End of the Year Reading List

Sure, everyone told you to read Bossypants and The Night Circus. But here's the best books no one bothered to tell you about. (Plus: the worst read of the year!)

The number of books (not to mention best of lists) released every year is daunting. Throw in the barrage of Kindle, Apple, and Nook devices, you often find yourself questioning not only what to read next, but also by what method. And unless you’re a nerd—like me—who reads weekly book reviews and blogs, you probably get most of your book recommendations from friends. (Check out Goodreads.com: It’s a great way to link up with friends and see what they’re reading. Plus, look for me on there!) So today let me be your friend. But instead of me recommending books that are from established authors (11/22/63 by Stephen King), those that got a lot of buzz (The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, Bossypants by Tina Fey), or those that are award winners (The Tiger’s Wife by Teá Obreht, The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach), I’m going to list a few of my favorite books of the year. Hopefully, they’ll new to you and help bulk up your holiday reading list. 

The Devil All the Time by Donald Ray Pollock

Perhaps I have a propensity for grisly subject matter (3 of my 6 recommendations feature gruesome murders), especially in the hands of gifted storytellers, but Pollock’s debut novel—filled with ghastly images, brutal violence, and haunting writing—is my favorite novel of the year. Set in post-World War II Ohio and Virginia, this novel weaves together the stories of a motley crew of characters: a veteran who makes sacrifices to save his dying wife, husband-and-wife serial killers who prey on hitchhikers, an evangelist preacher, and the veteran’s young boy, who tries to escape it all. At times the violence and imagery is overwhelming, but even at its most macabre, the writing is immensely beauty—staying with you long after you turn the last page. Like McCarthy’s The Road, even in desolation, there is hope. For fans of: No Country for Old Men, A Good Man is Hard to Find

Faithful Place by Tana French

French’s latest novel about a policeman returning to his childhood Dublin neighborhood is a wonderfully desolate examination of people’s inability to escape their past. But the main reason I recommend this book is simply to introduce people—who’ve never read a Tana French novel—to one of the best crime writers working today. For fans of: Into the Woods, The Likeness

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

A nerdly, futuristic book based on the glory of ‘80’s movies and video games. While the story sometimes leaves you wanting a bit more, it always makes you feel nostalgic for Atari and The Explorers. For fans of: Ender’s Game, War Games (movie)

Before I Go to Sleep by S. J. Watson

Christine Lucas wakes up to a 47-year-old version of herself. She cannot remember the man (her husband, Ben) lying next to her. She doesn’t remember the house she is in. Only by reading her journal helps her to reconstruct pieces of her life, all other memories from the previous day (and every day for the last 20 years) are lost with sleep. So what can she do when she finds a note in her journal, written by herself, saying not to trust her husband? S. J. Watson’s debut novel—which has become an international bestseller—is a focused, psychological thriller. Like the main character, we do not know who to trust or (at times) what is going on. The bleak atmosphere and the slow build-up make this feel like Memento as directed by Hitchcock. For fans of: And Then There Were None, Memento (movie)

The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson

Growing up, Annie and Buster Fang were better known as Child A & Child B—child actors in their parents’ performance art. But this art was not confined within gallery walls. Instead, Caleb and Camille used shopping malls as their canvas, human reaction, their paint. Years later, after growing up and leaving the family art, Annie and Buster return home for a stay. After a few days, their parents disappear and all that is found is their car, bloody. But was it homicide or just another art piece? Annie and Buster try to find out. It is hard to believe that this is Wilson’s debut novel. It is completely original (in voice and story), surreal at times, and has tremendous control of its use of humor and sadness. For fans of: The Royal Tenenbaums (movie)

The Snowman by Jo Nesbø (Translated by Don Bartlett)

Those longing for another Girl with a Dragon Tattoo book may find solace in Jo Nesbø’s seventh Harry Hole detective novel. Set during a Norwegian winter, Hole investigates a string of murders linked by the appearance of a snowman in the victims’ yards. This taut mystery—recently optioned by Martin Scorcese—is gruesome, suspenseful, and unputdownable. For fans of: The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo series

The worst book of the year:

Micro by Michael Crichton & Richard Preston

Since Crichton’s death in 2008, two books have been posthumously published. The first, Pirate Latitudes—a complete novel found in Crichton’s files—was published in 2009. The second, Micro—which Crichton had only partly written—was released this year after Richard Preston (The Hot Zone) had been hired to complete the novel. Unfortunately, the book (just like Pirate) should have remained unpublished. The story is almost too silly to repeat: graduate students travel to Hawaii in hopes of joining a burgeoning microbiology start-up. Instead, they end up getting shrunk to the size of ants and must fight to stay alive. It’s a strange hybrid of Crichton’s Prey and Jurassic Park and the movies Avatar and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. The characters are indistinguishable caricatures, the plot trudging and confusing. Perhaps if Crichton had been able to complete the book it may have turned out differently. But as it is, it is cheesy sci-fi (at best).