I have read a lot of books this year, and though not nearly as many as I would have liked (between my writing, publishing, and the dreaded day gig), there was a fair amount of truly great reads in there. Between World Horror and Killercon I must have acquired 100 books, and I don’t even know how many I’ve accumulated on my Kindle since I became that little gray monster’s bitch. I consider myself a fairly varied reader, though to be honest the preponderance of the new stuff I read in 2011 was, unsurprisingly, genre literature. And since this is a list of the best new books I read in 2011, genre lit will, of course, be strongly represented here.
Please note that these are in no particular order, just as I thought of them, and that I consider them all well worth your time and hard-earned cash. So without further ado, here are the best books I read in 2011.
1. THE GERMAN, Lee Thomas (Lethe Press)
I met Lee at World Horror in the Spring, which he co-ran with Nate Southard. Apart from being extremely harried by the demands of running a large convention of unruly horror writers, Lee also unveiled his newest novel at the time, The German. I’d never read Lee, so I picked it up and started reading it that night—and it blew me away. It’s haunting, terrifying, and tragic, a period story with characters so real, so beautiful and horrible, that I’ve been falling all over the poor guy with praise ever since. The German is not only one of the finest novels of 2011, but of recent memory. Read this book.
2. SOUTHERN GODS, John Hornor Jacobs (Night Shade Books)
This is one that burst out of the gate running and has earned the author a great deal of very well deserved praise. Southern Gods is Jacobs’ debut novel, an addictive mix of Faulkner’s pathos, Jim Thompson’s rural noir, and Lovecraft’s unknowable, otherworldly horror. It’s a hell of a treat and highly recommended.
3. 11/22/63, Stephen King (Scribner)
Yeah, I know—Mr. King certainly doesn’t need my praise, but I’m just being honest here, folks. I found myself vaguely disappointed by Under the Dome and downright let down by Full Dark, No Stars, so I really wasn’t expecting much from this odd-sounding time travel novel about a guy who discovers a mysterious time portal and decides to use it to prevent the Kennedy assassination. Yet despite my low expectations, 11/22/63 turned out to be an outstanding novel, King’s best in years, and probably one of the best of his entire career so far. There has been a fair amount of blather about whether or not it’s a horror book (it’s not) or even a genre book (it is), but forget all that crap—it’s an awesome book. JIMLA!
4. DEAD MONEY, Ray Banks (Blasted Heath)
I discovered Scottish noir author Ray Banks when the outstanding Needle Magazine began serializing his novel Wolf Tickets, which I really enjoyed. So when a new Scottish e-book imprint called Blasted Heath popped up and announced a new title from Banks, I scooped it up. Set in Manchester, Dead Money is UK post-noir that channels the best of Charles Willeford’s white collar crime stories with Banks’ own decidedly one of a kind voice that compelled me to read this sucker in one sitting. I love a well-told crime tale from the point of view of a morally bankrupt narrator, but it’s deceptively hard to pull off. Banks pulls it off, and in spades. A great novel.
5. GETTING OFF, Lawrence Block (Hard Case Crime)
Larry Block released the long-awaited and highly anticipated new entry in his Matthew Scudder series this year, A Drop of the Hard Stuff, but being the skeezy old perv I am I was far more excited about Getting Off, the first book Hard Case Crime released upon their return from the abyss, as it were. And talk about morally bankrupt narrators! The young lady chaperoning your reading experience here is nothing short of a psychopath, yet Block’s got you rooting for her almost every step of the way. She’s nasty, beautiful, terrifying, and you can’t get enough of her. Charles Ardai couldn’t have selected a better volume to herald Hard Case’s glorious return.
6. CHOKE HOLD, Christa Faust (Hard Case Crime)
Okay, okay, I need to give the First Lady of Hard Case Crime her due, here. See, the thing is, HCC actually released two books upon their return to the scene, Getting Off and the astounding Christa Faust’s highly anticipated sequel to Money Shot, Choke Hold. Faust’s one-of-a-kind heroine, former porn star turned hard-as-nails righteous avenger Angel Dare returns in a lean and rollicking story of MMA fighters, narcotics trafficking and, of course, good old fashioned hot-blooded American sex. Money Shot remains one of the absolute best entries in the Hard Case line, and I promise you that Choke Hold is every bit as good. If not just a teensy bit better.
7. EVERY SHALLOW CUT, Tom Piccirilli (ChiZine Publications)
Why the shit isn’t Tom Piccirilli a hundred times more famous than he is? He’s easily one of the best writers out there, his output is tremendous and I’ll be damned if he’s disappointed yet. This unusual little volume was released by ChiZine Publications earlier in the year and boasts a stunning interior layout that acts like a magician’s assistant to the magic Pic works in this troublingly lonesome, gripping noir novella of a mid-list writer long dropped from the list and at the end of his rope. I won’t sugarcoat it: this is a depressing read. But it’s a damn excellent one, too, and worth the open-mouthed, knee-hugging keening you’ll probably be doing after you’ve finished it.
I love me some Rick McCammon. After a lengthy hiatus from publishing he came back a few years ago with Speaks the Nightbird, an entirely different but wholly satisfactory kind of novel from him. It has since developed into an ongoing series (and man, are they good), but this year McCammon released another unusual work with The Five, a intensely character driven novel that chronicles the deep and often sacrificial spiritual journey of a famous rock band on the eve of their break-up, and while being hunted by a deranged vet with severe PTSD (or, maybe, a real ghost guiding his violence?). The Five is like Pilgrim’s Progress for the 21st century agnostic, and one of most emotionally satisfying novels I’ve read in ages.
9. THE WOMAN, Jack Ketchum & Lucky McKee (Dorchester)
Ketchum teamed up with Lucky McKee, who has had a hand in a few Ketchum film adaptations, to craft both the novel and the screenplay for this standalone entry in his cannibal Off Season universe. Both are remarkable works, and The Woman is probably Ketchum’s best effort since his soul-rattling classic The Girl Next Door, because like Girl, The Woman delves deep—uncomfortably deep—into the average human being’s capacity for cruelty and violence as well as the most savage human being’s innate capacity for compassion. Ketchum is a guy who understands people so well that I’m impressed he hasn’t gone completely insane or had his faced melted off. Instead, he pours it all into tremendous works like this. And melts our faces off.
10. JUST LIKE HELL, Nate Southard (Deadite Press)
Nate Southard originally released this novella of bigotry, hate, love, and revenge in a limited edition through Thunderstorm Books, but it’s long out of print, so good on Deadite Press for re-releasing it replete with a selection of terrific short stories. Just Like Hell is a downright heartbreaking revenge story concerning a closeted gay high school football player who is abducted along with his boyfriend when the violently homophobic teammates discover his secret. Things rapidly turn from bad to worse to unimaginably horrible, and Nate drags the reader through every shard of broken glass with style and a blood-and-gristle sort of grace. In my opinion, the short stories that follow Just Like Hell are even better, however—sharp little noir tales unlike anything of Nate’s I’d ever read before. Brutal and at times unpleasant, but excellent from cover to cover.
So there you have it: ten books I think you ought to acquire and devour immediately if you don’t want to go on with me thinking you’re a huge idiot. You don’t want to be a huge idiot, do you? I didn’t think so. So what are you waiting for? You’ve got Christmas shopping to do, and I just finished your shopping list for you.
NOW…what were your favorite reads of the year? Comments are open below if you want to chime in.