The History Index

I’ve put the reviews into a rough timeline for the benefit of anyone interested in a particular period. Where the subject matter crosses over more than one century, I’ve taken a subjective view as to which century is most appropriate. Click on the title to see the full review.

0000s

Augustus: First Emperor of Rome by Adrian Goldsworthy

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While concentrating on Augustus himself, Goldsworthy takes time to set his story well into the period, giving plenty of information about the period before Augustus rose to prominence, so that the newcomer gets a real feeling for the society that he was operating within.

1100s

Thomas Becket: Warrior, Priest, Rebel, Victim by John Guy

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Written in a way that is very accessible to the non-historian, this book gives a full and rounded picture of the life of Thomas Becket and the politics of the court of Henry II.

1300s

Henry IV by Christopher Given-Wilson

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In the introduction, Christopher Given-Wilson makes it clear that the book is a political biography of the man rather than a history of the period, though obviously the two are intertwined. Most of the book is a fairly linear account of Henry’s life, starting with an explanation of the growth of Lancastrian wealth and power under his father, John of Gaunt.

1400s

Henry V: The Conscience of a King by Malcolm Vale

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In his introduction, Malcolm Vale suggests that Henry V’s reputation as a warrior-king shows only one aspect of his character, and not necessarily the most important one in letting us understand the man. To make his case, Vale looks at Henry’s other activities – how he carried out the daily business of government, how he dealt with matters of the Church, his involvement in encouragement of the arts, etc.

Joan of Arc by Helen Castor

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Castor has set out to put Joan’s story into the context of the times, and to do that she starts fourteen years before Joan appears, taking us back to Agincourt, and then working forward. This is a fairly short book, actually more history than biography.

Winter King: The Dawn of Tudor England by Thomas Penn

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Penn paints a picture of a monarch who spent his early years fighting first to gain and then to hold the throne at the tail end of the Wars of the Roses and who in his later years became obsessed with the need to consolidate his position and ensure an undisputed dynastic inheritance for his son.

Elizabeth of York by Alison Weir

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At what stage does biography become pointless? I would suggest that the answer to that question is when the historical record doesn’t provide enough information to allow for any real insight into or knowledge of the subject. Weir has, I assume, done her best with the available material, but I’m afraid that still leaves Elizabeth as an unknown entity.

1500s

The Tudors: A Very Short Introduction by John Guy

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The history in this short book is accurate and well-presented. It’s roughly divided into a chapter per monarch (from Henry VII to Elizabeth I, who gets two in recognition of the length of her reign), with a couple of extra chapters on the Reformation and on Arts and Culture. You can tell from the scope that this must therefore be an exceedingly quick romp through the period. It gives the basics, but not much more.

Thomas More: A Very Brief History by John Guy

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Very brief indeed – Guy romps through his life, discusses the writing and history of Utopia, talks about the portrayal of him in art following his death and in literature more recently, and finishes up with his route to sainthood. When I tell you that More dies at the 40% mark, you will be able to tell that the book doesn’t go into much depth regarding his life.

Martin Luther by Scott H. Hendrix

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Unusually, the problem for Luther biographers is one of too much, rather than too little, information, making the biographer’s task one of deciding what is true and relevant. Although this isn’t the chunkiest biography in the world, its 290 pages plus notes give a thorough account both of Luther’s personal life, at least as much as is known about it, and of the various steps that led him from monk to leader of the Reformation.

John Knox by Jane Dawson

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In Scotland, John Knox is thought of as a misogynistic, hellfire-and-damnation preaching, old killjoy, who is responsible for the fairly joyless version of Protestantism that has blighted our country for hundreds of years. Well, that’s how I think of him anyway! In this new biography, Jane Dawson sets out, not so much to overturn this impression of Knox, but to show that there was more to him than this.

The Children of Henry VIII by John Guy

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In this book Guy tackles the subject of Henry VIII’s struggle to produce an heir who could ensure the continuance of his dynasty. This is very much a personal history of the children, though because of their positions as potential heirs, there is also much about the politics of the time, particularly the religious machinations of this divided family.

Elizabeth: The Forgotten Years by John Guy

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In his preface, John Guy suggests that biographers of Elizabeth I of England tend to have paid less attention to the later years of her life, often relying on the accepted story created by earlier writers. Guy has gone back to the original source documents, stripping back the accumulated layers of mythology surrounding her to reveal the complex and very human character beneath.

My Heart is My Own: The Life of Mary Queen of Scots by John Guy

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A very sympathetic portrait, this – Guy goes into Mary’s French upbringing and education in some depth to provide support for his view of her as a strong, intelligent and ingenious woman, well prepared by her Guise relatives to take on the role of Queen. He fills in the background to Mary’s reign well, giving a clear picture of the divisions and ever-shifting factionalism in the Scotland of her time.

The Queen’s Agent by John Cooper

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The problem with Walsingham, as a subject for biography, is the shortage of documentation, particularly relating to his private life. This means that Cooper has to work hard to fill in Walsingham’s early life and give us a flavour of the man.

The Rival Queens by Nancy Goldstone

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It’s little wonder that Nancy Goldstone has chosen to use quotes from Machiavelli to head each chapter in her romping history of her rival Queens, Catherine de’ Medici, Queen of France, and her daughter Marguerite de Valois, Queen of Navarre. It was a great time for Queens, though maybe not quite so great for their subjects.

Shakespeare’s Restless World by Neil MacGregor (BBC Audio)

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This set comprises 20 15-minute episodes in each of which Neil MacGregor discusses an object from Shakespeare’s day, linking it to the plays or the theatres and also using it as a means to shed light on the society of the day. And if you prefer reading to listening, there is a book of the series, which is without exception the most lavishly illustrated book I own, and is a thing of beauty in itself.

1600s

The Year of Lear by James Shapiro

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In 1606, Shakespeare wrote three plays – King Lear, Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra. James Shapiro sets out to show how this burst of creativity reflected the events and concerns of the times and to reveal what Shakespeare may have been thinking as he wrote.

The Murder of King James I by Alastair Bellany & Thomas Cogswell

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Following the death of James VI and I in 1625, rumours abounded that he had been done away with by his favourite, George Villiers, by then Duke of Buckingham. In this book, the authors’ position is that whether James was or wasn’t murdered is not the point. They argue that it is how and why the allegations were made that matters, and how they were spread, perceived by contemporary society, and altered over time to suit the end purposes of various factions.

Rebellion: The History of England Vol. III (aka Civil War) by Peter Ackroyd

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Peter Ackroyd’s history takes us from the accession of James I (VI of Scotland) to the throne of England on the death of Elizabeth in 1603, through to the flight of James II (VII) to France and the arrival of William of Orange and Mary in 1688.

1700s

What Galileo Saw: Imagining the Scientific Revolution by Lawrence Lipking

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In this interesting and original look at the period known as the Scientific Revolution – running roughly between the publications of Copernicus’ heliocentric theory (1543) and Newton’s Principia (1687) – Lipking sets out to show that the discoveries that were made in this period were interpreted through the prism of the existing ‘imagined world’ while at the same time, and on into the future, contributing to its gradual change – a process he suggests is continuing to the present day.

The Scottish Enlightenment by Arthur Herman

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Although there are a few chapters in this book dedicated to explaining the ideas of the philosophers of the Scottish Enlightenment, the bulk of the book is an examination of how those ideas spread and changed not just Scotland or the UK but, in Herman’s view, the Western world.

The Cave and the Light by Arthur Herman

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In this comprehensive view of the last 2,500 years, Arthur Herman sets out to prove his contention that the history of Western civilisation has been influenced and affected through the centuries by the tension between the worldviews of the two greatest of the Greek philosophers, Plato and Aristotle. Herman starts way back at Socrates and brings us right up to the philosophers of the late twentieth century. So not by any means restricted to the Enlightenment period, but it seemed the most appropriate place to put it in the index.

Edmund Burke by Jesse Norman

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The book has a rather unusual structure for a biography. The first half is given over to a fairly standard account of Burke’s life and career, while the second part takes a closer look at his thought.

The Enlightenment and why it still matters by Anthony Pagden

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Pagden concentrates very much on the intellectual developments of the Enlightenment and how they impacted on the political sphere. There is very little in the book about the cultural aspects of the Enlightenment – the salon culture is mentioned, but mainly in passing, and although he refers to the emphasis placed by some of the philosophers on arts and music, he doesn’t go into what impact this had on the artistic culture of the time.

The Men Who Lost America by Andrew Jackson O’Shaughnessy

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In this scholarly but very accessible book, O’Shaughnessy takes the view that Britain’s loss was not inevitable, and that in most cases the commanders and political leaders were scapegoated for the failure. He does this by taking a biographical look at the main players, political and military, on the British side; and showing the constraints that contributed to their defeat.

The Counter-Revolution of 1776 by Gerald Horne

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In a simplified nutshell, Gerald Horne’s argument in this book is that the Revolution was in large measure a response to the colonists’ fear of London’s drive towards abolition of slavery. Horne argues that slavery underpinned every aspect of the pre-1776 economy and as such was seen as crucial by the colonists, even while slave resistance was growing and slave revolts were becoming more common.

Ten Cities that Made an Empire by Tristram Hunt

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Tristram Hunt, historian and Member of (the British) Parliament, has chosen an innovative way to look at the history and legacy of the British Empire by considering ten of the cities that played important roles in the two centuries when the Empire was at its height.

1800s

Unfinished Empire: The Global Expansion of Britain by John Darwin

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Darwin has taken the huge subject of the British Empire and broken it down into a series of themed chapters that makes it accessible and enjoyable reading. This method allows Darwin to show how similarities and differences in the approach to controlling the empire depended on local circumstances; and to give a very clear picture of the global and historical context, placing the British Empire as one of a line of empires that have risen and fallen throughout history.

The Secret Poisoner by Linda Stratmann

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Liberally illustrated by true tales of crimes from the Victorian era, the book’s real focus is on advances and developments in the science of detection and the prosecution of poisoning cases.

A History of the World in 100 Objects by Neil MacGregor

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It is Neil MacGregor’s passion for sharing his enthusiasm and knowledge that makes this book such an enjoyable read. The scope of the book covers many centuries and most of the world, so I’ve put it in this section purely arbitrarily. Each bite-size piece focuses on one period of time in one place but they are grouped into time periods and themes which show the different cultures which shared the planet and how they interacted, or didn’t, with each other.

Hospital Sketches by Louisa May Alcott

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This is a short account of Louisa May Alcott’s brief career as a nurse during the American Civil War. She only spent six weeks in the military hospital before falling ill with typhus and being persuaded by her father to come home, but during that time she saw first-hand some of the horrific injuries inflicted on the soldiers and the pretty basic and sub-standard care they got afterwards.

London Fog by Christine L Corton

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From the early 19th to the mid 20th century, London spent large parts of the winter months shrouded under dense and dirty fogs, so thick that people quite literally could walk into the Thames without seeing it. Corton sets out to tell the two stories of the fog – the actual one of what caused it and how it was eventually defeated, and the artistic one, of how it was used atmospherically and metaphorically in the literature and art of the period.

Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace by Kate Summerscale

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Isabella Robinson’s diary of her adulterous affair with Dr Edward Lane provides Kate Summerscale with a starting point to examine the social attitudes surrounding marriage, adultery and female sexuality in the early Victorian period.

Rebel Yell by S. C. Gwynne

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In terms of the quality of the descriptive writing, the structure and skilful use of language, and the depth Gwynne brings to the characters of his main subject, his comrades and friends, this biography of Stonewall Jackson stands not just as an outstanding biography but as a very fine piece of literary writing. Winner of the FictionFan Award for Book of the Year 2014.

Fortune’s Fool: The Life of John Wilkes Booth by Terry Alford

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As a Brit, the total extent of my knowledge of the Lincoln assassination was that some guy called John Wilkes Booth shot him in a theatre. This biography sets out to examine the whole life of Booth with a view to seeing what brought him to that point.

Black River Road by Debra Komar

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A true crime story from Canada of 1869. One day in 1869, well-to-do architect John Munroe drove his mistress, Maggie Vail, and their baby daughter out in a cab to Black River Road near Saint John (in Canada). All three got out, ostensibly to visit friends, and later Munroe returned alone. Komar looks at how character played a large part in criminal trials at a time when forensic science was still in its infancy.

The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

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This is the story of how the tough go-getters and entrepreneurs of Chicago turned an impossible dream into an astonishing reality – the building of the White City and the Chicago World’s Fair. And it’s also the story of how one man took advantage of the huge numbers of people coming into Chicago because of the Fair to indulge his psychopathic tendencies – the serial killer HH Holmes.

1900s

The War that Ended Peace by Margaret MacMillan

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This is a well balanced, thoughtful and detailed account of the decades leading up to 1914. MacMillan begins by giving an overview of the involved nations as they were at the turn of the century – their political structure, alliances and enmities, their culture and economic status. She then takes us in considerable depth through the twenty years or so preceding the war, concentrating on each nation in turn, and going further back into history when required.

The Telegraph Book of the First World War edited by Gavin Fuller

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The Daily Telegraph is one of Britain’s most prestigious newspapers, established in 1855. This book brings together a selection of the news reports and articles printed in the paper during the First World War, at a time when for most people their daily newspaper was their only source of information.

Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson

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It was 7th May 1915; Europe was engulfed in war while the USA was desperately maintaining its position of neutrality. Larson tells the story of the last voyage of the Lusitania, its passengers and crew, and the wider political situation that gave rise to the circumstances in which the ship was left unprotected in waters in which it was known U-boats were operating.

History of the Russian Revolution by Leon Trotsky

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Written in three parts some years after the Revolution of 1917, Trotsky sets out to give a detailed history of the events of that year, combined with his analysis of what led to Russia being ripe for revolution at that moment in time.

Gandhi and Churchill by Arthur Herman

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Two of the most iconic figures of the 20th century, Gandhi and Churchill met only once, but spent much of their lives locked in a battle over the future of India, a battle that would have repercussions far beyond the borders of that nation and long after both men had quit the political stage.

Stalin: New Biography of a Dictator by Oleg V. Khlevniuk

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In this new biography, Oleg V Khlevniuk sets out to sift through the massive quantity of documentation available to historians, including material newly released from the archives, with a view to understanding the dictator – his personality and motivations.

The Zhivago Affair by Peter Finn and Petra Couvée

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The story of Boris Pasternak’s only novel, Doctor Zhivago, which he had translated and published abroad despite knowing that this would be severely frowned upon by the authorities, in order to avoid the Soviet censors. However the CIA decided it would be a propaganda coup if they could have the book printed in Russian and smuggled back into the USSR.

Douglas MacArthur: American Warrior

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In his conclusion, Herman suggests there are three main aspects that are crucial to understanding Douglas MacArthur – the degree to which he was influenced by his father’s life; the relationships with the various women in his life, his mother and his second wife Jean in particular; and his “brilliance as a grand strategist – perhaps the most incisive the American military has ever produced.” This serves as a fair summary of how Herman approaches his subject throughout the book.

Winston Churchill at The Telegraph ed. Dr. Warren Dockter

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Before he became a politician, Churchill was both a serving soldier and a war correspondent, forging a relationship with the right-wing Telegraph newspaper that lasted on and off for the whole of his life. This book is an amalgamation of articles which appeared in the paper, either written by or about Churchill over his long career.

The Churchill Factor by Boris Johnson read by Simon Shepherd

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In this book, Boris sets out to try to discover what made Churchill into the man who is considered to have been crucial in the British war effort. He does this with his usual panache, making the book hugely enjoyable and filled with humour, which doesn’t disguise the massive amount of research and knowledge that has clearly gone into it.

Capital of the World: The Race to Host the United Nations by Charlene Mires

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In this book, Mires shows the ridiculous lengths gone to by some small town and large city politicians to promote their towns as the site for the new UN organisation at the end of the Second World War.

Losing Israel by Jasmine Donahaye

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In this beautifully written and thoughtful book, the author, a British-born Jew, muses on her troubled relationship with the place she thinks of as ‘home’ – Israel.

The Curious Habits of Doctor Adams by Jane Robins

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In 1957, Dr John Adams, a general practitioner from Eastbourne, was tried for the murder of an elderly patient, ostensibly because he hoped to inherit her Rolls Royce. The investigation leading up to the trial was a press sensation, with rumours abounding that Adams had murdered as many as 300 patients. This book tells the story of the investigation and trial, and Jane Robins asks the reader to judge whether the eventual verdict was right or wrong…

Robeson: An American Ballad by Arnold H Lubasch

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It is clear from very early on that this biography is written by someone who admires Robeson wholeheartedly, both as an artist and as a person. It is perhaps hardly surprising that a man who had to struggle so hard to be accepted in his own country would use his fame to take a political stance. And no more surprising, perhaps, that that stance would eventually all but destroy him.

A Spy Among Friends by Ben Macintyre

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In this biography of the infamous traitor and spy, ‘Third Man’ Kim Philby (the inspiration behind Graham Greene’s screenplay for the film of that name), Ben Macintyre has approached his subject by looking at the friendships that to a large extent shielded Philby from discovery for years, even after suspicions had become aroused.

Wealth and Power: China’s Long March to the Twenty-First Century by Orville Schell and John Delury

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The aim of the authors is to shed some light on how, in the last three decades, China has risen out of the poverty and political turmoil of the preceding century to become one of the richest and most powerful nations in the world. The authors show how the encroachment of the Western empires and defeats at the hands of enemies within and without led, not just to the fall of the empire at the beginning of the twentieth century, but to the creation of a national mind-set that has kept the aim of achieving ‘wealth and power’ at the heart of Chinese politics ever since.

JFK’s Last Hundred Days by Thurston Clarke

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Thurston Clarke, journalist and historian, looks in detail at the last 100 days of JFK’s life, using this period as a jumping off point to examine both the politics and personality of the man.

Enoch at 100: A re-evaluation of the life, politics and philosophy of Enoch Powell

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This book sets out to re-evaluate Powell’s whole career of which his infamous Rivers of Blood speech was only a part, albeit a seismic one. It is presented as a series of essays on different subjects written by a variety of authors. It is, unfortunately, largely hagiographic – more a restatement of Powell’s opinions than a re-evaluation.

Being Nixon: A Man Divided by Evan Thomas

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Evan Thomas tells us in his introduction that he is not attempting to “weigh the success and failure of Nixon as a policy maker” or to solve the “many mysteries” of Watergate. Instead, his aim is to understand Nixon as a person or, as he puts it, “to understand what it was like to actually be Nixon”.

Thirteen: The Apollo Flight that Failed by Henry SF Cooper

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On April 13, 1970, two bare wires created an electrical current that caused an oxygen tank to explode. Bad enough if this were to happen on Earth, but much worse when it happens on a small spacecraft hurtling towards the Moon. This is the story of what went wrong on Apollo 13 and how the flight controllers and astronauts managed to bring the badly damaged craft home.

Roy Jenkins: A Well-Rounded Life by John Campbell

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Roy Jenkins was one of the most influential British Labour politicians of the second half of the twentieth century. While sticking closely to his subject, Campbell sets Jenkins’ life in the context of the times at all stages and as such this is also a revealing look at the wider political history of the second half of the twentieth century.

The Southern Tiger by Ricardo Lagos

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Already involved in politics before the coup that brought Pinochet to power, Ricardo Lagos was one of the leaders in the movement to restore democracy to Chile and subsequently went on to become its democratically elected President.

Reagan and Thatcher: The Difficult Relationship

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Aldous sets out to challenge the view that Reagan and Thatcher enjoyed a close political friendship based on shared ideology and beliefs, particularly in regard to foreign policy and the Soviet Union. He takes some of the major events of the era – the Falklands War, the US invasion of Grenada, Reagan’s Star Wars initiative – to show how in fact the two leaders were often at odds both in policy and approach.

The Perfect Pass by SC Gwynne

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This is the story of how a college coach, Hal Mumme, developed an “unstoppable” offense that would defeat even the biggest, strongest defenses; and of how that offense gradually spread throughout college football and into the professional leagues, changing the very nature of the game – the Air Raid offense.

Outside In by Peter Hain

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Peter Hain, one-time anti-apartheid campaigner turned Cabinet Minister, here describes his fascinating political life both outside and inside mainstream politics. For more than four decades he has been an active campaigner and politician, during which he was involved in some of the most important events of this period.

Strictly Ann: The Autobiography by Ann Widdecombe

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Ann Widdecombe has had a remarkable and varied career, as a politician, as an author and most recently as a broadcaster and media personality. Her political career had its highs and lows and this book concentrates very much on the aspects of government in which she was personally involved, rather than giving a broader picture of the political events of the time.

Sailing Close to the Wind by Dennis Skinner

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Now in his eighties and still an active Labour Member of (the UK) Parliament, it seems as if Dennis Skinner has been around forever. He claims that he didn’t want to write this book of memoirs, but has finally given in to the requests of many people who have enjoyed his public speaking.

Chirac: My Life in Politics by Jacques Chirac

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That Chirac was admired by Margaret Thatcher and reviled by George Dubya gives an indication of the contradictions inherent in the man. Nicknamed ‘Le Bulldozer’, Chirac emerges from this sometimes frank, sometimes evasive memoir as a blunt, determined man with a fixed and overriding idea of the historical contribution of France and of the importance of maintaining a leading role for her in the world.

2000s

Interventions: A Life in War and Peace by Kofi Annan

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This is a book that everyone should read, voluntarily or not, just to see how incompetent, ineffectual and complacent our ‘leaders’ really are. The book is well written, clearly laid out around a number of themes and obviously heartfelt. Kofi Annan himself is obviously a decent man, hard working, caring and diplomatic. But to what end?

Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House by Peter Baker

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In this book, Peter Baker, the Chief White House Correspondent of the New York Times, sets out to examine the relationship between Bush and Vice-President Cheney. Baker’s position is that Cheney’s influence was strong in the early years and that his support after 9/11 was crucial, but that ultimately Bush was his own man even then, and that Cheney’s influence gradually waned as time passed.

Decision Points by George W Bush

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Bush has structured this book around separate strands of his presidency rather than giving a linear account. This is a successful device in that everything relating to a subject – for instance, the financial crisis – is together in one chapter making it easy to read the book in sections. And this is just as well, because sometimes the saccharin tone Bush employs means that, like rich cake, a little goes a long way.

In the Ring: A Commonwealth Memoir by Don McKinnon

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McKinnon came to the job of Secretary-General of the Coomonwealth from a long career in New Zealand politics culminating in a period of 9 years as Foreign Secretary. As he says himself, this was the ideal preparation since he already knew many of the major players in world politics and generally speaking could expect them to take his phone calls.

Live from Downing Street by Nick Robinson

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The Inside Story of Politics, Power and the Media. Nick Robinson, Political Editor for the BBC, has managed to do in print what he does so well on a daily basis on TV; communicate interestingly, informatively and enjoyably. He has divided this book into two parts – before and during his own involvement in reporting on politics.

Last Man Standing by Jack Straw

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Straw starts with a quick resumé of his life before Labour took office in 1997 but most of the book is focused on his time in power. Having held two of the Great Offices of State as Home and then Foreign Secretary, Straw is well-placed to discuss the workings of government at the highest levels, and to give some insights into the major events of the time.

5 Days in May: The Coalition and Beyond by Andrew Adonis

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Labour peer Andrew Adonis gives us his account of the negotiations that followed the UK General election of 2010, when no party won enough seats to form a Government alone. Adonis explains that the book was written near-contemporaneously and that shows through in the anger and frustration that seeps from the pages.

The Lunatics Have Taken Over The Asylum edited by Iain Hollingshead

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This book contains a collection culled from the Letters to the Editor section of the Telegraph. The letters cover the period from the last general election in 2010 through our experiment in Conservative/Liberal coalition government, and give a great flavour of the issues and scandals that have exercised the minds of retired colonels and maiden aunts in the leafy suburbs of Conservative England.

 

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