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Originally published December 11, 2011 at 5:31 AM | Page modified December 23, 2011 at 11:50 AM

32 of the year's best books

Capsule reviews of Seattle Times reviewers' favorite books of 2011 — 32 in all, 21 fiction and 11 nonfiction — including "The Sense of an Ending" by Julian Barnes, "The Marriage Plot" by Jeffrey Eugenides, "Ed King" by David Guterson and Erik Larson's "In the Garden of Beasts."

Seattle Times book editor

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Before I share The Seattle Times list of 2011's most worthy books, I'm going to divulge an opinion: I think the whole "best books of the year" concept is squishy. How can there be exactly 10 best books published in a given year? Number 11 was probably a pretty good book, too.

But readers love "best of" lists, so here's our version. In the interest of disclosure, here's how we do it: I ask reviewers to nominate the best book published in 2011 they reviewed for us, and the best book published in the past year that they read but didn't review.

Here are the results — 32 books, 21 fiction (who says the novel is dead!?), 11 nonfiction. Top vote getters were three novels, "The Sense of an Ending" by Julian Barnes, "The Marriage Plot" by Jeffrey Eugenides and "Ed King" by David Guterson, and Erik Larson's work of nonfiction, "In the Garden of Beasts."

Read all about these books and others, below. Thanks to all my reviewers, who read judiciously, write wonderfully and (mostly) meet their deadlines.

Fiction and poetry

"Lost Memory of Skin" by Russell Banks (Ecco). A convicted sex offender tries to hang on to a life at the literal and figurative margins of society. Banks forces us to see a rounded character in someone we would prefer not to see at all, and he shows us that our not seeing is part of the problem. — Richard Wakefield

"The Sense of an Ending" by Julian Barnes (Knopf). This wintry, brilliantly creepy short novel, winner of the 2011 Man Booker prize, conjures a man who discovers, as he nears his life's conclusion, that almost everything he thought he knew was based on a lie. — John Freeman

"The Illumination" by Kevin Brockmeier (Pantheon). Brockmeier delivers a riveting novel that asks: What if all aches and agony were illuminated? What if our pain was beautiful and on display for all to see? He manages to be mordant and kind; humor jumps out in the most unexpected moments. The world Brockmeier has populated is both lonely and a reassuring cocoon. — Kimberly Marlowe Hartnett

"Open City" by Teju Cole (Random House). This debut novel by the Nigerian-born Cole is, on the surface, the story of a young, foreign psychiatry resident in post-9/11 New York City who searches for the soul of the city by losing himself in extended strolls around teeming Manhattan. But it's really a story about a lost nation struggling to regain a sense of direction after that shattering, disorienting day 10 years ago. A quiet, lyrical and profound piece of writing. — Tyrone Beason

"The Little Women Letters" by Gabrielle Donnelly (Touchstone). Inspired by Louisa May Alcott's most famous book, Donnelly's is revisionism taken to the extreme — but it mostly works. A thoroughly modern trio of English sisters are dimly aware that they had an American great-great-grandmother named Josephine March (Jo of "Little Women"). When one of them stumbles across a cache of the old lady's letters, she discovers a remarkable resonance between that generation and the present day. Delicious escapism! — Barbara Llloyd McMichael

"The Marriage Plot" by Jeffrey Eugenides (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). The Anthony Trollope quote, "The way of true love never works out, except at the end of an English novel," floats enticingly over Eugenides' latest, a romantic triangle set among three brand-new college graduates in the early 1980s. It's a masterful examination of love, both in and out of literature. — Moira Macdonald

"Ed King" by David Guterson (Knopf). This modern-day take on the Oedipus myth follows Seattle's evolution from sleepy seaport to software capital, as a modern "King of Search" meets his match in one of the most memorable grifters in contemporary literature. — Mary Ann Gwinn

"Night Road" by Kristin Hannah (St. Martin's Press). Bainbridge author Hannah is in top form for this sharply observant, island-based saga about the wide-ranging consequences of a tragic accident. — Melinda Bargreen

"The Great Leader" by Jim Harrison (Grove Press). Harrison ("Legends of the Fall," "Falling to Earth") flirts with the absurd in this offbeat detective novel that pits a washed-up, small-town detective against a diabolical cult leader to delightful and ultimately cathartic effect. — Tim McNulty

"Midnight Lantern: New and Selected Poems" by Tess Gallagher (Graywolf). "Midnight Lantern" collects 40 years of Tess Gallagher's poetry, and it follows the poet on the long journey from maidenhood, through disease, to the death of loved ones — but reading it, you always sense the young Gallagher, whose optimism persists despite it all. — Charles R. Cross

"The Dovekeepers" by Alice Hoffman (Scribner). Hoffman brings her immense gift for telling women's stories to this novel about the harrowing, beautiful lives of four dovekeepers who lived in the mountaintop settlement of Masada, where 900 Jews fled after the 70 C.E. fall of Jerusalem, and where most died heroic deaths during a subsequent Roman siege. — Melissa Allison

"The Stranger's Child" by Alan Hollinghurst (Knopf). Hollinghurst, a Man Booker prizewinning author ("The Line of Beauty"), outdoes himself with this story of how a vibrantly alive World War I poet devolves into a dusty biographical subject. Michael Upchurch said that "Hollinghurst demonstrates his knack for conjuring the moments between events: the seeming downtime in which the turning points in a life sort themselves out." I concur. — Mary Ann Gwinn

"Pym" by Mat Johnson (Spiegel & Grau). In this original and witty parody of certain racist Victorian novels, a failed black scholar investigates a sailor's diary with tenuous connections to Poe's horror classic, "The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym," as he searches for a lost black homeland in the Antarctic heart of whiteness. — Nisi Shawl

"To Be Sung Underwater" by Tom McNeal (Little, Brown). A love story elevated by McNeal's exquisite writing about a woman wondering, 20 years later, if she should have gone back to her first love, as she promised, and of all that follows from such musing. — Valerie Ryan

"A Young Man's Guide to Late Capitalism" by Peter Mountford (Mariner). This debut novel by a Seattle writer brilliantly explores the tricky juncture where American power (in the form of a hedge-fund employee) collides with third-world native interest (in the form of Evo Morales' Bolivia). Mountford's 27-year-old anti-hero comes off at first like a dewy puppy in a brave new world, but he soon starts taking on pit-bull qualities as he rationalizes every incremental stage of his growing corruption. — Michael Upchurch

"The Tiger's Wife" by Téa Obreht (Random House). This thoroughly original, mesmerizing debut novel weaves several tales from different eras in an unnamed stand-in for the author's homeland — the former Yugoslavia — with the heartbreakingly common thread of the ceaselessness of war. — Agnes Torres Al-Shibibi

"The Cat's Table" by Michael Ondaatje (Knopf). This hauntingly evocative novel by the author of "The English Patient" conjures a rite-of-passage sea voyage by a young boy sailing from Ceylon to London, a trip full of mysteries, high jinks and colorful characters, but also a harbinger of the future the narrator can only appreciate decades later. — Misha Berson

"The Leftovers" by Tom Perrotta (St. Martin's Press). Perrotta's piercing novel about an everyday family in an end-of-days setting traverses the ways in which anxiety can give way to absurdity, leaving readers to wonder what they would do if everything they thought they knew — about the Almighty, about reward and punishment, about the ties that bind — was exposed as rot. — Ken Armstrong

"An Atlas of Impossible Longing" by Anuradha Roy (Free Press). In this richly imagined debut novel about three generations of a Bengali family set in early 20th-century India, we come to understand what it means to have a home and family and also to lose them and become fully free. — Bharti Kirchner

"Rules of Civility" by Amor Towles (Viking). This (F. Scott) Fitzgerald-esque novel, set in 1938 Manhattan, features whip-smart dialogue, a strong-willed heroine and an acute eye for the nuances of sex, love and class. For pure reading pleasure, it's hard to beat. — Mary Ann Gwinn

"Tony and Susan" by Austin Wright (Grand Central Publishing). This rediscovered work of fiction is a deftly written story-within-a-story in which a once-failed writer triumphantly sends the novel he finally completed to his ex-wife, Susan. It's a tale of tragedy that begins when a college professor named Tony encounters a group of thugs on a dark road. Susan devours the book; she not only recognizes her ex's talent but also the cruelty of her abandonment. — Ellen Emry Heltzel

Nonfiction

"Fire Season — Field Notes from a Wilderness Lookout" by Philip Connors (Ecco). Connors uses his summer fire-lookout job atop a 55-foot-tall tower in New Mexico's Gila National Forest to examine and develop complex ideas on forest health and fire-suppression policy, conservation and land use in the West. — Irene Wanner

"The Book of Secrets: Illegitimate Daughters, Absent Fathers" by Michael Holroyd (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). This unusual book braids together the stories of a long-forgotten British aristocrat, the women in his orbit and an Italian villa where their lives intersected, along with pieces of Holroyd's own story. — Mary Ann Gwinn

"The Last Gunfight: The Real Story of the Shootout at the O.K. Corral" by Jeff Guinn (Simon & Schuster). For author Jeff Guinn, the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral was about much more than another macho misunderstanding elevated to lethal violence by testosterone, alcohol and firearms. Guinn puts the gunfire in Tombstone, Ariz., in the context of social, political and economic forces in the American West of 1881. — John B. Saul

"Never Say Die: The Myth and Marketing of the New Old Age" by Susan Jacoby (Pantheon). Jacoby demolishes the multiple myths of the golden age of aging, partly through personal experience, partly through extensive, smart research. — Steve Weinberg

"In the Garden of Beasts" by Erik Larson (Crown). The story of Americans in Berlin the year Hitler seized total power has been told before, but Seattle author Larson excels in building suspense and forcing the question: How do you deal with implacable evil? — Mary Ann Gwinn

"The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris" by David McCullough (Simon & Schuster). McCullough delivers a compelling and largely untold story of a flood of American artists, writers, painters and doctors who braved the treacherous journey across the Atlantic from 1830 to 1900 to visit Paris, bringing home radical ideas that transformed not only the travelers but America itself. — Kevin J. Hamilton

"Eisenhower: The White House Years" by Jim Newton (Doubleday). A few things the nearly forgotten Republican president did: Ended the Korean War; prevented the military from using tactical nuclear weapons; facilitated the downfall of toxic anti-communist Joseph McCarthy; filled the Supreme Court chief-justice seat with Earl Warren, architect of school desegregation; and presided over a prosperous economy (while raising taxes). And all that was in his first term. In an informed, captivating account, Newton makes the Eisenhower presidency relevant to the 2012 election ahead. — Alan Moores

"Bismarck: A Life" by Jonathan Steinberg (Oxford University Press). The story of Bismarck, who almost single-handedly forced the creation of modern Germany, is greatly enlivened by the fact that Bismarck was a fabulous writer himself — his letters, extensively quoted, vibrate with ambition, passion and ire at his enemies. Steinberg overstuffs his narrative (legions of obscure German aristocrats), but it's still a landmark work. — Mary Ann Gwinn

"Blood Work: A Tale of Medicine and Murder in the Scientific Revolution" by Holly Tucker (W.W. Norton). Tucker's account of the earliest days of blood transfusions is sometimes challenging to read, especially when detailing the grisly experiments, but is ultimately rewarding for its fine mix of scientific discovery, ego-driven rivalries and telling details. — David B. Williams

"The Quest: Energy, Security, and the Remaking of the Modern World" by Daniel Yergin (Penguin Press). Everything you need to know, and possibly everything you could want to know, about the world's ceaseless demand for energy — from oil wells to wind farms to plain old conservation — by one of the world's top thinkers in the field. — Drew DeSilver

"Lost in Shangri-La: A True Story of Survival, Adventure and the Most Incredible Rescue Misision of World War II" by Mitchell Zuckoff (Harper). Zuckoff ("Ponzi's Scheme") tells the thrilling story of the crash of a U.S. military plane carrying 24 servicemen and women into the side of a mountain in what was then Dutch New Guinea in May 1945. Only three people survived, and the amazing search for and rescue of them is a tale of bravery, perseverance and ingenuity. — Roger K. Miller

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