From the editors of DuJour:
Where’d You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple
Former Arrested Development scribe Maria Semple’s second novel follows the disappearance of mysterious, mean and magnificent Seattle housewife Bernadette Fox. Told via narrative, emails and a number of other offbeat formats, the story of how Bernadette’s whip smart daughter and Microsoft exec husband track her down—and what it is that made her run in the first place—is a clever, funny and hard to put down. Easily one of the best novels we read this year.
NW by Zadie Smith
Literary phenom Zadie Smith’s most recent offering got mixed reviews when it was first released, but it’s still managed to land on plenty of year-end best lists—ours included. The interwoven tales of friends from a crummy London neighborhood and where their lives lead them struck some as half-baked, but her book’s shortcomings were easy to move past for the opportunity to revel in Smith’s use of language, her depiction of friendship, and the lovely, driving quality of her work that made her a star in the first place.
At Last by Edward St. Aubyn
The final installation in British novelist Edward St. Aubyn’s brilliant Patrick Melrose series, At Last came out in January of this year as a stand-alone novella but also as part of a huge tome containing all of the author’s Melrose works. The series follows the titular aristocrat as he lives through a torturous childhood, a drug-addled http://dujour.com/admin/contents/edit/754adulthood and, finally, a seemingly stable middle age. At Last takes place on the day of Melrose’s mother’s funeral, a wonderful, witty trick that allows favorite characters from previous volumes to pop in and gives readers the most gratifying change to see a changed Patrick Melrose. The only shame is that the enchanting character’s story ends here.
Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel
Hilary Mantel’s Man Booker Prize winner (a sequel to her 2008 winner of the same honor, Wolf Hall), had readers this year by the, um, neck. The novel follows Anne Boleyn and her trials as her royal husband, Henry VIII, does his best to dispose of her, the wife he wooed for nearly a decade and has decided is not a good fit for him after all. It wasn’t just fans of genre fiction who latched on to Mantel’s tale, however. The book was widely beloved and a televised BBC miniseries based on both Mantel books is already in the works.
Fire in the Belly: The Life and Times of David Wojnarowiczby Cynthia Carr
Biographer Cynthia Carr tackles the short, bright life of Wojnarowicz, the late New York-based artist whose A Fire In My Belly caused a huge rumpus not too long ago at the National Portrait Gallery. The 600-plus-page book carefully and lovingly charts Wojnarowicz’s life from a youth spent in orphanages through to his art-world fame in Manhattan’s East Village in the 1970s and ’80s. Though the artist died from complications related to AIDS in 1992, never reached the level of fame that his contemporaries, including Jean-Michel Basquiat, Nan Goldin and Keith Haring, did, this book is a reminder of how very important an artist he was and continues to be.
Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter
This novel starts when an Italian teen falls for a beautiful American actress after she comes to rendezvous with Richard Burton at his family’s struggling inn in 1962. From there, however, it jumps back and forth across decades, continents and genres, following these characters (and those connected to them) to the present day. Ruins is a hard book to describe but an easy one to love as the author explores themes of love, fidelity and forgiveness – with some Hollywood shenanigans thrown in – in this vastly entertaining yet incredibly moving read.
Defending Jacob by William Landay
This thriller – a mix of whodunit and procedural – didn’t receive as much attention as it deserved – perhaps because of the breakout success of genre-mate Gone Girl. But the tale of a murdered teen and the schoolmate who’s implicated in his killing and his shaken father and mother is just as memorable and perhaps more haunting.
The Twelve by Justin Cronin
The Twelve was another unjustly under-heralded book; in this case, it was overshadowed by its predecessor, 2010’s The Passage (the first book in the trilogy) which reinvented vampires as virals, ex-cons who’d been inoculated with a test virus to deadly, apocalyptic results. But this is the rare follow-up that lives up to the first volume. It’s scary and thrilling and filled with truly captivating characters—including the virals themselves.
Building Stories by Chris Ware
Building Stories has been classified as a graphic novel, but Ware has taken the basics of that form—stories told in words and drawings—and imploded it. Everything about Stories is almost too much. Housed in a box as big as a board game, it consists of 14 pieces including pamphlets, broadsheets, books clippings and a board, none of which are placed in a definable order. And every single one of his frames has all the dense detail of an architectural rendering. Yet somehow amid this cartoonish excess he traces the lives of a few characters, highlights their relatable and quotidian ups and downs, and manages to shine a light on the myriad heartbreaks and joys and moments of boredom and excitement that add up to the human condition.
From Jen Karsbaek, of devourerofbooks.com
When It Happens to You by Molly Ringwald
This set of eight linked stories begins with the crumbling of the marriage of Phillip and Greta Parris, due to his infidelity. Each chapter showcases a different character—a family member, a friend, a neighbor—and reflects how the ripples of an affair go far beyond the husband and wife. In this strong debut, actress Ringwald writes so affectingly that you’ll be invested in the relationships to a degree few works of fiction achieve.
City of Scoundrels by Gary Krist
With a style reminiscent of Devil in the White City, Krist writes of Chicago during a momentous two weeks in July 1919 when a child murder, a blimp crash, a transit strike and a race riot all occurred. This nonfiction book pulls off a triple feat: It explains how the Windy City came to be what it is today, serves up a case study in urban American politics, and delivers a flat-out great read.
All Woman and Springtime by Brandon Jones
This captivating novel forces readers to contemplate the lives of vulnerable women in the poor, isolated dictatorship that is North Korea. Beautiful Il-Sun wants more out of life than working at a factory. You’ll feel both hopeful and horrified as she and a friend escape to follow their dreams—and get forced into the dark world of sex trade.
From Michael Bourne, editor at themillions.com
This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Díaz
Nine stories follow the part-hilarious, part-painful exploits of Dominican-American Yunior, the author’s alter ego, and his relatives, friends and lovers. Here, Pulitzer winner Díaz retains his appealingly slang-flavored voice, but as Yunior slowly grows older and sadder, Díaz’s work grows wiser to the ways the heart can be broken.
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
This thriller is the rare bestseller that lives up to its hype. It centers on the disappearance of smart, pretty Amy Dunne. Her husband is the primary suspect, and through clever plotting, the author toys with whether he’s guilty. But the whodunit is merely a lure into the novel’s spiky heart: a sharp, take-no-prisoners study of marriage as well as a look inside the sociopathic mind.
The Passage of Power by Robert Caro
The fourth volume in Lyndon Johnson’s biography spans his failed presidential bid in 1960 to the months after JFK’s assassination, including a riveting account of the day from LBJ’s perspective. Caro’s massive biography can be read as an epic poem of the American century, with LBJ as the flawed hero whose Texas-size ego will lead the U.S. into Vietnam but whose understanding of what it means to go without inspires his War on Poverty.
From Maud Newton, of maudnewton.com
Escape Velocity: A Charles Portis Miscellany edited by Jay Jennings
Portis, the author of True Grit, has published only five novels but gained a fervent following. For fans, this compilation of essays, memoir, reportage and more is a welcome addition; for newbies, it’s a smart, entertaining intro to his work. As in his novels, it’s the asides that get you. “Like hypochondriacs,” he writes of his travails in Mexico with a useless Studebaker, “we no longer expected results, we just wanted attention.”
By Blood by Ellen Ullman
The disgraced-professor narrator of this brooding, suspenseful novel is distracted from plotting his return to academia by voices from the therapist’s office next door. As the therapist’s client struggles to track down her birth mother, the professor finds it difficult to resist meddling, and the reader can’t help but root for him.
The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller
In this lyrical debut, Achilles’ companion Patroclus recasts the warrior’s demise as a story of doomed love. Miller, a classics scholar, wears her learning lightly, but she’s mastered the momentum of the ancients. I began Song at midnight, expecting to doze off. Instead I wound up sobbing over the final pages as the sun came up.