Towards the end of each year, I tend to write a round-up of my ten favourite books from the twelve or so months preceding. However, 2022 has been a different sort of year for me in terms of blogging – a new job and changing domestic arrangements have meant that many of my old blogging routines have fallen away. To date, I’ve only posted ten articles this year, and although I am of course still writing (I maintain a practice of thirty minutes to an hour of daily weekday work, I’ve co-authored a children’s book, I’ve had the odd piece published), the way I channel my creative energy has had to alter. At times, I’ve also wondered about the ongoing relevance of blogging (does anyone click links in social media posts anymore? Does anyone seek out longer-form articles? Have our attention spans changed so much that only what’s directly in front of us on Instagram or Facebook seems appealing?). As much as these things feel depressing, I also have to consider the effort and time I put into writing if people just aren’t reading blogs. And then I think of books, and all the nuance and complexity and contradiction they hold, a mirror of our complex, nuanced and contradictory states as human beings. I think perhaps we need books more than ever in a time when onlookers can assume a person’s whole worldview on the basis of 280 characters, an image or a meme. So, the book round-up stays, for this year at least (and by the way, there will be more reflection on another year of writing before 2022 leaves us). So here they are, my ten favourite books of the year, in no particular order and with the usual caveat that ‘2022’ refers to the year of reading as opposed to the year of publication. I’m also adding a new rule that as it’s still only November, I’m reserving some mental space for December’s sneaky usurpers – inevitable. Back to creative energy, time, and all the other reasons for doing things a month or so early.
Such are the risks we take.
STOLEN FOCUS BY JOHANN HARI
My thoughts above dovetail with the first of my ‘top picks’ for 2022 – Johann Hari’s Stolen Focus. I love Johann Hari’s writing and his meticulously researched non-fiction – there are many books I recommend to people, but this is one I believe EVERYONE should read. In the book, Johann investigates our diminishing ability to pay attention and the impact of tech designed to keep us staring at our screens for ever-longer periods. He explores how our relationship with social media is making us less focused and empathetic, as well as threatening democracies and even undermining our free will. As gloomy as all of this sounds, Johann manages to inject some optimism into the situation, suggesting individual actions to help and recommending collective pressure against the companies whose business models rely on stealing our attention. You can read an edited extract from Stolen Focus in this article on the Guardian website.
If you only read one of the books I’m recommending this year, I’d make it this.
THE SUMMER WALKERS BY TIMOTHY NEAT
Back in the spring, I adored Timothy Neat’s The Summer Walkers, the name affectionately given to the Travellers, salespeople and pearl-fishers who once made their living on the roads of the north-west Highlands. Told mostly through transcribed interviews, the book offers a fascinating insight into the lives of these indigenous Gaelic-speaking Scots and the traditions into which they were born. Of particular interest to me were the Travellers’ reminisces of Caithness and their reluctance to penetrate the county deeper than Janetstown, citing Traveller Essie Stewart’s observation that ‘up to here, the people are Scots like us, and speak Gaelic.’ The experience of Caithness related in the book asserts the border between Gaeldom and Norse settlement not as any Sutherland/Caithness boundary, but as the River Forss (which may be of interest to those who maintain Gaelic was never spoken in Caithness). Altogether, I found The Summer Walkers comforting and delightful, a window on a way of life which is now rapidly disappearing.
As the author notes in the book’s preface, the summer walkers remain heirs to ‘… a vital and ancient culture of great historical and artistic importance to Scotland and the world beyond.’
THIN PLACES BY KERRI NÍ DOCHARTAIGH
Thin Places, Kerri Ní Dochartaigh’s unflinching account of the author’s childhood in Derry during the Troubles, is a beautiful memoir of belonging, trauma, place and healing. The central image of the book – the ‘thin places’ that exist between worlds – resonated for me as someone who shares a fondness for such places (readers of my own books will know that thin places feature heavily in Celtic mythology, where such places are agents of powerful self-discovery, as well as portals of voyage between worlds). In Thin Places, Dochartaigh’s rich prose manages to balance unsettling violence against the sustaining power of nature, home and understanding.
A heartbreaking, redemptive and utterly compelling read.
A CAIRN OF SMALL STONES BY JOHN WATTS
I have my father to thank for introducing me to John Watts’s piece of historical fiction, A Cairn of Small Stones (Dad sought the novel out after a recommendation). It appealed to our family due to its setting in Brinacory near Morar in the west Highlands, where my nana’s people were from (Nana’s forebears probably lived lives quite similar to the protagonist in the book). The novel tells the story of a tenant farmer in the eighteenth century at a time when the clan way of life was fracturing and the rebellions of 1715 and 1745 had led to religious and cultural persecution. At times I found the book profoundly moving, containing ‘the words not of a traveller from the outside world, but of one whose whole life was lived within the world he tells of.’ Iain Mór, the main character in the book, ‘thinks and speaks as a Gael’ and his depiction of daily life in the locality felt as vivid and authentic as any work of fact.
THE LAST ACT OF LOVE BY CATHY RENTZENBRINK
The Last Act of Love is the story of Cathy Rentzenbrink’s family and the road accident that devastated them. When Cathy’s brother Matty was left in a Persistent Vegetative State after being knocked down by a car in 1990, she and her parents poured everything into caring for him before making an unimaginable decision eight years after the event. Matty’s story is told with honesty, compassion and warmth, and Cathy’s words held my heart in thrall from the first page to the very last chapter. The Last Act of Love also reminded me of the importance of hearing personal stories, and the empathy and insight that can give us into individual situations – the empathy and understanding we gain from reading.
A book for anyone who wants to understand more about living, dying, and the nature of love.
NO GREAT MISCHIEF BY ALISTAIR MACLEOD
I adored Alistair MacLeod’s No Great Mischief, in which 1980s narrator Alexander MacDonald retells the story of his family, who were driven out of the Highlands during the Clearances to settle in Nova Scotia. The title refers to the 1759 battle at Quebec, when General Wolfe sent in the ‘fierce Highlanders’ because it was ‘no great mischief’ if they fell. It’s hard to overstate the beauty and emotional range of this novel, or MacLeod’s acuity in telling of a dispossessed people finding belonging, their struggle to reconcile the present and the past. Alistair MacLeod had a knack of writing lines that stay in your mind forever (‘Grandpa died from jumping in the air and trying to click his heels together twice’ is one of my favourites). But the line that will remain with me is Grandpa’s assertion as he tries to persuade his sweetheart to marry him:
‘All of us are better when we’re loved.’
THE SHEPHERD’S LIFE BY JAMES REBANKS
I sailed through The Shepherd’s Life, James Rebanks’s memoir of rurality in the Lake District, an account which held so much resonance here in the Scottish Highlands. Rebanks’s tales of sheep farming and family spoke to me on many levels, not least in our relationship to place, how we relate to and convey it (‘how come the story of our landscape wasn’t about us?’ Rebanks asks early on). That story of ‘real people in a real place’ reverberates through the memoir, as Rebanks pits idealised, romantic notions of the Lake District against people like his grandfather, who appreciated spring sunsets with the ‘full meaning of someone who had earned the right to comment, having suffered six months of wind, snow and rain to get to that point.’
LANDSCAPE TO LIGHT BY NEIL M. GUNN
Back in February, I was entranced by Neil Gunn’s Landscape to Light, a collection of essays that span Gunn’s views on everything from the landscape of Caithness and Sutherland to the Zen and Buddhist philosophies he grew interested in in his later years. Gunn’s writing constantly inspires me, and this year I also enjoyed his novels The Well at the World’s End and The Lost Glen (as well as leaning heavily on his words in this piece on tourism, social media and our shifting sense of place). As I recently wrote on Instagram, I’m endlessly grateful to Gunn, whose words make me a little braver as I explore ‘not a revival of the old, but the old carried forward, evolved into the new’ – that reaching back to the past I so often retreat to in my writing. The Green Isle of the Great Deep is already in my reading pile for December. There’s little doubt that it would have made its way into this round-up as another favourite had I got to it by now.
A POCKETFUL OF HAPPINESS BY RICHARD E. GRANT
In October, I fell in love with Richard E. Grant’s A Pocketful of Happiness, Grant’s memoir of the last year of his wife Joan’s life, and their immeasurable love for one another. The book manages to balance loss and grief with hopefulness and joy – a duality which will be familiar to Grant’s followers on Instagram, where he celebrates life’s wonder alongside the soul-deep pain of bereavement – and echoes the title of the memoir: his wife’s instruction to find a pocketful of happiness in every day. The book (which is mostly written in diary form), is interspersed with anecdotes from Grant’s career, including his star-struck attendance at the 2019 Oscars ceremony and his sweet/hilarious crush on Barbra Streisand. The whole range of human emotion features in this memoir, and in Grant, whose open-hearted nature is as infectious as the love and vivacity that sings from every page.
A MANUAL FOR HEARTACHE BY CATHY RENTZENBRINK
Love, grief – and much else besides – also feature in my final favourite for this year, and another outing for Cathy Rentzenbrink, who has undoubtedly been my favourite 2022 authorly discovery. Manual is a follow-up of sorts to The Last Act of Love, a consoling guide for dealing with life’s losses (in therapy-speak, Rentzenbrink calls The Last Act of Love ‘content’, and Manual ‘process’). There is also much here to comfort those who experience anxiety and/or depression (I flew through the book between an afternoon and an evening, the fastest I have read a book in years). Cathy has a natural, gifted voice, and her words will resonate with anyone who has ever felt the pain of loss, sadness or heartbreak (so basically, just about everyone). Readers of books like Matt Haig’s How to Stay Alive will love this warm blanket of a manual. Rentzenbrink’s Dear Reader is a similarly comforting memoir, detailing the many books that have nourished, shaped and sustained her through life’s changes.
And where would we be without that kind of nourishment?
I’ll leave you with a plug for my own books, and best wishes for health, happiness – and high book piles – in 2023.
Other books I loved in 2022: Young Mungo by Douglas Stuart, The Confession by Jessie Burton, Scabby Queen by Kirstin Innes, The Instant by Amy Liptrot, The Coffin Roads by Ian Bradley, Native by Patrick Laurie, Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason, On the Other Side of Sorrow by James Hunter, Marram by Leoni Charlton…the list goes on and on!