My friends Danielle and Kaitlin suggested I do a best-of list from 2011. Without further ado, here’s my favorite fiction of the past year!
Okay, okay, a little bit of ado. I just want to point out that I re-read some really wonderful things this past year, including Vanity Fair and The Three Musketeers, which are among my favorite books of all time. For this list, though, I’m only including books I read this year for the first time.
1. Sacred Games, Vikram Chandra [buy]
Notable gangster Ganesh Gaitonde is cornered by the police – and found dead of a gunshot wound with an unknown woman beside him. Discovering why leads the reader into a huge, ambitious, and totally compelling multi-layered story. If you read just one book off this list, make it this one.
2. Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel [buy]
Meet Thomas Cromwell, right-hand-man to cardinals and kings. Even if you don’t like historical novels, Mantel’s masterful balance between the personal and the political will keep you guessing how Cromwell’s story will turn out.
3. Stone’s Fall, Iain Pears [buy]
When arms dealer and financier John Stone falls out a window, the investigator hired to find out what happened uncovers a huge historical mystery. Starts slow, but gets harder and harder to put down.
4. The Leftovers, Tom Perotta [buy]
Three years after Rapture-like mass disappearances, the survivors are walking wounded, and Perotta lets you watch as they succeed (or fail!) at putting their lives back together. This novel takes a fantastic premise and makes it ring emotionally true. By far his best work.
5. The Engineer Trilogy, K. J. Parker [1, 2, 3]
A no-magic fantasy that deals with themes of economic imperialism, consequentialism, and love. Plus, the characters aren’t your usual bunch of fantasy meatheads; they’re smart, skilled, and deeply flawed. The female characters don’t get much agency, but the fact that I loved this series anyhow should tell you just how good it is. Parker, please write me some amazing ladies next time!
6. Big Machine, Victor Lavalle [buy]
A down-on-his-luck former addict is recruited to join a band of paranormal investigators looking for evidence of God’s existence. Murakami meets Denis Johnson, except that you’ll actually be able to follow the (very entertaining) plot.
7. The Silent Land, Graham Joyce [buy]
A young married couple finds themselves isolated at a ski resort after a flash avalanche. As their situation becomes stranger, they turn both to and away from each other. A sad, haunting love story that doesn’t sentimentalize the relationship at its core.
8. The Lecturer’s Tale, James Hynes [buy]
An adjunct professor of English gains the power to force others to do his bidding with a touch of his right index finger. Chaos in the academy ensues! It’s got the inevitable build of a great horror story, but spends plenty of time exploring scholarly ideas through biting satire.
9. The Devotion of Suspect X, Keigo Higashino [buy]
A young single mother accidentally kills her ex-husband – and her next-door neighbor decides to protect her from the consequences. Will his plan succeed, or will the police track her down and find out the truth?
10. Headhunters, Jo Nesbo [buy]
A high-level corporate recruiter uses his position to run elaborate scams. When he encounters a client doing the same, he ends up on the run and trying to survive. Tightly plotted and tricky, it’ll be an entirely different experience the second time around!
11. The Malazan Book of the Fallen, Steven Erikson [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10]
A huge, sprawling, ambitious, messy fantasy epic, following dozens of characters across a multi-continent war and building on thousands of years of history. While it’s sometimes hard to follow, any book that has dinosaurs fighting zombies – and manages to make it dramatic rather than ridiculous – gets my vote.
Bonus, Graphic Novel Edition: Finder, Carla Speed McNeil [1, 2]
The art is gorgeous, the characters are realistic, the far-future world is compelling and genuinely strange. Buy the collected Library editions linked above for extensive commentary on the creative choices McNeil made. Highly recommended.
Happy reading, and let me know if any of these delight you!