I’m not usually a fan of end of year lists as much as people seem to make them, especially since, when it comes to books, there’s almost no way that you (or at least I) can get to every book in my to-read pile, especially considering a lot of the books I want to read aren’t usually published the year I read them, I’m a bit slow to the game with these things. So, it was lucky this year that I started writing book reviews for The Bookshelf as well as The Coast (and here on the blog) because between the three of them I was often knee-deep in new books.
This week was the Critics’ Picks issue of The Coast which means I had to compile my Top 12 of 2012 books of the year list and happily this year (maybe unlike last year, shhhh) I had read so many books (68 and counting) that all the books on my list were both published this year and rated well by me on Goodreads. In the next couple of days I’m going to post a companion list to this one featuring my list of the year just in general, new and old, the best books I’ve read this year. I’m curious to see how different they would be.
My Top 12 of 2012 (books published this year)
A somewhat bumbling provincial attorney Leo Curtice is saddled with the task of defending a 12-year-old boy after he molests and murders an 11-year-old girl. Drawn into the boy’s past and seemingly inability to understand the significance of his actions, Leo finds himself not just the only person willing to even consider defending the child but also, maybe, his only friend. It’s disturbing novel, not just for the boy but how he’s perceived in a system that pretends to withhold judgement until proven guilty. It’s horrifying to consider at what point a child stops being a child and turns into a monster—and scarier still what you can lose if you defend that monster. I’m not a huge crime fan, but this one was hard to put down.
I wrote about this one just the other day. Sloan’s novel about a life-lost guy who finds himself working at a strange bookstore that turns out to be a kind of front for a secret society’s quest for the secret of immortality is swiftly engaging and fun. Even if it doesn’t turn out how you (or the characters) necessarily want it to, it still manages to share a few life secrets with you, regardless. Maybe I’m biased because a literary-based mystery is just too appealing, but then again I never really fell for The Davinci Code, so I think I’m doing alright.
After reading The End of Everything and being totally unable to shake it, I had to read Megan Abbott’s newest novel and see if it was just a one-off. Dare Me is focuses again on the tight friendship between two young girls only this time, that bond is far more insidious. Both are cheerleaders who develop an unhealthy obsession with their new coach and how that obsession begins to define their friendship. It’s sort of Mean Girls meets Crush or Election only way darker and just as enthralling as The End of Everything.
I love love love Nick Hornby. I haven’t written about him until now, but he’s one of those writers who I search out and gobble up every word they write (see also: Barbara Kingsolver, John Fowles, Anais Nin, Haruki Murakami, I could probably go on…). He’s equal parts smart and funny, which is nice, and he just, I dunno, writes the kinds of books I never want to stop reading. He also writes a column for The Believer called Stuff I’ve Been Reading which is really, really good. It’s sometimes rambly and oftentimes completely unrelated to books but it’s also probably the best and most realistic description of reading activity that I’ve seen from a book critic (every month there’s a list of the books he’s bought and the ones he’s read, they don’t always overlap) anyway, fan girl squeeing aside, this is a collection of one year’s worth of that column. Totally worth reading, but only if you love books… wait… if you don’t love books why are you even reading this?
An aging man gets a letter from an old friend that is dying and sets out on a really long walk to reconnect with her. Along the way he gets hurt, famous, considered senile, forgotten and finds peace. It’s such an odd premise that I had to read for myself. Rachel Joyce’s depiction of Harold Fry and his estranged wife is so quietly tragic that you just can’t help falling for them a little, and rooting for their failed marriage. The scene where she is pairing her clothes with his is just, perfect. This book is a slow ambler, kinda paced the way Harold is, so if you don’t have the patience, you might want to skip it.
The follow-up to 2010’s The Passage (which I just read this summer) deserves to be on this list solely for the anticipation it garnered while I waited for fall and my advanced copy… it’s a giant blockbuster of a series which is going to be a giant blockbuster of a movie too. You get the feeling that’s what Cronin always planned for in this epic sweeping action series about a military-made virus that ushers in the vampire apocalypse and the world’s human survivors that attempt to make sense of the world they grew up in decades upon decades later. This book wasn’t near as good as the first one but the story is still pretty awesome. Read it before they make it a movie so you can get in on the ground floor.
They call it a novel-in-stories, but what Carrie Snyder manages in her second book is deeper and more coherent than that. Juliet grows up in Nicaragua (post-revolutionary war) with her two brothers as almost an afterthought for their activist parents, until illness drives them home and into the immediacy of conventional family life. Each early chapter is a glimpse, a hazy portrait of ten year old Juliet that doesn’t fully form until later, as a collection, comes understanding. Back in Canada, the fractured family continues to deal with reverberations from their past, unable to forgive each other, instead clinging to Nicaragua as this place out of time, free from the stamp of grief. It’s only in going back to confront the ghosts that Juliet is able to come to terms with her stories and begin a family of her own. Snyder is phenomenal here, crafting some of the most striking images and beautiful sentences that you will likely read all year. The Juliet Stories is not to be missed. (Re-posted from The Coast)
Short-listed for the Giller Prize, I’ve blogged about Inside before—Ohlin’s novel about Grace, a sincere therapist and the people she becomes entwined with will have you diagnosing characters left right and centre, although each one will manage to surprise you—it’s a bit obsessive and maddening but engrossing just the same. Although, most of the characters are unlikeable assholes that you don’t mind watching fall apart, so you definitely have to be into books where you don’t need to relate to or root for the people in it. Let’s just book club and laugh maniacally together as they fail.
The only thing better than Adam Marek’s book of fantastic short stories is imagining how he possibly came up with them. Absurd, darkly comic and at times head-scratchingly bizarre, Marek’s talent for rending the supernatural or outrageous in real, human terms is mind-boggling. A couple finds out they are pregnant with 37 babies. A man is diagnosed with cancer just before the city he lives in is attacked by a Godzilla-like beast. A pet shop sells animals by volume. A man working in a restaurant for zombies finds out the meat is locally-sourced. Another man travels to the inner workings of his mind only to discover the controls are manned by Busta Rhymes. The premise is always wildly weird, but Marek manages to take the fantasy from unbelievable to relatable in a few short pages, surprising you with emotional insight not usually attributed to the sci-fi section. This is a gem of a collection—no story left behind. (Re-posted from The Coast)
By Jaime Forsythe
In her first book of poetry, Forsythe manages to create a fascinating balance between the oddly witty and beautifully weird that most writers only dream about, or go wildly off the mark while attempting it. It’s a riveting collection that pays tribute to the strangeness in everyday life. I’ve written about it here and here already. That’s just how lovely it is. Plus, she’s from Halifax which makes it even better. (Who doesn’t love to read poetry that’s influenced by places they often frequent?) If you’re going to only read one book of poetry this year, it should be this one.
2. This is How You Lose Her (Riverhead)
By Junot Díaz
The follow-up short story collection to the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao sees Yunior’s life set against a backdrop of heartbreak. The women he loves and inevitably loses because of his own short-comings romanticize that special kind of failure in the tender, raw and darkly comedic way that Díaz has long perfected. It’s cut from the same cloth that Oscar Wao was—full of untranslated words and seemingly autobiographically-tinged sexism—so if that rubbed you the wrong way, then this will too. Personally, I’ll probably read everything Díaz throws at us, even that weird sci-fi epic that’s reportedly in the works called Monstro.
1. The Rook (Back Bay)
By Daniel O’Malley
One fantasy book to rule them all, The Rook is part Memento-esque amnesia mystery and part political thriller with a dash of Men in Black-level government-weird to keep you guessing, laughing and crossing your fingers for a sequel more than any other genre could. It’s exactly what you didn’t know you were looking for. When Myfanwy Thomas awakes in the rain with dead bodies surrounding her, she knows only what is provided by a letter in her pocket addressed to her from…herself. She learns that she holds a high level position in a secret supernatural government agency—organized like a chess board—and that a traitor from within stole her memories and still wants her dead. In a thrilling page turner that is as funny as it is suspenseful. Rook Thomas, guided by a suitcase of letters from her former meticulous self, needs to solve the mystery before her would-be murderer succeeds while juggling her everyday responsibilities like, oh, running an organization that employs people who type with tentacles, subverting a Frankenstein-esque Belgian invasion, and figuring out how to control her recently discovered superpowers. The Rook melds the best of all genres into a fantastically fun and intensely readable debut novel. (Re-posted from The Coast)
YAY! My top 5 books read this year, period, to follow.