2012 in Review–Reading: Books of the Year!

I’m doing my year-in-review posts a little bit backwards this time around. The reading statistics will be part of the “‘riting-and-randomness” portion of my 2012 review. Today, I’m getting straight to my Books of the Year.

This year’s selections are more fiction-heavy, because that represents my reading patterns in 2012. I didn’t set young-adult fiction apart this time, but two of my fiction picks are contemporary, realistic YA–that said, “contemporary” and “realistic” describe my adult-fiction choices as well. And so, without further dithering, and in alphabetical order…

Books of the Year, Fiction

The Fault in Our Stars, John Green

THE FAULT IN OUR STARS cover, via indiebound.org (affiliate link)

“Green’s adolescent characters tend to have the best qualities of real teens–intelligence, observational skills, critical thinking, a functioning moral compass, and keen, if dark, sense of humor–but they’re never too good to be true. This is particularly fortunate in his latest YA novel, The Fault in Our Stars, as his principal characters are teens with cancer; in different hands, they could be all too easily sanctified and/or reduced to their condition. However, Hazel Grace Lancaster and Augustus Waters are rendered vividly alive in the time they have with each other–‘living (their) best life today,’ whether they want to or not.

In different hands, this story could simply be a tragedy. Here, it’s hilarious, heart-rending, romantic, sometimes furious, occasionally farfetched (but not where it really matters), painfully honest and honestly painful. The writing is both straightforward and evocative, and the dialogue is particularly remarkable: it’s literate and casual, sometimes within the same sentence–and as someone who’s lived with teens quite recently (and currently), it rang thoroughly real to my ears.”

Flight Behavior, Barbara Kingsolver

FLIGHT BEHAVIOR cover, via indiebound.org (affiliate link)
“There’s a great deal going on here. The author’s background in biology informs the scientific elements of the novel, but those elements aren’t conveyed in a manner that feels inauthentic to the story. Kingsolver’s characters are well-developed and complex, and their grappling with the effects of a changing natural world on their lives feels authentic as well. However, what struck me most about Flight Behavior was a sense of empathy and compassion. The novel’s setting is the Appalachian Mountains of eastern Tennessee, a conservative, economically-struggling area subject to a fair amount of Southern stereotypes; by endowing Dellarobia with wry humor and just enough self-awareness, Kingsolver refrains from making her characters cheap targets.”

ONE LAST THING BEFORE I GO cover, via indiebound.org (affiliate link)“The father-daughter relationship is the central one in One Last Thing Before I Go, and it’s a messy, complicated, ultimately endearing one. Silver believes Casey is a much better child than he deserves–she’s clearly not perfect, but on balance, he’s probably right about that, although their simultaneous crises are providing plenty of opportunities for him to make things up to her. His efforts to do that, fumbling as some of them are, were what eventually won me over…

…(W)hat stands out to me about One Last Thing… is that it was a funny novel that made me feel profoundly sad for its characters at least as much as it tickled me. I didn’t find it funny in the same way as This Is Where I Leave You; while it does have a few strong set pieces, much of its humor is wry, observational, and tinged with a very dark edge. It suits the material, but it wasn’t quite what I expected. And I definitely did not expect to be moved nearly to tears, but I was, and more than just once or twice. That reaction made me question whether Tropper might actually be off his game; I was well into the novel before I decided that he was very much on it, but he’d changed up the rules just a bit.”

SMALL DAMAGES cover, via indiebound.org (affiliate link)“The whole idea of sending a pregnant teenager away until she has given birth–and given away her baby to adoptive parents, so that she can then return home from her mysterious trip and pick up her life where she left off–is an oddly old-fashioned one, and while the novel is clearly contemporary, its time frame isn’t quite of-the-moment. It’s also an interesting angle on the question of “choice” debate, in which adoption seems to be the least-discussed choice much of the time–but…Kenzie doesn’t feel much ownership of this particular choice. Feeling resentful and out of control, her stay in Spain seems like exile, and her inadequate knowledge of the language is only one source of her discomfort as she struggles to come to terms with the turns her life has taken.

Beth Kephart, on the other hand, seems to operate very comfortably within this foreign setting, and Small Damages is among her best work.”

Books of the Year, Nonfiction

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, Amy Chua

“The very nature of memoir sometimes makes it challenging to evaluate the story being told and not the person telling that story. Amy Chua makes it especially challenging with her parenting memoir, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother; particularly in the audio version, which she reads herself, she seems quite aware that she’s opening herself to a lot of potentially negative personal judgment. But she doesn’t seem entirely uncomfortable with that, either; as an attorney and law professor, as well as a mother, Chua is likely well acquainted with both passing judgment and being subjected to it.

The original premise that led Chua to write …Tiger Mother–that Chinese mothering practices are better than “Western” ones–is a pretty judgmental one, and if the book stuck to it more closely, it might have been judged even more harshly than it was by some readers. But along the way, it develops into a much more personal story–one that contains many revealing, unflattering details undermining that original premise, and that allowed me to feel more empathy for Chua and her daughters, even when I vehemently disagreed with her.”

“(Jenny) Lawson is gifted at exaggeration for comic effect, and her stories will induce laughing and cringing in equal measure.

While some of the material in the book may be familiar to Lawson’s online readers–such as “And That’s Why You Should Learn to Pick Your Battles,” the story of her purchase of a giant sheet-metal chicken that she christens Beyonce–much of it is stories she hasn’t shared before. Readers will learn about Lawson’s rural West Texas childhood, with her dad’s taxidermy shop in the back yard; how she met and married the famously long-suffering Victor; her rather unlikely career in human resources with a faith-based organization; and her ultimate decision that her daughter deserved a crazy country childhood, too…complete with taxidermied animals.”

Honorable Mentions

Favorite Audiobook

Rules of Civility: A Novel, Amor Towles (read by Rebecca Lohman)

“Personal reinvention has long been part of the mythos of New York City, and it’s a primary theme of the novel; the title comes from a list of ‘instructions for living’ that George Washington compiled for himself, and which serves as a personal guidebook for Tinker. Eve and Tinker’s purposeful reinventions have effects and repercussions for Katey, shaping and redirecting her own less calculated self-making. 1938 is a year in which Katey experiences much of New York life for the first time, and she gets the opportunity to choose which aspects of it she wants to carry forward. She works hard and well, she’s wry and observant, she’s smart, independent, and open to taking calculated risks…and she never goes anywhere without a book. I don’t think she was created to be instantly lovable, but I found her thoroughly engaging and would have been happy to follow her story through decades, rather than just one year (although we do get an epilogue).”

Bandwagon Book (or, “everyone’s talking about this book, so read it before they stop talking about it”)

Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn

“I haven’t read any of Gillian Flynn’s fiction before this, but I have seen it praised, and I understand why. In Gone Girl she smartly blends plot-based suspense with psychological intrigue, and does it through the alternating perspectives of two unreliable–and frequently unlikable–narrators. The novel explores some provocative and unsettling questions about marriage: in general, its particular shape for any two people involved in it, and just how much of our real selves we allow into it.

But I wouldn’t advise taking Nick and Amy Dunne as any sort of models for marriage, even of the cautionary variety. They’re one of those couples whose individual dysfunctionalities match up well enough to form an entity with its own unique flavor of screwed-up.”

Characters Who Found Novels:

Reading Mini-Trend: The Brat Pack Comes Back, in Books

Since I gave Rob Lowe credit for my Banned Books Week re-read of S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders, I’ll count that as part of this mini-trend too, along with Susannah Gora’s You Couldn’t Ignore Me if You Tried, which includes these three and many others in its discussion of the Brat Pack and the 1980s.

Better Luck Next Year: or, Six Books I Meant to Read in 2012, But Didn’t

So, how did your 2012 reading stack up, and do we share any favorite books?

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