Not just another ‘best of 2011’ reading list

The End of the Year book meme (see Jen’s Book Thoughts, Reactions to Reading, Crime Scraps and The Game’s Afoot) is a little more challenging to the blogger than the more lazy (but appealing!) simple list of favourite titles, so I thought I’d join in.

1. Best Book of 2011. A read a dozen books last year that I thoroughly enjoyed, and depending on my mood du jour I could pick any of them. So, with a slightly random perturbation amongst the twelve I am going to choose The Quarry by Johan Theorin, translated by Marlaine Delargy. I loved the book for its sense of place, its atmosphere, and way in which it was haunted by a yearning for the past ways of life. I also like the fact that it is part of a series but the author does not make the same characters central in each book; another reason I enjoyed The Quarry is because I did not like the two main characters at the outset but had come to be very fond of them by the end. Plot resolutions are rarely great in crime novels – this let down the otherwise excellent Mercy by Jussi Adler-Olsen for example (I suggest “best plot resolution” for next year’s list!), but this one is good compared to many others. Like all my favourite books, this book is much more than a crime novel; there is a lot of undercurrent and observations of human nature in it, with an insightful, spot-on, last sentence. Finally, the translation is superb: it is always a pity not to be able to read a book in the original language, but the partnership between Marlaine Delargy and the author epitomises the empathy and care that makes all the difference for the non-native-speaking reader.

2. Worst Book of 2011. Unfortunately there are quite a few candidates for this slot, too, but I don’t mind as who wants to read “safe” novels all the time? Experimentation is important. I think, however, I’ll award this prize to Where or When by Anita Shreve, not only because it is a really terrible book about the most self-indulgent, boring people imaginable, but also because the author is very good (I love many of her books) and can write properly. So why on earth she wrote this drivel I have no idea. Read the first two or three comments at GoodReads to get the picture.

3. Most Disappointing Book. I’m going to say Awakening by S. J. Bolton, because I’d read and very much enjoyed Blood Harvest (written after Awakening) earlier in the year. I therefore bought Awakening but found it to be the most silly book imaginable, with just so many snakes in it I lost count and a really offensive way (to me) of describing the heroine’s feelings about her facial disfigurement. This is the kind of heroine who goes weak at the knees every time a man walks into the room and despite being a professional woman is tongue-tied as if she had never met a member of the opposite sex before. I could go on…..If the author was writing it as a serious novel then it failed, if she was writing it as a send-up I could forgive her but somehow I don’t think she was. For a diametrically opposed view to mine of this book, see Euro Crime!

4. Most surprising (in a good way) book. Dregs by Jorn Lier Horst, translated by Anne Bruce. I bought this book at a time when several good, solid translated novels were being published, so I had a batch of several to read (Ashes, Burned, Anger Mode, Misterioso, etc). When I picked it up, Dregs was “just one” of these, but for me it was a stand-out. It is sixth in a series, unlike the rest of the batch which are first novels or first in a series, which may account for its maturity. It’s my favourite kind of crime book – a police procedural with a typically dour protagonist no longer in the first flush of youth, a good plot, unflinching without being gratuitous, well-told, family relationships, a moral compass, and a satisfying plot. Although I don’t like comparing authors to other authors, I do believe that this series is the next Mankell/Wallander – though Norwegian rather than Swedish.

I shall also mention here Purge by Sofi Oksanen translated by Lola Rogers as I was expecting to hate this book but actually loved it. It’s about a family of (mainly) women as they live through various wars and regimes in Estonia and (to a lesser extent) Russia.

5. Book you recommended to people most. Quite a few! But I actually bought Dregs and Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin to give to people, so I should choose those.

6. Best series you discovered. In January I read Open Season, the first in the Joe Pickett series by C J Box. I found it so engaging that I have now caught up with the entire series of eleven books. My reviews are collected here, in reverse chronological order. Joe Pickett is a Wyoming game warden; the novels reminded me of the Wild West books I loved in my youth (think Shane by Jack Schaefer) but they have a strong domestic element too, via Joe’s wife and daughters. The books often have scientific themes connected with the environment, which are accurately presented, a refreshing change from the way science and technology are depicted in most novels. The books are all race-throughs even though they address pretty dark themes. Before I started on this series, I’d read and enjoyed a couple of the author’s standalone titles. Then the UK publisher, Corvus, made Open Season part of a Kindle promotion, and the rest (for me) was history.

7. Favourite new authors you discovered. I’ve winnowed this question down to eight answers (no special order): Roger Smith, Charles Lambert, Tom Franklin, Jorn Lier Horst, Shuichi Yoshida, Alice LaPlante, Allegra Goodman and Jussi Adler-Olsen. I discovered many other very good authors in 2011 also, and hope to continue this trend in 2012. (See here for my post on new authors read in 2011.)

8. Most hilarious read. All Yours by Claudia Pineiro translated by Miranda France, a very black comedy about a wife who suspects her husband of having an affair….. A very close runner-up for me was Headhunters by Jo Nesbo translated by Don Bartlett – a blast, but strong stuff.

9. Most thrilling, unputdownable book. Trackers by Deon Meyer translated by Laura Seegers. Deon Meyer is up there with the best as a thriller writer who can convey emotion, a rare talent. By creating Trackers as a set of interlinked short stories, he ratchets up the tension and the “how on earth is this all going to fit together” factor, while the race against time is on. A true page-turner.

10. Book you most anticipated. Till Thy Wrath be Past by Asa Larsson translated by Laurie Thompson. I’d waited three years since reading the previous book by this wonderful author, The Black Path. I was not disappointed!

11. Favorite cover of a book you read. An increasingly difficult question to answer as the proportion of e-books one reads increases. A minipicture on Amazon or a black and white rendering in the Kindle is not the same as the full Monty. There have been many cliched covers of course, but I think Until Thy Wrath Be Past is one of my favourites because of the lovely dark-haired girl (not a Scandinavian blonde!) on the cover, and because the cover has no blood, weapons or religious icons on it! (Or chairs or stairs, or a snow-scene.)

12. Most memorable character. Gerlof in The Quarry (and previous Oland books by Johan Theorin). He’s in his eighties and is just so lovely, he outdoes even the most grumpy detective! Of the female characters I read about, I find Rebecka Martinsson (Asa Larsson) very memorable and easy to identify with – particularly in a year that did not include a book featuring Erlunder, Arnaldur Indridason’s usual protagonist.

13. Most beautifully written book. This is a hard one to answer given the number of translated books I read, which I’ll exclude here as one does not know the relative contributions of author, translator and editor/publisher. Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin is beautifully written in its descriptions of the natural wildlife of the region in a manner that reminds me of John Steinbeck. I also think Turn of Mind by Alice LaPlante, The Invisible Ones by Stef Penney, and Intuition by Allegra Goodman are exceptionally well-written.

14. Book that had the greatest impact on you. Many of these books had an impact on me but as I haven’t awarded it a category yet, I’ll say Villain by Shuichi Yoshida translated by Philip Gabriel, in its convincing portrayal of the hopeless gap between young and older, and the alienation from society of young Japanese people.

15. Book you can’t believe you waited until 2011 to finally read? Intuition by Allegra Goodman, first published in 2006, as I had been told many times that it is the best modern example of science-in-fiction but had never got around to reading it. In fact it did not turn out to be about science very much, but more about professional rivalries and personal relationships. I highly recommend it. Also last year I read Anthony Trollope’s Palliser novels, all of which are massive tomes and highly enjoyable. However, I know I’ve read some or all of them before, but can’t remember which, so can’t honestly count these for this question!

I wanted to add another category to be able to mention the two books by Michael Connelly I’ve read and enjoyed in 2011: The Fifth Witness and The Drop. I think the most appropriate category is “best selling author who could do what other best-sellers have done and sacrifice loyal readers on the altar of yet more commercialism, but who has nobly resisted”. Connelly seems to love writing, he has such energy and verve, and he surely never lets his readers down. One of the greats.

I read lots of very enjoyable books in 2011, and reviewed 128 of them, so please do check out some of the others that I have not been able to include in this post.

13 thoughts on “Not just another ‘best of 2011’ reading list

  1. We don’t cross over much Maxine – as I’m sure you appreciate – but I certainly agree with you on All Yours. Interesting list! I also agree with you that this is a harder list to compile and I am still working on one, if I ever complete it…

  2. What interesting answers you give…we agree on many things – the Quarry is brill – I am actually looking forward to re-reading the series in quick succession once the fourth is out – I rarely re-read but I think it would be nice to do these all across a single year – maybe in the correct season. I very much enjoyed MERCY and PURGE as well. We’ll say no more about HEADHUNTERS and we’ll have to agree to disagree about Bolton’s snakes book too which I recall loving. Funny that you should hate this particular Anita Shreve book as I have DNFd two other books of hers and vowed never to read her again.

    Am definitely going to read the Allegra Goodman book this year and will have a go at Trackers too though I think I’ll have to switch formats. I’ve started listening to it and can’t get into it at all – have listened to the first hour about twice and I still can’t tell you a single thing that’s gone on. For some reason it’s just not sinking into my heat-addled brain

    I liked your extra category – definitely one for this year’s meme

  3. Maxine – Some excellent choices here! I have to agree with you about LaPlante, Adler-Olsen and of course Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter. It’s good to hear that you’ve enjoyed discovering C.J.Box’s Joe Pickett series, too; in my opinion it’s a fine ongoing series about a good set of characters. And I love that last category of yours (and your choice of Connelly).

  4. What a good post here! Always helpful. I agree on Mercy, Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter, Till Thy Wrath Be Past and The Fifth Witness. I had added Purge, Dregs, Trackers, All Yours, Headhunters, The Invisible Ones to my TBR list awhile back. Can’t wait for The Drop from the library. (A friend loved it.) I will add Intuition and Turn of Mind. I am not a fan of reptiles, especially snakes, so Awakening may not make it to the list.
    I was leery of Asa Larsson’s book but it turned out to be an excellent read, even with a supernatural element, which was done well. I am so glad the main protagonist ended up fine at the end, as I had nearly gotten sympathy PTSD after the first two books. I also agree on the ambivalence in Mercy’s ending. That annoyed me a bit, but the overall book with great characters were so good, I got past that.
    I’d say my favorite characters were Silas and Larry in CLCL and Elinborg in Outrage. I also liked Nina Borg, although I know she’s controversial. But it’s a bit like Liza Marklund’s main character, Annika Bengtzon, complicated and human. I also liked Merete in Mercy for being so incredibly strong, smart and determined. (Her situation kept a friend up all night with insomnia, but then she asked when Adler-Olsen’s next book is coming here.)
    Look forward to a new year of good books and great posts!

  5. And congratulations are due on the reading of the Palliser novels … not an easy feat.

  6. Thanks for all the comments. The Pallisers are written in a very easy-to-read style, but they are very long 😉

  7. The breadth of your reading is as impressive as the number of the books you’ve managed to get through is astonishing! You’ve made me want to read Tom Franklin, among numerous others. Happy reading in 2012.

  8. Thanks for posting such an interesting list! I haven’t read most of the books on it, but I’m planning to start Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter soon. Also, I’m a huge Allegra Goodman fan too.

  9. I think I should read the Black Path and work my way forward till it meets Until Thy wrath be past! but first I need to read Purge. So many bloggers have been raving about it and it seems I’m the last one in the universe to read it! You have a wonderful year!

  10. Pingback: 2011 End of Year Book Meme « It's a crime! (Or a mystery…)

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