2012 was a year filled with great and memorable books (aren’t they all?). For me, it’s hard to pin down the absolute “best” books of the year, but this post is my own little way of summing up what I loved, what I hated, what made me laugh, what made me cry… and just about everything in between.
[Note: Included here are books that I read in 2012. Many were released in 2012, but some are older. Hey, it’s my list. Make of it what you will.]
Favorite quirky titles: Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple and Tell The Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt are the winners here, with honorable mention to The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving by Jonathan Evison. Even better than the titles: The fact that I really enjoyed all three of these terrific novels.
Biggest sources of shame: That I read the Fifty Shades trilogy, pretty much without stopping to breathe, over the course of a weekend. Good literature? Nope. But impossible to tear your eyes away from? Absolutely.
Sexy without shame: The lovely Ocean’s Surrender by Denise Townsend. Good writing, interesting characters, and scorching hot action. Erotic and classy, but never cheesy.
Favorite new graphic novel series: Without doubt, gotta be the Fables series by Bill Willingham. I love everything about it, managed to gobble up all 17 volumes plus the spin-off Jack of Fables series and several other Fables-related stand-alones. Waiting impatiently for volume 18, due out in January.
Favorite new series of the non-illustrated variety: I think I’d have to go with the Mercy Thompson series, the outstanding urban fantasy series by Patricia Briggs. Populated by shape-shifters, werewolves, vampires, fey, and all sorts of things that go bump in the night, yet grounded in relatable characters who have day jobs, homes, and bills to pay, this series has just the right mix of real life and supernatural.
Best twisty-turny plots: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn and Before I Go To Sleep by S. J. Watson. Absolute roller-coaster rides.
Favorite illustrated book for kids: Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick. From the author of The Invention of Hugo Cabret, a simply beautiful and heart-breaking story in which the illustrations are part of the narrative. Appropriate for middle grade readers and above. (This grown-up was reduced to tears)
Favorite illustrated book for grown-ups: Sacré Bleu by Christopher Moore. You just can’t go wrong with a Christopher Moore book. Sacré Bleu, set in Paris, with a star-studded cast of Impressionist painters plus a few otherworldly types thrown in, is funny, fast-paced, and altogether full of win.
Books that I was happy to cry over: The Fault in Our Stars by John Green and Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein put me through an emotional wringer, but they’re such excellent books that I didn’t mind in the slightest.
Most powerful YA fiction read in 2012: See above.
Best YA fiction that should just be marketed as great fiction rather than confined to YA: See above.
Loveliest author encounter: When I heard that Mary Doria Russell, author of The Sparrow (love, love, love) was coming to my city to speak at a high school, I contacted her to see if the event was open to the public. It wasn’t, but she arranged for me to attend as her guest. Her appearance was wonderful, and I was so impressed by the reactions of the high school students (at an all-girls Catholic school, no less!) to this difficult and often very adult subject matter. As an added treat, I had time before her presentation to sit and talk with her, and she could not have been friendlier. Afterward, I mentioned in a thank-you email to Ms. Russell that my book group had chosen her novel Doc as our next book, and she directed me to the book group page at Random House, where I was able to request a book chat with her. My little book group and I then spent an hour on the phone with Ms. Russell, and she was absolutely delightful — warm, funny, smart, gracious, and welcoming. We all came out of that discussion practically walking on air.
Best armchair travels via fiction: Antarctica, via Where’d You Go Bernadette; Orkney Islands and Iceland via The Flight of Gemma Hardy by Margot Livesey; Mississippi River via Fevre Dream by George R. R. Martin; Alaska via The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey.
Most haunting dystopias and apocalypses: The Dog Stars by Peter Heller; The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson; Flashback by Dan Simmons.
Best end-of-a-series to be read with a cup of tea: Timeless, the 5th and final volume in Gail Carriger’s fabulous Parasol Protectorate series.
Weirdest set-ups for great books: Going Bovine by Libba Bray, about a teenager dying of mad cow disease; and Every Day by David Levithan, about A, who wakes up in a different body every day.
Most enjoyable forays into other time periods: The Diviners by Libba Bray, one of my favorites of the year, full of flappers and insouciant fun in the New York of the roaring 1920s; and Doc by Mary Doria Russell, historical fiction about Doc Holliday that was completely lovely to read.
Biggest disappointment (but I read it anyway): Opinions are very divided on The Casual Vacancy by J. K. Rowling. Count me as one of the naysayers.
Biggest disappointments that I just couldn’t finish: The Evolution of Mara Dyer by Michelle Hodkin (enjoyed the first in this series, but just couldn’t get into book #2) and The Red House by Mark Haddon.
Most unique use of language: The Brides of Rollrock Island by Margo Lanagan. The author’s use of words to create a setting, a mood, and a culture is beyond description. The story itself is beautiful, but it’s Margo Lanagan’s way with the English language that truly sets this book apart from everything else I’ve read this year. (Plus, the cover is really pretty!)
Don’t read if you’re going on a cruise: The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan and The House of Velvet and Glass by Katherine Howe would not be good choices to read during a sea voyage. If you plan to stay on dry land, however, these are both quite good.
Don’t read if you’re pregnant: Breed by Chase Novak and Talulla Rising by Glen Duncan. Fantastically creepy horror, excellent books, but they’ll certainly wipe your mind clean of happy little pink and blue bunnies and lambs.
Best books with airport encounters: The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight by Jennifer E. Smith (good outcome) and Stolen by Lucy Christopher (bad outcome).
Best book that sounds like it’s about travel (but it’s not): Looking for Alaska by John Green.
Best use of a bookstore as a romantic setting: Dash & Lily’s Book of Dares by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan.
Great fiction that taught me a thing or two: Gold by Chris Cleve, which taught me all about Olympic bicycle racing and Shadow of Night by Deborah Harkness, which taught me about alchemy (and also how uncomfortable it is to dress as an Elizabethan-era woman). And dare I add Breed by Chase Novak? Breed taught me not to fly off to former Soviet-bloc countries to seek experimental fertility treatments from shady doctors. (Clearly, I’m still a bit traumatized by that book. Scary.)
Best riffs on classics: The Flight of Gemma Hardy by Margot Livesey, a re-telling of Jane Eyre, and Death Comes to Pemberley by P. D. James, set in the world of Pride and Prejudice.
Best reunion with old friends: All of the books in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer graphic novel series. So great to hang out with the Scoobies again!
Futuristic worlds I don’t want to live in: Flashback by Dan Simmons is a chilling portrayal of a future United States that’s utterly bleak and hopeless, and yet depressingly easy to envision. And Because It Is My Blood by Gabrielle Zevin is set in a world in which chocolate is illegal. Tell me that’s not a terrifying thought!
Children’s book that might seem like a Harry Potter rip-off (but isn’t): The Secret of Platform 13 by Eva Ibbotson. (This one came first)
Fun books to read with a kid: The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place series by Maryrose Woods; Chomp by Carl Hiassen; Half Magic by Edward Eager; The Haunting of Granite Falls by Eva Ibbotson.
Books that just plain old made me happy:
All Men of Genius by Lev AC Rosen: Brilliantly comedic steampunk cross-dressing fun.
Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins and The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight by Jennifer E. Smith: Lovely, spirited, romantic YA tales with non-cookie-cutter characters.
Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter: Who would have thought that a book about 1960s Hollywood, Italian fishing villages, and Richard Burton could be such a great read?
… and many more, which, for whatever reason, I can’t quite categorize but still really enjoyed (plus a few that are probably better off forgotten). It’s been a great year of reading! I can’t wait to see what treasures I’ll uncover in 2013!