Sunday, January 06, 2013

Best Books of 2012: Fiction

This is the Best Fiction segment of January Magazine’s Best Books of 2012 feature. Also available are our picks for best non-fictionbest SF/F, best books for children and young adults best crime, mystery and thriller fiction of 2012, in two parts: one and two. As well, here are the best cookbooks of 2012. 

12.21 by Dustin Thomason (Dial)
12.21 is by one of the authors of The Rule of Four, Dustin Thomason. When I picked it up, I expected it to be good -- but I didn't expect to be drawn into its tale of lost secrets, conspiracies and treasure. This is a tale of what might have happened on December 21, the date the Mayans predicted the world as we know it would come to an end. 12.21 starts with the death of a man from a condition that prevents him from sleeping. His brain goes wild, his systems shut down, and all is lost. It seems like an isolated incident, and then the cases begin to pile up. That’s when the hero, Gabriel Stanton, gets involved, pulling in Mayan expert Chel. Will they fall in love? Will they find a way to save the world from itself? Come now. What do you think? -- Tony Buchsbaum

Antigonick (Sophokles) by Anne Carson, Illustrated by Bianca Stone, Design by Robert Currie
While the e-book revolution has a lot to answer for, it’s not all bad. One of the bonuses that we’re seeing is that the success of electronic books has forced segments of the publishing industry to examine the very meaning of the word and to reimagine what a book can and should be. Are there some things that an electronic book can’t supply? What are they? Increasingly, we’re seeing more beautiful books. And even more that just have something different about them. Something that would not translate properly into electronic form. Antigonick is a really terrific example of this. Here Pushcart Prize-winning author and poet and classical scholar, Anne Carson, does an innovative translation of Sophocles’ Antigone. As well, the text is hand-lettered by Carson and collaborator and designer, Robert Currie. The translations are accompanied by beautiful and whimsical illustrations by Bianca Stone. The resulting book is stunning, luminous and  delightful, even if Carson’s translations have drawn controversy from certain quarters. Velum pages, a hard board cover, quirky hand-lettering and illustrations; this is not a book that would have been published in quite this form even a decade ago. But now, in a book world shifting and bending to capture each new wave, we are given the occasional gift. Antigonick is a very special one. -- Linda L. Richards

Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter (Harper)
There’s a lot going on in this marvelous novel, which shifts back and forth in time and space between half a dozen international locations; most of the story, though, gets started in a small coastal village in Italy in 1962, when a beautiful young American actress arrives to recuperate from distressing news. Dee Moray enchants all the men she meets: the ambitious yet modest proprietor of “The Hotel Adequate View”; the would-be-hotshot from Hollywood in charge of handling her crisis; and even the great Richard Burton, who’s filming Cleopatra nearby. Events set in motion by the lovely starlet’s visit spin in kaleidoscopic fashion throughout the novel, which takes readers from Seattle, Washington, in 1967, to Edinburgh, Scotland, in 2008, to Sandpoint, Idaho, in the recent past and to present-day Los Angeles -- though not necessarily in that order. People not even born when Dee Moray made her fateful Italian trip become entwined in her history: a desperate wannabe-screenwriter, a disillusioned studio “development-girl,” a might-have-been singer-songwriter. Meanwhile, the older characters continue exploring their ongoing life stories: the hotel-keeper, the movie hot-shot -- and Dee Moray herself. Scenes from a community-theater play, chapters from someone’s unfinished World War II novel and a section of a movie mogul’s memoir are all incorporated into the gifted Mr. Walter’s well-crafted text. Part satire, part metaphor, part fable, part romance -- Beautiful Ruins is terrific: a one-of-a-kind delight. -- Tom Nolan

Dear Life: Stories by Alice Munro (Knopf/Doubleday Canada)
In the 14 stories that comprise Dear Life, Alice Munro is coming home. Brilliantly. Few contemporary writers have done as much for short form fiction as Munro who often reveals as much by what she does not say as by what she does. The stories in Dear Life are shorter than we’ve seen from this author in the past. Even so, each one impresses itself upon us with the weight of spirit of a well executed novel. Such is Munro’s power. The last section of the book is skillful, but will be frightening to fans with its promise. “The final four works in this book are not quite stories,” Munro writes. “They form a separate unit, one that is autobiographical in feeling, though not, sometimes, entirely so in fact. I believe they are the first and last -- and the closest -- things I have to say about my own life.” These final “stories” have the feeling of plain truth even if, as Munro herself says, they are not quite. (Unless maybe they are.) And here, as in the actual stories at the beginning of the book, Southwestern Ontario is one of the major players in this stunning collection. Or, rather, it is the magnet, the destination, the presence at journey’s end. -- Sienna Powers

Enchantments by Kathryn Harrison (Random House)
Enchantments is a beautiful, and often surprisingly touching, book that focuses its historical view on final days of Russia’s Romanov Empire. Harrison has proven herself adept at involving us in weirdly angular family dramas which she does here again. After Rasputin is hauled dead from the river, his 18-year-old daughter, Masha, takes his place at the bedside of the hemophiliac Romanov prince, Aloysha. Her mission is to help heal the prince and, with him, the empire. We all know how that turned out. Even so, Enchantments is an unlikely and strangely beautiful love story. Harrison’s growing army of fans will not be disappointed with Enchantments. The writer here gets back to the her historical roots to very good effect. -- Monica Stark

Fobbit by David Abrams (Black Cat)
The publication and universal adoration of David Abrams’ debut novel, Fobbit, was especially gratifying for January Magazine: not that it was a surprise. Abrams is a January alum and we’ve known and appreciated his brilliant pen for a long time. When the rest of the world applauded him, there wasn’t much we could do beyond nudge each other knowingly, saying, “See?” While everything we’ve seen that Abrams has written over the years has been gorgeous, Fobbit is, in addition, a genuinely important work of fiction: something you just don’t see every day. A 21st century M*A*S*H or Catch-22, Fobbit brings us the absurdity of the Iraq war, from a very special perspective. Fobbit is a perjoritive term that describes soldiers in Iraq who seldom leave the (relative) safety of the Forward Operating Base, or FOB. Abrams understands this beat: he worked it himself. Abrams has said that the blueprint for the novel which would become Fobbit was the journal he kept during 2005 when he joined the 3rd Infrantry Division and deployed to Baghdad in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Kirkus managed to nail the book in a couple of lines: “Sardonic and poignant. Funny and bitter. Ribald and profane. Confirmation for the anti-war crowd and bile for Bush supporters.” Succinct but well-placed. Those ready to laugh through the heartbreak of war will like this one very much. Meanwhile, because we know some of Abrams’ secrets, we are privy to the fact that there are more gorgeous novels to look forward to in the not-too-distant future. All we can say is: bring it! -- Linda L. Richards

Heading Out to Wonderful by Robert Goolrick (Algonquin) 
Heading Out to Wonderful is exactly that. Wonderful. That is, it’s filled with wonder. Robert Goolrick, author of A Reliable Wife, has once again dug beneath the surface of lives, unearthing mystery and motive that, when combined, drive this impressive, hypnotic tale relentlessly forward. The year is 1948, in a gorgeous Virginia valley. Charlie Beale comes to town with two suitcases, one filled with cash, the other with knives. Slowly, with patience and an understanding of how small towns work, Charlie weaves his way into the lives of the town folk. He leads a quiet life, causing few if any ripples, but still touching lives every day, most notably Sam, the young son of his employer, and Sylvan, a young bride who’s determined to live more a Hollywood life than that of a small town. These three characters, each an opposite of the others, come together in an explosive tale that seems part fairy, part cautionary. But no matter how you read it, it’s gorgeous. -- Tony Buchsbaum

Husk by Corey Redekop (ECW)
No one watching such things in Canada doubts his voice or his vision: Corey Redekop has emerged as one of THE young writers to watch over the coming few years. His debut, Shelf Monkey, has been equally lauded and trampled, but the trampling has contained such vitriol, you just knew you had to pay attention. His sophomore effort, Husk, delivers a similar blend of humor and thought-provoking observation. This time out, however, Redekop finds those observations in a strange but surprising place. Strictly speaking, Husk is a zombie novel. At least on the surface. The narrator and protagonist, Husk, is an “everyzombie” and Redekop instantly and without apparent effort does the impossible on the very first page: he makes Husk sympathetic. Think about it: a sympathetic zombie. How does that even work? The book opens thus: “I miss breathing. Sounds stupid, yes. Autonomic system was always there for me. Did the work whether I remembered to inhale or not. Took breaths in and out unfailingly. Never let me down …. Something that was always there. Like sunsets. Rainbows. Complex if I ever thought about it, but why would I? Taking things for granted is a core component of the human experience.” As charming as these early observations may be, they do not a book from zombie perspective a story make and some of Husk gets very dark and very violent, indeed. But the most trenchant observation about Husk comes from the wonderful Andrew Pyper (The Killing Circle) who called the book “Camus meets Palahniuk." That’s possibly all the information potential fans for Redekop’s work will need to rush out to get a copy. -- Linda L. Richards

Illuminations by Mary Sharratt (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
I was both moved and surprised by Mary Sharratt’s novel of Benedictine abbess, Hildegard von Bingen, an extraordinary woman of the Middle Ages. One could not anticipate this majesty and drama. There are no bodices to be ripped here: no kings or dukes and nary a white horse in sight. Even so, Illuminations is riveting, following von Bingen through a harsh childhood to becoming basically imprisoned as a young nun to emerge as one of the significant voices of the 12th century. von Blinngen composed sacred music, wrote nine books on subjects as diverse as theology, medicine and human sexuality. An intellectual who had few peers during her lifetime, Sharrat (Daughters of the Witching Hill, The Real Minerva) depicts von Bingen as deeply human. Illuminations is unforgettable. -- Monica Stark

Mother & Child: A Novel by Carole Maso (Counterpoint)
Carole Maso’s sixth novel is a gorgeous contemplation of motherhood. Part memoir, part flight of fancy, Mother & Child is lyrical and luminescent. “If the mother and the child flew high above the world in an airplane of some sort, they would see below them a field of wool. The clouds are like that.” This is Maso’s first novel since 1998’s lovely though largely unremarked Defiance, which was a darkly powerful novel. In some ways, Mother & Child is just as powerful, but it is yang to Defiance’s yin; a surreal exploration of the mother-daughter bond; a meditation on life, death and the very beauty and fragility of existence. -- Linda L. Richards

Mr. Blank by Justin Robinson (Candlemark & Gleam)
I don’t really believe in them, but I always like a good conspiracy theory. I’m not talking here about those propounded by the birthers or the 9/11 truthers; those people can go to hell. Instead, I mean conspiracy theories involving secret societies, the Kennedy assassinations (my favorite John Kennedy one? Elaborate suicide), the moon landings and Area 51. I also love the Weekly World News. Justin Robinson’s Mr. Blank is a thriller that’s like candy for the conspiracy theorist. It’s about the mysterious “Guy” of “They” that we’ve all mentioned at least once, the person who makes things keep going and has connections to just about everything ... and now somebody is trying to kill him, and since he works for everyone, the list of suspects is endless. The story is very funny and quick, with great popular cultural references, both those that are easy to spot and others so obscure, they feel like they were written by a real pop-culture nerd (and not just for the purpose of pandering, as CBS-TV’s Big Bang Theory so often does with its references). Amazingly, author Robinson -- like Donald E. Westlake and Ross Thomas before him -- manages to juggle the numerous and various balls in his plot without dropping any; quite a feat. But what really sold me on this novel? The notion that monsters like Bigfoot, called Cryptids, exist ... but vampires are complete myths. If you liked The X-Files, Fringe, The Middleman, Warren Ellis’ Planetary or Brian Azzarello’s brilliant conspiracy crime thriller, 100 Bullets? You'll love this debut work. -- Cameron Hughes

One Good Hustle by Billie Livingston (Random House Canada)
January Magazine has been following Billie Livingston’s career closely since we interviewed her while she was promoting her exquisite debut novel, Going Down Swinging, back in 2000. Her second novel, Cease to Blush, was one of this magazine’s best books of 2006. Her third novel, Greedy Little Eyes, won the prestigious Danuta Gleed Award. But even with all of its celebrated and award-winning predecessors, Livingston’s fourth book, One Good Hustle, may be the best of the bunch thus far. Sixteen-year-old Sammie Bell prides herself on knowing the score. The daughter of a brace of grifters, Sammie finds herself feeling like a fish out of water when her con artist father lands in jail and her mother is sliding into a haze of alcohol and depression and Sammie finds herself ensconced into a friend’s loving family. Though part of Sammie really wants to be normal, she fears her genetics and her upbringing set her too far apart. Set in the 1980s, Livingston handles her historic material with the same aplomb she brings to the emotion. One Good Hustle is sharp and sweet and Sammie Bell proves to be one of those memorable characters readers are searching for every time they open a book. -- Linda L. Richards

Red Country by Joe Abercrombie (Orbit)
I seem to be reading a lot of Westerns lately. Good ones. This pleases me, for the older I get, the more I appreciate the genre. After all, the majority of crime novels are just modern Westerns. I picked up Joe Abercrombie’s Red Country not too long ago. It’s a very classic Western type of story. The hero(ine)’s family is kidnapped and she sets out to get revenge. What makes this tale different is that it’s really a fantasy with an Old West setting. It feels just real enough to remind me of “Too Tough to Die” Tombstone and Gold Rush-era California, but boasts enough of the fantastic to give it flavor, and a nicely noirish aftertaste to boot. I can see why my friend Lauren and other women I know like Abercrombie so much. In the almost hilariously misogynist fantasy genre, Abercrombie manages to write great females, first Monza Murcatto from the 2009 revenge novel Best Served Cold, and now, in Red Country, Shy South, who manages to seem realistically feminine as well as tough. I loved both her and her craven stepfather, Lamb (his name quickly becomes ironic, and he reminds me some of True Grit’s Rooster Cogburn). Fans of Abercrombie’s First Law Trilogy will be delighted to realize who he is, as it’s gradually revealed in the novel; but if you’ve only read this one book, you’ll be fine. Lamb is the archetypical old guy with a mysterious and bloody past, like Clint Eastwood’s Will Munny in Unforgiven. He and Shy make a most compelling pair, with the female character doing most of this yarn’s heavy lifting. Red Country is violent, but credibly so. I kind of wish the author had stuck to old, slow-loading but powerful guns instead of swords, but he makes the incongruousness of sword-play in an Old West setting work. This seems to be the most filmable of Abercrombie’s novels thus far (I can already see an older actor like Bruce Willis or Jeff Bridges playing Lamb). It’s also pretty funny. Abercrombie has always been skilled at developing characters, but like many fantasy writers, his dialogue was somewhat stilted. In these pages, though, the dialogue feels naturalistic and real. I became a Joe Abercrombie fan after reading his bloody and brutal war novel, 2001’s The Heroes (which Time magazine described as something like what Lord of the Rings might have been, had Akira Kurosawa written and directed it). If you appreciate Kurosawa, Sergio Leone and Stephen King’s Dark Tower books, you’ll like Red Country. -- Cameron Hughes

Syndrome E by Franck Thilliez (Viking)
A completely captivating, slow-moving thriller about what makes people violent and how one person's violent tendencies can spread to others, like a virus. The story’s initial murders start adding up fast, and two French cops are on the trail of the killer, working to unravel a tale that spans 50 years. The two copes, Franck and Lucie, both have damaged souls, in need of love and understanding as much as a solution to this case. They’re captivated by its twists and turns, and you will be, too. Thilliez’s writing, translated by Mark Polizzotti, is crisp and sure, and though the story unfolds in short chapters, I found myself reading only one or two at a time, to drag out the suspense even more and increase my pleasure. -- Tony Buchsbaum

The Devoted by Jonathan Hull (Dancing Muse)
Jonathan Hull is a writer whose work I always give my full attention. Hull writes beautifully. Searingly. Heartbreakingly. I find it difficult to review Hull’s work: it impresses and touches me so completely, I find I must struggle against hyperbole. Hull’s 2000 debut novel, Losing Julia, was a masterwork. His third novel, The Devoted, lives up to this author’s previous work. It moves us from wartime Italy to the American west and through the lives of three families struggling with various aspects of devotion. Hull spent a decade as a correspondent for TIME, including three years as the Jerusalem Bureau Chief. “Fiction seems far better equipped to get at the deeper and more compelling truths of life,” Hull wrote several years ago, “our unspoken fears and hopes, our secret desires, how we make sense of our lives.” The Devoted once again brings home the truth of those words. It’s a wonderful, memorable book. -- Linda L. Richards

The Quiet Twin by Dan Vyleta (Bloomsbury)
It is a mystery to me that people do not clamor over Dan Vyleta’s every printed word. In my opinion, Vyleta’s writing is muscular, yet lyrical and the stories he chooses to tell resonate through history. The Quiet Twin is a fully nuanced nightmare of reality. Set in Vienna in 1939, it is not immediately apparent that an apartment building is either a metaphor for or a microcosm of the rise of fascism in Europe. But it is not the topic that makes this book a complete and perfectly wrought work of literary genius. Or maybe more accurately, it is not just that. Instead, as with his debut work, Pavel & I, Vyleta starts us off thinking we’re involved in a particularly good war-time thriller. It’s not until we’re deeply involved with Vyleta’s completely compelling story that we realize that more is going on here than meets the eye. The Quiet Twin is a searingly good book. It’s even better than Pavel & I, a book I found nothing short of astonishing. It astonished me also that, in the US, The Quiet Twin is published as a paperback original. Read it now, while Vyleta is still our secret. If there is justice, that will not be the case for long. -- Linda L. Richards

The Sweet Girl by Annabel Lyon (Random House Canada)
No one does historical fiction like Annabel Lyon. Her stories not only have historical significance and cultural relevance, they leap with humanity and verve and life. Lyon’s second novel, The Sweet Girl, is the story of Aristotle’s daughter, Pythias, who battles everything -- even the gods -- to find her way in the world when her father dies. The Sweet Girl follows up Lyon’s starkly successful The Golden Mean and those who adored that book will find a familiar cadence here. Some could find that cadence jolting and, to tell the truth, it all could have gone very badly: this ancient Greek voice speaking in modern tones. Yet somehow, Lyon makes it not only work, but triumph. “The first time I ask to carry a knife to the temple,” opens The Sweet Girl, “Daddy tells me I’m not allowed to because we’re Macedonian.” And so we are given access to the inaccessible: an ancient girl with a modern heart. And it all works beautifully. Almost like magic. Will Lyon follow this diptych with yet another book from the era? Personally, I think it could go either way. Certainly there is room here and stories yet untold, though these two books together make a perfect set piece. Like many of her fans, I’m anxious to see what Lyon decides. -- Sienna Powers

The Tinsmith by Tim Bowling (Brindle & Glass)
Though The Tinsmith opens on the Battle of Antietam during the Civil War -- the bloodiest battle in American history -- Tim Bowling’s newest novel mostly takes place a couple of decades later, in the salmon canneries along the Fraser River. This is familiar ground for Bowling, who grew up in the British Columbia Delta regions he writes about here. But that was a long time ago. Bowling has since become not only a respected novelist, but a somewhat celebrated poet. His strong connections to a poetic past resonate most vividly in The Tinsmith, a book that manages to be deeply interesting, searingly beautiful and historically compelling. The Tinsmith touched me completely. It seemed to me the best type of adventure story for the modern man. -- David Middleton

The Twelve by Justin Cronin (Ballantine)
After a two year wait, I read Justin Cronin’s follow up to The Passage and it was wonderful. Was it worth the wait? Oh, yeah. This time around, Cronin has shaken things up a bit. If you’re expecting The Twelve to simply pick up where The Passage left off, I’ve got some bad news for you. Instead, Cronin jumps forward in time. We get a good, hard look at the aftermath of what was about to happen at the end of The Passage -- but we don’t actually see it happen. Instead, and more elegantly, we see who it killed, the lives it tore apart, and the narrative strands it knotted up. For much of The Twelve, Cronin jumps back and forth between characters, crafting scenes that are sharply written and even more sharply plotted. There’s a chess game going on here, and Cronin is both players. He seems to want you to luxuriate in this novel, soaking up character, motivation and conflict. And there’s plenty of all three. What I really, really like about The Twelve is that while it’s connected to The Passage -- significantly -- it isn’t a retread. It’s not just more of the same. It assumes we know something about this world and these people, but at the same time, somehow, it operates in such a way that you’re always suspicious. Do you know what you think you know? As it turns out, the whole virals-ransacking-the-world thing is just the surface story. There’s a lot more to what’s going on than meets the eye. Best of all, the villains this time out aren’t the virals we’ve come to know and fear. The Passage expertly drew the conflict between humans and virals. It was a very detailed, desperate primer on how to survive. The Twelve expertly does something else. It asks the question: what now? And as it strives for an answer, it serves up a new group of villains: other survivors. -- Tony Buchsbaum

Where’d You Go Bernadette by Maria Semple (Little, Brown)
In another life, Maria Semple wrote for some of television’s funniest and best loved shows including Mad About You, Ellen and Arrested Development. With that sort of background, it’s not surprising that Semple’s books are both deeply human and witty to the point of of being occasionally laugh out loud funny. We laugh, sure. But it’s partly because we know we laugh at ourselves. In Semple’s second novel, fiercely intelligent and mildly manic Bernadette outsources every aspect of motherhood that she can to a company in India so that she can avoid human interaction as much as possible. But when Bernadette’s best laid plans go awry and she is forced to do some serious human interactaction on all of her familial and professional fronts, Bernadette disappears, leaving her confused husband and daughter behind. Where’d You Go Bernadette is charming, funny and, in the end, thoughtful and lovely. -- Sienna Powers

Wife 22 by Melanie Gideon (Ballantine)
Twenty-two years into her marriage and Alice Buckle’s life is unravelling. Her marriage is dying, her kids don’t need her much anymore and her job doesn’t do anything to fill the holes in her heart. A marriage survey Alice finds and in her spam folder ultimately leads her on a path of self-evaluation she could never have anticipated. She is “Wife 22” in the study and she knows her caseworker only as “Researcher 101” but through a series of carefully posed, insightful questions, Alice begins to see herself and her life in a new light… and the light isn’t always good. Gideon is the author of The Slippery Year: A Meditation on Happily After, fingered as a book of the year by both NPR and the San Francisco Chronicle. Wife 22 seems like the perfect fictional companion to that book and why not? Following a memoir that did as well as that one with a quirky feel-good coming-to-middle-age story seems almost like natural progression. -- Monica Stark

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1 Comments:

Anonymous Jenny Fellner said...

I have fallen in love with your beautiful collection. Aside from a few I have not read any of this but you made me want to read them all. Red Country will be on the top of my read list. Keep sharing man…!!:)

Wednesday, January 23, 2013 at 11:06:00 PM PST  

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