Top 10 Must-Read Historical Fiction Books

January 25, 2020

Most of you probably don't know that I did a History degree at university, which has made me extremely picky about what I class as good historical fiction. For me it has to have the right balance of being true to the past but also being creative enough to have a strong plot line that will keep you hooked. If you're a fan of historical fiction, look no further than this list of the top 10 books you have to read!

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo - Taylor Jenkins-Reid

From Goodreads: "Aging and reclusive Hollywood movie icon Evelyn Hugo is finally ready to tell the truth about her glamorous and scandalous life. But when she chooses unknown magazine reporter Monique Grant for the job, no one is more astounded than Monique herself. Why her? Why now? Monique is not exactly on top of the world. Her husband has left her, and her professional life is going nowhere. Regardless of why Evelyn has selected her to write her biography, Monique is determined to use this opportunity to jumpstart her career.

Summoned to Evelyn's luxurious apartment, Monique listens in fascination as the actress tells her story. From making her way to Los Angeles in the 1950s to her decision to leave show business in the '80s, and, of course, the seven husbands along the way, Evelyn unspools a tale of ruthless ambition, unexpected friendship, and a great forbidden love. Monique begins to feel a very real connection to the legendary star, but as Evelyn's story near its conclusion, it becomes clear that her life intersects with Monique's own in tragic and irreversible ways. The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo is a mesmerizing journey through the splendor of old Hollywood into the harsh realities of the present day as two women struggle with what it means--and what it costs--to face the truth."

My thoughts: This is a totally basic recommendation, but I couldn't leave Taylor Jenkins-Reid off this list. My only complaint about Seven Husbands was that it should've been longer...seriously, this book could've been 800 pages long and I would've eaten it all up (and I hate long books, so that's saying something). 

City of Girls - Elizabeth Gilbert

From Goodreads: "In 1940, nineteen-year-old Vivian Morris has just been kicked out of Vassar College, owing to her lackluster freshman-year performance. Her affluent parents send her to Manhattan to live with her Aunt Peg, who owns a flamboyant, crumbling midtown theater called the Lily Playhouse. There Vivian is introduced to an entire cosmos of unconventional and charismatic characters, from the fun-chasing showgirls to a sexy male actor, a grand-dame actress, a lady-killer writer, and no-nonsense stage manager. But when Vivian makes a personal mistake that results in professional scandal, it turns her new world upside down in ways that it will take her years to fully understand. Ultimately, though, it leads her to a new understanding of the kind of life she craves-and the kind of freedom it takes to pursue it. It will also lead to the love of her life, a love that stands out from all the rest.

Now ninety-five years old and telling her story at last, Vivian recalls how the events of those years altered the course of her life - and the gusto and autonomy with which she approached it. At some point in a woman's life, she just gets tired of being ashamed all the time, she muses. After that, she is free to become whoever she truly is. Written with a powerful wisdom about human desire and connection, City of Girls is a love story like no other."

My thoughts: When you saw The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo on this list, you probably rolled your eyes - hasn't everyone already read that by now? But never fear - I have another option for you if you just can't get enough of historical fiction based around stardom (and told in the exact same memoir style). 

Is it as good as The Seven Husbands? Well, admittedly, no. The plot changes tack about halfway through the book into a different kind of story - but it's still an impressive life story which reflects the changing decades as it goes on. I really enjoyed it and would 100% recommend!

Daisy Jones and the Six - Taylor Jenkins-Reid 

From Goodreads: "Everyone knows Daisy Jones & The Six: The band's album Aurora came to define the rock 'n' roll era of the late seventies, and an entire generation of girls wanted to grow up to be Daisy. But no one knows the reason behind the group's split on the night of their final concert at Chicago Stadium on July 12, 1979 . . . until now.

Daisy is a girl coming of age in L.A. in the late sixties, sneaking into clubs on the Sunset Strip, sleeping with rock stars, and dreaming of singing at the Whisky a Go Go. The sex and drugs are thrilling, but it’s the rock 'n' roll she loves most. By the time she’s twenty, her voice is getting noticed, and she has the kind of heedless beauty that makes people do crazy things.

Also getting noticed is The Six, a band led by the brooding Billy Dunne. On the eve of their first tour, his girlfriend Camila finds out she’s pregnant, and with the pressure of impending fatherhood and fame, Billy goes a little wild on the road.

Daisy and Billy cross paths when a producer realizes that the key to supercharged success is to put the two together. What happens next will become the stuff of legend."

My thoughts: I know...another very basic recommendation...seriously who hasn't read this book by now...but it was my favourite book of 2019 so I can't leave it off the list. I didn't even think of this as historical fiction when I read it (although it totally is) because it's told in a very different and much lighter way than much historical fiction out there, which I find can be quite heavy and dense. 

This book is just so good. It's intensely emotional and heart-breaking and awe-inspiring all in one. I loved it so much. And I'm still seeing adverts for it on the tube even though it's nearly a year old, which makes my morning commutes so much better!

The Book Thief - Markus Zusak 

From Goodreads: "It is 1939. Nazi Germany. The country is holding its breath. Death has never been busier, and will be busier still.

By her brother's graveside, Liesel's life is changed when she picks up a single object, partially hidden in the snow. It is The Gravedigger's Handbook, left behind there by accident, and it is her first act of book thievery. So begins a love affair with books and words, as Liesel, with the help of her accordian-playing foster father, learns to read. Soon she is stealing books from Nazi book-burnings, the mayor's wife's library, wherever there are books to be found.

But these are dangerous times. When Liesel's foster family hides a Jew in their basement, Liesel's world is both opened up, and closed down."

My thoughts: A historical fiction classic, I couldn't have left The Book Thief off the list either. I reread this last year and it actually made me cry - books never make me cry. It's truly a beautiful and powerful story. 

Wolf Hall - Hilary Mantel 

From Goodreads: "England in the 1520s is a heartbeat from disaster. If the king dies without a male heir, the country could be destroyed by civil war. Henry VIII wants to annul his marriage of twenty years and marry Anne Boleyn. The pope and most of Europe opposes him. Into this impasse steps Thomas Cromwell: a wholly original man, a charmer and a bully, both idealist and opportunist, astute in reading people, and implacable in his ambition. But Henry is volatile: one day tender, one day murderous. Cromwell helps him break the opposition, but what will be the price of his triumph?"

My thoughts: This one is definitely one of those dense historical fictions which I was talking about before (bit of a contrast to Daisy Jones and the Six, let's just say that). But it's so impressive in its coverage of Cromwell's career under Henry VIII. It takes a bit of an effort to get into the writing style but it's definitely worth it in the end. 

All the Light We Cannot See - Anthony Doerr

From Goodreads: "From the highly acclaimed, multiple award-winning Anthony Doerr, the stunningly beautiful instant New York Times bestseller about a blind French girl and a German boy whose paths collide in occupied France as both try to survive the devastation of World War II.

Marie-Laure lives in Paris near the Museum of Natural History, where her father works. When she is twelve, the Nazis occupy Paris and father and daughter flee to the walled citadel of Saint-Malo, where Marie-Laure’s reclusive great uncle lives in a tall house by the sea. With them they carry what might be the museum’s most valuable and dangerous jewel.

In a mining town in Germany, Werner Pfennig, an orphan, grows up with his younger sister, enchanted by a crude radio they find that brings them news and stories from places they have never seen or imagined. Werner becomes an expert at building and fixing these crucial new instruments and is enlisted to use his talent to track down the resistance. Deftly interweaving the lives of Marie-Laure and Werner, Doerr illuminates the ways, against all odds, people try to be good to one another."

My thoughts: I will confess that I have actually never read this one, despite it sitting on my Kindle for years, which I'm very ashamed of! But I've included it within this list because I've seen so many good things about this book that my hopes for it as a good example of historical fiction are sky high. 

Salt to the Sea - Ruta Sepetys

From Goodreads: "While the Titanic and Lusitania are both well-documented disasters, the single greatest tragedy in maritime history is the little-known January 30, 1945 sinking in the Baltic Sea by a Soviet submarine of the Wilhelm Gustloff, a German cruise liner that was supposed to ferry wartime personnel and refugees to safety from the advancing Red Army. The ship was overcrowded with more than 10,500 passengers — the intended capacity was approximately 1,800 — and more than 9,000 people, including 5,000 children, lost their lives."

My thoughts: This is a book which will definitely make you question the meaning of life and its complete fragility. It's hard-hitting and painful but it's just so good - I've been a huge fan of Ruta Sepetys for many years and her books are all great examples of historical fiction. 

The Nightingale - Kristin Hannah 

From Goodreads: "France, 1939.

In the quiet village of Carriveau, Vianne Mauriac says goodbye to her husband, Antoine, as he heads for the Front. She doesn’t believe that the Nazis will invade France...but invade they do, in droves of marching soldiers, in caravans of trucks and tanks, in planes that fill the skies and drop bombs upon the innocent. When France is overrun, Vianne is forced to take an enemy into her house, and suddenly her every move is watched; her life and her child’s life is at constant risk. Without food or money or hope, as danger escalates around her, she must make one terrible choice after another.

Vianne’s sister, Isabelle, is a rebellious eighteen-year-old girl, searching for purpose with all the reckless passion of youth. While thousands of Parisians march into the unknown terrors of war, she meets the compelling and mysterious Gäetan, a partisan who believes the French can fight the Nazis from within France, and she falls in love as only the young can...completely. When he betrays her, Isabelle races headlong into danger and joins the Resistance, never looking back or giving a thought to the real--and deadly--consequences."

My thoughts: Heartbreaking. Addictive. Told in Hannah's usual beautiful prose. Need I say more? 

The Giver of Stars - Jojo Moyes

From Goodreads: "Alice Wright marries handsome American Bennett Van Cleve hoping to escape her stifling life in England. But small-town Kentucky quickly proves equally claustrophobic, especially living alongside her overbearing father-in-law. So when a call goes out for a team of women to deliver books as part of Eleanor Roosevelt’s new traveling library, Alice signs on enthusiastically.

The leader, and soon Alice's greatest ally, is Margery, a smart-talking, self-sufficient woman who's never asked a man's permission for anything. They will be joined by three other singular women who become known as the Packhorse Librarians of Kentucky.

What happens to them--and to the men they love--becomes an unforgettable drama of loyalty, justice, humanity and passion. These heroic women refuse to be cowed by men or by convention. And though they face all kinds of dangers in a landscape that is at times breathtakingly beautiful, at others brutal, they’re committed to their job: bringing books to people who have never had any, arming them with facts that will change their lives."

My thoughts: I don't know why, but I have a thing for Depression-era books, so this one was already looking good when I picked it up. But it turned out to be a story of the strength of five very diverse women - and a celebration of womanhood, which I wasn't expecting, but absolutely loved. 

The Familiars - Stacey Halls 

From Goodreads: "The Essex Serpent meets The Miniaturist in this rich and compelling historical novel, set against the frenzy of the real 1612 Witch Trials of Pendle Hill, that explores the rights of 17th century women, as the fate of a nobelwoman and her unborn child rests on proving the innocence of her midwife, an accused witch.

Young Fleetwood Shuttleworth, noblewoman of Gawthorpe Hall, one of the finest houses in Lancashire, is pregnant for the fourth time. None of her previous pregnancies have been successful, and her husband Richard is anxious for an heir. When Fleetwood finds a hidden letter from the doctor who delivered her last stillbirth, she learns of the prediction that she will not survive another pregnancy. By chance she meets a midwife named Alice Grey, who promises to help Fleetwood deliver a healthy baby and prove the physician wrong. But Alice herself is soon drawn into the witchcraft accusations that are sweeping the area. Fleetwood must risk everything to help clear her name.

But is there more to Alice than meets the eye? As the two women’s lives become inextricably bound together, the now infamous Witch Trials of 1612 approach, and Fleetwood’s impending delivery looms. Time is running out, and both their lives are at stake. Only they know the truth. Only they can save each other.

Fleetwood Shuttleworth, Alice Grey and all the other characters in this novel are based on real people who fell under the spell of these witch trials. Even woodland creatures, "the familiars," are suspected of aiding the local sorceresses in their practice of dark magic. In the early 17th century Lancashire was deemed a lawless county full of Catholics, criminals and conspirators, and King James I was obsessed with capturing witches, who were mostly poor, illiterate women."

My thoughts: This is the one on this list that I've read the most recently, and I really enjoyed it. It's set around the seventeenth century witch trials which took place across Europe, which was a topic I focused in a lot on my degree (and my dissertation was set in 1612!), so the pressure was really on for this to live up to what I already knew about the era. 

Thankfully though, Stacey Halls delivered, and you could tell this book had been very well researched before it was written, which is always appreciated. In fact, the one criticism I had of this book was that the main character's name - Fleetwood Shuttleworth - was utterly ridiculous, and then I found out that it was actually the name of a real person at the time. That showed me!

Have you read any of these books? Will you be adding any to your TBR? As always, let me know your thoughts by adding me on Goodreads and/or Instagram. 

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