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BETWEEN THE LINES

My favorite reads of 2012

Choosing my favorite books of the year is both difficult and delicious. I read for so many different reasons: For language. For the love of story. For the opportunity to deconstruct how other writers structure plot and develop characters and keep my interest (or not). For the opportunity of having my neurons rearranged and my eyes exchanged for others’ so that I can experience the world anew. I read for comfort and discomfort. For pleasure and sorrow.

These are my (current) favorites of all the 2012 books I’ve learned from and lived inside, the books I curled up with, the books that goosed me. Some are written by friends and teachers, some are the latest offerings from beloved authors, and some written by strangers.

THE CUTTING SEASON by Attica Locke. I love novels in which history is a character, onstage and present. That’s what Attica Locke does in this half-mystery novel, half-literary exploration of how history – both personal and national – shapes us and our choices. Caren Gray lives with her 9-year-old daughter at a restored plantation on the Mississippi River, where she manages the tourist and antebellum wedding business. A migrant worker from the sugarcane fields next door is murdered and one of her staff is the major suspect. Caren tries to help and her investigation leads to an unsolved murder of a former slave. Weaving both worlds and both murders, Locke explores race and ethics in a page-turner of a novel.

In Lauren Groff’s ARCADIA, we meet one of my favorite characters in years. “Bit is tiny, a mote of a boy” and he’s the first child born in Arcadia, an upstate New York utopian commune. He shares this life with us – its physical realities and beliefs, its moments of grace and ugliness. Groff captures the deep desire of the communards to create an intimate extended family, the human flaws that devastate their experiment, and how one child builds a life inside and beyond his parents’ choices. I loved her story collection (DELICATE EDIBLE BIRDS) but Groff’s talents as a prose stylist and a storyteller are in amazingly full bloom in this novel.

BEAUTIFUL RUINS by Jess Walter is an inventive, confounding and gloriously outrageous novel. The characters include a dying young actress, an Italian innkeeper living on the rocky Italian coastline, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, a novelist, Hollywood people in all their nuttiness. The story spans fifty years and wanders back and forth in time, and from Italy to Hollywood to Edinburgh and beyond. It’s quirky and complicated and surprising. With all these elements, the whole probably shouldn’t work, but Jess Walter pulls it off beautiful, navigating his outrageous cast through improbable seas with humor and generosity.

RUNNING THE RIFT by Naomi Benaron. Young Jean Patrick Nkuba is a runner. He runs for the joy of it, for love of the sport, and for the challenge of becoming Rwanda’s first Olympic medal contender in track. But as the Hutu-Tutsi tensions escalate, he must run for his life and for the survival of his people. Winner of the 2010 Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction, this is a powerful and richly imagined novel, offering a setting of extraordinary beauty and the struggle of a young man to come to terms with his world, and make a difference.

GROWING UP DELICIOUS, by Marianne Banks. I'm fascinated and captivated when authors are able to use humor to illuminate important (and often not so funny) events. That's what Banks does in this totally delicious (heh, heh) debut novel about coming out, going home, and revising your personal history in the process. This book made me laugh out loud, and weep, and I wish I could read it again for the first time.

In OFFSPRING, Michael Quadland’s second novel, the yearnings of a Vietnam vet, a transgendered person, and a volatile actress intersect wildly as each character searches for a way to fit into an unwelcoming world. The characters are quirky but utterly authentic in this fast-paced story of reproductive adventures, bookstore culture, and the deep longings of the outsiders among us. With humor and enormous empathy for their circumstances, Quadland weaves his characters’ histories seamlessly into the story, challenging the reader’s preconceptions and prejudices along the way. Offspring is a compelling read, with characters I will not soon forget.

THE WRITING ON THE WALL by W. D. Wetherell. In spare and lyrical prose, Wetherell weaves together the stories of three women over the course of a century. Vera, in self-imposed exile from family shame, strips layers of wallpaper in her sister’s fixer-upper and discovers Beth and Dottie’s stories written on bare plaster. Never didactic, always character-driven, with distinct and authentic voices, the older stories echo and deepen Vera’s search for understanding about the dangerous intersections between a person’s moral code and family loyalty. This is one of those rare books that I finished and then began again immediately. I am not ready to end my journey with Vera, Beth and Dottie, and their families.

OCTOBER MOURNING: A SONG FOR MATTHEW SHEPARD by Lesléa Newman. This is marketed as a novel in verse but it’s impossible to put into a specific genre cubbyhole. In poems ranging in form from haiku to villanelle, from found poem to rhymed couplets, Newman tells the story of the beating and murder of Matthew Shepard near Laramie, Wyoming in October 1998. The poems take inspiration from newspaper coverage and interviews and from the poet’s imagined perspectives of multiple players in the real-life drama – from an officer of the court to a pregnant doe and the fence Matthew was tied to. This is passionate writing: poems that teach and illuminate, that educate and move the reader profoundly.

In PICTURE THIS, by Jacqueline Sheehan, the author’s twin passions of psychology and a good story are abundantly evident. Rocky Pelligrino (first met in Sheehan’s bestselling novel, LOST & FOUND) is contacted by Natalie, just out of foster care and convinced she’s the unacknowledged daughter of Rocky’s late husband, Bob. Or is she? Sheehan’s new novel is both a page-turner and a profound exploration of the damage done to childhood, the difficulty of knowing what is true, and the possibility of healing.

LIVE BY NIGHT is another edgy and sharp novel from Dennis Lehane, set at the dark edges of business as usual in the unsettled decades after THE GIVEN DAY. Joe Coughlin, who likes to call himself an outlaw rather than a gangster, is like good bread; a tough crust hides his yearnings that are constantly tested by his choices. This is crisp writing with moments of surprising tenderness, and above all, Lehane can really tell a good story.

Whew.

I have the wonderful job of reading advance copies of published books as a member of the First Edition Club selection committee at the Odyssey Bookshop. So next week I’ll tell you about my favorites of the books I’ve read that are coming this winter and fall.

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