25 books for history buffs to read and explore the past
The best history books, picked for you by the experts. Explore life under communism, the dark side of the Victorian era, wartime heroes, an alternative view on Northern Ireland and much more.
by: Robert Lyman, Olja Knežević, John Chambers, Michelle Morgan, Francis Beckett, Tony Russell
5 May 2021
‘A Suspicious Character’ from Illustrated London News, image: public domain
Books about history allow us a window into the past. The best of them offer an opportunity to visit worlds that are no longer here, and understand the people who lived in them.
This list of the best history books is recommended by a collection of brilliant authors, expert historians, and those with an eye for great storytelling and rigorous investigation. For, as philosopher George Santayana wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
Books about British social history, chosen by historians Francis Beckett & Tony Russell
The Bitter Cry of Outcast London by Revd Andrew Mearns
How the London poor lived before the welfare state – Revd Mearns has an eye for detail, and spares his readers none of it, exposing dreadful housing conditions and their moral consequences.
The Edwardians: The Remaking of British Society by Paul Thompson
In this study of Edwardian lives, drawn from hundreds of oral histories, Thompson shows us, among other things, how you could tell exactly what class a person belonged to by glancing at his or her clothes.
‘Boys’ Weeklies’ by George Orwell (published in Inside the Whale and Other Essays)
Though better known as a writer of political fables, Orwell was an acute social historian of the overlooked, fascinated by the worlds of boys’ school stories, blood-and-guts thrillers and the comic postcards of Donald McGill.
The Uses of Literacy by Richard Hoggart
A ground-breaking and hugely influential examination of the strengths and faultlines in mid-20th-century popular culture, as it was mediated through songs, books, magazines and TV and radio programmes.
Austerity Britain: 1945–51 by David Kynaston
The first volume of Tales of a New Jerusalem, a vast history of Britain from VE Day until the election of Thatcher, packed with contemporary voices (since followed by Family Britain and Modernity Britain, bringing the story so far to 1962).
Books about growing up under communism, recommended by novelist Olja Knežević
Nobody’s Home, or The Culture of Lies by Dubravka Ugrešić
Readers don’t only get the intellectual pleasure of learning something from the kind of writing that treats them as friends gathered around a dinner table, they get the whole picture with the melancholically fierce tone of growing up, socialising, loving and hating in the region of ex-Yugoslavia.
Dogs & Others by Biljana Jovanović
The acerbic and unapologetic writing voice of Biljana Jovanović, even when translated, makes readers believe they have known the author personally for years. It was a big brave thing to be a female writer in Serbia in 20th century, but to be the first queer female writer was, and still is, worthy of magnificent respect.
Yugoslavia, My Fatherland by Goran Vojnović
A young man’s search for the truth about his presumed dead father, a former officer in the Yugoslav People’s Army, who the son then discovers is in fact a fugitive war criminal in hiding.
Family Stories: Belgrade by Biljana Srbljanović (published in Eastern Promise: seven plays from Central and Eastern Europe)
This amazingly original, clever and absurd-but-true play won the Best New Play Award in 1998, and was later staged in Germany, Poland, United States, France… The most unique modern playwright from the region is at her best here.
Wild Woman by Marina Šur Puhlovski
Although it isn’t primarily a book about growing up in communist Yugoslavia, the parts of this novel set in narrator’s childhood are masterfully written and true, as is everything written by this revered author.
Books on Protestant history in Northern Ireland, recommended by author John Chambers
Dirty War by Martin Dillon
By its very nature the work of undercover operatives is shrouded in secrecy and during the Troubles the UK security forces were experts in covert operations designed to take down, recruit and monitor N.I paramilitary groups. Some of these operations became public knowledge, but the vast majority remained cloaked in the fog of war. This book lifts the lid and sheds a little light in the darkness.
Paddy Mayne: Lt Col Blair ‘Paddy’ Mayne, 1 Sas Regiment by Hamish Ross
A complex and troubled soul, Paddy Mayne’s personal life has long been an enigma. This packed biography goes some way in separating fact from fiction; a captivating account.
The Shankill Butchers by Martin Dillon
A horrifying, disturbing account of some of the most brutal sectarian killings during the Troubles and throughout British criminal history. Not for the faint hearted; truly the stuff of nightmares.
Loyalists by Peter Taylor
An unbiased examination of loyalist history and culture told by those who were on the frontline. Politicians, loyalist leaders and killers give first-hand accounts of the madness that stalked the streets of N.I for 30 long years of terror.
The Faithful Tribe: An Intimate Portrait of the Loyal Institutions by Ruth Dudley Edwards
An insightful and intimate look at the Orange Order. The fact that the author is a female Catholic from Dublin adds a delicious irony to the tale of a tribe dominated by males committed to Protestant ascendancy.
Books about wartime heroes, recommended by military historian Robert Lyman
Fighters in the Shadows by Robert Gildea
This is an accessible evaluation of resistance in France, demonstrating that it was the dispossessed – communists, Jews, immigrants and women – who opposed the Germans.
Operation Suicide by Robert Lyman
My book is the story of a bunch of heroes who paddled up the Gironde into Bordeaux in December 1942, in homemade canvas canoes to sink enemy shipping.
Into the Jaws of Death by Robert Lyman
Likewise, who would think of stuffing an old destroyer with explosives and sailing it into the German docks at St Nazaire in order to prevent the Tirpitz from using it as a bolt hole? My book, Into the Jaws of Death, tells the story of this crazy venture.
Road of Bones by Fergal Keane
The tiny band of brothers who held the tiny Naga village of Kohima against the Japanese during their invasion of India in 1944 is not well enough known today. Fergal Keane‘s Road of Bones brilliantly tells the story from both sides.
Flashman by George Macdonald Fraser
The antics of the anti-hero Harry Flashman, the product of the late George Macdonald Fraser, remain as funny today as they were when written. They also raise a serious point: what do we really know about our heroes? Fraser asks this question in a hilarious series of adventures by a man we know to be a cad, but who his (fictional) world considered a hero.
Books exposing the underbelly of Victorian history, picked by writer Michelle Morgan
The Ripper of Waterloo Road by Jan Bondeson
This book investigates the unsolved murder of a prostitute called Eliza Grimwood, in 1838. Bondeson puts together a good case for who the main suspect might be, and there are lots of grisly illustrations too!
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
While not necessarily a crime book, there are certainly dark and creepy aspects to it. I read this book as a child and now I love collecting different editions and covers.
The Suspicions of Mr Whicher by Kate Summerscale
This is like a real-life Agatha Christie novel. It investigates the 1860 murder of a young child in a country mansion. Characters include suspicious family members and creepy servants. Who doesn’t love a Victorian country mansion yarn?
Mr Briggs’ Hat by Kate Colquhoun
A gripping look at the strange story of Thomas Briggs, who was murdered in a train carriage in 1864. The bizarre thing about the crime was that the body disappeared from the train and the murder only discovered because of a blood-soaked seat, a walking stick and a leftover top hat!
The Mile End Murder by Sinclair McKay
Mary Emsley was almost like a real-life Scrooge: An acerbic woman who spent her evenings counting her money. Emsley came to a sticky end in 1860, and this book examines who might have murdered her, and why.