Beginner's Guide to Historical Fiction: Staff Favorites

By Michelle HooSang

Enjoy the variety of times and cultures in this collection of favorite staff novels based in the past.

  • Lone Women

    2023 by LaValle, Victor

    Adelaide Henry is fleeing her past – a past that includes a house fire and dead parents. Taking advantage of the government's offer of free land for those who can work it, Adelaide travels to Montana with her locked steamer trunk to homestead. Homesteading is a lonely and tough occupation for anyone, but especially for a lone Black woman in 1915 Montana. Horror and historical fiction combine in a surprisingly uplifting and touching story of female empowerment. Suggested by Lynnanne.

    Get this item
  • 11/22/63

    2011 by King, Stephen

    Stephen King’s vision of a world including Kennedy’s leadership and influence is exquisitely and expertly narrated by actor extraordinaire Craig Wasson. This novel is a stellar example of a generous mix of bits of history and pieces of science fiction, as the reader, or (listener in my case) is asked to believe in the possibility of time travel, and the consequences if events are altered. Suggested by Debby.

    Get this item
  • To Paradise

    2022 by Yanagihara, Hanya

    A deeply ambitious, prophetic, and evocative novel spanning three centuries and three alternative versions of American history. Hanya Yanagihara knows how to interrogate complicated themes about human relationships, love, prejudice, and identity, yet move the stories along in an impressively thrilling and emotional way. Suggested by Megan.

    Get this item
  • The Personal Librarian

    2021 by Benedict, Marie

    The book was a perfect combination of learning about a real unknown person behind a well-known historical character, and it was written in a way that kept me wondering what would happen if/when someone found out. It made me want to learn more about Belle Da Costa Greene and to revisit the Morgan Library the next time I’m in New York. Now, I not only recommend the library, but whenever someone tells me they like historical fiction, I also recommend this novel. Suggested by Nancy.

    Get this item
  • A Long Petal of the Sea

    2020 by Allende, Isabel

    A sweeping epic of the Spanish Civil War and its aftermath. This novel is full of history, compassion, and the terrible cost of war. Through beautiful prose, the book follows the lives of two refugees as they search for love, family, and joy. Suggested by Michelle.

    Get this item
  • Lavender House

    2022 by Rosen, Lev AC

    Life as Evander "Andy" Mills has known it ends when he's caught in a raid on a gay bar in 1952 San Francisco. Thrown off the police force, Mills is approached by the widow of soap magnate Irene Lafontaine, who wants her husband's death investigated discreetly. Rosen certainly knows the tropes of mid-20th Century crime fiction, but his real interest is in showing the reader how LGBT people found ways to not merely survive but thrive in the midst of a society that hated to be reminded of their existence. Suggested by Andrew.

    Get this item
  • Burr

    1973 by Vidal, Gore

    My favorite historical author was my first, Gore Vidal, who wrote a hugely popular and justly revered seven-book series (known collectively as the Narrative of Empire or American Chronicles). What I loved most about Gore Vidal was his expository skills, his tenacity to tell the story of the beginnings of a country he both loved and loathed, and his interpretation of U.S. history. Gore himself was a character--brilliant, feisty, and, toward the end of his life, more than a little curdled. Many of the characters in his historical novels have more than a little of Vidal himself coursing through them. Suggested by Chris.

    Get this item
  • A Caribbean Heiress in Paris

    2022 by Herrera, Adriana

    A delightful and steamy historical romance that celebrates Latin American culture and female friendship while it highlights lesser-known historical events. I love the characters and the celebration of diversity. Suggested by Rummanah.

    Get this item
  • Great Circle

    2021 by Shipstead, Maggie

    This epic historical novel starts slowly but then takes off, spanning a century and the entire planet, and landing with an astonishing ending. I’m usually cautious of long books, but this vivid story of a woman who wants to fly, her twin brother who wants to paint, and a set of other characters pushing against human and historical forces thoroughly immersed and entertained me. Suggested by Megan.

    Get this item
  • The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois

    2021 by Jeffers, Honorée Fanonne

    A multigenerational saga revealing some of America’s darkest secrets and the effects that trauma can have on descendants. As Ailey comes of age and discovers her true desires, she uncovers the history of her family and so much of the Black American experience. Suggested by Michelle.

    Get this item
  • Mexican Gothic

    2020 by Moreno-Garcia, Silvia

    This novel that combines history and fantasy is impossible to put down. NoemÍ is a captivating heroine who finds herself solving a mystery on an isolated Mexican estate. This atmospheric book has many twists and turns, and the spooky setting had me feeling transported to another time and place. Suggested by Brenna.

    Get this item
  • Dust Child

    2023 by Nguỹên, Phan Qúê Mai

    A beautifully written, suspenseful family saga about family secrets, hidden trauma, and the overriding power of forgiveness, This novel is set during the Vietnam war and in present-day Vietnam. I learned a lot from reading this novel, especially about the Amerasian Homecoming Act. Suggested by Rummanah.

    Get this item
  • In the Country of Others

    2021 by Slimani, Leïla

    First book in a planned trilogy loosely inspired by her own family's history, Slimani crafts a sweeping, character-driven historical saga spotlighting the personal, political, and social aspects of post World War II Morocco. I loved how the author parallels the various strong female characters and their struggle for independence with that of Morocco's resistance to shake off French colonialism. Suggested by Rummanah.

    Get this item
  • The Name of the Rose

    1983 by Eco, Umberto

    Despite significant flaws, this is one of the most influential historical mysteries ever written; 40 years ago, it did a lot to make the subgenre respectable. Eco plunges his readers into the intellectual. political, and psychological world of 14th Century Europe, with a forward-looking (but carefully modeled on real figures of the time) ex-inquisitor trying to solve a series of bizarre murders at a monastery that houses "the greatest library in Christendom." Suggested by Andrew.

    Get this item
  • The Archer's Tale

    2005 by Cornwell, Bernard

    This first part of a trilogy follows a British archer at the start of the Hundred Years’ War with epically detailed and grisly, engaging battle sequences as well as exceptionally intimate dialogue and character building. Personally, I love that the book tackles major historical events and even some more-than-famous historical British “celebrities,” but by centering it on an almost completely fictional character, the plot is rich with intrigue, humor, and dynamics. Suggested by Vinny.

    Get this item