2011 Novels in Review, Part 1

A few years ago, while in a particularly sadistic mood, I resolved to read 52 books a year.  For the first two years, I succeeded in this.  Every year since then, however, has been marked by failure to meet this goal.  For 2011, however, I decided that it would be better to have a more realistic goal for my current place in life.  So, I counted up the books read in 2010 and added 20% to that total.  Twenty-percent seemed like a decent amount of growth to me.  Thus, my 2011 goal was to read 28 books.

For the final blog posts of the year, I want to look back over the year of books and see what I liked, what I didn’t, and what I learned (if anything).

Source: Wikipedia

We will start by going back to January.  Snow was on the ground and I was lamenting my lack of boots.  I had the day off work due to the snow so I was able to progress through The Black Dahlia by James Ellroy.  This was a novel that couldn’t have had a setting that stood in greater contrast to Missouri.  The book took place in Los Angeles during the summer and had a brief interlude in Mexico.  The story concerned the investigation of the real-life Elizabeth Short murder over the course of the late-1940s. I was brought to this book because of a film-noir kick that I was (and still am) on.  I had watched the Brian De Palma adaptation and felt that the film had an interesting story at its core but was poorly told.  The novel was much better and the themes of obsession that hounded the main characters were much easier to see and believe in the book.  The book was compelling and well-written, but the content was quite disturbing.  Truth be told, given the details of the Elizabeth Short murder, there would be no way to tell this story without disturbing content.  Suffice it to say, this is not a light read.  But it is an excellent example of the neo-noir genre.

Source: Wikipedia

A second noir entry from this year was Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep.  I had heard some of the old Philip Marlowe radio episodes with Van Heflin and Gerald Mohr but this was the first of the Marlowe novels I had read.  The prose was quite enthralling.  Marlowe is a great narrator and his observations are witty and sarcastic.  This book was definitely genre-defining as I could see many of the influences in later films and novels traced back to here.  The mystery, one of blackmail and later murder, is compelling and it works.  There are very few leaps of logic for this story.  I was also amazed at how Chandler wrapped up some peripheral mysteries along the way.  The red herrings weren’t as unrelated as we had been led to believe.  Excellent stuff.  Also of note is the BBC Radio 4 adaptation that aired early this year.  It condensed the storyline into an hour and a half drama without skimping too much.

Source: Wikipedia

A third noir novel was The City and The City by China Mieville.  What made this novel unique, and one of my favorites of the year, was the ambiguity of whether or not this story was strictly realistic or a fantasy.  I reviewed the novel in more detail here, but for brevity’s sake, I thought it was a well-crafted murder mystery with some amazing philosophical depth that could be used to analyze just about any culture that has things it wants to ignore.  The two cities of the novel overlap, either topographically or dimensionally, and must “unsee” one another or risk invoking breach.  In truth, the potential sci-fi elements of the novel can be completely ignored and it can be enjoyed as a murder mystery involving a politically inconvenient investigation.  This was my first time to read Mieville and it will not be my last.

Source: Wikipedia

For quite some time the bookshop where I worked would store overstock books in the employee restroom.  The temptation to read on the toilet was quite strong.  It’s only fair, I feel, as many of my co-workers play on their cellphones or text in the bathroom, what is the problem with me reading, so long as I don’t take too much time.  Besides, sometimes the bowel movements are not very cooperative.  Anyway, over the course of 2011, I read A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Reptile Room two or three pages at a time.  While it was amusing in many places, I can’t say it was a book I would purchase.  I truly want to enjoy the series, especially given the dark humor, but having now read the first two books, I find the series somewhat underwhelming.  I contemplated reading the third book, but when I saw Count Olaf returned for the third time, I started fearing the series would grow formulaic.  I may return to it some day when my “to read” piles have seen more progress.

Source: Stephen Lawhead's website

Sadly, another underwhelming book was Stephen Lawhead’s The Skin Map.  It started from an interesting premise, basically that reading the ley lines could transport people to alternate realms of existence, other times and places.  Honestly, it seemed a bit Doctor Who to me, and that is a good thing.  But as I read, I didn’t find the main character very engaging and found the sub-plot about his girlfriend starting a coffee shop in medieval Prague the most interesting part of the novel.  With all the action, adventure, and mystery of the novel, and I gravitate toward the food service sub-plot.  The must be something wrong with me.  I truly want to like this series, but at the moment, much like A Series of Unfortunate Events, I’m putting it on the back burner.  I love many of Lawhead’s Celtic books.  His retelling of the Robin Hood mythology as Welsh history was particularly engaging.  But with The Skin Map, I almost felt as if his writing style had been simplified.  Perhaps he wanted to make the book more accessible to those reading him for the first time.  Perhaps the shift was unconscious.  Regardless, I felt that, while the concept was great, the execution lacked something.

I think this is enough for part one.  Look forward to part two soon.

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