Here I am again, with my annual book report. Remember, this is a list of the best books I read this year, but not all of them were published this year. And remember something else: You should beat your feet to the nearest bookstore (or to your favorite e-reader) and clap eyes on them as soon as possible. With that out of the way, let us count down.
10. The Road Out: A Teacher’s Odyssey in Poor America
A wrenching account of one woman’s attempt to show a group of at-risk preteen girls that literature can offer them a better life, and possibly even an escape route from their poverty-stricken and drug-racked community. The prose is occasionally clunky, but the girls are luminous. Their stories will touch your heart. Coming out in January 2013.
9. Defending Jacob
Ben Rifkin is dead, and 14-year-old Jacob Barber has been charged with his murder. This much we know. Jacob’s father doesn’t believe he did it; we know this, too. As the evidence against Jacob mounts, so does the suspense. The best crime-and-courtroom drama in years.
8. Some Kind of Fairy Tale
There are two gone girls on this list, but only one who may have been abducted by fairies. That’s Tara Martin, who disappeared from home at age 15. When she shows up 20 years later, she still appears to be 15. Here is a keenly observed tale of a family in crisis, one that mixes fantasy and psychiatry in a potent cocktail.
7. The Burn Palace
Not to be published until February 2013, and not to be missed. The opening chapter, in which a baby is abducted from a hospital nursery and replaced by a snake, is just the first punch in a suspense prizefight where the wallops never stop. Suspense aside, it’s a generous—even Dickensian—portrait of a small New England town bursting with sex, violence, and secrets.
Alex and Leslie want a kid, and the biological clock is ticking. Thanks to a sinister fertility doctor, they get two for the price of one, great twins named Adam and Alice. Only one problem: Their parents are turning into werewolves, and the kids are looking…sorta yummy. Delicious horror ensues.
5. The Caller
Pranks can have lethal consequences, even when they seem harmless to start with. Fossum, a Norwegian poet who has turned to crime, has confected a poison bonbon that ranks with the best of Ruth Rendell.
4. Broken Harbor
Less a mystery than a psychological study of one family’s slow descent into madness and murder, this is also a razor-sharp parable of what happens when a nation’s prosperity bubble bursts and good people find themselves facing destruction through no fault of their own. I am increasingly in awe of French’s narrative talents.
3. Gone Girl
Amy’s gone, but is she dead? And if so, did husband Nick kill her? Flynn keeps her cards close and plays them out one at a time, alternating the point of view between the participants in this marriage made in hell. It’s a plot Agatha Christie could have conceived; what elevates it is the clarity of Flynn’s observation and the Franzen-like richness of her prose.
2. A Song of Ice and Fire
George R.R. Martin
I took two steps into this series last January, lost my balance, and went in headfirst. The HBO series is great, but no match for the wild generosity of the books. Swordplay, dragons, and magical fire-queens are all very well, but Martin brings something better to the table: an array of unforgettable characters and a staggering imaginative scope.
1. The Good Son
Sonia Bailey, a remarkably astute woman with a colorful backstory, leads a peace delegation into Pakistan, where her party is kidnapped by jihadists. Her son Theo sets an elaborate rescue plot in motion…but Sonia has a few tricks up her own sleeve. Let’s just say she out-mullahs the mullahs. The suspense is terrific, but in this book it’s a bonus. I learned more about the jihadist mindset in these pages?and in an entertaining way?than in all the cable-TV punditry I’ve seen since 9/11. Cerebral, emotional, heartfelt, this one’s the complete package. President Obama, if you happen to come across this column, read this book.