Books of 2023 From Aspects of History

Our authors and contributors recommend books they've enjoyed this year
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Books of 2023 from Aspects of History

My book of the year is SAS Forged in Hell. The next instalment of Damien Lewis’ WW II odyssey with the men of 1 SAS, as they become the ‘tip of the spear’ in the invasion of Sicily and Italy. Lewis uses new material to expertly weave firsthand accounts around his own gripping narration of the regiment’s life and death struggles; creating a vivid and harrowing account of some of the worst fighting the SAS took part in during World War II.

Closely followed by Operation Codicil by John McKay doesn’t pull any punches in its depiction of the brutality of World War II and the loyalty and brotherhood that developed between the men who fought it. In this gritty fast paced action thriller, a fictional squad of British Paratroopers from the elite pathfinder unit must overcome incredible odds to achieve their mission on D-day.

The Scarlet Papers, by Matthew Richardson is a fascinating twist on the Cambridge spy ring. The narrative switches seamlessly across multiple storylines through the post-war period, with notes of ‘Archangel’ and ‘The Trinity Six’ a down at heel academic pursues one of the greatest mysteries of the Cold War.

Dead of Night continues Simon Scarrow’s Inspector Horst Schenke series with a sensitive and intriguing investigation into one of the Nazi’s earliest and largely forgotten crimes. Schenke and his team have to walk a tight rope between the interests of the Nazi regime and the Law. The interplay between Liebwitz an introverted Gestapo man, Schenke and the hard boiled Hauser is both moving and engaging, adding wry humour to a dark story.


Theodore Brun

Derek Birks

Author of Land of Fire

The Barbarian by Douglas Jackson. In this sequel to the Wall, Jackson takes his readers on a rollercoaster ride through lands riven by conflict – both political and military. The geographical scope of the novel is broad because the main protagonist, Roman military commander, Marcus Flavius Victor and his sister, Valeria journey all the way from northern Britannia into Saxon lands and from there southwards into the troubled Roman Empire and on to the Imperial court at Ravenna. So it’s basically a very circuitous, but exciting, ‘road trip’ to Italy.

There is never a dull moment, so plenty of action, but also increasing depth to some of the lead characters – especially the relationship between Marcus and his estranged son, Brenus. Though the bond between Marcus and sister, Valeria is strong, it is sorely tested at times because he rather resents her ability to share common ground with his son which he finds difficult.

There is an excellent balance between military action and political conspiracy. Deception is a tool with which Marcus is very familiar, but he is by no means the only one practising it. Indeed, intrigue plays a huge part in the story – especially where the tribal leaders and politicians are involved.

Despite the vast canvas of this story, both the travel routes and the battle scenes are expertly described and informed by meticulous research so that, overall, the author paints a very convincing picture of the dangerous lands both outside and inside the failing Roman Empire. This is a blockbuster historical fiction novel and I shall be eagerly awaiting the next riveting instalment.

Theodore Brun

Theodore Brun

Author of A Savage Moon

This year I was privileged to be asked to adjudicate the Historical Writers Association Gold Crown award for the best historical fiction of 2022/23. As a result, I am absolutely spoiled for choice when it comes to choosing my best books of 2023. Top of the list must go to the actual winner of the HWA Gold Crown – The Colour Storm by Damian Dibben. Written by an artist about an artist, the prose, especially the description of colour, is like nothing I’ve ever read. The story is about the Venetian painter Giorgione (a.k.a Giorgio Barbarelli da Castelfranco), set in High Renaissance Venice, and swarming with other famous artist of the day. It is part thriller, part romance, part homage to the man who, rather like Mozart, was cut down in his prime. (A great loss to Western civilisation.) But it is just a fantastic read. One of those books that inspires me, as a novelist, to write better. Moving, thrilling, astonishing – a perfect storm of sense and emotion.

Another brilliant book to come out of my year buried in the pages of historical fiction is River Spirit by Leila Aboulela. Set in the Sudan of the late 19th century, and climaxing in the great siege of Khartoum and the downfall of Victorian adventurer and imperialist General Gordon, this novel roves between the heads of several protagonists. But in Aboulela’s hands, a very complicated and potentially overwrought way of retelling this piece of history, is done with absolute mastery. We see, we feel, we live this great tidal wave of human experience in ways that are utterly satisfying. A tremendous achievement and more than enough to make me want to seek out more of this author’s work.

For a quick fire round of recommendations – action adventure and top level storytelling – Christmas stockings would be diminished without Viking epic King of the North by Angus Donald; A Day of Reckoning by Matthew Harffy whose Dark Age historical thrillers go from strength to strength. And last but by no means least, The Heathen Hoard by Steven A. McKay – which does exactly what you would expect with a title like that!

Saul David

Saul David

Author of SBS

My Books of the Year: Roger Moorhouse’s The Forgers is a brilliant exposé of how a small and determined group of Polish diplomats and Jewish activists saved hundreds of Jews from the Holocaust in World War II; in The Savage Storm, bestselling author and podcaster James Holland charts the gripping and heart-rending course of the first three months of the Italian campaign in late 1943; Conflict, by General David Petraeus and Andrew Roberts, is an elegantly written, persuasively argued and hugely important book that explains why wars are still being fought and lost, what we can learn from them, and how we can protect ourselves from malign actors in the future.

Saul David

Mark Ellis

Author of Dead in the Water

I have had another great year of reading. The picks of my historical fiction books in a crowded field have been the following:

Metropolis by Philip Kerr – in the last of his Bernie Gunther series the late Philip Kerr takes the detective back to his early days of policing in early 1920s Berlin. Of all the wonderful Gunther books the early pre-war ones are my favourites and I was delighted to return to that period one more time. Kerr is a writer who will be much missed.

An Honourable Thief by Douglas Skelton – this is the first in a series set in early 18th century London and Scotland. The book’s protagonist is Jonas Flynt, a rough diamond and member of a shadowy semi-governmental intelligence group called the Company of Rogues. Great plotting and fantastic period detail. There another two in the series already which I must read.

The Poison Machine by Robert J Lloyd – this is the sequel to the Bloodless Boy which I mentioned in last year’s Books of the Year. Wonderful, highly imaginative 17th century mystery thriller with the great scientist, Robert Hooke, as one of its main characters.


Agent in the Shadows by Alex Gerlis – this is the first of the author’s admired spy thrillers that I’ve read. The gripping plot centres on the French Resistance and treachery in 1943 Lyon. Superb storytelling and characterisation.

Most of my purely historical reading this year has been research related to my next Frank Merlin novel set in 1943 London. I have however managed to venture away from that specific period occasionally and in particular have been reading and enjoying Robert Lyman’s fascinating new book written in conjunction with General Richard Dannatt, Victory To Defeat.

Helen Fry

Fiona Forsyth

Author of The Third Daughter

I discovered the Cesare Aldo books by D.V. Bishop this year and by mistake started with the second in the series, The Darkest Sin. I’ve now read and enjoyed all three but love this book for its setting in the enclosed world of a Florentine convent. There is a great murder mystery at its heart but what I really loved was the portrayal of the sisters and their community. Nuns don’t always get a three dimensional deal in fiction!

My non-fiction recommendation is Katherine Pangonis’ Twilight Cities, a love song to the Mediterranean and half a dozen of its cities. It doesn’t fit easily into a genre, but it is a delight to read for any historian or traveller. It reminds you that all history leaves a mark, and that we are affected now by the past, wherever we live.

Disobedient by Elizabeth Fremantle tells the story of Artemisia Gentileschi and her search for recognition as an artist as well as justice when she is raped. It is a book full of anger and determination, and it sweeps you along in the wake of a hero you desperately want to win – whatever winning means in this context. It also meant that I actively searched out Artemisia’s paintings when I was in the Ringling Museum just after reading it. That is what a good book does for you – it pushes you out of the pages and into real life.

Helen Fry

Helen Fry

Author of Women in Intelligence

The Forgers is the heroic true story of a band of men, including a Polish diplomat, who risked their lives and careers to save Europe’s Jews at the moment when they were most at risk. Thoroughly researched, it also provides us with an accessible understanding of the complex history of Poland during the 1930s and World War II. Highly recommended reading, not only to understand the history of Poland and a unique band of righteous Gentiles, but for our comprehension of the wider events of the Second World War. 

The Real Special Relationship is the first full history of the special intelligence relationship between the UK and US that was founded at Bletchley Park in February 1941. The book covers from the early days of the Second World War until contemporary times, shedding an important light on some of the most dangerous moments and conflicts of the 20th century. It showcases how this special relationship was essential in the fight in the war on terror. It also does not shy away from difficulties in the relationship, but shows how that relationship has stood the test of time under the most challenging circumstances. A really important and necessary read.

​It would be remiss of me to disagree with the Aspects of History editor, and my fellow board members to not consider Conflict, by Andrew Roberts and Gen David Petraeus, as the book of the year. Conflict is as erudite as it is engaging, covering both the history and future of warfare. I hope that Santa puts it in the stockings of plenty of history lovers and policymakers. If not, Father Christmas will go on my naughty list.

For fans of historical fiction I am going to be healthily predictable and recommend Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe’s Command. Cornwell is still the lodestar for historical novelists. The latest book takes us back to 1812 and a key campaign to capture and destroy a strategically important bridge, before Wellington can move his army into Spain. It was nice to encounter the likes of Hagman, Hogan and Teresa once more. The nostalgia made me feel young again. If only I could read a book which made me feel slim again, but I fear that may even be beyond the powers of Bernard Cornwell.

I am also current reading Spies, by Calder Walton. As with Conflict, the book covers the history of the 20th century – as well as touching upon what may happen in the future. The Cold War never really thawed, especially for the Russians, and started earlier than we may think. The author has something interesting and insightful to say in every chapter. The book will also serve as a great resource for spy novelists for years to come.

Helen Fry

Pirate Irwin

Author of The Redeemed Detective

France on Trial by Julian T Jackson. Outstanding book, for me one of the history books of the year without a shadow of a doubt. Written with wit, verve, elan and great observations. Petain at his peak in 1918 the great hero of the French Army from World War One, has reached his nadir by 1945, the blood of 75,000 Jews and many resistants on his hands. But whoa hold your horses..General de Gaulle — once close to Petain with whom he was to collaborate on a book on the history of the French Army with the goal of Marshal P being invited into the Academie Francaise until de G’s prominent proboscis was put out of joint — decides he should be charged just with treason against the French state.
Incredible as it sounds but Jackson relates how the fate of the Jews and the disgraceful and willing role Petain’s administration and the police played is discussed for a shorter period of time than whether the octogenarian signed a particular telegram or not.

‘The Petain case is closed” says Jackson …and it could not have a finer final flourish than this authoritative and sublime tome.

Coffee With Hitler, by Charles Spicer. The thorny subject of appeasement is tackled here in a wonderfully written tome with gusto, elan, wit and plentiful insight using some previously untapped sources which the author deployed Poirot style detection to track down. Not often in a historical book one gets to dine on the terrace with Himmler, have roast chicken at the Chancellery, whisky with Goring and coffee with Hitler — plus if you are truly hard hatted and bring a plentiful supply of matches for one’s eyes a four hour haranguing from puffed up peacock Joachim Ribbentrop …’Hitler’s Bismarck’…for tea. Admittedly barring the whisky with Goring they all sound like invitations one would decline but those who wished to avoid war in the 1930’s thought it wise to do so including Lloyd George who took coffee with Hitler in Berchtesgaden. It is a pleasant surprise to see the Earl of Halifax emerge with great credit his eyes opened when he met with Hitler in Berchtesgaden in 1937. The chapter is splendidly titled ‘Sending a curate to visit a tiger’. This is a masterful account of a fascinating period enhanced by bringing to the public eye some remarkable characters who deserve their moment in the sunshine.

It’s been a great year for both fiction and non-fiction. Andrew Taylor has happily transported me back to the seventeenth century with his stories of Cat Hakesby and James Marwood in The Shadows of London. Changing genre completely, I love John Lewis-Stempel’s nature writings and La Vie: A Year in Rural France does not disappoint. His Woodston is also a delight. How does he do it?

On the non-fiction front my reading has, as usual, been eclectic. I loved Jonathan Healey’s The Blazing World, describing England’s seventeenth century ‘world turned upside down’. Andrew Robert’s new account of post-1945 wars, Conflict, is fresh, stimulating and extremely readable. I also enjoyed and can heartily recommend Paul Beaver’s Winkle; Andrew Harding’s A Small Stubborn Town and Daniel Finkelstein’s Hitler, Stalin, Mum and Dad (read this alongside Roger Moorhouse’s The Forgers). Julian Jackson’s France on Trial is a brilliant journey through the trauma of Petain’s trial, as the various elements of French society tried to reconcile following the civil war that raged alongside the German occupation. Simon Heffer’s wondrously written Sing as We Go had especial resonance with me in light of the book I’ve just written with General Lord Dannatt on the British Army during the inter-war years. Alexander Chula’s examination of post-colonial Malawi, Goodbye Dr Banda, is a timely rebuke to the activists who constantly tell us that Africa’s problems are all colonial in origin. Finally, I was delighted to read Michael Snape’s excellent biography of Major General Merton Beckwith-Smith, the commander of the benighted 18th Division at Singapore. Fresh and sympathetic, Forgotten Warrior is beautifully written and demonstrates that not everything we believe about British commanders in the Far East in 1941/2 is true.

The Blazing World by Jonathan Healey. A sweeping 17th century history of Britain that was ruled by the Stuarts until the coming of the Dutch. A work of breathtaking research, scope and writing. I delved into this world of religious radicals, political zealots, egotists, intriguers, military geniuses and of course, Oliver Cromwell. For anyone wishing to try and understand what state the British isles was in during this period, and the apocalyptic decades that would see a nw Britain created, a king executed, a royal house exiled, a revolution installed on the end of a sword, and the eventual dynastic struggle remedied by foreign intervention – this is the book for you. Doctor Jonatahn Healey is one of those rare academic narrators, totally in control of his material to weave a page-turning tale. Ignore this book at your peril.

The Red Hotel by Alan Philps. Philps cut his teeth as a foreign correspondent for the Telegraph newspaper throughout the 1970s and 80s covering stories in Islamic revolutionary Iran (he would be expelled by the regime), and many years spent as a fluent speaker in Cold War Soviet Union. The little known story he tells is riveting and in today’s world of the Ukrainian war, an essential read. The title of his book refers to the Metropol Hotel in the centre of Joseph Stalin’s Moscow during the critical phase of World War Two when to all intent and purposes it looked likely the Soviets would be knocked out of the war by Hitler’s armies, Amidst this ongoing catastrophe, getting ever closer to the Russian capital, a variety of foreign correspondents sat isolated in the luxurious Metropol Hotel, under constant surveillance by Stalin’s secret police. This terrific narrative captures the claustrophobic atmosphere of a myriad of newspaper men, their Russian mistresses and hangers on, all trying to survive in this deadly dystopian building. Affairs would be heady, intense, wartime relationships ultimately crushed and all the time, these reporters tried to discover just what was really happening on the Eastern Front. A timely book.

Keith Lowe

Miranda Malins

Author of The Rebel Daughter

I’ve enjoyed a bumper year of historical reading. As one of the hosts of 1666 And All That – a podcast about the seventeenth century – I’m lucky to get advance copies of many new books published on this period and often to interview their authors. Two of my favourites this year were: The Blazing World by Jonathan Healey and The Palace by Gareth Russell. The Blazing World is a revolutionary history of 17th century Britain which achieves the rare feat of blending cutting edge scholarship with eminent readability. Vivid and irreverent, it should delight lovers of the period and newcomers alike. The Palace tells the extraordinary story of Hampton Court and its relationship with the monarchy down the centuries. Russell draws out the full tragicomedy of this remarkable building and its occupants with wit and pathos.

As a judge of this year’s Historical Writers Association gold crown award, I’ve also read a huge amount of fantastic historical fiction. All the long and short-listed books were wonderful, but I particularly loved The Chosen by Elizabeth Lowry and A Wild & True Relation by Kim Sherwood. The Chosen is an exquisite gem of a novel which explores Thomas Hardy’s complicated love life. Small in scale yet epic in theme, Lowry uses a setting of quiet domesticity to tackle life’s biggest questions of love, loss and meaning. A Wild & True Relation uses powerful prose to tell the tale of legendary Devon smuggler Tom West and Molly, an orphan stowaway: furious and unforgettable.

If you haven’t, then you really ought to pick up a copy of Alexander Larman’s delicious romp through the wartime feud between Edward, Duke of Windsor, and George VI (plus most of the establishment) all detailed in The Windsors at War. Not only does it expose Edward’s venality, vaunting self-regard and tireless efforts to get his wife an HRH, but it exposes the King-Emperor’s fragility too. Also apparent is the sheer domesticity of their division – their wives despised each other and both ruled the roost. Packed with salacious gossip and asides lifted from countless diaries, Larman weaves it all into a breathless, thrilling, eyebrow-raising jaunt.

From the world of historical fiction 2023 brought us Death of a Lesser God, the fourth in Vaseem Khan’s thoughtful Malabar House series set in 1950s Bombay. In what I think will be regarded as the best in the series so far, his female police inspector Persis Wadia is tasked with reviewing the case of a high-profile white man convicted of murdering an Indian lawyer. With just 11 days to go before the death sentence is carried out, a man’s life as well as the integrity of the Indian criminal justice system hang in the balance.

Finally, if Napoleon-era blood and guts are your thing, then Sharpe’s Command, the 23rd in the Bernard Cornwell series which began in 1981 is right up your street. Set against the backdrop of the Peninsular War in 1812, from start to finish this is a gripping and perfectly poised­ adventure, with neither Major Sharpe nor the author himself, putting a foot out of place.

Over the last few months I’ve been frantically finishing my latest book, The Stalin Affair, leaving very little time for reading. Now it’s done, I’m catching up. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed Julia Boyd’s A Village in the Third Reich. It tells the intimate story of Oberstdorf, an alpine village in southern Bavaria. The narrative follows the fate of the village from the rise of the Nazis in 1933 to the defeat of the Third Reich in 1945. The author uses a wealth of archival material – largely letters, and unpublished diaries – to paint a vivid picture of the village itself and the sons it sent to war. 

Set in the same period, but from a very different perspective, The Red Hotel by Alan Philps is a story of British and American reporters sent to cover the Eastern Front during World War Two. Although pampered when staying in Moscow’s Metropol Hotel – a Stalinist gilded cage – they faced endless restrictions and censorship. The narrative takes a surprise twist when the author reveals that not all the journalists’ female translators were loyal apparatchiks of the regime. Some were anti-Stalin dissenters, who took great risks in whispering secrets about the terrifying reality of life in the Soviet Union.

My current audiobook choice is The Wager, by the internationally bestselling author, David Grann. A dramatic story of shipwreck and survival, it could scarcely be more gripping. There’s mutiny, murder and starvation, but the voice of the over-enthusiastic American narrator eventually begins to grate. If I read it again, I’d do so as a print book. 

Matthew Parker

Roger Moorhouse

Author of First to Fight

Covid did not do much for our collective mental health, or for the nation’s finances, but it did spawn a decent crop of history books.  First among them, for my money, was Daniel Finkelstein’s exquisite family memoir Hitler, Stalin Mum and Dad, which charts the complex life stories of the author’s parents – the Finkelsteins and the Wieners – through deportation, persecution, the Holocaust and Stalin’s gulags, to the comparative peace of post-war north London.  A moving and fascinating book, it brings a difficult and underknown history to a new audience.    

Few historians of modern Europe would disagree that 1923 is a year that is so seminal that it is well-worthy of revisiting.  The eponymous 1923 – by University College Dublin academic Mark Jones – looks at events in Germany in that tumultuous year, during which it was assailed by economic collapse, foreign occupation, and the centrifugal forces on the extreme right and the extreme left: a year in which the country peered into the abyss – and stepped back.  Jones’ fascinating and beautifully written book is a timely lesson in the fragility of democracy.

Lastly, I would cite a few other outstanding contenders.  Anna Reid’s new book A Nasty Little War is an engaging examination of a little-known and often misunderstood part of Russia’s twentieth century history, that of the Allied intervention following the First World War, intended – as Churchill memorably put it – to strangle the Bolshevik revolution in its crib.  Beyond that, Frank MacDonough’s The Weimar Years is a wonderfully accessible account of Germany’s failed democratic experiment, while Katja Hoyer’s Beyond the Wall, charts the rise and fall of another German political experiment, that of the communist GDR – the German Democratic Republic.  Enjoy!

Matthew Parker

MJ Porter

Author of The Custard Corpses

Bellatrix is the sequel to The Capsarius, a book that I thought was fantastic. I’ve been desperately waiting for Bellatrix, and it doesn’t disappoint. From the first page, we’re plunged once more into the heat and cold of Egypt’s desert, an intense journey that makes for difficult reading at times. Our Capsarius is sorely tested. He’s not happy to be there, but he has orders to follow, and follow them he must. Luckily, his tent-mate, Ulxsses, is at his side, and just about manages to refrain from causing trouble for quite some time. Not that he manages to continue to do so for long.
This truly is a story about surviving against the odds. If you think the desert trek is bad, then things are only going to get much, much worse for our soldiers.

What I enjoy most about these stories of The Capsarius is the complete change of scene. I don’t read huge amounts of Roman-era fiction, although it’s a period that’s certainly growing on me, but even I know many of these stories take place in Europe or the UK. Egypt is completely new, and the clash of cultures between Rome and the Kush, is one of the highlights of the books. Bellatrix is a worthy sequel to The Capsarius. You can taste the sand in your mouth and the pounding heat on your head as the story surges towards its stunning conclusion. Highly recommended.

In Warrior Prince JC Duncan is telling Harald Hardrada’s story from the events that see his half-brother, Olaf, later St Olaf, cut down at the Battle of Stiklestad in 1030. This is very much a story of Harald’s time in the lands of the Rus and the overwhelming odds he often faces in battle as he rises through the ranks to serve Prince Yaraslov. We also see him struggling with the clash of cultures – the more sophisticated and complex ideals of the Rus flummoxing a man more used to seeing warriors have a bloody good fight.

Harald quickly earns himself an enemy, one who bedevils him at various points throughout the story and who I’m sure will continue to do so as the young man tries to discover who he is while learning to command his warriors.
JC Duncan’s Harald is a hard man, unhappy making mistakes or being embarrassed, determined to build his reputation, even while bidding his time, determined that one day he’ll claim back his brother’s lost kingdom of Norway. He is perhaps too naïve and a little too sure of himself on occasion, and these authentic character traits lend themselves to an engaging retelling. However, this isn’t a quick read. There’s much to absorb as you, alongside the character, embark on a very journey to the land of the Rus and encounter their enemies and allies, the knowledge that our narrator still lives, the only hope for Harald’s success.

An engrossing tale of Harald Hardrada’s early years, brimming with historical detail and brave daring do. This is the story of a man who will become a legend, told lovingly through the eyes of one of his loyal followers and sure to delight readers.

The Marriage Season by Jane Dunn is a delightful Regency romance that’s a little different to similar tales I’ve read, for the story is not just of a young woman trying to find a husband but of a widow deciding if she is perhaps prepared to love again, and her small son, James, or Jim as he likes to be called.

As much as Lucie and Sybella are fabulous creations, as are the men they encounter, it is little Jim and his love of ‘prancers’ that truly steals the show, and why not? That said, the story of Lucie and Sybella is delightful and well-told. Yes, it contains the twisting storylines we might expect, but the author has also littered the narrative with some delightful, period-specific words, which make the story really sparkle. And it’s not just young Jim and his roguish words that bring that charm.

I really adored The Marriage Season. Yes, it was fairly obvious what was going to happen, but that’s not truly the charm of the story but rather the detours the reader is taken on along the way, and of course, young Jim and his love of prancers is a true delight.

Although every educated person knows that Alexis de Tocqueville visited North America in order to write his classic work of political thought, how many of us know about his other great journeys, including to Canada, Europe (especially Germany and Italy) and North Africa? In Travels with Tocqueville Beyond America, the political scientist Prof. Jeremy Jennings brilliantly chronicles everywhere else that Tocqueville went, and the effect it had on his political thought. There are some sad surprises, such as when the generally liberal and perceptive Tocqueville advises his fellow Frenchmen to repress the Algerian people’s earning for self-government, for we all know how that ended up more than a century later.  Tocqueville was constantly sailing, riding, walking, taking trains and stagecoaches, and thinking profoundly and originally, though as the Algerian exception shows, not always correctly.

Angela Levin’s Camilla reminds us how little we really know about our present Queen. Queen Camilla has been expert in protecting her private self through all the ups and downs of her public existence, yet in this book the real woman emerges – charming, intelligent, good-natured and full of the best kind of noblesse oblige, the foremost attribute for royalty. Yet Levin’s account is no saccharine story, written by a hack with ‘red carpet fever’. It is a close and remarkably well-sourced – if necessarily anonymous in places – account of a life that has seen tragedy and setback, and of course the ongoing drama with the Duke and Duchess of Sussex. It reminds us how fortunate we are to have such a sound commonsensical figure at such a key place at such a key moment in the history of the monarchy.  

Helen Fry

Antonia Senior

Author of The Winter Isles

The Glutton is an extraordinary novel about a performing eater, a real man called Tarare who lived in Revolutionary France. Tarare tells the story of his life to a nun in a hospital, as he is chained up and dying. He is born into squalour, and finds his talent for eating anything and everything after escaping an abusive step-father.  AK Blakemore is an incredible, vivid writer, reminiscent of Hilary Mantel in her ability to conjure an alien past, and her unabashed revelling in language. Her description of a boy eating a rat might stop me from eating too many mince pies this year.

I’ve also feasted on Elodie Harper’s Temple of Fortuna, the last of her trilogy about Amara, a prostitute in Pompeii. She also reminds me of Mantel: a brilliant trilogy winds towards an ending which you know is coming. My fears for Harper were unfounded – her description of the eruption of Vesuivius was brilliant; far better than the Robert Harris novel which was the last fictional treatment I read about the most famous volcanic eruption in history.

I’m launching a new spy podcast with Aspects of History in the New Year, and I have been gorging on spy books. Among the brilliant new non-fiction releases was the wonderful SPIES, by Calder Walton, a survey of the epic intelligence wars between East and West. Walton ends with some grim predictions about the coming intelligence battle with China. Spoiler alert: we are underprepared. I also loved Helen Fry’s incredible Women in Intelligence, a huge feat of research, knowledge distilled into a hugely readable package. I was also blown away by Roger Moorhouse’s The Forgers – stay tuned for our podcast on the intelligence which seeped out of Eastern Europe about the horrors of the holocaust.

Damien Lewis

Gary Sheffield

Author of Forgotten Victory

My holiday reading included Robert Harris’s Act of Oblivion, which was published in paperback this year. It is genuinely unputdownable thriller, telling the story of the manhunt for two Regicides, men who signed the death warrant of King Charles I, across England and colonial North America. Based on fact (Harris did a lot of research for the book), one of its strengths is his convincing recreation of the mental world of fanatical puritans, that seems extremely alien to us. Less alien but equally persuasive is the  portrayal of the fanatical Royalist who makes it his life’s work to track down the Regicides –  as well as ideology, he has a strong personal motive for revenge. I have read all of Robert Harris’s novels, and this is among his best.

One of the most impressive history books that I have read this year is Conflict by David Petraeus and Andrew Roberts. The combination of the most prominent US general of recent years and a best-selling British historian is a very strong one. They analyse a series of wars since 1945, drawing lessons about conflict. The context is of course an attempt to understand Putin’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022, but it is much more wide-ranging than that. Key to their analysis is the concept of ‘strategic leadership’, and they use a simple but effective model. Unsurprisingly Ukraine’s President Zelensky scores highly, while Putin is at the other end of the scale.

Oliver Webb-Carter

Michael Smith

Author of The Real Special Relationship

There is absolutely no doubt in my mind on the best book of the year. Nicholas Shakespeare’s Ian Fleming: The Complete Man. When I first started writing on intelligence, there was a rather sniffy view of the James Bond author within academia. Sure, he had worked in naval intelligence during the war but that wasn’t MI6, was it? MI6 officers never operated like Bond and the Service has repeatedly distanced itself from Bond, while happily accepting the brand enhancement he produces. I’ve always railed against the dismissive view of Fleming. His knowledge of MI6 operations was clear from the books, which are littered with tit-bits of evidence of his close relationship with the Service (Fleming was the day-to-day liaison between his boss Admiral John Godfrey and MI6 Chief Stewart Menzies). A large number of files in the National Archives at Kew bear evidence to this and Shakespeare’s determination to look into every nook and cranny of Fleming’s life has borne remarkable fruit. His extensive proof of the importance of Fleming’s role within intelligence during the Second World War removes any doubt at all and the writing is phenomenal. It’s so good that I barely have space for three other great books.

Our knowledge of all the work female intelligence officers did during the war ‒ while in a number of cases fending off Fleming’s advances ‒ is greatly enhanced by two well-researched and highly readable books: Sarah-Louise Miller’s The Women Behind the Few and Helen Fry’s Women in Intelligence.

While we also have another wonderful rollicking read from Damien Lewis with SAS Forged in Hell.

Oliver Webb-Carter

Charles Spencer

Author of The White Ship

The Bone Chests by Cat Jarman is a brilliantly conceived and delivered history of Anglo-Saxon and Norman England, that reaches forward into the 17th century Civil Wars. 

The mortuary chests of Winchester Cathedral are the book’s subject, their contents helping to piece together long ago monarchs whose stories form some of our earliest history. Cnut is there, as the most famous figure laid to rest in the old Anglo-Saxon capital; but there are equally surprising corpses on hand, including both of William the Conqueror’s sons slain while hunting in the New Forest.

For those waiting for a successful follow up to Jarman’s bestselling River Kings, this is it. Cat is one of my Rabbit Hole Detectives podcasting co-hosts, but without bias I sincerely commend an outstanding book (written, humblingly, in the author’s fourth language) that clips along at a hell of a pace, while imparting specialist knowledge with ease and grace.

History is trouble. This has seemed a turbulent year for history in politics but 2024 looks set to make 2023 just the beginning. Christopher Clark’s Revolutionary Spring recounts the year of ‘the only truly European revolution that there has ever been’, the year when, amongst so much else, the  Ukrainians of Eastern Galicia petitioned the Hapsburg court against the Poles who had destroyed so much of their nation: ‘This was an appeal to an imagined past’ writes, Cambridge’s Regius Professor, ‘rather than to history as such, because for the Ukrainians, history was part of the problem, not of the solution’.  And not only for the Ukrainians!

Mary Beard’s magnificent Emperor of Rome explodes many myths about the accidents by which Europe was born.

I also enjoyed Roger Moorhouse’s The Forgers, his story of those who made the fake IDs for Jews escaping the Nazis: a fine celebration of hard choices and unsung heroes.

Helen Fry

Paul Strathern

Author of The Other Renaissance

The Maniac by Benjamín Labatut. Labatut is a Dutch-born Chilean writer who has only recent burst onto the scene. His spectacular arrival, When We Cease To Understand The World,  (published in English a couple of years ago and now available in paperback) was long-listed for the Booker Prize. And now this October he has published The Maniac, another example of the exciting new historical-faction genre which he seems to have invented single-handed. The ‘Maniac’ of the title is the pioneer computer assembled at the Institute for Advanced Study immediately after the Second World War under the direction of ‘Johnny’ von Neumann, the brilliant Hungarian mathematician who was one of the models for Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove.

Labatut braids fact with fiction: a device which allows him to present a scrupulous picture of actual events, while at the same time vivifying the lives involved with an  informed psychological insight. And come to life they do…in a form that is a combination of  metaphorical science-fiction and chilling history, which begins in the past and reaches far into the future. The Maniac is both a riveting tale and a frightful warning. It shows how the computer was born, and with it humanity’s dangerous journey along the path towards the ultimate singularity of Artificial Intelligence. This is a truly exciting, intellectually brilliant exploration of the past, present and highly likely future of AI. It is a scientific horror story of humanity’s brilliance, depicting how genius leads to madness and the ultimat fate of mankind.

Palatine, by Peter Stothard. In this fascinating book, Peter Stothard introduces us to the Vitelli, an ancient Roman dynasty whose influence and ultimate power have been belied by their relative obscurity. From the twilight of the Augustan age to the tumultuous termination of the reign of Aulus Vitellus, he traces the rise of the family and the rise of the ‘new men’ during the turbulent years that succeeded Augustus’ death. The story he tells proceeds as a series of vividly presented incidents. But balancing the memorable narrative, there is always the insightful analysis as Stothard lays bare the manner in which Augustus’ rule, the beginning of transition from Republic to Empire, is changed, not only by the men claiming to control the Palatine hill and all it represents but also by the bureaucrats who engineered the change.

We follow the Vitelli as they rise. Publius, the prosecutor accusing Gnaeus Calpurnius Piso of Germanicus’s murder; rewarded with the social elevation of a priesthood at the satisfactory outcome of the trial. He and his brother Lucius gaining power and influence in the emperor’s court and those within it – particularly the commander of the Praetorian Guard, Lucius Aelius Sejanus gaining more potent political sway the longer Tiberius remains in his sybaritic retreat on Capri. And it is on Capri that Lucius’ son Aulus Vitellus becomes friendly with the young Caligula; the one destined to become the third emperor and the other (briefly) the eighth, at the apex of his family’s rise. Always enthralling and often revelatory, this history is a worthy successor to The Senecans, The Last Assassin and Crassus.

Desperate Valour follows the adventures of Major Alexander Charteris (known as ‘Chart’), of the British Army’s 1st West India Regiment, sent undercover into the racial melting-pot that is New Orleans in 1815. His mission is to contact British agents there and collect any information that will help the British in their annexation of Louisiana – a plan that will come to a head in the Battle of New Orleans. Chart finds his mission complicated by the beauty of his contact and by the presence of an old enemy, Julian Fedon, capable of seeing through Chart’s disguise. But he must continue his vital mission in spite of everything as he observes the preparations by the Americans under General (later President) Andrew Jackson.

The doomed assault on New Orleans is described from Chart’s increasingly horrified point of view. We see the inadequate preparations, the failure of senior Naval commanders to understand the requirements of warfare on land, their arrogant dismissal of suggestions from their junior but more experienced Military colleagues, the dogged bravery of both besiegers and besieged as the tragedy unfolds. This is storytelling of the highest order, immersive, atmospheric and persuasive. The characters are gripping, their situations and relationships convincing. The pacing is immaculate, building as it does to that climax which simply gets more and more tense until Chart is catapulted into a final section where the tension tightens a seemingly impossible notch tighter. I could not recommend this book more highly.

Steven Veerapen

Alistair Tosh

Author of Edge of Empire: Warrior

My favourite read of this year is The Traitor’s Apprentice by Eleanor Swift-Hook. A tale of the English Civil War that is as original as it is gripping.

The second novel in the series left off where book one finished, with compelling descriptive writing. I mean the opening line – Howe Hall was hung with black –  how could you fail to be drawn in? This story too has struck the right blend of action and intrigue as well as having a likeable though flawed hero, the perfect combination.

The story follows Gideon, a London Lawyer who is drawn to join the mercenary company of Philip Lord, a convicted traitor, in part out of loyalty but also because of his hapless love for the enigmatic Zahara who travels with Lord. The story is fast-paced but does allow the reader to draw breath as the mystery Gideon is asked by Lord to investigate unfolds.

The Traitor’s Apprentice, as with Swift-Hook’s first novel, is very well researched and you find yourself living and breathing the sights, smells and even tastes of the seventeenth century through her excellent, though light-touch descriptions that never border on making you feel like you are reading a nonfiction book. Highly recommended. 


Gareth Russell’s The Palace, which tells the colourful stories of those who have inhabited the historic palace of Hampton Court, is a joy to read. Not only is it beautifully written but it covers a broad sweep of history with a light touch. Russell is to be commended especially for his seemingly effortless mastery of different eras; as at home in the Renaissance as he is in the turbulent Civil Wars or the louche eighteenth century, with this book he cements his place as one of the UK’s foremost popular historians.

What was Shakespeare Really Like? by Stanley Wells. Adding to his already-comprehensive list of studies on the early modern stage, Stanley Wells delights once more with his new study of William Shakespeare. The Bard is famously elusive, his works defying any singular interpretation – but in this slim volume, Wells draws on decades of deep study to provide a wonderfully engaging portrait of the man and his world. A must-read in the anniversary year of the First Folio.

David Mitchell’s Unruly, a study of mediaeval kingship is as scathing, acerbic, and laugh-out-loud funny as you’d expect. The comedian and actor traces the history of the English Crown with panache, underlining not just why the English monarchy endured, but why we still find it such a source of fascination, indignation and comedy. His audio reading of the text is sublime.

Iain Dale is to be commended for editing Kings & Queens, a comprehensive study of every English – and later British – monarch in history, up to and including the current incumbent. The result, comprising essays on each, drawn from a variety of voices, is probably the definitive study of the Crown, its adaptability, its low points, and its often strange survival.

Steven Veerapen

Oliver Webb-Carter

Editor of Aspects of History

The Iliad made a huge impression on me as a schoolboy, and I took it with me whilst working as an archaeologist on Maya sites in Belize as a 19-year-old, so when I learnt one of my favourite ancient historians had written about both it and Homer it’s no exaggeration to say I was excited. Homer & His Iliad by Robin Lane Fox does not disappoint – he seeks to answer the great questions that scholars have wrestled with: Who was Homer and where, how and when was he writing? Yes, RLF is confident it was one man. The chapter on his favourite ten passages is lots of fun and it’s written with wit and verve – and much pathos. With warfare still prevalent The Iliad is as important as ever and this book has made me delve back in – why not buy Emily Wilson’s new translation if you are similarly tempted?

The British Empire manages to stir strong emotions among our academic elites so it’s hugely refreshing to read a book on the subject that takes a dispassionate approach to a vast subject. On the 29th September 1923 the British Empire reached its largest territorial extent with the Mandate of Palestine and in One Fine Day, Matthew Parker has looked at both the colonisers and colonised across the entire empire. It’s an incredible achievement, with varied sources from newspaper adverts to memoirs of Sierra Leonean schoolteachers and a must-read for anyone interested in Britain’s colonial past.

With war between Israel and Hamas, and with thousands of innocent civilians killed already, it’s a sad reminder of our own recent internal conflict in Northern Ireland during which peace seemed a long way away. In Operation Chiffon, veteran journalist Peter Taylor has written about three spies in the intelligence services, and one brave Catholic businessman Brendan Duddy, who worked together to bring successive governments and the IRA to talks which resulted in the Belfast Agreement, the 25th anniversary of which was celebrated earlier this year. Perhaps there is some hope to be found in this tale – few heroes emerged from The Troubles, but Duddy was certainly one.

Books of 2023 from Aspects of History