This is a list of the best books I read in 2011. The list is not a Top 10. For one thing, it's not in order. Also, not all of the books were published in 2011, though more of them were recent than is typical for me. All of these are books I read for the first time this year: I do a lot of rereading, but none of the reread books struck me as strongly as these did.
- Ship Breaker (Paolo Bacigulpi)
Absolutely the best novel I read this year. I enjoyed the one previous book of his I've read (The Windup Girl) but it did seem a little bit as if he were trying too hard to be dark. Ship Breaker has no such problems. It's ostensibly Young Adult, set in a post-apocalyptic (weather apocalypse version) Lousiana and starts among gangs of ragged youth breaking down old oil tankers for scrap piece by piece. The world-building is perfect, the structure is a concise, perfectly executed update of a classic adventure novel (Kidnapped or Treasure Island) and I would recommend it to anyone.
- Zero History (William Gibson)
Finishes up the Blue Ant / Hubertus Bigend trilogy. When the trilogy started it felt lighter than the previous trilogies; having recently reread them all, I think it stand up very well. Plus, this one is largely about pants, and I appreciate a writer that can take pants seriously.
- What Technology Wants (Kevin Kelly)
Still mulling this one over. Kelly has a manic mix of total full-on messianic tecnology changes everything woo, but is more grounded (and more literate) than 99% of people with equivalent tecnophile woo. If you want a taste, go read this post on how few technologies truly die out. If you think that's neat, you'll like this book.
- A Night in the Lonesome October (Roger Zelazny & Gahan WIlson)
Weird & wonderful. I have a soft spot for books narrated by dogs. Gahan Wilson does the illustrations, he's a gem. This is an older book I would never have heard about without Jo Walton's series of book reviews on Tor, she has a knack for highlighting semi-forgotten books that deserve to be read.
- I Shall Wear Midnight (Terry Pratchett)
Another adult novel. I think the Tiffany Aching books are Pratchett's best works. They have a different tone than the other Discworld novels, and stand alone while working within that world. I think somehow they feel more serious (even though the Discworld novels have tackled some quite serious topics), possibly because Tiffany herself is never played for laughs, though funny things do happen around her. Especially when the Feegles are involved.
- Nobilis: The Game of Sovereign Powers (R. Sean Borgstrom)
This isn't a novel, it's a very strange role-playing game in an extraordinarily beautiful physical book. It's disastrously out of print, tend to go for more than $100 on eBay, and I was lucky enough to find out about it by actually getting to play it at a friend's house, though briefly. I was hooked. I am one of those people who buys gaming books just to read them sometimes (sorry) and this book is a perfect example of why that is a terrible, and yet irresistible habit. On the one hand, it's an interesting game, and should be played. On the other, it's a grand and lunatic work of plotless fiction. Ask nicely, and I may let you look through it.
- Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815, Oxford History of the United States (Gordon S. Wood)
I am in love with the Oxford US history series. This one and the next are long, cover basically everything, and are pretty well paced considering how complete they are attempting to be. If, like me, your understanding of US history between the Constitutional Convention and the War of 1812 is "something something XYZ affair something" then this will get you caught right up. My personal takeaways are mostly about how tenuous the early republic was: all worried about a return to monarchy, re-absorption by England (or some other power), or just falling apart into pieces altogether. From our point in history it all seems so inevitable, but really, none of it was.
- What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848, Oxford History of the United States (Daniel Walker Howe)
Still in love with the Oxford US history series. Lots of juicy stuff here about the increasing role of religion in public life, our emergence as an imperial power, and the truly terrifying white supremacist edge to it all. It's a pretty dark era, with few real heroes: William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, the early abolitionists and activists against Indian genocide. But the presidents are a pretty nasty lot: Jackson (evil), Van Buren (inept), Harrison (dead), Tyler (useless), Polk (imperialist). John Quincy Adams comes across well. Reading about the "acquisition" of California was fun, though, as I now know the genesis of about 50% of the street names in my neighborhood.
- Reamde (Neal Stephenson)
Probably not one of his important books. Totally one of his fun books. And sometimes, it's OK to have a really long, highly improbably adventure story written by a weapons-obsessed nerd. I'm also becoming convinced that, much as many novelists needed to get a 9/11 themed novel out of their system in the last decade, some novelists need to get a World of Warcraft novel out of their system. This is Neal's, and that's just fine.
- Finder: Voice (Carla Speed McNeil)
Finder is one of those graphic novel series that fans get obsessive and evangelical about, and yet somehow most people have never heard of. It's science-fiction with heavy fantasy overtones, is written in this incredibly layered and dense way while having art that is clean and simple and spare and somehow pulls off tricks like having whole clans of characters that are near-clones of each other, and yet you can tell them apart on the page. If you haven't read any Finder, start with the new Dark Horse collected editions, but when you've read those, read this one next.
There are 3 nonfiction books and 7 fiction books on this list. One of the fiction books is a graphic novel, one is an illustrated novel, two are marketed as Young Adult, and one is a game. Almost nothing takes place in the present-day real world, I do tend to science-fiction, fantasy, and history. The YA fiction is fully the equal of the "adult" fiction, and these days I appreciate a well-done "slight" novel as much (or more) as a more ambitious work.