Top Ten History Books of 2014

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In 2014 it was always going to be difficult to stop the First World War from dominating the top ten history books list, but we've done our best to provide inspiration for those with different tastes. Here they are, in alphabetical order, by author:

Witches: James I and the English Witch Hunts by Tracy Borman


Gossip is as old as human nature, but generally harmless. It was a different matter in medieval times, when what might start as relatively innocuous tittle-tattle could breed suspicion, paranoia, and ultimately accusations against women and girls of witchcraft. More often than not, it would end in a horrible death by execution - drowning, strangulation on the gallows, or being burned alive. The unsavoury business of witchcraft trials in early seventeenth-century England was encouraged by King James I, who with his obsession with and knowledge of the black arts and his firm belief in the threat of demonic forces believed that witches had been responsible for fierce storms that had come close to drowning his future bride on her voyage by sea from Scotland to England. Full review...

The Great War: The People's Story by Isobel Charman


During this centenary year, we have seen many ways of telling the history of the conflict which broke out among the Great Powers of Europe and soon involved all four corners of the world. This volume, based on a recent ITV series of the same title, approaches it from an angle which I have not seen before. It follows the course of events over the four years through the letters, memoirs and diaries of about a dozen individuals as it presents their story against the background of fighting on the continental mainland, and of bereavement, shortages and more at home. Full review...

Washington Journal: reporting Watergate and Richard Nixon's downfall by Elizabeth Drew


In early August 1974 I was in what was then Yugoslavia. There was a group of us, all interested in the political news, but essentially cut off from the outside world apart from the previous day's English newspapers which arrived mid morning. It was on the 11th of August that one of our number dashed onto the beach yelling He's resigned. He's RESIGNED!!! No one had any need to ask who he was talking about. We'd all been following the news about Richard Nixon's doings and wrongdoings for a year, with no one certain that he would be forced out of office. The investigative journalism (oh, for the days when journalists uncovered rather than merely covered) was done by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, but some of the most insightful reportage came from Elizabeth Drew writing for The New Yorker. Full review...

A Broken World: Letters, diaries and memories of the Great War by Sebastian Faulks and Hope Wolf


Sebastian Faulks and Dr Hope Wolf have expertly brought together this far-reaching collection of memories, diaries, letters and postcards written during and after the First World War. While Faulks is the author of novels such as Birdsong and Charlotte Gray, Dr Hope Wolf is a research fellow in English at the University of Cambridge, whose doctoral research focused on archives at the Imperial War Museum. The combination of such a respected author, whose most famous (and arguably his best) novel is set in the First World War, and an academic whose expertise is the in the same area, means that this fascinating collection hits all the right notes. It's commemorative, poignant and very human. Full review...

The Making of Home by Judith Flanders


In 1900 a young girl in a strange land told the people around her that she had decided she no longer wanted to live in their lovely country, but would much rather return to the ‘dry, grey’ place she had come from, because there was ‘no place like home’. The girl was Dorothy, while the people around her were the citizens of Oz – and, yes, it was all fiction, the creation of author L. Frank Baum. Nevertheless he had put into words something which many people deeply felt but had not yet expressed. Full review...

The Mill Girls by Tracy Johnson


The Mill Girls is a collection of true stories based on interviews with women who worked at Lancashire's cotton mills during the war years. Leaving school at the tender age of 14, the girls were thrown headlong into the world of work, at a time when jobs were plentiful and the benefits culture we know today was non-existent. The choice was a simple one: work or starve. Conditions were harsh, the mills noisy, dangerous and dirty and pay was low. Despite this, many of the women look back at their time 'in mill' with warm fondness and nostalgia. Full review...

Tudor: The Family Story by Leanda de Lisle


With so many recent books published on various aspects of Tudor history, it becomes harder to find a new angle or approach to the subject. Leanda de Lisle has thus pulled off the almost-impossible. Her starting point is not the battle of Bosworth and Henry Tudor’s claiming of the throne as King Henry VII in 1485, but an event nearly fifty years earlier, the death and funeral of Catherine de Valois. The widow of King Henry V, Catherine married secondly the Welsh squire Owain ap Maredudd ap Tudur, known to posterity as Owen Tudor. Their elder son Edmund later married Margaret Beaufort, a descendant of John of Gaunt, one of King Edward III’s several sons, and it was the only child of this union, born when his mother was a mere girl thirteen years of age, who would become the victor on Bosworth Field. Full review...

Books that Changed the World: The 50 Most Influential Books in Human History by Andrew Taylor


Oh the pleasure when, as a book reviewer, one can simply point to the title and say – 'yup, that'. Or, I suppose, as in the non-existent follow-up, Adverts That Changed the World, simply repeat the mantra 'it does exactly what it says on the tin'. This paperback edition of the six year old original, fresh with several typos they had time to iron out alongside putting in Seamus Heaney's departure, makes life even easier, given that subtitle. I'm sure the more bibliophilic are already sold, and there is little influence I can bear on things. I will, however, soldier on. Full review...

Elizabeth of York by Alison Weir


Elizabeth of York could have ruled England were she not a woman and were she not born in the fifteenth century. Oldest daughter of Edward IV, she was the heiress of the Yorkist dynasty after the death of Richard III at Bosworth (and her own younger brothers in the Tower of London). Henry VII, the first Tudor king and victor by conquest, had at best a tenuous claim to the English throne. He legitimised it by his marriage to Elizabeth and proclaimed it through the Tudor rose, that joining of the emblems of York and Lancaster. Elizabeth's marriage to Henry produced one of our most famous kings in Henry VIII. Full review...

Steaming to Victory: How Britain's Railways Won the War by Michael Williams


Soon after the end of the First World War, the British railways entered what is generally regarded as their golden age, with the heyday of the ‘Big Four’ companies, the LNER (London and North Eastern), LMS (London, Midlands and Scottish), GWR (Great Western) and Southern Railways. By 1939 they were beginning to lose their virtual monopoly of land-based transport to lorries, buses and coaches. Nevertheless, as war became increasingly inevitable, they played a vital part in the preparation to keep the country moving, keeping industry and the war effort supplied, helping in the evacuation of Dunkirk, or as their press office put it in a pamphlet of 1943, 'tackling the biggest job in transport history'. Full review...


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