[As each year comes to a close, we ask our contributors to give us their picks of the best books that came out in the previous 12 months–and we let a few older ones slip in as honorable mentions.]


Best Books of 2011 (and one of late 2010)


Us, Michael Kimball

Us is a gutsy little book. Kimball’s 184 page novel begins as a step by step account of a husband’s life as it is remade by his spouse’s seizure. A quarter of the way through, Kimball presents a chapter in new voice, a plea from the comatose wife. Soon another voice is added, that of the couple’s grandson who is meticulously imagining his grandparents’ last days in order to understand the strength of their love. Although these storylines might have been hard to sustain alone, together they even each other out. Kimball performs an incredible balancing act by switching between these concurrent narratives, a difficult feat to pull of in any novel and especially impressive in one so short. [Read Mike’s review.]


The Sisters Brothers, by Patrick DeWitt

This hip western owes more to Quentin Tarantino than John Wayne. Brothers Eli and Charlie Sisters are two hired guns in the Gold Rush Era of American history contracted to snuff out a man in Oregon. Much of this books reads as a road novel, following the two unpredictable brothers as they blunder westward, where they meet the fantastic turn DeWitt has in store for them. By turns bleak and surreal, always darkly funny, this novel moves so quickly it practically reads itself. [Read Nico’s review.]


Jamrach’s Menagerie, by Carol Birch

Where The Sisters Brothers is a western road novel, Jamrach’s Menagerie is at turns a coming of age tale and a swashbuckling adventure. Birch’s novel follows Jaffy Brown, an orphan in Dickensian London who, in true Dickensian fashion, is rescued from his life of poverty (and the jaws of an escaped tiger) by a rich, benevolent stranger. Jaffy’s rescuer is the owner of a menagerie and exotic animal emporium, Mr. Charles Jamrach, a historical figure in nineteenth-century London. Sent on a long ocean voyage whose expressed purpose is both whaling and the capture of a dragon, the novel swerves from coming-of-age to high-adventure to tragedy. Strung together by the wide-eyed narrator and Birch’s deft writing, this novel would be a shame to miss. [Read Mike’s review.]


Honorable Mention from 2010


C, by Tom McCarthy

McCarthy’s C begins at the turn of the twentieth century and ends in the inter-war period of WWI and WWII. The novel follows Serge Carrefax, tracing the full scope of his short life. McCarthy uses Freud’s Wolf Man as a model for Carrefax, who becomes his everyman, and the fun of this largely plotless novel is watching McCarthy deftly move Serge through the era’s touchstones. In a way, this novel is like a collage: McCarthy borrows freely from other texts, using work by Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, Maurice Blanchot and Jean Cocteau, among others, as direct inspiration for several key scenes, all organized around the principle of transmission: of messages, of ideas, and of life.