The 2023 War On The Rocks Summer Fiction Reading List
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.
The Silence of the Girls and The Women of Troy, Pat Barker: When reading The Iliad, did you ever wonder about the perspective of the women affected by the war? Did you ever wonder what Helen of Troy thought about the whole thing? If so, this pair of books is for you. Incredibly well written, these novels center around the character Briseis and the other women involved, such as Helen, Hecuba, Cassandra, and Andromache — all mentioned in The Iliad but lacking voice or agency. Barker’s novels finally allow these women to breathe, and her writing brings nuance and complexity to the women and men in the story.
The Syndicate Spy: A Juliet Arroway Novel, Brittany Butler. Recently released, this debut spy novel is similar to many other spy novels in that it has lots of action, sexy characters, and plot twists. What makes it different is that it’s written from a woman’s perspective, by a woman with real-life experience in intelligence operations. Set in a near-future world that has run out of oil reserves, spy Juliet Arroway fights to end an energy war while also trying to find purpose in life beyond her work. Entertaining and fun — a good beach read this summer.
A Memory Called Empire, Arkady Martine. A beautiful piece of hard sci-fi that meditates on the meaning of language, culture, war, the explicit and implicit costs of imperial conquest, and the difficult question of whether expatriates can ever truly return home, or whether they are changed forever. Anyone who ever finds themselves thinking in a language or vernacular different from the language of their birth will appreciate the themes of this book.
Schlock Mercenary, Howard Taylor. I’ve been rereading this series lately, and it remains one of my favorite works of fiction. Don’t let the fact that it’s a “webcomic” put you off: Schlock Mercenary is a genuine work of plot-driven comedic sci-fi, written in comic-book length story arcs. The main plot follows the antics of Tagon’s Toughs, a group of space mercenaries, as they blunder their way through contracts, adventures, and — occasionally — saving the galaxy. Also well worth reading for its satire on self-help aphorisms: “The Seventy Maxims of Maximally Effective Mercenaries,” which includes such gems as “A Sergeant in motion outranks a Lieutenant who doesn’t know what’s going on,” and “There is no “overkill.” There is only “open fire” and “reload.”
The Sand Pebbles, Richard McKenna. While surely a recommendation that has made the War on the Rocks list in the past, this novel of the U.S. Navy’s Yangtze Patrol during the interwar years was made into a classic movie with Steve McQueen. Written by a chief petty officer, whereas most military writers come from the officer’s ranks, this book gives a deck plate and sailor’s view of what navies have done during “peacetime” and reminds us of the long history between the United States and China.
The Bridges at Toko Ri, James Michener. The U.S. Navy in the air war over Korea is often an overlooked element of an often-overlooked war. Pulitzer Prize winner James Michener embedded with a carrier task force in 1951, and this novella resulted from his time with the pilots and sailors aboard USS Essex and USS Valley Forge. With elements drawn from the history of the war, like a climactic rescue scene drawing from the heroism of Lt. John Koelsch, who was the first Navy rescue helicopter pilot awarded the Medal of Honor, this quick read is a classic of naval aviation.
The Merlot Murders, Ellen Crosby. The first installment of a long-running series of murder mysteries set in Virginia wine country, this opening story most captivated me because of its unlikely heroine — a young women permanently injured in a car accident who inherits her family’s wine-growing estate on the edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The setting is gorgeous, wine-making aficionados will swoon, and the murders continue to mount — and are eventually solved in ways that always reveal the fascinating twists and turns of this unique region’s history and culture.
The Thursday Murder Club, Richard Osman. Set in the upscale British retirement home of Coopers Chase, four aging friends meet every Thursday in the Jigsaw Room to dissect a long-forgotten case of unsolved murder. Their unusual past careers — from MI5 agent to psychologist to union organizer — provide them not only with perceptive insights into the criminal mind, but a sprawling former network of contacts who inevitably get dragged into every case. When the cold cases turn hot and threaten the foursome, they prove amazingly resourceful — and hard to bump off.
Damascus Station, David McCloskey. This engrossing debut novel from former CIA analyst McCloskey is a page-turner that I easily devoured in a weekend. In the early years of the recent uprising in Syria, CIA case officer Sam Joseph flies to Paris to recruit Miriam Haddad, a Syrian palace official with conflicting loyalties. The forbidden relationship that emerges between them raises their personal stakes without overwhelming the plot when they return to Syria to hunt for a dangerous killer. And War on the Rocks readers will particularly appreciate the sharp wit with which McCloskey accurately skewers the U.S. government bureaucracy — our hero may be flying off to save the world, for example, but his plea for a business-class seat is denied since his flight is less than 14 hours.
Remarkably Bright Creatures, Shelby Van Pelt. Tova Sullivan cleans the local aquarium alone at night, preferring solitude as she reflects on her teenage son’s disappearance three decades ago. Marcellus is a brilliant but bored giant Pacific octopus who regularly escapes from his tank to explore and snack on some of his neighbors. The two form an unlikely friendship, and, as the plot unfolds, Marcellus figures out what happened to Tova’s son. Marcellus narrates his own parts of the story with a deep and quiet dignity that makes him a truly unforgettable character.
The Eight, Katherine Neville. This will appeal especially to readers who enjoy both contemporary thrillers and historical fiction. The Eight stands the test of time, taking place both in the 1970s and the French Revolution and centered on Charlemagne’s chess set.
Code Name November, Bill Granger. The late Bill Granger’s November Man series introduces operative Devereaux with Code Name November.
The Godwulf Manuscript, Robert B. Parker. The late Robert B. Parker’s protagonist may be familiar to those who remember actor Robert Urich in the Spenser: For Hire television series, but Parker’s Boston private detective starts in print with The Godwulf Manuscript and gets better with every book. This is perfect summer beach reading.
Arabian Nights and Days, Naguib Mahfouz. This is the second Egyptian novel I’ve read, and it’s the second one where the author seems to be unapologetically fantasizing about the assassination of corrupt police officials. Always good to see a government doing its part to foster the arts.
Soldiers of Salamis, Javier Cercas. An engaging book about the Spanish civil war set inside an entertaining book about writing a book about the Spanish civil war. If the ending slightly disappoints, the author somehow makes the disappointment feel like a vital commentary on writing itself.
Beautiful World, Where Are You, Sally Rooney. I read somewhere that Sally Rooney is a quintessential millennial writer and that description fits perfectly. Beautiful World, Where Are You flawlessly captures the topics and language of my generation. It’s about four youngish-but-really-not-so-young-anymore people (hi, fellow millennials!) and their relationships to each other. That may not sound particularly exciting, but Rooney’s way of writing makes this an excellent read.
Project Hail Mary, Andy Weir. Andy Weir probably doesn’t need any extra advertising, but Project Hail Mary is just SO GOOD. A first-person account of finding yourself alone in a spaceship, having to save the human race with the help of an alien. Sci-fi — with a focus on the science — at its best.
Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie. A sprawling, magical-realist novel set amid Indian independence, partition, and the following decades. It’s an amazing, stunning story and one of the best novels you’ll ever read.
Kafka on the Shore, Haruki Murakami. Reading a Murakami novel is a weird experience. It’s hard to know what’s going on, hard to remember much afterward, but they produce an awesome cognitive shift. If you like this one, read The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle; if you want something shorter, you could start with Norwegian Wood, A Wild Sheep Chase, or (particularly good) South of the Border, West of the Sun.
The big four novels, William Faulkner. Faulkner wrote lots of novels, but four of them are giants: The Sound and the Fury, Light in August, As I Lay Dying, and Absalom, Absalom! They are simply stunning creative and artistic achievements. If you haven’t read them, do yourself a favor and get started.
The Afghan Campaign, Steven Pressfield. A fictionalized account of Alexander’s conquest of Afghanistan as seen through the eyes of a Macedonian recruit. I found Afghan Campaign particularly interesting because Alexander sets the pattern for Western generals trying to pacify Afghanistan for the next 2,000 years — successful invasion followed by repeated failed attempts to defeat the subsequent insurgency. Finally, the invading force accepts that Afghanistan is an unsolvable political problem to be managed by a negotiated withdrawal, leaving a local strongman in charge. And as a bonus, one of Alexander’s columns was ambushed repeatedly as they tried to get out to India.
Sharp’s Adventures series, Bernard Cornwell. Light read that follows the adventures of Richard Sharp from India through the Napoleonic Wars. The campaigns and battles are portrayed with historical accuracy with the notable exception of the presence of Sharp and his company of riflemen. Good introduction to the British conquest of India and the Peninsula Campaigns of the Napoleonic Wars.
The Postcard, Anne Berest. How were the lives of ordinary people — in this case, who happened to be Jewish — utterly shattered by the Holocaust? There are arguably few better or more immediate or compelling accounts of the succession of horrific experiences that befell European Jewry than this thinly fictionalized (mostly some imagined dialogue) book of one family’s multigenerational trauma.
A Coffin for Dimitrios, Eric Ambler. Before there was John le Carré, there was Ambler. One of the premier thriller writers of both the prewar and Cold War eras, Ambler pioneered this genre with such memorable characters as the mystery writer John Latimer, whose chance meeting with Colonel Haki, the commander of a crime squad in 1930s Istanbul, sends him on a hunt across Europe for the arch criminal Dimitrious Makropoulous.
For years I resisted science fiction, but it’s now about the only fiction I can find time to enjoy. I totally agree with Mick Ryan and Nate Finney who wrote that “Reading fiction, especially science fiction, can nurture the imaginative mindset in the military and national security professional.” Hence, my two nominations are both first-rate military fiction, with the first from an era largely similar to today’s environment in terms of both geopolitical competition and techno-security disruptions. The second is an examination of military culture and strategy through the lens of contemporary science fiction.
The Tale of the Next Great War, 1871-1914: Fictions of Future Warfare and of Battles Still-To-Come, I. F. Clarke, ed. A fascinating anthology of futuristic writing about the disruptive technologies of the Second Industrial Revolution. There are 16 articles written before World War I in this treasure, which include selections from famous authors such as Jack London, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Sir George Tomkyns Chesney. The latter’s Battle of Dorking stimulated a generation in this genre. This volume also includes some of the original artwork as well, illuminating how these authors viewed the character of warfare just before the calamity of 1914.
To Boldly Go, Leadership, Strategy, and Conflict in the 21st Century and Beyond, Jonathan Klug and Steven Leonard, eds. This book is a commendable collection of 35 essays including pieces from the editors, August Cole, Kathleen McInnis, and Maj. Gen. (Ret.) Mick Ryan. The Army is well represented with contributions from recognized strategists: Matt Cavanaugh, Francis Park, and Liam Collins. Chipping in with notable articles are Rebecca Jensen and Elsa Kania. Readers of this platform will recognize the authors and the key themes, and I suspect some will be as famous as the notable writers inthe first book recommendation in the coming decades.
The Other Passenger, Louise Candlish. It’s a bit of a slow start for an avid mystery reader, but after the first few (short) chapters, I was hooked. And as a proud Agatha Christie devotee, I thought I had it figured out by page 100 but whew, boy, I had no idea what was going on until the last 50 pages. A page-turner for any vacation.
The Midnight Library, Matt Haig. A deeply thoughtful novel that asks, “What if?” Beautiful writing about what life’s all about. I’d take it just a few chapters at a time to enjoy the prose and the questions it may provoke.
Memed, My Hawk, Yasar Kemal. For those who are interested in Turkish literature, Yasar Kemal’s Ince Memed series constitute a true treasure. Memed, My Hawk is the first of four novels where Kemal, one of Turkey’s most acclaimed and celebrated novelists, introduces the reader to the rough, violent, and dangerous place that rural Anatolia once was through the lenses of its main character, Memed. Memed, My Hawk is both a sophisticated social and political commentary, and a first-rate thriller as well as a hard-boiled revenge story.
The Caliban’s War, James S. A. Corey. The second of the nine novels that collectively make up the wildly popular series The Expanse, The Caliban’s War is more or less a reflection of the global politics of the 18th and 19th centuries, craftily projected into the 24th century. What makes The Caliban’s War interesting, beyond all the alien-technology-infused shenanigans, is the importance it places on colonialism for understanding great-power politics (and vice versa). While the narrative style would not excite the readers as much as the TV show that was inspired by the novel series might have, the content still delivers.
Between the Acts, Virginia Woolf. I have been going through the complete works of Virginia Woolf this year as part of a New Year’s initiative and found Between the Acts to be both refreshing and full of moments for reflection on the lives we lead, both at their most poignant and ridiculous. It is a story whose last pages should not be missed, as they in fact provide the greatest perspective and food for thought. A worthy meditation in a moment when we could all be a little more introspective and self-aware.
For Whom the Bell Tolls, Ernest Hemingway. I first read this on a trip with through Spain with my husband in 2018 but have found myself going back to it recently as we enter moments of intense and at-times violent political polarization here in the United States. An important discussion made all the more stark by Hemingway’s signature straightforward prose, about the human element of war and the sacrifices that liberty often demands.
The Silo series, Hugh Howey. This series may be of interest given that Apple TV+ has started a show based on the first book, Dust. First, be assured that if you read the book, it won’t spoil your ability to enjoy the show. While the show has the same theme and characters, the story is significantly different. The books examine the actions of a closed-system society after the unexplained collapse of society on Earth. Nearly 10,000 people continue their survival in an underground silo that abides by “the Pact” to maintain social order, but no one knows how the world ended. When a Mechanic is chosen to be the Silo’s next sheriff, her investigations into a series of deaths causes turmoil and upheavals. It’s a gripping sci-fi story that really engages the reader as the whodunit story progresses into a complex examination of how a dystopian and autocratic society might evolve and manage conflict.
Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel. Another postapocalyptic fiction novel that transitioned into a limited series on HBO Max, this was written by Emily St. John Mandel to examine how society manages after a pandemic nearly wipes out all human life. It’s a familiar topic to anyone who has survived the COVID-19 years and wondered, what if the outbreak had been worse? The plot of how human civilization manages after a world-ending pandemic is not new, but the sci-fi novel does a tremendously good job of character creation and linking the stories of disparate individuals who are trying to survive and rebuild a society. Again, if you’ve seen the HBO series, it’s still very much worth reading the book, which goes much more into the development of the lead character, a young woman who joins a traveling actor’s group to tour the various pockets of humanity that still exist.
The Moon Is Down, John Steinbeck. With all the contemporary focus on resistance around the world, it is time to review a classic WWII novel about resistance in Europe written at the behest of William Donovan of the OSS for the people in Europe. This novel had wide-ranging effects in many countries. It was one of the most sought-after pieces of literature during the war. It provides a useful lesson on how fiction can make a significant contribution to the political warfare aspect of everything from strategic competition to large-scale combat operations. A question for all readers, policymakers, and strategists is whether similar novels, with proper cultural adaptation, could motivate those who seek freedom in the revisionist, rogue, and revolutionary powers of China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea?
White Sun War, Mick Ryan. One of the best ways to imagine future wars and prepare for them is through fiction. It is even better when the novel is written by a visionary, experienced, and accomplished military leader who can meld warfighting, strategy, politics, high technology, cyber, space, and artificial intelligence into a captivating and entertaining story that can drive the reader to think critically about what the future holds. And it is even more compelling when that story is about the most dangerous and perhaps most likely future war, a Chinese-U.S. conflict over Taiwan.
A Beautiful Blue Death (and the other 14 Charles Lenox mysteries), Charles Finch. An incredibly entertaining and elegantly written series with wonderful Victorian period details. The books are fun, engaging, and surprisingly affecting; Lenox is a supremely appealing character. Strongly recommended on audiobook — most are read by the incomparable James Langton. A magnificent listening experience.
Moonraker, Ian Fleming. Fleming’s original Bond isn’t a 21st-century kind of guy, and just about all the books use terms and phrases that are very much out of place today. But reading a few of them again, I was struck by their tight prose, powerful narrative drive, and humor, and by the fact that the original fictional Bond is very much a complex and human figure. This one is a special treat as an audiobook, as read by Bill Nighy, whose voice is as hypnotic as the story.
Killing Commendatore, Haruki Murakami. This is Murakami’s most recent (available-in-English) novel. The perennial runner-up for the Nobel Prize, the master of “magical realism” challenges us to think differently, to release our assumptions, and accept new realities, however different they may seem. While strategists and planners must eventually return to cold and hard realities, Murakami’s corpus teaches us that at least in initial stages, it may be helpful to let ourselves see the world differently and think more freely.
The Henriad (Richard II, Henry IV Part 1, Henry IV Part 2, Henry V), William Shakespeare. “For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground / And tell sad stories of the death of kings … / All murder’d: for within the hollow crown / That rounds the mortal temples of a king Keeps Death his court …” Virtually all of us know King Henry’s Saint Crispin’s Day speech, but far too few read, let alone absorb, the entire account that leads to that day at Agincourt.
Another Country, James Baldwin. Part of my love for this book comes from knowing Baldwin wrote it while living in Istanbul, but mostly I read (and reread) it because it is one of the best depictions of all the beauty and ugliness of the many forms of human love and relationships ever written. Three or four reads later, my jaw still drops when reading some of Baldwin’s sentences. As someone who spends much of her time reading policy and the news, Baldwin’s prose is a welcome treat.
The Last Thing He Wanted, Joan Didion. I just finished this strange and fictional account of the Iran-Contra crisis, written by Didion in the 1990s. It’s a lesser-known Didion book, but still possesses all of her trademarks — impeccable reporting, even in fiction; whip-smart language; and some of the most accurate (fictional) observations of Washington’s machinations ever put to page. It sucks you right in — I finished it in a day.
The Book of Goose, Yiyun Li. Another recent read, but a remarkable one. A weird and winding account of two young girls creating a semi-real, semi-fictional world in postwar France. Incredible language, and a fascinating, kaleidoscopic approach to storytelling. The perfect not-so-light summer read.
4 3 2 1, Paul Auster. I read both Invisible and 4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster this year, and I was ashamed that I hadn’t read them earlier. Paul Auster — like Didion and Baldwin — has an almost unparalleled ability to depict life in 20th-century America in all of its wonder, novelty, and horror. I cannot recommend Auster enough, but 4 3 2 1 in particular will blow you away.
Excession, Iain M. Banks. One entry into the excellent Culture series of science fiction, Excession explores how to deal with an “Outside Context Problem,” a term that Banks coined to describe an apparently dominant society suddenly encountering a far more technologically advanced entity that they cannot relate to — in this case, a perfectly black sphere that cannot be probed, appears to be older than the universe, and is attracting unwanted attention. Blending technology and grand strategy with a more human exploration of what it means to belong, Excession is a riveting and thought-provoking read.
Circe, Madeline Miller. There has been a trend in recent years for novelizations of the stories of female characters from ancient mythology, but Miller’s Circe is the best of them. Following Circe from her birth through the famous tales of the Minotaur, the Golden Fleece, and the Odyssey, Miller recasts her in a more empathetic light and moves beyond the customary view of her as the archetypal wicked witch. Exploring themes of loneliness, revenge, and guilt, Circe gives us a different perspective on a well-known figure while retaining the excitement and magic of the original myths.
Mercury Pictures Presents, Anthony Marra. A beautiful story about a family rent asunder by war, about Hollywood, and the immigrant experience in mid-century America, ravishingly told by the author who brought us one of the very best novels about Russia (A Constellation of Vital Phenomena). It’s also funny: “Her great-aunts’ understanding of Catholicism was so fickle you couldn’t really call it monotheism. It was a protection racket.”
Cloud Cuckoo Land, Anthony Doerr. A fractured timeline weaving together lives: an orphaned girl and a disfigured boy in Constantinople as Christendom is conquered, an American soldier in the Korean War, a contemporary ecoterrorist, and the last survivor on a spaceship escaping an uninhabitable Earth. What ties them all together is an ancient Greek fabulist tale of the title. Dedicated to librarians, which is perfect, because the fragility of preserving learning is the theme.
March of Violets, Philip Kerr. Bernie Guenther is a tough but honorable private detective in the anti-hero tradition of Philip Marlowe or Spenser. The twist is that Guenther needs to do his detecting in 1930s Nazi Germany, navigating not just the seedy underbelly of organized crime but also the gruesome overbelly of state-led political violence. March of Violets is the first of 14 books in which Guenther wrestles with the moral dilemmas of collaboration and resistance while also trying to solve a crime or two.
The Orientalist, Tom Reiss. Everybody agrees that Ali and Nino is the greatest Azerbaijani novel ever written, but no one seems to know who really wrote it. Tom Reiss tracks down the author and reveals him to be Lev Nussimbaum, an Azeri Jewish exile who pretended to be a Muslim warrior prince and became a bestselling author and biographer of Stalin and in Nazi Germany. He escaped to Italy as the Nazis cracked down only to die of a rare disease in the resort town of Positano. This is technically not fiction, but it is certainly very difficult to believe.