As a denizen of the library, I choose my books differently than I would if I were getting them all at a bookstore. Unlike a bookstore, where the newest titles are stacked in tempting piles, in the Madison Public Library, the newest titles are in circulation. Without advance planning, it's easier to find last year's hot titles, so that's why I am sometimes behind the curve when it comes to discussing the latest thing. That's also why my list of best and worst reads of 2012 includes several books that were written in 2011 and 2010. You'll have to wait until next year to hear what I thought of Gone Girl and NW.
Afraid of the "everyone likes it, it must be bad" curse, I avoided Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games but eventually read it. To my unexpected delight, it features a protagonist who is fierce and powerful, and a plot that forcefully underscores contemporary class struggles. Yes, it's a young-adult novel written from the point of view of a 16-year-old girl, but don't let that deter you, adult reader. I wish I had had a role model like Katniss when I was 16, and I still find her thrilling as a grown-up.
I was looking forward to reading The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides, but it proved to be a letdown. In contrast to his 2002 prizewinner Middlesex, which has a plot that spans most of the 20th century and includes locations as diverse as Greece and Detroit, The Marriage Plot is a narrow little book about three annoying people doing not much of anything. I found it dull and could only attribute the hype to Eugenides' reputation rather than his results.
For sheer roller-coaster pleasure, nothing beats The Passage by Justin Cronin. This is the book that will keep you reading until 4 a.m. It's set in a post-apocalyptic U.S. complete with a shattered infrastructure, cells of survivors and a rampant disease that turns people into vampires, though they're not like any vampire you've ever encountered before in fiction. While this could have turned into a comic book, Cronin instead offers up serious characters with compelling backstories, plausible theories about how life and death work in this world and a plot filled with scenes of danger and pathos that will make your heart race. Bonus: Its sequel, The Twelve came out in October.
Like everyone else, I was intrigued when I heard that J.K. Rowling was writing a book for adults. This book, The Casual Vacancy, is a contemporary novel with no magic or wizards. I really liked it, but it isn't for everyone. You wouldn't know that it was written by Rowling, except for its skillful rendering of the teenagers, who are the most sympathetic characters in the book. It's a very dark story about the stifling nature of small-town life, and about hypocrisy and prejudice. It also includes drug abuse, domestic violence, and heaps and heaps of teenage angst.
Bring up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel. The exquisitely written sequel to Mantel's 2009 novel Wolf Hall, it continues the story of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, told from the point of view of Henry's advisor, Thomas Cromwell. While Wolf Hall covers many years, from Cromwell's childhood through Anne's ascendancy, Bring Up The Bodies is a detailed dissection of Anne's downfall, brought about in a matter of months through the intricate legal machinations of Cromwell, acting on the king's orders. Mantel's prose is so lovely, and Cromwell's brain so fascinating, that I loved every minute of it.