Books Read in 2012: Four and Five Stars

I count 69 four and five-star reads, up from 53 last year, so that's cool. I've done some rough organizing into categories because otherwise it's just a big long amorphous list and I was finding it intimidating.

Among Others by Jo Walton: In a meandering post on summer reading, I said about this that "I adored (it), although I find it hard to articulate precisely why. Mori's voice is note-perfect and engaging and I love how thoughtful and insightful and matter-of-fact she is about almost everything - growing up interacting with fairies, having an evil world-destroying witch for a mother, the ethics of using magic, coming of age sexually, the Dickensian cruelty and horror that is English boarding school. Plus the endless talk of books, of course. I like how it's just about her life, and the pitched magical battle is sort of incidental to everything else - part of it is in the past and only talked about fleetingly in retrospect, and the rest of it isn't this big loud climax of the book, it just sort of makes sense how it plays out. So I DON'T actually REQUIRE a bunch of supernatural crap to like a book, so THERE."

Books I read as a direct result of reading Among Others

Her Smoke Rose Up Forever by James Tiptree, Jr.: Wow. I mean, WOW. I had read her before, but I kind of think it's something that needs to be done maybe annually, because - wow. There is a consciousness and an intelligence and an understanding here that is just incredibly rare and precious.

The Dispossessed by Ursula K. LeGuin: And again with the Wow, and again with the need to be reminded that reading an Ursula K. LeGuin book is a restorative and nourishing experience. It's rare that I read a book that demands so much of my intellect and feel, rather than exhausted and resentful, joyful at the prospect of repeated readings and continued engagement with the fierce and benevolent intelligence at work here.

The Wind's Twelve Quarters by Ursula K. LeGuin: I wanted to print out the pages of April in Paris and wallpaper my bedroom walls with them.

The Fantasies of Robert A. Heinlein by.... well, yeah: The least mind-blowing, but enjoyable.

Short Story Anthologies, Fantasy and Science Fiction

Best Science Fiction Stories of Clifford D. Simak by Clifford D. Simak (duh): Really, really good. A lively, imaginative, questing and passionate voice.

After: 19 stories of apocalypse and dystopia, Ellen Datlow ed.: I never pass up an anthology edited by Ellen Datlow.

Supernatural Noir, Ellen Datlow ed.: See?

Blood and Other Cravings, Ellen Datlow ed.: See again?

Stories: All-New Tales, Neil Gaiman Ed.: Same. The Gaiman story in this collection haunted me for weeks. Wrote on Goodreads: None of them sucked, and the best of them were very, very, very good.

The Poison-eaters and other stories by Holly Black: Wrote on Goodreads: Much better than the novel by her that I read. Some real range and breadth of subject, theme and mood. Some are snort-out-loud funny, some are deeply moving.

The Wesleyan Anthology of Science Fiction, Arthur Evans ed.: This was really cool. It's a very large and comprehensive anthology, and there are older stories linked thematically with newer stories, which made for a sometimes startling and revelatory experience. 

Strange Itineraries by Tim Powers: Adjective fatigue. It was good.


Grave Writer by Mark Arsenault: Wrote on Goodreads: Looks like your average mystery, but is well above average in writing and characterization. Even minor characters are fully dimensional and many are extremely endearing. The thread of plot about grief and family relationships and regrets is also very well done - subtle, but affecting. This was a great read for a rainy Sunday.

In the Bleak Midwinter by Julia Spencer-Fleming: I fell in love with this series - fantastic characters, good solid writing, a realistic love story between two older people - years ago and stole this from my sister's shelf to reread.

One Was a Soldier by Julia Spencer-Fleming: The latest in the same series. The very last sentence sort of pissed me off as an unneeded, unrealistic twist, but I won't pretend I'm not going to read the next one.

Broken Harbor by Tana French: Wrote on Goodreads: Gah. I'm totally gutted. It's like she crushed up broken hearts and wrote this with the broken-heart juice. I wish I'd never seen this book. Okay, actually it's really good. But don't read it.

The Stranger You Seek by Amanda Kyle Williams: Reviewed (sort of) on blog.

Started Early, Took my Dog by Kate Atkinson: Wrote on Goodreads:  Took a while to catch fire for me, but it really delivered in the end. The story of Tillie, the actress descending into dementia, was deeply unpleasant and distressing. A lot of the lives described here are of the 'nasty, brutish and short' variety. Some keen observations of human nature and some dark and cock-eyed humour. At the end, I felt like I'd missed some stuff, but only because there was so much stuff there.

Case Histories by Kate Atkinson: Wrote on Goodreads: This is just so goddamned good.

When Will There Be Good News? by Kate Atkinson: Also very goddamned good.

Bloodman by Robert Pobi: Impressive, doubly so considering it's a first novel.

Borkmann's Point by Hakan Nesser: Another Swedish mystery writer that I would recommend head and shoulders over the Dragon Tattoo guy. Fantastic character. Thoughtful, noir-ish, smart.

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn: Wrote on Goodreads: Good, insightful writing, incisive character analysis, and a thumping good read.

The Chalk Girl by Carol O'Connell: Wrote on Goodreads (with a somewhat distressing lack of originality, I see now): She is just so fucking good.

Historical Fiction (Which I Don't Usually Read)

The Golden Mean by Annabel Lyon: I try really hard to remember that different people have different preferences and opinions and THAT'S OKAY, but when a woman I adore in my book club said she didn't like this book, I had to work really hard not to write her off as a decent human being. Okay, I'm exaggerating. A little. There is just something so delightfully human and forgiving and lovely in the way this is written. It completely brought Aristotle to life for me, and put me in the heat and the dust of ancient Macedonia, and I was smitten.

The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver: Frida Kahlo. Diego Rivera. Trotsky. Aztec history. And this guy named Harrison Shepherd who somehow floats around in the middle of it all. I picked it up because when Kingsolver is good she's very, very good, started reading and thought WHAT now? And then got sucked in and couldn't put it down.

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel: Wrote on Goodreads: I have no idea how historically accurate this is, but I started reading it out of a sense of duty and then couldn't put it down. I'm not generally a fan of historical fiction, but the characterization and style were so warm and witty and compelling. In a way it was strange being in the protracted interlude between Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn - I found myself wondering how the King had enough time to fit four more wives in. I absolutely gained more of an appreciation for and interest in this era in British history. Although I enjoyed the portrayal immensely, Cromwell seemed almost too perfect a man, but as the fulcrum for the story he was ideal

YA Fantasy

The Clockwork Three by Matthew J. Kirby: Wrote on Goodreads: Heartbreaking, exhilarating, musical, melancholy, magical.

Dust City by Robert Paul Weston: Wrote on Goodreads: In the afterword, Robert Weston says he was trying to imagine what the modern world would be like if it had evolved from the world of Grimm's Fairy Tales. He succeeds admirably in this endeavour. The world, peopled with hominids, animal people, giants and water creatures, is gritty, dark and violent, with the disappeared fairies adding a nice note of yearning melancholy. Henry Whelp is a great noir character - the overmatched under-dog (wolf) with a good heart. I really enjoyed this.

Shift by Em Bailey: Wrote on Goodreads: Maybe 3.5 stars. Good story, a tiny bit formulaic in the romance department, but the writing and the characters elevate this above most of the other similar YA paranormal books with a romance subplot that I've read. Which are many. Sigh.

Lips Touch: Three Times by Laini Taylor: Wrote on Goodreads: Beautifully written, moving and original and imaginative.

Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor: Really quite cool and different, as these things go. Just got the second book from the library. EXCITED.

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs: Picked this up on a whim in the bookstore and was afraid it wouldn't live up to its promise, which it totally did, except I didn't know it was going to set up for a sequel, which kind of pissed me off. My son read it and liked it (last year when he was 11) but was so creeped out by the pictures that he would only read it while beside me in bed. 

Adult Fantasy

11/22/63 by Stephen King: Wrote on Goodreads: All of the stuff Stephen King does well (by which I think I mean.... melancholy regret, good plot, characterization that stops just short of being too sappy so that you love some characters almost too much, foreboding and charm) and not too much of the stuff that really bugs me (gratuitous-silly gore, endless repetition of certain phrases that starts out creepy and ends up stick-a-fork-in-your-eye annoying). I love time travel stuff anyway, and this was highly enjoyable.

The Gift by Patrick O'Leary: I read this years ago and reread it last year, and it was a completely different read than the one I remember. It's a slippery, dark story, beautifully voiced and layered.

The Magician King by Lev Grossman: Wrote on Goodreads: Don't think I liked it quite as much as the first, and some parts dragged a little, but I loved going back to this world, and the ending was so right. (This is a sequel to The Magicians, which is the book I read and recommended to everyone I knew and most people hated it. By 'the ending was so right', I mean that there is a sacrifice required, and it is an actual sacrifice and is actually required to be given all the way and not taken back, unlike in so many books these days, where as long as the gesture of sacrifice is made, the actual loss or death is not required to be final.)

The Illumination by Kevin Brockmeier: This author always does offbeat and thought-provoking stuff. This was quite good, although I might have been the most impressed with all the different ways he came up with to describe people's glowing wounds:"hand flared with pain; One of his ribs still shone with a filmy incandescence; Wound still wept with light occasionally; a woman in a thin linen dress stepping out of a French salon, her freshly waxed pubis phosphorescing through her skirt; Her shinbone glittered like a mirror full of camera flashes; A luminous crater on the shoulder plane of his back; Her mouth was shedding a raw white light that sharpened to a knifepoint every time her lips came together; occasional gleaming cincture of a hangover headache; her pelvis a shining cameo of bones; her spine iridescing through her shirt like a string of frightful pearls."


Blackout (Newsflesh Trilogy #3) by Mira Grant: Loved it, except so sad the series is over. Even though she does allow take-backsies in a big way on the whole sacrifice thing.

The Reapers are the Angels by Alden Bell: Zombie Gothic. One of the reviews says this is what it would be like if Flannery O'Connor wrote about zombies, and I heartily concur. Fate, nemesis, implacable forces, one kick-ass young female protagonist, and zombies. Very, very good.

Fiction Without Zombies

Mr. Pip by Lloyd Jones: Sure, it's 'intense, beautiful and fablelike' if fables ripped out your heart and stomped on it with jackboots. 

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan: Wrote on Goodreads: I wouldn't have guessed that this book would be such a polarizing phenomenon. I hated the first chapter - something about the way Benny kept leaping up or lurching around and saying and doing embarrassing things was incredibly annoying - but shortly thereafter I really got into it - a lot of the characters were lost and searching in a way I could identify with, and even the ones I didn't empathize with were well-drawn and had depth. I know some people find it annoying when each chapter bounces around in time and forces the reader to figure out which characters are now central and how they fit into the book as a whole, but I actually really enjoyed that - this is more a 'mosaic novel' than several books I have read that actually used that label. The relationships between characters were in some ways so recognizable and in other ways refreshingly unexpected. Highly recommended, although I do promise to feel guilty if you read it and don't like it

The Rook by Daniel O'Malley: So much fun!

Faith by Jennifer Haigh: She writes beautifully and with such kindness about people, in all their frailty and failings. Sweet and mournful. 

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery: Broke my heart. In a good way. 

Vernon God Little by D.B.C. Pierre: Wrote on Goodreads: I believe my words on Twitter were 'highly enjoyable, in a kind of barfy, horrified way'. Some people in my book club found it too over-the-top to be believable, an opinion which I often share regarding satire, but I found most of this all-too-believable. I also found Vernon to be very sympathetic as a character, despite some of his very understandable but really unpleasant obsessions regarding female anatomy and underclothing. (Sort of a latter-day Catcher in the Rye.)

Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin: Wrote on Goodreads: Picked it up on a whim in the library. Wow. I almost gave up halfway through just because of the overwhelming sadness of Larry Ott's life. The characterization and the depiction of male friendships, and father-son relationships, and being the weird kid at school, is searingly accurate. It's all just so subtle, and real, and moving and wonderful. I feel like a jackass trying to write about it.

The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett: Enchanting. I laughed out loud - my husband had to go sleep on the couch.

The Widower's Tale by Julia Glass: Just a great story, from a writer I love.

Surrender by Sonya Hartnett: I reviewed it better than I remember liking it: Lyrical and punishingly evocative. Renders that claustrophobic small-town feel disturbingly well. Less narrative energy than I usually like, but gorgeous.

Fiction - Canadian Authors

Blue Becomes You by Bettina Von Kampen: Wrote on Goodreads: This one really snuck up on me. At the beginning I found it a little dull and kept putting it aside to read other things. When I finally decided to finish it, though, I really enjoyed it. The characters are very well-drawn, even (especially?) the annoying ones. The stifling, trapped sense that can come from living in a small town is well-rendered, also. This was a quiet read, but very satisfying.

419 by Will Ferguson: Reviewed on blog.

You Comma Idiot by Doug Harris: Reviewed on blog (hi Sasha!).

The Juliet Stories by Carrie Snyder: Reviewed on blog

Remembering the Bones by Frances Itani: Didn't love it as much as deafening, but a good story.

The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt: Loved it loved it loved it. Such a unique voice, such melancholy slapstick twisted hilarity and violence. 

The Deception of Livvy Higgs by Donna Morrissey: Reviewed on blog

The Dominion of Wyley McFadden by Scott Gardiner: Someone else on Goodreads said that "It builds on some absolutely absurd truths in the Canadian political culture", which is apt. Interesting.


Some Assembly Required: A Journal of My Son's First Son by Anne Lamott: Nothing terribly different here for those who read Anne Lamott, but that's okay with me. 

Bad Mother: A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities and Occasional Moments of Grace, by Ayelet Waldman: She's honest and not terribly self-conscious and doesn't seem to care much what people think of her. I admire that, some days more fervently than others. 

Iris Murdoch As I Knew Her by A.N. Wilson: Wrote on Goodreads: This is a fairly non-traditional biography. I take all biographies with a grain of salt, and I don't think Wilson can be said to get more at the 'truth' of Iris Murdoch because he knew her - in fact, if anything it makes him less reliable. That said, his shifting perspective and erudite style is very enjoyable to read, and at many points in the narrative I found myself smiling. It's an interesting snapshot of university life in Iris Murdoch's era. Some of the criticism of her philosophy and literature gets a little murky and comes across as being in love with its own vocabulary. I've been working my way through her novels, and it was interesting to read this alongside that.

Bookmark Now: Writing in Unreaderly Times: A Collection of All-Original Essays from Today's (and Tomorrow's) Young Authors on the State of the Art -- and the Art of the Hustle -- in the Age of Information Overload, Kevin Smokler Ed.: Wrote on Goodreads: I really enjoyed this - some more than others, but on the whole it was great. Nice variety and cross-section of writers, different viewpoints and perspectives and some great humour. I've given up on trying to get published, so maybe that helped - I was just reading it for fun, not tips.

Let's Pretend This Never Happened: A Mostly True Memoir by Jenny Lawson: I guess maybe I'd like to say I didn't find it as hysterically funny as everyone else did, just so I could feel special and non-mainstream. But I'd be lying. I damned near laughed my husband physically out of our bed. 

My Leaky Body: Tales from the Gurney by Julie Devaney: Reviewed on blog

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot: The incomparable Magpie wrote on Goodreads: "It's one of the best books I've read in years - it's social and medical history all intertwined with racism, poverty, philosophy, morality and family, in a book that reads like a thriller". That about sums it up. I read it and thought 'how the hell did I not know all this stuff already?' It was also the story of how the author got the story, which was riveting in its own way. 

Unsure how to classify

The Watcher by Charles Maclean: I can't remember where I read about this (I need to start keeping track of that part, along with everything else, on Goodreads). It was really interesting - more of a psychological thriller than the horror that it sounded like, and I found myself thinking that I had never read anything quite like it before. 


StephLove said…
I was just thinking about 11/22/63 today, I think because I almost always get whatever new book SK has out for X-mas but this year he didn't have anything out so I didn't. It seems odd not to be reading an SK novel in January. Unnatural somehow.

Meanwhile, I saw that book with the creepy photographs in a bookstore and almost bought it for N, who is 11 now, and then thought better of it.
Mary Lynn said…
Oooh, I adored The Golden Mean and The Sisters Brothers. Kate Atkinson is a freakin' treasure. I liked Gone Girl, but I think I'd hear too many people talk about it before I read it and was not surprised by nearly as much as I ought to have been. Oh well---still a good book.

I recently bought The Elegance of the Hedgehog, so I'll be reading it soon. Wolf Hall, 419 and Miss Peregrin's really long title for a book are also on my wish list, but I'm looking forward to looking up a few of the other ones you list here.

My other fave books this year were The Uncoupling by Meg Wolitzer, Annabel by Kathleen Winter, Three Day Road by Joseph Boyden, Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell (which I can thank you for mentioning in your end-of-the-year review last year), and The Paris Wife by Paula McLain (though no one else in my book club seemed to love it as much as I did).
call me nora said…
Ohhhhhhh! I enjoy your yearly book posts immensely. I am looking forward to picking up many of these at the library.
Lynn said…
hm...your annual book lists are so overwhelming to me. I read so little that the list starts to blur together into one interesting title after another.

So, challenge: Which three books from last year would you say are must-reads? And I warn you: you will have a very tough sell with me with a) anything YA (SNOB ALERT), b) anything with gore or horror, c) anything with zombies (I guess that's part of b, but whatever), and d) anything in which children are hurt or threatened.

Nicole said…
Excellent! Love these posts!
Damn, I wished I read as fast as you. I kept thinking, I need to mark all these down! And then I realized I don't know when I'll have the time! Wah!

I've read a few of these at least. The Sisters Brothers is probably the one on your list (that I've read) that I liked the best. Miss Peregrine's I also liked...until I got to the end and was all "WHAT!?", I really think books should be clearly marked BOOK ONE when it's set up to be a sequel. Damn that pissed me off.
Maggie said…
The only book on your list I've read is The Magician King and since I felt the same way you did about both it and The Magicians, I am now adding a bunch of your recommended books to my library list. Have been in a place of uninteresting books for a few weeks so am so happy to have some suggestions!
Bibliomama said…
Really?? Someone else who didn't hate The Magicians? Who are you? Where have you been all my life? Introduce yourself! :)
Patti said…
I'm going to bookmark this post. I never know where to start and now, I know.
Ms. G said…
Among Others sounds amazing. How did I miss that? Now I have to look for it!
Bunnyslippers said…

Could you please link to older lists? I feel like we have similar tastes in books. My reading selection has been uninspired lately and I've just added several of these to my to read list.

You may want to check out Elizabeth Hand's short story book Errantry. She wrote The Maiden Flight of the Belapheron (spelling is probably off for that, sorry) and most of the stories in it were enjoyable.
Unknown said…
Hey this is a great list. I'm really glad you have some mystery type books here because I'm always thinking I'd like to dip my readerly toes in that genre, but have no idea where to begin.
Maggie said…
Sadly I live probably more than 3,000 miles away in the Pac NW. Can't find anyone here who liked it either. Surely we cannot be the only two people in N. America who didn't dislike it? Right???
Magpie said…
I'm blushing a bit.

Also, I think there are some things on here I must read. So, thank you.

(Read my post tomorrow. I think I burned a book bridge.)

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