Thoughtful Thursday: Books we loved in 2011

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsTomorrow we’ll be posting our annual Favorites list — the best books we read which were published for the first time in 2011 in print or audio format. Each year we spend many hours preparing this list, and we’re wrapping it up at this moment, but we thought we’d highlight some of our favorites today and ask about your favorite books that were published in 2011. We’ll pick one commenter to win a book from our stacks.

You can find our reviews of each of the novels listed below by clicking on the linked author names. We’ll go in Seniority Order. (That doesn’t mean that the first people on the list are any more senile or more important, or even older, than those at the bottom of the list — just that they were here first.)

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsKat: Walter J. Miller Jr A Canticle for Leibowitz I read 125 books in 2011 and, like last year, most of them were audiobooks and most of my favorites were classics that were published in print long ago and were just recently brought out on audio. In particular, Blackstone Audio, Brilliance Audio, and Audible Frontiers produced a lot of old SFF on audio in 2011 and there are so many great books to choose from! The two that I was most excited about both before and after listening to them were Walter M. Miller Jr.’s A Canticle for Leibowitz and William Gibson’s Neuromancer. Both of these are must-reads for any SFF fan and these excellent audio productions are a delightful way to experience them.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviews Bill:Matthew J. Kirby Icefall The Magician King is my number one choice of the year for Adult books, sharing the honor with Icefall. It’s Lev Grossman’s second book in the FILLORY series and a better book than the first:  thoughtful, substantive, with great characters and great characterization, funny at times, harrowingly terrible at others. It’s both great fantasy and great meta-fantasy, with lots of rewards for the well-read fantasy reader, but also lots of stimulating questions in the more realistic literary fiction vein. A rich, sophisticated work, it lingers in the mind long after reading. According to Kat, our indefatigable leader here, Matthew J. Kirby’s Icefall needs to be categorized in our Best of 2011 List as YA so parents and teens know it’s a good choice for that age group. So you’ll see it listed under “YA.” But I want to be clear here. Without that necessity, I would have picked Icefall as my overall top choice of year, YA label be damned. It’s about as perfect a gem of a novel as can be crafted: incredibly tight, filled with sharply drawn, fully human characters, incredibly tense, emotionally wrought, beautifully individually voiced, stylistically and structurally creative and sophisticated, and written in sparsely lyrical prose that is a perfect match for both theme and setting. Because of the YA/Adult distinction, I’m giving it co-honors as personal book of the year with The Magician King. Different kinds of books, different targeted audiences, but to be honest, the one that lies closest to my heart and the one I’d recommend first to just about anybody is Icefall. So for the purposes of this  blurb, I’m recasting YA from Young Adult to Year’s Awesomest.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviews John: Joe Abercrombie The HeroesJoe Abercrombie’s The Heroes was brilliant on so many levels, but as someone who has spent time as a soldier, the depiction of the camaraderie and companionship shared by the people fighting the war was simply amazing. I can’t tell you how much that means to see an author really get that right. The Rift Walker by Clay & Susan Griffith has kept a compelling series moving. The main characters continue to grow, we are introduced to a wealth of new supporting characters, and the Griffiths have added grit and depth to a world that was already captivating. I love the way they use the different climates of the globe to illustrate the social and physiological evolution of the vampiric race.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsGreg: Douglas Hulick Among ThievesJoe Abercrombie is my personal favorite active fantasy author and The Heroes is my favorite of his books to date. Carnage, characters, and hilariously dark humor are Abercrombie’s mainstays and he seems to only get better with each book. Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence caught some crap for the violence. SWEET!!! It’s one of the best written fantasy debuts I’ve ever read. If the first line doesn’t grab you, maybe you’re just scared. : )Douglas Hulick’s Among Thieves was a great first novel. What fantasy reader doesn’t like a story about thieves already? But Hulick writes underworld characters exceptionally well. And I love how each book in this series will focus on different characters and plots with the only constant being the criminal element of the city.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviews KellyLaini Taylor Daughter of Smoke and Bone: Anne Ursu’s Breadcrumbs is a poignant, beautifully written novel about the end of childhood and beginning of adolescence, told as a fairy tale. It’s aimed at children but will strike a chord with many adults too. Daughter of Smoke and Bone is a tale of angels and demons — but they’re not like the angels and demons you’ve seen before. Laini Taylor’s writing is exquisite and the novel haunting and intricate. Don’t Breathe a Word by Jennifer McMahon will keep you guessing until the last page: was young Lisa taken by the fairies, or by a garden-variety predator? And which is scarier? Creepy, suspenseful, and full of twists.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsStefan: John Joseph Adams Brave New WorldI read a lot of anthologies, and usually they’re a mixed bag. Some strong stories at the front and back, a few to anchor the middle, and the rest is filled with the average to good material. Brave New Worlds is that rare instance of “all killer and no filler.” It contains some recent stories that are among the best I’ve ever read (Paolo Bacigalupi, Matt Williamson, Joe Mastroianni) as well as some great older stories. Brave New Worlds, edited by John Joseph Adams, is the definitive anthology of short dystopian SF, and one of the very best anthologies I’ve ever read. Among Others is a wonderful contemporary fantasy novel, but it’s also a love letter from Jo Walton to science fiction and fantasy. If you found comfort in SFF when you were growing up, and still think back fondly on those first “sense of wonder” experiences, Among Others will take you back to those years — and deliver a wonderfully gripping coming-of-age fantasy story at the same time. This is a book for people who love books.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviews Justin: John Hornor Jacobs Southern GodsI really struggled this year to make time for reading. I had to choose the books I read wisely so as not to waste a single moment. I apparently chose very well since everything I read was very good. Top honors goes to Joe Abercrombie’s The Heroes. It is such an amazing culmination of everything Abercrombie has written so far. The flawed characters, the brutal battles, and the razor-sharp wit. Everything came together perfectly. Next is Patrick Rothfuss’ The Wise Man’s Fear. Rothfuss is a terrific storyteller, and having him take you further into the life of Kvothe is a real treat. I got lost in The Wise Man’s Fear; I would start reading and not look up for hours. John Hornor Jacobs’ Southern Gods is an audiobook that took me by surprise — a well-written scary book with unique southern charm. If you need a change of pace next year, Southern Gods should top your list.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviews Terry: Seanan McGuire One Salt SeaSeanan McGuire’s OCTOBER DAYE series continues to excite and enthrall. In One Salt Sea, Toby is charged with preventing all out war between two faerie kingdoms, but given precious little in the way of time or tools to get the job accomplished. The sadness that seems to always linger below the surface in this series is prominent in this book, changing the idea of Faerie as an idyll to Faerie as red in tooth and claw. It’s a great addition to a strong string of novels. M.L.N. Hanover’s series, THE BLACK SUN’S DAUGHTER, continues to get better with every book. In Killing Rites, Jayne Heller begins to deal with what lives within her own soul, and discovers that perhaps evil isn’t always pure.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviews Marion: China Mieville EmbassytownHaruki Murakami’s IQ84 is a trans-reality love story, and so much more. It’s flawed, but rich and intriguing, filled with compelling characters and observations about life that stayed with me days after I finished the book. In Embassytown, China Miéville creates a literary work about the power of linguistics, a study of colonialism, and a wildly imaginative story — and of course Miéville’s signature semantic virtuosity. In Jon Courtenay Grimwood’s The Fallen Blade — magic and politics play out against an historical Venice, nicely flavored with bits of Shakespeare.

We’ll post our full list tomorrow at noon. Meanwhile, tell us which books are your favorites of 2011 and deserve to be on our list. We’ll pick one commenter to win a book from our stacks.

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KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches and conducts brain research at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.

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  1. Here’s what I like most with FanLit : a precipitate of the best. The panorama is 360° and exciting. Thank you all for the counsels and discoveries all along the year.

  2. sANDYg265 /

    My two favorite books of 2011 were Divergent and One Salt Sea.

  3. So many books, so little time. I took notes though, to increase my ever growing TBR stack.

  4. Justin- You really need to check-out Prince of Thorns when you get a chance. You would love it. :)

  5. Just found “Among Thieves” for $6.60 in Tantor’s Audio Download sale! Hurry it ends on Jan 2.

  6. Oh, my, so much reading goodness. My TBR pile just got quite a bit higher.

  7. I’m with Bill on The Magician King and with Terry on One Salt Sea. Quite liked Jim Butcher’s Ghost story, too. But since discovering the site about eight months ago, I’ve been catching up on a fair number of older titles, too — Emma Bull’s War for the Oaks, which for some reason passed me by, and Elizabeth Bear’s Promethean Age.

  8. Well I haven’t really read that many books this year, but I agree that The Heroes definitely deserves to be on the list. I also enjoyed GRRM’s A Dance with Dragons. I was a little disappointed with how things ended in The Prince of Thorns, it started out superbly but deserved a heftier page count than what it got.
    I also read Theft of Swords which isn’t strictly a 2011 release, it starts the series going nicely though.

  9. Sir Read-a-Lot /

    My favorite book this year was definitely Alloy of Law by Brandon Sanderson. It’s just so much fun.

  10. Fantasist-You didn’t like how Prince of Thorns ended?
    I really liked the ending. I thought Lawrence did an excellent job of wrapping-up that book with a real conclusion, but still left an opening that’s a perfect set-up for the next book.
    Too many series, don’t really have a true conclusion for each book; the reader is left with a cliff-hanger and nothing wrapping-up. I’m not a fan of that.

  11. Yes Greg I do agree that the conclusion made sense and was a good wrap-up. But when I said I was disappointed with how things ended what I meant was that I was underwhelmed by the last third portion of the novel in general. I was just loving the book up until a victorious Jorg returns to his Father after that the novel just seemed like a mess to me. The author used luck to bail out Jorg out of a couple of impossible situations and that just felt contrived to me. Like when Jorg survives his mortal wound and how the Horse kick saves his hide. To me the last third just felt rushed but it may be that I had developed unrealistic expectations about the book. Anyway it was a great book but for the reasons I mentioned it won’t make it into my favorites.

  12. Fantasist- I had the entirely opposite feelings. Personally, the big door-stopper books have wore me out, and I’m impressed by the writer who can tell a good solid story with a much lower page-count.
    And at the risk of what might be a slight
    we know from page one, that Jorg will survive, because he is telling the story.
    ******spoiler over*********

    And luck plays a big factor in most all stories -for that matter,true life does too. Every time an arrow goes through the hero’s shoulder clean instead of mortal heart-shot, that’s luck. Tyrion Lannister from ASoIaF, is one of the luckiest little b@$Tards there is, Bilbo Baggins got lucky many times. The list goes on.

    *******another spoiler alert**************************
    With Jorg, we never truly discover, how much the poisonous thorns affected him -did they grant him super-human ability? For most of the book we never know how much of Jorg’s actions are truly his own will. Plus, to me, he’s just one of those characters, who comes-out on top, regardless. I knew that going-in -or rather I knew it after reading the first few pages- the suspense is just wondering how far he will go, where will Jorg draw the line, and just how successful will his venture be when its over.
    ***spoiler over**********************

    I think it boils down to; does the reader just buy-it that the antagonist is “lucky”, and for Jorg, I did whole-heartily. I still do.

  13. I’m halfway through Among Thieves on audio. Very entertaining!

  14. Tizz, if you live in the USA, you win a book of your choice from our stacks. Please contact me (Tim) with your choice and a US address.

  15. Kat- Great! Glad you are liking it. :)


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