My Favorite Reads of 2011

Each year, I like to share my favorite reads from the last 12 months. As I looked over the books I read in 2011, two things stood out to me: 1) much of my recent reading has been nonfiction as I research the time and place of my work-in-progress, and 2) I started quite a few books this year that I never finished. I’m not sure what that was all about, but a book really needed to grab me and not let go this year

Here are the books that rose to the top for me, in no particular order. (Disclaimer: Each year several of my closest friends publish their latest releases. Many of them should be on this list, but I don’t include them for fairly obvious reasons. How can I be truly objective about a close friend’s book? So some true favorites are missing from this list.)

Picking Cotton: Our Memoir of Injustice and Redemption  by Jennifer Thompson Cannino, Ronald Cotton and Erin Torne

This book should be mandatory reading for every American. You may know the (true) story, since it received quite a bit of media coverage in recent years. In the mid-eighties, college student Jennifer Thompson was raped by a man who broke into her apartment. She identified the wrong man, Ronald Cotton, as her assailant and Ronald served eleven years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. He was finally freed by a DNA test. But the real story is the relationship between Jennifer and Ronald that developed after his release. The writing is on the simple side but the story is complex. More than a touching story of forgiveness and compassion, it’s a treatise on a broken judicial system. Personally, it’s hard for me to understand how anyone could still support the death penalty after reading this book.

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

Did you read and love Patchett’s Bel Canto? Well, it doesn’t matter if you loved it or not, because this book is completely different. I was engrossed and looked forward to every reading session, though I admit when I turned the last page I said out loud “Well, that was a weird book!” This is the story of a young pharmaceutical researcher who’s sent to the Amazon to track down an older researcher who has lost contact with the drug company. The young woman’s journey becomes both professional and personal and her experiences are fascinating, if ultimately hard to swallow (a pun you’ll only understand after reading the book!)

Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin

Set in Mississippi, this is the story of Larry Ott, a man who has never quite fit into his small home town, particularly after the disappearance of a girl he took on a date as a teenager. The story opens with the disappearance of another young girl and all eyes are on Larry as the suspect. The constable investigating the case, Silas Jones, has a long and hidden history with Larry. I was gripped from start to finish by this book. I kept thinking “I wish I could write like this!” Franklin’s ability to describe people and place without clobbering the reader over the head with the description takes real skill. Although the book is touted as a mystery, the mystery itself is slight and secondary to the character studies of two men with tangled pasts.

How to Bake a Perfect Life by Barbara O’Neal

On a slightly lighter note, I give you a book that will make you smile, cry and bake bread (yes, there are recipes!). This is the intergenerational story of Ramona Gallager, a woman struggling to keep her bakery afloat, her daughter Sophia, who learns that her husband was critically wounded in Afghanistan, and Sophia’s teenaged stepdaughter, Katie, who ends up staying with Ramona while Sophia rushes to her husband’s side. It’s a poignant story of family love and second chances.


A Stolen life by Jaycee Dugard  This is definitely not the sort of book I usually pick up, but Jaycee’s true life story captured my imagination and I wanted to understand how she could have endured the things she did.  This remarkable young woman was kidnaped at eleven, gave birth to the two children of her kidnaper at fourteen and eighteen, and lived hidden in a shed for eighteen years. She had opportunities to escape, but didn’t. The psychology of her existence and that of her kidnapers fascinated me, but I came away from the book touched by her strength, her love for her children, and a hope that her future is far gentler than her past.

A Long and Happy Life by Reynolds Price

I love this book . . . but you might not. I picked it up because it takes place in rural North Carolina in the late fifties, the time and place I’m researching for my work-in-progress. I’d never read Price before and was a bit stunned when I encountered the first long paragraph and realized it was all one sentence. But it was a good sentence, and I kept on reading. I fell in love with Price’s description of the area and his colorful characters, but more than anything I was moved by how intimately he understood the heart of a young woman as she pines for her (jerk of a) boyfriend. Price absolutely understood how crazy a woman in love can be. I’m afraid I could relate all too well.

Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese

I’ll be honest: this was one of the books I didn’t think I would finish. I tried twice and twice put it down, but friends I respected raved about it, and so I became determined to give it another chance and I’m glad I did. The story, set primarily in Ethiopia, is a coming of age tale of a young man and his twin brother, the offspring of a nun who dies while giving birth to them and a brilliant surgeon, Thomas Stone. The characters and setting are richly drawn and the relationships complex, believable and ultimately touching. Bonus: you will never again take the skill of a surgeon for granted.

11/22/63 by Stephen King

The last Stephen King novel I read was Misery. I recall sitting on the beach in Maui as Misery chopped off the legs of the novelist with her ax (Was it an ax? I’ve blocked that scene from my mind). I put the book down and swore off King for good. But the premise of 11/22/63—a man travels back in time to try to prevent the Kennedy assassination–drew me in. Who in my generation hasn’t wondered what the world would be like if that event had never taken place? I found the book a genuine page turner. To me, King is at his best when he skips the horror and goes for the gut (Shawshank Redemption, Stand by Me, The Stand). This was one of the most engrossing books I read this year.


The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom

I read this beautiful, well-researched book for my neighborhood book club and it generated plenty of discussion. It’s the story of a little Irish girl, Lavinia, whose parents die while emigrating to America. She’s taken in by the ship captain, who deposits her with the slave family on his plantation.  As she grows up, she straddles the world of her loving slave family and the wealthy white family that lives in the “big house.” Her story is gripping and my stomach was tied in knots through much of it. Grissom does a marvelous job of putting the reader into the world of both slave and slave owner. Highly recommended.

Winter Garden by Kristin Hannah

As readers of my books know, I’m a sucker for a “story within a story,” and Winter Garden offers exactly that. Two sisters, different as night and day, must find a way to come together to help their cold, distant mother after the death of their father. They finally draw her out by having her tell them a fairy tale from their childhood—a “fairy tale” that turns out to be about the mother’s growing up years in war-torn Russia. Often when I read Hannah, I feel as though I’m reading one of my own books. We seem like-minded in our approach to family stories and family love. I found Winter Garden both engrossing and moving.

So that’s my list for 2011. I’d love to hear about your favorites, too.




  1. Julie Kibler on February 6, 2012 at 12:15 am

    Great list, Diane, with so many I *still* want to read on it! (Can’t believe I haven’t read The Kitchen House yet …) How to Bake a Perfect Life was on my favorite reads of 2011 list, too! Barbara has such a lovely way with words!

  2. Susan on February 6, 2012 at 8:43 am

    Thanks for the list Diane! I added some to my to read list, I also enjoyed Crooked Letter Crooked Letter and How to Bake a Perfect Life.

  3. Martha O'Quinn on February 6, 2012 at 8:56 am

    Many thanks Diane, I always look forward to “what I’m reading” from my favorite authors. I’ve read four on this list and most of the others are on my “to do” list. “So many books, so little time” is inscribed on a number of my tote bags. Truer words were never spoken. I missed “hair” weekend but my love for reading began sitting on a stool in front of my mother while she put french braids in my hair every day of my life from ages five through ten. Happy reading.

  4. Denise on February 6, 2012 at 11:02 am

    Wow, Diane, there are some books listed here that I wouldn’t have thought you’d read! Lol! I definitely want to read *The Kitchen House* and I have *Winter Garden* on my eReader.

  5. Rebecca Hollister on February 6, 2012 at 11:06 am

    Many thanks Diane, I know that your true friends reads weren’t listed on here because you are afraid that you may put favoritism on those books. I understand but I would still like to know those titles, because they may become my favorite books as well! These are all great reads and cannot wait to start reading them! Thanks Diane!

  6. Kathleen O on February 6, 2012 at 11:07 am

    I am intrigued by the Kathleen Grissom book. I will be recommending that to my book club group. I wonder how we missed it. And I have heard good things about the Kristan Hannah book, And I am putting How to Bake a Perfect Life on my tbr list too..
    Thanks for the great recommendations.

  7. Debbie Hearne on February 6, 2012 at 11:08 am

    Diane, thank you for taking the time to give us your list of favorites! They will now be on my TBR list! Love you!

  8. Diane Chamberlain on February 6, 2012 at 11:13 am

    Denise, I know. It was a weird reading year for me!
    Deb, miss you! We’ll have to get tougher in ’12.

    • Diane Chamberlain on February 7, 2012 at 11:33 pm

      Deb, that was supposed to be ‘together’ but I guess we should get tougher too!

  9. Rita Matthews on February 6, 2012 at 11:25 am

    Hi Diane, Thanks so much for this list. I am in charge of choosing a book for my neighborhood club in a couple of months and I was worried about it. I am sure your recommendations will satisfy. (We have done your books of course)

    I have also been wondering about your Rheumatoid Arthritis. Are you better? We agonized together several years ago after my daughter discovered you.

    Lovingly, Rita

    • Diane Chamberlain on February 6, 2012 at 12:04 pm

      Rita, I’m doing very well, thank you! Love me my drugs. 🙂 I rarely need anything for pain, and if I do it’s only Tylenol. The “big gun meds” keep me typing! I’m very lucky to have found a treatment that works for me and my heart goes out to those RA sufferers who still struggle.

  10. Cheryl Crimmins on February 6, 2012 at 11:29 am

    Thanks for sharing your list Diane. Your descriptions make all these titles ‘must reads’ for me!

  11. Karla on February 6, 2012 at 11:42 am

    Winter Garden and Stolen Life are two of the best books I have ever read.

  12. Gina on February 6, 2012 at 11:56 am

    I read 6 out of the 10 on your list Diane.
    Picking Cotton
    Crooked Letter
    Cutting for Stone
    The Kitchen House (did not like this one)
    Winter Garden
    11/22/63 (I’m 75% done with this one)

    I’ll have to write down my favorites for 2011. There were certainly some good ones, including The Midwife’s Confession, which I loved.

    • Diane Chamberlain on February 6, 2012 at 12:05 pm

      Thanks, Gina. I’ll be honored to make your list!

  13. Helen Kavanagh on February 6, 2012 at 12:18 pm

    I love reading about your fave books, Diane. Thanks! Here are my faves that I read last year:

    The Midwife’s Confession (of course) by ♥Diane Chamberlain♥
    The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins.
    Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay
    Night Road by Kristin Hannah
    Inheritance by Christopher Paolini
    The Night Strangers by Christopher Bohjalian
    Cemetery Girl by David Bell
    Don’t Breathe a Word, Promise Not to Tell, The Island of Lost Girls, and Dismantled, all by Jennifer McMahon
    These Things Hidden and The Weight of Silence by Heather Gudenkauf

  14. Cari Frankenfield on February 6, 2012 at 1:45 pm

    Thank you for a great list. I loved Winter Garden. I just finished the Kiss River trilogy. It was amazing and now on my top ten list!

  15. Carolyn Breal on February 6, 2012 at 3:05 pm

    Thanks so much Diane for the list of your favorite 2011 books. I too wish you’d list the ones by your author friends, but I understand why you didn’t. I’ve already read several of the books you listed but was excited to add several new books to my “to read” list!!!

  16. Diane Whitworth on February 6, 2012 at 3:30 pm

    I have read only one book from your list, Winter Garden, I guess because Hannah does write so much like you. But I plan to read some others on the list. I just got a Nook Notebook and am looking forward to downloading your out of print ebooks!

  17. Debbie Ions on February 7, 2012 at 6:48 am

    Hi Diane,

    I also read the Kristi Hannah book, she is one of my favorites I read the Jaycee Dugard boo as well Like you, this is not a book I would normally read, but I loved it.

    Thank for sharing some of your reads. I am ordering three of them today that appeal to me. Do you like Jodi Picoult? I found her beforeI found your books I started reading your work because a review of one of your books called you the “Jodi Picoult of the South”. It is so true. You are both my favorites ever!

  18. Margo on February 7, 2012 at 8:16 am

    Midwife’s Confession, by Diane Chamberlain
    Silver Girl, by Elin Hilderbrand
    Maine, by J. Courtney Sullivan
    11/22/63, by Stephen King
    My Life, by William Jefferson Clinton
    10 Beach Road, by Wendy Wax
    Safe Haven, by Nicholas Sparks
    Heartsick, by Chelsea Cain
    Sweetheart, by Chelsea Cain
    Evil At Heart, by Chelsea Cain

    Like Diane, I found Stephen King’s 11/22/63 engrossing and absolutely impossible to put down!
    The Chelsea Cain books were suspense/mysteries and although they could be very disturbing at times, the premise and uniqueness kept me glued to every page.
    Of course Diane’s book of the year always is #1 in my eyes.

  19. Sheree Gillcrist on February 7, 2012 at 11:05 am

    Midwife’s Confession for sure. Pre ordered that baby:]
    Reinventing the Rose Kenneth J. Harvey. I have every word this man has ever written. So diverse .. Touch of Stephen King mixed in with relationships that refuse to colour inside the lines.

  20. Corey Balazowich on February 7, 2012 at 11:16 pm

    Oooo, that’s a great list! I LOVED The Kitchen House but the ending somewhat disappointed me.

    My list:

    The Things That Keep Us Here by Carla Buckley – I could NOT put this down.
    The Violets of March by Sarah Jio
    The Help by Kathryn Stockett
    11/22/63 by Stephen King
    The Mill River Recluse by Darcie Chan
    If You Were Here by Jen Lancaster
    Heartwood by Belva Plain
    and of course The Midwife’s Confession 🙂

  21. Cindy on February 22, 2012 at 8:53 pm

    Absolutely loved Winter Garden. Kept me Reading late into the night which is a sign of an excellent book to me. I want to read the Kitchen House…Thanks for your reviews!

  22. Virginia Pierce on February 23, 2012 at 2:56 pm

    Love Kristin Hannah so I’ve read all of her recent books. It wasn’t made in 2011, but her book “true colors” is also awesome!

    Jodi Picoult I used to love reading, but I don’t personally understand the comparsions to Diane & Jodi. Jodi’s books are about families (I get that part of the connection), but they are very formulatic and always revolve around someone going to jail, court scenes, etc. I don’t think they are that similiar, but I get why people say they are similiar.

    I will definitely check out the Stolen Life book. At the moment, I’m reading Sara Zarr’s how to save a life. She is a YA author, but her novel “sweethearts” was a very, very touching read. It was a quick great read that made me feel warm inside. I’d definitely check that one out. I think it came out in 2010, but close enough!

  23. Diane silvergirl | Lonscoltd on July 4, 2012 at 11:31 pm

    […] My Favorite Reads of 2011 | Diane ChamberlainFeb 27, 2012 … Review: Silver Girl by Elin Hilderbrand …. Review: Still Hot For You by Diane Escalera · Author Interview & #Giveaway: @DianeEscalera autho. […]

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