Sophie Roell, Editor

Sophie Roell is co-founder and editor of Five Books. Previously she worked as a journalist in London, Beijing, Shanghai and New York. As a financial reporter, she covered the early years of the Chinese stock markets and the transition of its economy after Deng Xiaoping’s 1992 tour of the south. She wrote about the North Korean economy from Pyongyang in 2001.

She studied modern history as an undergraduate at Oxford and, after travelling the world as a reporter for five years, took the Master’s in Regional Studies-East Asia at Harvard University.  This wonderfully flexible program insists on at least one East Asian language and some courses on East Asia, but leaves plenty of room to roam about the university taking courses on random subjects. Five Books, set up in 2009, is an attempt to continue that experience.

Below, you’ll find Sophie’s Five Books interviews with experts. Her own recommendations, normally nonfiction, are here. She also reads a lot of mysteries.

Interviews by Sophie Roell

The best books on Central Asia’s Golden Age, recommended by S. Frederick Starr

Central Asia’s history is rarely a focus for students in the West, but its flourishing cities and great thinkers once made it one of the world’s most dynamic and important regions. Frederick Starr, a leading expert on Central Asia and author of a number of books about it, talks us through the highlights of an area that was so much more than just a stopping place on the ancient Silk Roads.

The best books on Local Adventures, recommended by Alastair Humphreys

Wonderful as it would be to climb Mount Everest or row across the Atlantic, not all of us will get the chance to go on an epic adventure. But that doesn’t mean we can’t go exploring. Alastair Humphreys, the British adventurer, explains the concept of ‘local adventure’ and recommends books that give a feel for what it’s about and why it’s worth pursuing.

Five Mysteries Set in Russia, recommended by Boris Akunin

The golden age of mystery largely passed Russia by, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t some great crime novels produced over the last 150 years. Bestselling crime novelist Boris Akunin, who was born Grigory Chkhartishvili in Soviet Georgia and now lives in exile in London, recommends five Russian mysteries—great works of literature that happen to also have a crime at their heart. If you’d like to see Boris/Grigory in person, he’s speaking at the Oxford Literary Festival on 18 March, 2024 at 6pm.

The Best Nonfiction Books: The 2024 Duff Cooper Prize, recommended by Susan Brigden

If you’re looking for nonfiction with a literary sensibility and a historical bent, the books highlighted by the annual Pol Roger Duff Cooper Prize are a great place to start. British historian Susan Brigden, author of Thomas Wyatt: The Heart’s Forest and one of the prize’s judges, talks us through the 2024 shortlist — from war and revolution to the splendours of Mughal India and Monet’s garden at Giverny.

The best books on Machine Learning, recommended by Eric Siegel

Machine learning uses data to predict outcomes, explains Eric Siegel, a former professor at Columbia who now advises companies on deploying it in their business. Unlike artificial intelligence, it’s a real technology with a proven track record, he says. He recommends practical books on machine learning that are accessible to the layperson and useful to anyone looking to use it in their business or organization.

The Best Crime Novels Set in Oxford, recommended by Cara Hunter

The city of Oxford has been a popular location for fictional murders for nearly a century, the ancient university and its beautiful buildings also lending themselves to wonderful screen adaptations. Bestselling British novelist Cara Hunter—author of the DI Fawley series and Murder in the Family—talks us through some of her favourite crime novels set in the city of dreaming spires. (If you’d like to see Cara in person, she’s speaking at two events at the Oxford Literary Festival on 16 March, 2024)