False Economy, By Alan Beattie

In this readable and erudite economic history, Alan Beattie's stated aim is to destroy the "fatalistic myths" routinely used to explain the success of some economies and the failure of others. In the 19th century, for instance, there was no guarantee that America would grow into the world's most powerful economy while Argentina's would stall: "Both were young dynamic countries with fertile farmland and confident exporters." Had the South won the American Civil War, theorises Beattie, their economies today would have been very similar.

Beattie trawls examples from around the world and throughout history, explaining why Peru grows so much asparagus (America pays it to, to discourage its farmers from producing cocaine), or why owning mineral wealth is often catastrophic for a country's economy. And why are so few Islamic countries rich? Nothing to do with religion, Beattie argues, but quite a lot to do with Genghis Khan.

Beattie's final message is optimistic: there's nothing predestined about economic success or failure, and any country prepared to learn from history can determine its own fate.