Thursday, December 29, 2011

Top Ten Books of 2011

I have just spent several hours wallowing in my beloved Excel tracking sheet for the books I've read in 2011. I now know such delightful things as how many fantasy novels I read this year (16), which author I read the most of (Janet Evanovich at 5 books), what month I read the most books in (10 books in August), and how my totals stand up to last year's totals (new-to-me authors dropped by 8%, while the number of books I personally authored doubled).

Inspired by Just Can't Know's Top Ten Favorite Books I Read in 2011, I've toiled an extra twenty minutes in winnowing out my favorite ten books out of the 81 I read this year. In the order in which I read them, they are:

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. I trolled through bookstores for months oblivious to this book, aside from admiring the cover. I'm not a huge fan of YA novels. I find it hard to connect to a lot of the themes of many of this genre, and I don't make an effort to hunt them out or read their cover flaps. I would have continued to ignore the whole phenomenon if not for a friend's recommendation and the fact that she literally put the books in my hands. They languished on my shelf for a few weeks before guilt made me pick up the first one, then I wondered what had taken me so long. This trilogy made me break one of my cardinal reading rules: I read all three books back to back. Normally more than one book in a row by the same author can sour the author's voice for me, or cheapen it. It's simply too much at once, but Collins held up through the marathon reading. I can't wait for the movies next year!

Shadowfever by Karen Marie Moning. I fell in love with this series from the first book, and I've been eagerly looking forward to each new installment. Moning's pacing was nonstop, no-holds-barred action from the first book to the last, and while sometimes constant action can be tiring, Moning balanced character development with action in an addictive blend that took me along for Mac's wild and frightening ride. This isn't a series that you can jump into in the middle; you'll lose so much if you don't know the whole story. However, despite the fact that Moning wrote this book after she's written several stand-alone novels about druids and Highlander Scotsmen traveling through time, and this novel is the consequences of their actions, you can skip those—though you'll be missing out on some great books if you do.

Black Magic Sanction by Kim Harrison. I love Kim Harrison. She's one of my heroes. She can fit more into one novel than some authors can in an entire series. Her characters are fresh, interesting, and not at all cliched. She is one of the defining authors of urban fantasy, and while the genre ballooned since she first started the Rachel Morgan series, her novels still continue to shape and instruct the genre as a whole. I was lucky enough to meet Kim Harrison this year at a book signing, and she's inspired me to try out her method of story building. (So far, I'm liking it.) Unlike Moning, Harrison gives enough backstory in each novel that you could start at any book, but why would you want to miss out on anything?

On the Edge by Ilona Andrews. I fell in love with Andrews while reading her Kate Daniels series (Magic Bites, Magic Burns, etc.), and I was thrilled to find a new series to sink into. (I recently learned that Andrews writes 3,000 words a day, which is why despite first being published in 2007, she already has 12 books in print, another 8 ebooks, and several short stories. For those that don't know, 3,000 words a day is about 9-10 pages a day. And for those who think that doesn't sound like much, Hemingway wrote a mere 500 words a day, and if you want to win at NaNo WriMo, writing an entire novel in a month, you only have to write 1,667 words a day. I'm beyond impressed with Andrews, and so thrilled as a reader!) If you love a solid urban fantasy novel, with great characters and interesting magic, check out Andrews. There are two secondary characters in this novel that will win your heart...and there's rumors that they'll be getting their own novel sometime in the future.

Naamah's Blessing by Jacqueline Carey. It's been well documented on this blog how much I love and adore Jacqueline Carey's novels set in this alternate universe. With all Kushiel and Naamah novels by Carey, I strategize when I'll read them because I know that they will consume my life and make anything and everything else I have to do seem like a tedious interruption (sorry, Cody!). Which meant this novel sat on my shelf for several months before work and home life slowed enough to immerse myself. The wait was well worth it. Naamah's Blessing is the third in the series, and again, while you could jump straight into this one, you'll only be hurting yourself. Sadly, this is the last planned novel in this universe as of this date. Up next, Carey's trying her hand at urban fantasy. I can't wait!

Heartmate by Robin D. Owens. As I recently told a friend, reading Robin D. Owens is like active meditation for me: While reading her novels, I am a calmer, happier person, even when the book isn't in my hand. It's the strangest phenomenon, and one I treasure. It's as if her novels speak to the creative core of me, soothing and inspiring it. I don't meditate and never have, but I imagine that's what the lingering benefits of meditation would be like. Heartmate is the novel that started the Celta Heartmate series, and after reading through all eleven currently in the series, I wanted to return to the start to refresh myself with this story. The second read was as good as the first—a paranormal romance with intriguing magic, complex characters, and a fun love story. And Fam animals! A must read.

Plum Lucky by Janet Evanovich. There are several Between-the-Numbers Stephanie Plum novels, but I think this might be my favorite. The basic plot: Diesel and Stephanie team up with a strange man who thinks he's a leprechaun in an effort to save a horse named Doug and Grandma Mazur. Humorous read, check. Hot man, check. Weird secondary characters, check. A horse (!), check. A horse that ends up in an elevator, and a horse that seems to understand English, double check! I put together a list of things I love in a story, and on that list was animals. If they animals are cute, funny, or telepathic, I'm almost guaranteed to love it.

Heartless by Gail Carriger. I think I'm seeing a trend in this list: They're all part of a series! Heartless is the fourth in Carriger's Parasol Protectorate series, and she raised the bar again with this one. To the very, very last line, I thoroughly adored this novel. What's not to like about an infant inconvenience, tea treacles, steampunk inventors, dirigibles, and Victorian proper vampires and werewolves? Did I mention they're tongue-in-cheek funny? I adore this series while simultaneously being jealous of Carriger: She submitted a novel to Literary Agent Kristin Nelson (who I'd love to sign with), who told her that her first book wasn't strong enough to launch as a debut author. Carriger resubmitted with Soulless and Nelson signed her and together they launched a debut book to the New York Times bestseller list. I want to follow in Carriger's footsteps!

Crazy Sexy Diet by Kris Carr. This is the only nonfiction, non-series book to make my top-ten list. I stumbled across this book through a convoluted series of people, flirted a bit with the Crazy Sexy Life blog, and then bought the book. I was intrigued by what would enable someone with stage-four cancer to live a healthy, normal (or better than normal) life for over eight years (and counting). I read it slowly, over a multitude of breakfasts from September through November. I don't know if it was my gradual introduction to the lifestyle and dietary changes or just that I was ready for it, but adapting to her methods (again, just as gradually), hasn't felt that extreme. My husband and I bought a juicer and now juice vegetables for breakfast every day. (My husband's blood pressure dropped from high enough to require medication down to well within the normal range after only two weeks of juicing!)

The Great Hunt by Robert Jordan. Ah, The Wheel of Time. I first read this novel when it was released in the early '90s, and now that the series is finally drawing to a close, I wanted a refresher. I chose the audio version of the book this time, and that was a surprising treat. Who knew exercise could be so much fun when you're listening to a great story? I was shocked by how well I remembered this book, almost scene for scene. It clearly made a solid impression on my teenage mind. Unlike many other epic fantasy authors that I devoured as a teen (David Eddings, Terry Brooks), Jordan's novels withstand the test of maturity. As a much more educated reader and writer, I found myself appreciating different aspects of the novel this time around (character depth, the way he packs in setting descriptors, the pacing), and far less impatient for the story to "get back to" the characters I was in love with as a teen. One thing remains unchanged: I'd still give up indoor plumbing to be an Aes Sedai (and that's saying a lot!).


Amanda said...

I have so many thoughts on your post!

First off, thanks for linking to me, sweets.

Next, when I read in the urban fantasy/paranormal romance genre, you and I have remarkably similar tastes!

I just bought the first Stephanie Plum novel because I remembered how much you like it, and the new movie trailer looks surprisingly light and funny.

I LOVED On the Edge! I can't believe I didn't include it in my Top 10 list. I think I even like it better than the Kate Daniels series (I know, unpopular opinion), though I do like that series very much.

Hunger Games is on my TBR list, especially because the movie is coming out. I resisted for a while because of all the hype (why do I do that? So contrary.), but I can't ignore the clamor anymore.

I'm thinking of writing a post about woman-dislike in fantasy (my friend suggested this as she's reading the Game of Thrones series). Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series was a chief offender for me - I ended up wondering if he even liked women - even though I really liked the books. It's been a while since I read, but I'd love to get your thoughts as I start to write it.

Rebecca Chastain said...


I know what you mean about avoiding books because they're getting so much hype. I do that too. I think it's the idea that it's so hyped, I'm not going to like it, or it isn't going to live up to the expectations. I thought Hunger Games delivered.

I think it's fascinating that you think Robert Jordan's books came across disliking women. Or perhaps not showing them in a favorable light? It has a very masculine epic fantasy flavor to the women for me, which means that the women are strong-willed and opinionated, with men who don't understand them and who try to shove the women into stereotypes that seem to be true from the male characters' POV, but when you see the story from the female characters' POV, are totally fake. Does that make sense? So, for instance, Mat is a easy go-lucky sort of Peter Pan figure who doesn't want to grow up. To him, the women are always bossy and demanding, and when they're not, they're confusing as to why they aren't falling into his arms, or why other ones are. The women who interact with him aren't willing to wait around on his lazy, boyish self to get around to doing what needs to be done, so they give him orders (he interprets it as bossy, they interpret it as things that need to get done). All the women have a similar flavor of believing they're in control of events and need to dictate what will happen...but so do the men. Each believe they are the only ones keeping everyone from falling into the hands of evil, which I always found to be one of Jordan's inside jokes on his characters--they all think they're the only one holding their lives (the book) together, when as the reader, we can see that they're all really just reacting to the events thrown at them.

I was actually just chatting with Cody about how well balanced the Jordan novels are between the sexes. I read on one of his forums years ago when a great deal of hoopla was being generated about the disparity of the ruling characters being "all women." Jordan wrote back, saying that he'd purposely made exactly half of the nation's monarchs female and half male. I thought it was fascinating that so many readers (American, male) saw only a mass of female leaders. It said (says) a lot about our culture and the expectations of leaders and rulers that so many people found it so shocking to have queens and empresses having as much control as the kings.

I think I need a better understanding of what you mean by woman-dislike. Maybe I'm reading novels that don't have this, or maybe I'm bringing my own interpretation to the books that isn't seeing it, but I haven't noticed a trend of woman-dislike. Or maybe I'm just not thinking of the right ones right now. I'm highly intrigued, though!

(Interestingly, it was fantasy authors like Anne McCaffrey who were the first YA authors to introduce me to female characters I could relate to. Until I found fantasy, in junior and high school, all the required fiction reading were about boys and men.)

Rebecca Chastain said...

p.s. Amanda, you should love One for the Money. It is light, funny, and a quick no-brainer, no-particular-mood-needed type of read for me. When I want something light, she's a go-to author.

Amanda said...

I haven't thought about this in a long time, so forgive me if I seem somewhat creaky! First off, I do think that the sexism (I'm still not sure if that's the word I want to use) I find in fantasy appears primarily in fantasy novels by male authors. I think female fantasy authors have combated this with their own brand of kickass female heroine, most notably in urban fantasy. I'm thinking of people like Robert Jordan, G.R.R. Martin, and even Patrick Rothfuss (who I adore).

I got the sense over the first two or three books (I stopped over this as I got too frustrated) that the female characters were stubborn, bossy, and unreasonable to the point of caricature. Because a woman can't be a leader without throwing a tantrum and pulling on her braid every five minutes? And then how the women always bond instantly and then proceed to sit around and talk about how stupid men are and how they are the cause of everything going wrong? And the men always view the women as completely without logic or reason, my very favorite gender stereotype, which is then constantly reinforced by the women acting totally insane.

However, it's occurring to me that this is how the characters act/behave, but the author did, as you noted, assign women roles in the ruling class. To me, it wasn't that women didn't have any purpose in the books, it's just that they were so very unlikable and, to me, played up a lot of stereotypes that I dislike. As a woman, though, I'm sensitive to that - maybe the men were stereotyped too and I never noticed because I wasn't focused on that!

Amanda said...

Wait, was it Nynaeve or Egwene? They're all mixed up in my head. Who's the one who pulls her braid all the time? Is she the same character that was Rand's childhood sweetheart?

Rebecca Chastain said...

It's Nynaeve who is the braid-puller, and Egwene who is the childhood sweetheart. I think of all the women, Nynaeve is the most caricature until maybe the fourth or fifth book, when she has an epiphany and sort of comes into her own. Egwene ends up being my favorite. She has the largest character arc of the women, going from the timid rule follower and most inexperienced to the strongest emotionally and as a leader.

I think there's a stereotypicalness to both the men and women in a way I find almost soft, or familiar. Both the men and women make what seem like irrational decisions all out of a desire to protect everyone else, but they do it in their own ways. I think I view it as Jordan capitalizing on men and women who buy into stereotypes, but he does so while mocking them as a narrator, pointing out that the men are just as gossipy as the women, the women just as logical and protective as the men.

Of course, my extreme love of the series could be clouding my beliefs a bit. I do so ADORE The Wheel of Time.

TikiBird said...

Braid puller! Haha!

Rebecca Chastain said...

TikiBird, you crack me up! (And the braid pulling is obsessive. I'm reading the third book, which has a lot of that character in it, and a lot of it where she's mad, and I swear every paragraph she's mentioned in, she's pulling her braid!)