Dan Jones marks the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta (Viking, $27.95) with a narrative as suspenseful and colorful as any of the dynastic feuds recounted in The Plantagenets and The Wars of the Roses. In the third installment of his riveting saga, Jones, who has also produced and hosted the multi-part docudramas Britain’s Bloodiest Dynasty and Secrets of Great British Castles, returns to 1215. While the Magna Carta is held in high esteem today as the model for, among other documents, the American constitution, it was originally a peace treaty between King John and the landed barons fed up with his wars and taxes—and it fell apart within months of its confirmation. To muddy its sterling reputation further, the Carta—an early example of dry, technical legal writing—wasn’t initially one coherent document, but a hodge-podge of charters, “a collection of promises extracted in bad faith from a reluctant king,” Jones notes. Yet somehow those promises were made good, the king was held to his own laws, and Jones once again reminds us why the middle ages are so fascinating.
The Italians is a wonderful adventure through the many puzzles and paradoxes of Italian culture, written by The Economist’s Italian correspondent. The chapters read like little interconnected essays, and they run the gamut from the political force and the shenanigans of Silvio Berlusconi; to the unsolved, mysterious death of Mussolini; to the changing landscape of the Italian family. Hooper’s book is dedicated to the symbols, gestures, and untranslatable phrases that go unnoticed to those visitors, who, perhaps like myself, have only visited Italy for a few weeks at a time. Mr. Hooper, by contrast, digs back into history, long before Italy was recognized as a unified state, to discover how the history of the society bears down upon the present life of its citizens. The Italians received a glowing review in Kirkus Reviews, who said of this work: “What's not to love? A thoroughly researched, well-written, ageless narrative of a fascinating people.”
A Spy Among Friends (Random House, $27) is the year’s best thriller—and it’s all true. Why Kim Philby willfully gave away secrets-and spies-to the Soviets is the only secret this page-turner doesn’t divulge. Was it ego? Was it that oddly English desire to be an exclusive member of both Cold War camps? Or was it really, as Philby said, a matter of ideology? How his best friend and fellow "old boy" Nicholas Eliot remained oblivious to Philby's deception is something much more understanding and tragic. Author Ben Macintyre (Agent Zigzag, Operation Mincemeat) packs his tight, suspenseful narrative with plenty of spying and skullduggery, enough booze to float a batleship, and a coterie of colorful characters from a bygone-era.