Talk About Getting Lost In a Book: Our Favorite Fiction of 2011

The barriers to publishing fiction seem to tumble lower and lower to the ground every few months. The number of self-published fiction titles (much of it solidly in the erotic-dystopic-vampire-magical detective slumgullion that constitutes today’s genre stewpot) continues to exponentially, clogging up search results and simultaneously raising and dashing the hopes of would-be Amanda Hockings everywhere. Though this would seem to auger the death of traditional publishing, with those pesky editors finally shoved aside to allow frustrated novelists everywhere to unleash their visions upon the world, that has yet to be proven true. (If so, there would be no need for the small guerrilla publishing imprints that continue to spring up, alongside the multiple efforts to bring out-of-print gems back to life.) What is true is that the hunger for new literature of almost any kind continues unabated.

Look at Nielsen’s list of the bestselling novels in 2011, and there was nary a self-published effort to be seen anywhere near them. At the top of the list was the trade paperback edition of The Help; its movie tie-in edition was number two. Older titles like Water for Elephants, Emma Donoghue’s Room and the second and third installments of Stieg Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander trilogy took up more space.

All of that left just a few slots for new works, which ranged from John Grisham’s newest, The Litigators, to the fifth fantasy brick from George R. R. Martin, A Dance with Dragons. James Patterson alone was responsible (mostly as co-author) for some dozen new novels in 2011 alone. Book coverage actually seems to be increasing, with the Wall Street Journal now devoting an impressive amount of space to reviews of new titles, and Slate having just announced the launch of a monthly book feature. Almost all of those reviews will be of books put out by mainstream publishers.

In other words, the dinosaurs still rule the earth, while the agile mammalian upstarts scurry around on their stumpy legs, in ever-greater numbers. But there’s more than enough room for everybody, with plenty of erotic-dystopic-vampire-magical detective stories to go around, no matter who writes them.

As for the novels that made our writers sit up and take notice, they didn’t for the most part come from either the peaks of the bestseller lists or the valleys of micro-targeted indie or self-publishing. There were a lot of names in the lists of our favorites who were familiar, and for good reason. In Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder, a Minnesota woman travels deep into the Brazilian rainforest to discover what happened to her husband, reported dead. We thought it was a return to form for Patchett after a comparatively weak 2007 novel (Run) and also a “serious, returning-to-school book, a book you should share with all of your friends who love seriously good fiction.”

In his newest novel, The Marriage Plot, Jeffrey Eugenides, whose novels The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex seem to have been required reading for commuters on the train for some years now, was found to be an “an apt, canny, capacious portrait of three individuals finding their way, wherever that may lead.” (Our reviewer also dismissed those who criticized the comparatively slow rate of production on the part of Eugenides – three novels in 18 years – and his contemporaries like Jonathan Franzen and Donna Tartt, stating that “good writing is not a race.”) Even Stephen King knocked out a corker of a mind-twister with 11/22/63, in which a man discovers a wormhole that allows him to travel back in time and possibly undo the Kennedy Assassination; only the mechanics of actually doing this prove much harder than the actual act of time travel.

Newer voices were heard from as well, such as Tea Obrecht’s stunning and fanciful The Tiger’s Wife, Jesmyn Ward’s heartbreaking tale of impending Katrina doom, Salvage the Bones, and Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! (which caused us to declare: “Read this book, pass it on to those who deserve it, and be thankful that the world contains artists like Karen Russell”). — Chris Barsanti

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The Best Horror of the Year: Volume 3, Ellen Datlow (editor)

Night Shade, May 2011

Anthologies in horror, fantasy and science fiction seem to come at us like a horde of zombies. This is a good thing. Much of the best work in these genres (especially horror) appears in short-run magazines, collections from small independents and numerous webzines. It’s too easy to miss some of the best scare out there. Master editor Datlow makes sure we don’t miss out in her continuing series, The Best Horror of the Year. In the midst of that horde of anthologies, Datlow’s work has proven consistently the best, her selections ranging from little known authors to the true masters of the dark arts. A culture gets the monsters it wishes for and the nightmares it deserves.

Datlow obviously made her fine choices for aesthetic rather than thematic reasons but it’s striking how many of these “best of” share some basic premises. Many of them feature isolated individuals, abandoned in various ways at a lonely still-point even as a maelstrom of events swirls around them. Even nature and the natural world prove predatory or at least bleak and empty, a stage for human destruction. Good horror is more than good cultural studies and the real strength of this collection is the editor’s perfect eye for terror. Reading this collection though, you’ll be stuck with how much these “best of” tales mirror the anxieties of the moment. — W. Scott Poole

Busy Monsters, by William Giraldi

W.W. Norton, August 2011

Charles Homar, Giraldi’s wholly untrustworthy narrator in this 110-proof jug of moonshine of a novel, isn’t one for half-measures. Though ostensibly an adult of independent means, he moons and glooms like a lovesick teenager at nearly all times. He’s given to flights of rhetorical excess so severe that the state police could likely write him up for it. The lies tumble forth from his mouth and pen in a nearly unstoppable flood. And he’s driven to altercations as though a moth to flame, particularly over the most innocuous of subjects.

Charles doesn’t seem to have a lot of friends, which is of little surprise; this is not a man who knows how to turn himself off. (Neither is Giraldi with his writing, but for the reader, that’s a very very good thing.) He’s an overgrown slacker of a guy who channels all the energy he doesn’t put into life into his columns — the ones that had him pegging himself a “memoirist of mediocre fame” — or his relationships, which seem only to have one speed: overdrive obsessed.Giraldi’s ravaging way with the language is so dexterous and sure-handed that his comic romp of a novel fairly detonates. — Chris Barsanti

Damned, Chuck Palahniuk

Knopf Doubleday, October 2011

The prospect of a 13-year-old girl who has gone through as much as Damned’s protagonist Maddy Spencer has being relegated to Hell for something as innocuous (and impossible) as a marijuana overdose seems a terrible subject to read about. Maddy was victim to many unfortunate things, notably two movie-star parents who viewed her as nothing more than a means for propping up their careers. But for Maddy, eternal damnation isn’t what world religions have made it out to be. This spirited, hilarious, and insightful girl realizes what many grown adults don’t realize: the adversities we all face in the world can only drag us down if we let them.

Hell is not a condemnation to submit to powerlessly; one must, like Maddy does, take on the challenge of torment, even if with fear and trembling. After a slip-up in the boring Tell-All, Palahniuk demonstrates his skill in creating stories that bewilder us, shock us, and overturn some of our most deeply held assumptions. Damned, despite the devil on its cover and the flames of Hell within, is a deeply resonant work that douses the fiery flames of hell with the power of individual will. And, as an alternate conception of Hell, it’s at least twice as good as Rob Bell’s notorious Love Wins. — Brice Ezell

A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman: Complete Short Stories, by Margaret Drabble

Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt, May 2011

At the conclusion of the story “A Voyage to Cythera” contained in this edition, the protagonist, Helen, has to walk “carefully, because her ankles were so brittle from the cold that she feared that if she stumbled, they would snap.” “Brittle” is a good description of these carefully worked and structured stories that follow the trajectory of Drabble’s career from the late ’60s to the present. The title story, “A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman”, blends satire with a bleak and compelling vision of a woman confronting bad news and facing the potentiality of illness and death. It’s an ironic vignette of self-discovery, disillusionment and commentary upon the hollowness of public profile.

Not principally known as a short story writer, the award-winning author of such novels as The Sea Lady and The Witch of Exmoor experimented consistently with the form, testing out voices and characters. Many of the examples in this edition read as a sort of philosophic prose poetry. Whilst there might be an alienating effect from the class-conscious voices; mostly we are in the territory of the English middle and upper-middle classes, moderately wealthy and part of an identifiable social and professional ‘set’, there is nevertheless enough emotion and humanity for a wide readership. If not necessarily universal they are relevant and offer the opportunity to chart the progress of one of modern literature’s most significant writers. —Gabrielle Malcom

The Dewey Decimal System, by Nathan Larson

Akashic Books, April 2011

Larson does a tremendous job, working with the traditional in the milieu of the new-traditional private eye. In The Dewey Decimal System, we find the sorts of characters which are so enjoyable, it almost seems an insult to refer to them as “stock”: the harsh and vaguely untrustworthy patron, the villainous cad and his troop of muscle, and of course, the femme fatale. There is ample opportunity to explore themes of life and death, succor and destruction, with characters who are bitter, hardened, and almost always alcoholic. But what other barriers can we erect, what other internal challenges can we give these hard-boiled private dicks?

As with his protagonist, Larson imbues his flawed characters with such personality and wit that the reader scarcely notices they come almost required with this sort of story. Private-eye fiction is being kept vital and relevant by many creative and intelligent authors. Larson’s book is proof positive that the private detective will remain a serious and seriously enjoyable literary archetype. — Jimmy Callaway

Erasure, by Percival Everett

Graywolf, October 2011

Wow, this is a great book. Metatextual references abound: Everett’s protagonist shares a last name with Ralph Ellison, whose most famous novel, Invisible Man, stands as a classic of 20th century American literature (and whose title echoes Erasure‘s themes of non-being and invisibility, or more properly, visibility only under certain circumstances). Moreover, the primary plot thread in this multi-stranded but eminently readable story concerns Thelonius Ellison’s bad-tempered, tongue-in-cheek exploitation novel, Pafology.

The book is included, in full, as a story-within-a-story that is simultaneously infuriated and infuriating, painfully funny and just plain painful. Everett is much more than just a bitter novelist with an ax to grind and a wicked sense of humor. He’s also a gifted writer capable of deftly delineating the troubled emotional ground of his protagonist. In the process, Everett’s on-target satire eviscerates everyone from Oprah to your English professor. — David Maine

How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, by Charles Yu

Vintage, June 2011

In a genre of such competitive invention, to come up with something that has the originality and the imaginative and philosophical appeal of Yu’s How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe is quite an achievement. The author, not unusually, is his own self-conscious creation as leading character and as well as a satisfying amount of generic playfulness using time travel and its associated puzzles, Yu includes an exposé of the immigrant experience in America as a framework for a touching father/son narrative. He shows the difficulty in seeking out individual and collective identity and the alienation factor that literally creates a trap for his mother.

Using such diverse influences as Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy and Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, the resulting concoction is innovative but not so convoluted as to banish a broad appeal. There are satisfying little post-modern asides and an arrangement of the ‘Science Fictional Universe’ that cries out for more explorations in print and on screen. — Gabrielle Malcom

The Marriage Plot, by Jeffrey Eugenides

Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, October 2011

The Marriage Plot is set in and around 1982, a time of economic insecurity but before paralyzing international fear became commonplace. The terrible things that will happen are far in an unimaginable future, and these college students are remarkably if unwittingly fortunate in their naïveté: their primary worry is themselves, their lives, and what they’ll do with their futures. There are some very funny moments, manyset in academia. Early in the novel, Madeleine, a lover of Austen, Eliot, and Colette, finds herself hopelessly out of literature’s most fashionable loop: suddenly everyone, it seems, is reading Derrida’s Of Grammatology.

Madeleine finds all she hold dear about literature, particularly the notion that a book be about something, turned on its head: “If Restoration was getting you down, if scanning Wordsworth was making you feel dowdy and ink-stained, there was another option. You could flee… the old New Criticism. You could defect to the new imperium of Derrida and Eco. You could sign up for Semiotics 211 and find out what everyone else was talking about.”Madeleine does sign up for Semiotics 211, and Eugenides’ sly remarks, issued from behind his well-meaning heroine’s uncomprehending, ultimately disgusted mien, are hilariously funny.

Eugenides has clearly read (endured?) his Derrida and Baudrillard, making him the rare writer erudite enough to make fun of the Deconstructionists and get away with it. Semiotics 211, meanwhile, is every seminar English majors alternately squirmed through or, recalling their supercilious classroom remarks, squirm to recall. — Diane Leach

Noah’s Turn, by Ken Finkleman

Harper Perennial Canada, August 2011

Over the years Canadian TV auteur Ken Finkleman, best known for The Newsroom, has moved back-and-forth between (widely acclaimed) satire and (generally unpopular) Fellinesque theatricality. His TV series are chapters in the odyssey of the loathsome George, a self-obsessed neurotic battling with a society determined to provoke all his worst instincts. It’s surprising, then, to find Finkleman’s first novel Noah’s Turn, operates in an different mode. Noah Douglas is a 41-year-old “fallen upper-class WASP” and a hack scriptwriter for a TV cop show. His career is nosediving parallel to the 2008 economic crisis. A brief spell as a TV blogger allows Noah to vent his rage against “the fascism of cultural mediocrity”; he’s eventually fired and told to “fuck off and die”.

Noah’s fiercest envy and loathing are privately directed at his friend McEwan, a Toronto literary personality. Dependent on alcohol and stolen Percocets, Noah drifts into awkward sexual encounters while unsuccessfully pursuing one of McEwan’s creative writing students. His cynicism and self-loathing culminate in an act of brutal violence. This riff on Crime and Punishment from the characterless streets of contemporary Toronto is reminiscent of Philip Roth’s stark late-period novellas, although Roth has never focused on such a self-loathing protagonist.

The novel’s greatest strength is the gesture-by-gesture dramatisation of the petty oneupmanship of social interaction. While Finkelman’s 2011 TV series Good Dog is a welcome return to the satirical mode of The Newsroom, Noah’s Turn suggests promising new areas for TV’s greatest cynic. — Matthew Asprey

Open City, by Teju Cole

Random House, February 201

Cole’s Open City takes its meaning from a particular wartime terminology: an “open city” refers to a city that declares itself open in the advent of oncoming attack or capture, thus avoiding military siege, bombing, or attack. The open city, as it were, sets its capture in motion before any capture even takes place; one that invites a gentle occupation. It’s a defensive strategy, and a preventive one, but most importantly — it aims to be protective. The themes of self-protection and self-preservation are also the central concerns embedded in the life of the narrator of this outstanding book, Julius, a Nigerian-German psychiatrist who lives and works in New York.

It’s an extended meditation on the soul that is trying to heal, as its narrator appears to try to dodge and evade some aspects of his life while keeping the reader interested with the articulated passions of a true intellectual polymath and engaged flaneur. It’s no surprise that Julius’s excavation of the self is an act of psychogeography, one where the cities’ anxieties, fears, and self-imposed borders are grafted onto the psyche — or is it the other way around? — Subashini Navaratnam

Parrot & Olivier in America: A Novel, by Peter Carey

Vintage, January 2011

Carey’s style is perhaps best described as a literary Cirque de Soleil performance — wildly inventive arabesques of language and imagery that perfectly capture his heroes’ unsteady journey from icons of the Old World to aspirants in the New. This ‘improvisation’ on a post-revolutionary French noble thrown into close quarters with the American dream becomes an ideal starting-point for Carey’s imagination.

The outlines of history are there for the enthusiast to enjoy — but the concept on its own is quixotic enough to ensure that knowledge of the source material isn’t a perquisite for reader enjoyment. His combination of sturdy plot machinery and constant originality in the telling results in a richly satisfying read in the grand old Dickensian manner, in which abstract ideals are made accessible by humanity’s consistent failure to live up to them.

While Dickens was passionately invested in the ideas, Carey finds delight in the people. He passes no judgments, sets up no pedestals — merely allows his characters to become fully human. He is wise enough to understand that that one simple achievement springs every possibility of comedy, tragedy and everything in between, and skilled enough to make them dance before the reader with light and elegance. — Kerrie Mills

The PEN/O.Henry Prize Stories 2011, Laura Furman, Editor

Anchor Books/Random House, April 2011

Where the novel has room to sprawl, the best short stories are lessons in the art of exquisite miniature, the world writ small yet exceeding its confines by enthralling, entertaining, even horrifying the reader. For example, in “How to Leave Hialeah”, Jennine Capó Crucet delivers a devastatingly sarcastic indictment of university diversity programs and their effects on students far from home.

The narrator, a young Cuban-American, works her way out of Miami’s lower classes into the rarified, freezing air of Northern university life, only to encounter racism, ignorance, and identity crisis. As her new intellectual life leaves her increasingly alienated from her family, the narrator offers an unsparing account of living between cultures. “How to Leave” also pulls off that most difficult of tricks: writing well in second person.

This story should be required reading for all MFA students…and all university diversity coordinators. Indeed, there isn’t a weak story in the book, though inevitably readers will find some works more appealing than others. This is purely a matter of personal taste, and any lover of short fiction — any lover of good writing — is in for a treat, here. — Diane Leach

Power Ballads, by Will Boast

University of Iowa Press, September 2011

Some suggest that it’s impossible to fully capture the experience of music via the written word, and while such a task can go woefully wrong in the myriad minds and hands which attempt the task each day, there are those who take up the charge with elegance and intelligence. Boast happens to be one such writer. His debut collection is on par with another great work of fiction about the musical life, Rafi Zabor’s The Bear Comes Home.

Boast captures the loneliness of the musical life with a realism that is sometimes sad, often funny, and never cliché. His prose calls to mind Tobias Wolff and Richard Ford but he’s never less than his own man, and his ability to place us in the sweaty bars of small town Wisconsin or the hipster studios contemporary San Francisco is never less than admirable. Power Ballads serves as a great reminder that the best fiction is often decidedly and unapologetically true. — Jedd Beaudoin

Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline

Harper Collins, June 2011

It’s difficult to categorize Cline’s debut, Ready Player One. It’s set in the future and has all of the trappings of a science-fiction novel, but it handily references ’80s pop culture in all of its forms. It also features a teenaged protagonist, and reads a bit like a YA novel, but the appeal to current-day teens is probably limited, thanks to all of those ’80s references. What Ready Player One is, though, is a rip-roaring, page-turning tome that is a love letter to geeks everywhere who played Dungeons & Dragons, watched WarGames repeatedly, and listened to Rush’s 2112 while growing up.

Though the tale has the occasional lapse in character motivation, Ready Player One is simply a book you will not be able to put down, and is one of the most refreshing reads in recent memory — it unspools like a movie playing in your head. I was practically cheering when I reached the book’s end pages, and I can’t remember the last time I got behind a book in such an overwhelming way. For that, Ready Player One is a highly essential and gratifying read — especially so for those who came of age some 30 years ago. — Zachary Houle

Rules of Civility, by Amor Towles

Penguin, July 2011

You might not want to give a second glance to a novel whose main character is named Katey Kontent, and that would be understandable. There’s also the nostalgia factor: do we need another story set in glamorous late ’30s New York amidst the pretty demimonde of jazz, nightclubs, and easy money? But give Amor Towles’s novel (amazingly, his first) a chance and you’ll see that while there’s plenty of glitter and gilt on the surface here, the substance runs deep.

Katey is an immigrant’s daughter trying to find her way in the big city. Working her way up from the secretarial pool, her crackerjack smarts are clearly going to take her far, until a roadblock shows up in the form of Tinker Grey. He’s a handsome banker with all the requisite patrician airs but also an easy confidence that operates as something like catnip to Katey’s roommate Eve, who’s just as smart but more of an operator.

The triangular relationship, with its surprising turns into tragedy and deeply-held secrets, wends its way through a novel that beautifully evokes both the glamor and deep-seated economic desperation of the city at the time. This is a novel where the heroine doesn’t just get to drink martinis in fab Village hotspots, but needs to figure out how she’s going to pay for them. — Chris Barsanti

Salvage the Bones, by Jesmyn Ward

Bloomsbury, August 2011

There’s a dragging pull to the beginning of Ward’s novel, which won the 2011 National Book Award for Fiction. The narrator is Esch, a dreamy and curiously passive teenage girl living in a hardscrabble Mississippi town on the Gulf Coast, and she is almost too busy chronicling the languid details of the passing days to notice the bigger picture. While she dreams of the heroines and tragedies of the mythology she loves to read, and relates her day-to-day life surrounded by her roustabout brothers and hard-drinking dad, not to mention the boys who circle like love-hungry predators.

What Esch is missing is the long-term reality of what will happen once she becomes more obviously pregnant (her family doesn’t yet know, and the baby’s father already has a steady girlfriend). As the days tick down, everybody else is ignoring the larger issue at hand: Hurricane Katrina is churning north, and Esch’s father’s drunken commands to shore up the house for its approach are being mostly ignored. When the storm comes, it’s a slow-building but deafening explosion, like Ward’s prose. This is richly felt fiction, hopefully signifying more to come. — Chris Barsanti

The Silent Land, by Graham Joysce

Doubleday, March 2011

Originally released in Britain in late 2010, The Silent Land took a bit of time to make its way to American shores about a half a year later. Lauded by Stephen King in Entertainment Weekly, the book — by hard-to-categorize author Graham Joyce, who has been writing mostly pseudo-magic realist fiction for the past two decades — is a nail-biting Twilight Zone-esque thriller where a 30-something couple on a ski vacation in France survive a freak avalanche on the slopes, only to discover when they return back to town that everyone has literally vanished, and all roads leading out of the community actually lead back into it.

I’ll be upfront: the ending is a bit lousy (it uses one of the oldest tricks in the book, a la The Sixth Sense, and astute readers will see it coming before they’ve gotten a quarter of the way through the short, 250-plus page novel), but there are enough twists, turns and surprises along the way to make this intriguing. The Silent Land is all about the journey, not the destination, and I actually thought about the novel well after I’d closed its covers for a final time to the point where I’ve now plunged into the robust Joyce back-catalogue with great aplomb.

The Silent Land might be flawed, but there was no book quite like it in 2011, and the novel — rich with character detail, which is astounding considering only two people populate its vast majority — has quiet staying power, and it is a wild journey through a desolate, barren landscape. In the The Silent Land, Joyce does a lot with very little, and it was an engaging surprise that leaves you wanting more. — Zachary Houle

Spurious, by Lars Iyer

Melville House, January 2011

See if this interests you: a narrator who has the same name as the author travels with and is put down by another writer named W. That’s the whole story, except for occasional alternating chapters about how Lars’ home is slowly overcome by a mysterious fungus. It doesn’t seem appetizing but Iyers, a philosopher prof, makes it interesting and worthwhile by turning it into a sad, pathetic comedy. As Lars and W. jabber about literature and philosophy (natch), they also dig through self-loathing about how terrible and worthless they are.

Over the span of some 190 pages, this gets pretty humorous to the point that they seem like desperate masochists for tolerating each other while W. keeps bringing out his sadist side by constantly attacking a defenseless Lars. Mostly, they’re disappointed that they’re failed writers and not great artists. Maybe they’re not, but Lars the real author entertains you enough to think that he’s a talent to watch. — Jason Gross

State of Wonder, by Ann Patchett

Harper Collins, June 2011

Minnesota native Marina Singh is flying deep into Brazil’s rainforest, to a nameless village on a tributary of the Rio Negro, a place so isolated few know of it. Even fewer are able to locate it. Marina herself has no idea where the Lakashi tribe make their home, and Dr. Annick Swenson, the researcher studying them, has no interest in offering directions.

Fortunately, what Marina lacks in GPS, she has in determination, which she sorely needs if she is to locate her colleague, Dr. Anders Eckman. Marina, Swenson, and Eckman are medical researchers working for Vogel, an enormous pharmacological firm. For over two years, Swenson has refused to communicate with their supervisor, Mr. Fox, or by extension, with Vogel’s board of directors. The genial Eckman is asked to locate Swenson and extricate a progress report on her research. Eckman, an avid birder eager to visit an exotic locale, happily complies.

In this tale, State of Wonder does what the best books do, taking up several threads and weaving them into a complex tapestry. Patchett touches on the ways Westerners infantilize “primitive” cultures, the financial and moral implications of medical, and the sometimes surprising pockets of courage we find at life’s critical junctures. Love, loss, and grief inform every page — Patchett’s writing has been indelibly impacted by the death of her dear friend, poet Lucy Grealey. — Diane Leach

Swamplandia!, by Karen Russell

Knopf, February 2011

As untrustworthy narrators go, the alligator-wrestling 12-year-old Ava Bigtree is one of modern fiction’s finest. While not a purposeful liar per se, she retains the dubious fact-from-fiction separating abilities of any child her age. This is a point that becomes more perplexing the deeper one plunges into the depths of Russell’s wonderfully overstuffed, scaldingly funny, and frightening debut novel. Ava is the kind of girl you want to believe, as her well-trained eye and generous heart make her the unwitting fulcrum of a quickly dissolving family.

But somewhere between the ghosts and the bird man and the haunted canal-dredger and the murky, melted reality that frames her buckshot life, you can lose your bearings. As does she. Like most books of impressionable children who gild their surroundings in tattered magic before they’re brought into a knowledge of the wider, crushingly average and venal world, Russell’s is one of paradise lost. In Ava she has the sparkle-toned voice of a swamp spirit, a free-ranging and home-schooled kid whose fleeting awareness of mainland modernity makes it seem a strip-malled and subdivided Gehenna.

Russell writes with scattered magic of a highly untrustworthy (and thusly utterly addictive) variety, one of swampy darkness and spell-tinged madness that creeps up on the frayed outlines of imminently foreclosed-on Florida. — Chris Barsanti

Thackery T. Lambshead’s Cabinet of Curiosities, by Ann VanderMeer and Jeff VanderMeer

Harper Voyager, July 2011

Like a cabinet with lots of little drawers filled with clutter, this is a menagerie of fables, horror tales, hoaxes, art installations, drawings of strange mechanisms, fake sermons, forbidden catalog entries and fabulous architecture all swaddled in a meta-fiction. It’s the literary equivalent of the fabulous collection of Thackery T. Lambshead itself. The facts are these… and it’s important to remember that none of these are actual facts. Lambshead’s collection of powerful relics and sometimes diabolical clockworks became open to the world after his death in 2003. This collection includes descriptions of artifacts, reflections on their meaning, narratives constructed around them.

This is metafiction at its best and a book likely to become a classic at the intersection of fantasy, horror, steampunk and magical realism. Its menagerie of fantasies, fables, hoaxes, horrors, drawings of strange mechanisms and clockworks, forbidden catalog listings — all swaddled in a metafiction — represents a kind of anti-Foucaultian statement about the relationship between systems of knowledge and systems of power. Every fantasy lover, and all you postmodernists out there, need to take a tour of the Cabinet. — W. Scott Poole

Thick as Thieves, by Peter Spiegelman

Knopf Doubleday, July 2011

This is one crime thriller for which the promotional quotes are not overblown. Several may even be understated. It’s a smashing piece of work featuring behavioral psychology in an entirely criminal context, leading to a climax that is utter joy for those readers who love a twist they didn’t see coming. In excruciating suspense it may be said to compare to the best moments in a James Bond movie (insofar as that may be a criterion for mystery readers).

The gang that former CIA agent Carr is trying to run after inheriting the leadership position from Irish, dearly beloved, Declan, aka Deke, now suddenly dead, is comprised of individuals who have problems with authority as well as bonding. They come with attitudes and moments of explosive doubt and discontent that goes with the precarious territory. Thick as Thieves is a nail-biter, and highly original, superbly balanced mystery fiction. — Jules Brenner

The Tiger’s Wife, by Tea Obreht

Random House, January 2011

Tea Obreht is a novelist with more talent than is quite fair. At 26, this woman who was born in Belgrade but settled in the United States before the Balkans War broke out, could well have written the greatest novel of 2011. The setting of her whispering-in-the-dark story is unnamed but its fractious upheavals, scattered villages, and superstitious portents seem a dead ringer for Croatia. The protagonist is Natalia, a young doctor whose memory is overflowing with stories from her dead grandfather.

His tales might be true, they might not be, but Obreht’s potent, magical-realist vision makes clear that such distinctions are not only impossible to determine in this dreamland she’s concocted but also fairly beside the point. A number of powerful stories weave in and out of the narrative, such as the title piece about a village where a deaf-mute woman living in a village of tight ties and never-forgotten suspicions, gains a new companion, a tiger who escaped from a nearby zoo after the Germans bombed.

Most haunting are the stories from Natalia’s grandmother of the deathless man, who haunts this haunted land like a tragic specter, both warning of danger and also seeming to ensure that it will happen. Obreht is a strong and vivid new voice in fiction who doesn’t let the trappings of fantasy and fable obscure the essential humanity of her curious tale. — Chris Barsanti

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, by John le Carré

Penguin, October 2011

Of all the fictional characters that have stayed vivid in my mind, long past turning the last page or seeing the final credits, George Smiley is among the most vivid. But unlike some of the memorable characters that typically populate my imagination — willful people like Tony Soprano or Elizabeth Bennet, say — Smiley is not a person of decisive action. In some ways, he’s about as un-vivid as you can get.

The story is one that at first seems quaintly outdated in the post-Cold War era: a high-ranking member of British intelligence has been feeding secrets to the Soviets, betraying his county, his friends and the cause of western democracy. The question is which of five possible suspects is the mole? Mild-mannered George Smiley is brought out of retirement in to find the answer.

As it turns out, Le Carre’s mole is as much a double agent in bed as he is in espionage. Then again, what is espionage if not getting into bed with people — physically or ideologically — for purposes of betrayal? — Amy DePaul

The Tragedy of Arthur, by Arthur Phillips

Random House, April 2011

The year 2011 had its share of Shakespearean moments. On the pleasing end was Daniel Sullivan’s surprisingly deft production of All’s Well That Ends Well in New York’s Central Park. Somewhere in the lower depths was Roland Emmerich’s hysterical yet tiresome flick Anonymous, which trotted out all the usual ‘Did Shakespeare write Shakespeare’ conspiracy theories and wasted some delightfully campy acting by Rhys Ifans and Vanessa Redgrave.

The real stunner, though, was Phillips’s tragically ignored novel about a conflicted man trying to decipher whether or not his father (a fantastically deceitful con man) truly owns a copy of a previously undiscovered Shakespeare play about King Arthur. The man and his sister (both raised on the plays of the Bard, and lies) are then pushed by their father into trying to publish this (possibly) long-lost masterpiece.

Phillips’s talent is on display on every page here, flicking from minutely observed familial tragicomedy to larger questions of authorship and literary intent. As a kicker, Phillips ends his theatrical concoction with one final con: the entire text of “Shakespeare’s” The Tragedy of Arthur. If there’s any justice, a future season will see it being performed under the stars in Central Park. — Chris Barsanti

The Visible Man, by Chuck Klosterman

Scribner, October 2011

While The Visible Man is only noted essayist Chuck Klosterman’s sophomore novel, it’s a mind-bending doozy. The compelling story is told from the perspective of a female therapist who is suddenly left with a male client who is able to render himself invisible thanks to the use of a special suit and aerosol spray. The Visible Man has a very early Jonathan Lethem feel to it, just without the pretension, and the entire short novel is told from the notes of the therapist, leaving the reader to constantly question the subjectivity of the storyteller.

With this novel, Klosterman makes the unbelievable believable, and acutely examines the isolation and loneliness of the average individual by being able to peer into ordinary lives without actually being seen. While The Visible Man might be profound, read it because it is A) funny as hell and B) drops all sorts of pop culture bon-bons throughout the narrative. The Visible Man clearly was one of the strangest novels to come out in 2011, but it has an impact that lingers and will leave you wondering if the life you live is being fulfilled to its highest potential. — Zachary Houle

The Weird Sisters, by Eleanor Brown

Putnam, January 2011

Brown’s The Weird Sisters is a delightful and fascinating book about, obviously, sisters. It’s about their interactions and their relationships, with each other, with their parents, with the world and with themselves. It’s also a book about books, and the sisters’ relationships with books.

The three Andreas sisters were brought up in a small college town by their Shakespearean professor father and a somewhat disconnected mother. Each girl was named for one of the bard’s heroines — Rosalind (Rose), Bianca (Bean), and Cordelia (Cordy) — and each has spent her life in the shadow cast by the perceived expectations of her namesake. “What’s in a name?”, indeed. The sisters each have their own voice in the story, but they also have a collective voice, to narrate, comment, fill in and foresee, much like Macbeth’s three witches, the weyward or wyrd sisters.

It’s brilliant, witty and wonderful, both as a storytelling device and as a character. The collective sisters get to voice all of the best humorous asides and snarky comments (on a rejected suitor: “Despite his money and looks, he was not a reader and that is the sort of nonsense up with which we will not put”). Brown weaves each voice, each character, each thread of plot, into the whole like the fates, upon whom her sisters draw.

This is a magnificent tapestry of a tale, replete with a rich love of language, that beautifully illustrates the pull of family and the ties that bind us together even when we are about to unravel. — Christel Loar

Witches on the Road Tonight, by Sheri Holman

Grove/Atlantic, December 2011

Holman’s Witches on the Road Tonight dazzles even as it terrifies. It’s a book that sneaks up on you, frightening you while causing you to reflect on the nature of fear itself. Rumors about witchcraft had always swirled around Eddie Alley’s mother in the Appalachian Virginia of the ’40s.

A chance meeting with two strangers introduces Eddie to Frankenstein’s monster and to the possibilities of a new life, leading him to eventually become the horror host “Captain Casket” on a late night TV show in Manhattan. But the mysterious pull of the past holds him, and his daughter Wallis, in its claws and wont let him go. You better pack some breadcrumbs. Holman’s beautifully realized work will draw you imperceptibly into the darkest part of the forest. — W. Scott Poole

The Year We Left Home, by Jean Thompson

Simon & Schuster, May 2011

Slice-of-life stories about families are a dime a dozen in literary fiction. (See Jonathan Franzen’s oeuvre.) However, Thompson’s The Year We Left Home is a remarkable gem of a novel, charting the growth of an Iowa small-town family from the early ’70s up to almost the present day. The book blazes a path through the Vietnam War era, the farming crisis of the ’80s, and the dot-com burst of the early ’00s, and it does it with pathos, tragedy and a much needed pinch of humour.

Thompson creates flawed characters that are startlingly real, and you really get a feel for American life as depicted across three decades of time. The language is refreshingly plain, and there isn’t an ounce of pretension throughout the 325 pages. On that note, The Year We Left Home is quite compact, and doesn’t sprawl out like many books of this kind of ilk. When you finish this touching novel about growing up and growing old, and its rendering of family responsibility (or lack thereof), you’ll be left wondering what on earth winds up happening to all of the characters that populate it, and its cliff-hanger feel leaves you hungry for a very non-literary sequel. — Zachary Houle