You won’t find coffee-table art books, slim volumes of poetry, or door-stopper romance novels among the twenty recommendations here, but you will find a wide range of great fiction and nonfiction: eight novels, eight nonfiction books, and four mysteries and thrillers are featured in this post. (Each of the titles below is linked to my full review.)
Istanbul Passage, by Joseph Kanon
Intrigue, romance, and betrayal in the turbulent world of espionage in post-World War II Istanbul.
They Eat Puppies, Don’t They?, by Christopher Buckley
A wildly funny send-up of life inside the Beltway — and in the Forbidden City — by one of the greatest comic writers in the business today.
The Windup Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupi
22nd-Century Bangkok after the seas have risen and humanity is struggling to survive. One of the best science-fiction novels I’ve ever read.
The Fear Index, by Robert Harris
An engrossing thriller about high finance and high-speed trading on the securities markets, by the author of Pompeii, Enigma, and Fatherland.
The Debba, by Avner Mandelman
The history of Israel from Independence to the present as reflected in a heart-pounding tale of intrigue and conflict between Arab and Jew.
Spies of the Balkans, by Alan Furst
Set in Salonika, Greece, in the early years of World War II, this complex story of espionage and war involves an underground railway for Jews escaping Hitler and an anti-Nazi coup in what was then Yugoslavia.
Year of Wonders, by Geraldine Brooks
An insightful and revealing novel about the plague in England by one of today’s best historical novels, grounded in history but delving deep into the emotional realities of individual people as they might have been.
Sea of Poppies, by Amitav Ghosh
Amitav Ghosh reaffirms his place as one of contemporary India’s greatest writers with this extraordinarily rich tale of class conflict, exploitation, and forbidden love against the background of the opium trade in the years leading up to the Opium War of the mid-19th Century.
Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic, by David Quammen
A brilliant account of the emergence of deadly new infectious diseases around the world — those you’ve heard of, and those you haven’t — with gripping accounts of the scientists, physicians, and veterinarians who are on humanity’s front line of defense against them.
The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, by Stephen Greenblatt
Illuminating, insightful, provocative — there is no way to overstate the brilliance of this account of the long-obscure ancient thinkers whose insights seeded the Renaissance in Europe and inspired Thomas Jefferson.
The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate, by Robert D. Kaplan
You’ll never look at global politics or world history the same way you did if you read this masterful study of the intertwined roles of geography and history in shaping human events and the destiny of nations.
Freedom’s Forge: How American Business Produced Victory in World War II, by Arthur Herman
Yesterday’s heroes come to life in this fascinating tale of the astonishing conversion of America’s faltering peacetime economy into the “arsenal of nations” that supplied the ships, tanks, and guns used to defeat Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.
Operation Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies, by Ben McIntyre
If your image of successful spies has been formed by Ian Fleming’s books or even John Le Carre’s, you’ll be blown away by the eccentrics and impostors who played large roles in Britain’s successful efforts to draw Hitler’s attention away from the Normandy Invasion.
The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Passage of Power, by Robert Caro
It may be difficult for one who didn’t experience the 1960s as an adult to appreciate the consequential impact of Johnson’s career,
both for good and for bad. This extraordinary book helps close the gap.
The Power of Unreasonable People: How Social Entrepreneurs Create Markets That Change the World, by John Elkington and Pamela Hartigan
A readable and inspiring survey of social entrepreneurship around the world and of the brilliant individuals who are expanding its reach at a breakneck pace.
The Self-Made Myth, and the Truth About How Government Helps Individuals and Businesses Succeed, by Brian Miller and Mike Lapham
Chances are, you already know that Ayn Rand’s portrait of the heroic “job creator” is fraudulent. This outstanding little book explains why, revealing how dependent on government and community support are even the most successful corporations.
MYSTERIES AND THRILLERS
Liberation Movements, by Olen Steinhauer
A suspenseful tale of love, betrayal, and terrorism set in Eastern Europe during the heyday of post-War Communism, with two interlocking stories spanning the years 1968 to 1975.
Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn
Few murder mysteries have kept me guessing longer or propelled me toward the finish with such speed and power. An extraordinary example of the mystery writer’s craft.
The Midnight House, by Alex Berenson
The events that take place in the Midnight House over a two-month period in 2008 are so explosive, and so shocking, that they lead to an upheaval in relations between the U.S. and Pakistan, end the career of a senior U.S. intelligence official, and spark a series of brutal murders.
The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection, by Alexander McCall Smith
Mma Precious Ramotswe, proprietor of Botswana’s #1 Ladies Detective Agency, is listening to her assistant, Mma Makutsi, cheer up one of Mma Ramotswe’s best friends, Mma Potokwane. “’Nobody is useless,’ Mma Makutsi said heatedly, ‘and you are less useless than nobody else, Mma. Definitely.’ This remark was greeted with silence while Mma Ramotswe and Mma Potokwane had tried to work out what it meant. The spirit in which it was made, though, was clear enough, and Mma Potokwane simply thanked her.”
The 5 best novels I’ve read in 2012
Truth to tell, I haven’t read all that many trade novels during the past year, and, anyway, in general I tend to stay away from the literary “masterpieces” trumpeted so loudly by the likes of the New York Review of Books and the New York Times Book Review. More often than not, I find the darlings of the literary set are writing not for me but for, well, the literary set. I’ve seen far too many impenetrable tomes lauded as fine literature. Give me a good, gripping story any day of the year, and I’ll gladly forego pretty much any one of the Booker Prize winners of recent years. I truly enjoyed reading all five of the books listed below.
1. They Eat Puppies, Don’t They?, by Christopher Buckley
Political satire of the highest order. I found myself laughing hysterically, sometimes for pages at a time. But, like all superior satire, this book isn’t just funny — its droll treatment of politics in Washington and Beijing is spot-on accurate.
2. The Windup Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupi
One of the best science fiction novels I’ve ever read. Set in Bangkok in the 23rd century, this wildly inventive story examines humanity’s plight once the oceans have risen twenty feet, and most of the human race in in thrall to the American and Chinese “calorie companies” that have killed off virtually all traditional sources of food with genetically engineered plagues.
3. The Fear Index, by Robert Harris
A chilling novel set in Geneva, where a brilliant and eccentric American physicist has teamed up with an unscrupulous English financier to use the scientist’s breakthrough techniques in artificial intelligence to manipulate the financial markets.
4. The Orphan Master’s Son, by Adam Johnson
The Orwellian story of a North Korean “tunnel rat,” trained in kidnapping and hand-to-hand combat in the tunnels leading under the DMZ to South Korea, who briefly becomes a confidante of the country’s elite military commanders and of the Dear Leader himself, only later to find himself confined to a prison mine, where citizens who run afoul of officialdom are worked to death underground.
5. Incendiary, by Chris Cleave
A deeply unsettling novel structured as an open letter to Osama bin Laden from a devastated young mother whose husband and young son have died in a massive terrorist attack on a soccer game in London.
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