My thoughts on the best books I read in 2011 are in our review of the year feature this week, along with those of many other SH reviewers. For convenience, with links edited to go to my own comments where available:
One major series came to a triumphant close, as David Anthony Durham's The Sacred Band wrapped up his Acacia epic fantasy trilogy with grace and generosity. Another series kicked off in style: Kameron Hurley's intense novels, God's War and Infidel, were together the most compelling debut of the year, the work of a writer who combines the best of Richard Morgan and Gwyneth Jones. Helen Oyeyemi's Mr Fox and Nina Allan's The Silver Wind both made excellent use of the novel-in-stories form, the former a commentary on gender representation in literature that is alternately sharp and subtle, the latter a restrained yet haunting suite about the gaps that can define a life. Joan Slonczewski's The Highest Frontier—shamefully, the first work I've read by her—is the best hard SF novel I read this year, a wonderful evocation of the university experience, and a fundamentally serious political novel. If you find its portrayal of society's elite a little optimistic, turn instead to Adam Roberts's caustic By Light Alone, a timely novel about inequality that leaves few assumptions un-punctured. And for a book that does it all, pick up a copy of Geoff Ryman's Paradise Tales, a long-overdue collection of brilliantly radical stories told in beautifully precise sentences.
Some additional context. I read 56 books last year, down from 69 a couple of years ago and 84 a couple of years before that; my lowest total for quite a while, in fact. Of those 56, 54% were by women, and 9% by people of colour; 13% were queer books (defined as books with significant queer content, since details of authors' sexuality are not readily available to me); 41% were by British writers, and 43% by Americans, with the bulk of the rest being from other anglophone countries (must read more translations in 2012); 55% were published as "genre", 27% as "mainstream" and 13% as "YA"; but 85% were in some way speculative fiction (or, in the case of the 5% non-fiction, related to sf). Only 50% of the books were first published in 2011, which surprised me until I remembered that several of the reviews I've written this year, including my pieces here on The Best of Kim Stanley Robinson, The Colony by Jillian Weise, and Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion, were of books published in 2010. Because I tend to read non-fiction and short fiction collections quite slowly, in bits and pieces in between a diet of novels, there are also another ten or so books I haven't technically finished but feel reasonably comfortable having an opinion on. Bill McKibben's Global Warming Reader, for example, which I've mentioned here before and have continued to find useful; or Gary K. Wolfe's reviews collection Sightings, much of which I've previously read in Locus anyway, which is excellent, but makes me think how much the field needs other collections of reviews to provide other historical narratives.
This wasn't a year where there were many more books jostling for places in my end-of-year list, but there are a few others I'd like to briefly mention. Of the pre-2011 books, Rana Dasgupta's Solo stands out; not as brazen and memorable a book as Tokyo Cancelled, which I loved, nor as clearly speculative, but with enviable sweep and beautifully polished. If I'd read it in time, Patrick Ness's A Monster Calls would probably have made the list, for focusing such raw emotional power into such an elegantly constructed tale. The two 2011 novels I had read that nearly made my list, meanwhile, were Jane Rogers' The Testatment of Jessie Lamb, which I still think is impressive, but perhaps a little too single-minded to wholeheartedly recommend, and Justina Robson's Down to the Bone, which wraps up an important series but didn't quite grip me as strongly as some earlier installments. Robson's short story collection Heliotrope, meanwhile, is only not in my best-of-year list because it's on the pile of books I haven't quite finished yet; on the strength of what I have read so far, plus knowledge of stories I've read previously like "Legolas Does the Dishes", it's an excellent collection. On the non-fiction side, I'd also like to highlight two final books: The Wiscon Chronicles 5, edited by Nisi Shawl with the theme of "writing and racial identity", which includes a number of pieces I liked, particularly those by Maurice Broaddus and Maria Velazquez; and David Mitchell: Critical Essays, edited by Sarah Dillon from the proceedings of a small conference, which included sf-literate considerations of Mitchell's work from Nicholas Dunlop, William Stephenson, Baryon Tensor and Dillon herself.
Disappointments included novels by Jo Anderton, Paolo Bacigalupi, Tim Powers, Ali Smith, and Neal Stephenson, but let's not dwell. Regrets at not reading? Plenty, this year: Osama by Lavie Tidhar, Swamplandia! by Karen Russell, The Godless Boys by Naomi Wood, Gods Without Men by Hari Kunzru, Twilight Robbery by Frances Hardinge, The Courier's New Bicycle by Kim Westwood, and The Cold Commands by Richard Morgan, for starters. But let's not dwell there, either. All in all, I did not have a bad year's reading in 2011; and 2012 is looking very promising, about which more tomorrow.