We have five fiction and five non-fiction recommendations for your reading pleasure this month. Enjoy histories, both serious and irreverent, a few mysteries, and a heist!
You May Never See Us Again by Jane Martinson
You May Never See Us Again is the only definitive story of David and Frederick Barclay – commonly known as the Barclay brothers. Born poor, these enigmatic twins built one of the biggest fortunes in Britain together from scratch and spent six decades at the epicentre of British business, media and politics. Their empire, said to be worth £7bn at its height, included Littlewoods, the Ritz Hotel, The Daily Telegraph and the channel island of Brecqhou. They were major advocates for Brexit and well-connected with influential politicians including Margaret Thatcher, Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage.
And yet despite their fortune and influence, their fiercely guarded desire for privacy has meant that their story remained largely unknown – until a very public family dispute pitched Barclay against Barclay in the High Court.
Journalist Jane Martinson unravels the fascinating story of these once inseparable billionaire brothers. Through their lives she offers compelling insights into post-war Britain, from the conditions that enabled their way of doing business to thrive through to the tightly enmeshed webs of influence between capitalism, politics and the media that shape Britain today.
The Mountain King by Anders de la Motte
Criminal inspector Leonore Asker seems to have the leading position at Malmö’s Major Crime Division within reach. But things go awry when, in the middle of a high-profile kidnapping case, management relegates her to the so-called Department of Lost Souls—the unit for odd, cold cases banished to the basement of the police station.
Despite the humiliation, Asker is drawn into one of the more peculiar cases. Someone is placing small ominous figures in town and one of them seems to represent the missing woman from the kidnapping case. As Asker’s investigation takes her to abandoned buildings, she reaches out to a local architecture expert and together they explore the sinister recesses of the city and discover that an unusual kind of evil lurks in the shadows.
The Book at War by Andrew Pettegree
We tend not to talk about books and war in the same breath—one ranks among humanity’s greatest inventions, the other among its most terrible. But as esteemed literary historian Andrew Pettegree demonstrates, the two are deeply intertwined. The Book at War explores the various roles that books have played in conflicts throughout the globe. Winston Churchill used a travel guide to plan the invasion of Norway, lonely families turned to libraries while their loved ones were fighting in the trenches, and during the Cold War both sides used books to spread their visions of how the world should be run. As solace or instruction manual, as critique or propaganda, books have shaped modern military history—for both good and ill.
With precise historical analysis and sparkling prose, The Book at War accounts for the power—and the ambivalence—of words at war.
The Wizard of the Kremlin by Giuliano da Empoli, trans. Willard Wood
Known as the “Wizard of the Kremlin,” the enigmatic Vadim Baranov was a TV producer before becoming a political advisor to Putin, aka “The Czar.” After his resignation from this position, legends about him multiply, with no one able to distinguish truth from fiction. Until one night, when he tells his story to the narrator of this book…
He immerses us in the heart of the Russian state, where sycophants and oligarchs have been engaging in open warfare, and where Vadim, now the regime’s main spin doctor, turns an entire country into an avant-garde political stage. Yet Vadim is not as ambitious as the others. Entangled in the increasingly dark secrets of the regime he has helped create, he will do anything to get out, guided by the memory of his grandfather, an eccentric aristocrat who survived the Revolution, and the mesmerizing, merciless Ksenia, whom he has fallen in love with.
Giuliano da Empoli, once a senior advisor to Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi, draws on his experience behind the scenes to create an authentic, compelling portrait of power and how it corrupts.
What Have You Left Behind? by Bushra al-Maqtari, trans. Sawad Hussain
In 2015, a year after it started, Bushra al-Maqtari decided to document the suffering of civilians in the Yemeni civil war, which has killed over 200,000 people according to the UN. Inspired by the work of Svetlana Alexievich, she spent two years visiting different parts of the country, putting her life at risk by speaking with her compatriots, and gathered over 400 testimonies, a selection of which appear in What Have You Left Behind?.
Purposefully alternating between accounts from the victims of the Houthi militia and those of the Saudi-led coalition, al-Maqtari highlights the disillusionment and anguish felt by civilians trapped in a war outside of their own making. As difficult to read as it is to put down, Bushra al-Maqtari’s unvarnished chronicle of the conflict in Yemen serves as a vital reminder of the scale of the human tragedy behind the headlines, and offers a searing condemnation of the international community’s complicity in the war’s continuation.
Good Material by Dolly Alderton
Andy loves Jen. Jen loved Andy. And he can’t work out why she stopped.
Now he is . . .
Without a home
Waiting for his stand-up career to take off
Wondering why everyone else around him seems to have grown up while he wasn’t looking
Set adrift on the sea of heartbreak, Andy clings to the idea of solving the puzzle of his ruined relationship. Because if he can find the answer to that, then maybe Jen can find her way back to him. But Andy still has a lot to learn, not least his ex-girlfriend’s side of the story . . .
In this sharply funny and exquisitely relatable account of romantic disaster and friendship, Dolly Alderton offers up a love story with two endings, demonstrating once again why she is one of the most exciting writers today and the true voice of a generation.
Madness by Antonia Hylton
On a cold day in March of 1911, officials marched twelve Black men into the heart of a forest in Maryland. Under the supervision of a doctor, the men were forced to clear the land, pour cement, lay bricks, and harvest tobacco. When construction finished, they became the first twelve patients of the state’s Hospital for the Negro Insane. For centuries, Black patients have been absent from our history books. Madness transports readers behind the brick walls of a Jim Crow asylum.
In Madness, Peabody and Emmy award-winning journalist Antonia Hylton tells the 93-year-old history of Crownsville Hospital, one of the last segregated asylums with surviving records and a campus that still stands to this day in Anne Arundel County, Maryland. She blends the intimate tales of patients and employees whose lives were shaped by Crownsville with a decade-worth of investigative research and archival documents. Madness chronicles the stories of Black families whose mental health suffered as they tried, and sometimes failed, to find safety and dignity. Hylton also grapples with her own family’s experiences with mental illness, and the secrecy and shame that it reproduced for generations.
As Crownsville Hospital grew from an antebellum-style work camp to a tiny city sitting on 1,500 acres, the institution became a microcosm of America’s evolving battles over slavery, racial integration, and civil rights. During its peak years, the hospital’s wards were overflowing with almost 2,700 patients. By the end of the 20th-century, the asylum faded from view as prisons and jails became America’s new focus.
In Madness, Hylton traces the legacy of slavery to the treatment of Black people’s bodies and minds in our current mental healthcare system. It is a captivating and heartbreaking meditation on how America decides who is sick or criminal, and who is worthy of our care or irredeemable.
Airplane Mode by Shahnaz Habib
The conditions of travel have long been dictated by the color of passports and the color of skin.
The color of one’s skin and passport have long dictated the conditions of travel. For Shahnaz Habib, travel and travel writing have always been complicated pleasures. Habib threads the history of travel with her personal story as a child on family vacations in India, an adult curious about the world, and an immigrant for whom roundtrips are an annual fact of life. Tracing the power dynamics that underlie tourism, this insightful debut parses who gets to travel, and who gets to write about the experience.
Threaded through the book are inviting and playful analyses of obvious and not-so-obvious travel artifacts: passports, carousels, bougainvilleas, guidebooks, trains, the idea of wanderlust itself. Together, they tell a subversive history of travel as a Euro-American mode of consumerism—but as any traveler knows, travel is more than that. As an immigrant whose loved ones live across continents, Habib takes a deeply curious and joyful look at a troubled and beloved activity.
The Curse of Pietro Houdini by Derek B. Miller
August, 1943. Fourteen-year-old Massimo is all alone. Newly orphaned and fleeing from Rome after surviving the American bombing raid that killed his parents, Massimo is attacked by thugs and finds himself bloodied at the base of the Montecassino. It is there in the Benedictine abbey’s shadow that a charismatic and cryptic man calling himself Pietro Houdini, the self-proclaimed “Master Artist and confidante of the Vatican,” rescues Massimo and brings him up the mountain to serve as his assistant in preserving the treasures that lay within the monastery walls.
But can Massimo believe what Pietro is saying, particularly when Massimo has secrets too? Who is this extraordinary man? When it becomes evident that Montecassino will soon become the front line in the war, Pietro Houdini and Massimo execute a plan to smuggle three priceless Titian paintings to safety down the mountain. They are joined by a nurse concealing a nefarious past, a café owner turned murderer, a wounded but chipper German soldier, and a pair of lovers along with their injured mule, Ferrari. Together they will lie, cheat, steal, fight, kill, and sin their way through battlefields to survive, all while smuggling the Renaissance masterpieces and the bag full of ancient Greek gold they have rescued from the “safe keeping” of the Germans.
Heartfelt, powerfully engaging, and in the tradition of City of Thieves by David Benioff, The Curse of Pietro Houdini is a work of storytelling bravado: a thrilling action-packed adventure heist, an imaginative chronicle of forgotten history, and a philosophical coming-of-age epic where a child navigates one of the most enigmatic and morally complex fronts of World War II and lives to tell the tale.
My Friends by Hisham Matar
One evening, as a young boy growing up in Benghazi, Khaled hears a bizarre short story read aloud on the radio and has the sense that his life has been changed forever. Obsessed by the power of those words—and by their enigmatic author, Hosam Zawa—Khaled eventually embarks on a journey that will take him far from home, to pursue a life of the mind at the University of Edinburgh.
There, thrust into an open society that is light years away from the world he knew in Libya, Khaled begins to change. He attends a protest against the Qaddafi regime in London, only to watch it explode in tragedy. In a flash, Khaled finds himself injured, clinging to life, an exile, unable to leave England. To even tell his mother and father back home what he has done, on tapped phone lines, would mark them for death.
When a chance encounter in a hotel brings Khaled face to face with Hosam Zawa, the author of the fateful short story, he is subsumed into the deepest friendship of his life. It is a friendship that not only sustains him, but eventually forces him, as the Arab Spring erupts, to confront agonizing tensions between revolution and safety, family and exile, and how to define his own sense of self against those closest to him.
A devastating meditation on friendship and family, and the ways in which time tests—and frays—those bonds, My Friends is an achingly beautiful work of literature by an author working at the peak of his powers.