Nick Rennison picks the best history books of the year


by Pen Vogler (Atlantic £ 20,480 pp)

"Tell me what you eat," said 19th century French restaurateur Brillat-Savarin, "and I'll tell you what you are."

In Britain, few things show our place in the country's complex class structure better than our eating habits. When do you have dinner & # 39 ;? At noon or in the early evening?

Why did the avocado become such a hallmark of the “middle class”? How did oysters, the food of the poor in Victorian England, become a delicacy for the better?

Pen Vogler offers a fascinating social history of British food over the centuries and offers a selection of tempting recipes from the past.

British Summer Time begins with Ysenda Maxtone Graham (Little Brown £ 18.99, 352 pages)

UK daylight saving time begins

by Ysenda Maxtone Graham (Little Brown £ 18.99, 352 pages)

"Donkey rides, oysters for sale, Blackpool Rock: I loved it." This is the son of shipyard worker Dugald Cameron who remembers his childhood vacation in Blackpool.

This extremely entertaining book from 1930 to 1980 is not all about holidays by the sea. The theme is the “long period of time without a schedule”, which began with the last ringing of the school bell in July and lasted until classes began again in September.

Based on the memories of dozens of people, it is a wonderful portrait of long summer weeks in which so many of us, free from adult control (“My parents had no idea where I was”), found our true selves through play .

The next fifty things the modern economy did

by Tim Harford (Bridge Street £ 20, 352 pages)

There are some surprising entries on Tim Harford's list of groundbreaking products and inventions. No wonder the credit card, printing press, and spreadsheets make the cut.

But who knew the Wardian case, a Victorian means of transport for plants, was so important? Or that cellophane helped revolutionize the food retail industry?

Or the reasons why the QWERTY keyboard was successful? From postage stamps to pencils and bricks to bicycles, Harford offers a range of surprising insights into the things that have shaped our world.


by Robert McCrum (Picador £ 14.99, 400 pages)

In July 1995, Robert McCrum was, as he puts it, "poleaxed" by a massive stroke. He had long been a lover of Shakespeare's plays, but during his recovery they became his "book of life".

Passages from them turned out to be "almost the only words that made sense". In this ardent argument for Shakespeare's enduring importance in the 21st century, he examines how the Stratford-upon-Avon man, shaped by the upheavals of his time, still speaks to us in our own troubled times.

Why is Shakespeare a global icon? And what exactly is this quality that we call "Shakespeare"?

AGENT SONYA by Ben MacIntyre (Viking £ 25, 400 pp)

AGENT SONYA by Ben MacIntyre (Viking £ 25, 400 pp)


by Ben MacIntyre (Viking £ 25, 400 pp)

(In 1945, the inhabitants of Great Rollright in Cotswold were used to women Len Burton cycling through the village streets

She was a well-known figure in the community, particularly known for the quality of the scones she baked.

What the villagers didn't know was that Ms. Burton was really Colonel Ursula Kuczynski (right) of the Red Army, a Soviet spy and committed communist.

The extraordinary story of her espionage career, from the dangerous, multicultural melting pot of the 1930s in Shanghai to operations in Britain when she leaked atomic bomb secrets to Moscow, is brilliantly told.


by Charles Spencer (Collins £ 25, 352 pages)

On the night of November 25th 1120 a ship sailed from Barfleur in Normandy to England. Among the many drunk passengers was William, the 17-year-old heir to the English throne.

Shortly after he left, some Barfleur residents heard a distant noise over the water.

They assumed it was the sound of ongoing celebration. In fact, it was a collective cry for help. The ship hit a rock and sank. The prince and dozens of other courtiers drowned. only one man survived.

Charles Spencer's book vividly evokes this half-forgotten medieval tragedy and its aftermath.

The last assassin

by Peter Stothard (W&N £ 20, 288 pages)

Fourteen years after the murder of Julius Caesar, a man named Cassius Parmensis lived in a small house in Athens. Parmensis was a poet, playwright and naval commander.

He was also the last surviving assassin.

After the murder of the Ides of March, Caesar's heir, the future Emperor Augustus, instigated a ruthless persecution of those who plunged their daggers into his adoptive father.

With the execution of Parmensis in 30 BC. This hunt ended.

Peter Stothard's gripping account of it is also the story of how Rome was transformed from republic to empire.

Nick Rennison Reveals Some of 2020's Best History Books Including Andrew J. Bayliss & # 39; The Spartans (movie file 300)

Nick Rennison Reveals Some of 2020's Best History Books Including Andrew J. Bayliss & # 39; The Spartans (movie file 300)

THE SPARTANS by Andrew J Bayliss (OUP £ 10.99, 192 pages)

THE SPARTANS by Andrew J Bayliss (OUP £ 10.99, 192 pages)


by Andrew J Bayliss (OUP £ 10.99, 192 pages)

Most people know something about the Spartans and their last battle in Thermopylae against the vast Persian armies that began in 480 BC. They invaded Greece, if only through the film 300 with Gerard Butler and his bulging biceps as Leonidas, the Spartan king.

But what is the truth behind the mythology that has surrounded these ancient warriors for a long time? Andrew Bayliss reveals the good and bad reality of Spartan life.

Her wives, known for their beauty, were given a freedom unusual for the time, but Spartan society was horribly cruel by our standards and was based on the ruthless exploitation of the near-slaves known as helots.

HITLER: Downfall 1939-45

by Volker Ullrich (The Bodley Head £ 30, 848 pages)

In 1939 Hitler did not seem to be stopped. The war initially brought nothing but a victory, but two years later his enormously stupid decision to invade Russia set him on the path to defeat and suicide in his Berlin bunker.

There have been dozens of biographies of the Führer over the years, but Volker Ullrich relies on the most recent scholarship to complete his definitive work.

Without an insight into Hitler's warped personality and worldview, we cannot understand why World War II took the course it took.

Ullrich's book sheds new light on the man who drove Germany and the rest of Europe into disaster.

Dead doubles

by Trevor Barnes (W&N £ 20, 352 pages)

Winston Churchill once wrote of the world of espionage: "The actual facts of many cases corresponded in every way to the most fantastic inventions of romance and melodrama." His words could certainly be applied to the Portland Spy Ring, which Trevor Barnes memorably reports here.

VICTORY IN THE KITCHEN by Annie Gray (Profile £ 15.99, 400 pages)

VICTORY IN THE KITCHEN by Annie Gray (Profile £ 15.99, 400 pages)

After the CIA notified MI5 in 1960 that someone had stolen secrets from the submarine research base in Portland, Dorset, the information led to extraordinary revelations.

Spies were unlikely to live in the suburbs of Ruislip, and a circuit of KGB agents operated deeply in Britain under false identities stolen from the dead.


by Annie Gray (Profile £ 15.99, 400 pages)

"We all had a delicious dinner," wrote Winston Churchill's youngest daughter Mary on her father's 68th birthday. Two years later the birthday dinner had oysters, geese and caviar. There was also, as Mary put it, an "ICED cake – wow".

Both meals were the work of Mrs. Georgina Landemare, Churchill's favorite cook. Annie Gray traces her remarkable culinary career from her rural beginnings to sojourns in Paris and New York from the Prohibition era to satisfying the appetites of her most famous employer.

PUTIN & # 39; S PEOPLE by Catherine Belton (Collins £ 25, 640 pages)

PUTIN & # 39; S PEOPLE by Catherine Belton (Collins £ 25, 640 pages)

Putin's people

by Catherine Belton (Collins £ 25, 640 pages)

When the Soviet empire imploded in 1990, a KGB man from Dresden returned to Leningrad, where he had worked as a liaison officer to the East German secret police Stasi.

He allegedly told a friend that he feared there was no better job than driving a taxi.

The KGB man's name was Vladimir Putin, and it turned out he never had to drive a taxi. Belton uncovered the story of Putin's ruthless rise to power and his crushing of hopes for a new Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

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