Past Tense

The Best Historical Fiction of 2021

It’s that time of year, folks! As December draws to a close and the New Year approaches, all the best of lists start appearing. It’s like clockwork, isn’t it? I love to see the books everyone chooses to include on their lists. Sometimes I agree with the choices for best books of the year and sometimes I don’t, but I almost always leave with more book on my TBR one way or the other.

And this year I’m excited to get to put together my own list of the best historical fiction from 2021. It’s definitely not a comprehensive list–sadly there are always more books than I can get around to. But these are a few of the many incredible historical fiction novels that have come out in the last year that I want to highlight. So without further ado, here are my contenders for best historical fiction books of 2021.

The Dictionary of Lost Words Book Cover

The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams

The daughter of a lexicographer working on the first Oxford English Dictionary grows up with a passion for words in this atmospheric historical fiction novel set at the end of the 19th century and dawn of the 20th. But not all words are recorded, and as Esme grows older and grows to better understands the ways of the world, she begins collating her own collection of words being left out and forgotten by the men in charge of the official dictionaries.

When Two Feathers Fell from the Sky Book Cover

When Two Feathers Fell from the Sky by Margaret Verble

In the highly segregated society of 1920s Nashville, Tennessee, a young Cherokee horse-driver, a land-owning Black family, a WWWI veteran zookeeper, and eclectic cast of performers are drawn into a strange web of circumstances after lingering spirits and ghosts of the past begin to wreak havoc on the park and the zoo.

The Arctic Fury Book Cover

The Arctic Fury by Greer Macallister

An all-women expedition sets out for the Arctic to search for the lost Franklin Expedition in 1853. But when not all the women return from their hazardous trek, the leader of the expedition–an experienced trail guide named Virginia Reeve–is put on trial, accused of murdering one of the women in her charge. Told in a thrilling dual-narrative, the story unfolds across the Arctic ice as well as the courtroom.

The Prophets Book Cover

The Prophets by Robert Jones Jr.

On a plantation in the Deep South, two men find comfort and refuge in their love, tending to the animals and each other in the barn. But when a fellow enslaved man begins preaching the religious teachings of their violent master, what was once simple and unquestioned, becomes dangerous and sinful as the enslaved people they’ve long lived and toiled among turn against them. Full of pain and suffering, but also hope and lyrism, the writing has been compared to the likes of Toni Morison.

The Rib King Book Cover

The Rib King by Ladee Hubbard

August Sitwell has worked for the upper-class Barclays for fifteen years, taken in by them from an orphanage as a boy. He’s not the only Black boy the family has brought in to “civilize.” But the Barclays aren’t the same as they once were. Their fortune has fallen, and in order to make ends meet they decide to sell the cook’s famous rib sauce as their own, using an awful grinning caricature of August’s own face to sell the sauce. But neither he nor the cook will ever see a dime, a fact that leaves August simmering until one day his anger explodes into a shocking tragedy.

Malibu Rising Book Cover

Malibu Rising by Taylor Jenkins Reid

Four siblings, the grown-up children of a musician, find fame in their own right as surfers after struggling to get by with an absent father and alcoholic mother. Told without linear constraint, the book falls forward and backward in time to cement the bond the siblings share as well as show the stability they make from a tumultuous childhood. A beautiful exploration of fame, as Taylor Jenkins Reid is becoming known to create.

The Most Beautiful Girl in Cuba Book Cover

The Most Beautiful Girl in Cuba by Chanel Cleeton

Across the United States and Cuba, three women’s lives become boiling points in the lead up to the Spanish-American War. A young woman with dreams of becoming a stunt reporter like Nellie Bly treads between the favor of two warring newspaper tycoons in New York, reporting on the terrors taking place in Cuba from far and near. At the center of the newspapers focus is another woman wrongfully imprisoned by the Spanish, while another Cuban woman’s role in the resistance goes overlooked and unknown.

The Final Revival of Opal and Nev Book Cover

The Final Revival of Opal & Nev by Dawnie Walton

You might be tricked into believing the famous 1970s rock duo behind this fictionalized oral history are real, but Afro-punk musician Opal and singer / songwriter Neville Charles are just part of this stunningly imagined story that never happened. Decades after their heyday and as Opal considers getting back together with Nev one last time for a revival, a music journalist interviews the two to create an oral history of the band that unveils shocking truths.

The Sweetness of Water Book Cover

The Sweetness of Water by Nathan Harris

Two brothers–freedmen in the wake of the Emancipation Proclamation and the Civil War–seek refuge with a farming couple still grieving the loss of their son. Prentiss and Landry hope to make enough money through their work to be reunited with their mother in the north. Running parallel to their story, two Confederate soldiers hide a forbidden romance, that, when exposed, results in turmoil. It’s a story of beauty and terror in the violent days of Reconstruction.

If that’s not enough great historical fiction for you, who not also check out the best 2021 historical fiction books according to Cosmopolitan, The New York Times, She Reads, The Times. And don’t forget to look at Book Riot’s picks for best books of 2021.

Don’t forget you can get three free audiobooks at with a free trial!

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 Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams. What about you?

Past Tense

Wintery Historical Fiction To Read in December

Winter came on slow in my part of the southern U.S. this year, but having almost frozen my toes off last night at a forest lights show, I can say it has definitely come. And I’m sure I’m not the only one who just does not do cold well. I want a steaming fireplace, a blanket, something warm to drink, and a good book, please. That’s more to my liking. Of course, I guess you could also argue it’s the cold that gives me the opportunity to cozy up like that, so maybe I’m grateful for it in a way, too.

I may have a complicated personal relationship with cold weather, but that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy reading about chilly places. In fact, I find stories set in the Arctic particularly fascinating–probably because it’s such a different landscape than the one in which I grew up. So join me in making the most of the freezing cold weather by staying inside, bundling up, and reading these historical fiction novels set in the coldest of places.

The Artic Fury Book Cover

The Arctic Fury by Greer Macallister

A group of extraordinary women are tasked with journeying into the Artic to search for the lost Franklin Expedition in 1853. Experienced trail guide, Virginia Reeve, is to lead them. But one year later, she is on trial back in Boston. Not all of the woman returned from the expedition. In an alternating timeline, the perilous journey unfolds, taking readers on an unforgettable and heart-pounding adventure across the Arctic and in the courtroom as the trial seeks to answer one question: what happened out there on the ice?

Between Shades of Gray Book Cover

Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys

At one of Stalin’s infamous work camps in the coldest reaches of Siberia, a young Lithuanian girl along with her mother and little brother are forced to dig for beets and survive in the cruelest of conditions. Lina finds solace the only way she knows how: in drawings she hopes will find their way to her father’s prison camp and show him the rest of their family is still alive. It’s a haunting tale of survival and hope.

Split Tooth Book Cover

Split Tooth by Tanya Tagaq

Growing up in a small, Arctic town in Nunavut in the 1970s, a girl experiences the power of ice and nature, the ravages of alcohol in her community, and the violence around her. But the electrifying proximity of the animal world is everywhere, too, and with it all the blurred lines between good and evil, human and animal, real and imagined. This lyrical poem from internationally acclaimed Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq is a fierce and tender story unlike any other.

The Mercies Book Cover

The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

In Finnmark, the northernmost region of Norway, a fishing village loses almost the entire male population during a terrible storm. The women of Vardø must now fend for themselves. That would be all fine and good if not for the arrival of Absalom Cornet. Having burned witches already in Scotland, he comes now with a new mission to bring God to this place and root out evil. And all he sees when he looks at the independent women of Vardø surviving the harsh conditions on their own without the help of their men is evil.

A Line of Driftwood Book Cover

A Line of Driftwood: The Ada Blackjack Story by Diane Glancy

How did Ada Blackjack, a young Inupiat woman, become the lone survivor of a doomed Arctic expedition in 1921, enduring for two years before a rescue party could break through the ice to find her? The answers lie within A Line of Driftwood. After discovering her Blackjack’s diary in the Dartmouth archives, Diane Glancy wrote this remarkable tale based on the historical record and Ada Blackjack’s own testimony. It is a story of endurance, hardship, and faith, as one woman survives where four “experts” cannot.

Mr. Dickens and His Carol Book Cover

Mr. Dickens and His Carol by Samantha Silva

With his latest book a publishing failure, Charles Dickens is given an ultimatum: write a Christmas book within the month or his publishers will call in his debts and he will lose everything. Reluctant, but desperate, the famed writer has no choice but to agree in this sentimental tale of how one of the most famous Christmas stories ever came to be.

Don’t forget you can get three free audiobooks at with a free trial!


These 18 novels set in winter are CNN’s picks for read to get you excited for the first snow.

Ruta Sepetys, author of Between Shades of Gray, is on a one-woman mission to unearth secret histories.


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 Surviving Savannah by Patti Callahan and The Arctic Fury by Greer Macallister. What about you?

Past Tense

Heartwarming Historical Fiction for a Cold, Winter Day

I don’t know about you, but with the nights getting dark earlier and earlier and the cold creeping in, I’m definitely in need of some uplifting books to read right now. And those can be a little harder to come by when it comes to historical fiction. There’s a lot to be said for sad books and stories that explore difficult topics, but somethings you just need something a little lighter. That’s certainly where I’ve been lately.

And while these historical fiction books are cover to cover sunshine and daisies, they’re still overall pretty heartfelt and uplifting. So if you’re looking for some easy historical fiction reading on these dark winter days, maybe give one of these five gems a try.

The Dictionary of Lost Words Book Cover

The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams

While her father works as a lexicographer for the first Oxford English Dictionary, Esme begins secretly collecting cast off words. The first word she rescues from the floor is ‘‘bondmaid’ and from there she discovered a whole world of overlooked words–mostly words describing women in a field being dictated by men.

Confessions of the Fox Book Cover

Confessions of the Fox by Jordy Rosenberg

Take a tour through the bawdy criminal underworld of eighteenth-century London as an increasingly unhinged professor tries to authenticate a mysterious manuscript that may depict the only known confession of an infamous jailbreaking criminal from the 1700s. It’s an imaginative retelling of Brecht’s Threepenny Opera all about gender, love, and liberation.

The Final Revival of Opal and Nev Book Cover

The Final Revival of Opal and Nev by Dawnie Walton

Open up an electrifying oral history of a fictional rock duo from the 1970s following their meteoric rise to fame, sensational breakup, and the highly publicized and politicized concert riot at the end of their career. As the duo considers reuniting decades later, the first Black editor of a storied music magazine jumps at the opportunity to take down an oral history of her musical idol. Sunny thought she knew everything there was to know about Opal, but full truth of the story will surprise even her.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society Book Cover

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

Most of you have probably already heard of this cozy historical fiction novel about an author searching for a new book to write after WWII, but if you haven’t you’re in for a real treat. As London emerges from the shadow of war, Juliet begins exchanging letters with a community in the island of Guernsey who survived German occupation by claiming to be part of a book club.

When Two Feathers Fell from the Sky Book Cover

When Two Feathers Fell From the Sky by Margaret Verble

The Glendale Park Zoo becomes the new home of Two Feathers, a young Cherokee horse-diver, in 1920s Nashville. When disaster and strange occurrences begin haunting the park and its performers, Two and an eclectic cast of characters have to dig into the past to face off against lingering spirits.

Don’t forget you can get three free audiobooks at with a free trial!


Check out this interview with The Final Revival of Opal and Nev author Dawnie Walton on the literary influence of Judy Blume and why she wants to live in Wakanda.

Margaret Verble talks with NPR about her new novel, When Two Feathers Fell From the Sky, and the legacy of history, family, and identity.

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 Cat Who Saved Books by Sōsuke Natsukawa. What about you?

Past Tense

Bookish Gift Ideas for the Holidays

Hello historical fiction fans! The holiday season is upon us, so I’ve put together a little gift guide to help you find the perfect gifts for the readers in your life. These gifts aren’t necessarily directly related to historical fiction books, but that just means they’ll work for any kind of reader. I know finding the perfect present for all my loved ones is a really special part of the holidays for me. We all know the holidays are about more than just gifts, but the act of giving and bringing others joy to others is a big part of my own holiday tradition. And I hope these bookish suggestions help you get started or spark some ideas for your own holiday gift giving!

So without further ado, here are some great gift ideas for all the readers on your holiday list this year:

Bookish Candles

I love a good candle whether I’m curdled up reading or tidying the house, and this all-natural soy wax candle with notes of “rainforest, sugarcane, and coffee” sounds like just the thing for candle-loving bookworms everywhere. Grab one for yourself and a friend from Salty and Lit.

Books, coffee, and rain candle


You can never go wrong with a nice, unique bookmark. I love this one created from “a real Sugar Maple leaf dipped in gold.” You can find it and other gorgeous variations on Etsy at Arborvita: Real Leaf Jewellery and Gifts.

Sugar maple leaf bookmark

Or maybe a more book-centric bookmark like this one from Literary Emporium.

Just one more chapter gold bookmark

E-Reader Cover

One of my all-time favorite bookish accessories is my Kindle cover designed to look like a cover of Pride and Prejudice. It’s stylish as well as functional and shows off my love of one of my favorite books. You can fine your own (and choose any book you like!) at Klever Case on Etsy.

book cover styled kindle cover

Literary Map

There’s just something magical about cracking open a book cover and seeing a map. Bring that spark of literary magic home with a literature-inspired map like this one featuring the location of Shakespeare’s plays from Bibliotography.

print of a map of where Shakespeare's plays took place

Bookish Mug

You can never have too many books or too many mugs! Get this adorable “books books books books” mug from Fable Bound to show off a love of books while sipping on some coffee or your favorite blend of tea.

White mug with vintage, colorful font with the word "books" four times.

And of course…


Share your historical fiction love with some great titles from the past year like:

Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doer

Malibu Rising by Taylor Jenkins Reid

The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue

Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo

The Forest of Stolen Girls by June Hur

Island Queen by Vanessa Riley

Or gift one of your own personal favorites!

Don’t forget you can get three free audiobooks at with a free trial!


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 A Snake Falls to Earth by Darcie Little Badger. What about you?

Past Tense

Foodie Historical Fiction For the Holidays

One of the first things that comes to my mind when I think of the holidays is food–food and cooking. Especially this time of year, it seems like gatherings are all about sharing good food together around the table. For a lot of people, food is a way of sharing love. But food can also we a way of sharing stories, stories of the people and cultures who made us and passed down the recipes of the foods we love.

These historical fiction books are pretty much perfect for everyone getting in the holiday mood this season, then, with stories about chefs and friends sharing and appreciating their culture through cooking. Just be warned: these books may leave you feeling very hungry.

Cinnamon and Gunpowder Book Cover

Cinnamon and Gunpowder by Eli Brown

A chef kidnapped by a pirate for some five-star cooking on the high seas? Now that’s my kind of historical fiction! In 1819 renowned chef Owen Wedgwood is kidnapped Mad Hannah Mabbot, a ruthless pirate who promises to spare his life in exchange for the most delicious meals ever served. It’s a swashbuckling adventure as Wedgwood tries to create masterful meals for a pirate captain under siege.

The Joy Luck Club Book Cover

The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan

Four mothers. Four daughters. Four families. In the late 1940s, four Chinese women, recently immigrated to San Francisco, meet weekly to reminisce over mahjong and food. Their daughters believe their mothers’ stories and advice don’t apply to them and their American lives, but as they grow older, they begin to see how much they’ve inherited from their mothers’ pasts. It’s a tale of the complicated and beautiful relationship between mothers and daughters, but food also plays a central role as a linchpin of love and culture.

The Book of Salt Book Cover

The Book of Salt by Monique Truong

In the late 1920s, a Vietnamese cook flees Saigon, answering an ad for a live-in chef at a Parisian household. He soon finds himself employed in the literary salon of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. But when his enigmatic employers decide to return to the U.S., Binh must decide whether to once again relocate, return to Vietnam, or make a new home for himself in Paris.

The Kitchen front Book Cover

The Kitchen Front by Jennifer Ryan

Food Network and historical fiction fans alike will love this book about a BBC radio program to help with rationing ideas during WWII. Two years into the war, Britain is feels the effects of the Blitz and food shortages as U-boats cut off their supply line. To help the struggling homemakers, a BBC program called The Kitchen Front is putting on a cooking contest, and the grand prize is no small thing: a job as the show’s first ever female co-host. The book follows four women giving their all for a chance at the job of a lifetime.

Don’t forget you can get three free audiobooks at with a free trial!


Ready for some good food yet? I know I am.

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 Cinnamon and Gunpowder by Eli Brown and This Land is Their Land by David J. Silverman. What about you?

Past Tense

Make Every Month Native American Heritage Month with Indigenous Historical Fiction

November is Native American Heritage Month, and there’s no better time to consider starting to decolonize your reading habits with more historical fiction from Indigenous and Native American authors. It’s a time to not only celebrate Native American history and culture, but to take stock–especially for those of us that aren’t Indigenous–of the gaps in our knowledge and understanding of that history. And there’s no better way to do that than by reading historical fiction from Native American and other Indigenous authors. November isn’t the only time to read Indigenous fiction, but it is an especially good time to add even more to your TBR and holiday reading list. You might start with a few of these:

When Two Feathers Fell from the Sky Book Cover

When Two Feathers Fell From the Sky by Margaret Verble

Described as “Louise Erdrich meets Karen Russell” and one of my most anticipated releases from this fall, When Two Feathers Fell From the Sky follows a young Cherokee horse-diver on loan from a wild west show to the Glendale Park Zoo in highly segregated 1920s Nashville.

The Night Watchman Book Cover

The Night Watchman by Louise Eldritch

The Night Watchman is inspired by the real-life experiences of Eldritch’s grandfather as a night watchman who brought the fight against Native dispossession from rural North Dakota to Washington, D.C. Following a cast of characters, from the eponymous night watchman to recent high school grad saving every penny she makes to search for her older sister who went missing in Minneapolis, the story unfolds like oragami, revealing layer after layer of life in the Turtle Mountain Reservation in 1950s North Dakota.

Split Tooth Book Cover

Split Tooth by Tanya Tagaq

The debut novel from internationally acclaimed Inuit throat singer, Tanya Tagaq, is a story as fierce as it is tender. Split Tooth moves effortlessly between fact and fiction, poetry and prose as it tells the story of a girl growing up in Nunavut in the 1970s, navigating the divide between the harsh realties of life in a small artic town and the electrifying world of wildlife nearby alongside an unexpected pregnancy.

Five Little Indians Book Cover

Five Little Indians by Michelle Good

Five residential school survivors struggle to survive in 1960s Vancouver, haunted by the horrors of their past and searching for a way forward to a meaningful future. Some find hope and purpose in activism and motherhood, while others are unable to escape the abuse they experienced in the past. But for all five, it is the bonds of friendship that sustain them.

Indian Horse Book Cover

Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese

Saul Indian Horse is pretty sure none of the other residents at this treatment centre for alcoholics will understand him or what brought him to this place, but he grudgingly comes to realize that he can only find peace through telling his story. He journeys back through his life as a northern Ojibway, with all of its joys and sorrows, from being forcibly taken from his parents and put in a residential school the life-saving power of hockey and the racism and displacement he experienced in 1960s Canada.

Don’t forget you can get three free audiobooks at with a free trial!


Michelle Good’s Five Little Indians is getting a limited TV series adaptation.

Tanya Tagaq on writing Split Tooth for “her own heart.”


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 Set My Heart to Five by Simon Stephenson and Cinnamon and Gunpowder by Eli Brown. What about you?

Past Tense

Cozy Historical Fiction for Cool Fall Evenings

The weather is finally starting to cool off in my neck of the woods, which I’ve been waiting for pretty much since the beginning of October. Unfortunately that’s also translated into rain and gray skies and Daylight Saving Time, all of which have had me a bit down despite this long-awaited fall weather. Cozy stories have been my reprieve. I’ve particularly been enjoying listening to audiobooks lately, working my way through stories as I do chores, run errands, and take my dog on walks through the park filled with orange- and red-leaved trees.

Cozy historical fiction has been a bit of a refuge as I adjust to this change in seasons, finding stories that transport me to an entirely different time. Maybe not always an easier time, as history is rarely kinder than the present, but at least a different time I can escape to. If you’re looking for some comfort and coziness in your life right now, too, here are a few good reading options, starting with one of my current cozy reads, Matrix.

Matrix Book Cover

Matrix by Lauren Groff

Banished from court by Eleanor of Aquitaine and sent to become prioress of an English abbey, seventeen-year old Marie de France finds the life of a nun to be a dreadful existence. The same coarseness and determination that caused her to be cast out of court are exactly what it takes to create a stable life for herself and her sisters in the midst of poverty and royal dismissal. But with so much shifting in the world around them, can the bulwark of one woman and her unnerving passion and faith stand up against waves of religious and societal pressure?

The Dictionary of Lost Words Book Cover

The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams

In the years leading up to the Great War, the daughter of a lexicographer working on the first Oxford English Dictionary finds a scrap of paper with a wayward word, one the lexicographers no longer seem interested in. That word is the beginning of Esme’s interest in what words the lexicographers ignores–words most often pertaining to women–and her own version of the dictionary: The Dictionary of Lost Words. I can think of few things more comforting to a reader than a book about words.

Another Brooklyn Book Cover

Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson

A nostalgia-filled book about girlhood friendship and the 1970s. Running into an old friend sends August down a mental journey back to her childhood in Brooklyn, where friendship was everything and the streets were their playground. Brooklyn was a place where anything seemed possible, but beneath that veneer of perfection, lie the dark realities of being a young girl in the city.

The Remains of the Day Book Cover

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

An aging English butler reflects on his life after three decades in service of “a great gentleman,” though he is beginning to have doubts about just how great that gentleman is. On a motoring trip that turns into a six-day journey into the past, he considers a life lived through two world wars and an unrealized romance between the butler and his housekeeper.


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 Matrix by Lauren Groff and Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr. What about you?

Don’t forget you can get three free audiobooks at with a free trial!

Past Tense

Auto-Read Historical Fiction Authors

When I find an author I really love, I’m going to read every book I can by them as quickly as I can. It’s a done deal. These are authors I call auto-read or auto-buy authors because I am pretty much always going to procure their newest books (whether through my library or by pre-order) to read. I’ve collected a number of these authors over the years, and while the list changes along with my tastes, it’s nice to have certain books I know I’m going to want to read even before I see any kind of synopsis.

These four historical fiction authors are a few of my favorites. Each of them pulled me in with some amazing storytelling until I was convinced I needed to read every last thing they wrote. Who knows, maybe by the end of this newsletter, you’ll have a few new auto-read authors of your own.

Chanel Cleeton

I devoured Chanel Cleeton’s historical fiction novels one after another without stopping when I first discovered them. All it took was one book, and I was sold.

The Last Train to Key West Book Cover

The Last Train to Key West by Chanel Cleeton

The lives of three women intersect in the lead up to one of the most devastating hurricanes Florida has ever seen: the Great Labor Day Hurricane of 1935. One is searching for a lost brother, possibly stationed in one of the work camps full of WWI vets. One, newly married to a man she doesn’t know, is determined to do what is necessary to protect her family back in Cuba. And one flees a dangerous marriage, trying to find a better life for herself and her unborn child. But none of them realize the storm on the horizon will change the landscape of their lives forever.

Cleeton’s historical fiction usually explores stories with Cuban roots, from refugees fleeing to the U.S. after Fidel Castro took power to the Spanish-American War in the late 1800s. The Last Train to Key West is perhaps my favorite of her books, but I also love When We Left Cuba and The Most Beautiful Girl in Cuba quite a lot. Her books feature fiercely independent women making a place for themselves in society regardless of what is deemed acceptable and mix high-stakes storylines with a touch of romance.

Taylor Jenkins Reid

I didn’t come to Jenkins Reid by the same book most people seem to. When I first saw Daisy Jones and the Six floating around I wasn’t convinced of the appeal. It took me reading–and falling in love with–The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo to even pick it up. And please tell me I’m not the only person who found myself pausing mid-page to Google whether the Six was a real band. Maybe that’s telling of my lack of musical knowledge or maybe it’s just a testament to Taylor Jenkins Reid’s writing. Let’s go with that last one. Each of her historical fiction novels are so full of life and vibrant characters. She really knows how to set a historical scene, and her most recent release is no exception.

Malibu Rising Book Cover

Malibu Rising by Taylor Jenkins Reid

Four siblings estranged from their famous father find relief and fame of their own through surfing in 1980s Malibu. But this isn’t just a story about surfing. It’s also a story about family in all its complicated glory and a house party for the ages. Nina Riva’s annual end-of-summer party is a legend in Malibu. It hosts everyone from her friends to Hollywood elite. There’s only one rule for getting in: if you know where to go, you’re invited. And this year’s part is not to be missed. None of them know it yet, but the night will end in flames, with all of Malibu burning around them.

I love Taylor Jenkins Reid’s explorations of different iterations of fame and the way she weaves that fascination into their perfect historical time frames. Of course a book about a Hollywood star doing whatever it took to get to the top should be set in the fifties. Of course a story about a rock band needs to take place in the seventies. Let’s just do a book for every decade and call it even, yeah? I’d really appreciate it.

Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s writing prowess is no secret at this point, and book after book I can’t get over how she crafts a story. Every single book Moreno-Garcia writes is entirely different from the last, exploring everything from speculative fiction to magical realism. But most of them incorporate historical elements in one way or another. It’s hard to top Mexican Gothic for sheer brilliance, but those looking for other historical thrillers or mysteries from Moreno-Garcia can also get their fill from Untamed Shore and her most recent release, Velvet Was the Night.

Velvet Was the Night Book Cover

Velvet Was the Night by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

A bored secretary gets wrapped up in violence and civil unrest after agreeing to watch a neighbor’s cat in this book about political corruption and student protests in 1970s Mexico City. When her neighbor never returns to take care of her cat and pay Maite for her troubles, she decided to track the art student down. Little does she know someone else is looking for her missing neighbor, too. He notices Maite. And being noticed by a criminal like Elvis is never good.

Moreno-Garcia is unmatched when it comes to her prose, not to mention telling a haunting story that will stay with you long after you finish the last page. Anytime I see a new book by her coming out, I know to add it to the top of my TBR.

June Hur

As soon as I read June Hur’s sophomore novel, The Forest of Stolen Girls, I knew I needed to read her first book immediately. Fortunately for me, Silence of Bones was already on my shelf waiting. Both books explore an era I’d never read about before (in historical fiction or otherwise): the Joseon dynasty in Korea, a period that lasted for about five hundred years from the late fourteenth century to the end of the nineteenth. While Silence of Bones explores the more recent period of the 1800s, following an indentured servant of the police on the trail of a killer, The Forest of Stolen Girls take us back further to the 1420s.

The Forest of Stolen Girls Book Cover

The Forest of Stolen Girls by June Hur

Estranged sisters Hwani and Maewol haven’t seen each other in years, the elder sister taken by her father to live in the capital city while her younger sister stayed behind at their island home. The memory of their father hangs between them as Hwani returns to their childhood home to discover what happened to him after he disappeared on an investigation. But the father Maewol remembers is a different man, a cruel man. And even with all the girls disappearing from the island, she isn’t sure she wants to get involved in solving a mystery about the father who abandoned her and the sister who went along with him and never looked back.

Hur’s writing is so atmospheric and enthralling. Each story is full of mystery and intrigue and keeps me guessing from one moment to the next. Her upcoming book, The Red Palace, follows a palace nurse in 1758 Joseon, and I can’t wait to get my hands on it.


These are the 27 best historical fiction novels of 2021 according to Cosmopolitan.

An interview with Veena Muthuraman, author of The Grand Anicut on wanting to see less of kings and war in historical fiction and more peace.

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 Reading List by Sara Nisha Adams. What about you?

Past Tense

Historical Fiction with a Hint of Magic

When I think about historical fiction and historical fantasy, I usually think of them as entirely separate genres. But really historical fantasy is a subgenre of both fantasy and historical fiction. It’s not only perfectly valid and a fun confluence of genres, it also seems very seasonally appropriate, doesn’t it?

As we get closer and closer to Halloween, I’ve been exploring historical fiction that fits in with this classic themes of witches and horror and magic because historical fiction is so much more than just books on WWII. (Not to say that some of those books aren’t great, too.) So historical fiction with a hint of magic seems like just the thing. These five examples explore different periods and settings in history, but a slight touch of magic weaved in makes them a little less plausible and all the more fantastic.

The Witches of New York Book Cover

The Witches of New York by Ami McKay

In New York’s Gilded Age, three women come together to use their magic to stand strong in a time when society was hell-bent on keeping them down. When Beatrice Dunn responds to a strange ad–“Respectable Lady Seeks Dependable Shop Girl. Those averse to magic need not apply”–she’s not sure what to expect. What she gets is Adelaide Thom and Eleanor St. Clair, proprietors of a teashop that deals in more than just tea leaves.

The Murmur of Bees Book Cover

The Murmur of Bees by Sofía Segovia

Found under a bridge covered in a blanket of bees, Simonopio seems to some the stuff of superstition, cursed by the devil. But Simonopio loves his adopted family, who see him as simply a boy in need of a home, dearly. And he is determined to use his gifts of premonition and his herd of protective bees to keep them safe from anything that threatens them.

The Beautiful Ones Book Cover

The Beautiful Ones by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

In a world reminiscent of Parisian society where manners and reputation are everything, a young woman is swept up in the torrid love affair of a famed showman and her uncle’s unforgiving wife. Nina is dazzled when Hector Auvray arrives in town, hoping to learn more about the telekinetic powers he is known for, powers which she herself possesses. Hector helps Nina hone her gifts, but his affections are secretly withheld, already sworn to another: Nina’s aunt Valerie, his first love. But in spite of her strangeness, in spite of the powers society shuns in a woman, in spite of her love for beetles and the innocence she is soon to lose to an older man toying with her heart, Nina has greater potential that any of them realize.

The Water Dancer Book Cover

The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates

When Hiram’s mother is sold away, he’s robbed of all his memories of her. But he’s also left with a rare power, one that, years later, saves him from drowning. He’s left with a determination to escape enslavement, traveling from the plantations of Virginia to the dangerously idealistic movements in the North. Even as he becomes involved in the underground moment to free people from slavery, he never forgets his resolve to save the family he left behind.

The Inheritance of Orquídea Divina Book Cover

The Inheritance of Orquídea Divina by Zoraida Córdova

Though half of this beautiful magical realism novel take place in present day, the other half explores Orquídea Divina’s past as part of a traveling circus in Ecuador, slowly revealing the answers her grandchildren seek in the present. The subtle magic weaved throughout makes this book even more poignant, with the gifts and curses of a family’s past stretching out into the present.


Ta-Nehisi Coates talks race, American, and his debut novel The Water Dancer in this interview.

An interview with Zoraida Córdova about magical realism and The Inheritance of Orquídea Divina.

Why the English translation of Sofía Segovia’s The Murmur of Bees arrived right on time.

Exciting news: both The Witches of New York and The Water Dancer are slated for adaptations, the latter by Oprah Winfrey and Brad Pitt.


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 I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness by Claire Vaye Watkins. What about you?

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.


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.


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?