A quick note: the following 10 novels will not appear on this list. It’s not your list. You might think these are great. I think they are overrated, whether because they are simply badly written (The Historian, The Memory Keeper’s Daughter), pretentious McSweeney’s-esque prattle (Absurdistan, Special Topics in Calamity Physics, Everything is Illuminated), boring (Life of Pi), overrated due to serious subject matter (Lovely Bones), well written but uninteresting (Bee Season, Wickett’s Remedy), or fatally flawed due to oversimplification of a truly horrid situation (The Kite Runner). They’re not here so don’t ask for them. While I am at it, I should add a few more: A Visit from Goon Squad (an utter mess), The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (even being part of its target audience I hated it), The Finkler Question (simply awful). Those are more recent prize-winning novels that also aren’t here because I couldn’t stand them. Also not here are the Thursday Next books by Jasper Fforde, which are fantastic, but, like Douglas Adams, not quite great writing, or the Jump 225 Trilogy, which I love and was written by a friend of mine, but isn’t quite up there. I have done away with the English language requirement for this list, because my previous list was done to Modern Library standards to match up against their list. Only two of these are foreign language novels anyway.
Before I get to the list, I feel I should point out that it’s now up to
29 35 books. That’s because I have added some updates over the last couple of years and didn’t feel the need to delete the books at the bottom of the list.
Actually, let me add to that last little paragraph, which was written in 2010. At the time I was just doing some additions. This time I have actually changed the title of the list. Why change the title and not just do a whole new post? Because I am proud that people keep finding this list and I like all the conversations that the comments have inspired. So, I decided to up it to 35, add six more books and go with that. To that end, I had to cut some books I considered, including The Sense of an Ending, The Marriage Plot, Wolf Hall, 1Q84 and even The Casual Vacancy (yes, I thought it was very good – a modern Thomas Hardy). But something interesting came to me as I was doing the additional titles: five of the six of them were written by females and three of them were first novels. So let’s be glad for some new blood getting out there and getting noticed (at least by me).
35 – Portrait of an Artist as an Old Man (Joseph Heller)
He set the literary world on notice with Catch-22 and then waited until he was dead before he finally released his second best book. Overlooked, as many posthumous novels are.
34 – Oryx and Crake (Margaret Atwood)
Going back to the science fiction ideas that fed into her dystopian masterpiece, A Handmaid’s Tale.
33 – Bridge of Sighs (Richard Russo)
His first novel in six years continues his exploration of forgotten upstate New York.
32 – Inherent Vice (Thomas Pynchon)
This is vintage Pynchon, somewhat of a cross between Crying of Lot 49 and Raymond Chandler, a kind of stoner-detective-noir with a detective who is a bit like Dirk Gently. Like much of Pynchon, it is full of cultural references, but it flows much more smoothly than any of his books have in a long time. This will also be counter-balanced by Bleeding Edge, which comes out in September and in some ways is a New York version of the same kind of story, though this is better than the new book.
31 – The Golem and the Jinni (Helene Wecker)
You can actually read a whole review I wrote of this here.
30 – American Gods (Neil Gaiman)
The best novel from Britain’s fantasy master, it’s a fascinating combination of American mythos and Norse mythology.
29 – The True History of the Kelly Gang (Peter Carey) – Booker Prize
Australia’s master novelist explores the legendary outlaw who is Australia’s Billy the Kid.
28 – The Corrections (Jonathan Franzen) – National Book Award
Very well written, though a novel completely devoid of anything even resembling a likeable character.
27 – The Girl who Fell from the Sky (Heidi W. Durrow)
Another book I have already reviewed.
26 – The Passage (Justin Cronin)
A fantastic vampire book that is also so much more than that. I greatly enjoyed introducing this at an event at the Booksmith. The first book of a trilogy, the third of which will probably be out in 2014.
25 – Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (J.K. Rowling)
My favorite is Half Blood Prince, but this is the best as she moves away from the “school year at Hogwarts” formula, that includes truly terrifying moments, truly wonderful moments, and one moment that made my wife wake me up in the middle of the night, crying, the first time she read it.
24 – Middlesex (Geoffrey Eugenedis) – Pulitzer Prize
A bit uneven at times, but so well written, and the opening scenes in Greece are so fascinating.
23 – The Namesake (Jhumpa Lahiri)
Gets overshadowed by the fact that she’s written the two best short story collections since Dubliners, but this is a great first novel.
22 – Everyman (Philip Roth) – PEN/Faulkner Award
Much like a Murakami novel, a character without a name takes us through a life.
21 – Exit, Ghost (Philip Roth)
Supposedly the final Zuckerman book, and combined with Ghost Writer, The Counterlife, American Pastoral and The Human Stain, makes the finest series of books involving one character.
20 – Where’d You Go, Bernadette (Maria Semple)
I had three co-workers tell me on the same day I needed to read this. They were right. It’s brilliantly funny and a devastating satire on Seattle (and all so very true). With all the messed up characters and dysfunctional family relationships I have been describing this as “The Corrections, but funny.”
19 – Kafka on the Shore (Haruki Murakami)
A fascinating work that really couldn’t have been written by anyone else.
18 – On Beauty (Zadie Smith)
A new version of Howards End, set in Boston that fantastically reworks the original novel into a modern setting.
17 – Snow (Orhan Pamuk)
This novel is a major reason that Pamuk won the Nobel Prize several years ago.
16 – The Blind Assassin (Margaret Atwood) – Booker Prize
The best novel from the best writer Canada has ever produced.
15 – The Plot Against America (Philip Roth)
He’s been the best living American novelist for ages and has pretty much won everything but the Nobel Prize. Can we just give it to him, finally, especially now that he’s retired from writing.
14 – The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time (Mark Haddon)
The debut novel that set everyone talking. The book that everyone had to read.
13 – The Night Circus (Erin Morgenstern)
I picked this up as a galley because of the title. I found myself absolutely loving it right from the start. So will you.
12 – Shalimar the Clown (Salman Rushdie)
Given that Toni Morrison and Gabriel Garcia Marquez have won the Nobel Prize, in my mind, this is Roth’s only serious competition. His best book since Satanic Verses.
11 – Fun Home (Alison Bechdel)
I missed this when I originally wrote the list because I focused on traditional novels. This is a graphic novel and it packs one hell of a punch. For years, Bechdel has shown us how great she is with character development with her comic strip, Dykes to Watch Out For, but this was a genuine surprise as she mines the tragedy of her relationship with her closeted father and explores the issues that helped make her into who she is. It’s a bonus how much it draws on literary history.
10 – Bel Canto (Ann Patchett) – PEN/Faulkner Award
My mother hates the ending, but can’t deny the book is brilliantly written. I like the ending.
9 – No Country for Old Men (Cormac McCarthy)
Everyone went nuts over The Road, but this to me, is the book everyone should have been talking about. And for those who think the ending of the film is odd, please note, it’s word for word the end of the book.
8 – Freedom (Jonathan Franzen)
Back in 2001, in one of the great years for literature, Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections (#28 on this list) won the National Book Award. It lost out on the PEN/Faulkner Award to Bel Canto (#7 on this list) and, though a finalist for the Pulitzer, lost to Empire Falls (#5 on this list). It was a very well-written book, that, unfortunately, didn’t have any sympathetic characters. It was hard to find anyone to like, so while it was easy to admire, it was hard to enjoy.
Flash-forward nine years and we finally see the release of a new Franzen novel. The first two chapters were featured in The New Yorker and it had gotten amazing pre-publicity (including a rave from Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times and Franzen’s face on the cover of Time (all of which had been frustrating seeing as how the book won’t be released for another week and a half)). The pre-pub was deserved. It is a truly phenomenal book. It contains all the majesty and scope of The Corrections in terms of its story of the long downfall of a family and their horrible dysfunctionality. For a long time, as I read it, I thought, uh-oh, shades of The Corrections. It’s hard to really like anybody.
But then something amazing happens. You go through the tunnel and come out the other side. All of the characters end up with varying degrees of sympathy. You get to understand and even like all of them. The story, like The Corrections, goes places you would never expect and because this is Franzen, a horrible-comic kind of tragedy is waiting around every curve, but by the end, you have really gotten to love these characters.
So why have I not said it’s the best book of 2010? Because as amazing as it is, I still feel it is the second best book I read from 2010.
7 – The Imperfectionists (Tom Rachman)
People keep asking me for a good book at work and I kept saying, The Imperfectionists is the best book I have read all year. Then it became that it was the best book I read last year. Then the best book I read in 2010. Now I just tell them it’s a great book and they should just read it. It doesn’t hurt that the style seems to deliberately be a version of Winesburg, Ohio – using several short pieces, all of which easily could stand on their own as short stories, to tell a novel-length tale. It is not just that the stories are inter-related (all of them deal with a failing international newspaper set in Rome and each story focuses on a different person at the paper, one of whom isn’t an employee but an oddly dedicated reader), but that the stories build on each other. That is what turns it into an amazing novel. You can read any story at any time and it will be enjoyable, with wonderful characterization and story-telling. But when read in order, they tell a magnificent tragic tale of this poor paper and its inevitable slide into decay.
The Imperfectionists is a first novel and it got amazing press and word-of-mouth (including a front page review on The New York Times Book Review), but sadly, it was over-shadowed by Franzen’s novel.
6 – Empire Falls (Richard Russo) – Pulitzer Prize
Given a fantastic treatment by HBO with their miniseries, but even that still can’t capture the epic scope of the novel. You can also see a much longer review here where I listed it at #70 in my list of the Top 100 Novels of all-time. As you can guess, the other four novels on this list ranked above it will also appear on that list, but I haven’t gotten to them yet.
5 – Atonement (Ian McEwan) – National Book Critics Circle Award
When I first wrote the list, back in July of 2008, only three books had been filmed (plus two television miniseries). Only one has been filmed since (HP&DH) though one more miniseries is on the way. But, of the original three, all were released in 2007, all were faithful to the books and two of them, Atonement and No Country, were the two best films of the year. You can read more here where it was #53 on my Top 100 list.
4 – The Tiger’s Wife (Tea Obreht)
Just like The Imperfectionists was my best book of 2010, this was my book for 2011. And is still my book. It’s the first book I recommend to people. I got lucky enough to read the galley when the publicity was first starting to hit, a good month before the book came out, and when it did come out, it was instantly my staff pick. A brilliant book and Obreht creates a world as vibrant and alive and well-thought out as Faulkner’s. Not on my Top 100 list because I locked in the list when I began it, before this book was published. But it would have ended up between #53 and #52, clearly.
3 – White Teeth (Zadie Smith)
There are four debut novels in the top 10 and six in the top 15. We have a lot of great things to look forward to. This book went places I never expected it to, and I enjoyed every minute of it. There’s more written here, where it got to #52 on the Top 100 list.
2 – The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (Michael Chabon) – Pulitzer Prize
Before The Dark Knight redefined what a comic book film could be, this was the novel that brought comic books into the mainstream. In spite of its length I’ve read it four times. It ended up at #34 on my Top 100 lists and you can find my longer review here.
1 – Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell (Suzannah Clarke)
An amazing combination of 19th century narrative with 20th Century fantasy and a whole world of British mythology thrown in makes for the best novel so far of the 21st Century. I got some grief for the number of dead white males on my Top 100 list. Well, three of my top 4 books here are by females and all three are debut novels. Read more here. It got all the way up to #22 on my Top 100.