Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Favorite Books of 2011

Sandra Parshall
When I can look back over my list of books I’ve read or listened to since January and find more than a dozen that I loved and would recommend enthusiastically, I know it’s been an outstanding year for fiction.

As usual, most of the novels I’ve read have been crime fiction, but one unclassifiable book stands out as a gorgeous exercise of a writer’s extravagant imagination: The Night Circus. Erin Morgenstern’s first novel has its flaws like any book, but it’s worth reading for the imagery alone. The author proves what we sometimes tend to forget, that words alone can paint as powerful a picture as any film.

This year I also let down my guard against “supernatural mysteries” and fell in love with Michael 
 Koryta’s writing. I read So Cold the River, Koryta’s first paranormal novel, last year and loved the writing but wasn’t entirely persuaded that the story was my kind of thing. After reading Cypress House, a genuine thriller that happens to include talking corpses and glimpses of the future, I was a fan. I enjoyed The Ridge just as much. These are gritty, violent books, not for those with delicate sensibilities, but the writing is amazing and the supernatural elements add to rather than detract from the stories.

Two new writers joined my list of favorite, must-read authors: Chevy Stevens and S.J. Watson. Stevens’s first novel, Still Missing, is a woman’s gripping first-person account of her year as the captive of a lunatic and her eventual escape. Her second book, Never Knowing, is in many ways even more compelling, as it follows a young woman, adopted as a baby, through her discovery of her real parents’ identities and into a disastrously tangled relationship with the rapist who fathered her.

S.J. Watson’s debut novel, Before I Go to Sleep, is stunning. I was riveted by this story of a woman who has suffered a head injury and now loses her memory every time she goes to sleep. Christine wakes each morning not knowing who or where she is, who the man in bed with her is, or what her life was up to that moment. Assisted by a doctor, finding ways to get around her recurrent memory loss, Christine secretly pieces together her identity and the horrifying truth behind her injury. This is an amazing and terrifying psychological suspense novel.

I loved the latest books by writers already firmly ensconced on my favorite authors list: Iron House by John Hart; Started Early, Took My Dog by Kate Atkinson; The Accident by Linwood Barclay; The Death Instinct by Jed Rubenfeld; The Silent Girl by Tess Gerritsen; Love You More by Lisa Gardiner.

 My two favorite novels of the year, though, were Fallen by Karin Slaughter and End of the Wasp Season by Denise Mina. Both feature strong female cops investigating crimes that strike close to home. Fallen brings together Will Trent, Sara Linton, and Faith Mitchell in a tumultuous story that begins when Faith’s mother, once a Georgia Bureau of Investigation agent like Faith, is kidnapped. Slaughter’s characters are hauntingly real, and her writing thrums with energy.

Denise Mina’s End of the Wasp Season is set in Ireland and has Detective Alex Morrow, heavily pregnant and about to go on maternity leave, chasing down the brutal killers of a young woman who seemed to have no enemies. The reader knows from the beginning who committed the crime, and the knowledge heightens rather than dampens the suspense as Alex begins to circle them – and realizes that the crime touches her personally.

I read others that I enjoyed, but these were the standouts, the books I know I’ll remember a year from now. And I have a bunch of 2011 books yet to read -- Margaret Maron's Three-Day Town, for example -- that I know I will love.

Which books were your favorites this year?


Sheila Connolly said...

What, you had time to read?? (Just kidding.) I was not disappointed by ongoing favorite authors Tana French who added Faithful Place to her shelf this year (I've enjoyed all her books). Among new writers I vote for Sara Henry, whose debut novel Learning to Swim was everything I hoped it would be (we met at Bouchercon a few years ago, long before she sold a book).

Sandra Parshall said...

Let me add another outstanding debut book to my list: CURRENT AFFAIRS by Lane Stone. How could I have left that out?? This book is hilarious, the characters -- three southern women-of-a-certain-age who decide to make their lives more interesting by starting a detective agency, are endearingly flawed and razor-sharp in equal measure. I laughed on almost every page, and I hope we'll see many more Tiara Investigations mysteries in the future.

Sandra Parshall said...

Sheila -- No, of course I don't have time to read! Mostly I listen to books these days, while doing chores. I've decided I should start taking my MP3 player to the grocery store with me -- that's 90 minutes of "reading" time I've been wasting. I can buy groceries on autopilot.

I get a lot of audiobooks from the library, but I also buy some from Audible (where downloads of my 3rd and 4th books are available, btw!). Right now on my MP3 player, I have waiting for me: Galveston, The Devil's Edge, When She Woke.

Sandra Parshall said...

Faithful Place was actually published in 2010 (and got lots of award noms) and was on my favorites list for last year.

Leslie Budewitz said...

Sandy and Sheila, I read French's In the Woods, and would like to keep going, but the library here doesn't have The Likeness (#2) on audio. Would I be lost if I picked up Faithful Place (#3) without having read the Likeness? I do kinda want to see Cassie in action again, though. ...

Sandra Parshall said...

No, you won't be lost. She puts a different character in the lead in each book, and FP is Frank's book. It is BRILLIANT. The other two characters from the first book are not in it. Get it. You'll love it. I found The Likeness disappointing and was afraid FP would be even more so, but I loved it. FP is her best book so far.

Leslie Budewitz said...

Thanks, Sandy -- just added the CD to my library hold list!

kathy d. said...

Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin goes to the top of my list.