Best Books of 2012


Ta da! It’s my annual list of the best books I read this year – with deep thanks to eagle-eyed Betsey W. who reminded me to pull this together before the end of the year.

It looks like I read 49 books this year, both fiction and non-fiction. I say “it looks” like I’ve read that many because my ace tracking system fell apart and I’ve had to reconstruct my reading list from my Amazon order list and rather sketchy memory. I do know that during this summer’s Derecho storm, where we went without power for five days, I reached into my bookshelf for something(s) to read – five days without a Kindle is vexing! And that’s an interesting thing about this year’s list – I only bought two of the books I recommend in traditional binding format. The rest were all digital e-books.

Interesting little factoid.

So let’s get on with the books, shall we?


The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. This book was unlike anything I’ve ever read and doesn’t neatly fit into any one category. It is in it’s own fantasy-magical-historical-science fiction-romance category, I guess. So, how to sum up the story? Well, there’s this circus and it only opens at night, and the performers are odd, and there seem to be tent after tent of delights and daring, and people become so addicted to it that they travel the world following the circus like 19th century Deadheads. And there are two shady older men who send a boy and a girl into the circus to battle one another, and, of course, the young couple falls in love which thwarts the intentions of the older men. Or does it? Astonishingly well-written and utterly captivating.

What It Was by George Pelecanos. Now you must understand that I adore the writing of George Pelecanos. He’s a Washington, DC-based crime writer and writes about our mutual hometown with a clear eye yet deep love. What It Was is set in the DC of my teenage years, and Pelecanos not only crafts a story about 1970s drug crime in the Nation’s Capital but does it with spot-on details from that era – Hahn Shoes, Reeve’s Restaurant, and Roberta Flack and Donnie Hathaway singing at Carter Barron Ampitheatre.

The Given Day by Dennis Lehane. Now you must further understand that I avoid most of the books at the top of the bestseller list. If it’s 50 Shades of anything, or Grisham, or Clancy, or Baldacci, I’m going to skip those and go to something else. So I had avoided Dennis Lehane due to his popularity. I was stupid. This is a great book, totally up my alley – a sweeping family drama set against racial upheaval and political turmoil. I loved it, and I apologize to Dennis Lehane profusely.

Prisoner of Heaven and The Rose of Fire novella by Carols Ruiz Zafon. This writer is one who makes me wish I could read in Spanish, because even though the translation is done by Lucia Graves, daughter of poet Robert Graves, I imagine it’s even more lyrical in the author’s native language. Ah, well. I loved Zafon’s first book The Shadow of The Wind, and his second The Forgotten Cemetery, and these two new offerings continue the story of Daniel Sempere with a close focus on the story of his friend Fermin Romero de Torres. Zafon gets characterization like few other writers, and I love the way he edges close to mystical fantasy in all he writes.

The Fault In Our Stars by John Green. Teen girl fiction is always a guilty pleasure for me, but this book is exceptionally well done and gripping. Teenage cancer patients meet, fall in love, travel to Europe and cope with their diseases. It’s a four hankie book, friends, but one I am glad to have read.

John Saturnall’s Feast by Lawrence Norfolk. This is one of the two books I bought in hardcover this year because the review I read noted that the paper and quality of the book was remarkable (it is) and that every chapter begins with a recipe (it does). Knowing that recipes and Kindle do not mix well, I bought the book and once it was in hand I was glad I had. It’s a rich and sumptuous book set in England in the Middle Ages. John Saturnall is an orphan whose mother taught him the ancient religious ways of living and of cooking. He rises to head cook for a lord, and falls in love with the lord’s daughter – mostly by cooking for her. It’s about time men realized the way to a woman’s heart is through her stomach, too!

The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling. OK, I struggled with this book. Its themes are hard to handle, and the situations portrayed are not easy. And there were times when I resisted the book. But then I finished and I couldn’t stop thinking about it – a hallmark of worthy fiction, don’t you think? Ultimately, it’s about community and love and connection, I think (I’m still thinking on this one – but read it).

The Legend of Broken by Caleb Carr. Another book that is somewhat category-defying. Caleb Carr wrote the excellent The Alienist, a story of the beginnings of psychological profiling in police work, but this new book is nothing like that at all.  In the kingdom of Broken, the priests and god-kings value physical perfection so banish anyone less than perfect. These people become the tribe of Bane, who exist in nearly perpetual war against Broken. Set in Germany in about 750 A.D., Carr laces the language with slightly Germanic phrases – just enough to make the reader think. And, the perfection of Broken echoes the rise of the Aryan nation of the Nazis. It’s written in a nearly archaic style which takes some getting used to, but once you do the story comes alive.

The Beautiful Mystery by Louise Penny. I am a devotee to the Inspector Gamache series penned by Louise Penny and the newest offering does not disappoint. Gamache and Beauvoir find themselves in an isolated monastery in Canada, summoned to investigate the murder of the abbot. The murderer must be a monk – but who? As Beauvoir struggles with addiction, Gamache struggles with police department politics, making for a multi-layered and satisfying mystery.

Song of Ice and Fire series by George R.R. Martin. I read all of ’em this year. All seven books. Well, I skimmed #5 to tell you the truth but it was mostly character development of secondary and tertiary characters, so… Anyway, the books of George R.R. Martin have become the HBO series Game of Thrones, and I must say the first four books are wonderful. The last three in the series? Seem to me to be affected by the popularity of the first four. So read the early books to discover kingdoms and lands quite different from ours, yet much the same. Political intrigue, love, murder, dragons – all part of the drama which Martin has created.


Nine Things Successful People Do Differently by Heidi Grant Halvorson. I read the Harvard Business blogs daily, and have found myself more than once nodding and agreeing with something I’m reading only to glance up and see that what I like has been written by Heidi Grant Halvorson. In this short book, Halvorson presents research on, and practical steps to achieve, the nine things successful people do differently. Like, for instance, using “If/Then” constructs to organizing yourself (“if it’s Tuesday, then I have a meeting with Jill.”) Very helpful.

Just One Thing: Developing A Buddha Brain One Simple Practice At A Time by Rick Hanson. Neurological research is fascinating, and in this book Rick Hanson gives one daily practice you can institute to achieve a healthier brain and a less-stressed you.

Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead by Brene Brown. What I love about Brene Brown is her sense of humor. No, I love her insight. Wait, maybe what I love is how she tells a story. Gah! I guess I love all of it! In this book, Brown uses her research into vulnerability and shame to help people move beyond fear toward authentic and purposeful action. It’s inspiring, and hopeful yet eminently doable. A great book.

Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson. Funny, I used to think of Steve Jobs as an arrogant visionary in a black turtleneck. Now, I think of Steve Jobs as a very human arrogant visionary in a black turtleneck. Isaacson’s journalistic approach to the rise of technology in Silicon Valley and the trials and tribulations of Steve Jobs as he navigated it all made the story gripping and compelling. I literally could not put it down.

Shakespeare’s Common Prayers: The Book of Common Prayer and the Elizabethan Age by Daniel Swift. Yes, I am a Shakespeare freak (and, yes, I do have an authorship theory which I am not going to share with you at this moment). And this book – which reads more like a graduate level textbook than anything – chronicles the development of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer and illuminates how Shakespeare used this volume to add nuance and color to the plays and the sonnets. Fascinating.

For 2013, I will keep a running list – promise – and will, from time to time, post book recommendations on my Facebook page. Are we friends there?

And what are you reading? What did you like this year? Got anything you’d recommend? I’d love to hear about it… because I need something good to read!

Looking for more recommendations? You can see the list for 2010 here, and the list for 2011 here.



[Just a note, each of these books are linked to for your convenience. If you purchase via this link I will possibly make nineteen to twenty cents on each sale – this is called an “affiliate link” and by law I am required to disclose that I will make this staggering sum of money if you choose to purchase anything I’ve recommended in this post.]

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  1. says

    Thanks so much for your book list! I also loved Shadow of the Wind when I read it (maybe 8 years ago?), but I haven’t followed his work since, so I am especially grateful that you mentioned his other works!

    Speaking of favorite authors, 2012 was a VERY good year for two of my all-time favorites: I LOVED State of Wonder by Ann Patchett (a feminine take on the Heart of Darkness) and Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver (try NOT thinking all the time about climate change after reading this).

    I’m reading Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter right now, and it’ll make my “Best of 2012” if I can finish it by tomorrow. :-)

  2. says

    Hey Michele! Thanks for this list of favorites. One of my top picks for the past year was Erik larsen’s In the Garden of the Beasts. Could not put it down!
    Happy new year to you and yours!

  3. says

    Michele, from one book fiend to another, here are just a couple of my fiction favorites from the year (over and above Night Circus which swept my ‘best book’ award in all categories.) :)

    The Name of the Wind, and, the Wise Man’s Fear (Patrick Rothfuss)
    Shantaram, Gregory David Roberts
    Robin Hobb’s Dragon Keeper series

    Oh and, I haven’t skimmed your booklists from other years, but I am betting you may like Diana Gabaldon. My favorite recommendation to girlfriends to which I always append “I hate you a little bit if you haven’t read her yet because you get to discover her from the beginning.” :) (Patrick Rothfuss is Diana Gabaldon’s brother from another mother – as is Erin Morgenstern, in my book – yes, I said that!!) Thanks for the intriguing things to sniff out and explore! :)

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