It’s hard not to have politics on the brain right now. As the Republicans ramp up their selection process, and the political pundits become more animated on the nightly news, there’s no mistake about it—the 2012 race is on.  

Read more nonfiction books about politics, new in 2011.

Here, we present the more pleasant side of politics—the political novel. Pick one up and be thankful that it’s just fiction. The real stuff is about to get a lot uglier.

O by Anonymous

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Who is the O of the title? Let’s see: a sitting president who speaks of hope and change, surrounded by Chicagoans, beset by “a disorganized mob of conspiracy nuts, immigrant haters, vengeful Old Testament types, publicity hustlers, and people who just have way too much time on their hands”—to say nothing of a nastily reactionary Republican-dominated House on one side and disappointed progressives on the other…Whatever the case, this worm’s-eye view of extreme politics is a slightly sharper-edged version of The West Wing, dominated by world-weary but once idealistic operatives who dislike being thought of as operatives and who are loyal to a president who’s got just a touch too much on his plate: health care, climate change, war, terrorism and “a big, fat, catastrophic, global recession, courtesy of [O’s] predecessor.” …[Ed note: When the review was released, O’s author remained Anonymous. He’s since been outed as Mark Salter, a former speechwriter for John McCain.] It’s a shame that the book is surrounded by the cynical attention-getting ploy of a secret author, who will likely be outed as quickly as was Joe Klein when he published Primary Colors (1996, below), for the novel stands capably on its own two feet, and it really doesn’t need the extra layer of glitz its handlers layered on.

primary colors Primary Colors by Anonymous

A marvelously down-and-dirty chronicle of a presidential campaign that will make your eyes water, and some more famous eyes burn, in recognition. His rivals for the Democratic nomination—a decorated Vietnam vet, a dinosaur populist, a “neo-Martian” egghead, the on-again/off-again governor of New York—may have stronger credentials of one kind or another, but none of them has put together the package Gov. Jack Stanton has: a mastery of the issues, an uncanny ability to connect with the people he meets, and a grimly talented wife who shares his Energizer-bunny determination to keep on going. So Henry Burton, the rather unconvincingly half-black narrator, signs on as Stanton's deputy campaign manager and heads with him to New Hampshire. Like politics itself, the ensuing account makes no pretense of beguiling the reader, instead dumping out fictionalized names and situations like toxic waste…Mystery insider's view or not, this is a delicious gift for your friends who still believe that politics and politicians have the answers.

stephen king 11/22/63 by Stephen King

In this romp, Jake Epping, a high-school English teacher (vintage King, that detail), slowly comes to see the opportunity to alter the fate of a friend who, in one reality, is hale and hearty but in another dying of cancer, no thanks to a lifetime of puffing unfiltered cigarettes. Epping discovers a time portal tucked away in a storeroom—don’t ask why there—and zips back to 1958, where not just his friend but practically everyone including the family pets smokes: “I unrolled my window to get away from the cigarette smog a little and watched a different world roll by.” A different world indeed: In this one, Jake, a sort of sad sack back in Reality 1, finds love and a new identity in Reality 2. Not just that, but he now sees an opportunity to unmake the past by inserting himself into some ugly business involving Lee Harvey Oswald, Jack Ruby, various representatives of the military-industrial-intelligence complex and JFK in Dallas in the fall of 1963…Though his scenarios aren’t always plausible in strictest terms, King’s imagination, as always, yields a most satisfying yarn.

lahaye Thunder of Heaven by Tim LaHaye and Craig Parshall  

Bad Arabs, steely-jawed Christians, evil Russkies, signs and portents from the Holy Land: LaHaye and Parshall, skilled packagers of prophecy, serve up Pat Robertson’s worst nightmare. LaHaye (Luke’s Story, 2009, etc.), of course, has made a worldly fortune serving up visions of the end times with his Left Behind series, which one might have thought would offer the last word on the subject. But no: He left out some important twists on Revelation, namely a Russian-Islamic alliance that “only looked like a historic game changer,” a “global religious coalition for climate change” (evil, natch), and some inconvenient volcanic activity to pepper up the air while the forces of evil descend on Israel. Apart from that, it’s business as usual: The government is busy putting the mark of the beast on good Americans in the guise of a “biological identification tag,” and stalwart servants of Jehovah bearing biblically charged names such as Joshua Jordan (and, in the interest of gender balance, his daughter, who one wishes were named River) do their best to thwart Old Nick—and, for that matter, the Romanians…This is no exercise in infallibility, but instead a by-the-numbers, fill-in-the-blanks genre thriller with all the usual clichés (“something grabbed her attention like a slap in the face”) mixed up with the first stirrings of the apocalypse.

trackers Trackers by Deon Meyer

Oh, what a tangled web those rhinos weave: South African mystery maven Meyers returns with a complex tale of intrigue and mayhem most satisfying. Lemmer, the taciturn Afrikaner bodyguard whom we last saw in Blood Safari (2009), has a cardinal rule: Don’t get mixed up in things. He might have known better, then, when he allows himself to get caught up in a snarled plot to smuggle black rhinos out of Zimbabwe, where they will be slaughtered so that their horns can go to make human-male-enhancing products for the Asian market. It’s a noble enterprise, but as Lemmer well knows, no good deed goes unpunished, and no sooner does the operation embark than do things begin to unravel…Meyer’s carefully plotted narrative is multilayered and rich in detail, and it’s to his credit that he is able to pull these separate, seemingly unrelated threads into an a-ha conclusion. In the end, it’s about smuggling, killing, and other crimes, but also about the quotidian sins of racism, fear, aloofness, self-interest and mistreatment of others—in short, the ordinary human failings as well as their spectacular transgressions. A first-rate thriller; a touch slow to get going, but hard to apply the brakes to once it gets rolling.

hartsburg Hartsburg, USA by David Mizner

The second novel by former political speechwriter Mizner (Political Animal, 2004) could have been a slapstick satire, as it details a school-board campaign pitting a born-again Christian with a questionable past against a failed screenwriter who has returned to his Ohio hometown, bringing some of his Hollywood values with him. Though Mizner has fun with his characters, he is more concerned with illuminating them than with making fun of them. Both former Texan Bevy Baer, a member of the mega-church that seems to be the only growth industry in what was once an industrial town, and Wally Cormier, who has forsaken screenwriting to write a liberal column for a local newspaper, are likable characters—so likable that their circles of friendships in a small town almost inevitably intersect. Not only does their political rivalry leave some friends torn, but it leaves both of their households ambivalent as running an aggressive campaign disrupts family stability…This is fun to read.

exile Exile by Richard North Patterson

In his latest ripped-from-the-headlines thriller, Patterson puts the screws to a San Francisco lawyer called to defend his Palestinian ex-lover on murder charges after she’s accused of conspiring to kill the Israeli Prime Minister. A thoroughly unconvincing series of flashbacks shows how, 13 years ago, David Wolfe, a comfortably secularized Jew, and his fellow Harvard Law student, Hana Arif, carried on a torrid romance under the nose of her fiancé, Palestinian activist Saeb Khalid. Now David is compromising his future in politics by answering Hana’s plea for help. The testimony of Ibrahim Jefar, a suicide bomber who took part in the bombing of peacenik Israeli Prime Minister Amos Ben-Aron but didn’t succeed in killing himself, implicates her in the plot. Although David assures his fiancée Carole Shorr that he won’t take Hana’s case, it’s so hot that no other qualified lawyer will touch it. As David settles uneasily into Hana’s defense, he senses his old life—his political dreams, his engagement to Carol, the friendship of her wealthy father, a Holocaust survivor—slipping away. Nor is there any certainty that he’ll win Hana’s acquittal…A riveting premise, a sympathetic ear for every party to an intractable problem, the geopolitics of the earth’s most volatile region all balanced on the backs of a handful of tormented souls—not by a long shot Patterson's best book, but in many ways his most characteristic.

election Election by Tom Perrotta

The year is 1992, the town is Winwood, and the plot revolves around the upcoming election for its high school's president (apparently a single one for all four classes). In a curiously unabsorbing narrative (though it's readable enough), half a dozen characters narrate in mini-chapters their versions of the intrigue that dominates the election campaign, the kids' own screwed-up self-images and sexual confusions, and their elders' parallel truancies. Popular Tracy Flick, for instance, buoyed by her superabundant energy and "amazing body," knows she's the odds-on favorite to be her classmates' choice. But when history teacher and faculty advisor Jim McAllister ("Mr. M.") persuades football hero and all-round good kid Paul Warren to run against Tracy (and that isn't all Mr. M. does), the plot thickens—and grows thicker still when Paul's kid sister Tammy, an unusually introspective misfit with a double-barreled identity crisis, also enters the contest…Matthew Broderick played Mr. M. in the 1999 film, battling an ever-spunky Reese Witherspoon as Tracy in the now-classic flick directed by Alexander Payne.

summer bear Summer of the Bear by Bella Pollen

In her moving, beautifully written fifth novel, Pollen (Midnight Cactus, 2006, etc.) serves up an improbable mix that, on the face, seems as if it shouldn’t work. The main strand of narrative is something out of Cold War thrillerdom (whence le Carré): Letty Fleming’s diplomat husband, posted to Berlin a decade before the fall of the Berlin Wall, dies there, a victim of accident, murder or suicide—and, as their daughter Georgie notes, “In the matter of her father, the government had boxes to tick and files to close.” But which is it? The British government seems to think that Nicholas Fleming has turned traitor, leaking military secrets to the East Germans, which still doesn’t quite explain who relieved him of his life. A shocked Letty, with children in tow, retreats to the Outer Hebrides to sort things out, while the children attend to their own grief and confusion…Magical realism and totemic bear in place (whence García Márquez and Milne), what remains is for all concerned to sort out the mystery that Nicky’s passing has given them—with a little flash of Lord of the Flies in store for Jamie, intentional homage or no. A sensitive and literate story told on several levels, all of them believable—if some of them improbable, too.

wreckage The Wreckage by Michael Robotham

Taut, swiftly paced thriller involving big money, big business and big government, a promising trifecta that Robotham (Shatter, 2009, etc.) works to good advantage. Long retired from the Metropolitan Police and now widowed, Vincent Ruiz (last seen in Robotham’s Night Ferry) has seen enough of life to be world-weary—and now he’s got to see his daughter off into wedlock to a lawyer (“He votes Tory, but everybody does these days”) and, worse, buy a new suit in the bargain. Enter a femme fatale—or is she?—and a good clocking, in which Ruiz is relieved of his briefcase, containing rings and a comb that belonged to his late wife…Robotham’s neatly constructed plot gathers speed and strength, an elaborate game of cat and mouse that involves some unusual suspects, and with explosions to boot. About the only thing to fault Robotham for in this neat thriller is an unfortunate allusion to a Brad Pitt film best left unmentioned. That desperate slip aside, a satisfying confection, equally good for beach and airplane.