Historical Fiction

THE VALET’S SECRET by Josi S. Kilpack

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Rebecca Parker has always been a practical woman. She entered the service in an aristocratic household when she needed work, left the service when her daughter was born, and moved in with her father when her husband died. But now, with her daughter grown and in a comfortable position as a baronesses companion and her father’s abuses too severe to be borne, she is ready for a bit of freedom. Still, she never expected that freedom could mean sharing a passionate kiss with a stranger on the side of the road.

The connection between Rebecca and the mysterious valet is mutual and instantaneous. Unfortunately, Kenneth is not a valet–but rather a reluctant heir to an earldom who was seeking a bit of freedom by wandering the countryside in his valet’s clothing. Kenneth knows he should tell Rebecca the truth, but their connection is too strong and the moment passes. But his deception cannot last forever. And when the truth is revealed, will love be enough to lead two practical, duty-bound people to throw off the expectations of their classes and make their fairytale come true?

This sweet (clean) Regency romance is undeniably a Cinderella story (complete with a ball and glass slippers) yet the telling feels fresh and engaging–probably because of the loose connection to the fairytale early on and the twist of the future-earl’s deception. It is also always refreshing to see a mature couple in a Regency romance. Rather than a debutant and the rakish youth, Kilpack gives us a widow and widower in their 40s, both with grown children. As they reconsider the restrictive norms that keep them apart, they are also reconsidering their lives–how they have lived in the past and how they may be ready to break out of their society-dictated boxes and start anew. A fun, quick read for fans of clean historical romance.

THE RED PALACE by June Hur

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Hyeon worked her whole life to become a palace nurse. It wasn’t an easy path for her, especially without the support of her father, a prominent justice who barely acknowledges her and her mother, who was once his concubine. Hyeon’s success as a nurse and rise to the prestigious palace position was largely thanks to her mentor, Nurse Jeongsu.

But when a massacre at the student hospital leaves four women dead, Nurse Jeongsu is arrested under suspicion of murder. And when an anonymous pamphlet circulates accusing the Crown Prince of the murders, Hyeon realizes two terrible truths: first, that Nurse Jeongsu will be convicted and executed to divert suspicion from the Palace, and second, that Hyeon herself has unwittingly provided the prince with a false alibi by claiming to treat his illness that night. She knows she must investigate the massacre herself if she has any hope of saving her mentor from execution, even when it means defying her father and forming an unlikely alliance with the young and unconventional police inspector who seems to respect her, despite her being a woman and a commoner, but who has the power to destroy her life–or maybe break her heart. But Hyeon will risk her heart, her job, and her father’s disapproval to uncover the truth. Unfortunately, with so many bloody secrets hidden within the Palace walls, the truth may cost her life.

Suspenseful, romantic, and rich with the fascinating history of the Korean Joseon Dynasty, THE RED PALACE is perhaps my favorite June Hur novel yet! She seamlessly weaves together the story of a young woman struggling to find her place in her family and her society with a based-on-a-tragic-true-story murder mystery–plus, a swoon-worthy romance that delighted my historical-romance-loving heart. I highly recommend this novel for any YA collection and to any teen and adult fans of historical mysteries.

THE RUNAWAY DUCHESS by Joanna Lowell

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Lavinia had no choice but to marry the elderly, lecherous duke–not after the duke she was supposed to marry jilted her, exposed a family scandal, and had her father arrested. With her family disgraced and no skills to earn money except by marrying it, she grits her teeth and trudges down the aisle. But it’s what the wedding night holds that she truly dreads: not only being forced to share a bed with her loathsome husband but what that husband might do when he discovers he is not her first lover. So when a young botanist stops her on the train platform, mistaking her for a new colleague, she flees her honeymoon–and her past life.

Neal’s future wife is nothing like he expected. She more closely resembles a Society debutante than an intrepid explorer; he can hardly imagine her doing all the daring feats she describes in her memoirs. But he still fully intends to ask her to marry him after their stint collecting plants in Cornwall is complete. Surely she, too, will be looking for a like-minded, intellectual spouse. And if she agrees to be his bride, they can be married to fulfill his mother’s hopes for him before she succumbs to her cancer. As his professional relationship with his bold explorer deepens, however, Neal is in for more surprises, perhaps the biggest of which is that he is falling in love–and for reasons he never would have imagined.

Lowell made a bold choice to cast one of her previous book’s villains as her heroine–but it payed off! She matched her deeply flawed heroine with a seemingly perfect hero, only to subvert our expectations for both and somehow make us love them more. With this book, Lowell proves that the acclaim her debut earned was not a fluke. She is a new star in the historical romance genre.

FORTUNE FAVORS THE DUKE by Kristin Vayden

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When the Duke of Wesley died, he tore a hole in the lives of his loved ones–both the remarkable, business-minded woman he had planned to marry and the scholarly brother who had to give up his position at Cambridge to succeed his brother as Duke. The first time Catherine and Quin encounter one another in Hyde Park, the meeting is marked by the mutual pain of loss. But as fortune continues to throw them together, their feelings quickly shift from grief to friendship, and then–to their mutual guilt–desire. When a meddling relative tries to wrestle control of Catherine’s finances, Quin is only too eager to help her outsmart her cousin and the crone of a chaperone he has assigned her. Unfortunately, collaborating will make it that much more difficult to keep the promises they made to themselves to honor the late Duke’s memory by staying out of one another’s arms.

This is the Brother’s Sinister read-alike I’ve been waiting for! It actually captured some of my favorite elements of both Brother’s Sinister and Bridgerton: the snarky, scholarly, Cambridge-centric friend group and the unconventional heroine from the former and the strong yet meddling female relatives and elderly eccentrics of the latter. Add hilarious banter and a few sexy moments in a library, and I was sold. I highly recommend this one to fans of Courtney Milan, Sherry Thomas, Joanna Lowell, and Julia Quinn.

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