Historical Fiction and its sub-genres are my favorite books to read. Below are 11 of my favorites (one special mention) that I reviewed this year. The book did not have to be published in 2021, but had to have been reviewed by me in 2021. My review is included. You can find the links to buy the books by clicking on the covers.
10. MURDER AT WAKEHURST
After the death of her uncle, Cornelius Vanderbilt, in 1899, Emma Cross is in mourning and has no desire to accompany her cousin Neily (Cornelius Vanderbilt III) to a decadent and rousing party. The party will be held in Newport, Rhode Island, at the home of a member of one of America’s richest and most powerful families. But Neily had been estranged from his late father, and his wife Grace implores Emma to attend to help keep him out of trouble. Then, during an elaborate jousting ceremony, a distinguished judge is murdered, and Emma finds the body. Police detective Jesse Whyte does not seem to be on the case as usual. There is a new detective, and he wants no help from Emma. Emma, a reporter, continues to investigate the crime anyway, with the help of Derrick Andrews, heir to a Providence newspaper fortune. This is the ninth book in the Gilded Newport series.
This fantastic series continues with another installment, and plenty of twists, turns, and red herrings. The life of opulence lived by the Gilded Age’s privileged families is richly described. As a Vanderbilt cousin, Emma has access to elegant parties and mansions, but she is also looked down upon by some as a poor relation who has to work for a living. While sometimes hanging with the high-flyers, Emma keeps her feet firmly on the ground. Her position as an outsider with connections is an intriguing one, as she can hold her own amongst the elite, but is also accepted in the staff kitchens. This is another gripping and clever mystery about a sleuth who inhabits two worlds at once, and it will transport you to a time of luxury, greed, and the quest for power. Highly recommended.
I received a free copy of this book from Kensington Books for Historical Novels Review, the magazine of the Historical Novel Society. My review is voluntary and my opinions are my own.
9. THE SIEGE OF AN LOC
The Siege of An Loc is the story of the defense of An Loc in 1972 during the Vietnam War. It is also a love story between a South Vietnamese soldier, Trung, and Ly, a student, daughter of a rubber plantation owner. As Trung struggles to defend his country, he finds himself falling for the beautiful Ly, but do they have a chance for happiness in the midst of war? We also see the evil of communism especially personified in one of the characters, and two brothers are reunited, one from North Vietnam and one from South Vietnam.
I learned so much about the Vietnam War from this book. When I was in grade school and high school in the U.S. in the 70s and 80s, they didn’t teach us much about it. I just knew my uncle died in this war at the age of 20, and I really didn’t even know why he was there. When we would ask in the mid-70s, we were told nobody liked to talk about it. But now the author, Nguyen Trong Hien, has answered a lot of the questions. I love the fact that we see inside the war from the perspective of a South Vietnamese soldier instead of the American perspective. And we learn of the atrocities of Communism and how it takes over and annihilates a culture.
This is both a romance and a history book, and sometimes it felt as if we left the romance and entered a very detailed history book with little transition. However, the history is important for the reader to know, and the characters were interesting and well developed. The ending of the book was left open for our characters, and I wasn’t sure what happened to them after South Vietnam fell. I hope there will be a sequel.
I received a free paperback copy of this book from the author. I also downloaded a digital copy on Kindle Unlimited, where members can read books at no additional cost. My review is voluntary and my opinions are my own.
8. THE THIN PLACE
Scotland, present day. Reporter Ava is working on a story about Overtoun Bridge, outside Overtoun House in West Dunbartonshire, Scotland. Over the years, at least fifty dogs have jumped to their deaths from the bridge. Legends describe Overtoun Bridge as a “thin place,” where the boundary between Heaven and Earth is very thin. The locals will not cooperate, so Ava, pregnant with her first child, begins to investigate. Ava is also trying to get medical history from her mother, who was adopted, but she is uncooperative.
In 1929 England, Marion meets Hamish at a tea dance at the Savoy Hotel. She is swept quickly into marriage and is soon living in the huge and mostly unused Overtoun House in Scotland, sometimes visited by a very absent husband who has little love to share with her.
In 1949 in Scotland, Constance is confined to her room by her mother because she is very ill. Her mother and the doctor are the only people she sees, and she longs for contact with the outside world. When her mother brings her a puppy, some joy comes into her life.
This is a captivating but chilling historical mystery which combines the very real Overtoun house with fictional characters to create an intriguing story. The reports of dogs jumping to their deaths from Overtoun Bridge are heartbreaking but true facts that are spun into this fascinating mystery. The characters are well developed, and their connections begin to come alive. Overtoun House itself becomes a character, alternating between telling secrets and refusing to give them up. The bridge seems to live and breathe, hoping to lure captors to their deaths. This is a spellbinding novel that I highly recommend to those who enjoy historical mysteries with a touch of the paranormal.
I received a free copy of this book from the publishers via Historical Novels Review. My review is voluntary.
NOTE: The mystery of dogs jumping off of the Overtoun Bridge is very real. At least 300, if not more, dogs have inexplicably jumped off the bridge. At least 50 of them have died. If you would like to read more about this mystery, check out this link.
7. TELLING SONNY
Faby Gauthier lives in a small town in Vermont in the 1920’s. She is bored with small town living and fascinated by Vaudeville and the showbiz life. When she meets Slim White, a dancer in a traveling Vaudeville show, she quickly gets pregnant and caught up in a marriage that happens before she knows it. We follow Faby on the Vaudeville circuit, travel with her on uncomfortable train trips, and stay with her in cheap hotels as we learn about the less glamorous side of showbiz.
This is a beautifully written novel by Elizabeth Gaffreau that starts in small-town Vermont and takes us all over the Vaudeville circuit in the Eastern United States in the 1920’s. We learn a lot about Vaudeville life, sacrifice, and the loss of innocence. We are shown through Faby’s sister the life she could have had. We are also reminded of the priceless gift of family and the care of those who love us.
Gaffreau has an amazing ability to show us the reality of life behind the facade. For example, her descriptions of 1920’s telephone operators: “…where, inside, pale young women plugged and unplugged the telephone conversations of the village with bony fingers while they waited for someone to marry them.”
I would recommend this well-crafted novel to everyone who enjoys historical novels or anyone who wants to read a moving family story.
6. THE WIND CHIME
In Windsor, England, 2019, Amelia is completely without family, having lost her daughter and then her parents to serious illness. Without any surviving relatives, she is adrift and contemplates selling the family home in Windsor. When fulfilling the last request of her mother to clear out the attic, she finds some intriguing photographs of a large estate in Pembrokeshire featuring the Attwater family. When Amelia uncovers the diary of Osyth Attwater, she realizes she may have discovered some family secrets.
In Pembrokeshire, Wales, 1883, young Osyth Attwater is a dreamer and writer who awaits the gathering of the Attwaters, her storytelling family, at their oceanside mansion each year. There is a wind chime in the garden that signals the arrival of relatives, and she greatly looks forward to the tales they will tell. But then she overhears a conversation that will shatter her world.
This dual timeline novel of family secrets, fairy tales, missing pieces, and a special wind chime is both enchanting and compelling. In their separate timelines, Osyth and Amelia both search for answers. The theme of mental health, and how it was managed in 1883 versus the present, is explored. The secrets that families keep and the reasons they keep them is examined in heartbreaking detail. The pace and flow of this book are gorgeous, and we are caught up in the beauty of Wales, the magic of fairy tales, and the mystery of family secrets. With Amelia, we piece together puzzling bits of family history and try to see the whole picture. The Wind Chime will engage all of your senses as you see the gorgeous Victorian mansion, feel the heartbreak, smell the ocean air, taste the tears of grief, and hear the wind chime calling you home. This is a soul-touching and captivating read. Highly recommend.
I received a free copy of this book from Sapere Books via Historical Novels Review Magazine. My review is voluntary and my opinions are my own.
5. THE KEEPER OF HAPPY ENDINGS
n France in 1939, Soline is working with her mother in their dress shop preparing wedding dresses with “happy endings.” Her mother, who is known as “The Dress Witch,” stitches happiness into the gowns with family spells and a little magic. Soline is a talented designer who does not feel she has the family’s magical gift. She dreams of leaving the dress shop and becoming famous for designs of her own. Then the Nazis arrive. While working as a volunteer in the hospital, Soline meets Anson, an American ambulance driver.
In 1985, Rory is barely existing. Her life has been on hold for months while she waits for word of her fiancé, who has been kidnapped while working for Doctors Without Borders. Then she awakens a little as she sees a building that speaks to her, and begins to plan the art gallery that she has long dreamed of. Soline is also living in Boston in 1985. Her dress shop has been destroyed in a fire, and she has injuries that will not allow her to sew again. She spends her time dreaming of a lost love and an unused wedding dress.
This is a beautiful story of two heartbroken women whose worlds meet at a crucial time. The main characters, Soline and Rory, will reach out from the page and touch your heart. The romance between Soline and Anson in Nazi- occupied France is touching and real. The description of their work for the French resistance is thrilling and mesmerizing. In 1985, it is a joy to watch as the cautious friendship between Rory and Soline blossoms and grows. This intriguing novel is magically woven together with sorrow, surprises, and happiness, just like the wedding gowns of “The Dress Witch.”
4. A PECULIAR COMBINATION
A Peculiar Combination by Ashley Weaver is the first book in the new Electra McDonnell series, which is set in World War II England. Electra (Ellie) belongs to a family of thieves. Her Uncle Mick is a master safecracker, and she and her cousins, Toby and Colm, have learned everything they know from him. With Toby and Colm off fighting in the war, it is up to Ellie and Uncle Mick to keep supporting the family. When a house robbery goes bad, Ellie finds herself working for a government official, Major Ramsey, in order to keep herself and Uncle Mick out of jail. Their first mission leads to more as it becomes clear a traitor is at work and German spies are involved.
This is an engaging and addictive historical thriller with a touch of romance. I immediately connected with these characters, especially Ellie and Uncle Mick. Ellie is an intriguing and complex individual. She is a thief and safecracker, but has also been to finishing school. She can operate in any level of society, which makes her a perfect thief and a perfect spy. Uncle Mick is a locksmith by day and safecracker by night, but he has a moral code, even as a thief, that he will not break. He has passed that code onto Ellie. Ellie’s missions into high society with the Major are thrilling and fun to watch. They are a reminder that World War II was also fought silently by spies on both sides. Fans of historical thrillers and strong female characters are going to love this World War II spy adventure. Highly recommend.
I received a free copy of this book from Minotaur Books for review in Historical Novels Review Magazine. My opinions are voluntary and are my own.
3. AUGUSTINA DE ARAGÓN
Gail Meath brings a legend to life in this beautiful historical romance/thriller based on the life of Agustina Raimunda Maria Saragossa, or Agustina de Aragón, also known as “The Spanish Joan of Arc.” We learn the true story of Agustina’s heroic acts during the First Siege of Zaragosa, her life as a soldier and prisoner, and her romance with her beloved Juan Roca. Set in Barcelona and then Zaragosa, and other points in Spain, we meet Agustina as a girl and then follow her into womanhood, motherhood, and war.
The author’s meticulous research into the life and customs of early 1800s Spain is obvious, as Agustina’s world comes alive. The reader will feel as if they are there, visiting the marketplace and working alongside Agustina in her father’s bladesmith shop. The love story between Agustina and Roca is very well done, and their passion and dedication to each other are painted across every page.
When danger arrives in the form of the Napoleon-led French Army, we can see the bloody battles and the savagery of the enemy, as well as the bravery of the Spanish people, as they fight off onslaught after onslaught. The terrible price of war is shown again and again, and the reader will weep along with Agustina as she faces unspeakable loss. The author’s knowledge of the topic is impressive, and I learned so much about Napoleon’s attacks on and eventual takeover of Spain. Although Agustina is famous for her acts during the First Siege of Zaragosa, she was also a mother, soldier, and prisoner of war, and it all comes alive in this novel. The ending is absolutely intriguing, and not to be missed.
I require two things from historical fiction. The first is that I be transported to the time and place being described. There is no question I felt transported to marketplaces, battlefields, and even prison in this fantastic novel. The second is that I learn something, and this book introduced me to Agustina herself, and then taught me much about the Napoleonic wars.
Agustina De Aragón introduces us to a compelling real-life legend, takes us into her world, and shows us the realities of war. It is a must read for fans of strong female characters. If you have never heard of Agustina, this book will introduce you in an unforgettable way.
2. THE FAR AWAY GIRL
n 1976, five-year-old Rita is ripped away from the only family she has ever known and is taken to Georgetown, Guyana, to live with her father, Jitty Miraj. A wild child, she surrounds herself with animals and books, and shares everything with her diary, a gift from her father. Her father becomes her world, and she forgets her past. When Doomsday comes, and she meets Jitty’s new wife Chandra, Rita is told that she is not good enough. Chandra is embarrassed of Rita’s African and Amerindian roots, her curly hair, and the fact that her parents weren’t married. Rita is quickly set off to the side. Then a chance to visit her mother’s family presents itself. Will Rita finally learn the truth her father will never tell? How did her mother die? This is the coming of age story of Rita Miraj, from five years old to adulthood.
This is an absolutely gorgeous, soul-touching book that I could not put down. We are immediately drawn into Rita’s life and grow up with her as she learns to cope with a weak but manipulative father and his empty promises. Words are her gift, and we are gifted with her poems and diary entries. Music, movies, and political/historical events of the 1970s and 1980s are relayed through Rita, Jitty, and flashbacks to Rita’s mother Cassie. The lush beauty, diverse wildlife, and rich history of the Pomeroon River area are described in vivid detail. Rita has a deeply moving and soul- changing moment on Shell Beach watching a turtle lay her eggs, and I was drawn in to her overwhelming wonder and joy. The evolution of Rita’s heart, mind, and goals as she grows and learns is so well captured here. This book was an unforgettable, magical joy to read. Highly recommend.
I received a free copy from Bookouture for Historical Novels Review. I also purchased a copy to support this amazing book. My opinions are my own.
- UNDER THE BAYOU MOON
After leaving her home in Alabama, Ellie Fields arrives in Bernadette, Louisiana, in 1949 for her new teaching job. The people of this town do not trust outsiders, who have threatened both their language and their culture. But as Ellie settles into her job, she is accepted by almost everyone, except for the school board and a greedy politician. When Ellie meets Raphe, he introduces her to the legendary white alligator who inhabits the waters, and he and Ellie soon begin a relationship. When a huge bounty is offered for the gator and an evil man tries to destroy the town, Raphe and Ellie will find their courage tested.
This is a gorgeous tale that draws the reader in with almost musical writing. The lonely character of Raphe, the loyal and determined Ellie, and the beautiful town with its rich history are all so well described. The threat to the white alligator, “L’Esprit Blanc,” mirrors the threat to the entire town and its culture from outsiders only interested in conformity and money. The characters, whether endearing, challenging, or infuriating, are beautifully composed. Through the weaving together of violin music, tall tales, chirping crickets, and the beauty and culture of the Bayou, Valerie Fraser Luesse has created a lyrical and masterful literary composition that you won’t want to put down.
I received a free copy of this book from Revell Books via the Historical Novel Society. My review is voluntary and my opinions are my own.
SPECIAL MENTION: SONGBIRD
Since I’m the editor of this book, I thought it might be biased to put it in the top 10, but I wanted everyone to know that this is an awesome book! Songbird has it all–A mystery, New York City history, and a German Shepherd! Be sure and check it out by clicking on the cover. See my review below:
This is a fantasically fun cozy mystery set in 1923 New York. The characters don’t just jump off the page, they pull you into their world. Jax’s sidekick, Ace, the wonderfully charming German Shepherd, will make his way into your heart in no time. The setting in 1923 New York City is well described and transports us back to that place and time. The portrayal of Coney Island makes you feel as if you are there, hanging on for dear life in the Steeplechase or winning a prize in the baseball toss. The mystery is so well done, with puzzles and red herrings that will keep you guessing. The main characters are complex and interesting. Jax, private investigator and former cop, has his own secrets to keep, and Laura’s talents are revealed to expand way beyond singing.
There is a sweet romance, but the complex and fascinating mystery is the star of the show, along with the lovable Ace. I highly recommend this book, the first in the Jax Diamond Mysteries series, to all mystery fans and to anyone who loves reading about our canine friends.
I received a free copy of this book from the author. My review is voluntary and my opinions are my own.