Five-star reads of 2022

4 books in a pile on a table. They are O Caledonia by Elspeth Barker; Orwell's Roses by Rebecca Solnit; Common Ground: Garden Histories of Aotearoa by Matt Morris; and New Zealand Nurses: Caring for our People 1880-1950 by Pamela Wood.

I read a lot of books in 2022! Looking at my reading app, StoryGraph, I see that I gave the top rating of 5 stars to 21 books. Others came close, but 21 seems enough to write about. They are a mixture of fiction and non-fiction, mostly recent but sometimes not, and I highly recommend them all. Science fiction was my most-read genre, thanks to my project to read all the novels which have won the Hugo Award for best science fiction or fantasy novel. I’ve read 30 of the 71 books on that list so far and four of them made it onto this year’s favourite reads. Hopefully I might finish this interesting project in 2023 or 24!

Well, here’s the list of my 2022 favourites, with brief notes on each.

Science fiction and fantasy

James Bradley, Clade (2015). A gripping cli-fi (science fiction focussed on climate change) novel, set in a future Australia and England. Told from the perspective of various members of one family over a long period as they deal with the crises of a rapidly-changing world.

Lois McMaster Bujold, Paladin of Souls (2003). This was the first book of Bujold’s that I read, but I have since read some of her science fiction as well. She is a great storyteller and her books are especially hard to put down. This is a top-notch fantasy, which gets extra points for putting flawed middle-aged people at its romantic centre!

Zen Cho, Sorcerer to the Crown (2015). This fantasy set in Regency England is a sparkling tribute/response to the witty romances of Georgette Heyer, but it is also much more than that. It features a multiracial cast of characters and the most powerful magician is a woman. It fits into a new genre Cho has described as ‘postcolonial fluff’!

Susannah Clarke, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (2004). This is another novel set in Regency England with magic added, this time including scenes from the Napoleonic Wars. It’s very long, but not hard to read once you get into the story. It is also funny and subversive, with the senior magicians – elite white men – fumbling around while people of other ethnicities, genders and classes can see what is actually going on.

Kazuo Ishiguro, Klara and the Sun (2021). A new book from Ishiguro is always a treat for me. This one has a fable-like feel and is told from the perspective of Klara, an ‘artificial friend’ who is the companion of a sick child. Raises all sorts of questions about AI, what makes us human, and how we interpret our world.

N.K. Jemisin, The Stone Sky (2017). This is the third book of her Broken Earth trilogy, and I liked it the best as it resolves various plot lines and ends the dystopian story on a hopeful note. All three books won the Hugo – the first time that has happened for a series and a reflection of its brilliance. Jemisin’s writing style is strikingly original, as is the world she has built – it is very geologically unstable, so anyone with earthquake PTSD should probably avoid this series. It deals with themes of oppression and violence and prejudice and clashing cultures in a totally gripping plot.

Juliet Marillier, A Song of Flight (2021). A YA fantasy, third in the Warrior Bards series. I love Marillier’s books and have read them all. They have great stories and characters and there is something very sensitive in her writing. She writes wonderfully about animals and about disability. Bonus – she is from Dunedin (though she long-since decamped to Australia)!

Dan Simmons, Hyperion (1989). This is an extraordinary book and it blew me away really. As a former student of English literature, I loved all its literary allusions, which range from Keats to the Wizard of Oz, but I suspect you wouldn’t have to be well-read to enjoy this book. It’s set in a dystopian future, where a diverse set of pilgrims on a quest tell tales in Canterbury Tales fashion. All of the tales are surprising and gripping. Parts of this book were especially terrifying to someone like me who doesn’t read much horror fiction! I felt the lack of good female characters early in the book, but that improves later. The sequel is now high on my reading list.

General fiction

Elspeth Barker, O Caledonia (1991). This is, according to Ali Smith, “the best least-known novel of the twentieth century”. Now acclaimed as a classic of Scottish literature, it is a highly original and beautifully written tale, with a Gothic-style setting.

Louise Erdrich, The Painted Drum (2005). A quiet masterpiece from the acclaimed Indigenous American writer. A book centred around an old painted drum, but essentially about family and relationships. Beautifully written in a lyrical style that you want to linger over.

Karen Joy Fowler, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (2013). I don’t want to give any spoilers for this one, as it includes a massive twist! I picked it up in the local Lilliput library and knew nothing about it – the surprise was huge and I recommend reading it without knowing the main plot lines. An exciting and compelling read.

Clare Moleta, Unsheltered (2021). A remarkable debut novel by a Wellington writer who grew up in Australia. Maybe this should be in the SFF section, but Moleta herself has said the setting “has been described as futuristic, but I wrote it four years ago and it didn’t even feel like the future then”. It’s really climate fiction, set in a dystopian Australia destroyed by climate disasters, with a mother searching for her missing daughter. Really gripping.

Sue Orr, Loop Tracks (2021). A very good novel which particularly resonated with me as the central character is exactly my age and the settings – mostly in Wellington – are familiar. It is a story about family and relationships, moving from an unplanned pregnancy in 1978 through to the pandemic lockdown of 2020. It deals with some intense issues, including abortion and euthanasia, and is very alert to contemporary politics

Pip Williams, The Dictionary of Lost Words (2020). This book is a real treat for anyone fascinated by words and their histories and meanings. It’s tale of a woman who grows up among the men working on the Oxford English Dictionary and starts her own secret project to collect the words of women.

Non-fiction

Amitav Ghosh, The Nutmeg’s Curse: Parables for a Planet in Crisis (2021). Ghosh is a master of both fiction and non-fiction, and an important thinker. In this brilliant book he uses the history of the nutmeg trade as the centre of a convincing argument that the world order created by Western colonialism, with its exploitation of both people and the natural world, led us into our current planetary crises.

Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants (2013). People often recommend this book and it has been on my reading list for years. I finally got to it this year and now I know why it is so popular! A wonderful piece of nature writing, weaving together Kimmerer’s own story and Indigenous knowledge together with her institutional training in botany.

Annette Lees, After Dark: Walking into the Nights of Aotearoa (2021). This is a lovely example of nature writing, organised around walks Lees takes in different locations and at different stages of the night. I learned a lot and also enjoyed the reading journey.

J.B. MacKinnon, The Day the World Stops Shopping: How Ending Consumerism Saves the Environment and Ourselves (2021). Only the most stubborn people can remain unaware that runaway consumerism is destroying our planet and hugely detrimental to society. This is a fascinating thought experiment – what would happen if we all stopped shopping? A surprising and very readable book.

Matt Morris, Common Ground: Garden Histories of Aotearoa (2020). This fabulous book is very much a people’s history of gardening, starting with early Māori gardening and moving through New Zealand history from there. The focus is not on elite or commercial gardens, but home and community gardening. It also has a strong ecological bent.

Rebecca Solnit, Orwell’s Roses (2021). Solnit is a fabulous writer and an interesting thinker, and I have enjoyed everything of hers that I’ve read. This somewhat eccentric book, based around the life of writer George Orwell and the garden he planted, is up to her usual high standard.

Pamela Wood, New Zealand Nurses: Caring for our People 1880-1950 (2022). Wood is a very good nursing academic, and also a very good writer. This is a scholarly but readable history, packed with interesting people and stories.

Happy reading everyone!

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