Anthony Sattin’s best history books of 2017

How the Victorians acquainted us with our bodies, landmark studies of Stalin and the holocaust, and traitors laid bare

History books should give us insight and information, surprise and entertainment, and allow us to see the world, an incident or a character differently. Nicholas Shakespeare’s Six Minutes in May (Harvill Secker £20) delivers in abundance. It revolves around the prime minister Neville Chamberlain’s announcement to parliament, on 7 May 1940, of the British military defeat by German forces in Norway: 4,396 men had died. Few people expected Chamberlain to lose his post; fewer still thought that Churchill, architect of the Norway fiasco, could replace him. The machinations that led Churchill to power make for a great story; the wider context and its effect on the war give the story significance. Shakespeare shapes all with an historian’s thoroughness and a novelist’s flair.

The gory world of Victorian surgery is the subject ...

One Man and a Mule: Across England With a Pack Mule – review

No animal was harmed in Hugh Thomson’s entertaining and instructive journey from coast to coastMaps show us patterns of travel, with the most frequent journeys – between towns and cities, to ports and airports – represented by motorways; the rarest are along skinny country lanes. So what does it say about Hugh Thomson’s seventh book that its map of northern England has no roads? Instead it marks rivers, county boundaries, towns and villages relevant to the story, and the route the author took from St Bees on the Irish Sea, the most westerly point of northern England, to Robin Hood’s Bay on the North Sea. The remote, random, meandering nature of this hugely enjoyable peregrination could not have been better expressed. A “health warning” preface explains that if Thomson merely wanted to go from A to B, he would have driven it in hours or cycled it in ...

Koh-i-Noor: The History of the World’s Most Infamous Diamond – review

William Dalrymple and Anita Anand recount the story of treachery and bloodshed that surrounds the famous stoneSize, as we know, is not everything. You might only be the 90th largest, but you can still emerge with a sizable reputation. This is one of several lessons to be learned from the story of the Koh-i-Noor diamond, way down the list in terms of size but, as this new book’s subtitle suggests, looming large in the imagination. It is probably also the world’s most dangerous diamond, described here as being “like a living, dangerous bird of prey” because so many have lost their lives over it. The origins of the Koh-i-Noor, the “mountain of light”, are unknown, beyond the reach even of this book’s two accomplished authors, but it seems safe to assume that it emerged out of alluvial deposit somewhere in India. It may have been known in antiquity and ...

Book reviews: fresh insights on Islam and Isis

Four new books give much-needed insight into a misunderstood religion, from history and philosophy to life under Isis

In the years since 9/11, there has been much talk about “the problem with Islam”. Part of the problem, obvious to anyone who follows the news, is that a very small number of people who like to blow up buildings and sever heads do so in the name of Islam. As if the link between violence and religion was now proven (it is not), the current occupant of the White House wishes to restrict the movement of certain Muslims into the US. If you have a historical view of Islam, you will understand the irony in this because a little more than 100 years ago, many Muslims were seen as sensual, mystical and exotic.

You won’t find much of those three qualities in The Way of the Strangers. Graeme Wood’s book does what ...

The Man Who Created the Middle East by Christopher Simon Sykes – review

A sympathetic biography of the Edwardian diplomat Sir Mark Sykes by his grandson can’t disguise his bumbling role in carving up the Arab worldThe Man Who Created the Middle East is an attempt by Christopher Sykes to overturn “preconceived notions” about his grandfather, Sir Mark Sykes, a man whose name epitomises colonial arrogance and aristocratic ignorance. But can he save one of the most tarnished reputations in the Middle East? Mark Sykes was one half of an Anglo-French double act that negotiated how their governments might divide the Middle East after the defeat of the Ottoman armies. The result, the Sykes-Picot Agreement in 1916, was a series of lines drawn across the Middle East establishing British and French “areas of influence”. This secret agreement, made halfway through the first world war and with Russian approval, has drawn so much criticism because it ignored the interests of the region and ...

Naked Diplomacy by Tom Fletcher review – international relations for the digital age

There’s hope for the Foreign Office and Britain’s place in the world in this upbeat missive from an ex-ambassadorIn 1931 a French diplomat complained that “the activities of the press, and ignorance of a public that insists on being told everything, do not create an atmosphere favourable to prosecution of political designs”. This idea – that we, the public and the press, should not be told the truth – runs contrary to our understanding of open, democratic government, and yet a growing number of us have a sense that we are being deceived by our politicians. This is something Tom Fletcher acknowledges when he talks of “the decline of trust and confidence in the political class”. And yet in this, his first book, he does not see it as a crisis. At least, not yet. Related: The job of an ambassador | Oliver Miles Continue reading...

The Egyptians: A Radical Story by Jack Shenker – review

A sophisticated analysis of the roots – and fruits – of Egypt’s 2011 revolutionEgypt used to be seen as a dull newspaper posting, with journalists complaining, over the empties at the Greek Club in Alexandria or a coffee at Simonds in Cairo, that nothing ever happened. Then, five years ago, crowds began to appear in the street, demanding some of the things we in the west take for granted: an opportunity to change the government, a right to representation, the accountability of the police, an impartial judiciary. 25 January 2011 is usually held to be the start of the public protests that climaxed, on 11 February, with the departure of Hosni and Suzanne Mubarak and their sons from the presidential palace. Jack Shenker covered those 18 days and its aftermath for the Guardian. The limitations of much of the press coverage led, inevitably, to a dangerous oversimplification in ...

The Silk Roads by Peter Frankopan review – a frustrating trail

An ambitious Persian-centric rewrite of world history is full of insight but let down by factual errors

Fifty years ago, in that far-off time before the world wide web spun itself around our lives, it was easier to write a history of the world from a European perspective without too much embarrassment. In an age when stranger-than-fiction happenings are reported in real time and backed by equally instant analysis, how does one write a new history of the world? Neil MacGregor found a way and his story of 100 objects taken from the British Museum was a bestseller. Peter Frankopan, an academic at Oxford, where he is director of the Centre for Byzantine Research, has followed another route by shifting the centre of historical gravity in an extremely ambitious, often surprising and just as often frustrating book.

This “new history of the world” is a strangely myopic one for it ...

The New Threat from Islamic Militancy by Jason Burke review – important and impressive

The Observer and Guardian’s Middle East expert traces the rise of Islamic terrorism in this enlightening study of the threat we can’t ignore

One of the more shocking recent testimonies regarding Islamic State comes from Yazidi girls captured during the assault on Mount Sinjar in August 2014. The girls were immediately separated from their families and sold as sex slaves to Isis fighters. The justification for the sale and for their being bound, gagged and raped lies in the Qur’an, which, according to this interpretation, states that raping unbelievers is an act of devotion to God. One of the brave followers of the black flag said that rape was a form of prayer and brought him closer to Allah.

Jason Burke, veteran Observer and Guardian correspondent and author of the bestselling Al-Qaeda, identifies the population explosion in countries such as Egypt and Tunisia as a major factor in the ...

Syria Burning: Isis and the Death of the Arab Spring review – how a small-scale revolt descended into hell

Veteran Middle East reporter Charles Glass charts the failings of the Assad regime and foreign governments in this enlightening study on the rise of Isis

Early 2014 wasn’t so long ago, but it is increasingly difficult to remember a time when the name Isis was not in daily use. Barely a day goes by now without mention of its strategic brilliance or imagination-defying brutality. Yet Daesh, as the terror organisation is commonly known in the Arab world, has only existed for a year under that name. In that time, it has become the poster boy of Islamist terror and the subject of a growing collection of books that includes Abdel Bari Atwan’s Islamic State, Benjamin Hall’s Inside Isis and Patrick Cockburn’s The Rise of Islamic State. Cockburn has also contributed a foreword to Charles Glass’s new book, Syria Burning.

One of the problems of writing about the current situation ...