Best of 2012
BRING UP THE BODIES
By Hilary Mantel.
A John Macrae Book/ Henry Holt & Company, $28.
Taking up where her previous novel, “Wolf Hall,” left off, Mantel makes the seemingly worn-out story of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn newly fascinating and suspenseful. Seen from the perspective of Henry’s chief minister, Thomas Cromwell, the ruthless maneuverings of the court move swiftly to the inevitable executions. Both this novel and its predecessor were awarded the Man Booker Prize. Might the trilogy’s forthcoming conclusion, in which Cromwell will meet his demise, score Mantel a hat trick?
By Chris Ware.
Pantheon Books, $50.
Ware’s innovative graphic novel deepens and enriches the form by breaking it apart. Packaged in a large box like a board game, the project contains 14 “easily misplaced elements” — pamphlets, books, foldout pages — that together follow the residents of a Chicago triplex (and one anthropomorphized bee) through their ordinary lives. In doing so, it tackles universal themes including art, sex, family and existential loneliness in a way that’s simultaneously playful and profound.
A HOLOGRAM FOR THE KING
By Dave Eggers.
McSweeney’s Books, $25.
In an empty city in Saudi Arabia, a middle-aged American businessman waits day after day to close the deal he hopes will redeem his forlorn life. Eggers, continuing the worldly outlook that informed his recent books “Zeitoun” and “What Is the What,” spins this spare story — a globalized “Death of a Salesman” — into a tightly controlled parable of America’s international standing and a riff on middle-class decline that approaches Beckett in its absurdist despair.
By Zadie Smith.
The Penguin Press, $26.95.
Smith’s piercing new novel, her first in seven years, traces the friendship of two women who grew up in a housing project in northwest London, their lives disrupted by fateful choices and the brutal efficiency of chance. The narrative edges forward in fragments, uncovering truths about identity and money and sex with incandescent language that, for all of its formal experimentation, is intimate and searingly direct.
THE YELLOW BIRDS
By Kevin Powers.
Little, Brown & Company, $24.99.
A veteran of the Iraq war, Powers places that conflict at the center of his impressionistic first novel, about the connected but diverging fates of two young soldiers and the trouble one of them has readjusting to life at home. Reflecting the chaos of war, the fractured narrative jumps around in time and location, but Powers anchors it with crystalline prose and a driving mystery: How did the narrator’s friend die?
BEHIND THE BEAUTIFUL FOREVERS
Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity.
By Katherine Boo.
Random House, $27.
This National Book Award-winning study of life in Annawadi, a Mumbai slum, is marked by reporting so rigorous it recalls the muckrakers, and characters so rich they evoke Dickens. The slum dwellers have a skillful and empathetic chronicler in Boo, who depicts them in all their humanity and ruthless, resourceful glory.
FAR FROM THE TREE
Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity.
By Andrew Solomon.
For more than a decade, Solomon studied the challenges, risks and rewards of raising children with “horizontal identities,” traits that they don’t share with their parents. As he investigates how families have grown stronger or fallen apart while raising prodigies, dwarfs, schizophrenics, transgendered children or those conceived in rape, he complicates everything we thought we knew about love, sacrifice and success.
THE PASSAGE OF POWER
The Years of Lyndon Johnson.
By Robert A. Caro.
Alfred A. Knopf, $35.
The fourth volume of Caro’s prodigious masterwork, which now exceeds 3,000 pages, explores, with the author’s signature combination of sweeping drama, psychological insight and painstaking research, Johnson’s humiliating years as vice president, when he was excluded from the inner circle of the Kennedy White House and stripped of power. We know what Johnson does not, that this purgatory is prelude to the event of a single horrific day, when an assassin’s bullet placed Johnson, and the nation he now had to lead, on a new course.
The Remarkable Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy.
By David Nasaw.
The Penguin Press, $40.
Nasaw took six years to complete this sprawling, arresting account of a banker-cum-speculator-cum-moviemaker-cum-ambassador-cum-dynastic founder. Joe Kennedy was involved in virtually all the history of his time, and his biographer persuasively makes the case that he was the most fascinating member of his large, famous and very formidable family.
WHY DOES THE WORLD EXIST?
An Existential Detective Story.
By Jim Holt.
Liveright Publishing/W. W. Norton & Company, $27.95.
For several centuries now, thinkers have wondered, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” In search of an answer, Holt takes the reader on a witty and erudite journey from London to Paris to Austin, Tex., as he listens to a varied cast of philosophers, scientists and even novelists offer solutions that are sometimes closely reasoned, sometimes almost mystical, often very strange, always entertaining and thought-provoking.
BITTERBLUE. By Kristin Cashore. (Dial, $19.99.) The companion to “Graceling” and “Fire,” this beautiful, haunting and thrilling high fantasy about a young queen and her troubled kingdom stands on its own.
CODE NAME VERITY. By Elizabeth Wein. (Hyperion, $16.99.) This tale of a spy and a fighter pilot during World War II is at heart a story about female friendship.
THE FAULT IN OUR STARS. By John Green. (Dutton, $17.99.) An improbable but predictably wrenching love story about two teenage cancer patients, written in Green’s signature tone, humorous yet heart-filled.
JEPP, WHO DEFIED THE STARS. By Katherine Marsh. (Hyperion, $16.99.) A dwarf at court in 16th-century Denmark is the surprising hero in this novel, which also features the real-life astronomer Tycho Brahe, an eccentric Danish nobleman.
NEVER FALL DOWN. By Patricia McCormick. (Balzer & Bray/HarperCollins, $17.99.) This novelized memoir tells the tragic but inspiring life story of Arn Chorn-Pond, a boy who was 11 years old when the Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia.
SON. By Lois Lowry. (Houghton Mifflin, $17.99.) In the conclusion to the dystopian “Giver” quartet, Lowry returns to the story of a mother searching for her lost son. “A quiet, sorrowful, deeply moving exploration of the powers of empathy and the obligations of love,” our reviewer said.
BEYOND COURAGE: The Untold Story of Jewish Resistance During the Holocaust. By Doreen Rappaport. (Candlewick, $22.99.) This book about the Holocaust dwells on the choice to fight and resist rather than the road to death. A lively, absorbing and eye-opening history for young readers.
THE FALSE PRINCE. By Jennifer A. Nielsen. (Scholastic, $17.99.) Four orphaned boys and would-be princes are captured in a treacherous medieval kingdom in the first book of a new series. Adam Gopnik, our reviewer, called it a “page turner” and praised its “persuasively surly and defiant character, and a realistic vein of violence.”
HAND IN HAND: Ten Black Men Who Changed America. By Andrea Davis Pinkney. Illustrated by Brian Pinkney. (Disney-Jump at the Sun, $19.99.) Benjamin Banneker, Frederick Douglass, W. E. B. Du Bois, Booker T. Washington, A. Philip Randolph, Thurgood Marshall, Jackie Robinson, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and Barack Obama feature in this collection.
THE HERO’S GUIDE TO SAVING YOUR KINGDOM. By Christopher Healy. Illustrated by Todd Harris. (Walden Pond/HarperCollins, $16.99.) The enchanting premise of this story is that four Princes Charming, carried over from their fairy tales of origin, must band together to track down Cinderella and restore harmony to their kingdom.
THE LAST DRAGONSLAYER. By Jasper Fforde. (Harcourt/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $16.99.) A 15-year-old orphan, indentured to magicians, in a world where dragons are dying out. Fforde’s first book for young readers.
LIAR & SPY. By Rebecca Stead. (Wendy Lamb, $15.99.) A bunch of misfits star in this contemporary tale, Stead’s follow-up to her Newbery Medal-winning “When You Reach Me.”
THE SECRET TREE. By Natalie Standiford. (Scholastic, $16.99.) Two children, a summer and a tree that tells secrets in this story about neighborhood kids.
SEE YOU AT HARRY’S. By Jo Knowles. (Candlewick, $16.99.) With four siblings at its center, Knowles’s story is about a family who run a restaurant and the commonplace and serious traumas they face.
SPLENDORS AND GLOOMS. By Laura Amy Schlitz. (Candlewick, $17.99.) A Gothic novel, from the Newbery-winning author, about three children and a master puppeteer in Dickensian London.
“WHO COULD THAT BE AT THIS HOUR?” By Lemony Snicket. Illustrated by Seth. (Little, Brown, $15.99.) A prequel of sorts to “A Series of Unfortunate Events,” this humorous riddle of a book is the start of a mock-autobiographical series.
WONDER. By R. J. Palacio. (Knopf, $15.99.) This novel tells the moving story of August Pullman, a 10-year-old boy born with severe facial malformations, and the bullying he endures when he attends school for the first time.
BROTHERS AT BAT: The True Story of an Amazing All-Brother Baseball Team. By Audrey Vernick. Illustrated by Steven Salerno. (Clarion/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $16.99.) The true story of the longest-running all-brother baseball team, 12 Acerra siblings who played together during the 1930s. A captivating story, impeccable layout and glorious illustrations make this historical account an unqualified winner.
THE DAY LOUIS GOT EATEN. Written and illustrated by John Fardell. (Andersen Press, $16.95.) A boy is eaten by a Gulper, which is eaten in turn by a Grabular, an Undersnatch, a Spiney-Backed Guzzler and a Saber-Toothed Yumper. His intrepid sister, traveling by bicycle and other hand-jiggered contraptions, comes to the rescue. Hilarious and sweet, both. “I love this book so much I want to eat it up,” our reviewer said.
DRAGONS LOVE TACOS. By Adam Rubin. Illustrated by Daniel Salmieri. (Dial, $16.99.) Rubin and Salmieri, the team behind the equally hilarious “Those Darn Squirrels!,” bring their kooky sensibility to this irresistible story about what can go wrong at a taco party for dragons. Salmieri’s drawings are not only a wacky delight, they’re also strangely beautiful.
A GOLD STAR FOR ZOG. By Julia Donaldson. Illustrated by Axel Scheffler. (Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic, $16.99.) A school for dragons and a dragon-loving princess (who really wants to be a doctor) are at the center of this rhyming tale from the team behind “The Gruffalo” and “Room on the Broom.” Humor, heart and a worthy heroine earn this story its own star.
HELLO! HELLO! Written and illustrated by Matthew Cordell. (Disney-Hyperion, $16.99.) In this ode to nature and the palpable joys of pre-technology days, a girl runs wild on a horse while her screen-addicted family members tap away indoors. The book’s “art is gloriously old-style,” our reviewer, David Small, said. Its message is loud, clear and important.
I’M BORED. By Michael Ian Black. Illustrated by Debbie Ridpath Ohi. (Simon & Schuster, $16.99.) Black, a comedian, has become a fine children’s book storyteller (“A Pig Parade Is a Terrible Idea”). This original story features a bored child, a bored potato and a bored flamingo. Readers will not be bored.
KING ARTHUR’S VERY GREAT GRANDSON. Written and illustrated by Kenneth Kraegel. (Candlewick, $15.99.) On the day of his sixth birthday, Henry Alfred Grummorson, the great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandson of King Arthur, sets out for peril and conquest. Alas, all he finds are peaceable beasts. There are still dragons in this clever story by a first-time author and illustrator.
THIS IS NOT MY HAT. Written and illustrated by Jon Klassen. (Candlewick, $15.99.) The hat is back, but this time it belongs to a fish, not a bear. It belongs to a big fish, to be precise, but a small fish has stolen it. You will probably guess what happens in this delightfully dark, comic follow-up to “I Want My Hat Back.”
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: December 23, 2012
The list of Notable Children’s Books on Dec. 2 misstated the age of Arn Chorn-Pond, the subject of Patricia McCormick’s “Never Fall Down,” at the time the Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia. He was 11, not 9. (Because of an editing error, the incorrect age also appeared in a review of the book on May 13.)