A Historical Fiction Reader's Booklist
Reading makes immigrants of us all. It takes us away from home, but more important, it finds homes for us everywhere.
Let's talk books!
Did you know reading is up these days worldwide? Yep, and we have Covid to thank. Being couched in our homes has left us with more time to do the things we love, and for many, that includes picking up a book. The most comforting feeling in the world for book lovers is curling up with a new title. The magic of opening the cover never ceases. Whether fiction or nonfiction, inside is a passport to another place in time, a different set of lives that draws us into a tangled web of suspense and drama.
There are many reasons why we turn to the printed word, as shown in the wordle below. We read to relax, to gain knowledge, to be entertained. Whatever your motivation, there are thousands of outlets for you.
Pew Research Center, 2012
One of the primary ways I select my next book is through the recommendations of others. I ask friends what they're reading, I read various blogs about books, and I listen to podcasts on writing, all of which provide me with a wealth of titles. As we prepare for 2022, I decided to share my 2021 reading lists with you: what I've read and what I am currently reading.
Maybe it's the teacher in me that wants to promote books and reading. I firmly believe reading enriches all lives. It gets us outside of ourselves, makes each of us better, and in turn, makes our society richer, more compassionate, more intelligent. I know there are many other things to read besides books, and I read those too, but books enjoy a revered status in my heart.
In return for sharing my list, I hope you'll share some of your favorite titles in the comments section below to help create my To Be Read (TBR) list for 2022. Although this blog is dedicated to historical fiction, feel free to share titles from any genre. You aren't just sharing for me; you're also sharing for other readers.
In recent years I've been recording my lists on Goodreads versus keeping track of titles in a tiny notebook I'd kept for decades. Oddly, it was hard to make the switch. But I caved in to convenience. Now I have my booklist with me when I go to a bookstore, or when someone mentions a title, I can type it in on the spot. You can find my full reading list at my Goodreads profile, which includes books I've read, am currently reading, or want to read.
Admittedly, a good portion of my reading time in 2021 (and several years prior) has been research on one individual, the eighteenth-century British philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft. My biographical novel on Wollstonecraft is fully drafted, and I am in the final stages of editing, an arduous task that seems endless. Pictured to the left are my historical sources that are in print. I have a number of electronic sources as well. A day doesn’t go by that I don’t confirm dates and locations and characterizations of people to ensure historical accuracy. I have to say, the research is as much fun as the writing, but I won't list these books here. Aren't you glad?
Instead, I want to share titles I've read for fun. I've included a link to each title in Goodreads. I've also included a link to each author's website to introduce you to him or her. Writing is a competitive business, and it can be hard to wade through all the possibilities. These are some of the best in the business right now.
The books are not listed in any particular order, and I would heartily recommend any one of them to a friend. However, along way I've detailed several as favorites and why.
Drum roll, please...!
Inseparable, by Simone de Beavoir. In this somewhat autobiographical novel of Simone de Beavoir and her best friend as schoolgirls in post-World War I France, readers are given insight into this complex woman who grew up to be one of the twentieth century's most famous feminists.
Surviving Savannah, by Patti Callahan. The steamship Pulaski, dubbed in later years as the Titanic of the South, sunk with 150 passenbers on board off the coast of Savannah, Georgia in 1838. Callahan imagines the story of the 59 survivors who lived to tell about it.
Hidden, by Mary Perrine. If you like domestic thrillers, this novel written by a Minnesota author will appeal to you. I could relate to so many aspects of the plot (multi-generational family relationships, hunting season, the education setting, etc.) At the end, the author masterfully ties together the myriad twists and turns for the main character, leaving you cheering for women everywhere.
Love and Fury, by Samantha Silva. In this historical novel of Mary Wollstonecraft in which Silva takes readers from Mary's deathbed back to formative moments in her life, readers see the woman behind the words. Of course, being a Wollstonecraft devotee, I loved it.
Euphoria, by Lily King. Though fiction based on Margaret Mead and her famous love triangle with Reo Fortune and Gregory Bateson in the jungles of New Guinea in the 1930s, this book reads almost like a biography. Find out more in this post I wrote about it. Euphoria is my favorite pick in 2021 for adventure and suspense.
The French House, by Helen Fripp. Fripp does poetic justice to the eighteenth-century French champagne magnate Barb-Nicole Clicquot Ponsardin, famously known as Veuve Clicquot. Read my blog post on Clicquot and The French House here.
To the Bright Edge of the World, by Eowyn Ivey. Ivey is a new favorite author of mine. Her first book, The Snow Child (which I also highly recommend), was a Pulitzer finalist. In this book, she takes us on an imaginary journey up a remote Alaskan river in the late 1800s.
Mr. Dickens and His Carol, by Samantha Silva. Who knew Charles Dickens was undergoing such a personal and professional struggle when he wrote A Christmas Carol, in just six weeks, mind you? This is a whimsical, entertaining read.
Ecstasy, by Mary Sharratt. Mary Sharratt was another new discovery in 2021. She is now on my list of favorite authors. Sharratt is determined to "write women back into history." Ecstasy takes us into the life of Alma Schindler Mahler, a female compser at the turn of the twentieth century in Vienna.
The Hour of the Witch, by Chris Bohjalian. I do so love books by Bohjalian. In addition to reading this fictional account of a divorce trial in 1662 (rare) filed by a wife (rarer still) accused of being a witch (not so rare), I also watched Bohjalian on several Zoom interviews. What a guy.
The Magician, by Colm Toibin. The Magician is my favorite book in 2021 for excellence in writing. Toibin is a master story teller. His prose is some of the best I've read. In this book, Toibin dramatizes the life of Thomas Mann, one of the twentieth century's most prolific authors and a Nobel prize winner for literature. Mann was born in Germany but emigrated to the United States between the First and Second World Wars. Readers get a strong sense of what Germany was like during that era.
Illuminations, by Mary Sharratt. This fictional account of Saint Hildegard von Bingen and her life during the middle ages was the first book to hook me on Sharratt, You can read about Illuminations and Hildegard in my blog post here.
The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen, by Syrie James. Some people can't get enough of Jane Austen. I am not one of them, but I sure like her a lot. Did she ever fall in love? Wouldn't we all like to know. This work of fiction is written in such an authentic style you would never know it wasn't authored by Jane Austen herself.
Leaving Coy's Hill, by Katherine A. Sherbrooke. If you like stories about the 1800s and the barriers women faced, you will love this book. If you like reading about abolition and women's quest to gain the right to vote, you will like it even more. I couldn't help but revel in the inclusion of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony as secondary characters in this book.
The Dutch House, by Ann Patchett. You have likely read something by Ann Patchett in the last two decades. She is well known. The Dutch House is a little quirky at times, but that's why I love this story about two siblings in mid-twentieth century Pennsylvania dealing with the loss of their mother, then their house, and eventually, their father, while trying desperately to hang on to each other as life takes them in different directions.
Forgotten Valor: A Novel of the Korean War, by Richard Thomas Lane. The Korean War is often overlooked in American history. In this, book one in a planned three-book saga, Lane introduces readers to the conflict through the eyes of Jonas Stuyvesant. Painstaking research marks this a book historical fictions lovers will appreciate for the way it draws you into the action and enables you to feel the real and lasting heartache of soldiers.
Brontë's Mistress, by Finola Austin. Did you know the Brontë sisters had a naughty brother? They did. And he got himself into some big trouble. Tremendously well-researched, this is a must read for all Brontë fans. I especially enjoyed listening to Finola Austin on various podcasts this year. I look forward to future books from this smart, sophisticated writer.
Miss Austen, by Gill Hornby. Yes, another Austen book. But this one is about Jane's sister Cassandra, who in her sixties is determined to destroy a cache of Jane Austen's letters which contain secrets. I like how the novel remains true to the historical record. Perhaps you are seeing a pattern with me. I like historical fiction to represent the facts as much as possible. This book goes down in 2021 as my favorite fun read.
Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, by Jamie Ford. In this touching story about young love between a Chinese American boy and a Japanese American girl during World War II and the internment of Japanese Americans, we see the impact of bad government decisions and how they can affect people for the rest of their lives. I referenced this book in this blog post about Miné Obuko.
The Only Woman in the Room, by Marie Benedict. Born in Vienna, Hedy Keisler escapes a terrible marriage to a Nazi party leader and flees to America where she transforms herself into the famous actress Hedy Lamarr. But did you know Lamarr was also a scientist who is credited with discovering the technology that we now use in wif-fi?
Carnegie's Maid, by Marie Benedict. I've enjoyed every book by Marie Benedict I've ever read. This one took me a little longer to warm up to, as I felt the historical evidence on which the fiction is based was weaker than in her other books, but I went with it. This is the imaginary story of one of Andrew Carnegie's maids and how someone such as her may have influenced him in becoming a philanthropist.
Revelations, by Mary Sharratt. Yep. Another one by Sharratt. I told you, she is one of my new favorite historical fiction authors. This fifteenth-century story takes us on a pilgrimage with female mystic Margery Kempe, who travels from England to the Holy Land and back.
The Weight of Water, by Anita Shreve. The Weight of Water has a dual story timeline. We have the modern day protagonist seeking to unlock the mysteries of an actual murder involving Norwegian immigrants in the late 1860s on an island off the shores of New Hampshire, and her Norwegian counterpart, who narrates the events of the 18oos. I jumped with glee when the Norwegian narrator talked about eating lefse!
A Well Behaved Woman, by Therese Anne Fowler. We all know the Vanderbilt name. But we don't always know much about the women who married the fantastically rich men. Fret no more. Fowler has written a terrific novel about Alva Smith, who after the Civil War, married William Vanderbilt and took the family by storm, helping them gain entry into New York high society.
While I was working full-time, I read one book at a time. It was all my schedule (and my brain) could handle. Now that I have more “free” time, I tend to juggle several texts at once. Different times of the day and different moods call for different content.
In the "currently reading" pile above (sans The Cabinet, by Lindsey Chervinsky, which was hiding on my nightstand) you will see that three out of the five are repeat authors. I find an author I like and often stick with them in future books.
Within this list, Figuring, (nonfiction) by Maria Popova is my top pick for 2021 for intellectual stimulation. Figuring takes a deep look into the lives of men and women - mostly women - who left an indelible mark in science, literature, art, society, and just about anything else that really matters in life. In truth, I don't want to finish it because then I will be done, and it is just too good to put down. Fortunately, Maria Popover also publishes a blog that arrives twice a week in my mailbox. You can find The Marginalian here.
A New Year’s Resolution
For decades, at the start of every new year, I've made a resolution to learn something new, to delve into a subject that is tugging at my curiosity. I think of it as my own J-Term. The initial spark takes me on a reading tour that lasts for months. For example, one year I studied Walden Pond. I read the book by Henry David Thoreau. Then I researched Thoreau and read about the Concord area and its other many famous residents (Emerson, Louisa May Alcott, Nathanial Hawthorne, to name a few). I even visited Walden Pond that year.
Might I suggest as you develop your new year's resolutions to consider a reading for learning goal in 2022? What would you choose to study? A topic? A new skill? Tell us in the comments section below. Perhaps the rest of us can offer titles and resources for you to peruse!
Didn't find anything in my list that appealed to you? Looking for more? Sarah Johnson, author of the blog Reading the Past, has put together a superb list of places to find historical fiction. For a boader list of genres, you can find literary works at Lit Hub here and The Atlantic here. I like Barnes and Noble's annual list, which you can find here. For a longer list, check out Time Magazine's top 100 book of 2021. And of course, there's always the New York Times list for 2021.
Remember to check out Goodreads and my reading list at my Goodreads profile. If you're on Goodreads, friend me so I can follow you. And be sure to leave your favorite title(s) in the comments section below. I'd especially love your recommendations for historical fiction. Thanks for reading. I'm glad you're here.
World Economic Forum. “Book sales are up: this is what we’ve been reading during the pandemic.” May 2021. Retrieved at https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2021/05/covid-19-book-sales-reading/
Pew Research Center. "Why people like to read." April 2012.