Culture Writers recommend their favourite books from last year!
The Summer I Turned Pretty by Jenny Han
In summer 2022, I found myself looking to go on an adventure and The Summer I Turned Pretty fulfilled every one of my expectations. The Summer I Turned Pretty follows Isabel Conklin (nicknamed Belly) and her summer adventures at the Cousins Beach house with her two best friends, Conrad and Jeremiah Fisher, as well as her brother. The reason why I loved this book so much was because I felt as if I was immersed in the summer of the Cousins Beach house and this was achieved through Han’s incredible use of worldbuilding. As well as this, the characters were very relatable, especially Belly. The teenage angst and tension between the Fisher brothers and Belly showcases their love for one another perfectly and Han achieves this wonderfully throughout the trilogy. I think this is a book that everyone should read because it shows how one summer can change your life, especially in the midst of growing up and being a young adult.
The Mad Women’s Ball by Victoria Mas
Victoria Mas’ gothic novel The Mad Women’s Ball was translated from French by Frank Wynne in 2021, and later fell into my hands in 2022. Perusing my local book-shop, I stumbled upon this gem and was instantly intrigued. Immersing her readers in nineteenth century Paris, Mas narrates the lives of women admitted to the notorious Salpetriere asylum. Once a year the Parisian elite is invited to gaze upon these patients at a grand ball; for the patients, this is a brief moment of hope. Based on the historical mistreatment of patients, the story follows Eugenie, daughter of a bourgeois family, who is admitted to the hospital by her father.
However, Eugenie knows that she is not mad – and she realises that many of her fellow patients aren’t either. Deemed insane by intrusive doctors or uninterested husbands, this story considers the lives of women labelled disposable by society. Similar to the likes of Margaret Atwood and Pat Barker, this book poignantly considers feminine experience, injustice and bravery. Victoria Mas provides a gripping plot in just 208 pages, making this an ideal book to help you get out of a reading rut. The eerily relevant themes and gothic undertones make for an atmospheric reading experience.
Real Life by Brandon Taylor
Brandon Taylor’s debut novel, Real Life, follows a group of friends in a Midwest university town as they navigate life and love in their early twenties. We meet its protagonist, Wallace, at a time of struggle, as he reckons with his identity as a black, queer man in a small town. Over the course of a long weekend, tensions arise within the friendship group, as confrontations abound between them, and with his biochem degree colleagues, with underlying hostilities being exposed for the first time.
This book broke me a little bit, in the best way possible. Its raw and honest portrayal of Wallace feeling like an outsider in his long-standing friendships, his insecurities that no one else is aware of, yet are all-consuming for him, are portrayed so beautifully by Taylor. His writing powerfully depicts the anxious anticipation of life after graduation, something which I also feel deeply. The complexity of Wallace as a character, for all his flaws, felt so relatable, and it was a real privilege to witness him at a real turning point in his life.
The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and The Horse by Charlie Mackesy
Home, friendship, and love are three of the simplest and most complex fundamentals to life, and yet they can often be forgotten in the grand tales of other story’s published in the literary world. Through Charlie Mackesy’s adorably charming book, The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse, we find a much-needed centring of these human foundations.
Four friends, each of two or four legs, fluffy or smooth skin, tall or short, travel together in a search of ‘home’, but this ‘home’ the boy seeks takes shape not as a building but as something much more precious. We walk with these characters through Mackesy’s charming calligraphy and characterful cartoons, the artwork telling as much of a story as the words that accompany them. And as I read this book, a short creation I got through in under an hour, the pressures of leading an astounding life fell away. Mackesy reminds his readers, whether they are eight or eighty, of their value and worth regardless of any grand achievements they have or have not accomplished. With each snow trodden step, the endearing characters remind readers just how extraordinary they are, just by leading the most ordinary of lives.
I would not hesitate to recommend this book to anyone seeking some comfort. You are guaranteed a smile, a tear, and a chuckle over a loveable mole addicted to cake.
Hotel Silence by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir, translated by Brian FitzGibbon
One of my favourite reads of 2022 was Hotel Silence by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir (2018; translated from the Icelandic by Brian FitzGibbon). The novel follows Jónas Ebeneser, a middle-aged handyman who has lost all hope. He decides to commit suicide, and (not wanting his body to be found) heads to an unnamed country recovering from a recent war to do so, checking in to Hotel Silence. But Jónas finds that the locals desperately need his help with repairing the physical and mental damages of war – and soon he finds himself wondering whether there might be some hope in life for him after all…
Ólafsdóttir and FitzGibbon have a strange but wonderful way of writing – this quality alone makes the book worth reading. I also like the deliberate choice not to name the recently war-torn country – this anonymity means it could be any country in the world, ensuring that the focus is not on geographical or political details of the war but instead on the people who have suffered from it. Jónas’s developing connection with a young woman and her traumatised son is also deeply moving. Overall, Hotel Silence is a complex exploration of suffering and hope.
I’m Glad My Mom Died by Jenette McCurdy
Jennette McCurdy’s ‘I’m Glad My Mom Died’ is an authentically compelling read which takes the shape of everything a memoir should be, a perfect balance of hilarity and heartbreak. McCurdy paints a candid picture of her life as she discusses the trauma which stems from her relationship with her mother. Just like its title, the memoir is especially sharp, detailing Jennette’s experiences with love and violence whilst navigating the realities of child acting.
The book is refreshingly honest and incredibly witty yet heart-wrenching as we learn about her turbulent journey and encounters with untreated mental health issues. Her captivating dark humour feels both unsettling and comforting in the midst of this eye-opening account of generational trauma, the struggles of being in the spotlight, and the horrors of abuse. In what is a genuine display of the most uncomfortable parts of herself, Jennette McCurdy sincerely retells complex moments of her life making ‘I’m Glad My Mom Died’ a perfectly shocking memoir.
Babel by Rebecca F. Kuang
Set in Oxford in 1836, Babel (An Arcane History) is a riveting dark academia fantasy novel that explores the sinister side of the prestigious Royal Institute of Translation. Robin Swift, an orphan from Canton, is brought over to England as a child by the elusive and distant Professor Lovell, specially selected to eventually commence his studies at the Institution as one of their few but brilliant students. However, the brutal realities of what it takes to uphold such an institution are soon exposed, and all is not as it seems. A truly harrowing but utterly brilliant read, R.F. Kuang is devastatingly precise in her writing, crafting nuanced and complex characters that hail from a variety of backgrounds, producing a powerful interrogation of privilege, race, class, and gender. I loved this book for its boldness: Kuang is unafraid to confront the catastrophic consequences of colonialism in her writing, as well as the elitism of historic institutions, and the ways in which the two intersect. Additionally, the inclusion of her extensive research into etymology and using it to underpin the magical element of the plot is beautifully done.
The Little Village School by Gervase Phinn
I discovered The Little Village School by Gervase Phinn through a recommendation of a friend. This five part series explores the dramas and life stories of characters in the little village of Barton-In-The-Dale, Yorkshire. The characters’ speech are beautifully crafted and the intricate descriptive details makes the reading process effortless, fixating your imagination into the world of the little village school drama. As Phinn was once a teacher and school inspector himself, the characters and plot are very realistic, touching on smaller everyday problems to harder affairs of life. I would recommend this book to anyone who looks for a read that is relatable to everyday life but also light-hearted with humorous moments.
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