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Six Four-Star (and Up) Historical Fiction Reads I Loved Last Year



Six Four-Star (and Up) Bossy Historical Fiction Reads

Historical fiction is one of my very favorite genres, and just as I do every year, I loved my historical fiction reads in 2023.

Two historical fiction books made it onto My Very Favorite Bossy 2023 Reads: Demon Copperhead and Chenneville.

If you've read any of these, I'd love to hear what you think! I'd also love to hear: what are some of your favorite historical fiction reads?

You can click here for other historical fiction books (and lists of favorites) I've reviewed on Bossy Bookworm. I posted last year about Six Four-Star Historical Fiction Reads I Loved Last Year, and Six More Four-Star (And Up) Historical Fiction Reads I Loved in the Past Year.


 

01 The Madstone by Elizabeth Crook

The Madstone begins as an against-the-odds attempt to evade evil and develops into a beautiful heartbreaker of a story about duty, family, and love in Civil War-era Texas.

I will tell you, if there is a thing harder than facing danger, it's knowing it's headed your way.

It's 1868 in Texas, and a stagecoach that's off track and in trouble (with a fortune tucked away inside) turns out to also hold unexpected passengers: pregnant Nell and her four-year-old son, Tot, who are fleeing from Nell's abusive husband and his vindictive, terrifying "Swamp Fox" family.

When nineteen-year-old orphan and frontier carpenter Benjamin Shreve encounters Nell, he determines to shepherd her and Tot to safety. But their trip to the Gulf of Mexico is fraught with danger--and Nell's husband and his murderous brothers may be hot on their tail.

The book is fully epistolary, as the story is told in a book-long letter from Benjamin to Tot. It started off a little slowly for me because Benjamin shared so many details of thoughts and in setting the scene, but I ended up loving the delivery of the story as Benjamin shares understated, thoughtful reflections and begins to express burgeoning emotions and vulnerability.

I loved the Old West setting, the relationships, the unlikely allies, the high threat level, the danger and chases, the few quiet moments--all of this.

If you're interested in this book, you might also like the titles on my Greedy Reading List Six Great Historical Fiction Stories Set in the American West and Six More Great Historical Fiction Stories Set in the American West.

For my full review of this book, please see The Madstone.


 

02 October in the Earth by Olivia Hawker

Hawker's historical fiction gives a wonderfully evocative peek into a gritty period, as her main protagonist escapes a bad marriage to ride the rails during the Depression and reinvents herself completely.

In Depression-era Kentucky, Adella (Del) Wensley is the wife of the showy, prosperous, revered local preacher. She's learned to bite her tongue, and she feels like the poor treatment her husband shows her may be deserved, as after eight years of marriage, they haven't conceived a child. Her life's purpose is meant to be made up of motherhood, catering to her husband's needs, and keeping house, after all.

But when her husband pushes her too far with abhorrent behavior, Del hops a train and dives into the transient community riding the rails in search of work and survival.

Hawker offers a wonderfully vivid, gritty, sobering, often surprisingly hopeful--but never too easy--peek at Depression-era desperation, forged loyalties, shedding of expectations, and new, hard-fought identities and priorities.

For my full review of this book, please see October in the Earth.


 

03 The Caretaker by Ron Rash

Ron Rash's newest Appalachian-set novel explores a small town shaken by upended expectations, the Korean War, and selfish rigidity that threatens to undo them all.

Blackburn Gant is the sole caretaker of a hilltop cemetery in 1951 Blowing Rock, North Carolina. He lives a quiet life, which is partially dictated by his physical limitations since suffering through polio as a child.

When his best (and only) friend Jacob is sent to serve overseas in the Korean War, Blackburn promises to look after Jacob's wife, Naomi. The two had eloped just months after meeting, which led to Jacob's being disowned by his wealthy family.

Blackburn and Naomi grow close as they anxiously await word of Jacob's fate halfway around the world. When an important telegram arrives, they fear the worst.

A series of elaborate falsifications, outrageous subterfuge, and outright lies creates a tangled web for all involved--and the situation just begs for justice to be served to those blinded by selfish desire and rigid expectations.

I included the wonderful Ron Rash short story collection Nothing Gold Can Stay in my Greedy Reading List Six Short Story Collections to Wow You, and I loved his novel One Foot in Eden.

Click here for my full review of The Caretaker.


 

04 The Trackers by Charles Frazier

Frazier offers an immersive story that morphs from a WPA-funded rural art commission to a leisurely country-wide search, an unlikely obsession, moments of brutality, strange connections, and, finally, an upended set of circumstances.

In The Trackers, Cold Mountain author Charles Frazier offers historical fiction featuring a Great Depression-era painter, Val Welch, traveling west to a small rural town in Wyoming.

As part of a New Deal grant, Val has landed the job of painting a mural on the Dawes, Wyoming, post office. In Dawes, he meets eccentric, wealthy art lovers John and Eve Long--mysterious, possibly hiding something, and certainly unpredictable.

When Eve takes off from Dawes with a piece of valuable artwork, Val agrees to follow her--and uncovers long-buried secrets that could change everything.

Frazier's writing is gorgeous, evoking the stark western landscapes Val passes through, gritty San Francisco, and the powerful cliffside ocean as well as lush, wild, wet Florida and its accompanying corruption and danger.

Click here for my full review of The Trackers.


 

05 Learned by Heart by Emma Donoghue

Donoghue's captivating historical fiction centers around two real-life young women in an early 1800s British boarding school who fall into a clandestine love and break each other's hearts.

Donoghue builds a rich story around the real-life figures of Eliza Raine and Anne Lister.

Raine was a wealthy orphan--one of two daughters born to a white British father and an Indian mother, who were committed but unmarried--sent from India to England at age 6.

She grew up in a cold, strict British boarding school in the early 1800s. Lister arrives as a wild, curious, unconventional, brilliant tomboy--and is paired as roommates with Raine in the drafty dormitory attic. It almost seems as though the school heads would like to forget either of the troublesome young ladies exist.

The teenage roommates become unlikely best friends, then fall into a deep, forbidden attraction, pledging their eternal love to each other. Their romantic connection is passionate but clandestine, and they manage to evade the scandal and punishment that would befall them if their situation were made known to the conservative school administrators.

It's difficult to consider Raine's mental illness without crediting the likely powerful influence of her worries about her orphaned state, her cold relationship with her sister, her lack of autonomy as a female, her financial future's reliance on her age and marital state, and the secretive nature of her desire and single close relationship--which ends in heartbreak, followed by years of prolonged angst, yearning, and continual disappointment.

For my full review, check out Learned by Heart.


 

06 Homecoming by Kate Morton

Morton's newest historical fiction involves two timelines, a decades-old tragedy, and a modern-day descendant's discovery of her family's link to mysterious deaths.

"...People were wiser back then, and less selfish. They understood that they were part of a line, not the beginning, middle, and end of it."

In one of Morton's timelines, it's Christmas Eve in South Australia, and a local man makes a horrific discovery on the grounds of a grand country estate.

Years later, Jessica is a struggling reporter in London who is summoned to Sydney to care for her beloved grandmother Nora, who has sustained a serious fall.

While there, Jessica discovers a true-crime account of The Turner Family Tragedy of 1959--and her own family's connection to the unthinkable events.

There are two mysteries surrounding the Turner Tragedy: the whodunit aspect and the unexplained disappearance of a family member. The identity and situation regarding the latter were somewhat easily sussed out--although the very specifics were not hinted at until the Big Reveal. The whodunit aspect kept me guessing and suspecting various characters until the end.

This is a long (it's almost 550 pages), winding story with complicated connections and mysterious motivations that are eventually laid bare for the reader's satisfaction.

There's a message about faulted mothers doing the best they can here, and there are some opportunities for redemption and peace.

I often feel more invested in one timeline than the other in a dual-timeline story, and here I was more intrigued by the past events than I was by Jessica's modern-day efforts to determine the truth.

Morton's story explores secrets, loyalties, mysteries, and the complicated matter of family--those you choose, and those you're born into.

Click here for my full review of Homecoming.

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