Saturday, December 31, 2011

A TNBBC Twist on "Top 2011" Lists

Back in November, I released my Top Ten Indie Picks of 2011 to the After watching all of the blogger buzz on Twitter these past few weeks, I started feeling as though I should create another 2011 book list, especially since I've managed to read seven books between the release of that November list and now. But I knew I just couldn't go through the stress of building a new one...

So, not willing to let all of 2011 go without a Best Of list, I decided to put a little spin on things. I reached out to a bunch of authors - all of them have appeared here on TNBBC in some way, shape, or form -  asking them to share with us their favorite reads of 2011. I thought it would be really cool to see what they had been reading and enjoying this year....

The response has been overwhelming and I am so incredibly honored to share them with you today. And without further ado...

The TNBBC Author Series: Top Three Books of 2011

Chris Bauer

Three books from recent memory:

CHANCE by Steve Shilstone My all-time favorite book. I re-read this one. Again. Baseball fiction. Great first person narrative from a self-prescribed teacher, poet and biographer of the greatest (fictional) baseball shortstop to ever play the game, Chance Caine. Many, many quotable lines. I identify strongly with one of them: "The thing I write will be the thing I write." Funny, tragic, with a twist or three. On a scale of one-to-five stars, I rate it as a 20.

GREEN GRASS GRACE by Shawn McBride: Funny, irreverent coming-of-age story about Northeast Philadelphia (PA), my roots, in the 1980s as told by someone who lived a lot of it. Here's a line the author gives us about Mike Schmidt, Hall of Fame Philadelphia Phillies player (sensing a trend here?), someone who our foul-mouthed thirteen-year-old narrator Henry Toohey doesn't like: "Mike Schmidt sits to pee." Then he goes on to call you, reader, "f***face." Hilarious and real. On the same star scale as above, an 18.

PATIENT ZERO by Jonathan Maberry: Jonathan had me with his two-sentence first chapter: "When you have to kill the same terrorist twice in one week, then there’s either something wrong with your skills or something wrong with your world. And there’s nothing wrong with my skills." Strong research, great action, zombies; the first of a three-part series. Again, same scale, 15 stars.

C.G. (Chris) Bauer writes horror, urban fantasy, contemporary and crime fiction. Loves baseball. A few of his beloved Philadelphia Phillies, real and fictional, have materialized in his work. Deal with it.

Ryan Bradley
Out of fairness I'll pick books I didn't publish this year, even though two of those were certainly among my favorites:

Once Upon A River by Bonnie Jo Campbell: Campbell writes without remorse, redefining heroines for the 21st century. This tale of one rural Michigan teen's travails as her family's river dynasty falls apart upon her father's death is as engrossing a novel as you'll ever read.

The Devil All the Time by Donald Ray Pollock: The title of Pollock's novel pretty much sums this one up. There is so much violence and dysfunction that you would think you might be turned off, but that's the skill behind Pollock's writing, you don't feel like you're reading that much violence or dysfunction, then when you're finished and you try to describe it to someone you have to step back and say "whoa."

Curse the Names by Robert Arellano: Arellano's latest novel was an end of the year addition to my favorites list. Think Hitchcock meets The Twilight Zone and you'll come close to this paranormal noir of a middle aged man coming to grips with his unfulfilling job and failing marriage.

Ryan W. Bradley is an expert in failure. His encyclopedia (aka novel) on the topic, Code for Failure will arrive in March of 2012 from Black Coffee Press.

Larry Closs

Just Kids by Patti SmithPatti Smith’s memoir of her relationship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe illuminates a long-gone New York, capturing the potent zeitgeist of the 1970s, when the bohemian progeny of the Beat Generation made the Chelsea Hotel their headquarters and experimented with a volatile blend of pathos and poetry that exploded in punk. Holding the center of a swirling star-studded milieu that included Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Bob Dylan, Sam Shepard and Allen Ginsberg (whom she met in an automat when he mistook her for a young man), are Smith and Mapplethorpe, two artists who met by chance when they were “just kids.” Smith will eventually set foot on a stage and Mapplethorpe will snap his first Polaroid, but it is the evolution of their intimacy—from lovers to friends and beyond, spurred, in part, by Mapplethorpe’s fluid sexuality—that is far more fascinating. They grow together, they grow apart, but they never grow away.

Unbroken by Laura HillenbrandMy taste in movies ranges from indies to Hollywood blockbusters and the same is true of my taste in books. Unbroken is definitely a blockbuster—a magnificent, mesmerizing, spellbinding spectacle that grabs you from the first page. It’s the true story of Louis Zamparini, a near delinquent teen who, in the 1930s, channeled his defiance into running and became the first Olympian to challenge the four-minute mile before serving in the Army Air Corps during World World II. Zamparini survived the crash of his B-24 in the Pacific and spent 47 days drifting in a raft with two crewmen only to be “rescued” by the Japanese and detained in a series of horrific POW camps under the leadership of Mutsuhiro Wantanabe, a psychotic and savage Imperial Japanese Army sergeant. A tribute to immeasurable resilience, Unbroken is also, ultimately, a profound testament to the redemptive quality of forgiveness, for both the forgiven and the forgiver.

Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson:I am a Mac, not a PC, so it was with more than a casual interest that I approached the biography of Steve Jobs to learn more about the genius responsible for the Genius Bar (or for green-lighting it, at least, as the book points out). The portrait that emerges is of a brilliant mind who married art and technology, Zen Buddhism and Bauhaus, to devise a design aesthetic defined by a playful simplicity of form and functionality. But the man who revolutionized personal computers, mobile phones, tablets, portable music players—indeed, the entire music industry—and also rescued Pixar was actually of two minds: Nurturing and loving one moment, imperious and petulant the next. Whichever impression proves most lasting, it’s impossible not to be awed. “I want to put a ding in the universe,” Jobs once remarked. He did.

Larry Closs is the author of Beatitude, a novel, and a New Yorker who often wanders far from home.

James Goertel

PULPHEAD by John Jeremiah Sullivan: topped this year's flood of worthy books.  His essays from this collection are so well-wrought that I believe there must be a novel lurking somewhere in the shadows of his syntax.  

VOLT by Alan Heathcock:  proved the short story is not only not dead, but alive and kicking.

Shann Ray's powerful short story collection AMERICAN MASCULINE, confirmed this.   

I hope to see long-players from all three of these writers somewhere down the road.

Born in North Dakota, James Goertel spent twenty years working in television for ABC, NBC, and ESPN, among others.  CARRY EACH HIS BURDEN is his debut fiction collection and was published in September of 2011.

Steve Himmer

Abbott Awaits by Chris Bachelder: I reviewed this more fully at Necessary Fiction, but what I love about Abbott Awaits is it takes seriously fatherhood, marriage, the tedious chores of homeownership — life, in other words — in a way that’s honest and smart but also quite funny. But unlike so much fiction of the everyday, in which it’s taken for granted lives are interesting simply because they happen, Bachelder goes further than that: Abbott’s days are quotidian, but they aren’t in a vacuum because they’re also an exploration of politics, power, philosophy, paranoia... and probably some other compelling things starting with “P”. Bonus recommendation: David Barringer’s novel American Home Life (2007) explores suburban fatherhood in ways that are similar — and equally wonderful — but very much its own.

Treasure Island!!! by Sara Levine: I’m a big fan of novels with lovably unlikeable protagonists, and Treasure Island!!! has that in spades. Or in sails, maybe. As infuriating as Levine’s anti-heroine is as she wrecks the lives of everyone around her through attempts to follow the “Core Values” of Stevenson’s Treasure Island, the humor and humanity of the story — not to mention some very sharp questions it raises about gender roles, literature, community, and ambition — make it far more fun to read this nameless narrator’s days than it would be to spend one with her. Bonus recommendation: one of my favorite novels of last year, Marcy Dermansky’s Bad Marie had just as wonderful a lovably unlikeable anti-heroine, if you like that sort of thing, too.

City of Bohane by Kevin Barry: This one may be cheating, because it won’t be out in the US until March, but it was published in the UK for 2011 and that’s the edition I read. City of Bohane is a gang war story and a futuristic dystopian epic steeped in dialectic and slang to a degree I worry will alienate or at least frustrate American readers, which would be a shame. But what I really love about this novel is how powerfully it’s about more than violence: it’s as much a reflection on the lingering and residual histories of cities and people and places, and how those can be weights dragging us backward instead of foundations to build upon. And it’s also just a hell of a lot of fun to read. Bonus recommendation: For an equally imaginative and unique dystopian read — and one to make City of Bohane’s dialect seem a breeze — pick up Matthew Fitt’s Scots language cyberpunk novel But N Ben A-Go-Go (2000).

Steve Himmer is author of the novel The Bee-Loud Glade, and editor of the webjournal Necessary Fiction.

Collin Kelley

Untold Story by Monica Ali : Monica Ali (author of the brilliant Brick Lane) brings
Princess Diana back to life in this Fringe-like alternate reality where the Princess of Wales fakes her death to escape the paparazzi glare. She has plastic surgery, changes her name, lives in a gated community in middle America, but she can't quite escape her past. It's funny, chilling and beautifully written piece of fantasy.

1Q84 by Haruki Murakami: In 1984, assassin Aomame is stuck in traffic on a Tokyo freeway running late for her appointment to murder a man who has abused his wife. At the taxi driver’s suggestion, she gets out of the car and climbs down an emergency staircase off the freeway, which turns out to be a portal into a parallel universe. Is Aomame really in an alternate reality or is she a fictional character created by  a projection by a young writer named Tengo, who fell in love with Aomame when they were children? With echoes of Orwell's 1984 and Proust's Remembrance of Things Past, it's a thrilling, elliptical and epic novel.

The Book of Men: Poems by Dorianne Laux: From a modern soldier off to war and a boyfriend who taught her how to drive to Mick Jagger and Superman, Laux's fantastic collection reveals men as human and mortal. The poems are playful, sultry, sexy and also elegiac.

Collin Kelley is an award-winning poet and novelist (his latest book is the mystery Remain In Light), who is secretly bionic and works for the OSI battling Fembots, Big Foot and secretly pining away for Col. Steve Austin.


James King

      A Visit from the Goon Squad  by Jennifer Egan. I had no idea what to expect when I picked this up, but once I did, I couldn’t put it down. Vividly drawn characters, wonderful writing, lots of humor and poignancy. What’s not to like?

            Day for Night by Frederick Reiken. I wouldn’t have heard about this book had it not been for Daniel Goldin, owner of Boswell Book Company in Milwaukee, who recommended it to me when I visited his wonderful bookstore. A memorable cast of characters that are all connected in surprising and mysterious ways. I got so engrossed in it I nearly missed the last call to board the plane home.

The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman. A toss-up here between this one and Jeffrey Eugenides’s “The Marriage Plot,” which I enjoyed immensely. But I’m going with Rachman’s book here… just because. His short-story approach to the lives of the characters and the newspaper that unites them is compelling and effective. His writing is nearly flawless, bringing his characters to life with subtlety and grace.

James King is the author of “Bill Warrington’s Last Chance” (Viking/Penguin). He lives in Connecticut with his wife, two children, and a beagle who cares not a whiff about dangling participles.


Lavinia Ludlow

These three writers have story-telling abilities that breach the everyday mundane. With unique and engaging writing styles, they present honest tales of personal dissonance,
tragedy, and misery. Here are my top three picks of 2011. I thank all three authors for the amazing reads.

Damascus by Josh MohrDamascus presents a series of vignettes ridden with contemporary grit. Mohr’s unique and impactful writing style guides the reader through the burdens of cancer, an unlucky birthmark, avant-garde art, even war scars.

Knuckleheads by Jeff Kass: Jeff Kass has packed a ton of literary meat and wit into his charming tales which ping-pong between adolescence and adulthood; shattered dreams, immature dick-swinging contests, unbridled testosterone, stolen Pop Tarts, middle-aged dick-swinging contests, and sexual frustration.

Stories V! by Scott McClanahan: Stories V! consist of dark-humored and honest depictions of a boy migrating through childhood, adolescence, pre-pubescence, and early adulthood. There are dead baby jokes, pet relationships, perils of having to choose between watching Superman IV or attending a classmate’s funeral, health problems of intimate assortments, even a sex tape used as conversational lube.

Lavinia Ludlow is a musician and writer based out of Northern California. Her debut novel alt.punk is available through Casperian Books.

David Maine

The best novel I read in 2011 was Jess Walter’s hilarious The Financial Lives of the Poets, which manages to marry artistic angst with drug-dealing farce on a scale that I haven’t encountered for quite some time. Matthew Prior is a poet whose web site isn’t as profitable as planned (big surprise) so he turns to other ways of making money. As in all the best comedy, there are dark, dark undercurrents here, and as Prior gets sucked in ever deeper, the reader goes along for the ride.

Another strong read was Steven Amsterdam’s Things We Didn’t See Coming, which upends traditional apocalypse fiction tropes by introducing a new disaster with each chapter. Structured as a series of loosely connected stories, the book shows our narrator coping with one disaster after another—climate change, plague, floods, breakdown of civil society and so on—while trying to maintain his essential humanity. The real story here isn’t the string of disasters, of course, but how human beings confront them.

The most enjoyable nonfiction I read was Mary Roach’s Packing For Mars, which details the history of the manned space program in a way simultaneously illuminating and hilarious. Hey, you may not think it’s such a big deal to use the toilet in zero gravity—but believe me, it’s important. Roach tackled such subjects as the psychological testing that weeds out would-be astronauts as well as the more mundane matters of food, drink and bodily waste. Through it all, her delighted (and delightful) voice carry the reader along on this, humanity’s biggest adventure.

David Maine is an old-fashioned pen-on-paper writer who tries out this whiz-bang technology thing. 

Amber Scott

Top 3 picks for me:

A caveat--Through IBC, I know a lot of authors and read them, too. So in choosing my absolute faves, I focused on the books with characters who feel real to me. Real enough that I would call them on the phone and ask them to coffee and have even thought of doing
    so. #crazywriter

Rook by Carolyn McCray. I'm a huge McCray fan and not just because she's an uber cool friend. She is an amazing writer I learn from by reading. But Rook? In a word, swagger. Rook has so much swagger that I fell for him in that first scene as he played chess with a demon.

Head Rush by Carolyn Crane. #istalkher The Dissullusionist series on the whole is such a brilliant premise and exquisitely delivered. Hypochondria becomes the heroine's super power. How totally cool is that? Plus Sterling Packard might still have my heart. 

Nearly Departed in Deadwood by Ann Charles. Ann is awesome. She's my career coach. Sure, I wanted to like her books. But this one, simply stands out. I have jokes that I wish I could tell Harvey. I have the urge to lend Vi a certain shirt or dress. And Doc? Forget about it. Let's just say night swimming comes to mind. A lot of night swimming.

In between naptimes and dishes, Amber Scott escapes into the addictive twists and turns her characters take. She often burns dinner, is hooked on chocolate and still believes in happily ever after. She co-founded the Indie Book Collective and hangs out in The HOT Club, her secret Facebook fan group...well, secret sortof.

Sonia Taitz
My top three books of 2011 are all memoirs. I'm putting one out myself next year, so maybe I'm obsessed.

LUCKING OUT by James Wolcott: No one can turn a phrase like the witty Mr. Wolcott, who has long entertained and illuminated us in the pages of Vanity Fair and The New Yorker. His tale of making it in the New York of the 1970s is also honest, richly layered, and insightful. 

MY LONG TRIP HOME by Mark Whitaker: Whitaker, who made a name for himself at Newsweek, and who is now president of CNN Worldwide, proves himself to be equally impressive as a memoirist. His elegant and poignant book tells of his biracial background, while also -- in true reportorial style -- illuminating large swathes of 20th century history.

[Sic]: A MEMOIR by Joshua CodyWe've all read cancer memoirs, but Cody's musical prose and brilliant musings make this book a literary and philosophical stand-out. 

SONIA TAITZ is author of MOTHERING HEIGHTS and the new novel, IN THE KING'S ARMS. WATCHMAKER'S DAUGHTER, her memoir, will be published in 2012. She tweets @soniataitz. 

Ben Tanzer
I suppose that after all of the reading I've done this past year it's massively uncool of you to ask me to just provide you with a list of three books I loved. Then again maybe I'm just showing off and that's all I deserve. Still, I am a fanboy that has clear problems with limits and authority, something you clearly recognize, so I suppose we're all good. Really. Totally. Mostly.

alt.punk by Lavinia Ludlow: A story that may or may not represent an entire incredibly over-educated and politically astute generations' ennui and lack of opportunity, let's call them Millenials, but regardless, is certainly a generation that seems to know all too much, and be all too jaded, yet still gets hung-up on things that otherwise appear comparatively mundane, cigarette smoking for example, if they consider them evil or corrupt, something I would add that has rarely slowed down most members of Generation X.

The Mimic's Own Voice by Thomas Williams: It's almost a study at times, survey or assessment, a cataloging of humor and craft, a history even, but fictional, sort of, all of it, a world that you believe exists, could exist, did exist, may have existed, and clearly actively does in the vibrant and rich imagination of Tom Williams. There is also the voice, William's voice if you will, which makes the book something else as well, a reflection maybe, some kind of observation or commentary on what it means to be an artist of color in changing world where a lack of color still holds sway, but may, will, not, for much longer.

Emergency Room Wrestling by the Dirty Poet: A slamming collection of pieces, all vivid and so full of death, endless death, but less upsetting or overwhelming, than absorbing, fully absorbing, as life seems so unbelievably fleeting in these pages, a breath here, a brain injury there, then gone in a flash, a sad, sad flash, no time to react, because it's all done, all of it.

Ben Tanzer is -Writer. Co-founder of Wham! Benevolent overlord and spokesperson for TBWCYL, Inc., my massive and life-changing, albeit faux media empire.

Rachel Thompson

FARSIGHTED by Emlyn Chand: @EmlynChand There are very few books I've read that keep me turning pages all night. FARSIGHTED is this kind of book. I was quickly drawn in from the first page; Chand's writing is descriptive, hypnotic. I knew to pay attention to the details but found myself so mesmerized by how the story unfolded I was soon lost in the characters. Bravo to her portrayal of a teenage Alex and his emotional turmoil--the fella has a lot going on! For those who felt he was rude, I say sure --- but he's also a teenager. Do you have one in your house? Do remember being one? Teens aren't sugarcoated candy gumdrops. Get real -- oh yea, she did. I thought he was fairly mature -- how he dealt with his mom, his protectives of her was beautiful and sweet. All of the characters were well drawn and each had their own distinct voice. The story flowed, I kept wanting to find out what happened next and I did not see the ending coming at all! My only issue with the book was that I wanted to know more about Dax though I have no doubt Ms. Chand made him a mystery for a very clear reason. Book Two, perhaps? Do yourself a favor and read this book. I can honestly say I thoroughly enjoyed it!

DREAMING IN DARKNESS by Jessica Kristie: @JessKristie This is a gorgeous book of poetry that reads like prose. I read it in one sitting. I honestly forgot I was reading poetry. Kristie writes with such honest, raw passion of relationships, love, sex, and longing, I kept turning pages to find out what would happen. This is not your mama's poetry. Kristie writes of the kind of love we all desire. 

KISS ME QUICK BEFORE I SHOOT by Guy Magar: @GuyMagar Who doesn't want to read behind-the-scenes stories about Hollywood filmmaking, right? But this memoir is SO MUCH MORE! Magar's knowledge of film and TV should be a bible for anyone interested in learning about the industry. His interactions with actors, execs, producers, and crews are all covered here in fascinating detail, along with the making of some famous movies and TV series. He also discusses his own real-life love story, one we should all be lucky enough to experience. Which makes the sections on Jacqui's leukemia so heartbreaking. You have to read to find out what happens! This is one of the best memoirs I've ever read, hands down.

Rachel Thompson is the author of the #1 bestselling A Walk In The Snark  and The Mancode: Exposed. She is cofounder of the Indie Book Collective, runs her own popular blog, is a wife, mom, and misses sleeping. Find her on Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, or anywhere snark is sold. 


JA Tyler

Gary Lutz's Divorcer: One of the greatest examples of well-crafted fiction, of words that have weight. Lutz is at his pinnacle in this latest collection from Calamari Press.

Manuela Draeger's In the Time of the Blue Ball (translated by Brian Evenson): Dorothy, A Publishing Project makes beautiful books and Evenson's translation of these fantastical and wondrous stories bring Draeger to English for the first time, and shining.

Yannick Murphy's The Call: To be admired for its innovative structure but also praised for its narrative and emotional toppling, this is a seriously glorious book that more people should be reading.

J. A. Tyler is the author of four books, including Girl With Oars & Man Dying (Aqueous Books, 2011). He also runs Mud Luscious Press.


Now excuse me while I sneak off to add each and every one of these to my ever growing, near exploding TBR lists!!!!


  1. Great to be a part of another wonderful TNBBC production and to be in such fine company. Thanks, Lori.

  2. Great list. It's an honor to be part of it :-D

  3. Love this, Lori, it's so interesting!!