Sunday, January 01, 2012

Favorite Books of 2011

I've been doing a year-end list for several years -- see 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, and 2005 for the prior installments -- and this year will be as idiosyncratic as ever.

First of all, I insist on doing my year-end list at the end of the year, unlike pundits and media outlets that start trotting them out in mid-September, for the simple, obvious reason that the year isn't over yet at that point.

These are my favorites rather than the "best," since the latter is a slippery, difficult term.

I'm surveying what I read in 2011, which isn't necessarily entirely books first published in that year. I do try to keep the slots on the final list for newish books, but I can't promise anything. (I can't promise my tastes will be yours, either, but I'm arrogant enough to believe that the books I choose as favorites are demonstrably good outside of my own taste.)

This list is not of any particular genre or type of book -- it combines fiction (genre and not), comics/graphic novels, and sometimes even non-fiction -- since interesting people, such as me, read more than one kind of thing, and lists of tightly defined stuff are deadly boring.

I pick one best book from each month, partly to allow me to have a Top Twelve for the year, and partly just to be different. And I write a bit about some of the other books I read that month, for comparison.

This year, I've read only 144 books -- by far the least since I've been keeping track as an adult. (The next lowest total was 2000, with 259 -- and the highest was 1993, the peak of my SFBC reading, with 419 books.) So the pickings may be slim this year -- I'm hoping that I concentrated on good books, but clearly the combination of Book-A-Day fatigue, a crushing convention schedule this past summer, and my little flood threw me entirely off my pace this year.

So this was my year in reading:

I read 32 books in January, in the last over-the-top of my Book-A-Day campaign, but most of them were pleasant but not terribly ambitious graphic novels. Worth breaking out of that pack were Brian Wood and Ryan Kelly's Local, an indy-style reimagining of superpowers more in line with SFnal wild talent stories; the eighth and last volume of Kazuto Okada's unsettling look at adolescent sexuality, Sundome; Doug TenNapel's afterlife fantasy for young readers, Ghostopolis; the Neil Gaiman-edited Best American Comics 2010; and the second volume of Fantagraphics' wonderful reprinting of the complete E.C. Segar Popeye, "Well, Blow Me Down!". I also read Wanted, by Millar and Jones, which is all the way to the other end of the scale of worth. On the prose side, Side Jobs collected the various stories about Jim Butcher's series hero, Harry Dresden, and those stories were of widely varying quality. And Steve Martin's new novel, An Object of Beauty, was smart about the art world but not as focused as it should have been. So the best book of that flurry was another graphic novel, Jason Little's Motel Art Improvement Service, returning to the story of Bee (from Little's Shutterbug Follies) to tell a smart, funny, and sexy story about art, drugs, travel, and the kind of people you meet when you're caught up in those things.

Book-A-Day ended on the second, so I dropped down to eleven books for the shortest month of the year. I got to the third volume of the complete Fantagraphics E.C. Segar Popeye, "Let's You and Him Fight!", which was also wonderful. I read Connie Willis's Blackout, which was not. Daniel Pinkwater's newest novel for young readers, Adventures of a Cat-Whiskered Girl, was pleasant but felt a bit like a Pinkwater greatest-hits collection; it hit all of the notes without having the groove quite right. But the best book of the month was Ian Frazier's Travels in Siberia, a lovely evocation of a distant, strange, cold land.

Once I got through Willis's All Clear on the first day of the month -- about which, the less said, the better -- it was all uphill from there. Patrick Rothfuss's second big fat fantasy, The Wise Man's Fear, was just as fun and full of wonders as his first. Joe Daly's stoner dungeon-crawl of a graphic novel, Dungeon Quest: Book Two, was laid-back entertainment at its finest. (I reviewed it for the now-thrice-deceased print magazine Realms of Fantasy, so no linkage.) Barry Deutsch's graphic novel Hereville had some thematic problems (I thought), but was a great story of a girl taking charge and kicking butt. And then I read two great fantasy novels back-to-back: in any other month Mary Robinette Kowal's lovely and precise Shades of Milk and Honey would have been the pacesetter, but it was lapped entirely by Jo Walton's quietly magnificent Among Others, a book I fully expect will be read in a hundred years to explain who were were and what we felt.

This is a tough month. Do I go with the fourth volume of the Fantagraphics E.C. Segar Popeye, "Plunder Island," collecting one of that strip's greatest continuities and many of its best moments? Or Vera Brosgol's excellent first graphic novel, Anya's Ghost (also reviewed for Realms of Fantasy)? Any other month, Steven Brust's thorny new "novel," Tiassa, might be in contention, and so might John Scalzi's deeply amiable but not deeply anything else Fuzzy Nation. And so could be John Banville's fantasia of memory and human fallibility, The Infinities. Or Jasper Fforde's rejuvenation of his best-known series with One of Our Thursdays Is Missing. But I read a Pulitzer prize-winner this month as well, and I have to agree with that committee: Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad is brilliant, unforgettable, touching, devastating, and as close to perfect as a work of fiction ever gets.

This was a quieter month, with flawed but interesting graphic novels like Matt Fraction and Gabriel Ba's stylish spy thriller Casanova: Luxuria and Kevin Huizenga's utterly unclassifiable The Wild Kingdom. Steve Dublanica's Keep the Change was an entertaining and useful look at what Americans tip to various kinds of service-people, and Diana Wynne Jones's last novel, Enchanted Glass, was a sweet, lovely piece of reassurance for young oddballs. Matthew Hughes, one of my favorite writers, tried something new with the contemporary superhero/deal-with-the-devil novel The Damned Busters. But clearly the best book of the month was Dennis Lehane's return to his Kenzie/Gennaro series with the tough-minded, riveting Moonlight Mile.

I spent two weeks on the road this month, which partially explains why I didn't finish any pure-prose books in June. Of the things I did manage to get through, of interest were Nate Powell's powerful but slightly out-of-focus Any Empire and Ray Fawkes's second "Possessions" story, The Ghost Table. But pride of place this month has to go to the fifth Fantagraphics E.C. Segar Popeye collection, "Wha's a Jeep?", which introduced the title character and saw even more great gags and storylines.

I spent July diligently reading the Hugo nominees, meaning that I got through the lousy Feed by Mira Grant; The Dervish House by Ian McDonald, which I respected more than I liked; and the very entertaining and moderately thoughtful Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin. None of them, though, nor any of the Graphic Novel nominees, are worth listing in my Top Twelve. For that, I have to stretch to George O'Connor's Hera: The Goddess and Her Glory, the third in his series of graphic novels for young readers about the Greek gods -- it's lovely and carefully researched and subtly revisionist and refuses to talk down to its audience in the slightest.

The deluge hit at the end of the month, but, before that, I read some good books, such as Dan Wells's deeply engrossing first novel I Am Not a Serial Killer (which led me, very quickly, to its two sequels in later months); Rick Geary's latest graphic novel of century-old murder and detection, The Lives of Sacco & Vanzetti; and the new novel from the supposedly retired mystery Grand Master Lawrence Block, A Drop of the Hard Stuff. But even better was Catherynne M. Valente's lovely, spunky, prickly, and indomitable Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making.

I distracted myself from my own travails, early in the month, with Paul Theroux's quintessentially grumpy traveler's voice in the two-decade-old The Pillars of Hercules, and then moved on to a couple of good SF/fantasy novels in Matthew Hughes's The Other and Michael Swanwick's Dancing With Bears (both still waiting for me to write about them as I type this). But the book I needed the most this month, and something of a replacement for the shelf of books by him I lost, was Calvin Trillin's career retrospective Quite Enough of Calvin Trillin, several hundred pages of wry humor and clear-eyed wisdom when I most needed it.

This is possibly an even thinner month than May; the runners-up are the third book in Dan Wells's "Mr. Monster" trilogy, I Don't Want to Kill You and a throwback pulpy/sexy novel by Lawrence Block (as "Jill Emerson"), Getting Off. I also found time to get through all thousand pages of George R.R. Martin's A Dance With Dragons, and how can I deny him a place on my list, since this is so clearly his year? (I didn't review Dragons, but I imagine enough other people have done so that no one will notice the lack.)

I read a bunch of excellent graphic novels this month: Kate Beaton's collection of short historical/literary cartoons, Hark! A Vagrant, which is paradoxically both frothy and deep; Jonathan Case's Dear Creature, a weirdly Shakespearean romance between a sea monster and an agoraphobic middle-aged woman; Lewis Trondheim's fourth collection of "Little Nothings" diary strips, My Shadow in the Distance; Jason Shiga's quiet and semi-autobiographical Empire State; and the almost-the-best-of-the-month Nuts, collecting the great '70s strip from the National Lampoon by Gahan Wilson. But I have to instead pick the tough, smart, unflinching urban fantasy Circle of Enemies by Harry Connolly...which I still need to review, come to think of it.

I haven't read much this last month of the year, but it's been good stuff: Lawrence Block's autobiography-in-afterwords, Afterthoughts; Michael Specter's full-throated defense of rationalism and science, Denialism; and Terry Pratchett's wonderfully familiar new Discworld novel, Snuff. And the best of this month is the vertiginous, endlessly energetic first novel from Hannu Rajaniemi, The Quantum Thief...which is yet another book waiting for me to review it.

And then here's that Top Twelve again, together and arranged alphabetically:

  • Among Others by Jo Walton
  • Circle of Enemies by Harry Connolly
  • A Dance With Dragons by George R.R. Martin
  • E.C. Segar's Popeye, Vol. 5: "Wha's a Jeep?"
  • The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente
  • Hera: The Goddess and Her Glory by George O'Connor
  • Moonlight Mile by Dennis Lehane
  • Motel Art Improvement Service by Jason Little
  • The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi
  • Quite Enough of Calvin Trillin
  • Travels in Siberia by Ian Frazier
  • A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

1 comment:

Jens M. Sørensen said...

Just a brief note, from a long time lurker. I hope you keep the reviews comming - as our (good, obviously) taste in book line up almost perfectly. Several of the best books I have read the last couple off years, have been on the strength of your reviews. Among Others and A Visit from the Goon Squad are proberly the best novels I read in 2011.

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