The Best Reads of 2023: A Holiday Gift Guide


HOLIDAY SPECIAL REPORT – In this season of giving, your friendly neighborhood Cipher Brief “Undercover” team (which spends the bulk of the year publishing book reviews and interviews with authors and publishers) presents our annual list of books to consider when you are buying for the friend who has everything or the family member who is really interested in intelligence, foreign policy, national security, and/or spy fiction. Our list also might be useful if you’re looking to drop some hints to Santa for stuff you’d like to find in your own stocking this year.

WHERE TO BEGIN?

The obvious place to start is in the book review section of The Cipher Brief. During 2023, we published reviews of 45 books. That number of books is too unwieldy for this list, so we thought we’d pare it down and focus on those which earned the highest honors of 3.5 or 4 Trench Coats (The Cipher Brief’s rating system for singling out excellence.) But even that didn’t put much of a dent in the workload – since 27 of our 45 books scored those highest ratings.

Editor’s note: the Trench Coat ratings are solely determined by our volunteer reviewers – so your mileage may vary. You may love a book that only snared two Trench Coats from our reviewer – or hate one that earned four.  But Cipher Brief reviewers bring a wealth of experience and an eagle eye to the process, so we suspect you are likely to agree.

While we don’t have the bandwidth to summarize even 27 books, here are some standouts that our reviewers loved the most. The majority of the books we reviewed were non-fiction – so let’s turn that on its head and start with some stellar novels.

OUR FAVORITE FICTION BOOKS

Cipher Brief expert and veteran CIA Russia hand Paul Kolbe really liked the latest novel from former CIA analyst David McCloskey called Moscow X. In Paul’s review he wrote that he was “intrigued by and ultimately immersed, in a terrific plot seasoned with classic tradecraft, new methodologies and compelling characters.” If you are intrigued by McCloskey – check out the interview he did with us for our Cover Stories podcast.

We turned to Rob Richer, a former high-ranking CIA clandestine service officer (and Cipher Brief expert) with tons of experience in the Middle East to review The Peacock and the Sparrow a novel written by another former CIA officer, I.S. Berry.  Richer praised Berry’s ability to capture the “political complexity and internal sensitivities” of Bahrain and prose so sharp readers can “see the streets described in their mind’s eye, to sense the atmosphere, and (even) imagine the smells.”

The Cipher Brief has on call, Dr. Ken Dekleva, a former State Department Regional Medical Officer/Psychiatrist, to help us review several espionage novels. He awarded The Dead Drop by James Roth, a solid 3.5 trench coats. That book is about a northern Virginia teenager who stumbles across a dead drop that leads to a complex tale of KGB vs CIA cold war espionage.

Earlier in the year, Dr. Dekleva reviewed: A True American Patriot: A Novel by retired CIA officer Dan O’Connor. The novel has two protagonists – “Doc” – who Dekleva describes as a mixture of “Secret Service agent and CIA paramilitary officer” and “the Professor” who is “gifted in math, physics, exotic foreign languages, and diplomacy.” Together they confront terrorism, weapons of mass destruction and more. By the way, we turn to Dr. Dekleva not just because of his ability to analyze the personalities of the characters in the books he reviews – but he is also a novelist on his own right having written The Negotiators Cross and The Last Violinist.

WHAT ABOUT NON-FICTION? 

There are so many good titles to choose from. Calder Walton, Assistant Director of the Harvard Center’s Applied History and Intelligence projects, was out with Spies: The Epic Intelligence War Between East and West this summer, so we turned to Daniel Hoffman, a former senior CIA officer, three-time station chief and Cipher Brief expert to break it down for us. Dan found it to be a “fascinating history of cloak and dagger espionage” which “lifts the veil on the multifarious clandestine operations Russia and the West conducted against one another for over a century.” If you want to know more about how that book came to be, Walder reveals some of the secrets of his scholarship in this Cover Stories podcast.

Then there was a book by Andrew Hoehn and Thom Shanker, Age of Danger, where they solve the simple problem mentioned in the subtitle of “Keeping America Safe in an Era of New Superpowers, New Weapons, and New Threats.”  George Galdorisi, a former naval officer and bestselling author of fiction and non-fiction in his own right, reviewed the book for us and called it a “clear-headed and well-reasoned argument that the U.S. policy, intelligence and military structures, many of which date back to the end of World War II, are no longer adequate to deal with today’s, and especially tomorrow’s, threats.” Just kidding about that “simple solution” part. But if you want to know more about Age of Danger check out our interview with the authors for the Cover Stories podcast back in May.

That leads us to the recently published: Conflict: The Evolution of Warfare from 1945 to Ukraine written by retired 4-star general (and Cipher Brief expert) David Petraeus and British historian Lord Andrew Roberts. We leaned on the expertise of Ben Griffin, the Chief of the Military History Division of the U.S. Military Academy, for his take on the book. He found it a “thought-provoking book which will appeal to policymakers, military leaders, and those interested in the study of war and strategy.”

Another fan favorite is By All Means Available: Memoirs of a Life in Intelligence, Special Operations and Strategy by Cipher Brief Expert Dr. Michael Vickers. Cipher Brief COO Brad Christian loved the book so much that he’s hoping Vickers will run for president.

A recurring theme in some of the books we reviewed was the role of women in intelligence and military operations.  Many of those roles were laudatory – like those described in Valiant Women: The Extraordinary American Servicewomen Who Helped Win World War II by Lena Andrews, which was reviewed for us by former senior CIA officer (and TCB expert) Linda Weissgold, and Women in Intelligence: The Hidden History of Two World Wars by Helen Fry – which was reviewed by the aforementioned Lena Andrews (an example of how we try to tap the deep expertise of folks to review books for us.)  

Other women who were subjects of books reviewed in The Cipher Brief were not worthy of emulating – for example Ana Montes, a Defense Intelligence Agency official (reviewed here) who spied for Cuba and was the subject of two books reviewed in TCB: Code Name Blue Wren by Jim Popkin (who also joined us in this Cover Stories podcast) and “Queen of Cuba” by former FBI special agent Pete Lapp, which was reviewed for us by retired CIA senior counterintelligence executive (and Cipher Brief expert) Mark Kelton.

We could go on and on about some great – and nearly great — books reviewed in The Cipher Brief – but time, space and energy suggest we stop here.  But to find other books that fit your personal interests – or those of your gift recipients – check out the shelves full of books reviewed over the past year and before at this link.

WHAT’S NEW IN 2024?

We’re so glad you asked.  There are some interesting new books coming out in the new year that we’re looking forward to reading (and reviewing).

In early January look for God, Guns, and Sedition: Far-Right Terrorism in America by Cipher Brief expert Bruce Hoffman and Jacob Ware (reviewed by Philip Mudd.) In February, look for The Beverly Hills Spy: The Double-Agent War Hero Who Helped Japan Attack Pearl Harbor by Ronald Drabkin (reviewed by TCB expert Joe Augustyn). 

Later that month, there will be The Achilles Trap: Saddam Hussen, The CIA, and the Origins of America’s Invasion of Iraq by Steve Coll, and March will see the publication of  2054: A Novel, a futuristic look at artificial intelligence combined with a violent partisan divide in the future might lead to an existential threat to America. That book is by Cipher Brief expert Admiral James Stavridis and Elliot Ackerman.

Within the list above, are just some of the great books we have reviewed in The Cipher Brief. To find the complete list going back some five years – visit our website.  And don’t forget to subscribe to the Cover Stories podcast, where we do interviews with authors, publishers, agents and Hollywood movers and shakers.

ONE MORE THING

If you think you have the chops to be a Cipher Brief reviewer – drop us a note. Let us know of your interests and area of specialty in an email to: [email protected]

You don’t have to have a particular forthcoming book in mind – just let us know that you are interested and we will try to match up the right books with the right potential reviewers.

Check out our Reviewer Guidelines.

You will note that we always try to find reviewers with deep expertise and interests of their own to match that of the books’ authors. If you think you have what it takes to be a Cipher Brief reviewer, email us at [email protected]

We’ve got plenty of good books (and a few bad ones) on the horizon – and need good reviewers to help us sort them out.

Full disclosure:  The Cipher Brief participates in the Amazon Affiliate program and may make a small commission from purchases made via links. That doesn’t change the price you pay – we just get a very, very small slice of Jeff Bezos’ profits. 

Read more expert-driven national security insights, perspective and analysis in The Cipher Brief because National Security is Everyone’s Business



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