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 10 best mysteries and thrillers I’ve read in 2012
1. Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn
This is the story of Amy Elliott Dunne and Nick Dunne, the perfect couple in the ideal marriage. It’s a storybook tale . . . or maybe it isn’t. One day Amy goes missing, and it slowly begins to dawn on you that one (or both) of the two is a sociopath. Gone Girl is plotted almost as diabolically as Catch 22. It’s near-perfect, with jaw-dropping shocks and shivers all the way to the very last page.
2. Agent 6, by Tom Rob Smith
The third book in a trilogy, Agent 6 concludes the story of Leo Demidov, a World War II hero and later an agent in Stalin’s secret police. The book opens in 1950 with Leo in thrall to the Sovet State, a senior officer in the MGB (predecessor to the KGB and to today’s FSB) charged with training newly recruited agents. Jesse Austin, a world-famous African-American singer closely resembling Paul Robeson, is visiting Moscow, where he will perform and publicly extol the accomplishments of the Soviet regime as he sees them. Leo is detailed to help ensure that Austin is shielded from the realities of life in Moscow.
3. The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection, by Alexander McCall Smith
The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection is the 13th and latest in Smith’s best-known series of novels about the #1 Ladies’ Detective Agency in Gaborone, the capital of the small, land-locked nation of Botswana, bordering South Africa. To my mind, it’s one of the best. As always, the story revolves around the lives of Mma (“Ms.”) Precious Ramotswe, founder and proprietor of the agency, and her consistently exasperating assistant, Mma Grace Makutsi.
4. The Midnight House, by Alex Berenson
The events that take place in 2008 in the Midnight House — a site in Poland where prisoners in the “war on terror” are interrogated and often tortured — 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. There’s nothing subtle about this gripping novel.
5. The Silent Oligarch, by Chris Morgan Jones
This finely crafted novel revolves around an obscure Russian bureaucrat named Konstantin Malin, a lifer in the Ministry of Oil and Industry who controls a large share of his country’s oil and gas industry, the world’s largest. His front man is an English expat lawyer in Moscow, Richard Lack, whose cozy life in Moscow begins coming apart when a Greek oilman, one of the many wealthy businessmen Malin has cheated, decides to unmask Malin’s fraud and put him out of business.
6. Mission to Paris, by Alan Furst
It is late in 1938, with Europe on the brink of war. With Chamberlain’s capitulation at Munich and the tragedy of Kristallnacht unfolding in the background, an Austrian-born Hollywood film star named Fredric Stahl has come to Paris at the behest of Jack Warner to star on loan to Paramount Pictures in a war movie. The resolutely anti-Nazi Stahl finds himself targeted by Nazi operatives intent on enmeshing him in their propaganda machine.
7. Breakdown, by Sara Paretsky
Paretsky’s 14th V. I. Warshawski novel begins with seeming innocence with a gaggle of tweener girls dancing under the moonlight in an abandoned cemetery. Soon enough, however, we find ourselves enmeshed in the mysteries of some of Chicago’s wealthiest and most powerful citizens as well as a roomful of other indelibly drawn characters who illustrate Chicago at its best — and its worst.
8. 36 Yalta Boulevard, by Olen Steinhauer
The third novel in Olen Steinhauer’s outstanding Central European cycle is set in 1966-67. Brano Sev, a World War II partisan fighter turned secret policeman in an unnamed Soviet satellite country, has been exiled to work in a factory as punishment for an espionage scandal that erupted after he was sent on assignment to Vienna. Without warning, his superiors temporarily reinstate him as a major in the security service, and send him off to his home village, where he is to investigate why a defector has suddenly returned to the village and what he’s planning to do. The ensuing complications threaten not just to end Brano’s career but possibly his life as well.
9. The Ghosts of Belfast, by Stuart Neville
You may never have read a murder mystery like this one. The protagonist, Gerry Fegan, is a former hit man for the IRA responsible for the deaths of twelve people (the “ghosts” of the title), and it’s never much of a mystery when he begins killing again. The mystery lies deeper, somewhere in the vicinity of his stunted family life and the treacherous relationships among the others in his violence-prone faction. As Fegan reflects, “You can’t choose where you belong, and where you don’t. But what if the place you don’t belong is the only place you have left?”
10. Criminal, by Karin Slaughter
In every one of Karin Slaughter’s previous novels of murder and mayhem in the Deep South, Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) officer Will Trent and his boss, Amanda Wagner, GBI’s deputy commander, were characters shrouded in mystery, their actions frequently difficult to understand. In Criminal, Slaughter rips off the shrouds. This is an unusually suspenseful, affecting, and, in the end, deeply satisfying story.
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