The best history books of 2019

Chris Schluep on December 23, 2019
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The best history books of 2019

Our Best History Books of 2019 were a lot of fun to pick this year. There are some big books, like David McCullough's The Pioneers, which was an enormously successful best seller, and there are some books like Paul Morland's The Human Tide, which reached a smaller audience but is just as important on our year-end list. Plus, there's a lot in between.

Below are a few examples from our Best History Books of the Year list. Be sure to check out the full list as well.



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Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland by Patrick Radden Keefe

Many a writer has attempted to parse the 400 years of colonial/sectarian violence that preceded the Troubles in Northern Ireland. But Say Nothing shows young paramilitaries compelled by more recent, deeply personal history: an aunt who lost her eyes and hands while setting a bomb, peaceful marchers ambushed and stoned on a bridge. With no dog in the race, an outsider such as Keefe can recount with stark, rousing clarity the story of an IRA gunman trying not to scream as a doctor sews up his severed artery in the front room of a safe house while a British armored tank rumbles outside. Or describe how Jean McConville, a widowed mother of ten, came to be suspected of being an informer, a charge which led to her being taken from her home by the IRA one night in 1972, her young ones clinging to her legs. Hastened to her grave by a bullet to the back of her head, her bones lay buried on a remote beach for thirty years, years during which her children were left to live and work alongside neighbors they suspected, yet dared not accuse, of being responsible for her death. With the pacing of a thriller, and an intricate, yet compulsively readable storytelling structure, Keefe’s exhaustive reportage brings home the terror, the waste, and the heartbreaking futility of a guerrilla war fought in peoples’ homes as well as in the streets. And he captures the devastation of veterans on both sides, uneasily enjoying the peace that finally came while wondering if they had fought the good fight or been complicit in murder all along. —Vannessa Cronin


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A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II by Sonia Purnell

In this fast-paced biography Sonia Purnell tells the story of Virginia Hall, an American spy who worked undercover in France during World War II for Britain’s Special Operations Executive (SOE). Hall’s story is a surprising one: she began her life in the United States with a mother who wished for the perfect debutante. Hall, however, was more comfortable studying languages, and found herself living abroad and working for the State Department when she lost half her leg in a hunting accident. This setback didn’t slow down Hall at all: she named her wooden prosthetic Cuthbert, drove ambulances in France, and was recruited by a recently formed SOE as a spy in occupied France. Hall posed as a newspaper reporter, enlisting civilians for the French Resistance and establishing an underground network of allies and becoming one of the most important spies during World War II. Purnell does an amazing job bringing Hall’s exploits to life and has crafted a gripping and cinematic biography for an unsung hero of wartime espionage. —Alison Walker


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The Ghosts of Eden Park: The Bootleg King, the Women Who Pursued Him, and the Murder That Shocked Jazz-Age America by Karen Abbott

One of the most deliciously disturbing things about BBC America’s hit TV dramedy Killing Eve is that you just can’t help but like psychopathic serial killer, Villanelle. Sure, she’s ruthless, but charismatically so, and she’s a snappy dresser to boot. The same could be said for real-life “King of the Bootleggers,” George Remus. Karen Abbott’s compulsively readable The Ghosts of Eden Park provides a riveting portrait of this eccentric and teetotaling whiskey trafficker who, shamelessly flouting Prohibition laws, once amassed an alcohol arsenal that was 35 percent of the U.S.’s total supply. The unlawful sale of that booze brought Remus enormous wealth, and he, along with his wife, Imogen, enjoyed a lifestyle that would make Jay Gatsby jealous. But a pioneering female prosecutor—only the second woman appointed to Assistant Attorney General—would put a cork in the fun, landing Remus in prison (where he whiled away his sentence in private quarters and secured the services of a maid and cook). During this time his beloved Imogen, in cahoots with a crooked Department of Justice agent, absconded with his spoils, causing the already tightly wound trafficker to snap. The Ghosts of Eden Park is a rollicking read, and a different kind of guilty pleasure: you might find yourself rooting for Remus at times, until you remember his very real brutality and the different set of rules that benefited him (and others) as a person of means, and stature, and a certain celebrity. It’s also what makes this almost century-old true crime tale seem quite current. —Erin Kodicek


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The Second Founding: How the Civil War and Reconstruction Remade the Constitution by Eric Foner

During Reconstruction, amendments were added to the Constitution that abolished slavery, guaranteed all persons due process and equal protection under the law, and equipped black men with the right to vote. The federal government, rather than the states, was newly charged with enforcement—Pulitzer-winner Eric Foner likens this to a "second founding." But Foner goes on to point out that the Supreme Court passed laws that narrowed those rights, leading to Jim Crow. And challenges continue to this day.


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