.
C

hoosing the best books of the year is never an easy task. It is a fine balance between objective and subjective factors, and seeking to identify the books that have the most significant things to say and make the points, however uncomfortable they may be, the best. 

The books selected this year reflect where the world finds itself at the close of 2023 and how it arrived here, and reflections on the trends that will shape the years to come. The goal in selecting the best from a very crowded field is to find the books that are not determinative or polemical, but rather invite the reader to better understand the world as it is, and the challenges and opportunities facing nation-states and humanity alike. The books below run the gamut of ancient history through British politics, from East Germany to artificial intelligence, and, of course, Russia, Ukraine, and China. 

Thank you for reading these reviews throughout the year. With warm wishes for a happy, healthy, and safe holiday season. 

Beyond the Wall 

Katja Hoyer

Penguin Books Ltd (UK)

Blending high politics with daily life, Katja Hoyer breathes new life and color into the history of the otherwise drab East Germany. Her approach is thoroughly enjoyable, allowing East Germany to stand on its own and not merely as a sideshow to the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States. It is history at its finest and well worth picking up for its personal stories as well as its dives into the country’s more contentious periods and issues. That it at times struck such a controversial note in Germany highlights her thesis: History remains unsettled. 

Four Battlegrounds

Paul Scharre

W.W. Norton 

There is no shortage of books on artificial intelligence and its implications. Most focus on hyperbolic “what if” scenarios, but few unpack the underlying competition over the emerging technology as superbly as Dr. Paul Scharre does in “Four Battlegrounds.” Examining data, computing power, talent, and institutions—the four titular battlegrounds—Scharre shows the critical arenas in which the United States, China, and others will compete to achieve AI supremacy and offers sharp insights into what this competition will mean for the future of geopolitics.

War Came to Us

Christopher Miller

Bloomsbury

The Financial Times’ Christopher Miller likely penned the single best book of the year on Ukraine with his “War Came to Us.” A blend of his personal experiences and sublime reporting from before the Euromaidan revolution through to Russia’s expanded invasion in 2022, Miller’s approach provides an overarching history and narrative that is deeper and more engaging than some explicit histories. In so doing he returns agency to the Ukrainians themselves, rather than telling the story through political leaders. 

Earth Transformed

Peter Frankopan

Knopf

Crafting an overarching historical narrative about global climate and weather would be a daunting task for most, but certainly not Peter Frankopan. The author of “Silk Roads'' and the “New Silk Roads” brings his keen eye for detail and masterful storytelling to chart the climactic development of the world and how weather has affected human history, showing that it is both a force for good and ill, often at the same time. He warns, as others have, that these changes will affect humanity’s future, but by seating them in the longer arc of global and human history, his work is even more poignant.

Fancy Bear Goes Phishing

Scott Shapiro

Farrar, Straus & Giroux (U.S.)

Beyond a catchy title, Scott Shapiro’s “Fancy Bear Goes Phishing” is one of the cleverest approaches yet to explaining cyber security. Illustrating the development of the internet and concomitant hacking through a series of vignettes, Shapiro goes beyond what happened to explain to lay readers how hackers exploited systemic and psychological weaknesses. It is, as he shows, not enough to understand that hacks have and will take place, but to understand the environment and technological space in which these attacks occur. 

Politics on the Edge

Rory Stewart

Jonathan Cape

Readers are often best served by steering clear of political autobiographies. Often self-congratulatory and lacking any self-awareness, they exist to put forward a narrative, painting the author in the best light, and avoiding any real reflection. Rory Stewart, a former Conservative MP in the United Kingdom, bucks that trend. True enough, there is a bit of score settling and self-congratulation, but it is far more self-aware and self-critical than most. Unsurprisingly it is exceedingly well-written and a delight to read, offering deep insights into contemporary British politics.

Memory Makers

Dr. Jade McGlynn

Bloomsbury Academic 

For the West, the Kremlin’s misuse and abuse of history is patently obvious and often subject to ridicule. Within Russia, however, it forms a critical part of Moscow’s mobilization of support for its policies, misdirection from domestic challenges, and a vital element of the government’s efforts to recapture national greatness. In “Memory Makers,” Dr. Jade McGlynn explores both how and why the Kremlin weaponizes its history, what it means for the Russian people, and what it means for the West writ large. Understanding the theory and practice behind this is critical to understanding Russia’s world view and what it means for Ukraine and beyond. 

Beijing Rules

Bethany Allen

Harper

Axios reporter Bethany Allen offers a comprehensive look at the challenge China presents to the United States and the West in her tightly written book “Beijing Rules.” The strength of her book is, ironically, an underlying theme that readers would do well to recognize in reading it—the West’s complicity in China’s rise and enabling the very behaviors it now finds objectionable. While she superbly recounts China’s financial and economic warfare and attempts to influence American politicians, this self-reflection—often omitted in narratives about Beijing’s rapid rise—is particularly critical if the United States and others are to craft smart counter-policies.

This is Europe

Ben Judah

Pan MacMillan

Judah’s “This is Europe” is much more than a collection of stories about people’s lived experiences in today’s Europe. It is an insightful look at what it means to be European in a time of profound change and disruption. From the challenges and risks of migration to climate change and the disruption brought by COVID-19, Judah offers an intimate portrait of a complex, diverse, and dynamic continent that is much more vibrant than most assume or understand. Some stories are poignant and powerful, others heart-warming and encouraging, but throughout, Judah allows the narrators to tell their stories for themselves. 

Emperor of Rome

Mary Beard

Liveright

This autumn a trend went viral: significant others would ask their boyfriends how often they thought about the Roman Empire with amusing, and unexpected, responses (shockingly their boyfriends seemed to think about the Roman Empire rather often). With the availability of books like Mary Beard’s “Emperor of Rome,” it is easy to see why so many think about the empire so frequently. Focusing on the emperors themselves—both the well-known and not-so-well-known—Beard turns her attention on how they lived and worked, showing the bureaucracies that enabled the Italian city to dominate much of the known world. Best read with or alongside her book “SPQR,” “Emperor of Rome” omits the role of the Roman army a bit too much at times, focusing instead on the men and the systems that put the “imperial” in Imperial Rome. A delight, nonetheless, it fizzes with relevance for our modern times. 

Mannerheim, Marshal of Finland: A Life in Geopolitics

Henrik Meinander

Hurst

Finland’s entry into NATO ended decades of military non-alignment, but continued the country’s tradition of deft geopolitical navigation, a tradition started by Gustaf Mannerheim. This towering Finnish figure, who is sadly less well known in the United States, charted his country’s path through the tumult and violence of World War II, despite having begun his career as a cavalry officer in the Russian imperial court and being forever challenged at speaking in Finnish (he was more well-spoken in Swedish and Russian). Meinander not only brings Mannerheim the person vividly to life, he also places Mannerheim the military and political leader within the complex power politics of the time as Finland faced predation from the Soviet Union and the ambitions of Nazi Germany. As a standalone book, Meinander’s biography is riveting, but with Finland’s accession into NATO, it is especially timely and a delightful way to better understand the new ally.  

Fiction Picks

It will come as no surprise to long-time Diplomatic Courier readers that your reviewer has a difficult relationship with fiction. Given the publishing cadence of superb non-fiction books and the press of trying to better understand the world at large, fiction often takes a backseat. There were, however, two standout spy novels that captured my attention.

Moscow X

David McCloskey 

W.W. Norton & Company

A follow-up to his superb spy thriller “Damascus Station,” “Moscow X” sees the return of his grizzled operations officer Artemis Aphrodite Procter (who is an amazing character in and of herself) and the introduction of a new team as they seek to shake up the Kremlin and undermine President Vladimir Putin’s regime by going after his money. A brilliant and timely plot that grabs the reader from the first page and does not let up—it was one of the few books that the reviewer read in one physical sitting. It is that good. 

The Peacock and the Sparrow

I.S. Berry

Simon & Schuster

Former CIA officer I.S. Berry brings her operations expertise to this tale of espionage set in Bahrain in the wake of the Arab Spring. Her writing is sumptuous, painting a vivid portrait of this island nation’s complex politics, diplomatic intrigues, and skullduggery, all told from the point of view of a grizzled, jaded operational officer—think le Carré’s Smiley with a lot more baggage. Berry puts the human back in human intelligence, exploring the motivations, feelings, and thoughts of the officers and agents, and in so doing sets her first novel apart from a crowded field. 

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Diplomatic Courier's Book Reviewer and Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress. He can be found on Twitter @joshuachuminski.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.

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www.diplomaticourier.com

Our Book Reviewer’s 13 Best Reads of 2023

Image by Melk Hagelslag from Pixabay

December 2, 2023

Diplomatic Courier's book reviewer Joshua Huminski gives us his favorite reads of 2023 thus far, selecting 13 books he reviewed over the course of the year that felt the most significant.

C

hoosing the best books of the year is never an easy task. It is a fine balance between objective and subjective factors, and seeking to identify the books that have the most significant things to say and make the points, however uncomfortable they may be, the best. 

The books selected this year reflect where the world finds itself at the close of 2023 and how it arrived here, and reflections on the trends that will shape the years to come. The goal in selecting the best from a very crowded field is to find the books that are not determinative or polemical, but rather invite the reader to better understand the world as it is, and the challenges and opportunities facing nation-states and humanity alike. The books below run the gamut of ancient history through British politics, from East Germany to artificial intelligence, and, of course, Russia, Ukraine, and China. 

Thank you for reading these reviews throughout the year. With warm wishes for a happy, healthy, and safe holiday season. 

Beyond the Wall 

Katja Hoyer

Penguin Books Ltd (UK)

Blending high politics with daily life, Katja Hoyer breathes new life and color into the history of the otherwise drab East Germany. Her approach is thoroughly enjoyable, allowing East Germany to stand on its own and not merely as a sideshow to the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States. It is history at its finest and well worth picking up for its personal stories as well as its dives into the country’s more contentious periods and issues. That it at times struck such a controversial note in Germany highlights her thesis: History remains unsettled. 

Four Battlegrounds

Paul Scharre

W.W. Norton 

There is no shortage of books on artificial intelligence and its implications. Most focus on hyperbolic “what if” scenarios, but few unpack the underlying competition over the emerging technology as superbly as Dr. Paul Scharre does in “Four Battlegrounds.” Examining data, computing power, talent, and institutions—the four titular battlegrounds—Scharre shows the critical arenas in which the United States, China, and others will compete to achieve AI supremacy and offers sharp insights into what this competition will mean for the future of geopolitics.

War Came to Us

Christopher Miller

Bloomsbury

The Financial Times’ Christopher Miller likely penned the single best book of the year on Ukraine with his “War Came to Us.” A blend of his personal experiences and sublime reporting from before the Euromaidan revolution through to Russia’s expanded invasion in 2022, Miller’s approach provides an overarching history and narrative that is deeper and more engaging than some explicit histories. In so doing he returns agency to the Ukrainians themselves, rather than telling the story through political leaders. 

Earth Transformed

Peter Frankopan

Knopf

Crafting an overarching historical narrative about global climate and weather would be a daunting task for most, but certainly not Peter Frankopan. The author of “Silk Roads'' and the “New Silk Roads” brings his keen eye for detail and masterful storytelling to chart the climactic development of the world and how weather has affected human history, showing that it is both a force for good and ill, often at the same time. He warns, as others have, that these changes will affect humanity’s future, but by seating them in the longer arc of global and human history, his work is even more poignant.

Fancy Bear Goes Phishing

Scott Shapiro

Farrar, Straus & Giroux (U.S.)

Beyond a catchy title, Scott Shapiro’s “Fancy Bear Goes Phishing” is one of the cleverest approaches yet to explaining cyber security. Illustrating the development of the internet and concomitant hacking through a series of vignettes, Shapiro goes beyond what happened to explain to lay readers how hackers exploited systemic and psychological weaknesses. It is, as he shows, not enough to understand that hacks have and will take place, but to understand the environment and technological space in which these attacks occur. 

Politics on the Edge

Rory Stewart

Jonathan Cape

Readers are often best served by steering clear of political autobiographies. Often self-congratulatory and lacking any self-awareness, they exist to put forward a narrative, painting the author in the best light, and avoiding any real reflection. Rory Stewart, a former Conservative MP in the United Kingdom, bucks that trend. True enough, there is a bit of score settling and self-congratulation, but it is far more self-aware and self-critical than most. Unsurprisingly it is exceedingly well-written and a delight to read, offering deep insights into contemporary British politics.

Memory Makers

Dr. Jade McGlynn

Bloomsbury Academic 

For the West, the Kremlin’s misuse and abuse of history is patently obvious and often subject to ridicule. Within Russia, however, it forms a critical part of Moscow’s mobilization of support for its policies, misdirection from domestic challenges, and a vital element of the government’s efforts to recapture national greatness. In “Memory Makers,” Dr. Jade McGlynn explores both how and why the Kremlin weaponizes its history, what it means for the Russian people, and what it means for the West writ large. Understanding the theory and practice behind this is critical to understanding Russia’s world view and what it means for Ukraine and beyond. 

Beijing Rules

Bethany Allen

Harper

Axios reporter Bethany Allen offers a comprehensive look at the challenge China presents to the United States and the West in her tightly written book “Beijing Rules.” The strength of her book is, ironically, an underlying theme that readers would do well to recognize in reading it—the West’s complicity in China’s rise and enabling the very behaviors it now finds objectionable. While she superbly recounts China’s financial and economic warfare and attempts to influence American politicians, this self-reflection—often omitted in narratives about Beijing’s rapid rise—is particularly critical if the United States and others are to craft smart counter-policies.

This is Europe

Ben Judah

Pan MacMillan

Judah’s “This is Europe” is much more than a collection of stories about people’s lived experiences in today’s Europe. It is an insightful look at what it means to be European in a time of profound change and disruption. From the challenges and risks of migration to climate change and the disruption brought by COVID-19, Judah offers an intimate portrait of a complex, diverse, and dynamic continent that is much more vibrant than most assume or understand. Some stories are poignant and powerful, others heart-warming and encouraging, but throughout, Judah allows the narrators to tell their stories for themselves. 

Emperor of Rome

Mary Beard

Liveright

This autumn a trend went viral: significant others would ask their boyfriends how often they thought about the Roman Empire with amusing, and unexpected, responses (shockingly their boyfriends seemed to think about the Roman Empire rather often). With the availability of books like Mary Beard’s “Emperor of Rome,” it is easy to see why so many think about the empire so frequently. Focusing on the emperors themselves—both the well-known and not-so-well-known—Beard turns her attention on how they lived and worked, showing the bureaucracies that enabled the Italian city to dominate much of the known world. Best read with or alongside her book “SPQR,” “Emperor of Rome” omits the role of the Roman army a bit too much at times, focusing instead on the men and the systems that put the “imperial” in Imperial Rome. A delight, nonetheless, it fizzes with relevance for our modern times. 

Mannerheim, Marshal of Finland: A Life in Geopolitics

Henrik Meinander

Hurst

Finland’s entry into NATO ended decades of military non-alignment, but continued the country’s tradition of deft geopolitical navigation, a tradition started by Gustaf Mannerheim. This towering Finnish figure, who is sadly less well known in the United States, charted his country’s path through the tumult and violence of World War II, despite having begun his career as a cavalry officer in the Russian imperial court and being forever challenged at speaking in Finnish (he was more well-spoken in Swedish and Russian). Meinander not only brings Mannerheim the person vividly to life, he also places Mannerheim the military and political leader within the complex power politics of the time as Finland faced predation from the Soviet Union and the ambitions of Nazi Germany. As a standalone book, Meinander’s biography is riveting, but with Finland’s accession into NATO, it is especially timely and a delightful way to better understand the new ally.  

Fiction Picks

It will come as no surprise to long-time Diplomatic Courier readers that your reviewer has a difficult relationship with fiction. Given the publishing cadence of superb non-fiction books and the press of trying to better understand the world at large, fiction often takes a backseat. There were, however, two standout spy novels that captured my attention.

Moscow X

David McCloskey 

W.W. Norton & Company

A follow-up to his superb spy thriller “Damascus Station,” “Moscow X” sees the return of his grizzled operations officer Artemis Aphrodite Procter (who is an amazing character in and of herself) and the introduction of a new team as they seek to shake up the Kremlin and undermine President Vladimir Putin’s regime by going after his money. A brilliant and timely plot that grabs the reader from the first page and does not let up—it was one of the few books that the reviewer read in one physical sitting. It is that good. 

The Peacock and the Sparrow

I.S. Berry

Simon & Schuster

Former CIA officer I.S. Berry brings her operations expertise to this tale of espionage set in Bahrain in the wake of the Arab Spring. Her writing is sumptuous, painting a vivid portrait of this island nation’s complex politics, diplomatic intrigues, and skullduggery, all told from the point of view of a grizzled, jaded operational officer—think le Carré’s Smiley with a lot more baggage. Berry puts the human back in human intelligence, exploring the motivations, feelings, and thoughts of the officers and agents, and in so doing sets her first novel apart from a crowded field. 

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Diplomatic Courier's Book Reviewer and Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress. He can be found on Twitter @joshuachuminski.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.