I love coming across books that dive into a subject I know hardly anything about. This includes everything from historical events and cultural differences, to hedgehogs, violins, and bees (this list really has a bit of everything). I didn’t even know my knowledge lacked until I read the books that proved I knew way less than I thought.
To add some diversity to my list, I’ve reached out to some other lovely Bookstagrammers who are contributing to this post. They’re covering historical and lifestyle insights with topics that include the Doughnut Dollies, America’s largest home in Asheville, Finnish culture, and bridge construction. Be sure to support my contributors and check out their social feeds – they’re all great Bookstagrammers who have shaped my reading habits and become genuine friends.
Skip to a book:
Needlemouse by Jane O’ Connor
The Last Castle by Denise Kiernan
The Truths and Triumphs of Grace Atherton by Anstey Harris
The Finnish Way by Katja Pantzar
Circe by Madeline Miller
The Beantown Girls by Jane Healey
The Face of Battle by John Keegan
War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
Dear Stranger, I Know How You Feel by Ashish Bagrecha
The Beekeeper of Aleppo by Christy Lefteri
The Engineer’s Wife by Tracey Enerson Wood
1. Needlemouse by Jane O’Connor
You guessed it, here’s my hedgehog rec. If you’re wondering how it got its title, the Japanese word for hedgehog literally translates to ‘needlemouse’ which has to be the most endearing thing ever, right?
A quirky, witty, and charming debut, the story centres around 52-year-old Sylvia, an irritable grump who has an obsessive crush on her boss, Prof. When a student starts getting closer to her love, Sylvia oversteps the boundaries which leads to disastrous consequences.
Sylvia spends many of her lonely days tending to hedgehogs in a local sanctuary. ‘The Hedgehog Year’ is a book within the book, written by sanctuary owner, Jonas. It’s filled with facts about these cute little mammals, including:
- They can travel up to two miles every night foraging for food
- A group of hedgehogs is called a ‘prickle’ (adorable)
- In the 16th Century, many hedgehogs were killed as they were believed to be witches in disguise (disturbing)
The hedgehog theme mirrored Sylvia’s prickly personality brilliantly. It was also a great way to raise awareness, as hedgehogs are becoming endangered in the UK because of intensive farming, predators, pesticides, etc. We can help by leaving wet dog/cat food out in our garden and making holes in our fences to help them move between gardens when looking for food. Let’s all do our bit to help these innocent little creatures survive.
2. The Last Castle by Denise Kiernan
Submitted by Christine of The Uncorked Librarian
Did you ever think that the Vanderbilt family was just the epitome of wealth and extravagance? Full disclosure, I did. That was until I read Denise Kiernan’s The Last Castle, a historical nonfiction account about the creation of Biltmore in Asheville, North Carolina.
In an intriguing story of love, family, and hardship, Kiernan sheds a new light on the Vanderbilts; they are not just dollar bills.
The Biltmore Vanderbilts created a major forestry program in North Carolina, Edith took part in politics—which is mind-blowing during that epoch—and unbeknownst to many, the family struggled through financial hardships.
Their household staff stayed with them for life since the Vanderbilts treated them as family, and during the great flood, they sheltered community members in need. The Vanderbilts helped put Asheville on the map.
Through The Last Castle, readers gain a better appreciation and understanding for Biltmore and a giving and kind family far ahead of their time. You cannot help see Biltmore in a glowing light. After reading Kiernan, I’ll be sure to read more historical fiction and nonfiction accounts before visiting a location.
3. The Truths and Triumphs of Grace Atherton by Anstey Harris
A book about difficult endings, new beginnings, and unlikely friendships.
Grace’s dreams of becoming an esteemed musician were torn apart at a young age. Instead, she owns a small shop where she repairs instruments and dreams of her future with David, her partner of eight years who is waiting for the right time to end his broken marriage. As Grace prepares her entry for a prestigious violin-making competition, her world comes crashing down and she has to re-evaluate everything she thought she was living for.
This book used stringed instruments (particularly ‘cellos) as the main centrepiece that linked everything else together. I love instruments (I studied music and played the cornet throughout school) but have very little knowledge of strings. It was so interesting to read about what goes into creating these instruments from scratch, how they work, and how they respond to the player. I love how they were always referred to as ‘cellos as they are technically an abbreviation of violoncello (appealing to grammar nerds like me).
The strings added an extra layer to the story and somehow made it more relatable. I was totally invested in the characters and events and would love to read something similar in the future.
4. The Finnish Way: Finding Courage, Wellness, and Happiness through the Power of Sisu by Katja Pantzar
Submitted by Jade of @wordofjade
An engaging read about the Finnish way of life and the concept of sisu (everyday courage). It talks about achieving mental toughness and physical wellness by spending time in the great outdoors, no matter the weather.
My quest to lead a more active lifestyle led me to The Finnish Way. One of the many things I learned from this delightful read is the concept of ‘movement as medicine’. How walking, biking, swimming, and other physical activities contribute to our mental wellbeing. I also learned that ice swimming is a national pastime in Finland. It is also one of the reasons why Finland is ranked as the happiest country in the world (as of 2019).
I also learned that saunas are an integral part of Finnish culture. The author talks about saunas being great equalizers: “If you grow up seeing people naked, nudity is not such a big deal. You also grow up with the knowledge that bodies come in all sizes and shapes. That’s normal, not the stylized images of “perfect” bodies as seen on social media or in glossy magazines.”
Katja’s writing transported me to Finland. It felt like I was living vicariously through her many exploits. This book succeeded in making me more active (no matter the weather!) and spending more time outdoors. It was a delightful read, ideal for anyone looking to find everyday courage and being more active. Thanks to The Finnish Way, my TBR pile features a multitude of books that encourage an active lifestyle.
5. Circe by Madeline Miller
Circe is one of those fantasy/retelling books that can be intriguing yet intimidating to someone with no knowledge in Greek mythology (me).
After discovering Circe’s skills of witchcraft, Zeus banishes her to a remote island, threatened by her abilities. She creates a life for herself using her powers but is far from free. Battling danger and deception from men and gods, Circe faces a difficult decision to determine where she really belongs.
I honestly thought I knew nothing about Greek mythology. But this book was littered with characters that I realised I had heard of (the Minotaur, Icarus, and Odysseus) so it was really interesting to learn about them in more depth and hear the ‘full’ story. Many were new to me and intermingled among the other mythological figures which made it enjoyable rather than confusing.
Miller writes a simple and easy-to-follow narrative for those that are new to mythology (again, very much me). It has definitely made me want to explore this genre more. It’s fascinating, especially when the author has a bit of creative freedom to really bring the characters to life. I’ve heard even better things about Song of Achilles so that one’s next on my list.
6. The Beantown Girls by Jane Healey
Submitted by Lu of @my_readinghabit
A lovely book about three best friends and their journey joining the Red Cross Clubmobile Girls during WWII.
First of all, let me start by saying I didn’t even know Clubmobile Girls were a thing! After reading a few chapters, I did some research and ended up watching some videos on them, which was completely fascinating.
For those of you that don’t know either, The American Red Cross Clubmobile was created during WWII by Harvey Gibson to provide servicemen with some entertainment, coffee, and doughnuts as a way to feel ‘at home’. Women who volunteered were known as ‘The Doughnut Dollies’ and needed to meet some requirements such as age, education, sociability, and attractiveness.
This book tells the story of three Boston friends who decide to join the Red Cross Clubmobile after feeling they want to be more useful and contribute to all the men in their lives who had joined the war. Along the way, Viv, Dottie, and Fiona meet amazing people who they create strong friendships with. Not all is a happy tale though; after all, it is a WWII book so there’s also heartbreak.
I appreciated the historical reference to real-life events during that difficult time in human history. The author’s writing style is so captivating, I really felt like I was transported in time.
If you enjoy historical fiction, this book is for you!
Follow Lu on Instagram to see her awesome props, rooftop shots, and travel snaps: @My_ReadingHabit
7. The Face of Battle: A Study of Agincourt, Waterloo, and the Somme by John Keegan
Submitted by Jen of @Gingercatter
Ground-breaking when it was first published in 1976, this book focuses on the individual experience of the soldier rather than the overall events of the battle. Through his use of chronicles and letters, Keegan is able to offer a more personal narrative. Military history is not a genre I am very familiar with, and although the writing is technical, the fascinating and moving accounts held my interest. For example, the majority of the British officers who died at Waterloo were eventually robbed not by the French, but by other British soldiers. Facts such as these ultimately provided a fresh outlook and challenged what I thought I knew. More surprisingly, however, was how this book influenced my reading habits.
In classic literature, the reader is often given an abstract perspective on historical events. This is especially clear in William Makepeace Thackeray’s novel Vanity Fair. While the height of the drama unfolds during the Battle of Waterloo, we are never actually given access to the battle itself. On this choice of perspective, Thackeray writes: “We do not claim to rank among the military novelists. Our place is with the non-combatants.” While Thackeray’s choice reflects his own area of expertise, combining his with Keegan’s allowed me to understand the conditions each character faced at this pivotal moment.
Familiarizing oneself with the history surrounding a novel brings the reader closer to the characters and the time period, furthering an understanding of their individual circumstances and motives. Using a historical reference to complement my reading has helped me to appreciate this connection between literature and the past.
Check out Jennifer’s Instagram for historical fiction recs, gorgeous editions of classics, and some amazing New England scenery: @GingerCatter
8. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
Submitted by Doris of @avictoriansoul
War and Peace is a book about history, about war and power, about humanity, about our flawed human nature, about faith, about nations, about redemption, about life and death, about values, about love, and about forgiveness. It follows the journey of five aristocratic families during the Napoleonic wars.
Being inspired by real-life events and Tolstoy’s own personal experiences, I learned a lot about Russia as a country, its people, and its history. We are given an insight into the strategies of war led by Napoleon and Prince Mikhail Kutuzov. Moreover, I found the descriptions of the soldier’s lives and a glimpse into their way of coping with war fascinating.
Tolstoy is one of my favourite authors and this book only made me appreciate him more. I’m forever indebted to him for answering in this book, over several chapters, many philosophical questions that I’ve had since time immemorial, one of them being: Why was there/is there still war in the world?
Perhaps it feels daunting to start this book, but all the treasures in life are until you take that first step.
Doris is the queen of classics and posts incredibly poignant and thought-provoking reviews. She’s open, honest, and a great shopping companion (for second-hand books that is). Check out her Instagram: @aVictorianSoul
9. Dear Stranger, I Know How You Feel by Ashish Bagrecha
Submitted by Sandy of @fight_ones_way
This self-help book contains a collection of thirty letters about the most important things in life. It’s about healing, hope, transcendence, inspiration, and motivation that every soul desires. The author addresses the reader as a stranger, talking to them through the letters and poems. Those letters and poems talk about overcoming the depression, anxiety, and negativity that chases everyone, finding hope, and learning how to heal yourself. No matter how difficult life feels and how dark it sometimes looks, there is still hope and there is still light. The universe will always care about you.
Some quotes that speak for themselves:
“Reach out and hold my hand; I’ll help you through the darkness. Reach out and understand that I have felt your Suffering”
“Live life to it’s fullest. Happiness is a choice. In this moment, right now you can choose to feel Joy. Remember, you only die once, you live every single day. So start with today.”
If you sometimes feel like you struggle and need someone to give you the strength to carry on, I recommend reading this book. It takes you on a journey to hope and healing. I learned that the battle with anxiety, depression, and insomnia eats away at us from inside. It can be difficult to heal the pain that our soul is going through but this book brings a new perspective to the healing process. Self-help books can be a great medium for learning about a new way to deal with your feelings. I would recommend it to everyone.
Follow Sandy on Instagram to see her other top book recommendations and reviews: @Fight_Ones_Way
10. The Beekeeper of Aleppo by Christy Lefteri
This book came in at number five on my top 10 books of 2019 post. It is an incredible story about a man and his wife who must flee their beautiful hometown of Aleppo when it becomes a target of war.
Before the violence, Nuri was a beekeeper with his cousin, Mustafa. The bees that they nurtured were everything to them. They extracted the finest honey and produced a thriving business. They talk about bees with such care and tenderness, you can’t help but admire these incredible insects.
This book, however, doesn’t just teach you about bees. It may be a work of fiction, but it also represents the arduous journey and daily struggles that refugees face when they have to flee their war-torn homes. It shows their fears, worries, and nightmares. It gives you the smallest insight into what your life would be like if you were forced to leave everything you love behind. It’s powerful, topical, and all too real.
11. The Engineer’s Wife by Tracey Enerson Wood
Submitted by Rachelle of @rachellelovesbooks
I never thought building bridges would be so fascinating.
The Engineer’s Wife follows Emily Roebling, who oversaw the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge in the late 1800s after her husband is injured. She is a fascinating character, trying to juggle working and motherhood long before most women even dreamed of entering the workplace. She struggled to find happiness in her marriage and to pursue her own dreams.
Building the bridge was incredibly dangerous. I couldn’t believe all the innovations and the ways Emily had to learn on the job to bridge Brooklyn and Manhattan. I also couldn’t believe how they kept building despite the deaths and injuries, and it made me think about the price of progress.
Check out Rachelle’s Bookstagram page for down-to-earth reviews, a solid mix of genres, and a bunch of awesome book stacks: @RachelleLovesBooks.
Thank you to everyone who contributed to this list – we hope you’ve found some great new reads to add to your TBR.
Here are some more books that didn’t quite make the list but also have interesting subject matter and are worth checking out:
You Me Everything by Catherine Isaac (Huntington’s Disease)
Inside the O’Briens by Lisa Genova (also Huntington’s Disease)
Born Under a Million Shadows by Andrea Busfield (the Taliban)
The Vines We Planted by Joanell Serra (winery processes)
The Yellow Wall-Paper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (mental illness, pre-20th Century)
Do you have a book you’ve read that taught you something new? Let me know! I’d love to add it to the list 😊