The 2021 War on the Rocks Summer Fiction Reading List
Summer might be the best time of year to read fiction. Whether you’re at the beach, in the mountains, or on a staycation, there are few things better than tucking into a novel on a warm, summer day. Our staff and contributing editors have recommended some of their favorite works of fiction for you to add to your reading list.
Rings of Fire: A Thriller by Gregory Shepherd. This is a follow-up to his first book about Korea and Northeast Asia, Sea of Fire: A Thriller, which thwarted nuclear war on the Korean Peninsula. This work of fiction is timely as it deals with North Korea, cyber operations, terrorism, and the Tokyo Olympics and like his first book features two special operations personnel as the protagonists as well as an FBI agent and a North Korean hacker.
Burn-In: A Novel of the Real Robotic Revolution by Peter Singer and August Cole. One of the best ways to learn about the future is through fiction. Singer and Cole provide a glimpse not only of future technology but more importantly how such technology will be employed and impact intelligence, law enforcement, and national security operations more broadly. I am sure we will someday see variations of the technology and concepts described in this book.
Missionaries by Phil Klay. I’m sure I won’t be alone in recommending this book. Klay sets his novel in Colombia, but the themes relating to war, violence, patriotism, and politics resonate far beyond the borders of that country. Klay draws flawed characters with empathy and a respect that makes the reader care for them, even when they may not like them.
Rivers of London (U.K. title)/Midnight Riot (U.S. title) by Ben Aaronovitch. Pure escapist fun. This novel, the first of a series, combines a British police procedural with a world in which magic and the supernatural are forces to be reckoned with routinely. Creative, witty, and fun. A great beach read.
The Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells. As the last year has taught us, there’s nothing better than getting a bit of uninterrupted time to binge your favorite shows on Netflix. The protagonist of Wells’ Hugo-winning science fiction series agrees. There’s just one problem: He’s a corporate security android, and even though he’s managed to hack his own programming to let him watch all the soap operas he wants, the humans keep insisting that he do his job and protect them from aliens instead. The series includes four short novellas and a couple of books that continue the story, and they’re great fun.
2034: A Novel of the Next World War by Elliot Ackerman and James Stavridis. At the risk of ruining the first few chapters, this book opens like a Washington fantasy: a revisionist China creating a “situation” in the South China Sea, to be quickly exploited by Iran, Russia, and all the other expected baddies. But I’m recommending it for a couple of reasons. First, I think it’s worth reading if only to question the underlying assumptions of the scenario: Is this really how a conflict with China would unfold? Perhaps not, raising the question of why the Pentagon is putting most of its eggs in this basket. And second, the novel quickly becomes surprising. There are few heroes in this book, and that includes the Americans. It’s a sobering read that prompts us to think about what America might be willing to do to win a contest of resolve with China — and what that might cost us in the long run.
Use of Weapons by Iain M. Banks. The best of the Culture sci-fi series, following the interweaving adventures of serial warrior Cheradenine Zakalwe. Combines serious thought on the nature of war with humor and deep character exploration, plus a stunning twist at the end.
The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker. A powerful retelling of the Iliad through the eyes of Briseis, bringing out the experiences of captive women in war. No longer simply Achilles’ trophy, her story is complex, beautifully written, and utterly haunting.
These Truths: A History of the United States by Jill Lepore. This is not a work of fiction, but Lepore sure knows how to write and she offers a fantastic history of what she calls “a nation born in contradiction.” Beginning her narrative in 1492, Lepore explores both the reprehensible and the praiseworthy aspects of American history in a compelling way.
War with Russia: An Urgent Warning from Senior Military Command by Sir Richard Shirreff. Written by a former deputy supreme allied commander Europe and published in 2016, this is a fictional account of a war between Russia and NATO. As the alliance progresses with its “NATO 2030” agenda, it’s an opportune time to read, or re-read, this book. Some questions to consider: Was NATO as strategically vulnerable in 2016 as this book suggests and has the outlook for the alliance changed over the past five years?
The Virginian by Owen Wister. This 1902 story created the Western genre, and captures the severity and loneliness at the heart of Western heroes this way: “He had looked upon life with a marksman’s eyes, very close; and no one, if he have a heart, can pass through this and not carry sadness in his spirit with him forever.” Like all great Westerns, it’s a love story. But it’s funny, too — a man wryly saying to his unpleasant wife about a funeral, “And with you present, my dear, the absence of a coffin was not felt.” It’s dedicated to Theodore Roosevelt, with whom the author was in the Badlands and whom he elsewhere memorably described as a preacher militant.
Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry. The series is good, the book even better, and best of all is listening to it read by Lee Horsley. Without romanticizing the hardship, cruelty, cravenness, or injustice of the American West, McMurtry weaves a story of heartbreaking wisdom and beauty. As Augustus McCrae says, “It’s a fine world, though rich in hardships at times.”
A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains by Isabella Bird. This story is so far removed from our time that it feels like fiction, and is a wonderful companion to my two other recommendations. It’s about the rawness and marvels of the Mountain West told from a woman’s perspective. Here’s the narrator’s disappointment at having to leave it: “No more hunters’ tales told while the pine knots crack and blaze; no more thrilling narratives of adventures with Indians and bears; and never again shall I hear that strange talk of Nature and her doings which is the speech of those who live with her and her alone. Already the dismalness of a level land comes over me.”
Slow Horses by Mick Herron. The first of the entertaining and well-written Slough House series — which, like so many, starts very well, gets even better, then starts to taper off — introduces the eponymous collection of underachieving or unfortunate castoff agents from British intelligence. Honestly, this is probably where a womanizing alcoholic like James Bond would actually end up, rather than OO section.
A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine. Space opera often suffers from a lack of imagination when it comes to imagining cosmic parallels, but this excellent sci-fi book places the new ambassador from a small, still-independent space station in the capital of the Teixcalaanli Empire, an Aztec-style superpower, which could swallow it in one quick gulp.
Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card. Enjoy this page-turning novel — part coming of age, part saving the world — that is great for die-hard sci-fi fans as well as anyone just dipping their toes into the genre.
The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway. This is a great summer read that will take you away with the protagonist and his coterie to Spain in the 1920s. Do as the expats did and chill some white wine in a nearby stream and enjoy!
Moby Dick by Herman Melville. A way stranger book than I was led to expect and a way better one. Only took half a pandemic to read.
Aivali: A Story of Greeks and Turks in 1922 by Soloup (Antonis Nikolopoulos). An eloquent account of the 1923 Turkish-Greek population exchange, combining memoir, history, and graphic novel.
The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker. Wecker weaves a beautiful story about two very different beings finding their way in New York City at the turn of the 20th century. It’s a lovely tale about immigrants, both real and fantastical, and their search to fit in to their new surroundings. I simply could not put this book down — and much to my delight, Wecker just published a sequel that I’ll be reading this holiday weekend.
The Final Revival of Opal and Nev by Dawnie Walton. This intriguing debut novel is written as an oral history of the fictional rock duo named in the title, and that would be reason enough to read it. But as the book progresses, it increasingly becomes the story of Opal, the iconoclastic black feminist punk singer whose partnership with the white musician Nev broke up after a violent racist incident in the 1970s. This deftly crafted story has many layers that come together unexpectedly at the end, in a powerful reminder of the many challenges black women faced at that time and continue to face today.
The Woman in the Dunes by Kobo Abe. Albert Camus said that we must imagine Sisyphus happy. But what if you are an insect collector, trapped at the bottom of a dune and working incessantly to keep the unending sand at bay? This Japanese existentialist novel from the 1960s will give you the answer.
Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy. People tend to know McCarthy’s newer stuff — No Country for Old Men, The Road, All the Pretty Horses. But this is the Big One. Published in 1985, it’s bleak, brutal, and beautiful.
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller. It was love at first sight. The first time I read Catch-22 I fell madly in love with it. This American masterpiece is the funniest, great novel I’ve ever read.
Transcription by Kate Atkinson. If you like spy novels, you’ll like Transcription. It’s set in London during World War II, and follows a group of MI5 officers as they monitor the activities of British fascists and Nazi sympathizers. The book is not just about spies — it’s about what secrets can do to those that keep them.
Ulrike Esther Franke
Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer. This is one of the most intelligent, complex, and thought-provoking fiction books I have ever read. There are so many ideas, people, and cultures in this book that you need to dedicate some brain power to it (perfect for the holidays, maybe slightly less for after-work-before-going-to-sleep reading). If you do, you will be captured by a story that takes place in 2454 and is set in a culture as rich and complex as any real culture (Palmer has a history Ph.D. and it shows). Hidden inside this account of crime and political intrigue by the most unreliable narrator possible are discussions about the really big questions of philosophy and religion.
Everything Belongs to the Future by Laurie Penny. “Time is a weapon yielded by the rich.” This is the premise of this short book, which is set in 2098 in Oxford. Cambridge, I am sorry to report, is entirely underwater, “which is what happens when you build an eminent university in the middle of a swamp.” Science has given the world — or rather the rich — the pill of eternal life and youth, which leads to problems like climate change looking very different all of a sudden. A thought-provoking read for a long day at the beach.
A Burning by Megha Majumdar. This short, powerful novel by a talented first-time author follows the story of Jivan, a young Muslim woman wrongly accused of a terrorist attack in an India increasingly gripped by right-wing nationalism. Though it’s a work of fiction, the book’s themes hit uncomfortably close to home: the toxic allure of populist politics, the dangers of overreaching after a terrorist attack, and the confounding unfairness of a legal system that fails to protect society’s most marginalized.
The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker. Anyone who’s read the Iliad will enjoy this retelling of the epic tale from the point of view of Briseis, the Trojan princess who is taken prisoner by the Greeks and awarded to Achilles. Barker’s writing falls somewhat flat at times, but I give her a lot of credit for putting women at the center of a well-known war story and reminding us that battlefield casualties are far from the only form of suffering caused by war.
Image: Pixabay (Image by Nino Carè)