Twilight of Democracy: The Failure of Politics and the Parting of Friends, by Anne Applebaum, Allen Lane, RRP£16.99/Doubleday, RRP$25, 224 pages

Applebaum is as comfortable writing about people and their motivations, as about the big forces shaping politics and history. The result is a delightfully readable account of the erosion of democratic norms in the west, focusing in particular on the countries she knows best: Poland, the UK and the US.

Putin’s People: How the KGB Took Back Russia and Then Took on the West, by Catherine Belton, William Collins, RRP£25/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, RRP$35, 640 pages

An exhaustively researched and entertaining account of Putin’s rise to power and his 20 years in office. Belton, a former FT correspondent in Moscow, is particularly good on the group of powerful Russians surrounding the Russian president, many linked to the former KGB. Her discussion of the mixture of corruption and anti-western ideology that defines Putin’s inner circle is compelling.

The Room Where It Happened: A White House Memoir, by John Bolton, Simon & Schuster, RRP£25/$32.50, 592 pages

Badly written and lacking in humility, shame or self-awareness, Bolton’s is nonetheless the best insider account of the Trump White House yet to emerge. It is full of jaw-dropping revelations, such as the president’s private words of encouragement to Xi Jinping about the internment camps in Xinjiang.

Joe Biden: American Dreamer, by Evan Osnos, Bloomsbury, RRP£18.99/Simon & Schuster, RRP$23, 192 pages

A timely and well-written biography of America’s president-elect by a New Yorker correspondent, who has covered Biden for several years. Although Biden will be the oldest president ever to take office, Osnos argues that one of his defining characteristics is an ability to move with the times. As a result, he expects him to be a more radical president than his centrist roots suggest.

Diary of an MP’s Wife: Inside and Outside Power, by Sasha Swire, Little, Brown, RRP£20, 544 pages

As the wife of a minister in Cameron’s government, Swire was part of the prime minister’s inner circle. Her gossipy and disloyal diary has delighted political junkies in Britain, while confirming many prejudices about Cameron’s “chumocracy”.

Eat the Buddha: The Story of Modern Tibet Through the People of One Town, by Barbara Demick, Granta, RRP£18.99/Random House, RRP$28, 336 pages

An award-winning journalist, famous for her intrepid reporting and her ability to tell larger stories, through the lives of ordinary people, turns her attention to Tibet. Demick highlights how the region’s culture and autonomy has been crushed since China claimed the area in the 1950s.

The Sword and the Shield: The Revolutionary Lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr, by Peniel E Joseph, Basic Books, RRP$30/£25, 384 pages

In the year of Black Lives Matter, this comparative biography of two of the great figures in the struggle for racial equality in the US stands out. The book argues that while King and Malcolm X are often regarded as representing fundamentally opposed viewpoints, their approaches had begun to merge by the end of their lives — with King becoming more radical and Malcolm more pragmatic.

Best Books of the Year 2020

All this week, FT writers and critics share their favourites. Some highlights are:

Monday: Business by Andrew Hill
Tuesday: Economics by Martin Wolf
Wednesday: Politics by Gideon Rachman
Thursday: History by Tony Barber
Friday: Critics’ choice
Saturday: Crime by Barry Forshaw

Cynical Theories: How Universities Made Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity — and Why this Harms Everybody, by Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay, Swift Press, RRP£20, 352 pages

The authors became heroes to some and villains to others by placing hoax articles about race, gender and diversity in academic journals designed to highlight bogus thinking and weak research. Here they argue that academia’s embrace of “critical studies” is damaging society. A book for the year in which “woke” and “cancel culture” became buzzwords.

Black Wave: Saudi Arabia, Iran and the Rivalry that Unravelled Culture, Religion, and Collective Memory in the Middle East, by Kim Ghattas, Headline, RRP£20/Henry Holt, RRP$27, 400 pages

An original and compelling account of the politics and culture of the Middle East that places Saudi-Iranian rivalry at the centre of what has gone wrong in the region. As well as portraying the broad religious and geopolitical forces at work, Ghattas tells the sometimes tragic stories of individuals caught up in the turmoil — such as Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi journalist murdered in his country’s consulate in Istanbul.

Difficult Women: A History of Feminism in 11 Fights, by Helen Lewis, Jonathan Cape, RRP£16.99, 368 pages

Telling the story of feminism through the struggles of individual women, and the causes they championed, is a clever literary device and Lewis is a skilful storyteller. The women she portrays are “difficult” in two senses. They are willing to battle established power. But some also held views that modern feminists find hard to stomach.

Losing The Long Game: The False Promise of Regime Change in the Middle East, by Philip H Gordon, St Martin’s Press, RRP$29.99, 368 pages

From Iran in 1953 to Libya in 2011, via Iraq in 2003 (as well as Egypt and Syria), successive American administrations have attempted to “fix” the Middle East by overthrowing disagreeable governments. A veteran of the Obama White House provides an insightful account of why this keeps happening, and keeps failing.

The Jakarta Method: Washington’s Anticommunist Crusade & the Mass Murder Program that Shaped Our World, by Vincent Bevins, Public Affairs, RRP$28/£14.99, 320 pages

A fascinating and disturbing account of what the author calls the “mass murder programme that shaped the world”. A former correspondent in Jakarta, Bevins argues that the Indonesian massacres of 1965 were connived in by the US, and became a template for bloody anti-communist repression in other locations including Chile and Brazil.

Tell us what you think

What are your favourites from this list — and what books have we missed? Tell us in the comments below

MBS: The Rise to Power of Mohammed bin Salman, by Ben Hubbard, William Collins, RRP£20, 384 pages

A lively and revealing account of the emergence of one of the most intriguing and alarming new leaders on the world stage. The author shows how MBS emerged from relative obscurity and ruthlessly consolidated power within Saudi Arabia, charming and then appalling his western backers.

The Man Who Ran Washington: The Life and Times of James A Baker III, by Peter Baker and Susan Glasser, Doubleday, RRP$35/Random House, RRP£26.47, 720 pages

The definitive biography of one of the most important Washington insiders of the late 20th century. James Baker served as Reagan’s chief-of-staff and as secretary of state during the tumultuous years of the end of the cold war. He also acted as a vital adviser to George W Bush, during the disputed 2000 presidential election. Baker was no saint — but his story still makes one marvel at how far the Republican party has fallen in a generation.

Conservatism: The Fight for a Tradition, by Edmund Fawcett, Princeton, RRP$35/£30, 514 pages

The author of a much acclaimed history of liberalism turns his attention to another crucial branch of political philosophy. The book shows how, over the centuries, conservatives have attempted to defend tradition, against the onslaughts of modernity and capitalism. He analyses the variety, internal contradictions and strengths of the conservative movement.

Gideon Rachman is the FT’s chief foreign affairs commentator

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