37 books for history lovers: BBC History Magazine’s Books of the Year 2019

From medieval princesses and nomadic warriors to Hungarian football and the Falklands War, 2019's best history books have tackled a mind-boggling array of topics and timeframes. BBC History Magazine asked a panel of historians to nominate their favourite historical page-turners published in those 12 months…

(Illustration by Laurie Avon for BBC History Magazine)

In the Christmas 2019 issue of BBC History Magazine, 11 historians selected their favourite historical page-turners published in 2019 (listed below in alphabetical order)

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1

The Boundless Sea by David Abulafia

Chosen by Alexander Watson

My latest read, and the book that has impressed me most, is David Abulafia’s The Boundless Sea (Allen Lane). Immensely erudite and readable, it is as ‘boundless’ as the waters in its title, exploring human interaction across the world’s waves from the Polynesians who sailed the Pacific tens of thousands of years ago to modern container ships. Trade, settlement and the violence that both could bring are at the heart of this fascinating global story.  

The Boundless Sea by David Abulafia

2

Electric News in Colonial Algeria by Arthur Asseraf

Chosen by Olivette Otele

Imperialism rested on an arsenal of communication tools. In Electric News in Colonial Algeria (OUP), Arthur Asseraf reveals how the reception of global news impacted on the country. Expansive in its source material and full of in-depth analysis, this fasc­inating book examines how the arrival of world news created both dissension and cohesion among late 19th- and early 20th-century Algerians.

Electric News in Colonial Algeria by Arthur Asseraf

3

Manual for Survival: A Chernobyl Guide to the Future by Kate Brown

Chosen by Alexander Watson

A chilling account of the aftermath of the world’s worst nuclear disaster, Kate Brown’s Manual for Survival: A Chernobyl Guide to the Future (Allen Lane) also moved me. Though some scientists have challenged the book’s more extreme claims about the long-term health and environmental impacts of the Chernobyl Power Plant’s meltdown in 1986, nothing I have read conveys more vividly the accident’s lasting misery. This is captivating, controversial history.

Manual for Survival: A Chernobyl Guide to the Future by Kate Brown

4

The Tudors: The Crown, The Dynasty, The Golden Age by Siobhan Clarke and Linda Collins

Chosen by Tracy Borman

Do we really need another book about the Tudors? Having devoured Siobhan Clarke and Linda Collins’ The Tudors: The Crown, The Dynasty, The Golden Age (Andre Deutsch), my answer is a resounding ‘yes’. The authors’ expertise in the period – in particular its architectural and art treasures – shines through, telling the reader everything they need to know about this iconic dynasty.

The Tudors: The Crown, The Dynasty, The Golden Age by Siobhan Clarke and Linda Collins

5

The Scythians: Nomad Warriors of the Steppe by Barry Cunliffe

Chosen by Simon Sebag Montefiore

Barry Cunliffe’s The Scythians: Nomad Warriors of the Steppe (OUP) is a scintillating tour de force from probably the greatest scholar of European archaeology. Using their golden artefacts, tombs and accounts from Herodotus and others, Cunliffe recreates the Scythian world with its terrifying human sacrifices and famed nomadic riders who took on the greatest empires of their day.

The Scythians: Nomad Warriors of the Steppe by Barry Cunliffe

6

The Volunteer: The True Story of the Resistance Hero Who Infiltrated Auschwitz by Jack Fairweather

Chosen by Suzannah Lipscomb

Jack Fairweather’s The Volunteer: The True Story of the Resistance Hero Who Infiltrated Auschwitz (WH Allen) tells the astonishing story of underground operative Witold Pilecki, who chose to be imprisoned in Auschwitz in order to uncover what was happening there. It is a work of narrative history that reads like a novel, in spare prose that is as compelling as it is harrowing. One is entirely caught up in the awfulness and heroism of Witold’s tale.

The Volunteer: The True Story of the Resistance Hero Who Infiltrated Auschwitz by Jack Fairweather

7

The Europeans: Three Lives and the Making of a Cosmopolitan Culture by Orlando Figes

Chosen by Suzannah Lipscomb

Orlando Figes’s The Europeans: Three Lives and the Making of a Cosmopolitan Culture (Allen Lane) is an extraordinary, capacious and accomplished biography of three intertwining characters: the writer Ivan Turgenev, the singer Pauline Viardot and Pauline’s connoisseur husband, Louis. Deeply researched and engaging, it is filled with revelations, and takes us fascinatingly into European culture in the 19th century.

The Europeans: Three Lives and the Making of a Cosmopolitan Culture by Orlando Figes

8

Reckonings: Legacies of Nazi Persecution and the Quest for Justice by Mary Fulbrook

Winner of the 2019 Wolfson History Prize

The Holocaust gave rise to a complex web of traumatic experiences. Mary Fulbrook’s book aims to untangle that web, exploring how the legacies of Nazism echoed down through successive generations of both victims and perpetrators. The Wolfson judges lauded Reckonings as “a masterly work which explores the shifting boundaries and structures of memory”.

Reckonings: Legacies of Nazi Persecution and the Quest for Justice by Mary Fulbrook

9

The Windrush Betrayal by Amelia Gentleman

Chosen by Michael Wood

In The Windrush Betrayal (Guardian Faber), journalist Amelia Gentleman tells the appalling stories of the ‘Wind­rush generation’, who came to Britain from the Caribbean in and after 1948. More than 60 years later, they found themselves targeted as illegal migrants, threatened, detained, and in some cases “repatriated” to countries they had no memory of after a lifetime spent in the UK. It may seem jaw-dropping, but with Brexit looming, Gentleman fears there are more ‘hostile environment’ moments to come.

The Windrush Betrayal by Amelia Gentleman

10

Insurgent Empire: Anticolonial Resis­tance and British Dissent by Priyamvada Gopal

Chosen by Olivette Otele

Priyamvada Gopal’s Insurgent Empire: Anticolonial Resis­tance and British Dissent (Verso) places voices from the history of anti-colonialism centre stage. This powerfully written book focuses on people whose call for action and activism unsettled the empire and inspired British liberation movements. Unapologetically rebellious, the insurgents did not surf on the waves of victimhood. Instead, they united, planned and attacked the imperial powers in various ways.

Insurgent Empire: Anticolonial Resis­tance and British Dissent by Priyamvada Gopal

11

Matilda: Empress, Queen, Warrior by Catherine Hanley

Chosen by Helen Castor

Catherine Hanley’s Matilda: Empress, Queen,Warrior (Yale University Press) is, at last, the biography this great woman has always deserved, a book as lucid, forthright and utterly compelling as its remarkable subject.

Matilda: Empress, Queen, Warrior by Catherine Hanley

12

Winds of Change by Peter Hennessy

Chosen by Michael Wood

Lastly, Winds of Change (Allen Lane), the third in Peter Hennessy’s marvellous trilogy, gives us a portrait of a nation still coming to terms with its costly victory in 1945 and the subsequent loss of its empire. Like the previous volumes, it’s a terrific mix of social history and cabinet-room politics. I’d love to see Peter bring the tale right up to Brexit, which I suspect he would see as drawing a line under Britain’s story as a great power. Unputdownable.

Winds of Change by Peter Hennessy

13

Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind by Tom Holland

Chosen by Dominic Sandbrook

The bravest history book of the year is undoubtedly Tom Holland’s Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind (Little, Brown), in which the swash­buckling popular historian argues that our modern world was shaped by Christianity. Taking in everything from Augustine and Martin Luther to John Lennon and Harvey Weinstein, it’s exciting, erudite, amusing and provocative – but above all, immense fun. I can’t recommend it too highly.

Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind by Tom Holland

14

Crusaders: An Epic History of the Wars for the Holy Lands by Dan Jones

Chosen by Helen Castor

Dan Jones’s Crusaders: An Epic History of the Wars for the Holy Lands (Head of Zeus) is a narrative marvel, a sweeping tale ranging across continents and centuries that never loses sight of the humanity of its many protagonists or the resonance of the conflicts in which they fought.

Crusaders: An Epic History of the Wars for the Holy Lands by Dan Jones

15

Whiskey When We’re Dry by John Larison (Historical fiction)

Chosen by Nick Rennison

Westerns are often dismissed as pulp fiction but, at its best, the genre can produce truly memorable novels. John Larison’s Whiskey When We’re Dry (No Exit Press) follows the fortunes of teenager Jessilyn Harney, who dons male dress and sets off to track down her long-lost brother, a legendary gun-slinging outlaw. As Jess recounts her adventures in her own compelling voice, Larison uses the traditional western form to explore very contemporary ideas about identity and gender.

Whiskey When We’re Dry by John Larison

16

Maoism: A Global History by Julia Lovell

Chosen by Rana Mitter and winner of the Cundill History Prize

A rather later Chinese thinker is at the heart of Julia Lovell’s monumental Maoism: A Global History (Bodley Head), a book that examines the mammoth influence of Chairman Mao not just in his native China but around the world, from Left Bank Paris to the mountains of Peru. It shows what a genuinely transnational impact his radical, violent political vision had.

Maoism: A Global History by Julia Lovell

17

The Doll Factory by Elizabeth Macneal (Historical fiction)

Chosen by Nick Rennison

The Victorian era continues to attract historical novelists, and Elizabeth Macneal’s The Doll Factory (Picador) was one of the year’s most impressive excursions into 19th-century London. Iris Whittle escapes the drudgery of her daily work when she catches the eye of Pre-Raphaelite painter Louis Frost and becomes both his model and his mistress. Meanwhile, sinister taxidermist Silas Reed’s obsession with Iris grows ever more dangerous. Macneal’s lively tale searchingly examines the restrictions placed on women and the possessiveness of men, both well-meaning and malign.

The Doll Factory by Elizabeth Macneal

18

King of the World by Philip Mansel

Chosen by Simon Sebag Montefiore

Philip Mansel’s King of the World (Allen Lane) is the ultimate biography of the Sun King, Louis XIV. It’s a work of schol­arly analysis and flam­boyant anec­dotage, teeming with court intrigue, inter­national conflict and sexual politics. At its heart is a king who played the global power game, and Mansel offers us a portrait of runaway hubris.

King of the World by Philip Mansel

19

The Rapture by Claire McGlasson (Historical fiction)

Chosen by Nick Rennison

A 1920s cult, awaiting Christ’s Second Coming in the suburban homes of Bedford, is the unlikely subject matter for Claire McGlasson’s debut novel, The Rapture (Faber). The Panacea Society was a real-life sect whose last member died as recently as 2012. McGlasson’s fictional account of rivalries within its ranks, and one young acolyte’s attempt to break free, provides a touching story of delusion, misplaced faith and the power of an unexpected love affair.

The Rapture by Claire McGlasson

20

To Calais, in Ordinary Time by James Meek (Historical fiction)

Chosen by Nick Rennison

Moving many centuries further back, To Calais, in Ordinary Time (Canongate) by James Meek is set in 1348, as the Black Death reached England. Three very different characters find their fates entwined as they make their way to the south coast. Berna is a nobleman’s daughter in flight from the marriage her father is imposing on her; Will Quate is a young ploughman-turned-archer en route to the wars in France; and Thomas is an intellectual man of religion. In Meek’s linguis­tically inventive novel, they must all confront their own mortality as the plague approaches.

Ordinary Time by James Meek

21

First to Fight: The Polish War 1939 by Roger Moorhouse

Chosen by Alexander Watson

Roger Moorhouse’s tale of Poland’s doomed defence against overwhelming attack by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, First to Fight: The Polish War 1939 (Bodley Head), had me enthralled. The book helps remedy some historical amnesia: this brutal invasion is often marginalised in standard histories, despite being the first campaign of Europe’s Second World War and the trigger for Britain to enter the conflict. Moorhouse recounts the horror in large part through anguished Polish eyes. A well-researched, riveting read.

First to Fight: The Polish War 1939

22

The Warlow Experiment by Alix Nathan (Historical fiction)

Chosen by Nick Rennison

Set at the end of the 18th century, The Warlow Experiment (Serpent’s Tail) by Alix Nathan tells the story of Herbert Powyss, a country gentleman with an interest in science, who devises an extraordinary experiment. He will pay a man to live for seven years in total isolation. But how will his subject cope with solitude? Nathan’s unsettling novel charts the progress of Powyss’s bizarre experiment.

The Warlow Experiment by Alix Nathan

23

King and Emperor: A New Life of Charlemagne by Janet L Nelson

Chosen by Helen Castor

This has been such an outrageously good year for medieval history that, much like the Booker judges, I’m compelled to break the rules and offer not three but four choices (I know, I know). First, Janet L Nelson’s King and Emperor: A New Life of Charlemagne (Allen Lane) is an immense achievement – brilliantly learned and profoundly wise, it is as revelatory about the practice of history as it is about the great man himself.

King and Emperor: A New Life of Charlemagne

24

The Emergence of the English by Susan Oosthuizen

Chosen by Michael Wood

I’ve been enjoying Susan Oosthuizen’s thought-provoking The Emergence of the English (Arc Humanities Press). It deftly synthesizes the growing consensus of historians and archaeologists as to the origins of the English in the slow transformation of late Romano-British communities in post-imperial eastern Britain. An accessible contribution to the growing debate about what should, or should not, be called ‘Anglo-Saxon’.

The Emergence of the English

25

Emperor: A New Life of Charles V by Geoffrey Parker

Chosen by Suzannah Lipscomb and Simon Sebag Montefiore

SL: My first choice has to be Geoffrey Parker’s Emperor: A New Life of Charles V (Yale University Press). It’s a magnif­icent biography of a mercurial, kind and cruel, brilliant and foolish man, who ruled over much of the known world in the 16th century. In a work of stunning scholarship, Parker draws on an incredible amount of documentary evidence and delivers his findings in elegant prose to produce an epic and vivid life of the emperor, described at his death as “the greatest man who has ever lived”.

SSM: Similarly brilliant is Geoffrey Parker’s Emperor: The Life  of Charles V. Totally accessible and exciting, it brings to life not just the gripping character of Charles V himself, the Habsburg heir who inherited an empire on which the sun never set, but also his entire world.

Emperor: A New Life of Charles V

26

Our Boys: The Story of a Paratrooper by Helen Parr

Winner of the Longman-History Today Award

In Our Boys, Helen Parr explores the lasting impact of the Falklands War through the story of her Uncle Dave, a 19-year-old paratrooper who died in the conflict in 1982. The Longman-History Today judges weren’t the only ones moved by Parr’s personal narrative: theirs was just one of a handful of nominations and awards Our Boys garnered in 2019.

Our Boys: The Story of a Paratrooper

27

The Brothers York: An English Tragedy by Thomas Penn

Chosen by Helen Castor and Simon Sebag Montefiore

HC: Thomas Penn’s The Brothers York: An English Tragedy (Allen Lane) tells the story of the three brothers at the heart of the Wars of the Roses with acute psycho­logical insight and a superlative understanding of the political cross-currents of 15th-century Europe. It’s a page-turner packed with game-changing analysis. Highly recommended.

SSM: In The Brothers York, Thomas Penn delivers a gripping court history charting the rise and tragic fall of the Yorks, a dynasty with all the majestic brutality of a Mafia family. Penn brings the characters to life as real people rather than just names from the history books.

The Brothers York: An English Tragedy by Thomas Penn

28

Digging Up Britain by Mike Pitts

Chosen by Tom Holland

Equally adept at illuminating reaches of the past long lost to darkness is Mike Pitts’ Digging Up Britain (Thames & Hudson), which gives us 10 eye-opening portraits of recent archaeological discoveries. Yet the illumination is always flickering, and what we have learnt invariably tantalising. As Pitts puts it: “If we know anything, it is that there is so much more we don’t know.”

Digging Up Britain by Mike Pitts

29

Afropean: Notes from Black Europe by Johny Pitts

Chosen by Olivette Otele

The books that forced me to stop and pause this year were those that made me reconsider narrative and emotion in history writing. Johny Pitts’ Afropean: Notes from Black Europe (Allen Lane) tells stories of survival and the ingenuity of those on the edge of several worlds. Shifting our gaze from migratory experiences to daily practices of resilience, the book invites us to witness the journeys and creativity of communities often unrecorded in studies of European history, highlighting the commonality of African-European experiences across the continent.

Afropean: Notes from Black Europe by Johny Pitts

30

Who Dares Wins: Britain, 1979–1982 by Dominic Sandbrook

Chosen by Tom Holland

In Who Dares Wins: Britain, 1979–1982 (Allen Lane), Dominic Sandbrook continues his brilliant history of modern Britain by taking us into the eighties, and the first years of Thatcher’s government. The political manoeuvrings of 1979–82 are traced with a novelistic verve that would have done credit to House of Cards, but Sandbrook’s interests range much further afield than Whitehall and Westminster. Ian Botham, Simon Le Bon and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy all have starring roles. The entry under ‘Bowie, David’ in the index is worth buying the book for alone.

Who Dares Wins: Britain, 1979–1982 by Dominic Sandbrook

31

Chinese Thought: From Confucius to Cook Ding by Roel Sterckx

Chosen by Rana Mitter

At a time in current affairs when under­standing China and the Chinese mindset has become imperative, Roel Sterckx’s Chinese Thought: From Confucius to Cook Ding (Pelican) brilliantly shows us the origins of that country’s thinking. This account, by a leading scholar of traditional Chinese philosophy, analyses the major figures and shows how their viewpoints contrast (for example, Mencius as a believer in innate human goodness, while Xunzi and Han Feizi are sure that humans are basically bad), as well as considering how true it really is that China is still a Confucian society.

Chinese Thought: From Confucius to Cook Ding by Roel Sterckx

32

The Greek Experience of India by Richard Stoneman

Chosen by Tom Holland

Richard Stoneman’s The Greek Experience of India (Princeton) – has no need of racy indexes to enthral the reader. The question of what influences Greeks and Indians might have had on each other in the centuries that followed Alexander the Great is one that has always simultaneously fascinated and frustrated historians – so huge gratitude is due to Stoneman for shedding as much light on the issue as anyone is ever likely to.

The Greek Experience of India by Richard Stoneman

33

Uncrowned Queen by Nicola Tallis

Chosen by Tracy Borman

Margaret Beaufort has had a bad press. Variously portrayed as a domineering matriarch, religious zealot and mother-in-law from hell, she has even been accused of murdering the princes in the Tower. In Uncrowned Queen (Michael O’Mara) Nicola Tallis sets the record straight. This beautifully written biography dispels the many myths surrounding Henry VII’s much-maligned mother, and in their place presents a compelling portrait of a woman of extraordinary courage, vision and passion.

Uncrowned Queen by Nicola Tallis

34

The Fortress: The Great Siege of Przemysl by Alexander Watson

Chosen by Dominic Sandbrook

Alexander Watson’s account of the battle for an Austro-Hungarian citadel, The Fortress: The Great Siege of Przemysl, (Allen Lane), is brilliantly researched and superbly written. This was one of the turning points in modern European history: had the Russians broken through earlier, the story of the last century might have been very different. Even more importantly, Przemysl offered a bleak preview of what was coming: nationalism, anti-Semitism and a whirlwind of hatred. Grim stuff, but magnificently done.

The Fortress: The Great Siege of Przemysl by Alexander Watson

35

Violencia: A New History of Spain – Past, Present, and the Future of the West by Jason Webster

Chosen by Rana Mitter

Bloodshed sits at the heart of Jason Webster’s Violencia: A New History of Spain – Past, Present, and the Future of the West (Constable). A lyrical account of Spanish history across the centuries, Webster’s book has the rhythms of a tune played out on a guitar in the hot sunlight. Its confident, well-paced prose is as much a pleasure as the wealth of knowledge about Spain it provides, on topics from the Inquisition to the civil war.

Violencia: A New History of Spain – Past, Present, and the Future of the West by Jason Webster

36

Daughters of Chivalry by Kelcey Wilson-Lee

Chosen by Tracy Borman

In the world of medieval chivalry, a princess was meant to be a virtuous and chaste young maiden patiently waiting to be rescued by a brave knight. But, as Kelcey Wilson-Lee vividly illustrates in Daughters of Chivalry (Picador), the reality was very different. Eleanora, Joanna, Margaret, Mary and Elizabeth were the daughters of Edward I and Eleanor of Castile. They emerge from this intricately researched book as a force to be reckoned with: women of courage, intellect and spirit – and, above all, startlingly modern. 

Daughters of Chivalry by Kelcey Wilson-Lee

37

The Names Heard Long Ago by Jonathan Wilson

Chosen by Dominic Sandbrook

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Jonathan Wilson’s The Names Heard Long Ago (Blink) might initially seem like a book about Hungarian football – but it’s more than that. Wilson recreates the vanished world of the Budapest coffeehouse at the turn of the last century, the chaos of the interwar years, the tragedy of the Hungarian Uprising and the doomed romance of the Mighty Magyars. In Wilson’s own words, it’s a book about “courage and tragedy, about survival and death” – and you don’t have to like football to find it a fascinating read.

The Names Heard Long Ago by Jonathan Wilson

BOOKS OF THE YEAR 2019: OUR PANEL

Rana Mitter is the author of Modern China: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press)

Tom Holland’s most recent book is Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind (Little, Brown) 

Tracy Borman is a Tudor historian whose latest book is Henry VIII and the Men Who Made Him (Hodder & Stoughton)

Helen Castor’s latest book is Elizabeth I: A Study in Insecurity, written for the Penguin Monarchs series

Alexander Watson is the author of Ring of Steel (Penguin) and The Fortress: The Great Siege of Przemysl (Allen Lane)

Suzannah Lipscomb’s latest book is The Voices of Nîmes: Women, Sex and Marriage in Reformation Languedoc (OUP)

Dominic Sandbrook’s latest book is Who Dares Wins: Britain, 1979–1982 (Allen Lane)

Michael Wood is professor of public history at the University of Manchester 

Olivette Otele has just been appointed professor of the history of slavery at the University of Bristol

Simon Sebag Montefiore’s latest book is Voices of History (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)

Nick Rennison worked as a bookseller, editor and writer in London for many years