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2012: My Year In Books (Fiction)
It’s just as important that we feed our minds as it is to feed our bodies, and I like tucking into a book almost as much as stuffing my face with Chocolate Chili.
Last year, I read somewhere in the neighborhood of 56 books, give or take a few I started and abandoned, and a handful of cookbooks I skimmed. I loved some of them. I felt very meh about others of them. And I had new thoughts and ideas and night dreams and daydreams because of all of them.
In case you’re looking for a book to keep you company, here’s the list of fiction I read in 2012. I’ve listed the books in the order that I read them, so you can see I get on streaks sometimes. World War II action! The Sandman Slim series! Atmospheric mysteries!
As always, if you use the Amazon links below to buy something, I get a little kickback. The government makes me tell you that.
I am about to geek out on books in a major way. You know how much I love cumin, right? I love books even more… even the ones I don’t enjoy.
Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte
My love for Jane Eyre is well-documented. I re-read it every January (and sometimes mid-year, just ’cause). It’s entertaining, moving, enlightening, and satisfying every time.
Declare, Tim Powers
Dave and I decided to read this — a spy thriller+fantasy novel set all over Europe with flashes back to WWII — as a just-the-two-of-us book club last winter. It was very disappointing. I hung on to the bitter end, but I didn’t enjoy it much. On paper, I should have loved it, but the magic just wasn’t there.
Knock ’em Dead: A Murder, She Wrote Mystery, Jessica Fletcher & Donald Bain
Without a doubt, the novelizations of Murder She Wrote (which I adore because Angela Lansbury is the f*cking bomb) are terrible. But for whatever reason, I was looking for the literary equivalent of a big bowl of mashed potatoes in February, and I gobbled this thing up in about a day and a half — laughing at it the entire time, but devoted anyway. Note that the fictional character Jessica Fletcher has an author credit on the book! How completely totally utterly f*cking delightful.
Disobedience, Naomi Alderman
Naomi is the writer behind the wonderful story woven through both the Zombies, Run! app and Zombies, Run! 5K Training Program. She and I were Internet acquaintances way back in the mid-’90s (when I wrote and published the ezine Go, Girl!), and we reconnected this year when the Zombies app was launched. She’s a tremendous writer, and this novel is beautiful. It has moving things to say about family, independence, following our hearts, and forgiveness. Definitely recommended.
The Flanders Panel, Arturo Pérez-Reverte
Historical fiction, sorta, plus thriller. Should have been just my cup of tea. It was fine; not my favorite. I will say, however, that the big reveal on the bad guy is shocking, and as I recall, it was pretty suspenseful. But I also kinda remember thinking the heroine was annoying and I wasn’t really bummed when bad things happened to her.
The Hound of the Baskervilles, Arthur Conan Doyle
This, on the other hand, was wildly entertaining. I gobbled it up, and it made me wonder why I don’t read more Sherlock Holmes.
The Danger, Dick Francis
Ah, Dick Francis! My love for his tasty little mysteries and strong, silent heroes with a code, never fades. This one is about the kidnapping of an Italian, girl jockey, but really, what does it matter? The plots are always engaging, but it’s the characters that make these books worth reading.
We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Shirley Jackson
Creepy. Atmospheric. All-together shocking and dark and disturbing. I was kind of stunned when I finished it. The ending is so… wow. I was lured into buying it by the amazing cover on the Penguin edition, and I should have known it would knock my socks off because the other well-known story by Shirley Jackson is the thoroughly unsettling tale The Lottery.
The Maltese Falcon, Dashiell Hammett
Whenever I read Hammett (or watch the movie version of this story), I feel like I should really love it. And at first, I do fall for the hard-boiled language. But honestly, these are a bit too plot driven for me, or, rather, there’s character development but I don’t like the characters. Anyway. Classic, for sure. Worth the time, but maybe I don’t like it so much as I respect it.
Jurassic Park & The Lost World, Michael Crichton
Super-duper, adventurous fun. I read these while we were in Costa Rica and the books are set in Costa Rica! That entertained me no end, and when we walked down the deserted village street with our friends, in the moonlight, surrounded by the click-clack of the claws of mating Halloween crabs, I regaled them (crabs and friends, alike) with (fictional) factoids from the books. Nothing could have made me happier than that. Nothing.
Berlin Noir Trilogy: March Violets, The Pale Criminal, A German Requiem, Philip Kerr
The Philip Kerr books are like a magic transport to another time: more dangerous, more romantic, more desperate, more stylish, more nuanced. He brings World War II to life in a way that no pure history book can do, and his all-too-human characters, struggling to do the right thing under terrible circumstances, have taught me plenty about politics, history, and the human spirit. His hero Bernie Gunther really got under my skin and stuck in my imagination for a long time.
Prague Fatale, Philip Kerr
See above. I was deep into WWII territory for weeks reading these four books back-to-back. In my imagination, the world was black-and-white and the edges of every scene were softened by a chill fog.
This Body of Death, Elizabeth George
I’ve read every Inspector Lynley novel that’s been published at least once, and the cast of characters created by Elizabeth George now feel like old friends. I feel like she kind of floundered on the last few books, but this was a page-turner and a return to the style and richness of story that I love. If you like British mysteries with a psychological twist (kind of dark and murky instead of the somewhat chirpy, locked-room mysteries of Agatha Christie), you might like these. Start with the first, A Great Deliverance, and work your way forward from there.
Time Bomb, Jonathan Kellerman
Kellerman’s Alex Delaware novels are, for me, like a long-running TV show you read instead of watch. I’m familiar with the characters, I have an affection for them, and it’s thrilling to go along for the ride. This one was about a sniper attacking a school and now, a year later, it seems all the more relevant and sad.
The Lessons, Naomi Alderman
Naomi does it again with a coming-of-age plot about some of the most challenging, difficult characters I’ve encountered in fiction. Parts of it were hard to read, but Naomi’s gift is that she illuminates the humanity behind the sharp words and appalling behavior of the people who populate her story. It’s quite melancholy, but very good.
Mission to Paris & Dark Star, Alan Furst
And then I traveled back in time to World War II. Again. Alan Furst is a thisclose second to Philip Kerr for me. His characters and plots are pretty “masculine,” but he highlights the bittersweet experience of falling in love and making fast friends during the turbulence of war, and sets all of that against make-your-heart-pound action. Plus, his books are big adventures, so they’re vicariously thrilling while they punch you in the gut with emotion.
Mendel’s Dwarf, Simon Mawer
This was an engaging book that had a SHOCKING ending. When I was finished, I wasn’t sure if I liked it, and I felt a little angry about how the story wrapped up. Still, it’s smart and beautifully — if brutally honestly — written. The plot centers around a dwarf, who is a descendent of Gregor Mendel (a.k.a., the father of genetics), and looking for love and respect, both from the world and himself.
Heartburn, Nora Ephron
This is a sweet, funny, sad look at infidelity and the end of a marriage. Surprisingly, it’s upbeat and sobering at the same time. Nora Ephron’s writing style gets right to the essential details in whatever she’s describing and made me laugh out loud — and shed a few tears — many times. (I’ve yet to see the movie version with Meryl Streep, but it’s on my must-see list because [a.] Meryl and [b.] Nora Ephron.)
Second Wind, Dick Francis
Yep, another Dick Francis mystery! This time, it revolves around hurricane chasers and a mysterious Caribbean island!
The Haunting of Maddy Clare, Simone St. James
This started out as a ghost story and ended up as a sort of romance novel (?). It was decidedly… OK. There were some truly spooky moments that had me reading past my bedtime and wishing I could sleep with a light on — and there was some nice interplay between the lead characters, but there were also some incredibly clunky sex scenes and conversations that made me groan out loud. Nice effort, mixed execution.
The Thirteenth Tale, Diane Setterfield
This was a re-read for me, and man! I forgot how truly great this book is. It has references to Jane Eyre and gothic elements and a heroine who loves books and a mysterious author and long-held secrets. Basically, it has all of my favorite things! LOVE!
The Woman in White, Wilkie Collins
Also a re-read because after The Thirteenth Tale, I wanted to stay with moody, atmospheric storytelling. The Woman in White is widely recognized as the first mystery novel, and it’s spooky, beautifully written, and — to keep things interesting — is told through the voices of many narrators. Each chapter moves the story forward by having a different character share their tale. There’s a little bit of a lag in the very last section, but it picks up full steam just before the end.
The Big Over Easy, Jasper Fforde
I bought this for $1 at our local library book sale, and since I liked The Eyre Affair (the second time I read it but not the first, which just proves that how you feel about books is influenced by where you are in your life at the time), I thought I’d give it a go. It was a fun jaunt through a world in which nursery rhymes are true — and poor Humpty Dumpty meets a not-very-pretty end. There are more books in this series, so if you like this one, you can hang out in that world for a while with the other installments.
Planet X, M. J. Friedman
Put this in the same guilty pleasure list as the Murder She Wrote novel above. With this book, my geekdom is on full display: it’s a mashup of Star Trek: The Next Generation and the X-Men. It was truly awful. But I read the whole thing.
Inamorata, Joseph Gangemi
I bought this book while in Philadelphia because the story is set in Philadelphia, and I love to read novels that take place in the cities I visit. It started out strong: a young man gets caught up in investigating a potential medium at the height of the Spiritualism craze during the 1920s. Unfortunately, about halfway through, I felt like the book got confused about what kind of story it was trying to tell. Meh. I finished it because I wanted to see what was going to happen, but I didn’t love it.
The End of the Jews, Adam Mansbach
This, too, was acquired during my Philadelphia trip, and I expected to love it. The reviews couldn’t have been more glowing, and it’s got stuff I adore: a loving-and-loud Jewish family, a girl from Prague, musicians and poets, photography, and secrets. But I felt like it was trying to be too smart sometimes, and the writing got in the way of the story. I didn’t love it, but it did make me think, and I read every word, sometimes wanting to be able to turn the pages faster, to see what was going to happen next. I think, honestly, that part of my diminishing affection for the book was the result of the author doing really mean things to the characters. Sometimes I want my fiction to be a little more gentle than real life.
Sandman Slim, Richard Kadrey
Brilliant! Back in the day, I was Richard Kadrey’s manager at a big, corporate web development company in San Francisco. Even then, it was ridiculous that I would “manage” him because he could write circles around everyone. Now he’s a New York Times best-selling author and has written four Sandman Slim novels. His version of Los Angeles is tawdry, corrupt, undeniably appealing somehow, and, haunted by real demons as well as other unsavory characters. Our (anti)hero Sandman Slim is the perfect blend of should-be-evil and can’t-help-doing-the-right-thing. There’s sex, violence, romance, mystery, humor, and — underneath it all — a moral code. Highly recommended series.
Kill the Dead, Richard Kadrey
Aloha from Hell, Richard Kadrey
Devil Said Bang, Richard Kadrey
See above. In the interest of full disclosure, the first book was my favorite. Kill the Dead was almost as good. I didn’t like Aloha from Hell as much as the first two because Sandman Slim is in Hell, instead of LA, and I like the story more when he’s with his circle of friends that form his ragtag, family-by-choice. BUT… the third book needed to happen for the story to advance to the fourth, The Devil Said Bang, which was a 100% return to awesome. So… read them all. In order. They’re wicked good fun, and amidst all the action, Richard slyly slips in his point of view on life, death, religion, friendship, and loyalty. Action adventure with brains and heart. And demons. So, yeah.
The Historian, Elizabeth Kostova
It was my third time to read The Historian, and this time, Dave joined me because… this spring we’re going to a handful of the places mentioned in the book. (Croatia and Slovenia, here we come!) I really enjoyed being able to talk about each chapter as we read it, and we found this cool web site (called Vampire Travels!) that has photos of many of the sites mentioned in the novel. For those of you that haven’t read it three times, it tells the story of academic researchers who begin to suspect that Vlad the Impaler, a.k.a., Dracula, is real, and maybe still alive. It’s told through letters and diaries, and includes romance, adventure, travel, food, and plenty of spine-tingling surprises. Here’s what I’ve said about this book before: This book instantly engages my imagination. It’s just spooky enough to make me think twice about walking into the darkened backyard without a flashlight, and the travel descriptions are so evocative, it makes me want to write lengthy letters home from a train somewhere with foreign accents.
The Affair, Lee Child
As you can tell from this list, when I’m not reading moody fiction set in either exotic locales or World War II, I’m reading “potato chip” thrillers. And Lee Child’s character Jack Reacher is in my top five investigators with whom I like to kill Saturday afternoons on the couch. (See also Elvis Cole, Gabriel Allon, Joe Pike, and Inspector Lynley.) This was classic Reacher action, including the requisite smart, bombshell cop to distract Reacher with her sex appeal, as well as people who may or may not be what they seem. Action packed and satisfying.
Books I Abandoned
I’m not going to say too much about these books, but bear this in mind: I read the entire Murder She Wrote and Star-Trek: The Next Generation novels, so for me to abandon a book, I’ve got to really not like it.
The Sad Tale of the Brothers Crossbart, Jesse Bullington (Too gross.)
The Devil’s Oasis, Bartle Bull (Too plodding.)
Larry’s Party, Carol Shields (Too depressing.)
A Dead Man In Istanbul, Michael Pearce (Too plodding.)
Twelve, Jasper Kent (Too dull.)
The Prague Cemetery, Umberto Eco (I just cannot make myself like Umberto Eco’s work, which makes me wonder if I’m too dumb.)
Aunt Dimity’s Death, Nancy Atherton (I almost made it all the way through, then bailed with, like, 50 pages to go.)