The most recommended books about political prisoners

Who picked these books? Meet our 21 experts.

21 authors created a book list connected to political prisoners, and here are their favorite political prisoner books.
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What type of political prisoner book?


The Shell

By Moustafa Khalifa, Paul Starkey,

Book cover of The Shell: Memoirs of a Hidden Observer

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

From the list on people of the Levant region.

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.

Sam's book list on people of the Levant region

Why did Sam love this book?

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.

By Moustafa Khalifa, Paul Starkey,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

The work of a moder-day Sozhenitsyn that exposes acts of violence and brutality committed by the Syrian regime. This compelling first novel is the astonishing story of a Syrian political prisoner of conscience—an atheist mistaken for a radical Islamist—who was locked up for 13 years without trial in one of the most notorious prisons in the Middle East. The novel takes the form of a diary which Musa keeps in his head and then writes down upon his release. In Tadmur prison, the mood is naturally bleak and yet often very beautifully captured. The narrator, a young graduate, is defiant…

Book cover of Though I Get Home

Dale Stromberg Author Of Melancholic Parables: Being for the Antiselving Reader

From the list on little stories that link to tell big stories.

Who am I?

When I drafted the pieces which eventually comprised Melancholic Parables, I had no plan. Only upon arranging them into a collection did I discover that, surprisingly, they shared emotional moods and thematic elements. In other words, I had stumbled into a linked collection. Writing a single big story is no small feat, as is writing small stories which each intrigue and delight in their own right—but to create and arrange multiple small stories so that they aggregate into a big story, one greater than the sum of its parts (in ways sometimes counterintuitive, sometimes virtuosic) is a special storytelling skill which I think these five authors’ work exemplifies.

Dale's book list on little stories that link to tell big stories

Why did Dale love this book?

I haven’t read a better book in a long time than YZ Chin’s collection of linked stories.

At the centre of a panoply of characters and ways of thinking, we find Isabella Sin, a woman who might be taken as a personification of Malaysia, a troubled young nation searching for an identity as it struggles against its own history.

Not unlike what is required of her country, what is ultimately required of Isabella is to “become who she was.” YZ Chin’s voice offers the sort of nuance and depth that I feel characterises the best in literary fiction.

By YZ Chin,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Though I Get Home as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

“A welcome read in American contemporary literature. Though I Get Home is an intimate and complex look into Malaysian culture and politics, and a reminder of the importance of art in the struggle for social justice.” ―Ana Castillo, author of So Far from God and prize judge

In these stories, characters navigate fate via deft sleights of hand: A grandfather gambles on the monsoon rains; a consort finds herself a new assignment; a religious man struggles to keep his demons at bay. Central to the book is Isabella Sin, a small-town girl―and frustrated writer―transformed into a prisoner of conscience in…

Darkness at Noon

By Arthur Koestler,

Book cover of Darkness at Noon

R.H. Emmers Author Of The Secret History

From R.H.'s 3 favorite reads in 2023.

Who am I?

Author Investigator Shooter Guerilla Dog soldier

R.H.'s 3 favorite reads in 2023

Why did R.H. love this book?

In my youth, I fiddled with Marxism – everyone should be a Marxist when young. That led to my first reading of this book. A haunting, tragic thriller? Yes, and much more.

The main character is Rubashov, one of the Old Bolsheviks, a man who, in the 1920s and 30s, betrayed and murdered at the Communist Party’s behest. But he questions if the things he did were justified.

He is arrested, tortured, and condemned and yet, in the end, dies loyal to the Party’s teachings. Russia and Stalin are never explicitly identified, but the question of why the show trials happened and why so many willingly played their parts is answered. They were all guilty, just not of those particular deeds to which they were confessing, Rubashov thinks.

By Arthur Koestler,

Why should I read it?

7 authors picked Darkness at Noon as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The newly discovered lost text of Arthur Koestler’s modern masterpiece, Darkness at Noon—the haunting portrait of a revolutionary, imprisoned and tortured under totalitarian rule—is now restored and in a completely new translation.

Editor Michael Scammell and translator Philip Boehm bring us a brilliant novel, a remarkable discovery, and a new translation of an international classic.

In print continually since 1940, Darkness at Noon has been translated into over 30 languages and is both a stirring novel and a classic anti-fascist text. What makes its popularity and tenacity even more remarkable is that all existing versions of Darkness at Noon are…

Cannibal Island

By Nicolas Werth, Steven Rendall, Steven Rendall

Book cover of Cannibal Island: Death in a Siberian Gulag

Roger R. Reese Author Of The Imperial Russian Army in Peace, War, and Revolution, 1856-1917

From the list on Stalinism from every angle.

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.

Roger's book list on Stalinism from every angle

Why did Roger love this book?

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…

By Nicolas Werth, Steven Rendall, Steven Rendall

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

During the spring of 1933, Stalin's police rounded up nearly one hundred thousand people as part of the Soviet regime's "cleansing" of Moscow and Leningrad and deported them to Siberia. Many of the victims were sent to labor camps, but ten thousand of them were dumped in a remote wasteland and left to fend for themselves. Cannibal Island reveals the shocking, grisly truth about their fate. These people were abandoned on the island of Nazino without food or shelter. Left there to starve and to die, they eventually began to eat each other. Nicolas Werth, a French historian of the…

A Castle in Wartime

By Catherine Bailey,

Book cover of A Castle in Wartime: One Family, Their Missing Sons, and the Fight to Defeat the Nazis

Isabel Vincent Author Of Overture of Hope: Two Sisters' Daring Plan that Saved Opera's Jewish Stars from the Third Reich

From the list on heroes and anti-heroes in WW2 and the Holocaust.

Who am I?

I became interested in the Holocaust and the Second World War during my senior year of high school. I took a literature class entitled “Man’s Inhumanity to Man,” which focused a great deal on the literature that emerged from the Holocaust. At the end of the year, I had the great honor to meet author and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel who had actually read my essay (my teacher knew him, and gave it to him to read) and encouraged me to keep writing. I am fascinated by stories of survival and the quiet heroism that characterized women like Ida and Louise Cook.

Isabel's book list on heroes and anti-heroes in WW2 and the Holocaust

Why did Isabel love this book?

This is an extraordinary story of a brave German woman whose diplomat father and Italian aristocrat husband decide to resist the Nazis.

When German troops enter Italy, Fey von Hassell finds herself trapped with her young children in a 12th-century villa in northern Italy while her husband joins the anti-fascist underground in Rome and her father decides to join the group that plots to kill Adolf Hitler. Nazi stormtroopers take over the villa and later arrest Fey.

Using archival materials and family letters, Caroline Bailey reconstructs Fey’s harrowing journey—moved from prison to prison and concentration camp to concentration camp. Her two young boys are taken away from her, and sent to a Nazi orphanage. Fey’s single-minded mission to find her children reads like a good thriller.

By Catherine Bailey,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked A Castle in Wartime as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"I was gripped by A Castle in Wartime--it contained more tension, more plot in fact--than any thriller."--Kate Atkinson, author of Big Sky and Case Histories

An enthralling story of one family's extraordinary courage and resistance amidst the horrors of war from the New York Times bestselling author of The Secret Rooms.

As war swept across Europe in 1940, the idyllic life of Fey von Hassell seemed a world away from the conflict. The daughter of Ulrich von Hassell, Hitler's Ambassador to Italy, her marriage to Italian aristocrat Detalmo Pirzio-Biroli brought with it a castle and an estate in the north…

Book cover of Richard III and the Princes in the Tower

Derek Birks Author Of Feud

From the list on the Wars of the Roses from a historian and author.

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. 

Derek's book list on the Wars of the Roses from a historian and author

Why did Derek love this book?

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.

By A.J. Pollard,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Richard III and the Princes in the Tower as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Richard III has divided opinion for over 500 years. Traditionally, he has been perceived as a villain, a bloody tyrant and the monstrous murderer of his innocent nephews. To others he was and remains a wronged victim who did his best for kingdom and family, a noble prince and enlightened statesman tragically slain. This work explores the story of Richard III and the tales that have been woven around the historic events, and discusses his life and reign and the disappearance of the princes in the tower. It also assesses the original sources upon which much of the "history" is…

Made in China

By Amelia Pang,

Book cover of Made in China: A Prisoner, an SOS Letter, and the Hidden Cost of America's Cheap Goods

Grayson Slover Author Of Middle Country: An American Student Visits China's Uyghur Prison-State

From the list on the Uyghur Genocide.

Who am I?

I traveled to Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in the summer of 2019, where I saw for myself many of the tools of surveillance and control that the Chinese Communist Party has used to turn the region into an open-air prison. Since returning to the United States, I have tried to draw attention to the Uyghur genocide through my published articles and through my book, Middle Country, where I tell the story of the Uyghur genocide by weaving facts, history, and analysis into a narrative account of the week I spent in Xinjiang. I hope that my book can make this profoundly complex and multifaceted issue more accessible to the average person.

Grayson's book list on the Uyghur Genocide

Why did Grayson love this book?

In this book, Amelia Pang examines all aspects of China’s system of forced labor, which she explains has recently been deployed as a tool in the Uyghur genocide but has existed long before the genocide began. Importantly, she explains how Western consumers are complicit in Chinese forced labor through their choices to purchase the cheap goods that this system produces.

By Amelia Pang,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

A Most-Anticipated Book of the Year: Newsweek * Refinery29 "Timely and urgent . . . Pang is a dogged investigator." --The New York Times

"Moving and powerful." --Chris Hedges, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author

Discover the truth behind the discounts.

In 2012, an Oregon mother named Julie Keith opened up a package of Halloween decorations. The cheap foam headstones had been five dollars at Kmart, too good a deal to pass up. But when she opened the box, something shocking fell out: an SOS letter, handwritten in broken English.
"Sir: If you occassionally buy this product, please kindly resend this…

Book cover of Desde la noche y la niebla

Johana Gustawsson Author Of Blood Song

From the list on resistance during The Spanish Civil War.

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.

Johana's book list on resistance during The Spanish Civil War

Why did Johana love this book?

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.

By Juana Doña,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Desde la noche y la niebla as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Rare book

A Month and a Day

By Ken Saro-Wiwa,

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

Andrew Cairns Author Of The Witch's List

From the list on set in Africa that move, uplift, and inspire.

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. 

Andrew's book list on set in Africa that move, uplift, and inspire

Why did Andrew love this book?

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. 

By Ken Saro-Wiwa,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked A Month and a Day as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

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

Saga Hillbom Author Of Princess of Thorns

From the list on the Tudors and Plantagenets that educate.

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. 

Saga's book list on the Tudors and Plantagenets that educate

Why did Saga love this book?

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.

By Alison Weir,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Two women separated by time but linked by twin destinies investigate the mysterious, tragic fate of the young princes in the tower in this engrossing novel, “a juicy mix of romance, drama, and Tudor history” (Ladies’ Home Journal).

“Alison Weir’s strong suit as a fiction writer is making her novels living history.”—The Courier-Journal
When her older sister, Lady Jane Grey, is executed in 1554 for unlawfully accepting the English crown, Lady Katherine Grey’s world falls apart. Barely recovered from this tragic loss she risks all for love, only to incur the wrath of her formidable cousin Queen Elizabeth I, who…