My year in fiction

by Chris Armstrong on December 28, 2022

Reading novels is my life-blood; I can’t go more than a few hours between books. That said, this year was a slightly odd one in my reading career. First, the year leading up to August represented the home strait of a self-enforced 12 months of not buying books. So lots of reliance on the not-especially-good local library, and some re-reading. Second, this was a ridiculously busy year for me, and so my yearly total of 46 novels is slightly below par. With that said, here were my top 10:

Katie Kitamura, Intimacies
Natasha Brown, Assembly
Julia May Jonas, Vladimir
Hanya Yanagihara, To Paradise
Mary Lawson, A Town Called Solace
Jordy Rosenberg, Confessions of the Fox
Tessa Hadley, Late in the Day
Julie Otsuka, When The Emperor Was Divine
Ottessa Moshfegh, My Year of Rest and Relaxation
Elizabeth Strout, Oh, William!

I’ve concentrated on contemporary fiction for the purposes of this list. I did read other stuff. But there were some excellent novels on this list. Some of them were frustrating at times (Yanagihara, Moshfegh). Some of them didn’t quite deliver on their promise (Vladimir, I’m looking at you! Nevertheless, +1 for being a campus novel). Several of them featured academics. Some were all too short (I could have done with a whole lot more of Assembly). Several contained footnotes, most didn’t. For whatever reason, nine of the books’ authors are female, and one is trans. I don’t have a theory for why that is, but it isn’t unusual for my year-end favourites to be dominated by female authors.

So, what else did I miss? What were your highlights?



Chris Bertram 12.28.22 at 11:36 am

I read a round total of 50 books, but if I cut out historical stuff and nonfiction (Balzac, Hugo, Thackeray, Brontes, anything pre-1945 etc) and allow in autofiction/memoir of various sorts, I’m left with

Andrew Key, Ross Hall
Alejandro Manzano, Chilean Poet
Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea
Annie Ernaux, Passion simple
Patricia Lockwood, Priestdaddy
Ousmane Sembène, Les bouts de bois de Dieu
Richard Powers, Bewildered
Olga Tokarczuk, The Books of Jacob
Emily St John Mandel, Station Eleven
Emily St John Mandel, The Glass Hotel
Emily St John Mandel, Sea of Tranquillity
Mohsin Hamid, The Last White Man
Salman Rushdie, Midnight’s Children
Gunther Grass, The Tin Drum
Ali Smith, Companion Piece
Raymond Queneau, Zazie dans le métro
Amélie Nothomb, Stupeur et tremblements
Virginie Despentes, Apocalypse bébé
George Saunders, 10th of December
George Saunders, Liberation Day
Claire-Louise Bennett, Checkout 19
Claire-Louise Bennett, Pond
Virginie Despentes, Vernon Subutex 1.

The Ousmane Sembène was fantastic, and I also derived a lot of enjoyment from both of the Despentes (who I believe is translated, so monoglots, catch up!). Loved all three of the Emily St John Mandel books and Bennett’s Checkout 19 more than Pond. Saunders was great but sometimes formulaic. Tokarczuk was very hard work, but rewarding. The book I’d recommend to everyone is the Lockwood, which is a memoir, though her novel, which I read in 2021, is also very very good.


Chris Armstrong 12.28.22 at 11:44 am

I loved Station Eleven but haven’t read either of the others (although I have read The Singer’s Gun), so I might try those. I enjoyed Vernon Subutex 1, but not quite enough to track down the other volumes – will you? (I guess you’re reading her in French)


Chris Bertram 12.28.22 at 12:07 pm

Yes, read Despentes in French. She’s quite a good guide to where the French language is at these days: when I don’t know a word, I’m unlikely to find it in a printed dictionary! I’m finding her work chimes well with the Mark Fisher/Simon Reynolds end-of-the-history-of-culture thesis, but also also loving the way she seems to manage to be pitilessly clear-eyed about her characters’ flaws and motivations whilst also reserving some compassion for them. Pamela Kant is a great name for a porn star.


Ingrid Robeyns 12.28.22 at 12:16 pm

Slightly off topic, but if you read or write in another language, and you need a dictionairy, I recommend Deep-L, which can translate between a large number of languages, e.g. French to English:


Lynne 12.28.22 at 1:57 pm

Mary Lawson and Elizabeth Strout are among my favourite authors. If you haven’t read Lawson’s other three novels, I recommend them. As for Strout, Olive Kittredge and Olive, Again might be my favourites.

Two books I loved I actually read last year: Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro, and Piranesi by Susanna Clarke. The latter I read as an audiobook and I liked it so much that as soon as I finished, I started it again. I’ve never done that before.

This year I’ve been enjoying P.D. James’ Adam Dalgliesh novels as audiobooks. And I almost forgot—Robert Galbraith’s The Ink-Black Heart! Loved that book. It was very long, but, sadly, not long enough. I was sorry when it ended.


Richard Bellamy 12.28.22 at 3:46 pm

I have not read any on Chris Armstrong’s list – though I have bought the Otsuka, which was prominently displayed in a Berlin feminist bookshop. But I concur with Chris Bertram on the wonderfulness of Priestdaddy – one of the highlights of this year’s reading – I also re-read Wide Sargasso Sea because my German mother in law had done so and loved it. I managed around 20 books this year – more or less my average – those I enjoyed included Colm Toibin’s The Magician, a novelised life of Thomas Mann, Claire Keegan’s Small Things like These; Lena Bastasic, Catch the rabbit, The Vanishing Half – Brit Bennett and Domenico Starnone: First execution; Laurie Colwin, Goodbye without Leaving, Eley Williams, The Liars Dictionary; and Mick Herron, Dead Lions. I also concur with Ingrid that Deep L is much better than Google Translate – it has helped me tremendously to navigate German bureaucracy …


Zora 12.28.22 at 5:59 pm

I edit SFF (science fiction and fantasy) reviews and own a personal library of perhaps 3000 SFF ebooks and paper books. I also read 19th century novels (usually UK, often religious ; Charlotte Yonge, frex). A smattering of other genres. Not a lot of non-fiction, but some. I read close to a book a day. Lately this has been a lot of re-reading, as I am finding it difficult to get books that hit my sweet spot. Library, purchase, e-ARCs from my client (it’s useful if I’ve read the same book if I’m to edit his review).

A communique from way out in left field :)


John Q 12.28.22 at 10:01 pm

Ingrid, thanks for link. I’ve been using Google Translate, which is OK but not great


Bob 12.28.22 at 10:16 pm

Thanks for this list Chris. Can you comment on the Annie Ernaux? I read French too and am always looking for new things to read. (I just ordered Piketty’s collection of articles for Le Monde. I found out about it when the translation came out, but I am going to read the original.) I’m embarrassed to say that I had never heard of Ernaux until she won the Nobel. What can you say about the book of hers that you read?


Alan White 12.29.22 at 1:10 am

Being a long-time CT fan, I’ll weigh in here a bit. I read mostly non-fiction over the course of a year, much of it philosophy which was and is my profession even in retirement. But I’m a member of an old faculty book club (“old” now describes its tenure and our ages) for the last 20+ years, and thank heavens for that, because it’s encouraged me to read more fiction (even on my own!). This year I read Strout’s Old William (I’m a huge fan of My Name is Lucy Barton, which is continued in narrative here), Erdrich’s The Night Watchman, Backman’s Anxious People (avoid the Netflix disaster based on it), and Jess Walters The Cold Millions (I loved this almost as much as Beautiful Ruins). I finally took on Wallace’s massive Infinite Jest too. That book by turns was brilliant and infuriating, but no work has ever better captured the mind of addiction. But overall the one book that stuck with me most is Charles Yu’s Interior Chinatown, a simply intoxicating work of narrative genius that reworked my mind about how we perceive one another. I’ll never watch another episode of the old series Hawaii 5-0 without learning something pretty revealing that the producers of that show certainly never intended.


Alan White 12.29.22 at 1:12 am

Whoops! Said Old William instead of Oh William. My bad.


David in Tokyo 12.29.22 at 4:43 am

I had a somewhat bad year for reading. Like Ingrid, I’m being insistent on only reading in my second language. (Here, the Kindle is a life saver, since just touching a word brings up the Japanese dictionary definition (it has a Japanese-English dictionary, but it’s terrible (also, Japanese-English dictionaries don’t really work)), and it remembers the words you’ve looked up so you can review them later.) Fortunately, it’s a language with an insanely hyperactive literary world (or worlds if one insists on separating popular from intellectually pretentious (oops, serious) literature). The first trip-up was a collection of short stories by a favorite popular author. I started blithely reading away assuming it was a novel, not short stories, and I got all enthused about wondering how the heroine would resolve (or at least deal with) her problems and issues when she disappeared without a trace. Sheesh. I shouldn’t have let it irritate me but I did. Then I decided that, just for reading practice, I’d read some mysteries. Mistake. Mysteries are about the trick, not about the characters. No more mysteries. Ever. Sheesh, again. The best reading of the year was essays by Hyakken Uchida, who was a disciple of Natsume Soseki and the subject of Kurosawa’s film “Mada da yo!”, and a novel by Yoshiyuki Junnosuke. Yoshiyuki is overly taken with sex, but despite that he still respects his characters, so it’s not as obnoxious as it sounds. Also, a collection of short stories (that I had figured out in advancer were short stories, sheesh.) by the above-mentioned favorite author (Kanae Minato, probably available in translation; her “Utopia” worked for me in Japanese (wikipedia calls her a mystery writer, and that’s not exactly wrong, but she writes novels that care about the characters and have (often disturbing) twists)) that was written in the form of letters between the characters. She writes with great sensitivity about the stresses between rural and urban Japan. I’m sure it’s been done before, but she made effective use of the novel written only as letters form. I also made a bit of a start on Kinkakuji and some of his (Mishima’s) essays, but his vocabulary is dense of obscurities so my (computerized) flash cards are full of leeches (a technical term referring to words you are having trouble remembering and should forget about and move on from, since they leech time that could be spent learning easier and more useful words).

In good reading news, I was religious about reading just about every word on the first two pages of a Japanese lamestream media newspaper every day.

Anyway, the goal for this year was to have been 12 full-length novels, and I didn’t get anywhere close. I think by more careful planning, I should be able to do better than 12 next year. Maybe.


David in Tokyo 12.29.22 at 5:01 am

Speaking of DeepL, I tried this on Google translate the other day:


DeepL’s version: Mayumi Nagano’s “I am storyteller” in “There is the Underworld” was very appealing and valuable because of the “I am” aspect that goes beyond the individual.

Well, it’s better than Google. The “I am storyteller” should be “use of first-person narration”.

And what’s going on here is that the writer finds “the sublety of the use of the first person for more than just being an individual is very appealing, and thus I felt this to be an important work.”

This is, of course, a seriously obnoxious example, since it depends on the reader being clued in to the importance of the first-person novel in Japanese literature.


Chris Bertram 12.29.22 at 12:10 pm

@Bob I’ve read three so far: Passion simple (this one) and previously Les Années and Mémoire de fille. Passion simple is very short and a quick and easy read, about a love affair (which she also returns to in other work). Les Années is an interlacing of her personal story with changes in France over her whole life, and very interesting in tracing those transformations and the disappointment of people who had invested their hopes in the Union de la gauche. Mémoire de fille (covering final years at school, first sexual experiences and a stint as an au pair in London) is remarkable for its outside/inside perspective on someone who is a different person from who she now is, but of whom only she has direct memories.


John Q 01.02.23 at 4:42 am

@Bob I read L’Autre Fille, about the impact on her life of her sister, who died before she was born, but who was remembered by her mother as “plus gentille que celui-la”. Stretched the limits of my French, but very good.


Trader Joe 01.03.23 at 3:13 pm

Thanks for the list – I always enjoy a good book list. There is so much to read in the world, anything that helps narrow the scope a bit is worth some attention. I have read two on the list.

Jordy Rosenberg, Confessions of the Fox
Ottessa Moshfegh, My Year of Rest and Relaxation

Confessions was quite clever and very enjoyable. I always find Moshfegh a bit obtuse and her work requires a bit more than casual “Rest & Relaxation” reading to really get the most out of but if that’s your thing you’ll enjoy this.

I’m always hesitant to recommend because I think reading has a lot of personal taste to it and mine may not match you – but I liked:

Trust by Hernan Diaz (this is on dang near everyone’s ‘favorite for 22 list so its hardly undiscovered, but despite its popularity it is engaging) and;

Dinosaurs by Lydia Millet (it might look soft but its written on two levels).


novakant 01.04.23 at 8:50 pm

My fiction reading this year was rather patchy due to work / kids – I need books that flow really well (recommendations much appreciated) and I’m glad when a book drags me in:

Elena Ferrante
Days of Abandonment
(brutally honest)

Annie Ernaux
A Man’s Place
(sobe but touching)

Monica Ali
Love Marriage
(a bit soapy but loved it)

Robert Musil

Sally Rooney
Conversations with Friends
Beautiful World, Where are You?
(both good, the latter a great reflection on being a young writer these days)

Elif Batuman
The Idiot
Either / Or
(hilarious and just a great writer / person)

Orhan Pamuk
(it’s great but hard to finish)

Max Frisch
Stiller (not finished, but read before)

ETA Hoffmann
The Sandman

John Williams
Stoner (currently reading)

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