The best books about political prisoners

Many authors have picked their favorite books about political prisoners and why they recommend each book.

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Desde la noche y la niebla

By Juana Doña,

Book cover of Desde la noche y la niebla

This is the only book in my selection that can just be found in Spanish language. But it’s a fantastic book as Juana Doña wrote a novel about the eighteen years she spent as a political prisoner in the Franco jails. From the night and the fog is a testimony about the resistance that women organised from their prison cells, the fight they led with incredible spirit and resilience despite the inhuman conditions they were living in, mots of them having lost so many loved ones in the war. The horrifying truth shines in a painful but necessary way.

Who am I?

I am a French writer of Spanish origin. My two grandfathers shared history with Spain’s darkest hours. My maternal grandfather was born in Barcelona and he was a teenager at the time of the war; just like Salvayre’s parents, he had to flee Spain as the bombs were hitting his city. My paternal grandfather, who was in his twenties at the time of the civil war, decided to fight for the “International Brigades” to defend Spain’s freedom. It is to honour their memory and one of the millions of men and women who suffered from those almost four decades of dictatorship that I wrote Blood Song, a historical thriller, the third installment in the Roy and Castell series.

I wrote...

Blood Song

By Johana Gustawsson, David Warriner,

Book cover of Blood Song

What is my book about?

Terrifying, vivid, and recounted at breakneck speed, Blood Song is not only a riveting thriller and an examination of corruption in the fertility industry, but a shocking reminder of the atrocities of Spain's dictatorship, in the latest, stunning instalment in the award-winning Roy & Castells series.

Spain, 1938: The country is wracked by civil war, and as Valencia falls to Franco's brutal dictatorship, Republican Therese witnesses the murders of her family. Captured and sent to the notorious Las Ventas women's prison, Therese gives birth to a daughter who is forcibly taken from her.

Auschwitz and After

By Charlotte Delbo, Rosette C. Lamont (translator),

Book cover of Auschwitz and After

I first read Auschwitz and After in a university course focused on the Holocaust. Toward the course’s end, in a section focusing on memoirs, this book followed Elie Wiesel’s Night and Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz. While Weisel and Levi’s works are both undeniably masterpieces, Delbo’s work stood out to me because of its form and its feminist perspective. Delbo, a French partisan who was captured and deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau, lays bare in her work the ways in which gender affected the camp experience. It illuminated to me the different and similar ways in which men and women responded to the horrors of the extermination camps. Furthermore, Delbo’s work is not a linear narrative. Instead, it combines poetry and other non-traditional forms to create a memoir of an experience that Delbo readily admitted language was not equipped to capture. I recommend the work for the ways in which it…

Who am I?

I am a writer, researcher, and sometimes curator and I have a passion for history and great storytelling. While my own research has focused on the First World War, I have worked on exhibits and reports on a wide array of topics. I continue to be inspired by new ways of understanding and depicting history, and especially by the work of fellow women writers and historians. This short list is a glimpse into some of my favourite works of non-fiction writing out there that has been produced by women and that have inspired me.

I wrote...

Death or Deliverance: Canadian Courts Martial in the Great War

By Teresa Iacobelli,

Book cover of Death or Deliverance: Canadian Courts Martial in the Great War

What is my book about?

Soldiers found guilty of desertion or cowardice during the Great War faced death by firing squad. Novels, histories, movies, and television series often depict courts-martial as brutal and inflexible, and social memories of this system of frontline justice have inspired modern movements to seek pardons for soldiers executed on the battlefield. In this powerful and moving book, Teresa Iacobelli looks beyond stories of callous generals and quick executions to consider the trials of nearly two hundred soldiers who were sentenced to death but spared by a disciplinary system capable of thoughtful review and compassion.

By bringing to light these men’s experiences, Death or Deliverance reconsiders an important chapter in the history of both a war and a nation.

A Month and a Day

By Ken Saro-Wiwa,

Book cover of A Month and a Day: A Detention Diary

This is an interesting and moving account by Nigerian writer, Ken Saro-Wiwa, which describes his non-violent struggle against big petroleum companies and the military dictatorship who were involved in human rights and environmental abuses of the Ogoni people. He describes his detention and the events leading up to it in harrowing detail and gives lucid convincing arguments against his accusers. A truly inspirational message, especially given that much of it was written in secret in prison, and knowing that he was unjustly tried and executed in 1995, shortly after the book’s publication. 

Who am I?

I am a Scottish writer who enjoys travelling and meeting people of different cultures and beliefs. I have always been a fan of adventure stories, particularly those with a strange or supernatural bent. My travels to The Ivory Coast and North Africa, hearing accounts of various witch stories, and encountering strange events and practices firsthand inspired me to write The Witch’s List Trilogy: the first two books published and the third in progress. 

I wrote...

The Witch's List

By Andrew Cairns,

Book cover of The Witch's List

What is my book about?

Young Scot, Sandy Beech doesn't believe in witches and the supernatural. However, certain strange events occur which put his skepticism to the test: a burning book, a falling crucifix, a mysterious illness, and a fire in a convent that kills all twelve nuns. On her deathbed, Bernadette, the last surviving nun, warns him to control his lusts and avoid African women. He pays no heed though, and marries Rocky from the Ivory Coast. On a visit to her home country, Sandy is drawn into a world of strange beliefs and practices, notably the Witch's List - a list of people destined to die imminently. He delves further and further into the realm of African witchcraft, but the horrific truth remains obscure...

A Sliver of Light

By Shane Bauer, Joshua Fattal, Sarah Shourd

Book cover of A Sliver of Light: Three Americans Imprisoned in Iran

Those interested in the never-ending drama of US-Iranian relations since 1979 probably remember the affair of the mountain climbers. Three Americans, hiking the mountains in Iraqi Kurdistan, mistakenly crossed the border into Iran. They were taken to Evin prison in Tehran, where they were imprisoned for two years, a good part of which they spent in solitary confinement as Iran and the US used them as pawns in their complicated dance of diplomacy. After their release, the hikers wrote a memoir together. This is one of the best accounts of solitary confinement in Evin available in English.

Who am I?

As a writer and journalist in Iran, I knew many activists and journalists who spent time in solitary confinement. I noticed that this part of their prison experience was the hardest one for them to put to words, even those keen on sharing their experiences have a much easier time talking about the interrogation room but remain strangely reticent about the solitary cell. When I set out to write a novel about a bus driver who ends up in jail, I decided to dedicate several chapters of the book to his time in solitary confinement. That research sent me down the rabbit hole of interviewing former prisoners and reading widely about the solitary experience.

I wrote...

Then the Fish Swallowed Him

By Amir Ahmadi Arian,

Book cover of Then the Fish Swallowed Him

What is my book about?

Yunus Turabi, a bus driver in Tehran, leads an unremarkable life. A solitary man since the unexpected deaths of his father and mother years ago, he is decidedly apolitical—even during the driver’s strike and its bloody end. But everyone has their breaking point, and Yunus has reached his.

Handcuffed and blindfolded, he is taken to the infamous Evin prison for political dissidents. Inside this stark, strangely ordered world, his fate becomes entwined with Hajj Saeed, his personal interrogator. Yunus endures a mind-bending cycle of solitary confinement and interrogation. As Yunus struggles to hold on to his sanity and evade Saeed’s increasingly undeniable accusations, he must eventually make an impossible choice: continue fighting or submit to the system of lies upholding Iran’s power.

A Dangerous Inheritance

By Alison Weir,

Book cover of A Dangerous Inheritance: A Novel of Tudor Rivals and the Secret of the Tower

I will start by admitting that I had ambivalent feelings about this book for some time simply because it takes a different view on certain historical events and people than I do. Still, I cannot not recommend it, because it stunned me over and over with its vivid characters and the slowly unravelling mystery that is at the heart of the story. Above all, I was delighted to find that this novel centres around two young women who have been overshadowed by more prolific historical figures, bringing lesser-told stories to the forefront.

Who am I?

I am the author of several historical novels covering a wide range of topics, but my main interest remains 12th- to 16th-century Britain. I grew up in Sweden and have been an avid reader of classic literature and historical fiction since I was a child, and am currently studying History at the University of Oxford. When someone asks me what it is that I love about history, I tend to reply that it is all the stories. It sounds obvious, perhaps, but history is made up of countless stories that can be told in countless ways, and there is at least one story for everyone to fall in love with. 

I wrote...

Princess of Thorns

By Saga Hillbom,

Book cover of Princess of Thorns

What is my book about?

1483, Westminster. The bells toll for the dead king, Edward IV, while his rivalling nobles grasp for power. His daughter Cecily can only watch as England is plunged into chaos, torn between her loyalties to her headstrong mother, Elizabeth Woodville, and her favourite uncle, Richard of Gloucester. When Elizabeth schemes to secure her own son on the throne that Richard lays claim to, Cecily and her siblings become pawns in a perilous game.

The Yorkist dynasty that Cecily holds so dear soon faces another threat: the last Lancastrian claimant, Henry Tudor. Meanwhile, Cecily battles with envy toward her older sister, who is betrothed to Tudor. The White Rose of York has turned its thorns inwards, and royal blood proves fatal...

The Shell

By Moustafa Khalifa, Paul Starkey,

Book cover of The Shell: Memoirs of a Hidden Observer

The Shell is a peek into both the horrors and absurdities of totalitarian regimes told in the form of a prison diary kept by the author. Khalifa, a Christian by birth and an atheist, was mistaken (or perhaps not, given what I learned about the Assad regime in the course of my work) for a radical Islamist, arrested and locked up in the notorious Tadmor desert prison, more accurately a death camp. The book reveals the horrific consequences of the logic and methods of the Assad family and other dictators in the Middle East and beyond: Anyone suspected of harboring a hint of opposition to the ruler will be labeled a terrorist and traitor, crushed and turned into an example to instill fear in the wider population.

Who am I?

Sam Dagher is a Lebanese-American journalist and author with more than 15 years of experience reporting on the Middle East and its people. He has lived in Baghdad, Beirut, and Damascus and worked throughout the region. Sam has been committed to telling the region’s stories from the ground up and in the process shedding new light on the root causes of war, extremism, and migration.

I wrote...

Assad or We Burn the Country: How One Family's Lust for Power Destroyed Syria

By Sam Dagher,

Book cover of Assad or We Burn the Country: How One Family's Lust for Power Destroyed Syria

What is my book about?

From an award winning journalist specializing in the Middle East, this groundbreaking account of the Syrian Civil War reveals the never-before-published true story of a 21st-century humanitarian disaster. Assad or We Burn the Country examines Syria's tragedy through the generational saga of the Assad and Tlass families, once deeply intertwined and now estranged in Bashar's bloody quest to preserve his father's inheritance. By drawing on his own reporting experience in Damascus and exclusive interviews with Tlass, Dagher takes readers within palace walls to reveal the family behind the destruction of a country and the chaos of an entire region.

The Gulag Archipelago

By Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn,

Book cover of The Gulag Archipelago

This is the classic account of the Great Terror and the Gulag. Solzhenitsyn roots Stalinist repression firmly in the Russian Revolution, blaming Marxist ideology for the camps. The literary value of this work is incontestable.

Who am I?

Lynne Viola is a University Professor of Russian history at the University of Toronto. Educated at Barnard and Princeton, she has carried out research in Russian and Ukrainian archives for over 30 years. Among her books, are two dealing with Stalinist repression: Stalinist Perpetrators on Trial: Scenes from the Great Terror in Soviet Ukraine and The Unknown Gulag: The Lost World of Stalin’s Special Settlements. Both are based on work in previously classified archives, including the archives of the political police.

I wrote...

Stalinist Perpetrators on Trial: Scenes from the Great Terror in Soviet Ukraine

By Lynne Viola,

Book cover of Stalinist Perpetrators on Trial: Scenes from the Great Terror in Soviet Ukraine

What is my book about?

Between the summer of 1937 and November 1938, the Stalinist regime arrested over 1.5 million people for "counterrevolutionary" and "anti-Soviet" activity and either summarily executed or exiled them to the Gulag. While we now know a great deal about the experience of victims of the Great Terror, we know almost nothing about the lower- and middle-level Narodnyi Komissariat Vnutrennikh Del (NKVD), or secret police, cadres who carried out Stalin's murderous policies. Unlike the postwar, public trials of Nazi war criminals, NKVD operatives were tried secretly. And what exactly happened in those courtrooms was unknown until now.

Richard III and the Princes in the Tower

By A.J. Pollard,

Book cover of Richard III and the Princes in the Tower

There are so many books about these two boys that one could be forgiven for not reading any of them. But, if you are going to read one make it this one. Pollard knows what he is talking about because he has a background of authoritative historical study second to none. What you’ll find in this book is as near as anyone is going to get to a balanced account. Forget all the dark myths and whitewashes of Richard III and just read this book.

Who am I?

I write historical fiction some of which is set during the Wars of the Roses - a period that has always fascinated me. My two series, Rebels and Brothers & the Craft of Kings span the whole topic. But underlying the fiction there is a wealth of knowledge because I have studied or taught about this period for the best part of fifty years. I have also produced in recent years over forty podcasts on the subject which have been very well received by listeners – including students currently wrestling with the sometimes labyrinthine complexities of the topic. 

I wrote...


By Derek Birks,

Book cover of Feud

What is my book about?

As the Wars of the Roses begin, the rule of law breaks down... In 1459 open war breaks out between the Houses of York and Lancaster and a desperate struggle for the crown of England begins. Yet, while the fire of civil war burns, an old local score is being settled in the heart of Yorkshire.

Young and untried knight, Ned Elder, finds himself at the centre of a bitter feud when his father is executed, his brother butchered and his sisters abducted. Ned barely escapes with his life and is pursued across the land with only a few loyal companions. Determined to find his sisters, recover his lands and put an end to the feud, Ned is forced to take sides in the civil war. He soon gains a formidable reputation in the Yorkist army of young Edward, Earl of March, but the path he must follow is brutal for his enemies are relentless and will show no mercy.

Darkness at Noon

By Arthur Koestler,

Book cover of Darkness at Noon

I read Darkness at Noon in my junior year of high school and got in a bit of trouble when our teacher wanted us to talk about the significance of the book and instead I went off on an essay based on the last two sentences of the book. Those sentences have stayed with me all my life and eventually inspired the last words of what I think is my best book. Unpublished. And not science fiction.

Who am I?

I was a computer programmer (BA and MA in math) for several organizations, including NASA and the Savannah River Ecology Lab before retirement, went to the Clarion and Tulane SF&F Workshops, and read the slush pile for Amazing/Fantastic. I’ve done a lot of theatre as actor and lighting tech, have always liked to hike in the woods, have written 11 novels (including 3 published SF novels), had 5 plays given full production, and have 2 CDs of my original songs. In my copious spare time, I sleep.

I wrote...

Down in the Barraque

By Grant Carrington,

Book cover of Down in the Barraque

What is my book about?

A group of young musicians wind up in possession of a device to be used on a starship and use it for their own purposes while authorities try to find out what happened to it and where it is.

Cannibal Island

By Nicolas Werth, Steven Rendall,

Book cover of Cannibal Island: Death in a Siberian Gulag

I love this book because it “names names.” It is a tragic recounting of the sending of petty criminals combined with a mostly random rounding up of innocent “undesirables” off the street by the police in the USSR in 1934 who are then shipped to exile in Siberia where they were expected to work for the good of the Soviet state. In a matter of months thousands of them died from maltreatment, exposure, and starvation. The book traces the chain of events from inspiration by head of the Gulag Berman and chief of the secret police Iagoda all the way down the chain of command of the Party and police officials to the man responsible for stranding the people on a river island in Siberia. The book gives a glimpse into the nature of the repressive organs and mentality of the Soviet state in a way that humanizes the experience…

Who am I?

Roger Reese has studied, researched, and or taught Soviet history since 1984. He has been on the faculty of Texas A&M University since 1990. He has published five books and numerous articles and book chapters on the military history of Russia and the Soviet Union. He was awarded the Norman B. Tomlinson, Jr. book prize for his most recent book, The Imperial Russian Army in Peace, War, and Revolution, 1856-1917.

I wrote...

The Imperial Russian Army in Peace, War, and Revolution, 1856-1917

By Roger R. Reese,

Book cover of The Imperial Russian Army in Peace, War, and Revolution, 1856-1917

What is my book about?

Reese’s comprehensive social history takes readers beyond the battlefield to examine living conditions, military education, and officer-soldier relations in the late Imperial Russian Army. He argues that the officer corps’ incompetence, abusive behavior, and reactionary attitudes eventually drove the soldiery to revolt. Thorough, critical, and well written, it challenges numerous myths and presents a provocative new explanation for Russia’s collapse in 1917. He uses letters and memoirs to get the soldiers’ and officers’ view of their experience in the army, which humanizes the reader’s understanding of what the men went through.

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