January through March of 2022 is chock full of great historical fiction titles. I am highlighting my favorites that published in these three months – the ones that I have read and loved. I have interviewed or will be interviewing a number of the authors on this list in the coming month so you can keep an eye out for those episodes - I put an asterisk by each author that I am scheduled to chat with about his or her book.
Short summaries are included from the publishers’ descriptions on each book to provide some detail on the selections followed by my own thoughts about the books. And as always, shop local or use my affiliate Bookshop.org links below which support independent bookstores and the production of my podcast.
Angels of the Pacific by Elise Hooper*
Summary: The Philippines, 1941. Tess Abbott, an American Army nurse, has fled the hardships of the Great Depression at home for the glamour and adventure of Manila, one of the most desirable postings in the world, but everything changes when the Japanese Imperial Army invades with lightning speed and devastating results. Tess and her band of nurses serve on the front lines until captured as prisoners of war and held behind the high stone walls of Manila's Santo Tomas Internment Camp for four long years. As the Japanese occupation of her beloved homeland commences, Flor Dalisay, a Filipina university student, will be drawn into the underground network of resistance and discover reserves of courage, resilience, and leadership she never knew she possessed.
My thoughts: I knew very little about this part of World War 2 and enjoyed learning about what these poor souls endured though it is a tough read at times. Hooper’s writing is beautiful and dropped me right into the lives of these courageous women and demonstrated their bravery in extraordinarily difficult circumstances. I have loved all of her books, but I think this one is her best yet.
Summary: Austria 1767: Maria Carolina Charlotte knows her position as a Habsburg archduchess will inevitably force her to leave her home, her family, and her cherished sister, Antoinette, whose companionship she values over all else. The Habsburg family is celebrating a great triumph: Charlotte’s older sister, Josepha, has been promised to King Ferdinand IV of Naples. Before she can journey to her new home, Josepha contracts smallpox and dies. Shocked, Charlotte is forced to face an unthinkable new reality: she must now marry Ferdinand in her sister’s stead. Bereft and alone, Charlotte finds that her life in Naples is more complicated than she could ever have imagined. Ferdinand is weak and feckless, and a disastrous wedding night plunges her into despair. Overwhelmed, she asks her brother Leopold, now the Holy Roman Emperor, to send help—which he does in the form of John Acton, a handsome military man twenty years Charlotte’s senior who is tasked with overseeing the Navy.
My thoughts: While everyone is familiar with Marie Antoinette, her sister, Queen Charlotte of Naples, is much less renowned. Antoinette’s Sister brings Queen Charlotte and Naples vividly to life as well as portraying the Habsburg family’s influence and domination in the political arena during this time period, creating a fascinating and compelling read.
A Ballad of Love and Glory by Reyna Grande*
Summary: The year is 1846. After the annexation of Texas, the US Army marches south to provoke war with México over the disputed Río Grande boundary. Ximena Salomé is a gifted Mexican healer who dreams of building a family with the man she loves. But when Texas Rangers storm her ranch and shoot her husband dead, her dreams are burned to ashes. Vowing to honor her husband’s memory, Ximena uses her healing skills as an army nurse on the frontlines of the ravaging war. Meanwhile, John Riley, an Irish immigrant in the Yankee army desperate to help his family escape the famine devastating his homeland, is sickened by the unjust war and the unspeakable atrocities against his countrymen by nativist officers. In a bold act of defiance, he swims across the Río Grande and joins the Mexican Army—a desertion punishable by execution. When Ximena and John meet, a dangerous attraction blooms between them. Swept up by forces with the power to change history, they fight not only for the fate of a nation but for their future together.
My thoughts: Grande’s book is chock full of historical details, many that I knew nothing about before reading her book. To me, this is the gift of historical fiction, introducing the reader to periods and events with which he or she is unfamiliar. This is a great read.
Summary: Romania, 1989. Communist regimes are crumbling across Europe. Seventeen-year-old Cristian Florescu dreams of becoming a writer, but Romanians aren’t free to dream; they are bound by rules and force. Amidst the tyrannical dictatorship of Nicolae Ceaușescu in a country governed by isolation and fear, Cristian is blackmailed by the secret police to become an informer. He’s left with only two choices: betray everyone and everything he loves—or use his position to creatively undermine the most notoriously evil dictator in Eastern Europe. Cristian risks everything to unmask the truth behind the regime, give voice to fellow Romanians, and expose to the world what is happening in his country. But what is the cost of freedom?
My thoughts: Sepetys vividly depicts life in Romania during the 1980s, a period many will be unfamiliar with, and how one man managed to fool the world for far too long. I have not stopped thinking about this book since I finished it, and it will definitely be one of my top reads of the year; it is truly stunning.
Summary: Grand Duchess Olga Romanov comes of age amid a shifting tide for the great dynasties of Europe. But even as unrest simmers in the capital, Olga is content to live within the confines of the sheltered life her parents have built for and her three sisters: hiding from the world on account of their mother’s ill health, their brother Alexei’s secret affliction, and rising controversy over Father Grigori Rasputin. Olga’s only escape from the seclusion of Alexander Palace comes from her aunt, who takes pity on her and her sister Tatiana, inviting them to grand tea parties amid the shadow court of Saint Petersburg. But as war approaches, the palaces of Russia are transformed. Olga and her sisters trade their gowns for nursing habits, assisting in surgeries and tending to the wounded bodies and minds of Russia’s military officers. As troubling rumors about her parents trickle in from the Front, Olga dares to hope that a budding romance might survive whatever the future may hold. But when tensions run high and supplies run low, the controversy over Rasputin grows into fiery protest, and calls for revolution threaten to end 300 years of Romanov rule.
My thoughts: The Last Grand Duchess delves into the buildup to the Romanovs’ demise, the numerous factors that contributed, and what life was like for them as their world closed in around them, while breathing life into the family, particularly the children who were punished for the behavior of their out-of-touch parents. I learned so much as I read this gripping account of the buildup to the Romanovs’ execution; this book is a must read for anyone interested in history.
Summary: When twenty-seven-year-old Joan Bergstrom sends a fan letter--as well as a gift of saffron--to fifty-nine-year-old Imogen Fortier, a life-changing friendship begins. Joan lives in Los Angeles and is just starting out as a writer for the newspaper food pages. Imogen lives on Camano Island outside Seattle, writing a monthly column for a Pacific Northwest magazine. As the two women commune through their letters, they build a closeness that sustains them through the Cuban Missile Crisis, the assassination of President Kennedy, and the unexpected in their own lives. Because of her correspondence with Joan, Imogen's decades-long marriage blossoms into something new and exciting, and in turn, Joan learns that true love does not always come in the form we expect it to.
My thoughts: Love & Saffron will be in my top reads of the year; it is such a fabulous read. Incorporating the history of the era, food, and personal tidbits, the women bond and become close friends as they correspond about their lives. Filled to the brim with humor and heart, Love & Saffron is a joy from start to finish. I highly recommend it!
Summary: For the past six years, under the moniker Angelica, Lillian was one of the most sought-after artists’ models in New York City. But when her mother dies, a grieving Lillian is rudderless and desperate—the work has dried up and a looming scandal has left her entirely without a safe haven. So when she stumbles upon an employment opportunity at the Frick mansion, she jumps at the chance. But the longer she works as a private secretary to the imperious and demanding Helen Frick, the more deeply her life gets intertwined with that of the family. Nearly fifty years later, English model Veronica Weber has her own chance to make her career within the walls of the former Frick residence, now converted into one of New York City’s most impressive museums. But when she—along with a charming intern/budding art curator named Joshua—is dismissed from the Vogue shoot taking place at the Frick Collection, she chances upon a series of hidden messages in the museum: messages that will lead her and Joshua on a hunt that could not only solve Veronica’s financial woes, but could finally reveal the truth behind a decades-old murder in the infamous Frick family.
My thoughts: The Magnolia Palace starts slowly but then gains momentum as Davis weaves the Frick family members into the story and provides interesting details and stories about the odd family who created one of New York City’s finest museums. I love the Frick Collection and enjoyed learning more about the Frick family themselves. This is Fiona’s best book yet.
On a Night of a Thousand Stars by Andrea Yaryura Clark
Summary: New York, 1998. Santiago Larrea, a wealthy Argentine diplomat, is holding court alongside his wife, Lila, and their daughter, Paloma, a college student and budding jewelry designer, at their annual summer polo match and soiree. All seems perfect in the Larreas’ world—until an unexpected party guest from Santiago's university days shakes his usually unflappable demeanor. The woman's cryptic comments spark Paloma’s curiosity about her father’s past, of which she knows little. When the family travels to Buenos Aires for Santiago's UN ambassadorial appointment, Paloma is determined to learn more about his life in the years leading up to the military dictatorship of 1976. With the help of a local university student, Franco Bonetti, an activist member of H.I.J.O.S.—a group whose members are the children of the desaparecidos, or the “disappeared,” men and women who were forcibly disappeared by the state during Argentina’s “Dirty War”—Paloma unleashes a chain of events that not only leads her to question her family and her identity, but also puts her life in danger.
My thoughts: I have read very little set in Argentina and relished learning about Argentinian politics during the time period and understanding more about the “disappeared.” Clark’s writing is gorgeous and lyrical, and I found this one hard to put down.
Peach Blossom Spring by Melissa Fu
Summary: It is 1938 in China and, as a young wife, Meilin’s future is bright. But with the Japanese army approaching, Meilin and her four year old son, Renshu, are forced to flee their home. Relying on little but their wits and a beautifully illustrated hand scroll, filled with ancient fables that offer solace and wisdom, they must travel through a ravaged country, seeking refuge. Years later, Renshu has settled in America as Henry Dao. Though his daughter is desperate to understand her heritage, he refuses to talk about his childhood. How can he keep his family safe in this new land when the weight of his history threatens to drag them down? Yet how can Lily learn who she is if she can never know her family’s story?
My thoughts: Spanning decades and continents, this gorgeous historical fiction saga reveals that one’s past is never quite forgotten and that physically leaving a place does not erase the mental scars. This is a beautiful read.
Sisters of Night and Fog by Erika Robuck*
Summary: 1940. In a world newly burning with war, and in spite of her American family’s wishes, Virginia decides to stay in occupied France with her French husband. She’s sure that if they keep their heads down they’ll make it through. But as the call to resist the enemy grows around her, Virginia must decide if she's willing to risk everything to help those in need. Nineteen-year-old Violette is a crack shot with an unquenchable spirit of adventure, and she's desperate to fight the Nazis however she can. When her mother sends her to find an exiled soldier, Violette meets the man who will change her life. Then tragedy strikes, and Britain’s clandestine war organization—the Special Operations Executive—learns of Violette’s dual citizenship and adept firearm handling and starts to recruit her. But Violette is no stranger to loss and must decide whether the cost of defiance is too great a price to pay.
My thoughts: This is a TOUGH read; one that I doubt I would have picked up if I did not like the author’s books so much. Virginia and Violette are incredibly brave women whose stories deserved to be told. I often wonder as I read these types of books how I would have fared in similar situations; I doubt as well as these two women. This is a book well worth reading but have tissues at the ready.
Summary: Maddie Sykes is a burgeoning seamstress who’s just arrived in Bright Leaf, North Carolina—the tobacco capital of the South—where her aunt has a thriving sewing business. Bright Leaf is a prosperous wonderland in full technicolor bloom, and Maddie is dazzled by the bustle of the crisply uniformed female factory workers, the palatial homes, and, most of all, her aunt’s glossiest clientele: the wives of the powerful tobacco executives. When a series of unexpected events thrusts Maddie into the role of lead dressmaker for the town’s most influential women, she scrambles to produce their ornate gowns for the biggest party of the season. But she soon learns that Bright Leaf isn’t quite the carefree paradise that it seems: A trail of misfortune follows many of the women, including substantial health problems. Although Maddie is quick to believe that this is a coincidence, she inadvertently uncovers evidence that suggests otherwise.
My thoughts: Myers detailed descriptions of working in a cigarette factory combined with the hindsight of understanding the harm knowingly caused by tobacco and tobacco executives make this a compelling and sometimes haunting read. I haven’t read many stories about the tobacco industry and its refusal to acknowledge to the public the harm caused by cigarettes.
The White Girl by Tony Birch*
Summary: Odette Brown has lived her whole life on the fringes of a small country town. After her daughter disappeared and left her with her granddaughter Sissy to raise on her own, Odette has managed to stay under the radar of the welfare authorities who are removing fair-skinned Aboriginal children from their families. When a new policeman arrives in town, determined to enforce the law, Odette must risk everything to save Sissy and protect everything she loves.
My thoughts: Birch does a thorough job explaining what it was like to live as an Aboriginal person in the 1960s and the countless hardships they endured while also weaving these heartbreaking details into a beautiful tale of family and the lengths people will go to in order to protect each other. I loved Odette, and her strength and perseverance against all odds will stay with me for a long time. It is a very powerful novel.