LitReactor Staff Picks: The Best Books of 2012
Another year has passed and we're still here, reading and writing our little hearts out. On the micro level, it could be that the figurative representation of our pumping fists of muscle grew two sizes over the holidays, giving us the strength to persevere. On the macro level, it's probably because the Mayans were big-time practical jokesters. Either way, it would take more than the end of the world to stop us from contributing to the glut of year-end lists. Take that, Doomsdayers!
We put a call out to our already overworked LitReactor staff for their favorite reads of the year, old and new. We figured if you read a book for the first time in 2012, you deserved the opportunity to crow about it. So for those who care, we submit for your approval/derision some of LitReactor's favorite reads of 2012.
'These Dreams of You' by Steve Erickson
Any time Steve Erickson writes a new book it's pretty much guaranteed a spot on my Best of the Year list. These Dreams Of You takes place at the crossroads of race and politics, and revolves around a family in crisis as they search for the birth mother of their adopted daughter, a four year old African whose body is a radio. It is as funny, inventive and emotionally complex as Erickson fans have come to expect.
"The Flame Alphabet' by Ben Marcus
The Flame Alphabet is a kinda-sorta post apocalyptic horror novel about the killing power of language. It's part Ballard, part Cronenberg, and is steeped in mystic Judaism. Big Brother looms as Marcus gives us a unique look at how communication breakdown leads to societal collapse.
'Skagboys' by Irvine Welsh
Did Porno leave you wanting? Well scratch that itch with this expansive Trainspotting prequel. Welsh broadens the scope to give us a greater social and emotional understanding of the addictive personalities we've become addicted to. Skagboys is Welsh's strongest novel in a while, and reading it is like seeing an old friend and slipping right back into the rhythms of that friendship.
'Growing Up Dead in Texas' by Stephen Graham Jones
One of three novels released by the ultramega prolific author in 2012, GUDIT is an agrarian memNOIR that defies non-portmanteau genre descriptions. In it the quasi-fictional Stephen Graham Jones returns to his hometown to investigate a decades-old cotton fire, but really he's there to confront his own past. Anyone who's read Jones already knows the man can bring it; GUDIT just reaffirms the fact that we don't know how the hell he does it.
'The Book of the New Sun' by Gene Wolfe
I loved sci-fi and fantasy as a youngster, but at some unfortunate point my tastes "matured" and I moved on to more literary works. Lately, I've become nostalgic for the genres of my youth and have begun searching out novels that mix the best of both worlds. After reading multiple raves about it on LitReactor, I picked up Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun series and the void in my heart was filled. Philosophical, complex and morally ambiguous, these books demand attentive reading and provide no easy answers. They are like a science fiction cipher to be decoded, and it's going to take more than a California-based teacher and his wife to crack it.
'The Twelve' by Justin Cronin
A riveting followup to the only possible remaining fresh take on the vampire genre, The Passage. The Twelve is as poetic, stirring and terrifying as its predecessor.
'Bring up the Bodies' by Hilary Mantel
My most anticipated book of the year certainly didn't disappoint. Mantel's long-awaited sequel to Wolf Hall continues the tradition of making that hoary old story of the Tudor scandal feel brand new and heartrending through the perspective of Thomas Cromwell.
'The Rook' by Daniel O'Malley
Hilarious and sharp, a supernatural mystery that delivers plenty of surprises and a supremely witty tone.
'The Magician King' by Lev Grossman
(Came out last year but I read it this year.)
Another sequel that lived up to its precursor, The Magician King is actually even better than The Magicians.
'A Wrinkle in Time, The Graphic Novel' by Hope Larson
This graphic novel adaptation of the beloved children's book by Madeleine L'Engle captures the original's warmth and whimsy through Larson's stunning illustrations.
'Frank Sinatra in a Blender' by Matthew McBride
Pure pulp goodness. The title catches you and then the prose doesn't let go. McBride's debut novel is the most fun I had with a book this year.
'Scorpion Reef' by Charles Williams
Yes, it was published in 1955. OK, my company just re-released it as an eBook. Shameless, I know. But this is an amazing piece of seafaring noir. It's the kind of book that makes me a little sad because it took me so long to find.
'Wild Thing' by Josh Bazell
A great blend of action and political satire. Also there are lake monsters. By my measure, Bazell is one of the most exciting up-and-coming voices in fiction.
'Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier' by Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson
This book made me wish I was a scientist. Tyson does an amazing job of explaining why space exploration is important and necessary for the advancement of the human race.
'Broken Piano for President' by Patrick Wensink
A cultural satire wrapped in a corporate espionage mystery, and by the end a personal reflection on creativity and individuality. A delicate balancing act, and Wensink pulls it off masterfully.
'Cataclysm Baby' by Matt Bell
Surreal, post-apocalyptic stories that will break your heart. Quite possibly my favorite book of the year.
'Battleborn' by Claire Vaye Watkins
Western gothic tales that speak to salvation, redemption and what happens after the tipping point.
'Wild' by Cheryl Strayed
A memoir that reveals more about the author the further down the trail we hike. Inspirational and touching.
'Nine Months' by Paula Bomer
A dark, sexual, hypnotic tale of motherhood, freedom and the human spirit.
'The Wind Through the Keyhole' by Stephen King
Maybe I just missed these guys, but the visuals, the history, the characters—all epic in their proportions.
'A Hologram For The King' by Dave Eggers
Confession: Dave Eggers could blow his nose on a piece of paper and I’d call it a masterpiece and frame it. I am aware of my bias. And this grim account of an American businessman traveling to Saudi Arabia to fend off the effects of the recession is anything but joyful. But it’s still amazing.
'The Visible Man' by Chuck Klosterman
Klosterman, best known for his pop culture essays, ventures into the realm of fiction for the second time with this imperfect but worthy story of a therapist dealing with a patient who may have invented an invisibility suit that he uses to make intimate observations about what strangers do when they think they’re alone.
'Book Of Drugs: A Memoir' by Mike Doughty
Admittedly, a memoir of sex, drugs, and rock & roll anecdotes by an aging second-tier rock star does not sound immediately appealing, but whether you’re a fan of 1990s band Soul Coughing, Mike Doughty’s solo work, or neither of the above, this clever (but not too clever), jarringly truthful, well-written account of addiction, recovery, and the music industry is honestly worth a read.
'The Devil In Silver' by Victor LaValle
Marketed as “literary horror,” this claustrophobic book is, on the surface, about a murderous buffalo-headed monster stalking the halls of a psychiatric hospital, but a closer look reveals equally horrifying insights about the treatment of mental patients in the healthcare system.
'This Book Is Full Of Spiders' by David Wong
David Wong (aka Cracked.com writer Jason Pargin)'s follow-up to 2009s John Dies At The End is slightly less goofy than its predecessor, but that doesn’t mean it’s not completely ridiculous. Probably the funniest horror novel you’ll ever read.
'Downriver' by Iain Sinclair
Sinclair is a proponent of psychogeography – examination of how the environment shapes our thinking. Downriver, first published in 1991, is a series of fictional essays linked by the river Thames. Attempting to describe Sinclair’s work further is impossible. He was a close friend of the surrealist J.G. Ballard and has, like his mentor, perfected the art of creating prose which simultaneously makes perfect and no sense.
'Narcopolis' by Jeet Thayil
Thayil, poet and ex-junkie, was Booker nommed for his first novel, but lost out to Hilary Mantel for Wolf Hall. Narcopolis follows the stories of a group of opium addicts in Mumbai in the 1970s, primarily a eunuch-prostitute called Dimples and a street-boy called Salim. There’s no plot to speak of; the narrative drive comes entirely from the fascination of meeting the exotic species that Thayil’s net draws up, wriggling, from the Mumbai depths.
'Snowdrops' by A D Millar
This polished little gem came out in 2011, so is quite recent for me. It’s a sparse, elegant thriller set in Putin-era Moscow and is the novel Graham Greene would have written about that city at that time. Lovely.
'Stiff' by Mary Roach
I mostly read non-fiction and the standout this year was Roach’s book on corpses (subtitled The Curious Life of Human Cadavers). You read this book from between your fingers, laughing helplessly.
'Mysteries' by Knut Hamsun
Hamsun was for many years one of Norway’s most feted writers (Nobel prize, comparisons to Joyce and Kafka, etc) until his fervent support for the Nazis during WWII spoiled everything. Putting his rampant fascism aside, he’s still a fine author. Mysteries concerns one summer in a small Norwegian coastal town and the impact of a visitor, Nagel, on its inhabitants. Hamsun explains nothing, lets events play themselves out, and allows the reader to draw his or her own conclusion about what the mystery of the title might be.
'Glory Road' by Robert A. Heinlein
A soldier, fresh out of Vietnam, has difficulty returning to civilian life and gets pulled into a journey that he could never have imagined.
Why I loved it - Though it's not the best book I've ever read, it's a damn fun read that goes into a hard fantasy setting with lots of humor, wit and sarcasm.
'Plain, Honest Men: The Making of the American Constitution' by Richard R. Beeman
A look into how the US ended up with the Constitution that we hold in such high esteem.
Why I loved it - Spoiler warning! It turns out the Constitution isn't really all that great and the founding fathers were kind of jerks. You learn how nearly everything in the document was done as a barter and all of the founders thought they were better than just about everyone. This is a good read if you're interested in the subject, and though it can be a little dry at times, the author does a good job moving to the important points. It's amazing we didn't end up with a dictatorship.
'Hyperion' by Dan Simmons
On the dying world of Hyperion a group of pilgrims travel to the Time Tombs in an attempt to confront a creature known as The Shrike.
Why I loved it - I've wanted to read this for years and am glad I finally did. It's basically The Canterbury Tales in a sci-fi/fantasy setting (translation: it's not boring). The book employs a "frame story" and each section is the tale of how each pilgrim arrived on the quest. The tales are great and, unexpected to me, the poet character in this book, Martin Silenus, did more to make me "get" poetry than anything else I've ever read on the subject.
'A Universe From Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing' by Lawrence M. Krauss
Theoretical physicist, Lawrence M. Krauss, tackles the subject of creation and defends how the universe can exist in the absence of a creator.
Why I loved it - Krauss does a great job approaching a subject that is exceptionally complex and in most cases is able to explain physics in ways that make sense to the lay-person. It won't likely change your opinion on the topic, but if you find the topic interesting, you will come out of it with a better understanding of the cosmos and our place in it.
'The Fountains of Paradise' by Arthur C. Clarke
In the 22nd century, engineer Dr Vannevar Morgan attempts to construct a space elevator.
Why I loved it - I hadn't heard of this book until I picked it up in a used bookstore (Clarke's work isn't available digitally!) and I'm really glad I did! This is literally the only "science-fiction" book that I think I've ever read - In that it's a fictional book about science, not a book about aliens and laser fights. In Clarke fashion, it also raises some interesting questions about mortality, our place in the universe and humanity's first interaction with an alien race. The "Starglider" chapters alone are worth the read. This is a 2-sitting read at most.
Are these gems? Are we out of our minds? Did we convince you to pick any of these up? Sound off in the comments. Also, stay tuned for Staff Picks: The Genre Edition, as well as picks from some of our favorite authors and friends of the site!
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