Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Top 10 of 2011

I was pretty pleased with myself in 2010, having doubled my reading from 2009, but this year takes the cake. I hit my goal of reading 100 books (in fact, as of today, I've read 109!).

Despite the increased reads, however, I had much harder time picking my top ten reads for this year. I enjoyed the majority of the books I read and only a few stood out to me as very clear winners for top ten.

Rating books is still a challenge: last year I scored out of five, but I gave that up as it felt sort of arbitrary. This year I switched to ranking things as liked and loved (or hated). Still, something is flawed: in total, I 'loved' 21 books this year, but weirdly enough, only six of them made my top ten. For me, a top ten is not just books that I enjoyed in the moment, but books I can't stop chewing over and thinking about and most importantly, pushing on my friends. They're books I want to reread.

This year, six of the writers on this list are male, as opposed to last year, when I read seven male authors for the whole year. (This year, I read thirty-two books written by men.)   The list is mostly fiction -- four historical novels, two short story collections -- but there is one piece of non-fiction.  One is self-published!  And eight of these books I've subsequently purchased for someone in my life.

Tell me about your top tens and what you think of this list -- and clue me in to anything I should read in 2012!

Unabridged Chick's Top Ten Reads of 2011

Michael Alenyikov, Ivan and Misha

This collection of interconnected short stories has everything I want in a book: characters who feel real, writing that makes me jubilant, and an emotional journey that moves me by the end.  I never expected Russian emigres in New York City to do that, but there you go.

Lynn Cullen, Reign of Madness

Famously making me miss my train stop on numerous occasions, this historical novel just gripped me from the first page.  While I'm not always a fan of royalty-centered historical fiction, Cullen made Juana and her story real for me.  There is royal intrigue (and for those who love Tudor-fic, there is some tangential connection!) and some sex, but the real story is Juana's development -- and eventual imprisonment.  One of my favorite heroines of the year, hands down.

Evan Fallenberg, When We Danced on Water

I liked this book a good deal upon finishing it, but as time has gone on, I've not stopped mulling over the story and characters.  I've gone from like to love as the story ages in my mind, and at least four times this year I picked this book up again, revisiting the language and story.  The unusual main characters -- an 85-year old retired ballet dancer and a 40-ish waitress -- haunt me still.

Thomas Hardy, Far From the Madding Crowd

Wins for best-named heroine of the year, I think.  It took me almost six months to read but that was my fault, not the book's: I kept delaying finishing it.  Satisfyingly over-the-top dramatic, this book wins for most elaborate love entanglement, plus most livestock deaths of the year (honestly, sheep, it's a miracle you live).  I got my copy via Project Gutenberg, hence the lack of pretty cover image.

Stephen King, Lisey’s Story

Thanks to my wife, this was my first King novel in over a decade, and I was stunned at how much I enjoyed it.  Lisey's story (ha!) immediately gripped me, and I was touched by King's articulation of an intense but loving marriage.  Creepy -- with one out-and-out horrifying moment -- this is more a fantastical book than a scary one, and I can't stop recommending it.

David Lodge, A Man of Parts

I still get cringe-y and stomach ache-y when I think of this book, and that's how I know it had to be in my top ten.  This book was great -- well-written, vibrantly characterized, dramatic, sexy, and deeply provoking -- and it pushed my buttons, made me emotional, and caused me to step back and consider my prejudices, knee-jerk reactions, and values.  I had no idea H.G. Wells was so interesting!

Tara L. Masih, Where the Dog Star Never Glows

Upon finishing this book, I declared (in March) that this would be a top ten read for 2011 and unsurprisingly, it's still on the list.  This collection of short stories captivated me -- it's the kind of book I want to put in everyone's hands.  Seriously, if I could afford to buy everyone a copy, I would!  Short story fan or not, consider this collection, because anyone who loves a suck-in-your-breath moment will find it in spades here. 

Mirella Sichirollo Patzer, The Blighted Troth

I love historical novels with unique settings, and this one -- 1700s and the St. Lawrence River-area in New France -- grabbed me immediately.  Although a contemporary novel, this reads like a delicious 18th century Gothic -- shades of Matthew Lewis and Ann Radcliffe -- and I loved every page.  It's got every awesome element of a Gothic, too: wicked villains, virtuous heroines, mysterious nuns, a reformed ruffian, and much gallivanting across the countryside.

Molly Peacock, The Paper Garden

I love my e-reader with my whole body and I'm not one of those book bloggers who gets all bent out of shape about e-books. However, this book is the kind of book that must be experienced viscerally, in person, as the physical edition is as delicious as the content within.  Peacock's biography of the woman who invented collage isn't a twee story about a crafty woman, but a sharp look at vocation, artistic temperament, creativity, love, marriage, passion, and everything in between.  The physical book is perfectly sized for reading, holding, lingering, marveling, and the full color plates don't hurt, either.

Simon Van Booy, Everything Beautiful Began After

If this book had been around when I was in college, I'm pretty sure I would have tried to crawl in to it and embody it.  The writing is dreamy and poetic, reminding me of Lawrence Durrell, and the story twisting and painful and romantic  The unique and varied writing style is what saved this story from being trite, overwrought, or excessive: from a stint in second person to a one-sided correspondence, Van Booy plays with language and narrative in a way that captivated me.


  1. When We Danced on Water will make my Top 10 list for sure. I'm still working on mine. Hope to read Everything Beautiful Began After in the new year, so glad to see it made your list.

  2. What an interesting list! Sadly, I've read none of them!

  3. @Anna: I can't wait to see your list! I'm looking forward to your thoughts on Everything Beautiful Began After -- it really exceeded my expectations.

    @Rhapsody: I don't even know which one to urge on you first! :)

  4. It's funny how many of these have been put on my TBR list because of your reviews, Audra! I don't think we have any overlap on our lists, though. Mine will be out next week. Thanks for sharing your insights with us in 2011!

  5. I agree with your feelings about ratings. Although I do rate books, I almost think I should revisit them after 6 months to see which ones have stayed with me.

    Haven't read any of the books you've listed, but Everything Beautiful Began After is very high on my wish list.

  6. Congrats on reaching and breaking your goal! That always feels good.

    I understand your rating system. I too find it hard to rate a book by stars. Just because a book is or isn't my cup of tea, doesn't mean that others will think the same thing about it. To be honest, I love your reviews. They are different, and that's awesome. Don't change a thing!!!

  7. Audra,if I had a list of top ten bloggers, you'd be on it. Your reviews are charming, enthusiastic, intelligent, and genuine. I get fired up just reading them. To have REIGN OF MADNESS named as one of your picks for 2011--well, I'm just giddy. Thanks so much for including it. Here's to train-stop-missing reading in 2012!

  8. A lot of great books on this list! I have read a few of them, and have to agree with your assessment on them. I also read a lot of books this year, but for some reason, not a lot stood out to me. I can't say what it was about what I was reading, but I definitely noticed a decline this year among all the others.

  9. These Best of 2011 lists that people are compiling are really emphasizing to me just how out of the reading loop I have been this year. I haven't read a single book on your best of list, which certainly seems like a huge oversight on my part. I do at least have a copy of the Van Booy, so that has to count for something, right?

  10. Yay for a Stephen King book making your top ten! I haven't read any of these, but I'll definitely be more likely to now :)

  11. Yay on meeting your reading goals, and super-yay on exceeding them. I've been wanting to read the David Lodge book and I have a friend who recommends Everything Beautiful...but for the most part your books are unknown to me. I love hearing about great new-to-me books!

  12. And I have read none of those :/ But at least I did read a book about Juana and it was good, and so very very sad

  13. Goodness, I have not read a single one of these! It's such an eclectic list, which I love. I'm still piecing together my list (and I'm reading until the New Year!), but it's so fun to look back on a year of reading and see what really stands out.

  14. I thought for sure The Oracle of Stamboul would be in your top ten. At least it will be on mine. ;-)

  15. I am SO excited you did this. I haven't even read one of these books. I have a whole complete, new list to read now. Thanks Wonder Woman!

  16. I had planned to squeeze in Van Booy's book before the end of the year, but I don't think I'm gonna make it. :(

    Congrats on hitting 100 this year! I also read 100 as of last week. I think I'll read about 107 by the end of next week. *fingers crossed* But it's making it SO difficult to create a Best Of list! I think I'm going to cheat and create several. ;)

  17. Oh my goodness. What an honour it is for my book to be on your list! Audra, you have made my year! Thank you so much for reading my book. There is nothing more gratifying than when someone reads and enjoys it. May you and your wife enjoy many blessings in the coming year.

    Mirella Sichirollo Patzer

  18. @Col: I'm so pleased -- I hope you like those reads! If you do read any of them, let me know what you think. I can't wait to see your top ten!

    @JoAnn: It's amazed me the way some books have stuck with me -- that's how I know they're keepers!

    @Allison: Thank you and *thank you*. I so appreciate your enthusiasm and feedback -- I love gushing about books and I'm delighted and thrilled that it translates well (and in to something useful!). Thank you for reading me and your kind words -- you've made my month!

  19. Great list, Audra. I haven't read any of those, but do have a couple on my wish list. I'm looking forward to your 2012 reviews.

  20. The Simon van Booy would have almost made my best of list. Almost. Other than that I haven't read any of your books!

  21. Audra, So honored to have made your list. And to see that we XY's have not quite outlived our usefulness.

    michael alenyikov

  22. @Lynn: !!!!!!!!!!!! I'm giddy now, too, so we can be co-presidents of the Giddy Mutual Admiration Society! ;) Thank you, thank you.

  23. I have not read any of these, but I'm looking forward to reading When we danced on Water and Ivan and Misha in the new year. Molly Peacock's book is something that interests me given I enjoy her poetry and Poetry Circle book.

  24. oooh I'm happy Reign of Madness made your list! I am still dying to read a copy after your review! Nice list, with several books on there I'd love to read!

  25. 109 is impressive! I'm at about 20 less. Have The Paper Garden and Everything Beautiful Began After on the wishlist because of the exciting reviews I've been reading about them all year.

    Regarding Far From The Madding Crowd, also loved it and my favorite of the year - Vanity Fair - also took my about 6 months to finish. Slow progress but oh-so-good. I'll publish my best-of list next week.

  26. I love your review format as well, Audra :) It's so specific, and to me, that's so important given the fact that just bc I didn't connect with a book doesn't mean someone else won't. Your reviews help me to look for the details I know I would enjoy and/or that would get on my nerves. I have several of these on my WishList...the Steven King and The Paper Garden are pretty high up on that list. The Best of 2011 lists always add a ton of books to my TBR lists! :)

  27. I think you have just sold me in Reign of Madness! I have been seeing it around, but you make it sound irresistible. Great list!

  28. Congrats on reading 109 books! Thanks for putting together this list. It's great that you didn't go with the standard best sellers but included ones that deserve national recognition.

  29. @Heather: I feel you -- it was a weird reading year for me. I was shocked that so few of the 'loveds' ended up on this list in the end.

    @Steph: This has been my first real book blogger year in which I've read a majority of books for review than my own picks -- that's certainly skewed this list, for good and bad. Can't wait to see what you think of the Van Booy!

    @Laura: I couldn't believe it! My wife is thrilled. ;)

    @As the Crowe...: I am so thrilled I made my goal -- it was work, but worth it! The David Lodge was great -- I practically hated it while reading it, because it made me so twitchy, in a good way!

    @Blodeuedd: I think you'd *love* Reign of Madness!

  30. What a great list. I know I've added several of these to my TBR list based on your reviews.

  31. Fantastic list. The first on your list, though, is the one I keep coming back to. Why have I not read it yet?

    As for Paper Garden, agreed. It was truly a reading experience and a gorgeous book.

    Happy New Year!