I read a lot – probably about a book a week, not counting magazines and comic books. I also re-read a lot because to me a book is like a good song and is meant to be enjoyed more than once, or a good movie where it’s good to view it again and pick up on the clues you may have missed the first time around. My level of difficulty for this list is: No superhero books (as they’re really their own genre and not accessible to all who may decide to read this), and no re-reads (so even though Shogun was one of my most enjoyable reads of the year, it’s disqualified from the list due to the seven times I’ve read it previously). Also, if there’s a collection of graphic novels, I will just go for the main title, not the individual volumes (for example, Walking Dead, Volume 8 was mindblowing, but I consider it just a part of the greater whole, so it doesn’t get singled out exclusively as the best of the best). One last persnickety point: Just because I’m calling these my Books of the Year doesn’t mean that they were all published in 2011 – in fact, only two of them were, I think. These are the Top Ten Books I Read this year. And now, without any further ado, we may as well start with the one I’ve already mentioned:
The Walking Dead
By Robert Kirkman
I’ve never really been a big zombie guy, but the show on AMC looked intriguing, so I decided to give it a shot and I liked what I saw, enough that I got tired of waiting week to week to see what would happen next to Rick and friends. Let me just warn you right now, the books veer quite steadily away from the shows (spoiler alert: Shane dies in the first volume of the books, just to give you an idea of how truly different the stories are). All I can really say about these is that they’re an incredibly gripping read, and that Robert Kirkman is a savage writer, and I mean that in the best way possible. The Walking Dead follows a police officer who is recovering from a near-fatal gunshot wound induced coma at the very beginning of the story, who wakes up to find that the world has turned inside-out upon itself and that the dead have risen and now represent a strong majority and major threat to those few who remain alive and intact. Strong characters, insane and chaotic situations, and a very believable world-view as to what would happen to us as a society were this to ever actually happen. It’s a graphic, brutal, and wonderful story, full of love, hope, and perseverance in the face of impending and inescapable doom.
By Emma Donoghue
Another bit of a brutal read, but so well done. Room is told through the eyes of a five year old boy who doesn’t realize that his mother was the victim of a kidnapping years before, and that they’re being held in captivity inside a storage shed in his back yard. All that little Jack knows in the entire universe is what’s inside of their little room. I’m not going to share too much because I don’t want to spoil anything, although, any reader can assume there will be an escape attempt at some point, and they’d be right in that assumption, but the way that attempt is written was hands-down my favourite action sequence of the year. Room is a gripping and emotional ride, harsh in its depiction of desperation, glowing in its message of hope, and seems just all too real when reading it.
Ready Player One
By Ernest Cline
Oh, this was a fun one! Funny, fast-paced, and peppered with enough 80’s references to make any geek or nerd ecstatic, Ernest Cline wrote what was probably my favourite read of the year. Set in a dystopic not-too-distant future, the real world is falling apart, but the virtual world is thriving – imagine living in the Matrix, but knowing that it wasn’t real. The inventor of this virtual world dies and instead of leaving his fortune to the company he founded, he sets up a scavenger hunt through virtual reality, and the prize is his immense estate. It’s a thrill-ride, action-packed, hilarious, and just a great read. Upon finishing it, I handed it to my wife and said, “Here you go – it’s the Hunger Games for boys, only better.”
The Hunger Games Trilogy
By Suzanne Collins
A very big deal has been made of the Hunger Games Trilogy, and for once, the hype is very well-deserved. It’s not the most original premise, people put into a game-type competition with the ultimate goal being the last survivor, but Collins’s fresh take on it, and her extremely well-written and rounded characters, make this a must-read for any fan of adventure fiction. I haven’t enjoyed, or been as truly ensconced, in a series since I first discovered Harry Potter. Generally, these books are directed at teenaged girls, but even as a middle-aged man I couldn’t help but get caught up in Katniss’s struggle of choosing between Gale and Peeta, her desire to protect her family, and at heart, any story about rebelling against authority for justifiable and honourable reasons will always resonate with me.
By Neil Gaiman
Being that I also read Gaiman’s popular classic American Gods this year, many of his fans will probably find it shocking to see that not on my list, and to see the inclusion instead of Anansi Boys, and I guess I can understand that confusion for people who tend to rely more on populist opinions rather than their own good sense. American Gods was a very good book, but utterly suffered from predictability, too much story packed into too few pages, and unfairly from the over-hype that surrounds it. Anansi Boys, on the other hand, follows the same vein as Gods, and even one of my favourite characters from the same, but it’s written in a more light-hearted tone, has a story that’s better in its adventuristic simplicity, and a more satisfying ending.
Y: The Last Man
By Brian K Vaughan
If I was forced at gunpoint to pick a favourite read of the year, without any hesitation I would gladly say “Y: The Last Man” was number one with a bullet. A mysterious plague instantly wipes out every human with a Y-chromosome except for one lone man and his monkey. With a premise like that you’d expect the story to be a pornographic sex-romp, but it’s not. It’s a very level-headed, humourous, occasionally heart-wrenching exploration of a world without men, filled with political intrigue, human tensions, an exploration of gender-issues, and a world full of pissed-off women who have no prospects for traditional intercourse. Just amazing.
By Albert Brooks
I’m a little biased on this one because, being a fan of his films, I already consider Albert Brooks to be a comedic genius (if you’ve never seen Defending Your Life, you’re missing out), so of course I bought this book and expected to like it. What I didn’t expect was just how intelligently thought out and considered Brooks’s take on a near-future dystopia would be. This wasn’t like reading a science-fiction novel, this was like reading a very plausible take on our own future history. In a world where the elderly are living longer and longer, and what that means to an already rocky economy, the youth of the nation are getting angry to the point where they know a change must come, and must come now. Throw in a natural disaster on the West Coast, and you’ve got the makings of a very smart and enjoyable read. I hope Brooks decides to write more fiction, because as big a fan as I am of his movies, he jumped several levels of respect for how well done this book was.
By Keith Richards
Not a lot of sex, but enough drugs and rock n’ roll so that you don’t really miss it. If you’re a Rolling Stones fan and are familiar with the debauchery that is Keith Richards, this book will give you exactly what you want – tales of rock n’ roll madness and mayhem, straight from the horse’s mouth. If you’re a Rolling Stones hater and resent the debauchery that is Keith Richards, this book will give you exactly what you want. As a fan, I loved it, but I have to say, Keef is a cold-hearted son of a bitch to a degree I never really anticipated. Without spilling too many beans, we all know that death has been a part of the Rolling Stones story from very early on in their career, but the way Keith lets it all just run off his shoulders like water off the back of a duck is a little unnerving. Still, a great read and a nice look into the inner workings of one of the greatest rock n’ roll bands of all time.
Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter
By Seth Grahame-Smith
Not a literary great by any means, but still a very entertaining and easy read that sticks pretty true to the true story of the greatest president, but makes it cooler by including vampires. I argued with myself over including it on this list, but it was so much fun that I decided to add it in. If you go into it not expecting much, you’ll be happily pleased. Sometimes fun is good enough.
The Book of Negroes
By Lawrence Hill
In university, I read a ton of Colonial and African literature, including two of the best books I’ve ever read, and this fits easily into the canon and secures itself in a spot very close to the top. It’s like reading Roots, only more accessible in a lot of ways, and a little bit smoother as well since this novel follows only one person’s journey rather than trying to tackle a family history. As brutal and heartbreaking a novel as you’d expect from the subject-matter, but so beautifully written and wonderfully worded. If you have any interest in the inhumanity humans treat other humans with, if you’re passionate about how strong a motivator hope and heart are, if you like reading books that both teach and entertain, this book is a great place to visit.
My name is Jamie S. You may remember me from previously ignored letters chastising you for screwing over Conan O’Brien. At that point I decided to try very hard to boycott the pitiful excuse for an entertainment outlet that your network has become over the last decade, and if you don’t believe me that you’ve become both pitiful and unentertaining, please Google “NBC Sucks” and you’ll see what the rest of the world is saying beyond the walls of your vaunted ivory towers. The fact that your lynchpin at this point is a moderately funny television show that facetiously centers on your inner-workings is a perfect example of the blindness and unchecked narcissism that has thus far sent you reeling toward the precipice. I wanted to give you up altogether, but due to my fondness of both Chuck and The Office, I begrudgingly gave you two and a half hours of my time every week. Before you laugh at my math skills, thinking that those three shows only equal two-hours, know that my calculator is working fine, I just haven’t mentioned Community yet.
Community is what really kept me coming back, far more than The Office (which is still very funny, sans Michael Scott) and Chuck (which I will miss horribly in just a few short weeks, but I’m okay with that because it means one more hour not spent helping you make money off of your sponsors).
Community is one of those rare gems of creativity that transcends anything and everything that came before it, taking bits and pieces of wild originality and meshing them seamlessly into a whole that brims and bursts with genius. I started watching because I’m a fan of Joel McHale, and he was enough of a draw to lead me into the world of Greendale Community College, and because I was curious to see if that jackass Chevy Chase could still be funny (he is). Even if the show were just those two men sitting in a room, slagging each other off, that would be enough to keep me interested, but instead, “Jeff” and “Pierce” became just a bigger part of a whole.
On Community, Dan Harmon has created an ensemble piece where no cast-member is secondary or unimportant, and his writing is such that with a quip or an eye-roll, you immediately get to know who his characters are, where they’re coming from, and who they’re going to be. Admittedly, the first few episodes of Season One were a little awkward as the production crew were just getting their feet wet and everything was trying to gel, but by Episode Six things were already running perfectly and this show was turning into a monster of hilarity, quotable moments, internet memes, and a cast so strong that they suddenly became seamless – an actual acting troupe who could count on each other and care for each other, and that shows more and more with each passing episode (except for with that jackass Chevy Chase, but that’s part of Pierce’s (and Chevy’s) charm).
I could go on and on here, listing favourite episodes (Remedial Chaos Theory), favourite characters (everybody, really, even Fat Neil), favourite catch-phrases (Troy and Abed in the mor-ning), favourite inside jokes (Annie’s Boobs), favourite moments (Jeff turning into Dean Pelton during Abed’s meta-documentary), but I won’t. There are just too many. You see, NBC, that’s what happens when you have a classic on your hands – people fall in love not just with the characters, but with their universe itself. You saw this with Cheers, you saw this with Seinfeld, you saw this with Friends. You have the makings of another monster on your hands with Community, but instead you decide to pull it for the vagina-trash that is Whitney (the dude who plays her boyfriend is an atrocious actor, not helped by the weak writing – yes, I gave it a shot because I like Whitney Cumming’s stand-up).
Not only are you holding Whitney up as your shining moment of the year, but you gave her herpes-ridden friend Chelsea Handler a clone of her show as well, so now we television viewers can get eye-gonorrhea twice as quickly, I’m assuming. 30 Rock was moderately funny its first year on the air, but what started as a parody quickly turned in on itself and started taking itself too seriously, and the humour left it by Season Two, and in my opinion, that show is only still alive because of stunt-casting and because you guys love yourselves so much that you can’t bear to cancel yourselves. I almost feel bad for Tina Fey because she’s so much funnier than that, but I guess the paychecks are too big for her to walk away from.
So, basically, you’ve exiled the hilarity and originality that is Community, in exchange for a tired premise about yourselves, and two women who are proud to present themselves as slutty douchebags. Good thinking – pander to the lowest common-denominator, NBC. What’s next for you? Running clip-shows of outtakes from Jersey Shore?
I know Community hasn’t been cancelled yet, but being put on hiatus until summer is never a good sign. I urge you to reconsider your plans, switch-up the schedule, and keep Community running strong. So far, Season Three has been the most original and creative yet, so why cut it off in the middle when the show is really starting to build its fan-base (see Twitter if you don’t believe me). I’m not asking you for Six Seasons and a Movie – I’m just asking that you don’t replace something fresh, unique, and blindingly brilliant with a retread of the same crap that already isn’t working for you. If you can find a show as innovative, entertaining, and mind-blowlingly surprising as Community has been during its two and a half seasons, by all means, let’s give it a chance, but to destroy something so perfect in favour of the asinine, that’s just stupid.
Honestly, if I was on your Board, all the execs would have been handed pink-slips about a year ago. You guys used to be Number One with a bullet, no, a nuclear bomb! Now you’re just a bomb. Decisions like this are the reason why.
PS Also, on behalf of every red-blooded straight man in North America, these two girls NEED to be on television every week!!!