It’s a complicated business, this picking of year’s best books, one that involves the help of our trusty reviewers. However, that doesn’t mean the editors don’t read and love their own crop of books. Here, we weigh in what we loved this year—whether Kirkus reviewed it or not.
Eric Liebetrau, Nonfiction Editor
Andre Dubus III
In his debut memoir, the author of The House of Sand and Fog brings his eloquent, incisive prose to the story of his hardscrabble youth in a series of Massachusetts mill towns. Not only does Dubus dynamically render the drinking, fighting and general mayhem that characterized much of his adolescence, he capably demonstrates how he was able to harness his often-violent energy and put it to good use on the page.
Even without the inventive David Foster Wallace–like hypertext accompanying the book on the website, LaFarge’s latest novel is an imaginative delight. The story moves effortlessly between past and present, charting the narrator’s journey from a small town in upstate New York to San Francisco and back again. There are plenty of postmodern, experimental adornments, all well placed, but the consistent narrative voice and fluid prose are the real stars.
Yet another haunting masterpiece from Murakami, set mainly in Tokyo in 1984. As the alternating stories of Tengo and Aomame converge, reality and fantasy blend into a magical concoction that keeps the pages turning and philosophical thoughts percolating. Murakami’s hypnotic, seemingly simple prose belies the complex story, which subtly moves the reader along as storylines weave together and fates become increasingly intertwined.
Reitman’s insightful investigation into the secrets of Scientology is one of the best works of investigative journalism this year. With impressively sourced research and page-turning prose, the author digs as much dirt as she can, exposing the frightening underbelly of this popular “religion.”
Johnny Cash, Bruce Springsteen, Chuck Berry, Madonna, Snoop Dogg, Britney Spears, Lady Gaga—these are only a few of the dozens of celebrities interrogated in this endlessly entertaining collection of Strauss’ interviews. Throughout the book, he demonstrates an uncanny ability to get the stars to open up about nearly everything. It’s pop culture Q&A at its best.
Elaine Szewczyk, Fiction Editor
This novella from Barnes won the 2011 Booker Prize. We called it “a knockout,” adding: “It’s an intense exploration of how we write our own histories and how our actions in moments of anger can have consequences that stretch across decades.”
A doorstopper of a book, the latest from Japanese master Murakami is a sprawling adventure. We said, “Orwellian dystopia, sci-fi, the modern world (terrorism, drugs, apathy, pop novels)—all blend in this dreamlike, strange and wholly unforgettable epic.”
In this novel from the always entertaining Perrotta, a work we called his most ambitious to date, the Rapture does indeed come—and go. So what about the folks left behind?
A play supposedly written by Shakespeare is at the center of Phillips’ novel, a literary lark that we said offers “an amusing gloss on the publishing industry’s recent problems with fakes.”
A colorful take on growing up in 1920s America, this novel takes the form of a quirky scrapbook. We said it was “undeniably fun.”
Molly Brown, Features Editor
I don’t usually go for books like this—werewolves and vampires and such. I like to consume the supernatural via some good ol’ True Blood on HBO—quick and nasty. But Duncan’s superclever The Last Werewolf proves that tales of fantastically diabolical creatures can be insightful, entertaining reads, nary an eye roll. The author’s take on Werewolf Life is smart, slightly naughty and fun—and highly suggested to anyone who wants a good time.
It’s so refreshing to read a book that isn’t about the inflated problems of spoiled board schoolers’ antics, their disaffected parents’ affairs…or just anything about—or from—Brooklyn in general. (Do I sound jaded?) Ray proves that there is life outside New York City. His collection of stories touches on the ever-delicate relationships between fathers and sons, and wives and husbands, exploring how the push and pull between needs can destroy—and resurrect—the most delicate and intimate of ties. It’s a must-read for anyone who wants to know how to write a damn effective short story.
John Jeremiah Sullivan
To me there is nothing better than long-form journalism that reads like nail-biting and/or tear-jerking fiction. Sullivan’s collection of essays takes readers deep into what makes segments of America tick—conservatives; Axl Rose; an eccentric writing instructor. He has a real knack for digging in, painting the broad picture, while also bringing it home, often pulling in something personal to make it all click. It’s what the best journalism is supposed to do, something that is ever more lacking as magazines cut pages, and charticles, blips and tweets continue to take over.
There’s a reason why Thompson is one of David Sedaris’ favorite fiction writers—she’s just nails it across the board: time, setting, characters, etc. It’s amazing to watch the deft author at work, crafting her scenes and bring each extraordinarily different character alive. This one takes place in Iowa, following the story of one typical Midwestern family as they grow, love, live and deal with loss. It’s truly a testament to a Middle American life that’s mostly gone, leaving a gaping hole as to what’s next. If you loved The Corrections, you should adore this.
Perry Crowe, Indie Editor
Green Lantern: Blackest Night (trade paperback)
Geoff Johns, illustrated by Doug Mahnke
While Hal Jordan’s rebirth as Green Lantern back in the mid-aughts undercut the character’s evolution from hero to villain to self-sacrificing antihero to the new incarnation of an old hero—making him a compellingly fluid character along the lines of Dick Grayson—I can’t deny that Johns writes some of the best high-octane, square-jawed action comics available, and his expansion of the Green Lantern mythos (color-coded lanterns for all!) has greatly enriched the overall GL experience (though I can’t condone the recent Ryan Reynolds film). The Blackest Night TPB is a rollicking ride that ties into a larger DC-Universe event (featuring super zombies!), but is also an immensely fun read, beautifully illustrated by Mahnke.Red Rascal’s War: A Doonesbury Book
I grew up idolizing comics, propping the folded funny pages against the orange juice pitcher at the breakfast table and systematically working through the Far Side, Calvin and Hobbes, Bloom County, Dilbert, Mother Goose and Grimm, Garfield, Crankshaft, Arlo and Janis, Peanuts and more (even slumming it up with the Wizard of Id; I was addicted!). My young mind could never quite fathom Doonesbury, though. But with age comes wisdom, and I’ve grown to recognize Doonesbury as one of the sharpest, funniest works of social commentary in any medium. This recent collection hits on everything from the Afghan War to the BP oil spill to the legalization of marijuana to the tweetification of the media to the Arab Spring revolutions, and does so with such wit and heart that, while the world may be going to hell, at least we can smile at the ridiculousness of it all.