Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Books I Loved This Year

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?


Steven M. Moore said...

Hi Sandra,
I couldn't pass up the opportunity to comment. You see, this year is the first year that my two favorite books are probably not bestsellers, but they should be. #1 is Malena by Edgardo David Holzman. I suppose you might call it historical fiction, but it's a thriller about a love triangle at the time of "the disappearings" in post-Peron Argentina. #2 is Carolyn J. Rose's Through a Yellow Wood, a mystery set in the Catskill Mountains of New York state. I reviewed them both.
#3 is Exit Music by Ian Rankin, probably not new but new for me (part of my study on learning how to write mysteries). I don't know if this book is a bestseller, although the author is well known. I thought it was great, though.
The variety in our lists just shows how subjective reading tastes can be, I suppose. How boring would it be if we all liked the same books?
All the best,

Julia Buckley said...

Thanks for the great list. I am dying to read GONE GIRL. Maybe over this break . . . .

Terry Shames said...

Thanks for all these great tips, Sandy. Yes DARE ME was different and enthralling, although not my favorite. The biggest surprise of the year for me was discovering that I love the breezy cozies in Rhys Bowen's Royal Highness series. I don't normally go in much for cozies, but these are quick, cheery reads with lots of humor. On the less humorous side, I read THE CUTTING SEASON, by Attica Locke. A literary mystery about African Americans' uneasy relationship with their southern heritage. As always, so many books, so little time!

Sandra Parshall said...

Steven, I love Ian Rankin's books, including Exit Music. I haven't read the other two you mentioned, but I'll try them on your recommendation.

Di Eats the Elephant said...

I have to say, Gone Girl was the best of a new writer for me. I always enjoy everything Lee Child, Harlan Coben, and my favorite author James Lee Burke write (all three had books this year). I also discovered authors Kyra Davis and Randy Wayne White, as well as (believe it or not) Janet Evanovich. Kyra's writing is similar to Janet's and I have a thing for quirky characters, humor, and great dialogue in a mystery/suspense setting. Kyra's are set in SF, and Randy's in Florida (south of Tampa).

Sheila Connolly said...

I just finished reading Gone Girl (yesterday) and I must say I understand why it has topped so many lists. It is a compelling read throughout, and an impressive psychological study.

I know I'm late to the party, but I've finally read Game of Thrones, and enjoyed it far more than I expected. I'm torn between reading on to find out what happens next (dragons? really?) and the downside of committing to a few thousand pages, when there are so many other books to read.

Barb Goffman said...

Sandy, reading your descriptions makes me wish I could read more quickly; your favorite books sound so good. I'm writing this without consulting my list (yes, I keep a list all year) of my favorite reads this year, so I'm only going to mention mysteries by new authors that stick in my mind: (1) Artifact by Gigi Pandian - a professor of Indian (the country) history gets involved in an archeological dig in Scotland while searching for a missing treasure and a killer. Pandian really knows how to set a mood. (2) Faithful Unto Death by Stephanie Jaye Evans - a Texas minister gets pulled into investigating the murder of one his parishioner's husband. The character has a great, unusual voice and isn't preachy. (3) Lowcountry Boil by Susan M. Boyer - residents of a South Carolina coastal island that has so far avoided massive tourist development find themselves targeted by traitors who'll kill to get what they want. I still have 100 pages left in this book, but wow is it good. A wonderful southern flavor. Great voice and characters and plot. (I should note I won a copy of Boyer's book from the publisher, but that has not affected my review.) I highly recommend all three of these books.

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