Greta Johnsen, the host of WBEZ’s Nerdette podcast, reads a lot — in 2022, she polished off 96 books, making her the ideal person to narrow down the best novels of the year. In addition to being an avid reader, Johnsen’s podcast has a book club. On the first Tuesday of every month, Johnsen does a spoiler-free interview with the author of the book. Then, another episode on the last Tuesday of the month features a discussion between panelists, which can include hosts of other podcasts and authors. (Find out about the selections by signing up for Nerdette’s weekly newsletter or following their Instagram.)
According to Johnsen, some of the best books released in the past year grappled with big, topical themes, such as deadly viruses, what it takes to succeed and restrictions on free speech. Here are her 10 favorites, in no particular order because they’re all so good, she said, she couldn’t possibly rank them.
by Hernan Diaz
Riverhead, $28; Nerdette Book Club December 2022 selection
Written in four parts, Trust is about money and its power “to bend and align reality,” as one character says in author Hernan Diaz’s latest novel. The story follows Benjamin and Helen Rask, who have become extraordinarily wealthy during the 1920s in New York. But they acquired that fortune at a cost — the specifics of which become clear in revelations throughout the novel.
“I read this book twice this year, and I can’t wait to read it again,” Johnsen said. “A true feat of a structural puzzle. Don’t read about it, just read it!”
Listen to Nerdette’s interview with Diaz.
by Akwaeke Emezi
Atria Books, $27
Five years after the love of her life died in an accident, main character Feyi Adekola wants to get back into the dating scene. She ends up having a summer filled with a luxurious vacation, meals prepared by a celebrity chef and career assistance from a prominent art curator. But when Feyi begins seeing someone she believes is the perfect guy, things get complicated.
“If you like a plotty book with lots of tea to spill, this is the story for you!” Johnsen said. “It’s lush and languid, and is a romance novel with real emotional depth.”
by Sarah Thankam Mathews
When Sneha lands a corporate job in the middle of a recession, the opportunity allows her to do things like pick up the tab for her friend at a restaurant and send money home to her parents in India. But the calm doesn’t last long, and Sneha and her friends face evictions and long-buried secrets. All This Could Be Different is a story about an immigrant making a home for herself and a group of young people creating a community amidst struggle.
“Mathews’s voice is one I’m so glad to have in my head,” Johnsen said. “This book is hilarious and heartfelt. It’s an exquisitely modern story about finding your way.”
by Gwen E. Kirby
Penguin Books, $17; Nerdette Book Club February 2022 selection
In this imaginative collection of short stories, women tell of their successes as well as their pain and aren’t afraid to be loud, funny and angry protagonists. Examples include witches who refuse to burn, virgins who escape being sacrificed and whores who aren’t ashamed of their profession. Not only is the content intriguing, but author Gwen E. Kirby also experiments with structure, writing in the form of Yelp reviews, WikiHow articles and more. Her narrators push against limitations, refusing to be constrained by rules.
“This collection is SO MUCH FUN,” Johnsen said. “It’s fierce and feisty and funny. Read if you like lady pirates and Greek mythology, or are a woman who fantasizes about becoming a radioactive cockroach.”
Listen to Nerdette‘s interview with Kirby.
by Sequoia Nagamatsu
William Morrow, $27.99
An ancient Arctic virus unleashed in 2030 changes humanity for generations in Nagamatsu’s latest novel. The stories that follow span continents, centuries and planets, exploring humanity’s ability to adapt and find solace in the face of tragedy. For example, a scientist seeking a cure for the virus gets a second chance at being a father when a pig he uses as a test subject can suddenly speak.
Johnsen describes the novel as “a collection of intertwined stories about hope emerging from grief. This is excellent sci-fi! I also think it would make a great introduction to sci-fi for a reader who’d like to be more adventurous.”
by Celeste Ng
Penguin Press, $29; Nerdette Book Club October 2022 selection
Our Missing Hearts follows 12-year-old Bird Gardner, whose family lives under laws designed to preserve American culture after the country went through years of economic instability and violence. Children of adults who do not comply can be taken from their parents. Libraries cannot carry books deemed unpatriotic. Bird’s story introduces the reader to an underground network of librarians and children who have been taken and then dive into a movement for change.
“A near future dystopia that’s a bit more familiar than you may like,” Johnsen said. “This book is an emotional read, but it’s also full of tenderness and care. Bonus points for heroic librarians!”
Listen to Nerdette’s discussion of the book.
by Sara Novic
Random House, $28
The students at River Valley School for the Deaf want to act like normal teenagers and have a say over their own bodies, including whether or not they get cochlear implants. But politicians, doctors and parents have their own opinions on the matter. True Biz is about personal and political struggles involving sign language and lip-reading, disability and civil rights, first love and persistence.
“I love a book that’s set on a high school campus,” Johnsen said. “I also love a book that introduces me to a community I don’t know much about. This book does both, with flair.”
by Kevin Wilson
In this coming-of-age tale, two awkward teenagers get together both romantically and creatively. They make and hang up a poster where everyone in their small town can see it, causing rumors to spread about satanists and kidnappers. Now is Not the Time To Panic revisits its main character 20 years after the panic, and gives her the opportunity to come clean to an inquiring reporter about what happened — a revelation that could upend her life but also, set her free.
“With this book, Kevin Wilson is solidly one of my favorite authors,” Johnsen said. “Read this if you think being called weird is a compliment.”
by Emi Yagi
A young woman named Ms. Shibata takes a new job to escape sexual harassment at her former workplace. The only female at her new company, she soon realizes she is in charge of all the menial tasks. She begins to tell her coworkers she is pregnant and therefore cannot do her work — a lie. Ms. Shibata’s ploy starts to consume her life, but she also finally feels like she is well-respected.
“This book is unhinged in the best possible way,” Johnsen said. “Read it if you keep fantasizing about how to never have to work again.”
by Gabrielle Zevin
Knopf, $28; Nerdette Book Club September 2022 selection
In their mid-20s, Sam Masur and Sadie Green run a successful video game production company. But their success and wealth don’t protect them from the struggles that come with creative ambition and heartbreak. Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow takes place over three decades as the pair creates a series of successful games and learns the importance of human connection.
“An incredible story set in the world of video game design,” Johnsen said. “BUT, if you’re not a gamer, don’t let the conceit get you down! This is a book about art and friendship. Read if you like ‘90s nostalgia, conversations around creativity and ambition, and narrative experimentation.”
Listen to Nerdette’s discussion of the book.
Greta Johnsen is the host of WBEZ’s Nerdette podcast. Follow her on Twitter @gretamjohnsen.
Bianca Cseke is a digital producer at WBEZ. Follow her @biancacseke1.