25 best books of 2012
Seattle Times reviewers choose their favorite reads of the year.
Seattle Times book editor
It’s my unscientific opinion that this was a fabulous year for books, particularly fiction. This best books of 2012 list, compiled by Seattle Times reviewers, supports that notion — 15 novels and 10 nonfiction books were singled out as the best books they read this year.
Every regular reviewer gets a vote, but this year there were some books that were tapped by several reviewers. Multiple votes went to these books:
• “The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving” by Bainbridge Island author Jonathan Evison.
• “Capital” by British author John Lanchester.
• “Bring Up the Bodies” by British author Hilary Mantel.
• “Beautiful Ruins” by Spokane author Jess Walter.
I had the privilege of reading these four books. You can’t go wrong with any of them, and you really are missing something if you haven’t read “Bring Up the Bodies” and its prequel, “Wolf Hall,” which both won the Man Booker prize (in 2012 and 2009). They and other books are described by our reviewers, below. Thanks for their efforts all year long to read long, diligently and well.
We invite you to join the list-making by sharing your favorite titles of 2012 with other readers by commenting on this story at seattletimes.com/books.
“In the Kingdom of Men” by Kim Barnes(Knopf). Barnes creates a vivid period mystery about life in a 1960s oil-company compound in Saudi Arabia, melding themes of feminism and colonialism, while weaving in sumptuous detail of luxurious poolside life among ex-pats. — Kimberly Marlowe Hartnett
“Running the Rift” by Naomi Benaron(Algonquin). Jean Patrick, a young male distance runner, full of innocence and warmth, is caught by the horrors of ethnic conflict in Rwanda. Jean Patrick must run the race of his life to save himself and those he loves. — Bharti Kirchner
“The Chemistry of Tears” by Peter Carey (Knopf). A labyrinthine museum of industrial design in London forms the backdrop of this marvelously languid and bluesy tale about an horologist struggling to mend her broken heart while restoring a 19th —century mechanical swan. Carey’s language of sorrow and longing leaves goose bumps. — Tyrone Beason
“The Orchardist” by Amanda Coplin(Harper). The quiet, seemingly placid life of a reclusive apple grower in central Washington state is thrown into disarray when two very young and very pregnant girls appear among his groves. His quest to learn who they are, where they have come from, and what has driven them into his life will also draw him out of himself. — Richard Wakefield
“The Bartender’s Tale” by Ivan Doig (Riverhead). Master storyteller Doig returns to 1960 Montana for this moving coming-of-age story of a precocious boy, his bachelor, bartender father, and an unexpected revelation that threatens to upend both their lives. — Tim McNulty
“The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving” by Jonathan Evison(Algonquin Books). One of life’s losers rehabilitates himself by taking his disabled charge on a road trip. This surprisingly funny and heartwarming novel by a Seattle-area area author shows not just the snowball effect of tragedy, but also how a generous spirit can pave the way back from heartbreak. — Ellen Emry Heltzel
“Winter of the World” by Ken Follett(Dutton). Follett presents the second mammoth volume in his projected trio of novels about the turbulent, game-changing 20th century, and the book is so stuffed with memorable characters who live through the World War II/Cold War period that they’re practically popping out of the nearly-thousand pages at you. — Melinda Bargreen
“The Chaos” by Nalo Hopkinson(McElderry Books). This award-winning AfroCaribbean/Canadian author whirls readers into the suddenly destabilizing life of mixed-race teen “Scotch” as her Toronto home fills with weird transdimensional sinkholes and her skin inexplicably exudes a tarlike goop. Strong, enjoyable characters anchor a wildly unpredictable world. — Nisi Shawl
“The Legend of Pradeep Mathew” by Shehan Karunatilaka(Graywolf). Who knew that a comic novel about cricket in Sri Lanka would so exquisitely capture a slice of Colombo life during 1990s wartime, and send out life-affirming lessons to the rest of the world, as if it were paying attention? — Alan Moores
“Capital” by John Lanchester(Norton). On a street in south London, in a time of financial lunacy, Lanchester gives us an unforgettable cast: the English banker, the Polish handyman, the Hungarian nanny, the Senegalese soccer player, the Zimbabwean refugee, the Pakistani shopkeepers. Obliviousness abounds, cultures clash, money perverts. True to English form, there’s even a mystery: Who’s sending all those anonymous postcards? – Ken Armstrong
“Bring Up the Bodies” by Hilary Mantel(Henry Holt). The single best novel I read all year — the sequel to “Wolf Hall” and the brilliantly told, continuing story of Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s right hand man, as he orchestrates Anne Boleyn’s downfall. — Mary Ann Gwinn
“Trapeze” by Simon Mawer(Other Press). In a perfect combination of intrigue, romance, betrayal and incredible bravery, Mawer seamlessly combines fact and fiction to portray the life of one woman tapped by British Special Operations in 1941 to undertake deep-cover missions, commando training and a parachute jump into France, where she has a “fifty-fifty chance of survival.” — Valerie Ryan
“Sweet Tooth” by Ian McEwan(Nan A. Talese/Doubleday). A Cold War-era tale of spying and reading, two activities that blur together as you get lost in McEwan’s clever, twisty tale (what is reading fiction but spying anyway?). — Moira Macdonald
“Beautiful Ruins” by Jess Walter(Harper). Four different reviewers recommended the latest novel by Spokane author Walter, a love story that starts during the filming of “Cleopatra” in the Sixties, then bounces from the Ligurian coast to 21st-century Hollywood and other points over the world map. Walter’s specialty — satire with a beating heart.
“Alif the Unseen” by G. Willow Wilson (Grove Press). With cyber threats from “rogue states” and the Arab Spring in the news, Wilson’s supernatural and sociopolitical thriller couldn’t be more topical. This spirited swirl of religion and mysticism; reality and myth; computer science and metaphysics creates a parallel universe in an unnamed oil-rich emirate where the world of humans — “children of Adam” — and genies (“jinn”), both benevolent and demonic, intersect. — Agnes Torres Al-Shibibi
“The Way the World Works” by Nicholson Baker(Simon & Schuster). Baker is a virtuoso of bemused meticulous observation, distilling the minutiae of daily life into ingenious art; these absorbing essays riff on topics as varied as his wedding in Venice and the yeasty potential of Wikipedia. — Adam Woog
“Behind the Beautiful Forevers” by Katherine Boo(Random House). Winner of a 2012 National Book Award, this bravura work of non-fiction reads like a novel for the gratifying completeness of its characters, denizens of an infamous slum in Mumbai, India, and their moving life stories. — David Takami
“Dust to Dust — a Memoir” by Benjamin Busch(Ecco). A Marine Corps combat veteran but son of pacifist parents, Busch writes of his youthful enthusiasm for all things military. But only a third of his book is set in Iraq. The rest is a beautifully written mosaic of themes, including a man’s coming of age, experience of life and death, and love of nature and building things. — Irene Wanner
“My Heart Is Boundless” edited by Eve LaPlante(Free Press).This collection of the letters and journal entries of Abigail May Alcott (mother of Louisa May Alcott, and the obvious model for the wise and benevolent Marmee in “Little Women”) reflects a woman who chafed against convention, advocated for women’s suffrage and the abolition of slavery, and was just as ardent as her famous daughter. — Barbara Llloyd McMichael
“Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power” by Jon Meacham (Random House). Pulitzer Prize-winning author Meacham delivers a fascinating profile of Thomas Jefferson, the founding of America, and Jefferson’s delicate balance of soaring rhetoric, hard ball politics, and high-stakes political maneuvering. – Kevin J. Hamilton
“Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic” by David Quammen(Norton). In his epic and magisterial book, Quammen has written a reportorial tour de force that spans the globe and provides a hands-on view of what has the potential to be one of the most frightening problems facing science and scientists: diseases that have been transmitted from animal to humans. — David B. Williams
“The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today” by Thomas E. Ricks(Penguin). Ricks, who has covered wars for The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal, dissects leadership of the U.S. Army since World War II and finds it lacking in accountability and unable to successfully fight and win the “messy small wars” of the future. — John B. Saul
“Joseph Anton” by Salman Rushdie (Random House). Rushdie didn’t aspire to historical importance with his 1988 novel, “The Satanic Verses.” But when Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini sentenced him to death for writing it, Rushdie found himself in the midst of a deadly cultural battle that lasted for years. “Joseph Anton” (the alias he used while in hiding) is Rushdie’s eloquent take on his experience and what it signified. It’s naked and soul-searching, and also has its fair share of gossip, gallows humor and Keystone Cops mishaps. — Michael Upchurch
“Seward: Lincoln’s Indispensable Man,” by Walter Stahr(Simon & Schuster). This monumental biography of Lincoln’s secretary of state is impeccably researched and written in an engaging manner that keeps the pages turning easily — not always the case with biographies. — Steve Raymond
“The Outpost: An Untold Story of American Valor” by Jake Tapper(Little, Brown). I believe this is the most important book I read all year. It is about a group of American soldiers stationed at an outpost in Afghanistan that is indefensible — as is the logic that put them there. — Curt Schleier