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The Best Books of 2012

Lots of outstanding books were published in 2012—here are our favorites. Click a title link, where they appear, to jump to our full review of that book, or a page with more information. Find our favorite books from past years here. And let us know what you think.

This page will be updated weekly as our contributors turn in their picks. Check back soon!


Table of Contents

[Fiction]

[Nonfiction]

[Graphic Novels]

[Honorable Mentions]

[Late additions from past years]


Fiction

This is How You Lose Her, by Junot Diaz

These are great stories, some are new, and all of them are being collected for the first time. All nine story endings are beautiful, so give each one the attention it deserves. Start at the beginning, and don’t spare a sentence just because you might have seen it once before already.

A Partial History of Lost Causes, by Jennifer DuBois

The plot has its hiccups, but the writing is sharp, thoughtful, and charged, and the characters are great, even the minor ones who don’t seem all that important at first–maybe especially the minor ones who don’t seem all that important at first. Everyone in this book has something to say worth hearing, but only some of them get the chance to say it. The least we can do is try to listen.

Three Weeks in December, by Audrey Schulman

Three Weeks in December is an entertaining and well-informed read that someone really just has to make into a movie, or maybe two movies if you want to do the whole dual-narrative justice. We’ll leave that decision to Hollywood.

Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn

Flynn’s third novel was the best mystery we came across this year—an original novel that delivered the twists and turns of an intricate plot, and didn’t sacrifice prose or characterization. A must for any mystery fan.

Immobility, by Brian Evenson

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. 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.

Growing Up Dead in Texas, by Stephen Graham Jones

This book is literary fiction, memoir, true crime and good old fashioned whodunit in one package. Highly recommended, and David Duhr’s favorite book of the year.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, by Ben Fountain

This one is a rich satire, laugh out loud funny (for real), but also at times devastating. The strongest novel (so far) about the Iraq War.

Crossbones, by Naruddin Farah

Crossbones is the third novel in a trilogy, but you need not have read the first two. It concerns a missing Somali-American boy who disappears from Minneapolis (a Somali stronghold), ostensibly to become a jihadi, and is followed to the Horn of Africa by various relatives—including a journalist hoping to get a good story from his ancestral, war-riven nation. It’s worth a read.

Love Slave, by Jennifer Spiegel

Reviews have likened it to Sex and the City, but Spiegel digs much deeper, and the results are much more amusing and affecting.

The Twenty-Year Death, by Ariel S. Winter

A 700-page debut novel emulating three acknowledged masters of crime writing is a tall order, but Winter pulls it off with aplomb, writing three distinct yet linked mysteries that each shine. The Twenty-Year Death is a book that actually delivers on the hype.

The Sugar Frosted Nutsack, by Mark Leyner

This quasi-epic-poem is not a book for everybody. It is a bizarre, at times difficult and obtuse read. But it’s also a brilliant piece of writing the likes of which doesn’t come around all that often. If you’re up for putting in a little effort, you find the experience rewarding.

Sweet Tooth, by Ian McEwan

This is not McEwan’s best book (that would be The Cement Garden), but Sweet Tooth offers exactly what you want from McEwan: pristine writing and complex, compelling characters.

The Company of the Dead, by David J. Kowalski

While not a technical marvel, the book counterbalances average writing with a fun, compelling, and complex time travel plot. If you want a fast-moving, albeit lengthy, read about a time travel causality loop effecting an alternate history wherein America is occupied post-WW2 by Germany and Japan, give this a shot.

Who Could That Be at This Hour?, by Lemony Snicket

This first installment in a new Lemony Snicket series 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.

May We Shed These Human Bodies, by Amber Sparks

These stories pack a lot into their often few pages, forming mini-fables that combine timeless themes with modern sensibilities (see Death and the People, where a jaded Grim Reaper interrupts the all-powerful gods as they play Mario Kart). Sparks’ tales offer enough variety from story to story to avoid too much repetition. Reading this collection is like dipping into pockets of complete surreal-yet-recognizable worlds, and our only complaint is that sometimes Sparks lets us out too soon.

Fires of Our Own Choosing, by Eugene Cross

The collection, largely set in and around Erie, Pennsylvania, chronicling disasters in the lives of Cross’ working-class characters, is a combination of Ron Rash and Bonnie Jo Campbell.


Nonfiction

On Celestial Music by Rick Moody

This fantastic collection of essays pretends to be a book about music but is actually a book about life, and love, and hope. Really it’s about the best parts of being alive, though it does center on Moody’s eclectic musical tastes. And like any good essayist, Moody offers his readers a deeper appreciation of his subject matter—the subject matter on the surface and that underneath.

Every Love Story is a Ghost Story by D.T. Max

We all know how this book is going to end. And in many ways, this biography of David Foster Wallace is a road map plotting points to the inevitable tragedy. But because Max is so thorough in his research, his book provides great insight into one of literatures most complicated writers. This is worth reading if you consider yourself a fan of DFW, moreso than if you never understood why he was such a big deal.

Wild by Cheryl Strayed

The best memoirs are usually comprised of unthinkable circumstances written by extraordinary writers. Above all, a memoir needs to be honest. Cheryl Strayed’s memoir meets the first two criteria easily, but her raw and painful honesty is what makes this book great.

Elsewhere by Richard Russo

Sometimes a good memoir can be a simple story told by a talented writer, and this book is that. Additionally, it’s the funniest nonfiction book on this list.

The Passage of Power by Robert A. Caro

This biography is time consuming, yes, but it is incredibly informative. Do you really need to know this much about one subject? Probably not, but learning things feels good. And Robert A. Caro is a really good teacher.

Joseph Anton by Salman Rushdie

Salman Rushdie is a pompous dick. If you don’t need your favorite writers to be humble, this book won’t turn you off the way it turned off Zoe Heller. Yeah, the guy is full of himself, and not very self-aware, but his books are good. Craftwise, Joseph Anton is not an exception.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers, by Katherine Boo

This is a phenomenal piece of nonfiction in which 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. Deserving winner of a National Book Award.


Graphic Novels

Hawkeye #1-3, written by Matt Fraction, drawn by David Aja, colored by Matt Hollingsworth

This title has a unique look and voice, and a narrative concept unlike most anything else on shelves. New readers intrigued by a preview on the Marvel Comixology app might be more satisfied to pay for a story that begins and ends in 20 pages. Or they might not, in which case the sharp storytelling, sardonic tone, and purple palette courtesy of colorist Matt Hollingsworth will bring them back for the next issue.

Saga #1-6, written by Brian K. Vaughan, drawn by Fiona Staples

It was a little astounding when the first issue of Saga was even better than the hype. Each issue introduces at least two or three new wrinkles in the world, but they’re such simple, digestible concepts that they only enrich the reading. It’s also worth nothing that Saga has one of the best letter columns in all of comics.

The Manhattan Projects #1-6, written by Jonathan Hickman, drawn by Nick Pittara, colored by Chris Peter and Jordie Bellair

The great fun of this title comes with a very dark vision of human potential. While famed nuclear-era scientists like Albert Einstein and Richard Feynman take the spotlight, lurking in the corner is a sense that all of this madness will have dire consequences for the entire world. It reads like Dr. Strangelove but less realistic.

Mind MGMT #1-6, by Matt Kindt

Mind MGMT looks like something you might find in a children’s magazine, like Highlights for Kids. The art appears to be done in watercolor, which gives every scene a dreamlike, surreal quality. It could all be innocent fun, except for the mind control plot, abductions, murders, pitiless enforcers, and the orgy of violence as an entire town destroys itself.

Batman, Inc. #1-4, plus #0 written by Grant Morrison, drawn by Chris Burnham

Morrison and Batman is a slam-dunk combo, and Burnham has proven to be the ideal artist for the story. His Batman is a fluid mass, while Damian is appropriately lithe and frequently airborne. He manages the large cast of characters, which includes a dozen or so Batman, Inc. operatives and dozens of assassins, by differentiating each one, from facial acting to posture.

Are You My Mother?, by Alison Bechdel

While most critics have said that this volume wasn’t as good as her first memoir, Fun Home, about her closeted gay father, we 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.

Building Stories, by Chris Ware

This fascinating project 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.


Honorable Mentions

Dinosaur Art, edited by Steve White

Exactly what it sounds like, this is book is chock full of dinosaur illustrations. There’s only one stegosaurus, which is a shame, but otherwise: stellar.

vN, by Madeline Ashby

Ashby’s novel was the best robot book to come along 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.

Wonder Woman #5-12, plus #0, written by Brian Azzarello, drawn by Cliff Chiang and Tony Akins, which also gets special notice for “Most Exciting Single Page.”

Action Comics #9, written by Grant Morrison, drawn by Gene Ha

The Bulletproof Coffin: Disinterred #1-6, written by David Hine, drawn by Shaky Kane


Late Additions from past years

Kapitoil, by Teddy Wayne

A business wizard from Qatar creates a program that can predict oil futures.

Habibi, by Craig Thompson

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.

We the Animals, by Justin Torres

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.

The Name of the Rose, by Umberto Eco

The Name of the Rose is Eco’s first novel, a murder mystery set in a 14th century Italian monastery during a time of political upheaval in the Catholic Church. The plot mixes history, theology, logic, death, and fornication in a unique combination. It’s a rewarding read that only gets more rewarding the more you think on it.

The Corrections, by Jonathan Franzen

If you anticipate spending a lot of time in transit, go find a copy of The Corrections immediately. This book will keep you company for a good long time, and all of it will be worth your while. Seriously, you will start looking forward to your commute.

The Intuitionist, by Colson Whitehead

The Intuitionist is phenomenal. It is best described as a gritty noir novel about…elevators. And race relations. And New York (maybe). And, possibly, the idea of Platonic Forms. This sounds crazy, but it is just crazy enough to work. Paired with Whitehead’s brilliant prose, this overlooked novel should be a cult classic.