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2012 – My Year in Books

Jane Rusbridge’s ROOK inspired me to visit the Sussex Coast where it is set

Although it’s not yet December, it’s not too early to do a round-up of my literary year.   This post centres on the books I’ve enjoyed most in 2012, which effectively means up to the end of October because I set myself the huge challenge of reading in full every pre-release title on my forthcoming Fiction Hot Picks 2013.  There are some fantastic books I am desperate to tell you about, but I’m determined to keep it under wraps until the long-awaited date of 11 December.  It’s great to know there are people out there who are looking forward to it!

To me, books aren’t just about reading.  It’s four years since I moved from being an avid reader to being a writer too.  Recently I found myself describing 2012 as a frustrating one as I pursue my quest for representation, but on reflection, a lot of very positive things have happened.  The popularity of the Literary Sofa blog is very rewarding and I’m so grateful to everyone who reads, comments and contributes.  Writing anything which people want to read is great, and I’ve discovered that I really enjoy a different kind of writing – features – which I’d never tried before.  In ‘literary’ terms 2012 will be remembered as the year of Fifty Shades of Grey, a depressing development for many but not, as it turned out, for me.  Taking a gentle pop at it here was not only huge fun but somewhat unbelievably, my traffic doubled and never tailed off, proof that the same readers are also interested in good fiction.  I really take heart from that!

One of the high points of 2012 was the York Festival of Writing in September which I strongly recommend to all new writers.  It is unrivalled for networking, improving your writing and encouragement for those aspiring to publication.  I will be going again in 2013 – hopefully with my new WIP almost finished.  I want to thank all the wonderful, generous people I’ve met this year:  at York, through literary events and on Twitter, as well as my mentor, members of my writers’ workshop and others who critique my work for their ongoing support.

A couple of lovely unexpected opportunities have come my way.  At this year’s Ham & High Literary Festival, I enjoyed interviewing Jane Rusbridge about her second novel Rook (Bloomsbury; one of my Fiction Hot Picks 2012) which combines beautiful writing, a moving story and terrific sense of place.  I was delighted when my story Theft was chosen recently by Rattle Tales in Brighton for one of their interactive short story nights.  It was a massive buzz taking to the stage in front of a paying audience and luckily I seemed to have left my nerves at home!

So, to my very favourite books of 2012.  Including the pre-publication titles, I’ve read 60 novels in 11 months, smashing last year’s total of 55.  Since joining Twitter and hooking up with the publishing grapevine, the proportion of books I read that are good, very good or outstanding has rocketed.  As always, if I stray too far from my natural literary/commercial crossover territory, which I have done occasionally this year, I’m far less likely to be impressed.  An unrelated observation: it’s getting to the point where I breathe a sigh of relief if I start a book and it’s NOT written in the first person (although two of my five are).   I’ve reviewed 16 titles this year, all of which I think are worth recommending – so if you’re here for the first time, do check out the Book Review section, and there are some excellent titles on Top 10 Summer Reads.

CANADA by Richard Ford (Bloomsbury)

Back in August I stuck my neck out and declared this my book of the year.  It didn’t feel like much of a risk, and it would only have been a nice surprise if anything had knocked it off the top spot.  See my review for all the reasons I love it – I stayed in bed one Sunday and read the last third in one go, consumed by it.  It was a genuine inspiration hearing Richard Ford speak at the Southbank Centre in October, meeting him and having him sign my copy.  Contrary to almost every other author, he says he feels no compulsion to write and took it up because he wasn’t good at the other jobs he’d tried.  Our gain.

THE GARDEN OF EVENING MISTS by Tan Twan Eng (Myrmidon)

I read the three titles from independent publishers on this year’s Man Booker Prize shortlist and rated them highly, but this, the only of those which is a full-length novel, this one will stay with me.  When I was deciding on my top books of the year, two considerations were uppermost – the quality of the writing and whether the book really made me feel something.  This novel, set in what is now Malaysia with Japanese gardens an integral part of the story, delivered on both counts.  It has an entrancing sense of place and flashes of  erotic intensity.  If you loved David Guterson’s bestselling Snow Falling on Cedars all those years ago, I think you’d love this.


It’s risky, getting excited about a book based on the title and hearing insiders rave about it.  So many novels fail to live up to a great title or a blurb that’s better than the actual book.  This may be why, when an advance copy of The Light Between Oceans reached me, it was weeks before I could bring myself to read it.  This is one of the books I have mentioned and recommended the most this year.  Many books move me, but rarely to tears.  This one had me sobbing my heart out.  Just thinking about it makes me want to cry.  Consider that an achievement.

THE ART OF FIELDING by Chad Harbach (4th Estate)

My love affair with American fiction has continued undimmed this year. (This could easily have been an all US list).  Thinking of which novels I really enjoyed, read with real relish and wanted to get back to, there’s no doubt that The Art of Fielding belongs on this list.  Campus novels are one of my favourite sub-genres; I also like books with a male feel to them and ones which make me think.  Baseball as a metaphor for the American dream and for sheer perseverance is skilfully deployed here.  Chad Harbach’s own inspiring story of taking nine years to write the book and having it rejected umpteen times also speaks to me.

HAWTHORN & CHILD by Keith Ridgway (Granta)

I enjoy a good thriller or detective novel at the more literary end of the scale (sorry, Dan Brown).  A bit of a wild card choice, this really stands out for the originality of its execution. Novels consisting of interlinking stories have been written before, but I’ve never come across it done like this.  Hawthorn & Child is a very unusual reading experience – a challenge, almost – which makes a detective of the reader.  In places it is horribly confusing but that makes it all the more satisfying when the pieces come together.  I’m sure much would be revealed in a third reading, judging by my second.  Next week I’m going to hear Keith Ridgway read from the book and I really can’t wait.  Exciting writing.

You can imagine how hard it was coming up with this list representing just 10% of what I’ve read this year, just as you can probably guess what I’m going to ask next….

Which are YOUR favourite books of 2012?

About Isabel Costello

Writer (novels: Paris Mon Amour 2017; Scent 2021).Host of the Literary Sofa blog. Co-founder of Resilience for Writers with Voula Tsoflias. Perfume lover and Francophile.


18 thoughts on “2012 – My Year in Books

  1. I have heard so many great things about Canada. It’s the one thing I have asked for this Christmas. Come on, Santa, baby…

    Posted by Claire King | November 27, 2012, 16:35
  2. These all sound great, but I think the one I’m really drawn to is The Light between Oceans – sounds right up my street! Well done for reading 60 books in 11 months – you put me to shame – and thank you for all these in-depth and well-written reviews.

    Posted by Susan Elliot Wright | November 27, 2012, 17:59
    • Thanks Susan – I think that would be a good choice for you. It’s so beautifully written. As for my reading record, I finally realise that there was some point to ploughing through all those ginormous volumes of Balzac et al. Got me reading quickly to get through it all!

      Posted by Isabel Costello | November 28, 2012, 20:06
  3. I absolutely loved Canada – was worried the ending wouldn’t live up to the rest of it, but was not disappointed! Definitely in my top 5 of the year!

    Posted by Jennifer Grigg | November 28, 2012, 08:21
    • Know what you mean Jen, when it’s that amazing from the first sentence (which he says took a MONTH to write!) you do wonder whether it can be maintained to the very end. On the other hand, this is Richard Ford we’re talking about….

      Posted by Isabel Costello | November 28, 2012, 20:07
  4. I’ve had an interesting/strange year of reading – not too many mind-bending books on my list, though several do stand out and I’ll mention a couple of those. I’ve already mentioned Jennifer Egan on this blog so this time I’ll plug another writer, though it’s not a book from 2012: Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere. Oh, and I’m loving the Jasper Fforde I’m reading right now (One of our Thursdays is Missing: the next installment is already out and I want to get to that one too!). Canada is still a “to read” on my list. I have The Light Between Oceans as well, but I’m afraid to read it because I don’t want to cry! 🙂

    Posted by Kristin | November 28, 2012, 09:26
    • Thanks Kristin, I still haven’t gotten around to The Goon Squad but I must. Agree with you on Neverwhere – a book I would never have read if it wasn’t for my book group extending my horizons. As for Light Between Oceans, it is incredibly sad, but so gorgeous at the same time there is almost something indulgent about it.

      Posted by Isabel Costello | November 28, 2012, 20:09
  5. Thanks for stopping by my site. There are some great posts here – I enjoyed that one about write what you know, which was full of good reasons not to! Here are some really worthy reviews – you’re the sort of reader writers love! But I guess that’s because you’re a writer yourself 😉

    Posted by gabrielablandy | November 28, 2012, 18:37
    • Thanks so much Gabriela. I discovered your blog via the Asham site and your writing is amazing. Hope you’ll become a regular visitor to the Literary Sofa!

      Posted by Isabel Costello | November 28, 2012, 20:10
      • I’m so glad you came via the Asham – I’ve been pestering them for a while, so it seems that paid off, because now I know about your site. (I shall certainly come back!) Did you enter the Asham this year?

        Posted by gabrielablandy | November 28, 2012, 21:07
      • Gave your lovely blog a plug on Twitter today. You’re not on there are you? Most of my visitors come via links posted there.

        Posted by Isabel Costello | November 30, 2012, 20:37
      • Wow, thank you!! I did set up a Twitter account as a friend suggested I would be able to get more visitors that way, but I just couldn’t get my head around the language. I’ve just come online now to put a new post up – I think between that and writing my book at the moment, tweeting has not been given a priority. But I thought to give it another go in the New Year.

        Posted by gabrielablandy | December 1, 2012, 12:56
  6. I absolutely loved The Light Between Oceans. I chanced upon it my accident. And so glad I did. It’s certainly one of my favourites of the year.

    Posted by sallyzigmond | November 29, 2012, 18:23
  7. Although it’s well hidden amongst some interesting book picks CONGRATULATIONS on having your short story picked by Rattle Tales – it certainly sounds intriguing from their blog.

    Posted by Catherine | November 30, 2012, 08:23
    • Thanks Catherine! I really enjoyed writing that story and it was absolutely fascinating seeing how differently people can interpret it. Would recommend Rattle Tales to any writer withing striking distance of Brighton – a great experience all round.

      Posted by Isabel Costello | November 30, 2012, 10:58

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