Historical Fiction

A STUDY IN SCARLET WOMEN by Sherry Thomas

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Charlotte Holmes is utterly unsuited to marriage. She thrives on intellectual puzzles, little to no conversation, and an unhealthy sweets consumption that frequently leads her perilously close to her Maximum Tolerable Chins; none of this would endear her to the typical Victorian husband. She fended off marriage proposals bravely until her 25th year, under the assumption that her father would honor his promise to pay for her education. When he reneges, she does the only logical thing: renders herself ineligible for marriage through a sexual liaison with an unprincipled and unhappily-married gentleman.

Alas, his domineering mother catches them in the act, and scandal ensues. Charlotte flees her irate parents, only to discover that it is far more difficult than she expected for a “fallen woman” to find work. Furthermore, when the unhappily-married gentleman’s mother winds up dead, Charlotte’s sister becomes implicated in a murder inquiry. With the help of the widowed Mrs. Watson (a middle-aged former actress) and her old friend (and love of her life) Lord Ingram, Charlotte sets out to do what she does best–observe, make conclusions, and solve puzzles that baffle even the most intrepid and clever police inspectors.

Of course no one would believe the deductions of fallen woman and society scandal Miss Charlotte Holmes. The mysterious, bedridden, (entirely fiction) Mr. Sherlock Holmes however….

Sherry Thomas breaks out of the romance genre with a thrilling, funny, well-plotted, and (yes) romantic mystery series with a strong cast of characters and an immersive historical world that will keep readers rapt and turning pages. I read them all, then immediately read them again. Can’t wait for another LADY SHERLOCK book!

A Study In Scarlet Women (The Lady Sherlock Series Book 1) - Kindle edition  by Thomas, Sherry. Mystery, Thriller & Suspense Kindle eBooks @ Amazon.com.

A CURIOUS BEGINNING by Deanna Raybourn

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Veronica Speedwell has no interest in becoming a mother of six. So she tells the Vicar’s wife after her Aunt Nell’s funeral. After all, with Aunt Nell gone, she no longer has ties in England and can immediately undertake another of her expeditions to the tropics, her bread and butter as a lepidopterist hunting rare butterflies. And while she’s abroad, she can engage in some healthy and commitment-free sexual release with a like-minded, anonymous man or two. Marriage to a boring English gentleman with a sizable brood of his own? Thank you, but no.

But before Veronica can embark on her expedition, she is assaulted by a thug and then rescued by a middle-aged German baron who claims to know her parents–of whom Veronica has no knowledge herself. The baron escorts her to London, leaving her in the care of a taxidermist and naturalist named Stoker. Before he can return for her, however, the baron is murdered. Fleeing for their own safety, Veronica and Stoker form a reluctant alliance to find the baron’s murderer and Veronica’s assailant–and on the way, discover a startling truth about Veronica’s parentage.

A suspenseful, action-packed mystery with a touch of romance, A CURIOUS BEGINNING starts off a series with a delightfully nonconformist Victorian feminist for a narrator and a surly but noble love interest/partner in slightly-criminal-criminal-investigation. Very fun read with plenty of thrills to keep you turning pages!

(Just FYI, Book 4 is my favorite.)

THE CROCODILE ON THE SANDBANK by Elizabeth Peters

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At 32, Amelia Peabody is undeniably a spinster–and she intends to stay that way. To escape the host of unwanted and opportunistic suitors that descended after her father’s death, she takes her sizeable inheritance and sets off on a journey to explore the world.

She never gets past Egypt.

When she stops to tour Amarna, she and her companion, Evelyn, learn that the archaeologist Evelyn loves–and his infuriating brother, Emerson–have been hit with a fever. In the course of nursing (the ungrateful) Emerson back to health, Amelia gets swept up in a thrilling mystery involving a (seemingly) animated mummy that will draw her closer to her one true love (Egypt) and the man that unfortunately seems to meet her at every turn.

One if my favorite, favorite book series ever, Amelia Peabody starts out as Victorian romantic suspense, through later books fall solidly in the mystery category. Intentionally over the top, and an inevitable page turner, this is a great, classic read for anyone who loves mystery with a dash of romance or romance with a dash of mystery.

A SPY IN THE HOUSE by Y.S. Lee

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Mary Yang should have been hanged. She would have been–in fact–had the headmistresses of Miss Scrimshaw’s Academy for Girls not been interested in her promising skills and personality. Because more than an Academy, Miss Scrimshaw’s is a cover for a feminist spy ring called the Agency. And at 17, Mary (now under the pseudonym of Mary Quinn) is ready for her first assignment. She infiltrates the household of wealthy merchant as a companion for his vapid daughter in the hopes of finding clues as to the whereabouts of missing cargo ships. It is supposed to be an easy job for a beginning agent. But Mary and her supervisors didn’t count on the presence of a charismatic (and persistent) young man. Or on the fact that this particular job has a connection to Mary’s long-buried past….

A fun Victorian mystery with crossover appeal for teens and adults, A SPY IN THE HOUSE is the first in THE AGENCY series. Lee has a PhD in Victorian literature and culture, and her credentials show in her meticulous world-building. Recommend to readers who (like me!) enjoy a touch of romance in their mysteries.

MURDER ON BLACK SWAN LANE by Andrea Penrose

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The Earl of Wrexford is used to being skewered by the press. His “ungentlemanly” interest in chemical experimentation and his scandalous liaisons with members of the opposite sex lend themselves to artistic satire. But the cartoonist A.J. Quill rankles him. It’s more than the tone of Quill’s cartoons–it’s how disturbingly accurate his information is. It’s almost as though Quill is following him around, although Wrexford is sure he would have noticed such surveillance.

Charlotte is good at what she does. Since taking over her husband’s artistic pseudonym after his death, she has managed to keep the creditors at bay and to support herself and the two young urchins she’s taken under her wing–who also happen to supply her with the juiciest gossip for her cartoons. But when their inside information leads her to a murder scene, she ends up embroiled in a mystery involving not just her husband’s mysterious past, but the one man she’s hoped most to avoid: the Earl of Wrexford.

This Regency mystery series has a secret society, a handful of comic characters, and a touch of romantic tension. I wouldn’t recommend it to pure romance readers, however, since the romantic moments are fleeting and unfulfilled. This will more likely appeal to readers of historical mysteries who like unconventional heroes/heroines, over-the-top premises, and a bit of suspense.

THE DUCHESS WAR by Courtney Milan

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Minnie has worked hard to leave her past behind and carve out a new life for herself. It starts with her new identity: Miss Wilhelmina Pursling, an unfortunate orphan, soon to be engaged to a repulsive but respectable gentleman. But when a local military official accuses her of writing seditionist pamphlets urging workers to unionize, her carefully maintained fiction comes under too much scrutiny. Her only hope is to find and confront the true author of the pamphlets and convince him to either stop writing or confess. But when the author–the handsome, charismatic, kindhearted Duke of Clermont–announces that he plans to combat her attempts at blackmail with an attempt to win her love, Minnie realizes that she may have underestimated her opponent–and her own susceptibility to his charms.

The first of one of my favorite romance quartets (THE BROTHER’S SINISTER), this novel immerses readers in Victorian England and introduces us to a funny, witty, interesting group of friends that will continue to delight us for three more books (plus some novellas). A must-read for historical romance fans!

LITTLE WOMEN by Louisa May Alcott and LITTLE WOMEN (2019)

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In 1860s Massachusetts, four sisters and the boy next door grow up from a childhood of wild imagination and adventure to an adulthood of loss, love, and hope.

So I may be the only American white girl who was not a fan of LITTLE WOMEN as a kid. I mean, I liked most of the first half (the original Book One) but I never, never, never forgave Amy for burning Jo’s book. And I got very bored by Book Two, and also annoyed that Laurie married Amy (because again, SHE BURNED JO’S BOOK) and also super-super-annoyed that Jo married some random middle-aged German guy she just met because just because she was kind of lonely….

But I think that Greta Gerwig either read my childhood mind, or was also me as a child, because her adaptation was everything I wanted it to be. Florence Pugh made me like Amy. Genuinely understand and like her. The chaos of every scene must have been a nightmare to film, but it created such a joyful sense of community and family and connection between the four girls. I was mad at Amy for burning Jo’s book, but I was also mad at Jo for not noticing how much Amy looked up to her and wanted to spend time with her. And I loved the two-pronged solution to the “random German guy” problem: first, introducing him at the beginning of the film so he doesn’t come out of nowhere, and second, crafting an ending where Jo morphs with real-life Alcott, who didn’t believe women (including her character Jo) should have to get married (as she didn’t) but was forced to marry Jo off in the end to make it palatable to contemporary readers. In the film, you can take some delight in the unbelievable, silly, head-over-heels, love-at-first-sight ending because the director has hinted that it’s a fantasy and that the real Jo that you’ve known and loved is actually off somewhere, self-confident and content, living her dreams, publishing her books, and creating this fairytale ending for us to enjoy and for her to roll her eyes at.

P.S. I should note that I actually enjoy much more of Book Two as an adult. Especially now that I have kids. Especially that scene where Meg and John are trying to get their son to go to sleep and John ends up passed out in bed with his kid and Alcott remarks that trying to get a two year old to go to sleep is more exhausting than an entire day of work. Yeah. That. I read that part out loud to my husband. It’s somehow both comforting and discouraging to know that in 200 years of parenthood, nothing has changed….

OUTLANDER by Diana Gabaldon

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Claire and Frank are on their honeymoon. Technically, it’s their second honeymoon, but the War came so close on the heels of their marriage, that now they are like strangers. Now that their services to England are complete, this trip to Scotland is a chance to get to know one another again, to rekindle their romance. But when Claire falls through a time portal in a henge, she winds up in the eighteenth century, swept up by a raucous clan and pursued across the moors by Frank’s sadistic ancestor, English officer Jonathan Randall. Though she initially earns her keep at Castle Leoch by sharing her skills as an army nurse, Claire must eventually marry a young Scot named Jamie in order to keep out of Randall’s clutches. And as her relationship with Jamie deepens, Claire begins to lose her resolve to find a way home.

OUTLANDER has everything I love in a novel: humor, romance, suspense, immersive world-building, and deep themes. The contrast between Claire’s “modern” 1940s background and Jamie’s life in the 1700s allows for thoughtful commentary on the shifting nature of love and war as people begin to distance themselves from one another–whether it is the polite distance of Claire and Frank’s marriage or the mechanized distance of bombers and automatic weaponry in the war. Everything in the past timeline, both good and bad, is close and visceral and as much as Claire rejects (for example) the sadism of Randall or the corporal punishment the clans inflict on women and children, the unreserved passion between herself and Jamie (and the closeness of families and clans) binds her to her new life much more fiercely than she initially anticipated.

This novel is difficult to put down, and a great book club book if all of your readers are ok with sex and violence. (As my above expostulations should suggest, it has a thematic purpose and isn’t there gratuitously.) OUTLANDER will appeal to historical romance readers as well as many historical fiction and suspense/thriller readers. The dash of sci-fi/fantasy of the time travel is negligible, so I wouldn’t necessarily plug it to SF/F readers.

DEATH COMES FOR THE ARCHBISHOP by Willa Cather

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As a young man, the French priest Father Latour was assigned as a missionary to the Catholic Archdiocese of Santa Fe, New Mexico.  Over the course of his life, he served the diverse community, learning much about the Mexicans, Indians, and Americans who lived there and striving to help the poor, spread the faith, and work for justice.

This Willa Cather classic is a work of fiction based on the life of the real French bishop of Santa Fe.  Laid out as a series of vignettes about different people and circumstances, the story provides a beautifully written, poetic glimpse into a romanticized Old West.

Written in the early 20th century, the book contains prejudicial language and ideas about the various Latino and American Indian populations, some of which are less common today.  Since Cather (and her characters) are trying to understand and respect the people and cultures she writes about, it provides an interesting historical perspective on race relations during the late 19th and early 20th century–and forces today’s white readers who believe themselves to be enlightened and tolerant to examine their own language and behavior for unwitting prejudice.

Although it is short, don’t expect this to be a quick read! The rich, dense prose deserves to be savored.  Fortunately, the vignette formate makes it easy to read in bite-sized chunks.

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.