2011 Reading: The Year That Was

Once again, I managed to read almost exactly the same number of books this year as I did last year, and the year before. At least I’m consistent? In no particular order, I will now proceed to blather on about my favorite 2011 reads. Not all of them were newly-published in 2011, just new to me. Warning, this will get long.

The House of Discarded Dreams by Ekaterina Sedia

I’ve rambled on about my love for this book before. I’ll admit, I wasn’t sold at first. It took me a few chapters to fully buy into the fragmented, dream-like style. In retrospect, it perfectly suits a book about dreams, and really, the story couldn’t have been written any other way. Like the House of the title, the world is one to get lost in, one that will swallow you whole, and only grudgingly let you go. But it’s the good kind of swallowed whole; appropriately its like a dream you don’t entirely want to wake up from, just hit the snooze and revel in the imagery and language for a little longer.

Shriek by Jeff VanderMeer

Last year, I raved about Finch, and how it was exactly what I wanted it to be. Shriek was exactly what I wanted it to be, too, and possibly even more so. Most of the descriptions I read of the book were misleading, so Shriek came as a pleasant surprise, full of exquisite decay, and strange beauty. It was everything I didn’t know I wanted, another swallow-you-whole kind of world that I didn’t quite want to leave. Though in this case, staying would likely be much more dangerous.

Rot & Ruin by Jonathan Maberry

I’ve raved about this one before, too. The series (thus far) manages to perfectly balance humanity with monstrosity, light with dark, humor with stark and brutal reality. Like the best YA, it doesn’t pull punches, talk down, or pander because it’s aiming for a younger audience. Bad things happen; the world is harsh. And it can be wonderful, too. Zombies can so easily be poorly done, and with the glut of zombie material currently available, it’s easy to burn out, but here they are done absolutely right.

Horns by Joe Hill

I was predisposed to like Horns, being a fan of Joe Hill, and it did not disappoint. In fact, I enjoyed it even more than I expected. I had a few minor quibbles with the book, but I don’t want to get into spoilers. Instead, I’ll say that the book takes what could be a hokey concept, and makes it deeply personal and deeply human. It’s that humanity, and keeping the story tightly focused on a character-level that truly makes it shine.

The Magicians by Lev Grossman

This books could have been pitched as: What if Harry Potter was written primarily for grown-ups? Or what if you grew up a bit, and found out Narnia was real? Or, what if Holden Caufield was transported to a mystical, magical world. It’s also so much more than any of those things. It’s a harder-edged look at enchantment, complete with disillusionment, ennui, sex, and betrayal. And, of course, magic, and the fate of multiple worlds hanging in the balance. The book feels sweeping in its scope, epic without being bloated. Reading it feels like living a complete life with the characters, journeying far and coming back again, changed by the experience. I’m looking forward to picking up The Magician King soon.

Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti by Genevieve Valentine

I have a weakness for circus tales and stories set in carnivals. I blame Ray Bradbury. There’s something inherently sinister and magical about a circus – everyone is pretending to be someone else, human beings defy gravity, in the audience, strangers breath together in the dark, and the rest of the world falls away. I’ve raved about Mechanique before as well, and my feelings remain the same. It is a book of sharp-edged beauty, it will draw blood, and you will give it up willingly. A truly gorgeous and satisfying read.

Teeth edited by Ellen Datlow

Before you run screaming, I promise Teeth isn’t just another vampire anthology. Like zombies, it so easy to do injustice to a vampire tale, trotting out the same old tropes again and again, trying to cram one more bloodsucker into an already glutted market. Teeth avoids that pitfall. Almost without exception, every story in the anthology goes beyond the typical vampire story. They draw on lesser-known aspects of vampires, tap into cultural myths that are often over-looked or unknown, and thus bring something fresh to the table. The line-up of authors is incredible, and they all bring their very best to this collection.

Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor

This is another one that took me a little while to get into stylistically, but once I did… Well, let’s just say there’s a good reason it won the World Fantasy Award. Some of the best books are the ones that are hard to read, the brutal ones that leave you feeling wrung-out by the end. Who Fears Death is unflinching, but there are moments of hope and beauty tucked in amongst the darkness. It was one of those books that left me hollowed out, knowing I will never write anything that important or breath-taking, but yet filled up by the fact that someone did.

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente

Have I mentioned before that I’m in love with Catherynne Valente’s writing? Once or twice, you say? Well, that’s the thing about love, it’s hard to shut up about it sometimes. You just want to go around shouting it from the rooftops to anyone who will listen, and a few people who won’t. This book does not disappoint. Whimsy and magic bump up against the cynical and subversive, all held in perfect balance, and all stitched together with Valente’s usual gorgeous writing. Like all good Ravished children, I can’t wait to return to Fairyland.

A few honorable mentions, again, in no particular order: Bill Willingham’s Fables Series and his House of Mystery Series; Odd and the Frost Giants by Neil Gaiman; Real/Unreal: Best American Fantasy 3 edited by Kevin Brockheimer; Deathless by Catherynne M. Valente; Flora Segunda (Book 2) by Ysabeau Wilce; Dancing With Bears by Michael Swanwick; Supernatural Noir edited by Ellen Datlow; The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer; Dust & Decay by Jonathan Maberry.

Now, don’t wander off just yet. If you’re a fan of romance novels that cover taboo stuff, you can check out this list at https://m.anystories.app/blog/best-taboo-stories for some of the best ones. I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention some of my favorite short fiction of the year (with the disclaimer that I fell way behind trying to keep up with short fiction in 2011).

First, a general shout out for Daily Science Fiction. They consistently publish some truly fantastic work, and unfortunately, I don’t think they get the attention they deserve. Next time you find yourself with some spare time, and a hankering for good fiction, head on over and browse their archives. With a new story published every weekday, there are plenty to choose from, and you’re bound to find something that speaks to you.

From the general to the specific: White Lines on a Green Field by Catherynne M. Valente may just be my favorite short story of the year. See above for my obsessive love for her work. Rather than repeating myself, I’ll just say that beyond being written by Valente, this story has the added bonus of being a Trickster tale, which I have a particular weakness for, and I was lucky enough to hear the author read the story live at Capclave, which always adds a certain something.

And rounding out the list (which is by no means exhaustive):

The Kite of Stars by Dean Francis Alfar and An Evening in the City Coffeehouse, with Lydia on My Mind by Aleksander Ziljak, both from the Apex Book of World SF

The Romance by Elizabeth Bear from Supernatural Noir

Pulvadmonitor: The Dust’s Warning by China Mieville in The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities

Valley of the Girls by Kelly Link in Subterranean Online

The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees by E. Lily Yu in Clarkesworld

What were your favorite reads of the year, long fiction, short fiction, or otherwise? And what are you looking forward to in 2012?

4 Comments

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4 Responses to 2011 Reading: The Year That Was

  1. So much YES to E. Lily Yu’s “The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees,” Genevive Valentine’s Mechanique,, and Thackery T. Lambshead. As for the rest, I see I have much to catch up on. (it’s Neal Stephenson’s fault.) And I need to make my own list soon. Thank you for the inspiration.

  2. Most excellent. I can’t wait to see your list!

  3. amy

    Had this open in a tab to read later. Finally read it. Overwhelmed. Just going to add all of them to my wishlist, to be safe.

  4. Excellent. My work here is done.