The best nonfiction books about overlooked historical figures

Who am I?

As a child, I was drawn to the silences in family stories and as a young adult, the gaps in official records. Now I’m a former English professor turned full-time writer who is fascinated with who gets written out of history, and why. I love exploring overlooked lives, especially women’s lives—from Stalin’s female relatives to nineteenth-century shopgirls, and most recently, a pair of early medieval queens.


I wrote...

Book cover of The Dark Queens: The Bloody Rivalry That Forged the Medieval World

What is my book about?

The remarkable, little-known story of two trailblazing women in the Early Middle Ages who wielded immense power, only to be vilified for daring to rule. Brunhild was a foreign princess, raised to be married off. Her sister-in-law Fredegund started out as a lowly palace slave. And yet-in sixth-century Merovingian France, where women were excluded from noble succession these two iron-willed strategists reigned over vast realms. Yet after the queens' deaths—one gentle, the other horrific—their stories were rewritten.

The Dark Queens sets the record straight, resurrecting two very real women in all their complexity, painting a richly detailed portrait of an unfamiliar time and striking at the roots of some of our culture's stubbornest myths about female power. The Dark Queens offers proof that the relationships between women can transform the world.
Shepherd is reader supported. When you buy books, we may earn an affiliate commission.

The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper

Shelley Puhak Why did I love this book?

I love books that teach me something new about something I had always assumed to be true, like the “fact” that Jack the Ripper preyed on prostitutes. Rubenhold turns this narrative on its head to give Ripper’s canonical victims “that which was so brutally taken away with their lives: their dignity.” These exhaustively researched biographies show how sickness, trauma, and addiction intersected with the indifference of employers, husbands, and public officials to force each woman out onto the streets of Whitechapel. The Five is not just an impassioned indictment of middle-class Victorian society, but of any society that decides working-class women don’t matter.

By Hallie Rubenhold,

Why should I read it?

11 authors picked The Five as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

THE #1 SUNDAY TIMES BESTSELLER
WINNER OF THE BAILLIE GIFFORD PRIZE FOR NONFICTION 2019
'An angry and important work of historical detection, calling time on the misogyny that has fed the Ripper myth. Powerful and shaming' GUARDIAN

Polly, Annie, Elizabeth, Catherine and Mary-Jane are famous for the same thing, though they never met. They came from Fleet Street, Knightsbridge, Wolverhampton, Sweden and Wales. They wrote ballads, ran coffee houses, lived on country estates, they breathed ink-dust from printing presses and escaped people-traffickers.

What they had in common was the year of their murders: 1888.

Their murderer was never identified, but…


Book cover of The Lost: The Search for Six of Six Million

Shelley Puhak Why did I love this book?

If you’ve ever found yourself obsessed with a family mystery, you’ll be captivated by The Lost. Mendelsohn had always wondered what happened to his great-uncle and aunt, and their four daughters, during the Holocaust. His search starts with ordinary genealogical curiosity but quickly spirals into an epic quest. I admire Mendelsohn’s elegant, lyrical prose and was swept up in his ruminations on what we owe the past. His discoveries are heartbreaking but they also spark hope—by rescuing one ordinary family from oblivion.

By Daniel Mendelsohn,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

A writer's search for his family's tragic past in World War II becomes a remarkably original and riveting epic, brilliantly exploring the nature of time and memory.

'The Lost' begins as the story of a boy who grew up in a family haunted by the disappearance of six relatives during the Holocaust - an unmentionable subject that gripped his imagination from earliest childhood. Decades later, spurred by the discovery of a cache of desperate letters written to his grandfather in 1939, Daniel Mendelsohn sets out to find the remaining eyewitnesses to his relative's fates. The quest takes him to a…


Book cover of Women Warriors: An Unexpected History

Shelley Puhak Why did I love this book?

In Women Warriors, the footnotes are every bit as informative and bitingly funny as the text itself. Toler travels across many cultures and eras, from ancient times up until the 20th century, to show that, like it or not, “women have always gone to war.” She covers some women you’ve likely heard of before—like Boudica, Hua Mulan, and Joan of Arc—as well as many others you probably haven’t—like Tomyris, Artemisia II, and Lakshmi Bai. These mini-biographies, taken together, provide an eye-opening and unforgettable corrective about women and warfare.

By Pamela D. Toler,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Women Warriors as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Who says women don’t go to war? From Vikings and African queens to cross-dressing military doctors and WWII Russian fighter pilots, these are the stories of women for whom battle was not a metaphor.

The woman warrior is always cast as an anomaly—Joan of Arc, not GI Jane. But women, it turns out, have always gone to war. In this fascinating and lively world history, Pamela Toler not only introduces us to women who took up arms, she also shows why they did it and what happened when they stepped out of their traditional female roles to take on other…


Book cover of Wake: The Hidden History of Women-Led Slave Revolts

Shelley Puhak Why did I love this book?

I don’t often read graphic novels, but I found myself entranced by this one about a particular sort of women warrior. Wake recounts Dr. Hall’s search for the enslaved women who rebelled during the Middle Passage and in colonial America. Dr. Hall writes, “if you believe something doesn’t exist, you don’t go looking for it. Worse, if you stumble upon it, you still can’t see it.” By approaching old material with fresh eyes, Hall is able to uncover and reimagine these women’s stories, showing how the past haunts us whether we choose to acknowledge it or not. I was moved by Hall’s insights and by the resolution of the women she portrays.

By Rebecca Hall, Hugo Martínez (illustrator),

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

'A must-read graphic history. . . an inspired and inspiring defence of heroic women whose struggles could be fuel for a more just future' Guardian

'Not only a riveting tale of Black women's leadership of slave revolts but an equally dramatic story of the engaged scholarship that enabled its discovery' Angela Y. Davis

Women warriors planned and led slave revolts on slave ships during the passage across the Atlantic. They fought their enslavers throughout the Americas. And then they were erased from history.

In Wake Rebecca Hall, a historian, a granddaughter of slaves, and a woman haunted by the legacy…


Book cover of The Perfect Prince: The Mystery of Perkin Warbeck and His Quest for the Throne of England

Shelley Puhak Why did I love this book?

I love gorgeous sentences alongside a good mystery, and Wroe expertly crafts both. A decade after the Princes in the Tower were presumed murdered, a charismatic young man appeared, claiming to be the younger of the two princes—Richard, Duke of York. His enemies, though, said he was a boatman’s son named Perkin Warbeck. So who was he really? Wroe’s meditation on appearance and identity has even more resonance in the Instagram-era than it did when it was first published. What does it mean to “look the part”? And what matters most—who we think we are, or who others think we might be? 

By Ann Wroe,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

In 1491, as Machiavelli advised popes and princes and Leonardo da Vinci astonished the art world, a young man boarded a ship in Portugal bound for Ireland. He would be greeted upon arrival as the rightful heir to the throne of England. The trouble was, England already had a king.

The most intriguing and ambitious pretender in history, this elegant young man was celebrated throughout Europe as the prince he claimed to be: Richard, Duke of York, the younger of the “Princes in the Tower” who were presumed to have been murdered almost a decade earlier. Handsome, well-mannered, and charismatic,…


You might also like...

Dinner with Churchill

By Robin Hawdon,

Book cover of Dinner with Churchill

Robin Hawdon Author Of Number Ten

New book alert!

Who am I?

My writing is eclectic and covers many topics. However, all my books tend to have a thriller element to them. Perhaps it's my career as an actor and playwright which has instilled the need to create suspense in all my writings. I sometimes feel that distinguished authors can get so carried away with their literary descriptions and philosophical insights that they forget to keep the story going! It is the need to know what happens next that keeps the reader turning the pages. Perhaps in achieving that some subtlety has to be sacrificed, but, hey, you don't read a political thriller to study the philosophical problems of governing nations!

Robin's book list on lone heroes and threats to national security

What is my book about?

This is a new novel by one of the UK's most prolific writers. It is based around an extraordinary true incident at the start of World War II when fierce political opponents Winston Churchill and Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain encountered each other at a famous dinner party. Seen from the perspective of Lucy Armitage, a young girl suddenly conscripted by a strange stroke of fate into Churchill's overworked but adoring team of secretaries.

As Churchill prepares to take over the leadership of the nation, Lucy finds herself increasingly involved in her famous employer's phenomenal work output and eccentric habits. When romance and the world of espionage impinge on her life, she becomes a vital part of the eternal struggle between good and evil regimes that still exists today.

Dinner with Churchill

By Robin Hawdon,

What is this book about?

It is on historical record that, on the evening of October 13th 1939, six weeks after war had been declared on Hitler's Germany, Winston Churchill and Neville Chamberlain, fierce and implacable opponents for years over the appeasement issue, met together with their two wives, Clementine and Anne, for a private dinner at Admiralty House, and event which caused ripples throughout Westminster.

Chamberlain was still Prime Minister, but had seen all his efforts to negotiate peace with Hitler shattered. Churchill had been recalled to the cabinet after ten years 'in the wilderness', his dire warnings of the Nazi threat vindicated.

Lucy…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in comics, the working class, and women in war?

10,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about comics, the working class, and women in war.

Comics Explore 118 books about comics
The Working Class Explore 95 books about the working class
Women In War Explore 15 books about women in war