The best historical novels that shed new light on famous figures

George J. Berger Author Of Four Nails: History's Greatest Elephant and His Extraordinary Trainer
By George J. Berger

Who am I?

As a youngster, my single mom’s bedtime stories did not come out of children’s books. They came out of real history—Hannibal and his elephants, the marauding Huns, or Captain Cook. It seemed preordained that I’d have a life-long love of history, that I’ve written three published historical novels, and am on the review team of the Historical Novel Society. My immersion in history and historical novels provides constant learning and pleasure.


I wrote...

Four Nails: History's Greatest Elephant and His Extraordinary Trainer

By George J. Berger,

Book cover of Four Nails: History's Greatest Elephant and His Extraordinary Trainer

What is my book about?

In ancient India, tragedy strikes a young elephant trainer. Forced into a slave caravan that takes him through perilous lands and into a world at war, Ashoka befriends a special elephant. He and that elephant, Four Nails, together lead Hannibal's army over the Alps and down the back of Rome. Though a time of constant danger and uncertainty, Ashoka finds beauty and kindness while helping others enslaved for the pleasure of ruthless rulers. To survive this remarkable journey, the elephant trainer calls upon his unique ways with the great greys and a strength known only to those with nothing left to lose.

The books I picked & why

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Sergeant Salinger

By Jerome Charyn,

Book cover of Sergeant Salinger

Why this book?

This fictionalized, but mostly true, account covers enigmatic author J. D. Salinger’s little-known WWII years (1942-47). Salinger is conscripted by the US Counter Intelligence Corps. These hard-edged soldiers interrogate captives, seek out hidden danger (poisoned pretzels, booby-trapped toilet seats), and uncover traitors. Salinger absorbs deeply the carnage close to him. At war’s end, he has become “a guy made of glass” with a facial tic and trembling hand. In the novel’s last scenes, his older sister helps him set up in the suburban loft where he can live alone, write, and heal. J. D. Salinger’s time immersed in the horrors of War helps explain his reclusive life and out-of-the-mainstream but best-selling creations. 

Sergeant Salinger

By Jerome Charyn,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

"Charyn skillfully breathes life into historical icons." -New Yorker

J.D. Salinger, mysterious author of The Catcher in the Rye, is remembered today as a reclusive misanthrope. Jerome Charyn's Salinger is a young American WWII draftee assigned to the Counter Intelligence Corps, a band of secret soldiers who trained with the British. A rifleman and an interrogator, he witnessed all the horrors of the war-from the landing on D-Day to the relentless hand-to-hand combat in the hedgerows of Normandy, to the Battle of the Bulge, and finally to the first Allied entry into a Bavarian death camp, where corpses were piled…


Finding Napoleon

By Margaret Rodenberg,

Book cover of Finding Napoleon

Why this book?

By 1815, Napoleon has lost everything and surrenders to Britain in the hope the Brits will treat him well. They banish him and his remaining servants and last hangers-on to the island of St. Helena in the South Atlantic. Bored and confined, members of Napoleon’s entourage engage in constant mischief. Poison, stilettos, and pistols find their uses. Through all the scheming, Napoleon comes across as a devoted father, a romantic charmer, and a clever judge of others. He treats commoners, children, and even slaves with respect. The whole work presents a new and interesting exploration into the last years of one of history’s giants.

Finding Napoleon

By Margaret Rodenberg,

Why should I read it?

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


The Lost Notebook of Édouard Manet

By Maureen Gibbon,

Book cover of The Lost Notebook of Édouard Manet

Why this book?

At fifty-one years old, Manet died too young of the ravages of syphilis. This intimate first-person account details the last three years of Manet’s life (1880-83). Eleven real Manet sketches add visual context. The core of the journal covers Manet’s race to keep painting while the disease disables him more and more with no cure in sight. He writes of past loves, friends, clients, models, and earlier adventures. Manet comes across as deeply insightful with no regrets, no self-pity, and as always obsessed to sketch and paint any subject that interests him. He finishes some of his finest creations during this brutally hard time, including probably his most popular piece, A Bar at the Folies-Bergère.

The Lost Notebook of Édouard Manet

By Maureen Gibbon,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Suffering from the complications of syphilis toward the end of his life, Edouard Manet begins to jot down his daily impressions, reflections, and memories in a notebook. He travels for healing respites in the French countryside and finds inspiration in nature-a cloud of dragonflies, peonies blanketed by the morning dew. Back in Paris, the artist holds court in his studio and meets a mysterious muse, Suzon. Entranced by Suzon's cool blue eyes, he decides to paint his final masterpiece, A Bar at the Folies-Bergere, life-sized-and wagers his health to complete it. In a sensual portrait of Manet's last years, illustrated…


The Animal Gazer

By Edgardo Franzosini,

Book cover of The Animal Gazer

Why this book?

In 1909 Etorre Bugatti founded his auto brand. Through wars, different ownerships, and locations Bugatti has produced classic cars that today rival any in beauty, performance, and price. Look closely at recent models, and you will spot bas relief decorations of animals. These are inspired by Etorre’s brother, animal sculptor Rembrandt Bugatti. This novel presents the mostly true account of the sculptor’s last decade (1906-1916).

R. Bugatti is obsessed with wild beasts. He even keeps two antelopes in his apartment over a summer. The Great War is horrible for zoo animals and their admirers. The inhumanity of humans exacts the ultimate toll, and, at age 31, the sculptor takes his own life. Photographs of eight masterful Bugatti animal sculptures enhance the story. Though short, The Animal Gazer will appeal to any reader interested in the life and troubled times of a masterful, not widely-known, artist from a famous family.

The Animal Gazer

By Edgardo Franzosini,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Rembrandt Bugatti was the brother of the famous builder of luxury sports cars, Ettore. He made stunningly beautiful bronzes of wild animals that he spent days and weeks observing in the Paris and Antwerp Zoos. Sometimes he took the animals to live in his Paris apartment while he worked on his pieces.

Edgardo Franzosini's haunting short novel recreates the eccentric, orderly life of this strange genius, a gentle man who loved animals and created some of the most memorable sculptures of our time. His short life was ruined by the declaration of war in August 1914. As the Germans drew…


Theory of Shadows

By Paolo Maurensig, Anne Milano Appel (translator),

Book cover of Theory of Shadows

Why this book?

On March 24, 1946, then-current world chess champion, Alexandre Alekhine, is supposed to be getting ready to defend his title against a Russian challenger. But, at age 53, Alekhine lies dead in his seaside hotel room in Estoril, Portugal. Alekhine appears to have been eating dinner alone in his room. A local doctor soon certifies he choked on a piece of meat.

Born in Moscow, handsome, married four times, master of multiple languages, widely travelled, Alekhine was caught behind enemy lines during World War II. To stay alive, he played for both Stalin and high-level Nazis. He drank to excess, smoked heavily, suffered from angina. Did he die of a heart attack, a stroke, choking on food, murder by the KGB, or partisans for his apparent sidling up to Nazis? Sceptics and chess fans have wondered. Maurensig recounts the chess master’s last days and summarizes the many aspects of a complicated genius.

Theory of Shadows

By Paolo Maurensig, Anne Milano Appel (translator),

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

On the morning of March 24,1946, the world chess champion Alexander Alekhine - "sadist of the chess world," renowned for his eccentric behaviour as well as the ruthlessness of his playing style was found dead in his hotel room in Estoril, Portugal. He was fully dressed and wearing an overcoat, slumped back in a chair, in front of a meal, a chessboard just out of reach. The doctor overseeing the autopsy certified that Alekhine died of asphyxiation due to a piece of meat stuck in his larynx and assured the world that there was absolutely no evidence of suicide or…

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in France, Napoleon Bonaparte, and chess?

6,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about France, Napoleon Bonaparte, and chess.

France Explore 649 books about France
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And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Napoleon, Napoleon, and The Josephine B. Trilogy if you like this list.