The best books that connect with the thinking, feeling past, at its human heart

Why am I passionate about this?

The Hew Cullan stories are historical crime fiction set at the university of St Andrews, Scotland, in the late sixteenth century. I was a student at St Andrews in the 1980s and now live nearby in the East Neuk of Fife, where the imprint of the town and its surrounding landscapes have remained unchanged since medieval times. What interests me most in writing of the past is how people thought and felt, lived and died and dreamt, and I have chosen books which capture that sense of the inner life, of a moment that belongs to a single time and place, and make it true and permanent.


I wrote...

Queen & Country

By Shirley McKay,

Book cover of Queen & Country

What is my book about?

1587. Three years after his enforced departure to London, Hew is reconciled with King James VI and recalled to Scotland. He elopes to St Andrews with a young Englishwoman. The death of Mary, Queen of Scots has unleashed a wave of anti-English sentiment among the Scottish people, and fear and confusion in the king himself. James will grant his blessing to their controversial marriage on the condition that Hew discovers what lies behind a painting cunningly contrived to prick the young king's conscience. Meanwhile in St Andrews, the death of a painter is troubling to Giles Locke, and the English Frances, struggling to adapt to a foreign town and culture, helps Hew find the link among the artists and intriguers of opposing courts, a quest for love—and life.

Shepherd is reader supported. When you buy books, we may earn an affiliate commission.

The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Poems of Robert Henryson

Shirley McKay Why did I love this book?

The testament of Cresseid, written in Old Scots in the fifteenth century, was framed as a response to Chaucer’s earlier telling of the Troilus storythe ill-fated love between Troilus and Cressida. Henryson imagines what becomes of Cressida where Chaucer’s version ends. I read this poem at school, together with the fables, and loved it straight away. It was a revelation to find a view of Cresseid sympathetically disposed, in language that was vivid and direct; a telling that was startlingly humane. There is humour, heart and feeling in the fables too. It blew away my preconceptions that Scotland in the past was dour and inaccessible, and the language difficult, and replaced them with a fondness and a familiarity lasting to this day.  

By Robert Henryson,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Poems of Robert Henryson as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This is the first serious attempt to produce a critical text for all Henryson's poems. The text is based on all available material. There is a commentary and a glossary, and an introduction discusses Henryson's life and the sources of his poems.


Book cover of A Thousand Notable Things On Various Subjects

Shirley McKay Why did I love this book?

A Thousand Notable Things was first published in 1579, coincidently the year in which my first Hew Cullan story is set. A miscellany of marvels, magic, myths and medicine, ‘facts’ and household tips designed to entertain rather than instruct, it’s a fascinating glimpse into the sixteenth-century mindset to be taken, like its remedies, with a pinch of salt. Where else can you find, in the space of a heartbeat, that robins will cover dead faces with moss; that a married man made impotent by witchcraft should ‘make water’ through his wedding ring to remove the spell; or that basil causes scorpions to breed inside the brain? "Take heed therefore ye smellers of basil." A thousand times diverting. "This is proved and true."

By Thomas Lupton,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked A Thousand Notable Things On Various Subjects as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This is a reproduction of a book published before 1923. This book may have occasional imperfections such as missing or blurred pages, poor pictures, errant marks, etc. that were either part of the original artifact, or were introduced by the scanning process. We believe this work is culturally important, and despite the imperfections, have elected to bring it back into print as part of our continuing commitment to the preservation of printed works worldwide. We appreciate your understanding of the imperfections in the preservation process, and hope you enjoy this valuable book.


Book cover of They Were Defeated: The Classic Novel Set in the Reign of King Charles I

Shirley McKay Why did I love this book?

I first read They Were Defeated over thirty years ago, and recently reread to see if it had the power to move me still today. It does. Set in 1641, in Devonshire and Cambridge at the very brink of the Civil War, it reads like a love letter to a lost world, where the poets and Platonists are illuminated in already fading light, beautifully and tenderly observed. Rose Macaulay wrote that she had done her best "to make no person in this work use in conversation any word, phrase or idiom" not used at the time. "Ghosts of words," she calls them, after Thomas Browne. An astonishing feat in the pre-digital age. Yet the language of her ghosts is clear and true and natural. And the still moment, at the very heart of her heart-breaking story, transcends the factions that surround it and stays fixed for all time. This is a book that remains with you.

By Rose Macaulay,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked They Were Defeated as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

THEY WERE DEFEATED begins in 1640 at a harvest festival - but religious persecution is in the air, and the idyllic rural scene is soon darkened by the threat of a witch hunt...Rose Macaulay interweaves the lives of Robert Herrick and other contemporary poets with those of a small group of fictional characters. Their lives, and in particular the life of her heroine Julian, are set vividly before us against a period which was one of the most dramatic and unsetttled in English history. Skilfully intertwining tragedy, comedy and beauty, THEY WERE DEFEATED was Rose Macaulay's only historical novel, and…


Book cover of Fingersmith

Shirley McKay Why did I love this book?

I’ve chosen Sarah Waters’ darker reimagining of Victoriana because it has the most satisfying plot of any work of historical fiction I have come across—and possibly of any other kind bar one (the exception is Great Expectations—the book I could wish to forget completely, in order to discover it again). But good books are far more than plot. The best of them convince, through sense of time and place and above all through character, and completely take us in, so that plot revelations, however momentous, can shock and surprise us yet not seem contrived. This Fingersmith does, deftly alluring, distracting to manipulate the reader from the start. But no spoilers here!

By Sarah Waters,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

“Oliver Twist with a twist…Waters spins an absorbing tale that withholds as much as it discloses. A pulsating story.”—The New York Times Book Review

Sue Trinder is an orphan, left as an infant in the care of Mrs. Sucksby, a "baby farmer," who raised her with unusual tenderness, as if Sue were her own. Mrs. Sucksby’s household, with its fussy babies calmed with doses of gin, also hosts a transient family of petty thieves—fingersmiths—for whom this house in the heart of a mean London slum is home.

One day, the most beloved thief of all arrives—Gentleman, an elegant con man,…


Book cover of An Instance of the Fingerpost

Shirley McKay Why did I love this book?

An Instance of the Fingerpost engages with the intellectual world of the seventeenth century in a complex and compelling mystery of misdirection, with multiple shifts of perspective. It’s a way of thinking—and of blindly feeling—through the science of the day, as well as through the shifting layers of plot. And though the focus in this instance is the mind—this is a thinking, not a feeling book—it is quite literally a story of the heart: of the scientific debate about the circulation of the blood.

The ’fingerpost’ is a reference to the typographical marker used in the margins of black letter books to help the reader navigate the text. And it’s a reminder that books, historical or not, look to other books to find their place in history. So Henryson begins with his reading of Chaucer, Lupton quotes from classical and older English works, Macaulay resurrects the ghosts of long-dead words, and the locus at the heart of the plot in Fingersmith is a library.

By Iain Pears,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked An Instance of the Fingerpost as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'A fictional tour de force which combines erudition with mystery' PD James

Set in Oxford in the 1660s - a time and place of great intellectual, religious, scientific and political ferment - this remarkable novel centres around a young woman, Sarah Blundy, who stands accused of the murder of Robert Grove, a fellow of New College. Four witnesses describe the events surrounding his death: Marco da Cola, a Venetian Catholic intent on claiming credit for the invention of blood transfusion;Jack Prescott, the son of a supposed traitor to the Royalist cause, determined to vindicate his father; John Wallis, chief cryptographer…


You might also like...

A Beggar's Bargain

By Jan Sikes,

Book cover of A Beggar's Bargain

Jan Sikes Author Of The Edge of Too Late

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

Author Avid reader Lover of Music Astral Traveler Tarot Reader Grandmother

Jan's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

Historical Fiction Post WW2.

A shocking proposal that changes everything.

Desperate to honor his father’s dying wish, Layken Martin vows to do whatever it takes to save the family farm.
Once the Army discharges him following World War II, Layken returns to Missouri to find his legacy in shambles and in jeopardy. A foreclosure notice from the bank doubles the threat. He appeals to the local banker for more time—a chance to rebuild, plant, and harvest crops and time to heal far away from the noise of bombs and gunfire.

But the banker firmly denies his request. Now what?

Then, the banker makes an alternative proposition—marry his unwanted daughter, Sara Beth, in exchange for a two-year extension. Out of options, money, and time, Layken agrees to the bargain.

Now, he has two years to make a living off the land while he shares his life with a stranger. If he fails at either, he’ll lose it all.

A Beggar's Bargain

By Jan Sikes,

What is this book about?

A shocking proposal that changes everything.

Desperate to honor his father's dying wish, Layken Martin vows to do whatever it takes to save the family farm.

Once the Army discharges him following World War II, Layken returns to Missouri to find his legacy in shambles and in jeopardy. A foreclosure notice from the bank doubles the threat. He appeals to the local banker for more time-a chance to rebuild, plant, and harvest crops and time to heal far away from the noise of bombs and gunfire.

But the banker firmly denies his request. Now what?

Then, the banker makes an…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in poets, London, and presidential biography?

10,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about poets, London, and presidential biography.

Poets Explore 67 books about poets
London Explore 802 books about London
Presidential Biography Explore 19 books about presidential biography