Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Best Novels of the Year 2011

The Best Novel of the Year was Alex Shakar's LUMINARIUM, which is a hell of a story and smartly technological, neurological, and metaphysical at the same time, the big ideas in witty, sharply written prose.

Good tandem reads were this year's The Spiritual Doorway In The Brain:  A Neurologist's Search For The God Experience by Kevin Nelson, M.D., and last year's My Stroke Of Insight by Harvard scientist Jill Bolte Taylor.

Luminarium was also my year's Best Book About Brothers, with Patrick Dewitt's darkly humorous western, The Sisters Brothers, runner-up in this category.

Best Literary Westerns of the Year:  Susan Froderberg's OLD BORDER ROAD, Craig Johnson's HELL IS EMPTY, Patrick Dewitt's THE SISTERS BROTHERS, and Denis Johnson's TRAIN DREAMS.

Best Literary Mystery/Thrillers of the Year:   Craig Johnson's cross-genre HELL IS EMPTY (which is also a runner-up for the Track of the Cat Award), and Declan Burke's dark and funny ABSOLUTE ZERO COOL.  A longer descriptive list of the year's ten best crime novels will appear here later this week.

The Best Time Travel Novels of the year 2011, from a banner crop, were: Stephen King's 11/22/63, Felix J. Palma's THE MAP OF TIME, and Thomas Mullen's splendid thriller, THE REVISIONISTS.

These three reminded me of all the great time travel novels and movies:  Jack Finney's best work and the Back to the Future trilogy, Richard Matheson's Somewhere In Time, Audrey
Niffenegger's The Time Traveler's Wife, John O'Hara's Appointment in Samarra, and several other good ones dealing with time and fate.

The one anachronism I noted in Stephen King's novel was when the gatekeeper calls the protagonist the "mf" epithet, this in 1958. That ugly term did not enter common vernacular until a few years later when Richard Pryor and some other comedians started using it. I could be wrong about this, but I don't think so.

Perhaps it was merely a clue that the drunken gatekeeper of the rabbit hole (who reminds me of Shakespeare's gate porter in MacBeth) is an out-of-time character.  Later, the protagonist talks with another gatekeeper whose name is something like a play on Auld Lang Syne.

These three time travel books are not to be missed.  A Map of Time also reminds me a bit of the movie Time After Time, starring Mary Steenburgen and Michael McDowell, as H. G. Wells.

And speaking of H. G. Wells, the Best Biographical Novel of the Year goes, hands down, to David Lodge's A MAN OF PARTS.  Lodge illuminates the darker, sexier, least known parts of Wells' biography with an informed and well-imagined light.  The runner-up in this category was Ann Napolitano's novel, A Good Hard Look, which featured events in the life of Flannery O'Connor.

This year's Track of the Cat Award, going to the best literary work featuring a big cat in a symbolic way (fiction or creative non-fiction) goes to Tea Obreht's elegant fable, THE TIGER'S WIFE.  A worthy book to rank with the stellar past winners in this category such as Yann Martel's Life of Pi, Peter Matthiessen's The Snow Leopard, and last year's The Tiger by John Vaillant.  HELL IS EMPTY takes second-place here in this category.

Obreht's novel is chock full of animals, and just as you might say that the book's real literary familiar is Kipling, the literary familiar for Johnson's Hell Is Empty is Dante.     

I read three fine novels by Irish author Alan Glynn this year:  WINTERLAND/THE DARK FIELDS/BLOODLANDThe Dark Fields was made into the movie, Unlimited, which I also reviewed a while back.  Winterland and Bloodland share some of the same characters, so I suppose yet another ----land novel is in the works, making a trilogy.  Bloodland has been named Irish novel of the year and deservedly so, but there were so many excellent Irish crime novels this year that a dozen of them each could have won it. 

The Best Civil War Fiction Award goes to William S. Kerr's THE SHIELD THAT FELL FROM HEAVEN, a novel of ideas which presents a creative alternate view of the generally accepted political lay of the land.

The Best CountryNoir/SouthernGothic/BlueCollar Story Fiction Awards go to VOLT: STORIES by Alan Heathcock, THE OUTLAW ALBUM: STORIES by Daniel Woodrell, and CRIMES IN SOUTHERN INDIANA: STORIES by Frank Bill.    

The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach won for Best Baseball Novel of the Year.

Contending novels worthy of mention here include Last Man in Tower by Aravind Adiga, the author of the wildly comic and worthy Man Booker Prize winner, The White Tiger.  A bit too wordy in this one, but Adiga again demonstrates his grasp of situational power politics with a keen sense of human nature, illustrated with off-edge comic irony.  Recommended.

Another solid entry was Jim Harrison's The Great Leader.  On the surface, Harrison's flawed Janus-faced protagonist chases his own shadow/animal self.  I loved its inspired nuances and little quirky moments, all of which add up to the usually great Harrison novel.  Read Pete Dexter's funny review of it at this link.  But I liked it much more than he did.

You might seek out Rohan Wilson's The Roving Party, which was touted as Blood Meridian-like.  I loved it, though it is not nearly as deep (nor as dark) as McCarthy's masterpiece.  It is similar in surface plot, attitude, punctuation, dialogue, cadence, and vocabulary, though not in philosophy nor symbolism and it is based upon an entirely different history.  I'll review it at length one of these days, when the mood strikes me to read it again.

Most novels being compared to Cormac McCarthy are no such thing, of course.

Daniel Woodrell, author of Winter's Bone and other good ones, when asked (in this interview) about the reviews which compare him to Cormac McCarthy, replied:

"Well, I've certainly read and admired Cormac. However, the books that influenced him also influenced some of the rest of us who are always getting hit with that 'sounds like Cormac' thing. I've read Shakespeare and the Bible and Hemingway and Faulkner as well, and so if that means I have echoes that sound like Cormac it doesn't necessarily mean it comes from Cormac. It comes from the original source. I don't think I'm that much like him, to be honest, but it does come up a lot."

There are two other novels I've recently read that are especially worth mentioning.  Both of them would have made my best lists if I'd been lucky enough to read them when they first came out.  The first is Nicholson Baker's The Anthologist, which brims with spacey humor and lovely poetic turns of phrase.  The second is Teddy Wayne's Kapitoil, which I passed on last year, probably because it was a trade paperback and I wanted to read it in hardcover.

These two are not to be missed in any format, both of them charming, insightful novels.  Detailed reviews of them are not hard to find, but with these, the less you know ahead of time, the better.

This year's winner in the general Best Book Art category was Felix J. Palma's novel, THE MAP OF TIME, dustjacket, frontispiece, title page, and choice of fonts.

The Best Dustjacket or Cover Art of the Year winner was Patrick Dewitt's comic western, THE SISTERS BROTHERS, which has to be seen in person to be fully appreciated.  Runner-up here is Adiga's Last Man In Tower.

Christmas Eve:  My selections of the year's best non-fiction are at this link..

1 comment:

  1. This is just what I was looking for this morning. Thanks. Look forward to seeing the crime novels list.