Recommended Reading

Hello, and welcome to my recommended reading list! This mostly comprises history books, broken down by era. It leans towards my interests — economic, military, and world history, and early modern history to the present day. Most books are accessible to a general reader; I’ve noted the exceptions.

I’ve added Amazon US links to most of the titles below. Buying from those will support my book habit. To quote the official statement:

As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.


October 2021: Added a civil aviation & space section, including West with the Night, Skyfaring, Fate is the Hunter, Flight of Passage, and Carrying the Fire.

September 2021: Military history — Added the Pacific War trilogy (Ian W Toll).

World History

The Rise of the West: A History of the Human Community, by William H McNeill (non-fiction)

Why The West Rules — For Now, by Ian Morris (non-fiction)

Never mind the titles — these two books, written 40-odd years apart, are excellent single-volume world histories. McNeill’s focus is on how civilisations influenced one another; Morris’ is on how they responded to the opportunities and challenges around them. McNeill is more detailed and is probably the more convincing theorist; Morris is a cracking good read as a narrative historian. Both are excellent “big picture” starting points.

For more detail, check out the top Amazon reviews of Morris (the 5-star review and the 3-star).

Recommended for: All history lovers.

Note: My Kindle copy of Rise of the West, purchased several years ago, suffered from a number of typos. I don’t know if the publisher has subsequently fixed these.

The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution, by Francis Fukuyama (non-fiction)

This is the story of the rise of the modern state, from tribal prehistory, through China (home of the first centralised, professional government, per Fukuyama), India, the Middle East, and Europe. Along the way, rulers grapple with nepotism; social constraints, such as religion and morality; and rival actors, such as barons, bureaucrats, and greedy hangers-on. Each case study is interesting in its own right; each is relevant to the overarching story. The result is one of my favourite books: one part intellectual framework, one part potted history of pre-modern political development, and interesting on almost every page.

For more detail, check out this review (by the same Ian Morris I discussed above)

Recommended for: All history lovers. Paradox fans, in particular, would get a lot out of this.

Classical Antiquity

The Fall of Carthage: The Punic Wars 265-146BC, by Adrian Goldsworthy (non-fiction)

A clear, readable account of its subject.

Recommended for: Ancient history and Total War fans.

Persian Fire, by Tom Holland (non-fiction)

As one Amazon reviewer describes it, this is the tabloid history of the Persian Wars: racy, memorable, and entertaining. I particularly like the attention paid to the Persians themselves, who have been short-changed by the Western popular imagination. A good introduction to its topic.

Recommended for: Ancient history newbies.

The Middle Ages

The Lantern Bearers, by Rosemary Sutcliff (novel)

The Long Ships, by Frans Bengtsson (novel)

Two very different books that, in a way, tell two sides of the same story. The Long Ships brings the Norse mindset to life; for its heroes, going Viking is a source of adventure, plunder, and journeys to exotic lands. One of my favourite novels.

The Lantern Bearers is about being on the receiving end. Its hero, the last Roman soldier in Britain, deserts the legions so he can defend his home against the Anglo-Saxon tide. We know how the story of Britain will end; our hero’s story, and his emotional journey, are worth it.

Recommended for: History lovers, Crusader Kings fans.

Before European Hegemony: The World System AD 1250-1350, by Janet Abu-Lughod (non-fiction)

A fine (and surprisingly accessible) work of economic history, which sweeps through Europe, the Middle East and Central Asia, the Indian Ocean, and finally China.

Here is one case study from the book: during the 12th and 13th centuries, the region around Troyes, France was a crossroads for trade. At the Champagne Fairs, merchants from Flanders would meet their Italian counterparts, who bore spices and silks from the East. Cloth from the region was marketed as far afield as Constantinople. After a heyday of circa 100 years, the Fairs withered: the French monarchs consolidated their control over the region and bullied foreign merchants; improved shipbuilding let the Italians sail directly to Flanders; and the Black Death wreaked havoc in Italy.

For more details, check out the top Amazon reviews.

Recommended for: History lovers.

The Sunne in Splendour, by Sharon Kay Penman (novel)

A revisionist take on Richard III, he of Shakespeare fame. Penman casts Richard as the doomed, underdog hero. Perhaps better towards its beginning, this remains an entertaining read.

Recommended for: History buffs, Crsuader Kings fans.

Early Modern History

Vermeer’s Hat: The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World, by Timothy Brook (non-fiction)

In the early modern period, the world – Europe, Asia, Africa, the Americas – was knitted together for the first time. I can imagine no better introduction than this concise, beautifully written book. The author, a specialist in Chinese history, uses the 17th-century paintings of Johannes Vermeer as his launching-off point. The felt hat in one painting may have come from pelts taken in Canada; the porcelain, from China; the silver and tobacco made it from the Americas to Europe and China. Another one of my favourites.

For more detail, here is a helpful Amazon review.

Recommended for: History lovers. Fans of Europa Universalis and, to a lesser extent, Empire: Total War.

Note: According to a number of angry Amazon reviews, the Kindle edition does not include the Vermeer paintings discussed in the book. I am not sure whether the paintings were eventually added — a more recent review says they were.

The Aubrey & Maturin series, starting with Master and Commander, by Patrick O’Brian (novels)

Excellent, immersive — and so unique that I can’t recommend them without a caveat. These are not naval action-adventures; they are slice-of-life stories that happen to be largely set aboard ships during the Napoleonic Wars. We follow its heroes, a Royal Navy captain and a physician/amateur naturalist, at war; we also see their courtships, legal troubles, and scientific expeditions. Plot comes second to atmosphere, and the prose is dense with naval jargon; it’s a mark of O’Brian’s skill as a writer that he could successfully break so many rules.

Recommended for: Fans of Europa Universalis, Empire: Total War, and Napoleon: Total War.

East Asian History

Note that books on Asian history tend to be quite expensive, aimed at specialists, or both. General world histories can offer a good starting point.

A History of East Asia, by Charles Holcombe.

A clear, concise overview of Chinese, Japanese, and Korean history, and the relationships between the three.

For instance, when the Korean kingdoms of Silla and Baekje went to war in 660, Tang China and Yamato Japan backed opposite sides “At a great river battle fought in 663,” Holcombe writes, “the combined Tang and Sillan navies reportedly sank four hundred Japanese warships, sealing the fate of [Baekje] and ending Japanese influence on the continent for almost a millennium.” And I learned that Park Chung-hee, South Korea’s president from 1961 to 1979, deployed the same slogan (“rich country, strong military”) as the Meiji industrialisers a century earlier.

As someone who has read bits and pieces about the three nations discussed in the book, I found it both useful and interesting as a glimpse at the “big picture”.

Recommended for: History buffs.

The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy, by Kenneth Pomeranz (non-fiction).

When did Europe, in economic terms, overtake China and Japan? And why? The answers vary, depending on whom you ask; Pomeranz argues that Europe only overtook China in the 1800s, and that this was a matter of simple good luck, owing to the ease with which Britain could access coal, iron, and sugar (from the New World).

This is a specialist, academic book, so dry I can only recommend it if you are really interested in its subject. But if the subject does interest you, the book is a fascinating insight into East Asia, and a counter-argument to the assumptions embedded in games such as Europa Universalis.

Recommended for: Paradox fans.

Troubled Empire: China in the Yuan and Ming Dynasties, by Timothy Brook (non-fiction).

Part of a six-volume history of Imperial China, Troubled Empire is a thematic rather than a narrative history; each chapter covers a different topic, such as family life, maritime trade with Europeans, and imperial screwups. I found some more interesting than others — did you know that one ruler, the Wanli Emperor, walked off the job in a huff? After failing to appoint his preferred son as crown prince, he “thereafter more or less permanently absented himself from court.” He even refused to disburse money to pay for border defence! Worth a look.

Note that Brook is also the author of Vermeer’s Hat, discussed above.

Recommended for: History buffs.

Modern History

There are relatively few games that directly relate to the topics below. Still, they provide interesting background. For example, comments on development and industrialisation may be relevant to a Victoria or Tropico fan.

Global Capitalism: Its Fall and Rise in the Twentieth Century, by Jeffrey A Frieden (non-fiction)

A clear, readable economic history of the last couple of centuries, which links economic developments back to their political context. For example, the book touches on which groups favour free trade, which favour protectionism, and why; the political problems created by plantation agriculture; and how far-right political parties found a powerbase in the 1930s.

Recommended for: Fans of Victoria 2; political and current affairs wonks.


Political Order and Political Decay: From the Industrial Revolution to the Globalization of Democracy, by Francis Fukuyama(non-fiction)

Fukuyama’s follow-up to The Origins of Political Order (discussed above), this touches on a wide range of topics:

  • Why some Western governments are more effective than others;
  • The rise of democracy and liberalism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries;
  • The development and failings of the contemporary US government;
  • Why some developing countries have better government than others;
  • What makes an effective civil service;
  • And more.

Overall, while the lesser of the two books — I prefer the focus of its predecessor — this is still a worthwhile read. Start with the first; if you like that, and if the modern period appeals to you, give the sample a look.

Recommended for: Fans of Victoria 2; political and current affairs wonks.

Fault Lines, by Raghuram Rajan (non-fiction)

This has nothing to do with gaming; I think it deserves a mention anyway. It’s the single best explanation I’ve found of the world’s economic woes, written by someone who knows his stuff (Rajan warned of trouble before the global financial crisis, and at the time of writing, he heads up India’s central bank), and accessible to the general reader. Rajan argues, first, that globalisation and technological change chipped away at employment, and second, that this was papered over by a rising tide of borrowing. Well worth a look.

Recommended for: Anyone interested in the state of the world.

Military History

The Book of War, by John Keegan (non-fiction).

An anthology of writings on war, from the ancient world to the modern day. We hear from the great and powerful: the first excerpt is from Caesar’s Commentaries. We also hear from foot soldiers, civilians left adrift by war, anti-war poets, and more. I could recommend almost anything by the late Keegan; The Book of War’s breadth makes it my favourite.

Recommended for: Military history buffs.

Note: My Kindle copy of the book, purchased several years ago, suffered from a number of typos. I don’t know if the publisher has subsequently fixed these.

The Pacific War trilogy, by Ian W Toll (non-fiction).

A masterful three-volume account (Pacific Crucible, The Conquering Tide, and Twilight of the Gods) of the war between the United States and Japan. This is that rarest of things – it superbly bridges the high-level and ground-level perspectives; it’s highly readable; and it’s backed by up-to-date scholarship. The opening sections of Pacific Crucible (the attack on Pearl Harbour) and The Conquering Tide (the experiences of a coastwatcher on Guadalcanal) are amongst the most evocative pieces I’ve read, and the author’s description of the firebombing of Tokyo’s Asakusa temple in Twilight of the Gods is haunting. Highly recommended.

Recommended for: Anyone interested in the topic.

The Wages of Destruction: The Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economy, by Adam Tooze (non-fiction).

A specialist WW2 history, Wages of War is really two books in one. It chronicles what it says on the cover, “the making and breaking of the Nazi economy”; its real value is in the way it links this back to German grand strategy. For example, why did Hitler push his luck and keep picking fights with bigger and bigger countries? Tooze convincingly argues that there was a method to the madness, and along the way, debunks many of the myths of WW2.

For more detail, check out the Goodreads reviews and the top Amazon reviews.

Recommended for: WW2 buffs, Hearts of Iron fans.

A World at Arms: A Global History of World War II, by Gerhard L Weinberg.

A single-volume history of the war, from the highest levels: Weinberg’s focus is on why policymakers in each capital made the decisions they did. He is particularly strong at teasing out the links between disparate theaters; for instance, by bogging down in Guadalcanal, Japan diverted resources that could have been used to thrust west and link up with the Germans in the Middle East. By bombing the German homeland, the Western Allies forced the Luftwaffe to divert fighters from the Russian front (”by April of 1943, 45% [of Germany’s fighters] were in the West and 27% were in the East”). And every German transport plane sent to resupply soldiers in North Africa was one plane not available to support Stalingrad. For economic matters, turn to Tooze’s more recent scholarship (above); otherwise, this is an excellent book.

Incidentally, the author narrowly missed the war; his Jewish family fled Germany just in time, and he served in the US armed forces during the post-war occupation of Japan. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he is scathing towards Vichy and pro-Axis collaborators.

For more detail, check out the Goodreads reviews.

Recommended for: WW2 buffs, Hearts of Iron fans.

All Quiet on the Western Front, by Erich Maria Remarque (novel)

Set during WW1, this is the definitive anti-war story; a deserved classic.

Recommended for: Anyone interested in the subject.

Alternate History

GURPS Alternate Earths 2 (tabletop RPG – link goes to the publisher’s official store)

Alternate history is dominated by several cliches: the Nazis win, the CSA wins, Rome never falls (and in fact, all three are present in the first Alternate Earths). AE2 is both well-written and far more original. Its six timelines include a world-spanning Ming Dynasty, a Viking conquest of Europe, and my personal favourite, an alternate 1940s where Central European freedom fighters, equipped with the world’s first jet aircraft, struggle against the Hapsburg Empire. A lot of fun, and knowledge of the GURPS RPG is not required. I’d love to see some of these timelines fleshed out!

Recommended for: History lovers, Paradox fans.


Civil aviation

West with the Night, by Beryl Markham (buy from Amazon US, Australia)

Much more than an aviation memoir, it chronicles Markham’s experiences growing up as a girl in colonial Kenya, becoming a horse trainer, and eventually a pilot, culminating in her 1936 flight across the Atlantic. While she may or may not have written the book herself, it remains a great read.

Skyfaring: A Journey with a Pilot, by Mark Vanhoenacker (buy from Amazon US, Australia)

A meditative look behind the scenes from a current airline pilot, who reflects on topics such as a pilot’s sense of place, the names of beacons and waypoints (did you know there are Waltzing Matilda-themed waypoints off the Australian coast?), and the camaraderie when two planes greet each other with lights at night.

Fate is the Hunter, by Ernst Gann (buy from Amazon US, Australia)

Gann’s account of his days flying airliners and transport planes from the 1930s to the 1950s. This provides a firsthand look at the hair-raisingly dangerous early days of aviation, including an Arctic rescue, Gann’s lucky escapes, and the fate of not-so-lucky colleagues.

Flight of Passage, by Rinker Buck (buy from Amazon US, Australia)

While still in their teens, the author and his brother restored a plane and flew across the United States by themselves in the 1960s. This book chronicles their journey, the people and Americana they encountered along the way, and their relationship with their father, a former barnstorming pilot.

Space travel

Carrying the Fire, by Michael Collins (buy from Amazon US, Australia)

The memoir of an Apollo 11 astronaut. It’s the details from the ground that stick in my mind: the rigorous planning for any imaginable contingency, the survival training in the jungle, and the postflight quarantine. Informative and well-written.

All books in this section: recommended for aviation and history buffs.

Science Fiction and Fantasy

The Vorkosigan Saga, starting with Shards of Honour, by Lois McMaster Bujold (novels).

One of my favourite reads during my teenage years, this is the story of Cordelia Naismith, scientist turned reluctant soldier, and eventually her son Miles, brilliant, insecure, and driven to overcome his physical disabilities. Several features distinguish this from other science fiction novels. First, its focus on biotechnology and life sciences; second, its sense of humour; third, its focus on theme and especially character.

Recommended for: Science fiction buffs… and, not kidding, adventure game fans. With his wit, guile, and talent for bluffing, Miles would make a perfect point-and-click (or Telltale Games) hero.

The Curse of Chalion, by Lois McMaster Bujold (novel)

If Bujold’s Vorkosigan novels were what I loved as a teen, this is what I love as a grown-up. Most fantasy and adventure fiction is about the bold young (wo)man who saves the day through his/her prowess — see Vorkosigan. Chalion is the opposite: its broken-down, middle-aged hero prevails through courage, decency, and self-sacrifice. One of my favourite fantasy novels.

Recommended for: Anyone after a good read.

Declare, by Tim Powers (novel)

A blend of Cold War spy thriller and the occult, atmospheric, imaginative, and convincing. From occupied Paris to modernising, 1960s Kuwait, there is something about Powers’ settings that makes my disbelief melt away. I reviewed the book years ago; looking back, I’d be more positive on the characters and their chemistry. Another one of my favourites.

Recommended for: Anyone after a good read.

Northern Lights/The Golden Compass, by Phillip Pullman (novel)

While its sequels are inferior, this is one of the most marvellously imaginative books I have read. A deserved classic.

Recommended for: Anyone after a good read.

Transhuman Space (tabletop RPG – link goes to the publisher’s official store).

My single favourite science fiction setting, Transhuman Space strikes the balance between originality and plausibility. Set in 2100, THS’ world is recognisably ours — after a hundred years of research into biotech, cybernetics, and space travel. The US Air Force and its Chinese counterpart patrol Mars and Titan; revolutionaries nationalise intellectual property; activists struggle to free captive “bioroids”. When I look at our world today, and see prototype self-driving cars, real-time Skype translation, and increasingly ubiquitous drones, the future of THS does not seem that far away.

Recommended for: Science fiction buffs. Fans of more idea-oriented SF games, such as Alpha Centauri and Deus Ex: HR, may be especially interested.

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