Change Marked the 2011 Book Universe

If anything marked 2011, it was change -- but then when isn't change the driving force of the book universe? E-book sales have risen steadily -- they're 20 percent of the market now, the Associated Press reported recently -- and the proliferation of e-readers blew up when Amazon and Barnes & Noble released their own tablets in hopes of competing with the iPad.

Apple, meanwhile, made book world news in a different way: After the death of Steve Jobs, Walter Isaacson's biography of the Apple genius was one of the most talked-about and best-reviewed books of the year. It was as popular as another piece of classic literature, Adam Mansbach's Go the F(ASTERISK)(ASTERISK)k to Sleep, which earned the applause of exhausted parents everywhere.

Also in 2011, J.K. Rowling opened her site Pottermore, where -- at last! -- readers can buy her Harry Potter books in e-form. Other writers also succumbed to the inevitable digital onslaught and allowed their books to be e-printed, including Ray Bradbury and Michael Chabon. Meanwhile, closer to home, Books & Books went the other way, publishing two print books -- the story collection Blue Christmas and a reprint of Les Standiford's Last Train to Paradise -- with its new B&B Press.

The year offered plenty of good reads, terrific debuts (say, Kevin Wilson's comic The Family Fang) and extraordinary works from old favorites (James Lee Burke's Feast Day of Fools comes to mind). Here are some of the books that earned the best reviews in The Miami Herald.

Fiction

-- The Marriage Plot, Jeffrey Eugenides (Farrar, Straus & Giroux): Critics complained it wasn't Middlesex. And it wasn't. But Eugenides' third novel, about three Brown grads involved in a love triangle, managed to make even discussions of semiotics interesting -- and even amusing. What more could one ask?

--State of Wonder, Ann Patchett (Harper): The author of Bel Canto poses many intriguing ideas about how we live in her modern-day Heart of Darkness, which swaps the Congo for the Amazon and ivory hunters for pharmaceutical researchers but probes some of the same issues of imperialism, guilt and responsibility, of power and its use and abuse. It's also got a hell of an ending.

--Chango's Beads and Two Toned Shoes, William Kennedy (Viking): The author of Ironweed uses a three-act set-up to recreate Havana and America from 1936-1968 to tell a seriocomic story about romance and revolution. Expect an appearance by a dissolute Ernest Hemingway.

--The Tiger's Wife, Tea Obreht (Random): At 24, Obreht became the youngest writer on The New Yorker's coveted "20 Under 40" list. Her debut novel examines what happens when a young doctor in a Balkan country investigates her grandfather's mysterious death.

--The Leftovers, Tom Perrotta (St. Martin's): When the Rapture (or a Rapture-like event) strikes Earth, how do the survivors cope? That's the premise of Perrotta's latest -- and maybe best -- satire of suburbia, a sharply observed, funny story about a family trying to cope with the end of the world as they know it.

Nonfiction

--Blood, Bones and Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef, Gabrielle Hamilton (Random): Chef/owner of NYC's Prune, Hamilton also earned an MFA in fiction, which elevates her memoir above the usual kitchen confidentials. Don't look for wild culinary adventures a la Anthony Bourdain or recipes with which to wow your friends: Hamilton delves into her life, but she prefers to write about "the salty, sweet, starchy, brothy, crispy things that one craves when one is actually hungry."

--Arguably, Christopher Hitchens (Twelve): This hefty collection of 107 essays and reviews stands as a testament to the brilliance of its famously atheistic author, who died Dec. 15. "He has few equals among contemporary nonfiction writers," writes Herald reviewer Ariel Gonzalez. "When he really wants to praise a novel or biography, he will call it 'imperishable.' Hitchens' body of work may someday be accorded the same adjectival honor."

--Brilliant Disaster: JFK, Castro, and America's Doomed Invasion of Cuba's Bay of Pigs, Jim Rasenberger (Scribner): The author allows the facts of the Bay of Pigs invasion -- 50 years ago and still remembered vividly in Miami -- to speak for themselves for the most part in this important historical book. But he's also critical of President Kennedy and others who left Cuban rebels without the firepower needed to complete the invasion.

--Blue Nights, Joan Didion (Knopf): "Grieving is not a team sport," writes Herald reviewer Betsy Willeford in her examination of Didion's shattering book about aging, isolation and her daughter Quintana, who died at 39 -- before publication of her mother's The Year of Magical Thinking, about the death of her husband John Gregory Dunne.

--Bossypants, Tina Fey (Hachette Audio): The star of 30 Rock's comic memoir is screamingly funny, but it needs to be absorbed via audiobook for the full Fey experience. Read by the author, Bossypants is a wry look into the world of comedy, TV, SNL -- and how to keep your daughter a virgin until she's 24 (hint: getting her addicted to theater camp helps).

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