The story of Henri “Papillon” Charrière’s imprisonment and multiple escape attempts would have made for an implausible novel—as a memoir, it is riveting. In the 1930s, Charrière was convicted of murder and sentenced to hard labor in the penal colony on Devil’s Island in French Guiana. The book recounts his life in detail—the voyage to the colony, his friends and enemies, his escape attempts, adventures during his brief stints of freedom, solitary confinement, and the inhumane grind of daily life in a French prison. It’s no spoiler to say that he survived, but the lengths he went to in order to create a normal life are astounding, and made me hold my breath in anticipation.
Read if you enjoyed: The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas, A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes
Many fans of Alexandre Dumas, the author of the classics The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo, know that Dumas was black. But few have heard of Georges, his novel about a black gentleman adventurer raised on Mauritius, an island in the Indian Ocean. Georges comes from a wealthy, educated family, but he sees how their race puts his father at a disadvantage in society, and he is determined to change that. Among other things, the story features an interracial romance, an attempted slave rebellion, and pirates! Although it doesn’t quite rise to the heights of narrative brilliance of Dumas’s better known works, Georges deserves a place in the history of French literature.
Read if you enjoyed: Annie John by Jamaica Kincaid, The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas
Simon Winchester called his project “the biography of an ocean,” and that is the perfect phrase for this mesmerizing book. Who knew oceanography could be so entertaining? Using Shakespeare’s “Seven Ages of Man” as a framework, he explores the history of the Atlantic Ocean, from its geological formation to the development of civilization along its shores; from the slave trade to the Titanic; and so much more. Winchester draws on his own experiences crossing the ocean in ships and planes, traveling for work and pleasure. His respect and affection for the great body of water are clear throughout this rich, exciting work of nonfiction.
Read if you enjoyed: Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond, A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson