by Sandra Parshall
I’m not sure what it says about my reading taste that two of my favorite 2012 novels were a massive historical about a cold political schemer in Henry VIII’s court and a merciless, thoroughly modern drama about a high school cheerleading squad.
Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies is the sequel to the extraordinary Wolf Hall. It continues the story of Thomas Cromwell, first Earl of Essex, a man of low birth who rose to become Henry VIII’s chief minister and to play an indispensable role in England’s break with the Catholic Church. Mantel tells the story from Cromwell’s point of view, in a sly, wry, witty voice that I suspect has made most readers like the man despite his sometimes reprehensible behavior.
Dare Me by Megan Abbott is something completely different. High school, as we all know, is a universe apart, inhabited by not-quite-adults whose clique-dominated lives barely intersect with their parents’ world. Athletes and cheerleaders reign supreme, and each group has its anointed leader. In Dare Me, the power structure within the cheerleader squad begins to wobble when a young, attractive female coach named Colette takes charge and challenges the queen bee status of head cheerleader Beth. Addy, Beth’s longtime sidekick, gets caught between Beth and the coach in a little war that eventually turns lethal. Nobody on the planet writes about adolescent girls with a clearer eye than Megan Abbott does. This is a terrifying, pitch-perfect psychological drama, and the author pulls it off with no onstage violence.
While Megan Abbott enthralls the reader by drilling deep into the psyches of her characters, Gillian Flynn keeps pages turning with misdirection and outright deception in Gone Girl. Published in June, Gone Girl is still riding high on bestseller lists in the U.S. and around the world. Why? The husband and wife protagonists are both unsympathetic. Anyone who has read a lot of suspense will figure out what’s happening long before the end. But I kept on reading, pulled along by Flynn’s sharp prose and her surefootedness on tricky ground.
One book I loved that didn't get nearly enough attention from readers was So Much Pretty, an absorbing debut novel by Cara Hoffman. Stacy Flynn, a young journalist looking for a big break, moves to the rural, insular New York community of Haedon to investigate the effect on the environment of the area's main employer, a dairy farm. But she is drawn into the mysterious disappearance of a local girl and begins trying to fill in the blanks in the girl's past. Hoffman creates and sustains an atmosphere heavy with menace and secrets, and she turns the countryside of upstate New York into a toxic trap for natives and visitors alike.
I read Sister by Rosamund Lupton early this year, but it was published in 2011. A simple plot description -- it's about a woman searching out the truth behind her beloved younger sister’s supposed suicide -- makes it sound like a hackneyed amateur sleuth tale, but Sister is much more than that. Like Abbott, Lupton explores characters and their relationships more deeply than most mystery writers would ever try to.
This year I read (or, more often, listened to) a number of Scandinavian crime novels, and I suppose I have Stieg Larsson to thank for that. I found Larsson’s “Girl” novels almost unreadable, but their popularity in the U.S. opened the door to American publication for other authors from that part of the world. I enjoyed The Hypnotist and The Nightmare by Lars Keplar (a husband-wife writing team), 1222 by Anne Holt, The Caller by Karin Fossum, and especially The Stonecutter by Camilla Lackberg, a wonderful Swedish writer I discovered last year with The Ice Princess.
Other books by favorite writers I enjoyed this year were The Buzzard Table by Margaret Maron, Catch Me by Lisa Gardner, The Pain Nurse by Jon Talton, Mad River by John Sandford, Trust Your Eyes by Linwood Barclay, The Crime of Julian Wells by Thomas H. Cook, and Say You’re Sorry by Michael Robotham.
My favorite crime novel of the year, though, was Criminal by Karin Slaughter. I’ve read her books from the beginning, and I think her growth as a writer has been phenomenal. In this complex story of murder, ambition, betrayal, greed, and family secrets, Slaughter deftly shifts between time periods covering forty years and explores the darkest reaches of her characters’ hearts without stalling the pace for a second. Georgia Bureau of Investigation agent Will Trent is at the center of the story along with his partner Faith, but the long law enforcement career and personal life of Faith’s mother, Amanda Wagner, tie the past and present together. This is Karin Slaughter’s best book yet. Will is a fabulous character, and I was happy to hear a few months ago that a series of television movies based on the books is in the works. I can only hope the casting of Will is an improvement over the casting of Jack Reacher.
What were your favorite books this year?