Cover image of "Four Treasures of the Sky," which is among the best popular fiction of 2022

For the record, what follows is not a list of the best popular fiction published during the past year. Instead, I’ve rejected the practice of those reviewers who imply they’ve read and reviewed the many thousands of popular (or trade) novels published in any given year. (I won’t name names.) Nobody, and no team of reviewers, can possibly manage that. And I won’t pretend to do so. Besides, I don’t read only new books. Many of the books I read and review were published years ago, award-winners and classics among them. So, the following list includes both new and old titles. But, from my perspective, it’s the best popular fiction of 2022.

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

However, three of these books are new, having been published this year: Horse by Geraldine Brooks, Mercury Pictures Presents by Anthony Marra, and Four Treasures of the Sky by Jenny Tinghui Zhang. Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko appeared in 2017 and clung to the bestseller lists for several years. I read James McBride’s Miracle at St. Anna because I loved two of his more recent novels, The Good Lord Bird and Deacon King Kong. I was delighted I had.


Cover image of "Horse," which is among the best popular fiction of 2022

Horse by Geraldine Brooks (2022) 416 pages ★★★★★—A novel about a famous racehorse sheds light on slavery

Beginning in 2001, Australian-American historical novelist Geraldine Brooks brought out a new book every three or four years. Her fifth, a novel about the Biblical King David, appeared in 2015. But it was not until seven years later that Brooks’ sixth novel, appeared. (Her husband of 35 years had died in 2019.) It was worth the wait, though. It’s a worthy successor to her Civil War novel, March, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and People of the Book, about the interaction of Jews, Muslims, and Christians in the history of southern Europe. Horse is a stunning example of her art. Reflecting her own love of horses, the book celebrates the most famous racehorse of the 19th century. In the process, Brooks brings to light the conflict between North and South in the 1850s and 60s and its legacy in the divisions that still plague American society today.

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Cover image of "Pachinko," which is among the best popular fiction of 2022

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee (2017) 650 pages ★★★★★—A fascinating multigenerational Korean saga

From 1910 to 1945, Korea was a Japanese colony. The Empire methodically set about “Japanizing” the country, imposing the conquerors’ language and customs. Japanese colonial administrators even went so far as to forbid women to wear white, as custom had dictated. When Koreans emigrated to Japan to escape the grinding poverty that resulted from Japan’s extraction of the peninsula’s wealth, they found the treatment just as harsh in their new home. The notorious use of Korean “comfort women” by the Japanese army in World War II was merely one of innumerable aspects of the oppressive regimen they imposed on Korea for 35 years. And much of this comes to light in the pages of Min Jin Lee’s brilliant novel about Korea and Japan, Pachinko.

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Cover image of "Mercury Pictures Presents," a book of popular fiction

Mercury Pictures Presents by Anthony Marra (2022) 446 pages ★★★★★—European refugees add luster to wartime Hollywood

One of Adolf Hitler’s greatest strategic errors was to force tens of thousands of Jews and other anti-Nazis to flee Germany in the 1930s. Of course, the policies that provoked this exodus were central to Nazi ideology. But they proved self-defeating, since scores of brilliant scientists were among those who left, Albert Einstein first among them. And many of them played pivotal roles in the Allied war effort, notably the Manhattan Project that produced the first nuclear weapons but in many other ways as well. They were far from alone, however. Many of Germany’s most honored writers, filmmakers, and actors fled, too, along with anti-fascist refugees from Italy and elsewhere in Europe. Hundreds found their way to California, becoming key figures in Tinseltown’s Golden Age. They are the subject of Anthony Marra’s poignant second novel about wartime Hollywood, Mercury Pictures Presents.

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Cover image of "Miracle at St. Anna," which is among the best popular fiction of 2022

Miracle at St. Anna by James McBride (2001) 324 pages ★★★★★—Black soldiers on the front line in Tuscany in World War II

“This book is a work of fiction inspired by real events and real people.” So writes James McBride in an author’s note that precedes the text. He continues: “It draws upon the individual and collective experiences of black soldiers who served in the Serchio Valley and Apuane Alps of Italy during World War II.” They were among the storied “Buffalo Soldiers” of the US Army’s segregated 92nd Infantry Division. The division garnered thousands of honors, including two Medals of Honor, 208 Silver Stars, and 1,166 Bronze Stars, yet many of the white officers who commanded the unit circulated false reports of the troops’ poor performance. In Miracle at St. Anna, an engrossing account of the division in action in Italy late in 1944, James McBride brings that reality to light.

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Cover image of "Four Treasures of the Sky," a popular novel

Four Treasures of the Sky by Jenny Tinghui Zhang (2022) 321 pages ★★★★★—The Chinese immigrant experience in 19th-century America 

For millions of White Americans, the 19th century was an era of expanding opportunities. Settlers steadily pushed back the Western frontier, and the Industrial Revolution gained momentum until, by century’s end, the United States boasted the world’s most productive economy. But for African-Americans, Native peoples, Chinese immigrants, and for anyone else—Irish, Italians, and Jews—who simply seemed “different” to the country’s majority population, the experience of life in America was often harsh beyond measure. Jenny Tinghui Zhang’s moving novel, Four Treasures of the Sky, illuminates one of the most overlooked of those experiences. She tells the long-hidden story of the Chinese men and women who came across the Pacific, willingly or not, to work the mines and railroads, the laundries and the brothels.

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For more reading

You’ll find a lot of other readable popular fiction at Top 10 great popular novels reviewed on this site.

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