Books of the year 2011

My favourite books of 2011. Better late than never, right?

10. Solace (novel / paperback)
Realistic & authentic characters and relationships. I like that.

09. A Monster Calls (novel / audiobook)
Surprisingly good for young adult fiction which I don’t (purposefully) read.  It hit all the marks that Skippy Dies failed to.  Great artwork in the paperback version (which you don’t get with the audio.)

08. At Home: A Short History of Private Life (Narrative Non-Fiction / audiobook)
Even though it’s not his best, I do love a good dose of Bill Bryson – a hotch potch collection of trivia, loosely connected to the rooms we live in.

07. The Help (novel / audiobook)
I  was surprised to enjoy this so much, considering it has the whiff of an Oprah book club all over it. I think the performances of the Audiobook possibly helped, including Octavia Spencer, who won an Oscar for the same role in the Movie.

06. The Good, the Bad and the Multiplex (Narrative Non-Fiction / audiobook)
More Kermodian Rants. Amusingly this is like a collection of rants from the radio show fleshed out and written down. Actually I probably didn’t need to hear the “Sex and the City Rant” and the “3D rant” again, but lot’s more ranting besides.

05. Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything (Narrative Non-Fiction / Kindle)
Joshua Foer’s highly amusing story of memory and mnemonics chronicling his discovery of and training for the World Memory Championship. Full review.

04. Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk: A Modest Bestiary (Fables / Kindle)
I loved this. Dark haunting animal fables. Or sometimes plain silly but hilarious animal fables. All in the inimitable style of my favourite essayist David Sedaris.

03. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (Narrative Non-Fiction / audiobook)
Perfect blend of intriguing characters, a history of cell culture, and a fascinating true story.  A perfect piece of narrative non-fiction.

02. I, Partridge: We Need To Talk About Alan (Comedy Biog / audiobook)
The perfect audiobook. Could not imagine reading this on paper when I can listen to Steven Coogan in character. Seven hours of comedy gold.

01. When God Was a Rabbit (novel / audiobook)

I fell in love with this book within the first thirty pages, an adorable, slightly quirky story, about a girl called Elly and those she loves. I find it hard to separate the book from the audiobook in this instance. The audiobook was such a perfectly complete piece. It’s read by the author, Sarah Winman, with great warmth and perfect nuance already knowing and loving her characters so well. She has a fantastic voice both as a writer and narrator. I loved the cheeky voices of the children. Adult narrators often really over-do the chirpy voice thing, and ruin audiobooks that feature children.

Though the children are such adorable characters, you miss them when they’ve flown the coop, all too soon for my liking. Its hard not to be a bit disappointed when the book suddenly jumps to their adulthood. I wanted to stay immersed in the wonderful world of childhood that bit longer. But such is life. Like it or not, Adulthood comes knocking and Sarah Winman does her best to hold on to the things we hold dear from our formative years.

“And from that moment, I watched her. Watched her with different coloured eyes, until the raging energy that coursed through my body finally revealed itself and gave itself a name: envy. For I knew already that something had taken me from me, and had replaced itself with a desperate longing for a time before; a time before fear, a time before shame. And now that knowledge had a voice, and it was a voice that rose from the depths of my years and howled into the night sky like a wounded animal longing for home.”

It’s all too easy for novelists to make BIG things happen in their books. It’s too easy to give characters great luck, or bad luck, or great health or wealth or disease, or fame or fortune. I often wince when some authors use these tropes as easy plot devices but Sarah Winman hilariously turns that on it’s head and does it all! You could retitle it to When God Was A Novelist.

Adorable book. Book of the year. Audiobook of the year.

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It wasn’t until  I made this list that I realised just how much more I enjoyed non-fiction over the year. I’ve felt like this before; almost giving up on fiction in favour of non-fiction. I found a lot of novels a little bit… Meh. And there was something more to some of the non-fiction that I couldn’t quite put my finger on – until Jackie at Farm Lane Books drew my attention to a genre called Narrative Non Fiction. They’re non-fiction books but they usually have some kind of story arc, heroes, villians, a plot of sorts, an array of interesting characters and other devices derived from fiction.

Take the Immortal life of Henrietta lacks for example, a standard non-fiction version could be a relatively boring story about the history of cell research. But no, it’s a fascinating story about the Lacks family, and how Henrietta’s cells came to be used in every stem cell lab in the world. And the author is just as much a part of the story, another common Factor in Narrative Non-Fiction. See more examples on I’ve created a goodreads shelf here with more additions.

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Most Overated, and ultimately dissapointing books of the Year

One Day
Old Filth
Before I go to Sleep
Skippy Dies


  • Reply Eugénie

    March 20, 2012, 6:45 pm

    What about ‘The Sense of an Ending’? I’m still on the fence..
    Great list, I have read nothing this year as just getting my stride back..

    • Reply John

      March 20, 2012, 9:27 pm

      Yeah I was a bit of a fence-sitter on that too. Here’s what I said elsewhere

      “I got through this very quickly. The closest I ever came to reading a book in one day.

      I didn’t quite know what to make of it. I think I at least found it a little intriguing and almost wanted to read it again, as I’m pretty sure I missed a lot between the lines.

      I like books that manage to say a lot in a short space. And I’m terribly unforgiving for books that are much longer than they deserved to be. So I probably would have hated this were it three times longer, but I quite liked it as it was.

      Didn’t love it. But was enjoyable.”

  • Reply Jackie (Farm Lane Books)

    March 20, 2012, 10:01 pm

    I’ve enjoyed a lot of the books on your list – I didn’t realise that we had such a common taste in books. I am making more of an effort to read narrative non-fiction this year, but I worry that there aren’t that many great titles and so don’t want to read them all at once. I’m not sure if this is true or because I don’t have a great knowledge of the genre, but hopefully I’ll discover enough to satisfy my new craving for them. 🙂

    • Reply John

      March 20, 2012, 11:43 pm

      Hi Jackie – I thought we had similar tastes alright – easier for me to discern that with all the reviews you do.

      Yes I think you could easily overdo it on the Narrative Non fiction, I found The Emporor of All Maladies a bit of a slog towards the end. I’m snacking on novels in between. Just finished one of your favourites actually which I really liked; A Thousand Splendid Suns.

      Might go for the The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat next.

  • Reply Rosie

    March 21, 2012, 11:20 am

    you should have a read of Anne Enright’s brilliant essay What’s left of Henrietta Lacks?. i’ve emailed it to you, like a big weirdo.

    must pick up a copy of When God Was A Rabbit.

    • Reply John

      March 23, 2012, 12:40 pm

      Ha, thanks.

      Didn’t read it straight away – so forgot to reply when I did.

      It’s a good essay alright, it’s like a really squashed version of the book in a way.

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