The Best Books About Awesome Women You’ve Never Heard Of

The Best Books About Awesome Women You’ve Never Heard Of

Well that came out of the blue!

Last summer I received an intriguing invitation to contribute to a new website which featured themed authors’ recommended reading lists on a topic of my choice. Of course I chose “awesome women you’ve never heard of” (unless you haunt my site!) This gave me a chance to promote my favorite research biographies — the ones I used as primary sources for my Theodosian Women series. Check out my contributions with brief reviews here.


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Book Review: The Black Count

Book Review: The Black Count

The Black Count:

Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo by Tom Reiss


Blurb: “The Black Count is the remarkable true story of the real Count of Monte Cristo – a stunning feat of historical sleuthing that brings to life the forgotten hero who inspired such classics as  The Count of Monte Cristo  and  The Three MusketeersHidden behind these swashbuckling adventures was an even more incredible secret: the real hero was the son of a black slave — who rose higher in the white world than any man of his race would before our own time.  The Black Count is simultaneously a riveting adventure story, a lushly textured evocation of 18th-century France, and a window into the modern world’s first multi-racial society. But it is also a heartbreaking story of the enduring bonds of love between a father and son.”

My Review


The Count of Monte Cristo, The Man in the Iron Mask, The Three Musketeers, all enduring staples of adventure fiction. They’ve stood the test of time and proudly wear the title “classic.” Who knew the stories were based on the life of the author’s father, a remarkable man born to a minor French noble and a slave woman on the island of Saint-Domingue (Haiti)?

This book won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for biography and richly deserves it for introducing us to the inspiring story of a man who went from slave to General in the French Revolutionary Army. Born Thomas-Alexandre Davy de la Pailleterie; by the time he joins the army, he rejects his father’s name and title (Marquis de la Pailleterie) and takes his slave mother’s name–Dumas. His dispatches from the front are signed simply “Alex Dumas.” He rises through the ranks from private to General and is Commander of the Calvary in Napoleon’s disastrous Egyptian campaign. His adventures and battles are a compelling story all by themselves. But Reiss gives us much more.

While many of us may know the basics of the French Revolution, and some have studied the gory details, this book gives us a new angle. General Alex Dumas reached his pinnacle through his own intelligence, perseverance, personal bravery, and ambition. But he would not have been allowed to during any earlier time in European history. The French who fought in the American War for Independence came back to France with a revolutionary spirit and a thirst for equality–not only for themselves, but all Frenchman, free and slave. They were the first country in Europe to not only abolish slavery, but also to grant full rights of citizenship to “men of color.” Free black men voted in assemblies, studied in elite French academies, fought in integrated military units, and rose to positions of authority and command in the military and government. This expression of egalite and fraternite lasted until Napoleon took power and (with the rich planter class backing him) reversed all those hard-won freedoms and rights.

The third layer to this book is the enduring and loving relationship between the General and his son (who eventually became the novelist Alexandre Dumas). Reiss begins and ends his book with General Dumas’ death and the impact it had on his four-year-old namesake. Throughout the book, he illuminates the real life adventures that inspire the boy, many years later, to immortalize his father in fiction. What I found most sad was that it seemed the son suffered much more harshly for his race than his father. Raised in poverty (Napoleon withheld Dumas’ pension after he died), denied a good secondary education, and taunted by racial epithets during his literary career; Alexandre Dumas rose above all to create enduring and beloved fiction. His martial father would have been proud.

A good biographer presents his subject in the context of the times with lively and engaging writing. Reiss delivers with a well-documented book that pulls at the heart strings while giving us a window into European race relations of the late eighteenth/early nineteenth century and the true stories behind some of the best adventure fiction written. Highly recommended.


The Details:

  • Title: The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo

  • Author: Tom Reiss
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307382467
  • Publisher: Crown/Archetype (09/18/2012)
  • Formats: Hardback (432 pages), paperback, eBook, Audio Book

About the Author

Tom Reiss is an author, historian, and biographer whose work resurrects the lives of brilliant outsiders and rebels in times of global upheaval.

His most recent book, The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo, won the Pulitzer Prize and the PEN Award.

He is also the author of “The Orientalist: Solving the Mystery of a Strange and Dangerous Life,” a finalist for the 2006 Samuel Johnson Prize, and Führer-Ex: Memoirs of a Former Neo-Nazi, the first inside exposé of the European neo-Nazi movement.

His books have been translated into more than 35 languages. Before he supported himself with his writing, Tom worked as a hospital orderly, small business entrepreneur, and an actor in Japanese gangster movies.

Watch Tom Reiss discuss his book in the three videos below:

Book Review: Women Warriors: An Unexpected History

Book Review: Women Warriors: An Unexpected History

Women Warriors: An Unexpected History

by Pamela D. Toler


Who says women don’t go to war?

From Vikings and African queens to cross-dressing military doctors and WWII Russian fighter pilots, these are the stories of women for whom battle was not a metaphor. The woman warrior is always cast as an anomaly—Joan of Arc, not GI Jane. But women, it turns out, have always gone to war. In this fascinating and lively world history, Pamela Toler not only introduces us to women who took up arms, she also shows why they did it and what happened when they stepped out of their traditional female roles to take on other identities.

My Review

Just as Women’s History Month closes for 2019, Women Warriors: An Unexpected History joins my research bookshelf with a handful of academically rigorous books. These books on “women doing unexpected things” include surveys of warrior queens, music composers, mathematicians and philosophers, as well as dozens of biographies of famous, accomplished women. I have several more popular history books on scandalous women, bad princesses, and overlooked scientists. The latter seem to dominate the marketplace. I enjoy their breezy modern take while introducing the reader to (mostly) forgotten women. (Reviews of those books can be found here.)

Needless to say, this was not an “unexpected history” for me—at lease in terms of the female historical figures. From the mythical Mulan to the female Dahomean King’s Guards (likely inspiration for the fictional Dora Milaje personal guards of the Black Panther movie), I was aware of most of Toler’s subjects. What was unexpected—and most welcome!—was the analysis and in-depth research. Unlike most authors of these survey books, Toler is an academic.

Thankfully she doesn’t write like one. Her prose is clear and readable.

Toler organizes her material into eight chapters with titles such as “Don’t Mess with Mama” and “Her Father’s Daughter.” In each chapter she surveys typical women warriors, from across time and cultures, who fit the title. She puts their decision to fight in the context of the times and explores the consequences of taking these dramatic actions. After every two survey chapters, a several-page “Checkpoint” covers a single subject in more detail. Substantial footnotes provide additional information and source references.

Toler concludes her book by asking the question: Are these warrior women “insignificant exceptions”? Most academics and historical military commanders felt so. Modern US military leaders used that to argue against allowing women in combat roles. They argued this at a time when Israeli women were drafted and served with their male counterparts. They argued this long after all female battalions fought in WWI and WWII. They argued this long after Soviet “Night Witches”—an all female bomber squadron (women pilots, navigators, and maintenance crews)—terrorized the Nazis on the Eastern front. Several ex-military women ran for US congress in 2018, highlighting their impressive service records, and many won. The bravery and accomplishments of modern women in combat around the world should forever lay that argument to rest.

Toler answers her own question: “Exceptions within the context of their time and place? Yes. Exceptions over the scope of human history? Not so much. Insignificant? Hell no!”

Highly recommended. Check out Author Pamela D. Toler talking about her book Women Warriors in the video below.

Note: I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

The details:

  • Title: Women Warriors: An Unexpected History
  • Author: Pamela D. Toler
  • Publisher: Beacon Press (February 26, 2019)
  • Available in: Hardcover, eBook, Audiobook
  • ISBN-10: 0807064327
  • ISBN-13: 978-0807064320

Women Warriors cover

About the Author

Armed with a PhD in history, a well-thumbed deck of library cards, and a large bump of curiosity, author, speaker, and historian, Pamela D. Toler translates history for a popular audience. She goes beyond the familiar boundaries of American history to tell stories from other parts of the world as well as history from the other side of the battlefield, the gender line, or the color bar. Toler is the author of eight books of popular history for children and adults.  Her newest book, Women Warriors:  An Unexpected History is due out February, 2019.  Her work has appeared in Aramco World, Calliope, History Channel Magazine, MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History and 

Book Review: Leadership in Turbulent Times

Book Review: Leadership in Turbulent Times

Leadership in Turbulent Times


Doris Kearns Goodwin



Leadership in Turbulent Times cover“In Leadership in Turbulent Times, Goodwin draws upon the four presidents she has studied most closely—Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Lyndon B. Johnson—to show how they recognized leadership qualities within themselves and were recognized as leaders by others. No common pattern describes the trajectory of leadership. Although set apart in background, abilities, and temperament, these men shared a fierce ambition and a deep-seated resilience that enabled them to surmount uncommon hardships. At their best, all four were guided by a sense of moral purpose. At moments of great challenge, they were able to summon their talents to enlarge the opportunities and lives of others.”

My Review

Team of Rivals coverI really looked forward to this book. I’ve studied leadership—not at the presidential level, but I have worked with several Fortune 50 CEOs and dozens of executives in my professional career. I also taught leadership and change management to ambitious young managers in MBA courses. Effective leadership is key to a company/country’s ability to survive and thrive. In addition, I’ve had an abiding interest in the lives of Lincoln; and Teddy, Franklin, and Eleanor Roosevelt and have read several biographies about them. Although I’ve seen Doris Kearns Goodwin on TV frequently, the only one of her books I’d read previously was Team of Rivals, an 890-page tome about Lincoln’s time in office, which I thoroughly enjoyed. So I looked at Leadership in Turbulent Times from two perspectives: Was it good history/biography? Was it good leadership analysis?

My answer to both questions (with one caveat) is “Yes!” (more…)

Exceptional Women in History Part II

Exceptional Women in History Part II

Exceptional Women in History Part II:

She Captains, Scientists, and Musicians

Last week in Part I, I introduced you to three books of exceptional women in history which primarily covered royals and aristocrats. This week we look more closely at (un)common women in three books. Readers and writers alike will find inspiration here!


She Captains: Heroines and Hellions of the Sea

by Joan Druett

She Captains: Heroines and Hellions of the Sea

This one sat on my TBR shelf for far too long, but finally got its chance. First of all, I’d say the title is misleading. I expected a book of She Captains to be primarily stories of women who captained ships and lead crews. Druett starts off with 78 pages on ancient queens who sailed with their own navies, female Vikings, and actual female pirates. The rest of the book is devoted to women who are captains’ wives or mistresses, victims of pirates, or involved in the business end. Their stories are fascinating and I enjoyed hearing about them, but that is not what I expected.

The writing is a bit dry and some of the stories seem like padding. I could have done without the chapter on women being captured by Barbary pirates and the space given to Lady Hamilton (Admiral Nelson’s paramour), neither of which seem to fit the premise of the book. What did work was the astonishing number of documented women who went to sea as crew disguised as men; or accompanied their husbands on war ships, whalers, or exploratory expeditions. I had no idea that captains regularly took their wives and children with them on long voyages. I’d always suspected that a number of women made their livings from the sea, especially wives, widows and daughters of seaman, fisherman, and shipping magnates; and was glad to have that confirmed. From the chapter on Ice Queens:

“The winters of the last two decades of the nineteenth century regularly discovered a dozen or more whaling vessels snugged up in Pauline Cove at Herschel Island in the western Arctic, all neatly roofed over and with the sides banked up with blocks of snow. Quite a town would be established around these strange residences, for native, intrigued by the exotic community, build their snow houses near by on the ice. Inside the ships, it was cozy and both inside and outside it was sociable…In the 1894-95 season there where no fewer than seven European females at Herschel Island…It was a strangely formal existence, with dances, whist parties, costume balls, concerts (one concert party being called “The Herschel Island Snowflakes”), and amateur theatricals. Dinner parties were staged, complete with amazing menus. One included “Lobster salad & olives, Oyster Pate with French peas” and “Bartlett Pears, with citron & sponge cake” for dessert.”

The book seems well-researched. Druett doesn’t use footnotes or offer a comprehensive bibliography, but does have a sixteen-page chapter by chapter list of bibliographical notes and a thirteen-page index. I’d recommend this book for anyone who needs to have their consciousness raised about women and the sea (it wasn’t just the boys sailing out there!) It’s the kind of book, that doesn’t quite rate as a research book, but can inspire additional research into the stories of the individual women covered.


Exceptional Women in History Part I

Exceptional Women in History Part I

Exceptional Women in History Part I:

Scandalous Women, Bad Princesses

and Female Kings

It’s Women’s History Month and I thought I’d provide readers and writers alike with some resources on exceptional women in history. I have a soft spot for a particular a kind of history book; collections of short bios of (mostly) unknown women who are remarkable for doing daring/unusual things down through history. They generally follow a pattern of one to five page biographies written in a breezy, modern style emphasizing the outrageousness (for her time) of the woman’s actions.Some of these books are little more than gimmicks or novelty books, best known for their wretched research. Usually there are one or two women that I’ve studied or read about extensively. How accurate the author is with that particular woman is my gauge on how well she’s researched the others.

Why do I like these kinds of books? To be honest, they’re snack food—light fluffy reads that give me a break from heavy turgid research books. They also remind me that—despite what the history books tell us—some women of every age, somewhere in the world were doing remarkable things. The majority (like today) lived ordinary lives, but a few women always stood out and lived extraordinary ones. I like learning about them and being inspired to tell their stories. This kind of book is a good starting point for any historical novelist looking for inspiration. In this post, I’ll do quick reviews of three of my favorites. Next week I’ll do three more. (more…)