Wednesday, December 19, 2012

My top 10 fiction reads of 2012

This has been a great reading year for me. For one thing, according to the very handy Goodreads stats page, I read nearly twice as many pages in 2012 as I did in 2011! Historical fiction dominated but I also read classics, history, biography, young adult, thrillers, mysteries, literary fiction and contemporary fiction. I've pulled out 10 I would like to recommend to you; many are books that have been around for some time while a couple are new. They are all books that have struck me as memorable for one reason or the other, and I'll try to give you a one-sentence justification for each choice.

Here they are in the order I read them. It's too difficult to give an order of merit; I don't know how book prize judges do it!

You by Joanna Briscoe

Genre: literary fiction.

What's it about? The wild Dartmoor countryside forms a backdrop for a family story of loss and love.

It made the list because it started out like the standard MFA-graduate fare but developed a whole lot more richness than usual along the way, with great imagery and solid pacing as well as literary echoes that delighted me.

Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell

Genre: classic English literature.

What's it about? Social climbing in a small English town in the 1830s. Molly Gibson's father, the town doctor, marries a shallow, self-centered social climber. Molly is attracted to the local squire's son who's out of her reach...perhaps.

It made the list because: sheer entertainment value and wry social observations.  I learned more about the social mores of the period from this novel than I could learn from any number of history books.

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

Genre: literary fiction

What's it about? Mr. Stephens is the perfect butler. So perfect that his entire soul seems to be absorbed by his job to the exclusion of love and all other normal human emotions. His employer is worth it because he's a great man. Or is he?

It made the list because of Ishiguro's genius for building a picture of a man's soul out of his obsessions and the minute details of his life. Chilling.

Elizabeth and her German Garden by Elizabeth Von Armin

Genre: classic English literature.

What's it about? A semi-autobiographical work by an English lady married to a German aristocrat. Glimpses of Elizabeth's life as seen through the frame of creating a garden.

It made the list because of Elizabeth's frankness and openness about her life. It's like reading a 19th century blog. The November chapter, when she revisits her father's garden, is a gem of an essay.

The Magnificent Ambersons by Booth Tarkington

Genre: classic American literature.

What's it about? George Minafer is a scion of the wealthy, influential Amberson family. His mother's darling, he grows up spoiled and selfish. But fortunes can be lost as well as made...

It made the list because it's a wonderful story and a real glimpse into the growth of America from the horse-and-carriage world of the 19th century to the automobile culture of the 20th.

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

Genre: historical fiction.

What's it about? Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII's chancellor. The first part of a trilogy, it chronicles Cromwell's rise from obscurity to power in the third person present tense.

It made the list because of the writing. Oh, the writing. I went on to read the sequel and another Mantel book, and I worship at her feet.

My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok

Genre: literary fiction

What's it about? Asher is born into a strictly orthodox Hasidic Jewish community in New York, a sect that fears and despises art. But Asher is born an artist and his vision leads him to commit the greatest act of sacrilege that could possibly be imagined.

It made the list because of its climactic scene. It's the ultimate expression of how devotion to art can be destructive of everything else. Wow.

Misery by Stephen King

Genre: horror.

What's it about? Famed novelist Paul Sheldon finds his number one fan by crashing his car in the wilderness. Annie nurses him back to health but she has a grievance: he has killed off his heroine, Misery, in his latest book.

It made the list because of the wonderful villainess and King's deep understanding of writing and the relationship between writer and reader. Every writer should read this.

Bone River by Megan Chance

Genre: historical fiction with a literary feel.

What's it about? Ethnologist Leonie finds a mummified body in a riverbank and the intuitive side of her nature that she's tried so hard to suppress works to reveal important truths about her life and marriage.

It made the list because: well, you'll have to wait for my review for the Historical Novel Society to get the full evaluation. Let's just say it's well worth reading.

The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling

Genre: literary fiction.

What's it about? The sudden death of a rural councillor brings the fight over a low-income housing estate to a head, and local teenagers find an indirect way of influencing the results of the election.

It made the list because of Rowling's ability to tell a story and create a world, which she carries over into a brutal tale of class division and family strife. The biggest surprise I've had this year.

So there you have it. Quite heavy on literary fiction; genre fiction may be relaxing, but at the end of the day I find the literary stuff sticks in the memory better.

What about you? What were your favorite books of 2012?