A Book About History: Picks for the TPL Reading Challenge 2020

November 12, 2020 | Christie

Comments (2)

Reading Challenge Banner

I have to be honest, I couldn't wait to get to this category of the TPL Reading Challenge. I love the wide array of subjects, people, and events that make up this extensive genre. Whether you're a non-fiction aficionado, or a historical fiction enthusiast, or just a history buff like me (#ChristieNerdsHistoryEverything), this reading challenge category has something for everyone. 

Shake Hands

Shake Hands with the Devil by Roméo Dallaire

Not for the faint of heart. A first-hand account from Lt Gen. Roméo Dallaire, the commander of the ill-fated United Nations peacekeeping force. The force was organized to put an end to the escalating violence in Rwanda during 1993 and 1994. In just over 100 days, 800,000 Tutsi and moderate Hutus, men, women and children alike, were murdered in the genocide waged by the extremist Hutu and their militias. Dallaire and his troops, already underfunded and under supported, were put under severe restrictions from the UN. They witnessed the brutality of the genocide and were virtually powerless to prevent it. Dallaire himself suffered from severe PTSD in the aftermath. Raw but gripping, this first-hand account is a heartbreaking example of a mass genocide that could have been prevented. 

Boy in the striped pajamas

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne

A gem of a read found on the children's fiction shelves. Bruno, the son of a Nazi officer stationed to take command of "Out-With", becomes fascinated with the people in striped pajamas that he can see from his bedroom window. When his curiosity drives him to the perimeter of the camp, he befriends Shmuel, a boy of the same age as himself, who is sitting just beyond the fence. The two boys meet each day and Bruno begins to realize that there is much more to the people in the "striped pajamas" than what he has been taught. A beautiful story of friendship across barbed wire. Have tissues at the ready. 

– Christie, Branch Head


SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard

A comprehensive, engaging and thought provoking guide through the formation to the fall of Rome. Mary Beard is one of the world’s most respectable historians, and certainly the most entertaining, unmatched in her wit and knowledge. Anyone curious about Roman history need look no further.

Sharpe's Tiger

The Sharpe Series by Bernard Cornwell

A collection of 21 novels of daring adventure and heroism, set during the Napoleonic War. Richard Sharpe is a private in the British Army, who soon finds himself joining a specialized rifle brigade. Penned by Bernard Cornwell, these novels inject a fictional character into real historical events with fantastic results. Start with Sharpe’s Tiger – the novels were written out of chronological order, so trying to find the first one published isn’t the way to go.

– Matthew, Administrative Support Assistant


Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent by Isabel Wilkerson just came in on hold and I'm really looking forward to diving in. Wilkerson's books are so well researched and written. They really bring history alive.

– Jennifer, Librarian


Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

Forgive me, this is a true love it or hate it kind of book. I loved it and hope to convince you why in a few short sentences. The subject matter is fascinating. At its core this book is about President Lincoln, on a single night, grieving the loss of his 11-year-old son, Willie, who died of typhoid fever in February of 1862. The style of writing is unlike anything I have ever read. With over 20 contributing voices, the storytelling is original and surreal, the imagery is bizarre and fascinating, and the characters are hilarious and desperately sad. Lastly, I had a very emotional response to this book ranging from laughing out loud at the dialogue of some characters to actual tears at some of the more heartbreaking moments. History at its most fascinating!

– Reagan, Librarian

Blind contessa

The Blind Contessa's New Machine by Carey Wallace.

Short and magical! This engaging fiction is based on the 19th-century relationship of the Italian inventor Pelligrino Turri and the Contessa Carolina Fantoni da Fivizzano. The Contessa, betrothed to another, is becoming blind. Her intrepid next door neighbour Turri creates a typing machine. Their relationship must be kept a secret. The real life Turri also invented a version of carbon paper. Very dreamy. It has become a favourite. 

– Marie, Librarian


October: The Story of the Russian Revolution by China Miéville. China Miéville is best know as a novelist and he has a great knack for descriptive detail and language. This book is well researched, but also manages to make 1917 and the Russian Revolution really come alive for the reader.

– Myrna, Librarian

A is for arsenic

A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie by Kathryn Harkup

This book talks about Agatha Christie's job as a pharmacist, her extensive knowledge of drugs and poisons, and her use of them in her novels. It includes a great deal of historical information about how some of the poisons were used, including as cosmetics and dyes! And also historical cases where real people were murdered by poison. Great for fans of Agatha Christie, mysteries, people with morbid fascinations with murder (ahem), and, apparently, aspiring doctors!

– Amy, Communications Officer

This Place

This Place: 150 Years Retold

A graphic anthology about Indigenous history by Indigenous creators. It features works by Katherena Vermette, Richard Van Camp, and many more – and you can read it on Hoopla Comics with no waiting list.

– Wendy, Digital Content Lead


The Madman and the Butcher: The Sensational Wars of Sam Hughes and General Arthur Currie by Tim Cook

It's about the decades-long conflict between Canada's Minister of Militia and Defense from 1911 until 1916, Sir Sam Hughes, and Arthur Currie, who would become the General in command of the Canadian Expeditionary Force in the First World War. It's somewhat uncommon for popular history books surrounding WWI and II to focus on the people involved beyond their command of troops, especially when it comes to airing the dirty laundry about revered historical figures, like General Currie. I tend to disagree with some of Cook's arguments about the role of the CEF during the war, but this book is more about the personal clash between two major political figures, and is a good read, even if you're not familiar with the war overall. In it's heart, it's about some messy drama involving embezzlement, political meddling and personal grudges.

– Sheldon, Librarian

Glass palace

The Glass Palace by Amitav Ghosh

This historical epic, set primarily in Burma and India, follows the story of three families from the late 1800s through to the mid 1990s. The author apparently spent five years travelling and researching to write this novel, which I think paid off. It is rich in visuals and complex characters, but I most appreciated how the author expressed the ways in which a colonized people need to figure out their place in the world.

– Nalini, Branch Head

Kindness of enemies

The Kindness of Enemies by Leila Aboulela 

A fantastic fictional retelling of of the real-life 19th-century Muslim warrior, Imam Shamil, who fought against the Russians in the Caucasian War and Natasha Wilson, a Sudanese-Russian professor living in Scotland. The novel links two parallel stories, set hundreds of years apart but connected through the struggles faced by Natasha, and Imam Shamil's son Jamaleldin (who is kidnapped by the Russians as an 8 year old boy and subsequently raised by the Tsar). Both are searching for meaning in their new homes, and developing identities that incorporate their dual cultures and faith. It was really fascinating learning more about the Caucasian war, which up until then, I had no clue about.

– Danya, Public Service Assistant

Hare with Amber Eyes

The Hare With Amber Eyes by Edmund De Waal

This is a story of the rise and fall of a Jewish dynasty during the War, anti-Semitism and their journey/migration from then Odessa (Ukraine) to Paris, London and beyond. It is also about families remaking their lives through love and loss, and the survival of cultural art – Netsuke – which provide that unbreakable link from the past to the present.

– Eunice, Librarian

Uses and abuses

The Uses and Abuses of History by Margaret MacMillan.

An engaging short read. Depending on which side you sympathize with in a particular conflict, you might not agree with her personal assessments of the many examples she cites, but she does shed a bright light on the manipulation of past narratives and records to suit one's ends. This would include myth-making for the purpose of nostalgia-mongering, making dubious land claims, erasing atrocities, etc. And using all of the above as bargaining chips in negotiations. It's true these can be used for cynical ends, but at times MacMillan seems to ride roughshod over any historical grievance you can think of! She seems to stress the importance of true historical scholarship (or decent research) over its poor cousin, Armchair History-research (or, worse still, conspiracy theory!). So in spite of its occasional harshness, it's a message that does warrant our attention.

– Cameron, Digital Design Technician

Italian Wife

The Italian Wife by Kate Furnivall

A great fiction novel of Mussolini's Italy that concentrates on Fascism in Italy from 1922-1945. We have more of a sense of the place of women at the time, the actions of Mussolini and his fascist party, notoriously known as "The Blackshirts". Mussolini was a brutal dictator in his own right, without the endorsement of Hitler, starting his reign in the 1920s. The building of new towns with "The Italian Wife" being one of the architects, and not being taken seriously, because she was a woman.


The Gown

The Gown by Jennifer Robinson 

So interesting to read about the intricacies of the making of Queen Elizabeth's wedding dress. How England was suffering after WWII and this wedding was the highlight of the decade for England, something for them to look forward to and cheer for.

– Despina, Branch Head

Willie's Boys

Willie's Boys: The 1948 Birmingham Black Barons, the Last Negro League World Series and the Making of A Baseball Legend by John Klima

I just finished reading this and it was terrific. Especially in today's racially-charged environment, it is important and impactful to revisit a time more than 70 years ago in the United States. Readers can see what conditions were like for black families and pro baseball players working hard to make it to "white baseball." In this account, we see what progress there has been as well as how much more desperately needs to happen. Sadly, we also see just how much has not changed. Blatant systemic racism, particularly in the deep south of the US, is the backdrop in this compelling story of the end of the Negro League and how the inclusion of black players in MLB contributed to its demise. While today we see the integration of all races, colours and creeds as a benefit to pro sports, and it most definitely is, it's necessary to put it in perspective and witness both the good and bad aspects of that time. What decisions were made, the scandals and outright cheating and backroom deals that churned below the surface while following the progress of Jackie Robinson. And, more importantly, Willie Mays of the Birmingham Black Barons, among others, appreciating that they were representative of a much greater collection of supreme talent that "white ball" never had the opportunity to experience.

– Joe, Clerk-Caretaker


Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald

A mesmerizing novel about the power of history over and in our lives – both public and private history – and how they intersect with identity and memory. Sebald writes in a distinctive, deliberate meditative style that slowly and brilliantly reveals his story. Austerlitz is a kind of modernist tale from Conrad, with the narrator chronicling his intermittent encounters with the title character, who unspools his journey to uncover his past as a young child sent from Nazi Germany to be adopted by a Welsh couple just before the outbreak of war. 

– Joel, Librarian

Sergeant Billy

Sergeant Billy: the true story of the goat who went to war by Mireille Messier

This non-fiction book, done in Picture Book format, tells the story of Billy, a goat who travelled from the Canadian prairies to the frontlines in World War I and became a decorated hero. He was also arrested for treason but you have to read the book to find out more about that part of Billy’s story! It is also an award winner – the Christopher Award in Books for Young People and shortlisted as a Forest of Reading Nominee (French version).

– Katherine, Library Assistant

Bob Marley

Bob Marley in Comics by Gaet's

It's essentially a biography told in small comics and written blurbs. So far its feels like a nice breezy read to learn more about a Jamaican icon.

– Des'Ree, Public Service Assistant


Paper Shadows: A Chinatown Childhood by Wayson Choy

In this memoir, Choy revisited his childhood in Chinatown in Vancouver after receiving an unexpected phone call and learning that he had been adopted in his late 50's. A very beautifully written memoir about learning the real truth about one's past.


March trilogy by the late John Lewis

The trilogy started with Obama's first inauguration and with late John Lewis recounting his life as a Civil Rights leader and a congressman. A very powerful story! I couldn't put it down and tried my best to wait patiently for the subsequent volumes to be released.

The great war

The Great War: July 1, 1916 by Joe Sacco

This is a detailed black-and-white drawing printed on heavyweight accordion-fan paper about the first day of the Battle of Somme. Sacco masterfully depicts the calmness felt behind the frontline to the nervousness spreading at the trenches to the pain and death experienced crossing No Man’s Land. The drawing is accompanied by an essay about that exhausting first day by Adam Hochschild in addition to Sacco’s own annotations.

– Elsa, Senior Services Specialist


The Complete Maus by Art Spiegelman

A Holocaust Survivor's memoir told in a graphic novel, representing Jews as mice, Germans as cats, and Poles as pigs. With the characters depicted as animals, you, as the reader, are able to emotionally detach from the story at first but as you continue to live through and learn from Vladek's experiences during WWII, you become immersed in history. The author does a good job of capturing the reality and the pain of exploring his father's memories and also how this has affected him as the child of a Holocaust Survivor.

– MAT, Branch Head


Incognegro by Mat Johnson.

Gripping story of a light-skinned Black journalist based in New York City who, passing as a white man, journeys to the racially segregated South to expose the atrocity of lynchings. Mystery, danger, social justice... Incredible. Read as a precursor to, or alongside, March.

– Kimberly, Librarian

Wolf hall

Wolf Hall trilogy by Hilary Mantel

The Henry the Eigth series Wolf Hall, Bring Up the Bodies and The Mirror and the Light is well researched by Mantel. Delving into Medieval British History and then synthesizing it into well-written and engaging character driven fiction. Wolf Hall and Bringing Up the Bodies both won the Man Book Prize.

– Linda, Librarian

Say nothing

Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland by Patrick Radden Keefe

This is a tragic story. This book basically details a murder ordered by the IRA in 1972. The victim is a mother whom the IRA suspected of being an informant, although there is no evidence supporting this. Ten young children are orphaned by the hit. The brutality of people on many sides of the IRA issue is incredible. A lot of suffering is inflicted on children, innocent victims and more by people on both sides and also by the church through abuse in Irish orphanages and so on. Not to mention that, this is of course, the time when hunger strikes were used to try to force political change. Two young sisters who are in the IRA go on a hunger strike while in prison. Also Bobby Sands and several others go on hunger strikes to the death as well. Her body was not found until 2003, five years after a peace accord put somewhat of an end to the Troubles.


They Burn Thistles by Yasar Kemal

This book is amazing in its description of the Turkish landscapes and villages. Definitely one theme of the book is that killing only leads to revenge, leads to more killing, leads to more revenge and so on indefinitely if that is the mindset you are living your life by. The main character tries to be a Robin Hood. but while he tries to punish the rich, the rich know who he is, his actions end up raining down suffering and destruction on his community, which he then tries to take revenge for and so on. Robin Hood was more successful due to his anonymity. But this book is really a great portrait of Kurdish village life in Turkey and the Turkish atmosphere in general. Note: it is the middle book of a trilogy but it does stand alone as well.

Building of England

The Building of England: How the History of England has Shaped Our Buildings by Simon Thurley

This book is about how culture, society, technology and economy, as well as a building's purpose affect architecture and then in turn how architecture affects society. It discusses the years 410 to 1939.

– Suzanne, Librarian

Book of negroes

The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill

A book I could not put down when I read it! It’s an incredible work of historical fiction. The meticulous research and detailed account of one woman’s life and journey through the trans-Atlantic slave trade (and beyond) was so captivating for me when I read it. The story truly transports you, and more than a decade after reading it, the character of Aminata is still etched in my mind. It’s a classic in my books.

– Suzanne, Services Specialist

Hearing happiness 2

Hearing Happiness: Deafness Cures in History by Jaipreet Virdi

When she was 4 years old, Jaipreet Virdi had a severe case of meningitis and lost most of her hearing. For years she endured different remedies that did not work and tried to "pass" as hearing. Now she is a historian and in this book she connects her personal experience of deafness to a sweeping overview of its cultural history and society's obsession with finding a cure – from ear trumpets, electrotherapy, and bloodletting, to more modern technologies like custom-fit hearing aids and cochlear implants. If you use social media, find her on Twitter @jaivirdi and check out her #DeafHistorySeries (each word capitalized, # Deaf History Series) which spotlights histories of deaf and hard-of-hearing people, technologies and events.

– Winona, Senior Services Specialist


Recommendations from the Facebook Group

These are just some of the recommendations from our Facebook TPL Reading Challenge 2020 discussion group.



We'll be having our final virtual Reading Challenge discussion for 2020 on Wednesday, December 4 at 4 pm. We'll be talking about the best books of the year. Everyone is welcome!

And if you've already completed the TPL Reading Challenge and Advanced Challenge 2020, please fill out our feedback survey. You can also enter our draw by submitting the titles you've read for a chance to win a prize!

What did you read for "a book about history"? Do you have other recommendations? Share in the comments below!