Must-Reads for 2012

The subway used to be a great spot to identify the must-read book of the moment, when every third passenger had a hand clamped on the spine of “Eat Pray Love” or “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.” But thanks to the growing popularity of e-book readers like the Kindle Fire and Nook Tablet, it’s getting harder and harder to spy on other commuters’ reading habits. Oprah Winfrey, too, ended her hugely influential book club in 2011, leaving would-be readers at a loss as to which tome to pick up next.

Here’s a clue: The current state of political and economic unrest could have a huge influence on what people read, as the Occupy Wall Street protests continue, the troops in Afghanistan return home, and the U.S. presidential campaigns heat up ahead of the elections. Even anxiety about the misguided belief the world will end in December might have an impact on what kind of books people seek out.

Explaining the unease
“With any sort of unease, people want to read something that explains what goes on around them,” says Oscar Villalon, book critic and managing editor of West Coast literary journal ZYZZYVA. “It could have the opposite effect, too. Think about all the movies that came out in the ’20s and ’30s, during the worst economic times and the rise of fascism, and it was all that Busby Berkeley stuff and musicals and slapstick comedies. People wanted to be pulled away from how completely awful their situation was and [be] put in a totally different world.”

Despite the dramatic shifts in the publishing industry, book companies will put out novels well worth reading next year, in one format or another. Villalon gave us his recommendations for books you shouldn’t miss in 2012. And if you’re wondering what all those subway riders will have on their iPads and Kindles: It’ll be the Harry Potter series, released as e-books for the first time.

Don’t-Miss Reads of 2012

1. “The Orphan Master’s Son” by Adam Johnson (Random House), January

What goes on behind the border of North Korea is a mystery, as the last remaining Stalinist state still toys with nuclear brinksmanship. This novel offers a peek behind the curtain. “Johnson, who also wrote the wonderful end-of-the-world novel ‘Parasites Like Us,’ tells of the rise of a boy from the title’s description to that of professional kidnapper,” Villalon says. “The writing is at turns haunting and lovely.”

2. “The New Republic” by Lionel Shriver (Harper Collins), March

Lionel Shriver’s wildly popular 2003 novel, “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” told the topical story of a school massacre from the perspective of the killer’s mother. Villalon says that this upcoming novel, which explores living under constant siege by terrorists in a Portuguese-speaking country, could be huge in our anxious world.

3. “Canada” by Richard Ford (Ecco), May

This new novel by the Pulitzer Prize-winning author has a lot of promise for fans of the crime genre. “It’s a violent story set in Montana and Saskatchewan,” Villalon explains, “involving a teen boy on his own after his parents have been thrown in jail for bank robbery.”

4. “Bringing Up the Bodies” by Hilary Mantel (Henry Holt), fall

Tired of waiting for the latest installment of George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” series? This novel, a sequel to Mantel’s best-selling and Booker Prize-winning novel, “Wolf Hall,” might sate your craving for historical fiction set in a monarchy. Villalon says this “ridiculously entertaining” writer will turn her attention from Henry VIII to the downfall of Anne Boleyn. “The title might be a good hint as to what to readers can expect.”

5. “The Twelve” by Justin Cronin (Ballantine), August

The vampires in Cronin’s dystopian novel “The Passage” don’t sparkle like the ones in the “Twilight” saga, but they’re still a hit with fans of the genre. Hopefully, the second book in his trilogy, “The Twelve,” will hit the shelves this summer and give them something to really sink their teeth into.

Photo: FlickR/Shutterhacks

Lisa Hix is a freelance writer and a former Yahoo! editor who has been published in the San Francisco Chronicle, Glamour, and Bust. She’s currently an associate editor at Collectors Weekly and a KQED Arts blogger. Find her on Twitter.