The best books about history that read like the most gripping fiction you’ve ever experienced

Roy M. Griffis Author Of By the Hands of Men: Book One: The Old World
By Roy M. Griffis

Who am I?

I love history that is about people. The discoveries they made or the adventures they had (or endured) are thrilling and fascinating, but it’s the people who make it compelling. From Ernest Shackleton dumping handfuls of gold on the ice to show his stranded men he was committed to getting them out of Antarctica alive, to a fussy young William Travis writing desperately for help that would never come, and being of the first to die during the attack on the Alamo…the best books make those events, the times, and the stakes very very real. And the very best histories give you the humanity of the choices and decisions that led them there.


I wrote...

By the Hands of Men: Book One: The Old World

By Roy M. Griffis,

Book cover of By the Hands of Men: Book One: The Old World

What is my book about?

A soldier fights for his soul in the trenches of France. A field hospital nurse battles death every day. Are duty and honor enough of a reason to go on in the hell of a world at war?

An English Lieutenant and an immigrant Russian nurse meet scarcely a mile from the bloody trenches of World War One France, where they witness the hell that the hands of men can create. The memory of their brief weeks together will follow them for years as they cross a world staggered by war, revolution, and duplicity. Epic historical fiction, the By the Hand of Men saga sweeps across four continents in a gripping tale of fate, loss, redemption, and love.

The books I picked & why

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The Last Days of the Incas

By Kim MacQuarrie,

Book cover of The Last Days of the Incas

Why this book?

An astonishing and infuriating book about betrayal, treachery, and superior technology. Being introduced to the complexities of the Inca culture, religion, and government, along with the economics (and religious sops to those economics) driving the Spainards makes for a tense and gripping story. I called it “infuriating” because, knowing how those populations would be decimated by disease and slavery, reading about the ways they were betrayed was really tough. By telling the story with such detail (the research behind it must have been staggering) makes it new, alive, and ultimately heart-breaking.


Jungle of Stone: The Extraordinary Journey of John L. Stephens and Frederick Catherwood, and the Discovery of the Lost Civilization of the Maya

By William Carlsen,

Book cover of Jungle of Stone: The Extraordinary Journey of John L. Stephens and Frederick Catherwood, and the Discovery of the Lost Civilization of the Maya

Why this book?

One of the real contagions of contemporary life (for anyone in any time, I suspect) is the way one can become complacent about the existence we are experiencing: we can take “what everyone knows” for granted. Like the Ferris Wheel, which was invented for the Chicago World’s Fair to outshine the previous Fair’s Effiel Tower. Now, any carnival midway or small circus has one. 

The same with many “ancient ruins.” Cruise ships stop at Minos or the Mexican pyramids for organized tours. But these places had been lost for millennia until they were re-discovered in the last 200 – 300 years. In Jungles of Stone, the initial discovery was almost an accident. Seen as an opportunity by Stephens and Catherwood, the magnificence and majesty of what they find converts their commercial enterprise into something more like a crusade. While the book recounts their arduous efforts to uncover the lost civilization, it also educates us about the many amazing parts of the Mayan’s lives and cities.


Shadow Divers: The True Adventure of Two Americans Who Risked Everything to Solve One of the Last Mysteries of World War II

By Robert Kurson,

Book cover of Shadow Divers: The True Adventure of Two Americans Who Risked Everything to Solve One of the Last Mysteries of World War II

Why this book?

Back before extreme sports were a thing, people found personal ways to test themselves. In this case, we have guys from New Jersey who did scuba diving to depths that were the edge of both human physiology and the technology of the time, while exploring sunken wrecks over 200 feet below the surface. For fun. Then they tripped over a lost Nazi submarine. Off the coast of New Jersey.  

It sounds like the worst kind of B-movie nonsense, but it’s true. Two of the men become driven to not only document the submarine’s provenance as an actual German vessel, but to identify it and contact the relatives of the perished soldiers. From wild-men who crawled inside sunken passenger liners for kicks, they became dedicated researchers determined to bring closure to those left behind, regardless of the risk to themselves.   


The Blood of Heroes: The 13-Day Struggle for the Alamo--And the Sacrifice That Forged a Nation

By James Donovan,

Book cover of The Blood of Heroes: The 13-Day Struggle for the Alamo--And the Sacrifice That Forged a Nation

Why this book?

One thing my selections have in common is my own awe for the amount of research that went into the work. In this instance, Mr. Donovan has gone back to original sources, found old letters, telegrams, newspaper reports, interviews with survivors, and so on, turning the famous participants (e.g. Jim Bowie, Davy Crockett, etc.) from the stiff, stock characters of popular imagination or media and mockery into recognizable human beings: Jim Bowie with his tenacious will (see the description of a duel fought on an island in a river against several opponents) and a heart-broken by the death of a beloved wife, or Crockett, an out-of-office politician, and national figure, heading West in the hopes of finding a new beginning.

None of them planned on being a hero, but, at the end, were willing to die for their friends and their adopted home of Texas.


Into Africa: The Epic Adventures of Stanley & Livingstone

By Martin Dugard,

Book cover of Into Africa: The Epic Adventures of Stanley & Livingstone

Why this book?

This is another story that has been parodied out of any semblance of the magnificently foolish endeavor that ended up becoming almost noble. While today the idea would be risible, this book contextualizes the time and culture that created a national hero of the Reverend Livingstone, a clergyman traveling to “darkest Africa” to spread the Good Word to the savages and why finding him became a Western obsession. The insights into the day-to-day life and difficulties of the many and varied characters, tribes, and nations are balanced nicely against the struggles of the main characters to find their way through Africa and life itself.


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