Everyone puts together Top Ten lists, right? I put together both a Top and a Bottom Ten, and here’s why: I consider any Top Ten put together by an individual to be entirely subjective. These aren’t necessarily the “best;” they’re just the books that I loved best during a particular calendar year. How could they possibly be the “best,” given all of the books that I didn’t read? No one person can possibly compile a definitive list.
That’s why I am comfortable compiling a Bottom Ten list, too. I am not claiming that those books are in any way the “worst.” They are just the books that didn’t work for me, and I try hard to give reasons why, not just nastiness. I think it would be interesting and instructive if more critics and book reviewers took the time to do this, to show us how and why books fail in a civilized manner.
A few notes on why it’s particularly difficult to come up with a Bottom Ten list: First, I read a lot, but I choose my books carefully. After two decades in the book business, I know a lot about my own taste; I don’t read tons of books I dislike, and very few that I out and out loathe. Second, I will not put a debut novel on this list, or a book by an author who is a friend (although, friends, I love your books, each and every one!). One last procedural note: It should be obvious, but these are in alpha order by author, no other rank implied.
I first published these lists in 2010, and while I compiled them in 2011, did not publish them anywhere. So this counts as the second official iteration (I will have to dig out the first one and re-purpose it, as the site it was written for no longer exists). I intend to keep going.
Arcadia by Lauren Groff (Hyperion Voice, March 2012): The beauty of Lauren Groff’s writing in this rise and fall of a utopian upstate New York commune is matched only by the beauty of her protagonist Bit’s soul. Bit, whose parents help found Arcadia, may have to one day leave this paradise for the cold world–but its lessons, good and bad, stay with him.
May We Be Forgiven by A.M. Homes (Viking, September 2012): Each time I think I’m through with the anti hero, a protagonist like Harold Silver comes along: Completely flawed but also wholly sympathetic, a bumbling everyman for our troubled 21st-century times. Homes covers a lot of ground in this smart, funny, unexpected take on the modern family.
The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey (Reagan Arthur Books, February 2012): What happens when infertility’s dashed dreams meet the hardships of early-1920s Alaskan homesteading? You might think you know the answer–then you might think Ivey provides the answer–then you’ll discover that what is wrought from snow and tears may be transitory, but also transformative.
The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson (Random House, January 2012): It’s rare enough to sink fully into an author’s imagined world, let alone a character’s consciousness; Adam Johnson achieves both in his tale of North Korea and its citizen Pak Jung Do. By the time you realize that this is an account of Kim Jong Il’s rise to power, you’ll be fully invested in his fate.
Bring Up the Bodies by Hillary Mantel (Henry Holt, May 2012): Much has already been written about and awarded to this remarkable sequel to Wolf Hall; however, I’d be disingenuous if I didn’t include it on my Top Ten. If anything, Thomas Cromwell’s voice, character, and tragic flaw are all clearer in Mantel’s version of “Anne of the Thousand Days.”
Pure by Andrew Miller (Europa Editions, May 2012): Many historical novelists show us “big years;” Miller explores a quieter one, Paris in 1785. It’s pre-Revolution, but engineer Jean-Baptiste Baratte finds the cemetery he’s been called to exhume may have a future purpose. What he chooses to do with that knowledge is the stuff of a powerful novel.
The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller (Ecco Books, March 2012): Even if no one chooses Miller’s opus as the best book of the year, it should garner some attention as the best book based on a classic of the past decade. The scholar’s beautiful retelling of the relationship between Achilles and his beloved Patroclus is no dusty myth, however; it’s a modern classic.
Hide Me Among the Graves by Tim Powers (William Morrow, March 2012): Vampires, zombies, and Christina Rossetti? Who could resist? This genre-defying novel is a smart, scary, Chinese puzzle box, filled with descriptions of a London menacing in its pea-soup grime, matched by a clever plot about death and resurrection. A rewarding read.
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce (Random House, July 2012): I find this book nearly impossible to describe because it actually transcends itself again and again; Joyce takes the idea of imitating an old-fashioned “Pilgrim’s Progress” seriously. Harold Fry is an elderly man who takes a walk to see an old friend. Read it. You must.
Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter (Harper, June 2012): A down-at-heel Italian coastal town contrasted with Hollywood, with Richard Burton thrown in? Yes, please! Walter, it seems, can do anything; this novel couldn’t be more different from Financial Lives of the Poets, yet it’s even better, even more wholly realized, and a must-read of 2012.
The Chemistry of Tears by Peter Carey (Knopf, May 2012): I am convinced that the title has something to do with one of the main characters’ medical dilemmas–but I could be wrong. Alas we’ll never know, and I’m not convinced Carey is sure, either. This glorious mess of a book about 19th-century automata and a 21st-century lunatic needs some WD-40 and duct tape.
The Legend of Broken by Caleb Carr (Random House, November 2012): Thrilled was I to receive a fat new galley from the author of The Alienist; sad was I when it turned out to be a dense brick of unreadable pseudo-Germanic mytho-crypto-history. Or something. Look, Entertainment Weekly gave it a D+, the first time I’ve seen that grade in the mag. Steer clear!
Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon (Harper, September 2012): I am one of the people who love The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, so I feel qualified to say that this year’s Chabon disappointed me. Like the French, it’s got chops, this hymn to the Berkeley-Oakland borderlands. I just wanted more of Archy and Nat and far less of their midwife wives.
The Twelve by Justin Cronin (Ballantine Books, July 2012): It’s really Cronin’s own fault. What book could live up to The Passage, the first volume of his trilogy about a creepy vampire virus that throws the US of A into a post-apocalyptic nightmare? Trouble is, The Twelve feels exactly like the waystation it is, the middle book, the Jan Brady of blockbusters.
Broken Harbor by Tana French (Viking, July 2012): Uh-oh, another book with the word “broken” in its title… Trust me, this one is far better. French is terrific. However, she’s landed on my Bottom 10 this year for an implausible motive and ending, as well as a few key details left unexplained. Wonderful voice in Broken Harbor, so don’t pass it by, but do think on it.
Heading Out to Wonderful by Robert Goolrick (Algonquin Books, June 2012): Look, I was the first person (really, I was!) to get behind A Reliable Wife. I think Goolrick has talent in spades. I also think I know why this book didn’t work for me, but I believe it’s the author’s tale to tell and not mine–suffice to say I don’t think he “stuck” the ending, despite gorgeous writing.
In Sunlight and In Shadow by Mark Helprin (HMH Books, November 2012): Helprin has written several undeniably fantastic books (I’m partial to A Soldier of the Great War, although I know many who stand by by Winter’s Tale), but this novel? Not one of them. Bloated, discursive, and just plain misogynistic, it also has obvious devices, like a crazily unrealistic deus ex machina.
In One Person by John Irving (Simon & Schuster, May 2012): We can go to the mat on this one, but I’m still disappointed, despite the cheerful cross-dressing grandpa and the wondrously understanding tranny librarian. Really, the obsession with breasts? The creepy bath? The creepier frottage? I felt I had parted someone’s temporal lobes without permission.
Abdication by Juliet Nicolson (Atria Books, May 2012): Nicolson has chops as a historian, and this historical novel’s trouble is that she brings to many of those to bear on a plot crammed with characters, research petticoats fully aflutter as the pages turn. My favorite character was not Mrs. Simpson, but a sympathetic young female chauffeur who deserved a book of her own.
The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling (Little, Brown, October 2012): You knew this would be on here, didn’t you? I am so pleased that despite its bad reviews (mostly deserved), this book is gaining traction. Wait, did I just say that about a book in the Bottom Ten? Yes, I did. Rowling didn’t craft a wholly satisfying work of fiction, but she does leave readers who finish with haunting ideas.