The most recommended books about opium

Who picked these books? Meet our 27 experts.

27 authors created a book list connected to opium, and here are their favorite opium books.
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What type of opium book?


Air America

By Christopher Robbins,

Book cover of Air America

Tom Vater Author Of The Man With The Golden Mind

From the list on Laos and the CIA's covert war there.

Who am I?

I’m a writer and journalist with an eye on South and Southeast Asia. I first visited beautiful, land-locked, and sleepy Laos in 2000, as the country reluctantly reemerged from post-revolutionary isolation. I researched and co-wrote The Most Secret Place on Earth, a feature documentary on how the CIA created a clandestine army to fight Laotian and Vietnamese communists, rigged elections, and eventually destroyed much of the country with carpet bombing. This slice of secret history forms the narrative backbone of my novel. The Man with the Golden Mind is a spy thriller, as well as an ode to one of the most isolated countries in the world.

Tom's book list on Laos and the CIA's covert war there

Why did Tom love this book?

From 1965 onwards, the USA, conducted a covert anti-communist war in Laos. While the CIA created a clandestine hilltribe army, the air support for these troops was provided by Air America, ostensibly a private airline that was owned by the agency. Small spotter planes flew to 100s of airstrips across Laos to distribute troops, aid and weapons while collecting vast amounts of opium grown by the mercenaries the US had hired, later refined into heroin and sold to US troops fighting in Vietnam. Robbins’ book, which is somewhat revisionist, nonetheless brilliantly tracks the history of the airline from its beginnings in 1950s Indochina and demonstrates the courage of its pilots who frequently flew under fire and whose motto was "Anything, Anywhere, Anytime, Professionally".

By Christopher Robbins,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Air America as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The incredible inside story of the world's most extraordinary covert operation.

Air America - a secret airline run by the CIA - flew missions no one else would touch, from General Claire Cennault's legendary Flying Tigers in WW II to two brutal decades cruising over the bomb-savaged jungles of Southeast Asia. Their pilots dared all and did all - a high-rolling, fast-playing bunch of has-beens and hellraisers whose motto was 'Anything, Anywhere, Anytime'. Whether it was delivering food and weapons or spooks and opium, Air America was the one airline where you didn't need reservations - just a hell of…

Intoxicating Manchuria

By Norman Smith,

Book cover of Intoxicating Manchuria: Alcohol, Opium, and Culture in China's Northeast

Annika A. Culver Author Of Glorify the Empire: Japanese Avant-Garde Propaganda in Manchukuo

From the list on Manchukuo (Manchuria).

Who am I?

I began formally researching Japanese occupied northeast China in the late nineties in graduate school at Harvard University. Manchuria always fascinated me as a confluence of cultures: even prior to the 19th century, Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, Russians, Eastern Europeans, Mongols, and indigenous peoples circulated within the region in China's periphery. In the 1930s until 1945, Japanese propaganda portrayed the area as a "utopia" under Confucian principles, but in the mid-1990s, the horrors of the occupation for colonized peoples as well as imperial Japan's biological weapons experimentation during the Asia-Pacific War came to light in Japan and elsewhere as former Japanese settlers as well as researchers began to tell their stories.

Annika's book list on Manchukuo (Manchuria)

Why did Annika love this book?

This excellent book illuminates the culture of intoxicants in northeast China under Japanese occupation. Smith examines Chinese literature, advertisements, and popular culture to show how liquor and opium were depicted in contemporaneous mass media and impacted local urban communities. He also investigates how popular conceptions of "health" tied in with programs initiated by the Japanese authorities to control local populations, while advertisers of patent medicines, cordials, and tonics also picked up on these themes. Some of the highlights of Intoxicating Manchuria include masterfully vivid descriptions and illustrations of cartoons revealing the uneasy relationship between law enforcement, retailers, public health practitioners, and corporations.

By Norman Smith,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Intoxicating Manchuria as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Intoxicating Manchuria reveals how the powerful alcohol and opium industries in Northeast China were altered by warlord rule, Japanese occupation, political conflict, and a vigorous anti-intoxicant movement. Through the lens of the Chinese media's depictions of alcohol and opium, Norman Smith examines how intoxicants and addiction were understood in this society, the role the Japanese occupation of Manchuria played in the portrayal of intoxicants, and the efforts made to reduce opium and alcohol consumption. This is the first English-language book-length study to focus on alcohol use in modern China and the first dealing with intoxicant restrictions in the region.

Poppies, Politics, and Power

By James Tharin Bradford,

Book cover of Poppies, Politics, and Power: Afghanistan and the Global History of Drugs and Diplomacy

Phil Halton Author Of Blood Washing Blood: Afghanistan's Hundred-Year War

From the list on the War in Afghanistan.

Who am I?

Phil Halton has worked in conflict zones around the world as an officer in the Canadian Army and as a security consultant and has extensive experience in Afghanistan. He is the author of two novels and a history. He holds a Master's Degree in Defence Studies from Royal Military College of Canada, and a Graduate Certificate in Creative Writing from Humber College. 

Phil's book list on the War in Afghanistan

Why did Phil love this book?

Drug trafficking has become entwined with Afghanistan in the minds of many, though the true situation is often misunderstood. Bradford’s meticulous research not only clearly explains the present situation, it places it in the broader historical context that is almost always missing. The legal trade in opium has deep roots in Afghanistan, and even in the present day, there are as many senior government officials benefiting from it as there are insurgent leaders. He also explores the growing problem with addiction that plagues Afghanistan, humanizing a complex problem.

By James Tharin Bradford,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Poppies, Politics, and Power as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Historians have long neglected Afghanistan's broader history when portraying the opium industry. But in Poppies, Politics, and Power, James Tharin Bradford rebalances the discourse, showing that it is not the past forty years of lawlessness that makes the opium industry what it is, but the sheer breadth of the twentieth-century Afghanistan experience. Rather than byproducts of a failed contemporary system, argues Bradford, drugs, especially opium, were critical components in the formation and failure of the Afghan state.

In this history of drugs and drug control in Afghanistan, Bradford shows us how the country moved from licit supply of the global…

Book cover of The Social Life of Opium in China

Erika Rappaport Author Of A Thirst for Empire: How Tea Shaped the Modern World

From the list on understand ingtea and other Chinese things.

Who am I?

I grew up in Los Angeles, the mecca of global consumer culture. I became a historian to escape from what I saw as this shallow, surface culture but through my work, I have returned to the mall. My work uses history to show how consumer desires are not natural. Instead, I ask why people consume particular things in particular places, and I show how they attribute meaning to the things they buy. I am not a specialist on China but while researching and writing on tea's global political economy and consumer culture I became fascinated by how China contributed to the making of global tastes, desires, and material culture. These books illuminate the history and cultural life of tea, opium, porcelain, and other things within and beyond China.

Erika's book list on understand ingtea and other Chinese things

Why did Erika love this book?

We know a lot about how the Chinese state sought to ban, limit, and exclude opium from its borders, but this book uniquely delves into the multifaceted way that the demand for the drug emerged in the first place and then spread down the social scale to become a mass commodity. I especially loved the detailed way in which the author showed how consumers produced a variety of meanings surrounding opium and incorporated it into both elite and popular culture. Writing against so many myths, Yangwen shows us that for much of its history, opium was celebrated not demonized.

By Zheng Yangwen,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Social Life of Opium in China as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In a remarkable and broad-ranging narrative, Yangwen Zheng's book explores the history of opium consumption in China from 1483 to the late twentieth century. The story begins in the mid-Ming dynasty, when opium was sent as a gift by vassal states and used as an aphrodisiac in court. Over time, the Chinese people from different classes and regions began to use it for recreational purposes, so beginning a complex culture of opium consumption. The book traces this transformation over a period of five hundred years, asking who introduced opium to China, how it spread across all sections of society, embraced…

The Heiress

By Molly Greeley,

Book cover of The Heiress: The Revelations of Anne de Bourgh

Allison Epstein Author Of A Tip for the Hangman

From the list on for people who don’t read historical fiction.

Who am I?

I love historical fiction in all its forms, from the multi-volume family epics to the Dear America middle-grade books I grew up with. And I really, truly don’t understand why historical fiction has a reputation for being dry, dull, or worst of all, like homework. Sure, there are some novels written for history buffs only, but the vast majority aren’t, and neither is mine. When I wrote A Tip for the Hangman, my goal was to write historical fiction that reads like a page-turner, not a textbook. The books on this list all pull off that trick beautifully, and I hope you enjoy them as much as I do.

Allison's book list on for people who don’t read historical fiction

Why did Allison love this book?

If you’re not a dyed-in-the-wool historical fiction reader, you might think Jane Austen retellings aren’t for you. That’s only because you haven’t read The Heiress yet. This stunning, dreamy, gothic-infused book takes a minor character from Pride and Prejudice who hardly gets any lines and spins up a story about finding your voice in a world that wants to keep you silent. Anne’s struggle against addiction and desperate desire to embrace the beauty of life feels like it could have taken place yesterday. Also, it’s got lesbian yearning that’s both sweet and sexy, aka the dream. Give me that queer pining, please and thank you. 

By Molly Greeley,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Heiress as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'With stunningly lyrical writing, Greeley elevates Austen-inspired fiction onto a whole new plane.' - Natalie Jenner, author of The Jane Austen Society

As a fussy baby, Anne was prescribed laudanum to quiet her and has been given the opium-heavy syrup ever since on account of her continuing ill health. While her mother is outraged when Darcy chooses not to marry Anne, as has been long planned, Anne can barely raise her head to acknowledge the fact.

But little by little, she comes to see that what she has always been told is an affliction of nature might in fact be…

The Paris Winter

By Imogen Robertson,

Book cover of The Paris Winter

Lise McClendon Author Of Blackbird Fly

From the list on transporting you to France.

Who am I?

I’m American but I’ve been a Francophile for ages. I didn’t get a chance to visit France until well into adulthood. So much history lives in France and it’s been my joy to illuminate it for readers who tell me they feel transported. There is no higher compliment, in my mind. I’ve been writing novels for thirty years, set in the Rocky Mountains, America’s heartland, and the scenic villages of France. The Bennett Sisters Mysteries are now up 18 books in the series, featuring settings from Paris to Champagne to the Dordogne, with more in the works. I must go back to France to research, oui

Lise's book list on transporting you to France

Why did Lise love this book?

I love weaving history into my mysteries so I was drawn to this dark tale of Paris in the Belle Époque. An English girl goes to Paris to study art but, desperately poor, throws her fate into the hands of some shady characters. The atmosphere and scene-setting of Paris during a terrible rainy winter are unforgettable. 

By Imogen Robertson,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Paris Winter as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Extra material includes a deleted scene and a Q&A with Imogen Robertson

Maud Heighton came to Lafond's famous Academy to paint, and to flee the constraints of her small English town. It took all her courage to escape, but Paris eats money. While her fellow students enjoy the dazzling joys of the Belle Epoque, Maud slips into poverty. Quietly starving, and dreading another cold Paris winter, Maud takes a job as companion to young, beautiful Sylvie Morel. But Sylvie has a secret: an addiction to opium. As Maud is drawn into the Morels' world of elegant luxury, their secrets become…

The Pure and the Impure

By Colette, Herma Briffault (translator),

Book cover of The Pure and the Impure

Holly Grout Author Of The Force of Beauty: Transforming French Ideas of Femininity in the Third Republic

From the list on sex and the city in modern France.

Who am I?

Holly Grout is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Alabama. Her research interests include the cultural history of modern France, women and gender studies, and the history of beauty, fashion, celebrity, and consumer culture. Her current project, Playing Cleopatra: Inventing the Female Celebrity in Third Republic France, investigates many of the same themes around sexuality, female bodies, public decency, and spectacle. She chose these works in particular because they exemplify some of the best on sex and the city, and they address many of the same issues that Colette raised so long ago – suggesting that sex and the city was a turn-of-the-century fascination in Paris long before HBO turned it into an international cultural phenomenon.

Holly's book list on sex and the city in modern France

Why did Holly love this book?

Although best known to Anglophone readers for her novel Gigi (1944), Colette considered Ces Plaisirs (These Pleasures) later titled The Pure and the Impure, one of her best works. A titillating exploration into the erotic underground of early twentieth-century Paris, the novel’s semi-autobiographical characters pursue a range of sexual experiences and sensual pleasures. Traversing the capital city’s carnal playgrounds, from its fashionable opium dens to its commercial boudoirs, Colette troubles the complicated relationship between sex and love – presenting both as a worthy if ultimately futile human pursuit.

By Colette, Herma Briffault (translator),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Pure and the Impure as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Colette herself considered The Pure and the Impure her best book, "the nearest I shall ever come to writing an autobiography." This guided tour of the erotic netherworld with which Colette was so intimately acquainted begins in the darkness and languor of a fashionable opium den. It continues as a series of unforgettable encounters with men and, especially, women whose lives have been improbably and yet permanently transfigured by the strange power of desire. Lucid and lyrical, The Pure and the Impure stands out as one of modern literature's subtlest reckonings not only with the varieties of sexual experience, but…

Book cover of Glory and the Master of Shadows

Katherine Grant Author Of The Viscount Without Virtue

From Katherine's 3 favorite reads in 2023.

Who am I?

Author Novelist History nerd Amateur dancer Reader New Yorker

Katherine's 3 favorite reads in 2023

Why did Katherine love this book?

The Regency romance genre is still in its early years of ethnically diverse characters, so I’m always thrilled to find books that break the mold of the white British aristocrat – while still delivering really fun reads.

Glory and the Master of Shadows does just that. At its core, it is everything we love about a historical romance: the heroine rebels against the role society has assigned her, our couple has to work together to thwart a bad guy, and throughout, the sexual tension keeps on ratcheting up.

Layered on top of those lovely bones are characters who struggle with what it means to be Chinese or biracial in British society. Oh, and the scene that stopped me in my tracks? When meditative breathing turns sexy…

By Grace Callaway,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Glory and the Master of Shadows as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Don't miss this thrilling new historical romance by USA Today Bestseller Grace Callaway! Set during the Opium Wars, this steamy and spellbinding Charlie’s Angels meets Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon romance will leave you breathless...

Their love is forbidden…and irresistible.

The daughter of a half-Chinese duke and a lady fossil hunter, Lady Glory Cavendish is a free-spirited campaigner for justice. She belongs to a secret society of lady detectives whose goal is to help women in need. During her latest case involving a dastardly dognapping, Glory crosses paths with the handsome and mysterious Wei Chen, a master of fighting and healing…

The Last Kings of Shanghai

By Jonathan Kaufman,

Book cover of The Last Kings of Shanghai: The Rival Jewish Dynasties That Helped Create Modern China

Claire Chao Author Of Remembering Shanghai: A Memoir of Socialites, Scholars and Scoundrels

From the list on China’s greatest city Shanghai.

Who am I?

“Old Shanghai” is in my blood: though raised in Hong Kong, I was surrounded by all things Shanghai through my parents and their friends, who had grown up during Shanghai’s 1930s heyday. The classical culture … the modern glamour … the breathtaking scandals! Since childhood I’ve searched for connections to my heritage; this fascination led me, years later, to write Remembering Shanghai with my mother, by then in her eighties. Having immersed myself in Shanghai history and culture most of my life, I am passionate about intimate, authentic stories that are told against a rich historical backdrop—the kind that make reviewers say “you can’t make this up!”

Claire's book list on China’s greatest city Shanghai

Why did Claire love this book?

A great deal has been written about the Jewish refugees who flooded into Shanghai during World War II, but that’s not the case with the story of the wealthy Sephardic Jewish families who arrived in the early days of opium trading and built fabulous fortunes. In Last Kings of Shanghai, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Jonathan Kaufman weaves the epic tale of the Sassoons and the Kadoories, stretching from Baghdad to Shanghai to London and Hong Kong. It’s a story of business acumen and political intrigue, of wartime survival and the choices that saw one family perpetuate its wealth and influence in China, and the other fade into history.

By Jonathan Kaufman,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Last Kings of Shanghai as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"In vivid detail... examines the little-known history of two extraordinary dynasties."--The Boston Globe

"Not just a brilliant, well-researched, and highly readable book about China's past, it also reveals the contingencies and ironic twists of fate in China's modern history."--LA Review of Books

An epic, multigenerational story of two rival dynasties who flourished in Shanghai and Hong Kong as twentieth-century China surged into the modern era, from the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist

The Sassoons and the Kadoories stood astride Chinese business and politics for more than one hundred seventy-five years, profiting from the Opium Wars; surviving Japanese occupation; courting Chiang Kai-shek; and…


By Christopher Moore,

Book cover of Razzmatazz

David J. Agans Author Of The Urban Legion

From David's 3 favorite reads in 2023.

Who am I?

Author Humorist Storyteller Engineer Golfer Zen

David's 3 favorite reads in 2023

Why did David love this book?

Razzmatazz is a sequel to Noir, both novels recounting the adventures of one Sammy Two Toes and his girl Stilton (a.k.a. The Cheese) in 1940s San Francisco. I was writing a noir spoof when I read the first book and looked forward to Moore’s take on it.

The books are less noir and more Guys and Dolls—comical low-life characters attempting to sound sophisticated as they dance the line between law and outlaw. I love Guys and Dolls, so these books worked for me. Not only did Razzmatazz maintain Moore’s high standard of humor, but it also included the usual dose of paranormal fun.

By Christopher Moore,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Razzmatazz as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

New York Times Bestseller

"Smart and funny and all sorts of raunchy in the best way." - San Francisco Chronicle

Repeat New York Times bestselling author Christopher Moore returns to the mean streets of San Francisco in this outrageous follow-up to his madcap novel Noir.

San Francisco, 1947. Bartender Sammy "Two Toes" Tiffin and the rest of the Cookie's Coffee Irregulars-a ragtag bunch of working mugs last seen in Noir-are on the hustle: they're trying to open a driving school; shanghai an abusive Swedish stevedore; get Mable, the local madam, and her girls to a Christmas party at the State…