Best books in 2017, recommended by Berkeleyside editors, contributors

Books do furnish a room (and make great holiday gifts). Photo: Tracey Taylor

During the year, Berkeleyside runs many reviews of books by local authors. At the end of the year, however, we do a “best books of the year” list that draws on books way outside the city’s boundaries. We are not professional book reviewers, but we can recommend books that have attracted our attention during the year — though they were not necessarily published in 2017. Berkeleyside editors are all book lovers whose shelves are overflowing and whose homes have stacks of books on the floor. So we have opinions!

We don’t provide Amazon links for books. Visit our local bookstores (we’re still fortunate to have them) to find these and other great titles. Here are our individual choices for the best books of 2017.

Lance Knobel

Lance Knobel is co-founder of Berkeleyside and founder of Berkeleyside’s Uncharted Berkeley Festival of Ideas . 

It has been a year when books have provided an essential escape mechanism from the daily heartburn of my Twitter feed. Seeking that escape, I’ve turned more often than not to historical fiction. The fantastic Times Literary Supplement podcast steered me to Maurice Druon’s seven-volume Accursed Kings series about the French monarchy in the tumultuous 14th century (start with The Iron King). Bonus point: George R. R. Martin blurbed the series as the “original Game of Thrones.” Poisonings, political scheming, thwarted romances, inbred monarchs, gargantuan appetites… it’s all in Druon.

Less rip-roaring, the historian H. F. M. Prescott published The Man on a Donkey in 1952. Her account of the 1536 Pilgrimage of Grace – an armed uprising protesting Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries – is the equal of Hilary Mantel’s wonderful Cromwell trilogy.

I did read some new books, too! Daniel Mendelson’s An Odyssey was aimed straight at my heart, knitting Homer and a son’s relationship with his aging father in an Odyssey-like quest. (I’ll read anything by Mendelson.)

The Red Atlas, by John Davies and Alexander Kent, is the jaw-dropping account of the massive cartographic operation Soviet intelligence created to map its enemies – down to Google Map-level detail of seemingly non-strategic towns across the U.S. and Europe. The maps are things of beauty, too.

Finally, I’m still not sure what to make of The Seventh Function of Language, Laurent Binet’s post-modern policier about the death of Roland Barthes, with appearances from Julia Kristeva, Gilles Deleuze, Jacques Derrida, and Bernard-Henri Lévy, among others. If those names mean nothing to you, avoid The Seventh Function. But if you get a tingle of recognition, it’s a fun read.

Frances Dinkelspiel

Frances Dinkelspiel is co-founder of Berkeleyside and the author of two books. 

Unlike Lance, I found myself turning mostly to non-fiction books that could help explain the Trump phenomenon. When I look back at what I read this year, I was surprised to see how few novels I consumed. (Which may explain some of my grumpiness.) But I found a number of excellent histories and books to delve into.

Four books sort of fit into the category “What is going on now?” I really enjoyed Joshua Green’s The Devil’s Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump and the Storming of the Presidency. It’s a clear-eyed explanation of how Bannon’s dark view of the world focused Trump’s campaign and helped him to victory. Nancy McLean’s Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plans for America clarified for me the underlying philosophy and machinations of the Koch brothers and members of the radical right who want to do away with government regulation. The book focuses on the late Nobel-Prize-winning economist James Buchanan, who forged his ideas on how to retain white supremacy after the Supreme Court’s 1954 ruling Brown vs the Board of Education. The Koch brothers funded Buchanan’s work, which lay down a framework for how the minority could deny the will of the majority in government. A sobering read.

Lauren Markham’s fantastic The Far Away Brothers: Two Migrants and the Making of an American Life is a page-turning narrative about immigration. Markham, who lives in Berkeley and teaches at the International School in Oakland, writes about two brothers from violence-ravaged rural El Salvador who come to the U.S. illegally and win citizenship because they fall into a category called unaccompanied minors. Markham spent considerable time in the Flores brothers’ hometown, where gangs and poverty undermined their family’s livelihood. She retraces their journey through El Salvador, Mexico and the Texas detention camp they were sent to until they were released into the custody of their older brother. As the brothers settle into life in the United States, they stumble in numerous ways and Markham is unafraid to show their weaknesses along with the special qualities that propelled them to leave their homeland behind for an uncertain life up north.

Finally, I devoured George Packer’s 2014 book The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America, which follows numerous people from different parts of the U.S. in the wake of the 2008 economic meltdown. It’s a well-written and still timely story about a nation in crisis.

After all that heavy stuff, I was more than happy to dive into Tina Brown’s The Vanity Fair Diaries: 1988-1992. While the book is full of name-dropping of New York, Los Angeles and Washington D.C. “elites,” it is more than a tale of the glamor and high spending of the Reagan era. Brown also writes about how she re-conceived the failing magazine and created the high-low mix of celebrity profiles, deeply reported political stories, fashion, Annie Leibovitz photography (remember the cover with a pregnant Demi Moore?) and crime. The story unfolds in real time and it is fun to see Brown meet people like Dominick Dunne and help them become nationally significant writers. The book is a take on power, publishing and the ways in which women must navigate a male-dominated world.

Lastly, here are three histories that I thoroughly enjoyed. Troublemakers: Silicon Valley’s Coming of Age by Leslie Berlin is a group portrait of some of the unknown builders who led the valley from its days of making microchips to creating the Internet, Apple Computer, Genentech, and Atari. I gobbled this up in just a few days.

The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women by Kate Moore is an excellent telling of how the Curies’ discovery of radium with its glow-in-the-dark properties led to the rise of numerous factories that produced glowing clocks and watch dials. Young women in the 1920s flocked to work at this factories and were instructed to lick their paintbrushes before dipping them into the radium paint. Dozens of young women grew ill and saw their jaws and legs and arms disintegrate, all while corporations and their paid doctors denied any link between radium and their cancers. Finally, a small group of women banded together to force the companies and the government to admit what was happening.

For a trip to Cuba, Tom Gjelten’s Bacardi and the Long Fight for Cuba: A Biography of a Causewas illuminating. Gjelten traces the history of the island through the family that makes the famous rum.

Mal Warwick

Mal Warwick writes a blog on books and reviews Berkeley-connected books for Berkeleyside. Here are his favorite books of the year.


Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign, by Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes

A searing account of the 2016 election that centers most of the blame for Hillary Clinton’s loss on the candidate herself and the people surrounding her.

The Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine Who Outwitted America’s Enemies, by Jason Fagon

The astonishing story of a woman whose seminal work in developing the science of cryptology and identifying Nazi spies in World War II has only recently been recognized.

Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI, by David Grann

Then the richest people in America, the Osage of Oklahoma became the victims of a series of brutal murders in the 1920s by neighbors bent on stealing the oil wealth under their land.

The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom: America and China, 1776 to the Present, by John Pomfret

To an extent that is only dimly understood, the histories of the US and China have been deeply intertwined ever since the founding of the republic.

Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries, by Kory Stamper

A lexicographer with a wicked sense of humor gives an inside look at the making of the most popular dictionary in America.

Mysteries and thrillers

A Single Spy, by William Christie

A Soviet agent sent undercover in Nazi Germany proves that “a single spy in the right place and at the right moment may change the course of history.”

The Late Show, by Michael Connelly

The author of the long-running series of bestselling detective novels featuring Harry Bosch introduces a new leading lady, destined to have her own series.

A Divided Spy (Thomas Kell #3), by Charles Cumming

A retired MI6 officer plots to avenge the murder of his lover by the KGB colonel who had undermined his work over the years.

A Legacy of Spies, by John le Carré

The iconic British spy, George Smiley, hovers in the background as a younger MI6 officer who had worked with him during the Cold War confronts a lawsuit about their work together.

The Good Daughter, by Karin Slaughter

The Georgia-based novelist who writes the Grant County and Will Trent series of crime thrillers probes the depths of depravity that touch a family of lawyers in rural Georgia.

Trade fiction (including science fiction)

American War, by Omar El Akkad

This debut novel tells the haunting, dystopian tale of a second American civil war set late in the twenty-first century.

Defectors, by Joseph Kanon

An American book publisher visits Moscow to edit the memoirs of his brother, who had defected to the Soviet Union decades earlier and joined the KGB.

Autonomous, by Annalee Newitz

In a future dominated by artificial intelligence and biotechnology, a military robot seeks to gain autonomy while on the hunt for a “patent pirate” who illegally manufactures medicine. [Read review.]

After Atlas (Planetfall, A), by Emma Newman

A police officer in the 22nd century investigates the death of a religious cult figure under the tight control of the company who has enslaved him.

Testimony, by Scott Turow

The author of the bestselling Kindle County courtroom dramas shifts his attention to the Hague and the war-crimes trial of a notorious Bosnian military leader.