The best books about British people

1 authors have picked their favorite books about British people and why they recommend each book.

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Return of a King

By William Dalrymple,

Book cover of Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan, 1839-42

Did the British learn anything from Napoleon’s fatal retreat from Moscow in 1812? Exactly three decades later the greatest debacle in British military history occurred in Afghanistan, the graveyard of conquerors. William Dalrymple serves up a satisfying slice of history, complete with spies, counter-espionage, intrigue, hubris, and folly, and provides context for the emergence of the Taliban. The wise will heed the timeless saying, “The only time Pashtuns stop fighting, is when they go to war.”

Return of a King

By William Dalrymple,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Return of a King as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

SHORTLISTED FOR THE SAMUEL JOHNSON PRIZE 2013

'Dazzling' Sunday Times
'Magnificent' Guardian
'Sparkling' Daily Telegraph

In the spring of 1839, Britain invaded Afghanistan for the first time. Nearly 20,000 British and East India Company troops poured through the high mountain passes and re-established on the throne Shah Shuja ul-Mulk.

On the way in, the British faced little resistance. But after two years of occupation, the Afghan people rose in answer to the call for jihad and the country exploded into violent rebellion. The First Anglo-Afghan War ended in Britain's greatest military humiliation of the nineteenth century: an entire army of…

Who am I?

To stop us from reopening a school for girls, a mob of angry and well-armed Pashtun men threatened to shoot my workers. I surprised myself. “If you are going to shoot my workmen, you will have to shoot me first!” My wife, Janna, and I bred cattle in outback Australia. On the weekends we played tennis. Yet, in 1984 we began a twenty-four-year adventure battling corruption, injustice, and disadvantage in the deserts, mountains, and cities of Pakistan and Afghanistan. I dug wells, built schools, and helped restore the eyesight of thousands of Afghans; until I myself became blind.


I wrote...

Shoot Me First: A Cattleman in Taliban Country. Twenty-Four Years in the Hotspots of Pakistan and Afghanistan.

By Grant Lock,

Book cover of Shoot Me First: A Cattleman in Taliban Country. Twenty-Four Years in the Hotspots of Pakistan and Afghanistan.

What is my book about?

Shoot Me First is a gripping personal account of life in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The author offers intriguing insights into the culture of the tribal territories that straddle the two countries. This is home to the Taliban, an untamed land that continues to absorb so much of the world’s attention and military endeavour. Lock is shrewd and laconic but above all compassionate.

Siamese White

By Maurice Collis,

Book cover of Siamese White

When I read this gripping biography of Samuel White from Bath in England, who rose from being an interloper in the trade of Southeast Asia to become ruler of a huge tract of land on the Andaman Coast of Siam/Burma, I was smiling and shaking my head at the improbability of it all. White’s outlandish and piratical adventures are comparable to the wild exploits of Pirates of the Caribbean, and at times left me gasping in disbelief. Maurice Collis is little known these days, yet his two decades (1912–1934) as an administrator in Burma made him the ideal candidate to recount this remarkable tale.

Siamese White

By Maurice Collis,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Siamese White as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Foremost among the biographies that Maurice Collis wrote during his wide-ranging literary career is Siamese White - an account of the career of Samuel White of Bath who, during the reign of James II, was appointed by the King of Siam as a mandarin of that country. The book superbly embodies that old adage - truth is stranger than fiction.

'A magnificent story, full of interest and excitement, but there is more to it than that. Collis, who has lived for years on the scene of these high happenings, is able to give us a first-hand picture of a fascinating…

Who am I?

During 30 years living in Chiang Mai, Thailand, I have developed a deep appreciation of Northern Thai culture and a fascination with its 700-year history. Though the region escaped being colonised as were nearby Laos (by the French) and Burma (by the Brits), a teak boom in the late 19th century came close to pulling it under the colonial yoke as Western trading companies muscled in. Teak Lord explores the frequently fragile relationships between circumspect Asians and adventurous Westerners, against a background of shifting borders and impenetrable jungle.


I wrote...

Teak Lord

By Ron Emmons,

Book cover of Teak Lord

What is my book about?

A tale of piety, greed, debauchery, and equanimity in a remote Asian kingdom.

It’s 1875 and Chiang Mai, capital of Lanna, is a cultural crossroads of Buddhist monks and Christian missionaries, of spirit doctors and opium smokers, of seductive dancers and Western adventurers. A sharp rise in teak prices leads to a mad rush for logging concessions, and the forests of Lanna resound to the thwack of axes and the trumpeting of elephants as the mighty trees are felled. Enter Doctor Cheek, a medical missionary and teak trader, whose exploits in this exotic realmsaving the life of the ruler’s wife, setting up a harem of local beauties, and standing triumphant at the kingdom’s highest point—make him a legend in his lifetime.

Book cover of The Jewel in the Crown: The Raj Quartet, Volume 1

This first volume—with the other threeis, I think, the best book ever written about the British in India and their leaving of it. The whole story is rooted in a rape that happens to a young Englishwoman, whose lover is accused of the crime. I first read this when it came out in 1980, before the amazingly good TV series. There are so many unforgettable characters in itthe women, trying to survive with husbands and fathers away in the army, the missionaries and nuns, as well as the men. Scott does not in any way idealize the Britishrather the oppositeand it is a feast of detail of the time and moving human stories. I have re-read it and will no doubt do so again. 

The Jewel in the Crown

By Paul Scott,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked The Jewel in the Crown as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This first volume opens in 1942 as the British fear both Japanese invasion and Indian demands for self-rule. Daphne Manners, daughter of the province governor, is running at night through the Mayapore gardens, away from her Indian lover, who will soon be arrested for her alleged rape.

Who am I?

Abi Oliver is a pen name as my real name is Annie Murray—I write under both names. My first book, A New Map of Love, set in the 1960s, featured an older woman who had been born in India. She developed into such a character—a bit of an old trout to be truthful—that I wanted to tell her story. It also tapped into my family’s many connections with India and the fact that I have travelled a lot there. I finally got to travel, with my oldest daughter, and stay in one of the tea gardens in Assam—a wonderful experience.


I wrote...

Letter from a Tea Garden

By Abi Oliver,

Book cover of Letter from a Tea Garden

What is my book about?

1965 – in an English country mansion. Eleanora Byngh is not in a good state. Wedded to the whisky bottle and with her house crumbling round her ears, her days seem destined to follow a lonely (and grumpy) downhill path. When the post brings an unexpected invitation to return to the Indian tea gardens of her early childhood, Eleanora risks breaking open memories of the loves and tragic losses of her younger years, lived across a tumultuous century.

As relationships with her newly found family face their own challenges, she is offered chances of new truths, of love and unexpected new life—if she is prepared to take them.

Wide Sargasso Sea

By Jean Rhys,

Book cover of Wide Sargasso Sea

Bertha, the murderous maniac in the attic, scared me out of my skin the first time I read Jane Eyre. Not the most promising subject for a sympathetic imaginary biography, you might think; but Jean Rhys draws on her own Creole youth to create a past for the madwoman, the charming but doomed child Antoinette, who grows into a beautiful young bride. Her exotic and magical island setting glows with lush abundance, but from the first there is a sense of foreboding. Her marriage fails, and the innocent, touching young woman is torn from her adored island, losing her love, her sanity, and even her real name. An extraordinary, perverse, and brilliantly original reinvention.

Wide Sargasso Sea

By Jean Rhys,

Why should I read it?

7 authors picked Wide Sargasso Sea as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Wide Sargasso Sea, a masterpiece of modern fiction, was Jean Rhys's return to the literary center stage. She had a startling early career and was known for her extraordinary prose and haunting women characters. With Wide Sargasso Sea, her last and best-selling novel, she ingeniously brings into light one of fiction's most fascinating characters: the madwoman in the attic from Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre. This mesmerizing work introduces us to Antoinette Cosway, a sensual and protected young woman who is sold into marriage to the prideful Mr. Rochester. Rhys portrays Cosway amidst a society so driven by hatred, so skewed…


Who am I?

My passion is the craft of writing—solving the fascinating problems involved in expressing an idea; vocabulary, word order, register, and on and on. I thrive on literary translation, and spent two years translating Moliere’s plays into English verse. I also collaborate with my translator husband, Nicolas Pasternak Slater, on Pasternak, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Turgenev. When the idea of writing as Mr. Darcy came to me, I could not resist the lure of writing in Georgian English, but became so absorbed in my narrative that the style almost wrote itself. My professional career was as a university lecturer in French literature (I have written academic books on my favourite French writers, Proust, La Fontaine, and others).


I wrote...

Private Diary of Mr. Darcy

By Maya Slater,

Book cover of Private Diary of Mr. Darcy

What is my book about?

At a lunch party one day, someone asked: what novel would you love to write? I found myself answering, Mr. Darcy’s Diary. Round the table everyone laughed, me included. But the idea, so casually mentioned, wouldn’t leave me. What is going on in Darcy’s head? Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is Elizabeth’s story. Darcy is mostly absent, so I felt free to explore. I was soon making surprising discoveries: the wicked Lord Byron was his closest school friend; rejected by Elizabeth, he proposed to a different girl. And what about the terrible hidden scandal surrounding Wickham? And there was more: I found I was telling a new story, which runs parallel to Pride and Prejudice, only to veer away again on its own, much crazier, journey.

Too Close to the Sun

By Sara Wheeler,

Book cover of Too Close to the Sun: The Audacious Life and Times of Denys Finch Hatton

I enjoyed Too Close to the Sun by Sara Wheeler. This book focused on the free spirit and playboy that was Denys George Finch Hatton, portrayed by Robert Redford in the film Out of Africa. Denys was from an upper-class family and lived an unconventional life according to his own rules. He is buried in the Ngong Hills, Nairobi, where he loved to spend his time hunting. He is a perfect example of doing what you want to do and not having to worry about money.

Too Close to the Sun

By Sara Wheeler,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Too Close to the Sun as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Conservationist, scholar, soldier, white hunter and fabled lover - Denys Finch Hatton was an aristocrat of leonine nonchalance. After a dazzling career at Eton and Oxford, he sailed in 1910 for British East Africa - still then the land of the pioneer. Sara Wheeler reveals the truth behind his love affairs with the glamorous aviatrix Beryl Markham, and - famously - with Karen Blixen, a romance immortalised in her memoir Out of Africa.

'No one who ever met him', his Times obituary concluded, 'whether man or woman, old or young, white or black, failed to come under his spell'.


Who am I?

I have always had an interest in reading factual information about other people’s lives. I am a realist, and prefer reading non-fiction that is true. I am especially interested in reading inspirational stories from people that have overcome adversity, illness, or discrimination.


I wrote...

Waiting in the Wings

By Stevie Turner,

Book cover of Waiting in the Wings

What is my book about?

When my mother told me that she loved me for the first time, I was dumbstruck, as she had never mentioned this before in all of my 58 years. She obviously was desperate for me to reply in a similar vein, but try as I might I could not.  

This is a memoir of the last few years I had with my mother. Neither of us had been overly demonstrative and we had often argued in the past and had never really got on well. However, when I became her carer, a kind of companionship grew from shared memories and by looking at old family photographs. Slowly but surely a closer relationship grew from the ashes of the old.

Britain in Iraq

By Peter Sluglett,

Book cover of Britain in Iraq: Contriving King and Country

The late Peter Sluglett devoted his life to studying Iraq and had a deep knowledge of the country’s history. This book was re-issued in 2007 but was originally published in the mid-1970s. It is based on Sluglett’s doctoral research on the British League of Nations mandate in Iraq. Perhaps this tells to some extent as the book is data-heavy and does not have the most free-flowing narrative style. Nevertheless, it is unsurpassed in terms of insights and analyses of the British period indirectly governing Iraq between 1920 and 1932. If you want to understand British attempts to shape a country to suit its imperial interests, this is the book for you.

Britain in Iraq

By Peter Sluglett,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Britain in Iraq as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

After the end of World War I, international pressures prevented the Allies from implementing direct colonial rule over the former Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire. Instead, the Allies created a system of mandates for the governance of the Middle East. France was assigned Lebanon and Syria, and Britain was assigned Iraq, Palestine, and Transjordan. First published in 1976, Britain in Iraq has long been recognized as the definitive history of the mandate period, providing a meticulous and engaging account of Britain's political involvement in Iraq as well as rare insights into the motives behind the founding of the Iraqi…

Who am I?

As a teenager in 1991, I watched a coalition of Western powers bombard Iraq into submission. Twelve years later, “regime change” was the agenda. Iraq descended into sectarianism, civil war, and Islamist insurgency. Western depictions had reduced Iraq to an authoritarian state with a megalomaniac leader and no history of its own. These events and the accompanying vilification of Iraq and its people convinced me to study the country’s history. I try to bring nuance and depth to a story so often told superficially. I think history is about giving life to the voices and perspectives of the past. The result, I hope, is an authentic and unbiased portrayal of Iraqi history.


I wrote...

Pride and Power: A Modern History of Iraq

By Johan Franzen,

Book cover of Pride and Power: A Modern History of Iraq

What is my book about?

Pride and Power is not a textbook on Iraqi history. It is much more than that. It is a book that tells the story of modern Iraq through painstaking research of Iraqi, Arab, and Western sources. It mixes a chronological and thematic approach, elegantly weaving in conceptual approaches to thinking about Iraqi history with a profoundly contextual narrative. It is a book that can be read by anyone who wants to understand Iraq’s modern trajectory since its foundation as a state after World War I. It demonstrates how generations of Iraqis have sought to accommodate and resist Western forces determined to shape their country’s path. In the intersection of regional and global power struggles, caught in imperialist intrigue and Cold War rivalry, Iraq navigated a way forward.

Super-Cannes

By J.G. Ballard,

Book cover of Super-Cannes

This novel couldn’t be more different from my other choices. It is set on a high-tech park called Eden-Olympia nestling (malevolently!) in the hills behind Cannes. The story is fantastic in a way that is born of Ballard’s brilliant mind. It is a twenty-first century, stylised thriller, and way ahead of its time. Ballard takes the edgy, seamier side of life on this French Riviera coast with its racism and elitism several imaginative steps too far and delivers a shocking tale. I read this novel when it was first published and it haunted me for years. After two more readngs, it remains as powerful as my first introduction to it. Definitely a novel I wish I had written.

Super-Cannes

By J.G. Ballard,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Super-Cannes as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A high-tech business park on the Mediterranean is the setting for a most disturbing crime in this reissue featuring a new introduction by Ali Smith.

A disturbing mystery awaits Paul and Jane Sinclair when they arrive in Eden-Olympia, a high-tech business park in the hills above Cannes. Jane is to work as a doctor for those who live in this ultra-modern workers' paradise. But what caused her predecessor to go on a shooting spree that made headlines around the world? As Paul investigates, he begins to uncover a thriving subculture of crime that is spiralling out of control.

Both novel…


Who am I?

Thirty-five years ago, I bought a dilapidated olive farm overlooking the Bay of Cannes. I was well-known as an actress for such roles as Helen Herriot in All Creatures Great and Small. Moving to Provence, living on the Mediterranean, transformed my life. I became passionate about the landscape, history, art, languages, literature of the region. I spent 17 months travelling solo round the Mediterranean basin, searching out the history and cultures of the olive tree, a mythical plant. I was invited to work with UNESCO to create a Mediterranean Olive Route. I make films, TV programmes, and write books. Almost all my work is set in the south of France.


I wrote...

The Olive Farm: A Memoir of Life, Love, and Olive Oil in the South of France

By Carol Drinkwater,

Book cover of The Olive Farm: A Memoir of Life, Love, and Olive Oil in the South of France

What is my book about?

When Carol Drinkwater purchased a rundown property overlooking the Bay of Cannes in France, she discovered on the grounds sixty-eight, 400-year-old olive trees. Once the jungled land was cut back, the olives harvested and pressed, Carol along with her French husband, Michel, became the producers of top-quality olive oil. 

Her memoirs are richly-described love stories: love for her man and their stunningly beautiful strip of Provence. The Olive Farm recounts her experiences on her farm along with her family and loved ones and a colourful menagerie of pets. Carol's fascination with the olive tree extended to a seventeenth-month, solo Mediterranean journey in search of the tree's mythical secrets. The resulting travel books, The Olive Route and The Olive Tree, inspired a five-part documentary film series entitled The Olive Route.

The Magus

By John Fowles,

Book cover of The Magus

Like most people, I love a good scary story. Ironically, I consider this non-horror novel to be the scariest book ever written. That alone is an extraordinary accomplishment.

The Magus centers on a young teacher who moves to an isolated Greek island where he becomes so manipulated by a Svengali-type character that he loses his sense of self and even of reality.

For me, it did something else. Something personal. It got to me. It totally wigged me out. It triggered my own instinctive fears and apprehension about losing control to malicious mental trickery. Now that is scary.

The Magus

By John Fowles,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked The Magus as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Magus is the story of Nicholas Urfe, a young Englishman who accepts a teaching assignment on a remote Greek island. There his friendship with a local millionaire evolves into a deadly game, one in which reality and fantasy are deliberately manipulated, and Nicholas must fight for his sanity and his very survival.

Who am I?

I believe all writers must have curious minds and be avid readers. I read my first real novel at age 11: The Hound of the Baskervilles by Conan Doyle. In retrospect, I realize that it sparked a love of novels that do more than simply tell a story. I crave narratives about coping with this thing called life, and about characters that do so with resilience and tenacious grit – usually against steep odds. As Hamlet put it: “I could be bound in a nutshell and count myself king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.” For me, this quote is the soul of every great story.


I wrote...

Flight of the Fox

By Gray Basnight,

Book cover of Flight of the Fox

What is my book about?

A run-for-your-life thriller with a key difference. Sam Teagarden is not a macho secret agent or former Green Beret. He knows next to nothing about guns, and does not have a black belt in karate. He is a middle-aged man who works as a university math professor and cryptologist.   

Suddenly forced to flee his home with nothing but the clothes on his back, he uses his natural intelligence and will to survive while trying to learn who wants to kill him and why. He eventually learns there’s a connection with an encoded file in his inbox. When decrypted, he uncovers historic crimes committed by the FBI that, if released to the public, will forever alter American history.   

A Good Man in Africa

By William Boyd,

Book cover of A Good Man in Africa

This laugh-out-loud story of a bumbling British diplomat, Morgan Leafy, in the fictitious African country of Kinjanja evokes the immediate British post-colonial with a dark wit and a sense for the absurd. The colonial expats depicted in the book are all thoroughly dislikable, but as Leafy gets mired deeper and deeper into problems, I found myself rooting for him to find a way out. His characterisation of the expats and the locals, and the hilarious interactions between them, seem searingly accurate, probably because Boyd grew up in Nigeria and Ghana, giving him rich material for his first novel.

A Good Man in Africa

By William Boyd,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked A Good Man in Africa as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A funny first novel about the misadventures surrounding Morgan Leafy, a young, overweight, oversexed British diplomat in West Africa. The book won the 1981 Whitbread Literary Award and the 1982 Somerset Maugham Award.

Who am I?

I’ve been a journalist since high school and I spent 33 years as a reporter for The Washington Post, mostly as a foreign correspondent based in Asia, Africa, and Paris. My book Out Of America chronicled my three years as a correspondent in Africa during some of its most tumultuous events, the Somalia intervention, and the Rwanda genocide. I’ve always thought a well-crafted novel often captures a place or a time better than nonfiction — books like The Quiet American about the Vietnam War, and The Year of Living Dangerously about Indonesia. I now teach a university course on The Role of the Journalist in Popular Fiction, Film and Comics.


I wrote...

Out of America: A Black Man Confronts Africa

By Keith B. Richburg,

Book cover of Out of America: A Black Man Confronts Africa

What is my book about?

Keith B. Richburg was an experienced and respected reporter who had paid his dues covering urban neighborhoods in Washington D.C. and won praise for his coverage of Southeast Asia. But nothing prepared him for the personal odyssey that he would embark upon when he was assigned to cover Africa. In this powerful book, Richburg takes the reader on an extraordinary journey that sweeps from Somalia to Rwanda to Zaire and finally to South Africa. He shows how he came to terms with the divide within himself: between his African racial heritage and his American cultural identity. Are these really my people? Am I truly an African-American?

The answer, Richburg finds, after much soul-searching, is that no, he is not an African, but an American first and foremost.

A Year in the Merde

By Stephen Clarke,

Book cover of A Year in the Merde

In A Year in the Merde, Stephen Clarke walks the line perfectly between berating the country he's in and making it clear he is, in truth, really enjoying himself. When I discovered the book, I (a Brit) was living in Grenoble in France so it was particularly relevant. At the time, I was desperately trying to complete my Masters - in engineering! - but Clarke's book opened my eyes to a world where you can earn a living by documenting your travel experiences. 

Within six months, I had completed my Masters (by the skin of my teeth), turned my back on engineering, and enrolled in a post-graduate course in journalism. 11 years later, I've worked on books of my own, including guides to Malaysia, India, Spain, and France - returning to Grenoble, the place where it all began.

A Year in the Merde

By Stephen Clarke,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked A Year in the Merde as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

What are the French really like?

Paul West, a young Englishman arriving in Paris to start a new job, is about to find out.
_________________

They do eat a lot of cheese, some of which smells like pigs' droppings.

They don't wash their armpits with garlic soap.

Going on strike really is the second national participation sport after petanque.

And, yes, they do use suppositories.

Less quaint than A Year in Provence, less chocolatey than Chocolat, A Year in the Merde will tell you how to get served by the grumpiest Parisian waiter; how to make perfect vinaigrette every time;…


Who are Bradt Guides?

Founded in 1974, Bradt Guides is now the largest independently-owned guidebook publisher in both the US and UK. We have over 200 titles in print, with a particular focus on lesser-known places overlooked by other travel publishers. We also publish a series of Slow Travel guides to UK regions and a list of travel narratives. There are 15 people in the Bradt team, based (when Covid allows) in an office above a coffee shop in Chesham, Bucks. The following books are very different but all connected to travel in fun ways. The books were selected by Simon Willmore, Claire Strange, Iona Brokenshire, Deborah Gerrard, and Hugh Brune. 


Bradt Travel Guides

The world’s leading independent travel publisher

Bradt Guides will soon be launching new editions of acclaimed guides to Iraq, Iceland, Mauritius, and Barbados. Something for every travel taste! There are also two new travel narratives: Galapagos Crusoes by June Wilson, an account of a year spent watching birds on a remote island in the 1960s, and My Family and Other Enemies by Mary Novakovich, a part-travelogue, part-memoir that dives into the hinterland of Croatia.

For serious travellers, we’ll continue to develop our Travel Club, offering a monthly magazine with travel tips and features, monthly online talks, discounts from a range of travel partners, and all Bradt guides at half price. (Or even free at the higher membership tiers!)

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