Best books of 2017, according to our staff

Clockwise from left: “Sing, Unburied, Sing” by Jesmyn Ward; “Little Fires Everywhere” by Celeste Ng; “Grant” by Ron Chernow; “Autumn” by Karl Ove Knausgaard; “House of Names” by Colm Toibin; “Moonglow” by Michael Chabon; “The Woman Who Smashed Codes” by Jason Fagone; “Manhattan Beach” by Jennifer Egan.

On the staffs of the Inquirer, Philadelphia Daily News, and Philly.com, we have some big, big readers. And, by all reports, they hugely enjoyed  2017 for its rich, fun, surprising, elevating reading. Here, they recommend the books (most from 2017, a few older) that took them someplace new. From wars in Pennsylvania (there were a lot) to romances to Muhammad Ali to Agamemnon in the tub to Hitler on drugs, it’s a whole new world.

FICTION

Class by Lucinda Rosenfeld ($26). Amy Rosenberg says this novel concerns “a Brooklyn mom obsessing over her daughter’s city public school education, and over pretty much everything else. Cuts deep and close with spot-on detail and very funny insight.”

Little, Brown. hachettebookgroup.com

The Force, by Don Winslow ($27.99). Chris Palmer calls this “a fast-paced, testosterone-fueled police novel that is equal parts fun, grim, cinematic, and a little pulpy,” written by “an author who clearly knows cops.”

William Morrow. harpercollins.com

Camera icon Courtesy of Harper Collins
“Moonglow” by Michael Chabon

Moonglow by Michael Chabon ($28.99). In his profile of Chabon, Tirdad Derakhshani called this 2016 book “an ambitious, epic 448-page tale about the soul of post-World War II America.” Daniel Rubin calls it “a satisfying return to the lyrical high-wire that the Berkeley author toed in 2000’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.”

Harper. harpercollins.com

Time Traveling

All Our Wrong Todays by Elan Mastai ($26). “Bumbling time traveler Tom Barren defies his father and accidentally disrupts the past, triggering events that endanger the technological utopia whence he came,” says Cynthia Henry. “Can he return again and restore his world? Then again, does he really want to?”

Dutton. penguinrandomhouse.com

The Jane Austen Project by Kathleen A. Flynn ($15.99). Ellen Gray writes, “This first novel, about two people sent back to find, and steal, an unpublished work from Jane herself, successfully blends Regency research, science fiction, and literary wish-fulfillment into a truly satisfying read.”

Harper Perennial. harpercollins.com

Young Adult

Far from the Tree by Robin Benway ($17.99). Justine McDaniel says, “This young-adult novel about three siblings who were all put up for adoption separately as infants and meet as teenagers is a poetic, moving, and unusual tale that will resonate with readers of any age.”

HarperTeen. harpercollins.com

Women Write

Little Fires Everywhere, by Celeste Ng ($27). Erica Palan says Ng’s much-praised novel is “a complex, compassionate, and compulsively readable suburban saga that explores issues of race, class, motherhood, and everything in between.”

Penguin Press. penguinrandomhouse.com

Camera icon Courtesy of Simon and Schuster
“Manhattan Beach” by Jennifer Egan; Scribner (438 pages, $28)

Manhattan Beach, by Jennifer Egan ($28). Several staffers liked this novel, on many 2017 best-of lists. Our reviewer Rayyan Al-Shawaf called it “inspired” and “playful,” “an enthralling, multidimensional tale.” Sandra Shea says it’s “set in the Brooklyn Naval Yard during World War II. Anna Kerrigan becomes the military’s first female diver. The accounts of her immersion into New York Harbor are riveting, but the real depths she explores are more interior, as she tries to understand the earlier disappearance of her father.”

Scribner. simonandschuster.com

The Guiniveres by Sarah Domet ($25.99). “The novel follows four friends, all named Guinevere (easier to tell apart from one another than you’d think),” writes Becky Batcha. “Each has been cast off by a troubled family and left to be raised by nuns. Their stories unfold as a liturgical year passes, accompanied by stories of the saints and a reckoning with the casualties of war.”

Flatiron. us.macmillan.com

Camera icon Beowulf Sheehan
Jesmyn Ward, author of “Sing, Unburied, Sing.”

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward ($26). John Baer says this National Book Award-winner features “a young boy, an addict mom, a road trip, ghosts, and much more. It’s all beautifully written. … A must-read for those who love great American fiction.”

Scribner. simonandschuster.com.

Weird but Great

House of Names by Colm Toibín ($26). Martha Woodall calls it “vivid, thrilling.” Henry says that in his latest family saga, Toibín “taps ancient Greece’s most dysfunctional house: King Agamemnon, Queen Clytemnestra, their lovers, and offspring. As throats are slashed and heads bashed in, Toibin explores vengeance and its aftermath through the minds of the various murderers.”

Scribner. simonandschuster.com

Camera icon Courtesy of Random House
“Lincoln in the Bardo” by George Saunders (Penguin Random House)

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders ($28). “If your friends complained that this was confusing and inaccessible, please reevaluate your friendships,” William Bender says. “Do two minutes of googling on the Buddhist concept of bardo, then drop into Saunders’ experimental first novel, leaving everything from this world behind.” In his profile of Saunders, Derakhshani called it “a hallucinatory trip through the consciousness of one great American, President Abraham Lincoln, as he is confronted by the souls of the dead, and, through them, by the grief of America’s past and potential future.”

Random House. randomhousebooks.com

Nutshell by Ian McEwan ($24.95). Martha Woodall calls this “a sly, dazzling reimagining of Hamlet – if Hamlet were a sentient fetus developing and listening in as his mother and uncle scheme to slay his father in contemporary England.”

Nan A. Talese. penguinrandomhouse.com

The Unseen World by Liz Moore ($26.95).  Joanne McLaughlin says, “Lovely writing and strong characters drive the very odd tale of young Ada Sibelius’ very odd upbringing amid her father’s team of computer scientists.”

W.W. Norton, books.wwnorton.com

Romances

Heart on Fire by Amanda Bouchet ($7.99). Romance novel expert Lidija Dorjkhand says that the Kingmaker Chronicles, an “exhilarating fantasy/action/romance series, is just amazing. Features strong women who are paired with hot alpha men.”

Sourcebooks Casablanca. sourcebooks.com

Wildfire by Ilona Andrews ($25.99). Ditto for this one, Dorjkhand says, which “brings to a close the paranormal Hidden Legacy series.”

Avon. avonromance.com

And One for the Editor

Snopes by William Faulkner ($28). Near the end of his career, the Nobel-winner and his editors sat down and wove together three novels from the previous 20 years into this sprawling masterpiece. I, John Timpane, call it my best reading fun of the year.

Modern Library. penguinrandomhouse.com

NONFICTION

Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process by John McPhee ($25). “Reading this combination how-to guide and memoir,” says Kevin Riordan, “is like taking a master class.”

Farrar, Straus and Giroux. us.macmillan.com

Earning the Rockies: How Geography Shapes America’s Role in the World by Robert D. Kaplan ($27). Barry Zukerman says Kaplan writes of what he saw as he crisscrossed the United States, then gives us “an in-depth analysis of how geography has shaped America’s role in the world, along with predictions and recommendations for our geopolitical future.”

Random House. penguinrandomhouse.com

The First Impulse by Laurel Fantauzzo ($9.09). It’s “a mix of true crime, memoir, and love story,” says Juliana Reyes, that “tries to make sense of the unsolved murder of two young film critics in love.” This window into Manila’s indie film scene grapples with “questions of identity and commitment to place.”

Anvil. anvilpublishing.com

The New Senior Man: Exploring New Horizons, New Opportunities by  Philadelphia elder activist Thelma Reese and the late Barbara Fleisher ($32.99). Erin Arvedlund recommends this one, the companion volume to 2014’s New Senior Woman. The authors ask: “Where do men fit into the astonishing changes of the aging boomers among us?”

Rowman & Littlefield. rowman.com

Walking to Listen: 4,000 Miles Across America, One Story at a Time by Andrew Forsthoefel ($28). Chip Fox says, “This book reminded me that over every hillside and around every curve there are acts of kindness and reminders that our country can find common ground and unity by embracing our diversity.

Bloomsbury USA. bloomsbury.com

Wondrous Women

Remember the Ladies: Celebrating Those Who Fought for Freedom at the Ballot Box by Angela P. Dodson ($26). Michael Days, reader engagement editor for our news group, says he’d love this book even if the author were not his spouse. He calls it “an informative and inclusive history of the women’s suffrage movement and women’s political involvement up through the 2016 presidential election” in a book that “also highlights Philadelphia women and men who played key roles.”

Center Street. hachettebookgroup.com

Camera icon Dana Bauer
Jason Fagone, author of “The Woman Who Smashed Codes.”

The Woman Who Smashed Codes by Jason Fagone ($27.99). Ellen Gray says, “In a biography that reads like a novel, Fagone decodes the life of Elizebeth Smith Friedman, who went from attempting to find hidden messages in Shakespeare at the behest of an eccentric millionaire to a top-secret career foiling Nazis one cipher at a time.”  In my profile of longtime Philly journalist Fagone, I called it “a remarkable story … both deeply researched and beautifully told.”

Dey Street. harpercollins.com

Magnificent Men

Ali: A Life by Jonathan Eig ($30). “The greatest exploration yet of the Greatest,” says Frank Fitzpatrick. Eig “reveals Muhammad Ali as a more revolutionary, more entertaining, more flawed, and far more complex figure” than known. “For Ali fans,” Fitzpatrick says, “the book may occasionally sting like a bee, but there are plenty of moments when it floats like a glorious butterfly.”

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. hmhco.com

Camera icon Beowulf Sheehan
Ron Chernow, author of “Grant.”

Grant by Ron Chernow ($40). Our reviewer Clayton Butler called it a “mammoth” reconsideration. Bill Marimow, vice president of strategic development for Philadelphia Media Network, calls it “a masterful biography of Ulysses S. Grant, which brings him to life not only as a Civil War general, politician, and president but also as a friend, husband, father, and hapless businessman.” He calls it a “compelling portrait of a fallible human being” who doesn’t get enough credit for his commitment to ending slavery and efforts to bring equal rights to African Americans.

Penguin Press. penguinrandomhouse.com

The Art of the Essay

Camera icon Sam Barker
Karl Ove Knausgaard

Autumn by Karl Ove Knausgaard ($27). In my review, I called it “one of the sweetest reading surprises of the year.” The celebrated Norwegian writer gives us brief, autumnal essays addressed to a coming addition to his family. I wrote that “the emotion holding Autumn together is tenderness: toward his unborn daughter, toward himself, toward the things of this world.”

Penguin. penguinrandomhouse.com

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates ($25). In my interview with Coates, I called this 2015 blockbuster “dark and vibrant.” Fox writes that it was so powerful he could read only a few pages at a sitting: “I feel the book is a must-read that will broaden your horizons.”

Spiegel & Grau. penguinrandomhouse.com

Too Much and Not the Mood by Durga Chew-Bose ($15). Reyes likes this collection: “It’s a pleasure to see through her eyes, whether it’s the experience of being a daughter or what Agnès Varda’s films taught her about ‘women with implication.’ ”

Farrar, Straus and Giroux. fsgoriginals.com

The War Channel

Blitzed: Drugs in the Third Reich by Norman Ohler ($28). Bob Fernandez says the first part of this fast-moving narrative “shows readers how powerful, mind-altering drugs – one of which was what we would call today ‘crystal meth’ – gave German soldiers the energy boosts, courage, and murderous highs that enabled them to accomplish wartime feats in Europe and Africa.” Then it switches to Adolf Hitler’s “rampant use of methamphetamine, barbiturates, cocaine, steroids, sex hormones, and what could be called an early form of oxycontin as he bunkered with top Reich officials and girlfriend Eva Braun in the later years of the war.”

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. hmhco.com

Frontier Country: The Politics of War in Early Pennsylvania by Patrick Spero ($38.92). “Pennsylvania fought mini-wars against Maryland, Connecticut, and Virginia in the 18th century. Who knew?” writes Harold Brubaker. “Spero, the librarian and director of the American Philosophical Society Library in Philadelphia, spins a fascinating tale of history in Pennsylvania’s backwaters.”

University of Pennsylvania Press. upenn.edu

Camera icon Courtesy of Atlantic Monthly Press
“Hue 1968” by Mark Bowden.

Hué 1968: A Turning Point in the American War in Vietnam by Mark Bowden ($30). In this compelling, meticulously researched work, former Inquirer writer Bowden “recounts the long, bloody siege of Hué during the Vietnam War,” says Woodall. He interviews combatants and civilian witnesses on all sides, interwoven with tales of individual participants. Our reviewer Steve Weinberg wrote: “Bowden offers copious context about why it matters what occurred in Vietnam at the beginning of 1968 – why it mattered so much then, and why it matters so much in 2017.”

Atlantic Monthly Press. groveatlantic.com