Monday, December 31, 2012

Beth's Best Reads of 2012

Time for my annual list of the best books I read this year!   Here's the rules: The books can be any age, but I had to read them for the first time in the calendar year of 2012. No re-reads allowed. The books are listed in a countdown fashion, so my favorite read is at the bottom of the list at #1. I'm also attaching links to my original review for each book.

10.  I'll Be There, by Holly Goldberg Sloan.  This emotional, satisfying YA novel had me holed up on the couch for an entire day because I couldn't put it down.  The story of two brothers growing up with an schizophrenic father who is ruining their lives, I'll Be There is sweet and terrifying in equal measure.  The brothers, Sam and Riddle, meet a stable family that they become a part of for a brief time, but it's not until the boys' father takes them on a dangerous roadtrip that the book really gets good.  The book's middle 200 pages made me feel like my guts were slowly being wrenched out me from empathy for these poor kids and the choices they have to make.  The end gets a little too pat for my taste, but overall, I'll Be There really had me in its clutches.

9.  The Duchess War, by Courtney Milan.  I only read a handful of romances this year, but half of them were by Courtney Milan.  Although Trial by Desire featured my all-time favorite romance hero (Ned Carhart) and The Governess Affair was unlike any other romance I've ever read, The Duchess War is the one that came out on top.  It might be the single most emotionally-rewarding romance novel I've ever read, in which I felt that both the hero and heroine had to actually fight for their happy ending and earned it completely by the epilogue.  This is the first in a trilogy, and I absolutely can't wait to read the next two books in 2013. 

8.  Skin Horse, by Olivia Cronk.  One of the strangest and most interesting books of poetry I've ever read, Skin Horse is not for the light of heart.  Dark and domestic, Skin Horse's every page is completely unexpected, each line diverting from its original premise.  I can't say I understood what was going on through any of the book's broken narrative, but I didn't care.  I enjoyed the ride.

7.  Helsinki, by Peter Richards.  I read at least 50 books of poetry this year, but I can honestly say that none of them grabbed me in quite the way Helsinki did.  I read it the way I would a novel, devouring it in a single day.  The book read like some kind of low-key science fiction, where the protagonist encounters weirdness and heartache and homesickness through a heightened sense of language and image.  Of all the poetry books I read this year, Helsinki is probably the one I'll return to the most often. 

6.  Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn.  I tend to have a knee-jerk reaction to critically-beloved bestsellers, meaning I often don't get around to reading them until the excitement has died down a few years later.  But I couldn't resist the praise (or the great cover design) of Gone Girl for long.  Of all the books on this list, this one is definitely the only one that genuinely shocked me in any way.  The first half is really great, and then a major twist happens halfway through that absolutely changed everything I read up to that point.  The book's a genuine roller-coaster, and an incredibly well-written one at that.  The married main characters, Nick and Amy, are possibly the worst people you could ever imagine spending 400 pages with.  That being said, they were completely fascinating.  Nick Dunne was perhaps the most realistic character I encountered all year, an extreme version of everything I find intriguing and frustrating about Midwestern men.

5.  The Revolution Was Televised: The Cops, Crooks, Slingers and Slayers Who Changed TV Drama Forever, by Alan Sepinwall.  This nonfiction look at TV drama by one of my favorite television critics, Alan Sepinwall, feels like it was written just for me.  As a TV fanatic, I couldn't get enough of this book about the changing field of the TV drama over the last 15 years.  Sepinwall divides the book into twelve chapters, each about a different series that changed the way viewers and critics see television today.  I hope the book's surprise success will open the doors to more and more books being written about contemporary television.

4.  Where Things Come Back, by John Corey Whaley.  When my friend Amy recommended this book to me back in January, she sold me on a few choice words: "zombies," "Sufjan Stevens," and "asshat."  And despite the fact that these three things are all in this terrific YA novel, they only hint at the awesomeness of the story itself.  The book's narrator, Cullen Witter, is a fairly normal, small-town teen with an awesome best friend (the ever-loyal Lucas Cader) and a cool little brother named Gabriel.  One day, Gabriel goes missing and everything changes.  Where Things Come Back is a book that covers all the important YA themes - friendship, family, what it means to grow up, etc - but it doesn't feel like anything else I've ever read before.  I was incredibly impressed by this tender, realistic, beautiful story, and I can't wait to see what Whaley does next. 

3.  Bandit Letters, by Sarah Messer.  Helsinki might have been the most intense of all the poetry books I read this year, but Bandit Letters still came out as my favorite.  As a poet interested in history and how we narrate history, I could not have read a better example of these interests than Bandit Letters, which plays with the romantic idea of the American Outlaw.  Messer does some fascinating things with gender and storytelling and role-playing in this book, and I was enthralled by the language and the way the poems were built from the first page to the last.

2.  The Raven Boys, by Maggie Stiefvater (audio version read by Will Patton).  This is the first time an audiobook has ever made this list, and it made it all the way to number two!  I have explained time and again on this blog that what I'm most interested in in fiction is a good, emotionally-satisfying story.  The Raven Boys brought that in spades.  The teenage daughter of a psychic, Blue Sargent, gets more adventure than she could have ever bargained for when she meets The Raven Boys, four students at the local private boarding school.  I'm a sucker for stories about male friendship, and this YA novel brought the goods, along with some really great plots involving class, family, and (most importantly) fate.  There are three more years of the Raven Cycle to come, and I am absolutely going to devour them.  I haven't been this caught up in a series in a long, long time.

1.  The Art of Fielding, by Chad Harbach.  This was the very first book I read in 2012 and it remained at the top.  As I started putting this list together, I didn't expect The Art of Fielding to make it all the way to number one.  Yet as I looked at my candidates, I realized that the book I was most emotionally involved in was this one.  It's a fairly long book, but I finished it in a couple days because I couldn't get enough of its story about baseball and liberal arts colleges and relationships.  Best of all, The Art of Fielding featured my favorite character of 2012: the badass, troubled, delightful Mike Schwartz.  Harbach's novel has gotten a lot of backlash in the last year because of all the praise it got upon its release in 2011, but I don't care.  I loved this book, and it was the single most engrossing thing I read in all of 2012. 

Honorable Mentions: Drive, by James Sallis; Prepare to Die!, by Paul Tobin; Wisconsin Death Trip, by Michael Lesy. 

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