The Bossy Bookworm
Six Four-Star 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 I loved my historical fiction reads in 2022. Here are six of my very favorite historical fiction reads of last year--with another list to come!
(Check out My Very Favorite Bossy 2022 Reads for my overall favorite reads from last year.)
If you've read any of these, I'd love to hear what you think!
You can click here for other historical fiction books I've reviewed on Bossy Bookworm. I'd love to hear: what are some of your favorite historical fiction reads?
01 Hester by Laurie Lico Albanese
Hester is richly imagined historical fiction with connections to themes and characters from The Scarlet Letter. It's magical and intriguing, and I loved it.
In Hester, Laurie Lico Albanese reimagines the woman who inspired Nathaniel Hawthorne's Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter as recent Scottish immigrant Isobel Gamble.
Talented needleworker Isobel and her husband leave Scotland for America in the early 1800s. But when her addict of a husband abruptly leaves her penniless and alone, jumping on a ship departing Massachusetts shortly after they arrive, Isobel is desperate and must make her way in an unfamiliar country all alone.
As she hides the vivid colors she has always seen associated with letters, voices, and emotions--which she has always been told to ignore, for fear of being branded a witch like her great grandmother, also named Isobel--she encounters Nathaniel Hathorne, a romantic, aspiring author who is struggling to cope with his family's dark legacy of having sent suspected witches to the gallows in generations past. The two enchant each other within an unconventional, unacceptable relationship and a swirl of irresistible connection.
Isobel's needlework and the colors she sees in the world are captivatingly described, and the tenuous situation for a woman at the time without a man in the household is conveyed in chilling fashion. I loved the connections to The Scarlet Letter and the book within a book, the witchy focus, the renegade feminism, and the details of life at the time.
For my full review, check out Hester.
02 The Last Green Valley by Mark Sullivan
Mark Sullivan explores a gripping, detailed, life-and-death period in the life of an ethnically German family at the end of World War II in this historical fiction inspired by a true story.
In The Last Green Valley, Mark Sullivan, author of Beneath a Scarlet Sky, tells a tale of a family's incredible bravery and determination in the waning, cruel days of World War II.
It's 1944, and Stalin's forces are rolling through the Ukraine, leaving destruction and horrors in their wake. In order to escape and survive, Emil Martel makes a haunting deal in order to keep his beloved wife, sons, and extended family safe under the umbrella of the retreating Nazi's power.
When Emil suffers beyond what he could have imagined, he undergoes a gradual, grudging transformation in which he finds faith in unexpected places.
Sullivan doesn't flinch from the difficulties this family undergoes, but I had faith that he would give me roughly the ending I was desperately hoping for. (In fact, there was more wrap-up than I personally needed at the end, but I was game for it.)
Sullivan built this historical fiction around the true story of an ethnically German family running from the Ukraine at the end of World War II, filling in gaps with researched, plausible, but imagined--and captivating--details and events.
Click here for my full review of The Last Green Valley.
03 Shrines of Gaiety by Kate Atkinson
Atkinson's newest mystery is set in vivid Roaring Twenties London as Nellie Coker struggles to hold on to her empire of clubs while mysterious dark undercurrents threaten stability throughout the city.
It's 1926 in London, and recovery from the Great War inspires many in the city to dive into the wild nightlife scene and revel in the frenzy of the Jazz Age.
Nellie Coker is fresh out of jail and ready to jump back into the action, masterminding moves to increase her family's power, influence, and riches.
But not everyone she's paying off can be trusted, some of her six children are undermining her, and goings-on in the dark undercurrents of Soho could shake Coker's hold on her empire--and upset her ambitious dreams.
On the other side of the Shrines of Gaiety story line is Detective Frobisher, an upstanding outlier in the largely corrupt police force, and his unlikely assistant in investigating Ma Coker, former librarian Gwendolen Kelling.
I was particularly hooked by the intersection of Gwendolyn and Ma Coker's golden child, her eldest son Niven--along with the mystery of missing girls across Roaring Twenties London, plus deadly high stakes, the dealings of various crooks, and significant double-crossing throughout the story.
Click here for my full review of Shrines of Gaiety.
04 The Saints of Swallow Hill by Donna Everhart
This Depression-era-set historical fiction story tracks characters in intensely difficult situations as they successfully fight for justice, peace, love, and forgiveness in a satisfying story arc that captivated me.
The Saints of Swallow Hill traces the paths of Rae Lynn and Del, disparate characters in Depression-era Georgia who have two important things in common: each of their searches for food, shelter, and survival is becoming more desperate; and each of them is running from dark secrets that threaten to destroy them.
Everhart includes one of my favorite setups, in which a woman dresses as a man in order to achieve some end. Here, Rae Lynn seeks an escape from danger and needs to earn a wage, but unwittingly places herself in greater jeopardy.
As I read the first pages of this book, I admit that I was fairly hesitant--the tone felt increasingly bleak, and I wasn't sure if Everhart was going to revel in creating further mishaps and disasters for her characters.
I was grateful when she laid out not only a tale of intense hardship, bad luck, and rough circumstances in a difficult period of our nation's history, but also a captivating story of determination, struggles for improvement, deep human connection, justice, love, and hope. I'm so very glad I stuck this one out so I could see these characters through and witness their journeys' ends.
For my full review, check out The Saints of Swallow Hill.
05 The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O'Farrell
I was hooked on the captivating details of Renaissance life, masterfully paced swirling danger and paranoia, and richly developed major and minor characters in The Marriage Portrait.
In The Marriage Portrait, Maggie O'Farrell turns her attention to Renaissance Italy to tell a historical fiction story of a precocious third daughter of the grand duke of Florence.
But when young Lucrezia's older sister dies suddenly before her scheduled marriage to the ruler of Ferrara, the men of the families involved and their advisors are quick to thrust the preteen into her sister's place. Her trusted nurse and former milk-mother Sofia does her best to delay plans to wed the slight young girl to an older duke, but ultimately Lucrezia is offered as a substitute.
O'Farrell masterfully balances the reader on a tightrope, wondering how much of the potential danger Lucrezia perceives is imagined and how much is real. Lucrezia's shrinking world made me feel claustrophobic on her behalf and paranoid about everyone's potential intentions.
The Marriage Portrait offers wonderful details--of food, palace life, clothing, and art--as well as a shocking ending. O'Farrell presents a fascinating Author's Note about the real figures and circumstances that inspired this book.
Maggie O'Farrell is also the author of Hamnet, I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death, The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, Instructions for a Heatwave, This Must Be the Place, and others.
For my full review, please check out The Marriage Portrait.
06 The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek by Kim Michele Richardson
Kim Michele Richardson's historical fiction offers a 1936 Appalachian setting, the magic and unassuming power of a rural librarian, and the exploration of a rare genetic condition. The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek was a winning read for me.
Appalachian setting? Check. Tough female protagonist? Check. Rural librarian? Check. Fascinating implications of a rare genetic condition? Check.
I'm not sure why it took me so long to read Kim Michele Richardson's The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek, except for pre-reading anxiety that it might not live up to my sky-high expectations. But this is a solid historical fiction story that I loved.
Bluet is a librarian through the Pack Horse Library Project of Kentucky, and she rides her mule Eugenia through all the hollers and up through the mountains, delivering sought-after newspapers and practical and fanciful books to families who rarely emerge from deep in the woods and for whom the written word is a window to the greater world.
Richardson offers a satisfying ending that's not without an edge or imperfections.
I listened to this as an audiobook, and I found narrator Katie Schorr's reading of the story wonderful.
For my full review, please click here.