As you may have noticed from the boiling temperatures, it’s the last day of June, which means we’re pretty much halfway through the year. To mark the year’s midpoint, Amazon put together a list of their picks for the best books of the year so far, but of course we have our own ideas about which books have made the biggest splash so far. It’s been a great six months in the book world, but we’ve got some heavy-hitters coming up this fall (new books by Michael Chabon, Zadie Smith, Junot Diaz and Paul Auster, just to name a few), so we’ll be interested to find out which of the books below hold on to their rankings when the year-end lists come around! Click through to read our picks for the ten best books of the first half of 2012, and let us know which you would have chosen in the comments.
The Orphan Master’s Son , Adam Johnson (January 10)
Johnson’s epic adventure takes us on a lush, terrifying journey through North Korea, the characters perfectly balanced between looming danger, sometimes of their own creation, and a deep humanity infused with hope. We follow Jun Do — a tunnel expert trained by the regime — as he transforms from childish pawn of the system to professional kidnapper to rival of Kim Jong Il, whom he opposes in order to save the love of his life.
Half-Blood Blues , Esi Edugyan (February 28)
A 2011 Man Booker Prize finalist, those of us in the states finally got our paws on a copy of Edugyan’s brilliant second novel this year. The fiery novel chronicles the trials of the Hot-Time Swingers, a legendary multi-racial jazz ensemble caught in the mania on the eve of WWII. The story is as fascinating as they come, and Edugyan’s prose sizzles and pops like the best jazz track you’ve ever heard.
Threats , Amelia Gray (February 28)
It’s no secret that we’re huge fans of Amelia Gray, so her debut novel was pretty much a shoo-in for this list. Deeply strange and terrifyingly beautiful, Threats tells the story of a man whose wife has died, leaving him increasingly and elaborately bizarre threats hidden in all the corners of their home. Gorgeously bizarre, we recommend it to everyone.
When I Was a Child I Read Books: Essays , Marilynne Robinson (March 13)
“When I was a child I read books,” Robinson writes. “My reading was not indiscriminate. I preferred books that were old and thick and dull and hard… I looked to Galilee for meaning and to Spokane for orthodonture, and beyond that the world where I was I found entirely sufficient.” Author of the Pulitzer Prize–winning Gilead, Robinson is already a legend in her own right, and these essays on the state of the world are as tightly imagined and insightful as ever.
I Am an Executioner: Love Stories, Rajesh Parameswaran (April 10)
In the first story in Parameswaran’s debut collection, a Bengal tiger realizes he is hopelessly in love with his handler, and then expresses that love in the only way he truly can — by killing and consuming him before heading out into the suburbs on a the quietest rampage you might ever imagine. Brutally delightful and piercing, the collection only gets better from there.
Narcopolis , Jeet Thayil (April 12)
Poet, musician, and ex-junkie Jeet Thayil’s vibrant debut novel is a sprawling saga about the underbelly of 1970s Bombay, with shifting foci and wonderfully degenerate characters swirling about in the muck, looking for their fix — whatever that might be. Striking, compelling and strangely addicting itself, Thayil’s prose will have you captivated until the very end.
Magic Hours: Essays on Creators and Creation , Tom Bissell (April 24)
In this collection of essays gathered from over a decade of work, award-winning essayist Tom Bissell explores the nature of the creative process and what it means to be an artist — covering everything from The Big Bang Theory to David Foster Wallace to Werner Herzog. For fans of John Jeremiah Sullivan, or pretty much fans of any kind of culture. That probably means you.
Are You My Mother: A Comic Drama , Alison Bechdel (May 1)
Bechdel’s second graphic novel about her family is a heartfelt inquiry into the author’s relationship with her mother — and of course, relationships with mothers in general — as well as the nature of her own artwork and personal journey, buoyed with just the right amount of eyebrow-raising and clever asides to keep us smirking along, but filled with uncompromising and important truths about art and family.
Bring Up The Bodies , Hilary Mantel (May 8)
The follow-up to Mantel’s 2009 Man Booker Prize-winning historical tome Wolf Hall (the second in a planned trilogy) is possibly even better than her first effort, a gripping page-turner steeped in history that you will find impossible to put down. We promise.
The Age of Miracles , Karen Thompson Walker (June 26)
We’ve been gushing quite a bit about this book lately, but we promise, it’s for good reason. Walker’s luminous debut imagines the apocalypse through the eyes of an 11-year-old girl, which would be fascinating enough, except that the apocalypse is the gradual slowing of the earth’s rotation, a slippery slope of time that both changes everything and changes nothing — at least if you’re an adolescent.