Fiction that stayed with me in 2011

I’m finally posting some of my favourites of 2011. You might ask why I post so late. I continue reading and watching movies until the end of December, and sometimes, one of my favourites may be read or watched in the last few days of the year.
I read 196 books in 2011. Since 2008, I have read between 193 and 202 books every year. In 2007, when I was still a bit depressed, I read 165 books, so apparently I read a little more slowly when I am not feeling great. Perhaps I watched more television during this time.
I’ve marked the fiction books below with * if they came out in 2011, and with CAN if the books are Canadian. I generally call this list “Fiction that stayed with me”. I may enjoy a book while I’m reading it, but when you read over 150 books a year, the true test is being able to see if you can still recall the book and feel moved by it months later. There are times when I read a book that is technically brilliant, but it fails to stay with me afterward. These books stayed.

(I expect to post the non-fiction in the next couple of days.)

Fiction that stayed with me in 2011
1. Room by Emma Donoghue- (CAN) This was a big book in 2010, but I didn’t read it until 2011. I read it in January, during a massive snow storm. I read most of it in one sitting. It captivated me. I loved the voice, and the story and it was all I could think about while reading it. I don’t want to give anything away about it, because it’s best to know as little as possible about it while you’re reading it. This is an amazing book. (Yes, I know three people who didn’t like it)

2. Don’t be afraid by Steven Hayward*- (CAN)This was the book that I kept on raving about in 2011. If someone asked me my top read, or what I’d consider most overlooked, this book was on the list. This is a book that should have gotten a lot more attention. It’s the story of a family that is in mourning for their brother/son. The narrator is a 17-year-old named Jim Morrison. This is a novel about family, and grief, and it’s both funny and sad at the same time. It’s quirky and yet true to life and beautiful. There are a couple of scenes that have really stayed in my mind. There’s a lot about memory, and family recollections and scenes from the past interspersed with the present. I loved that all of the characters were imperfect and flawed. Beautiful writing.

3. The Radleys- Matt Haig- Okay, I read a lot of vampire fiction. I’m obsessed. This British book was quite brilliant. It’s the story of a family of vampires who have tried to give up their vampirism to fit into their normal suburban neighbourhood. The daughter in the family is attacked and this provokes her hidden tendencies. The vampirism is a metaphor for social deviance. I thought this was a really interesting look at the vampire mythology. This was a fun book.

4. Into that Darkness by Stephen Price* (CAN)- I think that Stephen Price’s book got a bit of a short shrift due to his wife’s success. (His wife is Esi Edugyan, author of Half Blood Blues). In this book, Price explores what happens after an earthquake destroys the city of Victoria. It’s an apocalyptic tale that reminded me of what I’ve read about The Road (Haven’t read that yet, sorry). It’s also a story about survival and what people do to survive. The Victoria setting made it really interesting for me, since I could identify the places where they were. I think this should have gotten more attention.

5. And me among them by Kristen den Hartog *(CAN)- This is a character study about a giant. The main character is Ruth, a woman who grows to over seven feet tall. This describes her early childhood, and how she is treated. Her parents are unable to deal with their daughter’s gigantism, and their marriage falters as they turn away from each other. Ruth is attracted to a dangerous girl named Suzy, and struggles to fit in. This is a book for anyone who really liked The Girls by Lori Lansens. It has a fairy tale quality, and you must suspend disbelief to read it.

6. Vaclav and Lena* by Haley Tanner- When I was reading this book, I didn’t think it was that special, but I keep on thinking about it. It’s the story of two Russian emigrant children growing up in New York. The book starts out in a simple broken narrative, as the two kids don’t speak much English. There’s a lot of repetition in the structure of the early narrative and it changes over time. They have a friendship and a love for each other, and Vaclav, the boy in the duo, longs to be a magician, while his friend Lena is going to be his lovely assistant. Then they are separated and reunite years later. This is a story about friendship, love and magic. (I should mention that I’m the sappiest sap who ever sapped and I am a hardcore romantic) The author was only 28 when she wrote this, and the book is a debut novel. It might be a little rough, but it really stuck with me.

7. We need to talk about Kevin by Lionel Shriver- A horrific book, but one that writers talk about all the time. I actually tried to read it once before, and gave up because it creeped me out too much. This time I stuck with it, and I’m so happy that I did. This is the story of a mother whose son committed a massacre at his school. The book is told in a series of letters. It’s frank, honest and brutal. This is a book where it really pays to know as little as possible about what you’re going to read. It’s going to disturb you, and it’s going to take you on a ride, but it’s ultimately an extremely masterful book and a masterpiece. I can’t say that I enjoyed reading it, but it’s a complete work of art. (I might go see the movie, but only if I can have some Valium after)

8.Cool Water by Dianne Warren (CAN)- I have to thank my friend Lisa for mentioning this book to me. She asked me if I’d read it and said that she thought it would be a prairie classic. A few people had mentioned it to me, but I hadn’t paid attention until she said that. Part of my problem was that I thought it was historical fiction, because the prologue was historical fiction. I’m so glad that I made it past the prologue. This book is a series of interconnected stories. All of the action takes place in one day, in the small town of Juliet, Saskatchewan. There were some fabulous characters and voices in this book, and it was utterly realistic and iconic. I was really impressed by this book and by the easy way that the author was able to handle the number of characters and the breadth of story. I think she really capture the feel of small town Saskatchewan. The landscape is a character in the story as well.

8. Monoceros by Suzette Mayr* (CAN) – One of the most creative and unconventional books that I read in 2011. The book is set in a high school. In one of the opening chapters, a seventeen-year-old gay boy commits suicide. The following chapters all deal with the reactions of people around him. The guidance counsellor blames himself for not being aware. His secret boyfriend’s girlfriend is relieved. This is a very unconventional story, and the ending is purely fantastical. This was a very non-traditional book. The high school scenes ring true. It seems like a light read, but there’s a lot being said here. This is a highly creative tale about secrecy, grief and how people react. It should have gotten more attention. (Notice a theme in my commentary? I do)

9. Half-Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan* (CAN)- I confess, I read this book too fast and I should re-read it or slow down. It deals with jazz musicians who are living in Paris during the 1940 Nazi occupation. It flits back and forth between the reunion of the musicians 50 years later, and the events of the 1940s. Before reading this, I had never thought about the lives of visiting musicians, or about how people of mixed descent were treated during the Nazi period. I really liked the use of language, and how Edugyan portrayed the slang dialect of the people. I should read this one again. This is a story about betrayal, and jealousy, and how people deal with the things they have done. I was very happy that it won the Giller.

10. The Virgin Cure by Ami McKay* (CAN)- I really liked The Birth House, and I really liked the Virgin Cure. This book is the story of a young woman named Moth. Moth grows up in lower Manhattan in 1871, and is basically sold into slavery, and is groomed to become a prostitute. The title of the book comes from an idea that sleeping with a virgin woman would cure a man of syphilis. The setting and writing was fantastic, and the story and historical information was interesting. Moth explores the Bowery and encounters pick pockets, thieves and a lady doctor who is based on the author’s real-life ancestor. I’d recommend this to anyone who likes Sarah Waters or early Emma Donoghue. It’s a very Dickensian story.

Graphic novels-
I noticed that my favourite graphic novels tend to be personal stories. Considering my love of memoir and personal writing, this makes a lot of sense to me.

-Epileptic by David B- This was my number one graphic novel of the year. Every time I met someone who read graphic novels, I shriek, “Have you read Epileptic?” This graphic novel tells the story of the author’s experiences while growing up. His brother was a severe epileptic and the family tried a number of strategies to try to control his epilepsy. At one point, they even joined a bizarre commune. The epilepsy was depicted as series of demons. This book was nightmarish and intriguing and I read it in one sitting, staying up late. I was worried that it would give me nightmares. (I just re-read my initial review, and my first comment was “Holy shit.”)

– Tangles by Sarah Leavitt- (CAN)This Canadian graphic novel recounts the story of the author’s experiences as her mother develops Alzheimer’s. This is a touching and sad story, and I cried while reading it. It’s also brave and frank, and the author should be commended for her efforts.

Young adult
-Hate List by Jennifer Brown- This YA novel deals with a school shooting. The main character, Val, was the girlfriend of the shooter. The book deals with her past relationship with the shooter, and explores how she deals with the aftermath of the shooting. It really explores how little a person can know about the person they are in love with, and how innocent cruelty can morph into something more. I really enjoyed the moral dilemma in this book. (Also, there’s a really good therapist character, and I have to support this, as the daughter of two social workers ) I thought this was realistic and fascinating. I read it in one sitting.

-Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins
-Lola and the Boy Next Door by Stephanie Perkins*- These two YA books are teen romance novels. The heroines of the books are quirky, and the boys are really swoon worthy. In Anna and the French Kiss, Anna is an American who goes to spend a semester abroad in Paris. She meets a number of new friends, including the very cute Etienne St. Clair. In Lola and the Boy Next Door, the titular Lola is reunited with her inventor neighbour. She has two gay dads and lives in San Francisco. These are great little books and they’re incredibly romantic. (And I’m a romantic sap)

-The Vinyl Princess by Yvonne Prinz- The main character works in a record store, rides a skateboard and is a blogger. She falls in love with boys and has an interesting relationship with her mom. This was a fun read. There’s a lot of music trivia, humour and great characters. I liked that both the main character and her mom were dealing with dating.

Miss Peregrine’s home for Peculiar Children* by Ransom Riggs- This was read and liked by everyone in my book club. The book consists of a very creepy story interspersed with found vintage photographs. These photographs serve to advance the narrative, which is a fantasy story about a boy who sees monsters and goes to a secret world to investigate his grandfather’s past. He meets a multitude of creepy and frightening characters and mutant children. Again, I don’t want to give too much away, but if you love the creepy and weird, you should check this out. My only frustration is that it is going to be part of a series, and it just ended abruptly. I’ll definitely read the sequel.
Ten things we did by Sarah Mlynowski*- In this YA book, the main character decides to take her life in her hands and makes a series of mistakes, which involve buying a hot tub and lying to her parents. In one section, she goes to Planned Parenthood and gets birth control so she can have sex with her boyfriend of two years. Gasp! This rarely happens in teen fiction. This was a bit of a car-wreck of a book, because you knew the character was making mistakes, yet you couldn’t look away from what she was doing. It was a good, fairly light read.

The Annotated Bee and me by Tim Bowling (CAN)- Tim Bowling is a West Coast/Edmonton poet who had beekeeping relatives. This is a beautiful book on family, history, record keeping and memory, complete with lots of facts on bees and bee keeping. The book itself is a work of art.

Disappointments- I was not a fan of The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, which I hated, and I loathed “Sisterhood Everlasting” by Ann Brashares. This book is the fifth book in the Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants series. It definitely my pick for the dumbest book of the year. I abandon a lot of books, but I insisted on finishing both of these books.

4 thoughts on “Fiction that stayed with me in 2011

  1. I just picked up Epileptic a week or so ago – it’s totally at the top of my “to read” pile. Is it fiction? For some reason I thought it was a memoir.

    Of course there’s that great line in… Oh damn…. I forget the movies name… anyway a creative writing teacher says to one of his students who had just read a story to the class about a … um… one night stand(?) she had with the teacher “I don’t know what happened, but every time we write it becomes fiction” (or something to that effect). Despite the fact that he was sort of saying it to deny what happened I often think of that line when writing about myself or reading other personal writing or memoirs and wonder what has been left out… what is exaggerated… what it “real”… etc…?

      1. That is Joe Sacco’s big pet peeve with book length comics – calling them “Graphic Novels”, when many – including all of his – are not “novels” at all… Journalism, History, Memoir…

        What DO we call them when they are in comic form…? ‘Graphic Journalism”? “Graphic History”? “Graphic Memoir”? “Graphic” itself obviously has a whole different meaning (vivid or explicit) that could just likely be associated in the context of those names which doesn’t really fit either or could be equally misleading….

        Oh, the movie was called “Storytelling” and according to imdb the quote was “I don’t know about what happened… because once you start writing, it ALL becomes fiction.”

        Definitely going to have to look up Tangles, too – for both me and my mom – Her step father had Alzheimer’s and because of that she was very involved in the Alzheimer’s Association for many, many years.

        Thanks again for bringing that one to my attention.

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