My favourite books of 2011

Books-of-the-yearIt’s that time of year again, when I assess what I’ve read and decide my best reads of the past 12 months.

At the time of writing I am on target to read just under 100 books, which comprised a mix of narrative non-fiction, translated fiction, crime fiction, latest literary releases and older books pulled off the TBR pile. The ratio of men to women writers was roughly 6:4. And, for the first time ever, I did not read one American novel.

For the purposes of this list, I’ve only included novels (and one novella), although I would highly recommend ‘Antarctica’ by Claire Keegan for those who enjoy short story collections and ‘Joe Cinque’s Consolation’ by Helen Garner for those who like narrative non-fiction.

The following list has been arranged in alphabetical order by author’s surname. Click on the titles to read my review in full.

Mercy‘Mercy’ by Jussi Adler-Olsen (2011)

It’s no secret that I love a bit of Scandinavian crime and this one, by Jussi Adler-Olsen, is one of the best I’ve ever read and certainly the best I’ve read in 2011. I was so enamoured of it that I cleared my whole weekend to eagerly eat it up and even before I’d reached the half-way point I tweeted that it “beats the pants off Steig Larsson”. Mercy is the first book in the “Department Q” series (three others have yet to be translated into English), a division within the Danish police force that looks at cases that have run cold and remain unsolved. In this story, homicide detective Carl Mørk investigates the mysterious disappearance of a young and beautiful politician, who vanished while on board a cruise ship five years earlier. Could she still be alive? What Mørk discovers is chilling to the core…

Fair-stood-the-wind-for-france‘Fair Stood the Wind for France’ by H. E. Bates (1944)

H.E. Bates’ 1944 classic Fair Stood the Wind for France is one of the finest and loveliest books I’ve ever read. It’s definitely my favourite read of the year and is one of those books that I know I will read again at some point, if only to wallow in its beauty once again. It tells the story of a young British pilot whose plane is downed over France and the lengths he and his crew must go to in order to survive. Because it is set against the horrors of war, it takes on a life-affirming force, and Bates’ prose is so elegant and pitch-perfect he somehow gets to the heart of human emotions without actually spelling anything out. In fact Bates’ writing is so stripped back — not one word is wasted — that it seems a feat of exceptional genius to wring so much emotion, drama and truth out of almost every sentence, every page.

Afterparty‘The Afterparty’ by Leo Benedictus (2011)

The Afterparty arrived unannounced at Chez Reading Matters and I wasn’t sure that it would be my cup of tea — or my sort of whisky — going by the cover image alone. I figured I’d try a chapter or two to see if it was my thing, and if it wasn’t I’d put the book aside and forget about it. Two hours whizzed by and I was so immersed in the story I just had to keep on reading… In the end I found it to be an inventive, darkly funny, postmodern novel set in a world where British celebrities rule the roost and lowly tabloid journalists will stoop to almost anything in the quest for a big story — and there’s not a hacked phone in sight!


Sunday-at-pool‘A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali’ by Gil Courtemanche (2009)

I have a penchant for harrowing novels and this one is probably the most harrowing I’ve ever read. It’s set during the Rwandan genocide of 1994, in which more than 800,000 people were systematically slaughtered. It was an event that I was aware of in only the vaguest terms — probably because, as Courtemanche writes in this novel, “the media don’t show dead bodies cut up by men and shredded by vultures and wild dogs”. The story is told in the third person, but we see it mainly through the world-weary eyes of Bernard Valcourt, a widower and highly experienced journalist from Canada, who is bored with his job as a Radio-Canada producer and goes to Rwanda to try something new. What he experiences on the ground is so shocking and horrifying I felt dirty reading about it. Definitely not for the faint-hearted, but this is an important book that explores what happens when hate is left to reign unchecked.

Devotion-of-suspect-x‘The Devotion Of Suspect’ X by Keigo Higashino (2011)

I love a good crime thriller and this one by Japanese writer Keigo Higashino is as close to perfection as a crime thriller can be. It works because even though you know from the outset who committed the crime — the murder of an abusive husband — you’re not quite sure how the body was moved to the position in which it is found by the police the next day, with its face and fingerprints destroyed. In perfectly restrained style, Higashino offers a slow drip feed of information, as clues are revealed by  the police detective investigating the murder, along with two academics, one a physicist and the other a mathematician, who were rivals in a former life. But even when you think you have solved the riddle, Higashino offers a brilliantly unexpected ending that could only be plotted by a genius! No wonder the book has sold more than two million copies in Japan alone.

Five-Bells‘Five Bells’ by Gail Jones (2011)

I was convinced this novel by Australian writer Gail Jones was going to make the Booker longlist, if not the shortlist. It’s probably the most literary novel I’ve read in 2011, but it seems to have slipped under the radar. This is a great shame, because the novel — Jones’ fifth — deserves a wide audience. It’s not a particularly plot-driven story; instead it focuses on four individual characters and reveals their inner lives as they criss-cross Sydney on a fine summer’s day. Jones’ great achievement is that she gives each character an authentic back story and fleshes it out without being too obvious about it. In doing this she shows how memory works, but she’s also able to demonstrate what it is to be human, and how, despite our varied backgrounds and upbringings, we are all much alike beneath the surface.

Ulysses-small‘Ulysses’ by James Joyce (1922)

I didn’t review this  — how do you review something that’s so infamous? Who would have thought the book I was too scared to read would turn out to be such an enjoyable romp, not only through Dublin on one fine June day, but through a wide variety of literary styles and genres. In many ways, when I tackled it, I felt like I’d been in training for it my whole life — that’s because the book is essentially a history of English literary styles condensed into one volume. And while there were bits that went totally over my head, I was constantly amazed and surprised by how widely it has influenced so many writers that have followed. I can honestly say that Ulysses changes the way you look at literature after you’ve read it.

‘Leaving Ardglass’ by William King Leaving-Ardglass(2008)

Sometimes you pick up a book and before you’ve even finished the first page you immediately know there’s something very special about it. That’s exactly how I felt when I began reading William King’s Leaving Ardglass, a saga that spans 40 years and follows the lives of two Irish brothers — MJ Galvin, a building constructor turned property magnate, and his younger sibling, Tom. Much of the story is set in London during the 1960s, where Tom, who narrates the story, earns his living on building sites and witnesses some horrendous scenes, including the death of a fellow worker. The story is shocking in places and there are endless examples of racism against the Irish. Mostly, there’s an all-pervasive sense of wasted lives, that these men will spend their lives “digging and drinking, and finish up at the doss-house”. It’s an eye-opening book, but beautifully written, with fine plotting and great characterisation.

Get-me-out-of-here‘Get Me Out of Here’ by Henry Sutton (2010)

I do love a nasty character in a novel and Matt, the narrator of Get Me Out of Here, is the funniest — and sickest — character I’ve come across in modern fiction for a long time. He is filled with an over-inflated sense of self-importance and thinks the world revolves around him. He is shallow and manipulative. But as you get further and further into the novel, which is set in London circa 2008, you begin to realise that Matt is not all he seems to be. In fact, he may well be a danger to society. I loved this book and laughed out loud a lot. It’s enormous fun and yet, outside of Courtemanche’s A Sunday at the Pool in Kingali, it’s the most disturbing novel I’ve read all year.

Down-the-rabbit-hole ‘Down the Rabbit Hole’ by Juan Pablo Villalobos (2011)

Technically, at just 77 pages in length, this is really a novella, but for the purposes of this list it is one of the most powerful — and enjoyable — reads of the year. The charming seven-year-old narrator, Tochtli, lives in a secure compound with his drug baron father. He is obsessed with guns, violence, death — and acquiring a pygmy hippopotamus from Liberia. Most of his narration treads a fine line between comedy and heartbreak. And because he is far too young to comprehend all the illegal activities happening around him, as you read his tale you want to step in to protect him— you understand the danger he is in, even if he doesn’t. Down the Rabbit Hole is an ultra-quick read — you can easily consume it in a couple of hours — but its brevity should not be mistaken for shallowness. This is one of the best novellas I’ve ever read.

Have you read any from this list? Care to share your own top 10?

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29 thoughts on “My favourite books of 2011

  1. Oh no! Is Typepad playing up? Apologies if it is. (I’ve got into the habit these days of copying my comment — on all platforms, but especially Blogger — before pressing “post” because I’ve lost far too many comments in the past.)

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  2. Well, I ordered Bates, Sutton and King based on your original reviews, so that money is already spent. I have been meaning to investigate Bates at some point since I have never read him — thanks for giving me a starting point.
    I’m almost finished my first Australian novel for the January challenge (I’ve always figured that in reading terms the New Year starts Dec. 26). I’m hoping to get to all three that I have on hand, which means I can save ordering Gail Jones’ book for later in the year.
    Happy New Year!

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  3. Hooray! Can’t wait to see what you think of Bates, Sutton & King — all are very different in style, tone and subject matter, which is fairly indicative of my eclectic taste, I think. I want to read more Bates now and have earmarked a bunch for a splurge some time in the future — I just want to tackle some of my TBR first!
    I’m impressed you’ve almost finished an Aussie novel already! Looking forward to seeing your thoughts when you post about it. I’ve discovered more than 40 Australian books in my unread pile and don’t know which to choose first! (I won’t tell you how many are in the Irish pile, but it’s considerably more than that)
    Happy New Year to you & Sheila, too. 🙂

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  4. Have just bought The Afterparty – thanks for pointing me to definitely, definitely my last book purchase until April 1. Best wishes for the New Year, Kim.

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  5. I’m slacking off this year and not doing a separate Top Ten on my blog…eventually I’ll add mine to the list that members of the ANZ LitLovers do every year (see TopTens on the top menu if interested) but if I did it now that would be a giveaway as to my voting intentions for the Shadow Man Asian LitPrize, wouldn’t it?
    I see on FB that you’ve bought Gillian Mears Foal’s Bread on Kindle for a song! That is amazing (and probably a bit disappointing for the author that it’s being discounted already).
    It’s NYE here already so I’ll take this opportunity to wish you and T a very happy new year with lots more great books in 2012, Lisa xo

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  6. I’ve not read a single book from your list, though Mercy sits on my pile right next to my computer! Will definitely be reading it next year and the Bates will be ordered very soon–it sounded good when you first wrote about it. I’ve read one of Gail Jones’s earlier novels, but this one is new to me–as are the other books, which is okay–more new books to explore! 🙂 Have a really Happy New Year and happy reading in 2012!

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  7. Ah yes, I could see how publishing a list like that might reveal your Man Asian leanings!
    I’m being lazy this year and not bothering to do a statistical analysis — who cares how many books by English authors I read or how many were published in 2011 etc? 😉
    I’m just two chapters away from finishing the Mears book — took awhile for me to get the hang of the language/style (there’s a lot of missing “the”s in it) but am finding it a hugely enjoyable read.
    As for the discount price, it’s only for a limited period. I think it’s quite a canny move really, because if you’ve never heard of the author before and not seen any reviews, you’re probably more inclined to give it a go for £1 as opposed to paying full price (which is £12.49!!). Then, when word of mouth gets out that the book’s terrific, other people wanting to buy it will have to pay more for it because the discount period is over. I also notice the Kindle release predates the paperback release, which is scheduled for late March.
    Happy New Year to you & yours, too, and best wishes for a book-filled 2012! x

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  8. Hi Stu, yes saw your list on the day it went up but tried to comment but for some reason wordpress was playing funny buggers and I gave up! Down the Rabbit Hole was a great read, wasn’t it? Happy New Year to you & yours x

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  9. Summing up my favorite reads of 2011, it looks a bit like a “Reading Matters best-of list”…
    Anyway, in no special order (except the first two, which matches Kim’s Top-10):
    – William King “Leaving Ardglass”
    – H.E. Bates “Fair stood…”
    – Patti Smith “Just Kids” [non-fiction]
    – Randolph Stow “The merry-go-round in the sea”
    – Breece D’J Pancake “The stories of BDJP”
    – Colm Toibin “Story of the night”
    – Mitford & Waugh: Letters of Nancy Mitford & Evelyn Waugh [non-fiction]
    – John Williams “Stoner”
    – Daniel Keyes “Flowers for Algernon”
    Other honorable mentions: Eugenides/MarriagePlot, WilliamTrevor/FoolsOfFortune, Moody/PurpleAmerica(re-read), Bolger/SecondLife(re-read) and many, many more!
    Happy New Year!

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  10. Thanks, Bubba — that’s a great list! It reminds me I really ought to dust “Stoner” off my shelf where it has been sitting for at least two years!

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  11. I know the small format paperback will be released in the UK on Feb 2, but don’t know about a US release. Have you tried bookdepository.com ? They have free shipping and should allow you to order British books.

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  12. What a great list of books. I must look up the H.E. Bates and the Higashino ones. They both sound great.
    I went in a slightly different direction and read a few classics this year. But here is my top 10 (hard to narrow it down to just 10 this year as I didn’t read heaps but read some really good books)
    The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
    Everything Flows by Vassily Grossman
    Atlas of Remote Islands by Judith Schalansky
    The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber
    The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
    The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte
    The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman
    The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark
    My Life in France by Julia Child
    Noah’s Compass by Anne Tyler
    Hope 2012 is full of great books for you, Kim! Happy New Year!

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  13. That’s a great list, Kinga. Have the Dumas on my Kindle somewhere, but am too scared to read it! 🙂
    I’ve read Crimson Petal (and loved it) and The Imperfectionists. Noah’s Compass is in my TBR somewhere, as is the Muriel Spark.
    Happy New Year to you as well 🙂

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  14. The only book from your list that I’ve read is The Afterparty and it made my top 10 too. I’m reading Suspect X next so I hope that I enjoy it as much as you did. Down the Rabbit Hole is calling to me strongly too. Have a wonderful 2012!

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  15. I had to read it for my reading club and was very intimidated by the size, but it’s a great story of revenge served up cold and I loved it. It flows nicely, but it does take a while to get through (because it’s over 1200 pages long). But I think you’d like it. Give it a try! 🙂
    Your review of The Imperfectionists made me pick it up at the library and I remember your raving review of The Crimson Petal. I made myself read the Crimson Petal because the miniseries was on television and my husband threatened to make me watch it before I read the book so that kicked me into action…and am so glad I did read it!

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  16. I have a penchant for all things harrowing as well! On your recommendation I bought A Sunday at the pool in Kigali. You gave Suspect X such high rating! I must get a copy now. How is it that Japanese crime fictions are so fascinating? I read Villain by Shuichi Yoshida and I absolutely love it! I also have OUT by Kirino on my shelf. Perhaps I should make 2012 be the year of Japanese crime. Thanks for your list. Happy New Year!

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  17. Kim, the code and picture validation seems to make my draft comment disappear or late to appear. I thought my comment disappear for the first two times, but lucky it’s still there when I click the backspace. Just to let you know.

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  18. I was surprised to not see Five Bells on either the Orange or Booker longlist, but I’m glad it’s finally coming out in the U.S. in February. I’m eager to read it1

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  19. A compelling list! I’m particularly intrigued by Suspect X – you clinched it for me with the bit about an ending that could only have been plotted by a genius!! Mercy also looks good. I’m thinking of having a crime / thriller binge this month once I’ve read my book group books and Eline Vere (secret santa!). My top 12 are over you know where… I’m amazed you narrowed down 100 to 10 when I couldn’t get 40 odd down to that many.

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