My favorite books that make history come alive through storytelling

Why am I passionate about this?

Since a tender age I’ve been fascinated by history and the people who dwelled in and shaped those times. My first two writing awards – at 8 and 12 years of age – were for stories with historical settings. I devoured novels dealing with the past, walked the pages with characters who showed me a life and time of romance and danger and enormous challenge. Every piece of history I research drives me to create characters in my mind, to see how they would fare in those circumstances. Once they become alive to me, they use that background to write their own story. It's especially the lesser-known or “smaller” parts of history that intrigue me.

I wrote...

Wings of Gold

By Neville Sherriff,

Book cover of Wings of Gold

What is my book about?

Set in South Africa during the 1860s, the story takes place against the backdrop of the flourishing ostrich feather industry of those years, when the demand for ostrich feathers made them literally worth their weight in gold. It follows the fortunes of James Quenton, a lowly English immigrant who becomes obsessed with the wealth created by systematic harvesting of the ostrich for its feathers. Wings of Gold charts the growth of a magnificent obsession from seed to maturity, and the industry – and the fate of James – through to the Anglo Boer War in the early 1900s. 

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of When the Lion Feeds

Neville Sherriff Why did I love this book?

This 1964 novel aroused international reading interest in Africa, and it achieved this through the swashbuckling tale told by Rhodesian author Wilbur Smith. Awareness of the novel, set in the British colonial era, was no doubt aided by it being banned in my home country, South Africa. I was 14 at the time, and we teenagers had to anxiously await our turn to get hold of a battered (illegal) copy of the raunchy book from some of the more daring parents!

Regarded by many critics as being too “commercial,” this debut novel and the subsequent books dealing with the saga of the Courtney family led many, who were not great readers, to become rabid followers in countless languages. It is an excellent example of how authors make history come alive by placing interesting characters into those environments, then weaving intriguing stories that sweep the reader along through an age they might otherwise have had little or no interest in.

Book cover of The Covenant

Neville Sherriff Why did I love this book?

Because it is about my own, complex country, South Africa, The Covenant is of special interest to me. Michener uses an array of characters from the various population groups to carry the story forward from prehistoric times to the turbulent 1970s, illustrating via storytelling the interaction and conflicts between these groups.

The novel received some criticism for inaccuracies, but I felt it did a sterling job of giving non-South Africans a greater understanding of South Africa and its problems, which remain prevalent to this day. An array of characters ranging from scoundrels to adventurers made this possible, taking us on this journey through history, exposing the reader to an understanding of the daunting ruggedness, beauty, and physical challenges which shaped the formation of this country.

By James A. Michener,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

James A. Michener’s masterly chronicle of South Africa is an epic tale of adventurers, scoundrels, and ministers, the best and worst of two continents who carve an empire out of a vast wilderness. From the Java-born Van Doorn family tree springs two great branches: one nurtures lush vineyards, the other settles the interior to become the first Trekboers and Afrikaners. The Nxumalos, inhabitants of a peaceful village unchanged for centuries, unite warrior tribes into the powerful Zulu nation. And the wealthy Saltwoods are missionaries and settlers who join the masses to influence the wars and politics that ravage a nation.…

Book cover of Shōgun

Neville Sherriff Why did I love this book?

I have always been fascinated by the Far East, so when James Clavell published Shōgun, I was enthralled throughout all its many pages. It allowed me to delve into the mysteries of that island nation, so isolated by location and culture from the world I knew.

Years later that fascination was further enriched when I went to work for a Japanese motor vehicle company. My department shared a work area with the Japanese representatives stationed in South Africa for 2 to 3 years, so I was able to build some form of relationship with them. When I visited Japan on business I was privileged to enjoy that culture firsthand, albeit it much removed from the Japan of the Shōgun era. The bonus was to be exposed to slices of Japanese life not usually accessible to the average visitor.

By James Clavell,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

'Clavell never puts a foot wrong . . . Get it, read it, you'll enjoy it mightily' Daily Mirror

This is James Clavell's tour-de-force; an epic saga of one Pilot-Major John Blackthorne, and his integration into the struggles and strife of feudal Japan. Both entertaining and incisive, SHOGUN is a stunningly dramatic re-creation of a very different world.

Starting with his shipwreck on this most alien of shores, the novel charts Blackthorne's rise from the status of reviled foreigner up to the hights of trusted advisor and eventually, Samurai. All as civil war looms over the fragile country.

'I can't…

Book cover of The Pillars of the Earth

Neville Sherriff Why did I love this book?

If someone had suggested I find out more about medieval architecture and the religion and lifestyles of the people at the time, my response would have been that it is not really of interest to me.

Then along came Ken Follet with his Pillars of the Earth, and off we all went. He achieved this interest and involvement through his passion for the topic, outstanding research, and, most of all, by creating real characters and weaving them into that factual background so that it burst into life for the average reader. I think it’s safe to surmise that most of them held the same view as I did prior to this book’s publication.

By Ken Follett,

Why should I read it?

16 authors picked The Pillars of the Earth as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

#1 New York Times Bestseller

Oprah's Book Club Selection

The "extraordinary . . . monumental masterpiece" (Booklist) that changed the course of Ken Follett's already phenomenal career-and begins where its prequel, The Evening and the Morning, ended.

"Follett risks all and comes out a clear winner," extolled Publishers Weekly on the release of The Pillars of the Earth. A departure for the bestselling thriller writer, the historical epic stunned readers and critics alike with its ambitious scope and gripping humanity. Today, it stands as a testament to Follett's unassailable command of the written word and to his universal appeal.


Book cover of Pompeii

Neville Sherriff Why did I love this book?

As with the other novels in this selection, Robert Harris uses characters to make a significant historical event come alive. The central protagonist is especially relevant to the topic – an engineer responsible for the functioning of Rome’s aqueducts. It is through his actions and eyes – those of a common man – that we are drawn into this ancient way of life. 

The constant threat of a Mt. Vesuvius building up to erupt is interweaved into the storyline so deftly that it shifts from being a highly technical topic to an integral part of the plot. Harris excels at packaging so much into this history lesson – including the vital ingredients of mystery, suspense, greed, and even romance. This is a true historical thriller.

By Robert Harris,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

'A pulse-rate-speeding masterpiece' Sunday Times

'A stunning novel . . . the subtlety and power of its construction holds our attention to the end' The Times

During a sweltering week in late August, as Rome's richest citizens relax in their villas around Pompeii and Herculaneum, there are ominous warnings that something is going wrong. Wells and springs are failing, a man has disappeared, and now the greatest aqueduct in the world - the mighty Aqua Augusta - has suddenly ceased to flow . . .

Through the eyes of four characters - a young engineer, an adolescent girl, a corrupt…

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By David Joiner,

Book cover of Kanazawa

David Joiner Author Of Kanazawa

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

My book recommendations reflect an abiding passion for Japanese literature, which has unquestionably influenced my own writing. My latest literary interest involves Japanese poetry—I’ve recently started a project that combines haiku and prose narration to describe my experiences as a part-time resident in a 1300-year-old Japanese hot spring town that Bashō helped make famous in The Narrow Road to the Deep North. But as a writer, my main focus remains novels. In late 2023 the second in a planned series of novels set in Ishikawa prefecture will be published. I currently live in Kanazawa, but have also been lucky to call Sapporo, Akita, Tokyo, and Fukui home at different times.

David's book list on Japanese settings not named Tokyo or Kyoto

What is my book about?

Emmitt’s plans collapse when his wife, Mirai, suddenly backs out of purchasing their dream home. Disappointed, he’s surprised to discover her subtle pursuit of a life and career in Tokyo.

In his search for a meaningful life in Japan, and after quitting his job, he finds himself helping his mother-in-law translate Kanazawa’s most famous author, Izumi Kyoka, into English. He becomes drawn into the mysterious death of a friend of Mirai’s parents, leading him and his father-in-law to climb the mountain where the man died. There, he learns the somber truth and discovers what the future holds for him and his wife.

Packed with subtle literary allusion and closely observed nuance, Kanazawa reflects the mood of Japanese fiction in a fresh, modern incarnation.


By David Joiner,

What is this book about?

In Kanazawa, the first literary novel in English to be set in this storied Japanese city, Emmitt's future plans collapse when his wife, Mirai, suddenly backs out of negotiations to purchase their dream home. Disappointed, he's surprised to discover Mirai's subtle pursuit of a life and career in Tokyo, a city he dislikes.

Harmony is further disrupted when Emmitt's search for a more meaningful life in Japan leads him to quit an unsatisfying job at a local university. In the fallout, he finds himself helping his mother-in-law translate Kanazawa's most famous author, Izumi Kyoka, into English.

While continually resisting Mirai's…

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