2011: The Year in Reading

I read a lot of mediocre-to-bad books in 2011, so I’m especially thankful for these ten books, which helped to erase the memory of all those hours slogging through listless chapters with half-baked characters. At least one of these is likely to make it’s way to my Top Ten All-Time Favorites after another read or two, but all of these are, in my opinion, more than worth your time. Dive in, and please take a moment to share your Top Ten of 2011, or your thoughts on any of these  you might have read, in the comments section.  

10.Hyenas by Joe R. Lansdale
Hyenas contains the title novella and an additional short story, “The Boy Who Became Invisible,” both of which are part of Lansdale’s “Hap and Leonard” series. Hap Collins and Leonard Pine are as unlikely a duo as you’re likely to find – if you’ve read any of the books, you know why; if you haven’t, you need to pick one up and find out for yourself. Lansdale has created two enduring and endearing characters in these Texas-born, smart-ass ass-kickers, and he simply loves to put them through the ringer. Like the other entries in the series, there are parts that are laugh-out-loud funny (Lansdale has an amazing knack for writing dialogue, and that talent gets no better showcase then these books), interrupted here and there by sections of suspense and brutality. Lansdale is out to entertain, but he doesn’t sugarcoat; the darker sides of every day life get their due and then some. There are characters you feel real pity for, and characters you’d like to reach through the page and wring their neck, if that was possible. But they all feel real.

Hyenas offers no major twists, no major developments for the characters. It’s simply a story in which Hap and Leonard do what they do best: get into trouble, and then find a way to get out of it. However, as I’ve become more and more invested in this series and these characters, I can’t shake the feeling that one of these days Lansdale is going to break my heart and do something terrible and irrevocable to one of these guys. It’s that kind of world that they live in, after all, a world in which bad things sometimes happen to good people, and you just have to deal with it. I hope I don’t have to deal with it. I want these characters to live on for a good, long time.

9. Devil Red by Joe R. Lansdale
This is probably my least favorite of the full-length “Hap and Leonard” novels so far, so the fact that it still ranks in my Top 10 for the year shows you how much I love this series. It’s not bad, obviously, it just didn’t quite sing for me the way many of the other books about these two have. That being said, it’s still a cracking good yarn involving a serial killer, the Dixie Mafia, and a Sherlock Holmes deerstalker cap, and it stands up well against anything else I read this year.

8. Dead of Night by Jonathan Maberry
My full review of Dead of Night is available elsewhere on this site, and a quick read of that will tell you why this landed on the list. I’m not the biggest fan of zombie fiction, but this breakneck-paced book showed me there’s still life in the unliving. A smart mix of science, commentary and gruesome ghoul action, Dead of Night was one of those books that shoved everything else aside and demanded to be finished immediately.

7. Shivers VI edited by Richard Chizmar
Anthologies are tough to pull off; when you have that many authors in the mix, it’s rare that every story is going to satisfy the reader. More often than not, there are one or two shining stars among a bunch of so-so stories and outright stinkers. Not in this case. In this, the sixth edition of the excellent Shivers series, editor Richard Chizmar found just the right formula for me – a mix of established authors and exciting newcomers creating a table  of contents containing a hard-to-find classic along with several instant classics. All of the Shivers books are worthwhile reads, but as the old saying goes, if you can only read one….

6. The Passage by Justin Cronin
Vampires are probably my least favorite genre mainstay. It’s not that all of the potential has been wrung out of the character, it’s just that there hasn’t been a lot of interesting work involving vampires in the last several years. It took someone outside of the genre to change that perception, and Justin Cronin changed it in a big way. This massive book shows us the beginning of a new plague and the end of the world, and then shoves us forward in time for the fallout. A lot happens in this book, something which can’t always be said for the first books in planned trilogies; we get the setup, yes, but we also get fully fleshed-out characters and plenty of action. Well-paced for its length, the book doesn’t drag; instead, it drags you along. The second book, due out in the fall of 2012, is one of my most anticipated reads for the coming year.

5. Pray to Stay Dead by Mason James Cole
Not only is this the debut novel by the author, it also stands as the debut of Print Is Dead, an imprint of Creeping Hemlock Press devoted exclusively to zombie fiction. It serves both roles as a great kickoff and a hard act to follow. I praised it in my initial review, and my enthusiasm hasn’t waned in the months since I read it. Cole understands that for a story to be more than gore for gore’s sake, there have to be characters you can invest in, and he gives us that in spades. And then he does terrible things to them, all for our entertainment. It’s a propulsive page turner and a sign of great things to come from both the writer and the publisher.

4. The Wave by Susan Casey
The only nonfiction book to make the list this year, this study of monster waves is equal parts scientific examination and adventure story. Casey, who also wrote the excellent Great White Shark book The Devil’s Teeth, smartly bounces back and forth between the scientists studying big waves and the surfers riding them. There are no definitives given because the ocean remains as mysterious a frontier as deep space, but the information we’ve just begun to grasp is fascinating. Equally fascinating is the lives of those who, at a moments notice, will drop everything and hop a plane to remote locales in the hopes of risking grisly, pounding death for the fleeting thrill of catching a monster wave.

3. Kin by Kealan Patrick Burke
Welcome back, Kealan. After a too-long sabbatical Burke roars back with his best full-length novel by far, a grisly tale of serial killing and its aftermath. Picking up where the horror movies always leave off, Burke follows the lone survivor of a despical attack by a family of backwoods killers as she seeks to put her life back together again and bring some kind of justice to her fallen friends. Kin also follows the killer who let her get away as he deals with the anger of his family and the long-range consequences a survivor brings down on their way of life. Compelling, genuinely frightening and sometimes moving, if it hadn’t been followed by a couple of masters working at the absolute top of their form, it would have easily been my top book of the year.

2. 11/22/63 by Stephen King
King’s big novels often have the same problem for me: the ending. It and Under the Dome typify this, as in my opinion both were excellent novels that tripped themselves up just short of the finish line. I have no such complaint about 11/22/63, however, because King not only sticks the landing, he absolutely crushes it. This book is a love story wrapped up in a time travel tale, and it’s clear where King’s heart really lay as far as telling this one goes. The part of the story following a modern man’s attempts to stop the assassination of JFK are compelling, well-researched and well-written, but the parts about him falling in love with small-town life and a small-town girl in the early ’60s are the parts that really leap off the page. King crafts great characters and tells a great story, and wraps it all up with some of the most perfect and poignant final pages of his career.

1. The Five by Robert McCammon
Like Kealan Patrick Burke, Robert McCammon once took a break from publishing (one much longer than the break Burke took), and like Burke he came back better than ever. The Five catches him in full stride. It’s the story of a rock-n-roll band forever on the edge of breaking through, dealing with the rigors of endless touring and semi-stardom. Just as things begin to swing their way, they catch the eye of a crazed veteran, a man armed with a gun and a vendetta. The ensuing events push them to stardom and to the edge, and it’s only a question of where they’ll go first – over the top, or over the edge. McCammon has created a cast of characters that will long stand among his best, and has written a book that stands shoulder-to-shoulder with his masterpiece A Boy’s Life. It was a pleasure to read, and one which I look forward to revisiting many times in the years to come.

So, there you have it. If you’re interested in seeing a list of every book I read this year you can find it here, along with lists from the last couple of years and a rundown of what I’m reading now.

There are several books on the horizon, some new and some that have just been in my To-Be-Read pile for a while, that I’m looking forward to reading in 2012, including:

The Dark Tower: The Wind Through the Keyhole by Stephen King
Dr. Sleep by Stephen King
Abarat Book Three: Absolute Midnight by Clive Barker
All the Earth, Thrown to the Sky by Joe R. Lansdale
The Doll by Daphne du Maurier
Edge of Dark Water by Joe R. Lansdale
The Twelve by Justin Cronin

What books did you enjoy in 2011? What are you looking forward to in 2012?