this is not a "best books of 2011" list. To make that judgment, I'd need to read them all; since about 1 million new titles were published this year, I'm a bit behind on that project. But I did read about 150 books this year, so here are my personal favorites from that crop — the ones that stuck with me. I hope some of them will interest you, too.
Fabulous Florida books
Fiction division: Karen Russell's marvelous debut novel Swamplandia! has it all: Romantic ghosts! A red alligator! A theme park that simulates hell! Plus Ava Bigtree, one of the most appealing girl narrators since Scout Finch.
Nonfiction division: Barry Estabrook's Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit peels open agribusiness and explains why those Florida tomatoes in the supermarket are so dreadful. Warning: Your shopping habits may be altered.
Celebrity memoir that knows the difference between entertaining and oversharing
Bossypants by Tina Fey explains how she became the woman who's always the smartest guy in the room.
Outstanding audiobook performance
Actor Hope Davis inhabits a large and diverse cast of characters in her subtle, expressive reading of Ann Patchett's gripping novel State of Wonder.
Favorite Michael Connelly book
In a year when a film version of his 2005 novel The Lincoln Lawyer was released (sequel and TV show in the works), the Tampa resident and mega-bestselling author published two new novels (The Fifth Witness, The Drop) and an ebook-only short story collection (Angle of Investigation). All are terrific, but I have to go with Harry Bosch in The Drop.
Winning sports book
Don Van Natta has written a biography that will fascinate even those of us who aren't sports fans in Wonder Girl: The Magnificent Sporting Life of Babe Didrikson Zaharias.
One is by an old master, one by a young upstart: Feast Day of Fools, by James Lee Burke, is a darkly lyrical and utterly chilling story of life on today's Texas borderlands; The Sisters Brothers, by Patrick DeWitt, is the bloody and slyly comic tale of sibling assassins on the 1850s frontier.
Literary, and I do mean literary, fiction
A tie: Arthur Phillips' The Tragedy of Arthur is a sublimely clever puzzle of a novel about identity that includes an entire "lost" Shakespeare play. Jeffrey Eugenides' The Marriage Plot laments that the classic subject matter of the novel — courtship and marriage — is no longer relevant, then proceeds to charmingly resurrect that subject matter in a contemporary tale that would do Jane Austen and Henry James proud.
Gabby: A Story of Courage and Hope by Gabrielle Giffords, Mark Kelly and Jeffrey Zaslow is not only the account of Giffords' extraordinary, courageous recovery from an assassination attempt, but a moving modern love story.
'The Help' in real life
Norma Watkins' memoir The Last Resort: Taking the Mississippi Cure is a sometimes hilarious, sometimes poignant look at race relations in the South at the dawn of the civil rights era.
Dana Spiotta's quirky, reality-bending Stone Arabia is a slim but searching examination of the relationship between a middle-aged brother and sister, and of how we shape (or stunt) our lives with the stories we tell ourselves.
History by the numbers
The real thing: Charles Mann's mind-blowing 1493 is a deeply researched, complex and yet page-turning account of the Columbian Exchange — the planet-changing effects of the discovery of the New World.
The what-if: Stephen King's 11/22/63 sends a high school teacher back in time to try to stop the assassination of John Kennedy, with harrowing, heartbreaking results.
Colette Bancroft can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435.