From time-honoured classics, to graphic novels, to contemporary fiction. Roaring Stories staff name their favourite reads of 2022.
The Half Life of Valery K
My favourite novel of 2022 is Natasha Pulley’s The Half Life of Valery K. A few customers recommended this to me and I’m glad they did. Thanks! I don’t want to talk about the book too much for fear of spoilers but from the outset I found myself in the world that Pulley created – as if I’d walked into a room where a conversation was in full flow. In that instant of momentary dislocation, the environment she’s created seemed to envelop me as if from then on I was in a virtual reality game with adventure and surprise and suspense and mystery on every page. A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life by George Saunders (which I’m currently halfway through) is my favourite non-fiction read of the year as it’s changed the way I look at writing and reading in a manner I didn’t think possible.
The Red Arrow
I’m choosing two novels that I loved this year, a classic and a new release. Kindred by Octavia Butler was first published in 1979 but still feels contemporary. The protagonist is a young African-American writer who one day is suddenly transported from ’70s California to the pre-Civil War South. She continues to slip between the present and past, encountering distant ancestors which she must save in order to exist. It’s brutal, as you would expect a book centred around slavery to be, but also action-packed from the first opening lines: ‘I lost an arm on my last trip home. My left arm. And I lost about a year of my life and much of the comfort and security I had not valued until it was gone.’ This is a feminist, sci-fi classic like no other.
The Red Arrow by William Brewer is an experimental and impressive debut. Like Kindred, the protagonist is a young writer and there’s a bit of time bending happening here too. I suspect the book didn’t received the attention it deserved because it’s a difficult one to describe in only a few sentences. I’m not going to try and summarise the plot here either but I will quote the author Nathan Hill who I think summed it up perfectly when he said, ‘The Red Arrow feels like a book that’s gently tapping on your brain from a different dimension. It’s an astonishing portrait of a distressed mind searching for peace and hope and harmony, and finding it in the most sublime of places. Deeply insightful and often hilarious, it’s a dazzling head-trip of a novel, and a profound delight.’
Small Things Like These
Picking my favourite and best book of any one year is always rather difficult. Some books I love right from the very first page, yet somehow they don’t always stay with me as much as I think they will as the year rolls on. Others I enjoy, but it is only as time passes that their true beauty develops. A few, happily, do both.
The Sun Walks Down by Fiona McFarlane is one of those stories that I adored from the first. With its truly lush storytelling, wonderfully drawn characters, plus the added majesty of the Ikara-Flinders Ranges and McFarlane’s perceptive, sensitive approach to colonial history, I have been raving about this book for several months.
Robbie Arnott is one of my favourite authors; he keeps getting better and better with each book. Limberlost is a coming-of-age story that is loosely based on one summer in his grandfather’s life at the end of WWII as he waits for news of his brothers fighting in the Pacific. Memories of that summer, as well as forward memories that reveal the man he becomes, swirl around each other as Arnott quietly, patiently draws out how one particular moment in time can be the emotional hinge of an entire life. Limberlost is one of those stories whose emotional impact lingers.
However, the story that impressed my socks off as I was reading it and has stayed with me all year, is the stunning, sensitive story Small Things Like These by Irish writer Claire Keegan. It celebrates a gentle, reluctant saviour in the form of Bill Furlong, a man who decides that the secret in plain view that nobody wants to talk about (Ireland’s Magdalene laundries) is actually worth making a fuss about, even if it means trouble for him and his family and his business. Rocking the boat does not come easily to him, but when such an obvious wrong is put in front of him, he finds he cannot ignore it any longer. Bill’s quiet courage has inspired me all year. With its Christmas setting, it is also the perfect book to read right now.
Matrix and Giovanni’s Room
Looking back on the books I’ve read this year, there are two that stand out as my favourites.
The first is Matrix by Lauren Groff, which I read and reviewed back in January. This was one of the most enjoyable reading experiences I had all year. Maybe also influenced by the time and place of reading (immersed in holiday mode, lounging on the South Coast sand), but certainly due to Groff’s gorgeous storytelling and unique voice. It’s a sweeping story, gaining momentum throughout the life of a 12th century abbess, Marie. It unravels themes of feminine power and relationships, and even though I read it months ago I still adore it!
On the other hand, during the most stressful assessment-ridden time of the year, I was drawn to a book that had been sitting on my shelf for a long time. Coming in at under 200 pages, Giovanni’s Room seemed the perfect book for my small pockets of reading time. I devoured it on buses, in queues, whenever I had a free moment. James Baldwin’s writing is both beautiful and blunt, exploring the repressed sexuality and masculinity of a young American man in 1950s Paris. It’s an essential read in the queer canon, ferocious and tragic, and I’m so glad I finally got around to reading it this year.
She and Her Cat
I have always been a fan of Makoto Shinkai’s animated works, and now there’s one in book form. She and Her Cat is a wonderful collection of four short stories, each about a woman at a low point in their life with their cat trying to help them through it. The stories show us different situations of isolation, mental illness and grief, while the cats provide hope, courage and wishes of happiness for their owners. The charming dual narration of cat and owner beautifully demonstrates the power of connections with others, and how much they can change our lives.
Reading parallel narratives like this one is so enjoyable for me because it makes the story world feel real and alive alongside the characters. Each tale is set in its own time and place, but they all overlap in one way or another, creating a timeline of connections between characters, places and events. The simplicity of the cats’ lives and thoughts is adorable, wanting happiness and strength for their owners but often not realising they’ve already provided it, sometimes in surprising ways. In summary, She and Her Cat is a short yet fun, heart-warming read about how in the hardest times, connections with others can make it a bit easier. Recommended for those who loved The Cat Who Saved Books and The Travelling Cat Chronicles.
Men I Trust
I got through a bunch of great graphic novels this year. Men I Trust by Tommi Parrish was a highlight; a layered study of “two not-always-healthy people attempting to make healthy connections in a disconnected world.” Parrish’s unique visual idiom – one amplifying bodies and their gestures, tactile and expressive – makes for a tender and nuanced exploration of two women building a complex intimacy while navigating the strain of loneliness and trauma. Parrish’s debut Perfect Hair, Lee Lai’s Stella Prize shortlisted Stone Fruit, and Sas Milledge’s Mamo were other favourite comics of mine from the year.
I’ve been a fan of Barbara Kingsolver since reading The Poisonwood Bible about twenty years ago. Her latest novel, Demon Copperhead, had me hooked from the first page. It’s a brilliant, funny and heartbreaking take on Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield. It’s told through the voice of Damon Fields, nicknamed Demon Copperhead for his red hair. He’s a lost boy, a whip-smart, witty narrator whose experiences of loss, domestic abuse, exploitation and addiction, and his yearning for love and family, make for an immersive and rewarding read.
Like Dickens, Kingsolver is a passionate advocate for social justice, and in this novel she tackles institutional poverty and the opioid crisis and the tragic impact they have on children. Demon’s story is harrowing in places, but it’s also life-affirming and joyful.
Bon and Lesley
It doesn’t happen too often, but sometimes while reading a book, I experience a painfully compassionate, embarrassingly boundless affinity for the voice which is sounding out to me from the page. Shocking me out of my sense of singularity, that voice resonates with some kind of truth I hold proudly in my kernel of self. Like I have made a secret little monument to my belief system, which I think nobody knows about or could understand, and that voice comes through and sounds the gong right at the very top.
Shaun Prescott has such a voice for me. I think it has something to do with how his storytelling is so plumb with the absurd, the wretched, and the darkly ironic. Bon and Lesley – Presoctt’s second novel following his breakout success of The Town – is a surreal, creepingly thrilling and eerily enveloping tale, set in a remote town of Newnes. It drifts along with the aimless day-to-day lives of four characters – two locals, and two who have abandoned their profoundly normal lives on an unknown compulsion by getting off a now un-functioning train. Plot-wise, there are great stretches where nothing much happens: they get up late, buy beers and food supplies for the day, agnoise over petty problems within the social dynamic. One hyper-earnest and boy-like local, Jack, tries to find portals in the woods; secret paths. His sullen and silent younger brother – a savant of the Internet, defiled by its secrets – is pursued by the ‘Colossal Man’, a huge and menacing figure who hides out in the foods. The epically disturbing sits cross-legged next to the utterly mundane, here, and I love it. I hardly know why.
If you think you may like this book, but want it confirmed, I recommend you listen to Prescott talking about it on Triple R’s Spring Passage. Don’t hit pause either until you hear him read one of my favourite passages, where Jack talks about the ‘beautiful road’.