After an off year of reading in 2020, I had a return closer to form in 2021. Below I’ve highlighted some of my favorite spy related novels in no particular order.
Slough House by Mick Herron – Herron continues to fire on all cylinders with his seventh book in the Slough House series. This one feels especially like a love letter to his long time readers with multiple call backs to the first book in the series.
Red Widow by Alma Katsu – Katsu previously worked in the intelligence field and her first spy novel is a refreshing new entry into the genre. Her lead character, a CIA field officer sent back to headquarters as a mole hunter, is a fresh take on the stock spy and the cat and mouse game is flipped on its head in an engaging way. I’m hoping to speak with the author for a future Spybrary episode.
Spycraft by Robert Wallace, H. Keith Melton and Henry R. Schlesinger – I read this one to study up for an interview with Wallace and it’s completely enjoyable. Many of these types of books can read like a boring laundry list of events and dates. Spycraft is the opposite, telling the stories of CIA spy gadgets in an utterly readable way.
The Thursday Murder Club/The Man Who Died Twice by Richard Osman – The most fun two books I read this year were in this new series by Osman. The second has a more spy bent story but they both are completely charming. I can’t recommend them enough, especially after the past couple years we’ve had.
Bullet Train by Kotaro Isaka – I read a bunch of Japanese crime fiction a couple years back and after hearing some buzz about Bullet Train decided to give it a try. All the buzz was true. It moves as fast a it’s title and pulls you into the absurd circumstances that lead to seven assassins all on one train and the chaos that follows.
The Anomaly by Hervé Le Tellier – One of the last books I read in 2021, the spy connection is slightly dubious but it is by far my favorite read of the year. A genre bending book, gripping character work keeps you turning pages to the book’s speedy and perfect end. Special kudos go to Adriana Hunter for an especially smooth translation. A fascinating article on the translation work is here.
Silverview by John le Carré – We were unexpectedly given the gift of one final complete work from John le Carré. The book is not his greatest novels, but offers many of the pleasures of his typical writing. Listen to my podcast The le Carré Cast as we’ll be talking about all things Silverview every week in January 2022.
Other non-spy related books I enjoyed were –
Of Human Kindness: What Shakespeare Teaches Us about Empathy by Paula Marantz Cohen – I was able to speak with the author for the Like the Wolfe podcast and really enjoyed her book which looks at what we can learn from Shakespeare’s plays. You can tell that she loves talking about Shakespeare and learns as much from teaching her students as they do from her, a sure sign of a good teacher. It’s a short read, but no less thought provoking due to its length.
Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu – Yu tells his story in the form of a movie script. It’s a deceptively easy read that challenges preconceptions and explores how Asian-Americans fit in or struggle against assimilation into American culture in an utterly unique manner.
Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann – I saw Grann speak about the book at the National Archives in Washington D.C. back when the book came out but only got to it this year. I don’t know why I waited so long. It’s a shocking story vividly told and one all Americans should know.
Clark and Division by Naomi Hirahara – I’m a sucker for a Chicago based story and Hirahara tells a story of slightly forgotten Chicago history. In the 1940’s, as the US government finally began releasing Japanese-Americans from internment camps, many were relocated from the west coast to Chicago. There’s a murder mystery, but that’s much less compelling than the character studies and shameful history Hirahara reveals.
The Salvation Sequence Trilogy by Peter F. Hamilton – Hamilton writes epic space operas and this trilogy was no exception. The books race by and it’s 1800 or so total pages feel like a third of that. It’s great mind bending sci-fi.
Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir – While some dinged it as a return to similar stomping ground as The Martian and botched introduction of the second main character, I found it very engaging and quite well done. The science was interesting and the problems our characters were dealing with were fun puzzles.
Star Trek: Coda Trilogy by Dayton Ward, James Swallow and David Mack – When the new Picard tv series came out, Star Trek book writers had a problem. Nearly 20 years of book releases now didn’t fit in with the new “history” of Star Trek. Rather than throw up their hands and walk away, the writers and editors hatched a plan to bring their previous novels and subplots to a suitably epic and rousing conclusion. The result was a success and if you’ve at all enjoyed the Star Trek tie in novels, you’ll likely enjoy the trilogy. Plus sometime spy writer James Swallow snuck in a reference to John le Carré, so you know I would have to give it a positive review.