33 best books for history lovers: BBC History Magazine’s Books of the Year 2023
It’s been another excellent year for history publishing, with new books that offer fresh insights into the past and help us make sense of the present. Here, a panel of historians recommend the titles they’ve most enjoyed this year, from tales of peerless Roman rulers to life in postwar Britain
What history books should go on your Christmas wish list this year? In the Christmas 2023 issue of BBC History Magazine, historians Emily Brand, James Holland, Kavita Puri, Roger Moorhouse, Charlotte Lydia Riley, Michael Wood, Jeremy Black, Tracy Borman, Hannah Skoda, Peter Frankopan, Hannah Cusworth and Rana Mitter shared their top history books of 2023…
African and Caribbean People in Britain: A History (Penguin)
Charlotte Lydia Riley: African and Caribbean People in Britain: A History (Penguin) by Hakim Adi is a magisterial work that explores the history of black people in Britain from earliest times – African presence pre-dates the Romans by almost 1,000 years –to the present day. It emphasises struggle, protest and activism not only in the histories themselves, but in the writing of these histories and the attempts to make these stories and these voices heard today.
Red Memory: Living, Remembering and Forgetting China’s Cultural Revolution (Faber & Faber)
Kavita Puri: I spend a lot of time thinking about historical memory: when we choose to speak or to forget, both as individuals and collectively. So I was drawn to Tania Branigan’s Red Memory: Living, Remembering and Forgetting China’s Cultural Revolution (Faber & Faber).
“It is impossible to understand China today without understanding the Cultural Revolution,” she writes. “Subtract it and the country makes no sense: it is Britain without its empire, the United States without the Civil War.” Branigan recounts some astonishing and harrowing first-person testimonies in this revealing and excellent book, which shows that China is still far off
a reckoning with its recent past.
Michael Wood: Nearly 60 years on, the Cultural Revolution still casts a shadow across Chinese society, with bitter memories of its mass hysteria and violence. In the recent era of opening up, websites have emerged in which victims engage with perpetrators in a kind of therapeutic dialogue. Yet under President Xi, Chairman Mao is being rehabilitated in a new round of official suppression. Tania Branigan, who worked in Beijing for The Guardian, gives us a gripping overview in Red Memory: Living, Remembering and Forgetting China’s Cultural Revolution (Faber & Faber).
More like this
Beastly: A New History of Animals and Us (Canongate)
James Holland: I’m also going to pick Beastly: A New History of Animals and Us (Canongate) by Keggie Carew. It’s a history book, but tells the story of humanity’s relationship with the animal world over tens of thousands of years. I fervently believe everyone should read it. It’s quirky, funny and conversational but also deeply tragic – and it’s fair to say that we humans don’t come out of it particularly well. Who knew that the oldest living vertebrate is the Greenland shark, and that one caught recently was alive before the Pilgrim Fathers sailed? From start to finish, it’s fabulous.
Shadows at Noon (Bodley Head)
Rana Mitter: No less epic is Joya Chatterji’s compelling Shadows at Noon (Bodley Head), a history of south Asia in the 20th century that takes in wrestlers and Bollywood as well as partition and colonialism. Chatterji is keen to show that the region’s fractious nation-states have more in common than tears them apart, despite the horrors of partition in 1947, and is also unsparing on the social and gender divisions that have shaped political change in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.
The Intimate State: How Emotional Life Became Political in Welfare-State Britain (OUP)
Hannah Cusworth: I became a mother this year, and Teri Chettiar’s The Intimate State: How Emotional Life Became Political in Welfare-State Britain (OUP) captured my attention. It tells the story of how family relationships acquired political and cultural significance in Britain following the Second World War. Chettiar shows that prominent postwar psychiatrists, social reformers and psychologists worked to position successful motherhood, supported by the state, as central to a healthy nation. Women staying in constant contact with their baby became the ideal, while the only appropriate role for fathers was that of a breadwinner. Legacies of this approach persist to this day.
Revolutionary Spring: Fighting for a New World 1848–1849 (Penguin)
Peter Frankopan: One of the best things about finishing writing a book is the chance to read for pleasure. I’ve long been a fan of Christopher Clark, and his Revolutionary Spring: Fighting for a New World 1848–1849 (Penguin) provides an overview of the forces that reshaped Europe – and worlds beyond – in full Technicolor. Clark is a wonderful writer as well as an outstanding historian.
Thunderclap: A Memoir of Art and Life & Sudden Death (Vintage)
Emily Brand: Part art history, part memoir, Thunderclap: A Memoir of Art and Life & Sudden Death (Vintage) is a gentle and beautiful journey though the power of art, love and grief. In gorgeous prose, Laura Cumming moves from an explosion in Delft in 1654 to a transformative encounter with a painting of asparagus and her own meditations on human connections to paintings, to history and to each other. Her passion for the masterpieces of the Dutch golden age is also delightfully infectious.
Courting India: England, Mughal India and the Origins of Empire (Bloomsbury)
Hannah Cusworth: Nandini Das’s Courting India: England, Mughal India and the Origins of Empire (Bloomsbury) is ostensibly a study of Sir Thomas Roe’s time as the East India Company’s representative to the Mughal court from 1615 to 1619, but it is so much more than that. While Roe is often considered to be the progenitor of the EIC’s later control of the subcontinent, Das shows that he was often sidelined by established traders and imposing Mughal leaders. Her book makes us rethink the idea that Britain was always dominant in India.
Michael Wood: Elizabeth I wrote to the Mughal emperor Akbar in the late 16th century about English wanderlust and here, in the fascinating Courting India: England, Mughal India and the Origins of Empire by Nandini Das, is the tale of Thomas Roe’s four-year embassy to India in 1615. India was a huge continental empire, England a minor maritime kingdom on the fringe of Europe; but with their itchy feet the English were pushing to expand global trade. Their paths would cross in ways they could never have dreamed of.
On Savage Shores: How Indigenous Americans Discovered Europe (Orion)
Caroline Dodds Pennock
Emily Brand: In exploring how thousands of Indigenous Americans experienced and impacted life in early modern Europe – as travellers, translators, royal employees, or abductees – On Savage Shores: How Indigenous Americans Discovered Europe (Orion) reverses our familiar narrative of the ‘Age of Discovery’. Caroline Dodds Pennock expertly interrogates historical fragments and manuscript sources to tell a story that is grand in scale but also feels heart-rendingly personal. This book delivers a genuinely original and meaningful account of the 16th century that will prove eye-opening even for those familiar with the period.
Hannah Skoda: A more moving kind of recentring shapes Caroline Dodds Pennock’s brilliant On Savage Shores: How Indigenous Americans Discovered Europe (Orion). She flips the perspective of so much historical scholarship to ask not what Europeans made of the Indigenous peoples they encountered, but rather what Indigenous peoples made of Europeans. It’s a very humane account. Many of the stories are tragic and appalling, but the book centres humanity and courage.
Art Monsters: Unruly Bodies in Feminist Art (Vintage)
Charlotte Lydia Riley: Lauren Elkin’s Art Monsters: Unruly Bodies in Feminist Art (Vintage) is a thoughtful exploration of the ways in which feminist artists have approached the body – as a subject and as an identity – in their work. Drawing on writing by women including Virginia Woolf and Kathy Acker, exploring the art works of Carolee Schneemann, Kara Walker and Ana Mendieta, and thinking through experiences of illness, pregnancy, and queerness, this book is vital and alive.
Hitler, Stalin, Mum and Dad: A Family Memoir of Miraculous Survival (HarperCollins)
Roger Moorhouse: One consequence of Russia’s brutal war against Ukraine is that it has forced central Europe, and its history, back into the public consciousness. One book that helps us understand that complex story a little better is Daniel Finkelstein’s exquisite Hitler, Stalin, Mum and Dad: A Family Memoir of Miraculous Survival (HarperCollins), which charts the complex story of the author’s parents’ families – the Finkelsteins and the Wieners – through deportation, persecution, the Holocaust and Stalin’s gulags, to the comparative peace of postwar north London. Moving and enlightening in equal measure.
The Earth Transformed: An Untold History (Bloomsbury Publishing)
Rana Mitter: Sweeping in ambition and scale, Peter Frankopan’s The Earth Transformed: An Untold History (Bloomsbury Publishing) tackles the history of climate change and how it has shaped human history over a 5,000-year period. Lest this sound too forbidding, be assured that the book is brilliantly shaped throughout by the human touch – including a caliph who ate 40 aubergines in one sitting, illustrating how food choices are shaped by climatic circumstance every bit as much as by periods of imperial flourishing.
The Coming of the Railway: A New Global History, 1750–1850 (Yale University Press)
Jeremy Black: David Gwyn’s The Coming of the Railway: A New Global History, 1750–1850 (Yale University Press) is the best available book on early railway history, one that focuses on Britain but which also includes Germany and the United States. Gwyn is acute on the interaction of technology and possibilities, and the way in which entrepreneurs bridged the divide, creating profit. It would be useful to add comparisons with steamships but, even without those, this book is first rate.
Sing as We Go: Britain Between the Wars (Hutchinson Heinemann)
Jeremy Black: Simon Heffer’s Sing as We Go: Britain Between the Wars (Hutchinson Heinemann) is the well-written and wide-ranging final book of a four-volume series. It is particularly searching on popular culture, including film, and underlines the extent to which the interwar period was not all doom and gloom. New developments such as the introduction of the National Grid are ably handled, and there is an appropriate and extensive discussion of prime minister Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement policy and the move to war. It is, in short, a triumph.
The Savage Storm: The Battle for Italy 1943 (Transworld)
Jeremy Black: James Holland is one of our leading exponents of ‘face of battle’ military history. The Savage Storm: The Battle for Italy 1943 (Transworld) is an excellent account of the opening campaign on mainland Italy, helping to explain why the Allies found it so difficult to make progress up the peninsula. It captures the difficulties at every level, from terrain to logistics, and resistance to resources, and also brings out the strategic intentions and consequences of the campaign. A great read.
Pax: War and Peace in Rome’s Golden Age (Little, Brown)
James Holland: You can accuse me of fraternal bias, but Pax: War and Peace in Rome’s Golden Age (Little, Brown), the third volume in my brother Tom’s Rome series, is every bit as brilliant as the previous two. From the year of the four emperors to the golden age of Trajan and Hadrian, he brings this familiar yet unfamiliar world vividly to light more thought-provokingly and vividly than anyone else writing on this period. At the heart lies Rome itself, the great glittering city of the empire – but the tentacles of this book stretch far further. Fascinating and captivating in equal measure.
1923: The Forgotten Crisis in the Year of Hitler’s Coup (John Murray)
Roger Moorhouse: Anniversaries are beloved of publishers, but many historians would agree that 1923 was a year so seminal that it is worth revisiting. Mark Jones’s 1923: The Forgotten Crisis in the Year of Hitler’s Coup (John Murray) looks at events in Germany in that tumultuous year in which it was assailed by economic collapse, foreign occupation and the centrifugal forces on the extreme right and the extreme left. In short, it peered into the abyss and then stepped back. Jones’s fascinating book gives us a timely lesson in the fragility of democracy.
A Northern Wind: Britain 1962–65 (Bloomsbury)
Charlotte Lydia Riley: A Northern Wind: Britain 1962–65 (Bloomsbury) is the latest instalment in David Kynaston’s ‘Tales of a New Jerusalem’ series. This book charts the midpoint between the Attlee government’s reconstruction of Britain and building of a welfare state, and the Thatcher government’s deconstruction of this postwar consensus, covering themes including education, health, labour relations and the shifting identity politics of the 1960s. The real strength of the book, and the series, is Kynaston’s focus on the voices from below. Drawing on a daunting array of diaries, letters and cultural ephemera ranging from the most pop to the highest brow, the book frames history through the ordinary person’s experience.
Shakespeare’s Book: The Intertwined Lives Behind the First Folio (William Collins)
Tracy Borman: Shakespeare’s Book: The Intertwined Lives Behind the First Folio by Chris Laoutaris (William Collins) is an exquisitely crafted volume, the result of such painstaking and extensive research that it could be compared with the creation of the First Folio itself. The famous playwright is just one of a dazzling cast of characters from the theatrical, social and political world of Jacobean England who are brought vividly to life in the narrative. Beautifully written and utterly compelling, it echoes the drama and intrigue of a Shakespeare play.
To the End of the Earth (Dutton)
John C McManus
James Holland: I loved reading To the End of the Earth (Dutton), John C McManus’s third book in his trilogy about the US Army in the Pacific. It takes us through the war in 1945 and those pivotal campaigns in the Philippines – and Burma – with incredible verve, colour and detail. As well as covering the fighting, there are fascinating episodes on the evolving use of African-American troops, the jaw-dropping scale of the logistics involved, and forgotten units such as the superb 11th Airborne Division. Utterly illuminating.
A Nasty Little War: The West’s Fight to Reverse the Russian Revolution (John Murray)
Roger Moorhouse: Anna Reid’s A Nasty Little War: The West’s Fight to Reverse the Russian Revolution (John Murray) casts light on another little-known and often misunderstood part of Russia’s 20th century history: Allied intervention following the First World War that intended, as Churchill put it, to strangle the Bolshevik revolution in its crib. Elegantly written, and drawing on extensive archival research, it charts the unedifying story of a series of largely disconnected operations characterised as much by chaos, corruption and ennui as martial dash. This remarkable book is simultaneously comic and horrifying.
The Palace: From the Tudors to the Windsors, 500 Years of History at Hampton Court (William Collins)
Tracy Borman: Hampton Court Palace is most famous as the home of Henry VIII. But, as Gareth Russell shows in his vividly told history The Palace: From the Tudors to the Windsors, 500 Years of History at Hampton Court (William Collins), it boasts many more fascinating personalities and stories than just the much-married monarch. Most interesting are the lesser-known characters and events, from waspish Georgian courtier Lord Hervey to the role that the palace played in the grave of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey. I’ve worked at Hampton Court for 15 years, but reading this felt like walking its corridors and courtyards for the first time.
Stolen History: The Truth About the British Empire and How it Shaped Us (Penguin)
Kavita Puri: Sathnam Sanghera’s Stolen History: The Truth About the British Empire and How it Shaped Us (Penguin) is a great guide to help children navigate the difficult terrain of empire and slavery, but also how to practically approach the subject when it may be hard for some people to discuss. It is also suitable for adults, and may even start some more grown-up and less fractious conversations about our past.
Justinian: Emperor, Soldier, Saint (John Murray)
Peter Frankopan: I’ve been looking forward to Peter Sarris’s Justinian: Emperor, Soldier, Saint (John Murray) for a while, and I was not disappointed. Justinian is perhaps the greatest of the emperors of Rome and New Rome (Constantinople), and one whose reign coincided with a set of extraordinary challenges – from riots to pandemic, and from ambitious military campaigns to normalising relations with neighbours old and new. Sarris does his subject proud in a book that wears the author’s learning lightly.
Foreign Bodies: Pandemics, Vaccines and the Health of Nations (Simon & Schuster)
Kavita Puri: Foreign Bodies: Pandemics, Vaccines and the Health of Nations (Simon & Schuster) charts the tumultuous history of vaccines and their acceptance. Simon Schama writes back into history remarkable women who were some of the earliest practitioners of inoculation, as well as the extraordinary and little-known figure of Waldemar Haffkine, a Jewish bacteriologist from Odessa who undertook much of his groundbreaking work in India and became known as “the hypodermic missionary of modern medicine”.
The Soviet Century: Archaeology of a Lost World (Princeton University Press)
Peter Frankopan: My final choice is Karl Schlögel’s The Soviet Century: Archaeology of a Lost World (Princeton University Press). I grew up fearing the Soviet Union, watching its disintegration and then working on its legacies – including how historians in the USSR thought and wrote about the past, back to the founding of Kyiv and the early Rus’ state. Schlögel’s book is ingenious – thrilling, even – introducing readers to a extraordinary array of things that rarely find a place in history books: tattoos, wrapping paper, the place of pianos, and nameplates on apartments and houses. There is also a poignancy, of course, in that the horrors of authoritarian control, clampdowns on freedoms and the sheer power of the state have all resurfaced in recent years. But I loved reading this anyway.
Ian Fleming: The Complete Man (Harvill Secker)
Michael Wood: Ian Fleming: The Complete Man by Nicholas Shakespeare (Harvill Secker) explores the gilded life of the creator of James Bond, and it’s also a revealing insight into postwar, post-empire Britain, of which Bond became a potent symbol. Bond continues to impact our popular culture, national psyche, and sense of place in global politics. Here we see how that came about through Fleming’s story – from a privileged imperial childhood to wartime naval intelligence and then worldwide literary fame. A terrific read.
Black Everyday Lives, Material Culture and Narrative: Tings in de House (Routledge)
Hannah Cusworth: Black Everyday Lives, Material Culture and Narrative: Tings in de House (Routledge) by Shawn-Naphtali Sobers is a beautiful book. Room by room, it explores and celebrates Black British life. From the photo wall in the living room to the Dutch pot in the kitchen, Sobers deftly weaves together history and anthropology to show how the personal links to the political. His foregrounding of objects present in so many Black British homes made this a poignant read.
What Sorrows Labour in My Parents’ Breast?: A History of the Enslaved Black Family (Rowman and Littlefield)
Hannah Skoda: Brenda Stevenson’s What Sorrows Labour in My Parents’ Breast?: A History of the Enslaved Black Family (Rowman and Littlefield). Stevenson traces a history of the Black family from 16th-century Africa, through to the late 19th-century United States. This is a history to counter prejudices and assumptions about the ways in which family ties might have been erased by slavery: instead, Stevenson shows the Black family as central to survival, to faith, and to love.
Smell and the Past: Noses, Archives, Narratives (free as an ebook from bloomsbury collections.com)
Rana Mitter: There’s a scent of mystery around history in William Tullett’s highly original Smell and the Past: Noses, Archives, Narratives (free as an ebook from bloomsbury collections.com), which aims to ‘odorize’ the archive and show how recovering how the past smelled may be as revealing as knowing how it looked or sounded. To the modern nose, the past would have smelled much more pungent – whether it was horse dung in the streets, or the smell of orchards and meadows. It’s just one of the ways in which historians continue to innovate as they think of new methods to understand the past in all its dimensions – whether fragrant or noisome.
The Wife of Bath: A Biography (Princeton University Press)
Emily Brand: The Wife of Bath: A Biography (Princeton University Press), Marion Turner’s ‘life story’ of Chaucer’s most interesting creation – Alison of Bath, serial wife and wandering woman – falls into two parts. The first explores the lives of and opportunities for women in 14th-century Europe in an illuminating social history. The second traces Alison’s literary ‘afterlives’, from Shakespeare to Zadie Smith, and her persistence as a feminist icon. Both combine rigorous scholarship and an eye for entertaining detail.
Henry VIII: The Heart & the Crown (Headline)
Tracy Borman: Alison Weir, whose historical fiction includes the bestselling Six Tudor Queens series, turns to the man they all had in common in Henry VIII: The Heart & the Crown (Headline). Piecing together a wealth of rich period detail and eyewitness accounts, her novel gets under the skin of the man so often dismissed as a much-married monster to give us an altogether more nuanced, compelling and human portrayal. By the end of it, I felt as if I’d met Henry VIII for the first time.
The Donkey and the Boat: Reinterpreting the Mediterranean Economy, 950-1180 (OUP)
Hannah Skoda: A publication which is genuinely field-changing: Chris Wickham’s The Donkey and the Boat: Reinterpreting the Mediterranean Economy, 950-1180 (OUP). Wickham puts together a dizzying array of archaeological and documentary sources from the Byzantine empire, Latin Europe and the Islamic world, and demonstrates the economic importance of Egypt in particular in this period. Internal production and demand (the ‘donkeys’ of his title) are explored in relation to long-distance trade (the ‘boats’). This book recentres our understanding of early medieval economies
These selections first appeared in the Christmas 2023 issue of BBC History Magazine
Matt Elton is BBC History Magazine’s Deputy Editor. He has worked at the magazine since 2012 and has more than a decade’s experience working across a range of history brands.