Saturday, December 31, 2011

Best of 2011

Best of 2011

2011 has been my first full year writing this blog, and I’ve been having a lot of fun. I don’t know if anyone appreciates my commentary (or thinks I’m an idiot), but I hope that somebody out there is reading. My hits have been at an all-time high this year and I’m surprised and pleased that my measly little book review blog is being viewed in Russia, Germany, the Ukraine, India, Thailand, Japan, Sweden, the UK and Turkey, among other countries. If you’re out there, thanks for reading! I still haven’t gotten comments and they would certainly be appreciated!

I’m not going to make any big, sweeping generalizations about the state of literature in 2011 for the simple reason that most of the books I read this year weren’t published in 2011. I read forty-five books of fiction this year (and reviewed one book of nonfiction), fewer than I would have liked, but a combination of long books like A Dance with Dragons and a busy schedule resulted in some months where I only read a couple of books. I’m amused to see that in the month of May, when I was recovering from a difficult surgery, I read seven books. Hauling A Breath of Snow and Ashes around the hospital was a bit of a challenge, since in hardcover it’s approximately the size of a watermelon.

The genres that I covered this year were as diverse as usual. I read historical fiction, thrillers, mysteries, fantasy, crime fiction, romance, horror, classics, humor and sci-fi. I love the endless variety that reading gives me; no two books are the same, and it’s so much fun to read two diametrically opposed books back-to-back, like Water for Elephants and Mystic River. The only genre that I haven’t really delved into has been nonfiction. The only book of nonfiction that I reviewed this year was Michael Caine’s excellent autobiography, The Elephant to Hollywood. I actually do read nonfiction, but I’ve chosen not to review it since 1) I read a lot more fiction, 2) I tend to read nonfiction books in pieces rather than straight through (something I wouldn’t dream of doing with fiction) and 3) nonfiction is quite a bit harder for me to review. If, in the future, I read a biography or memoir that I have something to say about, I might review it, but otherwise I’m going to stick to what I love best, which is the world of fiction.

This year, I’ve read some of the hottest new titles, as well as a massive Russian novel from the turn of the century. I’ve read long novels of high fantasy and short novels of pulp crime. I’ve read wonderful classics like Watership Down and stunning modern novels like Case Histories. I’ve read books by bestselling authors like Nora Roberts and Janet Evanovich, and books by lesser-known authors like Julia Spencer-Fleming and Joe Hill. It’s been a wild tangle of amnesiac Victorians, presidential assassins, rampaging dragons, amateur bounty hunters, teenage geniuses, lost gods, Southern maids, sedentary detectives, time-traveling doctors, sarcastic dwarves, hard-drinking Scottish cops, hard-drinking Russian philosophers, rabbits, Aes Sedai, aging rock stars, tattooed Swedish hackers, Italian gangsters, Cold War spies, vampires and James Alexander Malcolm Mackenzie Fraser. You can only have experiences like this while reading, and I really can’t express how much fun I’ve had wolfing down all these wonderful stories. And I Learned Stuff, too, so there.

Last year at O’Hara’s Book reviews, I did a little awards ceremony to commemorate the books of 2010. Since there are almost twice as many books on the roster this year, I’m not going to do awards, since it would take a while and wouldn’t be as interesting. Instead, we’re having a Top Ten books of the year list, since I love lists. Placement on the list is mostly arbitrary, since I enjoyed every single book I read this year, even a couple of the less-stellar ones. A few books were disappointing (Anno Dracula, Water for Elephants, Life Support), but none of them were truly bad.

The list is:

10. The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoevsky

I am not putting Brothers at Number Ten because I think that Numbers One through Nine have higher literary quality. I’m not qualified to really judge the book on its literary or technical merits. I'm not going to lie: it was a long, hard read, definitely the biggest reading challenge I've undertaken in a while. Like all challenges, it was genuinely rewarding to complete. A lot of vodka is drunk and a lot of philosophical points are debated at length in this novel, and it was often very tedious. But those deep digressions were also sometimes surprisingly rich and fascinating and memorable. Episodes like the Grand Inquisitor interlude may have been a pain to slog through, but it's stuck with me. Dostoevsky was addressing the most important questions of human existence, so is it really any wonder that the novel sometimes comes off more like a series of interconnected essays? The characters--pious Alyosha, moody Ivan, impulse Dimitri, slimy Smerdyakov--may come off as hysteric and one-dimensional, but that's because Brothers is ultimately a novel of ideas and philosophy, not people. A tough read, but an eminently worthwhile one.

9. Tooth and Nail/Strip Jack/The Black Book, by Ian Rankin

Ian Rankin's Inspector Rebus series has dipped a bit in quality over the past couple of volumes, but these three novels are still damn fine crime writing. Tooth and Nail, the best of them, is a razor-sharp serial killer puzzle with a finely deployed plot and excellent characterizations. The Black Book in particular has lacked some of the darkness and amorality that was the hallmark of the first few volumes, but it was still a satisfying and well-written mystery (and it introduced Big Ger, so it can't be all bad). John Rebus remains one of my favorite-ever literary detectives: a guy that sometimes seems impossible to like, yet we always do in the end. As tortured and conflicted as the villains he hunts, Rebus is a remarkably complex and arresting protagonist. Rankin's true accomplishment, outside of his clever plots and gritty writing, is his panoramic portrait of Rebus's Edinburgh: seamy, bleak and grimy, a place where it's hard to tell the good guys from the bad guys, who were perhaps not so different in the first place.

8. Watership Down, by Richard Adams

Watership Down begins as a sunny fairytale in the vein of The Wind in the Willows, but it soon turns into something stunning. Adams has created a world that's both utterly alien and completely familiar, drawn with an enthralling mixture of plausibility and whimsy. There's nothing whimsical about the war between the warrens, however, and the thrilling final chapters are more reminiscent of Lord of the Rings than Beatrix Potter. This is a true epic, beautifully written and surprisingly resonant. The standalone "rabbit legends" are a smart and funny little bonus to the main story.

7. American Gods, by Neil Gaiman

Probably the most difficult-to-describe novel on this list. Utterly original, darkly funny and breathtakingly strange, Gods is a long, winding journey that reads like a mashup of Charles Dickens, Stephen King and the Brothers Grimm. It's a wild look into the underground world of forgotten gods struggling to make ends meet in a hostile land, as well as an examination of the book's understated main character, Shadow. The plot unfolds like a brilliant magic trick and Gaiman's writing is clear and bewitching. There is a loose end or two--perhaps inevitable in a book with this many interlaced subplots and sub-subplots--but it hardly matters when the end result is so rich, unusual and oddly touching. I love Gaiman's audacity and unwillingness to play by the rules, like embedding a plotline that reads like a standalone supernatural thriller into the middle of the novel. Stuff like that either works perfectly or it messes up the whole book. Here, it works. This one is a real feast for book lovers.

6. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larsson

I knew about halfway through Dragon Tattoo that it was going to end up on this list. It's one of the very finest mysteries I've read this year (or ever), with a dynamic plot and a breathtaking array of twists and turns. It's the characters that make the book so special though, especially Lisbeth Salander, the tormented antisocial hacker with a mysterious past. The slow development of Lisbeth's relationship with Blomkvist is just an incredibly fine piece of characterization in a book absolutely stuffed with excellent characters (the villain, for instance, is utterly chilling and memorable). There's a bump in the otherwise impeccable plotting towards the end of the novel, but otherwise this is the textbook definition of a great read: smart, enthralling, scary, moving. I can't wait to dig into the second and third books in the series, and I wouldn't be at all surprised if they show up on the 2012 list.

5. Brideshead Revisited, by Evelyn Waugh

The question of whether organized religion is a force of good or of evil is one of the central questions of many great works of literature (including The Brothers Karamazov). Brideshead Revisited is a probing account of the strictly Roman Catholic Marchmain family, through the eyes of the hedonistic Charles Ryder. It's a fascinating novel and one that inspires a lot of thought and reflection. Waugh himself was a devout Roman Catholic, but there is more nuance and complexity to the novel than there would be if it was a simplistic, straight-faced sermon. Although I'm sure Waugh was secure in his own personal faith, I'm not sure that the book represents a simple argument in favor of Catholicism. Like Dostoevsky, Waugh is not afraid to show an opposing view, and it's undeniable that religion creates incredible turmoil and tragedy in the Marchmain family. Lest the novel sound like a gloomy read, I have to mention that Waugh is also an extremely funny and sly writer with a knack for quirky social comedy. A highly thought-provoking and beautifully composed novel.

4. Mystic River, by Dennis Lehane

It's probably fairly obvious from my reviews that one of the things I love about fiction is when someone mixes a first-rate plot with really well-drawn characters, especially in a genre novel. It's also rare to see a crime novel that's written with the literary flair of Mystic River, a book that's an elegant piece of high-end writing disguised as a hardboiled police procedural. Lehane tells a story of Shakespearean tragedy and betrayal on the mean streets of Boston, weaving the past and the present together in a seamless narrative. His writing is hard-edged and sophisticated, his dialogue something Elmore Leonard would be proud of. The scene where--spoiler alert--Jimmy kills Dave on the riverbank is one of the finest scenes of drama I've read in any book this year.

3. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, by John le Carré

A lot of the books on this list are big. I tend to like fat, meaty books with complicated plots and big casts. Spy, on the other hand, is a slim, spare book with one main plot and a handful of characters. Despite its brevity (or perhaps because of it), the book is a small, perfectly cut diamond of a spy novel. The plot is woven with incredible care, each thread carefully developed. Here's a thriller that's thrilling because of how finely plotted and exquisitely formed it is, not because something blows up every ten pages. Le Carré's writing is wonderfully precise; not a word is wasted. His characters are each drawn with striking clarity and insight, from Leamas, the tormented double agent, to Fiedler, the German operative with inscrutable motives, to Liz Gold, a naive woman who finds herself the ultimate innocent bystander. By the end, le Carré has shown us a glimpse of a morally decaying world where right and wrong are hard to separate. The final pages pack a double wallop of a huge emotional payoff and an exceptionally fine plot twist.

2. A Breath of Snow and Ashes, by Diana Gabaldon

Although I was a bit disappointed by The Fiery Cross, the fifth book in the enormous Outlander series, Number Six, A Breath of Snow and Ashes, was everything I could have hoped for. The Outlander books are 1,000-page time machines, pure sensory transportation. I can honestly say that there are no fictional characters that I love more than the Fraser family (hey, there's few real people I love as much as the Fraser family) and the way that Gabaldon has developed them is nothing short of genius. Her books are stuffed, even overstuffed, with plot, and side stories, and fantasy, and adventure, and history, and drama. At her best, Gabaldon is so good that it's easy to overlook just how excellent she is at making us care. Breath is as wonderful as any of the earlier books in the saga, and far less slow-pokily plotted than Cross. There are scenes here that pay off hints dropped thousands of pages and dozens of years ago, or that cast a new light on characters that we already feel like we know. That kind of richness is incredibly rare, and the fact that Gabaldon has sustained it for so long is proof of her enormous talent as a writer and a storyteller.

1. A Song of Ice and Fire, by George R. R. Martin

This was an easy pick for #1. Of all the literary discoveries I made this year, none have provided me with as much enjoyment (and frustration, of course) as George R. R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire series. I read all five books this year, and I am continually bowled over by the enormous scope of the series, and the thousands of details that make it come alive. This is a series that has provoked just about every emotion in me, and it's not even close to done. The characters are just incredible, and I have to stop myself from listing my favorites because it would take way too long. Okay, I'll mention one: Tyrion is all kinds of awesome, and I honestly think he will be remembered as one of the greatest creations in modern literature. But then there isn't a single major character that isn't complex, just as there isn't anything in the series that's simple or straightforward. This can be frustrating as a reader who naturally wants things to work out, but it also creates a world as rich and multi-layered as ours. And let me also mention that Martin is a staggeringly good writer, who manages the very difficult task of making a medieval fantasy world seem real without making it seem anachronistic. The last couple of books in the series have been, perhaps, a bit lower in quality than the first three, but that's less an indictment of Martin's writing than a comment on the series' immense scale and complexity. I have to end this now, because the paragraph is getting really long, and I'm running out of superlatives. Anyway, these books are without a doubt the best that I read this year.

And here are some runners-up who didn't quite make the list:

The Deep Blue Good-by, by John D. MacDonald-----A smooth, stylish entry in MacDonald's Travis McGee series. It loses points for some tedious sexism, but it has a rip-roaring climax that makes up for it.

I Shall Not Want/One Was a Soldier, by Julia Spencer-Fleming----Spencer-Fleming's mystery plots are fantastic, but what really sets her series apart is the sizzling romance and exquisitely detailed character development.

Heart-Shaped Box, by Joe Hill-----A weird, twisty tale of ghosts, rock n roll, and the afterlife. Terrific prose, and the protagonist is a delightfully complex antihero.

The Help, by Kathryn Stockett-----Thoughtful, funny and wonderfully characterized, this breakout hit deserves a place as a modern classic.

The Enemy/Bad Luck and Trouble/Without Fail, by Lee Child-----All of Child's Reacher novels are excellent, and these three were no exception. Absolutely top-notch thriller writing and the best action scenes in the genre.

Case Histories, by Kate Atkinson-----This one would probably have made it to the list if it weren't for the lack of narrative cohesion at the end. Still, beautiful writing and sad, hilarious, wonderfully developed characters.

The Godfather, by Mario Puzo-----While I didn't love Puzo's pulpy writing style or slapdash pacing, the novel's power is undeniable, and Michael Corleone's sweeping arc is absolutely epic.

Anyway, that's my year-end post. Thanks for reading the blog this year, and stick around for 2012, which will hopefully be an even better year for books than '11!

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