. Both narratives are equally compelling.
The war story begins in 1939 when a young and ambitious Odile lands her dream job at the American Library in Paris. When the Nazis march into Paris, life completely changes.Together with her fellow librarians (based on true people) Odile joins the Resistance to save books. But nothing is simple in Odile’s life and a stinging betrayal forces her to look at her complicity.
In the other story, Odile in a widow living a reclusive life. Her next door neighbor, Lily, is a lonely teenager who is struggling with her mother’s death and the prospects of life in such a small town. She is curious about her solitary, but exotic, elderly neighbor. As Lily and Odile’s relationship develops, they realize they share much in common and together, they forge a path to healing.
4. The People We Keep by Alison Larkin (Gallery Books, 2021)
April Sawicki lives in upstate NewYork in a motorhome that her father won in a poker game. Needless to say, her father is a total loser and doesn’t provide for her. Without parental support, she is failing out of school and picks up shifts at Margo’s diner. But she has a dream. Music… When she “borrows” her neighbor’s car to perform at an open mic night, she realizes her life could be much bigger than where she came from.
As she moves through the world, April chronicles her life in the songs she writes and discovers that where she came from is not the end, but a beginning. This lyrically written story is about will and determination, not only survive but thrive. And most importantly, it’s about the love of found family.
5. The Path To Kindness: Poems of Connection and Joy edited by James Crews (Story Publishing, 2022)
My one choice in poetry had to be James Crews’s new collection, The Path to Kindness. These poems offer whatever you might need to get you through a day, a year, a difficult time—solace, gratitude, recognition of life’s troubles, the value of the small moment. There is no Hallmark sentiment. As with many poems, the right one at the right time can be just what you might need. This book gives you a hundred such choices.
This anthology contains deeply felt and relatable poems from a diverse range of voices. Included are well-known established writers, new and emerging poets, and a fair representation of African American, Native American, and international voices
It is presented in a perfect-in-the-hand format and includes journaling prompts, a book group guide, and bios of all the contributing poets,
The epigraph at the beginning of the book says it all: Your legacy is every life you touch—Maya Angelou,
6. The Good Sister by Sally Hepworth (St. Martins Press 2021
This is the kind of mystery I enjoy. I totally mistook it for a narrative about a deeply troubled sister relationship. It wasn’t until I was pretty far in that I realized the menace beneath the surface. The two principals are unreliable narrators and it takes some time to figure out what is true and what is fabrication. At first, it seemed like a book of two sisters bound together through a series of unfortunate events until…
The novel follows two fraternal twins. Fern is on at the autistic spectrum and has sensory issues. She is a librarian who depends on routine to keep her life steady. Rose is an interior designer who has been trying unsuccessfully to get pregnant. She is Fern’s protector in many ways. We know that Fern did something terribly wrong when they were children and Fern believes that without Rose, she could do something like that again.
Grateful to Rose, Fern comes up with an idea that exposes long held secrets.
7. Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus (Doubleday 2022)
This is a story about women’s lives, careers, and struggle for empowerment in the late 50s and early 60s. The protagonist Elizabeth Zott, a brilliant chemist,is unable to keep her job at Hastings Lab. Her all male coworkers subject her to all the discriminations and indignities women suffer in the workplace—sexism, theft of ideas, discrimination, and sexual assault.
After many complicated twists in her life, she becomes a widow who needs to find a job to support her daughter. She becomes a television chef. Elizabeth’s cooking show, Supper at Six, is as unique as she is and becomes revolutionary. She teaches far more than cooking.
Elizabeth and the other characters in the book are strong, quirky, smart and funny. This is the most original book I’ve read since Life After Life (Kate Atkinson).
Elizabeth Lott is a character not easily forgotten.
8. American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins (Flatiron Books, 2020)
There was controversy surrounding this book when it was first published. The issue was that as a white writer, Cummins appropriated subject matter that should have been written by a Mexican writer. My feeling is that if there was validity to this, there would be many books in our cannon that would not have been written. In her own defense, Cummins said, she wrote it because the story needed to be written and she spent years in Mexico doing research.
That aside, if you care to read it, I think it should be read on its own merit.
It’s a story of escape against unimaginable odds. A mother and son, Lydia and Luca, must flee Acapulco after the rest of their family is murdered by a drug cartel. Until then, Lydia was a middle class woman who never identified with the migrants she saw on the daily news. When she comes up with the idea to pose as a migrant, she suddenly realizes that she is now one of them. As the story enfolds, we see firsthand how the harrowing the disparate journey to America can be.
9. Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner (Random House, 1987)
I read this book many years ago but it resonated with me so much more this second time around. It is a quiet story. A reflection on the dreams we have for ourselves and what life inevitably hands us. It recounts a lifelong friendship between two couples who share aspirations but come from different life circumstances and sensibilities.
Larry Morgan and his wife, Sally, meet Sid and Charity Lang when Larry begins his teaching creative writing at a mid-western university. Larry and Sally struggle financially while Sid and Charity are comfortable. Embraced by the Langs’ and welcomed into their wide and generous life, the Morgans have many reasons for gratitude over the years. Ultimately, Larry becomes a successful writer. Sid struggles to become one and has to contend with Charity’s thumb on his ambitions.
Although it moves very slowly, it resonates and has aged well.
10. Oh, William! (Random House 2021) Lucy by the Sea (Random House 2022) by Elizabeth Strout
I have been in love with Elizabeth Strout’s characters since I first met cranky, yet lovable Olive Kitteredge. If you like being part of the Strout community, you will be happy to be back in touch with characters who have touched you through the years. I couldn’t recommend one book without the other.
Lucy Barton was introduced to us several books ago. These are the third and fourth in a series. She is a woman who survived a weird, impoverished childhood in Amgash, Michigan and went on to become an accomplished writer in New York City. She was married twice. First to William, a philandering parasitologist, and then to David, a musician. In Oh William! Lucy is grieving David’s death. With him, she had a loving, contented marriage. She maintained a loose friendship with William because of their daughters and reconnects with him now.
One of the things I love about this and her other books is how she imparts simple wisdom conversationally. It’s as if we’re discovering these revelations along with her.
In Lucy by the Sea, William as a scientist, is clearly aware from the beginning what Covid will bring. Lucy, not realizing what she is getting in to, agrees to go to Maine with him, thinking it will be a short vacation out of the city.
At it’s core, it is the quintessential Covid story as it is unraveling, masterfully intertwined with Lucy’s precious life insights.
May I also take the liberty to suggest you read my novel, We’ve Come Undone. (Readers’ Cafe Press). It is a reprinting of What Love Becomes (Adelaide Books, 2019)?
This is the story of us. How we jump into the deep end before we learn to swim and then go about saving ourselves.
An extremely satisfying tale about the realities of marriage and love —Kirkus Reviews (recommended)
Jan Marin Tramontano has given us a novel of love and disenchantment, of dashed dreams and sustained hope…With her nimble prose, her lyrical word-work, her compassion and vision, she creates a world in which I believe and characters about whom I care.
James Robison, award winning novelist, screenwriter, and poet
I wish you all a very happy reading year! Don’t hesitate to send any recommendations my way…