The best books for effortless, entertaining history absorption and gorgeous grammar

Who am I?

My first driving research passion was Dracula! What aspects of decomposition birthed stories of the undead? How did the Transylvanian Impaler become the romantic blood-sucking Hollywood icon? A fascination with time travel and geocaching worked their way into my Haylee series, as did the California Gold Rush, abandoned ships in San Francisco harbor, downtown streets with quicksand-like mud, and the great fires when most buildings were constructed of wood. A minor Chinese character in the Haylee books has become a ghost riding on my shoulder. He's been driving my current work in progress, a Donner Summit historical novel centered around Chinese railroad workers.

I wrote...

Phases of Gage: After the Accident Years

By Lisa Redfern,

Book cover of Phases of Gage: After the Accident Years

What is my book about?

In 1848, an accidental explosion shoots a thirteen-pound iron rod through the head of a twenty-five-year-old construction foreman. Hurled to the ground, Phineas Gage convulses but remains conscious. He says he doesn’t feel pain. 

One of the ‘great’ medical curiosities of all time, Phineas’s injury may have been the first case to link brain studies with human personality. Many of our scientific assumptions and pop culture folklore are based on a faulty study written, years after his death, by the doctor who treated him. This work of fiction incorporates the known facts of this case (at the time of writing) and brings contemporary emotional qualities to the people who experienced a family tragedy and learned to live with a traumatic brain injury.

The books I picked & why

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Ghosts of Gold Mountain: The Epic Story of the Chinese Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad

By Gordon H. Chang,

Book cover of Ghosts of Gold Mountain: The Epic Story of the Chinese Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad

Why this book?

For Chinese history and railroad enthusiasts, this is a must-read. Gordon Chang is a professor of American history at Stanford’s School of Humanities and Sciences. His book, with thorough and detailed research as its foundation, corrects a historical injustice of silence. It shines a light on the Chinese railroad workers who did the lion’s share of heavy lifting, blasting, and rock moving to complete the Central Pacific Railroad’s (CPRR) share of the Transcontinental Railroad. It’s an enlightening and smooth read, even for a layperson.

Once Ghosts of Gold Mountain was published, it quickly rose to the top of my research resources. I live near Donner Summit’s infamous Tunnel #6. Every time I put on my headlamp to walk through it, I marvel at the massive undertaking. This tunnel and the workers behind it are the inspiration for my current historical novel. If Professor Chang ever reads it, I hope he’s gratified to know that many of his research findings are included.

The Pillars of the Earth

By Ken Follett,

Book cover of The Pillars of the Earth

Why this book?

As a life-long reader and historical novelist, Ken Follet is one of my larger-than-life heroes. When I enjoy an author’s voice, characters, and story, I treasure a big fat book that requires a significant time investment. Set in twelfth-century England, this epic tale humanizes medieval history. After completing The Pillars of the Earth, I feel like I could walk through the Kingsbridge Cathedral and experience a familiar connection with the stonemasons and architects who built it. Effortless and entertaining history absorption!

Water for Elephants

By Sara Gruen,

Book cover of Water for Elephants

Why this book?

When I browse my bookshelves for recommendations, this one always stands out as one with a memorable story but also for the author’s gorgeous grammar.

In 1932 during the Great Depression, Jacob Jankowski hits a rough patch. Not yet finished with veterinary school, he’s suddenly orphaned and penniless. When he jumps on a train, Jacob is catapulted into a foreign world of misfits and freaks. The traveling circus is filled with beauties, brutal taskmasters, and animals that need his help. In spite of odds conspiring against him, Jacob discovers love in this unlikely time and place. Will he do what it takes to hold onto it?


By Naomi Novik,

Book cover of Uprooted

Why this book?

This book (!) one where the language and imagery are so surprising and unusual, that alone draws the reader in like a light-dazzled moth. It is a fantasy novel based on a Polish fairy tale. A mysterious wizard claims an innocent village girl every ten years in trade for his protection against the evil Wood. It’s a beautifully crafted story with compelling characters and a satisfying end. It is well worth every minute!

Tuesdays with Morrie: An Old Man, a Young Man, and Life's Greatest Lesson

By Mitch Albom,

Book cover of Tuesdays with Morrie: An Old Man, a Young Man, and Life's Greatest Lesson

Why this book?

When my grandparents said, “no,” to my request to (cassette) record their sauerkraut-making memories and tales of their move to California during WWII, my heart constricted. It still hurts when I think about death permanently extinguishing their voices and stories. Tuesdays with Morrie is like the interview with my grandparents I’d envisioned. It’s wisdom, life lessons, and values - recipes for living a satisfying life - are imparted for future generations. Sadly, I missed this book when it first started making bestseller lists. It came to my awareness after I uploaded my Phineas Gage manuscript to a website providing artificial intelligence language analysis. The books were a match. I had to read it then, and I’m so glad I did!

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