So many eye-popping short story collections, so many revelatory small-press literary novels, and such little space on those end-of-the-year Best lists. Fortunately, I have a venue for featuring Best Indie Novels and Best Stories Collections of 2012, which you’ll find presented below. In addition, since I get far too much good material throughout the year to review comfortably, I take pleasure in end-of-the-year combing so that I can boost the books I could not let go, that I returned to relentlessly, that hint at authors worthy of watching that adventurous readers should investigate now.
Best 2012 Indie Novels
Barry, Kevin. City of Bohane. Graywolf. 288p. ISBN 9781555976088. $25.
Barry’s dystopian tale was rightly shortlisted for the Costa Book Award/First Novel category; it’s a rich, raucous, wild, profane, over-the-top account of a darkly futuristic Irish city, told with stylistic panache.
Beha, Christopher R. What Happened to Sophie Wilder. Tin House. 256p. ISBN 9781935639312. pap. $15.95.
There’s not a misstep in this carefully chiseled debut as Charlie Blakeman struggles to solve the mystery of old flame Sophie Wilder, who drops into his life after a decade, unwinds a painful tale, and then vanishes.
Clarke, Lindsay. The Water Theatre. New York Review Books. 450p. ebk. ISBN 9781590176504. $9.99.
Whitbread Prize winner Clarke delivers an engrossing story of love, friendship, and betrayal involving Martin Crowther; his mentor, Hal Brigshaw; and Brigshaw’s rebellious children, Marina and Adam. An ebook original.
Gillespie, William. Keyhole Factory. Soft Skull: Counterpoint. 368p. ISBN 9781593764463. pap. $16.95.
Presented as a mix of often split-page prose, poetry, and illustration, this wild ride into a slightly different present opens at an academic poetry conference and gets more endearingly crazy thereafter.
McFadden, Bernice L. Gathering of Waters. Akashic. 250p. ISBN 9781617750311. pap. $15.95.
Giving tragedy an unexpectedly magical dimension, McFadden revisits the 1955 death of Emmett Till, just as Tass Hilson, who loved him, revisits the site of Till’s death decades later to calm the troubled waters of her soul.
Miller, Andrew. Pure. Europa. 336p. ISBN 9781609450670. pap. $17.
Miller’s Costa Award winner delivers an astonishingly apt and solid sense of Paris directly before the French Revolution, as an engineer named Baratte is tasked, symbolically, with cleansing an overflowing cemetery.
Nayman, Shira. A Mind of Winter. Akashic. 332p. ISBN 9781617751035. pap. $15.95.
Rendered in fraught, achingly perfect prose, this tale shows how three characters on three continents cope with dislocation and shattering memory post–World War II.
Ruby, Ilie. The Salt God’s Daughter. Soft Skull: Counterpoint. 352p. ISBN 9781619020023. $25.
Dreamlike and shaped by Celtic myth, Ruby’s narrative explores the mother-daughter bond through Ruthie, daughter of free-spirited Diana and mother of Naida, born with a secret and lured by the sea.
Smith, Alexis M. Glaciers. Tin House. 112p. ISBN 9781935639206. pap. $10.95.
In this spare, beautifully written first novel, Isabel constructs a story to fit the mysterious message she finds on one of the postcards she collects but takes longer to make a successful story of her own life.
Straight, Susan. Between Heaven and Here. McSweeney’s. 208p. ISBN 9781936365753. $24.
Glorette Picard is murdered during a sunbaked Rio Seco, CA, August, and the ever humane Straight shows the consequences for one small but indelible community.
Tan Twan Eng. The Garden of Evening Mists. Weinstein. 352p. ISBN 9781602861800. pap. $15.95.
Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, Eng’s piercingly elegant second novel brings together the only survivor of a Japanese internment camp and an exiled Japanese garden in a bracing act of redemption.
2012 Indie Novels I Couldn’t Forget
Béchard, Deni Y. Vandal Love. Milkweed. 352p. ISBN 9781571310910. pap. $16.
Winner of the 2007 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for best first book, this fluidly told novel about several generations of a French Canadian family cursed with being either runts or giants is storytelling at its best.
Friel, James. The Posthumous Affair. Tupelo. 298p. ISBN 9781936797097. $29.95; pap. ISBN 9781936797011. $16.95.
Two children, delicate Daniel and wealthy Grace, known as the Fat Princess, meet in Washington Square in the late 1800s, and the story of their unfolding friendship is both charming and edgy, real and surreal.
Haake, Katharine. The Time of Quarantine. What Books. 294p. ISBN 9780984578214. pap. $15.
Dystopian novels are everywhere, but this tale of a boy raised by computers after climatic catastrophe has an arresting lyricism. Readers are in the midst of the story from the first sentence.
Healy, Trebor. A Horse Named Sorrow. Univ. of Wisconsin. 284p. ISBN 9780299289706. $26.95.
Seamus, a 21-year-old working as a clown, meets wildly self-assured Jimmy in 1980s San Francisco, but it’s the age of AIDS, and “Jimmy was a song, see? But the song’s over.” Immensely poignant.
Lawler, Patrick. Rescuers of Skydivers Search Among the Clouds. FC2: Univ. of Alabama. 160p. ISBN 9781573661683. pap. $15.95.
A fugelike, mazelike story of a family in free fall that you’ll find utterly original.
Mhlongo, Niq. Dog Eat Dog. Ohio Univ. 224p. ISBN 9780821419946. pap. $18.95.
You would expect a novel dealing with frustrated youth in 1994 South Africa to be edgy and angry, but this is also darkly, sparkly funny and an engrossing read.
Spatz, Gregory. Inukshuk. Bellevue Literary. 192p. ISBN 9781934137420. pap. $14.95.
Exact, haunting prose tells the story of a boy obsessed with Arctic explorer Sir John Franklin after his mother abandons the family.
Wetherell, W.D. The Writing on the Wall. Arcade: Skyhorse. 232p. ISBN 9781611457445. $24.95.
Retreating to an old house in New England after receiving tragic news, Vera discovers writing beneath the peeling wallpaper that leads her on an intriguing, deftly rendered journey.
Yuknavitch, Lidia. Dora: A Headcase. Hawthorne. 240p. ISBN 9780983477570. pap. $16.95.
Yuknavitch offers a contemporary retelling of Freud’s famous case of sexually fueled hysteria that’s fresh, funny, in your face, and, finally, touching.
Best 2012 Short Story Collections
Chaon, Dan. Stay Awake. Ballantine. 272p. ISBN 9780345530370. $25.
Chaon’s disquieting collection captures the horror in the everyday.
Cohen, Joshua. Four New Messages. Graywolf. ISBN 9781555976187. pap. $14.
From online porn in Europe to a professor who refuses to read his students’ work, Cohen offers utterly original, weirdly wonderful tales.
Díaz, Junot. This Is How You Lose Her. Riverhead: Penguin Group (USA). 224p. ISBN 9781594487361. $26.95.
Love won, love lost, and who wouldn’t love this National Book Award–nominated collection, which features indelible portraits of life’s everyday, awful pain.
Donaghue, Emma. Astray. Little, Brown. 288p. ISBN 9780316206297. $25.99.
Moving from horrific rape during the American Revolution to two aging women sculptors in 1968 Ontario and beyond, these masterly explorations of history show what short fiction can do.
Englander, Nathan. What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank. Knopf. 224p. ISBN 9780307958709. $25.99.
In fluid prose, Englander takes on tough topics like Jewish belief, the consequences of the Holocaust, inane suburbia, and contemporary social mores and gives us unexpected answers.
Hadley, Tessa. Married Love: And Other Love Stories. HarperPerennial: HarperCollins. 240p. ISBN 9780062135643. pap. $14.95.
Not just married love but family life and social stratification come under Hadley’s expert scrutiny here.
James, Tania. Aerogrammes: And Other Short Stories. Knopf. 192p. ISBN 9780307268914. $24.
A turn-of-the-century Indian wrestler, a disillusioned dance teacher, a girl and her chimpanzee, a woman who marries a ghost: one cannot deny that James creates startling characters.
Keret, Etgar. Suddenly, A Knock on the Door. Farrar. 208p. ISBN 9780374533335. pap. $14.
Israeli author Keret has a singular talent for making the absurd very, very real and believable.
Munro, Alice. Dear Life. Knopf. 336p. ISBN 9780307596888. $26.95.
Munro is such a master of the short story that it’s almost boring to put her on this list, but of course it belongs here.
Parameswaren, Rajesh. I Am an Executioner. Knopf. 272p. ISBN 9780307595928. $24.95.
Parameswaren’s graceful and absorbingly written first collection is a revelation, filled with unexpected stories about, say, a love-struck executioner and a hungry tiger.
Scanlon, Seamus. As Close As You’ll Ever Be. Cairn. 162p. ISBN 9780985319717. pap. $18.
Scanlon’s fierce, tough-minded stories effectively capture the tensions of Northern Ireland in you-are-there prose that will make you squirm.
2102 Story Collections I Couldn’t Forget
Battles, Matthew. The Sovereignties of Invention. Red Lemonade. 160p. ISBN 9781935869122. pap. $14.95.
You know that any collection opening with a story about dogs found inexplicably in trees truly earns the term invention in its title.
Bertino, Marie-Helene. Safe as Houses. Univ. of Iowa. 164p. ISBN 9781609381141. pap. $16.
A debut story collection that won the 2012 Iowa Short Fiction Award; offbeat tales of a thieving professor, a girl refusing a prize ham, and bringing home Bob Dylan for Thanksgiving.
Brown, Karen. Little Sinners and Other Stories. Univ. of Nebraska. 208p. ISBN 9780803243422. pap. $17.95.
Indelible characters whose sorrows are our own inhabit this Prairie Schooner Book Prize winner.
Holland, Noy. Swim for the Little One First. FC2: Univ. of Alabama. 184p. ISBN 9781573661690. pap. $16.95.
The ambitious and inventive Holland arranges her narratives in brief, stinging paragraphs that may not connect in obvious ways but are too sharp and structured to be called impressionistic.
Olsen, Erica. Recapture. Torrey. 200p. ISBN 9781937226053. pap. $15.95.
Unsentimental stories that tell us what the American West looks like now and what we’ve lost; the Grand Canyon, for instance, can be seen only in replica after environmental catastrophe.
Pritchard, Melissa. The Odditorium: Stories. Bellevue Literary. 252p. ISBN 9781934137376. pap. $15.95.
Award-winning author Pritchard crosses genres to create energized, fiercely atmospheric tales about holy fools, haunted hospitals, Annie Oakley, and more.
Sanders, Ted. No Animals We Could Name. Graywolf. 272p. 9781555976163. pap. $15.
A lion fashioned from bedsheets that comes alive, a lizard who bites the dust, and various humans sorting through life: Sanders’s debut collection, winner of the Bakeless Prize for Fiction, is disarming.
Singleton, George. Stray Decorum. Dzanc. 220p. ISBN 9781938103544. pap. $15.95.
Distant fathers, alienated sons, and a dog’s visit to the vet; Singleton, whose work you’ll find in venues like the Atlantic Monthly, captures the quotidian in straight-ahead prose
Spiegel, Jennifer. The Freak Chronicles. Dzanc. 261p. ISBN 9781936873708 . pap. $15.95.
Witty, vernacular stories about people on the edge—that is, freaky.