A heartbreaking portrait of Depression-era dust storms benefits from a pitch-perfect balance between an ecological examination of the disaster and a close look at the daily lives of survivors and victims. Egan uses memoirs, diaries and interviews to skillfully build sorrowful individual voices into an unforgettable chorus. The survivors’ way of life seems far away now but the environmental implications are still all too real. 

Stuck between the imposing bulk of the Victorian Era and the epoch-changing First World War, the Edwardian Era tends to get short-changed in the history books. I love the way Nicolson makes monarchs, butlers, coal miners and children all part of the same story, the same moment in time.  With careful research and a storyteller’s compassionate gaze, Summer allows individual lives to speak to the underlying forces of social change and uncertainty.

The 1503 creation of the first map to accurately depict North America becomes an opportunity for both a rousing story of adventure and exploration and a considered history of humanity’s changing perceptions of the world. This narrative is like a wonder-cabinet of curiosities. I closed the covers feeling I had learned a bit about everything – from the origins of latitude and longitude to the theological implications of a square Earth.

Too often American history begins with the Pilgrims and Plymouth Rock. Shorto unearths the earlier Dutch roots of our immigrant story to tell a fast-paced tale of ambition, greed, guts and vision. I could almost visualize the Dutch trading village alongside today’s glass and steel skyscrapers.

One average knight, one extraordinary time. I remember first reading this as a teenager and loving Tuchman’s assertion that everyone’s life is unique and yet can reveal so much about the times they lived in. By the end, we’ve followed Tuchman’s knight through the Black Death, the Hundred Years’ War, religious upheaval and all the small moments of living in between.

Appomattox Courthouse. Ford’s Theater. The story you think you know gets a jolt of suspense from Winik, who takes us day by day through a crucial month and shows how seemingly small decisions had incalculable results on the United States we know today.

Proving that clothes truly are a language all their own, Weber completely changed my understanding of the flighty French queen and her descent into disaster. Who knew that frothy talk of gowns and jewels could be so political and so engrossing?

A brilliant marriage of history and literature. Each chapter is devoted to a stage in Shakespeare’s life from birth to marriage to death. Using the Bard’s plays as a prism, Greenblatt reveals the lively, complicated world of Elizabethan England.

Mix a mystery told from the perspective of a serial killer, one famous stressed-out architect, greedy city bosses, the wonder of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair and you get this suspenseful read. Larson excels at explaining the innocence of a past generation, as fair-goers discover the first Ferris wheel and fear the knife of an unknown murderer.