Thursday, December 15, 2016

Books for Christmas 2016 - An England and a war lost, but secrets and treasures re-found - favourite history titles

It's been an era-defining year, no question. At times the bookshop has seemed - more than usual - a haven from the bewildering change that swept through the country and around the globe. One damn thing after another, indeed.

Whilst journalists write the 'first draft of history', next in line are those authors who take a slightly longer view. We place these books under 'History' and here are some of favourite picks from 2016.


Lost England: 1870-1930 - Philip Davies
During his time at English Heritage, architectural historian and trained urban planner Philip Davies spent seven years trawling through the estimated 9 million photographs that are in its archives. The result is a truly astonishing collection of 1500 images, in a 558 page book which we feel would be a wonderful gift to anyone interested in the dramatic changes that have taken place in the country over the past 150 years.

It records England's history as the longstanding practices of a largely rural economy shifted focus into towns and cities: astonishing photographs give the reader access to the streets, living and working spaces of the growing cities as well as the daily routines of rural life. Amongst the pages, you will find images from Abingdon (see the display in our window), as well as a flooded street from Hinksey in Oxford that shows times have not changed quite as much as we might think...

SAS: Rogue Heroes - The Authorized Wartime History - Ben Macintyre
We like to think of Ben Macintyre as 'one of our own', ever since our event with him a few years ago. Since then of course, he has gone on to become one of our most recognisable journalist, authors and television history presenters - and this new authorised history of the SAS may just be his magnum opus.

Ben was given unprecedented access to the secret SAS archives, and has produced this thrilling, at times almost-unbelievable, history of the SAS. Antony Beevor (who also features in this list, see below) describes it as 'impeccably researched, superbly told - by far the best book on the SAS in World War II'.

The story of a bored and eccentric young officer, David Stirling, who came up with a plan that was radical and entirely against the rules: a small undercover unit that would inflict mayhem behind enemy lines. Despite intense opposition, Winston Churchill personally gave Stirling permission to recruit the toughest, brightest and most ruthless soldiers he could find. So began the most celebrated and mysterious military organisation in the world...

We may still have signed copies - so email us to check and reserve one.

Ardennes 1944: Hitler's Last Gamble - Antony Beevor
Antony Beevor has a claim to be our most accomplished military historian, and his service background brings a soldier's eye view to books such as Stalingrad, Berlin and D-Day. 'Ardennes 1944' tells the story of the German's ill-fated final stand. On 16 December, 1944, Hitler launched his 'last gamble' in the snow-covered forests and gorges of the Ardennes. He believed he could split the Allies by driving all the way to Antwerp, then force the Canadians and the British out of the war.

His generals were doubtful of success, but younger officers and NCOs were desperate to believe that their homes and families could be saved from the vengeful Red Army approaching from the east. The Ardennes offensive, with more than a million men involved, became the greatest battle of the war in western Europe.

American troops, taken by surprise, found themselves fighting two panzer armies. Belgian civilians fled, justifiably afraid of German revenge. Panic spread even to Paris. While many American soldiers fled or surrendered, others held on heroically, creating breakwaters which slowed the German advance. The harsh winter conditions and the savagery of the battle became comparable to the eastern front. Beevor's telling is unflinching but masterful.


Black and British: An Untold Story - David Olusoga
A vital re-examination of a shared history, published to accompany the landmark BBC Two series. In 'Black and British', award-winning historian and broadcaster David Olusoga offers readers a rich and revealing exploration of the extraordinarily long relationship between the British Isles and the people of Africa. Drawing on new genetic and genealogical research, original records, expert testimony and contemporary interviews, Black and British reaches back to Roman Britain, the medieval imagination and Shakespeare's Othello.

It reveals that behind the South Sea Bubble was Britain's global slave-trading empire and that much of the great industrial boom of the nineteenth century was built on American slavery. It shows that Black Britons fought at Trafalgar and in the trenches of the First World War. Black British history can be read in stately homes, street names, statues and memorials across Britain and is woven into the cultural and economic histories of the nation.


Pack Up Your Troubles: How Humorous Postcards Helped to Win World War I - James Taylor
Artist-drawn humorous postcards were growing considerably in popularity at the start of the 20th century. When war broke out in 1914 trade in them soared as the government utilised them as a widespread means of communication, to bolster morale, stiffen resolve and lift up the spirits in the field, at sea and on the home front from 1914 to 1919. They were also an excellent tool for recording and commenting on military and civilian events as they unfolded.

'Pack Up Your Troubles' is the first book of its kind to focus exclusively on the impact of British humour in the art of the picture postcards of World War One, both in the field and on the home front. The book is divided into themed chapters of the era, from Camp Life and Training to The Western Front through to Women at War and many more in between. An ideal gift for anyone with an interest in war and military history, art, design and cartoons.

A History of Britain in 100 Dogs - Emma White
As the ultimate dog-loving nation, our history is inextricably entwined with that of our dogs. Through history they have sniffed, rolled, shaken and pawed their way into our hearts, and behind almost every great Briton is a faithful hound.

This beautifully illustrated book tells the story of Britain from Roman times to the present and looks at our native British breeds and the extraordinary roles they played in society, from providing entertainment to herding livestock to guiding the visually impaired.

The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers' Journey Through Curiosities of History - Dr Oliver Tearle
A fascinating tour through the curious history of Western civilization told through its most emblematic invention - the book. As well as leafing through the well-known titles that have helped shape the world in which we live, Oliver Tearle also dusts off some of the more neglected items to be found hidden among the bookshelves of the past. You'll learn about the forgotten Victorian novelist who outsold Dickens, the woman who became the first published poet in America and the eccentric traveller who introduced the table-fork to England.

Through exploring a variety of books - novels, plays, travel books, science books, cookbooks, joke books and sports almanacs - 'The Secret Library' highlights some of the most fascinating aspects of our history. It also reveals the surprising connections between various works and historical figures. What links Homer's Iliad to Aesop's Fables? Or Wisden Cricketers' Almanack to the creator of Sherlock Holmes?


Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts - Christopher de Hamel
If you are going to write a book about some of the most precious, intricate and sublime books in history, you'd better make the book itself you are writing pretty special - and that's what Christopher de Hamel manages here. Sumptuous is the word that springs to mind, as de Hamel encounters twelve of the most famous manuscripts in existence, their stories, and the buildings in which they are housed.

We learn the stories behind the books. How 'The Book of Kells' was barbarously trimmed by a bookseller in the 19th century. Why it's thought that 'The St Augustine Gospels' (“the oldest non-archaeological artefact of any kind to have survived in England”) reputedly accompanied St Augustine on his 597 papal mission to convert the English to Christianity. And how an English classicist almost managed to buy the sixth-century Greek manuscript, The Codex Purpureus Rossanensis (185 pages of purple-dyed vellum, with the Last Supper scene showing the disciples eating with their fingers at a low, eastern-style table). Amazing stories, and a wonderful book.


A History of Pictures: From the Cave to the Computer Screen - Martin Gayford and David Hockney
We were lucky to have supported a recent event with Art Critic Martin Gayford, speaking in Abingdon about his long-time collaboration with David Hockney, and in this impressive book, they show how the making of pictures has a history going back perhaps 100,000 years to an African shell used as a paint palette. Two-thirds of it is irrevocably lost, since the earliest images known to us are from about 40,000 years ago. But what a 40,000 years it's been.

They privilege no medium, or period, or style, but instead, in 16 chapters, discuss how and why pictures have been made, and insistently link 'art' to human skills and human needs. Each chapter addresses an important question: What happens when we try to express reality in two dimensions? Why is the 'Mona Lisa' beautiful and why are shadows so rarely found in Chinese, Japanese and Persian painting? Why are optical projections always going to be more beautiful than HD television can ever be? How have the makers of images depicted movement? What makes marks on a flat surface interesting? Energized by two lifetimes of looking at pictures, combined with a great artist's 70-year experience of experimentation as he makes them, this profoundly moving and enlightening volume will be the art book of the decade.


A History of Britain in 21 Women: A Personal Selection - Jenni Murray
Jenni Murray was ten years old when she came across Boadicea, and realised that the designated future of a girl born in 1950 - to be sweet, domesticated, undemanding and super feminine - was not necessarily the case.

Boadicea battled the Romans. Nancy Astor fought in Parliament. Emmeline Pankhurst campaigned for female suffrage. Elizabeth Garrett Anderson became a pioneering physician in a man's profession. Mary Quant revolutionised the fashion industry.

Britain has traditionally been defined by its conflicts, its conquests, its men and its monarchs. It's high time that it was defined by its women. In this unique history, Jenni Murray tells the stories of twenty-one women who refused to succumb to the established laws of society, whose lives embodied hope and change.


We Chose to Speak of War and Strife : The World of the Foreign Correspondent - John Simpson
In corners of the globe where fault-lines seethe into bloodshed and civil war, foreign correspondents have, for hundreds of years, been engaged in uncovering the latest news and - despite obstacles bureaucratic, political, violent - reporting it by whatever means available. It's a working life that is difficult, exciting and undeniably glamorous. 'We Chose to Speak of War and Strife' brings us pivotal moments in our history - from the Crimean War to Vietnam; the siege of Sarajevo to the fall of Baghdad - through the eyes of those who risked life and limb to witness them first hand, and the astonishing tales of what it took to report them.

As nightly news shows us journalists risking their lives reporting from Syria and Iraq, it's appropriate to celebrate an endangered tradition. weaving the tales of the greats of yesterday and today, such as Martha Gellhorn, Ernest Hemingway, Don McCullin and Marie Colvin.

One final honourable mention - out in hardback last year, and now in paperback, for some reason it never made it onto 2015's list (a travesty!) but 'Silk Roads' by Peter Frankopan is one of the finest history books of any year. A monumental re-framing of the story of trade between East and West, the region stretching from eastern Europe and sweeping right across Central Asia deep into China and India is taking centre stage in international politics, commerce and culture - and shaping the modern world. This is where civilization itself began, where the world's great religions were born and took root - a hugely important book and one we wholeheartedly recommend to be on your bookshelves!

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