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34 best books for history lovers: BBC History Magazine’s Books of the Year 2020

In this strange and unsettling year, reading has offered escapism, understanding and an absorbing way to while away the hours in isolation. From fast-paced spy thrillers and moving family sagas to dramatic reimaginings of historical epochs, we asked historians to tell us which new history books they have enjoyed the most in 2020

BBC History Magazine's Books Of The Year 2020. (Illustration by Evonne Summers)

In the Christmas 2020 issue of BBC History Magazine, 10 historians selected their favourite historical page-turners published in 2020. First to choose is Gareth Williams. Williams’ most recent book is Unravelling the Double Helix: The Lost Heroes of DNA (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2019)…

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1

War Against Smallpox by Michael Bennett

Smallpox

Two books that resonated with me this year cover different eras in the 200- year campaign to defeat smallpox, one of humanity’s greatest scourges. Michael Bennett’s War Against Smallpox (CUP) explains how vaccination conquered the world in the quarter-century after Edward Jenner introduced it in the 1790s. It’s an incredible journey, with walk-on parts for Napoleon, Jefferson and the tsar of Russia.

 

2

The Great Inoculator by Gavin Weightman

greatinoculator

Gavin Weightman’s The Great Inoculator (Yale) looks at variolation, the bizarre 18th-century precursor of vaccination. Patients were deliberately infected with smallpox (not the harmless cowpox  used in vaccination), hoping to confer protection against future attacks. Amazingly, it worked, notably in the hands of Daniel Sutton, a non-medical entrepreneur, who marketed his secret method as “safe, quick and pleasant” and apparently variolated more than 10,000 people without a single death from smallpox. He built up a huge franchise but later lost out to plagiarists and ultimately vaccination. His story isn’t “untold”, but Weightman relates it with clarity and verve.

 

3

Agent Sonya by Ben Macintyre

AgentSonya

For my last choice I want to jump to 1949 when, without warning, the USSR exploded an atomic bomb. Behind the leaking of atomic secrets to the Soviets was Ursula Kuczynski, a pro-communist German Jew known to her English neighbours as “Mrs Burton” and as “Sonya” to her Red Army bosses. As related by Ben Macintyre in Agent Sonya (Viking), her espionage career took her to China, Poland, Germany and England. The cover blurb claims her story “has never been told”. In fact, a translation of Kuczynski’s autobiography appeared in 1991, but, as expected, Macintyre makes this a riveting and thought-provoking read.


Chosen by Tom Holland. Tom Holland’s latest book is Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind (Little, Brown, 2019)

4

Sicily ’43 by James Holland

Sicily

I hope I will not be accused of undue nepotism when I nominate my brother James Holland’s Sicily ’43 (Bantam) as a revelatory read. The latest in a series of books that trace campaigns of the Second World War, it combines the experience of men (and occasionally women) on the ground with a searching analysis of the tactical and strategic layers of an operation that, in this brilliantly detailed study, is redeemed from the enormous condescension of posterity.

 

5

The Story of China by Michael Wood

China

I also hugely enjoyed Michael Wood’s The Story of China (Simon & Schuster), a book that is learned, lyrical and astonishingly comprehensive in its scope. It was exactly the single volume history of this brilliant and remarkable civilisation that I had always dreamed of finding.

 

6

Thebes by Paul Cartledge

Thebes

The art of fusing scholarship with readability is similarly evident in Paul Cartledge’s history of Thebes (Picador), a city that has always been the ugly duckling of ancient Greek history. The great value of this book is that it enables us to see the Thebans not through the eyes of their enemies, but as they themselves would have wished to be seen.

Finally – a slight cheat – I would like to recommend the Patreon account of the brilliant scholar of Old English, Eleanor Parker, whose blog and tweets have long been a source of particular delight to me. Subscribers to her Journey Through the Anglo-Saxon Year account receive regular and seasonally appropriate posts on the rhythms of the Anglo-Saxon calendar: full moons, feast days, the cycles of sowing and reaping. In this strange and fractured year, I have found Parker’s posts a source of comfort and – dare I use the word? – joy.

I only hope that some enterprising editor has subscribed to her account and will commission her to transcribe it into a book.


Chosen by Priya Atwal. Atwal is the author of Royals and Rebels: The Rise and Fall of the Sikh Empire (Hurst, 2020) 

7

Stealing from the Saracens by Diana Darke

saracens

Grounded at home during the ‘Great Lockdown of 2020’, the summer and autumn months brought with them a surprising gift: the opportunity to read and reflect deeply, thanks to some particularly wonderful historical writing. Travelling abroad was not an option while I was living with vulnerable family members, but Diana Darke’s Stealing from the Saracens (Hurst) transported me to some of the grandest architectural sites of Europe. It vividly reveals how many of the continent’s most iconic Christian buildings are deeply inspired by medieval Islamic, ‘Saracenic’ influences. Darke’s message that “no society exists in isolation, and everything is connected” feels all the more moving as we live through a global pandemic.

 

8

The Human Cosmos: A Secret History of the Stars by Jo Marchant

cosmos

What connects us all more than the stars in the sky? Jo Marchant’s fascinating book, The Human Cosmos: A Secret History of the Stars (Canongate), is a “long history of knowledge that people have gleaned from the stars”, as well as a “glimpse into the mental universe of our ancestors”. A beautifully written blend of scientific and historical scholarship, it also makes a passionate case for why we need to peel our eyes away from our smartphones and look up to the skies more often, to recover a connection with our ancestors and restore our collective wellbeing.

 

9

The King and the People: Sovereignty and Popular Politics in Mughal Delhi by Abhishek Kaicker

KingPeople

I was deeply impressed by Abhishek Kaicker’s The King and the People: Sovereignty and Popular Politics in Mughal Delhi (OUP). In this delightful, highly readable book, Kaicker offers up a pioneering study of popular politics during Mughal rule. You’ll be amazed at how much shoemakers and coffee contributed to the making of sovereignty in early modern India!


Chosen by Keith Lowe. Lowe’s most recent book is Prisoners of History: What Monuments to the Second World War Tell Us About Our History and Ourselves (HarperCollins, 2020) 

10

Britain’s War: A New World 1942–1947 by Daniel Todman

Britains war

As ever, scores of books about the Second World War were published this year. For me, the pick of the bunch was Daniel Todman’s Britain’s War: A New World 1942–1947 (Allen Lane) – the second volume in his magisterial history of Britain during this most pivotal moment in 20th- century history. Todman covers the military events in detail, but he also deals with the social and economic costs of the war, the huge shifts in party politics, changes in religious thinking, class consciousness, attitudes towards empire, women’s rights and much more. Virtually no aspect of British life is left untouched.

 

11

Crucible of Hell by Saul David

Crucible

Focusing on the other side of the world is Saul David’s brilliant Crucible of Hell (William Collins), a harrowing account of the battle of Okinawa in 1945. The attention to detail in this book is exemplary: we see the conflict from just about every angle – Japanese as well as American – drawn from eyewitness accounts and declassified documents. Okinawa is a battle too often neglected in western narratives of the war despite being, in David’s account, directly responsible for Truman’s decision to use the atom bomb later that summer.

 

12

Shakespeare in a Divided America by James Shapiro

DividedAmerica

Putting aside the Second World War, one of my other favourite books this year was James Shapiro’s Shakespeare in a Divided America (Faber & Faber). In seven self-contained essays, Shapiro describes the issues that have repeatedly torn the United States apart over the past 200 years – using Shakespeare as his lens. It sounds contrived, but if you want to understand some of the deeper, historical issues behind this year’s car-crash of an election, Shapiro’s book is an excellent place to start.


Chosen by Suzannah Lipscomb. Lipscomb is the author of The Voices of Nîmes: Women, Sex and Marriage in Reformation Languedoc (OUP, 2019) 

13

The Light Ages by Seb Falk

LightAges

Firstly, I’d nominate Seb Falk’s book, The Light Ages (Allen Lane). It’s stunning: both exquisitely written and so very clever. By following the life of one little-known monk, John of Westwyk, Falk opens up for us the sophisticated and utterly different ways in which people in the Middle Ages thought and makes us question our assumptions about the medieval past.

 

14

The Fall of the House of Byron by Emily Brand

Byron

Equally outstanding in sheer quality of prose and scrupulosity of research is Emily Brand’s The Fall of the House of Byron (John Murray). This gripping tale of scandal through three generations  of the Byron family will finally put pay to any idea that the Georgians were boring. Instead, we’re given a tale of murder, seduction, incest, elopement and shipwreck, all centred around the crumbling Newstead Abbey: just gorgeous.

15

Inge’s War by Svenja O’Donnell

Inges war

Family history is also at the centre of investigative journalist Svenja O’Donnell’s Inge’s War (Ebury). Part history and part memoir, this engrossing and moving read exposes the secret shame and suffering of those on the wrong side of history and, in so doing, unearths a vitally important story from the Second World War. Its revelations and thought- provoking reflections have stayed with me.

16

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

Hamnet

I must mention Maggie O’Farrell’s wonderful Hamnet (Tinder Press), which superbly evokes the 16th century as she recreates the family life of Shakespeare and the death of his only son. It may make you cry, but you will not be able to put it down.


Chosen by Tracy Borman. Borman’s latest book is the third instalment of her King’s Witch fiction series, The Fallen Angel (Hodder, 2020) 

17

Queens of the Crusades: Eleanor of Aquitaine and her Successors by Alison Weir

Queens

The book that I most anticipated this year was Alison Weir’s Queens of the Crusades: Eleanor of Aquitaine and her Successors (Jonathan Cape). The second instalment of her England’s Medieval Queens series, it tells the story of five “towering female figures” of the Middle Ages who broke the mould of the dutiful queen consort. They were crusaders, rebels, seductresses and intellectuals – forces to be reckoned with in their own right. Told with all of Weir’s characteristic verve and exceptional eye for detail, this book should find its way into every history lover’s Christmas stocking.

 

18

Tudor Textiles by Eleri Lynn

Textiles

From royal rebels to royal fashion. Dress expert Eleri Lynn’s lavishly illustrated volume Tudor Textiles (Yale) shines a light on the dazzling beauty and extravagance of court fashion and décor. In raiding the sumptuous Tudor royal wardrobe, Lynn has uncovered some real gems: from Henry VIII’s tapestries which were worth more than the crown jewels, to the recently discovered dress thought to have belonged to Elizabeth I – the only one of her 1,900-strong dress collection to survive.

 

19

Mistresses: Sex and Scandal at the Court of Charles II by Linda Porter

Mistresses

Royal adornments of a rather different kind are brought to life in Linda Porter’s Mistresses: Sex and Scandal at the Court of Charles II (Picador). The sexual exploits of the “Merrie Monarch” provided ample fodder for diarists such as Samuel Pepys, but they are not the main focus here. Instead, Porter provides a set of impeccably researched pen portraits of the seven women who dominated the king’s life. Allowing the women to take centre stage for a change makes for an engaging and enlightening read.


Chosen by Yasmin Khan. Yasmin Khan teaches at the University of Oxford. She has recently been presenting Britain’s Biggest Dig on BBC Two alongside Alice Roberts 

20

Royals and Rebels: The Rise and Fall of the Sikh Empire by Priya Atwal

Royals and Rebels

A brilliant book from this year that is full of surprising stories is Priya Atwal’s Royals and Rebels: The Rise and Fall of the Sikh Empire (Hurst). Atwal has managed to craft a very fresh and page-turning history of the origins and demise of the Sikh kingdom, which gives a lot more attention to the role of Ranjit Singh’s wives and children than many previous accounts of his life. In particular the story of Jind Kaur, the young regent and mother of Prince Duleep Singh, and her struggle to maintain his crown in the face of British imperial power, is very moving. These were tough and ingenious Punjabi women.

 

21

Time’s Monster: History, Conscience and British Empire by Priya Satia

Time's monster

My second nomination, Priya Satia’s Time’s Monster: History, Conscience and British Empire (Allen Lane), turns the lens on history as a subject, asking how we have told the story of empire in the past. The author offers a scholarly and analytical interpretation of how historians themselves have framed the ways that empire is understood in British history writing – from John Stuart Mill to EP Thompson.

22

Black and British: A Short, Essential History by David Olusoga

Black and British

And to the present day: David Olusoga is the best possible person to write Black and British: A Short, Essential History (Pan Macmillan). This new, updated edition of his 2016 book is aimed at younger readers, and it appears at a time when many people are debating the best ways to tell histories of empire and race in the classroom. Olusoga describes it as “the book I wish I had been given to read when I was at school”, and I couldn’t agree more.


Chosen by Simon Sebag Montefiore, whose latest book is Voices of History: Speeches That Changed the World (W&N, 2019)

23

Hitler: Downfall 1939-1945 by Volker Ullrich

Hitler

One of my favourite books from 2020 was Hitler: Downfall 1939-1945 (Bodley Head). Volker Ullrich’s superb and supreme new biography, while complementing other classic biographies of the dictator, is also fresh, up-to-date, shrewd and beautifully written. I think it’s the best biography of Hitler written so far.

 

24

The Weirdest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous by Joseph Henrich

Weirdest

I also really enjoyed the intriguing idea behind The Weirdest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous (Allen Lane) by Joseph Henrich. He argues that “Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich, Democratic” people are atypical, because the west was formed by exceptional processes that helped Europe dominate the world post 1750. The result is a brilliant performance – accessible, playful and scholarly, turning conventional history on its head and approaching it in a new way.

25

The Decline and Rise of Democracy: A Global History from Antiquity to Today by David Stasavage

Democracy

In fact, it would make a perfect companion piece for David Stasavage’s readable, intriguing and academic The Decline and Rise of Democracy: A Global History from Antiquity to Today (Princeton) – an outstanding volume that analyses the development of democracy and autocracy in a refreshing and relevant way.

 

26

Black Wave: Saudi Arabia, Iran and the Rivalry That Unravelled the Middle East by Kim Ghattas

BlackWave

Lastly, I loved Kim Ghattas’s colourful, grim and gripping Black Wave: Saudi Arabia, Iran and the Rivalry That Unravelled the Middle East (Wildfire), which uses the Iranian Revolution and other events of 1979 to show how the Middle East turned towards extremism and intolerance.


Chosen by Kehinde Andrews, professor of black studies at Birmingham City University. His books include Back to Black: Retelling Black Radicalism for the 21st Century (Bloomsbury, 2018) 

27

A Kick in the Belly: Women, Slavery and Resistance by Stella Dadzie

A Kick in the belly

Transatlantic slavery is one of the most misunderstood and misrepresented periods of history. Stella Dadzie offers a much-needed corrective by centring on the experiences of black women forced into the plantation system in A Kick in the Belly: Women, Slavery and Resistance (Verso). The horrors of enslavement, its impact on Africa, Britain’s central role, and most importantly, the fierce resistance both on the African continent and in the Americas are all evocatively drawn out. Contrary to popular narratives, black women were active agents in this history.

 

28

Obeah, Race and Racism: Caribbean Witchcraft in the English Imagination by Eugenia O’Neal

Obeah

In order to enslave Africans, many slave-owners tried to violently erase all connections between the enslaved and the African continent. In Obeah, Race and Racism: Caribbean Witchcraft in the English Imagination(University of the West Indies Press), Eugenia O’Neal explores how traditional African beliefs were maintained and became a key source of resistance. O’Neal also examines how these beliefs were ridiculed, becoming proof of African inferiority, which still echoes into the present day.

 

29

The Dead Are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X by Les and Tamara Payne

malcolm X

Malcolm X is one of the most talked about and misrepresented figures of the 20th century. In The Dead Are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X (Viking), Les and Tamara Payne offer a detailed portrait of Malcolm’s family, life and politics that makes clear how much his voice is needed today. The book also provides a detailed history lesson of the America that produced Malcolm, from the rise of the Ku Klux Klan to the importance of the Garvey movement, and the complicity of the state machinery in maintaining an unjust social order.


Nick Rennison selects this year’s best historical fiction. Rennison is the author of Carver’s Truth (Corvus, 2016)

30

The Devil and the Dark Water by Stuart Turton

Devildarkwater

Few historical novels this year were as boldly imaginative and colourful as Stuart Turton’s The Devil and the Dark Water (Raven). In the 1630s, a ship leaves Batavia in the Dutch East Indies for Amsterdam. On board is an East Indies Company bigwig and his entourage. Murder, mystery and possibly supernatural phenomena plague crew and passengers alike. As the ship sails into increasingly troubled waters, Turton’s plot grows ever more extravagant and bizarre, but his grip on his readers’ attention never slackens.

31

The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

Mercies

Set in the same century, but worlds away from Turton’s baroque adventure, Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s debut novel for adults, The Mercies (Picador), charts the experiences of women from a remote Norwegian island, who have lost their menfolk during a terrible storm, following the arrival of a witch-hunting new magistrate. Hargrave’s heroine, Maren, forms a bond with the magistrate’s oppressed young wife as he doubles down on his increasingly violent persecutions in an unusual, memorable tale.

32

A Room Made of Leaves by Kate Grenville

roomofleaves

Kate Grenville’s intelligent, insightful novel, A Room Made of Leaves (Canongate), also features a woman obliged to cope with the inflexible pride and paranoia of her husband. In the recently established penal colony of New South Wales, Elizabeth Macarthur struggles with the demands of an unhappy marriage and slowly discovers her true self amid the initially alien landscapes of a new world.

33

The Abstainer by Ian McGuire

theAbstainer

Grenville’s character is based on a real-life pioneer of white Australia, and Ian McGuire’s The Abstainer (Scribner) similarly has a plot inspired by genuine historical events. It is set largely in Manchester in the 1860s, after three Irishmen, Fenians committed to the struggle to free Ireland from English rule, have been hanged. World-weary policeman James O’Connor and Irish-American assassin Stephen Doyle, who is intent on revenge for the hangings, stalk one another through the city’s streets and beyond in a gripping story of violence, obsession and the urge for retribution.

34

Execution by SJ Parris

Execution

Meanwhile, espionage in the Tudor era has provided the backdrop for the sequence of enjoyable historical thrillers by SJ Parris, who has turned Giordano Bruno, the 16th-century heretic and philosopher, into an engaging hero. Execution (HarperCollins), the latest in the series, sees Bruno once more in the employ of Elizabeth I’s spymaster, Sir Francis Walsingham, and playing a dangerous game as an undercover agent amid conspirators plotting to assassinate the English queen. Parris combines vivid details of Elizabethan life with an ability to create intriguing characters and sustain a thoroughly entertaining narrative.


Looking for more recommendations like these? Explore our picks of the best historical fiction books, the best history board games and our favourite HistoryExtra podcasts of 2020

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This feature first appeared in the Christmas 2020 issue of BBC History Magazine