If You Only Read 5 Books in 2022...
An annual list of recommended books based on what I read last year
I didn’t expect, without intention or preparation, that 2021 would be a year of a lot of reading. My reading goal for the year was 75 books, a slight increase on my general average target of 52, or one book a week. I knew I’d easily reach 52 because I always do. I figure 75 was reasonable. If I fell short, no worries.
As the year began to unfold, I had a strong start on a lot of the projects I had set intentions and goals and timelines for. Things were generally going well until the spring, when my mental health wore too thin and I found myself reassessing the notebook in which I’d recorded all my plots for 2021. As I scribbled various things off my to do list, I did so with gentleness, having started the year with the promise that I would not push myself. We are, after all, living through a pandemic during late stage capitalism at the point of no return for catastrophic climate change.
Being patient and kind with ourselves is essential.
Imagine my surprise then, as the middle the year approached, and I found myself finishing my 75th book. It was a true joy to still somehow have the energy and capacity for reading.
I’ve heard a lot from other normally voracious readers, of how the impact of the ongoing pandemic is effecting their ability to read. It’s hard to focus on words, to follow a story, to find the time to sit and be still with a book. For a lot of my friends, the struggle to read feels like a failure or a let down.
In writing my annual book review blog, I took this into account. As ever, these recommendations are about challenging the idea that we should read certain books or a certain number of books. Reading is something we should do for pleasure—whether it’s the pleasure of escape and fantasy, the pleasure of discovery and learning, or the pleasure of finding community and being reflected on the page. Yet, finding the right book to touch on what it is we need at any given time can be incredibly challenging.
This year, I’m offering up 20 book suggestions based on the 110 books I read in 2021, broken into fiction, YA fiction, memoir and non-fiction. Each recommendation is based on the need they filled for me at the time, with the hope that they will fill something similar for you, be it a need for understanding others, for escaping into a fantasy, or for feeling less alone. Obviously this is subjective, but I hope, if you only read five books this year, maybe just one of them will be found on this list.
The Galaxy and the Ground Within by Becky Chambers
This is the last installation in Becky Chambers’ Wayfarer series. I am very sad that she isn’t planning more in this universe, as I am as committed to it as I am to Terry Pratchett’s Discworld and would absolutely read dozens of books in the super queer, emotionally-aware future she has created. That being said, this is a solid final installment and it gave me a damn good reason to re-read the other three1 books.
I recommend this as a cozy, comfy, heartening read that might even make you laugh a little, and as an escape from humans entirely, if that’s what you need.
This is the second time a book by Barbara Kingsolver has made my end-of-year recommendations. Yet, despite how much I enjoyed The Poisonwood Bible, I hadn’t sought out any of her other books again until 2021. Like The Poisonwood Bible, The Lacuna is a story that follows a fictional character through their entire life as a way to explore a particular social/cultural time. I have wondered what to call this kind of book, and finally have a phrase for it from one of my fellow writers: The Forrest Gump Effect.
Unlike Forrest Gump, The Lacuna takes a far more critical and realistic look at the United States Government’s fear-mongering tactics, in this case specific to the persecution of anyone remotely socialist during the McCarthy era. It also features Frida Kahlo prominently throughout, which is always a bonus as far as I’m concerned.
I recommend this for fans of Frida Kahlo and folks who appreciate a solidly good story alongside cultural context for current events.2
Winter’s Orbit by Everina Maxwell
My fellow writer Lauren gushed and gushed about this book, so I bought a copy and I am SO GLAD I did. Think Ann Lecke’s Ancillary series but with the politics taking a back seat to a queer relationship. Everina Maxwell brilliantly captures what it’s like to rebuild trust and enter into a new relationship after an abusive one. Also, the way Maxwell plays with gender in this book is super delightful. There are various cultures, each with different ways of conveying gender, so gender markers change depending on the character perspective. They are also entirely based on clothing or accessories. GENITALS NEVER COME INTO IT. I had this moment about halfway through the book where I realised I had not once thought about what anyone’s genitals looked like because it doesn’t matter in the world Maxwell has created. A future I can get behind.
I recommend this if you’re into speculative fiction and you also love the contemporary sort of fiction built on character growth. Also, very good queer content.
I recommend this if you enjoy portal fantasy and are looking to be surprised.
I took a class called ‘Reading and Writing Disability’ with Emily Rapp Black, and this was one of the books she shared in the reading list she gave us. It follows three different narrators, who all seem entirely disconnected, one of whom has cystic fibrosis. The story that unfolds is fascinating and compelling, as well as being based on some truth that I won’t share here, so I don’t spoil it. I will say, I super appreciate that the character of Via Anouk is not presented as a disabled trope character. She is not inspiration for someone else’s story, nor a burden to be overcome. She is a fully formed character with interests and desires, and the day-to-day texture of how her illness impacts her life is just there, making me suspect the author has direct lived experience with CF or at least had solid sensitivity reading involved in the process of writing the book.
I recommend this if you find medical history interesting and also enjoy rich, well written characters.
Okay, I’m cheating a bit here. This isn’t one book but six. They’re novellas, though, more than novels, and because of their nature, choosing one just seems silly. That being said, I particularly enjoyed Down Among the Sticks and Bones and In An Absent Dream. Seanan McGuire has created a wonderful universe of portal fantasy populated by all the possible worlds you might want to visit and a cast of characters relatable to anyone who was labeled a freak or weirdo as a child and wondered why our peers thoughts such terms would be insulting.
I recommend this for anyone who has ever felt like books make better companions than people, and/or for anyone who just really, really, really would like a break from our current reality.
Get a Life, Chloe Brown by Talia Hibbert
Generally, romance is not a genre I go for. Especially if it’s a cishet romance. But after having this book suggested to me by several people whose opinions I hold in high regard, I figured I should give it a go. It was suggested to me predominantly because this book has wonderful disabled representation, so that’s what I went in with. What I didn’t expect was to also find amazing character growth based on two people recognizing the wounds they carry, TALKING ABOUT THEM HONESTLY AND COMMITTING TO GROWING TOGETHER. That, and the sex scenes? Very good—OMG, I didn’t not expect to enjoy them because previously mentioned cishet content, but Talia Hibbert obviously knows a thing or two about how to accurately write people who are super into each other and get a lot of enjoyment out of making their partner feel good.
I recommend this for anyone looking for a fabulous, fresh, and often very funny love story. Extra recommendation for anyone seeking to challenge ableist ideas about dating, relationships, and pleasure.
Circe by Madeline Miller
A retelling of Circe, pretty much the most badass witch in Greek mythology. Full of fun cameos from the various gods, this book has all the petty drama and godly shenanigans you would expect. Madeline Miller has brilliantly threaded together a lot of wonderful, fascinating stories. I intentionally made this book last for two weeks because it was so fun and entertaining.
I recommend this if you love a powerful witch and are wanting some solid escapism.
Black Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse
This is another book recommended to me repeatedly. I bought a copy early in 2021, but didn’t get around to reading it until December. It’s a bit of a thicker book, so I thought it might be the last I’d read in the year. I was wrong. Like N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth Trilogy, Black Sun pulled me in with brilliant world building and compelling characters so fast, I ended up reading this book in just three days. I immediately went in hunt for the second one, since this book is very much Part One of two, only to learn that the next installation won’t be released until April 2022. I am SO excited for that release and cannot wait to find out where Rebecca Roanhorse takes the story.
I love that the characters are truly ambiguous—there are no villains or heroes. They are as complex and nuanced as an actual person, while also having some excellent magical realism worked in for the fantasy setting. My favourite character is the very cool pansexual seawitch ship’s captain. What is NOT to love about that?
I recommend this if you enjoy N.K. Jemisin and Octavia Butler.
Some of the best books I have ever read, that I recommend to almost everyone, are YA Fiction—from Terry Pratchett’s Tiffany Aching books to The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. As ever, I include YA in my recommendations with the disclaimer that I do not believe a good book can be restricted to a particular age group. Anyone can enjoy these books, regardless of age.
Historical fiction set during the uprising and protests that followed the acquittal of the cops who violently beat Rodney King on camera in the 90’s. This brilliant narrative hits the beats of a coming of age story while also going into depth on the intersections of class, race, and gender through the experience of the protagonist. The dynamics of the friend group and extended family are so brilliantly conveyed, creating a strong sense of place and also capturing how differently individuals within a broad community are impacted by a historical event.
I recommend this for anyone with an anti-racist practice and/or anyone who enjoys Angie Thomas and Nic Stone’s writing.
The Black Flamingo by Dean Atta
Rarely will I read a book written in verse, but once again, this book just kept coming up in conversations and in recommendations. I am so glad I read it. Dean Atta captures the feeling of finding community through drag, and the complexity of any queer identity. This gave me nostalgia for my drag days, when I would perform monthly with the Fake Mustache Drag King Troupe. I also super appreciate a book set in the UK that highlights how white supremacy is as much of an issue in other countries as it is in the U.S.
I recommend this for anyone missing your found family and the gift of gathering regularly in amazing queer spaces.
The Falling in Love Montage by Ciara Smyth
On the surface, this book might sound a bit trite: Two young women who just graduated and are on the cusp of adulthood agree to have a no-strings attached summer romance with romance movie trope themed dates. This makes for a genius plot device for a protagonist who does some stellar emotional growth as she learns to accept that change is inevitable and not a reason to not live your life. This book made me laugh out loud, made me cry, and also made me squirm with delight because of the love of thick thighs. That will make sense if you read it.
I recommend this if you love a good romance OR if you find romance trite and are up for being pleasantly surprised.
This collection of humourous and insightful stories from Harriet McBryde Johnson’s life is absolutely charming. It made me laugh a lot, many times. McBryde Johnson is an incredibly skillful storyteller. This is a book you could enjoy over a few weeks or months or even the course of a whole year.
I recommend this book if you are looking to be delighted. Also for anyone unlearning ableism whether you are disabled or abled.
On the one hand, it’s absurd it took me this long to finally read something by Audre Lorde. On the other hand, I regret nothing because this book was life giving for me in the ongoing stress of the pandemic. Bless Lorde for leaving this fabulous memoir of queer awakening. I deliberately took my time with this book, savouring it like I would a nourishing and perfect meal of all my favourite ingredients.
I recommend this book as a beacon of queer, black, gender-nonconforming liberation.
The Still Point of a Turning World by Emily Rapp Black
While this is a memoir, it reads more like a philosophical reflection. I would compare reading this book to listening to a song or album that you know will help you to cry. It’s an honest reflection on grief, loss, and impermanence, as well as how our sense of identity is influenced by who we love and how we show that love.
I recommend this book if you are numbing out and want something to crack you open to let the light in.
This collection of essays compiled by Alice Wong is a much-needed offering that uplifts the variation and diversity of the Disability community. Each essay includes content warnings, so you know what to expect and can opt out of anything you may not be feeling up to reading.
I recommend this book if you are seeking solidarity and community as a disabled person, and for anyone working to challenge and unlearn ableism.
Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America by Ijeoma Oluo
I shared about how much this book helped me on January 6th, 2021. It really was a reading of the legacy (with citations!) of white male violence, as more white male violence was unfolding. And yes, I know that isn’t wasn’t *just* white cis men who stormed the United States Capital in an attempted coup, but that is absolutely a distraction from the reality that white cis men commit violent crimes3 more than any other demographic.
I recommend this book for anyone who seeks validation in a culture that loves to treat suppressed groups like a monolith and continuously gives white cis het men a pass because that how white supremacy and patriarchy work.
My favourite thing about this book is that it gave me so many talking points on how oppressive systems function. Joanna Russ even acknowledges the lack of awareness she had about race while being quite aware of class, and points out how the script of suppression can and will be applied to any group deemed “other” by the status quo. This book has also helped my own writing immensely, as I think a lot about who gets to tell what stories and the role of the writer in ensuring that the stories we tell that are not our own are informed by the people who live them. One suggestion, skip the foreword. It’s…not great.
I recommend this book if you want to better understand and notice the intertwined ways white supremacy, cisheteropatriarchy, ableism and classism function in how narratives and who gets to tell them are talked about.
This book kept coming up again and again in conversations with my queer kin. Since one of my characters in Gendervexed is aromantic and ace, I figured reading it would be helpful for writing a fully fleshed out character. I did not expect this book to so entirely challenge a ridiculous number of things I didn’t even realise I believed about sexuality and sex.
I recommend this for ace and/or aromantic folks seeking validation, community, and solidarity, and for allo folks to consider our relationship to sex and the influence of society on our expectations and behaviours.
Thomas King’s wry and witty humour shines in what is a pretty tough read. King’s writing is genuinely spicy in places, which serves the overall message I got from the book: Colonialism is alive and well, this is it’s legacy, and here are some things you can do about it. Each chapter has a lot to chew on, so this is one of those books that could be read over time, one chapter at a time. The nature of King’s writing gives it a conversational feel, which makes it less dense than something like An Indigenous People’s History of the United States.
I recommend this book to anyone who find Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s work too academic, but who wants a better understanding of the Indigenous people and Nations of Turtle Island, past and present.
If you enjoyed this post, I’ve been doing these annual book suggestions blogs for some years now!
If you want to read all four of these books, I suggest starting with the first, A Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, but that the other three can be read in any order you like.
What really stands out for me about this, is the importance of understanding how a cultural shift can change whether someone is considered a threat or not, without a person ever changing their beliefs or behaviours. The most salient example these days is the fear mongering about anti-fascists, by labeling them “AntiFa”, claiming it is somehow an organized effort rather than decent human beings opposed to fascism (I presume and hope you are Antifa, because if you aren’t, you’re a fascist, and that is a problem), and taking steps to employ the police state against anyone who demonstrates against fascism by painting being against fascism as being somehow a terrorist.
These are just a few references for this statement. It’s not hard to find them. I genuinely don’t even feel like I should cite this because it seems incredibly obvious to me as a person living in the world, particularly in a culturally white supremacist and patriarchal part of the world. The irony is, because it’s white supremacist and patriarchal, someone will demand I offer proof, statistic, DATA! How very DARE I say such a thing without backing it up. As if it’s not obvious for anyone observing. Alas. This is how we know these systems still rule the day. Defenders of them demand receipts, and so I deliver…not that anyone demanding receipts is going to change their mind, of course. These studies continue to come out en masse and the willfully ignorant plow forward. *Beleaguered sigh* :
Misrepresentations of Lone Shooters by Cynthia M. Frisby https://www.scirp.org/journal/paperinformation.aspx?paperid=77354
Simple truth is Canada’s mass shooters are usually white and Canadian-born https://www.cbc.ca/news/opinion/canadian-mass-murders-1.3958772
Number of mass shootings in the United States between 1982 and November 2021, by shooter's race or ethnicity By statista https://www.statista.com/statistics/476456/mass-shootings-in-the-us-by-shooter-s-race/
US Department of Justice report on family violence (pg 2, 72% white male perpetrators) https://bjs.ojp.gov/content/pub/pdf/fvs03.pdf
Canadian Women’s Foundation Facts on Gender-Based Violence https://canadianwomen.org/the-facts/gender-based-violence/
Men who murder their families, paper by Bernie Auchter https://www.ojp.gov/pdffiles1/nij/230412.pdf