Though we've named our best books of 2017, we all have our personal favorites, and not all of them are from 2017. These are the best books we read this year.
The Stowaway tells the true story of 17 year-old Billy Gawronski, a young polish boy growing up in New York City, who, dreaming of a life of adventure, sneaks aboard Rear Admiral Richard Byrd’s 1928 expedition to Antarctica. Deeply researched and tightly written, The Stowaway is nonfiction storytelling at its finest. Billy’s remarkable personal story and the details of Byrd’s incredible voyage are only part of what hooked me; the book also brilliantly evokes the immigrant experience in New York, as well as an extraordinary period in American history when much of the world was still undiscovered and explorers, armed with guile, grit, and crude technology, were our national heroes, often greeted with massive cheering crowds and ticker tape parades upon returning from their expeditions. I read nonfiction almost exclusively, it's part of my job here at PW, and I’ll be blunt: this has been a depressing year, filled with political works and stories of America’s decline and social disintegration. But Laurie Gwen Shapiro's fascinating book saved my reading year, offering an incredible story, and a reminder that American Exceptionalism once had real meaning. —Andrew R. Albanese, senior writer
As a boy, I read a lot of comics. Decades later, I am rediscovering my favorites: Peanuts, Donald Duck, Tintin, and Little Lulu. One of my joys as a parent has been sharing these timeless classics with my three children, who to my delight appreciate them as much as I do.
As I kid, I didn’t pay much attention to who wrote the comics. As an adult, I have become interested in who those creative people were. One of them is John Stanley, the genius behind the Little Lulu comic books, the humorous adventures of a feisty little girl and her neighborhood friends who were always convincing as children, unlike, say, Charlie Brown and the Peanuts gang.
What a thrill it was to discover this beautifully designed, richly illustrated biography of Stanley, who turns out to have been a somewhat sad, morose figure, far too modest about his achievements. I hope someday my children will read this book, too, with as much pleasure as I did. —Peter Cannon, senior reviews editor
Though I’m hesitant to recommend a book published in 2018 when so many great ones came out in 2017, for the sake of being honest, I have to say that the best book I read in 2017 is The Line Becomes a River by Francisco Cantú, a memoir by an ex-border patrol agent describing his experiences patrolling the Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas borders. It’s a book with some of the same appeal of J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy in that it brings a strong personal narrative to one of the major social issues in America today. What I liked about Cantú’s book is how humble and plain-stated it is. It continues to cross my mind even months after reading it. —Annie Coreno, reviews editor
When I read The Burning Girl, Harvey Weinstein was still just a film producer and "me too" was a response, not a hashtag. At the time I was drawn to the novel's beautiful take on the anguish that accompanies losing your first best friend. Thinking about the book now, I keep coming back to the way it grapples with female coming-of-age. Filled with references to predators—they're ever-present in the pages, in TV miniseries and local gossip, snatching girls from dark highways and dimly lit park paths—The Burning Girl captures how becoming a woman is, on some level, about coming to terms with a newfound reality, one in which you will always be under some type of threat. Maybe it took the headlines of the last year to make me appreciate this aspect of the book. Either way, it seems like a perfect novel for our particular moment. —Rachel Deahl, news director
The Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin was easily the best book I read in 2017, and one of the best books published in 2017. It's the third book in the Broken Earth trilogy, and I expect it will join its predecessors in winning a Hugo Award; it caps off a stunning achievement. People use words like "tour de force" for the series, but that really doesn't come close to the experience of reading Jemisin's work, particularly this final volume. All the care she takes with her craft is fully on display, like intricate clockwork. She's dismantled the entire Tolkien-based notion of how a fantasy/SF trilogy should proceed: rather than proceeding with strict linearity, each book brings new layers of setting and plot and characterization, opening up avenues of increased understanding and reinterpretation for the earlier volumes. She's also set a very high standard for how to represent violence in fiction without excusing it or sensationalizing it. I can't wait to see not only what Jemisin does next, but what other authors do next because of how she's inspired and galvanized them. —Rose Fox, senior reviews editor
In Jacobs's deliriously fun graphic novel, a married couple journeys into a land of poisonous and parasitic creatures. Their safari guide, who has a parasite in place of his tongue (which improves his sense of taste and allows him to cook exquisitely delicious food), repeatedly has to save their lives—at one point he pulls a long snake-like animal out of the husband's ear. I love how the book revels in its midnight horror-style antics: it's funny, weird, gross, and surreal. But what I love most about Safari Honeymoon is the strange yet logical world that Jacobs creates: rife with both decay and renewal, the wilderness is sort of an inverse Eden that shocks and surprises on every page. —Gabe Habash, deputy reviews editor
I didn’t fall in love with this collection because of its justly lauded centerpiece, a novella-length riff on Law & Order: SVU called “Especially Heinous,” whose characters include a pair of cops, their doppelgängers, and an ever-increasing body count of ghostly victims with tinkling brass bells where their eyes should be. Machado excels at that sort of keep-the-lights-on horror, wedding it to the more pedestrian terrors that go along with having a female form: “Eight Bites,” for example, delves into the ineluctability of a woman’s body, no matter what she does to free herself. No, what did it for me was “Inventory,” in which the narrator makes an accounting of a lifetime’s worth of sexual encounters—with women, with men, with multiple partners at once—gradually making clear her need to get all this down on paper, now. The melancholy of that revelation, and the subtlety with which she conveys it, are as haunting as any bell-eyed ghost.—Carolyn Juris, features editor
The Sleeping Dictionary by Sujata Massey
I’ve noticed a pattern in my selections the past few times for my favorite read of the year: I repeatedly select a book I’ve read and enjoyed after being assigned by my PW editors to profile the author--and it’s usually historical fiction with a literary twist. This past summer, I was assigned to interview Sujata Massey, a writer of mysteries set in contemporary Japan who switched to writing historical fiction, before settling on writing historical mysteries set in British Colonial India. While preparing to interview Massey about her latest effort, The Widows of Malabar Hill, I read an ARC and enjoyed it. I then read Massey’s epic novel set during the waning years of the British Raj, The Sleeping Dictionary, and could not put it down. It’s about a Bengali girl who uses her wits to rise up from poverty; after many adventures, she finds herself immersed in the world of Calcutta’s British civil service, where she spies for Indian freedom fighters. Not only is Massey an excellent storyteller, but her research is meticulous: she is adept at creating in her novels a strong sense of time and place. I, in fact, enjoyed The Sleeping Dictionary so much that I repeatedly brought it up during my interview with Massey in August: more than once, she reminded me that we were there to discuss The Widows of Malabar Hill, not a novel she had written five years previously. —Claire Kirch, senior correspondent, Midwest
40 Sonnets by Don Paterson
I stole this choice right from a colleague's hand,
I'm sure—Craig Teicher recommended it
to me when he was in the sonnet pit
in which Paterson's latest made him land.
I've done my time in that warm hole as well
and found a Scottish John Donne in the man
who's often in the Ladbrokes betting can
when lit world gamblers look toward the Nobel.
And for good reason: nimble, quick, and wise,
the words in this book are—plus sad and wry.
Can't count the times A Vow has made me cry
a bit, or praise enough Wave's bluest tides.
The sonnet may not be in fashion now
but I trust Don to make it so somehow. —John Maher, digital editor, associate news editor
The best story I read in 2017 is the opening two volumes (Awakening and The Blood) of Monstress. The series opens with action and mystery and never lets up. Maika Halfwolf is a witness and piece in a magical war that has already taken its toll on her. Liu’s writing brings raw emotion to Maika’s personal crusade as she tries to investigate why a demon is growing out of her dismembered arm and how her mother died. Artist Takeda brings the story to life with what may be the best illustrations I’ve seen in any graphic novel. Dark, subdued colors bring a heavy mood to the lands yet the detail in each face, tree, fur, and cloth keep it very much alive. What may be most impressive is how this team incorporates the anger of racism and war to shape the refugee Maika’s attitude. Yet her strong independence in this matriarchal society is what really propels this character above the rest. A vendetta full of demons and swift, sword-swinging justice has me hooked and I can’t wait for the next volume. —Evan Phail, sales assistant
The narrator is a fetus who overhears its mother plot the death of its father: the concept of Ian McEwan's latest caught my attention, and as early as the inscription (a quote from Hamlet, another child wrestling with mother plotting against father), I could tell McEwan was on his game. Within a few pages he positioned the ostensibly outrageous premise in a way that made its own bizarre sense and gave him the latitude to tell the story with complete freedom—other than the narrator being encased in a womb. What follows is a delightful—if you can say that about a fetus overhearing its mother plot a murder—exploration of modern culture, ranging from biting commentary about an entitled, coddled generation to rhapsodies about French wine to insightful if resentful observations about certain sexual practices—all delivered with McEwan's beautiful command of language and a brisk plot. —Carl Pritzkat, vice president business development
Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly
I’m glad that seeing the movie sent me to the book, because the movie is only a small slice of the story Shetterly has to tell. She grew up in Hampton, Va., where Langley Air Force Base is located, but only learned as a grownup about the women mathematicians, African-American like herself, who worked as “computers” during WWII before the machines known as computers existed. Shetterly’s book not only profiles the many women who undertook these tasks but also puts their lives in the context of Virginia’s racist social structure of the 1940s, ’50s, and into the ’60s. What was particularly poignant for me is that my father worked at Langley in the early 1940s, I was born in nearby Newport News, and we moved away in 1943 just before the first of the women Shetterly profiles came to work at Langley. One story the author tells clears up a story my father used to tell, about flying with test pilots; Shetterly explains that the engineers who worked with aerodynamic measurements often went along with the test pilots to see whether their data matched what actually happened with the planes in the air. My father died a few years before Hidden Figures came out; he would have enjoyed reading it, and it would no doubt have prompted his own memories. —Sonia Jaffe Robbins, contributing editor
I met Min Jin Lee when she did a pre-pub bookseller tour for her first novel, Free Food for Millionaires (2007), which took her over a decade to write. At the time, I was becoming more serious about my own work and was enamored by both her and her debut. I suspected that it might be a bit of a wait for Lee’s second novel, Pachinko, which takes its name from a popular Japanese game of chance that resembles vertical pinball. In fact it came out almost exactly a decade later. Once again Lee tells the story of Korean immigrants. But this time the novel, a family saga, is set primarily in Japan and uses the story to retell the little known history of the Koreans who fled there. It covers much of the 20th century, from 1910 to 1989, the year when Lee first got the idea for what became the book. Pachinko combines a strong narrative drive with memorable characters and beautiful writing. I was hooked with the opening sentence: “History has failed us, but no matter.” —Judith Rosen, contributing editor
For months I had wanted to read this, and I finally got to it over the winter holidays, when I knew I’d have a generous amount of time to ease into this saga of a family who left Korea for Japan. Lee is a beautiful writer, deft in her simplicity of language, and in this novel—set largely in WWII-era Japan—her characters face cultural and class discrimination and religious persecution, yet persevere in making a new home in a forever foreign country. —Mark Rotella, senior editor
Thought Forms by Annie Besant and C.W. Leadbeater
This summer I visited an art exhibition titled “Colori” that aimed to present art which captured an “awareness of the complexity of meanings inherent to color which is closer to Goethe than to Newton.” One book the show referenced over and over was Thought Forms by Annie Besant and C.W. Leadbeater. In this short work, Besant (she did most of the writing) explains supratentorial synesthesia—the belief that thoughts themselves possess a color and shape that can be perceived, categorized, and charted. She then goes on to do just that. Yellow is for intellect, red is passion and pride, blue is spirituality. Something cloud-like is an undirected thought, anything with defined edges represents decisive action. As she maps these thought-forms, Besant also presciently (the book was first published in 1901) considers “modifications” to scientific knowledge that are becoming necessary alongside our ever-increasing understanding of the brain. Colors, after all, are more perception than reality. Besant is serious believer, but she is also fun. Her colorful drawing of a Wagner opera (she was clearly a big fan) as a “hollowed out mountain-range” is not to be missed. —Seth Satterlee, reviews editor
I’d been looking forward to reading Trouble by Non Pratt for quite a while because I just loved the premise. I finally got to read it a few months ago and it was everything I wanted it to be. Trouble was raw, painful, and realistic, with a touch of melodrama. Aaron and Hannah were wonderful, each broken in their own way, yet they fit together fantastically. In fact, all of the characters were great. I think the "what ifs" of the novel add a layer that gives the book additional depth. It really rings true to life. I was rooting for these characters from the very first page and I think you will, too. —Drucilla Shultz, assistant editor
The best book I read this year is one I read with my six-year-old daughter, the graphic memoir El Deafo by Cece Bell. Actually, I read it, and my daughter re-read it: El Deafo is either the first or second book she read on her own (the other is Olga and the Smelly Thing from Nowhere, which my daughter will tell you is her favorite), and she quickly became obsessed with it, and so have I. Bell touchingly and movingly recounts—and warmly illustrates—her own grade school years in the 1970s, when, due to spinal meningitis, she suddenly lost her hearing. The book spends most of its time warmheartedly narrating Bell’s struggles to come to grips with her new life—the massive hearing aide strapped to he chest, learning to lip-read, adjusting to the more and less helpful adaptations her friend and peers make to her new situation. But at its core, this is a book about the normal stuff that happens to kids when they’re young: the social mishaps and sleepovers, the complexities and challenges of a child’s first great friendships. My daughter has dug deeply into all of this, but what I love most about this book is how it offers her new ways of thinking about her brother, who has cerebral palsy and whose life is different in many ways from her life or the life of anyone else she knows. El Deafo has, I think, helped her find useful new ways of considering all kinds of difference, helped her understand and articulate how being “normal” isn’t the only way to be normal. It’s a marvelous book. Also, Bell decided it would be better if all the characters were humanoid bunnies rather than just regular people, so there’s that, too. —Craig Morgan Teicher, director of special editorial projects
One of the pleasures of my job is getting a review from a reviewer who loves a book and then falling in love with it myself. Although, even as I write that, it seems like love might be an odd or even inappropriate response. This collection of stories, songs, and poems from Nishnaabeg author, scholar, and musician Betasamosake Simpson is intensely personal and political. As a white reader on the other side of the deep chasm of Indigenous-non-Indigenous race relations in Canada, I don’t love reflecting on the crimes European settlers inflicted on all of the First Nations on the continent and especially not on my complicity in their legacy of racism. This is a fiercely angry book. “We are from a people who have been forced to give up everything….occupation anxiety has worn our self-worth down to frayed wires.” But Betasamosake Simpson’s voice is so powerful and there is so much strength in lines such as “meet me at the underpass/rebellion is on her way,” that I hear hope for a whole different future for the country. This is also a fiercely funny book. Her stream-of-consciousness commentaries on her experience taking a firearms safety course from an NRA caricature instructor, and on Ivory, the liberal, rich-hippie, most irritating mom at her daughter’s ballet class, who flutters around teaching all the other mothers how to do a “tidy bun” are hilarious stand-up routine material, except that they can also break your heart. To share some laughter and tears seems like a good place for something new to begin. In that respect, it is also a very generous book. —Leigh Anne Williams, Canadian reviews editor, adult and poetry