This page will be updated regularly with different books for different periods/regions of history that are of interest to both the general reader and the academic historian – I hope it helps!
All links to buy – for simplicity’s sake – will be linked to Amazon, where available, or another online bookstore. However, you may also find these books in your local bookshop, or even a second-hand book shop.
Where you can – shop locally and support small businesses!
I hope you find this list informative.
Tom Holland, Persian Fire: The First World Empire and the Battle for the West (2006)
One of the best writers of ancient history, Tom Holland certainly lives up to his reputation in this book. The main narrative covers King Xerxes (King of Persia) and the build-up to, and ultimate invasion of, Ancient Greece in 480 BCE. The story tells of the largest army ever mustered at the time against a small Greek force. I’ll say no more, but it’s worth reading if you like a good underdog story set in the Ancient Mediterranean!
Mary Beard, SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome (2016)
This 2016 publication is ‘the work of about fifty years’ according to the author. Mary Beard is an established social historian, specialising in Ancient Rome. SPQR is a fantastic read if you want a good overview of Ancient Rome, but it’s an especially interesting read if you’re into social history: that is, if you’d like to learn about the ins and outs of daily life in Ancient Rome.
Aside from simply a social history of Rome, Beard covers the period from 753 BCE (the accepted foundation date of Rome) to 212 CE (when citizenship was extended to all peoples of the Roman Empire), and briefly touches on the ‘Third Century Crisis’.
David Starkey, Crown & Country: The Kings and Queens of England: A History (2010)
One of history’s most controversial characters, but a good author nevertheless: David Starkey takes the reader through over one thousand years of British history, from the Anglo-Saxon kings, who were practically a myth, up to Queen Elizabeth II’s current reign (until 2010, when this book was published).
This book helped me an incredible amount when I was writing the blogs about the Plantagenets, as it gives a brief, yet detailed, overview of all of the monarchs, as well as covering major events in their reigns. Definitely worth a read if you’re into royal history.
Dan Jones, The Plantagenets: The Kings Who made England (2012)
Quite possibly my favourite history book I’ve ever read. Dan Jones’ writing style makes it an easy book to read, and his form of narrative history keeps the whole saga of the Plantagenets understandable, engaging and enjoyable. Although sometimes a bit over-the-top in certain parts, the book is definitely worth reading if you’re interested in medieval Britain (particularly from the twelfth to the fifteenth centuries).
As well as covering the lives and reigns of the Plantagenet kings, the book does not ignore the lives of the peasants, so it gives a good overview of both sides of the story.
Simon Jenkins, A Short History of Europe: From Pericles to Putin (2018)
Jenkins wrote this after his best-selling A Short History of England: and it was best-selling for a reason – it’s a fantastic read! Similarly, his Short History of Europe is equally as good a read. It covers the period from 2500 BCE in Ancient Greece right up 2018, when it was published.
What I particularly like about this book is that Jenkins states a few major events in each chapter, so if you’d just like to learn about a particular event, or read a particular section, then that option is available: for instance, Chapter 13 is entitled: “From Reason to Rebellion: 1715-1789” – but underneath, the major events are listed and are as follows: “War of Austrian Succession – Maria Theresa – Frederick the Great – Catherine the Great – Seven Years War – William Pitt – American War of Independence”.It’s a good overview of European history as well, rather than just focussing on one country. I definitely recommend this one!
Desmond Seward, A Brief History of the Hundred Years War: The English in France, 1337-1453 (2003)
The entire ‘Brief History of’ series are very well written books that do exactly what they say on the tin (or front cover). Well-known characters are all included in this book, including Edward III, the Black Prince, Henry V, John II of France, and Charles VII of France, and major events including the legendary Battle of Agincourt (1415) are discussed in surprisingly great detail. A fantastic introduction and overview of one of Europe’s longest, bloodiest conflicts.
Going (a tiny bit more) modern with this one! This is quite a unique read, in the sense that the book doesn’t focus just on the individual reigns of the aforementioned monarchs one at a time, but looks at their reigns as a whole, and how decisions between themselves changed the course of European history. Although, whether that was changed for the better or for worse is for the reader to decide!
Kevin Starr, California: A History (2005)
Arguably California’s best-ever historian, the late Kevin Starr wrote plenty of books on the Golden State, but this is easily one of the most readable and interesting. Although it’s not a full overview of American history, it is a very detailed overview to Californian history. The book covers the period from 1510 (the first documented description of California) to 2005 (the publication of this book). Everything from the Gold Rush, Hollywood, the two World Wars, rock ‘n’ roll, civil rights and environmental activism is covered – in depth – in less than 350 pages. A must-read for anyone interested in California!
Felipe Fernández-Armesto, 1492: The Year Our World Began (2011)
This is a fantastic book by a renowned academic, but the tone of the book is very much readable, and not an academic slog to get through. The book focusses on the year 1492 (shock horror!), globally. 1492 was a major year for two primary reasons: Christopher Columbus “discovered” the Americas, and the Jews were expelled from Spain.
But this book covers much more than that – and on a much larger scale. It covers various themes: social, economic, and religious history to name a few parts. It also talks about history globally – from the Caribbean to Japan, and from Indonesia to Russia. A superb read if the late medieval world is up your street!
Peter Frankopan, The Silk Roads: A New History of the World (2015)
Best-selling author Peter Frankopan lived up to his reputation with this 2015 publication. Covering both Asian and American history in this book, Frankopan explains how the world once looked to the “New World” and the Americas for trade, but now how the East is dominating our trade routes and networks today.
A very interesting read which challenges a lot of traditional historical scholarship, so if that’s your kind of thing, I’d certainly recommend it.