History is arguably one of the most rigid and unforgiving elements composing our world, setting the past in stone and paving the way for tomorrow. No matter how hard we might try, history is one of those things which can never be changed… and yet we’re drawn to the idea like moths to a flame.
The power to rewrite history, and consequently, to control reality and make it bend to one’s will, is probably one of the most coveted fantasy powers among human beings for centuries (if not longer), and while we don’t have access to time travel magic, we do have the ability to write.
Historical fiction is a genre with an untold amount of potential, daring authors to anchor themselves in a real point and letting their imagination soar from there on out. From using historical settings for fantastical stories to rewriting our known timeline of events, there are few limits, if any, for what imaginative authors can achieve.
In this category we’re going to look at historical fiction books across the whole spectrum, whether old or recent, fantastical or realistic. Here are the works which, I believe, make the most out of the potential this genre has to offer.
“The Drifters” by James A. Michener – Lost in a Haze
James A. Michener has shown himself capable of penning profound novels over the course of his career, the kind to explore the human condition at depths few are capable of reaching. The Drifters is one of his best-known novels, telling the story of a young group of people in the 1960s who, by pure chance, all meet at a bar in Spain, and decide to travel the world on hedonistic and philosophical pursuits.
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“The Marriage Portrait” by Maggie O’Farrell – Duty of the Duchess
Maggie O’Farrell is the kind of author who enjoys taking a deeper dive into history than most of her literary peers, a quality which shines through in her latest novel, The Marriage Portrait. It follows Lucrezia de’ Medici as she is thrust into a marriage with Alfonso II d’Este, barely out of girlhood. Largely alone and unprepared, she must learn to navigate the ruthless world of the Italian court with her very future hanging in the balance, depending on whether or not she can produce a heir for the duke.
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“Three Comrades” by Erich Maria Remarque – The Enduring Spirit of Friendship
Estimated reading time: 7 minutes Short Summary Erich Maria Remarque captured like none other the chaos of an uncertain daily life in Germany between the two World Wars, and Three Comrades is one of his more iconic works on the subject. The story follows three friends earning a meagre living through a garage they own, searching desperately for a meaning to their wasting lives amidst the upheavals which shook Germany in 1928… a meaning they might just find when a new comrade enters the fold. Read more …
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“The Girl in the Painting” by Tea Cooper – A Past Hidden in Brushstrokes
Tea Cooper has been perfecting her craft as an author of historical fiction novels for over ten years now, and with The Girl in the Painting we see it all come together in brilliant fashion. The story follows a woman, Elizabeth Quinn, and her adopted daughter, Jane Piper, as they embark on a quest to discover long-hidden truths after the former of the two experiences a traumatic episode at a local exhibition.
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“The Lincoln Highway” by Amor Towles – No Plans for the Future
Amor Towles has shown unequivocal talent for delivering sophisticated stories examining the human condition under unusual circumstances, and in his third novel, The Lincoln Highway, he places an eighteen-year-old boy under his microscope. Transporting us to 1954, the story follows ten days in the life of Emmett Watson, recently released from a juvenile work farm for involuntary manslaughter, now standing on the threshold of drastic personal changes.
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“The Mystery of Mrs. Christie” by Marie Benedict – A Vanished Star
Marie Benedict has no shortage of experience introducing the twist of fiction into the realm of factual history, and in The Mystery of Mrs. Christie she puts it to good use in an attempt to shed some light on one of the most famous cases of unexplained disappearance. In December of 1926, the timeless author of mystery novels Agatha Christie disappeared for a period of eleven days, claiming total amnesia upon her return. The author attempts to reconstruct the events of those missing days with the help of both a fictional narrative and factual research.
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“The Prague Cemetery” by Umberto Eco – No Rest for the Jews
Umberto Eco is an author who has earned the right to write just about anything he wishes, and one of his more recent novels, The Prague Cemetery, he has taken it upon himself to write about a complex subject, hardly explicable in a sentence. In short, it follows a man responsible for creating conspiracies and spinning webs of prejudice as he tries to recollect his past and the event which led him to lose his memory.
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“The Black Obelisk” by Erich Maria Remarque – Economics Dictate Values
Erich Maria Remarque has managed to capture like few others the atmosphere of his era, and in The Black Obelisk he takes us to the heart of Germany after the First World War. It introduces us to Ludwig, a young veteran from the war, now working for a monument company, mostly selling stone markers to the loved ones of the recently-departed. With the historical inflation in his country only worsening by the hour, Ludwig tries to find a meaning for his life amidst a turbulent and collapsing society.
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“The Young Lions” by Irwin Shaw – Different Perspectives on Atrocity
Irwin Shaw is one of the writers whose works have a defined place in history, chronicling a reality we can never afford to forget. The Young Lions is perhaps his best-known work, depicting the Second World War and its immense complexity through three different perspectives: an observant young Nazi, a weary American film producer, and a shy Jewish boy who just got married.
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“A Thousand Ships” by Natalie Haynes – The Lost Perspective
Natalie Haynes has been exploring many venues of literature through the novels and books she has written, with her latest one, A Thousand Ships, taking us back to antiquity once again. Following the fall of Troy at the hands of the immortalized ruse by the Greeks, the book follows the stories of many women all affected in one way or another by the war and its resolution.
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“A Brightness Long Ago” by Guy Gavriel Kay – The Meeting Between Free Will and Fate
Guy Gavriel Kay is without question one of the more prominent and outstanding speculative fiction authors writing today, and I think we can add A Brightness Long Ago to his list of successes. The story follows an old and powerful man, part of the ruling council in a fantasy version of Venice, as he remembers his rather turbulent youth, how he came to be where he is, as well as all the different men and women who shaped his fate.
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“Greenwood” by Michael Christie – Tracing the Tangled Roots of a Family
Michael Christie began his career as an author in promising fashion, being nominated for awards left and right. In his second published novel, Greenwood, he attempts to make full use of his talents to tell the complicated story of a family across multiple generations. Taking us on a trip through time from 1908 to 2038, we meet the four pivotal members who through their actions, both purposeful and unwitting, dictated their family’s history.
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“The Book of Longings” by Sue Monk Kidd – The Rebellious Thorn
Sue Monk Kidd has never run short on imagination in her books, and her latest work, The Book of Longings, yet again bears testament to this. Set in the first century during the Roman occupation of Israel, the novel borrows some elements from history to tell the story of Ana, who is determined to give a voice to the other silenced women of her times while trying to carve a most difficult path for her own fulfillment.
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“The King at the Edge of the World” by Arthur Phillips – What Does a Monarch Believe?
Arthur Phillips has really been exploring his abilities as an author by diving into different genres since his first novel, and in The King at the Edge of the World he transports us into the realm of historical fiction. Taking place in 1601, we follow a web of courtly intrigues anchored around the impending death of Queen Elizabeth I, the leading candidate to her succession King James VI, and Mahmoud Ezzedine, a Muslim physician who stayed behind from the Ottoman Empire’s last diplomatic visit.
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“The Source” by James A. Michener – The Holy Land Madhouse
James A. Michener had a rather peculiar specialty as an author, focusing on rather lengthy historical novels profoundly focusing on a specific geographical location. The Source, originally published back in 1965, takes us on a journey thousands of years long through the Holy Land, recounting the origins of Judaism, the rise of the early Hebrews, and all which happened since then until the modern conflict with Palestine.
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“Deacon King Kong” by James McBride – The Consequence to Violence
James McBride has always had a remarkable ability to examine and understand the human mind, and in Deacon King Kong he puts his talents on display once again. Taking us to a housing project in Brooklyn, we witness the shooting of a drug dealer by an old church deacon and its far-reaching effects on those who witnessed it, as well as those who didn’t.
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“The Huntress” by Kate Quinn – The Long Hunt After the War
Kate Quinn has firmly cemented her place among the best historical fiction writers of today a few novels, and she continues her good literary streak with The Huntress. The story is composed of three narratives, each one following in some way the titular Huntress, a Nazi war criminal of legendary proportions.
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“Toward the Midnight Sun” by Eoin Dempsey – The Guiding Promise
Eoin Dempsey isn’t one to skimp on complexity and emotional depth in his novels, often trying to get to the very core of what his characters are experiencing. In his most recent novel, titled Toward the Midnight Sun, we undertake an epic adventure with Anna Denton, a prospector during the Klondike gold rush with a different goal than most: to reach Henry Bradwell, the King of the Klondike, and the man she is meant to marry.
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“The Philosopher’s War” by Tom Miller – The Outlawed End of Struggle
Tom Miller has truly created a unique and incomparable world of magical realism with The Philosophers Series, and the second book, titled The Philosopher’s War, continues the grandiose adventures of Robert Canderelli Weekes. After his exploits as a pilot, he is allowed to be the first male to join the US Sigilry Corps Rescue and Evacuation Service.
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“The Alice Network” by Kate Quinn – The Search for Meaning in War
Kate Quinn has a penchant for writing historical novels of a generally more complex nature, and she further reinforced this notion when she published The Alice Network. Taking us through two stories happening in 1915 and 1947 respectively, we witness both a British intelligence network operating in Germany-occupied Northwestern France, as well as a young American girl’s search for her roots in the battered country.
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“Where the Light Enters” by Sara Donati – The Shield of the Doctors Savard
Sara Donati may have truly started something remarkable with her Gilded Hour Series, presenting a portrayal of late 19th-century Manhattan from some unique perspectives. In the second novel in the series, titled Where the Light Enters, Donati pursues the story of Sophie and Anna Savard, two cousins who are also doctors. This time around, as they are still trying to find a place for themselves in this world, they are also called upon by the police as consultants for a couple of curious cases which suggest a killer might be on the prowl.
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“The Gilded Hour” by Sara Donati – Defiance in a Changing World
Sara Donati, the pen name used by Rosina Lippi, has authored quite a few remarkable historical novels, and out of them all none attracted the same kind of attention as The Gilded Hour, the first book in the series bearing the same name. We begin our journey through 1883 New York as we follow the lives of two female doctors, both struggling in their own ways with the realities of the times, doing their best to bring whatever goodness they can to a suffering world.
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“The Tenth Muse” by Catherine Chung – The Battle for Personal Validation
Catherine Chung has surprised many people with the publication of her popular first novel, Forgotten Country, and with her second novel, The Tenth Muse, she returns with another rather unique premise. The novel follows a woman by the name of Katherine, who attempts to carve a space for herself in the man-dominated academic world of mathematics, while also searching for her real parents, and ultimately, what secrets her family might hold from her.
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“The Parisians” by Marius Gabriel – Neighbours and Enemies
Marius Gabriel has the undeniable knack of being able to profoundly penetrate into the soul of his characters while bringing history to life around them. In The Parisians he takes us on another such excursion, presenting us with three women living in occupied Paris: the American Olivia Olsen, the designer Coco Chanel, and the French actress Arletty. In their own ways, they all find themselves getting closer and closer to the enemy, a path which has its own price when the war finally comes to an end.
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“Circe” by Madeline Miller – The Bridge Between Gods and Mortals
Madeline Miller has certainly made the best literary use of her time researching Greece and its mythology, recently penning her second novel titled Circe, told from the perspective of the titular character from the Odyssey. In her own tale, Zeus exiles her to a deserted island after feeling threatened by her power, a place where Circe meets many famous mythological figures and begins her journey onwards to not only defy the Olympians, but also to choose which side she belongs to: gods or mortals.
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“The Throne of Caesar” by Steven Saylor – Conspiring Against the Greatest Dictator
Steven Saylor certainly never lacked any imagination when it came to warping the threads of history for the purpose of our entertainment, and his recent novel titled The Throne of Caesar follows in the same vein. The story follows Gordanius the Finder, an Ancient Roman investigator who is given a very special task by Julius Caesar himself: to keep an ear on the ground and find out if there are any conspiracies against the dictator.
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“The Philosopher’s Flight” by Tom Miller – Outsider of the Arcane Science
Tom Miller has certainly made a good decision in giving authorship a chance after working as an emergency room doctor for many years, gifting us with the very special novel The Philosopher’s Flight. In it, we follow Robert Weekes, a young practitioner of empirical philosophy, an arcane branch of science used to accomplish the unfathomable. After winning a scholarship to study in a famous all-women’s school, he begins struggling to find his place in the world and is soon faced with some real dangers stemming from a group of anti-philosophical radicals.
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“The Girl from Berlin” by Ronald H. Balson – Two Deeds; One Villa
Ronald H. Balson has started one of the more peculiar and interesting literary series with his Liam Taggart and Catherine Lockhart books, and in the fifth one titled The Girl from Berlin we once again follow our two heroes as they come to the aid of an old friend to settle a land dispute in Tuscany. Little did they expect, the battle between old woman and corporation for the rights to a villa sends them down the former’s memory lane all the way back to Berlin 1918.
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“The Tattooist of Auschwitz” by Heather Morris – The Survivor’s Tragedy
Heather Morris is one of the many authors doing their part to ensure the Holocaust remains unforgotten for evermore. She had the great fortune of befriending Lale Sokolov, a Slovakian Jew who witnessed first-hand the horrors committed at Auschwitz. After many years of friendship, she came to know the man rather intimately, and decided to immortalize his tremendous life story in her book titled The Tattooist of Auschwitz.
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“Jane Seymour, The Haunted Queen” by Alison Weir – Mother of the Heir
Alison Weir has certainly done her part in bringing light to the Tudor dynasty in her Six Tudor Queens series, examining in detail the many women who came and went during this period of great turbulence in British history. In Jane Seymour, The Haunted Queen, Weir recounts the life of the titular woman, often overlooked in favour of the more tragic stories revolving around the wives of King Henry VIII.
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“Anne Boleyn, A King’s Obsession” by Alison Weir – The Infamous Queen
Alison Weir has educated us quite a bit on King Henry VIII’s first wife, Katherine of Aragon, and pursues her ambition in Anne Boleyn, A King’s Obsession, telling us the story of the king’s second and arguably most infamous wife. While her beheading has made the pages of countless history books for its ultimate political significance, few have sought to explore the unusually eventful life which led up to that point.
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“Katherine of Aragon, The True Queen” by Alison Weir – The First Wife
One would be hard-pressed to find a person more qualified than Alison Weir when it comes to tackling the history of British Royalty. Author of countless history books, she also likes to teach history in an alternative, fictionalized way, most notably through her Six Tudor Queens Series, each part dealing with one wife of the infamous King Henry VIII. In Katherine of Aragon, Alison Weir takes us into the life of the king’s first and truly devoted wife as she rises from young Spanish princess to Queen of England and is forced to fight for what is hers in rather unexpected ways.
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“Mary – Tudor Princess” by Tony Riches – The Feminine Gambit
Tony Riches has evidently taken it upon himself to not only chronicle the many fates which befell the members of the Tudor dynasty, but to relate their lives through detailed and fact-based narratives, shedding light on some of the lesser-known actors on that stage. In Mary – Tudor Princess he presents us with the titular Mary Tudor, daughter to King Henry VII and sister to King Henry VIII. While her brother plans to use his sister as a gateway towards building a powerful alliance based on marriage, Mary herself has some other plans: a marriage of love rather than interests.
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“White Rose, Black Forest” by Eoin Dempsey – The Lone Flower in the Muck
Eoin Dempsey has given his blood and soul to researching White Rose, Black Forest, going as far as travelling to Germany to gather as much information as he could. This novel of historical fiction takes us to December 1943 and introduces us to Franka Gerber, a German woman who hates the Nazi regime, largely in part due to it claiming the lives of her father and brother. One day, she finds a new reason to live as she comes across an injured airman from the Luftwaffe and takes him in to her family cottage. As she cares for him they begin to develop a strong bond, and it becomes apparent there is much more to this man’s identity than meets the eye.
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“The Circumstantial Enemy” by John Bell – No Winning Sides in Croatia
Though its broad strokes may seem simple from up above, war always entails a tremendous amount of complexity for those caught in its throes. No decisions are inconsequential, and no dreams have any sort of guarantee. In his novel The Circumstantial Enemy, John Bell tells a complicated story based on the life of his father-in-law about a young Croat pilot who finds himself forcibly aligned with the Luftwaffe. Unbeknownst to him though, his best friend as well as his sweetheart stand on the opposite side of the fence, aligned with the communist partisans.
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“A Piece of the World” by Christina Baker Kline – The Muse Behind the Painting
Christina Baker Kline likes to remind us that paintings aren’t merely drawings hanging up in museums, but actual cultural artifacts that have shaped the world in their own ways, often small, but at other times quite significant. Christina’s World is an iconic painting at the turn of the century, and in her historical fiction novel titled A Piece of the World, Baker Kline tells the story behind the muse which inspired the masterpiece, a simple farm girl named Christina Olson, destined to far greater fame than she could have ever anticipated.
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“Henry” by Tony Riches – The Disaster of Being King
Tony Riches has enlightened many to the tumultuous saga of the Tudors, the countless times they’ve had to battle the odds to ensure a smidgeon of a chance for their own survival. He has already examined the lives of Owen and his son Jasper, and in third and final book of the trilogy, Henry , we are treated one of the more overlooked names of the dynasty, you guessed it, King Henry VII. After finally having seized the throne, he finds himself in perhaps a more precarious position than before as no one around him has abandoned the idea of seizing the title of king for themselves.
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“Jasper” by Tony Riches – The Unsinkable Dynasty Carrier
The Tudor saga was a long and tumultuous affair that led to innumerable lives being lost and far too much blood being spilled. Nevertheless, where there is death there will always be intrigue, and Tony Riches decided to chronicle this whole affair in his Tudor Trilogy. The second book in the series, titled Jasper, follows the titular Jasper Tudor, son of Owen, as he flees one massacre after the next and tries to carve a path to the throne for his young nephew Henry after King Edward of York seizes the country by brute force.
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“Owen” by Tony Riches – Forging an Unlikely Star
Greatness can be born in the least expected ways, something Tony Riches aims to teach everyone in Owen, the first book of the Tudor Trilogy. The name may be famous today, but there was a time when it hung by no more than a thread and its survival hinged on the unquestionable bravery of a few souls.
This first book takes us to 1422 England, when a Welsh servant by the name of Owen Tudor makes the fateful acquaintance of the beautiful Queen Catherine of Valois, now widow of the late king Henry V.
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“Daughters of the Night Sky” by Aimie K. Runyan – Shooting for the Stars
Amongst many things the Second World War played a tremendous role in the development of women’s rights, helping people shed the belief that all they could do was stay at home and take care of the family. One of these women was Katya Ivanova, and in her historical fiction novel Daughters of the Night Sky, Aimie K. Runyan looks into her difficult and memorable life, how one girl with a dream found the courage to pursue it while fighting enemies from abroad and from within. This is the story of one woman’s sacrifices not only in the name of her country, but in the name of women everywhere around the world.
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“Yeshua” by Stan I.S. Law – Hunting for a Lost History
Accounts from life of Jesus Christ are undoubtedly numerous, to the point where many of them even seem to contradict each other. If, however, we stick to the purely historical and factual perspective, it becomes painfully obvious that his life from the age of 12 to 30 is shrouded in mystery, with there only being little bits and pieces to hint at what may have transpired. In his book Yeshua, Stan I.S. Law takes it upon himself to fill in this tremendous void, weaving a narrative of these missing years based on what little has been uncovered, tracing his crucial journey towards personal enlightenment.
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“Manhattan Beach” by Jennifer Egan – American Glory on the Docks of Brooklyn
Jennifer Egan certainly did her research when she decided to take us into a very specific time and place in her novel Manhattan Beach: the Brooklyn docks during the Second World War. It serves as the setting for a far-reaching story as the first female diver on the squad finds herself linked to an intricate mystery brewing for years between her now-vanished father and his friend, Dexter Styles. In a world of mobsters and weathered sailors, the three undertake their personal yet undeniably-connected odysseys that will push them together towards lessons they wouldn’t have ever dreamt of.
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“The Designer” by Marius Gabriel – Healing from the Treads of Chaos
Marius Gabriel takes us on a brilliant journey through a newly-liberated Paris in 1944 as we follow the story of Copper Reilly, a woman who is alone in the city after having recently separated from her husband. In an old, nearly-abandoned and decaying fashion house she finds a very unlikely missing piece to the puzzle that is her life: an unexpected friendship with a timid fashion designer by the name of Christian Dior. Inspired by his genius, Copper takes up the camera and typewriter, entering the infinitely vivid and surprising world of fashion journalism. As the city slowly recovers from the atrocities of the war and returns to its former glory, perhaps Copper can find a way to do the same.
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“Beneath a Scarlet Sky” by Mark Sullivan – Standing Tall through the Perils of War
For many years to come new stories will keep on surfacing from the times of the Second World War; the pivotal deeds of countless people have gone unnoticed, and slowly but surely they find their way into the light. Mark Sullivan dug up this kind of story in his time spent researching Pino Lella, an Italian man who, as a boy, spied on, fought against and resisted the Nazi occupation in a large number of commendable ways. In Beneath a Scarlet Sky, he recounts the extraordinary life of a teenager whose courage went beyond human boundaries.
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“A Gentleman in Moscow” by Amor Towles – The Gift of Isolation
Amor Towles seems to have a unique talent for depicting the first half of the twentieth century and taking us into the minds of special individuals who find themselves on the most unexpected roads towards self-discovery and personal enlightenment. In his latest and highly-acclaimed work, A Gentleman in Moscow, Towles presents us with a time period often overlooked and merely glanced over at best in Western education: turbulent Russia during the 1920s. More specifically, we make the acquaintance of Count Alexander Rostov, an aristocrat who never worked a day in his life, now finding himself under house arrest in the attic of a grand hotel. As the years of revolution and conflict quickly shape the country, the Count finds, in his isolation, a rather unexpected path to spiritual growth.
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“Bittersweet” by p.d.r. Lindsay – A Savage in Gentleman’s Clothing
p.d.r. Lindsay has taken the habit of trying to shine the light on and turn our attention to the unseen and forgotten elements of society, and while her novel Bittersweet may take place over a hundred and fifty years ago, its messages about rape, violence, power and ignorance remain as current as they ever were. Embark with Bryce Ackerman on his tenuous and harrowing journey through the British Raj as he seeks justice and retribution for his fiancee as well as other women who fell victim to noble English soldiers who turned out to be nothing but predators.
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“The Spy” by Paulo Coelho – The Original Femme Fatale
Paulo Coelho takes his crack at unveiling the secretive and mysterious life of Mata Hari, a Dutch courtesan and exotic dancer who was accused of spying for Germany during the First World War. Out of the few facts and many speculations that have originated around the exceptional and empowered woman Coelho weaves a narrative where he tries to demonstrate her strength of will, the power of her conviction, and the price she paid for leading a daring life.
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“Foucault’s Pendulum” by Umberto Eco – The Plan that Never Was
Umberto Eco has demonstrated many times over the course of his illustrious career the ability to concoct complex and engaging stories centred on unique and imaginative topics. In Fouctault’s Pendulum, Umberto Eco introduces us to a trio of Milanese book editors working for a small publishing firm, who concoct a vast conspiracy stretching from ancient times to the modern era out of sheer boredom, only to realize there might be more truth to it than anticipated.
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