The best books to transport you into the past to meet fascinating historical figures

Who am I?

I adore non-fiction books that read like novels. After ten years of working in research labs, my master’s degree in biology led me to a new career in science writing. I recently dove into the worlds of narrative non-fiction and history when I wrote Radiant, the Dancer, The Scientist and a Friendship Forged in Light. Immersing myself in Belle Époque Paris to research and intertwine the stories of Marie Curie and the inventor/dancer Loie Fuller helped me discover a passion for telling the stories of important figures forgotten by history. 


I wrote...

Book cover of Radiant: The Dancer, the Scientist, and a Friendship Forged in Light

What is my book about?

At the turn of the century, Paris was a hotbed of creativity. Technology boomed, delivering to the world electric light, the automobile, and new ways to treat disease, while imagination blossomed, creating Art Nouveau, motion pictures, and modernist literature. A pivotal figure during this time, yet largely forgotten today, Loie Fuller was an American performance artist who became a living symbol of the Art Nouveau movement with her hypnotic dances and stunning theatrical effects. Credited today as the pioneer of modern dance, she was perennially broke, never took no for an answer, spent most of her life with a female partner, and never questioned her drive. She was a visionary, a renegade, and a loyal friend.

The books I picked & why

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The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America

By Erik Larson,

Book cover of The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America

Why this book?

The Devil in the White City transported me back in time, to the 1893 World’s Colombian Exposition in Chicago. I love the way the author wove together the history of the exposition and the story of a serial killer who got away with murder, just miles away from the lavish world’s fair. Erik Larson is a skillful storyteller and the juxtaposition of art, history, and horror made this book hard to put down.   

The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America

By Erik Larson,

Why should I read it?

13 authors picked The Devil in the White City as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Chicago World Fair was the greatest fair in American history. This is the story of the men and women whose lives it irrevocably changed and of two men in particular- an architect and a serial killer. The architect is Daniel Burnham, a man of great integrity and depth. It was his vision of the fair that attracted the best minds and talents of the day. The killer is Henry H. Holmes. Intelligent as well as handsome and charming, Holmes opened a boarding house which he advertised as 'The World's Fair Hotel' Here in the neighbourhood where he was once…

Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race

By Margot Lee Shetterly,

Book cover of Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race

Why this book?

I’m a science writer and love to read and write about history’s hidden figures—especially women in science, art, and technology. Margot Lee Shetterly masterfully blends the biographies of five brave Black female mathematicians with the stories of America’s space program and the Space Race. Hidden Figures is a wonderful, inspiring book that illuminates an era bursting with creativity but weighed down by discrimination, introducing readers to a new group of American heroes.  

Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race

By Margot Lee Shetterly,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Soon to be a major motion picture starring Golden Globe-winner Taraji P. Henson and Academy Award-winners Octavia Spencer and Kevin Costner Set against the backdrop of the Jim Crow South and the civil rights movement, the never-before-told true story of NASA's African-American female mathematicians who played a crucial role in America's space program-and whose contributions have been unheralded, until now. Before John Glenn orbited the Earth or Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, a group of professionals worked as "Human Computers," calculating the flight paths that would enable these historic achievements. Among these were a coterie of bright, talented African-American…

Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith

By Jon Krakauer,

Book cover of Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith

Why this book?

This book blends a contemporary murder mystery in Utah with the history of Joseph Smith and the Mormon church. John Krakauer is an engaging storyteller, and his parallel narrative illustrates the unbreakable bond between past and present. Before I read this book, I knew almost nothing about the unusual origins of the Mormon church, a popular religion founded in the United States. Under the Banner of Heaven is a page-turner that educates as it entertains. 

Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith

By Jon Krakauer,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Under the Banner of Heaven as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

NATIONAL BESTSELLER • From the author of Into the Wild and Into Thin Air, this extraordinary work of investigative journalism takes readers inside America’s isolated Mormon Fundamentalist communities. Now an the acclaimed FX limited series streaming on HULU.

“Fantastic.... Right up there with In Cold Blood and The Executioner’s Song.” —San Francisco Chronicle

Defying both civil authorities and the Mormon establishment in Salt Lake City, the renegade leaders of these Taliban-like theocracies are zealots who answer only to God; some 40,000 people still practice polygamy in these communities. 

At the core of Krakauer’s book are brothers Ron and Dan Lafferty,…

Carol and John Steinbeck: Portrait of a Marriage

By Susan Shillinglaw,

Book cover of Carol and John Steinbeck: Portrait of a Marriage

Why this book?

In Portrait of a Marriage, Steinbeck scholar Susan Shillinglaw beautifully brings John Steinbeck’s first wife Carol into the spotlight. The impeccably researched narrative lays out the path of a ten-year marriage doomed to fail, even as Carol shapes John into one of America’s great writers. I couldn’t put it down. 

Carol and John Steinbeck: Portrait of a Marriage

By Susan Shillinglaw,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Carol and John Steinbeck as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Carol Henning Steinbeck, writer John Steinbeck's first wife, was his creative anchor, the inspiration for his great work of the 1930s, culminating in The Grapes of Wrath. When they met at Lake Tahoe in 1928, their attachment was immediate, their personalities meshing in creative synergy. Carol was unconventional, artistic, and compelling. During the formative years of Steinbeck's career, when they lived in San Francisco, Pacific Grove, and Los Gatos, their modernist circle included Ed Ricketts, Joseph Campbell, and Lincoln Steffens. In many ways Carol's story is all too familiar: a creative and intelligent woman subsumes her own life and work…

On a Farther Shore: The Life and Legacy of Rachel Carson

By William Souder,

Book cover of On a Farther Shore: The Life and Legacy of Rachel Carson

Why this book?

While I knew that Rachel Carson was involved in starting the environmental movement with her revolutionary book Silent Spring, I had no idea that she was also a best-selling popular science author who wrote lyrical books about the ocean. It was fascinating to learn about her life and the challenges that she faced in while standing up to big chemical companies, whose profits were threatened by her writing. 

On a Farther Shore: The Life and Legacy of Rachel Carson

By William Souder,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked On a Farther Shore as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Published on the fiftieth anniversary of her seminal book, Silent Spring, here is an indelible new portrait of Rachel Carson, founder of the environmental movement

She loved the ocean and wrote three books about its mysteries, including the international bestseller The Sea Around Us. But it was with her fourth book, Silent Spring, that this unassuming biologist transformed our relationship with the natural world.

Rachel Carson began work on Silent Spring in the late 1950s, when a dizzying array of synthetic pesticides had come into use. Leading this chemical onslaught was the insecticide DDT, whose inventor had won a Nobel…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in women in mathematics, pesticide, and marriage?

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And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

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