10 Historical Fiction Gems Perfect for a Summer Day

Sarah Walsh
June 21 2021
Share 10 Historical Fiction Gems Perfect for a Summer Day

With summer in full swing, it’s time to grab some SPF and head outside to your favorite reading spot with a good book, preferably one that will transport you from your daily humdrums to the richly reimagined past. Historical fiction is a great way to take a step back from the stressors that have been hanging over our heads for the past fifteen months and remember what life was like before masks, quarantining, and vaccine rollouts. This list of ten fantastic books has a time period for everyone: travel to the Caribbean in the eighteenth century, head to China in 1986, or anywhere in between!

When the Summer Was Ours
by Roxanne Veletzos

War is on the horizon in Hungary in 1943, and Eva César is counting down her last days of being single as she waits for her upcoming nuptials to a Red Cross doctor. But as Shakespeare said, “the course of true love never did run smooth” and while she waits for her wedding, Eva falls in love with Aleandro, a Romani artist and fiddler. Eventually Eva and Aleandro are torn apart, but Eva never forgets their summer together as World War II rages on and tensions mount. Roxanne Veletzos beautifully captures both the trauma of war and the resilience of love in WHEN THE SUMMER WAS OURS.

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When the Summer Was Ours
Roxanne Veletzos

“This compulsively readable tale of loss and love during and after the Second World War is a masterpiece.” —Kristin Harmel, New York Times bestselling author

“A gorgeously written, impeccably researched historical novel, spanning decades and continents, and filled with a richly drawn cast of characters.” —Jillian Cantor, USA TODAY bestselling author

This epic World War II tale of star-crossed lovers separated by class, circumstance, and ​tragedy—from the international bestselling author of the “gripping…filled with passion and hope” (Kate Quinn, New York Timesbestselling author) The Girl They Left Behind—explores the impact of war on civilian life and the indestructible resilience of first love.

Hungary, 1943: As war encroaches on the country’s borders, willful young Eva César arrives in the idyllic town of Sopron to spend her last summer as a single woman on her aristocratic family’s estate. Longing for freedom from her domineering father, she counts the days to her upcoming nuptials to a kind and dedicated Red Cross doctor whom she greatly admires.

But Eva’s life changes when she meets Aleandro, a charming and passionate Romani fiddler and artist. With time and profound class differences against them, Eva and Aleandro still fall deeply in love—only to be separated by a brutal act of hatred.

As each are swept into the tides of war, they try to forget their romance. Yet, the haunting memory of that summer will reshape their destinies and lead to decisions which are felt through generations.

From the horrors of the Second World War to the tensions of the 1956 Hungarian uprising and beyond, When the Summer Was Ours is a sweeping story about the toll of secrets, the blurred lines between sacrifice and obsession, and the endurance of the human spirit.

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Fatal Inheritance
by Rachel Rhys

Have you ever dreamed of suddenly inheriting a huge amount of money? In FATAL INHERITANCE by Rachel Rhys, this dream comes true for Eve Forrester. As part of her mystery inheritance, Eve must head to the French Riviera, where she starts rubbing elbows with the rich and famous. Of course, Eve’s good fortune can’t last forever, and someone wants her gone forever. After you fall in love with the beautiful Côte d’Azur, make sure to check out Mary S. Lovell's THE RIVIERA SET, which is the nonfiction equivalent of Eve’s story!

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Fatal Inheritance
Rachel Rhys

Get swept away to the enchanting South of France with this “exquisite and shimmering” (Lisa Jewell, New York Times bestselling author of Then She Was Gone) suspenseful historical novel, where perilous secrets lurk under the glitz and glam of seaside wealth.

She didn’t have an enemy in the world…until she inherited a fortune.

London 1948: Eve Forrester is stuck in a loveless marriage, isolated in her gray and gloomy house when out of the blue, she receives a letter. A wealthy stranger has left her a mysterious inheritance but in order to find out more, she must travel to the glittering French Riviera.

There, Eve discovers she has been bequeathed an enchanting villa overlooking the Mediterranean Sea and suddenly, life could not be more glamorous. But while she rubs shoulders with the rich and famous, challengers to her unexplained fortune begin to emerge—challengers who would love to see Eve gone forever.

Alone in paradise, Eve must unlock the story behind her surprise bequest—before her unexpected twist of fate turns deadly…

With Rachel Rhys’s “thrilling, seductive, and utterly absorbing” (Paula Hawkins, #1 bestselling author of The Girl on the Train) prose, Fatal Inheritance is an intoxicating story of dysfunctional families and long-hidden secrets, set against the decadence of the Côte d’Azur.

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Island Queen
by Vanessa Riley

Journey to the Caribbean this summer with ISLAND QUEEN by Vanessa Riley. In this novel, you’ll learn the incredible true story of Dorothy Kirwan Thomas, a woman of color born into slavery who would later become one of the most powerful and wealthy landowners in the West Indies. Riley paints a vivid picture of the sparkling West Indies and cutthroat London drawing rooms during the mid-eighteenth century, conjuring up an ideal mental vacation.

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Island Queen
Vanessa Riley

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Florence Adler Swims Forever
by Rachel Beanland

Have plans to spend a lot of time chilling by the pool this summer? Make sure you pick up FLORENCE ADLER SWIMS FOREVER by Rachel Beanland. Based on a true story and set in Atlantic City in 1934, this novel follows the Adler family as they navigate keeping secrets to protect the ones they love. While reading this family saga, perhaps you’ll be inspired by Florence to start training to swim across the English Channel as well . . . or maybe just the length of the pool.

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Florence Adler Swims Forever
Rachel Beanland

“The perfect summer read” (USA TODAY) begins with a shocking tragedy that results in three generations of the Adler family grappling with heartbreak, romance, and the weight of family secrets over the course of one summer.

*A New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice * One of USA TODAY’s “Best Books of 2020” * One of Good Morning America’s “25 Novels You'll Want to Read This Summer” * One of Parade’s “26 Best Books to Read This Summer”

Atlantic City, 1934. Every summer, Esther and Joseph Adler rent their house out to vacationers escaping to “America’s Playground” and move into the small apartment above their bakery. Despite the cramped quarters, this is the apartment where they raised their two daughters, Fannie and Florence, and it always feels like home.

Now, Florence has returned from college, determined to spend the summer training to swim the English Channel, and Fannie, pregnant again after recently losing a baby, is on bedrest for the duration of her pregnancy. After Joseph insists they take in a mysterious young woman whom he recently helped emigrate from Nazi Germany, the apartment is bursting at the seams.

Esther only wants to keep her daughters close and safe but some matters are beyond her control: there’s Fannie’s risky pregnancy—not to mention her always-scheming husband, Isaac—and the fact that the handsome heir of a hotel notorious for its anti-Semitic policies, seems to be in love with Florence.

When tragedy strikes, Esther makes the shocking decision to hide the truth—at least until Fannie’s baby is born—and pulls the family into an elaborate web of secret-keeping and lies, bringing long-buried tensions to the surface that reveal how quickly the act of protecting those we love can turn into betrayal.

“Readers of Emma Straub and Curtis Sittenfeld will devour this richly drawn debut family saga” (Library Journal) that’s based on a true story and is a breathtaking portrayal of how the human spirit can endure—and even thrive—after tragedy.

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City of Flickering Light
by Juliette Fay

Do you often wish that you could go back in time and rub elbows with Charlie Chaplin or Greta Garbo? Take a long afternoon and get lost in Juliette Fay’s CITY OF FLICKERING LIGHT, set in Hollywood in the 1920s. After hopping off a moving train to escape life in a burlesque show, three friends embark on a quest to find fame and fortune. And as is the case with any grand adventure, the trio will learn more about themselves, love, and the world around them as they traverse the silent film sets.

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City of Flickering Light
Juliette Fay

Juliette Fay—“one of the best authors of women’s fiction” (Library Journal)—transports us back to the Golden Age of Hollywood and the raucous Roaring Twenties, as three friends struggle to earn their places among the stars of the silent screen—perfect for fans of La La Land and Rules of Civility.

It’s July 1921, “flickers” are all the rage, and Irene Van Beck has just declared her own independence by jumping off a moving train to escape her fate in a traveling burlesque show. When her friends, fellow dancer Millie Martin and comedian Henry Weiss, leap after her, the trio finds their way to the bright lights of Hollywood with hopes of making it big in the burgeoning silent film industry.

At first glance, Hollywood in the 1920s is like no other place on earth—iridescent, scandalous, and utterly exhilarating—and the three friends yearn for a life they could only have dreamed of before. But despite the glamour and seduction of Tinseltown, success doesn’t come easy, and nothing can prepare Irene, Millie, and Henry for the poverty, temptation, and heartbreak that lie ahead. With their ambitions challenged by both the men above them and the prejudice surrounding them, their friendship is the only constant through desperate times, as each struggles to find their true calling in an uncertain world. What begins as a quest for fame and fortune soon becomes a collective search for love, acceptance, and fulfillment as they navigate the backlots and stage sets where the illusions of the silver screen are brought to life.

With her “trademark wit and grace” (Randy Susan Meyers, author of The Murderer’s Daughters), Juliette Fay crafts another radiant and fascinating historical novel as thrilling as the bygone era of Hollywood itself.

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Wild Women and the Blues
by Denny S. Bryce

Continue your journey through the 1920s and leave the sunshine of California behind as you head to Jazz Age Chicago in WILD WOMEN AND THE BLUES by Denny S. Bryce. This debut novel tells the story of Honoree Dalcour, a sharecropper’s daughter, as in 1925 she dances her way to the life she’s always dreamed of. Intertwined with Honoree’s story is that of Sawyer Hayes, who arrives at the bedside of Honoree in 2015 to find the answers he seeks about the legendary filmmaker Oscar Micheaux. As Honoree’s past collides with the present, both Sawyer and Honoree will try to hold tight to their secrets while unraveling the truth of the past.

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Wild Women and the Blues
Denny S. Bryce

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Whistling Past the Graveyard
by Susan Crandall

Do you ever try to distract yourself from thinking about your worst fears? Well, Starla Claudelle’s dad calls that “whistling past the graveyard.” In this coming-of-age story set in 1963, nine-year-old Starla runs away to find her mother, who abandoned her to become a famous singer in Nashville. On her journey, Starla meets Eula, a Black woman traveling with a baby, and they set off on a road trip that will change both their lives. By the time you reach the last page, you’ll be packing your bags and plotting out the best route for your own road trip.

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Whistling Past the Graveyard
Susan Crandall

In the summer of 1963, nine-year-old Starla runs away from her strict grandmother’s home in Mississippi and embarks on a life-changing road trip.

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Swimming Back to Trout River
by Linda Rui Feng

SWIMMING BACK TO TROUT RIVER by Linda Rui Feng takes you to the idyllic Chinese countryside in the 1980s, where Junie stays with her grandparents as she waits for her parents to bring her to America. Across the globe, Junie’s parents, Momo and Cassia, struggle to connect as they become accustomed to life in their new country. As secrets come to light, the family must learn to navigate their shared future and personal traumas.

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Swimming Back to Trout River
Linda Rui Feng

A lyrical novel set against the backdrop of China’s Cultural Revolution that follows a father’s quest to reunite his family before his precocious daughter’s momentous birthday, which Garth Greenwell calls “one of the most beautiful debuts I’ve read in years.”

How many times in life can we start over without losing ourselves?

In the summer of 1986 in a small Chinese village, ten-year-old Junie receives a momentous letter from her parents, who had left for America years ago: her father promises to return home and collect her by her twelfth birthday. But Junie’s growing determination to stay put in the idyllic countryside with her beloved grandparents threatens to derail her family’s shared future.

What Junie doesn’t know is that her parents, Momo and Cassia, are newly estranged from one another in their adopted country, each holding close private tragedies and histories from the tumultuous years of their youth during China’s Cultural Revolution. While Momo grapples anew with his deferred musical ambitions and dreams for Junie’s future in America, Cassia finally begins to wrestle with a shocking act of brutality from years ago. In order for Momo to fulfill his promise, he must make one last desperate attempt to reunite all three members of the family before Junie’s birthday—even if it means bringing painful family secrets to light.

“A beautifully written, poignant exploration of family, art, culture, immigration, and most of all, love,” (Jean Kwok, New York Times bestselling author of Searching for Sylvie Lee) Swimming Back to Trout River weaves together the stories of Junie, Momo, Cassia, and Dawn—a talented violinist from Momo’s past—while depicting their heartbreak and resilience, tenderly revealing the hope, compromises, and abiding ingenuity that make up the lives of immigrants.

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Ordinary Grace
by William Kent Krueger

What do you get when you combine a small town in 1961 Minnesota with a heavy dose of murder? ORDINARY GRACE by William Kent Kreuger. Get to know Frank Drum as he looks back to his childhood. His thirteen-year-old life is filled with root beer and comics—until tragedy strikes his family. As an adult reflecting back, Frank reveals what it’s like to grow from a boy to young man, the cost of wisdom, and the enduring grace of God.

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Ordinary Grace
William Kent Krueger

When tragedy unexpectedly comes to call on his family, thirteen-year-old Frank Drum finds himself thrust into a world of secrets, adultery, and betrayal. Set in 1961, Ordinary Grace is the story of what a shocking murder does to a boy standing at the door of adulthood and the fabric of a small Minnesota town.

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The Last Garden in England
by Julia Kelly

Five women. Three time periods. One amazing book. In THE LAST GARDEN IN ENGLAND, Julia Kelly tells the story of how the lives of five women are irrevocably changed over the course of a century because of one garden. Spanning 1907 to the present, the sweeping novel shows the life-changing impact of one special place in England. If you want to make the reading experience extra delightful, make sure to grab a chair or blanket and find a garden to relax in.

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The Last Garden in England
Julia Kelly

From the author of the international bestseller The Light Over London and The Whispers of War comes a poignant and unforgettable tale of five women living across three different times whose lives are all connected by one very special place.

Present day: Emma Lovett, who has dedicated her career to breathing new life into long-neglected gardens, has just been given the opportunity of a lifetime: to restore the gardens of the famed Highbury House estate, designed in 1907 by her hero Venetia Smith. But as Emma dives deeper into the gardens’ past, she begins to uncover secrets that have long lain hidden.

1907: A talented artist with a growing reputation for her ambitious work, Venetia Smith has carved out a niche for herself as a garden designer to industrialists, solicitors, and bankers looking to show off their wealth with sumptuous country houses. When she is hired to design the gardens of Highbury House, she is determined to make them a triumph, but the gardens—and the people she meets—promise to change her life forever.

1944: When land girl Beth Pedley arrives at a farm on the outskirts of the village of Highbury, all she wants is to find a place she can call home. Cook Stella Adderton, on the other hand, is desperate to leave Highbury House to pursue her own dreams. And widow Diana Symonds, the mistress of the grand house, is anxiously trying to cling to her pre-war life now that her home has been requisitioned and transformed into a convalescent hospital for wounded soldiers. But when war threatens Highbury House’s treasured gardens, these three very different women are drawn together by a secret that will last for decades.

In this sweeping novel reminiscent of Kate Morton’s The Lake House and Kristin Harmel’s The Room on Rue Amélie, Julia Kelly explores the unexpected connections that cross time and the special places that bring people together forever.

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Photo credit: iStock / LittleBee80

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