Saturday, December 22, 2012

The Best Books of 2012

2012 was another good year for readers, one in which many of our favorite authors produced new books while fresh new voices got our attention with wonderful debut novels and short story collections of their own.  It was also a year during which the memoir genre remained very hot and new takes were offered on some of history's greatest figures.  Even though I neglected nonfiction titles a bit this year, I believe that my nonfiction list is one of the strongest ones I've had in my six years of producing year-end Top Tens.

Best Fiction of 2012

  1. Edge of Dark Water - Joe Lansdale (This redneck river adventure is like reading something written by a Mark Twain on steroids.  Not for the faint of heart...and that is a really good thing.
  2. The Angel Makers - Jessica Gregson (World War II fiction with an interesting twist about wives who have finally had enough from their abusive husbands.  I still think about this one sometimes.)
  3. Heading Out to Wonderful - Robert Goolrick (Sometimes "wonderful" is not good enough, as two star-crossed lovers learn the hard way.  I love the setting and atmosphere of this haunting novel.)
  4. The Headmaster's Wager - Vincent Lam (A Saigon schoolmaster gambles with his son's future as the city falls to its North Vietnamese invaders.  Really captures the mood of the times.)
  5. The Solitary House - Lynn Shepherd (Dickens fans will feel right at home in this London setting and will even recognize a few Dickens characters doing their thing...lots of fun.)
  6. The Round House - Louise Erdrich (2012 National Book Award Winner, a coming-of-age novel in which a boy comes of age while his parents are themselves aging under very traumatic circumstances.)
  7. Canada - Richard Ford (Sometimes crossing a border, be it an emotional or a national one, does mean you can never go home again - if you ever had a home to begin with.)
  8. The World without You - Joshua Henkin (An emotional Fourth of July weekend during which a family gathers to mourn a lost son, brother, and husband - and learns that the family can never again be the way it was.
  9. The Beautiful Mystery - Louise Penny (Set in a remote Canadian monastery, this is a takeoff on the classic locked-door mystery structure in which a limited number of characters could have actually committed a murder - atmospheric and entertaining.)
  10. Malena - Edgardo David Holzman (The world sat back and watched Argentina nearly destroy itself.  Holzman puts a face on a handful of the "disappeared" and makes us wonder how we could have let this happen.)

Best Nonfiction of 2012
  1. The One - R. J. Smith (Soul singing pioneer James Brown lived a very publicly self-destructive life, so we think we know all about him.  Well, here's the rest of the story...all of it.)
  2. Rise to Greatness: Abraham Lincoln and America's Most Perilous Year - David Bon Drehle (1862 was a make-or-break year in American history, and thanks in large part to the personal efforts and skills of one man, the country managed to survive.  A permanent addition to my shelves)
  3. Game Over - Bill Moushy and Bob Dvorchak (The Penn State child-rape scandal was every bit as bad as you feared it was - and much worse.  You won't believe what some "good people" did to cover this one up while more boys were being molested on campus.)
  4. Private Empire - Steve Coll (A frank and detailed history of the corporate evolution of Big Oil's ExxonMobil, this is a fair a representation of Big Oil as I have seen in a long time.)
  5. Mr. Churchill's Profession - Peter Clarke (Few people realize how dependent Churchill was on the revenue earned from his books.  Very interesting book that approaches the famous politician from a whole new angle.)
  6. Wild - Cheryl Strayed (One woman's walk-for-her-life, and one of 2012's best selling memoirs. A very frank look at one woman's life...a woman who is quite a writer, as it turns out.
  7. The End of Your Life Book Club - Will Schwalbe (Another 2012 bestseller - a man and his mother talk books as a way of making it through the final months of her cancer illness.  Book lovers will understand this one on several levels, I think.)
  8. Visiting Tom - Michael Perry (Everyone should be lucky enough to have neighbors like Tom and his wife.  Tom, one of the most patient men imaginable, shares his learned wisdom with Perry and the rest of us.)
  9. Holy Ghost Girl - Donna M. Johnson (An insider's look from a woman who grew up on the road as her mother followed a traveling tent-preacher from town to town.  A whole new world.)
  10. Elsewhere - Richard Russo (More about Russo's mother than it is about him, a relationship that dominated Russo's life from childhood to the moment his mother died.  Surprising.)

(Only books published between October 1, 2011 and December 15, 2012 were considered for these lists.  Most previous lists were based on what I read during the calendar year, regardless of publication date.  I will be following this more traditional approach from now on.)


  1. It's amazing how two people can read so many books and only overlap on two - one fiction, one non. Thanks for this list. If I can find time in my already scheduled books, I'll try to pick up a couple. Thanks for your excellent reviews. Looking forward to the day we meet face-to-face. - Ted

  2. I think I read so few new books that I couldn't make a top ten list without including books published from previous years.

    I do see some titles here that I may check out.

  3. Same as with Ted, Sam. One fiction and one nonfiction match. You, at least, are keeping up on blogging far better than I.

  4. Ted, so many great books to choose from every doesn't surprise me anymore to find that I miss way more good ones than I ever discover or have time for in a given year. A mixed blessing, for sure.

    I'm looking forward to comparing reviews on that Crockett book with you. I finished a second draft of my review a while back and will be ready to go by the time the date comes in January...just let me know when.

  5. James, this is the first year in a long time that my reading was dominated by current-year books. I hope to read more from previous decades in 2013. I wonder how it would be to go back and find "Best Of" lists from previous years...or award finalists, etc. as a source of new books for next year. I read pretty strongly from the 80s, not as much from the 90s, and very little from the 70s. It's really tempting to go back and try to mine all those old books to bring a few of them back to life...sound like a challenge you might be interested in?

  6. Tim, blogging is a real chore, for sure. Sometimes I can't believe how many hours a week I spend on producing Book Chase...but it is worth it. I love meeting so many great people who share a love of reading. I'm addicted to book-blogging now, so look out...

  7. I am amazed that you read so many books published this year, Sam! My book list is comprised of books I read this year no matter when they were published. I already have The Solitary House on my wishlist, and The Round House. I'm thinking of looking for Canada, too. I have Bury Your Dead on my top 10 list, the latest in the Penny series I read this year. I am hoping to catch up in the series completely next year.

    You certainly have some good books on your list, Sam.

  8. Susan, I read something like 125 books published during 2012, I think...leaving me time for only about ten from previous years. That's a little too much emphasis on the new stuff...and I still have some good ones from 2010 and 2011 on my stack to be read. They must be getting a bit impatient with me by now.


I always love hearing from you guys...that's what keeps me book-blogging. Thanks for stopping by.