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A few of 2012’s best reads

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People read for different reasons. Some read to learn, while others read to escape; some read to be challenged, others simply to be entertained.

I read for all of these reasons.

So there’s a little bit of everything in this list of my 2012 favorites; if nothing else, I feel confident in saying that readers from across the spectrum will find something to like here.

‘Back to Blood’ – Tom Wolfe (Little, Brown and Company)

Tom Wolfe takes us on a journey deep into the inner workings of the quintessentially American city of Miami, offering glimpses of the foibles and failings of the uber-rich, the working poor and everyone in between. He has always been fascinated with the idea of social status and cultural alignments; perhaps no city in 21st century America better represents that societal stratification. Wolfe’s unfailingly evocative and descriptive prose paints a vivid (and often lurid) portrait of this vibrantly visceral city.

‘The Cranes Dance’ – Meg Howrey (Vintage)

Meg Howrey is one of my favorite new writers. With this book, she peels back the curtain on the cutthroat intensity of the elite dance world by drawing on her own extensive experience. However, she does so through the prism of Kate Crane, one of the most beautifully realized characters I read all year. Howrey combines a strong sense of storytelling with prose that is both rich and elegant. It is a combination that makes for a reading experience that is exquisitely engaging.

‘Every Love Story is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace’ – D.T. Max (Viking)

Those who know me know my affection for the works of the late David Foster Wallace. The idea of reading his biography left me both excited and apprehensive. Happily, it turned out that the latter of those feelings was unnecessary. Author D.T. Max has meticulously researched the life of the literary great – warts and all – leaving readers with a new perspective on this brilliantly flawed man. Extensive use of correspondence and personal accounts helps to illustrate the pain behind the profundity.

‘The Rapture of the Nerds’ – Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross (Tor)

This story hits the ground running, somehow managing to be frenetic and fluid all at once. Doctorow and Stross are boldly creative linguistically, unafraid to tweak syntax or hybridize words. They challenge the reader in every sense – intellectually, emotionally, artistically, you name it. Once you accept the story on their terms, however, you can’t help but be drawn in. Good fiction makes you stop and think. Great fiction makes you stop and keep thinking. I’m still thinking about “The Rapture of the Nerds.”

‘Strangers on the Beach’ – Josh Pahigian (Islandport Press)

Pahigian has constructed a complex thriller, filled with engaging and eccentric characters. The story – set in Old Orchard Beach - is populated by fully-realized characters, people whose motivations never feel anything but honest. As we watch these people being enveloped by circumstances whose ramifications they don’t fully understand, Pahigian pulls us along with them, slowly building to a climax that is unexpected in the moment, yet seems almost inevitable after the fact. A great read.

‘This Book is Full of Spiders: Seriously Dude, Don’t Touch It’ – David Wong (St. Martin’s Press)

Making a reader laugh out loud is difficult to do. Doing it immediately before (or immediately after) scaring the s—t out of them increases that difficulty exponentially. Yet page after page, Wong manages to liberally mix frightening with funny and – against all odds – it works. Horror and humor happily share the page. Unsettling ideas and images are interspersed with pop culture references and built around the interactions and friendship between two guys who are woefully unqualified for the job of saving the world.

‘Triggers’ – Robert J. Sawyer (Penguin)

I’m officially a Robert J. Sawyer convert. Few current science fiction writers – if any – bring an equivalent combination of solid storytelling, engaging characters and big ideas to the table. “Triggers” is typical of Sawyer’s offerings – an exploration of real and relevant issues as reflected through a sci-fi lens. Here, he explores current dangers to our personal privacy as well as the nature of memory itself. This is yet another effective novel from one of the best idea-men working in the genre today.

‘The Truth of All Things’ – Kieran Shields (Crown)

Sometimes, the only thing that will do is a good historical mystery. Kieran Shields has created that with “The Truth of All Things.” What takes this book to the next level, however, is Perceval Grey. The character is a wonderful deviation from the standard “brilliant detective” archetype; while these types of characters are generally outsiders, the nature of Grey’s differences – he’s half-Abenaki in a particularly prejudicial time – gives him more nuance and depth than typically found in superdetectives. Not only is it a page-turning mystery, but it’s a wonderful look at a Portland gone by.

‘Wherever I Wind Up: My Quest for Truth, Authenticity and the Perfect Knuckleball’ – R.A. Dickey with Wayne Coffey (Blue Rider Press)

Sports biographies tend to be disappointing; it’s rare to read anything that feels genuine or truthful. However, “Wherever I Wind Up” is a phenomenal exception. Dickey lays himself bare, talking about the many trials and tribulations he’s faced; not just in his baseball career, but in his personal life as well. That unrelenting honesty is coupled with a self-effacing humor and a persistent faith, resulting in a book that deserves a place among the best sports memoirs not just in 2012, but ever.

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