08 June 2021

Best history book read in 2020-1: readers' choices

The Library: A World History, 2013
by James Campbell and Will Pryce
This book was not selected by my readers, but I enjoyed it

From fast-paced spy thrillers and moving family sagas to dramatic historical imaginings, BBC History Magazine (Dec 2020) asked historians which new history books they had enjoyed the most. I in turn gave a copy of BBC Hist­ory to a few readers to select their own favourite book read in 2020. They could choose any type of history book, but if they selected a book reviewed in BBC History, I'd publish that.

Agent Sonya
written by Ben Macintyre
Selected by Joe
Reviewed by Gareth Williams

Gareth Williams wanted to jump to 1949 when, without warning, the USSR exploded an atomic bomb. Behind the leaking of atomic secrets to the Soviets was Ursula Kuczynski, a pro-communist German Jew known to her English neighbours as Mrs Burton and as Sonya to her Red Army bosses. As related by Ben Macintyre in Agent Sonya (Viking), her espionage career took her to China, Poland, Germany and England. The cover blurb claims her story has never been told. In fact a translation of Kuc­zyn­ski’s auto-biography appeared in 1991, but, as expected, Macintyre makes this a riveting and thought-provoking read.

Britain’s War: A New World 1942–1947
written by Daniel Todman
Selected by Hels
Reviewed by Keith Lower

As ever, scores of books about WW2 were published this year. For me, the pick of the bunch was Daniel Todman’s Britain’s War: A New World 1942–1947 (Allen Lane), the second volume in his mag­isterial history of Britain during this most pivotal moment in 20th century history. Todman covers the military events in detail, but he also deals with the social and economic costs of the war, huge shifts in party politics, changes in religious thinking, class consc­iousness, attitudes towards empire, women’s rights and much more. Virtually no aspect of British life is left untouched.

Queens of the Crusades: Eleanor of Aquitaine and her Successors
Written by Alison Weir
Selected by Eva
Reviewed by Tracy Borman

The book that I most anticipated this year was Alison Weir’s Queens of the Crusades: Eleanor of Aquitaine and her Successors (Jonathan Cape). The second instalment of her England’s Medieval Queens series, it tells the story of five towering female figures of the Middle Ages who broke the mould of the dutiful queen consort. They were crusaders, reb­els, seductresses and intellectuals, forces to be reckoned with in their own right. Told with all of Weir’s characteristic verve and ex­ceptional eye for detail, this book should find its way into every history lover’s Christmas stocking.

British Summer Time Begins
Written by Ysenda Maxtone-Graham
Selected by ex-pat
Reviewed by booktopia

This is about summer holidays of the mid-C20th and how they were spent, as recounted to Ysenda Maxtone-Graham in vividly remembered detail by witnesses. Through this prism, it paints a revealing port­rait of C20th Britain in summertime: how we were, how families funct­ioned, what hous­es and gardens and streets were like, what journeys were like, and what people did all day in their free time. It explores their expect­at­ions, hopes, fears and habits, the rules or lack of rul­es under which they lived, their happiness and sadness, their sense of being treasured or neglected, from pre-war summers to the late 1970s.

The best part of the summer holidays was when families took off to the seaside, or to grandparents' houses teeming with cousins, or on early package holidays to France or Spain, sib­lings wedged into the back of small cars, roof-racks clattering, moth­ers preparing picnics. Were those unscheduled days  actually the most formative of one’s life?

The Habsburgs: To Rule the World
Written by Martyn Rady
Selected by Student of History
Reviewed by Bookauthority

The definitive history of a powerful family dynasty who dominated Europe for centuries, from their rise to power to their eventual down­fall. Martyn Rady tells the epic story of a dynasty and the world it built, and then lost, over nearly a millennium. From modest origins, the Hab­sburgs gained control of the Holy Roman Empire in the C15th. Then, in just a few decades, their possessions rapidly expanded to take in a large part of Europe, stretching from Hungary to Spain, and parts of the New World and the Far East. The Habsburgs continued to dominate Central Europe through WW1. 

Historians often depict the Habsburgs as leaders of a ramshackle empire. But Rady reveals their enduring power, driven by the belief that they were destined to rule the world as defenders of the Roman Catholic Church, guarantors of peace, and patrons of learning. The Habsburgs is the definitive history of a remarkable dynasty that forever changed Europe and the world.

Dear readers, is there any history book you loved in 2020-1? I will add it to this post with pleasure.


Charlene said...

The Fabric of Civilization by Virginia Postrel

Smithsonian Magazine said...

In this “Oprah’s Book Club” pick, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, Isabel Wilkerson presents a compelling argument for shifting the language used to describe how black Americans are treated by their country. “Racism” is an insufficient term for the country’s ingrained inequality. A more accurate characterization is caste system to better encapsulate the hierarchical nature. Drawing parallels between the U.S, India and Nazi Germany, Wilkerson identifies the 8 pillars that uphold caste systems: the list includes divine will, heredity, dehumanization, terror-derived enforcement and occupational hierarchies.

bazza said...

Ben McIntyre is a favourite author who writes regularly for The Times (of London). I haven't read Agent Sonya but after various reviews - I will.
During lockdown I re-read Barbara Tuchman's A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century. Probably the best written history book I ever read!
The best book overall I read last year was Donna Tartt's The Secret History (fiction).
CLICK HERE for Bazza’s previously punctual Blog ‘To Discover Ice’

Hels said...


Many thanks. I looked up a review of The Fabric of Civilisation in nytimes.com and found the following:
The story of textiles encompasses beauty and genius, excess and cruelty, social hierarchies and subtle workarounds, peaceful trade and savage wars.” In this book, the journalist and author Virginia Postrel recounts the evolution of textile production across cultures and centuries.

Hels said...

Many thanks, Smithsonian Magazine.

I can see that Caste was one of your Ten Best History Books of 2020 - a very impressive status for Isabel Wilkerson to achieve.

https://www.isabelwilkerson.com/ reviews both of Wilkerson's books, the other being The Warmth of Other Suns.

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, I generally don't read newer books, but of these I think I would prefer the British summers one. It would be interesting to see how British summers differed from American ones, but from the description I am not sure if the book is on the nostalgic side, or perhaps a bit depressing. I am currently reading by turns a festschrift called The Age of Johnson, and the minor novels of Herman Melville (I read the Melville novelettes long ago but they are mostly forgotten. I am desperate to get back to the U.S. and some new reading material. I am definitely going to add rereading Moby Dick to the list, to see if I am as fascinated by it now as the first time.

Hels said...


you and I must be twins, historically speaking. If I had to add my favourite history book over the last few years, and not just one I read in 2020-1, I also would have selected Barbara Tuchman's A Distant Mirror. The Times said Tuchman wrote about a period of anguish with no sense of an assured future. The 14th century was an age characterised by a succession of wayward dangers; of pillage, plague, and taxes; of fierce and tragic conflicts, bizarre fates, capricious money, sorcery, betrayals, insurrections, murder, madness and the downfall of princes.

Here is a book I don't know at all. The Secret History is by the American author Donna Tartt. Set in New England, the novel tells the story of a closely knit group of six classics students at Hampden College, a small, elite liberal arts college located in Vermont based upon Tartt's own Bennington College. It is an inverted detective story narrated by one of the six students.

Hels said...


By The Age of Johnson, do you mean the annual by Jack Lynch? UBCPress wrote: For more than two decades, The Age of Johnson has presented a vast corpus of Johnsonian studies in the broadest sense. In articles, review essays and reviews, The Age of Johnson has made a permanent contribution to our understanding of the 18th century, and particularly of Samuel Johnson, his circle and his interests.

I love that readers are providing very different recommendations :)

LMK said...

The Five by Hallie Rubenhold. Jack the Ripper still has secrets to be exposed.

Pipistrello said...

Hi Hels,

For the past couple of years, Mr. P's and my historical reading has been mostly focussed around the World Wars. He will whole-heartedly endorse anything written by Ben McIntyre, but we both read and loved Mollie Panter-Downes' "London War Notes", the first-hand civilian account of living in London during WWII, written as fortnightly letters for the New Yorker Magazine.

Hels said...


Great choice. The 2020 Wolfson Prize shortlist recommended The Five about the five Victorian victims of Jack the Ripper in the East End of London. The literature has assumed that the women he killed were prostitutes. Rubenhold researched the lives of these 5 women absolutely brilliantly and convincingly concluded that only one of the women was a prostitute. The others were just rough sleepers, alcoholics or ill.

Hels said...


I am not familiar with London War Notes, but look what I found.
An entry on the Persephone list is Mollie Panter-Downes’ excellent London War Notes: 1939-1945. The collection gathers together material which was originally published in The New Yorker during WW2. Panter-Downes wrote a regular Letter from London, and in all contributed 153 such pieces and two dozen short stories. This new edition features a far-reaching preface which has been written by David Kynaston who believes this volume rightly leaves historians and readers forever in her debt for its slice of wartime life.


Andrew said...

Agent Sonya and The Habsburgs both sound like good reads.

Hels said...


We should feel a bit sorry for publishers of history books since they have so many markets to meet, and so many nations and eras to cover. I am passionate about the 1630-1930 era, less so about medieval and modern history, and not at all interested in ancient history. So I love reading other peoples' reviews and blogs like New York Journal of Books.

By the way, before people marry or partner up, they should check their intended's favourite reading material :)

Pipistrello said...

Bingo, Hels! I have the Persephone edition.

Rachel Phillips said...

East West Street by Philippe Sands. I first read it in 2019 and have read it twice since. I have often recommended it on my blog. The British Book Awards Non-fiction of the Year in 2017 and other awards. The personal story of Sands' own family's past in Ukraine and Austria and the origins of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity. An amazing book that everyone should read.

Luiz Gomes said...

Boa tarde Hels. Obrigado pela dica de livros, acho que muitos deles não temos em português.

Hels said...


Sometimes the blogging world works well :)

Hels said...


Thank you. The Guardian agreed with you, saying that East West Street is an exceptional memoir. I would find it personally urgent to read as well, given half my family lived in the part of Russia that later became Ukraine.

Our Covid lockdown ends at midnight tonight, so I can see the next few weeks being spent in my favourite bookshops :)

Hels said...


Some smaller book productions would not be Portuguese, I realise, but hopefully the more successful books will be easily available eg

The Five: A História Não Contada das Mulheres Assassinadas por Jack, o Estripador
A História Secreta (Portuguese Edition) by Donna Tartt

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Hels – I endorse Charlene’s comment – I have it to read. (Fabric of Civilisation).
A friend recommended a novel but about 1947 England in the East End and workers in a fur factory … it was fascinating – and I related to the story line. Mary Gibson’s ‘Hattie’s Home’ – it has an Australian link … I loved it.
I need to read Alison Weir’s book on Eleanor, as too the Habsburg book …
I’ve been reading William Dalrymple’s 1980s book about his walking from Jerusalem to Xanadu … amazing true story.
Thanks for these recommendations – while the comments and their recommendations were also fascinating – I shall note. … cheers Hilary

Hels said...


Thank you for pulling out your favourites from your bookshelf. I appreciate the effort.

The Fabric of Civilisation by Virginia Postrel is not a book I had heard about, but it appeals enormously. Fine arts used to mean painting, architecture and sculpture exclusively, and I was personally annoyed because of the decorative arts that I loved so much - gold and silver, furniture, porcelain, silks etc etc. If Postrel really did do groundbreaking research from archaeology, economics and science to reveal her history, it will be the first book I read after the lockdown ends (tonight, all going well!)

Rajani Rehana said...

Beautiful blog

Hels said...


many thanks. I still love history and art history blogging, after all these years.

Yes I will go and look at your blog straight away.

DUTA said...

I love history, but I must sadly admit that lately I haven't read anything worth mentioning. Due to circumstances in general (pandemics and war),and also personal issues (living alone). I often find myself reading guides and viewing tutorials on Youtube. It helps me not to be dependent and even save money.

Shabbath Shalom!

Joe said...

Another great book is Ben Macintyre's Agent Zigzag, the true story of double agent Eddie Chapman. The Guardian review said he was a criminal and serial philanderer who found himself on Jersey when the Germans invaded and was transferred to a hellhole of a prison in Paris. The only way out of this benighted existence was to volunteer his services to the Abwehr as a secret agent. He was parachuted into England, swiftly handing himself over to the police and volunteered to become a secret agent. Only when he volunteered to assassinate Hitler did they curb his patent enthusiasm for espionage.

Hels said...


I know exactly what you experienced! Me too. At least you have found quality tutorials on Youtube that provided well researched historical material.

I also find BBC History documentaries very satisfying, as long as they provide details about their source material.

Hels said...


Even though I am personally unlikely to read spy histories, The Guardian and the NY Times both called Agent Zigzag spellbinding, eminently readable and superb history that feels like an engaging novel.

Melbourne Jewish Book Week said...

We recommend Living in COVID Times by Leon Piterman. It is a series of essays covering multiple aspects of living in COVID times. Written by a GP and educator based in Melbourne, topics covered include holidays and plagues, ethics in the COVID-19 era, mental health consequences of the corona virus and comparison with the Spanish influenza. Leon Piterman provides plenty of food for thought.

Nicolas Brasch
Festival Director MJBW

Hels said...


Perfect timing! I will get my co-writer to read and review the book in this blog.