Categories
Past Tense

Historical Witches in Fiction

What spells Halloween quite like witches? Nothing. And while I’ve been trying to have some fun with themed posts this October on horror and Halloween related topics, none of them are quite as perfect as witches. And what makes them especially appropriate for a historical fiction newsletter is the fact that there is so much history tied up in the idea of witchcraft.

From the burning of accused witches in 16th century Denmark following the reformation to the infamous Salem Witch Trials in Salem, Massachusetts, in the late 17th century, a belief in malevolent witches wasn’t in question for much of modern history. Of course, these narratives are often also wrapped up in the oppression–or, conversely, liberation–of women. That’s appropriate since the historical persecution of witches focused primarily on women, especially women who defied societal expectations and standards of the time. These types of stories often have a lot going on under the surface, and these five are particularly great examples of witch narratives in historical fiction.

The Mercies Book Cover

The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

A terrible storm off the coast of Finnmark, Norway in 1617 leaves the Artic community almost entirely without men. But for the survivors, life must go on. A community almost entirely made of women, though, especially women surviving and thriving on their own, is a threat. And for the Scotsman sent in to root out witchcraft, it is surely a sign of the depravity that has taken hold of the village. In the midst of this witch hunt, his young wife and a local villager named Maren find a surprising closeness which could put both of them at risk–even as it brings them comfort in cold and difficult times.

The Manningtree Witches Book Cover

The Manningtree Witches by A. K. Blakemore

Puritanical values have gripped the English countryside in the 17th century, leaving one small town primed for accusations of witchcraft. And especially for someone like Rebecca West, who lives alone with her mother, both fatherless and husbandless, it is a dangerous time to be different. When a newcomer identifying himself as the Witchfinder General starts asking questions about women on the fringes of society, the future Rebecca had hoped to build for herself becomes altogether uncertain. More likely, she’ll wind up imprisoned or worse with this Witchfinder General sniffing around.

Conjure Women Book Cover

Conjure Women by Afia Atakora

Rue is not a witch. She is her mother’s daughter, raised to be a midwife and healer. And when things go wrong in the village, when a child is born differently or someone suffers, she is often blamed. The truth is, Rue is hiding a dangerous secret. But it’s not the one her neighbors are starting to believe. Rue is no witch, but she is harboring someone who could destroy their way of life forever if she–or the truth–ever came out.

Everyone Knows Your Mother is a Witch Book Cover

Everyone Knows Your Mother is a Witch by Rivka Galchen

Did you know that the mother of 17th-century astronomer Johannes Kepler was accused of witchcraft? This was likely done in retribution for his religious beliefs, and though Kepler defended his mother himself, she was arrested for fourteen months before he could secure her release.

But this is not Johannes story; this is Katharina’s. After being accused of witchcraft by a neighbor, the aging widow seeks the help of a literature neighbor to write down her tale. Determined to fight back and tell her side of the story, Katharina recounts the events surround the accusation–which she finds ridiculous–in her clever and irreverent voice. It’s one of the most fun and amusing historical fiction books about witchcraft trials / accusations I’ve ever come across, and that’s all down to the brilliant way in which Galchen depicts Katharina.

The Red of His Shadow Book Cover

The Red of His Shadow by Mayra Montero, translated Edith Grossman

Based on true events, The Red of His Shadow takes place following Holy Week in Haitian communities of the Dominican Republic. It is a time when the sugar cane harvesters can lose themselves in the fervor of Voudon. But amidst the festival, a Voudon priestess and a rival Voudon priest begin an affair that ends in what the Dominican police would eventually rule a crime of passion.

MORE FROM AROUND THE WEB:

Learn about the real women behind the Vardø witch trials.

The history of weird women being portrayed as witches in chaotic seventeenth-century England in conversation with A. K. Blakemore’s The Manningtree Witches.

An interview with Afia Atakora about Conjure Women and folk medicine.

BOOK RIOT RECS:


That’s it for now, folx! Stay subscribed for more stories of yesteryear.

If you want to talk books (historical or otherwise), you can find me @rachelsbrittain on Instagram, Goodreads, Litsy, and occasionally Twitter.

Right now I’m reading The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones and Vespertine by Margaret Rogerson. What about you?

Categories
Past Tense

Historical Horror for the Haunting Season

Horror and Halloween go hand in hand. In fact, October is one of the few times of year that I find myself actively seeking out horror to read. The rest of the year, thrillers are usually more my speed. But I can’t deny that a childhood full of Halloween themed movies made me crave some slightly creepier fare come October. And when you think about the origins of gothic literature and the idea of old haunted houses, it’s probably no surprise that there’s some great historical horror out there.

The intersection of historical fiction and horror also provides a space to explore the injustices of the past. Slavery, racism, sexism, and homophobia, though not all as distant remnants of the past as we might like, can be brought into particular relief through the horror lens. These things are, after all, horrifying, often leaving the recipients of them traumatized just as surely as anything of supernatural means would. And though some of these books contain ghosts or other supernatural components, it is the human element that is often the most horrifying.

These books are classified as horror for a reason–they deal with some pretty horrifying ideas and topics. Listing out all the potential trigger warnings would be a challenge to say the least, so if you’re concerned about anything in particular I recommend checking Goodreads reviews. This Book Riot post also shares some great tips on finding trigger warnings for books.

Sin Eater Book Cover

Sin Eater by Megan Campisi

In an alternate 16th century England, a young girl is given a life sentence as a sin eater. For the crime of stealing bread, she will forever be shunned by society as a woman who eats ritual foods symbolizing the sins of the dead. Apprenticed to an older sin eater, May must make her way in a cruel world that refuses to acknowledge or speak to her. But when her mentor is tortured and killed, she is drawn into a deadly royal plot and must turn the very role that has been used to subjugated her into her power.

The Little Stranger Book Cover

The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

Master of historical horror and gothic literature, Sarah Water’s paints a chilling ghost story in The Little Stranger. A rural doctor is called to look in on a family living in an old Georgian home falling into ruins. They’re certainly haunted by something, but it is merely a dying way of life in postwar England, or something altogether more sinister? Creepy and atmospheric, this novel is a great example of gothic horror.

Beloved Book Cover

Beloved by Toni Morrison

As an escaped slave, Seethe has found freedom. But she’s never truly free from the past. Haunted by memories of her early years at Sweet Home where she experienced so many horrors, she struggles to stay in the present. The present, though, is filled with its own hauntings, especially that of her baby, dead and nameless, and the teenage girl who shows up claiming to bear the only name on her lost child’s tombstone: Beloved.

Mexican Gothic Book Cover

Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

This gothic masterpiece set in 1950s Mexico follows a woman venturing out to an isolated town to discover the cause of her cousin’s strange and disturbing letters. What she finds is a family shrouded in mystery, a house full of horrors, and a reality almost too terrible to be believed. It’s a strange and chilling tale that will suck you in a spit you back out again.

The Silent Companions Book Cover

The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell

This Victorian ghost story tells a chilling tale of a pregnant widow sent to her late husband’s crumbling country estate where she finds herself surrounded by resentful servants and hostile villagers. Her only companion is a painted wooden figurine, one that looks shockingly like Elsie herself. The residents of the estate are terrified off the figure, but she believes that to be nothing more than superstition. That is, until she notices its eyes beginning to follow her around the room.

MORE FROM AROUND THE WEB:

Browse through this wide range of book recommendations from author Silvia Moreno-Garcia.

Discover how Toni Morrison’s Beloved unearthed the ghosts of a brutal past.

The Washington Post recommends Sin Eater for fans of The Handmaid’s Tale.

Author Sarah Waters on toxic men and the “futility of clinging to the past.”

BOOK RIOT RECS:


That’s it for now, folx! Stay subscribed for more stories of yesteryear.

If you want to talk books (historical or otherwise), you can find me @rachelsbrittain on Instagram, Goodreads, Litsy, and occasionally Twitter.

Right now I’m reading My Heart is a Chainsaw by Stephen Graham Jones and Sin Eater by Megan Campisi. What about you?

Categories
Past Tense

All the New Historical Fiction You Could Want This Fall

It’s finally October! In addition to the inevitable joy that brings (crisp air, bright autumn leaves, hot drinks–yum!), it also just so happens to be Book Riot’s birthday. Our 10th birthday, to be exact. To celebrate, we’re running a limited edition merch line. Snag one of these awesome 10th anniversary tee-shirts or hoodies, only available this month!

October isn’t only bringing colder weather and exclusive Book Riot anniversary merch, though. There are also so many new books! I’ve highlighted a handful of new releases in past newsletters, but with the changing of the seasons I thought it would be the perfect time to talk about some of the great new historical fiction coming our way this fall.

When Two Feathers Fell From the Sky Book Cover

When Two Feathers Fell from the Sky by Margaret Verble

A historical mystery following a Cherokee horse-diver at the Glendale Park Zoo in 1920s Nashville who must get to the bottom of the mysterious events plaguing the park after a disastrous performance.

Release date: Oct 12, 2021

The Memoirs of Stockholm Sven Book Cover

The Memoirs of Stockholm Sven by Nathaniel Ian Miller

A man journeys deeper and deeper into the isolation of the Arctic Circle with only a loyal dog to keep him company. But years into his isolation, a surprising visitor sets off a chain of events that bring Sven into a family of misfits and castoffs, just like him.

Release date: Oct 26, 2021

Harsh Times Book Cover

Harsh Times: A Novel by Mario Vargas Llosa

This true story of the 1950s CIA-supported coup that toppled the Guatemalan government explores the lie that forever changed the development of Latin America: that the government of Jacobo Árbenz promoted the spread of Communism throughout the Americas. Harsh Times is the story of how history and truth are manipulated by those seeking power.

Release date: Nov 16, 2021

The Teller of Secrets Book Cover

The Teller of Secrets by Bisi Adjapon

Following the political upheaval in 1960s postcolonial Ghana, a feisty Nigerian-Ghanaian girl begins to question the double standard between men and women’s sexuality, especially in the wake of her own father’s adultery, which she has been keeping secret.

Release date: Nov 16, 2021

The Sisters Sweet Book Cover

The Sisters Sweet by Elizabeth Weiss

Harriet and Josie Szász are known as “The Sisters Sweet,” in their vaudeville sister act, posing as conjoined twins in a scheme dreamed up by their parents. But when Josie exposes the sisters’ fraud to chase her Hollywood dreams, Harriet is left to pick up the pieces.

Release date: Nov 30, 2021

Beasts of a Little Land Book Cover

Beasts of a Little Land by Juhea Kim

Juhea Kim’s sweeping historical epic spans half a century, featuring a wide cast of characters, hero and villain, friend and enemy, at the heart of the Korean independence movement. From a courtesan school in Pyongyang to the boreal forests of Manchuria, everyone must choose how to forge their own destiny, even as the fate of their nation is being determined.

Release date: Dec 7, 2021

MORE FROM AROUND THE WEB:

A circus performer and a 1920s Nashville mystery are at the heart of Margaret Verble’s When Two Feathers Fell From the Sky.

Learn the origin story behind another recent 2021 release, Matrix by Lauren Groff.

Check out Buzzfeed’s list of 17 historical fiction novels to read this fall.


That’s it for now, folx! Stay subscribed for more stories of yesteryear.

If you want to talk books (historical or otherwise), you can find me @rachelsbrittain on Instagram, Goodreads, Litsy, and occasionally Twitter.

Right now I’m reading Starvation Heights: A True Story of Murder and Malice in the Woods of the Pacific Northwest by Gregg Olsen. What about you?

Categories
Past Tense

Finding Comfort with Pandemics in Historical Fiction

I’ve been thinking a lot about the representation of pandemics in fiction lately. Maybe because I’ve started to come across more mentions of it in the books I read. Mostly it’s authors notes explaining that they’re intentionally leaving the pandemic out of their book to provide a bit of much needed escapism. And for the most part, that’s been my preference. Life has been hard enough, right? My reading is an escape from all that. It’s made me think about how few contemporaneous novels were written about the 1918 Flu Epidemic. There was a war going on then, too, of course, but still. It seems like people often need time to come to terms with the pandemic they’re living through before they’re ready to write or read about it.

And yet, contradictorily, there’s a certain comfort in reading about pandemics and epidemics of the past. The literature that came out of the 1918 Flu “speaks to our current moment in profound ways.” There’s a sense of solace in seeing how the world has dealt with pandemics and epidemics of the past. We got through them eventually, after all. Pandemics in historical fiction provide a means of processing what we’re going through without having to face the fear and uncertainty of our present moment, at least directly. They tell us: yes this is awful but one day we’ll be through it. Maybe you’ll find some of that comfort in these historical fiction books, too. Unfortunately, there aren’t as many books about past pandemics written by authors of color, but hopefully that will change soon.

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Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue

This historical fiction novel is the first that really got me thinking about the parallels we can find in pandemics of the past, and the sense of relief that comes with that. In a Dublin maternity ward in 1918, the affects of the flu are immediate and devastating, impacting expecting mothers and their unborn children alike. Their lives rest in the hands of one young nurse in an understaffed hospital also dealing with the aftermath of war. It’s a heartbreaking portrayal of sickness and loss but also of courage in the face of hardship and the unknown depths of the human spirit.

TW: death and graphic depictions of childbirth and stillbirth

In the Company of Men Book Cover

In the Company of Men by Véronique Tadjo, translated by John Cullen

The 1918 Flu Epidemic may be the one that has drawn the most comparisons with Covid-19, but it’s not the only one to devastate the people affected. Tadjo brings to light the Ebola epidemic in West Africa through snapshots of those affected, from doctors protected from the virus by only the thin layer of a plastic suit to the volunteer gravediggers, overwhelmed by the sheer number of bodies. It is especially timely in depicting the question of how we deal with overwhelming fear and prejudice in the face of a devastating health crisis.

The Second Life of Mirielle West Book Cover

The Second Life of Mirielle West by Amanda Skenandore

In the Louisiana institution known as Carville, people branded as lepers were stripped of their rights and quarantined throughout the 20th century. Mirielle West was living the life of a socialite, married to a silent film star in Hollywood’s Golden Age, when a doctor noticed a pale patch of skin on her hand and sent her hundreds of miles away to Carville Lepers Home. At first, Mirielle holds onto the hope that her stay there will be brief, but life at Carville is more of a life sentence than anything. With no other choice, she’ll have to carve out a life for herself among this disparate group of people with an incurable disease.

Year of Wonders Book Cover

Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks

1666 is a time of fear, and superstition is almost as rampant as the plague ravaging its way across Europe. When an infected bolt of cloth brings the disease to an isolated English village, the spread of illness leads the villagers to turn on each other in a deadly witch-hunt. One young healer takes it upon herself to save her community from disintegration in this book based on the true story of Eyam and its experiences with the deadly Bubonic Plague.

The Great Believers Book Cover

The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai

In 1980s Chicago, the director of an art gallery sees his career flourish even as the AIDS epidemic devastates the world around him, taking out first one friend, then another. Telling both the story of the survivors affects by the aftermath of the AIDS crisis and those living through it, The Great Believers depicts the struggle to find hope amidst devastation and despair.

MORE FROM AROUND THE WEB:

Emma Donaghue discuses The Pull of the Stars, the “narrative gold mine” that is epidemic fiction, and how she researches for her historical fiction.

Listen to (or read the transcript of) this interview with author Véronique Tadjo about the uncanny timing of her book’s English translation release amidst the Covid-19 Pandemic.

BOOK RIOT RECS:


That’s it for now, folx! Stay subscribed for more stories of yesteryear.

If you want to talk books (historical or otherwise), you can find me @rachelsbrittain on Instagram, Goodreads, Litsy, and occasionally Twitter.

Right now I’m reading The Inheritance of Orquídea Divina by Zoraida Córdova and The Chosen and the Beautiful by Nghi Vo. What about you?

Categories
Past Tense

Fall into Autumn with Creepy Historical Fiction

Happy fall, historical fiction fans! Personally, I start counting fall at the beginning of September, but now that we’re officially welcoming cooler weather with the autumnal equinox, I can go all out with the atmospheric fall book recs. Don’t worry– I promise no pumpkin spiced anything. These books are just good historical fiction, plain and simple. And I can’t think of anything better than some slightly dark and creepy historical fiction full of intrigue and mysteries to get in the fall spirit, can you?

These four books are definitely not for the faint of heart. You’ll find murder, stalkers, and criminals of all kinds within their pages. Read on–and add them to your TBR–if you dare.

Silence of Bones Book Cover

Silence of Bones by June Hur

Seol is living as a damo, an indentured servant of the police, in 1800 Joseon Korea. Her place is not to speak or ask questions but to help the police in arresting women and examining the female bodies they aren’t allowed to touch. Maybe that would be fine if serving tea to the police and helping with their investigations had been her choice. But when she’s brought along to assist after the gruesome murder of a young noblewoman, her curiosity and need to find the truth leads her down a dangerous path, winding closer and closer to the killer–someone willing to kill nobles and scholars, much less an unruly servant, to meet his deadly ends.

Velvet Was the Night Book Cover

Velvet Was the Night by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

The newest historical thriller from the acclaimed author of Mexican Gothic explores a turbulent period in Mexico’s history. Revolutionary students are clashing with the government and young people are being killed. A secretary secretly obsessed with romance comics and an eccentric criminal roughing people up under the moniker of “Elvis” find themselves searching for answers about the same woman after she disappears one night. As Maite begins to realize the dangerous path her idle curiosity has lead her down, Elvis’s loyalties to his boss and to the government are brought into question, even as he rises through the ranks.

The Doll Factory Book Cover

The Doll Factory by Elizabeth McNeal

In this Victorian thriller, the Grand Exhibition is still being erected in Hyde Park when an aspiring artist named Iris crosses paths with Silas, a taxidermist and curiosity collector interested in all things strange and beautiful. The moment is almost meaningless for Iris, who soon agrees to pose for a portrait by a pre-Raphaelite artist in exchange for art lessons. But for Silas, the obsession is only just beginning.

The Wolf and the Watchman Book Cover

The Wolf and the Watchman by Niklas Natt och Dag, translated by Ebba Segerberg

Sweden, 1793. A former night watchman hoping to give an unidentifiable body a proper burial. A consulting detective hoping to solve one last case before consumption takes him. A young man with dreams of becoming a doctor finds opportunities and terrible misfortunes in the capital that lead him down a dark path. A woman consigned to a work house for upsetting her parish priest hatches a desperate plan for escape. Over the course of one murder investigation, the lives of these four people intertwine, their stories connecting and colliding in shocking ways in this dark, Scandinavian noir.

MORE FROM AROUND THE WEB:

An interview with Natt och Dag about his grisly novel that is “taking the literary world by storm.”

Interested in the inspiration and research behind June Hur’s The Silence of Bones and why she chose to set it in Joseon-era Korea? This is the interview for you.

BOOK RIOT RECS:


That’s it for now, folx! Stay subscribed for more stories of yesteryear.

If you want to talk books (historical or otherwise), you can find me @rachelsbrittain on Instagram, Goodreads, Litsy, and occasionally Twitter.

Right now I’m reading There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job by Kikuko Tsumura. What about you?

Categories
Past Tense

Historical Fiction, Meet True Crime

Hi there historical fiction fans! As the saying goes, fact is often stranger than fiction. And if ever there was proof of that, the genre of historical fiction imagining the gaps in historical true crime cases has to be it. As a big scaredy cat myself, I don’t read much actual true crime (serial killers, ahh, no thank you!). That said, historical crime fiction can be equally–if not more–fascinating since forensics and crime scene investigation techniques were such that much more was left to chance and guesswork.

Which means there is a lot for historical fiction authors to work with in recreating criminal cases of the past. It makes for some truly great reading. Keep reading for cases you’ve heard of and a few you definitely haven’t.

Alias Grace Book Cover

Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood

This historical fiction novel from the author of The Handmaid’s Tale imagines all the what-ifs surrounding a famous criminal case in Canada in the mid-1800s. Grace Marks has been convicted of the vicious murder of her employer and his housekeeper / mistress. She claims to have no memory of the incident. Some think her innocent. Some think her evil or insane. An expert in the burgeoning field of mental illness believes he can help determine the truth as a group of reformers seek a pardon for Grace. But what exactly is the truth? The truth as Grace remembers it? The truth of what she says? Or is what everyone wants to believe enough? By the end, you might not even be sure yourself.

Burial Rites Book Cover

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

The final days of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, the last woman put to death in Iceland in 1829, are spent on an isolated farm as she awaits execution for the murder of two men. Horrified to be housing a murderer, the family avoids Agnes at all costs. All but the priest, whom Agnes has chosen as her spiritual advisor, have no interest in understanding this woman, accused of a brutal double homicide. But as the date of her execution approaches, the farmer’s wife and daughter begin to see another side to Agnes, one that may paint the crime in an entirely different light.

See What I Have Done Book Cover

See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt

If the other criminal cases featured in these historical fiction novels have been unfamiliar, this one certainly won’t be. Lizzie Borden famously murdered her father and step-mother with an axe–or, that’s what everyone usually assumes, anyway. The brutal murder of the respected Bordens shocked the town. But for Lizzie and her sister Emma, the loss of their volatile father and spiteful step-mother might have taken on a different cast. What really happened? Does Lizzie’s shifting memory and accounts of what happened simply speak to a shocked and traumatized girl? A cold-hearted killer? Or perhaps a desperate young woman?

A Brief History of Seven Killings Book Cover

A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James

December 3, 1976. Seven armed gunmen raided the house of Bob Marley, nearly killing him, his wife, his manager, and several others. Little was ever released about the attack or the unnamed would-be assassins. Who were these men? And perhaps even more importantly, why would anyone want to kill Bob Marley? Marlon James deftly paints a picture of a turbulent time in Jamaican history, rife with journalists, drug dealers, and assassins.

NEW RELEASES TO LOOK OUT FOR:

A Most Clever Girl Book Cover

A Most Clever Girl by Stephanie Marie Thornton

Based on the incredible true story of a Cold War double agent, A Most Clever Girl explores the life of Elizabeth Bentley, recruited to spy on fascists for the American Communist Party during WWII and eventually building the largest Soviet spy network in the U.S. alongside the handler she falls in love with.

Release date: September 14, 2021

The Silence of Scheherazade Book Cover

The Silence of Scheherazade by Defne Suman

In the ancient city of Smyrna, 1905, the Ottoman Empire does not yet seem on the edge of dissolution. But a spy for the British Empire has just arrived on its shores. The Silence of Scheherazade follows the lives and fates of four intertwining families in the early twentieth century as a once flourishing empire is used as a bargaining chip and set to flames on the cusp of WWI.

Release date: September 19, 2021

MORE FROM AROUND THE WEB:

The art of weaving true crime into historical fiction with the author of The Confessions of Frannie Langton.

Margaret Atwood on Alias Grace and unreliable narrators: “If I Had Known the Truth, I Wouldn’t Have Written a Book.”

Filling in the blanks of Lizzie Bordon’s case with Sarah Schmidt’s See What I Have Done.


That’s it for now, folx! Stay subscribed for more stories of yesteryear.

If you want to talk books (historical or otherwise), you can find me @rachelsbrittain on Instagram, Goodreads, Litsy, and occasionally Twitter.

Right now I’m reading The Rebel Nun by Marj Charlier and The Liar’s Dictionary by Eley Williams. What about you?

Categories
Past Tense

Soak Up the Last Seconds of Summer with Seaside Historical Fiction

Welcome to Book Riot’s newest newsletter, historical fiction fans! If your shelves and e-readers are filled with books set in the past, just consider Past Tense a great excuse to grow your TBR. And I’m here to help you find your next favorite read!

It’s hard to believe that summer is basically over, but September is here and fall is well on the way. That doesn’t mean you have to give up your vacation mood just yet, though; not with these great seaside reads, anyway. Put off your priorities for just a little bit longer and enjoy these historical getaways before the real world catches up.

Malibu Rising Book Cover

Malibu Rising by Taylor Jenkins Reid

It’s hard to imagine a better beachy summer read than one about a big end-of-summer blowout part hosted by a family of surfer siblings living in their famous father’s shadow. Before the night is over, Nina’s glorious cliffside house will burn to the ground. But before that, she’ll throw a party people will talk about for years to come, a party with celebrities and fighting, a surprise new sibling, and maybe even an appearance from their estranged movie star father.

In classic Taylor Jenkins Reid style, you’ll be drawn into the lives of the rich and famous. Close your eyes, and before you know it you’ll find yourself right there among them, sitting on the sands of a Malibu beach.

The Last Train to Key West by Chanel Cleeton

1930s Key West might seem like paradise, but for the three women at the heart of this novel, it is also a place of escape. It is a place to escape to or be escaped from. As one woman struggles to finally break the ties that hold her to this town and two others find themselves passing through, their paths cross during the course of one holiday weekend. From arranged political marriages to long-lost brothers and mafia intrigue, the women’s complicated struggles become increasingly entangled even as a deadly storm approaches.

Based on true historical events, including the Labor Day Hurricane in 1935 that devastated the Florida Keys, The Last Train to Key West is a historical thriller of disastrous proportions.

Trigger warnings for domestic abuse, assault, and murder.

Island Queen Book Cover

Island Queen by Vanessa Riley

Based on the incredible life of Dorothy Kirwan Thomas, a free woman of color who became one of the wealthiest and most powerful landowners in the Caribbean, Island Queen follows Doll from the moment she buys her own freedom from her Irish father to the building of her entrepreneurial empire throughout the West Indies. It’s a sweeping epic following a remarkable women, determined to not only survive but thrive in a time full of people deadest against seeing her succeed.

Trigger warnings for racism and sexual assault.

New Releases to Look Out For

The Mad Women's Ball Book Cover

The Mad Women’s Ball by Victoria Mas

Every year during the Lenten Ball, the patients of Salpetriere Asylum are dressed up and paraded out for all wealthiest of Parisian society to gawk at. It may provide them one glittering moment of hope, but the Madwomen’s Ball is a manifestation of the dehumanization the patients face on a daily basis. Dive deep into the horrifying history of nineteenth century asylums with this book in translation.

Release date: September 7, 2021 by The Overlook Press

Matrix Book Cover

Matrix by Lauren Groff

Journey to an impoverished tenth century English abbey with a woman cast out of Eleanor of Aquitaine’s royal court in this book about bold women and religious fervor by the author of Fates and Furies.

Release date: September 7, 2021 by Riverhead Books

Harlem Shuffle Book Cover

Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead

Colson Whitehead is back with a historical thriller that sounds like an Ocean’s Eleven style heist story set in 1960s Harlem.

Whitehead has such tremendous range, can’t wait to see what he does with this latest.

Release date: September 14, 2021 by Doubleday

More From Around The Web

Learn about Taylor Jenkins Reid, author of Malibu Rising as well as Daisy Jones and the Six, in this article about her growing fame from the New York Times.

Explore the Norwegian island of Vardø at the heart of Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s The Mercies with National Geographic.

Island Queen author Vanessa Riley explains how woman-centered historical fiction novels use the author’s note to push back against questions of historical accuracy.


That’s it for now, folx! Stay subscribed for more stories of yesteryear.

If you want to talk books (historical or otherwise), you can find me @rachelsbrittian on Instagram, Goodreads, Litsy, and occasionally Twitter.

Right now I’m reading Travelers Along the Way by Aminah Mae Safi, Luck of the Titanic by Stacey Lee, and The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich. What about you?