In the seventeenth century, Tyll Ulenspiegel is a young boy growing up in a German village in the horrendous wake of the Thirty Years’ War. Tyll’s father secretly practices alchemy and magic, and when his father is discovered, Tyll must flee for his life. He becomes part of a traveling carnival, where magic and adventure are part of daily life. Tyll is the newest book from Kehlmann, who has won major writing awards in his native Germany.
Anyone who has ever tended a fireplace knows that soot sticks to everything, but the “soot” here is the troubling result of an experiment with “smoke.” In the early twentieth century, in an England that has been fundamentally changed by the release of smoke—which allowed people to cast off sin and mingle their emotions—a panoply of characters contest each other’s claims to soot. Winning the struggle will grant one of them enormous power, but at what cost?
Code Name Hélène
Nancy Wake is living a life denied to most women by society’s limitations between both world wars. After leaving her native Australia, she goes to Paris and begins writing for the Hearst newspapers. But as late 1930’s France is threatened by fascism on multiple fronts, she steps into a new role as a spy. In fact, she becomes four different spies with four different code names. Based on the real Nancy Wake, Lawhon’s novel uncovers a world of espionage in which women went into battle against Hitler.
The Words I Never Wrote
Juno Lambert’s purchase of a 1931 typewriter results in the discovery of documents about sisters Cordelia and Irene. When Irene marries a German industrialist with ties to the Nazis in 1936, Cordelia writes her letters in an effort to warn her sister about what Cordelia has discovered in her work as a journalist. But the documents are incomplete, and they hint at a life-changing secret. Can Juno uncover all that transpired between the two sisters and reveal the long-buried tale?
The King at the Edge of the World
It’s 1601, and England’s Queen Elizabeth is fading. She has no heir, and her closest relative, James VI (and son of Mary, Queen of Scots) should be the perfect choice. The son of a Catholic queen, he professes Protestantism in public, but it is feared that he practices Catholicism, and the religious wars have already taken thousands of lives in Elizabeth’s kingdom. Elizabeth’s spy masters send Mahmoud Ezzedine, a Muslim physician, to test James, despite Ezzedine’s desire to leave England and return to his family.
The King's Justice
Susan Elia MacNeal
Maggie Hope once served as Winston Churchill’s secretary, but in 1942, she is a secret agent. When one of the world’s most rare violins, a Stradivarius, goes missing, Maggie takes a break from spy work to turn detective. But as her investigation into the missing violin digs deeper, she begins to notice parallels in her case to one in which a number of men have been murdered. Is there a serial killer at work? And what connects these murders to the sought-after musical instrument?
Set in the Antebellum South, this debut novel by Afia Atakora introduces readers to an unforgettable mother, Miss May Belle, who works as as a healer while she is held as an enslaved person. Her daughter, Rue, doesn’t want to follow in her mother’s footsteps as a healer. But the birth of an “accursed child” presents challenges that will test both women even as they contend with the outbreak of the war. This is a sweeping story that honors the loving bonds between mothers and daughters.
The Book of Lost Friends
Lisa Wingate has thrilled readers with her deep dives into forgotten histories. Here, she takes readers into the world of nineteenth-century “lost friend” advertisements, where those who had been enslaved sought their lost family members after the Civil War. In rich detail, Wingate brings the stories of these searchers to life, and illuminates a dark period in our nation’s story.
The Girl in White Gloves
Before Meghan Markle left acting to marry her prince, there was Grace Kelly. Kelly grew up unknown in Philadelphia before becoming one of the screen’s biggest icons. Her life in Hollywood is glamorous and exciting, but when she meets a prince, she must make a choice between her passion for acting and her love for one of Europe’s royals.
Red Letter Days
Phoebe Adler’s dream comes true as her talent brings her lots of attention as a Hollywood screenwriter. But when she is denounced as a Communist and blackballed, Phoebe leaves for London. There, she struggles to pick up the pieces of her life until she meets a fellow American exile, Hannah Woolfson. Hannah and Phoebe form a dangerous working alliance as they fight to clear Phoebe’s name.
And They Called It Camelot
Stephanie Marie Thornton
We all think we know the life of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, the elegant icon who charmed the world as President Kennedy’s First Lady. But in her vivid rendering of a woman who, at a young age, was widowed by an assassin’s bullet in 1963, Stephanie Marie Thornton tells Jackie’s story beyond what you think you know. Even though it’s been nearly sixty years since the Kennedy White House, it turns out there are still amazing stories to be told.
Deacon King Kong
In 1969, a church deacon enters a housing project, and then, in front of witnesses, draws a gun to kill a drug dealer. But as everyone affected by the shooting—the victim’s relatives, the neighbors, the witnesses, and the police—grapples with the reasons why a man of the church would be driven to such violence, secrets come to light that change how they see the crime. James McBride infuses his novel with a humor and warmth that will pull readers along into his tale.
A Tender Thing
As she grows up in 1950s Wisconsin, Eleanor O’Hanlon cultivates a love for performance and theatre culture. She travels to New York, where she attracts the attention of a famous musical composer who wants to make her the star of his new show. But the show’s focus on an interracial romance ignites public protests, and as Eleanor’s co-star is targeted, she fights for their rights to a creative life.
The Blossom and the Firefly
Sherri L. Smith
Two teenagers growing up in 1945 Tokyo are tested by difficult demands that are part of Japan’s war effort. Taro has a talent as a violinist, but he is also expected to serve as a kamikaze pilot. Hana is struggling to overcome the trauma of a bombing raid that left her buried alive. But as the two meet and begin a romance, they are compelled to serve their country while trying to preserve their love.
Pixie Pushes On
In this laugh-out loud novel for middle readers, Tamara Bundt introduces Pixie, a young girl with a bad temper who lives on a farm in 1940s America. When her beloved sister contracts polio, Pixie reacts by acting out at school and at home. But the birth of a runt baby lamb who needs Pixie’s constant attention helps her to see life from a new perspective that opens her eyes to the larger world.
All the Days Past, All the Days to Come
Mildred D. Taylor
Mildred Taylor introduced readers of Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry to the beginnings of the demand for Black equality and was awarded a Newberry Medal for a book hailed as genius. In her latest YA novel, she focuses on Cassie Logan, who journeys from Toledo to California, attends law school in Boston, and travels back home to Mississippi to participate in the voting rights struggle of the 1960s. Taylor completes the family saga that has chronicled much of the twentieth century.
The Lions of Fifth Avenue
In the New York of 1913, Laura Lyons lives a comfortable life as the wife of the superintendent of the New York Public Library. But she wants more from life and bucking tradition, so she enrolls in the Columbia School of Journalism. While writing about New York, she discovers the Heterodoxy Club, a group of women who discuss and fight for women’s rights, reproductive freedom, and suffrage. Eighty years later, a librarian will discover a series of secrets that will reveal Lyons’ incredible story.
The Book of Longings
Sue Monk Kidd
Ana is born into a wealthy family with ties to the rulers of first-century Galilee. She rebels against her family’s strictures by becoming a scholar who writes about neglected women. When she meets eighteen-year old Jesus, the pair fall in love. In Nazareth, Ana and Jesus become caught up in the increasing unrest against Roman occupation. Sue Monk Kidd combines meticulous research and her genius for storytelling into this epic tale of a history that changed the world.
Mistress of Rome
In first-century Rome, a Judaean woman, Thea, is held in slavery by a wealthy and spoiled young heiress. Despite the efforts to break her, Thea finds solace in making music, and it isn’t long before she draws the attention of one of Rome’s greatest gladiators. But her mistress seeks to destroy the lovers’ bonds, and Thea is cast out of the house. She must carve out a life for herself if she is to survive in Rome, and performing her music brings her into the orbit of powerful men who seek out her voice.
The Lost Diary of Venice
Rose Newlin works as a book restorer. When she is handed a sixteenth-century treatise on art by the painter she has just met, she discovers that the treatise is a palimpsest, a book that has been written on top of another book. As she and the painter fall in love, she uncovers the 500-year-old story of a passionate love affair that took place against a backdrop of fear and war in Venice. Can Rose’s relationship survive what she uncovers?
An Irish-American veteran of the American Civil War travels to Manchester, England in order to join up with the Fenians, radicals who are willing to use any tactic in their fight for Irish independence. In Manchester, James O’Connor, who has left Ireland seeking a new life with the Manchester Police Department, is handed the job of rooting out Fenian activity. When the O’Connor’s nephew comes to live with him, he brings disruption that will force O’Connor to confront his past in Ireland. Richard Ford describes this novel as a “suspense-filled noir novel.”
Fans of historical fiction love reading compelling stories that also shine a light on long-forgotten times. The next few months will bring a cornucopia of historical tales that will take readers—both adults and children—back to times as disparate as first-century Galilee or 1960s-era Mississippi. Whether Edwardian horror is your stimulant of choice, or you’d rather sip a cup of tea while reading about the ancient Romans, prepare to take your pick from the novels gathered here. For even more wonderful works of historical fiction, including ones that make great gifts, check out our list of Best Historical Fiction Books of 2020. Here at Read it Forward, we love losing ourselves in stories of past tragedies and triumphs.
Featured image: @OlgaM. via Twenty20