Historical Fiction

Colson Whitehead brings Jim Crow-era Florida to life through the real story of a reform school in Tallahassee that claimed to rehabilitate delinquent boys and instead abused and terrorized them for over one hundred years. Elwood Curtis is bound for a local black college when an innocent mistake lands him at The Nickel Academy instead. Elwood finds comfort in Dr. Martin Luther King's words and holds to his ideals, whereas his friend Turner believes the world is crooked so you have to scheme to survive. All this leads to a decision with harrowing repercussions for their respective fates.
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Finally, a follow-up to Bennett’s smashing debut The Mothers—and it’s worth the wait. Identical twins Desiree and Stella grew up in a town so small it doesn’t appear on maps. They’re closer than close, so Desiree is shocked when Stella vanishes one night after deciding to sacrifice her past—and her relationship with her family—in order to marry a white man, who doesn’t know she’s black. Desiree never expects to see her sister again. The twins grow up, make lives for themselves, and raise daughters—and it’s those daughters who bring the sisters together again. It’s a reunion Stella both longs for and fears, because she can’t reveal the truth without admitting her whole life is a lie. Bennett expertly weaves themes of family, race, identity, and belonging into one juicy, unputdownable novel spanning five turbulent decades.
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From the New York Times bestselling author of Rules of Civility—a novel about a man who is ordered to spend the rest of his life inside a luxury hotel. “In all ways a great novel, a nonstop pleasure brimming with charm, personal wisdom, and philosophic insight . . .this book more than fulfills the promise of Towles' stylish debut, Rules of Civility." – Kirkus Reviews (starred)
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Chiaverini’s new historical novel was inspired by the life of Mildred Harnack, a real historical figure whose story was previously untold because the U.S. government deliberately buried it after the war. Harnack was one of dozens of members of the network of American and German resistance fighters the Gestapo called die Rote Kapelle (Red Orchestra). The bulk of the action takes places between the wars, beginning in 1929; I was initially surprised that a novel about Nazi Germany before and during WWII began SO early, but Chiaverini’s chosen timeline serves her story well: as a reader, you see events escalate over time through these women’s eyes: first they’re incredulous, then increasingly horrified, all the while asking each other, what do we do? The setup feels leisurely but the payoff is worth it. Recommended reading for fans of We Were the Lucky Ones.
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The story begins with a shooting: it's 1969, in the Cause Houses housing project in south Brooklyn; a beloved drunk deacon named Sportcoat wanders into the courtyard and shoots the drug dealer he'd once treated like a son point-blank, in front of everyone. After this jolting beginning, McBride zooms out to show the reader how this violent act came to take place, exploring the lives of the shooter and the victim, the victim's bumbling friends, the residents who witnessed it, the neighbors who heard about it, the cops assigned to investigate, the members of the church where Sportcoat was a deacon, the neighborhood's mobsters (and their families). All these people's lives overlap in ways that few understand in the beginning, and McBride's gentle teasing out of these unlikely but deeply meaningful connections—and the humor and warmth with which he does it—is what captured me.
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I keep hearing this new debut novel mentioned in the same breath as "best of the year" and now I understand why. For the first hundred pages I didn't quite grasp what the author was up to, but when it hit me it was powerful. By exploring the stories of two sisters, who met different fates in Ghana more than 200 years ago, Gyasi traces subtle lines of cause and effect through the centuries, illuminating how the deeds of ages past still haunt all of us today. A brilliant concept, beautifully executed. Read it.
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See spins a tale of female friendship spanning eighty years, set against the backdrop of history in an incredible setting—the very real South Korean island of Jeju. On Jeju, women are the breadwinners, making their families’ livings by free-diving into the chilly waters of the Pacific Ocean, harvesting seafood to sell, while the husbands stay home with the children. This tradition has gone on for thousands of years, and we see it lived out in the lives of Young-sook Mi-ja. The two girls become fast friends as seven-year-olds in 1938, but their respective marriages take them down different paths, and bring unforeseen tensions into their relationship. (The real historical events woven into the pages make for heartrending reading.)  A second storyline, set in 2008, gives readers hints of what may have caused the rift between the girls, but it’s only in the final pages that all is revealed. A fascinating, rewarding story of strong women, little-known history, and human resilience.
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From the publisher: "The bestselling classic about a mixed-race child in the Civil War-era South that 'chronicles the triumph of a free spirit over many kinds of bondage' (The New York Times Book Review). Jubilee tells the true story of Vyry, the child of a white plantation owner and his black mistress. Vyry bears witness to the antebellum South in both its opulence and its brutality, its wartime ruin, and the promises of Reconstruction. Weaving her own family’s oral history with thirty years of research, Margaret Walker brings the everyday experiences of slaves to light in a novel that churns with the hunger, the hymns, the struggles, and the very breath of American history."
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After a scorching summer and months of no rain, the largest fires in Maine's history swept over its coast, from Bar Harbor to Kittery. In Shreve's claustrophobic domestic suspense we experience this real event through the eyes of Grace Holland, whose marriage is its own sort of natural disaster. Her husband came back from the war a little broken. So did her friend's husbands, yet they don't seem as cruel. When wildfires break out, her husband leaves to help dig a fire break, and Grace and her children flee to the ocean to escape the flames. When her husband doesn't return, Grace thinks she's lost him forever—and she's far from devastated. But then he returns, and the real trouble begins. Dark and a little melodramatic, but oh-so-discussable. Publication date: April 18.
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In 1953 Tehran, a young man failed to meet his betrothed in a Tehran square. Sixty years later and half a world away, the woman, now grown old, is about to discover why. This sweeping love story spans 60 years and two continents, taking the reader between contemporary New England and 1953 Tehran, thoroughly immersing the reader in the volatile political climate of 1950s Iran. This is easily one of the best books I've read this year: listen to me recommend it on Episode 194 of What Should I Read Next ("No plot, no problem!"), and we'll be reading it in the MMD Book Club in January, where we'll pair it with A Place for Us. If you enjoyed either of these books, add the other to your TBR right now.
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In her sweeping new novel, Maggie O’Farrell takes a few historically known facts about Shakespeare’s wife and family and, from this spare skeleton, builds out a lush, vivid world. You should know this book is devastating, and I consumed the better part of a box of Kleenex while reading it. Yet with its captivating central character and evocative storytelling, I didn’t want to leave Shakespeare’s world—or put down O’Farrell’s writing. The story centers on Agnes, Shakespeare’s wife, who is torn apart by grief when their son Hamnet dies at age 11. Soon after, Shakespeare writes Hamlet—and O’Farrell convincingly posits that the two events are closely tied. In her distinctive style, O’FarrellI takes you to the heart of what really matters in life, making you feel such a deep sense of loss for Hamnet that you won’t look at your own life the same way.
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In this sweeping domestic drama, Lee tracks four generations of a 20th-century Korean family back to the time when Japan annexed the country in 1910, affecting the fates of all. Lee portrays the struggles of one struggling Korean family against the backdrop of cultural and political unrest, as they endure fierce discrimination at the ends of the Japanese. A compelling portrait of a little-explored period of history.
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This tough and tender coming-of–age story is Part Grapes of Wrath and part Huckleberry Finn, while mirroring The Odyssey’s narrative. The tale centers on four Minnesota kids during the Great Depression, whose respective situations become ever more impossible due to human cruelty and circumstance. After a tornado demolishes the last of life as they know it, they realize no one is going to save them—and so they make a plan to save themselves that starts with escaping down the river in a canoe. Their little band by turns encounters kind strangers and others all too willing to exploit vulnerable children. For those of you who say my husband Will is your book twin: he loved this. An epic story, beautifully told, and one that contains perhaps the finest setup-and-payoff sequence I’ve read in years. Content warnings apply. For fans of Krueger’s Ordinary Grace and Jess Walter’s The Cold Millions.
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Set in gilded age Atlanta, this is about seventeen-year old Jo who works as a lady’s maid for the grumpy, privileged daughter of the house. Meanwhile she lives with her adopted grandfather figure in a secret basement under the print shop of a family newspaper. This is a relic from the underground railroad and the family above does not know that it’s there. Jo eavesdrops on them through the vent and knows, because she can listen in, that the paper is not doing well financially. They need to boost circulation if they’re going to stay in business. She has the idea that will let her vent her 17-year old feelings on the world and also maybe get some new subscribers for this magazine: Jo decides she’s going to write a column called Dear Miss Sweetie, anonymously, answering questions and addressing contemporary topics affecting both women and people of color in Atlanta in the 1890s. Jo is sassy and snarky and smart, and so pretty soon the talk of the town among the fussy Atlanta society ladies is "who is this brilliant young girl writing a funny column?"
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From the publisher: "Inspired by the incredible true story of one Jewish family separated at the start of World War II, determined to survive—and to reunite—We Were the Lucky Ones is a sweeping novel spanning six years and five continents and a tribute to the triumph of hope and love against all odds."
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This fun novel—and book club favorite—combines three unexpected elements to great effect: World War I, a love story, and Greek mythology. It begins with Aphrodite and Ares walking into a swanky Manhattan hotel during WWII, and soon enough Aphrodite's husband Hephaestus challenges her to show him what love really looks like. She obliges, and takes the reader back in time to meet four young lovers in 1917 Britain, showing her fellow gods how each couple fell in love, and what they mean to each other. It sounds unlikely but the interesting narrative structure totally works.
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A chance encounter prompts a renowned surgeon to reexamine the past she left behind in this sweeping historical novel. Daughter to the president’s most trusted advisor, Sitara’s family is murdered before her eyes in a 1978 coup in the Afghan palace. She miraculously survives with the help of a palace guard who whisks her away to safety. Sitara is eventually adopted and grows up in the United States. Flash forward 30 years. Sitara has buried that long-ago trauma and built a life for herself in NYC. But when that same guard shows up in her hospital, his presence awakens her desire for the answers she never got about what happened back then. With references to Anastasia Romanov and nods to the main character’s love of literature, this story will captivate history and book lovers alike.
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This well-crafted YA release smoothly bridges the divide between present-day Tulsa, Oklahoma and the little-known race riots that occurred there during two terrifying days in 1921. During renovations of seventeen-year-old Rowan Chase's historic family home, a skeleton is unearthed in the backyard. The police don't care who the bones belong to, but Rowan sure does. Unbeknownst to her, this skeleton links Rowan with another teen, Will Tillman, who lived in Tulsa nearly a hundred years ago. Latham flips back and forth in time, between two teens facing their own kinds of crossroads, to give her readers a page-turning history/mystery mash-up, as her young protagonists wrestle through issues of family, friendship, identity, and belonging. I read this in an afternoon—I couldn't put it down. Publication date: February 21.
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A compelling premise and graceful telling landed this one on my favorites list. Charles and Lily meet James and Nan in 1963 Greenwich Village when Charles and James are both called to serve Third Presbyterian Church. The two men steward the church through upheaval and change, despite their personal differences. I couldn't stop reading as the couples and their families struggle with faith and friendship.
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From the author of The Dollhouse, a new historical novel with a fabulous setting. Few remember it now, but a thriving art school (the Grand Central School of Art) was housed for twenty years in the upper eaves of the east wing, beginning with its founding in 1924. The book switches back and forth in time between the art school years and 1974, when Grand Central Terminal was very nearly razed by developers in order to build a skyscraper. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis (who briefly appears in the novel) led the fight to save the terminal by granting it landmark status. Davis has said that her new novel “touches upon issues dear to me: how women’s voices and agency have changed over time, the importance of the arts in our lives, and the hidden stories within New York’s historic skyline.”
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This WWII novel tells the story of Nancy Wake, the unsung French Resistance leader who was #1 on the Gestapo’s most-wanted list by the end of the war. The real Nancy was larger than life; bold, bawdy, and brazen—a woman who, as the only female among thousands of French men, was not only respected as an equal, but revered as a leader. The story is set during WWII, yes—a setting the author says she came to kicking and screaming, because there are a lot these days—but at its heart this is a story of friendship, and of love. Nancy leaps off the page with her Victory Red lipstick, snappy one-liners, and incredible bravery. Riveting.
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The titular hotel is a real place: it's Seattle's Panama Hotel. In the story, an old man looks back to his 1940s childhood and remembers with fondness his friendship—and maybe something more—with his young Japanese friend Keiko. They lose touch when Keiko and her family are evacuated during the Japanese internment. (I learned so little about this in my U.S. history classes that when I first read the book I kept googling Ford's historical references to see if they really happened. They did.)
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A MINIMALIST SUMMER PICK. One of the best books I’ll read all year; my husband loved it, too. It’s 1974, and Leni Allbright’s father Ernt, a former Vietnam POW, suffers from terrifying PTSD. The family moves to Alaska in search of a fresh start, but they're utterly unprepared for the harsh reality that greets them. As Large Marge says, “Alaska herself can be Sleeping Beauty one minute and a bitch with a sawed-off shotgun the next…. Up here you can make one mistake. The second one will kill you.” But she doesn’t yet know Leni fears the violence in her home more than the landscape. As winter draws near and darkness closes in, Ernt’s mental health deteriorates, with disastrous consequences for the family and community. Yet Leni will survive—and maybe even thrive. A riveting coming of age story featuring a fabulous setting, amazing female leads, and ultimate redemption. But wow, is it tense in the meantime.
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In this standalone novel from the author of Next Year in Havana, three women’s lives become entangled over the course of Labor Day weekend, 1935, when the storm of the century slams into Key West. The story is told from three perspectives, that of three different women who seem to share little in common, but whose lives are about to intersect in ways no one could foresee. Helen is a Key West native, poor and pregnant, fleeing her abusive husband. Mirta is Cuban, newly married to a man she barely knows, and just beginning her honeymoon. And Elizabeth, who’s come south on a dangerous search for a long-lost loved one. A captivating novel about a little-known historical event.
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Opening line: "My father, James Witherspoon, is a bigamist." In her third novel, Jones writes about the link between two African-American half sisters, one legitimate and one secret, only one of whom knows the other exists. That is, until the secret of their father's second marriage starts to force its way into the open. Rather than writing back-and-forth between two perspectives, the reader encounters almost all of one sister's point of view in the first half, followed by the other's. The result is an absorbing coming-of-age narrative wrapped in a complicated family novel. I already loved this book, but when we discussed it with author Tayari Jones in the MMD Book Club, my appreciation and enjoyment skyrocketed, as so often happens. I love to peel back all the layers of a good book.
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The Alice Network author Quinn also takes on the aftermath of WWII in her latest historical release. Inspired by a true story she stumbled upon in the historical archives (which would totally spoil the big reveal—you’re going to have to read the Author’s Note to learn all!), Quinn weaves together three perspectives to tell a gripping story: Jordan is a Boston teenager who works in her father’s Boston antiques store, Ian is a British journalist determined to bring his brother’s killer—known as “the Huntress”—to justice, and Nina is a Russian fighter pilot and the only woman alive who can identify the Huntress. There’s no weak link in the story; each thread is fascinating—and when they began to come together I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough. A mesmerizing tale of war crimes, coming of age, love and fidelity, and the pursuit of justice, with stirring implications for today.
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This charming debut is sure to delight Austen fans. Jane Austen lived out her last days in the sleepy village of Chawton, and in the days just after World War II, her legacy still looms large. Times are hard, and we meet several villagers burdened with their own private sorrows, who are doing what they’ve always done: turning to the works of Austen for solace. When a local business attempts to buy the Austen property and raze her cottage, the villagers band together to preserve her legacy. At one point, a character muses that Austen’s works present “a world so a part of our own, yet so separate, that entering it is like some kind of tonic.” The same can be said of Jenner’s wonderful book. Don’t miss Jenner’s 2022 novel Bloomsbury Girls, out May 17; audiophiles should know Juliet Stevenson narrates. For fans of Annie Barrows and Mary Ann Shaffer’s The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and Charlie Lovett’s The Last Book of the Grail.
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I thoroughly enjoyed this one. Marketed as YA, but a good read for all. From Booklist Online: "If you pick up this book, it will be some time before you put your dog-eared, tear-stained copy back down. Wein succeeds on three fronts: historical verisimilitude, gut-wrenching mystery, and a first-person voice of such confidence and flair that the protagonist might become a classic character. . . . Both crushingly sad and hugely inspirational, this plausible, unsentimental novel will thoroughly move even the most cynical of readers."
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Historian-turned-novelist Robson sets her latest historical release in 1947, when times are grim: so many have lost so much, war rationing continues, Britain is in ruins. But in a bleak year, there’s a bright spot: Princess Elizabeth’s royal wedding captured the hearts of a nation, and was a beacon of hope to a country on its knees. Britain was on its knees, but the people insisted on a real celebration, including a beautiful gown. Robson’s story shifts among three protagonists and spans 70 years, but the common thread is Elizabeth’s gown—and specifically, the women who make it. While Robson has a fine eye for detail, and her behind-the-scenes descriptions of the fine autelier’s workroom are riveting, the heartbeat of the story comes from female friendship, secret pasts, and life after loss. A must-read for fans of The Crown, and recommended for all seeking an intimate take on the often-neglected postwar era.
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