It was an average reading year - the usual bell curve of quality and interest. In no particular order, let me give you the 2011 Look-Back Good Book Canon:
Ghost Country, by Patrick Lee (HarperCollins, 2011) - A nice “near” science-fiction. “Near” sci-fi is set close to the current era in time and culture. Close Encounters of the Third Kind is the first movie reference that comes to mind. Patrick Lee postulates a multi-dimensional doohickey that delivers objects that defy known physics and materials science, and he deals with nice speculative political overtones. If you like sci-fi, it’s fun.
The Strange Schemes of Randolph Mason, by Melville Davisson Post (Hyperion Press, 1975) and The Man of Last Resort; or, The Clients of Randolph Mason, by Melville Davisson Post (G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1897) - The canon consists of things I discover or even reread in a year, not just what is published then. Melville Davisson Post was a West Virginia author of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. His character Randolph Mason was a lawyer of great learning and stiff philosophy, who shamelessly applied the strict rule of law to achieve spectacular results. Members of the bar and law students will find a lot to enjoy and talk about here. Those outside that community likely would find it boring.
How to Build a Fire: And Other Handy Things Your Grandfather Knew, by Erin Bried (Ballantine Books, 2010) - They have a COMPASS AP for iPhone. No kidding. A picture of a magnetic compass appears on the screen, and the user is supposed to feel like Daniel-Damn-Boone. It’s sickening. Bried teaches skills that we have forgotten because we are lazy. Those skills work even in a power outage.
West Virginia: A History, by Otis K. Rice and Stephen W. Brown (The University Press of Kentucky, 1993) - This is a local thing. If you are going to be involved in business or government in West Virginia, knowing how the state’s unique culture has developed is helpful.
Inside the Giant Machine, by Kalpanik S. (Center of Artificial Imagination, Inc., 2011) - This author was an IT manager with Amazon. Have you ever wondered how Amazon has achieved the spooky ease with which it fulfills orders, gives relevant recommendations and expands products? A lot of it is in the IT. The author also dispels the notion that CEO Jeff Bezos is a benevolent Spirit-of-Christmas-Present. Amazon is the same kind of corporate eat-your-own-young culture that is found in lots and lots of other successful businesses.
Science Matters: Achieving Scientific Literacy, by Robert M. Hazen & James Trefil (Anchor Books, 2009) - We don’t know shit about science. Hell, we BRAG about that. Oh, I don’t need to know how to do anything on my own, I’ll just sell stuff on eBay, buy real estate with no money down, and let the worker bees take care of the rest. Much of reality is science. A poor understanding science is a great weakness, and we are already paying the price.
The Fifth Witness, by Michael Connelly (Little, Brown and Company, 2011) - Here is a “lawyer novel” of top quality. It’s a story of a trial lawyer (the same protagonist as in The Lincoln Lawyer) who gives a reasonably accurate and awfully interesting view of the thought process of trying a difficult case.
Self-Reliance, by Ralph Waldo Emerson - There is a reason that some things are considered “classics.” “Old” isn’t enough, or we’d all still be reading Wilkie Collins. (Who’s that? Quod erat demonstrandum.)
Do The Work, by Steven Pressfield (The Domino Project, 2011) - Pressfield does really great historical novels. (E.g., Gates of Fire, the story of the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae.) This is a short motivational work on getting off your ass and doing the work. I’ve purchased several copies to give out.
2030: The Real Story of What Happens to America, by Albert Brooks (St. Martin’s Press, 2011) - The author could have played this one either as scary near sci-fi or as a predictive social work. He chose the latter. His conclusions and predictions are logical. On this course, the 20th Century was the LAST American Century. This is valuable for those who actually give a shit.
Hellhole, by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson (Tor, 2011) - Good, solid, old-fashioned science-fiction is alive and well and still being written today.
License to Pawn: Deals, Steals and My Life at the Gold & Silver, by Rick Harrison (Hyperion, 2011) - The TV series Pawn Stars has made the gloomy and glitzy pawn shop more socially acceptable. This is by the proprietor of that shop, and is informative about that business, about some general commercial principles and about human behavior.
Colonel Roosevelt, by Edmund Morris (Random House, 2010) - This is the long-awaited third and final installment of Edmund Morris’ three volume biography of TR. (The first two are The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt and Theodore Rex.) Have you taken a look at what passes for heroes these days? Less than 3 divorces, 2 or fewer rehab stays and no felonies, and you’re in. TR was the real thing.
The Final Storm: A Novel of the War in the Pacific, by Jeff Shaara (Ballantine Books, 2011) - Jeff Shaara has continued writing “you are there” accurate historical novels in the tradition of his father, Michael Shaara (The Killer Angels).
Eyewall, by H.W. “Buzz” Bernard (Bell Bridge Books, 2011) - This is a first novel of a retired hurricane hunter pilot. I like books that take you to worlds that I’m totally unfamiliar with, and this does it.
A Book of Burlesques, by H. L. Mencken (Alfred A. Knopf, 1916) - Another newly-discovered oldie. H.L. (Henry Lewis) Mencken was a curmudgeonly satirist-humorist-columnist for the Baltimore Sun. His writings pass the test of time.
Absolute Monarchs: A History of the Papacy, by John Julius Norwich (Random House, 2011) - One would think that a history of the 265 (or so) popes would be deadly dull. And yet, it is the eldest continuous political/religious office on Earth, and has been fraught with great stories of naked power.
God, No!: Signs You May Already Be an Atheist and Other Magical Tales, by Penn Jillette (Simon & Schuster, 2011) - Penn Jillette is (mostly) an brilliant and outrageous guy. His commentary on atheism is worth the trouble for anyone to read. I didn’t abandon my faith after I read it, but I enjoyed the living hell out of it anyway.
Strong at the Break: A Caitlin Strong Novel, by Jon Land (Forge, 2011) - Land has written adventure novels for 30 years. The “Strong” novels are an excellent example of a fairly new angle, the use of strong and believable female protagonists. I don’t know if this sub-genre will become more attractive to women readers than the run of the mill adventure yarns, but there’s a possibility.
How Starbucks Saved My Life: A Son of Privilege Learns to Live Like Everyone Else, by Michael Gates Gill (Gotham Books, 2007) - Another worthwhile reread. Gill was a fat cat rich guy who was fired and left high and dry by his huge Madison Avenue ad agency. This is a transformative story, where he gets a job and Starbucks and learns what’s actually important. Hint: A Mercedes in the garage ain’t it.
The Race (Isaac Bell), by Clive Cussler and Justin Scott (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2011) - For 30 years, Cussler has written the Dirk Pitt novels and co-written at least three other series. The Isaac Bell series is set in the early 20th Century, a unique time for a hero-centered adventure novel.
Built for Adventure: The Classic Automobiles of Clive Cussler and Dirk Pitt (Putnam Adult, 2011) - Cussler is a prolific collector of classic automobiles, and he has woven some of them into his Dirk Pitt novels. Built for Adventure is a visual treat for lovers of old cars & engineering. This is the only "coffee table book" that I've purchased in years.
Only Time Will Tell (The Clifton Chronicles, Vol. 1), by Jeffrey Archer (St. Martin’s Press, 2011) - Archer really hit a slump after his stay as a guest of Her Majesty. It could be that he is back on track with a promised multi-volume history of families through the 20th Century. Shades of Ken Follett here.
In My Time, by Dick Cheney and Liz Cheney (Threshold Editions, 2011) - Dick Cheney has gotten a terrible rap. I don’t know the guy, so I can’t say how justified that is. But after hearing the guy’s own story, I regret forming a negative opinion based solely on hearsay. This is good history.
Supreme Courtship, by Christopher Buckley (Hachette Book Group, 2008) - Another reread. If you need something to brighten you up, go for a Christopher Buckley novel. The guy is outrageous. In this one, the President cannot get a decent nominee past the Senate for a Supreme Court vacancy, and so he nominates a “Judge Judy” type as a sort of joke. She’s confirmed, and the whole thing is just delicious.
The Litigators, by John Grisham (Random House, 2011) - After each of the last six or seven Grisham novels, I’ve sworn I wouldn’t read another. My problem usually has been that he has written one chapter too many and brought the stories to ridiculously improbable conclusions. The Litigators is Grisham’s best since The Firm and A Time to Kill.
Muzzled: The Assault on Honest Debate, by Juan Williams (Crown Publishers, 2011) - Juan Williams said on Fox that he was nervous around Arab-dressing guys in airports, and NPR canned him because he was intolerant, racist or some such bullshit. Muzzled is a bit repetitive, but still a strong call for reason in public discourse.
The House of Silk: A Sherlock Holmes Novel, by Anthony Horowitz (Little, Brown and Company, 2011) - The Sherlock Holmes character has become trendy for I-wish-I-could-write-that-well authors. The problems with those contestants range from inaccurate period language to sex-violence-horror focus that is foreign to Conan Doyle. Horowitz brings off Conan Doyle well, and is the first Holmes by someone else I’ve read that is worthwhile.
The Jones-Imboden Raid: The Confederate Attempt to Destroy the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad and Retake West Virginia, by Darrell L. Collins ( McFarland & Company, 2007) - Here again is a purely local tome. The Jones-Imboden raid was a well-planned, so-so executed attack on the B&O Railroad bridges in Western Virginia which were, in the Civil War, a critical east-west transportation link. A battle in our home town is still remembered, and it is always interesting to read about what has happened on ground you have walked.
No. 9: The 1968 Farmington Mine Disaster, by Bonnie E. Stewart (West Virginia University Press, 2011) - Here is another local interest book, but it still has widespread value. The 1968 mine explosion was eminently avoidable, and Stewart does a nice job on both the technical and human details.
Heaven is For Real: A Little Boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back, by Todd Burpo and Lynn Vincent (Thomas Nelson, 2011) - Oopsie, how did this one get in here? Well, it will be the next book in the church book group discussions. That’s why I include it. And I must say, I have a problem. Heaven is For Real is a really cute story and in a macabre way it’s uplifting and encouraging. But it is hugely improbable, scripturally shaky and patently absurd as a factual account. My problem is that if I attend the book group and open my mouth, I may be burned at the stake. Is there a Roger-Doppelganger out there willing to attend?
New Coastal Times, by Donna Callea (Self-published ebook, 2009) - This was one of the real delights of the year. Callea is an independent author who has done a very nice job with a post-apocalyptic theme. The publishing industry is changing. It is MUCH harder for a merely good writer to become published. Publishers are looking for writers who already have a following to boost their own marketing strategies. It could be that a lot more real gems are going to be found in the indie world.
Three and Out: Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines in the Crucible of College Football, by John U. Bacon (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011) - WVU brethren: If you’ve already decided that Rich Rod is Satan’s Spawn, don’t bother. Bacon makes short work of the WVU debacle (and he’s very critical of West Virginia), but the great bulk of the book is a description of how Rich Rod got royally screwed by the Michigan Men.