Leslie Howard is the author of The Brideship Wife. Inspired by the history of the British “brideships,” this captivating historical debut tells the story of one woman’s coming of age and search for independence. Learn more about her novel here.
I love discovering novels that bring to light little-known or overlooked historical events. When the novels are emotionally nuanced and beautifully written, they make my top ten list. Here’s that list, in no particular order.
This Pulitzer Prize–winning author did extensive research into the New York City waterfront and the Brooklyn Navy Yard that was tasked with ship reparation during World War Two. When she uncovered the link between deep-sea diving and ship repair, her story about the first female US Army deep-sea diver was born. Juxtaposing the brutal world of waterfront gangsterism and the thill and beauty of deep-sea diving, this historical novel is about love, family, and one woman’s challenge to survive doing the dangerous work she loves.
NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • A New York Times Notable Book
Winner of the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction
The daring and magnificent novel from the Pulitzer Prize–winning author.
Named One of the Best Books of the Year by NPR, Esquire, Vogue, The Washington Post, The Guardian, USA TODAY, and Time
Anna Kerrigan, nearly twelve years old, accompanies her father to visit Dexter Styles, a man who, she gleans, is crucial to the survival of her father and her family. She is mesmerized by the sea beyond the house and by some charged mystery between the two men.
Years later, her father has disappeared and the country is at war. Anna works at the Brooklyn Naval Yard, where women are allowed to hold jobs that once belonged to men, now soldiers abroad. She becomes the first female diver, the most dangerous and exclusive of occupations, repairing the ships that will help America win the war. One evening at a nightclub, she meets Dexter Styles again, and begins to understand the complexity of her father’s life, the reasons he might have vanished.
“A magnificent achievement, at once a suspenseful noir intrigue and a transporting work of lyrical beauty and emotional heft” (The Boston Globe), “Egan’s first foray into historical fiction makes you forget you’re reading historical fiction at all” (Elle). Manhattan Beach takes us into a world populated by gangsters, sailors, divers, bankers, and union men in a dazzling, propulsive exploration of a transformative moment in the lives and identities of women and men, of America and the world.
In 1936, the Nazi grip on Eastern Europe was tightening. Jewish parents who could not flee the Holocaust scrambled to send their children to safety through the Kindertransports to England. It is hard to imagine a more emotionally charged story; a less skillful writer might overplay it, but Meg Waite Clayton expertly walks the reader through the fraught narrative. The result is an engrossing fast-paced novel that is both heartrending and poignant.
This 1951 detective novel was voted #1 in the Top 100 Crime Novels of All Time by the Crime Writers’ Association. Scotland Yard Detective Alan Grant insists he can read the character of a person by looking at their picture. When he gazes at a portrait of King Richard III, he sees a kind, intelligent face, not the cruel and deformed hunchback he was widely accepted to be. Richard was purported to have murdered his young nephews after imprisoning them in the Tower of London in order to secure his succession to the throne. Grant seeks the truth and sets out to prove Richard innocent through modern detective procedures.
Re-creating one of history’s most famous—and vicious—crimes, THE DAUGHTER OF TIME investigates who really killed Richard III’s nephews, the Princes in the Tower, and reveals the usurpers lying in wait behind the British throne.
One of the best-known stories of all time is the life of Christ. What is often forgotten are the stories of his contemporaries and how they viewed him—the rivalries, doubts, and fears of those in his inner circle. This Trillium Book Award winner is a fascinating interweaving of the viewpoints of four people—Judas, Mary Magdalene, Mother Mary, and Simon of Gergesa—telling the same events but through different eyes. Each narration is influenced by the sex, age, and race of the storyteller.
Some sad historical events are relatively unknown because the guilty parties do their best to suppress the story. In 1939, the SS St. Louis set sail for Cuba carrying 937 (mostly Jewish) refugees in a desperate attempt to flee Germany. The voyage started out like a holiday cruise where grand dinners and dances led to new friends and romances. The fun descended into tragedy with the passengers’ slow realization and acceptance of their plight. Each attempt to dock the ship was repelled by the governments of Cuba, the US, and then Canada. All documents related to the incident have since gone missing from the Cuban National Archive.
When the fledgling MI5 hires eighteen-year-old Juliet as a transcriptionist, she has no idea that the organization and the people she works for are not as they seem. When she gradually peels back the layers of deception, her mundane job turns both deadly and thrilling. As World War Two devolves into the Cold War, Juliet becomes ensnared in a cloak-and-dagger world as she goes on the hunt for British fascist sympathizers. A wonderful plot twist at the end makes this novel a well-crafted and satisfying read.
The torpedoing of the Lusitania by a German U-boat in 1915 has been overshadowed in popular culture by the fabled sinking of the Titanic, but the story is just as dramatic, especially when told by an expert storyteller like Erik Larson. The fashionable and elegant Lusitania was considered to be the greyhound of the fleet: able to outrun any threat. Convinced that the gentlemanly traditions of safe passage for civilians in times of war still held true, Captain Turner confidently sailed into waters known to be patrolled by German submarines. The U-boat’s captain, Walther Schwieger, was only too happy to lead Germany and the world into a new type of warfare, one where no one, not even children, was spared. The author brings to life this important moment in the history of modern warfare just as he skillfully invites you into the lives of those on board that fateful day.
This is the fascinating true story of Frenchman Alfred Dreyfus who, in 1894, was convicted of espionage and sentenced to life in prison on Devil’s Island. Officer Georges Picquart uncovers conflicting evidence when he reviews the file and sets about to uncover the truth. He follows a path of flimsy evidence and outright fabrication that leads directly to his superiors. Partly because of his Jewish ancestry, Dreyfus had been framed and the real spy was still operating with impunity. In this fast-paced historical thriller, Picquart risks his career and then his life trying to prove Dreyfus’s innocence.
I’m clearly a Robert Harris fan and I’ve picked just two favorites for this list, but it was a hard choice. IMPERIUM is a fictional account of the life of Cicero told by his secretary and slave, Tiro. Roman politics was a raw and dangerous business, but Cicero fought his way to the top through his ability to manage complex intrigues and to present his case in the Senate through his legendary ability at oration. Harris brings the pre-modern era alive through meticulous research and his ability to inject into the narrative both the mundane and extraordinary details of everyday life in Rome.
From the bestselling author of Fatherland and Pompeii, comes the first novel of a trilogy about the struggle for power in ancient Rome.
In his “most accomplished work to date” (Los Angeles Times), master of historical fiction Robert Harris lures readers back in time to the compelling life of Roman Senator Marcus Cicero. The re-creation of a vanished biography written by his household slave and righthand man, Tiro, Imperium follows Cicero’s extraordinary struggle to attain supreme power in Rome.
On a cold November morning, Tiro opens the door to find a terrified, bedraggled stranger begging for help. Once a Sicilian aristocrat, the man was robbed by the corrupt Roman governor, Verres, who is now trying to convict him under false pretenses and sentence him to a violent death. The man claims that only the great senator Marcus Cicero, one of Rome’s most ambitious lawyers and spellbinding orators, can bring him justice in a crooked society manipulated by the villainous governor. But for Cicero, it is a chance to prove himself worthy of absolute power. What follows is one of the most gripping courtroom dramas in history, and the beginning of a quest for political glory by a man who fought his way to the top using only his voice—defeating the most daunting figures in Roman history.
In this thriller that has been described as “experimental” because of its many overlapping plots, a young English actor comes to Vienna to seek help for anorgasmia from an eminent psychiatrist. He finds himself caught up in the bohemian life of the café culture in Vienna just prior to World War One. Falling into a dangerous but thrilling affair with an artist, he finds himself drawn into her complicated and shadowy world. When war breaks out, he returns to London where his abilities as an actor make him a candidate for wartime intelligence. He is sent on a vital quest to find the key to a code that will save Britain. The plot twists and turns into a very satisfying ending.