The best novels that capture a moment in history

Why am I passionate about this?

I started out on this journey with an entirely different book in mind based on a Chinese tale about beauty, masking, and deception. Somewhere along the way, I transposed the idea to 15th-century Venice where Neo-Platonic beliefs were parallel to those in the fairy tale. The country that preceded Montenegro became part of the story and I fell in love with both those places. Finally, I read everything I could find in nonfiction on the 15th century, and developed two characters, a Slav brigand, Rade, and a Venetian maiden, Caterina. To my great surprise, the book began to write itself.

I wrote...

Mask of Dreams

By Leigh Grant,

Book cover of Mask of Dreams

What is my book about?

In 15th-century Venice, Caterina struggles against an arranged marriage to a man her father's age. Powerless, she is consumed by dread. The betrothal fails. A letter meant to manage future suitors goes astray. Out of the violence of the Balkans comes Rade, a lawless, charismatic Slav. Having won the letter at cards―containing a belief that the soul's beauty is reflected in the beauty of the face―he sees it as the hand of fate. Though scarred, Rade attempts through the artifice of a lifelike mask, to enter her world of wealth. To protect Caterina, her father negotiates a lengthy agreement. The mask, meant to be temporary, becomes permanent. Rade finds himself hopelessly entangled in her life. Desperate, he is unable to continue the deception. 

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Wolf Hall

Leigh Grant Why did I love this book?

In Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel recreates the world of Thomas Cromwell in such a personal, tangible way that you feel you are immersed in his time. You can imagine the historical period, the buildings, the clothes, the knife's edge balance of political actions, the manipulation of events, the tragedy of power and illness. Henry VIII becomes much less of a cipher for a king without an heir and more of a complicated, sometimes capricious, personality. The man, Cromwell, who Holbein immortalized in his portrait, lives as a complicated individual: a man driven by ambition and at the same time, a sentient, often likable family man – I think his daughter's “feathered wings” will stay with me forever.

By Hilary Mantel,

Why should I read it?

19 authors picked Wolf Hall as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Winner of the Man Booker Prize Shortlisted for the the Orange Prize Shortlisted for the Costa Novel Award

`Dizzyingly, dazzlingly good' Daily Mail

'Our most brilliant English writer' Guardian

England, the 1520s. Henry VIII is on the throne, but has no heir. Cardinal Wolsey is his chief advisor, charged with securing the divorce the pope refuses to grant. Into this atmosphere of distrust and need comes Thomas Cromwell, first as Wolsey's clerk, and later his successor.

Cromwell is a wholly original man: the son of a brutal blacksmith, a political genius, a briber, a charmer, a bully, a man with…

Book cover of Hamnet

Leigh Grant Why did I love this book?

In Hamnet, set in the late 16th century, I can “see” the town, the room, the farm, the children, the kittens, even the furniture. Agnes' role as a healer, a free soul, a caring mother, makes her an unforgettable heroine. The terrible transposing of the illness from one twin to the other is something O'Farrell makes one believe could happen. Add to that the desperate plight of Agnes' son in a world that, despite her reputation as a healer, has no remedy for most illnesses and especially the plague. The grief she feels enters your psyche and is made more terrible by her having to experience it alone. That Hamlet could be based on Hamnet, is Hamnet, is Shakespeare's son too, is to me entirely credible.

By Maggie O'Farrell,

Why should I read it?

35 authors picked Hamnet as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'Richly sensuous... something special' The Sunday Times
'A thing of shimmering wonder' David Mitchell


On a summer's day in 1596, a young girl in Stratford-upon-Avon takes to her bed with a sudden fever. Her twin brother, Hamnet, searches everywhere for help. Why is nobody at home?

Their mother, Agnes, is over a mile away, in the garden where she grows medicinal herbs. Their father is working in London.


Book cover of The Game of Kings

Leigh Grant Why did I love this book?

In the character of Francis Crawford of Lymond, Dorothy Dunnett created one of the most memorable heroes in historical fiction. I lived for the next book in the series. Lymond was mercurial, malicious, loving, insouciant, flawed, and fearless – and yet believable and very human. Dunnett brought 16th-century Scotland and the borderlands to life, even to the songs and the literature. It was a world entirely real to the reader and one in which, despite unexpected tragedy, elsewhere in the story, there could be a sense of humor.

By Dorothy Dunnett,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

In this first book in the legendary Lymond Chronicles, Francis Crawford of Lymond, traitor, murderer, nobleman, returns to Scotland to redeem his reputation and save his home.

It is 1547 and Scotland has been humiliated by an English invasion and is threatened by machinations elsewhere beyond its borders, but it is still free. Paradoxically, her freedom may depend on a man who stands accused of treason. He is Francis Crawford of Lymond, a scapegrace nobleman of crooked felicities and murderous talents, posessed of a scholar's erudition and a tongue as wicked as a rapier. In The Game of Kings, this…

Book cover of The Last Kingdom

Leigh Grant Why did I love this book?

Cornwell is another student of history whose understanding of his time brings it to life. Uhtred, the dispossessed son of a nobleman, is brought up as a Dane. He is a memorable hero in a world that straddles the 9th and 10th centuries in what constituted the earliest kingdoms of Christian England in the time of Viking raids. I am fascinated by Cornwell's understanding of Viking life, of warfare and how weapons were used and to what effect. He seems to know more about historical weaponry that anyone else I have read in fiction. Uhtred is both likable, courageous, and believable.

By Bernard Cornwell,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked The Last Kingdom as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The first book in the epic and bestselling series that has gripped millions.

A hero will be forged from this broken land.

As seen on Netflix and BBC around the world.

In a land torn apart by conflict, an orphan boy has come of age. Raised by the Vikings, deadly enemies of his own Saxon people, Uhtred is a fierce and skilled warrior who kneels to no-one.

Alfred - Saxon, king, man of god - fights to hold the throne of the only land still resisting the pagan northerners.

Uhtred and Alfred's fates are tangled, soaked in blood and blackened…

Book cover of The Silence of the Girls

Leigh Grant Why did I love this book?

The story of Briseis, Achilles' prize that he was forced to give up to Agamemnon, is an eye-opening account of what happened to women at the time of the Trojan War. Their male relatives were slain and they were assigned as booty, spoils of war. Achilles, who was famously paired with Patroclus, is given depth of character here as is the long wait to attack Troy. Once again, the reader is transported to another world and that world becomes real. Barker's description of Achilles' relationship with his mother is another twist in the story and one for which there is a very funny line partway through the book. But in this book, the real hero is Briseis. I loved the imagination that Barker brought to this story.

By Pat Barker,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked The Silence of the Girls as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?


'Chilling, powerful, audacious' The Times

'Magnificent. You are in the hands of a writer at the height of her powers' Evening Standard

There was a woman at the heart of the Trojan War whose voice has been silent - until now. Discover the greatest Greek myth of all - retold by the witness that history forgot . . .

Briseis was a queen until her city was destroyed. Now she is a slave to the man who butchered her husband and brothers. Trapped in a world defined by men, can she survive…

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The Hunt for the Peggy C: A World War II Maritime Thriller

By John Winn Miller,

Book cover of The Hunt for the Peggy C: A World War II Maritime Thriller

John Winn Miller

New book alert!

What is my book about?

The Hunt for the Peggy C is best described as Casablanca meets Das Boot. It is about an American smuggler who struggles to rescue a Jewish family on his rusty cargo ship, outraging his mutinous crew of misfits and provoking a hair-raising chase by a brutal Nazi U-boat captain bent on revenge.

During the nerve-wracking 3,000-mile escape, Rogers falls in love with the family’s eldest daughter, Miriam, a sweet medical student with a militant streak. Everything seems hopeless when Jake is badly wounded, and Miriam must prove she’s as tough as her rhetoric to put down a mutiny by some of Jake’s fed-up crew–just as the U-boat closes in for the kill.

The Hunt for the Peggy C: A World War II Maritime Thriller

By John Winn Miller,

What is this book about?

John Winn Miller's THE HUNT FOR THE PEGGY C, a semifinalist in the Clive Cussler Adventure Writers Competition, captures the breathless suspense of early World War II in the North Atlantic. Captain Jake Rogers, experienced in running his tramp steamer through U-boat-infested waters to transport vital supplies and contraband to the highest bidder, takes on his most dangerous cargo yet after witnessing the oppression of Jews in Amsterdam: a Jewish family fleeing Nazi persecution.

The normally aloof Rogers finds himself drawn in by the family's warmth and faith, but he can't afford to let his guard down when Oberleutnant Viktor…

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