Monday, January 2, 2012

The best books I read in 2011...

It may come as no surprise to you, but I read 84 books this year. That's four more than last year, but I'm still down 19 from 2009. Still, an average of seven books a month isn't too shabby!

Looking back at the books I read in 2011, I could find a place for at least 30 of them on my year-end best list. But I decided to discipline myself and cut the list down to 16. (After all, it's my blog; there are no rules.) Your comments are welcomed, as always!

So, in no particular order, here are my favorite books from 2011. For each, I excerpted my original review, but you can still access the full review I originally wrote.

Here's to another year of exceptional reading!

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett: Dr. Marina Singh is a pharmaceutical researcher working for a major pharmaceutical company. After her close friend and colleague dies under mysterious circumstances in the Amazonian jungle while on company business, her employer sends her to the jungle to complete his assignment—track down Dr. Anneck Swenson, a renowned and reclusive gynecologist whose research into the reproductive habits of a local tribe the company has funded for years. Ann Patchett strikes again—more than simply a story of woman versus jungle or woman versus her past, the book explores the creatures—both physical and metaphorical—that frighten, challenge and could potentially harm us, and the ripples that one action can cause many people. Read my original review.

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline: This book was frigging awesome! Children of the 80s, especially video game junkies, here it is. Combining the adventure, danger, action, companionship, romance, violence, and fantasy of the best quest novels with fantastic 80s trivia, Ernest Cline outdid himself with his very first book. This is a story about courage, friendship, love, good, and evil, with the 1980s and the worlds of classic video and adventure games and anime as its backdrop. Cline definitely lets you get lost in the geekery, but he has created terrific, memorable characters who draw you into their lives, and the action sequences are fast-paced and creative. Read my original review.

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern: Magical. Incredibly compelling. Romantic. Erin Morgenstern's debut novel follows the magical Cirque des Rêves, a circus full of dazzling and fantastical amazements. Marco and Celia, two brilliant magicians, are locked in a competition that neither of them understand, and that only one of them can survive. Don't think this is a story about clowns and lion tamers and trapeze artists—this is a story with a strong emphasis on magic and illusion and manipulation of reality. Read my original review.

The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach: It has been said that "baseball is life." Whether or not you agree with this statement, for the characters in Chad Harbach's fantastic new novel, baseball may not be life, but it certainly is at the crux of their lives. This is a book about baseball that transcends the sport itself—it is a book about how frightening realizing your dreams, and falling short of them, can be. Read my original review.

Life, on the Line by Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonas: Grant Achatz is one of the most acclaimed chefs in the US, if not the world. His Chicago restaurant, Alinea, has been ranked among the best in the world. In 2007, at the height of his and the restaurant's success, Achatz was diagnosed with Stage 4-b squamous cell carcinoma—tongue cancer. While most doctors advised Achatz to have a portion of his tongue surgically removed, thereby ending his career, he underwent an alternative treatment of chemotherapy and radiation first. This is more than a book about Achatz's struggle with cancer and how it affected those around him, including Kokonas, his business partner at Alinea. The book traces the genesis of his love of cooking, his struggles in the competitive and harrowing culinary world, and his desire to reinvent the way people approach and eat food. Read my original review.

Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion: In a future in which most of the world has been destroyed by wars and plague and riots, very few humans still exist, and they are hunkered down in former sports stadiums and other large buildings, hiding from the zombies that have taken over. One of those zombies is R. He doesn't know what his name was "before," he doesn't know how long he has been a zombie, but he knows that he is much more curious about the past than most of his fellow zombies are, and he wants to understand what made him the way he is. One day, after killing a teenage boy and experiencing his memories while chewing his brain, he somehow subsumes the boy's soul, and finds himself wanting to protect the boy's girlfriend. Don't let the zombie storyline dissuade you from thinking this book is silly or lightweight; at its heart, this book is a story about finding hope where there previously was none, understanding who you are and believing you have the ability to make change happen. Read my original review.

The Borrower by Rebecca Makkai: Lucy Hull is a children's librarian in Hannibal, Missouri. In general, she lacks drive—she keeps doing her job because she enjoys it but she doesn't really want to pursue anything else. But all that changes as she deals with one of the library's most voracious readers, 10-year-old Ian Drake. When Ian's evangelical mother tells Lucy she only wants Ian reading books that contain "the breath of God" in them, as well as those that focus on stereotypically masculine characters and don't include magic or fantasy, Lucy helps Ian check out the "forbidden" books in secret. And when Lucy finds out that Ian's parents are sending him to religious classes in order to cure him of any potential SSAD (same-sex attraction disorder) when he gets older, she doesn't know how to help him. One day Ian part-convinces, part-threatens Lucy to take him on a road trip, and Lucy sees this as an opportunity to free Ian of the restrictions being placed upon him by his mother. Yet the road trip, like much of Lucy's life, doesn't have much of a plan, and Ian starts trying to lead her all over the country. Read my original review.

Faithful Place by Tana French: When he was 17 years old, Dublin detective Frank Mackey had planned to escape to England with his girlfriend, Rosie Daly. Both were looking forward to getting away from their smothering, dysfunctional families and the violence and gossip of Faithful Place, their neighborhood. But Rosie never showed up the night they were supposed to leave, so Frank took that to mean she left without him, and he made his own escape. Twenty-two years later, Rosie's suitcase is found behind the fireplace of a dilapidated apartment building in their neighborhood, and new questions about what happened that night begin to surface. Frank's return to the neighborhood and the family he left behind all those years ago isn't a smooth one, and it unearths old secrets, old anger and old pain, proving that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Read my original review.

If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This by Robin Black: Robin Black's short story collection examined the tenuous connections of relationships—between parent and child, lovers, friends, siblings, even strangers. Some of the stories (one in particular) made me laugh out loud, some made me cry, but all made me think and have definitely touched my heart. Some of the most memorable stories included the opening story, "The Guide," which followed a father reluctantly watching his blind daughter get ready to head off to college; "Some Women Eat Tar," a humorous look at how a woman's pregnancy affects her relationship with the baby's father; and the closing story, "The History of the World," which looked at the difficult yet cherished relationship of aging siblings on a trip to Italy. And that just scratched the surface of the collection. Read my original review.

11/22/63 by Stephen King: Jake Epping is an English teacher in Lisbon Falls, Maine, who teaches GED English classes as a way to make extra money. In response to an assignment in which he asked his students to talk about a life-changing incident, he learns that Harry Dunning, a handicapped janitor, was injured by his father during a violent rampage on Halloween night in 1958, the night he killed Harry's mother and three siblings with a hammer. When his friend, local diner owner Al, shows him a hidden time portal in the diner that transports you back to September 1958, Jake jumps at the chance to go back in time and prevent this massacre. Once Al realizes he has a kindred spirit in Jake, he enlists him in the ultimate heroic mission—stopping Lee Harvey Oswald from assassinating John F. Kennedy. But time and history do not enjoy being diverted from their plans... Read my original review.

The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson: Caleb and Camille Fang are performance artists. To them, there is nothing greater than the process of creating something that provokes reaction in others, no matter what that reaction is. They have raised their children, Annie and Buster (whom they refer to as Child A and Child B), to be part of their performances, either willingly or unwillingly. When Annie and Buster grow into adulthood, both flee as far from their parents as possible; Annie becomes an Oscar-nominated actress with an increasingly unstable personality, and Buster is a novelist with diminishing promise, who finds work as a freelance writer for men's magazines. The Family Fang is a story about the profound effects your childhood has on your later life, but how you cannot let it define your future. Read my original review.

The Fates Will Find Their Way by Hannah Pittard: One Halloween, 16-year-old Nora Lindell disappears. No one really knows what happened to her, although a group of boys who went to school with her have a number of theories, given random rumors and alleged sightings they've heard about. Much like how the girls' deaths in The Virgin Suicides colored the lives of those around them, Nora's disappearance has the same ripple effect on these boys, shaping how they view, and act in, the future. They imagine different paths that Nora might have taken, and through the years, supposed Nora sightings occur in the most unlikely of places. As these boys become men, their obsession with all things Nora (and, to an extent, her younger sister, Sissy) saves them from being mired completely in the minutia of their own adulthood. For some, Nora's disappearance is a tiny catalyst that sets them on a self-destructive course that might not manifest itself for years; for others, it is the push toward saving themselves. Read my original review.

Hero by Perry Moore: Growing up isn't easy for Thom Creed, and it's not just your typical teenage angst. His mother disappeared one day and his father, once a revered superhero named Major Might, was disgraced after a rescue attempt went awry, so he now hates all heroes. Problem is, Thom has just been invited to join The League, the organization of superheroes that rejected his father. And to top it off, Thom is just coming to terms with the fact that he's gay, which makes two major things he can't discuss with his father. As Thom gets more involved with The League, he realizes he must learn to harness his powers correctly and deal with his real feelings at the same time. And of course, that's when things start to get threatening—both from an external villain and a scandal within the League itself. Read my original review.

Blind Sight by Meg Howrey: Seventeen-year-old Luke has been surrounded by strong women all his life. Raised by his New Age-y mother, religious grandmother and two quirky half-sisters in an environment of both mysticism and old-fashioned Puritanism, Luke is actually the first male child in many generations of his family, but has never felt he suffered because of this. Near the end of his junior year in high school, he finds out that his father—of whom his mother had never spoken—is a famous television actor in Los Angeles, and Luke goes to spend the summer with him. Luke learns that the glamorous Hollywood life isn't necessarily a satisfying one, but he realizes very quickly that while he never felt the absence of a father before, having his father in his life makes him feel truly grounded in ways he never imagined. And as the bond between Luke and his father deepens, he starts to question the philosophies with which he was raised, and starts to wonder about his place in the future. Read my original review.

I Knew You'd Be Lovely by Alethea Black: The characters in each of Black's stories are at some sort of emotional crossroads. In the incredibly moving "Someday is Today," a young woman comforts her sister and young children after her brother-in-law's unexpected death, and struggles with questions of faith and her own purpose. "The Only Way Out is Through" follows one man's struggles to get through to his troubled son, with nearly cataclysmic results. The main character in "Mollusk Makes a Comeback" struggles to remain positive as events in her life spiral out of control, and in the title story, the narrator's search for the perfect birthday present for her boyfriend leads her down an intriguing path. And those descriptions just scratch the surface of the stories in this collection. Read my original review.

The House of Tomorrow by Peter Bognanni: Since his parents' death when he was very young, 16-year-old Sebastian has lived in Iowa's first geodesic dome with Nana (his grandmother), a devout follower of designer and futurist R. Buckminster Fuller. Nana has home schooled Sebastian and allowed him little contact with the outside world beyond the tour groups that come to the dome each week, and he is ready to follow the path that she has set for his future. When she suffers a stroke one day, Sebastian meets Jared Whitcomb, a teenage boy with issues of his own, and his loving yet overprotective mother, Janice, who are touring the dome when Nana suffers her stroke. As Jared and Sebastian become friends, Sebastian starts discovering all of the things he has been missing in life—punk rock, processed foods, girls, and most of all, companionship with a peer. But he is torn between this new life and continuing to work with Nana on fulfilling her visions for his future. Read my original review.

1 comment:

  1. Hey, one more thing before you think I'm a total stalker (lol) -- you absolutely MUST read "Okay For Now." It's a YA title, but, in spite of that, it was by far my favorite read of 2011. It was my daughter's too. Another one that I'm really enjoying atm is "Lullabies for Little Criminals." This was published in 2006, so maybe you've already read it.