What I read in 2022

This year was not a classic in terms of quantity of reading! Sadly, my time was not taken up with doing lots of fun things missed in the COVID lockdown years. Instead some tricky personal stuff sucked up some hefty chunks of time and put me in a headspace where I found it very hard to focus on reading for enjoyment.

So this year’s total is only 37 books. But here’s what I chose, why, and what I thought of them.

Covers of the books I read in 2022

What Katy Did by Susan Coolidge (Sarah Chauncey Woolsey)

I loved this book as a child, and so when I saw this new edition by Boilerhouse Press issued for the 150th anniversary I decided to purchase and re-read. I was not disappointed; Katy and her siblings are still fun and charming and have mostly innocent little adventures. The bit that had been most vivid for me as a child was when an injured Katy has to spend a year in bed and her saintly cousin Helen advises her on how to make it not just a year to be endured but an opportunity for learning and growth. More than 40 years later I still find this inspiring, perhaps because the whole book, though very sweet to modern tastes, is also forthright and funny. I am very prone to sentimentality though…

The Authentic Adam Smith: His Life and Ideas by James Buchan

I read this in preparation for a (as yet unfulfilled) project for which I needed to know stuff about Adam Smith. Right book you’d think. Well, yes, because while it has very readable stuff about the economics and philosophy etc, it’s also a rather funny quickfire rattle through the man’s life and times. If you only ever read one biography of Adam Smith’s I recommend you pick this one.

The Gifts of Reading by Robert MacFarlane

A beautiful little meditation on the power of giving books. Starting with a book he received as a gift that had an immense effect on him, the author takes us through the idea of gift economy – why gifts have different impacts on recipients (and givers) than a purchase – and how gifts of books in particular, not only live with us but become parts of us.

The Great Darkness by Jim Kelly

I bought this on a trip to Cambridge – it’s a crime novel set in the city in the Second World War – and very much enjoyed it. Atmospheric, intelligent and well-written, and also features a lot of night swimming in the river which also appealed to me.

V For Victory by Lissa Evans

This is the third of series following the members of a slightly disreputable ad hoc ‘family’ living a rackety and precarious life in Hampstead in London. This story centres on a precocious boy and his ‘guardian’ attempting to stay unnoticed by officialdom during the Second World War, as he also seeks knowledge of his origins. It’s engaging, heartwarming and very readable.

O Caledonia by Elspeth Barker

A Book Group choice, and what a selection ! Absolutely brilliant comic novel about poor, sensitive, imaginative Janet struggling through childhood and teenage years in the midst of her hearty, heartless and uncomprehending family in a shabby old stately home in the Scottish Highlands. With tragic results. READ IT NOW!

The Inheritance of Solomon Farthing by Mary Paulson Ellis

I was perhaps not in the right mood when I read this. It’s usually the sort of thing I like – a historical mystery – and is set in Scotland. But I didn’t take to any of the characters, didn’t care about the mystery, and found I was just ploughing though to try and get to the end.

What Katy Did at School, What Katy Did Next, Clover by Susan Coolidge (Sarah Chauncey Woolsey)

Having loved my dip back into childhood with What Katy Did, I dug out my actual childhood copy which also contained the three sequels, and raced though them. The stories were just as I remembered and I loved them all over again, as the Carr sisters – Katy and Clover – grow up to be delightful, kind, funny, purposeful young women.

Cover of an old edition of What Kay Did, What Katy Did at School, What Katy Did Next and Clover with the author name Susan Coolidge at the top.
My childhood copy of the Katy books

Index, A History of the by Dennis Duncan

Educational and playful! This book traces the origins and development of cataloging and indexes, and their purposes, formats and value. In an age of easy internet searching, it was interesting to read of early suspicions that indexes made accessing knowledge too easy because readers didn’t need to put in the hard graft. But I confess that probably the bits I enjoyed most were the jokes and feuds conveyed through indexes, sometime over many years and several publications.

Recovery. The Lost Art of Convalescence by Dr Gavin Francis

A short book about getting better. It’s a lovely little book that reviews the history and science of recovery from illness, arguing that there practices to convalescence that we have lost. It appealed to me a lot – I was feeling ill at the time, thinking I had long COVID though it turned out to be something else much more sortable – but I really like the emphasis on just acknowledging that things take time, and that not every day needs to be ‘productive’. Having also read about Katy Carr’s year in bed it seemed apt to take in modern reflections on this nineteenth century approach to recovering from / living with illness.

The Second Cut by Louise Welsh

A Book Group choice. We read Louise Welsh’s A Cutting Room back in our early days so it was logical to pick up this sequel; a crime novel and relating the ongoing relationship of Rilke and Rose. The characters were just as good, the plot was interesting, and I liked the Scottish locations. I felt it suffered a little from trying too hard to lever in 2020s issues such as trans rights and Glasgow’s process of addressing its slavery past, but it is a satisfying update on the issues of exploitation and sexual rights that were the lynchpins of the first novel.

Steppe by Piers Anthony

I think I came across a mention of this online and was intrigued. It’s the experiences of a Mongolian warrior from Chenghis Khan’s army transported across time and space into an live role-playing game, manipulated by an unseen alien society, and his plan to extract himself from the game. Despite being a slim volume I struggled to really follow what was going on; I’d class it as an curious oddity rather than a great read!

London Rain by Nicola Upson

I am a curious thriller/crime/mystery reader as I very rarely remember the plots and ‘who dunnit’ so I can read them over and over again. This is one of the excellent series featuring Golden Age mystery writer Josephine Tey as the sleuth. Given what happened later in the year it was interesting that this was set at a big media event for the monarchy – the coronation of George VI – and is centred on the murder of a radio presenter due to give the coronation commentary. Like all in the series, it is neatly plotted but its real richness is the personal relationships and the period setting.

The Grass Arena by John Healy

This is an astounding read. It’s a memoir of alcoholism written by a man who spent many years being homeless and drunk on the streets of London. It’s a brutal insight into that existence and a glimpse into why, sometimes for some people, staying drunk seems the only possible option for survival, of a sort. I wasn’t sure I really enjoyed it but it was a really gripping and worthwhile read.

The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams

A Book Group choice. It’s a story adjacent to the gargantuan task of creating of Oxford English Dictionary, shedding some light on how tools of knowledge, like dictionaries, are created, and the biases they contain. I liked the evocation of how the words got into the dictionary, both conceptually and physically – it felt like a far-reaching complex ‘machinery’ of many interlocking ‘cogs’ and processes. But I found the personal story and the rescue of the discarded and ignored words a wee bit unconvincing, which was a shame.

Master of Rain by Tom Bradby

Watching ITV newsreader Tom Bradby get VERY angry during COVID times, I googled him and learned that he also wrote novels. I got this one as it was set in Shanghai in the 1920s. Well, it was ok. The detective is a bit out of his depth in the duplicitous depths of both the gangs and the colonial power structures of the city, but the plot relied a bit too much on slaughtered, prostituted girls, which just felt a wee bit exploitative. A good try but perhaps it suffered from the author’s inexperience.

Lincoln In The Bardo by George Saunders

Well, this was so good! It’s funny and touching and clever, and both light and deep at the same time. I hesitated before starting because I was intimidated by the praise for it. But was so glad I did. It’s takes a bit of getting used to the different voices and the peculiar situation they are in, especially as they are unaware of their circumstances but it’s so original, engaging, and just a really beautiful, beautiful read.

Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan

A Book Group choice. Oh my, what a hot mess! I did read an academic article which argued that actually the whole story is recounted by the robot in the future which is why it’s so unconvincing. Which it is. The characters are totally unbelievable, as is the scenario, and it all hinges on a ‘great man’ theory of history; that if Alan Turing had survived we’d have had artifical intelligence 40 years ago in a more advanced form than we have now. And there’s an excruciating bit early on where the author attempts to place this novel in a pantheon of classic sci-fi, such as Frankenstein, as if to say, ‘look, it’s quite literary to write about robots.’ Dismal stuff!

Hungry by Grace Dent

A Book Group choice. Memoir by the Guardian food writer and and one-time TV reviewer. It rattles along with a lot of jokes, depicting her journey from childood in a working class family in the north of England, to Stirling University, and then a writing career for magazines in London. Not all is rosy however and it gets darker later on. For book group, it meant we talked a lot about childhood food, and our attitudes to food. I have not really followed much of her food stuff but, because it was funny and well-written, I did used to read her weekly TV soaps column in the Guardian Weekend Guide despite the fact I didn’t watch any soaps! Though I liked the jokes in this, and it is moving towards the end, I felt it lacked something to make it truly compelling.

Chalet School Fete by Elinor Brent Dyer

I read a lot of the Chalet School series in the school library as a teenager, and was quite keen on them for while – I’d never read anything like them as a child and it was a fascinating world to me. So I picked this up in charity shop for nostalgia’s sake. I think this is probably not one of the best – the story is very slight – but it was a interesting dip back into the series for me.

Cause Celeb by Helen Fielding

Lent to me by a friend, I raced through this. It’s the story of young woman working in journalism and TV in Britain in the 1990s who, after a personal crisis, ends up managing a refugee camp in Africa. When a famine looms she desperately resurrects her old contacts to try and raise funds for food. It’s not unreflective though – its clear that the refugee camp and famine are a result of political failures, and that the proposed food drop will be a grotesque spectacle (that will save lives) rather than an altruistic or long-term solution. Another layer that made it interesting to me is that it actually is the kind of thing I scorned in the 1990s as fluffy lightweight rubbish – I refused to read Bridget Jones’ Diary at the time because I thought it sounded awful! – but which I now enjoy. Very readable, and an interesting artefact.

Turkish Gambit by Boris Akunin

One of the series of detective stories featuring the 19th century Russian sleuth Erast Fandorin, set in Crimea. There was a mystery, which I wasn’t really bothered about, but its also quite comical, and nicely written (and translated!) I read it for escapism, and it fulfilled that objective.

My Ántonia by Willa Cather

A Book Group choice. A fantastic book I’d never heard of. The writing is really rich, the cast of characters is fascinating, and the stories within the stories are by turns horrifying and touching. It’s a really vivid evocation of place – the American prairies – that reminded me a bit of Laura Ingalls Wilder (which I read as a child) and an interrogation of what makes a good life, or the ‘right life’ for each individual.

Down to the Sea in Ships by Horatio Clare

This is a fascinating and, perhaps surprisingly, lovely read. The author takes two journeys on cargo ships: one is a massive and sophisticated vessel on a long voyage to the Far East; the other, a smaller, scrappier, older ship in Atlantic waters. It elucidates the practices and demands of container shipping – an industry that keeps us fed, clothed and provided with all sorts of daily requirements – but also introduces us to the men (almost exclusively) who work in the industry. How a crew – strangers put together afresh for each voyage – works and lives, why people do the job, and what it means for their connections to home.

Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead

A Book Group choice. A big epic novel of a woman who wants to fly – she becomes a pilot in 1920s America – and a brutal relationship that seeks to keep her on the ground. Like some other famous female aviators, she disappears over the ocean, sparking an ongoing mystery over what happened to her and whether she is really dead. In parallel there’s the story of a modern starlet, in a bubble of bad choices, who will play her in the biopic. Unlike a lot of readers I think I enjoyed the Hollywood storyline more than the flying one! It’s a good read that is complex and wide-ranging but I didn’t love it.

Glory by NoViolet Bulawayo

Not quite a book group choice in that this was selected for us for our participation in the Booker Prize. So you can read all our reviews, not just mine! In brief I’d say I thought it was ambitious, unusual and a brilliant piece of writing but flawed. It was an amazingly inventive way to delve into the trauma of colonialism, however I’m not sure what it says about me that I found the corrupt and power-worshipping hangers-on and facilitators of tyranny the most interesting characters…

Much Dithering by Dorothy Lambert

A gift from a friend when I was in a personal crisis. It’s a short, slight comedy of love and manners in a 1930s English village. The general drift is obvious but it’s nicely done and I loved all the inadvertent period details of the class interactions and relationships within the small community.

The Shooting Party by Isabel Colegate

This is a sparkling little novel with a sharp bite. A group of privileged individuals gather at an Edwardian country house for a shooting party in 1913; the slaughter of the birds reflecting the slaughter of the men that is to come. But there’s much more to it than this. It’s about class, and change and love, as well as war and death and decay. Someone is killed, two people fall in love, and others just can’t see that this vision of England is already fading away in the face of modernity. A gem.

Spook Street and Joe Country by Mick Herron

I’d read the first of the Slow Horses series before and loved it. A bunch of weirdo misfits and jaded ne’er-do-wells in an MI5 backwater, led by a man who refuses to compromise and fit his ‘square peg’ being into the ’round hole’ the organisation demands of him. Despite – or sometimes because of – their removal from the mainstream, they get sucked into security threats, danger and murder. Looking back I’m hazy on the actual plots, but I loved the madcap journeys and the curious characters, and totally recommend the series.

Light Perpetual by Francis Spufford

Marvellous piece of work imagining the (occasionally) intertwined lives of five working class children who escape death in a Second World War bomb blast and live through the changes of post-war Britain. There’s happiness for some, terror and sadness for others. But always the sense that there could alway be change, even redemption, just around the corner, if they retain enough connection with their own humanity to reach for it. A story of choices made for us by life, but also of hope that we can also bring our own shape and direction to our destinies.

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin

I had been meaning to read this for years, so finally got round to it. An emissary from a galactic federation makes contact with a planet only to be rejected by the first nation he interacts with. A trip to the neighbouring nation also doesn’t go well. The focus is the difficulty of communcation across and between different cultures. In this situation the major point of difference is that the people of this planet are ambisexual – they become either male or female for certain periods when sexually active. In contrast, the emissary sees himself as enlightened but has some very fixed ideas about sex and gender, and it’s only when he undertakes an arduous journey with one individual that he starts to really question his assumptions, and they both move towards deeper understandings of each others’ ways of being. It’s challenging, fascinating and exciting. And warm, generous and inspiring.

Oh William! By Elizabeth Strout

A Book Group choice, selected because it was another Booker Prize nominee. And, oh, how brilliant it is! The protagonist, is a novelist, whose voice we hear, conversationally and intimately. She agrees to acompany her ex-husband on a trip to find his half-sister, whose existence he has only just discovered. Not a great deal happens but things change. It’s a book about how we become who we are, and how our relationships both reflect us and shape us, the unknown legacies they bring us, and the legacies that we pass on to others. It’s something that feels so ordinary but really is everything.

The Love Hypothesis by Ali Hazlewood

This, a TikTok (BookTok) sensation apparently, was recommended by a friend. It’s a romance, a genre I have read more of in recent years, and I found it delightful! The story of geeky PhD science student Olive who, due to typical rom-com complexities, finds herself up in a fake relationship with a saturnine but distant professor. It’s written in perky, enticing style and while she’s a bit inexperienced and timid in some ways, she’s definitely not passive and she cracks a good joke. There’s nice inclusion of ethics and consent issues, plus a sexual harrasment in academia storyline, to add some fibre to the sweetness. And one thing that’s very lovely is that he helps her see the true value in her work and encourages her to set her professional sights high as their actual relationship develops under cover of the fake dates.

Mr Godley’s Phantom by Mal Peet

A Book Group choice. Actually my choice for Book Group! I picked it because last year I’d idly picked up his book about writing, called The Murdstone Trilogy and found it hilarious, well-written and touching. This one is a mixture of war story, detective story, and ghost story and works in each of these genres as well as being entirely its own thing. It follows a traumatised young man struggling to settle back into civilian life after the Second World War, who moves to an isolated house in Devon to act as chauffeur to a rich old man, and through the members of the household and another death, gradually reaffirms his connection to the world. All the characters are brilliantly realised – including the minor ones – it’s gripping and moving, and a wee bit saucy at times. A triumph on which to end the old year!

A copy of the book 'Mr Godley's Phantom' standing up with a gugulhupf cake with icing dripped down it on a cake stand in front of the book. At the back is a copy of 'The Ministry for the Future' by Kim Stanley Robinson
Apple and honey cake to accompany the book at Christmas Book Group

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