The 2019 War on the Rocks Summer Fiction Reading List
When was the last time a friend or family member who does not work in national security asked what you’re reading? Did you tell them about the latest theoretical treatise on non-proliferation or ongoing historiographical battles about how World War I really started? If so, how fast did it take for eyes to glaze over and efforts to change the subject commence?
Maybe it’s time for something different: fiction! We are in the thick of summer and many of us are (or should be) cozying up to some novels and short stories. Not sure which one to purchase and crack open? We have you covered. We asked our staff as well as our senior and contributing editors what fiction they think you should be reading this summer. And here is the list!
Skyward, Brandon Sanderson
Technically it’s young adult fiction, but this is a wonderful read. It is a fun story about a girl who wants to become a fighter pilot and clear her father’s name. Of course, things were never going to be that easy.
Not a new release, but new to me. Set in the futuristic Intersolar Commonwealth, humankind has conquered aging and wormhole technology, but few of its social or economic problems. Terrorists, invading aliens and a mysterious astronomical discovery produce a fun adventure that’s also an impressive work of space opera. Not for the faint of heart, though — each of the two-part series is over 1000 pages.
A Bell for Adano, John Hersey
This 1945 Pulitzer Prize winner should be read by every WOTR reader for how to handle post-conflict operations. Set in a small Italian town in the waning days of World War II, the characters are enjoyable. On an individual level, there’s a lesson on remaining focused on what’s important and to appreciate your small contributions even when the bureaucracy or organization will undermine and forget them.
Total Mayhem, John Gilstrap
It helps to read Gilstrap’s Jonathan Grave New York Times best-selling series from the beginning but it isn’t necessary. His 11th in the series, Total Mayhem, just came out. These fast-paced books are great for the beach or a flight.
The Heart of War: Misadventures in the Pentagon, Kathleen J. McInnis
In my University of Virginia class on military innovation, I’m assigning this light-hearted but insightful look at a young female PhD’s journey as a special assistant to a terrifying deputy assistant secretary of defense. Filled with fun Defense Department argot and real-life insights into the Pentagon-as-it-is, the novel is a great introduction to life in “the Building.”
The Attack, Yasmina Khadra
This novel, written by an Algerian army officer (who uses a female nom de plume), captures the mind and motivation of a suicide bomber better than any book, fiction or otherwise, that I know. The main character is a brilliant and prosperous Palestinian surgeon, whose wife shockingly commits a suicide attack. Why would she do such a thing? Is their whole life a lie? No tactic is as incomprehensible to most Americans as the suicide bombing. Read this book to understand, if not sympathize.
The Leopard (Il Gattopardo), Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa
Over the last three years or so, I have developed a minor obsession with Italian history from the Risorgimento through the rise and demise of fascism. I meant to read this novel about the collapse of Sicilian nobility last year and didn’t get around to buying it until something I saw on social media spurred me into action. I’ve only just started reading it and I am already hooked. My favorite line thus far: “Dying for somebody or for something, that was perfectly normal, of course; but the person dying should know, or at least feel sure, that someone knows for whom or for what he is dying…”
The Joke, Milan Kundera
This was my favorite novel that I read last summer. I purchased it in Copenhagen and devoured it laying by the harbor. At its core, it is the story of Ludvik, a young up-and-comer in Czechoslovakia’s Communist Party, who has his life upended after he makes a rash joke. After you read it, read the author’s collection of essays and interviews, The Art of the Novel.
Lincoln in the Bardo, George Saunders
Abe’s young son passes into the bardo, waiting for rebirth with other stalled souls. This experimental novel is like nothing you’ll have encountered before. An excellent literary experience, if you haven’t yet had the chance.
Ficciones, Jorge Luis Borges
A collection of short stories by the Argentinian writer and poet from the 1940s and 50s. Every one of them is dense, erudite and mind-expanding. Check out “The Library of Babel” in particular. If its plan were carried off, all possible writing would be produced at a stroke but remain impossible to search. National security publications are safe for now.
Péplum, Amélie Nothomb
I am recommending the author as much as this book. Nothomb is a Belgian author who writes beautifully in French (many of her books have been translated into English). None of her books are the same, though there are some motives which appear with regularity: beauty and ugliness, Champagne, books, and brilliant dialogues. Péplum excels particularly on the latter. And it has elements of both science fiction and politics, which makes this short book thoroughly interesting and enjoyable reading. As Péplum has not yet been published in English, I recommend Cosmetic of the Enemy to the English-speakers as a great introduction to the wonderfully weird world of Amélie Nothomb.
Surface Detail, Iain M. Banks
Here too, I recommend the author and all of his writing in addition to the particular book. Surface Detail is part of Banks’ Culture Series, which features impressive science fiction writing in which he has built multiple civilizations. More than any of the other books in the series, this one stuck with me for its truly brilliant ideas about hell. For more, I recommend reading the book (which can be read independently of the rest of the series, as it only loosely connects the books).
A Small Colonial War, Robert Frezza
Much military science fiction is cheap nonsense. This book is different and uses science fiction to explore counter-insurgency, with considerable sensitivity and wit.
Sharpe’s Sword, Bernard Cornwell
It’s hard to write well about soldiering (as opposed to war), and Bernard Cornwell does so extraordinarily well: The Napoleonic setting is splendidly evoked, but quite how far the experience of war has changed is open to debate. This is one of the best of the Sharpe series, but any will do.
Love in a Fallen City, Eileen Chang
Chang was born into an aristocratic family in China, where she witnessed the tumults of revolution, war and political intrigue in mid-20th century Shanghai and Hong Kong before moving to the United States. This collection of stories combines love, loss, ambition, and identity with the backdrop of political and social upheaval.
The Good Shepherd, C.S. Forester
C.S. Forester is probably best known for his Hornblower series, which are terrific (and influenced my choice to become a Naval officer). In The Good Shepherd, he turns his talents to a junior convoy commander in the Atlantic in World War II. A powerful meditation on the loneliness of command at sea, and the weight of responsibility by one a master of sea stories.
The Night Soldiers Series (total of 12 books), Alan Furst
Alan Furst’s historical spy novels set between the wars and in the early days of World War II are extraordinary for their literary quality, their ability to interweave historical narratives, and the way in which he captures a mood. Escapist fiction you can feel good about reading.
The Order of the Day, Eric Vuillard
This short book won the 2017 Prix Goncourt. It is not fiction, but a French form called a récit — a tale or an account. You will love it or hate it (as did the reviewers). From the jacket: “Nazi Germany has its legend. But what if behind its first exploits were merely back-room haggling and cheap, self-interested schemes? What if the glorious images of the Wermacht triumphantly entering Austria conceal a huge bottleneck of Panzers, a simple breakdown? Eric Vuillard’s pithy behind-the-scenes account of Nazi Germany’s annexation of Austria tells a little-known story of corporate greed, failed diplomacy, and shortsightedness.” A fascinating read!
The Magus, John Fowles
Don’t roll your eyes just because this makes every top 100 novels of the 20th century list. This literary classic turns out to be a magnificent summer beach read. Come for the mind-bending “godgame,” but stay for the history lessons of Europe’s post-war trauma. For those searching for a link to contemporary geopolitics, the chief protagonist’s vertigo from ever-collapsing “order” may resemble anxieties over the quicksand of contemporary international politics.
Anil’s Ghost, Michael Ondaatje
Civil wars not only involve warring parties contesting politics but also contested identities, histories, and truths. This makes for a challenging setting for a forensic pathologist dispatched to 1980s wartime Sri Lanka — contested by Marxist, separatist, nationalist, and statist militants — to uncover a truth about human rights violations. The novel powerfully reveals the dizzyingly fluid nature of multi-party civil wars.
Star of the North: A Novel, D.B. John
There are few good fiction books on North Korea. D.B. John has taken real world anecdotes from escapees and written a novel that provides a realistic view of what life is like at multiple levels in Korea. This book “operationalizes” much of the work done on Songbun (the social classification system) and human rights in North Korea done by Robert Collins in his seminal research for the Committee on Human Rights in North Korea in a readable and fascinating political-intelligence thriller.
Red Phoenix Burning, Larry Bond and Chris Carlson
No one can predict what will happen on the Korean peninsula: war, regime collapse, or continued muddling through. This of course is why we see the strategic planning paralysis that has existed for decades. Red Phoenix Burning (following the original Red Phoenix in 1989) is a political-military thriller that incorporates the north, South, China, and the United States in a plausible war scenario that follows interesting characters in various situations that may in fact occur — from securing weapons of mass destruction to Chinese intervention and more.
A Just Determination, John G. Hemry/Jack Campbell
This novel blends solid storytelling, hard science fiction, and a study of leadership to follow the travails of a young ensign assigned to his first (space)ship. In a tale familiar to junior officers everywhere, Ensign Sinclair is forced to balance learning his duties as a new ship-driver with the unpleasant additional duty as ship’s legal officer. After a dramatic incident in space leads to a major international incident, this balancing act also forces Sinclair to decide what’s more important: his duty, or his career. The first in a series of four novels, A Just Determination is a fun, compelling read.
Team Yankee: A Story of World War III, Harry Coyle
In recommending Team Yankee, I find myself in the position of recommending a Cold War-era ground combat novel for the second year in a row. The fact I’m doing so should underscore how good Team Yankee is. It’s a fun-yet-compelling read that captures the drama of a major great power war from the perspective of a tank company commander. For those of us who grew up in a military focused on counter-insurgency, Team Yankee usefully combines in-depth tactical studies with compelling storytelling, and gets you thinking about just what a major war might be like for those forced to fight it.
Frankenstein in Baghdad, Ahmed Saadawi (tr. Jonathan Wright)
This absurdist novel is set in post-2003 occupied Baghdad, in which a sewn-together corpse is animated by the spirit of an Iraqi security guard whose own body was vaporized by a truck bomb. The corpse, “Whatsitsname” then proceeds to enact vengeance on those who are responsible for the deaths of the original owners of its (his?) various composite parts. But this wartime setting takes place in the civilian Iraqi populace that few Americans were able to experience through their body armor. The novel illustrates what will be a largely unfamiliar sociological setting to Western readers, perhaps even for those who spent multiple tours on Baghdad’s streets. Think Heller meets Kafka, with a few borrowings from Shelley.
Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien
I re-read this trilogy earlier this year and would recommend it as a great choice for summer reading. Everyone loves Game of Thrones, but this is the original fantasy series. Tolkien crafted this story by creating an entire mythology and history, a world that we can lose ourselves in. If that doesn’t make for great summer reading, I don’t know what does.
Radha Iyengar Plumb:
Tony’s Wife, Adriana Trigiani
World War II submarine fights, immigration and assimilation, the Jersey Shore, 50s rock music — it’s all here. A beautifully written story of an Italian American couple (and their families) on the home-front, overseas, and in the aftermath of World War II.
The Only Woman in the Room, Marie Benedict
Did you know Heddy Lamar (the actress) was basically a war time operator and inventor? Me neither! This book is a fictional account of her life but based on true accomplishments (and if you read it and go down the rabbit hole of learning all about her you won’t be disappointed!)
The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, Robert Heinlein
This Heinlein classic is regularly listed among libertarians’ must-read books. I apparently didn’t get the memo, because I only picked it up about three years ago. But it is a fun sci-fi story that also delivers an important message about spontaneous order — and, of course, TANSTAAFL. (Look it up, if you don’t know.)
The Kraken Wakes, John Wyndham
Most people are more familiar with Wyndham’s post-apocalyptic masterpiece The Day of the Triffids. But I’d argue that The Kraken Wakes, filled with vintage Cold War paranoia and crawling with sinister, Lovecraftian extraterrestrials, is the superior work. I would love to see this adapted into a movie or TV show.
Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine, Gail Honeyman
Easily the funniest and most poignant book I’ve read in years, Gail Honeyman’s novel is a compelling portrait of the complex, pernicious effects of trauma, as well as of the incredible healing power of simple human connection. I stayed up half the night finishing this book and the other half trying to wrap my head around the masterfully executed plot twist at the end.
Moby Dick, Herman Melville
I know it has way too much information on whaling, but it’s lusciously written (“gnawed within and scorched without, with the infixed, unrelenting fangs of some incurable idea”) and even if you question his advice that it’s better to sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian, there’s some of life’s essential wisdom in chapter 89 on “Fast Fish and Loose Fish.”
Orange World, Karen Russell
She makes weird seem plausible, magical, and funny. She’s the “serious literature” version of Carl Hiassen. And this is worth the price of admission for the story about a pregnant woman’s mistake of thinking that a deal with a devil is a deal with The Devil. These soulful stories are so vivid they’ll haunt you, as her novel Swamplandia did.
Loren DeJonge Schulman:
The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, Stuart Turton
A fabulous combination of British murder mystery set at a decaying country manor with a Groundhog Day twist. You’ll start it again as soon as you finish it.
Life After Life, Kate Atkinson
A fascinating portrait of a British family, focusing on the daughter who works in the War Office, in the years before, during, and after World War II — with a time loop that sends her through dozens of different incarnations (including a take on the “baby Hitler” conundrum).
Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel
Over the last few years, I have found myself coming back to Wolf Hall time again. Sometimes when in a book rut, sometimes to soothe ragged nerves. It’s a bit of a tricky read, but seeing Henry VIII’s court through Thomas Cromwell’s eyes never disappoints.
The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt
Soon to be a movie, this book is so good it became a verb among my friends (to “Goldfinch” is to insist on something’s fabulousness and insist that others read/watch it immediately). It’s not a perfect novel — it can be both sprawling and slow — but is completely immersive. A surprising page-turner.
A Gentleman in Moscow, Amor Towles
I’m a year late to this book about a Russian aristocrat who the Bolsheviks sentence to house arrest in the Hotel Metropole. It was pure joy to spend 450 pages with Count Alexander Rostov, the aristocrat in question, who is one of the most interesting and entertaining characters I’ve read about in a long time. He may be confined to a single building, but the book makes for a great escape from our current discourse.
1984, George Orwell
I admit I had no plans to revisit a book I last read in high school until I started reading reviews of Dorian Lynskey’s The Ministry of Truth: The Biography of George Orwell’s 1984. I plan to read that book, but decided to go back to the source material first. This has been an enriching and enraging experience. Not everyone’s idea of a beach read, I know, but worth revisiting nonetheless.
Dune Trilogy, Frank Herbert
The Dune trilogy is a sweeping geopolitical sci-fi drama, exploring empire, ecological disaster and scarcity, human potential, altered states of consciousness, addiction, and the will to power. “He who controls the spice, controls the universe!”
The Quantum Thief, Hannu Rajaniemi
The incredible futuristic post-human/transhuman saga that uses a heist story to explore the unreliability and malleability of memory as well as the effects of extreme longevity on what it means to be human. The economy of the Oubliette society uses time as currency, with hidden “cryptarchs” who exploit society’s “exomemories” for sustaining control. It has two subsequent books, The Fractal Prince and The Causal Angel, that I’m itching to read next.
Image: Adapted from Pexels