Newest History Reviews

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Blades of Grass by Mark Aylwin Thomas

4.5star.jpg Biography

Any book that has me in tears at the end has been worth my time. Any book that has me hoping it will end differently to the way I know it must is worth the reading. Any book that convinces me that maybe there is still hope in the world – that for all the mistakes made thus far, still being made right now, there is a common humanity which ultimately, eventually, must do some good – that is worth the writing and the reading and the time. Blades of Grass is one such book. It's a forgotten story, an unknown story to most people. It is one that should be told – and reflected upon. Full review...

The Murder of the Romanovs by Andrew Cook

4.5star.jpg History

The fate of Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, his wife Alexandra and children, fuelled no end of rumour, misinformation and conspiracy theories for many years, even though the truth was known not long after the event. In the last few years, the advance of forensic science, DNA testing and the precise location of the bodies have allowed for confirmation of the exact truth and a dismissal of claims by a noted so-called surviving Grand Duchess. Even so, as Andrew Cook notes, straight after the deaths of the imperial family 'there would begin a ninety-year battle between science and superstition which is not over yet'. Full review...

At The Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being and Apricot Cocktails by Sarah Bakewell

4star.jpg Politics and Society

You know that old saying about judging books by their cover? Ignore it! I have found that by judging a book by its cover and getting it completely wrong is a great way to find yourself committed to reading a book that you'd never have picked in a million years and yet, somehow, being amazingly glad you did. Full review...

Pirates: Truth and Tale by Helen Hollick

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The eighteenth century lived in terror of the tramps of the seas – pirates. Pirates have fascinated people ever since. It was a harsh life for those who went 'on the account', constantly overshadowed by the threat of death – through violence, illness, shipwreck, or the hangman's noose. The lure of gold, the excitement of the chase and the freedom that life aboard a pirate ship offered were judged by some to be worth the risk. Helen Hollick explores both the fiction and fact of the Golden Age of piracy, and there are some surprises in store for those who think they know their Barbary Corsair from their boucanier. Everyone has heard of Captain Morgan, but who recognises the name of the aristocratic Frenchman Daniel Montbars? He killed so many Spaniards he was known as 'The Exterminator'. The fictional world of pirates, represented in novels and movies, is different from reality. What draws readers and viewers to these notorious hyenas of the high seas? What are the facts behind the fantasy? Full review...

Kingmakers: How Power in England Was Won and Lost on the Welsh Frontier by Timothy Venning

3.5star.jpg History

Between the Norman conquest and the Tudor period, Britain often seemed to be on the verge of civil war. The Anglo-Welsh borders were a perpetual source of trouble, kept at bay only by the Marcher lords appointed by the King of England to guard the Welsh Marches. Full review...

The British Phonebox by Nigel Linge and Andy Sutton

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The mobile phone must be one of the most used, must-have accessories of the modern age, the one device you cannot escape from in public. Some of us with (relatively) long memories must look back on the age when the bright red phonebox reigned supreme as a long time ago. Full review...

Warriors and Kings: The 1500-Year Battle for Celtic Britain by Martin Wall

4.5star.jpg History

For several centuries, much of the ancient and medieval history of Britain was one forged in war as the Celtic peoples took a stand against invasion and oppression. First it was the Romans, then the Saxons, Vikings and Normans, who threatened the unyielding and insular people. This book examines how several tenacious and heroic figures led the Britons and the Welsh against often overwhelming odds. Full review...

Joseph, 1917 by David Hewitt

3.5star.jpg History

During the autumn of 1915 Edward Stanley, the Earl of Derby and Director General of military recruitment inaugurated the Derby Scheme. Men of fighting age would be encouraged by door-to-door canvassers to 'attest' that they would sign up for military service at a recruitment office within 48 hours. They would then be categories according to marital status and be called up, with 14 days' notice, in an order in line with their household responsibilities. The idea was a sound one: married men with children only being called on if absolutely necessary. Lancastrian Joseph Blackburn chose to attest but then for him and many others, unforeseen results ensued. Full review...

A British Lion in Zululand by William Wright

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During the reign of Queen Victoria, southern Africa was a land of opportunity. Fame and fortune was to be found for any brave soul willing to suffer the hardships and dangers the lands offered. For the government of Britain it was also the source of major headaches. The balance between abundant wealth and a native population that would not accept colonial rule created constant conflict. 'A British Lion in Zululand' is the story of the man, widely regarded, as the person who drew these conflicts with the Zulu tribe to a conclusion. Field Marshall Garnet Joseph Wolseley was a heroic and larger than life figure in Victorian Britain; however, even today his role in shaping the future of a continent is controversial. With the aid of extensive research from a number of new sources, William Wright has defined the man and brought fresh insight to a neglected area of British colonial history. Full review...

No Wall Too High by Xu Hongci and Erling Hoh (Translator)

4star.jpg History

It was one of the greatest prison breaks of all time, during one of the worst totalitarian tragedies of the 20th Century. Xu Hongci was an ordinary medical student when he was incarcerated under Mao's regime and forced to spend years of his youth in some of China's most brutal labour camps. Three times he tried to escape. And three times he failed. But, determined, he eventually broke free, travelling the length of China, across the Gobi desert, and into Mongolia. Full review...

The Night of The Eleventh Sun by Steven Burgauer

4.5star.jpg Historical Fiction

The word 'Neanderthal' has become equated with people deemed to have a backward attitude and outlook. But what do we know of the original Neanderthals from over 200,000 years ago? Here American author Steven Burgauer melds the knowledge of anthropologists, archaeologists and historians with the story of Strong Arms, his family and their struggle to survive in a very effective, and informative way. Full review...

Morse Code Wrens of Station X by Anne Glyn-Jones

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Bletchley Park is probably now the least secret of all the secret ops that went on during World War II. I for one am pleased about that: technology has moved on so far that there can't be anything that happened back then on the communications front that is worth continuing to shroud in mystery. With most of the participants either departed or at least in the departure lounge, the more recollections we can still gather the better. What remained secret far longer however, is the work of the telegraphers that served Station X: those posted to the Y-stations. There are few of them left to tell their tales, so I applaud those who finally saw fit (a) to release them from their life-long bonds of secrecy and (b) encourage them to write it down, tell us what it was really like. Full review...

The Cruise of Naromis: August in the Baltic 1939 by G A Jones

4star.jpg Travel

There's brave, and there is brave. I may well have been born in a coastal county but certainly would baulk at the idea of setting out to sea with four colleagues in a 37'-long boat. Boats to me are like planes – the bigger the better, and the safer I feel as a result. But luckily for the purpose of this book, George Jones was born with a much different pair of sea-legs to mine, and took to the waters of the English Channel, the North Sea and beyond in Naromis with brio. But – and this is where the further definition of bravery comes in – he did it in August 1939, knowing full well that he would be sailing full tilt into the teeth of war. Full review...

The Private Life of Edward IV by John Ashdown-Hill

4.5star.jpg Biography

Edward IV is currently a popular subject for biographers. All credit is therefore due to Dr Ashdown-Hill, one of the foremost of current Yorkist-era historians, for looking at the King from a fresh angle – that of his romantic involvements. Full review...

The Servants' Story: Managing a Great Country House by Pamela Sambrook

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With so many recent books on aristocratic families and their homes, one which looks at the lives of their servants is to be welcomed. Written with the help of a vast archive, this presents a vivid picture of those in service at Trentham, the Staffordshire home of the Leveson-Gower family, the Dukes of Sutherland, at one stage said to be the richest non-royal family in Britain. Its insights into the ups and downs of life below stairs, and the mini-family histories involved, make for an excellent read. Full review...

Everyday Life in Tudor London: Life in the City of Thomas Cromwell, William Shakespeare & Anne Boleyn by Stephen Porter

4.5star.jpg History

The Tudor period in England marked a transition in so many ways from the medieval period to a new era, and so it is only right that somebody should at last have examined what effect that should have had on our capital city. After the instability of the Wars of the Roses, a period of consolidation set in and London was at last established as the seat of royalty and government, as well as the centre of cultural life and commercial activity. Full review...

The Wreck of the SS London by Simon Wills

5star.jpg History

The sinking of the Titanic in 1912 was the ocean disaster against which all subsequent shipwrecks have come to be compared. Yet some forty years earlier, the people of mid-Victorian Britain and overseas were horrified by another loss at sea which at the time had a similar impact. In January 1866 SS London, a large new luxury liner en route to Australia, went down shortly after leaving England, with around 250 people dead, maybe more (the exact figure will never be known), and only three survivors. Full review...

Queen Victoria and the European Empires by John Van der Kiste

4.5star.jpg History

Queen Victoria and the European Empires is a very readable history of Queen Victoria's relationships, both personal and political with the royalty of France, Germany, Austria and Russia. Many of these associations were based on family ties, but - as in all families - not all connections brought joy in their wake. John Van der Kiste - an expert in all things Victorian - produces an elegant picture of the changing relationships between the eighteen thirties and the early nineteen hundreds in a book which is deceptively slim, but packed with fascinating information and insights. Full review...

Capital Punishment: London's Places of Execution by Robert Bard

4star.jpg History

The majority of books on true crime and murder focus first and foremost on specific incidents. This concise volume takes a different approach, in dealing with them according to where the executioner completed his task. Full review...

Operation Big: The Race to Stop Hitler's A-Bomb by Colin Brown

3.5star.jpg History

What, do you think, was more feared in 1941 and 1942 than the Nazi Party? Well, a Nazi Party with nuclear arms would be pretty high on the list. It seems the stuff of pure fantasy, but I'm not so sure. A lot of the people to be at the forefront of the nuclear physics of the age were German, and the first nuclear fission was on their soil. Two things seemed to be needed for nuclear arms – uranium, which they procured by capturing Czechoslovakia, the location of one its greatest source mines; and heavy water. That so nearly fell into Nazi hands when they invaded Norway, but what seems to have been the great majority of the world's supply had only just been smuggled out. Some fiction takes great strides to suggest in a fantasy way that if Hitler hadn't concentrated on exterminating Jews, he would have had the energy to win the war – and it must only be a short step to see his imperial expansionism as having an ulterior motive in nuclear materiel. But make no mistake, this is not fiction – these are the pure facts behind the issue. Full review...

An Empire on the Edge by Nick Bunker

5star.jpg History

The history that we are taught is centred on events. Often we know the dates, the central characters and the outcome. We seldom identify and study the causes. 'An Empire on the Edge' is history writ large and looks at the chain of events leading to the Boston Tea Party, and subsequent American War of Independence. What emerges is a catalogue of human failings and frailties that shaped the destiny of America and Britain in the eighteenth century. Many of the failings were avoidable but the accumulation and chain reaction they caused had a catastrophic effect on thousands of lives and has shaped the character of two nations ever since. Full review...

Tales of Loving and Leaving by Gaby Weiner

4.5star.jpg Biography

In Tales of Loving and Leaving, author Gaby Weiner tells the story of three of her family members: her grandmother, Amalia Moszkowicz Dinger; her mother, Steffi Dinger; and her father, Uszer Frocht. Full review...

Henry III: The Son of Magna Carta by Matthew Lewis

4.5star.jpg Biography

For a monarch whose reign over England of fifty-six years was unequalled until the nineteenth century, Henry III remains curiously little-known. Nobody could claim that he was a particularly outstanding or successful ruler, but the fact that he held his throne for so long in an unstable age was no mean achievement in itself. Full review...

Catherine of Aragon: An Intimate Life of Henry VIII's True Wife by Amy Licence

5star.jpg Biography

Catherine of Aragon, the first of Henry VIII's six wives and Queens, was arguably the most unhappy figure during the Tudor era who did not meet her end on the scaffold or at the stake. The cliché 'tragic love story' must be a fitting one in her case. Full review...

The American Presidents in 100 Facts by Jem Duducu

4star.jpg History

At a time when the US Presidential election is fielding at least one candidate you'd cross the road to avoid (and I'm not saying which one) it's useful to look back over the forty four presidents who have gone before them. It's surprising how many of them have been lawyers, soldiers and career politicians, but there have also been school teachers, journalists, Hollywood actors, professors, postmasters and even a peanut farmer. Gone are the early days when you could almost fall into the presidency accidentally - now you need a massive war chest if you're to get to election day. Full review...

The Lives of Tudor Women by Elizabeth Norton

4.5star.jpg History

After a series of individual biographies on the major Tudor women, mostly royal, this book brings a new dimension in touching on the lives of individuals from all walks of life. However it is much more than a collection of lives. While the Queens and princesses naturally dominate some of the chapters, it looks beyond the surface to devote attention to serving maids, businesswomen, activists and martyrs, as well as focus on various aspects of life for women and girls in Tudor England. Full review...

Robin Hood by John Matthews

4.5star.jpg History

The Outlaw of Sherwood Forest has been part of national mythology ever since the twelfth century. Did Mr Hood really exist, or is he a figment of popular imagination who refuses to go quietly? If historians and researchers over the ages are to be believed, the truth seems to lie somewhere in between. Full review...

Notes from the Blockade by Lydia Ginzburg

5star.jpg Autobiography

With the scenes from war torn Syria brought to our screens every night, 'Notes from the blockade' is a timely book. It is the remarkable story of Lydia Ginzburg's survival during the 900-day siege of Leningrad during World War 2. With beautiful prose full of Russian melancholy and pragmatism, it details daily life in the besieged city. I have to confess that I found this to be one of the most moving books that it has ever been my pleasure to read. Pleasure may be a strange choice of words to describe a book recounting horrifying events, but it came from the lyrical quality of the writing. Ginzburg's prose is simply beautiful. Her descriptions of the minutiae of everyday life, as it descends into the abyss, are the most human I have encountered. It is this that leaves its mark long after the final page is turned. Full review...

The German War by Nicholas Stargardt

5star.jpg History

History can be a dry subject when it focusses only on events and the key people that shaped them. However, when it uses those events as the backdrop to the lives of ordinary people it truly comes to life. ‘The German War' is the story of the second world war through the eyes of a diverse group of Germans. It tells their stories, with great candour and humanity, as it follows the build up to the war, the war itself and its aftermath. Using detailed research, interviews and anecdotal evidence, Nicholas Stargardt has created a narrative that is both a historical record and compelling. Its scope is massive but it is a tremendous achievement. Books from the allies' perspective are many and varied; as a result, this can lead to a distortion of the historical record. This work addresses this imbalance. Full review...