2011 was a good year for all the types of entertainment I encountered this year, and here are 41 titles divided by four sections (authors I have read before, new authors, horror and short stories) that made me love taking the time to read.
Authors I Have Read Before
10. The Sea by John Banville- a pretty dry book, but this story of Max Morden’s regrets crashing upon him as he revisits his childhood home is rich in description of its Irish landscape and painful nostalgia that affects all of us.
9. Everyman by Philip Roth- Similar to the above title, but focuses on one man (although he isn’t “everyman”) as he experiences a life lived close to the edge of dying, and how that colors his life of dishonesty. A great intro to Roth’s vast collection of works.
8. The Cider House Rules by John Irving- you can’t really go wrong reading an Irving book. Arguably the best word for word writer alive tackles the subjects of race and abortion. Too political at points, but a meaty engaging read.
7. So Brave, Young and Handsome by Leif Enger- Enger’s follow-up to the brilliant Peace Like a River, this is a straight up cowboy tale, with adventure, a scary villain and a lot of heart. Only wish Enger would write something else.
6. Life & Times of Michael K by J. M. Coetzee- strange to think that books as small as this one can pack such a punch and say so much. Coetzee can actually get political without sounding smarmy, and this tale of a simple minded man refusing to live without dignity in war torn South Africa is compelling and informative.
5. The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta- Think of something Rod Serling would write if he were tasked with writing a modern day sitcom. The rapture becomes background noise for the people left confused and alone as loved ones and neighbors disappear. An interesting familial tapestry set amongst the end of the world.
4. A Visit From the Goon Squad- With this book, Egan is getting the recognition she deserves. A disparate number of stories centering on an aging punk rocker and his assistant ripped a new hole in the narrative, while still being a wild ride you won’t soon forget.
3. The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris- A book that rises above the goofy premise of a man suffering from a walking disease and goes on to tell an intimate love story between the man and his wife and daughter. Ferris has big things ahead of him if he keeps up the pace.
2. You Remind Me of Me by Dan Chaon- I really love Dan Chaon. He blends scary and literary better than almost anyone, and this novel about losing and finding your family is a superb example of his amazing talent. This won’t be the last you see of Chaon on my list.
1. Freedom by Jonathan Franzen- The novel The Corrections should have been, and the glue that will cement Franzen as the foremost chronicler of 21st century life. This story of a families’ downfall is more interesting than The Corrections, and has a happier, optimistic end to it. Franzen is a living legend, and this book proves it.
Authors I Haven’t Read Before
10. I’m Not Scared by Niccolo Ammaniti- A thriller with too much brain to ignore. A boy finds a body in a well, and comes face to face with a cruelty that is too close to home. A short book that flies by even quicker.
9. Mystic River by Dennis Lehane/The Turnaround by George Pelecanos- I cannot really separate these two distinct but equally great books, each dealing with a tragic murder and its far-reaching consequences. They transcend the crime genre into something much more heavenly and angelic.
8. The Secret History by Donna Tartt- A creepy, darker take on A Separate Peace, where loss of innocence is only the beginning. A have known people like this before, and it is scary to think their elitism can extend to violence. Either way, I loved reading this.
7. The Devil All the Time by Donald Ray Pollock- Probably the most violent non-horror title I read this year, it is a cross between Wise Blood and Natural Born Killers, but sharing more of the former’s grace and less of the latters lack of subtlety. Just be glad if you don’t live in rural Ohio.
6. The Fates Will Find Their Way by Hannah Pittard- What The Virgin Suicides would be if it weren’t as pretentious. This story of a missing girl and the people who knew her goes deep into collective and subjective memory, and how thoughts of things that might be can seem real.
5. House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski- A real puzzle of a book that is too much fun to put together. Really three stories told at the same time, centering on a haunted house that is growing from the inside, this novel will haunt your dreams, and you will be thankful for it.
4. The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht- One of two staggering debuts this year, with The Tiger’s Wife, Obreht has written a book with the knowledge of someone who should be fifty, not twenty-five. Mixing mysticism and gritty realism to tell the story of a girl’s odd relationship to her grandfather and his stories, it was a real treat to see the emergence of a new talent this year.
3. Swamplandia! by Karen Russell- Odd that the two youngest of the 20 Under 40 group came out with the two best first novels this year. A scary, thrill filled ride into the Florida everglades, and the alligator park of the title. This is old-fashioned story telling at its best. Russell is frighteningly good, and I expect enormous fame for her in the coming years.
2. Beat the Reaper by Josh Bazell- The most fun I had reading this year. Amazingly fast plot and action, this story of a hit man turned doctor is filled with graphic violence and medical knowledge. The ending clinched it for me. Never will you see something so desperate and agonizing done in order to survive.
1. We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver- The best novel I read this year. Emotional without pandering, this novel of about a school shooting got an emotional response out of me I haven’t had sense Mysterious Skin. It brings up painful questions that are too hard to answer with simple statements, and ultimately it is about unconditional love, no matter how taboo or wrong. I felt rewarded to have spent time with this awesome book.
10. Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist- Not as good as Handling the Undead, but still one of the best vampire books out there, using the metaphor of vampirism to explain the euphoria of young love. Also, not ruined if you’ve seen the movie first.
9. Salem’s Lot by Stephen King- I tried reading a Stephen King and Bentley Little book once a month, and made it 10 months before I gave up. I read many good ones but I will keep it to two. This novel is his best from his earliest period, besides The Stand. Can’t go wrong with vampires and small towns in fiction.
8. A Dark Matter by Peter Straub- Although I hate saying it, this is a more sophisticated Stephen King. It has all the trappings of one of his novels, but with more critical praise. Straub is one of the best in the business, and this story of a cult leaders arrogance bringing about horror and destruction, is a solid late masterpiece.
7. Dispatch by Bentley Little- One of two Bentley Little books I read this year that stood out, he is the exact opposite of Straub, a more accessible King if that were possible. What he lacks in writing talent he makes up for in fierce originality. This story of a man’s godlike powers of letter writing is macabre, creepy, and unnerving.
6. The Mailman by Bentley Little- This is a very original take on “The Man Come to Town” story arc that is a more violent and visceral take on Needful Things. A creepy mailman comes to a small town and reeks havoc through the postal system. Although it sounds campy, it is dead serious horror at its best.
5. The Girl Next Door by Jack Ketchum- Ketchum is the bravest writer alive today. No one comes close to the ugliness that he can conjure in his sadly true to life horror novels. The destruction of an innocent girl by self-loathing sociopaths not only shocks and appalls, it opens our eyes to where the line between good and evil is, and how something so hardcore can actually come from the heart.
4. Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion- The first horror/zombie novel I have read where the overall message is optimistic. We meet R as he is knee deep in his zombie existence. Not caring, he chomps on the brain of a man and falls deeply in love with his girlfriend, which may bring an end to the epidemic. I like how the message is one that goes against cynicism, and treats the loss of hope in a cruel world as the ultimate villain.
3. Under the Dome by Stephen King- Probably his best novel since it, this epic novel is proof that the master still has a few tricks up his sleeve. As in any good Stephen King novel, a horrible accident makes monsters, as well as heroes out of the residents of Chester Mill, Maine when an impenetrable dome covers it. From this rises King’s most compelling narrative in years and most despicable human villain he has ever created.
2. Slippin’ Into Darkness by Norman Partridge- A nostalgic death trip that is a ghost story where the ghosts are memories of the past. The gang rape of a girl in high school affects all involved in the worst possible way twenty years after it happened. We see these adults beaten down and desperate from a past that might as well have a physical form. It just gets uglier as the depravity of those involves escalates to its end. A darker version of The Fates Will Find Their Way.
1. Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill- I love Joe Hill, and think he will surpass his famous father if he keeps this level of talent up. Take a typical King story, amp up the attitude and what is at stake, along with loads of original talent and you’ve got one of the best writers today. Judas Coyne is not a good person when we first see him, but in buying a haunted suit, we see his journey toward heroism, which is one of the most fun rides you will take in a horror novel. Read Joe Hill, he is totally worth your time.
Short Story Collections
10. The Dark Country by Dennis Etchison- These stories introduced me to “quiet horror” which relies on atmosphere instead of scares or violence. Some do fall flat, but others will have you switching on your lights in the middle of the just to be reminded you are not in Etchison’s scary world.
9. Fitting Ends by Dan Chaon- Not as good as his tremendous novels, these stories are good intro into his world where small decisions lead to bigger, extraordinary things. A solid collection if you want to be introduced to Chaon’s work.
8. Drinking Coffee Elsewhere by ZZ Packer- A part of this new generation of black writers, ones which were born after the civil rights movement, who talk very honestly about race in the modern world. Packer’s stories funny, somber, and are never predictable, and she is not afraid to cast black people as antagonists in her stories. The race issue, as she sees, is more universal than black oppression.
7. Books of Blood Vol. 1-3 by Clive Barker- The true power of Clive Barker lies within this collection of long stories. They are equal parts gross, disturbing and oddly erotic (all at the same time). They push the boundaries of the imagination, and really show us how to love our monsters, even when it is so very hard.
6. Kockemstiff by Donald Ray Pollock- I read this after his novel, and it really is a more subdued, but equally harrowing journey to the heart of the rural heartland of America. We meet a wide range of people in this small town, from murders to drug dealer, to those looking for ways out but are running out of options. One thing these people will never lose if their grace and dignity, and Pollock is a master at finding humanity in the inhuman.
5. When the Nines Roll Over by David Benioff- This was the biggest surprise for me this year. Having found City of Thieves lackluster compared to The 25th Hour, these stories rival that amazing novel, and makes me rethink my opinion of City of Thieves. A Hollywood screenwriter, Benioff injects thrills into places we wouldn’t expect, so some stories come off as exhilarating and heartbreaking all at once. I hope he writes more in between scripts, because I am eager for more.
4. Crimes in Southern Indiana by Frank Bill- Had to include the man from my home state. I was amazed by these stories that combine violence and mystery into a prime example of “country noir”, where meth and farmhouse replace cocaine and skylines for places where lives are made and lost. To those living in Indiana, give this man some support, he made it without selling out his hometown and did so by writing great fiction.
3. The Pugilist at Rest by Thom Jones- Hemingway without the macho bullshit, Jones’ stories reflect people’s lives that are forcibly rough, instead of made rough by the protagonist’s attitude. These people never come off as arrogant or jerks, they just adapt to the harsh world around them and try to survive with little damage as possible. Really, they are a testament to the human spirit, and how great of a talent Thom Jones is (despite the unfortunate name).
2. Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned by Wells Tower- Startlingly original and manically funny, Wells Tower is an emerging talent who, when he writes his first novel, will likely explode with a talent we have not seen in a long time. Equal parts Chabon and Bellow, these audacious stories of people on the verge of change, whether willing or unwilling, ring true and heartfelt, even when they dance too close to the edge of zaniness. The title story is the best modern Viking tale of ennui you will likely to read.
1. 20th Century Ghosts by Joe Hill- The best book I read this year, novel or otherwise, and maybe my favorite collection of short stories of all time. None of these stories are bad. Some are great; some are fantastic, and two (“Pop Art”, and the title story) are two of the best stories I have ever read. These fantastic tales can be bloody, ironic, but all seem to have and untouchable tenderness that brings a smile to your face, even when body parts start flying. A read I envy you for if you haven’t picked it up, no other book this year comes with a bigger recommendation from me than this amazing collection.