The 2022 War on the Rocks Summer Fiction Reading List – War on the Rocks
If you’re like us, you probably spend much of the year reading strategy, history, biography, and commentary. Summer is a good time to reinvigorate your mind with some fiction. To that end, each year we ask the senior editors and board members of War on the Rocks and the Texas National Security Review for reading recommendations. We hope you find something to sink into and savor.
Resistance Women, Jennifer Chiaverini. A novel based on the life of Mildred Fish Harnack, an American woman at the center of an anti-Nazi resistance group in Berlin. The book is based on extensive historical research and true stories of brave men and women.
A Gentleman in Moscow, Amor Towles. So well written and engaging! It’s one of my top five favorite novels.
The Bridgerton Series, Julia Quinn. It’s been a pretty rough couple of years, and I can’t be the only one who’s enjoyed a little light escapism with Netflix’s adaptation of the Bridgerton books. The books are, if anything, even less intellectually stimulating than the show, and that makes them the perfect mindless escape from realitxay. Who wouldn’t want to spend some time in a world where true love exists, most problems can be solved by a well-crafted invitation or a new ballgown, and any villains or loose threads are always neatly disposed of by the time the star-crossed couple says “I do”?
Night Watch, Terry Pratchett. The Discworld series is set on a flat world that rides through space on the back of a turtle, and plays host to trolls, dwarves, goblins, and dragons. But you shouldn’t let that fool you: the fantasy is just cover for some seriously good satire and political commentary. Night Watch is arguably the best of the late British author’s satirical works, featuring a hard-bitten cop who must wrestle with revolution, and the question of whether he serves the law, the government, or the people. And like all of Pratchett’s works, you’ll leave it with the unsettling notion that people are people everywhere — often cynical and conniving, sometimes brave and selfless — even when the people in question are trolls and vampires.
Mary Kate Aylward
Kristin Lavransdatter, Sigrid Undset. Turn your back firmly on the concept of the “beach read” with this thousand-page tale of passion, faith, struggle, and political intrigue in medieval Norway. Undset’s knowledge of daily life in the 1300s is so complete that it’s unobtrusive, and you may find yourself surprised at how contemporary the characters and their concerns seem. The sort of book you live inside while you’re reading it. (Make sure you pick up Tina Nunnally’s excellent translation.)
The Garden Party and Other Stories, Katherine Mansfield. Something long, something short. Bloomsbury Group aficionados, Anglophiles of all persuasions, and plenty of others will enjoy these short stories, which are reminiscent of Virginia Woolf’s work, though a little darker on the whole. Woolf, in fact, wrote that Mansfield’s was “the only writing I have ever been jealous of.”
Bruno, Chief of Police: A Mystery of the French Countryside, Martin Walker. Recovering from Covid last month gave me the rare opportunity to binge read detective fiction, one of my too rarely indulged in reading treats. Among my varied menu, I most delighted in returning to my old friend, Bruno, Chief of Police. Set in the French Perigord, a region famed for its country culinary delights, these wonderful novels by Martin Walker not only deliver intriguing mysteries set in a lesser known corner of rural France, but weave in a mouth-watering collection of delicious meals and local wines prepared by Bruno and his friends. My favorites this year were numbers 10 and 12 in the series,The Templar’s Last Secret and The Body in the Castle Well. A true joy for mind and palate!
The Matchmaker: A Spy in Berlin, Paul Vidich. Earlier this year I enjoyed two spy novels that pleasantly departed from the time-worn formula of men chasing each other around Europe during the Cold War. The Matchmaker sounds like it would fall in that category, but in an interesting twist, it starts in the spring of 1989. After an American woman’s East German husband disappears, the CIA presses her to help them find a senior Stasi agent before he defects to Moscow. The suspense builds since we, unlike the protagonists, know that their world is about to change dramatically — and the fall of the Wall becomes a key part of the story’s resolution.
Northern Spy, Flynn Berry. Northern Spy is a tale of two sisters and the contemporary IRA. BBC producer and new mother Tessa is reporting on an IRA attack when security footage shows her masked sister running away from the site. The police believe her sister has joined the IRA; Tessa maintains that her sister must have been coerced. As she gets drawn further into the investigation, she wrestles with balancing her responsibilities to her sister and those to her infant son. My (co-ed) book group unanimously agreed that the book is a lovely meditation on motherhood that happens to be told through the lens of terrorism and spying, which for me at least was a welcome change from more traditional geopolitical thrillers.
A Bell for Adano, John Hersey. I read this 1945 winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction about the waning days of WW2 while on deployment. It’s short, no line is wasted. The author’s colorful prose puts you in the middle of each scene. Its various messages still resonate today like the town’s bell – you can make a difference to people in a short time.
Advice and Consent, Allen Drury. I wish I had read this 1960 Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction earlier in my career. In this story of an embattled nominee before the U.S. Senate, readers will find much in the public debate that is familiar. Having worked twice in the Senate, I think fellow current and former staffers will recognize and appreciate the imagery and processes and what really happens behind the scenes. Politics: plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.
Crossing to Safety, Wallace Stegner. This is an achingly beautiful, memorable novel about academic life, written in breathtaking prose by Pulitzer Prize-winner Wallace Stegner. Tracing the intertwined lives of two couples, it creates indelible scenes and offers wise insights into friendship, marriage, rivalry, and competition. Above all, it reveals the ways that we come to cherish one another as we move through the unpredictable seasons of our lives.
The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien. I read this novel soon after it was published, and I was simply awestruck by the searing, fresh, and fearless writing. It is a series of stories about the Vietnam war, and even though it is not light summer reading, each short story can stand on its own and be read at one’s leisure. I used several stories in my classroom teaching for a course called “Warfare in the 20th Century,” and they always produced amazing seminar discussions. In particular, do not miss “On the Rainy River,” “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong,” and “The Things They Carried.”
Mrs. Bridge, Evan Connell.
Beyond the Bedroom Wall, Larry Woiwode. Both of these books are ones I recently saw declared as among the best of the twentieth century. Mrs. Bridge is the tale of a Kansas City housewife, whose life of paralyzing prosperity is well-told. Beyond the Bedroom Wall is an epic tale of the Great Plains. Woiwode, who recently died, was a prodigy who gave up his New York literary fame to spend his life as a small farmer in North Dakota. You have to admire that!
Harlem Shuffle, Colson Whitehead. As the latest book from Colson Whitehead, the same Pulitzer Prize-winning author who wrote The Nickel Boys, a sobering glimpse into a fictionalized boy’s reform school, Harlem Shuffle features similarly brilliant characters but instead plunges readers into a brighter world where creative endeavors and new forms of commerce arise amidst parallel worlds in the ecosystems of Harlem and Manhattan punctuated by both light and darkness. The book is a compelling read about a well-educated, highly respectable, and sometimes too-generous furniture store owner who just barely manages to scrape by in his profession while helping members of his community to achieve the comfortable living rooms they deserve. Hence, Ray Carney accepts an occasional side hustle to keep his business afloat, courtesy of his cousin Freddie, who provides a slow stream of resalable commodities that may or may not have “fallen off a truck,” with an occasional piece of jewelry thrown in for good measure. After he is shafted by one of Harlem’s most esteemed lawyers gatekeeping a prestigious social club and Freddie’s associate Miami Jim is killed, Ray takes matters into his own hands and learns the jewelry trade from a master in the diamond district. Amidst a backdrop of social change, Colson’s characters provide an entertaining glimpse into the enterprising strategies and hard-scrabble lives of individuals working hard to attain “respectability,” but ironically, who must rely on disreputable means to maintain it.
With Teeth, Kristen Arnett. With Teeth is a darkly comic account, and scathingly funny read by best-selling Florida author Kristen Arnett. In a voyeuristic glimpse into the life of Samandra Carlisle (née Thomas), who is raising an athletically-gifted, smart, and thoroughly exasperating toddler, young boy, and then teen, we watch her navigate the vicissitudes of marriage and child-rearing amidst the backdrop of a society which does not fully accept her or her son, who is on the spectrum. We follow her as she attempts to make good choices, usually preceded by copious amounts of wine or booze, and handle the stresses of life as a queer woman whose marriage is falling apart — which she addresses by fantasizing about her therapist and dating other women who look just like her ex. Notably, readers receive welcome context every chapter by a snippet of another character’s perspective. Absolutely hilarious, and with a stunning, shocking, and thoroughly over-the-top conclusion worthy of Florida tabloid headlines!
The Confidence-Man, Herman Melville. More Melville. Having thoroughly covered whales, the great American author decided to tackle another great American subject … riverboat swindlers.
The Torqued Man, Peter Mann. A needlessly complex, occasionally ridiculous, and thoroughly enjoyable spy novel following an Irish double agent and his ambivalent handler in Nazi Berlin.
The Lonely Polygamist, Brady Udall. Have a look at the novel’s first line: “To put it as simply as possible, this is the story of a polygamist who has an affair.” Read on.
The Flashman Papers, George MacDonald Fraser. This is not one novel but rather a set of twelve, in which cowardly British soldier Harry Flashman finds himself at the center of 19th-century historical events. Flashman survives the retreat from Kabul, duels with Otto von Bismarck, meets Rani Lakshmibai, swaps stories with Abraham Lincoln, and much, much more. The books are light, fascinating, profane, and hilarious.
A Dance to the Music of Time, Anthony Powell. Often described as the English Proust, this story follows the inner and outer life of Nick Jenkins in boarding school, as an officer during World War II, and the complex patterns of mid-century London society. Powell’s writing is exquisite, and the story is immersive. Consisting of four “movements” of three volumes each, it is a book to savor slowly because the experience of reading it is so enjoyable.
The Letter Writer, Dan Fesperman. Set in New York City during World War II, Fesperman weaves together a narrative of espionage, Nazi sympathizers, prejudice, corruption, suspicion, and decency. The hard-boiled protagonist, Woodrow Cain, is a detective from North Carolina hired by the NYPD to fill wartime vacancies. Injured in an incident in North Carolina (the details of which are revealed as the story unfolds) Cain is unable to serve in the military and is determined to prove his worth through his police work instead. While investigating a body found floating in the Hudson River (this is a detective novel set in New York, after all–it is legally required to have a body floating in the Hudson River), Cain meets a man named Danziger. Danziger is an immigrant from Europe who writes letters back to relatives in the old country for clients who are illiterate or simply lack a way with words. Danziger serves as a sort of guide for Cain as he pursues an investigation that takes him through communities of Jewish immigrants, politicians, Nazi agents, and gangsters. The characters are engaging, the plot has plenty of twists and turns, and the flaws of the characters and of the city they populate seem to echo in today’s headlines. A diverting noir summer read.
Conclave, Robert Harris. I’m a big fan of Harris’ historical and alternative-historical fiction (e.g. An Officer and a Spy, Fatherland). This novel is a bit different but written with the same characteristic eye for detail and process that makes his historical work so enjoyable. When a reforming Pope passes away under murky circumstances, the papal conclave to choose his successor becomes a struggle between factions vying to control the direction of the Catholic church. The protagonist, Cardinal Lomeli is tasked with organizing and running the conclave, while at the same time investigating the Pope’s death. Part murder mystery, part political thriller, part psychological thriller, the novel highlights the incredible tensions when the human caretakers of the church struggle with their fallibility, ambition, responsibility, and faith.
Grizzly Killer, Lane R. Warenski. This is the first novel in a 15-book series. I read them all during the Covid pandemic while I was home on medical leave. The books follow a young mountain man who went into the Rockies in the 1830s with his father to trap beaver and live the life of a mountain man. When his father is killed by a grizzly, which the son Zach Connors dispatches. Zach, henceforth called Grizzly Killer by Native Americans, stays on in the mountains. The books are a chronological account of his life as he learns the ways of the mountains and the Native American tribes who range the region. I find the depictions of everyday life and its contingent nature fascinating. There is more than one grizzly in those mountains! Fun and surprisingly educational reading.
A Question of Time, James Stejskal. A story of special operations and intelligence in the Cold War and the cat and mouse game played against a communist nemesis. Although fiction, the author is a former special operator and intelligence officer who has experienced and written extensively about operations in Berlin, so the fiction is quite historical.
Red Phoenix Burning, Larry Bond and Chris Carlson. This is a follow-up to the Korean War novel Red Phoenix in 1989 (read it first, as there are connections much like Top Gun and Top Gun:Maverick). It portrays a third conflict on the Korean peninsula and is a fast-paced story told from multiple perspectives (tactical to strategic, allied, North Korean, and Chinese). It offers some insight into what could be challenges and problems should conflict reignite in Northeast Asia.
Persuasion, Jane Austen. Most nights this summer, Catherine and I will close the day with a few minutes of Jane Austen to ease our minds. We’re making our way slowly through “Persuasion,” which I find to be every bit as good as anything else she’s written. This tale of second chances also features several prominent naval officers, something that adds great value to any work of literature.
The Fire Dream: The Epic Novel of Vietnam, Franklin Allen Leib. Written in 1989, and arguably the best work of fiction set in Vietnam before Matterhorn would redefine the genre two decades later. Leib was much temporally closer to the culture wars of the 60s and early 70s, and the book is as much about American society — race, class, education — as the war.
The Ballad of Black Tom, Victor LaValle. LaValle revives the Eldritch universe of H.P. Lovecraft. Set in the New York of the 1920s, the short novel follows the journey of the title character as he ascends from street hustler to sorcerer. Written in a crisp style that merges Lovecraft with Spillane or Hammett. Hat tip to Spencer Ackerman for insisting I read it.
Cash, Johnny Cash. While technically not a work of fiction, Johnny Cash’s autobiography deserves a spot on your summer reading list nevertheless. It’s an amazing story told like only Johnny Cash can tell it, and it reads like a novel. You’ll be totally engrossed in the voice and story of one of America’s great singer-songwriters.
The Secret History, Donna Tartt. Easier reading than some of my past recommendations (like George Eliot’s Middlemarch), Donna Tartt’s first novel is just pure easy fun. It’s a tale of murder most foul set in a small New England college. A young Californian decides to head east and ends up falling in with the bad crowd — an insular group of classics students. Sound sinister?
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Robert A. Heinlein. Heinlein’s book is a classic of revolutionary warfare, envisioning advanced cyber warfare 40 years before the Internet.
Borders of Infinity, Lois McMaster Bujold. Bujold’s novelette is a story of a rescue mission inside an impregnable P.O.W. camp.
Black Cloud Rising, David Wright Faladé. Black Cloud Rising is the story of formerly enslaved Black Union soldiers hunting down confederate guerrillas at the end of the Civil War. It’s based on the life of Sergeant Richard Etheridge, the child of an enslaved mother and her owner. Being on the base renaming commission underscored for me the importance of telling the stories of slavery and the long shadows it casts into our lives — but this is also a war story, a beautiful novel about freedom and its costs. And it’s gorgeously written: “Her silences spoke louder than her words, and the one that followed merely reprised what I already knew without providing any connecting bits to help me make a song of the scattered verses.”
Slow Horses, Mick Herron. The AppleTV series is so, so good — but it’s infuriating that streaming services have become 1970s TV, apportioning out episodes weekly. Oppose that tyranny by reading the book, which is also outstanding. And then read the nine other books in the series, which cohere wonderfully. Here’s a great exchange between Lamb and Taverner from the most recent (just released this month):
“De Greer, it turns out, is like you. She might be a backstabbing spider-minded vampire, but she’s not stupid enough to piss on her own sausages.”
“Is there a compliment in there?”
“Christ, I hope not.”
Herron doesn’t hesitate to kill his major characters, the plots are imaginative and taut, secrets that shape characters are parceled out slowly and to great effect, and watching the tradecraft is such fun. There’s no substituting for Kristen Scott Thomas in the tv series, though, so relent and watch that, too.
Lost Illusions, Honoré de Balzac. Bored and bleary-eyed on a recent flight, I found myself whiling away the hours by watching — and thoroughly enjoying — the sumptuous and mordantly funny 2021 movie adaptation of Balzac’s great classic. While observing the sparkling banter and increasingly awkward social contortions of the egoists on screen, I was reminded of how genuinely incisive and timeless this nineteenth-century masterpiece is, both in its startlingly modern portrayal of shallow punditry, disinformation, and political cronyism–and in its biting portrayals of a certain breed of social striver with whom each and every D.C.-dweller will (unfortunately) be intimately familiar. Like many, no doubt, I last read this tale of a talented literary journalist devoured by his own hubris in high school, and only somewhat grudgingly, being too young to fully appreciate Balzac’s puckish genius. Picking it up now is a far more intellectually and morally rewarding endeavor–it’s impossible not to be in awe of the rotund novelist’s wry wit, masterful prose, and penetrating psychological acumen. It’s no surprise that a figure such as Stefan Zweig, who admired the earthy humanism of Montaigne, found himself equally susceptible to the charms of Balzac’s exuberant intellect, opting to write (excellent) biographical studies of both literary titans.
The Khan Dynasty Series, Conn Iggulden. For those WOTR readers who, like this author, also happen to be inveterate fans of historical fiction, I highly recommend this quintet on the two great Mongolian Khans, the sanguinary Genghis Khan, and his equally ferocious grandson and successor Kublai Khan. This series has all the requisite ingredients for good historical fiction: strong character development, propulsive plots, epic battle scenes, and (reasonably) sound background research. The first book in the series (Genghis: Birth of an Empire) is particularly enjoyable, and deeply atmospheric and immersive–fully driving home the harsh, unforgiving nature of tribal warfare on the steppe. You’ll most certainly come away with a much greater sense of gratitude for various features of modern life ranging from antibiotics to central heating. For those with an interest in knowing more about the Eurasia-spanning Mongol Empire, I suggest pairing this rip-roaring quintet of beach-reads with a more serious, but no less enjoyable, book: Marie Favereau’s award-winning historical study, The Horde: How the Mongols Changed the World.
Loren DeJonge Schulman
When We Cease to Understand the World, Benjamin Labatut. A gorgeously written series of semi-fictional vignettes on the history of modern physics and the marks they leave on the world and the scientists themselves. The first chapter, Prussian Blue, on the intricate relationship between beautiful discoveries that bettered the world and horrific ones, is one of the most incredible pieces of writing I’ve ever experienced.
Witchmark, C.L. Polk. An alternative-worlds Edwardian fantasy novel set at the close of a long-running war with a fascinating, often disturbing, take on post-traumatic stress disorder. All that plus romance, magic, and an engaging allegory on the risks of modernization. First of the Kingston Trilogy — opening this up early this summer will set up you up on a delightful path.
Valentine, Elizabeth Whitmore. This powerful and timely novel captures the impact on seven women of a violent assault in west Texas.
Middlesex, Jeffrey Eugenides. This is a story that I simultaneously couldn’t wait to see how it ended and didn’t want to end because I would miss it. Eugenides is empathetic without being preachy, complex without being abstruse, and just a master storyteller. Through the life and experiences of a Greek-American family in the Detroit area, Eugenides weaves together the threads of family dynamics, sexuality, immigration, ethnic identity, race, and urban history in the late 20th century to create a story you won’t want to put down.
‘Salem’s Lot, Stephen King. King is probably my favorite author, and ‘Salem’s Lot was the first novel of his I read, having borrowed it from a neighbor when I was 10. I’ve re-read it several times since, and what always hits me about this and so many of King’s other works is that it’s not the monsters that are terrifying — it’s the human experience in all its uncertainty that is scary. Loneliness, unthinkable loss, anger, lies, and an unrelenting dull throb of emotional pain are the most frightening monsters in King’s work because they are all real. If you’re new to King, start with ‘Salem’s Lot.