Monday, December 12, 2011

best of 2011: fiction

It's time for me to foist my opinions on you once again! A few notes before I begin:

  • Not all of these were first released in 2011, but that's when I first read them.
  • The first 4 books listed are in order of preference; the rest are randomly placed.
  • And, as always, your mileage may vary.

1. Swamplandia! by Karen Russell: Ava Bigtree is having a really rough adolescence: her mother dies, her family's tacky alligator tourist attraction begins to go under, and her father and brother defect to the mainland in search of other employment. Ava is left alone in the swamp with dozens of alligators and her dreamy older sister Ossie, who believes she can communicate with ghosts. When Ossie disappears, leaving behind a note in which she claims to have eloped with one of the ghosts, Ava sets out on a perilous journey to rescue her. Filled with gorgeous descriptions and thought-provoking lines, this book found its way into my top ten novels of all time. I'd never read anything quite like it before, and I doubt I ever will again.

2. Say Her Name by Francisco Goldman: I feel weird putting this in the fiction section because it's mostly a true story, but it's listed as a novel on Amazon and the author himself asked that it be classified as fiction, so...yeah. (If it had been categorized as nonfiction, then it would have been my favorite nonfiction book of 2011.)

Anyway, it's a love story about the author's young wife Aura Estrada, a beautiful, feisty, funny Mexican writer who was killed in a freak accident shortly before their second anniversary. One of the most heartbreaking, gutwrenchingly accurate depictions of loss and grief I've ever read. At one point, standing in front of the deli where Aura had her first pastrami sandwich, he writes "Descending into memory like Orpheus to bring Aura out alive for a moment, that's the desperate purpose of all these futile little rites and reenactments." And he does it so vividly that it's impossible not to fall in love with her yourself.

3. The Devil All the Time by Donald Ray Pollock: This deeply unsettling novel revolves around several characters you wouldn't want to meet in a dark alley, or anywhere else for that matter: a man who sacrifices animals to his "prayer log" in hopes of curing his terminally ill wife; married serial killers who slaughter male hitchhikers and photograph the results; a slimy preacher with a taste for underage girls; and cousins who go on the run when their attempt at bringing someone back from the dead goes horribly wrong. Uniting their stories is Arvin, a mostly decent teenage boy searching for redemption in the only way he knows how. Fair warning: this is not a book for everybody, and it goes to some really disturbing places; I had a nightmare about it. But if you think you can handle its intensity, I can't recommend it highly enough.

4. 11/22/63 by Stephen King: Jake Epping is an English teacher living in Maine. One night, his friend Al tells him that there's a portal to the past in back of his diner. Al's been using it to go back and buy beef at 1958 prices, but now that he's terminally ill, he wants Jake to use the portal to go back in time and prevent the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Jake, understandably, thinks Al has lost his mind, but it turns out that Al's telling the truth. Jake decides to go back in time, not only to stop the assassination but to change the sad fate of one of his GED students. But a burgeoning romance with a lovely young librarian and the reluctance of the past to be changed will test Jake in ways he can't even begin to imagine.

Not too many people can top Stephen King at his best, and although 11/22/63 isn't remotely scary, it's an example of King at the top of his game. I had a few minor quibbles, like how the phrase "the past is obdurate" pops up about eight hundred times, but this sprawling behemoth of a book kept me captivated until the end. And oh, that final chapter.

5. The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht: Natalia is a young doctor trying to piece together her grandfather's final days. As she does, she remembers two stories he told her: one about the "deathless man", and one about an abused young bride who becomes the titular tiger's wife. I enjoyed the stories much more than the present-day narrative, but this is still a beautifully written book with the feeling of a fairy tale. And the author is only 26 years old! Yeah, I feel accomplished.

6. The Burning Soul by John Connolly: Private detective Charlie Parker receives a strange client in the form of Randall Haight, a man being harassed by an anonymous person who knows about a crime Haight committed when he was young. Things get even more complicated by the disappearance of a young girl in the area, and all sorts of ugliness comes to light. I was worried that John Connolly was losing his touch, but this is his best work in a long time.

7. Fallen by Karin Slaughter: When GBI agent Faith Mitchell arrives at her mother's house to pick up her baby daughter, she finds chaos: her mother is missing, the baby is locked in the toolshed, and there's an alarming amount of blood everywhere. Oh, and there's a dead man in the laundry room and two more armed men lying in wait. Faith takes down the two gunmen, but finding her mother won't be as easy. Karin Slaughter is one of my favorite authors, and this is another gripping installment with a development about halfway through that ought to make longtime fans very happy.

8. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern: In the late 19th century, two illusionists named Celia and Marco become unwitting participants in a game that can only end badly for one of them. But as they live and work in the night circus of the title, they begin to fall in love. I think the characters could have been fleshed out more, and there's a Japanese character who comes dangerously close to the Inscrutable Asian stereotype, but overall this is a gripping novel with some gorgeous descriptions of the circus.

9. Knockemstiff by Donald Ray Pollock: About two minutes after finishing The Devil All the Time, I requested this book from the library. I'm not generally a big fan of short stories, but this was terrific. The first story, "Real Life", about a young boy whose father goads him into a fight at a drive-in, was my favorite, but they're all excellent.

10. When She Woke by Hillary Jordan: In this dystopian novel (yes, another one!), prisoners have their skin genetically modified as a permanent "scarlet letter". Hannah Payne, convicted of murder for having an illegal abortion, is a Red. When she's released from prison, she's shunned by society, but she is determined to reunite with the man she loves. Occasionally a bit too preachy, and Hannah does something at one point that seemed completely out of character, but it's so compelling and disturbing that I didn't mind too much.