This New Year, there are a lot of lists going around rating the books of 2012. Some, like the New Yorker’s two articles, are based on staff tastes, and these align closely with the award-winners of the year–Louise Erdrich, David Ferry, Junot Diaz–and eclectically with independently-bound novels by unknown artists. Others, like the Goodreads Choice Awards, are based on user votes. Either way, these rankings serve two main functions: to give you a shopping list for the bookstore and to spark heated debates between book lovers.
Perusing these lists, I was shocked at how few of these books I have read! My bookshelf this year was dominated by course books and manuscripts, but I still managed to read a few published novels. So in the spirit of the New Year, here are my best books of 2012 (not including the ones I’ve edited):
Billy Purgatory and the Curse of the Satanic Five by Jesse James Freeman
Billy Purgatory is a man plagued by questions – about his mother’s disappearance, his love-hate relationship with vampire fatale Anastasia, and why the Time Zombie keeps stealing his girlfriends. The search for answers frequently leads him into danger and the darker corners of the world, corners he would prefer not to see. In his quest for answers, Billy begins using the Zombie’s powers for his own designs, hurtling into the past in a time-bending attempt to create an ideal present. No one can predict the outcome of such a plan – especially not Billy. This time, his adventures take him high above the African plains, through the sleek, marbled halls of a mysterious mansion brimming with sinister science, and across the U.S. on a heated road trip with none other than Anastasia at his side. Vampires, demons, and an evil cabal known simply as the Satanic Five are all hot on his trail. Some answers don’t come easily…but that’s never stopped Billy Purgatory.
Although I edited the first book in this series, for scheduling reasons I wasn’t on the production team of the sequel, and so I read this when it was already done. Let me tell you: it was good! What is amazing about the Billy Purgatory series is that even while the plot, characters, and creatures are out of this world, there is a backbone of simple, human emotion that keeps the story intensely real. Plus, there’s something for everyone–humor, romance, action, and even a little taste of zombie apocalypse.
Deep Down True by Juliette Fay
Newly divorced Dana Stellgarten has always been unfailingly nice- even to telemarketers-but now her temper is wearing thin. Money is tight, her kids are reeling from their dad’s departure, and her Goth teenage niece has just landed on her doorstep. As she enters the slipstream of post-divorce romance and is befriended by the town queen bee, Dana finds that the tension between being true to yourself and being liked doesn’t end in middle school… and that sometimes it takes a real friend to help you embrace adulthood in all its flawed complexity.
This is a quiet, contemplative women’s fiction book that focuses less on the romantic side of a single mother’s life and more on the way things go wrong day to day–and how that adds up to be a calamity.
Divorced, Desperate, and Delicious by Christie Craig
Ever since photographer Lacy Maguire caught her ex playing Pin the Secretary to the Elevator Wall, she’s been content with her dog Fabio, her three cats, and a vow of chastity. But all that changes when the reindeer-antlered Fabio drags in a very desperate, on-the-run detective who decides to take refuge in her house–a house filled with twinkling lights and a decorated tree. (Okay, so it’s February. but she has a broken heart to mend, a Christmas-card shoot to do, and a six-times divorced, match-making mother to appease.) For the first time in a looong while, Lacy reconsiders her vow. Because sexy Chase Kelly, wounded soul that he may be, would be an oh-so-delicious way of breaking her fast. Now, if she can just keep them both alive and him out of jail…
This is the first in a romance series about a group of divorced women finding love again. Set in Texas and always involving a mildly dangerous suspense twist, the series is a lot of fun and a great fix if you’re looking for a romance.
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
Orphaned into the household of her Aunt Reed at Gateshead, subject to the cruel regime at Lowood charity school, Jane Eyre nonetheless emerges unbroken in spirit and integrity.
She takes up the post of governess at Thornfield, falls in love with Mr. Rochester, and discovers the impediment to their lawful marriage in a story that transcends melodrama to portray a woman’s passionate search for a wider and richer life than Victorian society traditionally allowed.
I’m not that big into classics, but after reading several modern novels that heavily referenced Jane Eyre, I decided I had to give it a try. While there are certainly parts that are slow and other parts that are pedantic, on the whole it read like a modern women’s fiction, and I loved it.
The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides
It’s the early 1980s the country is in a deep recession, and life after college is harder than ever. In the cafés on College Hill, the wised-up kids are inhaling Derrida and listening to Talking Heads. But Madeleine Hanna, dutiful English major, is writing her senior thesis on Jane Austen and George Eliot, purveyors of the marriage plot that lies at the heart of the greatest English novels.
As Madeleine tries to understand why it became laughable to read writers like Cheever and Updike, who wrote about the suburbia Madeleine and most of her friends had grown up in, in favor of reading the Marquis de Sade, who wrote about deflowering virgins in eighteenth-century France, real life, in the form of two very different guys, intervenes. Leonard Bankhead, charismatic loner, college Darwinist, and lost Portland boy suddenly turns up in a semiotics seminar, and soon Madeleine finds herself in a highly charged erotic and intellectual relationship with him. At the same time, her old friend Mitchell Grammaticus who’s been reading Christian mysticism and generally acting strange resurfaces, obsessed with the idea that Madeleine is destined to be his mate.
Over the next year, as the members of the triangle in this amazing, spellbinding novel graduate from college and enter the real world, events force them to reevaluate everything they learned in school. Leonard and Madeleine move to a biology laboratory on Cape Cod, but can’t escape the secret responsible for Leonard’s seemingly inexhaustible energy and plunging moods. And Mitchell, traveling around the world to get Madeleine out of his mind, finds himself face-to-face with ultimate questions about the meaning of life, the existence of God, and the true nature of love.
Are the great love stories of the nineteenth century dead? Or can there be a new story, written for today and alive to the realities of feminism, sexual freedom, prenups, and divorce? With devastating wit and an abiding understanding of and affection for his characters, Jeffrey Eugenides revives the motivating energies of the Novel, while creating a story so contemporary and fresh that it reads like the intimate journal of our own lives.
Jeffrey Eugenides is a great writer because he understands how to weave a compelling story as well as how to do all the other stuff that wins him prizes. This novel is especially great for English majors, but it awed me with its realistic romance and amazing depiction of bipolar disorder.
The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon
Barcelona, 1945: A city slowly heals in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, and Daniel, an antiquarian book dealer’s son who mourns the loss of his mother, finds solace in a mysterious book entitled The Shadow of the Wind, by one Julián Carax. But when he sets out to find the author’s other works, he makes a shocking discovery: someone has been systematically destroying every copy of every book Carax has written. In fact, Daniel may have the last of Carax’s books in existence. Soon Daniel’s seemingly innocent quest opens a door into one of Barcelona’s darkest secrets–an epic story of murder, madness, and doomed love.
This is a novel for the book lover. It sweeps you into a world of musty books that lead to real life adventure, into a world where writers and their words truly interact with the world, and into a world where reading is the only solution.
Somebody to Love by Kristan Higgins
After her father loses the family fortune in an insider-trading scheme, single mom Parker Welles is faced with some hard decisions. First order of business: go to Gideon’s Cove, Maine, to sell the only thing she now owns — a decrepit house in need of some serious flipping. When her father’s wingman, James Cahill, asks to go with her, she’s not thrilled — even if he is fairly gorgeous and knows his way around a toolbox.
Having to fend for herself financially for the first time in her life, Parker signs on as a florist’s assistant and starts to find out who she really is. Maybe James isn’t the glib lawyer she always thought he was. And maybe the house isn’t the only thing that needs a little TLC .
This is one of those romances that fits the bill of the genre and yet feels fresh, unique, and leaves you feeling very happy (in other words, it accomplishes what all romances aspire to).
The Still Point by Amy Sackville
At the turn of the twentieth century, Arctic explorer Edward Mackley sets out to reach the North Pole and vanishes into the icy landscape without a trace. He leaves behind a young wife, Emily, who awaits his return for decades, her dreams and devotion gradually freezing into rigid widowhood. A hundred years later, on a sweltering mid-summer’s day, Edward’s great-grand-niece Julia moves through the old family house, attempting to impose some order on the clutter of inherited belongings and memories from that ill-fated expedition, and taking care to ignore the deepening cracks within her own marriage. But as afternoon turns into evening, Julia makes a discovery that splinters her long-held image of Edward and Emily’s romance, and her husband Simon faces a precipitous choice that will decide the future of their relationship. Sharply observed and deeply engaging, The Still Point is a powerful literary debut, and a moving meditation on the distances – geographical and emotional – that can exist between two people.
This is a deeply quiet, deeply beautiful novel that straddles two marriages and how they are each based on a fantasy that threatens to crack them. It’s not for the impatient reader, but if you don’t mind a slow, gorgeous read, you’ll find this to be insightful, sweet, and breathtaking.
White Oleander by Janet Fitch
When Astrid’s mother, a beautiful, headstrong poet, murders a former lover and is imprisoned for life, Astrid becomes one of the thousands of foster children in Los Angeles. As she navigates this new reality, Astrid finds strength in her unshakable certainty of her own worth and her unfettered sense of the absurd.
I wrote about this book earlier in the year because it so amazed me with its careful, beautiful language. Astrid is a wonderful narrator, and the only time you’ll want to put this down is when it’s made your heart break so hard that you need a tissue break.
And below are lists from other book experts. (The Goodreads and NPR lists are broken into subcategories and so are ideal for finding the next book to read.)
The New Yorker
Barnes and Noble