Sunday, January 1, 2012

The Best of 2011: Annual Year in Review

Previous yearly wrap-ups:  2007 | 2008 | 2009 | 2010

Ever since I began blogging about books in May 2007, I've taken time in early January to reflect on the previous year of reading. There are always stand-out books I like to spotlight, and trends to mull over.

Using, I broke my reading down into the main genres I visit, excluding miscellaneous works. Last year I commented with some wariness that for the first time ever, fiction had surpassed nonfiction reading. It accomplished the same feat this year, and by a larger margin.  I blame Bernard Cornwell. Discovering the police mysteries of Michael Connelly also helped, as I've read more than a few Harry Bosch mysteries this year.

Early in the year I resolved to read ten particular books, most of which had given me trouble in the past; I'm happy to say I read nine of those. I was also able to maintain my 'bookish resolutions'for the most part. An undeclared goal was that of finishing Isaac Asimov's Empire series, which I did.

And now...the best reads of 2011!

In general fiction, there were some truly outstanding novels:

  • The Sea-Wolf by Jack London combines adventure at sea with an epic story-discussion about morality, the meaning of life, and the measure of a man when a literary critic is kidnapped and forced to serve on a sealing schooner dominated by a brute who fancies himself a Nietzschean superman.
  • To Kill a Mockingbird is, "classic" status aside, simply one of the best novels I've ever read. This coming of age story set in Depression-era Alabama features two young people who are forced to grapple with adult questions of conscience and courage during a legal battle. They are guided by their extraordinary father Atticus Finch.
  • The Big Rock Candy Mountain by Wallace Stegner is a beautiful, wild, wrenching story about a restless man who drags his family through peril and poverty looking for financial success.Though the man Bo is never a viewpoint character, he dominates the book and its central characters with his admirable energy and sometimes destructive passion. Even months after reading it, I simply can't get over the novel.
  • The Ethical Assassin by David Liss is an altogether different experience than these prior three. It isn't grand or profound, but quirky and provocative. At first glance it might come off as merely a whimsical novel, but the fascinating interplay between the titular assassin and the main character should stir the minds of readers. 

 Historical fiction proved to be a mainstay this year. Last year its success was based on two series (Horatio Hornblower and the Saxon Stories), but in 2011 Bernard Cornwell's Sharpe novels swept the field. Sharpe is a stand-out action hero, almost legendary, but so much more attracts me to the series -- the way Cornwell brings the world the early  of the 19th century so utterly alive, the relationships between the characters, and oh...that wit. Almost every week I share a quotation from a Sharpe novel on my facebook wall because they're just too good to keep to myself.

‎"What I don't understand," Sharpe persevered, "is why she ran away."
"She's probably in love," Hogan explained airily. "Nineteen-year-old girls of respectable families are dangerously susceptible to love because of all the novels they read."
(Sharpe's Havoc)

It's terribly hard to choose between the Sharpe novels, but the three most memorable --

  • Sharpe's Prey, in which Sharpe plays the part of spy during the British siege of Copenhagen. 
  • Sharpe's Fortress, involving an unintentionally hilarious villain and a fantastic ending.
  • Sharpe's Fury is another "Sharpe alone behind enemy lines" story, which I seem to like best of all. 

I did read historical fiction outside of Sharpe, though:

  • The Revolutionist is down as one of my ten favorite books this year. It's the story of Alexander Til, a Russian-American immigrant who returns to his homeland following the collapse of the tsar and the rise of the Bolsheviks. Til is a believer in the cause of the people -- not the state, which gets him into trouble when the new Soviet state turns out to be just as vicious as the old empire. What follows is an intense thriller set during the opening decades of Lenin and Stalin's reign.

Other notable works included Bernard Cornwell's The Fort, Bernard Cornwell's Gallows Thief, and Bernard Cornwell's --  look, I can't help that the man writes brilliant books. His heroes are fantastic, his villains loathsome,  his supporting characters often hilarious, and the relationships between characters done to a T.  Combine that with the plots and the man can't be beaten.

Bernard Cornwell, Author of the Year

It just can't be helped. Moving on --

Last year I jumped back into Star Trek literature and had intended to keep up with new releases throughout the year, but my ability to do so flagged over the summer. And yet, it's one of the stronger categories. Good heavens. I enjoyed the Vanguard series as a whole, but the big standout is Christopher L. Bennett's Over a Torrent Sea

Outside of Star Trek I read a fair bit of science fiction, mostly in finishing Asimov's Empire series. Joe Haldeman's The Accidental Time Machine is definitely worth mentioning, but as far as SF goes I liked The Currents of Space and The Gods Themselves the best.

History is of course my staple, and this year saw me return to Will Durant's Story of Civilization series, along with knocking out volume one of H.G. Well's The Outline of History. My library doesn't have volume II, hence why I've never finished it. The Age of Faith stymied my progress last year, and it took me three attempts to tackle it properly, but once I did it proved to be my favorite of the series. Other fantastic books:

And though I'm hopelessly biased, I won't go without mentioning Montevallo: Images of America, a pictorial history of my beloved university town.

The numbers lie: this was a slow year for science,  a year which I propped up  with books of essays by Asimov and a few "made simple" works. As it happens I'm in the middle of a substantial science read, but it won't be finished until 2012, I'm afraid. Marlene Zuke's Sex on Six Legs and the BBC's Walking with Dinosaurs  were high notes, though. The best would be Jared Diamond's The Third Chimpanzee, which I sort of forgot to review, because I'm a boob.

Religion-wise, I read a few books on the Catholic and Anglican churches as part of my ongoing cultural literacy goal; Why Do Catholics Do That? was a stellar introduction.  Early in the year I enjoyed Robert Wright's The Evolution of God, a naturalistic approach to the development and growth of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

Philosophy and social criticism are related subjects for me, so I shall mention them together. While the Dhammapada was enjoyable, and Michael Pollan's food books were fairly eye-opening (even if they had to be taken with a grain of salt given his anti-scientific slant), the undisputed king this year was Michael Foley's The Age of Absurdity: Why Modern Life Makes it Hard to Be Happy. I read it early last year but just couldn't do it justice in a review, so I read it again in November and tried afresh.  KunstlerCast is a close second: I yelped in surprise to see it listed on Amazon and was positively delighted when I won it from LibraryThing.  I listen to the podcast every week, you see, and practically swear by Kunstler's Geography of Nowhere, so this print version of the conversations Kunstler and his cohost have on suburban sprawl, urban planning, and the global oil economy was right up my alley.

This year marked the first time I've read books relating to health and/or nutrition: The Complete Guide to Walking for Health, Weight loss and Fitness and The Beginning Runner's Handbook are both excellent.

As for next year....I predict that historical fiction will make another strong showing, because I'm not quite done with the Sharpe series yet. I'll be continuing in the Story of Civilization series with The Age of Louis XIV at some point. There are still a fair few Trek lit books I'm just waiting to read, but science books are going take priority when it comes to new acquisitions. I also intend on visiting the nonfiction works of Alison Weir, whose novels I've enjoyed so much.  If  I read Asimov's End of Eternity, I'll be in the awkward position of having read all of his best-known work, save perhaps the collection I, Robot. After that it's just...short story and essay collections for the most part.


  1. cool, I like your stats by genre, I should add that to mine. And I read also a whole series by Cornwell, the Saxon Chronicles. great writer! here is my own 2011 recap:

  2. Wow, that's quite an eclectic year you've had. I read more non-fiction than I normally do but still not that much. I think mine would be dominated by crime (a first for me) and classics. I love your pie chart.

    Hope 2012 is just as good.


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