2022 was another great year in my reading life and not even doubling my ‘best of’ posts to reflect my favorite reads of the first and second halves of the year seemed ‘enough’ to truly honour all the wonderful books I’ve read this year. So, I thought I’d take a page from high school yearbooks and do my Bookish Superlatives, to spread the love as much as possible. Today’s superlatives will focus on readerly expectation, media, and style. Tomorrow’s will focus on genres and community representation.
Gaudy Night, Dorothy L. Sayers (1935)
I made a concerted effort this year to go back and read some older books that have stood the test of time and which are considered to be ‘classics’. Of these, my favorite was Gaudy Night, a 1935 mystery by Dorothy L. Sayers. While technically the tenth book in her Lord Peter Wimsy series, Lord Peter makes only a brief appearance, and the action revolves mostly around the wonderful Harriet Vane. Despite being close to ninety years old, it felt remarkably current, even in the issues it addresses, like the struggles faced by women in the Academy.
Honorable mentions that won’t feature elsewhere in my superlatives include The Stranger by Albert Camus (1942) and To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf (1927) for the depth of their psychological insight, and Daddy-Long-Legs by Jean Webster (1912) for its surprisingly contemporary wit.
Ragged Company, Richard Wagamese (2008)
‘Backlist’ is hard to define, but of the older books by great authors I read this year, the one that stands out the most was Richard Wagamese’s 2008 release Ragged Company, about the relationship between a grieving journalist and an unlikely group of lottery winners living on the streets. There is so much depth and empathy in this work (and all of Wagamese’s writings, really), made all the more poignant by the author’s untimely death in 2017.
Honorable mentions include Stern Men by Elizabeth Gilbert (2000) and The All of It by Jeannette Haien (1986).
Remarkably Bright Creatures, Shelby Van Pelt (2022)
I find the idea of ‘debut novels’ a bit difficult, since a lot of first-time published novelists are already-established and published journalists, essayists, or short story writers. And this is the case with most of my favorites this year, such as the 2022 releases My Government Means to Kill Me (Rasheed Newson), The Maid (Nita Prose), The Thursday Murder Club (Richard Osman), and Calling for a Blanket Dance (Oscar Hokeah). So, in the true spirit of a debut — a good beginning that shows both a lot of success and room for growth — I’ll go with Shelby Van Pelt’s Remarkably Bright Creatures, a wonderful, if uneven, exploration of the relationships among the human and octopode residents of a small Pacific Northwestern town.
Us, Sarina Bowen and Elle Kennedy (2017)
I could have gone a lot of different ways in this category — a wonderful literary sequel like Oh, William! (Elizabeth Strout, 2021) or Home (Marilynne Robinson, 2008), or a second book that pushes a series into the next level, like The Burning Bridge (Ranger’s Apprentice 2, John Flanagan, 2005). Instead, I have to give this to an unlikely candidate, 2017’s Us by Sarina Bowen and Elle Kennedy, a sequel to a gay romance novel, Him (2015). In a romance series, it’s rare to see what the realities of life after the ‘happily ever after’ are. But this book does just this, and in the most wonderful ways. It follows Ryan and Jamie as they adjust to their new life together and navigate the tricky question of coming out publicly in professional sports. While it does this, it also introduces two great characters in Ryan’s teammate Blake and Jamie’s sister Jess, who may perhaps make an appearance in tomorrow’s post….
The Sleeping Car Porter, Suzette Mayr (2022)
In order to be ‘disappointing’, expectations have to be set pretty high. So a ‘disappointing’ book is not necessarily a bad one. This is the case for me with The Sleeping Car Porter, the winner of this year’s Giller Prize for the best in Canadian literature. It is a good book and succeeds in doing what the author wanted it to do. Unfortunately, despite covering some fertile ground — barriers of class, race, and sexuality, the history of train travel, and the psychology of ‘closed rooms’ — it seemed to me to leave too much of this territory uncultivated, and it just left me cold as a result. (But, y’know, it won the biggest literary prize in the nation, so this is really just me!)
Best Fulfilled Expectations
Amari and the Great Game, B.B. Alston (2022)
On the flip side, the book that met, if not surpassed, my every expectation was Amari and the Great Game, the second book in B.B. Alston’s Supernatural Investigations series. I actually put off reading this because I so enjoyed the first book but wasn’t impressed by where the marketing copy suggested the series was going. But, I should have known better than to second-guess Alston, because I was hooked from the first pages and read this in half a day.
Least Living up to the Hype
The Very Secret Society of Irregular Witches, Sangu Manadanna (2022)
This category is less to do with my readerly expectations than it does the publicity and hype machine surrounding a book. This book was everywhere on the bookish web and apps in the lead up to Halloween this year. I was in on the premise of a found family story involving a diverse group of witchy folk, but I was disappointed when it turned out to be a rather typical, light, witchy romance novel with little to separate it from the hundreds of other books of its kind.
Most Living up to the Hype
Hunting by Stars, Cherie Dimaline (2021)
On the flip side of the hype machine is this greatly-anticipated sequel to 2017’s The Marrow Thieves, which was a surprise hit that continues to be discovered and loved by readers around the bookish world. And boy did it ever live up to the anticipation, as the series’ hero Frenchie has to figure out how to balance his old and new allegiances in a very scary world where the stakes are only getting higher.
First Time for Everything, Henry Fry (2022)
By ‘most surprising’ I mean a book that far exceeded what I expected of it. And no book fit the bill better for me than First Time for Everything, a new release by Henry Fry. I expected a light, gay, coming-of-age-a-bit-later-than-ideal story. And it definitely did this. But it did so much more than this. It offered up a wonderfully on point (but loving and empathetic) satire of contemporary urban and queer cultures, and explored important questions of identity, mental health, and social expectation in the process. On top of it all, it was genuinely hilarious and provided one of my favorite narrative voices of the year.
Honorable mentions for The Incandescent Threads (Richard Zimler, 2022), which was a surprisingly readable and engaging piece of literary fiction, and the whole ‘A Society of Gentlemen’ series of gay romances by KJ Charles (2015-16), which tackles the harsh political realities and beliefs of Regency England that the huge genre of Regency romance would generally prefer we not think about.
Media & Writing Style
Best Narrative Voice
Husband Material, Alexis Hall (2022)
A good storyteller can make or break a story, so narrative voice is one of the biggest contributors for me in elevating a good book into a great one. I already mentioned my great love for the narration in First Time for Everything, but my absolute favorite of the year was Lucien’s first-person narration in Husband Material, this year’s smash hit sequel to Boyfriend Material (2020). We already knew Lucien was a hilarious and sharp narrator, but in this book he’s in a much healthier place than he was before. He’s still his witty and self-deprecating self, but there’s a new self-awareness and we get such a wonderful glimpse into the self-talk he still has to do to remind himself that he doesn’t need to be the distrusting and destructive character he used to be. This is a great book and it made me love Luc even more.
Honorable mention to Nita Prose’s The Maid, whose neurodivergent narrator’s perspective adds a lot to the tension of the novel.
Best Audiobook Narration
Oh, William!, Elizabeth Strout (2021) – Narrated by Kimberly Farr
I can’t think of the topic of narration without also thinking about audiobook performance. There was nothing that came to mind this year that elevated the book for me (the way Rory Kinnear’s amazing narration of Sweet Sorrow did last year).But that doesn’t mean there weren’t standouts that I’d like to acknowledge. Kimberly Farr has read the audiobooks for all of Elizabeth Strout’s major works, including both Olive Kitteridge books and now all three of the Lucy Barton books. Farr’s clipped midwestern delivery is a perfect match of Strout’s spare and incisive prose, and she expertly handles Strout’s narrative style, which often pauses or doubles back as the characters struggle to express themselves. So integral is Farr in my mind to Strout’s writing that when I read the third Lucy Barton book, Lucy by the Sea, in print, I still read it in her voice.
Honorable mention to Rosalyn Landor’s splendid narration of Julia Quinn’s books and Lin Manuel Miranda’s work on Aristotle and Dante Dive into the Waters of the World — but really, Mr. Miranda doesn’t need more plaudits, does he!
Spiritual Places, Sarah Baxter (2018) – Illustrated by Harry and Zanna Goldhawk
The content of this book was disappointing, but the illustrations were absolutely magnificent. I wanted prints of at least a dozen of the pages!
Honorable mention to Be a Good Ancestor (illustrated by Carla Joseph) and Raven Brings the Light (illustrated by the incomparable Roy Henry Vickers).
Best Graphic Novel or Comic
Heartstopper, Vols. 1-4, written and illustrated by Alice Oseman (2018-22)
Heartstopper was everywhere this year, from booktok to brick and mortar stores, to its successful adaptation on Netflix. But these graphic novels about a nascent relationship between two English high school boys deserve the hype. They are just like a big, giant hug. They also deal with some pretty heavy issues in a realistic way, making them important as well as delightful.
Honorable mention to The Secret Garden on 81st Street (Ivy Noelle Weir, Amber Padilla, and Frances Hodgson, 2021) and the graphic novel adaptation of Stuart Gibbs’ middle grade classic Spy School (adaptation released 2022).
Husband Material, Alexis Hall (2022)
This was a close one between two books already featured in this year’s superlatives, Husband Material and First Time for Everything. I had to go with Hall though because it’s a lighter book overall. A special mention to another 2022 release from Hall, Paris Daillencourt is about to Crumble; I didn’t love this one overall, but its comedic parts were hilarious.
Best Sense of Place
A Prayer for the Crown-Shy, Becky Chambers (2022)
This was a tough one! I selected this title by Becky Chambers because she creates a beautiful and particular sense of atmosphere and place for a world of her own imagination, a post-dystopian, solarpunk moon. Not only does she make the reader feel like they’re there, but she also gives at least this reader some hope about what our world might yet be.
Honorable mention to the many books that took me to the world’s great cities, including Edinburgh (City of Ghosts, Victoria Schwab, 2018), Montreal (The Incandescent Threads, Richard Zimler, 2022), New York City (The Colossus of New York, Colson Whitehead, 2003), Chicago (Marrying the Ketchups, Jennifer Close, 2022; and The 99 Boyfriends of Micah Summers, Adam Sass, 2022), and my own city of Toronto (Tales from the Bottom of my Shoe, David Kingston Yeh, 2020). Also honorable mention to the 1970s amusement park in Stephen King’s Joyland (2013), the eerie Mockbeggar woods in Lauren Owen’s Small Angels, the spooky hacienda in Isabel Cañas’ The Hacienda (2022), and collegiate setting in Emma Lord’s Begin Again (to be released in January 2023) that made me wish I could be an undergrad all over again.
The King of Infinite Space, Lyndsay Faye (2021)
I read primarily for character and plot, so I’m normally happy with good writing. Great writing is the cherry on top for me. This year, the book whose writing stood out to me most was far and away Lyndsay Faye’s 2021 Hamlet retelling, The King of Infinite Space. Whether describing a New York City flower shop, the disturbed inner life of her protagonist, or the philosophy of zero, Faye’s prose leaps off the page and demands to be noticed — in the best ways.
Ranger’s Apprentice, John Flanagan (2004-11)
There were a lot of options for this category this year, but it will come as no surprise to regular readers of this blog that John Flanagan’s Ranger’s Apprentice series takes my top spot. I’ve read ten books in it since the Summer and they all hold up as great adventures. Not only are they fantastic stories, but they always teach respect for one’s adversaries and a general sense of intelligence, humility, honour and grace that is all too lacking from contemporary discourse.
Honourable mentions to the Thursday Murder Club books by Richard Osman (2021-present), the Heartstopper graphic novels (see above), and KJ Charles’ Society of Gentlemen series of queer Regency romances.
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