Kinga Burger: In 2011 as usual I didn’t even try to keep up with all the new releases and patiently read the backlists. All that said, I did jump on the Visit from the Goon Squad bandwagon, while sadly shaking my head over the hot mess of Franzen’s Freedom. The two books that moved me most in 2011 were The Corner – great piece of journalism by David Simon and Ed Burns (a must for all fans of The Wire), and Booker Prize long listed A Cupboard Full of Coats by Yvette Edwards.
Lucy Chatburn: The boring grey cover of Diego Marani’s New Finnish Grammar hides an intelligent exploration of language, culture and identity as an injured sailor searches for his origins. Will be especially appreciated by language enthusiasts. Alternating between comic and gruesome, Santiago Roncagliolo’s Red April is a murder mystery with a political twist. It’s based in post-war Peru and offers a sophisticated interpretation of Peru’s issues. But don’t read it because of that – read it because it’s a right good read.
Steve Finbow: Nothing really made me want to give up writing because it was too good or spur me on to be better, work harder, stop playing FIFA Soccer 2012 into the early hours of the morning. The novels that came closest were Michel Houellebecq’s The Map & The Territory and China Mieville’s Embassytown. Best non-fiction – a tussle between David Shield’s Reality Hunger and Owen Hatherley’s A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain. Honourable mention to Semiotext(e)’s Intervention series
Anna Foden: Circles Around the Sun by Molly McCloskey. A moving memoir about the devastation schizophrenia brings to a family and the once promising life of a sibling. Three amazing works of reportage/journalism: Beautiful Thing by Sonia Faleiro, White Fever by Jacek Hugo-Bader and Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick for their eye-opening insights into India, Russia and North Korea. The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal for the way he beautifully weaves the history of his family around a collection of netsuke.
Carola Huttmann: My ‘discovery’ last year was Orange Prize winner The Lacuna. Continuing my exploration of Barbara Kingsolver’s writing Prodigal Summer became my favourite read of 2011. The author’s skill in creating characters you can almost hear breathing is one I envy. The only book ever to make me cry was Laura Harrington’s Alice Bliss, the touching story of a teenager who loses her father to the Iraq war. Also brilliant for its strong characterisation was Edward Hogan’s The Hunger Trace.
Benjamin Judge: Christopher Reid’s long overdue Collected Works would top my 2011 poetry list, followed by new collections by Lavinia Greenlaw and John McAuliffe. Short stories: Ron Rash’s Burning Bright, Robert Shearman’s Everyone’s Just So So Special, and also Lemistry, and Litmus, two great anthologies from Comma Press. My novel of the year is undoubtedly Wild Abandon by Joe Dunthorne, which manages to be funny, heart-breaking and true all at the same time and is filled with sentences like “The woofers held the big oval mirror awkwardly, like a big cheque from the lottery.” I would also recommend two short works, Andrew Kaufman’s The Tiny Wife, and Julian Barnes’ strangely underrated Man Booker winner, The Sense of an Ending.
Max Liu: Tolstoy said an event shouldn’t be written about until a decade later and, in Open City, Teju Cole produced the most perfectly pitched study of our post-9/11 moment yet. Time is the major theme ofJennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad but she’s also writing about the disappointments and consolations of liberalism in an excellent book which has deservedly won her recognition as one of the most interesting writers at work in America today. Benjamin Markovits, an American at work in England, straddles all kinds of compelling boundaries in Childish Loves, an assuredly complex novel about questions of life and art.
Valerie O’Riordan: I’ve had some real reading highs and lows this year, with the gargantuan and insufferably plodding 1Q84 being infuriatingly high on the list of lows. And, like last year, I failed to appreciate the alleged merits of the Booker winner – sorry, Julian. But the highs have been exhilarating. There’s been Kevin Barry’s crime/Western/oddity, City of Bohane; Lars Iyer’s pair of existentially bewildered desperadoes in Spurious; the epic sweep and heartbreak of Julie Orringer’s Hungarian WWII tale, The Invisible Bridge (okay, that was 2010, but I had the paperback); and Ann Patchett’s atmospheric trip into the jungle in State of Wonder. I was also really pleased to come across The Vintage and the Gleaning, the début by Australian novelist, Jeremy Chambers – it’s not perfect, but it’s incredibly impressive. I’m already waiting for his next book. And, if I can delve a bit further back in time, this year I read and loved Kelly Link’s Pretty Monsters, a fantastic and fantastical short story collection, and, drum-roll, John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, which made me really wonder what the hell I’ve been doing for the past thirty-one years that could have been more important than reading that? Eh?
Joe Phelan: The best thing I read this year was The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester. First written in 1956, it tells the story of Gully Foyle the last remaining survivor of the merchant spaceship the Nomad which was attacked during the war between the Inner Planets and the Outer Satellites. As he awaits rescue a ship, the Vorga, passes by leaving him for dead. This act as a catalyst for Foyle to repair his ship and return to Earth where he extracts vengeance on those who abandoned him.
Alex Preston: The Booker brouhaha will pass, Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child will not. I read it, panting, in one sitting, floored by the exquisite quality of the prose, the ambition of the design. Teju Cole’s Open City was another that I found profoundly moving and brilliantly-observed. Many have compared it to Sebald – an obvious influence – but it felt to me like Coetzee walking the streets of New York. A wide-ranging, powerful new voice. On the subject of Sebald, I was delighted by the act of love that is Saturn’s Moons, a collection of essays and criticism about the great melancholy prose-poet. Luke Williams’s recollection of being taught by Sebald is particularly moving.
Fran Slater: I’m not really a very up-to-date person, so you’ll have to forgive me if some of my favourite books of 2011 are actually from 2010 or earlier. I read them in 2011, and that’s enough for me. Two that were from this year, however, were the very enjoyable Wild Abandon by Joe Dunthorne and The Misfortunates by Dimitri Verhulst. Both feature child protagonists growing up in families that could, at best, be described as slightly dysfunctional. These are two hilarious novels that are tinged with a sense of sadness throughout. Highly recommended. Ned Beauman’s Boxer Beetle was another great read from my year. In his debut novel Beauman treats his readers to some fast paced prose and great action, whilst also giving us a little made up history about a Nazi beetle that looks like Hitler. Great. As a big Stephen King fan I’ll have to give 22.11.63 a mention. I enjoyed it. I did. A great concept and flashes of brilliance as always. At times, this was his strongest work in years, but at others it did start to drag. My all round favourite read of the year, though, was Evie Wyld’s After the Fire, a Still Small Voice. With some of the most beautiful prose I remember reading, Wyld treats us to a heartbreaking account of a family ruined by war, and yet manages to create an uplifting atmosphere all the same. A fantastic read from start to finish.
This is a tough one for me as I’ve consumed loads of novels in 2011. I was averaging at least one a week at the beginning of the year.But the ones that have stood out for me are: Heaven and Hell by Jan Kelman Stefansson, The Help by Kathryn Stockett, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon, The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa and The Devil All the Time by Donald Ray Pollock. All very different reads, but great ones.
Peter Wild: The books that gave me the most pleasure in 2011 would be Patrick DeWitt’s excellent second book, The Sisters Brothers, Kevin Brockmeier’s intriguing and beautiful The Illumination and, of course, Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad. Honourable mention should also be made of TC Boyle’s When the Killing’s Done. On the short story front, I loved DeLillo’s The Angel Esmeralda and Nick Parker’s The Exploding Boy and Other Tiny Tales. Lots of great nonfiction, ranging from Barbara Demick’s excoriating view of North Korea in Nothing to Envy through to Claire Tomalin’s wonderful biography of Dickens. Lots of great graphic novels too – if I had to pick a favourite it would be Jason’s Isle of 100,000 Graves. This was also the year in which I ‘discovered’ Rudolph Wurlitzer and Terry Southern – Slow Fade and Texas Summer are both worth curling up with.