LitReactor Staff Picks: The Best Books of 2011


We may have only gone live in October, but the staff here at LitReactor are a bunch of voracious bilbliophagists who have been steady readin' all year long. So we figured engaging in a some year-ending listrionics would be a great way to play catch up, and would give you a better idea of who we are as readers. Who knows, we might even turn you on to something new. Hope you enjoy.

Rob W. Hart

The End of Everything by Megan Abbott
There are no gun fights or car chases in this book, but out of everything I read this year, this was the one that had me skipping forward to the end of the paragraph or page to see what happens. It's honest and sad and haunting and poetic and so beautiful it shines.

Choke Hold by Christa Faust
This is a hardboiled, pulpy, badass, sexy follow-up to Faust's Money Shot. Porn and mixed martial arts are a perfect combination for the hardboiled genre, and Angel Dare is a great character. I hope we see her again (and considering the end of this book pretty much demands another installment, I think we might).

Inside Scientology by Janet Reitman
This is a fascinating, in-depth look at the history and lies of a completely batshit religion. It's also terrifying, because it shows you just how far the leaders of this cult will go to protect their brand (like letting a woman die).

Headstone by Ken Bruen
Bruen is a classic Irish storyteller, in that he can talk about buying a loaf of bread and make it riveting. His writing style is completely mad, in the best way possible. And I love his protagonist, Jack Taylor--a hardboiled PI who will smack a fool in the mouth, then turn around and hand his wallet over to someone in need.

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
I need to preface this by saying that I hate nostalgia for the sake of itself. But this book, a send-up of 80s culture and video games, is a wonderful nerd fantasy, and was the most fun I had reading a book this year. It is also the best sci-fi novel I've read in recent memory.

Fun & Games by Duane Swierczynski
Charlie Hardie is the quintessential hardboiled hero. Chewy on the outside, gooey on the inside, in over his head and nearly indestructible. This book grabs you by the throat and pulls you through the story, barely giving you time to breathe.

Hell & Gone by Duane Swierczynski
Fun & Games is the first installment of a trilogy. This was the second, released a few months after the first. The third, Point & Shoot, comes out in March. It's a very cool release schedule. On top of that, Hell & Gone is a very worthy sequel, amping up the action (and the crazy). I read this in one sitting.

Zone One by Colson Whitehead
If anyone ever tells you that genre fiction can't be literary, hit them in the face with this book. It's a zombie novel, but it's so much more than that. And, there aren't too many contemporary writers who can render New York City as beautifully as Whitehead, and through all the destruction he really makes the city shine.

What You See in the Dark by Manuel Munoz
This is an odd book. It's about a murder in a dusty town and the filming of Psycho from the perspective of Alfred Hitchcock and Janet Leigh. Also, some of the book is written in second-person narrative (a thing I love). It's quiet and big at the same time.

How To Die In Paris: A Memoir by Naturi Thomas
This is a very funny book that is sometimes very sad while remaining very funny. The end made me cry on my commute home, which is probably the most visceral reaction I had to any book I read this year.

Joshua Chaplinsky

5) There Is No Year by Blake Butler
It's like Burroughs fucked House of Leaves and when the baby was born the two fathers looked at each other and thought, I want a paternity test. I would have liked a little more plot, but Butler's use of language is so refreshing and inventive that I let it slide. Muy interesante.

4) Seven Days In Rio by Francis Levy
This ribald farce is a re-imagined Interzone of psychoanalysis and prostitution where all woman are (literally) whores. Hysterical highbrow lowbrow.

3) The Color of Night by Madison Smartt Bell
Incest, Charles Manson and September 11th- this smart Smartt novel chronicles one woman's personal history of sex and violence, and is one of the most effective literary explorations of 9-11 thus far.

2) The Angel Esmeralda by Don Delillo
Thirty plus years into his publishing career, this modern master gives us his first ever book of short stories. It's less a knockout and more a flurry of consistent jabs designed to stun the reader into epiphany. Great stuff.

1) 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami
Weighing in at a whopping 925 pages, this was still the most engrossing novel I read all year. 1Q84 is a literary mish-mash of genres whose world feels completely real, even though that world has two moons and tiny people who crawl out goat carcasses. It takes the preposterous inevitability of true love and makes it plausible, without rendering it a foregone conclusion. This was my first Murakami and it won't be my last.

Keith Rawson

The Best Crime Fiction of 2011

10) Beautiful, Naked, & Dead/Out There Bad by Josh Stallings
Yeah, I know it’s two books, but they can easily be read as a single volume, so deal with it. Stallings Moses McGuire novels are hard hits of compulsively readable Bukowski noir. By the way, both books are "indie" releases and can be picked up for 99 cents a pop.

9) Already Gone by John Rector
I'm thoroughly convinced Rector is set to become the next big thing. Already Gone is taut, suspenseful, and has the best opening chapter of any novel written this year.

8) Dove Season by Johnny Shaw
This one came entirely out of left field. A brilliant blend of real world border politics and hardboiled pacing. Also further proof that Amazon is willing to take chances on stories and writers that the big six publishers would summarily reject as not being "commercial" enough.

7) Every Shallow Cut by Tom Piccirilli
I've been a longtime fan of Piccirilli, but in his twenty year career I don't think the Colorado novelist has written more honestly or so fearlessly. A brilliant meditation on madness and artistic imagination gone fallow.

6) Crimes in Southern Indiana by Frank Bill
In a year filled to brimming with brilliant short story collections from the likes of Daniel Woodrell, Joyce Carol Oates, and Alan Heathcock, Crimes In Southern Indiana stands out with its bold style and unflinching portrayal of the hard side contemporary mid-western life.

5) The Adjustment by Scott Phillips
This is a dirty, dirty, dirty book from a writer I consider to be the last true noir novelist. Phillips Wayne Ogden is callow, self centered and utterly brilliant in his pursuit of sex and power.

4) Choke Hold by Christa Faust
I think Faust is absolutely incapable of writing a bad book. The follow up to the equally brilliant Money Shot is a must read even if you're not a fan of hardboiled crime.

3) The Devil All The Time by Donald Ray Pollock
Bone chilling in it's execution, Pollock's long awaited full length debut is a fascinating, page turning character study of the horror’s of faith. Pollock’s sharp eye for human frailty and wiry sense of humor will have you reading this amazing novel in one sitting.

2) The Killer is Dying by James Sallis
I’m not even remotely a fan of hitman novels, but in Sallis’ deft hands, he takes an all too familiar concept and creates a rich, starkly poetic, multilayered story.

1) The End of Everything by Megan Abbott
In my opinion there was no novel—crime fiction or otherwise—written this year that can match the pure artistry of Abbott’s tension filled fifth novel. Haunting doesn’t even begin to describe this tour de force as Abbott details the disappearance of a 13-year-old girl and the disintegration of her family as told through the eyes of her best friend.

Brandon Tietz

The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch
This book singlehandedly changed my mind on the memoir genre. Lidia’s writing is crushingly honest and packed with emotive prose. This one is now in my ‘yearly reads’ pile.  It’s that good

The Devil All the Time by Donald Ray Pollock
Southern Gothic doesn’t get much better than this. Pollock extends the groundwork he laid out in Knockemstiff and delivers a gut-punch of a novel. Fans of the transgressive genre will dig the hell out of it.

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides
Another example of literature done right by one of my favorite authors. It’s a fresh take on the classic love triangle story. Bibliophiles and academics will love all the literary references sprinkled throughout.

Machine Man by Max Barry
Holy shit, this one was like techno crack! Barry’s story of man turning machine is everything I look for in a novel: fast-paced, funny, and action-packed. This is going to make one helluva movie.

Warmed and Bound: A Velvet Anthology
Very rarely do you get to be published with friends and the authors you look up to, but Warmed and Bound was one of those cases.  It’s got all your favorites: Craig Clevenger, Stephen Graham Jones, Blake Butler, plus many up-and-coming authors.  This is a highlight reel of neo-noir and dark fiction.

Richard Thomas

The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch
I never read memoirs, but this one really blew me away—a funny, touching, and compassionate story of survival.

The Necessity of Certain Behavior by Shannon Cain
Winner of the Drue Heinz prize, this is a provocative collection of short stories.

Follow Me Down by Kio Stark
A densely packed novella set in NYC, this is a hallucinatory and entertaining tale.

Green Girl by Kate Zambreno
A vulnerable, alluring story set in London.

The Devil All the Time by Donald Ray Pollock
A dark, wandering tale set in the south, these interlinking narratives pack a punch.

11/22/63 by Stephen King
This reworking of the assassination of JFK set in the 1950s is King's best work in years. 800 pages, but I didn't mind.

Volt by Alan Heathcock
These stories about small town living are universal in their scope, and powerful in their telling.

Zazen by Vanessa Veselka
A captivating story of anarchy and forgiveness.

Crimes in Southern Indiana by Frank Bill
Southern Gothic stories that overlap to weave a dark, haunting narrative.

Men Undressed: Women Writers and the Male Sexual Experience edited by Stacy Bierlein, Gina Frangello, Cris Mazza, Kat Meads
An exciting, touching anthology of women writing as men.

What do we think, folks? Anyone inclined to vehemently disagree? There seems to be a handfull of list-spanning faves. Post yours in the comments.

Joshua Chaplinsky

Column by Joshua Chaplinsky

Joshua Chaplinsky is the Managing Editor of LitReactor. He is the author of The Paradox Twins (CLASH Books), the story collection Whispers in the Ear of A Dreaming Ape, and the parody Kanye West—Reanimator. His short fiction has been published by Vice, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Thuglit, Severed Press, Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing, Broken River Books, and more. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @jaceycockrobin. More info at and

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PopeyeDoyle's picture
PopeyeDoyle December 30, 2011 - 11:31am

Warmed and Bound...A bit of homecooking there, don't you think?

Also - no one picked The Outlaw Album?  One off-handed reference to it, but seriously, it was easily the best fiction this year (along with 1Q84).

Brandon's picture
Brandon from KCMO is reading Made to Break December 30, 2011 - 11:42am


Absolutely a bit of homecooking.  I'm a big supporter of The Velvet, those authors, and the work Pela Via did on this book.  A lot of us even opted to throw our royalties back at The Velvet rather than pocket them for ourselves, including me.

So yeah, it's getting a plug.  Deal with it.

Rob's picture
Class Director
Rob from New York City is reading at a fast enough pace it would be cumbersome to update this December 30, 2011 - 11:40am

I'm amending my list:

1-10. See above.

11. Warmed and Bound

PopeyeDoyle's picture
PopeyeDoyle December 30, 2011 - 11:43am

@Brandon - I'm fine with it.  Just thought it was funny.  Imagine if someone else wrote a book and then declared it one of the best books of the year.  You'd probably find it a bit rich as well.

Arkadia's picture
Arkadia from Australia is reading Selected Poems by W.H. Auden December 30, 2011 - 12:21pm

I don't think that comparison is fair at all, Doyle. Brandon didn't write the book, just happened to have a short story included in it. Obviously I can't speak for him, but if I had to guess, I'd say Brandon would have put W&B on his list even if he didn't have a story in it. I'd put money on it, even. That book has some killer authors featured.

I'm surprised SGJ's The Ones That Got Away wasn't included on any of these lists, or was that book released last year? One of the strongest single-author short story collections I've ever read, period.

Joshua Chaplinsky's picture
Joshua Chaplinsky from New York is reading Library Books December 30, 2011 - 12:26pm

You scared me for a second there, Arkadia. TOTGA came out November of last year. Good stuff.

PopeyeDoyle's picture
PopeyeDoyle December 30, 2011 - 12:27pm

@Arkadia - The Ones That Got Away was published last year. 

bryanhowie's picture
bryanhowie from FW, ID is reading East of Eden. Steinbeck is FUCKING AMAZING. December 30, 2011 - 12:37pm

Fiction: The Devil All the Time

Nonfiction: Chronology of Water

Anthology: Warmed and Bound

Audio Book: American Gods: 10th Anniversary Edition

Arkadia's picture
Arkadia from Australia is reading Selected Poems by W.H. Auden December 30, 2011 - 1:21pm

Ohh I knew I was behind on reading the book but I didn't think I was a year behind. Geez! Time just slips away, huh. And here I thought The Chronology of Water was released before The Ones That Got Away. I am all over the place.

Well, I will put more faith in these lists now that I know there is not a glaring omission ;)

Richard's picture
Richard from St. Louis is reading various anthologies December 30, 2011 - 7:26pm

i had to check the date too, Arkadia or TOTGA would have been on this list, along with In The Mean Time by Paul Tremblay and Sarah Court by Craig Davidson.

also, if anybody wants to read some of my extended thoughts on these books, check out my reviews over at The Nervous Breakdown

R.Moon's picture
R.Moon from The City of Champions is reading The Last Thing He Wanted by Joan Didion; Story Structure Architect by Victoria Lynn Schimdt PH.D; Creating Characters by the editors of Writer's Digest December 30, 2011 - 9:59pm

Thank you for adding Christa Faust. I cannot say enough about her. She's an amazing writer. Beautiful, too.

Kasey's picture
Kasey from the morally and physically challenging plains of Texas is reading 12pt. Courier font December 30, 2011 - 11:18pm

TCOW was awesome, best memoir, with Mark Richard's finishing a close second.  THE EVOLUTION OF BRUNO LITTLEMORE by Benjamin Hale, was without question, my fave fiction of the 2010.


Caleb J. Ross's picture
Caleb J. Ross from Kansas City, KS is reading on the toilet by himself December 30, 2011 - 11:42pm

The book in the image above, the Real Ultimate Power book is incredible. Funny, yet strangely touching.

Will have to think on my picks.

Keith's picture
Keith from Phoenix, AZ is reading Growing Up Dead in Texas by Stephen Graham Jones December 31, 2011 - 1:25pm

@R. Moon - I can't say enough good things about Faust, she's an amazing talent.

voodoo_em's picture
voodoo_em from England is reading All the books by Ira Levin December 31, 2011 - 1:49pm

The chronology of water is amazing, Lidia's brutal honesty blew me away.

Jen Storm's picture
Jen Storm from Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada is reading To Kill a Mocking Bird, I know it's a bit late. But may as well read it now than never! January 1, 2012 - 10:19am

You guys love to use the word "hardboiled" it seems :P

Kirk's picture
Kirk from Pingree Grove, IL is reading The Book Of The New Sun January 1, 2012 - 1:25pm

Who doesn't?!

R.Moon's picture
R.Moon from The City of Champions is reading The Last Thing He Wanted by Joan Didion; Story Structure Architect by Victoria Lynn Schimdt PH.D; Creating Characters by the editors of Writer's Digest January 1, 2012 - 7:16pm

@Jen: Yes, I love it. In fact, wrote a story called Harboiled Hell. Can't get enough of it... LOL

R.Moon's picture
R.Moon from The City of Champions is reading The Last Thing He Wanted by Joan Didion; Story Structure Architect by Victoria Lynn Schimdt PH.D; Creating Characters by the editors of Writer's Digest January 1, 2012 - 7:17pm

@Keith: Haven't read Choke Hold yet, but Money Shot... Easily my favorite Hardcase book. Had me from the first sentence.