The best books that bring history to life

Damian Dibben Author Of The Colour Storm
By Damian Dibben

The Books I Picked & Why

The Cicero Trilogy

By Robert Harris

Book cover of The Cicero Trilogy

Why this book?

Imperium, Lustrum, and Dictator chart the disintegration of Rome’s republic and the inexorable rise, then sudden fall, of Julius Caesar. Told from the vantage point of Cicero, the most persuasive speaker of the age, it’s thrilling from the outset, an epic political thriller that seems to foreshadow the beginning of the modern world. The events are so incredible, so momentous, you have to keep reminding yourself they’re true.

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Perfume: The Story of a Murderer

By Patrick Suskind

Book cover of Perfume: The Story of a Murderer

Why this book?

This novel opened my eyes to the potential scope of historical fiction. The story of an orphan with an extraordinary sense of smell who becomes a perfumer, and then a murderer, could only have been set in the past, where the smell of everything was all-pervading, especially in the bustling centre of Paris. An utterly seductive and unique page-turner.

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By Maggie O'Farrell

Book cover of Hamnet

Why this book?

The brilliant trick of this book is that William Shakespeare is a secondary character, always in the background, referred to throughout as ‘the husband’ or ‘the father,’ but never by name. Rather this blistering tale of the loss of a child, of grief and parenthood, is told through the eyes of the compellingly otherworldly Agnes, or Anne Hathaway as we know her. Elizabethan Stratford is so brilliantly realised you can smell and taste it. As an added bonus, after reading this, Shakespeare’s Hamlet becomes more vital and poignant than ever.

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The Underground Railroad

By Colson Whitehead

Book cover of The Underground Railroad

Why this book?

This searing read also has a fascinating concept at its heart. The ‘underground railroad’ in reality was a secret network of people in the southern states of America that helped slaves escape tyranny. By changing one fact, making the railroad an actual, physical entity, it brilliantly shines new light on the immense horror of the time. Rarely has a book stayed with me so long, or made me question human behaviour and the darkest days of our shared history. 

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The Aeneid of Virgil

By Virgil, Allen Mandelbaum

Book cover of The Aeneid of Virgil

Why this book?

Historical fiction is by no means a modern concept. Two thousand years ago, the Roman poet, Virgil, sets his epic tale in the distant past. Aeneas and his men voyage through Europe, North Africa, and the underworld, encountering physical and emotional devastation before arriving on Italian shores to found Rome. Elements may be fantastical but that past comes to life with the brilliant, bracing clarity of a spring morning.

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