The best books on social and family history

The Books I Picked & Why

Midnight at the Pera Palace: The Birth of Modern Istanbul

By Charles King

Midnight at the Pera Palace: The Birth of Modern Istanbul

Why this book?

I was fascinated by this book and its colourful stories about the lives of individuals who played a role in the formation of today’s Istanbul. The backdrop is the famous Pera Palace in the centre of Istanbul, the much-loved hotel of the crime writer, Agatha Christie. Much of the book concentrates on the inter-war period. Superbly written, you can almost see and hear the sights and sounds of the alleyways, nightclubs, shops, and restaurants of a now almost forgotten Istanbul.


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Common People: The History of an English Family

By Alison Light

Common People: The History of an English Family

Why this book?

This book is more than just a history of the author’s family. It is full of reflections on life and on family and history in general. At times reading like a detective story, this book inspired me to write about family history. The author delves deep into her working-class origins and explores the lives of characters whose stories – much like the Robinsons in my own work - would have been lost if it had not been for the publication of this book.


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Islam in Victorian Britain: The Life and Times of Abdullah Quilliam

By Ron Geaves

Islam in Victorian Britain: The Life and Times of Abdullah Quilliam

Why this book?

I found this to be an engrossing and detailed account of the life of the founder of arguably the first mosque in Victorian England in Liverpool. The author closely examines the adventures of the controversial and charismatic Quilliam and his family. Given his relationship with Hannah Rodda/Robinson, which is actually scarcely mentioned by Geaves, Quilliam is a key character in my book on the lives of the Robinsons. The lawyer and self-styled sheikh cultivated close ties with the Ottoman Sultan and was regarded with great suspicion by the British authorities.


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The Cut Out Girl: A Story of War and Family, Lost and Found

By Bart Van Es

The Cut Out Girl: A Story of War and Family, Lost and Found

Why this book?

Written in a simple yet highly effective style, and emotionally very moving, the author goes on a personal journey to follow the story of a Jewish girl, Lien, whom his grandparents sheltered in the Netherlands in the Second World War. The harsh reality of life in Nazi-occupied territory is skillfully brought to the fore, but the book is more than just another account of Nazi atrocities. Just as the author himself is affected, the reader, myself included, cannot fail to be impacted by the story of Lien.


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The Black Russian

By Vladimir Alexandrov

The Black Russian

Why this book?

This book brings to life the story of the little-known Frederick Bruce Thomas, born in 1872 to ex-slaves who had become successful farmers in Mississippi. I was amazed at how the entrepreneurial Frederick found employment in various cities across Europe before becoming a successful nightclub owner in Moscow and then in Istanbul after the Bolshevik Revolution. Well-researched and documented, the book critiques American racism and, in my opinion, offers a new and refreshing insight into the politics and society of Russia and Turkey.


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