My Top Reads of 2011, Plus A Dozen from the Backlist
I decided to do a top 6 of 2011 because I read 33 2011 releases and I don't think that's a big enough sample from which to pick 10 favorites- 10 would be nearly a third of what I read. I picked 6 because I decided to halve my selection to 5 but then had that one last book I simply had to mention.
In no particular order,
The Year We Left Home, by Jean Thompson. I found a new favorite writer when I read this moving, beautifully-plotted book about the tides and troubles of a Midwestern family from the 1960s to the present. I love how vividly drawn each character is, and how each one has its own, unexpected plot arc. And that ending, with a surprise love story that brought tears to my eyes. Wonderful! (Simon & Schuster)
The Talk-Funny Girl, by Roland Merullo. You really can't go wrong with Merullo, one of the best and most under-appreciated writers around. Not the kind of writer to pen "buzz books" but rather a quiet artist of the everyday, his books have an understated dignity and respect for character that make them stand out from the crowd. His latest, about a girl horribly abused by parents who belong to a frightening rural cult, is a beautiful testament to human resiliency. (Random House)
The Faster I Walk, The Smaller I Am, by Kjerski A. Skomsvold, is one of my favorite small-press books from 2011. It's the story of Mathea Martinsen, a lonely widow who wants desperately to forge connections with the world outside her solitary apartment, but doesn't know how to begin. The book consists her naive, sad, heartbreaking interior monologue. It's just the kind of off-kilter voice I look for in a small press book, and it's a gem. (Dalkey Archive Press)
River of Smoke, by Amitav Ghosh, was without a doubt the 2011 title I anticipated the most, and it certainly delivered on the promise of its prequel, Sea of Poppies. Ghosh picks up the story of the Ibis and its crew shortly after the heart-stopping ending of Poppies and brings in a host of new characters too. The best is the opium kingpin Seth Bahramji Naurozji Modi, a terrificly well-drawn character whose fate is tied to the changing fortunes of the opium trade in China just before the first Opium War. Do read Sea of Poppies first, but read this book! (FSG)
The Upright Piano Player, by David Abbott, was perhaps this year's biggest literary-fiction surprise. First-time author Abbott has written a tight, nuanced novel about an older man pushed out of his job, then stalked by a stranger all the while negotiating difficult relationships with his grown children and former wife. The book starts with a shocking act of violence and works its way back around to how it happened. It's a very accomplished first novel from a writer from whom I hope to see more. (Random House)
The Last Brother, by Nathacha Appanah, is another small press winner, set on Mauritius and telling the story of Raj, a boy who forges a friendship with a young Jewish boy imprisoned in an internment facility on the island. Told from Raj's adult point of view, the book is poignant, suspenseful and tender as well as tragic. I love this book because it tells a seldom-told story of the Holocaust from an unusual and under-written-about setting with wonderful characters and pitch-perfect writing. (Graywolf Press)
Top 12 from the Backlist
Just goes to show, don't stop at the new releases shelf at your local bookstore. Those books that have been there forever have been there for a reason!
I'll keep it brief and link to full reviews where applicable. I can't say enough about any of these!
- The Prestige, by Christopher Priest. Heartstopping suspense with a science fiction twist.
- The Outside Boy, by Jeanine Cummins. Beautiful coming of age set among the Irish Travellers.
- Troubles, by J.G. Farrell. Literary historical fiction about Irish independence.
- The Dork of Cork, by Chet Raymo. A story of life and love that defies description.
- Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, by Dee Brown. Essential American history about Native Americans and the American West.
- The Illusion of Return, by Samir El-Youssef. A bittersweet novella about Palestinian refugees.
- Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self, by Danielle Evans The best short story collection I've read in a long time.
- Nightmare Alley, William Lindsay Gresham. Awesome noir and suspense set amongst the carnies and frauds of the Depression.
- The Moonflower Vine, by Jetta Carleton . Womens' fiction for the literary reader.
- My Friend Sancho, by Amit Varma. Adorable love story set in modern day India.
- Days of Fear, by Daniele Mastrogiacomo. Unbelievable true story of a reporter kidnapped by the Taliban in Afghanistan, and the best nonfiction I read this year.
- Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier. Just read it already, please?