- Dan DeLuca, music critic
Arguably: Essays, by Christopher Hitchens (Twelve, $30) Christopher Hitchens, best known as one of the four horsemen of the "new atheism," is arguably the premier essayist of the last 20 or so years. This collection of essays is 750 pages, so it is a book you will come back to time and again. His essay on female comedy, "Why Women Aren't Funny," is a pure dud, but he is brilliant when he takes on an issue such as waterboarding in "Believe Me, It's Torture." Hitchens makes his readers look at the world from the edges, not the center, even if reluctantly. Love him or hate him, Hitchens has opinions worthy of print and not cheaply shouted over the airwaves.
- Michael Plunkett, photographer
Bismarck: A Life, by Jonathan Steinberg (Oxford University Press, $34.95) This new biography of one of the most powerful figures of the 19th century by a University of Pennsylvania history professor shows the man who first unified Germany in all his conniving brilliance. Steinberg offers a close look at Otto von Bismarck's personal side. He was a hypochondriac who never forgot even imaginary slights. It's remarkable that a man with such a personality accomplished so much.
- Barry Zukerman, staff writer
Busy Monsters, by William Giraldi (W.W. Norton, $24.95) This debut novel is a hilariously cracked romance in which a man determines to win his girlfriend back, come Bigfoot or giant squid. The story is told through the narrator's grandiloquent, self-aggrandizing journal entries.
- David Hiltbrand, television writer
Doc: A Novel, by Mary Doria Russell (Random House, $26) The courtly, consumptive dentist and gambler John Henry "Doc" Holliday (who attended dental school in Philadelphia) and the straitlaced lawman Wyatt Earp made an unlikely pair, but the birth of their friendship is the core around which Mary Doria Russell reimagines Dodge City, Kansas, in 1878.
Faith: A Novel, by Jennifer Haigh (Harper, $25.99) This is the beautiful and wrenching tale of a woman who returns from Philadelphia to Boston when her half-brother, a respected parish priest, is accused of molesting a boy. A haunting meditation on doubt, loss, and the family ties that bind.
Freedom by Johnathan Franzen (Picador, $16 paperback) Time will tell if Freedom, published in 2010, endures as a classic, but for now this big, realistic novel stands tall as a wincingly honest, ultimately sympathetic landscape of contemporary white America. Two flawed, good people lie at the heart of this tale. Something is holding their marriage together, but neither we nor they know if it's love or the children or their own uncertain sense of who else would have them. A funny, touching page-turner.
- David O'Reilly, staff writer
Washington: A Life, by Ron Chernow (Penguin, $20 paperback) In this massive, single-volume biography, first published in 2010, George Washington the marble icon emerges as palpably human, though still cool to the touch. Our first president was a man hungry for stature and esteem, both driven and restrained by his growing recognition that history would judge his every move. Chernow seems to have unearthed everything there is to know about this man who studies us from our dollar bills. Masterfully researched and written, there are surprises on nearly every page.
In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin, by Erik Larson (Crown, $26) Unexpectedly appointed U.S. ambassador to Germany in 1933, history professor William E. Dodd arrived in Berlin with his family, ready to believe the best of the new Nazi government. Instead, they watched in horror as Nazism quickly revealed a snarling face. Spicing up the story are the adventures of Dodd's daughter, Martha, who had an appetite for drama and unsuitable men. The Dodds left behind a trove of papers, which Larson has masterfully mined to tell a story that manages to be cinematic, improbable yet true.
- Karen Heller, columnist
Nica's Dream: The Life and Legend of the Jazz Baroness, by David Kastin (W.W. Norton, $26.95) Charlie Parker died in her hotel room, Thelonious Monk and Horace Silver wrote songs for her, she fought in the French Resistance, flew airplanes across the country, and flew down Fifth Avenue in her Rolls. Her life should be a movie. It's also a great read.
- Steven Rea, movie critic
On China, by Henry Kissinger (Penguin, $36) Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger is a lucid and entertaining guide through centuries of Chinese history, but the real payoff in this long but readable volume is Kissinger's account of the U.S. rapprochement with China, in which he played a major role. Especially fascinating are his portraits of two Chinese leaders he came to know well and clearly admires, Deng Xiaoping, who guided China to a more open economy, and Zhou Enlai, who helped pave the way to improved relations between China and the United States.
The Paris Wife: A Novel, by Paula McLain (Ballantine Books, $25) Women today can't help but love Ernest Hemingway, the writer, despite his often-debated misogynistic tendencies. And according to The Paris Wife, women in his day couldn't help but love Ernest Hemingway, the person, either. Told mostly through the perspective of Hadley, Hemingway's first wife, this historical novel retraces their life in Paris, and creates vivid scenes of their boho living, famous social circle (Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein), and mercurial relationship. We all know how the story goes, but it's empowering to see the oppressed narrator, a product of her times, become the unlikely heroine in the end. A great, easy read for anyone who can't get enough of the Jazz Age or Papa.
- Ashley Primis, staff writer
Rin Tin Tin: The Life and Legend, by Susan Orlean (Simon & Schuster, $26.99) The man saved the dog, and the dog saved Warner Bros. Susan Orlean tells the remarkable story of Californian Lee Duncan and the German shepherd pup he found in the battlefields of World War I France.
State of Wonder, by Ann Patchett (Harper, $26.99) The letter that launches this wondrous novel arrives at the pharmaceutical company Vogel from the Amazon as a fragile blue Aerogram: Vogel research scientist Anders Eckman is dead. It sends Anders' research partner, Dr. Marina Singh, out of her comfortable life in Minnesota and into the Amazon jungle in search of what happened to him. The story, by the author of Bel Canto, is filled with unforgettable characters, but none is as remarkable as its heroine, Marina Singh.
- Rhonda Dickey, assistant national-foreign editor
Steve Jobs, by Walter Isaacson (Simon & Schuster, $35) Both sides of Steve Jobs - the digital wizard and the temperamental tyrant - are on full display in Walter Isaacson's splendid biography of the Apple cofounder, who died in October. Brilliant but flawed, Jobs could both terrorize and mesmerize. Even through the filter of the printed page, his charisma tugs at the reader.
Swamplandia!, by Karen Russell (Alfred A. Knopf, $24.95) Karen Russell's novel is not your typical Florida-and-all-the-people-in-it-are-wacky novel. Russell uses gorgeous language to describe a faux Native American family called the Bigtrees and the alligator-wrestling theme park they run (Swamplandia!) in the Florida Everglades. All is well, if weird, until Hilola Bigtree, the park's headliner and the family's mother, dies of cancer. From there, Russell unwinds a fantastical story of a broken family coping with loss as their park sinks deeper into decay. Russell's debut novel is a jolting and satisfying journey.
- Carolyn Davis, staff writer
The Buddha in the Attic, by Julie Otsuka (Alfred A. Knopf, $22) A worthy follow-up to her acclaimed first novel, When the Emperor Was Divine, this book tells the story of Japanese "picture brides" who came to the United States beginning in the 1900s to marry men they had never met. The publisher called the novel a treatise on the American dream, but it's more about the un-American dream. When war comes, the Japanese are treated as suspects and traitors, rounded up, and shipped to "internment camps." In the final pages, Otsuka shifts to the view of the locals for whom the Japanese were always outsiders: "The Japanese have disappeared from our town."
- Jeff Gammage, staff writer
The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi (Tor Books, $24.99) A complex and rewarding sci-fi saga centering on Jean le Flambeur, a thief who is busted out of an evil existential space prison on one condition: that he commit an impossible crime on Mars, a planet where time and memory are commodities.
Rules of Civility: A Novel, by Amor Towles (Viking, $26.95) Easily the most delightful book I read was Amor Towles' debut novel, The Rules of Civility, set in 1938 Manhattan. As I wrote in my Inquirer review, "Ostensibly, it's a novel of manners, although it's also a love letter to Manhattan on the eve of World War II, F. Scott Fitzgerald and the way certain people lived back then, or how we like to imagine they did through the smoke-and-gin filter of great books, movies and indelible images."
The Silver Swan, by Benjamin Black (Picador, $14 paperback) Noir doesn't get any darker than Benjamin's Black's Garrett Quirke mysteries, set in 1950s Dublin and featuring the brilliant, alcoholic, melancholic, and deeply troubled forensic pathologist Quirke. I just discovered the series this year. The other night, I picked up The Silver Swan, published in 2008. Quirke's hitting the whiskey again, and a woman has turned up dead. Suicide, or not? This isn't funny stuff. It is compelling, very Irish, and very, very dark. Black himself is actually a creation, the nom de plume of acclaimed Irish writer John Banville. The Quirke books are fantastically written, and so hard to put down.
- Rita Giordano, staff writer
The Submission by Amy Waldman (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $26) Waldman has written a tight, smart novel about an Arab-American architect winning a blind submission to design the 9/11 memorial. Chaos ensues, with a convincing cast of characters etched with Tom Wolfe precision.
The Tragedy of Arthur, by Arthur Phillips (Random House, $26) Late in The Tragedy of Arthur, the King Arthur character laments: "I am no author of my history." But who is the author of his history? That's the big question in this ambitious, funny skewering of memoirs, literary experts, Shakespeare theories, hunts for provenance, and human foibles throughout the ages. As Phillips constructs this fiendishly complex puzzle, he keeps the focus on the real puzzle: What motivates people, especially when family, money, and reputation are involved?
Vietnamerica: A Family's Journey, by GB Tran (Villard, $30) This moving, harrowing, lovely graphic novel tells the story of the Tran family's flight to America after the fall of Saigon, and of their struggle to forge a new life in a strange place. Tran, born not in Vietnam but in South Carolina, tracks his family from past to present, slowly coming to understand what his parents and grandparents did to survive a series of Vietnam wars - and the price they paid for that. Library Journal called the book "the Maus for the Vietnam War," a deserved honor.
Contact books editor Michael D. Schaffer at 215-854-2537 or email@example.com.