Editor of FT Weekend
I will shamelessly abuse my position and plump for two outstanding novels. Robert Harris’s Dictator (Arrow), the third and finest of his Cicero trilogy, is a pitiless and masterful dissection of the way ideals, careerism and ambition jockey for primacy in a great politician’s mind. Fittingly, I finished it shortly before the Tory and Labour civil wars burst into the public domain. There is nothing new . . . In need of escapism, I took the advice of Nilanjana Roy, our new columnist, and turned to Reputations (Bloomsbury), by the Colombian Juan Gabriel Vásquez. It is an account of an old cartoonist eyeing his past and the shifting forms of perception, memory and truth. Brilliant.
Author of ‘The Mandibles’
There’s an arbitrariness to choosing any “best” book, but I’d nominate Hannah Kohler’s debut novel The Outside Lands (Picador) as the “most surprising” 2016 release that I’ve encountered so far. In this Vietnam-era story, a California family is imploded first by private tragedy, then by the war itself. Yet the author is a Brit writing about a time before she was born. You’d never know it. Her ear for American dialogue is flawless, her historical details spot on. The quality of the writing, too, is astonishing. I wasn’t exactly in the mood to re-enter the 1960s of my youth, but Kohler won me over. Should you feel a similar resistance to this oft-visited subject matter, get over it.
Yuval Noah Harari
Author of ‘Sapiens’
Until 1979 few American soldiers had lost their lives in the Middle East, but since 1979 few have lost their lives anywhere else. In America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History (Random House), Andrew Bacevich connects the numerous American interventions in the region — from Afghanistan to Somalia and from Lebanon to Libya — into a coherent story with its own maddening logic. Why has the US been drawn again and again to intervene militarily in the Middle East, and why despite its overwhelming strength has it been repeatedly frustrated in its ambitions?
David Aaronovitch grew up just up the road from me in north London in the 1960s. We were all leftwing and all forced to play with the same badly made Russian wooden toys, but his parents were the real thing — members of the Communist Party of Great Britain. In Party Animals (Cape) he describes what it is like to grow up in a household of political fanatics, and what happens when their ideals fall to pieces. His account of the collapse of the party and the brave but deluded people who ran it, of his distant, philandering father and his impossible mother, is by turns affectionate, brutal and hilarious.
Author of ‘The Silk Roads’
I absolutely loved Mary Beard’s SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome (Profile). It is a sparkling book that brings the past to life. I remember feeling like I’d been electrocuted the first time I went to one of Beard’s lectures at Cambridge many years ago — and this book provides the same thrill and excitement. Glorious.
Author of ‘At the Existentialist Café’
More chilly than summery perhaps, but the richest book I’ve read recently is Second-Hand Time, by Svetlana Alexievich (translated by Bela Shayevich for Fitzcarraldo Editions). A symphony of witnesses’ voices relates the collapse of Soviet communism and the disillusionment of those who sacrificed everything for a “better world” only to end up with nothing. “No one is going to write a book about us — the crowd, the masses,” says one. Well, Alexeivich has. She rarely introduces her own voice, yet her intensely humane sensibility makes this a non-fiction masterpiece.
Author of ‘The Return’
The Confines of the Shadow by Alessandro Spina (Darf) is a wonderful and rare book. It contains three works of fiction in which the Libyan author, writing in Italian under a nom de plume, chronicles the moment when, at the dawn of the 20th century, Italy crossed the Mediterranean Sea and invaded Libya. Like Lampedusa’s The Leopard and Satta’s The Day of Judgment, it is a work interested in the texture and weight of history on individual life; it has just as much to tell us about the past as it does about the present.
Author of ‘The Rise and Fall of Nations’
George HW Bush has been described as America’s best one-term president, a notion reinforced by Jon Meacham’s biography Destiny and Power (Random House). The best passages are about Bush’s dramatic fall between early 1991, when his popularity ratings were stratospheric after the US victory in the Gulf war, and late 1992, when the president was cast as out of touch with everyday American concerns and lost his bid for a second term. Meacham vividly captures the tribulations of that period and offers a remarkable tale of how quickly fortunes can change even for the most accomplished statesmen.
Author of ‘The Woman Upstairs’
One of the most powerful and resonant books I’ve read this year is Edna O’Brien’s haunting novel The Little Red Chairs (Faber). Part myth, part social realism, this forceful and at times brutal book imagines what would have happened had the Serbian war criminal Radovan Karadzic been in hiding in rural Ireland. The narrative then expands outwards to become a moving exploration of the lives of immigrants in contemporary Ireland and the UK; which makes it a particularly important novel in these dark days.
Author of ‘Mislaid & The Wallcreeper’
Private Citizens, the first novel from Stanford grad Tony Tulathimutte (William Morrow), explores four sensitive minds trapped in a world of unrelenting competition (Stanford and environs). In this lovingly portrayed hell, the body is excess baggage, and self-doubt poses dangers so grave only a writer would risk it. It’s not a satire, but an eloquent social novel bristling with logic. Plus if you’re old enough to remember when VCs were the Viet Cong, it will catch you up.
Author of ‘The Sleep Revolution’
In 2013’s Give and Take, Wharton professor Adam Grant showed that those who give their time and effort to others end up achieving more success than those who don’t. In Originals (WH Allen), he uses surprising studies and riveting stories to brilliantly show us how to champion new ideas, bust persistent myths that hold us back and change not only our lives, but our world. It’s a fascinating, eye-opening read that will help you not just recognise your own unique gifts, but find the strength to challenge conventional wisdom to bring them to life.
Author of ‘East West Street: On the Origins of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity’
It is impossible to resist the embrace of the remarkable, intimate memoir written by Hisham Matar, a personal journey through family and country into the trauma that is modern Libya. A son seeks certainty and finality on a question that has haunted him for a quarter of a century: when did his father Jaballa cease to exist? The Return (Viking) is devastating yet gentle, a meditation on love and family, on life and country. No more beautiful, distressing or humane book can be imagined.
Author of ‘The Architect’s Apprentice’
The crisis in Syria is one of the greatest tragedies of our times and yet many people around the world have become numb, almost indifferent to it as the war continues with no end in sight. Against this emotional detachment, it is crucial to reveal the human stories behind the news — and in The Morning They Came For Us (Bloomsbury), Janine di Giovanni does this with heartbreaking eloquence. How did millions of Syrians — both ordinary people and the elite — carry on from one day to the next? As Giovanni gives us the answers, it is clear that she is far more than merely a visitor. Her account of Syria is a testimony to the power of empathy, conscience and understanding.
Viet Thanh Nguyen
Author of ‘The Sympathizer’
I try not to read thrillers because they tend to keep me up to all hours of the night, and I don’t have the time. Bill Beverly’s Dodgers (No Exit Press) broke through my wall of self-denial and, yes, I did stay up late for two nights to finish it. Four black boys in a gang from Los Angeles are given a job: drive across the country to carry out a hit on a black judge. What can go wrong? Everything, of course. The prose is tight, the dialogue rhythmic, the pacing fast, the violence measured, and the ending unexpected. So what if I lost some sleep?
Author of ‘Coup de Foudre’
Shrinking ice caps, climate change and habitat loss demand that we rethink our relationship with the natural world. We also have to rethink what it means to be human — a species that has always presumed ownership of the land, sea and sky. In his novel The Lamentations of Zeno (Verso), the German author Ilija Trojanow writes about a glaciologist who’s lost the glacier he’s studied his entire career. It has melted away. The devastated scientist joins an Antarctic tour ship as the onboard ice expert. In these frigid waters, his rueful, existential, sometimes comic meditations may resonate with the reader who reflects on our battered planet’s future.
Illustration by Chris Wormell