Wednesday, January 2, 2013

My favorite books of 2012...

So, you might have noticed once or twice that I read a lot. (I can't tell you how many emails and Facebook comments I get from people asking how it is I read so much.) Reading is honestly one of my most favorite things in the world, and I'm tremendously thankful that I've been able to have the opportunity to share my thoughts via this blog and websites like Goodreads and Amazon about the books I've read. In fact, I've even heard from some of the authors whose books I've reviewed, which is tremendously gratifying.

Last year, I read 109 books. (I read a mere 84 books last year.) Yeah, I can't believe it either.

When I started making this list, I came up with 32 books that I still think about, some months after I read them. But a list that size seemed a little unwieldy, so I narrowed it to 20 books, with five additional books that are equally worthy, but I classified them as "too good not to mention."

So, in no particular order, here are my favorite books from 2012. For each, I excerpted my original review, but you can still access the full review I originally wrote. As always, I'd welcome your comments, and here's to another year of exceptional reading!

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green:I curse John Green for writing a book that hooked me so hard I stayed up until nearly 2:00 a.m. to finish it. And I curse him for writing a book so emotionally gripping that I was sobbing on my couch in the middle of the night. (By curse, of course, I mean thank.) When teenagers Hazel Grace Lancaster and Augustus "Gus" Waters meet in a support group for kids with cancer, they are drawn to each other immediately. The two are snarky, sarcastic, sensitive, and wise beyond their years, and begin an intense friendship that brings them both joy. Clearly, a book about teenagers who meet in a cancer support group is headed in a direction you don't want it to, but even the journey Green takes you on is worth the sadness. Read my original review.

The Absolutist by John Boyne: Tristan Sadler, newly 21, travels to Norwich from his London home to take care of an errand he is dreading. He has promised to deliver a sheaf of letters his friend Will Bancroft received while they fought together during World War I to Will's sister. To say that this book devastated me is an understatement. It was easily one of the most beautifully written, emotionally gripping books I read this year, and perhaps in some time. Read my original review.

Creole Belle by James Lee Burke: In 1990, I read my first James Lee Burke book, one of the early novels in his Dave Robicheaux series. Twenty-two years later, I've read 27 of his books—the entirety of three series (Robicheaux, Billy Bob Holland, and Hackberry Holland)—as well as several older stand-alone novels. I can honestly say that Creole Belle not only was one of Burke's best, but it was an absolutely phenomenal book, poetic, dark, elegiacal, and full of evocative imagery and complex, well-drawn characters. Read my original review.

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan: "The books I love most are like open cities, with all sorts of ways to wander in." So says Clay Jannon, the narrator of Robin Sloan's marvelously magical book, Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore. Honestly, any novel that combines a celebration of a lifetime in the literary world, a lifetime of reading, along with a rollicking, mysterious adventure, is one I could imagine myself living inside of. I'm a big fan of books that take you on an adventure, and even if I wasn't always completely sure what was going on, this book hooked me from start to finish. Read my original review.

The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey: Jack and Mabel left behind their comfortable lives for the adventure and excitement of settling their own homestead in 1920s Alaska. But after a few brutal winters, the reality of their decision is crippling them both. One night the couple makes a snow child. The next morning, it is gone—as are the mittens and hat they gave it—but they start glimpsing a young, blonde-haired girl running through the snowy woods, a red fox at her side. At first they both believe the girl is a figment of their imaginations, but she begins showing up at their cabin with gifts of berries and freshly killed game. Yet each night she disappears as mysteriously as she arrives, and when the weather turns warmer each year, she disappears for good. Read my original review.

Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter: One day in 1962, a speedboat approaches a small Italian village hidden in the cracks of the mountains. The boat bears a young American actress who has been sent from the set of Cleopatra because she is terminally ill (not to mention having an affair with one of the married actors). The actress stays at the small Hotel Adequate View, run by young Pasquale Tursi, and his relationship with her and the events that unfold following her arrival change the course of his life in many ways. Jess Walter's poetic Beautiful Ruins switches between 1960s Italy and the present day, as well as times and locations in between. It is a story of love and loss, of realizing your destiny and shouldering your responsibilities, and how you never quite lose the dreams you have. Read my original review.

Every Day by David Levithan: Reading this book requires you to suspend your disbelief, but it will be well worth it. It is the story of A. Every day A wakes up in the body of another teenager. There is no rhyme or reason to whose body A wakes up in on a given day—male, female, straight, gay, black, white, Asian, Hispanic, fat, thin, well-adjusted, or mentally ill. For one day, A becomes that person, accesses their memories, speaks in their voice, follows their daily routine, and interacts with their friends. And at the end of 24 hours, A leaves that person with some memories of what happened the previous day, but because A does very little to disrupt the lives of those A inhabits, they're generally none the worse for wear. It's a lonely life. Read my original review.

The Last Policeman by Ben H. Winters: In Ben Winters' fantastic book, the Maia asteroid (aka 2011GV1) is expected to hit Earth within six months. But Concord Police Detective Hank Palace isn't one to let down his guard, and when he is assigned the investigation into the alleged suicide of insurance adjuster Peter Zell, his colleagues and even Zell's own friends and family encourage him just to close the case. After all, who wouldn't commit suicide facing near-certain extinction, and what's the point of solving crimes if the world is going to end anyway? But Palace has always wanted to be a police detective, and he feels he owes it to Zell to fully investigate this case, even when all signs point toward suicide. This book surprised and delighted me. Read my original review.

Tell the Wolves I'm Home by Carol Rifka Brunt: Beautiful, painful, and brilliant, Carol Rifka Brunt's book broke my heart and gave me hope. Fourteen-year-old June Elbus has one soul mate, one person with whom she feels she can be herself completely, one person that understands her completely. That person is her uncle, Finn, a renowned artist who sees in June a kindred spirit. When Finn dies of AIDS in 1987, June is devastated. She knows her mother is experiencing a different kind of loss, yet she doesn't understand her mother's anger and refusal to talk about Finn's life. When Finn's friend, Toby, who has been ostracized by June's family and others close to Finn, contacts June, she is afraid to betray her mother's wishes, but the more she gets to know Toby, she realizes this relationship helps her keep Finn alive, although she is jealous that Finn loved someone other than her. Read my original review.

The Book of Jonas by Stephen Dau: This is a tremendously powerful and affecting book about the human cost of war, and the long-lasting effects of decisions made in the heat of the moment. Fifteen-year-old Jonas' entire family was killed during a U.S. military operation in an unnamed Muslim country. An international relief organization sends him to America, where he does his best to blend in as he finishes high school, deals with bullies, enters college, and falls in love for the first time. Yet he is haunted by his memories of what happened in his village, and how he survived. Read my original review.

The Submission by Amy Waldman: Two years after the 9/11 attacks, a competition is underway to design a memorial at Ground Zero. A jury composed of noted artists, historians, critics, and Claire Burwell, a young widow whose husband was killed in the attack, has narrowed down the selection to two finalists. After an impassioned discussion led by Claire, the jury selects a winner, known as The Garden. And when the name of the architect is revealed (all submissions were anonymous to this point), a stunning discovery is made. The winner is an American Muslim named Mohammad Khan. The jury is fraught with indecision—should Khan be disqualified because of his religion, since Americans would most certainly not want a memorial designed by a Muslim? This was a fantastic, thought-provoking book. Read my original review.

The Starboard Sea by Amber Dermont: It's 1987, just before the stock market crash. Jason Prosper is a rich high school senior from New York City, raised with all of the benefits a wealthy family can offer. After getting kicked out of his prep school following the suicide of his best friend and roommate, Cal, Jason winds up at Bellingham, a boarding school for many "second chance" kids of privilege. Struggling with Cal's memory and guilt over his death, Jason finds himself drawn to Aidan, a student with her own troubled past. The two begin to let their guards down and confide in one another. And then one night, when a hurricane hits New England, everything goes awry, leaving Jason to once again pick up the pieces, and he discovers just what privilege can do—and what it can't. Read my original review.

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain: During the war in Iraq, the men of Bravo Squad engage in a fierce firefight with insurgents at Al-Ansakar Canal, and two men lose their lives. A Fox News reporter embedded with the squad catches the entire nearly four-minute battle and broadcasts it to the world, and the Bravo Squad are hailed as American heroes. They are immediately flown back to America, where for two weeks they are sent on a victory tour around the nation, meeting President Bush and other political figures, as well as celebrities and average American citizens, most of whom express their gratitude for the sacrifice the soldiers are making. Nineteen-year-old Texas native Billy Lynn was recognized for his heroic efforts, and a Hollywood producer is pursuing the possibility of turning the Bravo Squad's heroism into a movie. Read my original review.

The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe: In 2007, Will Schwalbe's dynamic mother, Mary Anne, was diagnosed with a form of advanced pancreatic cancer, which is always fatal. Mary Anne and her husband, Douglas, raised their three children with very strong principles of courtesy, faith, learning, and family, as well as a lifelong love of books. So it was not at all unusual when Will, sitting with his mother in the waiting room of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, asked Mary Anne, "What are you reading?" That conversation started the two on an incredible journey of reading, exploring new and favorite authors, and discussing topics far beyond the books they read. Read my original review.

Too Bright to Hear Too Loud to See by Juliann Garey: Greyson Todd is a studio executive in Los Angeles. As an agent, his clients have won multiple Oscars, made millions of dollars, and have been the toast of the entertainment industry. Greyson and his wife, Ellen, who met as teenagers, have a young daughter, Willa. The thing is, Greyson also suffers from bipolar disorder, which is incredibly debilitating and although Ellen supports him through these periods, the strain is becoming increasingly more difficult. And one night, Greyson has had it. He leaves Ellen and Willa and allows his illness to take control, and travels the world—visiting Rome, Israel, Chile, Uganda, and Thailand—assuming different identities and living different lives until his illness catches up with him again. Read my original review.

When It Happens to You by Molly Ringwald: The book is called "a novel in stories," and each story is linked, with one character, Greta, at the epicenter. When the book begins, Greta and her husband, Phillip, are struggling with fertility issues and the effects the desire to have another baby are having on their relationship. Subsequent stories, which focus on Greta and Phillip, as well as peripheral characters whose lives interact with them, touch on the drama—and trauma—of relationships. I really felt Ringwald had a deft touch in creating her characters, and their dialogue seemed authentic, not artificial. Each of the stories is long enough to give you a sense of what is happening, but not all of them end neatly, much like life itself. Read my original review.

The World Without You by Joshua Henkin: It's July 4, 2005, exactly one year after Leo Frankel, a newspaper reporter, was killed after being captured while covering the war in Iraq. His family and friends are traveling from across the world to gather in the Berkshires for a memorial service, since his funeral had been such a public spectacle. But as if the stress and grief associated with commemorating Leo's loss isn't enough, each of his family members has their own problems to deal with, as well as their relationships with each other. This is a familiar story of family frictions and relationship issues, but the characters Henkin creates, and his terrific storytelling ability, raises the book several notches above your typical family drama. Read my original review.

Where Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley: The summer before his senior year of high school throws Cullen Witter for a number of loops—his cousin dies of an overdose, his small town in Arkansas becomes obsessed with the alleged reappearance of a woodpecker that had been extinct for more than 60 years, and his beloved brother, 15-year-old Gabriel, inexplicably disappears. Meanwhile, Benton Sage travels to Ethiopia as a missionary, helping to bring Christianity to people in small towns. But he has a crisis of faith and conscience and returns home, only to be shunned by his family, so he enrolls at the University of Atlanta. The intersection of these two seemingly separate stories are the backbone of John Corey Whaley's fantastic debut novel, an emotionally gripping, humorous, and compelling book about hope, faith, friendship, and love, which also explores a number of religious themes. Read my original review.

Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend by Matthew Dicks: Budo is an imaginary friend. The boy who imagined him, eight-year-old Max Delaney, had a vivid imagination, so Budo looks much more real than most imaginary friends. Budo wants to protect Max as best as any imaginary friend can; he helps Max with his schoolwork and tries to help him navigate the bullies at school who want to hurt Max. More than anything, Budo wants Max to always need and believe in him, because Budo has seen what happens to other imaginary friends when their real friends stop believing in them—they stop existing. When Mrs. Patterson, the woman (not a teacher) who sometimes helps Max at the Learning Center at school, kidnaps Max, Budo enlists the help of other imaginary friends to try and save Max, but he realizes that in order to save Max he might have to risk his own existence. Read my original review.

Ten Thousand Saints by Eleanor Henderson: Jude and Teddy are childhood friends growing up in Vermont in the late 1980s. They do nearly everything together—cut school, take drugs, steal, listen to and play hardcore music, and dream of a "real life" away from what they know. On New Year's Eve, Teddy and Jude meet up with Eliza, the daughter of Jude's father's girlfriend, and they take her to a party in search of fun and drugs (although not necessarily in that order). The party turns their lives upside down in more ways than one, and after they put Eliza back on a train to New York City, Teddy dies of an accidental drug overdose. Overcome with grief over the death of his best friend, yet unable to express himself, Jude heads to New York and finds Johnny, Teddy's straight-edge half-brother. When they find out that Eliza is pregnant with Teddy's child from their encounter at the party the night he died, Johnny sees this as a chance to form a real family, one that has escaped him for so long. Read my original review.

More Books Not to Be Missed:
Girl Unmoored by Jennifer Gooch Hummer

The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman

A Theory of Small Earthquakes by Meredith Maran

When Captain Flint Was Still a Good Man by Nick Dybek

Goodbye For Now by Laurie Frankel

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