The Best Books That Happen To Be Set In History

The Books I Picked & Why

Hamnet

By Maggie O'Farrell

Hamnet

Why this book?

While the setting is undoubtedly Elizabethan, the crux of the novel is timeless. This is a story of grief, exploring the guilt and recriminations between parents after the loss of a child. It just so happens the father is William Shakespeare. 

The skill and subtly of Maggie O’Farrell’s writing lets you believe you have happened upon Stratford in 1596, where you are not reading descriptions of history, but watching one family live through a devastating week. (Watch out for a completely entrancing section on the life and travels of a flea.)


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Guernica

By Dave Boling

Guernica

Why this book?

You don’t have to know much about the Spanish civil war to have heard of Guernica. If you’ve ever seen Picasso’s work depicting the bombing, this book creates the story of the people of the town going about their everyday lives just before the painting’s horror. As a reader, you know what is coming but are helpless to do anything but care for characters who are oblivious to the destruction coming their way. 

As an author, I found inspiration in this novel for my own portrayal of the civil war in Spain. The trick is to let ordinary people tell the story for you.


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The Painted Veil

By W. Somerset Maugham

The Painted Veil

Why this book?

Set and published in the 1920s, this novel wasn’t written as historical fiction. However, the backdrop of mainland China, and the situation the lead characters create for themselves is of another world and time. 

We follow Kitty who, in punishment for an affair, joins her scientist husband on a mission to a colony infested by cholera. Ultimately though, this is the story of a woman who learns the difference between passion and love. While the incorrectness of the time may be a little uncomfortable to read, Kitty’s determination that the next generation of women should be fearless and frank, and as independent as any man rings just as true today.


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A Gentleman in Moscow

By Amor Towles

A Gentleman in Moscow

Why this book?

This is the tale of a man trapped in a gilded cage. An ideological revolution, the rise of a dictator, and the subsequent suppression and death of millions of Russians are but casual acquaintances to his story. The cage is quickly tarnished, but the charm, generosity, and good nature of the gentleman in question ensure that he discovers how to make the very most of his life imprisonment. Creating a character that a reader instantly warms to, and cheers on through every trial is difficult, but Amor Towles achieves it effortlessly.


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The Power and the Glory

By Graham Greene

The Power and the Glory

Why this book?

The story of a priest in Mexico during a period when Catholicism is prohibited sounds like a tale of adventure and heroism. But our hero is flawed almost beyond redemption. Almost. As he travels through the state of Tabasco, ministering to all those who need him, his faults are painfully exposed. And yet, we still care for him, willing him to escape the traps laid before him, hoping against hope that salvation awaits. This is a book that will stay with you forever.


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