Friday, 13 January 2012

Favourite Reads of 2011

I can tell the year is still new because I insist on dating everything as 2011.  Er, no, Erin, not anymore.  I usually figure out what year it is by the time February rolls around.

Today, I thought I would do a quick run down of my favourite reads from 2011, grouped rather loosely.

As far as I can calculate, I read 30 novels and non-fiction books last year.  I think I should probably aim higher this year.  I also read a number of academic monographs, but I suspect no one else will be too interested in those.

Books Published in 2011

Chime, Franny Billingsley
I reviewed this book here not so long ago, and I'm not sure what else I can say.  The prose is rich and original; the characters are complex; the plot is satisfyingly dark and knotty and twisty.  (YA fantasy) 

Daughter of Smoke and Bone, Laini Taylor
Once upon a time, an angel and a demon fell in love.  It did not end well.  I wrote about why I was so looking forward to this book here and I must say that the novel was really everything I could have hoped for.  Very original plot, especially compared to the legion other angel/demon/forbidden love YA novels that are currently out there; fantastic, descriptive, delectable, hilarious prose; well-wrought characters.  This is also a novel that demands to be gobbled up whole.  Caution: this book ends on a total cliff-hanger.  The good news: the sequel is due to come out this fall.  Also, this book really makes me want to visit Prague.  Sadly, I suspect I won't meet any avenging angels there... (YA/Crossover fantasy) 

A Conspiracy of Kings, Meghan Whalen Turner
The long-awaited fourth book in Meghan Whalen Turner's Thief series.  This is one of my favourite reads in part because it was preceded by one of my favourite rereads of the year.  I went through the first three books in the series (The Thief, The Queen of Attolia, The King of Attolia) again.  These are books that have fabulously constructed plots, with fantastic character development and a fun pseudo-Greek setting.  They follow the exploits of Gen, a fantastic thief, with a sarcastic voice and tons of secrets.  And I dare not say more than that.  I would recommend reading these books in order.  A Conspiracy of Kings focuses on a character the reader hasn't seen since the first book, but Turner made me love him just as much as the other characters in the series.  I'm dying to find out what happens in the last two books in the series.  (Children's/YA fantasy)

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, Catherynne M. Valente
This is a delightful, hilarious fantasy about September, a young girl who is whisked off to Fairyland, sent on a quest to retrieve a witch's spoon, befriends a dragon named A-through-L (there was a library involved) and must face the evil Marquess.  This is a satirical, modern take on Alice in Wonderland, full of clever literary tricks and absurdities. This is probably aimed at the 9-12 market, but can definitely be enjoyed by adults.  The absurdism reminded me forcefully that I need to read Norman Juster's The Phantom Tollbooth (recently turned 50) soon.  Also, I need to hunt down Valente's adult novels.  (Children's fantasy)

Pre-2011 Books
The Children's Book, A.S. Byatt
The 2009 Booker Prize shortlist was very good to me; I read three of the novels and loved all of them.  In 2010, I read the winner - Wolf Hall - Hilary Mantel's telling of the rise of Henry VIII's advisor Thomas Cromwell (the first of two sequels, Bring Up the Bodies, is coming out in May!) and Sarah Waters' The Little Stranger, a delightful post-war ghost story.  I read Byatt's book at the beginning of 2011.  It follows three interconnected families from the end of the Victorian period up to the horrors of World War I, revealing family secrets, illustrating the blossoming and destruction of love affairs, allowing daughters to cross boundaries their mothers wouldn't have dreamt of attempting.  I'm currently rereading Byatt's Possession, which I think I may like better, but this is also very, very good. (Historical fiction)

The Crimson Petal and the White, Michel Faber
I became aware of the existence of this fabulous book because the BBC aired an adaptation of it early in 2011, with Romola Garai in the lead role of Sugar, a Victorian prostitute who claws her way out of the gutter and into her wealthy patron's home, using her brains just as much as her body.  I've only seen the first episode of the adaptation, but it was suitably faithful to the book's plot and smog.  I'll have to watch the rest someday, but the book is more than good enough on its own.  It also inspired an idea for a conference paper...  (Historical fiction)

The French Lieutenant's Woman, John Fowles
 I read this as part of my neo-Victorian kick this year, mostly on our summer vacation to Ottawa, Montreal, Quebec City, and New Brunswick and on the various planes and trains the trip involved.  I read the ending in one big burst one morning back in Saskatoon.  The novel was written in the 1960s, but looks back at the Victorian era with a knowing eye.  The narrator makes plain the constructed nature of the novel and his (?) awareness of the movements of history and the eventual fates of his characters.  It features a very taboo affair and Victorian geology.  Great fun.  (Historical fiction)

Atonement, Ian McEwan
Yes, yet another historical fiction.  Atonement takes place before and during the Second World War.  Briony, our young protagonist, is a fledgling writer and the narrative she comes up to explain her older sister's actions has devastating consequences.  The "twist" at the end made me sob.  (Historical fiction)

The Night Watch, Sarah Waters
Yes, yet another historical fiction novel, also taking place during World War II.  Incidentally, the BBC also released an adaptation of this novel in 2011, though I've been a bit nervous to watch it, since they distilled a quite lengthy novel into a 90-minute adaptation...  One of the most notable things about this novel is its reverse chronology.  The beginning of the novel shows the cast of characters, whose relationships to each other and whose war experiences the reader does not yet understand, as they stand in 1947 London.  The novel works its way back through time, peeling back layers of experience.  The end of the novel (also in a sense its beginning), manages to be be both heartbreaking and full of hope.  (Historical fiction)

Best Victorian Novel

No Name, Wilkie Collins
I have nothing but good things to say about Wilkie Collins.  I had previously read The Woman and White (the first of the Victorian Sensation novels) and The Moonstone (often considered the first detective novel).  No Name does not have as many secrets up its sleeve as the previous, more famous novels, but it is still very suspenseful, and has a surprisingly strong and resourceful heroine.  It also has interesting things to say about the place of women in Victorian society, especially if money and marriage prospects have been taken from them.  Collins was a friend of Dickens (No Name was serialized in his magazine All the Year Round after Dickens' own Great Expectations), but his writing is quite clear and straightforward and therefore feels rather modern for a Victorian.  Also, though Collins writes long books, they fly by, especially toward the end.

Best Re-Reads

Dreamhunter, Elizabeth Knox
Set in an alternate, Edwardian New Zealand in which dreams are performed in Dream Palaces and the government will do anything to put this valuable commodity to its own uses.  Just a fabulous novel.  I read it for the first time a few years ago and still remember the twists and turns, but the plot, the political critique, the characters, and the writing is so good that rereading is almost as much fun as the first read through.  This novel ends on quite a cliffhanger and I don't have my copy of the equally-good sequel Dreamquake here with me.  I'll need to go hunt it down at a library.  (YA fantasy)

The Thief Series, Meghan Whalen Turner
See above.

Best Non-Fiction

I don't read a lot of non-fiction, but I read two fabulous non-fiction books this year which both deserve nods.

Notes from a Small Island, Bill Bryson
My dad loaned this to me before we moved over the the UK.  A great telling of Bryson's farewell journey around Britain.  I laughed so hard.  Tim became very sick of me, because I kept insisting on reading passages to him.  (Travel writing)

The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher or the Murder at Road Hill House, Kate Summerscale
This is a fabulous recounting of the investigation into an infamous Victorian murder, the creation of the detective force, and the influence of real-life crime and detective work on sensation and mystery novels.  The detective Sergeant Cuff who features in Wilkie Collins' The Moonstone was inspired by the real-life Jonathan Whicher who worked on this case.  Summerscale follows the conventions of the detective novel and doesn't let the reader in on the solution until the end of the book.  It's a quick, suspenseful read and won the 2008 Samuel Johnson prize for non-fiction.  (Non-fiction, crime)


  1. Have you read All These Things I've Done by Gabrielle Zevin? It's one of the best new YA Fantasies I've read in a while, especially since I picked it up just after finishing the Uglies series by Scott Westerfield which I think is severely over-rated. It definitely ends as if it's going to be the first book in a series but I haven't done any digging to see if a follow up is planned. Definitely worth the read.

    1. I haven't read anything by Gabrielle Zevin, so I will tuck your recommendation away in my brain. I also haven't read any Scott Westerfeld other than Leviathan (which was good, though not my favourite ever novel featuring airships).

      P.S. It looks like Zevin is planning a quartet and has released the title of the second book - Because It Is My Blood. She said the titles will make up a sentence that summarizes or tells the story of the complete series. Rather intriguing.