The holiday season is often an opportunity to pick up that book you’ve been meaning to read for ages, or a chance to give the gift of a book to a friend or loved one.
With that in mind, we have rounded up our book reviews from 2017 – in no order of preference and ranging from fiction and non-fiction, history to present day. We hope they inspire you to find some reading time over the next couple of weeks and into the new year.
From former CIA operative Jason Matthews, Palace of Treason is the second in a series of incredibly entertaining spy novels centred around the exploits of one of the great heroines, Dominika Egorova of the Russian Intelligence Service. The first, Red Sparrow – which has been made into a film out next year starring Jennifer Lawrence – introduced her character and that of many others (President Putin makes frequent appearances, for example). Thanks to Matthews’ winning blend of experience and insight, this is a true global epic which carries a ring of authenticity and grips the reader from the get-go.
Recommended by our chairman, Sir Michael Barber, in last year’s gift guide, this great example of accessible history spotlights the tumultuous relationship between President Harry S. Truman and General Douglas MacArthur, Supreme Allied Commander in Asia. Brands, who is clearly a gifted storyteller as well as leading historian, manages to shed fresh light on the Cold War, the Korean conflict and deep-rooted tensions in East Asia in a book that often reads like a novel.
One of the most talked about books of the last 18 months, Hillbilly Elegy was widely touted as an explanation for Donald Trump’s surprise election victory. The first-time author, JD Vance, grew up in a poverty-stricken town in rust-belt Ohio and the book chronicles his journey through to graduating from Yale Law school via a four-year stint in the Marines. With analysis of the plight of white working-class voters in battleground states, the ongoing opioid epidemic and much else besides, Vance provides interesting food for thought on why the American dream is floundering for so many.
The debut thriller by the BBC’s Frank Gardner, Crisis is rooted in the murky world of espionage and counter-terrorism and is ideal for the commute or anyone seeking thrills and spills from a hugely talented journalist and storyteller. Our hero is Luke Carlton, a former commando now working for British intelligence who finds himself catapulted into an international plot headed by a powerful drug cartel aiming to detonate a “dirty” bomb at a Remembrance Day event in London. With Gardner’s insider knowledge pervading every page, this is one novel that leaves the reader hungry for more.
Occupied France is the setting for Alan Furst’s espionage thriller, his 15th, and one which takes his reader into the heart of the fledgling but burgeoning Resistance. Our hero is “Mathieu” and we trace his team’s efforts to smuggle downed British air crew to the border with Spain. With the tension ratcheting up as they play their cat and mouse game beneath the city-wide blackout curtains and vehicle-free silence of war-time Paris, the reader is fully immersed in a time and place far removed from the present day.
“Magnificent, powerful, exciting, horrific, moving, thrilling and spellbinding” – just some of the ways we described this novel set amidst the horrors of slavery in America’s Deep South. The daring escape of two slaves, Cora and Ceasar, through the mysterious Underground Railroad, a secret means of escape to the North and freedom (of sorts), is the basis for this extraordinary piece of work. In the author’s genius conception, this is no mere metaphor but actual solid infrastructure, buried beneath the southern soil and consisting of platforms, trains and heroic station managers and drivers. Pursued by Ridgeway, slave catcher extraordinaire and villain for the ages, theirs is a story that deserves and needs to be shared as widely as possible.
Written with great heart, wisdom and courage, this is a series of honest and thoughtful letters from the author to his son, Saif, in which he reflects on his own Islamic faith and its place in the modern world – strongly rejecting the idea that the two are incompatible. Ghobash, who is the same age as the UAE, presents many of the dilemmas facing the Middle East – tradition (he is a senior ambassador himself) vs modernity; security vs freedom; optimism vs pessimism; facts vs imagination; radicalism vs moderation; tolerance vs extremism; individual rights vs community obligations; East vs West. A thoughtful and thought-provoking book, of searing authenticity, and one that will become more important over time.
Recommended by Foreign Policy magazine as one of the books President Trump should read as he settled into the Oval Office, The Killer Angels is a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel set amidst the fire and fury of Gettysburg in the American Civil War. First published in 1973, Shaara – himself a former soldier – mixes rich characterisations of all the major players and a searing portrayal of the horror of warfare with a deep reservoir of leadership lessons. A book of choice for generals and admirals the world over, it’s easy to see why.
What is out of sync with its environment and risks being wiped out and going extinct just like the dinosaurs? According to Don Kettl, it’s government. In what is a highly readable book, Kettl – Professor and former Dean in the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland – doesn’t just diagnose the problem but also, thankfully, offers some possible ways out of this predicament. Perhaps reflecting the author’s own sunny disposition, this is an optimistic read, one where Kettl’s belief in the power of government to be competent and deliver the service that citizens deserve is seared into every chapter.
With popular discontent with government and with democracy itself running high, we reviewed two books that agree democracy is broken but disagree on what the solution might be. As his book’s title contends, Van Reybrouck is against elections. He believes that we’ve become obsessed with them and forgotten that there are better democratic methods out there. Brennan, by contrast, believes that democracy can’t be fixed as voters are just too damn ignorant. Both books present challenging arguments, with plenty to question, but are worth reading, if for no other reason that they challenge our ideas of how democracy can and ought to work.
Despite its dry name and bland cover, Governing Global-City Singapore is a fascinating critique and a great read, one which ultimately presents a hopeful view of the future. Tan suggests that the city state’s highly rational policies and programmes have contributed to Singapore’s rapid growth and to significant improvements in the lives of many Singaporeans – but a turning point has now been reached. New circumstances demand new ideas and a more holistic and sustainable development. Singapore must adapt again, or risk its former strengths becoming its fatal flaws. Thanks to its bold critique, tight language and argument, and use of colourful examples, this is an academic page-turner that deserves a wide audience.
Many of the problems governments grapple with are fixable and that the answers for how to do so are already out there – that’s the premise of this book from Jacob Tepperman. With engaging stories that highlight important lessons for leaders in government who don’t just want to be right, but who want to create impact, Tepperman reminds us that solid evidence for “what works” can never win the day in isolation. All successful government action requires not just a well-designed policy but also the ability to translate that policy into action and, crucially, it needs to command sufficient support. Required reading for all cynics who don’t believe that government can be a force for good.
Sparing no detail, no error, no opportunity to rake over what went wrong, this behind the scenes account of Hillary Clinton’s losing presidential run is one for anyone interested in how and why her campaign came up short against Team Trump and the Make America Great Again juggernaut. The authors paint a picture of woe and confusion, where “a bonfire of the vanities raged” and effective order and messaging came there none. No easy read for anyone who wanted Hillary to become the first woman US president, Shattered is nonetheless an important part of the historical record and one destined to be referred to time and time again.
A weighty tome of a biography that inspired the Broadway (and now London) smash hit hip-hop musical, Alexander Hamilton manages to combine richly detailed historical biography with a fast-flowing narrative that brilliantly showcases Hamilton’s daring deeds and abundant feats. One of the Founding Fathers, Hamilton’s story reminds us that while we should always look to the future, we must not forget to look back and heed the lessons of history.
This chronicle of 23 chiefs of staffs who served the previous eight presidents is an important look at this vital role in any White House. Each chief of staff going back to Howard ‘Bob’ Haldeman, President Nixon’s “son of a bitch, receives their own chapter and it is through their experiences – both good and bad – that Whipple charts the course of modern American political history. The author is a journalist and television producer and this book is largely based on interviews with each of the 17 surviving chiefs of staff, as well as two former presidents and many other leading figures from the Beltway. A remarkably easy read and one that has no doubt been hoovered up by many a political junkie in both DC and beyond.
Canada’s Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, has quite the life story, one that you would think would be well suited to an autobiography. This memoir – published prior to his election – takes in his experiences growing up as the son of a former PM but often reads too much like a campaign manifesto. While interesting in parts – not many outside of Canada will know that he once fought and easily defeated a Conservative rival in a charity boxing match, for example – a better book probably awaits after he has stepped back from the political arena.
Using a winning blend of fieldwork and academic research, Christine Mahoney, Professor of Public Policy and Politics at the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy and Director of Social Entrepreneurship at the University of Virginia, examines the international community’s response to one of the 61 major protracted displacement crises which have led to there being 60 million forcibly displaced people in 2015 – the highest since the Second World War. Thankfully, some fresh solutions are emerging, and Mahoney uses the final part of her book to highlight recommendations including leveraging social entrepreneurship, crowdfunding and micro-finance to address the issues from a new perspective.
In this one-volume yet magisterial biography, Larry Tye shines a forensic spotlight on Bobby Kennedy, surely one of the most complex characters in American political history. The theme of the book is Bobby’s journey from cold war warrior and rabid anti-Communist to liberal icon and hero. Blending storytelling with insight, analysis with revelation, any reader of this wonderful piece of work will discover much about the third Kennedy son, and also learn anew about the twists and turns of America’s story in the 20th century.
Talk about a timely novel. Here, the United States elects an unpredictable, volatile President, someone who doesn’t operate by the normal rules and vulnerable to provocation by the North Koreans. With large dollops of House of Cards, The Day of the Jackal and Homeland, Bourne, the pseudonym of the excellent Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland, produced a surefire blockbuster, one primed to thrill, appall and excite readers in equal measure.
A book which blends high readability with genuine humour and deep insight, The Naked Diplomat begins with a “short history” of diplomacy, one that starts in the stone age and concludes with a look at how today’s generation of diplomats are increasingly reliant on social media. It continues with a section on “statecraft and streetcraft”– including some fascinating anecdotes from Fletcher’s four years as Britain’s man in Beirut – and then onto a look at what comes next, with a focus on the impact of technology on diplomacy. Anyone interested in finding out more, and learning anew about power and the importance of what Fletcher calls “citizen diplomacy” should look no further.
Set primarily in Kabul, Afghanistan, A Dying Breed mixes the worlds of politics and broadcast journalism to great effect – drawing on the author’s accumulated knowledge from 14 years on BBC radio’s flagship Today Programme. Rich characterisation and a huge amount of textured detail about the state of modern-day Afghanistan combine to make this one of those rare books to enjoy and learn from. Amazingly this is Hanington’s first book – roll on his next.
Hillary Clinton’s What Happened is no chronological account of the 2016 election. Instead, it begins with the inauguration of Donald Trump and is split into different thematic chapters, such as the one in which she talks about being a woman in politics; emails and the impact of Russia on the election. The latter, as you might expect, is particularly interesting. Clinton’s anger and frustration at what we know the Russians did, and what is suspected they did, seeps through every line. Clinton’s remains an important voice, one, in this book at least, that comes across as knowledgeable, prepared, fun and caring.
A new book from Robert “Master of the Literary Thriller” Harris is always one to savour and Munich is no exception. Set amidst the September 1938 conference which saw European leaders – primarily British prime minister Neville Chamberlain – seek to dissuade Hitler from invading Czechoslovakia, Munich is a gripping piece of work, one that effortlessly transports us back to those days riven with tension and fear, good and evil. With an abundance of rich detail, Harris takes us deep inside the machinations of both Whitehall and Wilhemstrasse (Berlin’s government district) as the abyss of war seems once again to edge ever closer. A dramatic recreation of a pivotal moment in history, and one that thought-provoking and entertaining in equal measure.
Not your average White House memoir, nor your average book title, but Alyssa Mastromonaco has nonetheless a rip-roaring page-turner, one laden with humour, insight and wise advice. Mastromonaco, who started working for Obama when he was a Senator from Chicago, rose to become his deputy chief of staff in the White House. Her journey is illustrated by a variety of stories – much of them no holds barred. Her writing style – candid, chatty, personal – makes this a breezy, entertaining read and while there is perhaps too much advice and not enough White House revelations, few – if any – of her readers will be asking if it was a Good Idea to write this book. It evidently was.
Washington, DC-based Results for America aims to inspire government at all levels make more and better use of evidence and data when taking important decisions. Since its launch five years ago, there has been a whirlwind of activity geared towards this end, including the publication of this book. Its editors pen the opening chapter, one which sets out how the application of Moneyball principles and methods in government can yield better outcomes for young people, their families, and communities. Packed full of interesting insights and recommendations, and fully deserving of its place in the pantheon of textbooks which aim to help create a better government.
Ten years on from when he became British prime minister, Gordon Brown has finally published his memoirs. A weighty tome, it captures well his achievements but unfortunately, he also fails to honestly explain where, how and why he went wrong. Blaming his inability to get to grips with social media and the more trivial aspects of being prime minister as the ultimate reason for why his premiership went awry simply doesn’t ring true. A book that soars in parts, yet deflates in others. An apt metaphor, perhaps, for Brown’s time in Downing Street.
John Farrell is one of America’s premier biographers and journalists, and his decision to turn his pen to Richard Nixon has resulted in not only some bombshell revelations, but also a deeply nuanced, fair and highly readable account of an extraordinary life and times. Farrell – who spent five years on the project – has been able to call upon a rich treasure trove of recently released documents and oral histories, and he uses these accounts to underpin a narrative that, while detailed, never flags. No doubt further Nixon biographies will appear in the future but it is hard to envision one that does a better job of capturing Nixon the man, the politician, and the president.