[As each year comes to a close, we ask our contributors to give us their favorite books from the past 12 months---and we let a few older ones slip in, too. You can follow the entries through the rest of the year here, and check out the picks from 2009, 2010, and 2011 while you're at it.]
This was an up-and-down year for me. Almost every new book by one of my favorite authors wound up disappointing, but at least one delivered a rousing success, and I found a few new names to put on my watch list. Here we go:
Flynn’s third book was the best novel I read this year—an original mystery that delivered the twists and turns of an intricate plot, and didn’t sacrifice prose or characterization.
Her previous novel, Dark Places, made my 2009 Best Books list. It was similarly excellent, though completely dissimilar in every other way. Different characters, an entirely different setup and plot and structure.
I think the mystery genre can learn a lot from Flynn: books should be written carefully, not coughed out every six months; characters don’t need to be endlessly serialized; and character work should be prized as highly as plot mechanics. Hopefully Flynn’s wild success this year will prompt some changes from other big-name authors. But I’m not holding my breath.
The winner of the National Book Award for Nonfiction was also my favorite nonfiction book of the year—and possibly the best nonfiction I’ve ever read. Boo chronicles life in a Mumbai slum, and after spending three years there, she gets into her subjects’ heads to such a degree that it feels like a novel.
This is a phenomenal piece of nonfiction, and also manages to slide in one of the best uses of ebook technology I’ve yet seen: the “deluxe” ebook edition comes with videos of the slums and people Boo writes about, providing a mind-blowing reminder that they and their incredible stories are all real.
Bechdel’s second graphic (i.e., illustrated) memoir revolves around her fraught relationship with her mother. While most critics have said that this volume wasn’t as good as her first memoir, Fun Home, about her closeted gay father, I found it to be a must-read simply for Bechdel’s talent at weaving together strands of her family history together with her personal obsessions and interests. It’s a technical masterpiece, even if her subject matter doesn’t have the same oomph of her debut.
This book’s greatness came as a complete surprise to me—it looks for all the world like standard post-apocalyptic sci-fi fodder, something that would hit familiar chords but wouldn’t bring anything new to the table.
In a certain sense, that’s true: Evenson’s world is familiar, and his premise might not hook the average reader as quickly as it’ll grab those with dual interests in detective fiction and the post-apocalyptic sub-genre (like me).
But Evenson creates great characters here, and does a lot of innovative tweaking to familiar tropes. In the end, it’s a simple, but stylishly executed twist on a familiar plot. Maybe I’m not such a picky critic after all.
I picked up this book just a few weeks ago, because it appeared on half the best books lists I saw. It consists of 14 different pieces of illustrated storytelling (newspapers, pamphlets, hardback books, and a lot of other stuff), all revolving around the inhabitants of one small apartment building. The subject matter stays mostly quotidian: subjects like a married woman friending an ex-boyfriend on Facebook, or a contextless meditation on depression. Still, Ware finds depth and insight in each of his tales, and the result is an affecting composite picture of life.
I came to read Lemony Snicket in a weird way. I quite liked Daniel Handler’s Adverbs, a novel for adults, and later watched the Lemony Snicket movie and liked its style. But I never actually read the Snicket books, so when this new series came (last month), I finally picked one up.
I’ll have a full review up later this week, but here’s the capsule summary: The book covers Lemony Snicket’s childhood, specifically his time as a 13-year-old apprentice detective (or at least an apprentice to a mysterious organization of detective-like persons). They investigate a theft, and Snicket must both solve the crime and outflank his idiot would-be mentor. Handler’s wry humor and fun style steal the show.
A searing, traumatic graphic novel about an orphan boy and a girl who gets sold into wifehood. Thompson also weaves in the power of language and storytelling, but the bulk of the book is about sexual trauma and how to love again in the wake of it.
Torres’s debut novel is a semi-autobiographical account of his upbringing as one of three boys born to a poor mother and a father who often leaves for long periods of time. Torres isn’t as prosaically gifted as the critics have largely claimed, but he has a great talent for characters, and that’s why this book is worth reading.
Ashby’s robot novel was the best I’ve read in years, but it still flagged down the stretch when monotony outweighed Ashby’s insightful character work. A definite recommend for anybody interested by tales of robot-human interaction, but not a surefire sale for just anybody.