Notes: 1) These are all books I've read this year - not all of them were actually published in 2012. 2) If you're an 'avid reader' (ha!) of this blog, you've probably already seen all these summaries or reviews and in some cases you might be sick of me harping on about certain books, but this list just has to be done. It's a tradition! (Even though I didn't actually bother to do one last year). 3) I apologise for any repetition in the descriptions. I really need to find a suitable synonym for 'compelling'.
I can't decide between three books this year... So I'm just going to go for it and say my absolute favourite has to be a tie between them.
☆ Alys, Always by Harriet Lane: I absolutely devoured this first novel about a lonely woman who latches on to a high-profile literary family after she witnesses the death of their matriarch in a car accident. Fast-paced, beguiling, and subtly sinister - an excellent debut from an author I am keen to follow in future. My full review - Buy on Amazon: Kindle / Paperback
☆ Signs of Life by Anna Raverat: This is one woman's account of an affair she had some years ago, which destroyed her life - but it's so, so much more than that. Wonderfully written, uniquely structured and a slow-burning delight. My full review - Buy on Amazon: Kindle / Hardback
☆ Lamb by Bonnie Nadzam: I was absolutely wowed by this dark, intense and unsettling debut about a man kidnapping an eleven-year-old girl. It takes the reader on a difficult journey, but has a stunning narrative style - vague, seductive, disturbing, utterly compelling. My full review - Buy on Amazon: Kindle / Paperback
☆ When Nights Were Cold by Susanna Jones: One of those unreliable-narrator stories I love so much: a tense historical tale about a group of female students with ambitions to become Antarctic explorers. I read all the author's books this year, but this was by far the best. Beautifully put together, complex, atmospheric and consistently intriguing. My full review - Buy on Amazon: Kindle / Hardback
☆ Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil: This lyrical and often very surreal novel (loosely) follows a group of opium addicts in 1970s Bombay. It won't appeal to everyone, but I absolutely loved the dreamlike atmosphere created by the non-linear, rambling narrative. My full review - Buy on Amazon: Kindle / Paperback
☆ Communion Town by Sam Thompson: As the subtitle says, this is 'a city in ten chapters': a series of interconnected short stories all set in the same unnamed city. With elements of fantasy and inexplicably strange details, I found this absolutely fascinating and the variety of narratives thrilling. My full review - Buy on Amazon: Kindle / Paperback
☆ Invisible by Paul Auster: Completely dazzling, compulsively readable, and effortless, this is my favourite book by Auster so far - a dark coming-of-age tale with the tone and pace of a thriller. This is what fiction should be, and I wish I could find more brilliant novels like this! My full review - Buy on Amazon: Kindle / Paperback
☆ Don't Look Now and Other Stories by Daphne du Maurier: I loved this collection of dark, twisted short stories: the titular tale is a classic, but most of the others are of equal quality and power, and almost all feature a spellbinding, revelatory twist. Sinister and fascinating. I also read two other anthologies of du Maurier's stories - The Birds and The Breaking Point - which were almost as good! My full review - Buy on Amazon: Paperback
☆ Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn: You've probably already heard about this - a huge buzz has been building around it all year and it's been mentioned in practically every 'best of 2012' list I've read. Dark, twisted and full of unpredictable revelations, it's a great mystery told by two thoroughly untrustworthy narrators. I was fascinated (mostly in a negative way) by the characters and there was so much tension I don't know how I managed to resist reading ahead. My full review - Buy on Amazon: Kindle / Paperback
☆ Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell: A book I'd been meaning to read for a while (years, actually!), this was unsurprisingly uneven (it's a patchwork of different narratives set in different places and times, varying from the distant past to the far future) but truly brilliant in places. It was also, I think, the only book I read in 2012 that made me cry. My full review - Buy on Amazon: Kindle / Paperback
☆ Hawthorn & Child by Keith Ridgway: An odd, fragmented collection of what might be called short stories, or chapters of the same story told from very different perspectives. Brilliantly written and immensely intriguing, albeit a little frustrating at times - and far too short! My full review - Buy on Amazon: Kindle / Paperback
☆ The Girl on the Stairs by Louise Welsh: A wonderfully creepy and suspenseful thriller about a pregnant woman who, alone in an unfamiliar country, becomes convinced her neighbour is abusing his daughter. Tense, compulsive and very clever. My full review - Buy on Amazon: Kindle / Hardback
☆ The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton: If you're a fan of the author, this is - in my opinion anyway! - her best yet. It's a typically rich family tale with several different narrative threads set in different time periods. It's completely addictive and chock-full of brilliant twists. An absolutely fantastic guilty pleasure. Buy on Amazon: Kindle / Hardback
☆ Waterline by Ross Raisin: Harrowing and emotionally exhausting, Raisin's second novel is about a man wracked by grief who descends into alcoholism and poverty after the death of his wife. It's brilliant, devastating and compelling - I read it in one sitting - but a very difficult read. My full review - Buy on Amazon: Kindle / Paperback
☆ The Last Weekend by Blake Morrison: Disturbing and insidious, this is a classic unreliable-narrator tale. I found it unpleasant in places - the narrator is horrible - but at the same time, it was very difficult to tear myself away. My full review - Buy on Amazon: Kindle / Paperback
☆ Tell the Wolves I'm Home by Carol Rifka Brunt: An unashamedly emotional tale about love, friendship and fitting in, framed within the story of a misfit teenager whose beloved uncle is dying of AIDS. I thought this might be overtly sentimental, but it was actually very touching and I loved the characters. My full review - Buy on Amazon: Kindle / Hardback
Although I didn't think they were perfect, I enjoyed the following books enough that I don't want to let this post happen without giving them a mention: The Bellwether Revivals by Benjamin Wood, What They Do in the Dark by Amanda Coe, The Book of Summers by Emylia Hall, The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng, Purgatory by Tomás Eloy Martínez, The Secrets Between Us and In Her Shadow by Louise Douglas, Broken Harbour by Tana French, and The Possessions of Doctor Forrest by Richard T. Kelly.
The good news is that I'm struggling to think of a book I REALLY HATED in 2012. Nothing automatically stands out as the 'worst book of the year'. However, I can name a couple of big disappointments. Empress of Rome by Kate Quinn was the latest installment in a series I've always found extremely readable and fun, so it was somethng of a letdown when it turned out to be flat and unengaging. The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers was just incredibly overrated. It's probably me that's the problem here, but I'm afraid I just don't get what people think is great about it.
What have you loved (or hated) reading in 2012? If I've missed anything really amazing this year, let me know!