Friday, December 21, 2012

Our Best Reads of 2012

By Kim

Are you looking for something great to read over the holidays (or next year)? The contributors here at What Women Write have some recommendations for you. Here are our top picks for 2012.

My picks:

This was the year I discovered author Alyson Richman, and quickly devoured everything she has written. Here is my review of her unforgettable novel, The Lost Wife. The Last Van Gogh and The Rhythm of Memory were also fabulous. I will read anything she writes.

The House at Tyneford by Natasha Solomons. You’ll see a link to Joan’s review of the novel in her list. We agree on a lot of books!

The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom. This novel is about a young Irish girl who was brought to a plantation as an indentured servant and raised by the slaves. It is amazing. Have tissues handy! I nearly threw the book across the room once because I was so infuriated by one of the characters. Yes, I cared that much. See my review here.

Bridge of Scarlet Leaves by Kristina McMorris – A white woman marries a Japanese man on the eve of Pearl Harbor and follows him when he is interred in a relocation camp. I could not put this book down.

The Paris Wife by Paula McLain – This novel tells the story of Ernest Hemingway and his first wife, Hadley Richardson, mostly during their time in Paris. The book was engrossing! Are you a Hemingway fan? The Paris Wife will cover the beginning of his relationship with his second wife. If you want his story to continue beyond the scope of that novel, check out Erika Robuck’s Hemingway’s Girl, which is also well worth picking up.

Joan's picks:

The House at Tyneford – Natasha Solomons, a glorious cross of Downton Abbey and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society. See my review here.

Birds of a Lesser ParadiseMegan Mayhew Bergman, needle-sharp prose with wit and charm and raw truth. See my review here.

The Weird Sisters Eleanor Brown, three quirky sisters in a book loaded with Shakespeare themes and quotes. Splendid.

The Light Between Oceans – M.L. Stedman, picture perfect plot with flawed, tragic characters. See my review here.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold FryRachel Joyce (interview set for Dec 31). By the middle of the book, you'll want to hop on a plane and join Harold traversing the English countryside.

Susan's picks:

When I like a book, I usually find everything by that author and devour it in quick succession. Here are some authors I chose this year:

Cheryl Strayed - Like a whole lot of Americans--including Oprah, who reinvented her book club because of this memoir-- I fell in love with Cheryl Strayed's raw honesty and beautifully powerful writing this year. I can't recommend Wild enough. At the same time, I adored Tiny Beautiful Things as well, her compilation of advice columns written as Dear Sugar, from Next on my list? Her 2007 novel, Torch.

Ron Rash - I started with The Cove, which is just an incredible novel. It was released in April of this year and I highly recommend it. Then I devoured Serena. (The film will be released in 2013 and stars Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper.) I ended up doing a complete study of Serena-- almost a chapter by chapter book report-- because it is so well-crafted. Ron Rash is a great southern writer, and I'm amazed more people haven't read his works. I also picked up his latest poetry compilation, Waking, which came out in 2011. He's published four collections of short stories, three books of poetry, and five novels.

Thomas Merton - I've read Merton for years, and keep discovering more and more depth to this amazing monk's body of work. He published well over sixty books and hundreds of poems. A good place to start with him is his debut, The Seven Storey Mountain. Follow it up with No Man is an Island. I reread both of these books this year and really consider them to be required reading, and re-reading.

Pamela's picks:

After a quick glance at GoodReads, to remind myself what I’d read this year, I have a list of my favorites to include here. First I’ll start with the Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins and say that the books certainly lived up to my expectations. Not one to often read YA, I devoured this series and fully appreciate all the buzz it garnered.

My favorite middle grade book was shared with my fourth grader, and we both loved Wonder by RJ Palacio so much that we bought extra copies for her school and for friends and family. A sure sign of an awesome story.

I’m in two book clubs right now and, through one, finally read Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout—great character and wonderful story-telling—and What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty, a lovely story of how our memories affect how we view the world and those around us.

Susan recommended Cheryl Strayed’s Wild and Tiny, Beautiful Things and both top my list for non-fiction this year. Both very different stories; both gorgeous and utterly heart-wrenchingly honest.

Best book-to-movie I read this year has to be The Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew Quick. Loved the movie with Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence. Loved the book even more. (If you’re looking for a book for a young adult male, this is IT! But it’s really perfect for anyone who loves a good story.) Matthew is a genius at developing a character so flawed and damaged yet unbelievably lovable and courageous. I can’t wait to read it again. Bravo!

Julie's picks:

The Land of Decoration by Grace McLeen This was a dark, dark story. With a unique hook (a child creates a fantasy world—both literally and figuratively—as an emotional escape from bullying and neglect) and a believable ten-year-old narrator (though NOT a book for tweens—it was almost more than even my 18-year-old could handle emotionally), The Land of Decoration was highly accessible yet painstakingly crafted.

Maine by J. Courtney Sullivan Sullivan compelled me to read about characters who weren't very likable for a lot of pages (528!) while never feeling it was a burden to do so. In fact, I began to care deeply about each one before too long. A very interesting character study and family history. Maine, to me, was reminiscent of family sagas by Rosamunde Pilcher or Maeve Binchy, only from an American perspective.

Gold by Chris Cleave - I haven't read a book by Cleave I haven't loved, and this autographed copy I picked up at his Dallas Museum of Arts event was no exception. Cleave also creates characters who aren't necessarily likable and makes you care about them more than you ever imagined you might. Cleave injects each of his stories with heart-pounding suspense, and the Olympic cyclist training setting in Gold lends well to that.

The Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjalian I was highly affected by Bohjalian's Skeletons at the Feast a few years ago, and he delivered a story on that level again in The Sandcastle Girls. The subject of the Armenian genocide hasn't been explored much in fiction, and here, Bohjalian combines meticulous research with the inspiration of his own family history to deliver a heartbreaking, unforgettable tale.

I read a lot of books by friends this year. I loved nearly all of them. If I tried to list them, we'd be here all day and I'd leave someone out. HOWEVER ... I will mention one debut I absolutely loved because it releases December 25 and you should read it: The Plum Tree by Ellen Marie Wiseman. Ellen brings family history and her many personal experiences of visiting Germany to this story of an ordinary German teenager who falls in love with a Jewish boy during the Holocaust and risks her life to save him. But it is so much more than that. The Plum Tree is social commentary on collective guilt and a fascinating look at life for everyday German citizens during World War II. Ellen's prose is gorgeous, her setting notes are stunning, and her story is both devastating and hopeful. It officially releases Christmas Day, but I've heard rumors that it's popping up in stores here and there already, and it's not too late to order it in time to read it before the holidays end.

Elizabeth's picks:

I’ve had sort of a weird reading year. I know there were books I loved when I read them last winter, but as I scour my brain to remember them, I find I can’t. I know I had a frustrating stretch in the summer, picking up books that were readable, sure, but less than satisfying, and like cotton candy, taken in and then instantly gone. But I do recall that the cycle was broken when I picked up That Thing Around Your Neck, a collection of short stories by Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozie Adiche. I quickly hunted down a novel she’d written, Half of a Yellow Sun, and then finished up with Purple Hibiscus, which was actually her debut novel. Now I’ll read every word she writes, have thrust copies of her books into hands of strangers at the bookstore, and forced them to log her name in their phones. I sent my sister-in-law copies of two of them for Christmas. And I eagerly await whatever she writes next.

At our retreat, I was treated to a great novel, The Story of Beautiful Girl, by Rachel Simon. Not only did it provide many wonderful quiet moments at the lake house, but also informed the work I was doing there in a number of ways. So that was a treat too.

Now I’m finishing the year with some old favorites. I just reread two Anne Tyler novels, Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant and Saint Maybe (which was the very first Tyler I read, over 20 years ago), and as I usually do in December, am reading Maeve Binchy’s This Year It Will Be Different, a collection of Christmas stories I read at least once a year, usually seasonally. It’s bittersweet this year, as Maeve is no longer with us, but a wonderful reminder that writing secures us a place in forever.

Do you have any recommendations for us? Leave a comment and tell us about them!


  1. Oh, wow! Reading this now, I see many books I've also read, no doubt recommended by Joan or Kim or someone, and I concur with them on so many! I love seeing how our tastes overlap and then when they don't. I also really enjoyed The Hunger Gamesx3, and it was especially fun since it was the first time my whole family of four read the same thing at about the same time (when the movie was coming out, natch), and we all devoured them.

    So it WAS a good reading year! Must resume my book diary--must check out GoodReads!

  2. Wow! I feel so honored to be included in this amazing list. Thank you!! And now you all have added several titles to my own TBR stack. Sending the WWW gang huge holiday hugs!

  3. Wow is right!! Thank you SO much for including me on this wonderful list! I'm truly honored. And thank you for such a touching endorsement. Definitely will be adding some of these books to my TBR pile! Happy Holidays all!

  4. Kristina, you so deserve to be on that list! I can't wait for your next book. Ellen, I love any stories dealing with WWII, so I will certainly pick up your book.


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