20 best books I’ve read in 2017


I read. Too much. In fact, my New Year’s resolution for 2018 is to read less, and instead fill that time with some more profitable pursuits, like making some profits for instance. Still, 2018 is young, and I don’t have a good form with New Year’s resolutions. Though I do need to make some profits.

Enough about the future though; here’s the past. These are the twenty best books I’ve read in 2017 – not the twenty best books of 2017. I read so much that I never buy new books as that would likely bankrupt me. But if you’re a publisher who would like me to review something, you’re welcome. So these are the twenty best second-hand books that fell into my hands this year. And as a bonus, twenty other notable mentions.

The top three are in order; the other seventeen after that in no particular one.

1.“The Freedoms of Suburbia” Paul Barker (2009)

A sheer – completely unexpected – joy of a book; so much so, I already blogged about it: “Ostensibly, it’s a smaller size coffee table book describing, in the great English tradition of ‘walking books’, Barker’s peregrinations around the suburbs of London and other, mainly English, cities. But what it really is is a paean to the ordinary, an ode to freedom of people to live how they like and where they like, to make their own home instead of being at the mercy of those often well-intentioned but so often wrong who think they know better. And so, on the obverse, the book is also a gentle and non-strident but a very passionate nonetheless indictment of the many generations of architects, town planners, urbanists, politicians, sociologists, and other assorted social engineers and busy-bodies who have tried, often with at best forgettable and at worst disastrous results to shape our cities according to their grand vision of what good urban life should be – the vision that all too often doesn’t actually take into account what real people actually want.” A huge FU to trendy leftie social engineers by the man of the old left that actually liked ordinary people.

2. “The Sleepwalkers: How Europe went to war in 1914” Christopher Clark (2012)

Oceans of ink have been spilled on this topic, but Clark’s book gripped me for three reason (apart from the fact that it’s very well written): restoring the primacy of the Balkans to the history of the war’s origins, getting away from the sense of historical inevitability (you don’t realise how many possible – and vastly different – scenarios there were that could have unfolded over the two pre-war decades), and a more balanced analysis of the responsibility for the outbreak.

3. “The Duff Cooper Diaries” Duff Cooper, edited by John Julius Norwich (2005)

I was astonished how much I enjoyed this extraordinary mixture of social life, gossip, domestic and international politics, and serial adultery by a painfully honest and gifted historian, member of parliament, diplomat and bon vivant who knew and met everyone that was anyone in the first half of the 20th century. Ably edited by his son, the esteemed historian of Byzantium and the Mediterranean (and father-in-law of Anthony Beevor).

4. “The German War: A Nation Under Arms 1939-45” Nicholas Stargardt (2015)

The war experience through the eyes of German soldiers and civilians. A fascinating perspective, which we, on the other side so to speak, don’t get to see very often.

5. “American Gun: A history of the US in ten firearms” Chris Kyle (2013)

The last, posthumously published work by the “American Sniper”, the man who knew and loved his guns.

6. “The Natural History of Unicorns” Chris Lavers (2009)

Yes, I was surprised too. How possibly can a book that ultimately tries to trace the real-life origin of one of the most iconic of mythical creatures be this charming and interesting? Yes, it can.

7. “The Eighties: One Day, One Decade” Dylan Jones (2013)

Yesterday, I blogged about “Do They Know It’s Christmas” – this book is a musical and social history of the great decade through the prism of the Live Aid concert and the people who made it happen.

8. “The Great Deception: The secret history of the European Union” Christopher Booker and Richard North (2003)

Don’t worry, there are no Illuminati, Freemason or the Elders of Zion here, merely a tantalising history of how a group of people who right from the start imagined and worked for the United States of Europe duped the whole continent. Enough to make you a Brexiter.

9. “Bismarck” Edward Crankshaw (1981)

What a man*. What a biography. The writing is just superb.

*Well, he was an asshole – particularly for the Poles – but what a personality.

10. “God’s War: A new history of the crusades” Christopher Tyerman (2006)

A balanced look at the events, which still, nine hundred years later, are driving many people crazy. Particularly fascinating for the discussion of the logistics and not just the blood and guts.

11. “Ataturk” Andrew Mango (1999)

Ataturk was arguably the ablest and the best (in the normative sense) of the intra-war period European autocrats. God knows, the modern history, including that of the Middle East, would have been so much better if there were more like him.

12. “World on Fire: How exporting free market democracy breeds ethnic hatred and global instability” Amy Chua (2003)

Amy “the Tiger Mum” Chua is not a Naomi Klein-style anti-capitalism, anti-globalisation fanatic, but her first book offers a very interesting and much needed perspective: unlike in the reasonably ethnically homogeneous developed world, throughout the developing world the vast majority of wealth and economic activity is in the hands of different ethnic minorities, hence a freer market is not as straightforward a recipe for greater general prosperity and social harmony.

13. “Princes Amongst Men: Journey with Gypsy Musicians” Garth Cartwright  (2005)

I don’t listen to Gypsy music at all, but this journey around the post-1990s-war Balkans by an Australian poet and a music aficionado in search of Gypsy stars turned out to be a sheer joy to read.

14. “Secret City: The Hidden Jews of Warsaw 1940-45” Gunnar S Paulsson (2002)

No one should be allowed to opine on Poland, the Jews, the Holocaust and World War Two unless and until they read this book. A whole new perspective on the rescue of Polish Jews during the Nazi occupation.

15. “Amsterdam: A history of the world’s most liberal city” Russel Shorto (2013)

I read it before I revisited one of my favourite cities back in September last year. So much more fun that a Lonely Planet guide.

16. “The War That Ended Peace: How Europe abandoned peace  for the First World War” Margaret Macmillan (2014)

Another look at the origin of World War One; great but not as great as Clark’s.

17. “Agincourt: Henry V and the battle that made England” Juliet Baker (2005)

Just like Tyerman’s history of the crusades, Baker’s book is worth your time just for the look at the logistics of how a medieval war was fought.

18. “The Forgotten Soldier: War on the Russian Front – A true story” Guy Sajer (1999)

Well, the controversy still rages whether this indeed is a true story or a more or less fictionalised account. If the former, this book by a half-French recruit to the Gross Deutschland panzergrenadier division is one of the most harrowing and unforgettable war memoirs ever written.

19. “The Romanovs: 1613-1918” Simon Sebag Montefiore (2016)

A rather melancholy read, because the rise and rise of the Romanovs (and their communist successors) both correlated and caused the fall of Poland. But Montefiore is such a fantastic popular historian and this is such a rich topic that the book is landmark. Just missed out on being in the top 3.

20. “Dynasty: The rise and fall of the house of Caesar” Tom Holland (2015)

Another great British popular historian – a well known tale of another dynasty, but well retold for the modern audiences.

And the notable mentions:

“Wicked Company: Freethinkers and friendship in pre-revolutionary Paris” Philipp Blom (2011) – Voltaire, Diderot, Rousseau, etc.

“The Arab Mind” Raphael Patai (1983) – don’t invade a Middle Eastern country without reading this book first.

“The Churchill Factor: How one man made history” Boris Johnson (2014) – Winston! Boris!

“The Free State of Jones: A true story of defiance during the American Civil War” Victoria E Bynum (2001) – Unionists amongst the Confederacy. I haven’t seen the TV series, but a book is cool enough, particularly for an academic history written by a leftie professor.

“Sons of Wichita: How the Koch brothers became America’s most powerful and private dynasty” Daniel Schulman (2014) – reasonably balanced for a leftie journo.

“The Sociopath Next Door: The ruthless versus the rest of us” Martha Stout (2005) – the odds are you know several.

“Deliver Us From Evil: Peacekeepers, Warlords and a World of Endless Conflict” William Shawcross (2001) – I’ve been a fan of Shawcross’s ever since a brief appearance in one of his later books.

“Between Heaven and Hell: The story of a thousand years of artistic life in Russia” W Bruce Lincoln (1998) – not as good as Orlando Figes’s “Natasha’s Dance” on the same topic, but still a great book about how a terrible society produces great art.

“The Ancient Paths: Discovering the lost map of Celtic Europe” Graham Robb (2013) – how the Celts mapped Europe and criss-crossed it with straight lines – fascinating, because this isn’t one of the ancient astronauts/Atlantis/lost civilisations pseudo-histories.

“The Monopoly of Violence: Why Europeans hate going to war” James Sheehan (2007) – a short and simple yet great read about a seemingly obvious topic.

Trio, but not  trilogy: “A Good Place to Hide: How one French community saved thousands of lives in World War II” Peter Grosse (2014), “Isaac’s Army: A story of courage and survival in Nazi-occupied Poland” Matthew Brzezinski (2012), “The Avengers: A Jewish War Story” Rich Cohen (2000) – ideally to be read in conjunction with “Secret City” (number 14 above); the stories of the rescue in France, and the Jewish resistance in Warsaw and Vilnus.

“Uncommon Grounds: The history of coffee and how it transformed the world” Mark Pendergrast (2010) – you drink so much but you know so little.

“North Korea Undercover: Inside the world’s most secretive state” John Sweeney (2014) – a BBC journo pretends to be a LSE academic to infiltrate the Kim-topia.

“Cairo: The City Victorious” Max Rodenbeck (1998) – the city still scares me.

“The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Ante-Bellum South” Kenneth M Stampp (1956) – a classic. You think you know about slavery? You only thing you know about slavery. A wide-ranging and meticulously documented look at all the aspects of this terrible institution that you normally don’t even think about, including the fascinating chapter on the legal framework.

“The Shah’s Last Ride: The story of exile, misadventures and the death of the emperor” William Shawcross (1990) – some now very topical background. Most dictators are the worst – except for what comes after.

“In Europe’s Name: Germany and the Divided Continent” Timothy Garton Ash (1993) – too detailed and heavy going in places, but so beautifully written in others that you forgive Ash everything.

“The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise: Muslims, Christians and Jews under Islamic Rule in Medieval Spain” Dario Fernandez-Morera (2016) – well, what would you know; the great multicultural talking point is all bullshit.