Best fiction picks from 2012

  • Posted: Sunday, December 30, 2012 12:01 a.m.
'The Street Sweeper' by Elliot Perlman, a top fiction pick.
'The Street Sweeper' by Elliot Perlman, a top fiction pick.

SALISBURY — The end of the year always brings the anticipation, and the dread, of creating the best books list for the preceding year; the anticipation of reliving, however briefly, the outstanding stories and accounts we have read, and the dread of having to make choices and knowing some good ones aren’t going to make the cut; 2012 has been a particularly challenging year, for we have seen more books highly qualified for the list, and they have been spread out over the course of the entire year.

Of course, dozens of best book lists are being generated by reviewers, newspapers, journals, etc., but one thing so many of them have in common is they often pretend the year started about August and ended in November. If a book fell before then, it is likely long forgotten by time the list is created. Sheila (Brownlow) and I try not to fall into that trap, finding ourselves “reviewing our reviews” and pulling read books off the shelf for another look, taking in the whole year’s reading so as not to give short shrift to anything. For 2012, in a rare moment of agreement, we picked a book from early in the year as the best novel of 2012, “The Street Sweeper,” by Elliot Perlman.


Best of best
Sheila and I both felt “The Street Sweeper” was virtually above measure when compared with everything else that followed and agreed that it is one of the best books we had read in years. With a story creatively based on real events and characters both real and fictional, “The Street Sweeper” was a gripping saga of literary fiction that held the reader with its power and meaning, demanding heartfelt thought and reflection, and had the “stick-with-it-ness” that only a great and timeless novel can have. “The Street Sweeper” is the only novel of the year that we actually placed a ranking on, a unanimous No. 1. (A review appeared in the Salisbury Post April 22).

One other novel made our joint top 12 list for fiction; “The Sandcastle Girls” by Chris Bohjalian (reviewed in the Post Aug. 12). A story of the Armenian genocide, Bohjalian’s novel easily eclipses his other novels in its literary quality, its realism, its power of suggestion and its character development and storyline. Bohjalian, who has been to Salisbury twice with his books, is of Armenian descent, and this novel is one he was meant to write — for himself, his readers and the victims and survivors of that long-ago massacre.

Sheila’s picks
After our two joint picks, Sheila and I each chose five more novels as the best of 2012, though not in any particular numerical ranking. We’ll look at Sheila’s picks first, leading off with “Flight Behavior” by Barbara Kingsolver. Hands-down Kingsolver’s best novel, “Flight Behavior” blends good storytelling, a strong and wonderful female lead character, and a beautiful Appalachian backdrop for the real story, which is how global climate change alters the migration pattern of a beautiful species of butterfly, demonstrating the tenuous balance of nature and humanity.

A couple of books about friends, family and what happens when life intersects are Sheila’s next choices. First off is “Carry the One” by Carrie Anshaw. What happens to several friends after one bad drunken night and an unfortunate accident? The life trajectory of a bunch of spoiled, impervious young adults is forever altered by one incident, and is only understood through all the individual points of view, making the novel a dark sort of readable “Big Chill.” Pairing with this novel is one by Joshua Henkin, “The World Without You,” where grieving siblings and parents gather one last time to say a formal goodbye to their journalist brother/son who died in Iraq. The different path each has taken leaves lingering resentment that can’t transcend the common purpose of honoring their family.

For mystery lovers
Sheila rounds out her fiction picks for the year with two books which fall into the mystery-thriller category, though they are vastly different in nature. “Beautiful Ruins” by Jess Walter leads the way. Set in Italy and Los Angeles in both the 1960s and current day, this novel is ultimately about love in all its forms. A Hollywood wannabe starlet becomes embroiled in a real Hollywood mess in the 1960s, decamps to Italy (to the wrong city, but no matter) on pressure from a studio director, who wants no sign of her as he manages the Liz Taylor-Richard Burton drama unfolding during the filming of “Cleopatra.” Her time there changes her life and those of several of the villagers — all for the better, as several persons consider the nature and importance of love and family. Fast-forward to the present and these people are seen again, with new eyes, by a wannabe casting director who is determined to put together the pieces of a 40-year-old mystery. Last, Sheila goes with “Defending Jacob” by William Landay, which is a thriller about a bucolic family whose belief in the power of parental love to solve all ills is challenged by their defiant, antisocial son’s murder charge. The book has an explosive ending — don’t peek!

Deal’s picks
My fiction picks run on the eclectic side, beginning with the outstanding “Round House” by Louise Erdrich, which won this year’s National Book Award for Fiction. Expertly told by Erdrich through the voice of 13-year-old Joe Coutts, recounting a brutal attack on his mother in 1988, the story that unfolds on and around the Ojibwa reservation in North Dakota is sadly all too real to what reservation life is like in America. But the novel is a pure joy to read with its beautiful, rounded character development, magical story and dynamic conclusion. It is not a novel to be missed or treated lightly.

Lance Weller’s “Wilderness” is a debut novel set in the Pacific Northwest 35 years after the Civil War, and follows the inner and outer battles a reclusive old soldier must fight after taking solitary refuge on the coast of Washington state. This is one of the best first novels I have read in a long time, and it takes a very original slant for a post-war novel in a number of respects. I hope to see “Wilderness” as a Summer Reading Challenge book in coming years.

“The Rent Collector” by Camron Wright is a novel based on a true story of life in the garbage dumps of Cambodia; the names of many of the characters are real, as are the photos that accompany the novel. It is a recounting of the hopes and struggles that go on in so much of the world today, a life that is detailed in pure non-fiction in Katherine Boo’s “Behind the Beautiful Forevers,” one of our non-fiction picks for the year. Look at the two books as companions to each other.

“The Orchardist” by Amanda Coplin was one of those chance discoveries I made later in the year, and was delighted I did so. Another novel set in Washington state, beginning in the second half of the 19th century, the story is of the solitary orchardist William Talmadge, who settles with his mother and sister beside two decaying apple trees as a child, and as the only survivor, lives out his life amidst his growing orchard until he meets a startling and unexpected end. Another outstanding novel from a debut novelist, “The Orchardist” is a great literary novel of a special time and place.

Finally, the tough fifth choice must be made, and it is hard, knowing everything else gets left behind. But, a choice it must be, and it is “The Lost Prince” by Seldon Edwards, a beautiful and mesmerizing tale set mostly in Vienna and Boston involving a little bit of creative time travel and a host of real characters engaged in real-life events interspersed with the fictional. A follow-up to the equally wonderful “The Little Book,” Edwards’ debut novel, the first book does not have to be read to enjoy “The Lost Prince.”

More recommendations
In any other year, many of the books that didn’t make this list would have been there, for 2012 was a record year for outstanding novels, all of which I wish could be mentioned. If the list had no end, we definitely would have included, among others, Richard Ford’s “Canada” and Dennis Lehane’s “Live by Night.” Jonathan Evison would have been there with his “Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving,” as would Robert Olmstead and his novel of the Korean War, “The Coldest Night.” Justin Cronin’s “Twelve” would have been on the list. Ron Rash with “The Cove” and Wiley Cash with “A Land More Kind Than Home,” this year’s Summer Reading Challenge books, certainly would have made the list, as would “The Snow Child,” the fairy tale-like debut novel from Eowyn Ivey of Alaska. And, finally, just because this must stop, the two amazing novels set in Africa from early in the year, “Running the Rift” by Naomi Benaron and “Three Weeks in December” by Audrey Schulman.

A few disappointments
Of course, there were a few novels that one would have expected to compete, which turned out to be big disappointments, even as they received decent or even rave reviews from the popular press. Among these would be “Goliath,” by North Carolina author Susan Woodring; “A Hologram for the King,” by Dave Eggers; “The Bartender’s Tale” by Ivan Doig, and Zadie Smith’s “NW.” But, each of these authors is capable of better, as they have shown before, and stand the chance of redeeming themselves with future work.

Coming up, Sheila and I will take a look at our choices for the best non-fiction of 2012. We look forward to joining you again.

Deal Safrit and his wife, Sheila Brownlow, write reviews and commentary at www.literaryoutpost.com. Safrit is a member of the Summer Reading Challenge committee. Brownlow is a professor of psychology at Catawba College.

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