The Best Fiction of 2012

“Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world.”

– Albert Einstein

Books are listed in alphabetical order.

 

Book: The Age of Miracles

Author: Karen Thompson Walker

Publisher: Random House

Publication date: 2012-06

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The Age of Miracles
Karen Thompson Walker

Karen Thompson Walker certainly earned a lot of pre-release buzz for her debut novel, The Age of Miracles. The rights for this book sold at an auction for a seven-figure sum, which is a bit of an odd number for a publisher to bid on during these recessionary days, especially on an unproven talent, and the hype was enough to propel Walker onto the New York Times bestseller list. The build-up was generally worth it. The Age of Miracles is a touching literary slipstream story about what happens once the earth stops rotating at its usual rate. Days and nights turn longer, and daily routines are gradually disrupted. All of this is seen through the eyes of a young female protagonist, Julia, who must make sense of a world coming slowly unhinged just at the same time she’s reaching the confusing period known as adolescence. Science fiction purists have pouted that the mechanics of what happens once the earth gradually moves toward its standing still are a bit questionable, but they’re sort of missing the point. The Age of Miracles is a coming of age tale for a narrator who may never quite come of age, which makes for a chilling, thrilling read. There wasn’t a novel quite like The Age of Miracles in 2012, and we may never see another one quite like it – until, at least, Walker pens a follow-up. Zachary Houle

 

Book: The Annotated Emma

Author: David M. Shapard

Publisher: Anchor

Publication date: 2012-03

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The Annotated Emma
David M. Shapard

Reading David M. Shapard’s annotation of Jane Austen’s Emma is such an effortlessly enlightening affair that it might almost be easy to miss what a painstaking business it must have been to compile such a wealth of information. Anyone who has ever wondered why it’s so especially impressive for a family to own a barouche box will be delighted to read notes about several different kinds of carriages and their functions. The reader who has only thus far felt her way vaguely around the subtleties of class and status in Austen’s world will gain new clarity from the detailed descriptions of exactly where Mr. Robert Martin, gentleman farmer, stands in the Highbury social scheme, and why it’s so particularly insulting of Emma to make fun of Miss Bates, the late vicar’s spinster daughter. Austen imagined meticulously detailed microcosms of a living and breathing world that still bears so much relevance to our own as to be endlessly significant. Jennifer Vega

 

Book: The Annotated Sandman: Volume One

Author: Neil Gaiman, Leslie S. Klinger

Publisher: DC Comics/Vertigo

Publication date: 2012-01

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The Annotated Sandman: Volume One
Neil Gaiman, Leslie S. Klinger

As most readers of The Sandman are aware, Neil Gaiman draws equally from such disparate sources as African folklore, Shakespeare, Aleister Crowley, Roy Orbison, Jack Kirby, serial killers, Greek mythology, Dante, and the Bible. The Sandman focuses on the kingdom of dreams, and Gaiman, like a magnificently deranged Gnostic tour guide, spends as much time off-road, exploring the diversions, back roads, dives, and alleyways of his story, as he spends on the main highway, collecting data for a never-to-be-published Fodor’s Guide to the Dream World. Given the allusions and the many narrative twists and turns, it’s easy for readers to feel like they might be missing something. Enter Leslie Klinger. As with his lavish editions of Sherlock Holmes and Dracula, Klinger provides fascinating notes—in this case for the first 20 issues of The Sandman. The comics are reproduced in greyscale, but Klinger compensates with quality paper and a wide, charcoal grey margin for each page. The art still looks striking, and the lack of color actually complements Mike Dringenberg’s style. Klinger infuses his notes with a clear sense of voice and style, lacing them at times with a touch of humor not found in most reference works. Greg Carpenter

 

Book: Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk

Author: Ben Fountain

Publisher: HarperCollins

Publication date: 2012-11

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Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk
Ben Fountain

In a development that was long overdue, 2012 was the year that the Iraq War finally became a topic that American novelists wanted to tangle with. One of the results, David Abrams’ Fobbit tried too hard to be the war’s Catch-22. Ben Fountain’s dark fantasia hits much closer to the target. Billy Lynn is a young Texan soldier who has just rotated back from Iraq with his squad. The novel takes place in a single day where Billy’s squad is being squired around Cowboys Stadium on the day of the big Thanksgiving Day game. They’re the heroes of the day because of a firefight captured on video that’s now in constant rotation on Fox News. The cheerleaders coo, fans offer wide-eyed platitudes, a movie deal is in the works, and in the midst of it all Billy is screaming inside. It’s an ugly time capsule from the peak of the country’s war-loving Freedom Fries period, slathered with comic horrors and the occasional short, sharp shock of piercing tragedy. Chris Barsanti

 

Book: Blasphemy: New and Selected Stories

Author: Sherman Alexie

Publisher: Grove

Publication date: 2012-10

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Blasphemy: New and Selected Stories
Sherman Alexie

What we have here is a collection of stories culled from the span of Sherman Alexie’s 20-odd year publishing career, with selections ranging from his very first book, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, to “War Dances”, published just last year. For anyone who needs an introduction to this important writer’s work, there is no better place to start. Two things jump out at the reader making his/her way through this anthology: the recurring nature of certain themes, and the wide variation in style. Stories range from super-short, one- or two-page slaps like “Idolatry” and “Breakfast” to the 50-plus pages of “The Search Engine” and “Whatever Happened to Frank Snake Church?”—stories that are so loaded with incident and character that another author might have chosen to expand them into novels. The sudden fiction pieces act like fables, short sharp shocks that make a pithy point and move along, while the longer stories encompass a range of emotional response, usually including humor, sorrow, exasperation and some degree of heartbreak. This is an outstanding collection of stories by a masterful, and very important, storyteller. David Maine

 

Book: Bring Up the Bodies

Author: Hilary Mantel

Publisher: Henry Holt & Company, Inc.

Publication date: 2012-05

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Bring Up the Bodies
Hilary Mantel

The second installment of a trilogy from arguably the greatest living historical novelist delivers very simply much more of what made Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall the treat that it was. This Booker Prize-winning sequel (Mantel is the first British writer to win it twice) picks up the action with little time to spare, as Henry VIII’s advisor Thomas Cromwell spreads himself thin trying to keep his many businesses afloat, riding out the hostility of the once-powerful Anne Boleyn, his head connected to his body (not an easy thing amidst all the jealous nobles who resent this commoner), and the king from wrecking a nation that Cromwell is so ardently trying to modernize. It’s a rich, bloody, and intrigue-tangled tapestry of event and commentary, with Mantel tripping off to the side of the action just often enough to give readers a view of the inbred, mud-spattered Tudor village that is London at the time, without leaving us too long without the company of Cromwell. Mercenary, merchant, scholar, spy, nation-builder; by the time Mantel’s next novel comes along it will seem as though Cromwell was the man who created England. If the first two books are any indication, it’s a claim that will be easily believed. Chris Barsanti

 

Book: Carry the One

Author: Carol Anshaw

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Publication date: 2012-03

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Carry the One
Carol Anshaw

In recent years, if you think of an author who successful plumbs the depths of the inter-relatedness of family, you probably think of Jonathan Franzen. Well, it turns out there’s a new kid on the block (sort of; author Carol Anshaw has previously published other novels) and she has delivered quite the bewildering piece of fiction. Carry the One is the story of three siblings whose lives are intertwined throughout a 30-year period after a terrible car accident robs a young stranger’s life. The novel is certainly polarizing – read the Amazon.com reader reviews as proof of that – but Anshaw creates memorable, flawed characters that resonate. And the writing is very painterly and minimalistic to hypnotizing effect. Anyone interested in a novel about family affairs and is sick of Franzen should definitely give Carry the One a shot. You may find it absolutely mesmerizing. At least, I did. Zachary Houle

 

Book: The Casual Vacancy

Author: J. K. Rowling

Publisher: Little, Brown & Company

Publication date: 2012-09

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The Casual Vacancy
J. K. Rowling

It comes about so naturally that after a few pages you even forget what it is you are witnessing. J. K. Rowling should by all rights have spent the rest of her years counting her loot and approving different Harry Potter merchandising deals. Instead, she soundly closed the door on her YA fantasy career by delivering this crisply visualized and thoroughly adult multiplayer melodrama. Set in the small British town of Pagford, where the socioeconomic strata is laid out with the exactitude of the periodic table and no slights are ever forgotten, Rowling’s novel is a vinegary satire that revolves around one of those snowball events (an empty seat left on the town council) that turns into an avalanche. In leaving behind seemingly childish things, Rowling hangs on to some of the tics that leavened out the overplotting of the Harry Potter books, like her Dickensian flair for comic grotesquerie and sensitivity toward societal outcasts, and proves that not only does she have a post-Potter career, it will likely outshine her wizarding background. Chris Barsanti

 

Book: Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt

Author: Chris Hedges

Publisher: Nation

Publication date: 2012-06

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Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt
Chris Hedges

Days of Destruction chronicles the lives of the people who were once analogous to the machines and natural resources that were exploited to yield the highest financial gain. It’s a harrowing account of the exploited American underclass living in what the author defines as “the sacrifice zones” (xi). These are the forgotten vicinities where American citizens, workers, and natural resources are utilized and commodified to the extreme in the name of capitalism. These are the stories of the individuals who slaved to achieve the chimerical American dream, but were ultimately exploited, alienated, and deemed expendable. Pulitzer Prize winning correspondent Chris Hedges unites with Joe Sacco’s award winning graphic and comic arts to rematerialize these lost voices and movingly communicate their testimonies while painting a portrait of enduring destitution. It’s powerful, remarkable, and arguably one of the best books of the year. Elisabeth Woronzoff

 

Book: Enchantments

Author: Kathryn Harrison

Publisher: Random House

Publication date: 2012-03

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Enchantments
Kathryn Harrison

In Kathryn Harrison’s latest novel, we get a fictionalized account of Rasputin’s eldest daughter, Matryona Grigorievna Rasputin. When we meet Masha, she has just learned of her father’s death, which required great efforts on the part of his assassins. The year is 1917, and Russia is in upheaval. Rasputin, known to many as a saintly healer, is revered by the peasantry and the ruling Romanov family. Masha fervently believes in him, recounting his selfless acts of healing, his enormous physical strength, his sexual prowess, the unshakable constitution making him nearly impossible to assassinate. But most importantly, he alone can heal the Tsar and Tsarina’s son, the tsarevich Alyosha Romanov, a hemophiliac. Harrison’s portrait of Rasputin and the Romanovs is surprisingly sympathetic and winning. Even as resentment and class hatred grow around this wealthy family, her Romanovs are people detached from the citizenry. They are not unkind, simply oblivious, a situation those close to them are happy to maintain. As the walls close in, they are less angry than bewildered. When their inevitable demise comes to pass, Masha manages escape it, but at a price: “No one escaped Russia with his or heart intact.” Diane Leach

 

Book: The Fault in Our Stars

Author: John Green

Publisher: Penguin

Publication date: 2012-01

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The Fault in Our Stars
John Green

I’ve been strangely getting into young adult fiction in a pretty big way in recent years, and I think a large part of that is, when you’re writing for teenagers, there’s very little pretense. What you get, usually, is a crackling good story without the literary fireworks. Well, John Green is a young author with an impressive backcatalogue, who dropped an absolute stunner early in the year (January). The Fault of Our Stars is a tale of a budding romance between two young cancer survivors, written from the female perspective. Now, there is a twist to the tale that jaded adult readers will see coming before even cracking open the book, which less savvy young readers may not twig into until it actually happens in the novel, but, as an updated Love Story for the teen set, this is frankly a beautifully written, mature tale – there’s even Venn diagrams employed here (a very adult, business-like touch) – about doomed young love. I liked it more months after I read it when I realized that it was funny and poignant in equal measure, and it puts a real human face on a terrible disease. My high school years weren’t the greatest, but The Fault in Our Stars almost made me want to go back and re-experience true love for the first time during that tumultuous time of my life. Almost. At the very least, the book was compelling enough to make me go out to the library and start snooping around Green’s previous books, and it suggests there’s a very bright future for this gifted author of YA whose works even adults can enjoy. Zachary Houle

 

Book: Flash Gordon: On the Planet Mongo: The Complete Flash Gordon Library (Vol. 1)

Author: Alex Raymond

Publisher: Titan

Publication date: 2012-09

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Flash Gordon: On the Planet Mongo: The Complete Flash Gordon Library (Vol. 1)
Alex Raymond

Flash Gordon debuted on 7 January 1934 with the words, “WORLD COMING TO END” stretched across the first panel, an announcement to readers that, from that moment on, comics would never be the same. This collection follows Flash’s adventures through 18 April 1937, and in that time the story’s panels grew to accommodate the wide screen imagination of artist Alex Raymond. From the very beginning, the story is action-packed, with Flash, Dale Arden, and Doctor Zarkov crashing into the planet Mongo and finding themselves constantly at odds with hostile natives, deadly animals, and the planet’s emperor, Ming, the Merciless. The persistence of these characters gives them their richness today, but the weekly appearances in the ‘30s gave readers time to embroider the characters lives with ideas of their own. Film, radio, and television brought the characters to a wider audience, spreading their influence and giving them new life. For many of us today, the world of the early 20th century seemed like it was black and white, but there were bursts of color everywhere, on planet earth and beyond, as evidenced here. Jeremy Estes

 

Book: Flight Behavior

Author: Barbara Kingsolver

Publisher: Harper

Publication date: 2012-11

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Flight Behavior
Barbara Kingsolver

The meek will not inherit the Earth in Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior. Kingsolver trained as a biologist, and like Margaret Atwood, is a passionate advocate of ecological sustainability, using her writing to entertain while educating, thus sugarcoating an otherwise bitter pill. Depending on your point of view, the weather, which by any measure has gone haywire, indicates the end of days, one more insanity in a world gone mad, or the ineluctable effects of global warming, an event that sits squarely on human shoulders. Whatever your feelings about global warming, we caused it, and we’re paying for it. The ecological devastation humanity has wrought seems to be past repair. Now all we can do is try and salvage what’s left, though this would require sacrifices many are unwilling to make. Here, Kingsolver entwines environmentalism with human relations. She is especially gifted at rendering the unique speech patterns of Appalachia into print without seeming twee or affected: instead, speaking patterns help define individuals and their place in a community. Any nascent writer could strip everything else from Flight Behavior and get a master lesson in dialogue. Diane Leach

 

Book: The Gods of Gotham

Author: Lyndsay Faye

Publisher: Penguin

Publication date: 2012-03

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The Gods of Gotham
Lyndsay Faye

I’m normally not a huge fan of mystery novels, but I was looking for something of a light read on my Kindle earlier this year, and started seeing this book called The Gods of Gotham being pushed very heavily on bookstore shelves. I decided to give it a go, and I was glad that I did. The Gods of Gotham is much more than a historical mystery novel: it delves into the plight of the struggling Irish during the 1840s in New York City, and there’s a bit of political backstory to the novel as well. What makes this book particularly amazing is that Faye takes a very unsavory plot element – a serial killer is at work dispatching child prostitutes and a novice new police detective is charged with bringing the perpetrator to justice – and somehow makes it palpable, real and non-sensational. Faye infuses her setting with slang of the times (necessitating a rather lengthy glossary at the start of the book) and period detail, and gets it pretty much right. For those looking for a breezy read with serious overtones, you should look no further than this. Zachary Houle

 

Book: Goliath

Author: Tom Gauld

Publisher: Drawn & Quarterly

Publication date: 2012-02

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Goliath
Tom Gauld

Scottish cartoonist Tom Gauld’s work has appeared regularly in high-profile outlets like he Guardian and The New York Times Magazine for years, as well as in his own well-received books like The Gigantic Robot. His distinctive visual style of painstaking crosshatching and simple geometric figures make his work feel like the perfect midpoint between Edward Gorey and Chris Ware. But never have his dry wit and understated style fit a story so well as in his 2012 graphic novel Goliath. His best work to date, Goliath is a sensitive and gently funny retelling of the Bible story from the titular giant’s perspective. Much of the humor comes from Gauld’s deft ability to infuse the epic with a modern-feeling triviality, thoroughly deflating our expectations for such a grand tale. Gauld’s Goliath is a patient, taller-than-average administrator rather than a bloodthirsty hulk, and the Philistine army is little more than a stuffy Office Space-style bureaucracy (“Really go for it today, yeah?” an officer implores Goliath at one point, more like a starchy middle manager than an ancient warrior). But it’s more than a one-joke gimmick, and Gauld turns this familiar tale into a lyrical examination of war, heroism, courage and faith. Pat Kewley

 

Book: Gone Girl

Author: Gillian Flynn

Publisher: Crown

Publication date: 2012-06

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Gone Girl
Gillian Flynn

Gillian Flynn’s sly and rippingly suspenseful novel is one of those novels it’s hard not to try and shanghai other people into reading, as in immediately. Flynn (Sharp Objects, Dark Places) lays down a vivid and plainspoken narrative that can read like the most jet-fueled of airport thrillers but is still bejeweled with sparkling asides and dead-on commentary. Her writing is, as needed, funny, perceptive, headslappingly honest, or sometimes an amalgam of the three. That this all happens in a book whose plot seems at first ripped from a Dateline NBC true crime episode is all the more impressive. Flynn gets the voices right and the people right, no matter where she’s setting the scene or who she’s having us listen to. To do all that and still deliver a crackling page-turner shows a talent that is vanishingly rare, and sorely needed. Chris Barsanti

 

Book: Hope: A Tragedy

Author: Shalom Auslander

Publisher: Penguin

Publication date: 2012-01

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Hope: A Tragedy
Shalom Auslander

Solomon Kugel is having one hell of a day, and that’s before he discovers someone hiding out in his attic. A dark and often laugh-out-loud hysterical novel, Hope: A Tragedy is like the tale of Job if Job was plagued by the existential problems of modernity instead of sickness and bugs. Kugel is a Jewish everyman in a hopeless situation and it’s clear from the starting line that the universe—and his family—has little to no use for him. The rest unfolds from there and it involves arson, selling trash for a living, and urinating into air vents. Auslander’s book is deceptively simple; it’s an intensely quick read and, on the surface, lacks for a thick plot. But the sick pleasure derived from reading about Kugel’s slow descent into crisis and his struggle to make sense out of senselessness is enough to keep you glued to every sentence. Scott Elingburg

 

Book: Jagannath

Author: Karin Tidbeck

Publisher: Cheeky Frawg

Publication date: 2012-06

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Jagannath
Karin Tidbeck

Fantasy isn’t just a realm we escape to, it’s something we often run from, eyes front, hysterical laughter bubbling up from our guts. Maybe it’s only a feeling that scares us away, or maybe it’s something we see, a dark reflection or ill-formed shadow. It’s best not to look back, but Swedish author Karin Tidbeck does more than look back, she lingers, and what she sees is recorded in the amazing collection, Jagannath. Tidbeck leaves little room for doubt, and when you start reading something happens and it won’t let you go. At only 142 pages, this is a small book, but the joy, dread, and wonder it evokes is immense. Jeremy Estes

 

Book: The Life of an Unknown Man

Author: Andreï Makine

Publisher: Graywolf

Publication date: 2012-06

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The Life of an Unknown Man
Andreï Makine

The Life of an Unknown Man is a profound meditation on the topic of happiness, that maddeningly elusive tonic which, like a glass of water in a dream of the desert, evaporates whenever we reach for it. Andreï Makine’s novel begins with the story of a pompous Russian emigre author living in France who is bereft because his much-younger girlfriend has just left him. He returns to Russia in search of another, older girlfriend, but instead encounters a dying man — a survivor of both the siege of Leningrad and of the Gulag — who relates to him the tale of survival and devotion that forms the bulk of the narrative. This is a book without illusions, and the old man’s recounting of the bestiality encountered by him and the woman he loved is unblinking. Yet, at the same time, this brief and chillingly brilliant novel is one of the most moving loving stories in our recent literature and, in its modest way, a life-changing experience. Michael Antman

 

Book: London: A History in Verse

Author: Mark Ford, ed.

Publisher: Harvard University Press

Publication date: 2012-07

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London: A History in Verse
Mark Ford, ed.

From the Middle-Age likes of Langland and Chaucer to modern day, this anthology is a kind of centrifuge, offering London-centric poetry that spans more than 600 years. The experience of reading it is much like that of stepping out of King’s Cross Station and strolling the city’s streets. Walk long enough, read deeply enough, and you’ll be immersed in impressions of beauty, grime, humor, violence – often simultaneously. If this book succeeds as a celebration, it is only insofar as it admits everything, like the city itself. This anthology traces the forces of time through language, a valuable exercise for anyone interested in London, or poetry, or that rich confluence of art and history. As John Davidson’s “London” perhaps best describes, only a rollicking, vibrant center could produce such innumerable wealth: “An ever-muttering prisoned storm / The heart of London beating warm”. Tobias Peterson

 

Book: Nonnonba

Author: Shigeru Mizuki

Publisher: Drawn & Quarterly

Publication date: 2012-05

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Nonnonba
Shigeru Mizuki

Imagine you’re in your bed, alone at night. Maybe you’ve just woken up from strange dream, or you’ve tossed and turned all night. Then, you hear a noise. It’s the house settling, or a branch scraping at the window, but you close your eyes tight just in case. You feel motion, something moving, in your room, but when you open your eyes there’s nothing there. Or maybe there is. In the eyes of Shige, also known as Gege, the protagonist of Shigeru Mizuki’s semi-autobiographical NonNonBa, our world is constantly visited by yokai, spirits, from other realms. Nonnonba is an elderly woman in Gege’s life, a grandmother figure, who’s his guide to all the things creeping in our rooms at night, possessing hungry travelers, and taking the souls of the young out to sea. NonNonBa is more than just a coming of age story, it’s a portrait of the artist as a young yokai enthusiast. To Gege the yokai are real, and his interactions with them increase the more he learns about them. Jeremy Estes

 

Book: NW

Author: Zadie Smith

Publisher: Penguin

Publication date: 2012-09

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NW
Zadie Smith

Zadie Smith’s forte has always been capacious books enfolding multiple cultures into one galloping, engrossing plot. In NW, she’s concerned with the music her characters listen to, the clothes they wear, the food they eat, their speech. Smith doesn’t ask us to accept multiculturalism or general acceptance of the other, much less help for the poor. She’s more interested in getting the nuances down, the big, sprawling picture that is London in the late ‘90s. She offers no solutions. It may be the problems she presents have none. But few writers today—Jeffrey Eugenides and Jonathan Franzen come to mind—can capture an entire world, making all the ends meet in such a way that the place makes, however briefly, perfect sense. Diane Leach

 

Book: A Partial History of Lost Causes

Author: Jennifer DuBois

Publisher: Dial

Publication date: 2012-03

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A Partial History of Lost Causes
Jennifer DuBois

Jennifer DuBois’s novel is a deeply insightful excavation of the meaning and certainty of death, and the strange capacity for hope and beauty that its permanence can shed upon the transient experience of life. She renders her story through a graceful confluence of intellectual and emotional honesty that, despite the dark nature of her subject matter, manages to be uplifting and inspiring, an act that is achieved through the unsentimental portrayal of her flawed, funny and frustrating characters and her own masterful use of language. The fact that DuBois is crafting work with this kind of affective and philosophical substance while still in her 20s should let everybody who is concerned about the future of the novel breath a little sigh of relief. Robert Alford

 

Book: The Patrick Melrose Novels

Author: Edward St. Aubyn

Publisher: Picador

Publication date: 2012-02

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The Patrick Melrose Novels
Edward St. Aubyn

The start of the Melrose saga is among the grimmest in the history of the printed word. A young boy lies face-down on a bed and feels “a strange, worrying wetness”—his father’s semen—“at the base of his spine.” From here, it’s an extraordinary journey through drug addiction to hospitalization to despair to something like a productive life. You might occasionally struggle to believe that someone like Patrick could make it so far… but the life and career of Edward St. Aubyn will silence your doubts. It’s hard to imagine a childhood more uncomfortable than Patrick’s childhood. And yet Patrick grows up and distances himself from his parents, and he even has a family of his own. Like St. Aubyn, Patrick studies his own unhappiness and learns from it. He adds beauty to the world because, ultimately, he can think of nothing else to do; the alternatives to hard work and compassion have left him frustrated, empty. Dan Barrett

 

Book: Pitch

Author: Todd Boss

Publisher: W. W. Norton

Publication date: 2012-02

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Pitch
Todd Boss

Free-verse poetry continues to expand into wildly divergent directions. The most basic facets of craft in poetry—line breaks, rhyme, and meter, among others—have undergone so many permutations that at times it’s hard to tell what poetry even looks like anymore. But while Todd Boss is skilled at asymmetric poetic structures, there’s a strong usage of rhyme in all its forms that harkens back to traditional poetry, something evident in his masterful debut Yellowrocket (2008). The rhythm and pulse of his poetry—not to mention his vivid imagery and association—is unlike anything else out there, and in an age where Duotrope has countless listings for poetry journals across the world, Boss’ voice is distinct and resounding. Boss has perfected a distinct style of rhyme, a considerable feat given that rhyming without being sing-songy or “too traditional” is tough. He strings words together in ways that will make you think you’re hearing them for the first time, the way they’re meant to be heard. Pitch is only Boss’ second poetry collection, but if it is any indication, he won’t have much longer to go on his path to modern poetry’s hall of legends. Brice Ezell

 

Book: River of Smoke

Author: Amitav Ghosh

Publisher: Picador

Publication date: 2012-10

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River of Smoke
Amitav Ghosh

River of Smoke is the second installment of Ghosh’s Ibis trilogy after 2009’s Sea of Poppies, where he examines the 19th-century origins of the modern global drug trade. This novel is epic in scope and spans across India, China, and Regency England. The journey to China that the cast of socially diverse, multi-ethnic characters make is a part of their own quest for fulfillment: fortune, fame, and the desire to see a new world. Beyond the labyrinthine narrative that rivals Charles Dickens’ most complex plotlines, Ghosh excels at creating vivid characters derived from meticulously researched historical detail. The character of Robin Chinnery, for example, son of the famous late 18th-century British painter of India and the South China Seas, George Chinnery, and his liason with a local Chinese woman, is a fascinating contrivance derived from some of Chinnery’s most famous portraits of Macau courtesans and peasant women. River of Smoke is one of those rare novels where excitement from a good adventure story matches the joy of discovering unseen moments and stories in history. Farisa Khalid

 

Book: The Sisters Brothers

Author: Patrick deWitt

Publisher: Ecco

Publication date: 2012-04

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The Sisters Brothers
Patrick deWitt

This is a nearly pitch-perfect read, one that you will get swept away by, flipping the pages relentlessly towards its satisfying conclusion. What elevates it from the typical trappings of a Western is that it spends a great deal of time on the journey and the bizarre assortment of characters that the duo meets. This isn’t a simple Cowboys and Indians tale; this is one of a baffling puzzlement over the state of humanity, where there are shades of ambiguity at every turn, and it almost plays out like a computer Role Playing Game in that the supporting characters have a role to play in defining Charlie and Eli’s quest. It has, quite understandably, been optioned for a movie that John C. Reilly will produce and star in (and I can’t think of anyone more perfect for the part of Eli Sisters than him), though I’ll believe it when I’m sitting in a multiplex with a bag of popcorn on my lap. However, do yourself a favour and savour this novel before it potentially hits the silver screen. With all of the knotting plotting of a thriller, The Sisters Brothers effortlessly transcends boundaries, and is a rousing good time to be had for those who simply come along for the ride. On horses, no less. Zachary Houle

 

Book: Sweet Tooth

Author: Ian McEwan

Publisher: Knopf Doubleday

Publication date: 2012-11

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Sweet Tooth
Ian McEwan

We could be forgiven for thinking that the era of the great spy novel is over, given that Le Carre has moved on to other topics and the “spy” novels currently filling airport bookshop shelves are more bang-bang thrillers than anything else. Ian McEwan is one of the last people you would imagine could reconstitute the genre, but he does just that with this mordant, witty story about Serene Frome. She’s the daughter of an Anglican bishop who gets recruited into MI5 via an ill-considered but fun-at-the-time affair with an older married man, who schools her in sex, continental cuisine, and fine literature. The ’60s and ’70s period detail is astonishing, you can almost feel the cigarette smoke cloaking the cheap linoleum, and the England’s-burning sense of rot and malaise is powerfully potent. Most importantly, McEwan creates in Serena a whipsmart heroine whose love of books and obstinate patriotism seems at first a gift but later a tragic flaw. Chris Barsanti

 

Book: The Testament of Jessie Lamb

Author: Jane Rogers

Publisher: HarperCollins

Publication date: 2012-05

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The Testament of Jessie Lamb
Jane Rogers

This has everything a good science fiction novel needs without any of the distractions. Jane Rogers doesn’t include any explosions or aliens. She doesn’t build any new or strange worlds. Instead, The Testament of Jessie Lamb is somewhat sparsely written with few details about time or place. The setting is uncomfortably familiar—this world, Jessie’s world, still has Facebook, laptops, websites, and cocoa. Teenagers, like Jessie, still sneak off to parties, drink too much, and think about sex. But, of course, there are some notable differences. In Jessie Lamb’s world, everyone has MDS—Maternal Death Syndrome, an incurable disease that turns pregnant women’s brains into “Swiss cheese” before eventually killing them. Although some may quibble, I consider this book to be science fiction because it’s what I want science fiction to be: thought-provoking, smart, real, disturbing, and well written (and of course, it includes believable science). Catherine Ramsdell

 

Book: This Is How You Lose Her

Author: Junot Díaz

Publisher: Penguin

Publication date: 2012-09

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This Is How You Lose Her
Junot Díaz

Junot Díaz is a literary rock star. His last novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and following the publication of This Is How You Lose Her earlier this year, he received the prestigious MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship. A master stylist, Díaz combines vernacular speech patterns with evocative descriptions that reverberate on deeper levels of emotion and meaning with each reading. His work explores issues of race, class and cultural identity through the prism of his own experience as a first-generation, mixed-race Dominican-American, offering a vital perspective within the homogenous mainstream American literary landscape. In This Is How You Lose Her, Díaz returns to the short story form, and to his protagonist Yunior de las Casas, whose myriad romantic failings bind these stories together into one interconnected narrative. It can be a difficult book to read at times, as casual misogyny saturates Yunior’s language and his relationships with women. But as his behavior becomes increasingly ruinous, to both the women in his life and ultimately, to himself, these stories work to construct a powerful critique of the oppressive ideals of masculine privilege that Yunior embodies. Robert Alford

 

Book: The Vanishers

Author: Heidi Julavits

Publisher: Doubleday

Publication date: 2012-03

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The Vanishers
Heidi Julavits

The Vanishers begins as Julia Severn, a gifted young clairvoyant studying at the prestigious Institute of Intergrated Parapsychology, falls victim to a mysterious and devastating psychic attack. The attack places Severn in the midst of an astral detective saga, leading back in time, across the globe and through inner reaches of the human mind to unravel the unexplained disappearance of a French performance artist whose fate intersects mysteriously with that of Severn’s own long-deceased mother. On its surface, The Vanishers spins a fantastical tale of psychic powers, transgressive art and a nebulous syndicate of guerrilla videographers who vanish people from their own lives. But beneath these layers of magic and esoterica there lies a deeply moving story of loss, grief and emotional scars that refuse to heal. Heidi Julavits weaves these worlds together with the precarious precision of a high-wire fire juggler, resulting in a simultaneously riveting, hilarious and devastating work of fiction. Robert Alford

 

Book: The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories

Author: Jeff VanderMeer, Ann VanderMeer (eds.)

Publisher: Tor

Publication date: 2012-05

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The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories
Jeff VanderMeer, Ann VanderMeer (eds.)

The Weird contains many a glimpse into worlds terrible and wondrous and strange, but at 1,100+ pages, it’s so thick and heavy that if an elder god rose from its ancient slumber in front of you, your last act of defiance could be to brain it with this book even as your mind turned to jelly. In its mission of provide a Genesis-to-now overview, The Weird isn’t concerned about always startling the reader as it is in painting a complete picture of the genre’s growth. Spanning 110 stories from around the world, and covering just over 100 years of writing, The Weird is an ambitious, impressive undertaking. It’s a history lesson. It’s a writing tutorial. It’s, by and large, excellent reading. It can also be, when a story rolls the dice just right and comes up with a reader’s own personal bogeyman (with this many stories, it’ll hit the jackpot on you eventually), pretty darn spooky and disturbing. Andrew Gilstrap

 

Book: When We Argued All Night

Author: Alice Mattison

Publisher: HarperCollins

Publication date: 2012-06

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When We Argued All Night
Alice Mattison

Alice Mattison’s book is the most exquisite work of fiction I’ve read all year. It’s rare when the characters, their dialogue, their particular moment and place in time, is so vivid, and so realized that it simply leaps out at you from across the page. Mattison’s Artie Saltzman and Harold Abramovitz, the two great friends at the center of this novel, forge through the Depression, World War II, and the McCarthy witch-hunts. They’re so vividly realized by Mattison that they seem like they could be played onscreen by Ben Stiller and Scott Speedman. The novel spans across generations reaching into the early and mid-’60s as Artie’s daughter Brenda attempts to come to terms with her identity and her particular needs and ambitions in life. In Maria Russo’s brilliant review of the book in the 31 August 2012 issue of The New York Times Book Review, she writes how expertly “Mattison captures that essence of city life, beginning with how New Yorkers talked and then moving on to the small details that speak volumes, like this one that comes at the beginning of a description of a city dinner party: ‘They had no hall closet.’” Mattison reads like the best of Roth, Malamud, and Doctorow, but with her own distinct gift for narrative. Farisa Khalid

 

Book: Wild Thing

Author: Josh Bazell

Publisher: Little, Brown & Company

Publication date: 2012-02

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Wild Thing
Josh Bazell

Josh Bazell made waves in 2009 with his debut Beat the Reaper—a violent, bizarre collage of a novel that mixed the mafia, extensive medical knowledge, sharks, and a liberal usage of footnotes—and the sequel, Wild Thing, is even zanier. Dr. Pietro Biernwa, the mob hitman-turned-doctor, has gotten himself embroiled in a scheme to recover a mythical White Lake Monster in the Boundary Waters that unite Minnesota and Canada. At the behest of Rec Bill (short for “Reclusive Billionare”), Biernwa undergoes the quest with the aid of Violet Hurst, a paleontologist with a mysterious past. As if this plot weren’t already bizarre enough, Bazell rips loose on these pages, writing about anything from America’s ignorance of the metric system to a 50-page appendix that serves as an indictment of money in politics. Weirdest of all, however, is the inclusion of Sarah Palin; if you thought her larger-than-life FOX News personality was strange, her presence in Wild Thing will have you reeling. The ability to effectively mesh together disparate genres and tones is a difficult one, but it’s one that Bazell has shown mastery of only two novels into his career.. Brice Ezell

 

Book: The World Without You

Author: Joshua Henkin

Publisher: Knopf Doubleday

Publication date: 2012-06

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The World Without You
Joshua Henkin

With the war in Afghanistan now the longest war in the history of the United States, the politicized landscape wrought from post-9/11 foreign policy is still tumultuous. It’s become all too easy to point fingers based on partisan lines, and in the process of shouting inflated rhetoric through megaphones what is often forgotten is the real weight of casualties brought about by war. Fortunately, Joshua Henkin’s The World Without You is a stark, affecting reminder that war and loss are not abstract notions; they cut families deep to the core, and in the case of the Frankel family, those cuts cause division. The World Without You is a document of the Frankel family’s fourth of July gathering, a year after Leo, the youngest sibling of parents Marilyn and David, is killed while reporting in Iraq. The grand family saga is a hard type of novel to pull off—especially considering that authors like Dostoyevsky are at the top of the heap—but Henkin makes the subgenre his own, stuffing these three hundred pages with a commanding amount of detail. However, while the novel is highly thorough in tangent and description, things never feel like they’re veering off into rabbit trails; every detail feels important, even when the topics splinter off from family ties to more difficult ones like Jewish identity and infertility. By the time you’ve left the world of The World Without You, you’ll likely know the Frankels better than you know your own family. Brice Ezell

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