And so we’ve come to the conclusion of another year in which our staff at Off the Shelf compiled quite a few (hundred) book lists. Each one offered up publishing insiders recs, rediscovered gems, and/or the occasional quirky novel or two. Curious to see which lists resonated the most with your fellow readers? These are the book lists that received the most clicks from you all in 2022!
Best of 2022: Our 10 Most Popular Lists of the Year
I’ve been a Tara Isabella Burton obsessive ever since I read her debut novel, SOCIAL CREATURE and pretty much stalked her agent for her next novel for years after. Tara is one of the best chroniclers of obsession I’ve read. And not just the typical ‘obsessive female friendship’ or ‘obsessive relationship’ type of obsession we see in lots of psychological suspense—she writes about Obsession with a capital O. Obsession to the point of destruction, and what it means when someone becomes consumed by faith—or fanaticism. THE WORLD CANNOT GIVE explores religious fervor and obsession in the same way Emma Cline got into the inner workings of cult mentality in THE GIRLS. And Tara is the perfect person to write this book, as she’s both a novelist and a scholar of religion. In fact, she’s written two nonfiction books about religion and religious cults and was Vox’s religion reporter for years. —Carina G., Senior Editor
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The Girls meets Fight Club in this coming-of-age novel about queer desire, religious zealotry, and the hunger for transcendence among the devoted members of a cultic chapel choir in a prestigious Maine boarding school—and the obsessively ambitious, terrifyingly charismatic girl that rules over them.
When shy, sensitive Laura Stearns arrives at St. Dunstan’s Academy in Maine, she dreams that life there will echo her favorite novel, All Before Them, the sole surviving piece of writing by Byronic “prep school prophet” (and St. Dunstan’s alum) Sebastian Webster, who died at nineteen, fighting in the Spanish Civil War. She soon finds the intensity she is looking for among the insular, Webster-worshipping members of the school’s chapel choir, which is presided over by the charismatic, neurotic, overachiever Virginia Strauss. Virginia is as fanatical about her newfound Christian faith as she is about the miles she runs every morning before dawn. She expects nothing short of perfection from herself—and from the members of the choir.
Virginia inducts the besotted Laura into a world of transcendent music and arcane ritual, illicit cliff-diving and midnight crypt visits: a world that, like Webster’s novels, finally seems to Laura to be full of meaning. But when a new school chaplain challenges Virginia’s hold on the “family” she has created, and Virginia’s efforts to wield her power become increasingly dangerous, Laura must decide how far she will let her devotion to Virginia go.
The World Cannot Give is a shocking meditation on the power, and danger, of wanting more from the world.
Set in Scotland in the 1950s, A. D. Scott’s story begins with a young boy’s shocking murder and the many possible suspects in the Sottish Highlands, where the author was born and raised. When a local youth, Jamie, is discovered dead in the canal locks, two young girls provide a wild tale of his disappearance, including visions of a malicious folkloric figure, that seems too outlandish to be true. The typist at the town’s newspaper, Joanna Ross, and her respected journalist boss take it upon themselves to investigate the crime. A Polish immigrant, in the harbor on the night of Jamie’s disappearance, quickly becomes the prime suspect, but the newspaper staff has other ideas. After following several leads, including following up with a town priest and owners of a nearby Italian cafe, it seems the young girls may have been telling the truth—or part of it. A delightful mystery that is equally as satisfying to unravel, A SMALL DEATH IN THE GREAT GLEN offers an entertaining mystery in a rich historical setting.
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In the Highlands of 1950s Scotland, a boy is found dead and two young girls have an unbelievably fanciful explanation for his disappearance. When the local newspaper staff set out to find the truth, the townspeople’s dark pasts threaten to prevent the crime from ever being solved.
Lucy and Mickey had both given up on finding functional long-term relationships: Mickey, because of his bipolar diagnosis, and Lucy, because of her intense family history of breast cancer. But when they find each other, they can’t deny the bond they share. After years of making their marriage work—and making the tough decision not to have children—one routine doctor’s appointment changes everything. DANCING ON BROKEN GLASS is a poignant portrait of a marriage.
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A powerfully written novel offering an intimate look at a beautiful marriage and how bipolar disorder and cancer affect it, Dancing on Broken Glass by Ka Hancock perfectly illustrates the enduring power of love.
Lucy Houston and Mickey Chandler probably shouldn’t have fallen in love, let alone gotten married. They’re both plagued with faulty genes—he has bipolar disorder, and she has a ravaging family history of breast cancer. But when their paths cross on the night of Lucy’s twenty-first birthday, sparks fly, and there’s no denying their chemistry.
Cautious every step of the way, they are determined to make their relationship work—and they put it all in writing. Mickey promises to take his medication. Lucy promises not to blame him for what is beyond his control. He promises honesty. She promises patience. Like any marriage, they have good days and bad days—and some very bad days. In dealing with their unique challenges, they make the heartbreaking decision not to have children. But when Lucy shows up for a routine physical just shy of their eleventh anniversary, she gets an impossible surprise that changes everything. Everything. Suddenly, all their rules are thrown out the window, and the two of them must redefine what love really is.
An unvarnished portrait of a marriage that is both ordinary and extraordinary, Dancing on Broken Glass takes readers on an unforgettable journey of the heart.
Television reporter Riley Spartz knows a good story when she sees it: When news breaks about a boy falling into a sinkhole in a rural Amish community, she is all over it. Soon enough, she finds herself amidst a convoluted murder investigation, complete with everything from fraud and deception to sex and money. Kramer’s SHUNNING SARAH is an enthralling, winding thriller that grapples with both familiar and unprecedented themes in Amish culture and sticks in your mind long after.
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In this thrilling entry in the nationally bestselling Riley Spartz series, an insular Amish town is rocked by a shocking murder and a secret that won’t stay buried. “A captivating heroine you’ll root for and a shocking ending you won’t see coming, Shunning Sarah delivers with a satisfying punch” (Alex Kava, New York Times bestselling author).
When investigative reporter Riley Spartz hears that a young boy is trapped in a sinkhole located in a peaceful Amish farm community outside Minneapolis, her reporter’s nose catches the sweet scent of a thrilling news story. But she has no idea just how big this story truly is…because the boy is not alone.
There’s also a corpse in the sinkhole—and it didn’t die of natural causes. While an area peopled by the upright Amish doesn’t seem a likely location for a brutal murder, Riley uncovers a dark web of fraud and deception driven by motives as old as the Bible: sex and money. Determined to bring the killer to justice, Riley embarks on a dangerous game of cat and mouse but can she stop the murderer before anyone else—including herself—becomes the next victim?
With “the perfect mix of suspense, excitement, romance, and surprises to keep the discriminating crime fiction reader captivated” (Library Journal, starred review), Shunning Sarah is a nail-biting thriller that will keep you on the edge of your seat.
The story is about a young man named Christian who is contacted by a London-based legal firm and informed that he may be the rightful heir to a century-old fortune. All he has to do is prove it. There’s a catch, of course—time is of the essence. The time frame in which the untold fortune can be kept within the family is limited to eighty years, and those eighty years are nearly up. Christian, with little more to go on than a curious letter in a museum archive, embarks on a journey across Europe, guided only by his amateur research and luck. His search eventually resurrects a collection of letters that plunge him into what might be his family history, their story running parallel with his own across time as he chases their specters and secrets through the French countryside, the frozen Swedish lake country, and the fjords of Iceland.
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This mesmerizing debut contains both an impossible quest and an epic love story. When a young American discovers that he may be the rightful heir to the unclaimed estate of a wealthy English alpinist who died attempting to summit Mount Everest in 1924, he is drawn further and further into the past, and into an obsession that could change his life forever.
Candice Carty-Williams’ debut novel, QUEENIE, stuck with me long after I finished it because of how authentically it portrayed a twenty-something still figuring out life. And while her latest novel features a whole new cast of characters, I have a feeling it’s going to be another highly relatable story. PEOPLE PERSON will introduce us to thirty-year-old Dimple Pennington, who’s always had a distant relationship with her half-siblings Nikisha, Danny, Lizzie, and Prynce. Always, that is, until Dimple makes a call for help that brings the family together, including their father, a man who didn’t make an effort to truly get to know any of them as they were growing up. Can the five Pennington kids finally form a bond and find a way to accept the dad they have, even if he wasn’t the one they deserved?
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The author of the “brazenly hilarious, tell-it-like-it-is first novel” (Oprah Daily) Queenie returns with another witty and insightful novel about the power of family—even when they seem like strangers.
If you could choose your family...you wouldn’t choose the Penningtons.
Dimple Pennington knows of her half siblings, but she doesn’t really know them. Five people who don’t have anything in common except for faint memories of being driven through Brixton in their dad’s gold jeep, and some pretty complex abandonment issues. Dimple has bigger things to think about.
She’s thirty, and her life isn’t really going anywhere. An aspiring lifestyle influencer with a terrible and wayward boyfriend, Dimple’s life has shrunk to the size of a phone screen. And despite a small but loyal following, she’s never felt more alone in her life. That is, until a dramatic event brings her half siblings Nikisha, Danny, Lizzie, and Prynce crashing back into her life. And when they’re all forced to reconnect with Cyril Pennington, the absent father they never really knew, things get even more complicated.
From an author with “a flair for storytelling that appears effortlessly authentic” (Time), People Person is a vibrant and charming celebration of discovering family as an adult.
“A perfect jewel of a book. It's not a murder mystery; indeed, it's not clear any crime has even been committed. A British schoolgirl accuses an older woman and her middle-aged daughter of abducting her. The girl describes the women's home perfectly, though they claim to have never seen her before.” —Louise Penny
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Robert Blair was about to knock off from a slow day at his law firm when the phone rang. It was Marion Sharpe on the line, a local woman of quiet disposition who lived with her mother at their decrepit country house, The Franchise. It appeared that she was in some serious trouble: Miss Sharpe and her mother were accused of brutally kidnapping a demure young woman named Betty Kane. Miss Kane's claims seemed highly unlikely, even to Inspector Alan Grant of Scotland Yard, until she described her prison -- the attic room with its cracked window, the kitchen, and the old trunks -- which sounded remarkably like The Franchise. Yet Marion Sharpe claimed the Kane girl had never been there, let alone been held captive for an entire month! Not believing Betty Kane's story, Solicitor Blair takes up the case and, in a dazzling feat of amateur detective work, solves the unbelievable mystery that stumped even Inspector Grant.
CIRCUS OF WONDERS takes the reader back to Victorian Europe, during a time when freak shows were a socially acceptable form of entertainment for both royalty and peasantry. After Nell’s desperate father had sold her to Jasper Jupiter’s traveling circus cadre, Nell became famous for her leopardlike birthmarks and ethereal performances, eventually headlining as Nellie Moon. Amidst Jasper’s circus, a secret relationship grows between Jasper’s brother Toby and Nell. Toby believes himself to be utterly boring and ordinary, but he’s harboring a dark secret he thinks will tear them apart—if Jasper’s greedy schemes don’t do the job first. In Elizabeth Macneal’s extraordinary world, a physical difference can get someone the designation of “monster” and put on public display, but the real monsters blend in with the crowd; there’s also a fine line between independence and exploitation. Readers will find beauty in destitution and a bit of horror, feminism, and romance threaded through this work of historical fiction.
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From the #1 internationally bestselling author of the “lush, evocative Gothic” (The New York Times Book Review) The Doll Factory comes an atmospheric and spectacular novel about a woman transformed by the arrival of a Victorian circus of wonders—“as moving as it is deeply entertaining” (Daniel Mason, New York Times bestselling author).
Step up, step up! In 1860s England, circus mania is sweeping the nation. Crowds jostle for a glimpse of the lion-tamers, the dazzling trapeze artists and, most thrilling of all, the so-called “human wonders.”
When Jasper Jupiter’s Circus of Wonders pitches its tent in a poor coastal town, the life of one young girl changes forever. Sold to the ringmaster as a “leopard girl” because of the birthmarks that cover her body, Nell is utterly devastated. But as she grows close to the other performers, she finds herself enchanted by the glittering freedom of the circus, and by her own role as the Queen of the Moon and Stars.
Before long, Nell’s fame spreads across the world—and with it, a chance for Jasper Jupiter to grow his own name and fortune. But what happens when her fame begins to eclipse his own, when even Jasper’s loyal brother Toby becomes captivated by Nell? No longer the quiet flower-picker, Nell knows her own place in the world, and she will fight for it.
Circus of Wonders is a beautiful story about the “complex dance between exploitation and empowerment, and the question of what it really means to have control over your own life” (Naomi Ishiguro, author of Escape Routes).
LOVE AND OTHER WORDS alternates between Then and Now, telling the love story between Elliot and Macy. As high schoolers, they were best friends bonding over books. Eleven years later, they reunite at a coffee shop and slowly uncover what happened that caused them to stop all contact whatsoever. The alternating storyline pattern is genius because you get the cute ramp-up of them becoming childhood sweethearts and then even more of a build in their adult life as the plot makes you wonder: Just what happened to tear these sweet lovebirds apart, and if they can they recover from it and love again?
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Every book editor knows the adage, ‘When you cry, you buy,’ i.e. acquire the manuscript for publication immediately. I was such an emotionally wrecked, tear-stained mess as I finished WE ARE THE LIGHT that I had a hard time even locating my phone to tell the literary agent that I had to publish it. So I envy you the good cry you’re in for when you read this beautiful, life-affirming new novel by the author of THE SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK.. —Jofie F., VP, Publisher
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From Matthew Quick, the New York Times bestselling author of The Silver Linings Playbook—made into the Academy Award–winning movie starring Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper—comes a poignant and hopeful novel about a widower who takes in a grieving teenager and inspires a magical revival in their small town.
Lucas Goodgame lives in Majestic, Pennsylvania, a quaint suburb that has been torn apart by a recent tragedy. Everyone in Majestic sees Lucas as a hero—everyone, that is, except Lucas himself. Insisting that his deceased wife, Darcy, visits him every night in the form of an angel, Lucas spends his time writing letters to his former Jungian analyst, Karl. It is only when Eli, an eighteen-year-old young man whom the community has ostracized, begins camping out in Lucas’s backyard that an unlikely alliance takes shape and the two embark on a journey to heal their neighbors and, most importantly, themselves.
From Matthew Quick, whose work has been described by the Boston Herald as “like going to your favorite restaurant. You just know it is going to be good,” We Are the Light is an unforgettable novel about the quicksand of grief and the daily miracle of love. The humorous, soul-baring story of Lucas Goodgame offers an antidote to toxic masculinity and celebrates the healing power of art. In this tale that will stay with you long after the final page is turned, Quick reminds us that life is full of guardian angels.
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