Historical Fiction

THE TELLER OF SECRETS by Bisi Adjapon

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Esi’s first experience with sex is the uncomfortable night she spent as a child in the same hotel bed with her father and his mistress. But when not long afterward, she is punished for being sexually assaulted, she figures out that the same rules do not apply to men and women. The disparity is further accentuated when her stepsisters experience brutal consequences for their own sexual choices. As Esi grows older, her sense of wrongness at this inequality grows with her, and she is determined to find a way to break out of the restrictions placed on her gender and take control of her own life.

With a powerful literary style, this novel explores heavy feminist topics through the historical context of 1960s Ghana. The voice, style, and thematic importance of the work set it in the same category as any of the great literature that might be studied in a college English department. This book is for the adult or mature teen reader who is looking for a book to savor and ponder.

AN HEIRESS’S GUIDE TO DECEPTION AND DESIRE by Manda Collins

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After the disastrous end of their betrothal, Caroline was very much looking forward to never seeing Lord Valentine again–and once he stopped working at the newspaper where she wrote her weekly crime column, she thought she might actually manage to avoid him. But when her dear friend Effie is kidnapped, Caro rushes to launch an investigation, only to learn that Effie’s betrothed is actually Val’s cousin. Val isn’t about to sit back while Caro does all the investigating–especially since he fears she might suspect his cousin of being involved in the abduction. Unfortunately, a bit of joint detective work throws them into a compromising position, and with danger mounting and a marriage of convenience on the horizon, Caro and Val may have to finally face their feelings for one another if they are going to survive.

This Victorian romance hits all the necessary notes for the historical romance genre while having a strong thread of mystery and suspense–plus a welcome does of feminism. Characters and events from the previous book feature more prominently in this book than is often the case in historical romance series, therefore I highly recommend reading A LADY’S GUIDE TO MISCHIEF AND MAYHEM first, in order to avoid becoming bogged down in (and confused by) the explication at the start. Although the romance elements are occasionally overpowered by the mystery plot, overall, I believe this book will satisfy most historical mystery readers, especially fans of Amanda Quick.

THE VIXEN by Francine Prose

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Simon was thrilled to be offered an editor position at a prestigious New York publishing house right out of Harvard, but he’s not off to an auspicious start. First, he had a confrontation with his disgruntled predecessor, who’d been fired for the “indiscretion” of becoming pregnant without being married. And then, his boss assigned him the manuscript: The Vixen, the Patriot, and the Fanatic, a terribly-written bodice ripper that makes a mockery of Ethel Rosenberg.

It has been a year since Ethel was executed for a crime she claimed not to commit. It didn’t matter what she claimed. McCarthyism had the country in its grip, and no one would dare suggest that the country’s most notorious Commie traitors were innocent–especially not Simon, who closely guards the secret that his mother used to live in the same tenement as Ethel. But he can’t shake his disgust at the way the deceased mother of two is portrayed in the novel. Against his better judgment, he decides to seek out the reclusive author, Anya Partridge, who is an inmate at a mental hospital, hoping to convince her to soften her portrayal of Mrs. Rosenberg. Instead, he gets drawn into a torrid affair with the enigmatic author. And when Anya disappears, the mystery she leaves in her wake is full of as much political intrigue as the Rosenberg case itself.

This literary historical novel has an immersive, noir feel that kept me turning pages throughout the slow-boil mystery. Rich characters and difficult moral questions propel a story that lingers long after the final pages. This novel has a classic feel that will appeal to intellectually-minded adult book groups and lovers of literary fiction.

Amazon.com: The Vixen: A Novel: 9780063012141: Prose, Francine: Books

THE SILVER BLONDE by Elizabeth Ross

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Clara is ecstatic when the studio execs promote her to the film editing staff. After putting in her time in the film studio vault, she will now be a real member of the crew. It is her dream come true–a dream that would have been difficult enough for any woman to attain, let alone a German immigrant in 1946. But her triumph turns to horror when she stumbles on the body of film star Babe Bannon’s stand-in.

Everyone has a theory as to who killed poor Connie. After all, Babe has a slew of enemies in the studio and beyond, and it would be easy enough for someone to mistake the stand-in for the star. Same build, same costumes, same silver-blonde hair. But Clara isn’t convinced that Babe was the intended victim. When the cops let her return Connie’s belongings, Clara finds herself swept up in an investigation that endangers her job and brings her back in contact with the Nazi threat her family worked so hard to leave in the past.

I loved this atmospheric noir mystery! Though WWII historical fiction is ubiquitous, this novel takes a fresh look at the War (and post-War) in Hollywood and the subtle, insidious ways that ordinary people get swept up in hateful movements. There are frequent reminders of the many American Nazi sympathizers before Pearl Harbor (including famous figures like Walt Disney and Henry Ford) and the way microaggressions create a culture of discrimination. Though it is set in the past, this novel is (sadly) timely.

Adult fans of historical mysteries: do not let the YA label turn you off to this book! It is for you. Teen fans of historical fiction, noir fiction, and/or Old Hollywood will certainly enjoy the book as well, but THE SILVER BLONDE really exists in the mythical “New Adult” niche. All of the characters are 18+, some of them war veterans, struggling to advance their careers in misogynistic, antisemitic workplaces and reevaluating priorities when good career moves will take them away from family. While these themes aren’t inaccessible to teens, they will resonate most with college-age adults and 20- and 30-somethings. College book clubs will definitely want to check this one out!

Amazon.com: The Silver Blonde eBook: Ross, Elizabeth: Kindle Store

A LADY’S FORMULA FOR LOVE by Elizabeth Everett

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Violet can’t risk getting involved in a scandal. Though she retained the title of viscountess after her husband died, her “unladylike” experimentation in chemistry has left her as an object of ridicule. If it were only her own social standing at stake, she wouldn’t worry. But the social club for lady scientists depends on her good name for its survival. So when an anonymous enemy starts threatening her with violence, Violet reluctantly agrees to having a bodyguard.

Arthur has followed a strict rule throughout his career of service to the Queen: never get emotionally involved with someone he is protecting. He only broke the rule once, and it cost a man his life. But the more time he spends with the brilliant and compassionate scientist, the more difficult it becomes to maintain his distance. The mutual attraction is undeniable, and after the first slip, it becomes increasingly difficult to stay away from Violet’s bed. But he makes himself clear: they are only indulging their physical desires. They can never become emotionally involved. For a scientist and an assassin, that shouldn’t be too difficult, right?

A fun start to a new series about eccentric female scientists in the Victorian era. Lust at first sight, a bodyguard/client relationship, and a heroine with self-esteem issues may turn off readers who dislike those tropes, but I LOVED the book–especially the mutual respect of the relationship, the suspense, and the fact that the woman was the brains of the operation. Highly recommend to fans of The Brother’s Sinister, HIS AT NIGHT, and other Victorian romances about women breaking out of their “station.”

A Lady's Formula for Love by Elizabeth Everett: 9780593200629 |  PenguinRandomHouse.com: Books

THE GIRL FROM VENICE by Siobhan Daiko

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When Jewish people began to be persecuted in Italy, Lidia lost her fiance and her spot in the medical college–and soon after her father was taken, too. As she tries to find a safe haven in the Italian countryside, she will have to decide what she is willing to do–and what she’s willing to become–to keep herself safe. Sixty years later at the time of her death, her granddaughter makes a journey to the same Italian countryside to search for the truth about her grandmother’s past.

The Venetian setting of this novel sets it apart from much of the WWII fiction focused on Germany, Poland, and Austria, and will appeal to readers with a particular interest in the time period. The novel never reached the level of emotional depth I wanted in order to establish a real connection with the characters, and the modern timeline didn’t grab me. For this reason, I’d recommend THE GIRL FROM VENICE to the reader who can’t get enough WWII fiction, but not to the reader looking for the next great historical fiction novel.

The Girl from Venice by Siobhan Daiko

THE WISTERIA SOCIETY OF LADY SCOUNDRELS by India Holton

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When Cecilia learns that Lady Armitage has hired a pirate to assassinate her, she is pleased. Her late mother would be terribly proud that she finally merited an assassin. In fact, she is shaping up to be a fine pirate herself. She knows how to fly a house, how to pick a lock and a pocket, how to fight with knife, gun, or sword–in short, everything a lady needs to be a successful member of the Wisteria Society of Victorian pirates.

But as it turns out, her assassin isn’t as keen on killing her as Lady Armitage expected. In fact, Ned, as he insists she call him, warns Cecilia of a plot by her murderous father to kidnap her. Though Cecilia doesn’t trust Ned, when the rest of the Wisteria Society is shanghaied, she has no choice but to ally herself with him in order to effect a rescue. But while Cecilia may be well-versed in the art and science of piracy, she is in no way prepared for the feelings she begins to have toward Ned, and even less prepared for the feelings he seems to have toward her.

I’m pretty sure this book was written to delight me. I started laughing at the “Table of Significant Characters” and never stopped. But in addition to humor, it also checked all my boxes on what I want from a historical romance: a hero and heroine who I actually like, both independently and as a couple; a meaningful project not directly related to romance on which they can collaborate; and of course a healthy dose of swoon-worthy sexy-times. Still, as you can probably guess from the house-flying pirates, this won’t appeal to all historical romance readers. I would describe it as Sherry Thomas meets Gail Carriger. If that doesn’t help, read chapter one, and you will know if it’s for you. (And if this book is for you, we should definitely be friends. Because like I said, delighted…)

The Wisteria Society of Lady Scoundrels (Dangerous Damsels): Holton, India:  9780593200162: Amazon.com: Books

THE DUKE UNDONE by Joanna Lowell

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When Lucy stumbles upon an unconscious, drunken, and very naked man, she can’t believe her luck! Though she and the other female artists at the Royal Academy are circulating a petition to be allowed to participate in life drawing sessions, she has not yet had the opportunity to sketch a male nude. Putting modesty and Victorian propriety aside, she memorizes the features and anatomy of the gorgeous specimen–the front of him, anyway–and hurries off to paint. The resulting work is her masterpiece and the first artwork she’s been able to sell. Unfortunately, her unwitting model gets a glimpse of the picture, and even more unfortunately, he turns out to be a duke. Despite the realization that the duke is as attracted to her as she is to him, Lucy wants nothing more than to distance herself from this drunken and very possibly dangerous man and focus on her art career. But when a disingenuous politician arranges to evict her whole block from their homes, Lucy decides to blackmail the duke into helping her win over the Board of Works. It will be fine, as long as she avoids romantic entanglement. How hard can that be?

I love, love, loved this Victorian romance. Could not put it down. It has everything I look for in a steamy historical romance: an interesting and historically grounded conflict, a fierce heroine and principled if flawed hero, and so, so much sexual tension. Highly recommend to fans of Sherry Thomas and Courtney Milan!

THE FOREST OF STOLEN GIRLS by June Hur

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Hwani hasn’t returned to the island of Jeju in years—not since the Forest Incident, when she and her sister were found near the body of a murdered young woman, an incident which Hwani cannot remember.

But Hwani’s father never forgot. The woman’s murder was the one case Detective Min never solved, and the continued disappearance of young girls from the forest caused him to return to Jeju over the past five years. Until the day he disappeared. Disguised as a boy and clutching her father’s journal, Hwani returns to the village of her birth, determined to find her father and solve the mystery of the stolen girls. But when the mystery brings her to the door of her estranged sister, Hwani discovers that the forest isn’t the only source of secrets, and she begins to wonder if finding the truth of her past will be worth the cost.

Set in 15th century Korea, this historical mystery is suspenseful, atmospheric, and thought-provoking. It gripped me from start to end. Though it is YA, adult historical fiction readers will find lots to love here, too. My favorite book of the year so far, and a must-read for YA mystery or historical fiction fans!

“I loved Netflix’s BRIDGERTON, but will I like the books?”

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If you are anything like me and had already read Julia Quinn’s Bridgerton series, halfway through the first episode you had Questions…

Her debut season? A diamond of the first water? Daphne?? And why is Anthony being such a tool about her suitors? (And in general?) And wait–Daphne and Simon don’t like each other? And why is the queen involved in any of this? And who the heck is Marina Thompson? Oh her–but isn’t she…? So why…? WHAT IS HAPPENING?!?

Of course if you are like me, you also believe that “different from the book” does not mean “worse than the book,” so you quit with the comparisons and settled in to enjoy the show on its own merits.

But if you are one of the many Bridgerton viewers who had not read the book, but who watched in the series three times in a row and are now going though Bridgerton withdrawal and wondering if you should get the books… this post is for you!

The answer to your question depends on why you liked the series. So I will give a breakdown of the big picture similarities and differences (NO SPOILERS beyond Episode 1 in case you haven’t finished) so that you have an idea of whether the books will be for you.

If you love Daphne, read the books! She is if anything more lovable. Daphne is in her second season in the Marriage Mart because too many of the “good” men view her as a friend. And though the show plays on the “enemies to lovers” trope, in the books she and Simon are BFFs from the moment they meet (when they bond over Daphne punching a suitor in the face). She has turned down several suitors she wasn’t keen on by the time she meets Simon, and Anthony (who is much more likable in the books) is wholly supportive of her wishes. If he weren’t, she’d punch him in the face…

If you love Simon, you should know that he is less likable in the books. Not that he’s awful, but some of the events that happen in the book were changed slightly but deliberately in the show to make Simon look better. BUT that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t read the books. Each book has a different hero (and heroine) and honestly, Simon and Daphne aren’t my favorite couple. So if you find yourself disgusted with Simon in The Duke and I, you should still read The Viscount Who Loved Me because Anthony and Kate are awesome. (If you don’t like The Viscount Who Loved Me, you probably won’t like the rest either.)

If you love Penelope and Eloise you’ll have to wait for books 4 & 5 or skip ahead. And in the meantime, you might be annoyed at some moments of Eloise as Generic Girly Younger Sister. Don’t worry. She’ll come into her own.

If you love the whole Bridgerton family dynamic, read the books! The in-depth exploration of non-Daphne Bridgerton characters is saved for each of their specific books so don’t expect any subplots from Anthony, Benedict, Eloise, etc., but the camaraderie, affection, and FUN is there from book one. Speaking of which…

If you love the drama, be advised that there is less in the books. There are fewer subplots, and the overall tone is just lighter.

If you love the social commentary, you might like the books. The Netflix series draws on and deepens some themes that are present in the book. For example, the theme of a woman’s options and agency is present in The Duke and I, but Daphne is more confident from the start. Anthony gives Daphne her choice of suitors (acting more as a messenger to turn down proposals as she rejects them); Lady Bridgerton is head of household in all but name and Anthony defers to her; Lady Danbury is never shown as subordinate to anyone. Marina Thompson isn’t in any of the books, (though her absence plays a role in a later book). My point: though the chains of the patriarchy and societal expectations limit and direct the characters’ actions in the book, there is much less straining against the bonds.

But if you love the show specifically because of the alternate history and commentary on racism, give the books a miss. The reinvention of the racial make-up of the ton extrapolated from the historical Queen Charlotte’s possible African ancestry is exclusive to the show. In the books, you will not find the racial overtones that accompany Marina Thompson’s reception by her “elite” relatives or Simon’s view of his position in society. But you will find an occasional (unrepudiated) casual racism from the characters, like this moment in The Duke and I:

“Now look here,” Simon said hotly, “I’m not some sacrificial lamb to be slaughtered on the altar of your mother.”

“You have spent a lot of time in Africa, haven’t you?” Colin quipped.

Though likely historically accurate, such remarks will disappoint readers looking for meaningful commentary on racism either yesterday or today.