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History and Historical Fiction – a list for Ryan

Ryan, a recent college grad, asked me for some recommendations for reading history. I told him I didn’t read general histories very much any more. For the past ten or twelve years I’ve tended to read works by historians who focus on some small set of events, putting a specific moment or place or person in historical perspective. Ryan asked me to make him a list, and this is it. Most of these books read like novels, even those that are not historical fiction – but sometimes the fiction conveys more history than the ‘fact’. You’ll notice that one of my key areas of interest is World War II history.

I’ve created this as an Amazon Listmania List (here)

Byzantium (Harper Fiction) by Stephen R. Lawhead

“Historical Fiction: Lawhead gives a compelling glimpse into the history of Europe and the Byzantine Empire.”

The Hawk and the Dove Trilogy by Penelope Wilcock

“Historical Fiction: The inner lives of medieval monks. As portrayed by Penelope Wilcox, these lives give tremendous insight into souls, suffering and even aging.”

The River at the Center of the World: A Journey Up the Yangtze, and Back in Chinese Time by Simon Winchester

“Simon Winchester gives a series of superb snapshots of mainland China, present and past. Don’t miss the story of the boneless pig.”

Miracle At Philadelphia: The Story of the Constitutional Convention May – September 1787 by Catherine Drinker Bowen

“This account of the Constitutional Convention gives some of the best insight into the lives and politics of post-colonial America I’ve ever read.”

The Fatal Shore: The epic of Australia’s founding by Robert Hughes

“Fascinating true account of the founding of Australia.”

East of the Sun the Conquest and Settlem by Benson Bobrick

“The well written, fascinating story of the colonization of Siberia by the Russians.”

Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing

“Fantastic account of survival in the Antarctic”

The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary (P.S.) by Simon Winchester

“Simon Winchester can take the dullest thing in the world – the writing of the Oxford English Dictionary – and make it fascinating.”

Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded: August 27, 1883 (P.S.) by Simon Winchester

“Simon Winchester makes a fascinating mix of the geology of volcanoes with the early growth of media.”

The Triangle Fire by Leon Stein

“America, 1911. The industrial revolution unchecked. 146 dead.”

Red Victory: A History of the Russian Civil War by W. Bruce Lincoln

“W. Bruce Lincoln is one of the premier writers on the history of Russia. Here he writes the mostly untold story of the tumultuous civil war that followed the Russian revolution in 1917.”

The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine by Robert Conquest 

“A hard book to read, but clear documentation of Stalin’s cold blooded genocide in the Ukraine. (Russia, 1930’s – 20 million dead).”

The Winds of War by Herman Wouk

War and Remembrance by Herman Wouk

“Historical Fiction (barely): If I had to take one book beside the Bible to a desert island, this, along with the second volume, War and Remembrance, would be what I would take. Though fiction, this is the best history of World War II I have ever read.”

The 900 Days: The Siege of Leningrad by Harrison E. Salisbury

“You will never forget the start horror of the seige. Though the book is from before the fall of communism, the research is sound and the storytelling compelling.”

Citizen Soldiers: The U.S. Army from the Normandy Beaches to the Bulge to the Surrender of Germany June 7, 1944-May 7, 1945 by Stephen E. Ambrose

“Ambrose is one of the best contemporary World War II historians. His ‘Band of Brothers’ was made into an acclaimed PBS documentary.”

The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors: The Extraordinary World War II Story of the U.S. Navy’s Finest Hour by James D. Hornfischer

“Excellent example of a great story of a small chapter in the biggest naval battle ever fought.”

Colditz: The Definitive History: The Untold Story of World War II’s Great Escapes by Henry Chancellor

“An escape glider built in the attic of a German prisoner-of-war camp! And much more.”

The Battle of the Atlantic: Hitler’s Gray Wolves of the Sea and the Allies’ Desperate Struggle to Defeat Them by Andrew Williams

“Another example of a look at a specific topic that yields some amazing insights. Yet another place where a very small ‘if’ could have changed the whole outcome of this war.”

Fighter: The True Story of the Battle of Britain by Len Deighton

“Spy novel writer turned history writer. This is just one of many good books he’s written.”

Abandon Ship!: The Saga of the U.S.S. Indianapolis, the Navy’s Greatest Sea Disaster by Richard F. Newcomb

“Still another example of the kind of story that can be told when the focus is narrowed from the whole Pacific war to one chilling incident.”

Wild Swans : Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang

“Three generations of Chinese women: during the communist revolution, during the great leap forward, and today.”

October Sky: A Memoir by Homer Hickam

“Historical Fiction (barely): Originally called ‘The Rocket Boys’, changed after the making of the (fine) movie. The book is better. (America, 1950’s and early ’60’s)”