Thursday, 29 December 2011

Scribble City Central's Best Books of 2011

Best Books of 2011? How on earth to choose?  I've read so many wonderful books this year - 2011 has been a veritable treasure-house of offerings.  There have been new novels from authors who are already favourites of mine, and I've also had the exciting adventure of reading great debuts from new writers who I know will be favourites of the future. The books I've chosen here are ones which have stuck in my memory for one reason or another - and from me that is the ultimate compliment.  I read very very fast indeed, and don't tend to retain much.  If I did, my brain would overload and explode.  I make no apologies for the fantasy-heavy bias - that's what I enjoy most, and this list is about what has given me most pleasure.  So, without further ado, and in no particular order (except alphabetically by author), here are my choices for 2011....

Cold Magic (Spiritwalker 1) by Kate Elliott
This is the first in a new adult fantasy series from an American writer I've rated highly for a long time.  I've enjoyed watching her style develop and mature with each series she writes, and I particularly liked this book because, while the quasi-Victorian/Industrial Revolution world she has created is still rich and full of colour and imagination, I felt that this time she reined back on the tendency to overcomplicate her plots, which sometimes make her earlier books harder work than they need to be.  I'm always a fan of strong, rebellious female characters (being a rebel myself), and Cat Barahal spoke to me very strongly indeed.  Kate Elliott mixes together the Wild Hunt, ruthless mages, dragons, and a new kind of magic in a brew which I'm eager to taste further.  The second book, Cold Fire is out now, and I'm off to indulge my Kindle habit!

The Scottish Prisoner (A Lord John Grey Novel) by Diana Gabaldon
Diana Gabaldon's Jacobite hero, Jamie Fraser has been my guilty pleasure for many years. This is not one of the 'main' novels about him, but rather covers the years when he is employed as a groom in the Lake District after he is released from prison.  I'm not, in general, such a fan of the spin-off series about Lord John Grey, but the moment I heard that Jamie featured largely in this one, I knew I would be hooked, and how right I was. You know how satisfying it is when an author fills in backstory details about one of your favourite characters? Well, that.  The writing here is as good as the early books, and I'd recommend it as a morsel to satisfy those of us who are waiting hungrily for Diana to give us the big finish of Jamie's series sometime in the distant future! If you haven't yet encountered the Outlander books, then do read the first two at least before you delve into this one.  I promise you're in for a treat. Go and buy them immediately (but only if you like historical romance with a bit of time-travel thrown in, and a seriously adult hot hunk of kilted wonderfulness).  Told you it was a guilty pleasure!

David by Mary Hoffman
Why this wonderfully imagined tale of the boy who was Michelangelo's model for the eponymous statue has not been on every prize list this year, I cannot fathom. 2011 Book Prize judges, are you listening?  You are clearly barking not to have included it.  Not only does Mary write quite beautifully and tell a gripping tale but by golly she knows her Italy and her history. When she was a guest on SCC earlier in the year, this is what I said:
After reading Mary's marvellous book, [David] exists inside my head, 3D still, but reincarnated as a living, breathing, gloriously beddable Renaissance boy called Gabriele. To be honest with you, dear readers, I could go on about this book for hours. Not only is it a marvellously plotted story, taking known historical facts and interweaving them with nuggets of possibility into a seamless whole, but it also rekindled my long-buried interest in art history. It made me look at Michelangelo's sculpture in a whole new light, made me, as a writer, think as well about the hidden things behind all art--the myriad histories lost in time and waiting for a teller to give them life.
I haven't changed my mind.  Read it.  You won't be disappointed.

Graveminder by Melissa Marr
I suppose you could call this a zombie novel, which is why it is all the more extraordinary that I am including it in this list. Anybody who knows me even slightly will be aware that I loathe zombies like the plague.  But what Marr has done with this novel is a laudable feat of re-imagining the genre, and I salute her for it (whilst still shuddering gently).  Rebekkah Barrow is the reluctant inheritor of her grandmother Maylene's post as Graveminder to the small town of Claysville, where the dead are walking, unquiet and needing to be laid to rest.  This is a new departure for Marr, best known for her Wicked Lovely faery series, and I will be fascinated to see where she takes Rebekkah's story next.

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller 
You knew there'd be at least one Greek myth-based novel in here, didn't you? This is one of the best retellings I've read in years (if not ever), and that's why I'm making it my Book of the Year. For a debut novel, it's extraordinary - and I think we may have a new Mary Renault on our hands here.  Yes, she's really that good. Miller has brought alive the old story of Achilles and Patroclus (the book is told from Patroclus's point of view),  and given it a fresh and interesting angle.  She clearly knows her Homer and associated sources, but what I really appreciated was the deft, spare beauty of the writing itself.  I hope Bloomsbury know what a treasure they've got here, and I'm hoping this one will win prizes in 2012.  It surely deserves to.  If you only buy a single book on this list, make it this one. 

How to Be A Woman by Caitlin Moran
The only autobiographical entry in my list, and definitely my favourite non-fiction read of the year.  I came across this on Twitter early on in its life, thought I'd give it a go, and laughed my socks off.  If there's a bible for the New Feminism, then this is it. Also, I'm entirely with Moran in the matter of the awfulness of high heels.  This is definitely my most-given-away book of 2011 (to date I've bought 18 copies*), and Lovely Daughter and friends are all talking about it as well - it's definitely polarised opinion among the teens in my life. This is one I shall return to many times.  (*Caitlin - where's my commission?!)

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
Without doubt, this one gets the SCC prize for Most Beautiful Book of 2011, with its sumptuous design and black-edged pages.  It's also a damn good read, and a book I just can't stop thinking about. Surreal scenes from the circus of its title flash across my brain like jewelled hummingbirds, exploding into sparks and snowflakes.  It is unique, original fantasy storytelling at its best, and if Erin Morgenstern can come up with a second novel with as much wow factor as this one has, I shall be positively jealous of her talent!  Fantastical stuff, quite literally.

The Opposite of Amber by Gillian Philip
I've been spoilt for choice by Gillian in 2011, what with this one, and also the second in her marvellous Rebel Angels series, Bloodstone, featuring the fascinating faery brothers Seth and Conal MacGregor, who I've talked about lovingly elsewhere in these pages. However, in this book, Gillian has tackled a difficult subject (teenage prostitution) with great sensitivity.  I already knew she was a great writer.  I know it more now, and The Opposite of Amber had me so gripped from start to finish that I am surprised my fingernails survived the tension.  Here's what I wrote about it in my original review:
This is a brave, wonderful novel which should not just be read by teenagers. It should be read by everyone who cares about making sure that the many real-life girls like Jinn who find themselves in situations similar to this can get help and support and above all knowledge that they absolutely can have other choices in their lives. Buy it for yourself, buy it for others. A real 5* book.
Once again, I haven't changed my mind, and that's why it's here.

The Wise Man's Fear (Kingkiller Chronicle 2) by Patrick Rothfuss
I'd put Patrick Rothfuss in the Robert Jordan, George RR Martin, Melanie Rawn school of epic fantasy.  If the first book in this series (The Name of the Wind) was good, then the second is even better.  The canvas is broad, the imagination on a similar scale, and I particularly like the central framework of Kvothe's inn as the pivot around which the whole story revolves.  There's a sort of zen-like quality to him which reminds me of 'Young Grasshopper's' teachers, Master Po and Master Kan in the Kung Fu movies.  Rothfuss is just a damn good storyteller - the only complaint I have is that I want to read on, and I can't, because the next book won't be out for aeons.  However, as a fellow writer, I understand that it takes time for fantasy worlds to brew and come to the boil, so I forgive him.  If you are a patient sort, do try him out - I think this series will be seen as a classic in years to come.

The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater
This is one of the most recently published on this list, but I know I'll remember it for a long time. I liked Stiefvater's debut series about shapechanging wolves, but this one is in a league of its own (and is, I think, a standalone book).  Kelpies have always fascinated me, and I'm clearly not alone. The particular kelpies in this YA novel are fierce, bloodthirsty - and they sometimes demand the ultimate price from those human jockeys who dare to take part in the Scorpio Races on the shore between land and sea.  Stiefvater's love for and knowledge of horses shines through, and that, together with a bad boy hero and feisty heroine makes for a page-turning read.  I could almost smell the salt and feel the wind on top of the cliffs, and the whole thing has the feel of the wild Western Isles of Scotland. It's nice when an author rings the changes so successfully and doesn't just write the same old same old.  I was really impressed with this one.

Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor
Much has been written about this book, and much praise heaped upon it.  Deservedly so, in my opinion, and also in that of Lovely Daughter, who was up all night finishing it (a rare accolade for her). Once again, it is the richness of Taylor's language which impresses, as well as a superbly imagined story. The way she uses words make me feel as if I've eaten a medieval banquet in a sumptuous room hung with brightly woven tapestries - kind of full and satisfied in both body and spirit.  I had the same sense when I read her 2009 novel for younger readers, Blackbringer, so it's definitely a hallmark of her writing. This one just missed out on being SCC's Best Book of 2011, but only by a whisker.  I think Taylor has a rare talent, and I look forward to more banquets of words from her in the years to come.

That's my Eleven for 2011 - I hope some of them will entice you to read them .  A very Happy New Year and very best wishes to all my Dear Readers when 2012 makes its appearance on Sunday, and thank you all for sticking with me this year. Scribble City Central is in the process of having a blog facelift, so watch out for an exciting new look in January!


Nicky Schmidt said...

Oh Lucy! How could you?! Now I'm going to have to add to the breeding pile of books next to my bed! I found Gillian's Opposite of Amber on my android on Christmas morning, and I am going to just have to keep adding. I love the sound of so many of the books you're recommended here - particularly the one that talks about the awfulness of high heels! Right, that's it, I'm taking next week off, the writing will have to wait, I'm going to be reading!
Brilliant list, thank you for sharing! xx

catdownunder said...

The book stack I sit on is already far too unsteady. How can I add more books?

Juliet said...

Great list -thank you!

Katherine Langrish said...

Beautiful new look to the blog! And some lovely book recommemdations too. In the middle of The Scorpio Races right now, and loving it!

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