BEHIND THE BEAUTIFUL FOREVERS: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity

By Katherine Boo (Random House)

This is quite simply an astonishing tale of squatters living in a tiny slum in India’s largest city. While dismal, their lives — as garbage pickers and scrap sellers — are almost operatic as they wend their way through corruption and governmental indifference, even ill-will. The ending is no end at all, but at least they have their stories told. — Shashi Tharoor

HOUSE OF STONE: A Memoir of Home, Family, and a Lost Middle East

By Anthony Shadid (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Shadid wrote this wonderful memoir of the year he devoted to restoring his great-grandfather’s home in southern Lebanon shortly before the author died, at 43, on assignment in Syria. By turns humorous and plangent, he evokes his Bedouin forebears and tries to reclaim his place in this disappeared world. — Philip Caputo

IRON CURTAIN: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956

By Anne Applebaum (Doubleday)

"Bring Up the Bodies: A Novel" by Hilary Mantel was one of our favorite fiction titles for 2012. (Henry Holt & Co./Henry Holt & Co.)

How did a religious, mostly agricultural Eastern Europe come to look like Stalin’s industrial, atheist Soviet Union? Cadres of people were trained and then trained others to see a new civilization that meant opportunity. Confusing? Enraging? All that and more in a compelling work of history and journalism. — John Connelly

MARIGOLD: The Lost Chance for Peace in Vietnam

By James G. Hershberg (Stanford/Woodrow Wilson Center)

“Marigold” is a staggering exercise in historical scholarship, the definitive study of a subject of intense speculation over the years — proposed U.S.-Hanoi negotiations in 1966. The meetings, like others before and after, never came to pass, the reasons were unexplained, and the war churned on. — Gordon M. Goldstein

WHY NATIONS FAIL: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty

By Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson (Crown)

This racing, wildly ambitious masterpiece argues that institutions — not geography, not ignorant leaders, not hobbled cultures — make the difference between the well-being of even the poorest American and the truly impoverished of the world. — Warren Bass


By Lauren Groff (Voice)

In this poignant and gorgeously written novel, a young man named Bit Stone is raised on a failing commune in New York. As Bit grows up and moves away, he isn’t naive enough to think his parents’ community could have survived, but he can’t shake the hopeful story that spawned him, that edenic sense of harmony. Groff resists any easy cynicism in favor of a profound consideration of the utopian dream. — Ron Charles


By Ben Fountain (Ecco)

In this darkly comic gut-punch of a novel, the surviving members of Bravo Squad — whose bravery in Iraq has been replayed endlessly on Fox News — are at Texas Stadium to take part in a high-octane halftime performance. The only hearts and minds left to be won are those of ambivalent Americans back home, and the only way to win them is through pageantry, jingoism and self-congratulation. “Catch-22” updated for a new era. — Jeff Turrentine


By Hilary Mantel (Henry Holt)

Mantel follows up her Booker-winning “Wolf Hall” with a second Booker winner. This darkly magnificent sequel covers Thomas Cromwell’s brutal efforts to end the failing marriage between Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. Gruffly compassionate toward villains and victims alike, Mantel reveals their weaknesses and cruelties bundled up in a flawed humanity we share. — Wendy Smith


By Tana French (Viking)

Set in Dublin after its economic collapse, “Broken Harbor” begins as a police procedural in an old working-class vacation spot that’s now a half-finished housing development. It then evolves into a suspenseful psychological thriller. With formidable intelligence, the story encompasses a family tragedy, the ugly side of police work and finally the sorrows of a generation. — Patrick Anderson


By Richard Ford (Ecco)

A magnificent work of Montana gothic told by the son of two inept bank robbers. When his parents go to prison, young Dell is whisked across the border to a dark room in Saskatchewan to escape social service agents. But his new guardian is a spoiled, cowardly man dogged by fears of retribution. Ford has polished the plainspoken lines of this wise novel to an arresting sheen. “Canada” confirms his position as one of the finest stylists and most humane storytellers in America. — R.C.


PHOTOS | Best books of 2012

Best graphic novels of 2012

50 notable works of fiction

50 notable works of nonfiction

The year in literary news

Best audiobooks of 2012