In the epic tradition of What I Read In 2009 and What I Read In 2010 comes … What I Read In 2011! “It’s what I wanted Transformers 3 to be if I’d only had a bigger special effects budget” says cult indie film director Michael Bay.
I read 59 books in 2011. Here are links to a number I reviewed.
1. Wit of the Staircase by Saradha Koirala – debut NZ poetry collection; I really liked the wry humour and linguistic play on show here
2. A Foreign Country: New Zealand Speculative Fiction, edited by Anna Caro and Juliet Buchanan – NZ speculative short story anthology, including my story “The Last Good Place”
3. A Grief Observed by C. S. Lewis – British memoir and meditation on grief
4. Grendel by John Gardner – US novella: the Beowulf story imagined from the monster’s point of view
5. Returning by Pat Whitaker – NZ science fiction novel – an intriguing mixture of SF and alternate history
6. Carry On, Jeeves by P. G. Wodehouse – British humour; a collection of Jeeves & Wooster short stories
7. Hemingway in Spain by David P. Reiter – Australian poetry collection centred on the titular author’s exploits in Spain
8. Dwarf Stars 2010, edited by Joshua Gage – annual anthology of short speculative poetry published by the Science Fiction Poetry Association
9. The Baron In The Trees by Italo Calvino – Italian novel in translation; like all the Calvino I have read, very good indeed
10. Reindeer People by Piers Vitebsky – another very good book – a nonfiction account of time spent with indigenous reindeer herders in Siberia from a British author of Russian descent
11. From Smoke to Mirrors : how New Zealand can replace fossil liquid fuels with locally-made renewable energy by 2040 by Kevin Cudby – nonfiction/transport/climate change – takes an optimistic view
12. Lives of the Poets by John Newton – well-written NZ poetry collection that failed to grab me initially, but got more interesting as it went along
13. The Topless Tower by Silvina Ocampo – Argentinean novella in translation, nominally YA
14.”The Spectrum Collection” edited by John Prescott – sampler of horror fiction and poetry from Dark Continents Publishing – NZ, Australian and US authors with some good horror stories and poems
15. Rock and Roll Never Forgets by Deborah Grabien – US rock’n’roll crime novel
16. Punctured Experimental by Iain Britton – NZ poetry chapbook, experimental but accessible
17. In Pursuit… by Joanna FitzPatrick – US biographical novel about Katherine Mansfield
18. The Teachings of Don B. by Donald Barthelme – miscellany from the great US fabulist including short fiction and comic strips; not as strong as I’d hoped, overall
19. in vitro by Laura Solomon – NZ poetry collection with a dark edge
20. Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert – classic French novel in translation
21. Island by Penelope Todd – NZ novel with historical and romance elements – I was nervous I wouldn’t like it given those elements, but I enjoyed it a lot
22. Cars at the End of an Era: Transport Issues in the New Zealand Greenhouse by John Robinson – NZ nonfiction/transport/climate change – takes a pessimistic view: a good counterbalance to #11 above
23. A Room With A View by E. M. Forster – classic British novel
24. Unseen Academicals by Terry Pratchett – Discworld novel – pretty good, but there is little new under the sun or above the tortoise after so many Discworld novels
25. The Best Of Kim Stanley Robinson – selected short stories and novellas of this great US science fiction writer. All the stories very good, many excellent
26. Trace Fossils by Mary Cresswell – NZ poetry collection, the first ‘serious’ poetry collection from Mary Cresswell – as with Janis Freegard’s poetry (see #36), I enjoy the combination of science and poetry
27. The Guild by Felicia Day (Omnibus edition of Issues 1-3) – US graphic novel by the multi-talented Ms Day. (Felicia Day and Joss Whedon have an interesting mentor/mentee professional relationship – he helped her develop as a writer and actor, she showed him the way to make web series work. When it comes to turning a TV or web series into a graphic novel, on the evidence of this vs #37, I would say that Felicia Day has a surer grasp on what works in the comics medium.)
28. The Corrosion Zone by Barbara Strang – NZ poetry collection in which I especially enjoyed the poems about Southland, where both the author and I grew up
29. He’ll Be OK by Celia Lashlie – NZ parenting manual for parents of teenage boys – slightly uneasy mix of research and anecdote, but reassuring overall!
30. Such A Long Journey by Rohinton Mistry – novel of India, written by this Indian novelist who emigrated to Canada. I found the characters fascinating but the plot improbable
31. Lan Yuan : The Garden of Enlightenment, ed. James Beattie – history of formal Chinese gardens and guide to Lan Yuan, the Chinese garden in Dunedin, New Zealand. I was captivated by Lan Yuan when I visited it for the first time this year, and found this short essay collection placing in context very interesting as well
32. Forty Stories by Donald Barthelme – US short story collection – again, not quite as good as I expected. Barthelme has written some wonderful stories, but the hit-rate in this collection was lower than I’d hoped
33. Mr Allbones’ Ferrets by Fiona Farrell – NZ novel, mainly set in the UK, which I reviewed for Landfall Review Online
34. One Was A Soldier by Julia Spencer-Fleming – US crime novel – she is one of my favourite crime novel, and this was a particularly good entry in the series
35. Immortal Love by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya – Russian short stories in translation
36. Kingdom Animalia : The Escapades of Linnaeus by Janis Freegard – NZ poetry collection memorably organised around Linnaeus’ classification system
37. Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season Eight Volume 8: Last Gleaming by Joss Whedon – collecting the final five issues (#s 36-40) of Buffy Season 8, the continuation of the TV series in graphic novel form. This season has been patchy to say the least, but the final issue returns Buffy to her, and the series’, strengths
38. Genesis by Bernard Beckett – NZ YA science fiction novel – very interesting ideas, but the framing story didn’t work for me
39. On The Overgrown Path by David Herter – US novella with speculative elements; the central character is Czech composer Leoš Janáček
40. True Spirit: The Aussie Girl Who Took On The World by Jessica Watson – record of her non-stop solo round the world yacht voyage – at 16, she was the youngest person to do this. An impulse buy at an airport bookstore that I really enjoyed!
41. Guarding the Flame by Majella Cullinane – fine debut collection by this Irish poet now living in NZ
42. Unless by Carol Shields – Canadian novel; I enjoyed it, but others who have read more of her work said this was not among her best
43. Mediated by Thomas de Zengotita – nonfiction account, and at times jeremiad, about the effects of pervasive media on perception, self-image, childrearing and politics
44. Burn by Nevada Barr – US crime novel – a long way from being this normally excellent author’s best work, and probably the book I enjoyed least this year
45. The Coldest Place on Earth by Robert Thomson – narrative of one of the lesser-known Antarctic journeys, serviceably rather than excitingly told
46. The Day The Raids Came, edited by Valerie Morse – excellent collection of accounts by those caught up in the New Zealand police “terror” raids of October 2007 on Tuhoe and anarchist activists, a classic case of ‘have new anti-terrorist powers, will use them’
47. Slightly Peculiar Love Stories, edited by Penelope Todd – ebook anthology of love stories by NZ and international authors, including my story “Said Sheree”.
48. The Secret River by Kate Grenville – Australian historical novel of transportation, settlement, and conquest
49. The Telling by Ursula K. Le Guin – slightly disappointing novel set in the Haninish universe by one of my favourite SF authors
50. The Carbon Challenge : New Zealand’s Emissions Trading Scheme by Geoff Bertram and Simon Terry – NZ non-fiction; shows up how the Emissions Trading Scheme, supposedly set up to impose costs of greenhouse gas emitters, has ended up subsidising them instead
51. Portals by Robin Fry – NZ poetry collection – some lovely poems here, including this one.
52. Luuurve Is A Many Trousered Thing… by Louise Rennison – fiction/YA novel – a ‘read something completely different’ challenge for my book group – I enjoyed this more than I expected
53. The Cancellation of Clouds by P. S. Cottier – Australian poetry collection with a distinctively wry yet dark tone and very effective use of long stanzas and densely packed lines
54. Tongues of Ash by Keith Westwater – NZ poetry collection; a fine debut collection from my book-tour partner.
55. Deathless by Catherynne M. Valente – US fantasy novel based on Russian folklore; you’ll have to wait till my Belletrista review to see what I thought of it 😉
56. Scott’s Last Biscuit by Sarah Moss – nonfiction/polar exploration and literature – liked the way it didn’t just focus on the obvious examples – disliked the heavy-handed explication of what writers many years distant from us “really” meant
57. Not Saying Goodbye At Gate 21 by Kathleen Jones – first poetry collection from the noted biographer. Some wonderful landscape and personal poetry here – the best of these poems are those that bring the two together.
58. Tales For Canterbury, edited by Anna Caro and Cassie Hart – a fine collection of short stories (and a poem) by NZ and international authors, raising funds for victims of the Canterbury earthquakes. Includes my original story “Sign of the Tui”.
59. The Comforter by Helen Lehndorf – a lovely debut poetry collection: warm, inviting poems and another great production job from Helen Rickerby’s Seraph Press.
What does that all add up to?
21 novels or novellas
15 poetry books – 14 collections and 1 anthology
12 nonfiction books
9 short story collections or anthologies
2 graphic novels
I was surprised to see that I’d read more novels than poetry collections, and that’s probably because it feels like poetry was the highlight of my reading this year, with short fiction close behind. The only novel I gave 5 stars out of 5 to on LibraryThing was Italo Calvino’s The Baron in the Trees, though Kate Grenville’s The Secret River came close. Madame Bovary and Island were good too, and I enjoyed the ingenious storyline of Pat Whitaker’s Returning.
I finished the year with two excellent poetry collections, Kathleen Jones’ Not Saying Goodbye at Gate 21 and Helen Lehndorf’s The Comforter, and right from the first collection I read this year, Saradha Koirala’s The Wit of the Staircase, I’ve found poems that have excited, moved and challenged me. One thing I’m keen to do next year is read more Australian poetry, to build on David Reiter’s Hemingway in Spain and P. S. Cottier’s The Cancellation of Clouds, both of which I enjoyed, and each of which is somewhat different from what I’ve read recently by any New Zealand poet. Vive la difference!
Short story anthologies have been another highlight of 2011, with the two anthologies from Wellington’s own Random Static Press, A Foreign Country and Tales for Canterbury, and also the Slightly Peculiar Love Stories anthology from Dunedin’s Rosa Mira Books, being particular favourites – and not just because I had a story in each of them :-). New Zealand continues to produce outstanding short story writers, and in the latter two anthologies, which mix stories from New Zealand and overseas writers, the stories by New Zealand writers stand up very well.
Nonfiction highlights included The Reindeer People, A Grief Observed, The Day The Raids Came and Lan Yuan: The Garden of Enlightenment. And when it came to graphic novels, I think Felicia Day has grasped the essence of translating one visual medium into another in a way that Joss Whedon, for all his brilliance in other fields, has yet to master.
Yay for books! I think I might read some more of them in 2012.