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Our favorite books of 2011

Two book trends note 2011: Celebrity memoirs YA dystopia.

Two book trends of note in 2011: Celebrity memoirs and YA dystopia.

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Updated: January 26, 2012 8:03AM



Reading books, whether via e-reader or the tried-and-true bound paper version, remains a popular pasttime. It takes us away from the stress of our own lives and into the lives of others, real or fictional. Two trends of note this year: celebrity memoir and YA dystopia.

Neither category is new, but this fall was more flush than ever with celebrities telling tales — from actors and comedians to rock ’n’ rollers and rap stars to TV personalities and those famous for being famous.

And the success of Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy seemed to spark a resurgence in the dystopian thriller genre. There are more novelists than ever jumping on the young-adult bandwagon and telling these heroic stories about teens in futuristic worlds. Two of these made our annual end-of-the-year favorites list.

Every year, I ask my book reviewers to choose one book for the year-end list — the one that delighted them most. The only crtieria is that it was published in 2011.

My pick for favorite book of the year is Divergent by Veronica Roth (HarperCollins, $17.99). Roth is young, 23, a recent graduate of Northwestern University in Evanston. Divergent is her debut novel, the first in a trilogy. (The second, Insurgent, is due out in May.) Teens in her story must choose one of five factions at age 16 in which to live out the rest of their lives. They can choose to stay with the faction they were born into or transfer to another, thereby abandoning their families. Teen heroine Beatrice — or Tris, after she renames herself — chooses the Dauntless faction, which is defined by bravery. The other factions include: Abnegation (selflessness); Erudite (wisdom); Amity (peace); Candor (truthfulness). The reason for the factions in the dystopian Chicago of Divergent is to keep society in good order. What Tris finds out along her journey is that life is not so orderly, and when things go awry, there are choices to be made that can affect her and those she loves. This story could be told with any city as its backdrop, but Roth chose Chicago, and I love a Chicago-centric page-turner.

Our other favorites are:

Killer Stuff and Tons of Money: Seeking History and Hidden Gems in Flea-Market America, by Maureen Stanton (Penguin $26.95). A university writing professor feeds her interest in collecting by immersing herself in the world of a professional dealer, traveling with him to shows to understand the business as well as the passions undergirding the business. The anecdotes are endlessly interesting, the writing is superb, as Stanton reels out memorable sentence after memorable sentence. —Steve Weinberg

The End: The Defiance and Destruction of Hitler’s Germany, 1944-1945, by Ian Kershaw (Penguin, $35). Kershaw, biographer of Hitler and one of the two leading English-language historians of Germany, has written a detailed, nuanced answer to the question why Germany took the path to self-destruction, fighting to the bitter end, when it was apparent to everyone, even Adolf Hitler, that everything was lost. Countries faced with defeat in war almost always seek terms; Kershaw explains the complex, interrelated factors that kept Germany from doing so. —Roger K. Miller

On China, by Henry Kissinger (Penguin, $36). This is scary but important reading. It draws on historical records and 40 years of direct interaction with four generations of Chinese leaders to analyze the solid link between China’s ancient past and a present day trajectory that has it headed for 21st century pre-eminence on the global stage. Americans would be well-served to better understand the ways in which China’s methodical tactics have been brutally successful. —Alan Henry

A Monster Calls: Inspired by an idea from Siobhan Dowd, by Patrick Ness, illustrated by Jim Kay (Candlewick, $16.99). This staggering YA book is about a 13-year-old boy, his mother’s cancer treatments and the monster in his backyard. With deep, aphotic wit, Ness’ story of childhood catastrophe ensnares the heart as do the pen and ink drawings by Kay which, like raven tracks, may spell out doom or transcendence, or neither, or both. —M.E. Collins

Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline (Crown, $24). You take your kid to college, pick up a Dallas paper in Austin, and the serendipitous reward is stumbling onto a review of Texan author Cline’s Ready Player One. This debut novel is a paean to Cline’s twin geek passions of video games and all things ’80s wrapped inside a genre-busting dystopian novel in which people flee the reality of a grim near-future by escaping to a virtual-reality world — my (unlikely) most-fun read of the year. —Paul Saltzman

1Q84, by Haruki Murakami (Knopf, $30.50). I do not have enough space here to do justice to this mammoth novel, originally published in three volumes in Japan. Let’s just say it offers three times the usual amount of Murakami’s three key ingredients: high-wire imagination, fractured realities and enthralling weirdness. —John Barron

Shards, by Ismet Prcic (Black Cat, $14.95). I traveled to what is now known as “the former Yugoslavia” throughout the 1990s — before, during and after the war. So Prcic’s combination novel/memoir/fantasia, set in his Bosnian childhood city of Tuzla (where I’d spent some time), as well as in Los Angeles (where Prcic ultimately settled), was irresistible. The book captures the times, the places, the attitudes and even the smells and propels you forward as if in a high-speed dream. Fierce, funny and real, it also says much about war, exile, guilt and fear. —Hedy Weiss

Then Again, by Diane Keaton (Random House, $26). Actress Keaton reinvented the celebrity memoir with this collage of remembrances that weaves together her life with that of her mother, Dorothy, who died in 2008. Keaton not only unveils the universal bond between mother and daughter but also delves honestly into her own life’s ups and downs. Both heartbreaking and joyful, it covers the gamut of life experiences facing all women. —Mary Houlihan

Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer, by Wesley Stace (Picador, $15). In what amounts to a one-man “Rashomon,” a narrator describes the mysterious death of his friend, a British classical composer, then writes a second account 30 years later with some stunning confessions omitted from the first account. Stace’s novel requires patience as he tells the similar tale twice, but many of the final revelations are blood-chilling and macabre. A haunting psychological thriller. —Jeff Westhoff

The Cut, by George Pelecanos (Reagan Arthur, $25.99). Reading Pelecanos is like overhearing some locals in the next booth work their way through a few beers and the day’s tales of their wild lives. Soak it up — America’s voice in all its raspy truth. —Randy Michael Signor



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