I read a lot of books in 2022, some wonderful, some so-so, and a few just plain dreadful – yes I did try a Colleen Hoover. Here are my favorites in three categories – fiction, suspense, nonfiction, and a bonus classic. I hope you find something here to enjoy in 2023.
A word on the suspense category. Genre fiction is divided into so many overlapping categories – crime, mystery, thriller, spy, suspense. I chose suspense as the most inclusive. My favorites have elements of each but all are suspenseful.
My favorite books of course reflect my own reading preferences. It wasn’t until I had winnowed my list down to five in each category that I noticed all my nonfiction choices are history or literature. I did read other subjects, but those are certainly my favorites. I also noticed that of my sixteen books thirteen are by women and half are by British authors. My reading list certainly reflects me!
If you have opinions, pro or con, on any of these books please share in the comment section at the end of the list.
Fellowship Point by Alice Elliott Dark.
How refreshing to find a book where the main characters are in their eighties and the author treats them with dignity. Agnes and Polly are lifelong friends who met at Fellowship Point, a retreat in Maine where their parents owned summer homes. They remain close though their lives took different paths. Polly became a traditional wife and mother while Agnes never married and is the famous author of a series of children’s books about a girl called Nan. Each summer they meet up at the Point and this year there is a looming crisis. A developer wants to build a resort on the Point, part of which is a wildlife sanctuary, but Agnes determines to fight it. The women must deal with the younger generations of their families who have differing ideas about the future of their inheritance. Meanwhile a young woman who works for Agnes’s publisher visits the Point, triggering revelations about the past and the inspiration for the character of Nan. I found this a thoroughly engrossing read full of appealing characters, drama, humor, and a realistic picture of aging. I still find myself sometimes thinking “What would Agnes do?”
Free Love by Tessa Hadley.
I was drawn to this book because it is set in the 1960’s London of my youth and it perfectly captures the exciting sense of possibility in that time. Phyllis is already a suburban wife and mother when the Age of Aquarius infiltrates her settled life. The handsome young son of a friend visits the family for dinner and, suddenly finding himself alone in the garden with the beautiful older woman, impulsively kisses her. To him it may have been a passing fancy but for Phyllis it offers an escape from her humdrum life. Soon she has fled to London, exchanging her conventional suits and blouses for hippie togs and her dull marriage for the free love lifestyle of the young. With the upheaval in this one family Hadley mirrors the upheaval in society at large. Her descriptions of London in those years really took me back in time. But it is her skill in showing the inner lives of her characters, their vulnerabilities and fears, that truly sets her writing apart. Phyllis may not find perfect happiness, but she finds herself.
The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O’Farrell.
“That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall,
Looking as if she were alive.“
O’Farrell’s latest historical fiction is inspired by Robert Browning’s poem My Last Duchess and the life of Lucrezia de Medici in Renaissance Italy. Narrated by Lucrezia herself, the convincing voice of a terrified young girl, it is the harrowing tale of a struggle for survival in a dangerous world. When her older sister dies just before her wedding Lucrezia is married off to the powerful and ruthless Alfonso Duke of Ferrara. We first meet her alone at a remote fortress where her husband has taken her. When she realizes he has left all her loyal servants behind she is sure he plans to poison her. But first she must sit for her portrait. The narrative moves back and forth in time to show what led to this moment of mortal danger as Lucrezia comes to understand her only purpose is to give Alfonso an heir. With all the skill at conjuring the past that distinguished Hamnet, O’Farrell brings Renaissance Italy to vivid life and keeps us in suspense about Lucrezia’s fate. This is also my choice for most beautiful book cover of the year.
Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel.
When I finished reading the author of Station Eleven’s latest novel I posted on Facebook “drop everything and read this book.” She has a way of writing – direct, unadorned, seemingly effortless – that immediately draws you in and persuades you of the reality of her invented worlds. Many book lists have labelled this science fiction but don’t let that put you off if you’re no fan of the genre. Yes time travel is involved but Mandel’s interest is in her characters and their search for a meaningful life wherever they find themselves. The story takes place in three time periods from the Canadian west in 1912 to future domed cities on the moon; in each characters struggle to understand a strange vision. In the far future on the moon the secretive Time Institute sends a researcher to investigate an anomaly that may explain the visions. In this wonderful novel we don’t learn the science of how moon domes are constructed, but we do learn what it feels like for a child to stand at the perimeter and place his hand on the cold dome surface, staring out at the barren moonscape.
Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers.
Approaching forty, Jean Swinney lives a dreary life taking care of her demanding mother and she has come to expect nothing more from life. It is the 1950’s in dull suburban England and Jean’s job as a feature writer for the local newspaper doesn’t offer much excitement either. She has come to rely on small pleasures. Everything changes when she is assigned to write about a woman who claims her daughter is the result of a virgin birth. But don’t expect a story of miracles or religious faith; this touching novel develops in quite an unexpected direction. When Jean makes regular visits to investigate the normal seeming Tilbury family she quickly forms a bond with the mother and her eight year old daughter. Soon Jean becomes almost part of the family and surrogate aunt to young Margaret. And a close friend to husband Howard. This is a love story for grown-ups about two very ordinary people swept up by unexpected passion. But will Jean find happiness or heartbreak in the end? I haven’t been able to get this novel out of my head since reading it months ago.
Ashton Hall by Lauren Belfer.
I confess I’m a sucker for books with wrought iron gates and a stately mansion on the cover suggestive of Rebecca. Once dipped into they often prove disappointing, but not this one. Instead of a naive and frightened young woman we have a strong and resourceful protagonist in American academic Hannah Larsen who arrives to visit an aging relative living in the Elizabethan era Hall. When her adventurous young son discovers the skeleton of a woman in a walled up room Hannah enlists a group of researchers to identify the woman and find out why she died in a sealed room. Instead of a ghost story we have a serious historical investigation by a local historian, an archaeologist, and an archives librarian who is already working with the Hall’s voluminous manuscript records. As the story of the dead woman unfolds we are taken into the labyrinthine religious controversies of the Reformation period, a subject I’ve spent my whole life studying and reading about. Belfer brings the period to life in rich detail with clear explanations of complex history. And Hannah discovers answers to her own personal problems by focusing on a long dead woman’s choices.
Bad Actors by Mick Herron.
If you are a fan of spy novels and haven’t discovered Mick Herron yet you are in for a treat. He has been crowned the worthy successor to John Le Carre, updating the genre for the post Cold War era. This is number 8 in the series and I’d advise you to start with the first, Slow Horses. That’s the demeaning name for the spies at Slough House, the London outpost of MI5 where washed up spies and incompetents end up. They are a motley crew of alcoholics, screw-ups, and misfits led by the disheveled Jackson Lamb, equally as memorable a character as George Smiley. Most, like River Cartwright, grandson of a legendary MI5 officer, believe they were sent here by mistake and try to prove their competence. Tightly plotted, full of intrigue and caustic wit, the series offers the added bonus of a merciless skewering of the British establishment. I also highly recommend the new series on Apple TV starring Gary Oldman as Jackson Lamb. He is exactly as I imagined the character, something that doesn’t happen very often in screen adaptations of books.
Girl in Ice by Erica Ferencik.
The premise of this mystery is preposterous, but if you can suspend disbelief you’ll be rewarded with a compelling story set in the unforgiving landscape of the Arctic. Wyatt is a climate researcher working at a remote island off Greenland when the thawing ice reveals the body of a young girl. Though frozen for thousands of years, as the ice melts she comes back to life. The girl speaks a strange language and is desperately trying to communicate. Wyatt knows just who might help him, his late colleague Andy’s sister who is a linguist specializing in Nordic languages. Val doesn’t hesitate to take on the challenge because she has her own reasons for visiting the scientific outpost. She has never believed the story that Andy committed suicide by walking out into the sub-zero night. The heart of the book is the tender developing relationship between Val and the ice girl as they are gradually able to communicate. I found the details of the linguistics of ancient languages fascinating as Val uses her expertise to decode the girl’s speech. The ice girl is sick, and what she is trying to tell the modern humans about how she can be cured connects to Wyatt’s research and the truth about Andy’s death. With gorgeous descriptions of the Arctic environment, you can feel the chill as you read, this is my choice for most unusual and satisfying mystery of the year.
The Lioness by Chris Bohjalian.
Here’s another mystery/thriller set in an unusual locale, this time the Serengeti in 1964. Hollywood movie star Katie Barstow decides to honeymoon on an African safari and take along an entourage of her best friends. No expense will be spared to provide luxury living in the bush. But soon after they set off with their Tanzanian guides the group is attacked by heavily armed mercenaries. The attempted kidnapping goes horribly wrong and the group becomes separated and lost in the wild. That is just the beginning of a harrowing ordeal as they, and the reader, wonder which is the greater danger, the kidnappers or the wild animals prowling around them. Some of the Hollywood elite are no match for the extreme environment, while others prove surprisingly resilient. This is page turning suspense of the highest order as one by one the group are picked off and we wonder who, if any, will survive. And who ordered the kidnapping? Bohjalian’s vivid descriptions of the Serengeti landscape and animals and his insight into his characters complement the suspense. Few books are really unputdownable, but I found this one was!
A Tidy Ending by Joanna Cannon.
This dark comedy is a masterpiece of the unreliable narrator. Linda leads a boring life keeping house for her husband Terry and working part-time in a charity shop. She dreams of the glamorous life portrayed in the glossy catalogs that arrive in the mail for her home’s previous owner. She is socially awkward and unaware of her disconcerting effect on other people. When she describes her interactions with those she tries to befriend the reader soon picks up that things are not going as well for her as she thinks. We are torn between laughing and feeling compassion for her. As Linda sets out to identify and befriend the intended recipient of the catalogs, a series of murders of young women in the neighborhood is a sinister backdrop. Terry has been behaving oddly lately and Linda begins to suspect her husband is the murderer. But if you think you know where this story is going you will be wrong, as unexpected twists lie in store. I wasn’t surprised to learn that the author of this highly entertaining read is a psychiatrist.
The Empress and the English Doctor by Lucy Ward.
This history couldn’t be more relevant to our times. The story of a dangerous epidemic, an enlightened ruler, and cutting edge science in the eighteenth century has lessons for today. When Catherine the Great faced a smallpox epidemic in Russia and learned of the new method of inoculation practiced in England she faced skepticism and rumors spreading misinformation and fear. Sound familiar? But Catherine was determined to embrace modernity and invited English doctor Thomas Dimsdale to St. Petersburg. She asked him to secretly inoculate herself and her son, the heir to the throne, as an example for her people. Once they recovered she made a public announcement and held a lavish celebration. Some of the medical practices sound primitive to us. Before inoculation patients had to prepare with a stringent diet, purging, and bleeding. Despite that the inoculations worked and the English doctor treated hundreds of Russian nobility while Catherine planned to overcome prejudice and treat all her citizens. This fascinating story of medical breakthrough is told through Dimsdale’s diary and letters, and those of English and Russian officials. His account of life in Russia paints a vivid picture of the royal court in all its glittering excess. But Catherine comes across as an intelligent and determined ruler, willing to risk her own life to save her people from the curse of smallpox. She and the Quaker doctor couldn’t be more different but they formed a close friendship that continued after he returned to England.
I Used To Live Here Once: The Haunted Life Of Jean Rhys by Miranda Seymour.
Jean Rhys is remembered today for her novel about the mad wife of Mr. Rochester in Jane Eyre. In Wide Sargasso Sea she gave Bertha Mason, renamed Antoinette Cosway, a life story and identity beyond “the madwoman in the attic.” The book was partly autobiographical as Antoinette’s story is based on Rhys’s own childhood growing up on the Caribbean island of Dominica. But long before Wide Sargasso Sea was published in 1966 Rhys was a prolific author of novels and stories inspired by her tumultuous life in Dominica, London, and Paris. I was drawn to this compelling biography by my love for the Jane Eyre inspired novel, but I knew nothing else about the author. She was quite a personality to meet; a beautiful, difficult, often outrageous, talented, and troubled woman. After failing as an actress in England she fled to Paris and reinvented herself as a writer. Her stories capture Paris life in the 1920’s, the nightclubs and bars where the literary set gathered but also the dreary rented rooms where lonely poor women struggled to make a life. She was one of those women. It was a life of failed marriages and passionate love affairs, heavy drinking, the extremes of poverty to wealth, fame to obscurity, and back again. Somehow she always found loyal friends to support her despite a volatile temper that twice landed her in jail. Her last years were spent alone in a cottage in Devon, drinking and writing till the end.
Metaphysical Animals by Clare Mac Cumhaill and Rachael Wiseman.
I wouldn’t normally seek out a book about philosophy, but one of the four women profiled here is the philosopher who became a best selling and critically acclaimed novelist, Iris Murdoch. She is one of my favorite authors; The Bell is on my list of most loved books. She, Elizabeth Anscombe, Mary Midgley, and Philippa Foot all went to Oxford to study philosophy in the 1940’s when most of the men were away at war. This gave them the opportunity to take leadership roles, and they made the most of it. Philosophy at the time was dominated by logical positivists like A. J. Ayer who believed only in statements that could be scientifically or logically proven. The women came to believe, especially in the face of the horrors of war, that this left no room for metaphysics, or ethical questions, and they set out to change that. Yes there is discussion of philosophical concepts in this book, but it is mostly a human interest story of four fascinating women and the educational environment in which they thrived. The sexual mores of the time are shocking by today’s standards. When her advisor recommended that Iris Murdoch attend tutoring sessions with a particular professor he warned: “He will probably paw you about a bit, but never mind.” She was indeed pawed about but brushed it off as the norm. Elizabeth Anscombe was an eccentric character, wandering the Oxford streets looking like a bag lady. She managed her studies and later position as a lecturer while raising seven children in a rather vague way. When the police brought a wandering child to her door, her husband, also a philosopher, wasn’t sure if the child was his! The book is full of colorful anecdotes like this so it is a great read for fans of the famed British eccentricity.
Mutinous Women by Joan DeJean.
Once a mere footnote in history, and dismissed as prostitutes, here is the true story of a group of remarkably resilient women who were brought to the new French colony of Louisiana in chains. Most were not in fact prostitutes but poor women struggling to survive on the mean streets of 18th century Paris. This first section of the book reads like Les Miserables. An orphan servant girl seduced by her employer and reported as “debauched” by his wife; a girl whose family could not afford to feed her; a flower seller who may have stolen a ribbon; all ended up in the notorious women’s prison La Salpetriere. There they fell victim to a corrupt deal between the warden and a representative of the Louisiana Colony where new settlers, especially women, were needed. 132 women ended up on a ship ironically named La Mutine, a female mutineer, when it sailed for Louisiana in 1719. The youngest was only 13. DeJean estimates that 62 women survived the horrors of the voyage, chained in the hold with little food and drink and rampant disease. But their ordeal was far from over once they landed on an island near Mobile. Conditions in the colony were appalling. I was familiar with the story of hardship at Jamestown but knew nothing about Louisiana. If anything it was even worse. Hundreds died of starvation and disease on the beaches soon after they landed as there was no provision for new settlers. DeJean spent years searching the patchy archives of the colony to trace the women who survived by their names on the Mutine‘s manifest, where they were listed as cargo. Many of the women quickly married and started families. Many were among the first inhabitants of the new capital of New Orleans, just a few primitive huts in 1719. If they cleared a plot of land they could take ownership. Thus the poor women of Paris became landowners and passed valuable property in places like Bourbon Street on to their descendants. The supposed criminals became upstanding citizens and founded some of the leading families of Louisiana. This is a truly thrilling history of forgotten lives.
River of the Gods by Candice Millard.
I’ve read all Candice Millard’s books; she is a wonderful storyteller turning history into vivid page-turning narratives. Here she has great material in the story of the discovery of the source of the Nile starring the larger than life personalities Richard Burton and John Speke. By the mid nineteenth century one of the last remaining mysteries of African exploration was the source of the Nile, a prize as grand as reaching the peak of Everest would later be. In 1856 the Royal Geographic Society sponsored an expedition led by renowned explorer Richard Burton. In a fateful decision he chose the younger John Speke to accompany him. What started as a partnership ended in bitter rivalry when Burton fell sick and Speke left him behind, then rushed to London to claim the discovery as his own. In telling this story Millard corrects the traditional image of the European explorer hacking through the jungle making discoveries on his own. In fact they relied on African guides who knew the terrain, as well as teams of hundreds of locals who did all the work of transporting equipment and supplies and serving the expedition leaders. In this case Sidi Mubarak Bombay, who had been enslaved in India, returned to Africa and became a guide for the Nile expedition. Millard credits him with the discovery as much as the Englishmen. The rivalry between Burton and Speke ultimately ended in tragedy, a terrible price for the glory of discovery.
…AND A CLASSIC
The Betrothed (I Promessi Sposi) by Alessandro Manzoni.
If you are in the mood for a big, sprawling, Victorian style novel like a Dickens or a Victor Hugo then this is the book for you. After reading reviews of the new translation by Michael F. Moore I purchased it for my Kindle and it proved the perfect companion for a cross country flight. First published in 1827 it is considered the greatest Italian novel and is a standard text for high school students in Italy. The story follows the fates of young lovers Renzo and Lucia in seventeenth century Lombardy. When they are about to marry, Don Rodrigo, the Baron of their district, sees Lucia and wants her for himself. He persuades the local priest, Don Abbondio, who has already agreed to marry them the next day, to cancel the ceremony. The cowardly priest, afraid to disobey Don Rodrigo, turns the young couple away from the church. When they find out the reason Renzo and Lucia go into hiding, she taking refuge in a convent. The continuing trials of their separation play out amidst the turmoil of war, plague, and official corruption in church and state. The novel is full of heroes and villains, saints and sinners, humor and tragedy, love and suffering, the nature of power and evil. In short, the human condition is its subject. The narrative voice is engaging, frequently departing from the story to explain some historical event or personality which certainly helps the contemporary reader. I was so taken with this book I mentioned it to my Italian hair stylist, asking if he read it in school. That unleashed a torrent of enthusiastic commentary proving that book discussions can happen anywhere, even a hair salon.
If you have opinions, pro or con, on any of these books please share in the comment section below. Happy reading in 2023!