My favourite books of 2022: fiction

It’s been an interesting year for me for reading. As well as a lot of new and upcoming books, many of which did not make the cut for these lists, I read a lot of horror (including a month of it in October) and plenty of poetry. So much of the poetry was good that I’ve split up fiction and poetry into two different ‘best of 2022’ lists, so we’ll start with fiction. 

A lot of fiction I read this year was good, but not so good as to be one of my top books, so it is quite a brief list this year. Not only that, but two of them aren’t actually from 2022, only first published in the UK in 2022, which I’ve decided to count on a whim. Links in titles to full reviews where I’ve written them.

  • Nevada by Imogen Binnie – I’m counting the UK publication this year as making it released in 2022, though clearly it’s not from 2022. I actually read it right at the start of the year, before this rerelease, but still. Classic trans roadtrip novel.
  • Portrait of a Thief by Grace D. Li – This book was just very fun and I thought highly of it for that, plus it’s basically a genre of a film I enjoy. Chinese-American students do heists to steal artefacts and have various drama along the way. Ridiculous but great to read.
  • The Arena of the Unwell by Liam Konemann – A coming-of-age novel about male mental health and queerness in the grimy indie music underbelly that retains humour whilst looking at a toxic relationship and the realities of NHS cuts.
  • Shredded: A Sports and Fitness Body Horror Anthology ed. by Eric Raglin – Such a fresh way of viewing both body horror and the whole world of fitness, with a really diverse set of sports, characters, and takes on the brief. There was a lot around who can find places within sports and fitness (and what kinds of bodies), which felt like the perfect use of body horror.
  • Summer Fun by Jeanne Thornton – Truly an epic. Another one where I’m counting the UK publication as making it a 2022 book, this is a complex tale of a trans woman obsessed with 60s band the Get Happiness and their mysterious leader B—. Fascinating look at music, creativity, self, and constructing stories and histories.

Scream by Michael J. Seidlinger

Scream is an Object Lessons book which explores screaming, combining personal essay elements with a look at the variety of screams in the world, from fear to joy to catharsis. Seidlinger’s own music taste and growing up provide ways into some of the discussions, like alternative music and rollercoasters, and other elements focus on pop culture like Munch’s The Scream and film screams.

The Object Lessons series always interesting for such short books can combine, in different amounts, personal and analytical, with authors using their own experiences to explore the titular concept in each case. This one definitely appealed to me and it contains some of the things I expected—like the Scream films and fear—but also other elements I wouldn’t’ve guessed. I enjoyed the discussion of musical genres that use screaming, as I remember some of the 2000s fads for nu-metal and screamo and how the screaming element felt divisive, and I learnt about the different styles of scream-related singing. Scream has a lot of personal essay elements and it was very interesting to think about how these various scream-related things could say a lot about feeling out of place or alternative when growing up.

Extinction Hymns by Eric Raglin

Extinction Hymns is a collection of horror fiction that explores weirdness, extinction, and humanity. There’s a huge range of stories in the book, from a monstrous angel helping a woman with drug addiction to killing Nazis in the death metal scene with magic (and many with less extreme summaries), but there’s a common look at how we treat other people and the planet, as the title of the collection might suggest.

I really enjoyed the variety of the collection, with a lot of fresh concepts, and I never knew where the next story would take me. Some are obviously horror takes on things—like ‘A Most Bulbous Congregation’ and conversion therapy or ‘The Last of Her Kind’ and preservation of species—and I really enjoyed these, which all had different vibes but said some interesting things whilst having some horrifying imagery. Some of the other stories were more focused on weirdness, on unnerving things and strange situations. Stories like ‘Floaters’ and ‘Boning’ combine violence with sad medical concepts and leave you with things to think about.

As with any short story collection, there’s some that jump out and others which blend in more, but Extinction Hymns is a collection with variety that offers a look at some of the darker, weirder sides of life. Having already read Raglin’s ”Til the Sun Wheel Turns No More’ in Antifa Splatterpunk, I was looking forward to this book, and it didn’t disappoint.

Kerf by Gareth Farmer

Kerf is a poetry collection that explores woodworking and craft, autism, and language, often together, and is intercut with images of notebook pages and wooden crafts. Farmer’s thoughtful introduction ‘Kerf. A Brief Excursus’ sets up the book—I particularly enjoyed how the term ‘kerf’ was explored and then potential metaphors dissected. Some of my favourite poems from the collection are ‘And, Now What?’ with its repeated question and movement towards actuality, ‘Contra Expressivities’ for its thoughts and formatting, and ‘Sssssssstiiiiimye’ for the way it enacts experience and sibilance.

The collection seems to close with the longer poem ‘What’s That: Instead of Ego’ which moves through various phases to explore autism and woodworking craft hand-in-hand, though coming after this is both the ‘Glossary of Woodworking Terms and Concepts used in Kerf‘ and Further Reading. The Glossary was weirdly one of my favourite parts of the book, full of wit and offhand side notes that sit nicely alongside the linguistic cleverness and exploration of the poems that come previous. At times I became lost amongst the woodworking and theoretical terms in the collection, but I enjoyed finding my way back.

Now Go: On Grief and Studio Ghibli by Karl Thomas Smith

Now Go is another of 404 Ink’s Inklings series and this one looks at ideas of grief within the animated films of Studio Ghibli. Covering not only traditional ideas of grief and death, but also considering grief in terms of capitalism and climate crisis, Karl Thomas Smith delves into what these films might say about grief and, most importantly, how there is hope and future within grief.

From the beautiful No-Face pixel art on the cover, this is a book that is filled with love for these films, and their often complex messages hidden beneath the visual beauty that has made many of them so famous. The comparison between Totoro and No-Face in terms of their similarities and differences was very interesting, as was the discussion of the kinds of grief you see in Kiki’s Delivery Service as something more related to capitalism and society. The book gives different lenses to view these films, some of which people may have already considered and others that may be new. There’s a lot to think about from Now Go despite being in such a bitesized package, and it’s a great book for anyone who not only likes Studio Ghibli films, but likes the fact that they are varied and ambiguous.

Reluctant Immortals by Gwendolyn Kiste

Reluctant Immortals is a novel about female characters fighting to take control of their narrative, after living long beyond their pages. Lucy Westenra, famed victim of Dracula, and Bertha ‘Bee’ Mason, Mr Rochester’s first wife, are now living in Los Angeles. It’s the 1960s and whilst everything around them is hippies and the Vietnam War, they are caught up in their own nightmares, remembering their pasts and the monsters that held them captive. When Dracula and Mr Rochester both appear in San Francisco, it seems another face-off is coming, and they’re not just saving themselves, but other women who have been preyed on by these famous figures.

The concept of this book is undeniably ridiculous, and it is a romp of a horror novel, set amongst the unlikely backdrop of California (more Lost Boys than Dracula) and featuring a real twist on the Gothic novel. Told from Lucy’s point of view, the book follows a fast-paced narrative as Lucy and Bee attempt to thwart Dracula’s plans to return to full strength, stop Rochester collecting women at his new mansion, and find ways of living that don’t revolve around these men. It’s all pretty wild, but fun, especially for people who enjoy books that play with existing characters and tropes.

However, the characters themselves didn’t quite work for me, and you find yourself wondering why these two stories and these two characters combined. Bee in particular was an interesting choice to do a feminist reclaiming of seeing as Wide Sargasso Sea exists and this is very different to that (and that book was published the year before Reluctant Immortals is set). Perhaps having a split point of view between her and Lucy might’ve given her more of a clear character, as you only see her through Lucy’s point of view. I also don’t really know why it’s set in California, other than the film connection, though I do like the anachronistic time period for these characters to be battling, as I appreciate when vampire fiction moves from a historical period that has more of a gothic vampire aesthetic to one that is quite different.

Overall, this is a good book to not question too much, but to instead see it as a retelling that plays around with genre and character to focus on female empowerment. It wasn’t quite the horror novel I was expecting, but it was a wild ride.

Hide by Kiersten White

Hide is a horror novel about a game of hide and seek with very high stakes, set in an abandoned amusement park. Mack has nothing, so when she has the chance to take part in a week-long game of hide and seek in an abandoned theme park to win prize money, she takes that opportunity. Well, that, and she has a history of hiding. As she meets her fellow competitors, she knows she’s not there to make friends, but when it seems less of a fun competition and more of a fight for survival, Mack might have to work with other people if she wants to get out alive.

The concept of the book is an obvious draw, with the setting a memorable one and hide-and-seek being a great horror concept. The opening sets up Mack’s creepy backstory, which drives her character throughout, and then you slowly meet the other competitors and watch as they begin the competition. The first few days and nights of the competition are particularly tense and I felt a real ominous sense before you fully knew what was going on. The twist won’t be to everyone’s tastes as the book becomes more supernatural horror, but I’d already expected that and I quite like how it plays out, a combination of human and otherworldly threat.

The writing can be a bit confusing as it changes perspectives quickly and once Mack starts the competition there’s a lot of characters for a while, but it wasn’t so much that I couldn’t keep track of what was going on, and it was fairly typical for some horror books that also try and cram in too many perspectives to build up tension. There’s ambiguity and not everything goes somewhere, but Hide is a fun horror novel with a good setting and an ominous atmosphere for the set up that turns into a fairly exciting narrative to end.

Yo-yo Heart by Laura Doyle Péan

Translated and introduced by Stuart Bell

Yo-yo Heart is a poetry collection that tells the story of the aftermath of heartbreak, a personal diary after a split with a girlfriend. Split into five ‘days’ that correspond to phases in the grief and emotion of the narrator, the poems chart how everyday moments intersect with emotion and also explore the political behind such grief. Laura Doyle Péan opens the collection with a prologue about the process of survival, healing and vulnerability, ending with the memorable manifesto “allowing oneself to be vulnerable / is a political act” and they suffuse this throughout the book.

The collection is translated from Quebec French and the translator, Stuart Bell, also introduces the book to discuss the translation and the poetry itself. I particularly appreciated the discussion of some of the original French and where it has specifically Canadian and political elements, meaning that as I was reading I could have a sense of the original text lingering underneath even without having it on the page. There’s also short explanations of key pop culture references, which poetry collections have been doing more and more, and in this instance it allows for some Canadian references to be explained for readers from other countries.

The short length and powerful imagery of the poems as they move through each section makes this a hard-hitting collection, showing how healing mental processes take time even as the parts claim to be individual days. The use of space in the collection, both around words and also poems, adds to this, as well as to the initial isolation of the break up. The way images are expressed (in translation, of course) brings wit and sadness, for example in lines like “cooking soothes Ricardo tells me / i cut off the carrot ends / just like you have / all contact”.

Day 3 has some particularly memorable elements, starting with the poem containing the collection’s title and having a poem that explores grief for the personal whilst political injustice, especially borders and imprisonment, go on in the world. The way that the entire collection, not only through this poem, emphasises that personal and societal sadnesses occur at the same time and it can be a political act to be able to express yourself is a highlight of the book. Also in Day 3 is another of my favourite set of lines in the collection, “in pastel gel pen I have written / invitation cards / to all my demons / to the monsters under my bed / where I’m going / you are going too”.

Yo-yo Heart is a book that will stay with me for a while, thanks to the use of sparse imagery, emotion, space, and politics throughout a narrative of heartbreak and slow healing. It is in a style I love and I really enjoy collections that tell a full story using any style of poetry.

Idol, Burning by Rin Usami

Idol, Burning is a novella about a Japanese high school student whose obsession with a celebrity sustains her until he is accused of hitting a fan. Akari struggles at school, but she is dedicated to her oshi, Masaki Ueno, who is part of pop group Maza Maza. She runs a successful blog about him, is part of his fan club, and buys all of his merchandise. When news comes out that he has hit a fan and he faces backlash online, Akari’s obsession is threatened.

This short book, punctuated by blog posts and internet comments, explores teenage obsession and fandom culture, particularly in the Japanese idol world. From Akari’s perspective, the narrative combines her obsessive following of Masaki with what is going on in her life and her difficulties with school and work, especially as she devotes her time and energy to being a fan. The celebrity scandal element is never fully explained, as Akari never really knows what happened, which means the novella is centred much more around the experience of being obsessed, rather than reality, and you get the sense of Akari’s isolation from anything outside of her passion. 

As the book is short, there’s not a huge amount of plot (and the ending isn’t as dramatic as I expected), but it really focuses in Akari herself and it’s an interesting consideration of teenage experience versus how it might seem from the outside.

Sewer by Jessica Leigh Hester

Sewer is another book in the Object Lessons series, exploring sewers as they impact our daily lives though mostly unseen and considering what we should do to improve them for the future. Rather than focusing just on the physical sewers, the book also looks a lot at blockages like fatbergs and wet wipes and considers what human consumption and use does to these practical structures.

The Object Lessons series is always, as far as I’ve seen from the ones I’ve read, interesting in some way, with each book taking a particular direction with the object in question. Though Sewer cites Robert Macfarlane’s Underland, this book doesn’t take that approach of focusing on the physical underground spaces in our imaginations and reality, but considers sewers in their sanitation purpose and what happens when they are blocked, both in terms of the people who work in them and what it is that causes those blockages. Not necessarily a particularly savoury topic for a book, but it was certainly something different and it’s useful for thinking about what you personally put down the drain and how your actions are part of a collective whole (which is basically the message of the book).