Historical Fiction

DREAD NATION by Justina Ireland

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Jane would have grown up a slave if not for the War Between the States. Instead, she grew up helping her white mother defend the plantation against the onslaught of the undead who began to rise after the Battle of Gettysburg. Although the agreement to end the War so that North and South could join forces against the undead shamblers included the abolition of slavery, Black people are far from equal—arguably not even free. When Jane was rounded up with the rest of the Black teens on the plantation and sent to a finishing school where she would train to defend wealthy white women from shamblers, she hoped it would be an opportunity to gain some sort of liberty and life experience. Instead, she finds herself hampered by the racism and sexism that pervade her society. But when she and a classmate uncover a deadly conspiracy, they find themselves in grave danger and caught between the desire for self-preservation and the knowledge that if they don’t do something, the entire world could be lost to the undead.

This novel is stunning: well-written, nuanced, thought-provoking, timely, and with a gripping and richly imagined historical sci-fi that is nearly impossible to put down. Jane is a compelling and complex protagonist, and it is a pleasure to root for her against both the zombies and the disturbing social institutions that try to hold her back. For all of its thrilling adventure, it never shies away from a powerful and disturbing look at racism and its impact. I loved every page and highly recommend it to teen and adult fans of sci-fi, dystopia, or even historical fiction.

THE MORE THEY DISAPPEAR by Jesse Donaldson 

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Sheriff Lee Mattock was popular in the small town of Marathon, KY. No one could believe it when he was murdered. But as deputy Harlan Dupee soon learns, Lew may not have been as innocent and he seemed. Harlan follows the trail of Leo’s killer, gradually uncovering the complicated web of Marathon’s underground Oxycotin trade.  Meanwhile, teenaged Mary Jane finds that getting rid of Lew hasn’t led to the immediate freedom she and her boyfriend thought it would, and the drugs no longer seem to provide enough of an escape. 

Not quite a mystery, Donaldson’s novel is a harsh glimpse into prescription drug abuse in the ’90s and its impact on individuals and communities.  The book may grab some mystery readers due to its subject matter and the puzzle-like way that the whole picture gradually develops, but it will likely appeal most to readers who enjoy gritty, realistic stories about dysfunctional communities, corruption, and seedy small town life. 

HOTEL AT THE CORNER OF BITTER AND SWEET by Jamie Ford

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When Henry was young and attending  a school in a white neighborhood, his father insisted that he wear a button that said “I Am Chinese.” At first, Henry thought that his father’s pride in their heritage was an embarrassment. But he soon realized that his father was concerned for his safety. It could be dangerous to be mistaken  for a Japanese person during the war. Decades later, when the belongings of Japanese families who had been taken to internment camps are rediscovered in the basement of the Panama Hotel, Henry relives  a part of his past that he has kept secret even from his son.  For the first time, he shares his memories of life during the war and his forbidden friendship with a Japanese girl named Keiko.

 Jamie Ford crafts a beautiful historical fiction novel with a mildly suspenseful plot, compelling characters, and a rich and immersive setting.   I highly recommend this book to adult and teen readers who enjoy character-driven historical fiction.

THE BIRTH HOUSE by Ami McKay

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Many people in town believed Ms. B was a witch, perhaps because of her Cajun past, her Catholicism, or her many herbal remedies for women’s illnesses.  But Dora always looked up to the midwife.  She began helping Ms. B deliver babies when she was still a child herself.  She delivered healthy babies to their mothers’ arms, rocked dying babies in their few moments of life, and observed Ms. B’s methods for helping desperate women prevent or end pregnancies.  When a doctor arrives in town and opens a women’s hospital on the other side of the mountain, Dora’s philosophy of birth is suddenly threatened. The technological advances of the hospital come at the price of women’s freedom and individualized care.  As Dora finds herself at the forefront of the fight against Dr. Thomas, she risks becoming the new town outcast. 

Set against the historical backdrop of the Suffrage and Temperance movements, the story of a town midwife’s struggle against the medical profession shows how seemingly beneficial progress can be twisted into a form of oppression.  This book will likely resonate most with readers who enjoy slow-moving historical fiction, especially those readers who have given birth or have an interest in birth practices.

FUNNY GIRL by Nick Hornby

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As she walks onto the stage as Blackpool’s beauty queen, Barbara suddenly gets a glimpse of her future; she will marry a local business owner, have kids, get fat, get old, and die.  She will never do anything noteworthy.  She will never be Lucille Ball.  Unless, that is, she escapes now.    In London, two disillusioned radio writers, a timid BBC producer, and a bitter radio actor prepare to film a crappy TV show pilot, unaware that a quick-witted and determined comedienne is about to change their lives forever.

Set in the 1960s, Funny Girl tells of the transformation not only of its principal characters but also of the British entertainment industry.  Quirky and endearing characters keep the story engaging as it spans decades of their lives and changing situations.  I highly recommend it to readers who enjoy being immersed in the world of the (not too distant) past  and even readers who enjoy realistic fiction about relationships.  I also recommend the audiobook.

If you liked Funny Girl,  you might like Landline by Rainbow Rowell.

AUDACITY by Melanie Crowder

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Clara always loved learning. But in her small Jewish community, women were not meant to be scholars. And her father was determined that not even his sons would ever learn Russian, the language of their oppressors.  Still Clara dreamed of being a doctor, and taught herself in secret how to read and how to speak Russian. When a violent pogrom destroyed their community, Clara and her family moved to America, and the opportunity for her to pursue her studies seemed more real than ever. But when the need to support her family forced Clara to work in a sweatshop, she discovered the horrible plight of the working immigrant woman – and child – and her dreams of becoming a surgeon began to conflict with her desire to pursue justice for the oppressed women around her.  Still a teenager, Clara formed a union, and endured terrible hardships as she pursued her new dream.

Inspired by Clara’s real life love of poetry, Crowder tells the true story of Clara Lemlich as she imagines Clara would have experienced it in beautiful poetic verse. The story is exciting, informative, and inspiring. Teen readers may see parallels between Clara’s struggle for justice and many injustice is in our world today. The book concludes with a detailed description of what is true and what is fictionalized in the novel, as well as interviews with Clara’s surviving relatives. I highly recommend this book to teen readers who enjoy historical fiction.

THE BOOK OF LIES by Mary Horlock

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The police think that Nicolette’s death was an accident—a drunken teenager wandering too close to the edge of the cliff.  They are wrong.  Cat killed her—a fact which still surprises Cat, to some extent.  It shouldn’t surprise her, though.  It was her fate as a Rozier.  Ever since the German occupation of their Guernsey Island home, Roziers have been falling into dangerous friendships with fatal consequences and covering it all up in blankets of lies.  But now Cat is ready to uncover the truth, both about Nic’s death and her Uncle Charlie’s experience with the Nazis.

This intriguing novel is part historical fiction, part mystery, and part angsty-and-self-destructive-rebellious-teen fiction.  Both the contemporary and historical plots keep you turning pages.  The novel is marketed for adults, although some teens will certainly enjoy it as well.  I would recommend this book to readers who are interested in WWII historical fiction and readers who like suspenseful stories about dysfunctional families/friendship drama.