It is the end of 2022. Here, as always, is a brief summary of the books I read this year, organised (inadequately) by geography and genre, and even more inadequately, by a rough rating system. This year was marked by a foray into contemporary Japanese literature (as I was traveling to that country) – in particular, Japanese crime fiction, which has a rather distinct and compelling identity of its own. There was also a fairly heavy dose of science fiction, which – as you’ll see – was a bit patchy. Read on!
A. Fiction: Africa
- Khadija Abdalla Bajaber, The House of Rust (****): A little difficult to classify, but this Kenyan tale about a girl, her father, a talking cat, and assorted sea demons is perhaps closest to magical realism. Lyrical and atmospheric prose, and an unforgettable protagonist. This one won the inaugural Ursula K. Le Guin prize later in the year.
- Okwiri Oduor, Things They Lost (****): Also from Kenya, Things They Lost is a story at the interstices of the human and spirit worlds, and centred around the relationship between a daughter and her mother. It’s loose, non-linear structure is a bit similar to House of Rust, and there are deeper similarities as well, in style and form.
- Ayodele Olofintuade, Swallow (****): One of my stand-out reads of the year. Swallow is a queer historical fiction/fantasy novel, set in early-19th century Nigeria. It follows the intertwined stories of two women – Efunsetan Aniwura and Efunporonye – who are due to be married to each other, before an act of violence by Efunsetan’s brother (at the instigation of his Christian missionary teacher) disrupts the marriage, and sends them on separate paths: Efunsetan to the city of Abeokuta, where she must make her own place amongst feuding warlords, and Efunporonye to a loveless marriage which she must nonetheless negotiate to wield power of her own. In the backdrop is the steadily rising power of the British Empire, an early prelude to years of colonial domination. By the way, this one’s published locally – by the Nigerian publisher, Masobe Books.
- NoViolet Bulawayo, Glory (****): The story of post-colonial Zimbabwe, except that it’s all animals instead of human beings. Parts of it felt a little on the nose – the names of historical massacres, for example, were unchanged – but it was the distancing device of using animals as protagonists that allowed Bulawayo to be so direct, without losing the narrative spirit.
B. Fiction: Japan
- Keigo Higashino, The Devotion of Suspect X (*****): My introduction to contemporary Japanese fiction was through Keigo Higashino’s crime novel, which was mesmerising (one of those rare books that I read literally in a single sitting, from 8PM to 3AM). Unlike other crime novels, in The Devotion of Suspect X, the reader is privy to the murder, how it happens, and who commits it – and it’s what comes after (including the psychology of the various individuals involved) that makes it so thrilling. The only slight complaint is that the last two pages of the book are a bit of a let-down, the final ending a little un-earned.
- Keigo Higashino, The Silent Parade (****): My second Higashino – you can tell how much I enjoyed the first! Didn’t quite hit the same heights (to be fair, it would be difficult to!), but still so very gripping – Higashino does psychology so very well.
- Yoko Tawada, The Emissary (***): A whimsical, post-apocalyptic climate fiction novel where childhood and old age are reversed; fascinating in parts, but didn’t quite hang together for me.
- Toshikazu Kawaguchi, Before the Coffee Gets Cold (***): Brilliant set of premises, innovative shifts in point of view, and then let down by the actual stories being so milquetoast. Almost makes you feel like grabbing the author and shaking them for wasting such good ideas.
- Seishi Yokomizo, The Honjin Murders (*****): More Japense crime fiction – this time, a classic locked-room murder mystery. One of the most stunning reveals I’ve ever read.
- Seishi Yokomizo, The Village of Eight Graves (****): Same author. This one was more of a thriller than a murder mystery. Beautifully plotted and paced, but there’s a whiff of misogyny running through it that’s a little hard to overlook
- Hiromi Kawakami, Strange Weather in Tokyo (****): A soft and moving – but slightly inconsistent – slice-of-life story about loneliness, late-stage love, and belonging.
- Yukio Mishima, Thirst for Love (***): Mishima’s portrayal of a one-sided love that cannot even make itself unintelligible because of differences in social class is sharp, and with many memorable lines and acute observations about both human beings and social relations – but is let down by an unsatisfactory, and *very* un-earned ending.
C. Fiction: South Asia
- Annie Zaidi, City of Incident (****): A very enjoyable set of twelve interconnected vignettes, set along the railway line in an unnamed city, but which is quite evidently Bombay. I reviewed it for The Hindu.
- Intizar Hussain, Day and Dastaan (***): I don’t know if it was the translation, or something else, but I just couldn’t get going with this one – although I did find passages in Dastaan quite beautiful.
- Shehan Karunatilaka, The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida (*****): Arguably my best read of the year. A story old from the perspective of a murdered Sri Lankan photographer of the Civil War, who is stumbling through an afterlife-y limbo, trying to find out who is responsible for his murder. Through his eyes, as through a mirror darkly, we see the violence, the brutality, and the absurdity of the War. Reminiscent in parts of Eka Kurniawan’s Beauty is a Wound, but very much its own novel: its style – humorous, irreverent, light as breath on glass – makes its subject even more searing and haunting than it already is.
- Amy Herzog, After the Revolution (****): I saw a theatrical performance of this play in Hamburg, and then read the play itself. Great on family relations; not so great on its occasional caricatures of the left.
E. Genre: Fantasy
- Shelley Parker-Chan, She Who Became the Sun (****): One of the most talked-about fantasy novels of 2021, it swept quite a few awards this year. An enjoyable historical fantasy loosely modelled on 13th century Imperial Chinese and Mongol history.
- Marlon James, Moon Witch, Spider King (****): This series is writing fantasy against the grain, in a very unique way; the flip side is that it demands a lot from the reader. I wrote a fairly detailed review in Strange Horizons.
- Terry Pratchett, Guards! Guards! (****): Coming rather late in life to Pratchett – this is only my third – but better late than never! It was interesting to see Vimes and Vetinari as near first-drafts of their later fully developed selves, in this novel.
F. Genre: Science fiction
- Saad Hossain, Cyber Mage (****): Final Fantasy, climate change, djinns, a near-future Dhaka, topped off with a generous helping of Snark – Hossain is as uniquely entertaining as ever. Reviewed here.
- Tade Thompson, Far From the Light of Heaven (****): A locked-room murder mystery in space from a very accomplished writer; definitely had its moments, but not all of it came together for me.
- Adam Roberts, The This (****): Near-future SF dealing with the intersection of social media and the hive mind, from a reliably, well, reliable writer.
- SJ Morden, The Flight of the Aphrodite (****): One of the few hard-SF novels I read this year; the book was a good one, but I suspect I no longer enjoy that sub-genre so much.
- Ryka Aoki, Light from Uncommon Stars (N/A): A rare DNF (at p. 90). i could not get into this one at all, because everything about it – from the politics to the aesthetic to the geography to the pop culture references – is so heavily *American*, and the narrative tension and dramatic moments are so embedded in that American-ness, that there just did not seem a way in for a reader who isn’t equally steeped in that context.
- Alastair Reynolds, Inhibitor Phase (*****): Oh my gosh, Alastair Reynolds. Superb SF. Filled with wonder, awe, and existential political stakes. Everything you want from the genre.
- Alastair Reynolds, Eversion (****): This was different Reynolds – more time-loops, less space opera, but still great. Review forthcoming in Interzone.
- Jo Harkin, Tell Me An Ending (*****): This only came across my radar because of the Run Along the Shelves Blog, and I’m glad I did – Tell Me An Ending is amongst the best SF novels I read in 2022. It is among the most subtle and sensitive exploration of memory – and the connection between memory and identity – that you will find in the genre.
- Agnes Gomillon, The Record Keeper (****): The first in a series, The Record Keeper is a post-apocalyptic ambiguous dystopia, in the mould of Octavia Butler. It has many of the familiar themes of the sub-genre (rigid post-apocalypse hierarchies, scrambled memories, violent suppression of dissent, rebellion); it is not, however, a derivative work, and is well worth a read.
- Agnes Gomillon, Seed of Cain (****): The second book in the series, carries forward the story well. Review forthcoming in Interzone.
- Vauhini Vara, The Immortal King Rao (***): Not marketed as SF, but undoubtedly SF. Brings together a generational family saga, an immigrant and coming-of-age novel, a meditation on the promise and peril of technology, a critique of corporate power, and an ambiguous speculative dystopia. The novel follows the intertwined biographies of King Rao—a Dalit child born in the village of Kothapalli, who rises to become the leader of the world’s most powerful technology company, before an equally precipitous fall—and his daughter, Athena, who remembers her own life while being held in a prison cell on charges of murder. Reviewed here.
- Anil Menon, The Inconceivable Idea of the Sun (***): A set of interconnected near-future SF vignettes set in India. Defies gender classification – there is even a narrative non-fiction piece tucked among the stories – but definitely spec-fic. The eponymous story is particularly good. Reviewed here.
- Mercurio D Rivera, Wergen: The Alien Love War (****): Read this as part of my Arthur C. Clarke shortlist review; a fresh take on some well-worn first contact tropes, with a few very sharp observations about love.
- Harry Josephine Giles, Deep Wheel Orcadia (*****): THE most unique piece of SF I read this year – an SF space opera told in verse, and in fact, told in the Orkney language, with an English “translation” accompanying it: the result is something very special, which I discuss in the Clarke review.
- Kazuo Ishiguro, Klara and the Sun (***): One problem with a literary fiction writer writing genre is that unless you’ve read extensively in genre, you end up rehashing ideas and tropes that are two decades old. Ishiguro is, of course, a brilliant writer, but this book is an excellent example of just this phenomenon. Also Clarke Award reading.
- Courttia Newland, A River Called Time (***): Clarke Award reading. Just not for me.
- Adrian Tchaikovsky, The Elder Race (****): A science-fantasy novella by one of my favourite writers working in the field today: Adrian Tchaikovsky. It takes the classic SF theme of a more technologically-advanced civilisation grappling with the question of when – or when not – to “intervene” in the affairs of another (think Prime Directive, the Strugatsky Brothers’ Hard To Be A God, some parts of the Culture) – and gives it a new, fresh avatar. The Elder Race stands out because of Tchaikovsky’s deft and sympathetic handling of one of the protagonists’ interior landscape: Nyr Illim Tevitch is an anthropologist stuck on the planet that he is supposed to be studying, (involuntarily) cut off from communicating with his own society, treated as a wizard by the people he is among, and asked by a rebellious princess to help slay a “demon.” Unsurprisingly, he grapples continuously with depression, loneliness, self-doubt, and often paralysing indecision about what is the right thing to do. This focus on interiority, along with an inversion of many classic fantasy tropes (princess, demon, wizard) makes this a classic Tchaikovsky read: compelling and memorable.
- Joanna Russ, The Female Man (****): Given that parts of this book feel radical even now, I cannot even begin to imagine how radical it must have been for its time (the 1970s). Lots of exploration about the gender binary and gender fluidity, at least a part of which (for obvious reasons) has aged badly, but overall, the immense ambition of this novel is breathtaking, and there are paragraphs that are like cut glass.
- Sequoia Nagamatsu, How High We Go in the Dark (***): Another set of interconnected vignettes (there were a lot of these this year!) dealing with the aftermath of the climate crisis. This was the opening text for the recently-begun Delhi Science Fiction Reading Circle.
- Ursula K Le Guin, The Dispossessed (*****): What can I possibly say about this that hasn’t already been said before?
G. Non-Fiction: Memoir/Biography
- Flora Veit-Wilde, They Called You Dambudzo (****): A really unique memoir about a really unique writer who died far too young, written by his former lover. The insights that this book has into the character of Dambudzo Marechera are breathtaking – and having read this, you understand his writing so much better. Reviewed here.
- Thomas Grant, The Mandela Brief; Sidney Kentridge and the Trials of Apartheid (****): A moving – and at times, heart-stopping – book about the life and times of Sidney Kentridge, defence counsel for years to the apartheid regime’s most determined opponents (including Nelson Mandela). Reviewed here.
- Pheroze Nowrojee, A Kenyan Journey (*****): A generational memoir about the story of an Indian immigrant family in Kenya, and 20th century Kenyan history through the eyes of Indian immigrants. Deals with difficult and complex questions about home and exile, immigration and love for a country. This was beautifully written, and the ending brought tears to my eyes. There’s a long review on my Goodreads page.
- Hiwot Teffera, Tower in the Sky (*****): A beautiful, moving, and ultimately tragic memoir about the Ethiopian revolutionary students’ moment in the 1970s. Reviewed here.
- Narayani Basu, Allegiance (****): A fascinating book about three forgotten men in the history of India’ freedom struggle: the protagonists of the INA.
- Robert A. Caro, Working (*****): Absolutely riveting memoir from one of the great biographical writers, with insights into his own method. There was one particular reconstruction of Lyndon Johnson’s childhood home that is one of the most unforgettable narrative non-fiction pieces of writing that I’ve come across.
- Cade Metz, Genius Makers (****): An immensely readable account of the 20th-century history of Artificial Intelligence, told from the perspectives of some of the major protagonists.
H. Non-fiction: City Writing
- Kirsty Bell, Undercurrents: A Story of Berlin (****): A unique social history of Berlin, best read while you’re walking down the Landwehr Canal towards Anhalterbahnof. Bell weaves together a personal memoir of loss and a broken marriage, the history of her own century-and-a-half old house on the banks of the Landwehr Canal, and the modern history of Berlin itself, into a seamless narrative. Reviewed here.
- John Dougill: Kyoto: A Literary and Cultural History (*****): This is an example of the very best the genre of travel writing has to offer: written with love, humility, and also with great attention to the craft of language. The structure of this book introduces you to the many different facets of Kyoto (city of tea, city of noh, city of geishas etc), and the way Dougill breaks up information, it never gets overwhelming. This book enriched my brief stay in Kyoto immeasurably.
I. Non-fiction: The natural world
- James Bridle, Ways of Being: Beyond Human Intelligence (****): This book has polarised opinion a bit, but I found it a wonderfully gripping foray into various kinds of intelligence – from mycelia to octopi – that compels you to re-orient your own mental landscape and conceptual categories.
- Errico Malatesta, Anarchy (*****): Anarchists aren’t supposed to have canons, but this OG exposition of the anarchist philosophy surely has to rank as a must-read if you’re looking to understand what anarchism is all about.
- Defiance: Anarchist Statements Before Judge and Jury (****): What it says on the tin. From Kropotkin and the Paris Commune to the modern Greek anarchists, and everything in between.
- Kristin Ross, The Emergence of Social Space: Rimbaud and the Paris Commune (****): Occasionally opaque and hard to follow, but so many fascinating insights both about the Paris Commune and about Rimbaud: ruminations on time, language, metaphor, the history and evolution of vagabondage laws, and so much more. Worth the occasional periods of incomprehension (especially if you don’t know French, and therefore miss some of the finer linguistic analysis).