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Stocking Fillers for History Buffs: Five of the Best History Books of 2014

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by John Burns (subscribe)
I am a writer and teacher, out and about in the world but with Nottingham never far from my heart.
Published December 10th 2014
A selection of the best history books published this year
A history buff can be a difficult person to buy a Christmas present for. History books and media are so wide ranging and so variable in quality that it can be difficult to know where to start when looking for that perfect gift.

Hopefully this list will come in useful. Below you will find details of some of the most highly rated history tomes to hit our bookshelves this year. Taking in Medieval France, Dark Ages Scandinavia, the development of a tropical archipelago and a war that encompassed almost the entire globe, there will be something on this list to set the pulse of even the most hardened history veteran racing.

The Northmen's Fury by Phillip Parker

The first book on our list concerns one of history's most fascinating and misrepresented peoples: the Vikings. Often thought of as animalistic, blood-thirsty brutes who embarked on a rapacious campaign of conquest across pre-medieval northern Europe, the Vikings in fact presided over one of the most sophisticated societies of their age.

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Viking Funeral by Frank Dixie

Phillip Parker explores this idea over the course of his 464-page book, highlighting the Vikings' advanced economic systems and relatively progressive attitudes to sex and gender. There are also plenty of stories of conquest and Dark Ages warfare, making the book a rollickingly good read about a compelling period of Scandinavian history.

The Fateful Year by Mark Bostridge

This year marks 100 years since the outbreak of the first great global conflict of the 20th Century, a moment which Mark Bostridge captures elegantly in his book The Fateful Year. English-born Bostridge focuses on the events and occurrences that took place in his home country at the time the war began, setting out his account in a remarkably poignant and absorbing way.

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Men of the Royal Irish Rifles at the Battle of the Somme, July 1916

The summer sunshine on the clear August day that war was declared and the cricket match prematurely abandoned provide a melancholy foreshadowing of the horror about to unfold, while descriptions of unrest in Ireland, and the opposition to the women's suffrage movement offer stark displays of the disquiet at home as well as abroad.

It's a sad, frightening and often enthralling read, and will be a welcome present for any history buff this Christmas.

The Trigger: Hunting the Assassin who Brought the World to War by Tim Butcher

Continuing our World War One theme we move on to Tim Butcher's work, documenting the short, tumultuous, and ultimately momentous life of the Bosnian dissident Gavrilo Princip.

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Gavrilo Princip (right) with fellow Black Hand Gang members in Belgrade, May 1914

Had it not been for one event the world may never have learned the name of the poor boy born in the village of Obljaj, Bosnia in 1894. Historian Tim Butcher follows the trail of the young Princip from his inauspicious beginnings, through the political pressure cooker of early 20th century Yugoslavia, to Franz Josef Street, Sarajevo on the morning of June 28th 1914: the time and place that Princip assassinated the Austro-Hungarian heir, Archduke Franz Ferdinand.

Few historical events are more astounding and pivotal as this one, and Butcher handles his biography of its author with aplomb.

Joan of Arc: a History by Helen Castor

Helen Castor's historical work delves a little further back into history, picking up the tale of the young Jeanne d'Arc also known as Joan of Arc, or The Maid of Orleans the teenage farmer's-daughter who became symbol for the French struggle against the Kingdom of England.

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The closest thing to a contemporary portrait of Joan of Arc, painted around 50 years after her death

Like that of Princip, centuries later, Joan's story is a short yet dramatic one, and is coloured with violence and tragedy. Helen Castor's telling of the story is fast-paced and endlessly interesting for the casual reader who is maybe not in possession of a scholarly knowledge of French history. For an eye-opening and in depth look at the life and times of a young woman at the crux of medieval European history, look no further.

Empire's Crossroad: the Caribbean from Columbus to the Present by Carrie Gibson

Nowadays, the Caribbean might be synonymous with reggae music, white rum and a laidback approach to life, but its history is rather more dramatic. Since its discovery by Portuguese explorer Christopher Columbus in 1492, the Caribbean became a sort of historical-crucible, and has played a key part in some of history's most brutal and unpleasant narratives.

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View from the Jayuya mountains of Puerto Rico

Carrie Gibson's excellent book examines the islands' role as a colonial stepping stone, as an ad-hoc kingdom for pirates, as a fulcrum for the barbarity of the slave trade, and, more recently, as a group of territories battling for their own independence and identity.

The deftness of Gibson's writing, coupled with the sheer power of her subject matter, makes this an excellent read for anyone interested in history. It comes highly recommended.

Be sure to pick up one or more of these for the history buff in your life this Christmas, and why not grab one for yourself while you're at it? You won't regret it.
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Why? Because finding a Christmas present for a history buff is not always easy
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