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Best Books Of 2012

From the origins of the universe, to the Tudor age, to an Indian reservation in North Dakota, we look at the best books of the year.



It may not have a cover anymore.  It may be pixels on a screen.  But a book is still a book.  Big, rich, deep – and, when it’s good, transporting.  Transforming.  The books of 2012 have ranged wide.  From the slums of Mumbai to deep North Korea.  From the court of Henry VIII to the ranch of LBJ.

From war to love, to family and clan, to mega-selling sex talk.  Gone Girl.  Round House.  Dog Stars.  Journeys.  Richard  Ford.  Katherine Boo.  Junot Diaz.  Chris Ware.

This hour, On Point:  we’re looking at the best books of 2012.

-Tom Ashbrook


Lucas Wittmann, books editor for the Newsweek/Daily Beast.

Elizabeth Taylor, literary editor of the Chicago Tribune.

Richard Howorth, owner of Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi.

From Tom’s Reading List

Top Books list from Slate

Best Books from Publishers Weekly

You can find the Daily Beast lists here 

Your Best Books Lists

Here’s a list of top books from our reviewers and you, our listeners. Please add your suggestions in the comments section.

Lucas Wittmann

The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers

Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan

The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson

Dear Life by Alice Munro

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain

The Dog Stars by Peter Heller

Bring up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

Joseph Anton by Salman Rushdie

The Barbarous Years by Bernard Bailyn

Every Love Story is a Ghost Story by DT Max

Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo

Far From the Tree by Andrew Solomon

Richard Howorth 

Swimming Studies by Leann Shapton

Canada by Richard Ford 

The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers

One Last Strike by Tony La Russa

My Bookstore: Writers Celebrate Their Favorite Places to Browse, Read, and Shop 

Dear Life by Alice Munro

The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson 

John Saturnall’s Feast by Lawrence Norfolk 

A Mission From God: A Memoir and a Challenge for America by James Meredith 

Pete the Cat Saves Christmas – by Eric Witlin

Elizabeth Taylor

Canada by Richard Ford 

Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo

The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson 

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain

The Newlyweds by Nell Freudenberger

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz

The Round House by Louise Erdrich

We Sinners by Hanna Pylvainen

The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson by Robert Caro

Cronkite by Douglas Brinkley

House of Stone: A Memoir of Home, Family, and a Lost Middle East by Anthony Shadid

How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiousity, and the Hidden Power of Character by Paul Tough

Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956 by Anne Applebaum

Red Brick, Black Mountain, White Clay by Christopher Benfey

My Poets by Maureen McLane

Nature Wars by Jim Sterba

Caller Picks

Who Is That Man?: In Search of the Real Bob Dylan

No Easy Day: The Firsthand Account of the Mission That Killed Osama Bin Laden

Fall of Giants: Book One of the Century Trilogy by Ken Follett

A Leaf on the Wind of All Hallows Diana Gabaldon

As the Shadows Fall by Mort Shahmir

Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan

Glittering Images: A Journey Through Art from Egypt to Star Wars by Camille Paglia

By Men or By the Earth: A Corporate Lawyer Walks Out on Law, Love, and Life, and Walks Across America With His Adopted Dog by Tyler Coulson

Listeners’ Picks

King City by Brandon Graham

Redshirts by John Scalzi

The Dog Stars by Peter Heller

Alif the Unseen by G. Winslow Wilson

Gone: A Novel by Cathi Hanuer

Maine by Courtney J Sullivan

The World Without You by Joshua Henkins

The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan

The Arrivals by Meg Mitchell Moore

Running the Rift by Naomi Benaron

The Fault In Our Stars by John Green-Young

The Revolution Was Televised by Alan Sepinwall

Yellow Green Beret (Vol II and III) by Chester Wong

The Secret Race: Inside the Hidden World of the Tour de France: Doping, Cover-ups, and Winning at All Costs by Tyler Hamilton

A Good American by Alex George

Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior by Leonard Mlodinow

Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain by David Eagleman

The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by Steven Pinker

Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead by Brené Brown

Hunger Mountain: A Field Guide to Mind and Landscape by David Hinton

The Ravenous Brain: How the New Science of Consciousness Explains Our Insatiable Search for Meaning by Daniel Bor

Hallucinations by Oliver Sacks


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  • Expanded_Consciousness

    You are still calling them books? How quaint.

  • Ed75

    I recommend:
    Gregory, Brad ‘The Unintended Reformation: how a religious revolution secularized society’ Harvard, 2013,
    the best history of the period of the Reformation to the present I’ve seen.
    Also the works of Mark Noll on Evangelicalism.

  • Prairie_W

    I think I’ll spend the hour reading.

  • JGC

    All the links above (inevitably?) lead one to Amazon.  I guess that is the quickest and most comprehensive way to read synopses and reviews, but folks, don’t forget your local independent bookstore and your town library!  Maybe do a reverse on what the Amazon types are doing  (providing apps to scan information at the independent and small stores, but are then nudging one to order it from the big guys); how about this instead: scanning the information on the Amazon link, and then buying it from your town shop? 

    • kirkorian

      I often do this.  The reviews at Amazon are helpful, but I refuse to buy books there.  I either buy at a bookstore or if I want to buy it online I go to Barnes and Noble.  I know B&N isn’t a small independent book store, but the sad reality is that B&N is my local bookstore. 

    • Maqroll

      While the idea of Reverse Showrooming is attractive, in practice it makes no sense. I see a book on Amazon I want, tell the local book store to order me a copy, and then pay 30% more at the store for the inconvenience of picking it up in person a week or two later.

      I may as well order the book I want from Amazon, get it in the mail two days later, and cut my book store a check for the difference.

  • JGC

    Books being considered for my 18-year-old who likes history, humor and fantasy:
      The Onion Book of Known Knowledge;  Stephen Colbert’s America Again: Rebecoming the Greatness We Never Weren’t;  The Mark Inside: A Perfect Swindle, a Cunning Revenge and a Small History of the Big Con, by Amy Reading; Snow-storm in August:  Washington City, Francis Scott Key and the Forgotten Race Riot, by Jefferson Morley; Patton’s Unsung Armor of the Ardennes: The Tenth Armored Division’s Secret Dash to Bastogne, by Eugene C. Patterson; Best American Non-Required Reading, an anthology series edited by Dave Eggers (who wrote the acclaimed “Zeitoun”); Game of Thrones;   Hunger Games

    • JGC

      Sorry things are all crunched together and hard to read; my spacing was re-edited by Disqus.

  • Brandstad

    Agenda 21 by Glenn Beck is a must read!

    It is the 1984 of our generation!

    • Steve__T

       I’d rather eat raw cotton.

  • AC

    The Orphan Master’s Son was outstanding!!!!!
    no easy task to be so perky and amusing about something so shockingly dark and unthinkable…
    also, i’m not sure if this is fiction or not? – i admit, i have come to believe his portrayal of life in N Korea as truth; they’re certainly not proving otherwise

  • AC

    The Orphan Master’s Son was outstanding!!!!!
    no easy task to be so perky and amusing about something so shockingly dark and unthinkable…
    also, i’m not sure if this is fiction or not? – i admit, i have come to believe his portrayal of life in N Korea as truth; they’re certainly not proving otherwise

  • http://www.facebook.com/garret.woodward Garret K. Woodward

    Bumblef**k, a North Country tale of boredom and chaos…check it out…

  • gemli

    Science gets short shrift in these reading lists, so it’s nice to see “The Ravenous Brain” and “Hallucinations” on the list of reader’s picks.  But since the physical sciences are not well represented, I highly recommend “A Universe From Nothing,” by Leonard Krauss, and “The Beginning of Infinity,” by David Deutsch.

    • osullivan11

      Incognito by David Eagleman was also good. I also really liked Lawrence Krauss “A universe from nothing” …. have you seen the youtube talk that started it all? Really entertaining…

  • Jack Chory

    A bit behind the curve, but I started A Song of Ice and Fire recently, can’t put them down.  Like book porn. 

    • J__o__h__n

      I just finished them last month.  I enjoyed them but it cut into other books I wanted to get to. 

  • Coastghost

    Hoorah for print publication and death to publishers, as ever (Thomas Campbell assures us that Barabbas was a publisher and that even Napoleon had the good sense to shoot a publisher): but how about works appearing not in print, viz., online e-zines, et cetera. Are professional reviewers, editors, et al., affiliated or no with the print publishing industries, paying sufficient attention to works that are failing to appear in print?

  • http://www.facebook.com/kate.oden Kate Oden

    (Just removed my comment touting Guy Delisle’s “Burma Chronicles” from 2007/8 — did he publish anything in English in 2012?)

    • http://www.facebook.com/shelley.fitzgerald.5 Shelley Fitzgerald

      Yes and I think it is about Jerusalem.  Let me check-yes.
      It’s nice to see someone else who likes him-I loved Burma Chronicles.  And just thinking of Pyongyang gives me the chills.

  • Amanda Patton

    Ha!  Click on Richard Howorth’s book links and you land on the Amazon page.  

  • Amanda Patton

    Ron Rash’s The Cove is an excellent novel!

  • grandmother2056

    Nor reading Barbara Kingsolver – Flight Behavior-fascinating!!
    Just finished Maine by Courtney Fisher

    • http://wh.gov/IVp4 Yar

      Tom, You just spent an hour talking about climate change. You can’t miss mentioning Flight Behavior.
      A wonderful read.

  • Steve__T

    No Fantasy? Science Fiction? 

  • http://www.facebook.com/julia.gandrud.9 Julia Gandrud

    I just read the Cornelia Funke children’s fantasy that isn’t perfectly written, but centers around a very interesting conceit of the main characters pulling characters out of another book, and entering that book themselves.
    The “Ink Heart” Series.

  • http://www.facebook.com/scott.hambley Scott Hambley
  • http://www.facebook.com/scott.hambley Scott Hambley

    Readers on the North Shore are devouring “The Charity,” a new suspense/legal thriller written in a complex/tight style
    and in the vein of Grisham (The Firm), Stieg Larsson (Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) and The Fugitive.

    Setting is horse racing, Streets of Boston/Massachusetts’ North Shore/Kentucky/Ireland.

    Themes are IRA/terrorism (historically based), love story (is “he” good or evil), family and drawing on inner strength to survive.

    Fans comments:
    Losing sleep because they can’t put the book down.
    Favorite Christmas gift for friends and family.
    Love, love, love Jessica (the main character) and don’t want the book to end.
    One of the best suspense thrillers they’ve ever read.
    Can’t wait for the movie and are suggesting actors to play the major roles.
    Can’t wait for the sequel!

    Brief Synopsis:
    After graduating from Bowdoin College, strong-willed Jessica’s efforts to join her family’s race horse training business are thwarted by its head whose murder makes her a suspect and fugitive. When her hidden identity is uncovered, she returns home to clear her name and discovers the true nature of her family business and its connection to a terrorist IRA cell.

    Favorite scene:
    Dialog at the Irish bar (sounds like a conversation between Sinn Fein’s Gerry Adams vs Real IRA’s Michael McKevitt)

    Order the book at http://www.amazon.com/The-Charity-Girls-Journey-Terrorism/dp/0615695256/

  • osullivan11

    I think sports book are often so full of cliches and buffonary but not Tyler Hamiltons book “The Secret Race”…. Absolutely brilliant stuff about the dirty underbelly of the US Postal Team. I think the cycling world represents a microcosm of society at large. The things people do to get ahead etc…. I hope that On Point invites Tyler Hamilton and Dan Coyle on the show….

  • Peacefully Evyl

    I have three favorite books this year: The Madonnas of Leningrad by Debra Dean, The Paris Wife by Paula Mclain, and Rules of Civility by Amor Towles. They all have amazing writing, imagery, and story. They left me wanting more and hunting down more novels and information about the truths in them. Madonna’s of Leningrad was by far the best, though. The writing impeccably mirrors what is happening in the story. The imagery is stellar. Everything about the story was new to me: the siege, the museum, the Russian experience. 

  • Dick Johnson

    Surprised that Robert Caro’s masterful treatment of the transition from JFK to LBJ doesn;t show up on these lists.  It made me go read Caro’s 1974 work on Robert Moses, an astonishing history of 20th C NYC.  Caro’s narrative is fact-based, settles historical problems, and weaves all in a compellingly suspenseful narrative.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Bill-Beuttler/510416318 Bill Beuttler

      The Caro book is on Elizabeth Taylor’s list. She was one of the show’s three guests. 

  • Dab200

    Knock, Knock! Ken Follett’s second part of the Millennium Trilogy titled ‘Winter of the World’ has been out for couple of months already. As great as the first ‘The Fall of Giants’ .
    Please have Ken Follett on your show!!!

  • Natashalot

    I so worry about the use of e-readers.  I fear terribly for the loss of our bookstores, the most beautiful places on earth in which to spend an afternoon or evening.  I like Harvard BookStore’s new credo:  “See it here, buy it here, keep us here!”

  • Peacefully Evyl

    I would like to respond to Richard’s comment about shoppers in his store who take notes on the books that interest them, presumably so they can purchase the book elsewhere. I am very guilty of this. It is rare for me to walk by a bookstore without going in, and it is equally rare for me to walk out of a bookstore without a purchase. However, I can’t truly afford to buy as many books as I’d like. I often will choose one book to bring home that day, and make a list of all the others that interest me. I have many sources for free to low cost books: Paperbackswap.com, FOL sales, the library, and library books on my Kindle. More often than not, the books I write down while at the bookstore, I then find at one of the above sources. The alternative is to never read them at all. 

    • Chelsea Smiley

      Libraries are also awesome – and used book stores which are kind of like libraries because I bring the book back when I’m done and earn another one.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=621690306 Jen Schaffer

    I can’t believe no one has mentioned The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer.  Best historical fiction I’ve ever read

    • mjb881

      yes, good book ….to me the best Historical fiction in this century is
      sigrid undset’s ” Kristin Labransdatter”
      [nobel prise 1920 something] she ranks with Dostoevsky
      in my book-especially his great quartet [crime and punishment through the Brothers K. ]

  • http://www.facebook.com/razia.husain Razia Husain

    what are we talking about? BOOKS, especially the hard-cover pretty ones are non-entities in the third world. Most books we ever read as children in Pakistan were either crappy paperback versions or bunch of photocopied papers…we always ‘envisioned’ these books along with their contents!

  • Bookworm3

    Why Does the World Exist? by Jim Holt. Thought provoking-

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=83000842 BA Ciccolella

    I just finished War Brides by Helen Bryan and am working on The Colonial’s Mistake by Dan Mayland. I found the first free or cheep in the Amazon recommendations, and the second through Facebook. I feel since I got them free or cheap, it’s my due to spread the word if I liked them.  I haven’t read a paper book in years, however that is more due to lifestyle… kindles are lighter and easier to carry. I still have a lot of paper books.
    -BA Ciccolella. Norfolk VA

  • davidalexo

    I was on hold to speak on the show, but time ran out.  How disappointing!  I wanted to mention “Defending Jacob” by William Landay, a  bestseller that takes place in Newton MA.  It’s about an Asst DA who’s son is accused of killing a 14 yr old classmate.  It’s very well written, especially the development of the relationships within the family.  The ending is “big” and completely unexpected.  It’s great reading!  Landay has published 3 books, all of which take place in the greater Boston area.  I think this is the best of the three.  I’m looking forward to his next book.

  • Randyblue

    I was on hold but time ran out.  My favorite book this year was ASK THE ANIMALS:  STORIES ONLY A VET COULD TELL by Bruce R. Coston.  This is a collection of stories from a veterinarian in Virginia which is reminiscent of James Herriot’s wonderful books.  Published by St. Martins Press, it was on The LA TIMES summer reading list and will be a featured title at the Virginia Festival of the book.  This book will make you laugh, cry and celebrate the wonderful bonds you share with your pet.  I loved it! and it’s gotten rave reviews from all quarters.  Pick it up!

  • annie802

    Here is my list for 2012..Annie Philbrick Co-Owner Bank Square Books in Mystic, CT and President of the New England Independent Booksellers Association.

    Annie’s Top
    Books of 2012



    Light Between Oceans by M.L.

    Roots of the Olive Tree by
    Courtney Miller Santos

    Wilderness by Lance Weller

    Sutton by J.R. Moeringer

    Live By Night by Dennis

    Arcadia by Lauren Groff

    Life Among Giants by Bill

    Some Girls, Some Hats and Hitler
    by Trudi Kanter

    Love Anthony by Lisa Genova

    Unfinished Work of Elizabeth
    D by Nicole Bernier

    The Lighthouse Road by Peter

    Malice of Fortune by Michael

    Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

    Brain on Fire by Susannah

    Cascade by Maryanne O’Hara

    Land More Kind Than Home by
    Wiley Cash

    The Cove by Ron Rash

    Carry the One by Carol

    Gold by Chris Cleave

    Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn

    Billy Lynn’s Halftime Walk
    by Ben Fountain

    The Yellow Birds by Kevin

    The Orchardist by Amanda

    Lady Cyclist’s Guide To
    Kashgar by Suzanne Joinson

    Behind the Beautiful
    Forevers by Katherine Boo

    Mrs. Queen Takes the Train
    by William Kuhn

    Eight Girls Taking
    Photographs by Whitney Otto

    Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan

    The Vanishing Act by Mette

    The Art of Hearing
    Heartbeats by Jan Philip Sendker

    In the Shadow of the
    Banyan  Vaddey Ratner



  • cheryldun73

    I loved today’s show…am always happy to hear good readers/writers talking about books!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1050563343 Sandra Shanti Burgess Williams

    I am enjoying the Prisoner of Heaven by Carlos Ruiz Zafon.

  • http://www.facebook.com/shelley.fitzgerald.5 Shelley Fitzgerald

    Don’t know why my name isn’t on the previous post….

  • pdshapiro

    Ghosts on the Red Line, which tells about what happens when commuters see their Departed on Boston’s subway trains, and its prequel, The Trail of Money, about money laundering and murder in Hong Kong… As the author, I can’t be objective about these suspense novels, but apparently readers like them, based on reviews posted on Amazon.

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  • Chelsea Smiley

    Haruki Murikami 1Q84 –  Anything by this man is gold. I’m surprised I haven’t heard it mentioned on this show. It was this unexpected book that people I never discussed books with would pull out of their pocket. A real page turner and completely and wonderfully strange. Kafka on the Shore is another favorite. His short stories are brilliant, but I like getting really immersed in the writing.

    • 228929292AABBB

      I heard so much about this man’s brilliance I tried Wild Sheep Chase and quit it, feeling it was contrived and too purposely and self congratulatory clever, or so it thought.  Horses for courses I guess.

  • myblusky

    The majority of the books chosen are by male authors – just like the proceeding years. Seriously none of your guests can find any great books written by female authors? I turned the show off after reading through the list. It’s the same thing every year. Women make up the majority of the audience when it comes to fiction, yet every year your guests list of great books are almost written by men – so biased.

    • nightcop28

      Really?  It never even occurred tome to look at the gender of the author.  I am more concerned about the content of the book.  Sounds like someone is a little bit sexist.

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  • 228929292AABBB

    So interesting that Canada is universally loved by the panel but the readers on Amazon were lukewarm at best about it.  That’s not to say one measure is more just than the other, but a bit depressing for those like me hoping for sure gift ideas from this show.  The gulf between critics and readers is nothing new I guess.  Jonathan Franzen is famous, so we know for a fact critics are sometimes tragically wrong.

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