Best Reads of 2023: The Christmas Gift Guide

SPECIAL HOLIDAY REPORT – This season of giving, your friendly neighborhood Cipher Brief “Undercover” team – which spends most of the year publishing book reviews and interviews with authors and publishers – presents our annual list of books to consider when buying for the friend who has everything or a family member with a genuine interest in intelligence, foreign policy, national security, and/or spy fiction. Our list can also be helpful if you want to give Santa some advice on what you'd like to find in your stock this year.


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 cut it short and focus on those that earned the top 3.5 or 4 Trench Coats (The Cipher Brief's rating system for highlighting excellence.) But even that work it didn't break the load much – as 27 of our 45 books achieved the highest rating.

Editor's note: Trench Coat ratings are determined solely by our volunteer reviewers – so your mileage may vary. You can love a book that earned only two trench coats from our reviewer—or hate a book that earned four. However, Cipher Brief's reviewers bring a wealth of experience and an eagle's eye to the process, so we suspect you'll probably agree.

While we don't have the bandwidth to round up even 27 books, here are some standouts that our reviewers loved the most. Most of the books we've reviewed have been nonfiction—so let's turn that on its head and start with some stellar novels.


Cipher Brief expert and CIA veteran Ruka Pavel Kolbe really enjoyed the latest novel from the former CIA analyst David McCloskey he called Moscow X. In Paul's review, he wrote that he was “engaged and ultimately immersed in a stunning plot peppered with classic craft, new methodologies, and compelling characters.” If you're interested in McCloskey – check out the interview did with us for our Cover Stories podcast.

We turned to Rob Richer, a former high-ranking CIA intelligence officer (and Cipher Brief expert) with extensive experience in the Middle East, to weigh in Peacock and sparrow a novel written by another former CIA officer, IS Berry. Richer praised Berry's ability to capture the “political complexity and inner sensitivity” of Bahrain and the prose, so that astute readers can “see the described streets in their mind's eye, sense the atmosphere and (even) imagine the smells.”

The Cipher Brief has Dr. Ken Dekleva, former State Department regional physician/psychiatrist, to help us review several spy novels. Granted Dead drop by James Roth, a solid 3.5 trench coat. This book is about a teenager from Northern Virginia who stumbles upon a dead end that leads to a complex story of KGB vs CIA espionage in the Cold War.

At the beginning of the year Dr. Dekleva reviewed: A True American Patriot: A Novel retired CIA officer Dan O'Connor. The novel has two protagonists – “the Doctor” – whom Dekleva describes as a mix of “Secret Service agent and paramilitary CIA officer” and “a professor” who is “gifted in mathematics, physics, exotic foreign languages ​​and diplomacy”. Together they face terrorism, weapons of mass destruction and more. By the way, we turn to Dr. Deklevu not only because of his ability to analyze the personalities of the characters in the books he reviews – but he is also a freelance novelist who wrote The Negotiators Cross and The Last Fiddler.


There are so many good titles to choose from. Calder Walton, associate director of the Harvard Center's Applied History and Intelligence Projects, was out with Spies: The Epic Intelligence War Between East and West so this summer we turned to Daniel Hoffman, a former senior CIA officer, three-time station chief and encryption expert, to break it down for us. Dan found it to be a “fascinating history of cloak and dagger espionage” that “reveals the veil behind the multifaceted covert operations that Russia and the West have waged against each other for over a century.” If you want to learn more about how this 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 he tackles the simple problem mentioned in the subtitle, “Keeping America Safe in an Era of New Superpowers, New Weapons, and New Threats.” George Galdorisi, former naval officer and bestseller author of fiction and nonfiction reviewed for us, calling it “a clear and well-reasoned argument that American 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 the “simple solution” part. But if you want to know more about Age of danger check out our interview with the authors Cover Stories podcast back in May.

This brings us to the recently published: Conflict: The Evolution of Warfare from 1945 to Ukraine written by retired 4-star general (and encryption expert) David Petraeus and British historian Lord Andrew Roberts. We relied on the expertise of Ben Griffin, Chief of the Military History Division of the United States Military Academy, for his take on the book. He found it to be “a thought-provoking book that will appeal to policy makers, 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 hopes 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 these roles were complimentary—such as those described in Brave Women: America's Extraordinary Service Women Who Helped Win World War II Lena Andrews, 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 – reviewed by the aforementioned Lena Andrews (an example of how we try to tap into people's deep expertise ) to review books for us.)

Other women who have been the subject of books reviewed in The Cipher Brief have not been worthy of emulation – such as Ana Montes, a Defense Agency official (see here) who spied for Cuba and was the subject of two books reviewed in TCB: Codename Blue Wren by Jim Popkin (who also joins us on this Cover Stories podcast) and “Queen of Cuba” by former FBI Special Agent Pete Lapp, reviewed for us by former CIA counterintelligence chief (and Cipher Brief expert) Mark Kelton.

We could go on and on about some of the great—and near-great—books reviewed in The Cipher Brief—but time, space, and energy suggest we stop here. However, if you want to find other books that suit your personal interests – or those of your giftees – check out the shelves full of books reviewed from the past year and earlier at this link.


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

Look for it in early January God, Guns, and Sedition: Far Right Terrorism in America by Cipher Brief expert Bruce Hoffman and Jacob Ware (reviewed by Philip Mudd.) Look for February Beverly Hills Spy: The double-time war hero who helped Japan attack Pearl Harbor by Ronald Drabkin (reviewed by TCB expert Joe Augustyn).

He will be there later this month Achilles' Trap: Saddam Hussein, the CIA, and the Origins of the US Invasion of Iraq by Steve Coll and will be published in March 2054: A Novel, a futuristic view of artificial intelligence combined with violent partisan divisions in the future may lead to an existential threat to America. This book was created by encryption experts Admiral James Stavridis and Elliot Ackerman.

The list above is just a few of the great books we've reviewed at The Cipher Brief. To find a complete list going back about five years – visit our website. And don't forget to subscribe to the Cover Stories podcast, where we interview authors, publishers, agents, and Hollywood movers and shakers.


If you think you have the skills to be a Cipher Brief reviewer – drop us a line. Let us know your interests and area of ​​specialization by email at: (email protected).

You don't have to have a specific upcoming book in mind – just let us know you're interested and we'll try to find the right books with the right potential reviewers.

Read our Reviewer Guidelines.

Note that we always try to find reviewers with deep expertise and vested interests that match the book's authors. If you think you have what it takes to be a Cipher Brief reviewer, drop us a line at (email protected).

We have a lot of good books (and a few bad ones) on the horizon—and we need good reviewers to help us sort through them.

Full Disclosure: The Cipher Brief participates in the Amazon Affiliate Program and may receive a small commission on purchases made through links. That doesn't change the price you pay – we only get a very, very small slice of Jeff Bezos' profits.

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