Ana: Hello, I’m Ana.
Thea: And I’m Thea.
Ana & Thea: And we are…[Wyld Stallyns] BOOK SMUGGLERS!!!!!!!
*play facemelting riffs on air guitars*
We’ve brought you some of our favorite authors and bloggers with their reflections on 2011 and plans for 2012… We’ve brought you a crapload of wallet-killing ‘best of’ lists… But now it’s finally time to get our own hands dirty! We have scoured our personal libraries, gone through all our reviews for the year, and we are happy to report that we finally have our final picks ready to go.
We Smugglers are proud to present you with our Most Excellent Books of 2011!
MOST EXCELLENT BOOKS OF 2011
Thea’s Most Excellent List:
If 2010 was a solid year of reading that may not have blown my socks off, 2011 completely took me by surprise and delivered some freakin’ SWEET reads! I had the hardest time compiling my list of top 10 reads because I’ve read so many excellent books in the past twelve months (in fact, I’ve analyzed my ratings this year and the average grade assigned to a book in 2011 is 6.83 – that’s amazing!). In 2011, I reviewed 147 titles (more than last year, huzzah!). While there haven’t been any huge shifts in my reading since last year, I definitely divulged in the awesome proliferation of YA fiction with 84 reviews of YA titles, or 54% of all reviews. Of all titles reviewed, 31% (46 titles) are fantasy, 32% (47 titles) are represented by general SF (science fiction, apocalypse/dystopian fiction and the like), 15% (22 titles) are horror, and 12% are UF (18 titles). Interestingly, I also reviewed 10 historical fiction (SF and straight up historical fic) titles – a trend I hope to expound on next year!
In any case, reflecting on my top 10 books of 2011, the theme is clearly YA and SF centric. But enough of the statistics! Without further ado, I give you my Top 10 Books of 2011.
10. Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
Ready Player One is essential reading for any nerd with any knowledge of/experience growing up in/love of the 1980s. It’s Dungeons and Dragons meets John Hughes meets The Matrix, all wrapped up in a sweet TRS-80 Color Computer 2 package. Ready Player One is unlike anything else I’ve read this year, and what it lacks in depth it makes up for in style. Yes, the book is flawed (and it’s not a book for everyone, as Ana can attest), but even its missteps are endearing because it is so unrestrained and honest with its nerdy-fandom-loving intentions. I wasn’t expecting to include this title in my top 10, but I enjoyed the reading experience so damn much I could not leave it off my list.
9. Divergent by Veronica Roth
A dystopian novel reminiscent of Lois Lowry’s The Giver, crossbred with Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies series, Divergent is a novel I devoured and thoroughly enjoyed as a popcorn, summer blockbuster type of read. I didn’t expect to put this one on my list of top 10 reads this year, but at the end of the day, I can’t think of many books this year I enjoyed as much as Divergent. Exciting, action-packed, and thoroughly, awesomely fun, I couldn’t not include this book on my list. I like popcorn. What can I say?
8. The Gray Wolf Throne by Cinda Williams Chima
The penultimate book in the Seven Realms series, The Gray Wolf Throne is the book where all of the set-up and pent-up tensions from the first three books actually come to a head – and I loved every glorious, torturous second of it. This was Raisa’s book, where she finally comes into her own as Queen, and it is utterly magnificent. I love strong heroines and Raisa’s growth from The Demon King to The Gray Wolf Thone is breathtaking – from a spoiled princess to a queen with the fate of the realm on her shoulders, I can’t think of any current YA heroine that undergoes such a shocking metamorphosis. Oh yeah, and Han and the Jamie Lannister-esque Micah are awesome too.
7. Naamah’s Legacy by Jacqueline Carey
The third and final book in the Naamah Trilogy (set in the same universe as the Kushiel’s Legacy books), Moirin’s story comes to a dramatic and fitting conclusion in Naamah’s Blessing. While Phedre will always be the heroine closest to my heart, I loved Moirin’s story arc (and Bao’s!) *almost* as much – and her adventures in this book, taking her to Terra Nova and the heart of darkness, is cinematic and scope and thoroughly awesome. The only question I have now is, when is Jacqueline Carey coming out with the next Kushiel universe trilogy? Because there has to be more…right?
6. Cleopatra’s Moon by Vicky Alvear Shecter
I can’t believe I almost finished 2011 without reading this book. Cleopatra’s Moon is the historical fiction telling of Cleopatra Selene’s dramatic and tumultous life. From her childhood in Alexandria by the Sea, she is whisked away to Octavianus’s palace in Rome with her two brothers after the deaths of her famous and powerful parents. Cleopatra Selene’s tale is one of struggle and heartbreak, and yet despite the impossible choices Cleopatra Selene must make, her journey of self-discovery and empowerment is timeless. Man, I loved this book.
5. The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente
So maybe Ana and I are cheating with this book because it was previously published in 2010. (Ana has told me that I cannot select Rachel Neumeier’s The City in the Lake because it was previously published, too. ARGH.) But this is the book that I will forever hold all other whimsical, Alice-in-Wonderland-esque middle grade fantasy books against as a yardstick – because Fairyland is just that flipping fantastic. Never condescending and endlessly imaginative, I don’t think I’ll ever stop being amazed at Cat Valente’s eloquence and ability to weave such rich, luscious stories. I can’t say enough about the adventures of (the somewhat heartless) September, the Marquess, SATURDAY!, Ell, and the whole slew of wonderful, magical characters.
4. This Dark Endeavor by Kenneth Oppel
Like Catherynne Valente, Kenneth Oppel is an author that never fails to blow my mind – and This Dark Endeavor is no exception. The story of a young Victor Frankenstein with his twin brother (yes, you read that correctly) Konrad, This Dark Endeavor plants the seeds of obsession and hubris that characterize Shelly’s adult flawed hero. While utterly beautiful in writing and atmosphere, the true reason why This Dark Endeavor succeeds is because of Kenneth Oppel’s rich characterization of young Victor. I’m thrilled this is not only the first book in a series, but also has been optioned and greenlit for film (and with the director of Let Me In at the helm, no less).
3. Blood Red Road by Moira Young
Yet another book I read at the eleventh hour, and I’m SO glad I finally kicked my butt into gear and read this fantastic post-apocalyptic dystopian quest novel. Blood Red Road is the story of Saba, a prickly, at times hard to like heroine, as she (and her baby sister Emmi) goes on a hell-bent mission to save her twin brother Lugh from his captors. Part western, part Mad Max, and written in a style that is giddily reminiscent of Patrick Ness’s fabulous Chaos Walking books, I loved, loved, LOVED Blood Red Road.
2. Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion
It was a close call between A Long Long Sleep and this book for my top spot of the year, because I loved Isaac Marion’s surprisingly romantic, poignant debut. Warm Bodies is the story of “R.” a zombie that can barely speak (thanks to his state of decay), but has no limit to the eloquence of his narrative. The impossible love story that blossoms between Julie and R. is an unlikely but beautiful thing (in a romantically macabre way, naturally). Another book that has been optioned for film, the movie adaptation of this gorgeous gem of a book is already in post-production and slated for release next year – starring the likes of Nicholas Hoult (Beast from X-Men First Class) and John Malkovitch, and directed by Jonathan Levine (the guy that did 50/50), no less. I. Cannot. Wait.
1. A Long Long Sleep by Anna Sheehan
In a recent appeal to readers in a Shelf Awareness email, author Anna Sheehan wrote, “Ever get sick of the horrible passive heroines in a lot of young adult novels? I know I certainly was. I found myself frustrated, reading submissive, self-hating characters who showed all the signs of abuse victims.” In A Long Long Sleep, we follow the journey of Rose – a girl that has been through sixty-four years of stasis sleep and awakes to a world that has been ravaged by war, in which she is utterly alone. It’s the story of a girl who at first glance seems passive and self-loathing, but has immense dimensions of complexity because of her slowly revealed past – a past that is increasingly horrific with each revelation about her family. Most importantly, it’s the story of a character that fights passivity with the strength and the power of her raw grief and rage in order to finally heal. This is a beautiful book, dear readers. It has a special place on my keeper shelf, as one of the best books I’ve read across any year – not just in the context of this list.
So there you have it! My top 10 of 2011. Of the top 10, 6 are YA titles (not including 1 MG title). Overall, 5 books that made the cut are of the post-apocalyptic/dystopians, while 3 are pure fantasy novels, and 2 are historical fiction titles. And that, as they say, is that!
Ana’s Most Excellent List:
I had an amazing reading year. Although I had plenty of duds and Did Not Finish reads, and my average grade assigned to a book is lower than Thea’s at 6.3, there were truly fantastic books ranging from a 7 to a 10 grade. In fact, I gave a perfect 10 to a grand total of 5 books this year and this is AWESOME (although only two of those were given to books published in 2011). I also broke all sorts of personal records: I read and reviewed 139 books which is more than I ever did. Of those, 92 (66%) were written by female writers and 89 were YA (64%). The vast majority of these books were Speculative Fiction (Fantasy, SciFi, Horror, UF, PNR), 23 were Contemporary YA (16% of my total reads – less than I expected considering that I felt this was going to be the Year of the Contemporary YA) and only 4 were Romance novels. One of the main goals I set to myself at the end of 2010 was to read more oldies and I managed to do just that. I read a total of 41 older books (i.e. not published in 2011) which account for nearly 30% of the total. I managed to read plenty of award-winning books and this helped me to discover wonderful authors with huge backlists and some of my favourite discoveries were Connie Willis, Diana Wynne Jones, Franny Billingsley and Marcus Sedgwick. On the down side, a personal failure comes with the meagre number of LGBT stories I read and I will endeavour to do better next year.
With that said, it is finally time to reveal my top 10. I really struggled coming up with this list and at one point I had 13 titles I felt NEEDED to be here. Moving three of those out of the list was painful. But here is my top 10 of 2011:
10. There Is No Dog by Meg Rosoff
At a first glance, There Is No Dog might come across as a zany, surreal and even outrageous story. I mean, it is about Bob, aka GOD: a temperamental, horny teenager who is in charge of our planet and about the huge mess he creates every time he falls in love or has one of his genius/crap ideas. But behind this surreal facade lies a brilliant, insightful, beautiful story about being human, about love and mortality and pain and loss and hope and even miracles. Meg Rosoff is a genius.
9. Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor
I’ve come to learn over the years that Laini Taylor is a true wordsmith: her prose is beautiful beyond words. In Daughter of Smoke and Bone her amazing prose is but one of the excellent aspects of this novel. A Fantasy novel that is part mystery, part romance; a story that is full of nuance and twists and it follows a centuries-old dramatic fight between two species: the Seraphim and the Chimera; a vivid setting and above all, a plethora of characters to fall in love with. Not to mention that the narrator (and main character) Karou has a strong, well-developed personality and is kick-ass and vulnerable at the same time plus her loyalty and devotion to her family is truly beautiful. This is a book to be loved and savoured slowly.
8. The Cloud Roads by Martha Wells
Perhaps the best way to describe The Cloud Roads is thus: this is the most un-cliched traditional Fantasy novel I’ve read lately. It features Moon, a Lonely Hero in search of an identity who discovers that he is in fact, special – but here is the best thing about The Cloud Roads: that his place in society is one that is usually reserved for female characters and this gender role reversal is pretty cool, especially when the female characters are so well done as well. Let’s add to that a fantastic setting, great writing and a world that does not have human characters and this is easily one of the best Fantasy novels I’ve read in recent years. The sequel, The Serpent Sea cannot come soon enough.
7. How to Save a Life by Sara Zarr
The run-of-the-mill blurb of How to Save a Life did not prepare me for the awesomeness inside the covers of this book. There is nothing even remotely ordinary or average about this novel: the story and the characters are raw, intense and dramatic and they cover extreme grief and heartless abuse; the writing is flawless; the narrative, split between two narrators with two completely different voices, takes us through a heartbreaking voyage of self-discovery. There were moments I wanted to walk inside the book so that I could kill a character in order to save a life. But the characters did not need my help – they created their own family, their own means to save themselves. In the end, there were ponies and rainbows and I was ever so grateful for them.
6. Never Knew Another by J.M. Mcdermott
An unnamed main narrator whose narrative voice is stilted and aloof. A narrative within narrative within narrative that should be a mess but never is. A story about monsters that proves to be not about monsters at all but an exploration of nature x nurture. For all intents and purposes, this Fantasy novel should not have worked but Never Knew Another took me completely by surprise and the more I think about it the more I think it is a truly brilliant book. It is certainly the most memorable I’ve read this year: I still remember everything about it very, very vividly. Plus, the meaning behind the title gives me goosebumps to this day.
5. All Men of Genius by Lev A C Rosen
Ah. I LOVED THIS BOOK. If Never Knew Another is the most memorable of the books I’ve read this year, All Men of Genius is the most FUN. Seriously, I was smiling my way through this book, and it was one of the most joyful reading experiences of 2011. It is a Steampunk retelling of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night set in Victorian London and with elements of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest and not only it is not even remotely gimmicky, it is actually really original, well-written and has a diverse cast of characters featuring well-developed LGBT and PoC ones as well as a protagonist trying to redefine gender politics and the roles of women in her society. Seriously now. And did I mention how fun it was?
4. The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente
I agree with Thea. Not only this is the book I will forever hold all other Fantasy MG novels (I have already started doing so) against, it is also the only ever book to receive a 10 from BOTH OF US. It is a remarkable, unforgettable adventurous journey through a vividly imagined world. Do you know when you are reading a book and you love everything about it? Yeah, that’s how I felt about this one. This book is the epitome of what it means to be truly AWED by a story.
3. A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness
I was a complete slobbering mess when I finished reading A Monster Calls. The story is an exploration of a young boy named Conor’s grief and sadness when faced with his mother’s mortality. The execution of the story is what makes it exceptional: it is superb in its storytelling as it celebrates storytelling itself when a monster shows up to tell him 3 stories in return for one story from Conor. This book is a triumph: of the imagination and of the heart. It is everything that is awesome about reading. Plus, it has incredible illustrations. Yes, I was a mess of tears by the end of it – and I was grateful for it too.
2. The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller
A last-minute addition to the list as I only read this book a couple of weeks ago and thanks Zeus I did! This, my friends, is a retelling of the Trojan War narrated by Patroclus – Achilles’ fellow at arms, childhood companion and in this version of the story, the greatest love of his life. It is a powerful story of men and Gods, of war and death but above all, it is a superbly written love story. Another book that made me cry like a baby but in a totally good way. Just to think of it makes me want to hug the book. Again (because I do that sometimes).
1. Chime by Franny Billingsley
As much as I loved every single book in this list, Chime remains my absolutely favourite read of 2011. In fact, I would, if I could, revise its grade to a 10 because it combines everything I love in one book: beautiful, lyrical (but never purple) writing; an unreliable narrator and a weird story full of surprises; a wholly original mythology; an amazing, fierce, fascinating heroine who is, quite possibly, my favourite heroine of 2011; not to mention a swoon-worthy romance that goes from friendship to love AND a look at gender roles and dynamics. I truly loved this book with a force of a thousand supernovas. It has “Ana” written all over it and this it deserves my top spot here.
So, there you go, my top 10: 5 YA novels, 2 MG, all of them Speculative Fiction apart from How to Save a Life, the only Contemporary pick. I am very, very happy with my choices.
Most Honorable Mentions of 2011
Holy crap, we read a ton of awesome books this year. While we couldn’t squeeze all of them into the top 10 (and let us tell you, it was a a very close call), we are thrilled to give the titles on the extended list a shout out here. We apologize in advance for the length of this list (after making the painful 10 title cut, there was no way we were going to limit this list to only 10!) In no particular order:
Thea’s Most Honorable Mentions:
1. The Princess Curse by Merrie Haskell
2. The Floating Islands by Rachel Neumeier
3. Cold Fire by Kate Elliott
4. The Isle of Blood by Rick Yancey
5. Working Stiff by Rachel Caine
6. Slice of Cherry by Dia Reeves
7. Plague by Michael Grant
8. Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu
9. Eona by Alison Goodman
10. The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson
11. Icefall by Matthew J. Kirby
12. Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey
13. Fury by Elizabeth Miles
14. The Dark and Hollow Places by Carrie Ryan
15. Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs
(Just a note – cutting this list down to 15 was very, very hard for me. And I’ve left off some titles because Ana has already included them and I figure that’s good enough…right?)
Ana’s Most Honorable Mentions:
1. The Thirteen Secrets series by Michelle Harrison
2. Sleight of Hand by Peter S Beagle
3. Broken by Susan Jane Bigelow
4. The Demon’s Surrender by Sarah Rees Brennan
5. Burn Bright by Marianne de Pierres
6. Spinning Out by David Stahler Jr
7. The Near Witch by Victoria Schwab
8. Okay For Now by Gary D Schmidt
9. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
10. The Shattering by Karen Healey
11. Fury by Elizabeth Miles
12. The Name of the Star by Maureen Johnson
13. Dark of the Moon by Tracy Barrett
14. Midwinterblood by Marcus Sedgewick
15. The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater
Most Excellent Books Published PRIOR to 2011
Last list. Promise. There are a treasure trove of awesome pre-2011 books that both Ana and I have read this year, and here are a few of our favorites:
Thea’s Most Excellent Oldies:
1. The City in the Lake by Rachel Neumeier (This book would EASILY have been on my top 10 had it not been published prior to 2011. ARGH!)
1. Cold Magic by Kate Elliott
2. The Thirteen Treasures by Michelle Harrison
3. The Sisters of the Sword series by Maya Snow
4. Skybreaker by Kenneth Oppel
5. Dark Matter by Michelle Paver
6. The Swan Maiden by Heather Tomlinson
7. Toads and Diamonds by Heather Tomlinson
8. Married with Zombies by Jesse Petersen
9. What Momma Left Me by Renee Watson
10. A Tale Dark and Grimm by Adam Gidwitz
Ana’s Most Excellent Oldies:
1. The City in the Lake by Rachel Neumeier
2. Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones
3. One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia
4. Blackout/All Clear by Connie Willis
5 Doomsday Book by Connie Willis
6. To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis
7. Daddy Long Legs by Jean Webster
8. The Broken Kingdoms by N.K.Jemisin
9. Redemption in Indigo by Karen Lord
10. This is Shyness by Leanne Hall
Most Highly Anticipated Books of 2012
In order to save this post from getting any longer, we’ve already posted our top 20 most highly coveted books of 2012! Make sure to check them out:
And with that we, your Friendly Neighborhood Book Smugglers, close the books on 2011. Bring it on, 2012!
And be Excellent to Each Other, dudes!