Welcome to the first annual Salty Awards! I liked how last year’s “Best of 2010” post turned out, so that’ll pretty much be the template for these awards. The main difference being, I’ve got a shiny new trophy now! Like last year’s Best Ofs, this is stuff that wasn’t necessarily published in 2011, just what I read the past year. And first reads only; re-reads don’t count. (Here’s a link to my 2011 reading list for reference.)
First off, let’s start with some numbers, because who doesn’t love numbers?
Total books read: 51
Non-series reads: 14
Nonfiction reads: 1
Novels by female authors: 3
Short story collections: 9
Reads that were also acquired in 2011: 21
Borrowed (unowned): 10
Interesting stuff, maybe, but not the real reason you’re here. Without further ado:
Best Short Story Collection 2011:
5. Side Jobs by Jim Butcher
In the first half of 2010, I tore through the entirety of Jim Butcher’s fantastic Dresden Files series. I had to wait until fall of 2011 for the next installment, and decided to check out this short story collection (that I had skipped out on previously) in the meantime, particularly since it contained a story that took place between the previous book and the upcoming one. I’m glad I did, because Dresden shines in the short story format, and it was fun to read about the “side jobs” that take place before and between the books of the series. “The Warrior” might be my favorite Dresden story of all time.
4. Galactic North by Alastair Reynolds
The Revelation Space universe is an amazing place, and a large part of what gives it its charm is the sense of history with which Reynolds has imbued his books. This collection is a bit of an eye-opener in when you get to see just what the scope of his created fictional history is. Copious references to characters and events from his series make these stories mesh perfectly with those books, and perhaps the most impressive part is that main of them were written before the books. Beyond that, though, this is still a solid collection of awesome sci-fi stories.
2. (tie) Storeys from the Old Hotel and Strange Travelers by Gene Wolfe
I chickened out and put both these books in a tie for second place. You know I love me some Gene Wolfe, and ranking two superb collections by a favorite author is always hard, but beyond that, each collection showcases a different form: Travelers features a number of Wolfe’s longer-form stories, 15 in all, while Storeys tackles the shorter form, with over 30 inclusions. They’re two totally different animals, but at the same time, they’re both totally Gene Wolfe. It’s like picking your favorite child (and sure, you might actually have one, but you’ll never tell!)
And the best short story collection I read in 2011 is…
1. Ficciones by Jorge Luis Borges
I adore Gene Wolfe (see above) and one of his largest influences is the Argentinian author Borges. Allusions to Borges’ work abound in Wolfe’s, and I had recently read The Shadow of the Wind which had its own share of Borgesian elements, so I knew I had to eventually get around to reading the original. Holy wow. It’s easy to see the parallels between Wolfe and Borges; Borges is what you might get if you took Wolfe and removed all the sci-fi and fantastical elements, stripped it down to the raw, crystallized ideas. And concentrated it. Mind-blowing stuff, is what it is. “The Garden of Forking Paths” is one of my favorite stories ever.
Best Comic Book 2011:
This might be a one-off category for this year, but I read a fair number of comic book collections, mostly thanks to Half Price Books. There were three worth singling out, and they are…
3. Last Stand of the Wreckers by Nick Roche & James Roberts
This series had been hyped beyond all belief by the Transformers fanbase, so I was excited to finally lay my hands on a cheap copy of the trade paperback. It did not disappoint. This is the kind of book that shows just how great this franchise can be when put in the hands of people who really care about and understand it. It takes place in IDW’s current series continuity, but besides a couple of scenes, it’s entirely self-contained, and it draws heavily on obscure characters from all throughout franchise history, meaning you don’t have to be familiar with them to enjoy this book. If you’re a hardcore fan, or just interested in seeing how good TF storytelling can get, you need to pick up this book. Besides the original 5-issue series, the trade paperback also collects a related prose story by Roberts titled “Bullets” that’s just icing on the cake.
2. Welcome to the Jungle by Jim Butcher & Ardian Syaf
In the introduction to the graphic novel edition, Butcher explains that when writing the Dresden Files novels, he always pictured them in his mind as comic books. Which goes a long way toward explaining why this 4-issue original prequel series feels just like reading one of the novels. It’s pure unadulterated Dresden goodness, with all the trademark wit, magic, and monsters you’ve come to expect. And Ardian Syaf’s artwork is perfect: comic booky without being overly cartoony, and his characters—especially Harry Dresden himself—are spot-on.
And the best comic book I read in 2011 is…
1. Echo by Terry Moore
I have Tor.com and Stephen Aryan to thank for this one. After his write-up of this series, I just had to check it out, and was able to find 4 of the 6 available collections for cheap on eBay. Later I sold them and sprung for the Complete Edition containing all 30 issues, and let me tell you that is a beast of a book. And it’s amazing. Moore’s black-and-white artwork is gorgeous, his characters—their personalities and expressions and interactions—all fully realized, and he still manages to throw a bunch of slam-bang action into the mix. Almost impossible to put down.
Best Novel 2011:
Man oh man oh man this was tough; I read a lot of really good books this past year. (Titles link to my reviews.)
5. The Crippled God by Steven Erikson
This was the big one, the final volume in the 10-book Malazan Book of the Fallen, perhaps the most ambitious fantasy series ever attempted, and the series responsible for my participation in various book cataloging sites and online forums, and thus also for my reading habits for the past half-decade. In those 5 years I’d read all of the previous books, re-read most of them, and discussed them all ad nauseum, and this capped it all off. It was exhilarating and bittersweet at the same time, bringing the decalogy full circle and tying (most) things up eventfully, emotionally, and thematically. It wasn’t perfect, but then, that’s fitting, too.
4. Old Man’s War by John Scalzi
This was on my “I really need to read books by this guy” list, and I finally picked it up over Christmas of 2009. I haven’t read any Heinlein—outside the fairly crappy The Cat Who Walks Through Walls but people compare this book to Heinlein’s work a lot. It reminded me a lot of Card’s Ender’s Game, but mostly in a “sci-fi you’d recommend to a friend whose never read sci-fi before” way. The first-person narrative is fabulous, hilarious, and moving, and the action is gritty and frantic and very very real. All around, a very enjoyable, very human book.
3. Peace by Gene Wolfe
Yes, I love Gene Wolfe. Shut up. It feels weird to write a book review that basically goes, “I don’t understand this book, but I love it.” So it is with this one. A book of Midwestern memoirs doesn’t seem like it would be my thing, but Wolfe’s writing is so gorgeous, so eminently readable, but also quite haunting; and the sinister undercurrents that never quite reveal their true nature (at least on a first read) make this an absolutely fascinating book.
2. The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon
Scott recommended this one to me as his favorite book, and I trust his judgement, and hey, I found it for $2, too. It’s worth the cover price, though; this is one lush and luscious novel full of romance and mystery (and a tinge of horror) and absolutely dripping with atmosphere. It’s a book for book lovers, and for lovers of fine storytelling in general.
And the best novel I read in 2011 is…
1. Embassytown by China Miéville
Like Scalzi, I had never read any of Miéville’s work before, but that changed when I won a review copy of his upcoming Embassytown. Talk about being blown away; this book was amazing. All of my favorite sci-fi elements were present: well-developed, alien aliens, cultural clashes, intrigue, mystery, unconventional narrative structure, jaw-dropping revelations, and plenty of Big Ideas and musings on the nature of language and thought. I read a lot of reviews that basically gave it a thumbs-down, and I it’s like I can’t even decipher the words being written; it makes no sense at all to me. This was easily the best book of 2011, and one of the best books I’ve had the pleasure of reading, period.