Top Ten History Books 2015

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We seem to be celebrating a lot of anniversaries - and the books which accompany them - at the moment, but in selecting our top ten history books of 2015 we've tried to give as wide a selection of periods and subjects as possible so that there's something to appeal to everyone. Here they are in alphabetical order by author:

1815: Regency Britain in the Year of Waterloo by Stephen Bates


The idea of taking a pivotal year from the past and devoting a whole book to the theme, embracing political, social and military history, is a very interesting one. Stephen Bates did so successfully not long ago with 'Two Nations: Britain in 1846', and here he does the same again, taking a step three decades back. Full review...

SPQR A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard


How do we know what really happened at any moment in history? At best we make educated guesses based on (often conflicting) evidence. The most striking aspect of Mary Beard's new examination of Roman history is how far she goes to see all sides and all possible explanations of events. For example, were the emperors Nero and Caligula mad or simply the victims of their successors' smear campaign? What's behind all that nonsense about the city of Rome being founded by twin boys suckled by wolves? This is a book that explodes some of the myths and presents alternative answers. Mary Beard analyses the evidence to shed new light on how a small community grew to become an empire. Military force was important, but other threads in the weave (such as social mobility and the effect of extending citizenship to many of the conquered) made the Roman experience unique. Full review...

The Zhivago Affair: The Kremlin, the CIA, and the Battle over a Forbidden Book by Peter Finn and Petra Couvee


One of the many things to come out of this incredibly clear and readable book is that we Brits, for all our literary heritage, have got nothing like an equivalent to Boris Pasternak. He or she would have to sell like Rowling, regularly capture the enjoyment and spirit of the nation a la Danny Boyle's Olympics ceremonies, and at the same time have the cultural heft of Larkin, Rushdie, Graham Greene and more combined. Someone connected with choosing recipients of the Nobel Prize declare him here to be the Soviet TS Eliot, but that's nothing like. So the reader probably has to stretch herself to see someone so well-respected and well-loved for his verse, who spent twelve years and more on a huge, society-defining novel, only for the country to nix every plan to get it published. Full review...

Divorced, Beheaded, Died...: The History of Britain's Kings and Queens in Bite-Sized Chunks by Kevin Flude


History lives. Proof of that sweeping statement can be had in this book, and in the fact that while it only reached the grand old age of six, it has had the dust brushed off it and has been reprinted – and while the present royal incumbent it ends its main narrative with has not changed, other things have. This has quietly been updated to include the reburial of Richard III in Leicester, and seems to have been rereleased at a perfectly apposite time, as only the week before I write these words the Queen has surpassed all those who came before her as our longest serving ruler. Such details may be trivia to some – especially those of us of a more royalist bent – and important facts to others. The perfect balance of that coupling – trivia and detail – is what makes this book so worthwhile. Full review...

Edward IV: Glorious Son of York by Jeffrey James


Medieval England's own game of thrones, The Wars of the Roses, was at the centre of a turbulent age. In retrospect much of the history of medieval England, between the Norman conquest and the advent of the Tudors, seems to have been a chronicle of instability often verging on and sometimes erupting into rebellion or civil war. The fifteenth-century conflicts between the houses of Lancaster and York, lasting intermittently for thirty years, were more protracted and even more brutal than the rest, with several fierce battles and sudden changes of fortune for the two rival families, both descended from King Edward III. The rise, fall and rise again of King Edward IV was a constant theme of the wars. Full review...

1916: A Global History by Keith Jeffery


1916 was a pivotal year in modern history. It witnessed the Easter Rising in Dublin, the battles of Verdun and the Somme, and the election of Woodrow Wilson as American President. These, and several other events described in this book in detail, were later seen as crucial staging points in the course of the First World War. Full review...

Life Below Stairs: True Lives of Edwardian Servants by Alison Maloney


Life in Edwardian times is currently a popular subject, thanks in no small part to that period drama currently showing its final series on ITV. Life Below Stairs examines the subject in greater detail, looking at documents and memoirs from the time to discover what life was really like for those in service. We learn about the strict hierarchy in the household and the duties expected of each individual. We see how much each member of staff was paid and how workers were hired (and in many cases, fired) from their positions. Welcome to a slice of Edwardian life, served up with a delicious mix of period illustrations and newspaper clippings. Full review...

A Nazi in the Family: The Hidden Story of an SS Family in Wartime Germany by Derek Niemann


I'm sure someone somewhere has rewritten The Devil's Dictionary to include the following – family: noun; place where the greatest secrets are kept. The Niemann family is no exception. It was long known that grandfather Karl was in Germany during the Second World War, people could easily work that out from the family biography. Yet little was spoken of, apart from him being an office-bound worker, either in logistics or finance. Since the War two of three surviving siblings had relocated to the Glasgow environs, and there was even a family quip concerning Goebbels and Gorbals (family: noun; place where the worst things are spoken in the best way). What was a surprise to our author, and many of his relatives, was that things were a lot closer to the former than had been expected, for Karl was such an office worker – for the SS. With a lot of family history finally out of the closet of silent mouths, and with incriminating photographic evidence revealed in unlikely ways, the whole truth can be known. But this is certainly not just of interest to that one small family. Full review...

Worrying: A Literary and Cultural History by Francis O'Gorman


Worrying: A Literary and Cultural History begins with a familiar scene for anyone who experiences that persistent feeling of fretful panic: lying awake in the early hours, unable to switch off, thoughts turning over in your head. If this common situation hits home, This book, its author Francis O'Gorman writes, is for you. Full review...

MOD: From Bebop to Britpop, Britain's Biggest Youth Movement by Richard Weight


Mod is arguably a rather-overused term. First of all, there is the matter of establishing a precise definition. Modernism, which was soon abbreviated for convenience, began as the working-class movement of a newly affluent nation. Once the age of immediate post-war austerity was gone, the cult of a youth keen to shake off the drab conformity of life in 1950s Britain took hold. It was more than anything else an amalgam of American music and European fashions, beginning as a popular cult and gradually becoming a mainstream culture. Full review...


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