The 20 best books of 2022, according to local booksellers
We asked the staff at Trident Booksellers & Café, Harvard Book Store, Frugal Bookstore, Brookline Booksmith, and Porter Square Books for their favorite reads published this year.
The end of the year is fast approaching.
For bookworms, that means it’s time to review the many books that were published in 2022 and contemplate which ones stood out from the crowd as the best reads.
(Boston.com readers have already weighed-in on this question, sharing their favorite reads of 2022.)
For more help reflecting on the abundance of new books published in 2022, we turned to staff members at five local bookstores — Trident Booksellers & Café, Harvard Book Store, Frugal Bookstore, Brookline Booksmith, and Porter Square Books — for their picks on the best of the year.
The titles they chose range from gripping dystopian and historical fiction to engrossing memoirs and nonfiction. So whether you’re looking for the perfect book to gift to a fellow reader for the holidays, or just hoping to add to your own “to be read pile,” they said the below 20 titles should not be overlooked or forgotten as the year ends.
“The School for Good Mothers” by Jessamine Chan (January)
Courtney Flynn, manager of Trident Booksellers & Café, said she kept thinking about this debut novel, set in a dystopian but near-future America, the whole year. The story follows what happens after, in the midst of a bad day, a woman named Frida has a moment of irrationality while caring for her daughter. That moment results in Frida being sent to a detention center where she must prove that she is a good mother in order to be reunited with her child. It is a “harrowing and chilling” read, Flynn said. “It’s clearly a very exaggerated but clear picture of what some women experience in motherhood,” she said. “The expectation set on mothers and how society thinks of women and their role as ‘good’ mothers. It’s really good.” Even though she read it almost a year ago, Flynn said the book and its themes have stuck with her. “It was food for thought,” she said.
“We Don’t Know Ourselves” by Fintan O’Toole (March)
This work of nonfiction, a blend of memoir and national history, stands out among the best reads of the year for Brad Lennon, buying and inventory manager at Harvard Book Store. In it, O’Toole delves into his own childhood growing up in Ireland while examining the Irish social, cultural, and economic changes over the decades, ranging from the Troubles to the collapse of the Catholic Church and the 2008 financial crisis. “I love Ireland,” Lennon said. “I’ve driven across it twice and for such a small country there is a lot going on politically, historically, sociologically. Without a guide it’s hard to understand what exactly is going on, and this is a great book to help with that understanding.”
“Lessons in Chemistry” by Bonnie Garmus (April)
Another pick from Flynn is this “really fun” novel, set in 1960s California. It tells the story of a woman and chemist named Elizabeth Zott, who is navigating misogyny in the world of science and then unexpectedly finds herself becoming a housewife. “It’s the last thing she wants,” Flynn said. “But she ends up, even though she’s a brilliant scientist, on television as a famous cooking show host. And the way she gets there and how she looks at the world are just really zany and fun and sharp-witted. You’ll root for her.”
“Finding Me” by Viola Davis (April)
This memoir by the Academy Award-winning actress and Rhode Island native was one of Clarrissa Cropper Egerton’s top favorites of the year. The co-owner of Frugal Bookstore said it is a touching and moving read, with Davis immediately pulling you in as she tells her story. “I absolutely loved this book,” Cropper Egerton said. “She just basically shares her struggles early on — her childhood, with being poor, Black, with a large family — and all of her successes over the years with acting and relationships. As soon as I started reading it, I was there with her.”
“Sea of Tranquility” by Emily St. John Mandel (April)
Alie Hess, head buyer at Brookline Booksmith, named the latest novel from the author of “Station Eleven” and “The Glass Hotel” as one of the best works she read in 2022. The novel defies categorization, she said. Spanning 300 years, it contains some characters from the author’s previous novels, but can be read on its own. “It’s science fictiony, but it’s not science fiction. … It can all be read as somehow relevant to what’s going on in the world today,” she said. “It’s just really, really well done.”
“Memphis” by Tara Stringfellow (April)
Another favorite read of Cropper Egerton’s, this debut novel traces three generations of a Southern, Black family. Unfolding over 70 years, it follows a young girl, Joan, after her mother moves her and her sister back to her ancestral home in Memphis in the ’90s. As Joan grows up, she learns more and more about her family’s history. “It was filled with family secrets and struggles and just her power to want to change her family’s legacy,” Cropper Egerton said. “That was a really good one.”
“Horse” by Geraldine Brooks (June)
Ellen Jarrett, co-owner and adult buyer at Porter Square Books, said this novel has been her go-to recommendation this year whenever anyone asks her what they should read next. “Everybody I’ve recommended it to has loved it, just for the amazing storytelling,” she said. “And anybody who has any interest or love of horses is fascinated.” The deeply-researched tale is based on the true story of the racehorse Lexington. Brooks weaves together three narrative threads across decades and centuries, telling the stories of the enslaved groom of the racehorse and stud sire in the 1850s, the provenance of a painting of the groom and the horse in the 1950s, and the art historian who connects to lost history of the horse and trainer in 2019.
“An Immense World” by Ed Yong (June)
Both Jarrett and Hess picked this work of nonfiction by acclaimed science journalist Ed Yong (you may know him for his Pulitzer Prize-winning reporting on the coronavirus pandemic) as another best of the year. In his latest book, Yong explores with detailed storytelling the diversity of the animal world through their sensory perceptions. “It’s just a brilliant way of looking at the world. … It’s really fascinating,” Hess said. Jarrett said the book would make a great gift. “Yong has put together a highly readable and entertaining work that teaches the reader how, in reaction to stimuli, animals are making sense of their ever-changing world,” she said. “Prepare to be humbled.”
“Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow” by Gabrielle Zevin (July)
This novel also stands out for Hess. The story follows two young people, who meet as children and reconnect while in college in Cambridge, Massachusetts. They create a video game together that becomes incredibly successful. The narrative spans 30 years, centering on their relationship and how it affects their lives. “It centers around video games, but what I like is that it bridges the gap of people who are really into video games and people who like to read,” Hess said. “So you don’t have to be one or the other in order to read it.”
“I’m Glad My Mom Died” by Jennette McCurdy (August)
This memoir was one both Flynn and Hess said made their list of best books of the year. In it, McCurdy, who was a star of the Nickelodeon show “iCarly” as a kid, delves into her childhood in Hollywood and her complicated relationship with her mother, who forced her into anorexia and other mental health issues. Flynn said the book deserves all the hype it has received, pointing to McCurdy’s deft writing. “This book just exploded when it was first published,” Flynn said. “Both because of its provocative title and the fact that the book was an amazing read — super captivating, insightful, funny, heartbreaking.” McCurdy balances the trauma she experienced with humor throughout. “She has a lot of humor, and it’s just hard to imagine someone that young going through that much and someone who kind of looks so happy on TV and just what was going on behind the scenes,” Hess said.
“Scenes from My Life” by Michael K. Williams (August)
Another memoir that stood out in 2022 was this work by the late actor known and beloved for his work on “The Wire,” “Boardwalk Empire,” and “Lovecraft Country,” according to Cropper Egerton. When Williams died in September 2021, he had almost completed the memoir, which delves into his past and looks ahead to his future. “This is a moving, intimate, and touching memoir of his struggles with addiction, his mission to get back,” Cropper Egerton said. “It’s very raw, and it’s very honest and open. You can see into his life and how, even with his struggles, he really just tried to do so much with his life.”
“The English Understand Wool” by Helen DeWitt (September)
Lennon said that while short, this novella “packs a punch” that makes it stand out among the many works of fiction published over the last year. The book tells the story of a young woman trying to sell her story because the fortune she was to inherit was stolen by two con-artists pretending to be her parents. “Even though they might have taken all her money, they gave her the best education that money can buy, both licit and illicit,” Lennon said. “It’s a super smart, and devilishly fun, read.”
“The Marriage Portrait” by Maggie O’Farrell (September)
Another standout work of fiction for Flynn this year is this novel, from the author of “Hamnet.” The story follows Lucrezia, a duchess from Florence in the 1550s, who is married off at the age of 13 and knows her husband is trying to kill her. Part-thriller, part-historical and literary fiction, Flynn said the narrative is written through Lucrezia’s “keen” eyes, allowing the reader to observe her world — her refined, but unloved upbringing and an ill-fated marriage. “It’s a masterful story,” Flynn said. “Beautiful writing, just one of my favorites of the year. It’s great for anybody who loves historical fiction. I keep pushing it — really one of my favorites.”
“Solito” by Javier Zamora (September)
This memoir, which tells the author’s story of making the three-thousand-mile journey from a small town in El Salvador, through Guatemala and Mexico, to the United States as a child, is another read that Flynn also hasn’t been able to forget. Zamora makes the journey as a 9-year-old to join his parents, whom he hadn’t seen for years. “It’s a story about immigration in general; it’s his personal story,” Flynn said. “It’s an important read, but it’s also captivating, well-written. The author is a poet, so the writing is beautiful. It’s probably one of the most impactful reads I read this year.”
“Women Holding Things” by Maira Kalman (October)
This collection of words and paintings is another work from 2022 that would make a great gift, according to Jarrett. In it, the artist, designer, and author Maira Kalman features more than 70 paintings of famous and not-so-famous women holding a variety of objects, both real and abstract. Each painting is accompanied by personal commentary. “The artist’s goal was to explore the significance of the objects we carry in our hands, hearts, and minds, and [she] makes a point that these things are constantly connecting us from generation to generation,” Jarrett said.
“Seven Empty Houses” by Samantha Schweblin (October)
Lennon said he’s a fan of “weird” short story collections, and this new one from the author of “Fever Dream” tops his favorite reads of the year. The stories in the book, he said, lead to “strange places” and are both unsettling and disorienting. “In each of the seven stories there’s a house, an apartment, or even just a room where something is not right, where something or someone is missing or in a place they don’t belong,” Lennon said.
“Toad” by Katherine Dunn (November)
Dunn, the author of cult classic “Geek Love,” died in 2016, and this previously unpublished novel of hers is another that Lennon said was one of his memorable reads of the year. Written before “Geek Love,” the novel centers on a lonely, bitter woman named Sally Gunnar, who has withdrawn from the world. “[She’s] looking back at her college days and the friends and enemies that shaped how her life would play out,” Lennon said. “Just a beautifully written book.”
“The Light We Carry” by Michelle Obama (November)
Cropper Egerton said this follow-up to the former First Lady’s “Becoming” rounded out her notable reads of the year. The bookstore owner said the new memoir is an uplifting and inspirational read. “It’s just all of her wisdom, the strategies that she has for just being hopeful, for being true to yourself and trying to stay balanced,” Cropper Egerton said. “And trying to be good and OK with all that’s going on in our lives and this country.”
“Shirley Hazzard” by Brigitta Olubas (November)
The Australian author Shirley Hazzard died in 2016 after publishing four novels (one of which won the National Book Award), and Jarrett said this “incisive and meticulously researched” biography that her fans have been waiting for does not disappoint. “Her biographer concentrates on the connection and interplay between her life and her work,” Jarrett said. “For fans of [Hazzard’s] prose, which has been described as incandescent, this biography will reveal her influences and emotional underpinnings of her work.”
“A Book of Days” by Patti Smith (November)
Describing it as another great gift book, Jarrett recommended this visual collection of days from the influential author and singer-songwriter. In 2018, Smith began posting a collection of more than 365 photos to her Instagram account, providing regular snapshots and insight into her life. “A Book of Days” provides readers with that collection of images and Smith’s reflections over the course of a year. “After the initial posts in 2018, she continued to post photos of all aspects of her daily life, what she was reading, her kids, her cars, the places she was traveling to,” Jarrett said. “It’s been called an inspirational map of her unique life.”
Editor’s note: John Henry, who owns Boston Globe Media Partners, is also a part-owner of Harvard Book Store.
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