10 Historical Fiction Reads Resonating This Summer

Sara Roncero-Menendez
July 25 2022
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Summer is all about getting away, finding a place where your troubles can’t reach you so you can finally unwind. That has become increasingly difficult, given all this is happening in the world and the fact that our phones light up every two minutes with more notifications and distractions. So why not escape in both space and time? Reading a great historical novel can take you back to a different moment in history and lose yourself in a whole new world.

So, whether you need a book for your beach vacation, or an escape from your commute and lack of air-conditioning, here are ten historical novels sure to get you swept up in their pages.

Moonlight and the Pearler's Daughter
by Lizzie Pook

In 1886, Australia was still finding its footing on the global stage. Eliza Brightwell and her family have traveled all the way from London to make their new home in Bannin Bay, Australia, but when tragedy strikes Eliza’s pearl-diver father, she sees that home through new eyes. She enters into the dark underbelly of Bannin Bay to try to figure out what may have happened to him and uncover what’s really happening in the murky waters below. Thrilling and full of lush, sun-soaked imagery, MOONLIGHT AND THE PEARLER’S DAUGHTER is sure to delight.

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Moonlight and the Pearler's Daughter
Lizzie Pook

For readers of The Light Between Oceans and The Island of Sea Women, a feminist adventure story set against the backdrop of the dangerous pearl diving industry in 19th-century Western Australia, about a young English woman who sets off to uncover the truth about the disappearance of her eccentric father.

Western Australia, 1886. After months at sea, a slow boat makes its passage from London to the shores of Bannin Bay. From the deck, young Eliza Brightwell and her family eye their strange, new home. Here is an unforgiving land where fortune sits patiently at the bottom of the ocean, waiting to be claimed by those brave enough to venture into its depths. An ocean where pearl shells bloom to the size of soup plates, where men are coaxed into unthinkable places and unspeakable acts by the promise of unimaginable riches.

Ten years later, the pearl-diving boat captained by Eliza’s eccentric father returns after months at sea—without Eliza’s father on it. Whispers from townsfolk point to mutiny or murder. Headstrong Eliza knows it’s up to her to discover who, or what, is really responsible.

As she searches for the truth, Eliza discovers that beneath the glamorous veneer of the pearling industry, lies a dark underbelly of sweltering, stinking decay. The sun-scorched streets of Bannin Bay, a place she once thought she knew so well, are teeming with corruption, prejudice, and blackmail. Just how far is Eliza willing to push herself in order to solve the mystery of her missing father? And what family secrets will come to haunt her along the way?

A transporting feminist adventure story based on Lizzie Pook’s deep research into the pearling industry and the era of British colonial rule in Australia, Moonlight and the Pearler’s Daughter is ultimately about the lengths one woman will travel to save her family.

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Crossing the Horizon
by Laurie Notaro

Who doesn’t dream of flying? Soaring above the clouds with no barriers or borders: pure freedom. For the women of CROSSING THE HORIZON, flying is the ultimate dream. But as a woman living in the 1920s, getting into the cockpit isn’t so easy, even for an earl’s daughter, society darling, or a beauty queen. But Elsie Mackay, Mabel Boll, and Ruth Elder will not be dissuaded from pursuing that ultimate high of flying, no matter what they have to do to make it happen. Inspired by actual events and people, this book will have you soaring.

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Crossing the Horizon
Laurie Notaro

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The Midwife of Venice
by Roberta Rich

Midwifery is still around, but it was a huge business in the sixteenth century. Hannah Levi is one of the best midwives in Venice, able to handle difficult births with her special “spoons” (essentially, early forceps). When a count approaches her to help with his wife’s difficult pregnancy, Hannah is sorely tempted to take him up on the offer, given the fee he’s willing to pay. The only problem is a Papal edict that prohibits Jews from rendering medical care of any kind to Christians, an offense punishable by death. THE MIDWIFE OF VENICE thus becomes a daring tale of secrets, love, and the breaking of rules to do what is right.

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The Midwife of Venice
Roberta Rich

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White Gardenia
by Belinda Alexandra

Sometimes escape isn’t a desire, it’s a necessity. For Alina Kozlova, escaping to Harbin in northern China, on the border of Russia, was a safe haven for fleeing Russia’s Communist Revolution. But there are still hardships ahead, and she must make the best choice for her daughter Anya. But will they both be able to pay the high price of this choice? And can they ever be reunited? Taking place in China, the Soviet Union, and Australia at the end of World War II and its aftermath, WHITE GARDENIA is an exploration of a dark and difficult time in history, and the sacrifices one mother makes for love.

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White Gardenia
Belinda Alexandra

From internationally bestselling author Belinda Alexandra comes a sweeping, emotional journey that “depicts vividly the powerful lifelong bond between mothers and daughters” (Paullina Simons, author of The Bronze Horseman).

In a district of the city of Harbin, a haven for White Russian families since Russia’s Communist Revolution, Alina Kozlova must make a heartbreaking decision if her only child, Anya, is to survive the final days of World War II.

White Gardenia sweeps across cultures and continents, from the glamorous nightclubs of Shanghai to the austerity of Cold War Soviet Russia in the 1960s, from a desolate island in the Pacific Ocean to a new life in post-war Australia. Both mother and daughter must make sacrifices, but is the price too high? Most importantly of all, will they ever find each other again?

Rich in historical detail and reminiscent of stories by Kate Morton and Lucinda Riley, White Gardenia is a compelling and beautifully written tale about yearning, longing, and the lengths a mother will go to protect her child.

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Carolina Built
by Kianna Alexander

Josephine N. Leary has big dreams when she and her family move to North Carolina, but, as with many of us, life continues to get in the way. After all, as a newly freed slave, she has opportunities that were never available to her before. Her duties as a wife, mother, and daughter seem to continuously keep Josephine distracted from achieving her goals. Little by little, she manages to make headway, learning the tricks of the real estate trade, making good investments, but every passing year, her dreams seem to be slipping farther away. A beautifully written tale of an extraordinary woman, CAROLINA BUILT will have you enthralled, and rooting for Josephine to finally live up to her amazing potential.

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Carolina Built
Kianna Alexander

A vivid and moving novel based on the incredible life of real estate magnate Josephine N. Leary—a previously untold story of passion, perseverance, and building a legacy after emancipation in North Carolina.

Josephine N. Leary is determined to build a life of her own and a future for her family. When she moves to Edenton, North Carolina from the plantation where she was born, she is free, newly married, and ready to follow her dreams.

As the demands of life pull Josephine’s attention—deepening her marriage, mothering her daughters, supporting her grandmother—she struggles to balance her real estate aspirations with the realities of keeping life going every day. She teaches herself to be a business woman, to manage her finances, and to make smart investments in the local real estate market. But with each passing year, it grows more and more difficult to focus on building her legacy from the ground up.

Moving and inspiring, Josephine Leary’s untold story speaks to the part of us that dares to dream bigger, tear down whatever stands in our way, and build something better for the loved ones we leave behind.

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Chronicle of a Last Summer
by Yasmine El Rashidi

Summer 1984 in Cairo was a tough time: in the wake of the newly appointed president Hosni Mubarak, Egyptians began disappearing without a trace, including the father of a young girl. It’s that same girl whom CHRONICLE OF A LAST SUMMER follows throughout various points of her life living along the Nile. From a young girl confused by the happenings around her, to a fiery college student full of hope, to a woman watching as Mubarak’s reign ends, this powerful novel paints a picture of a complicated, beautiful life in an ever-changing landscape.

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Chronicle of a Last Summer
Yasmine El Rashidi

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The Twelve Rooms of the Nile
by Enid Shomer

Florence Nightingale and Gustave Flaubert traveling the Nile may sound like the start of a joke, but, weirdly enough, it did actually happen, though they weren’t traveling together. THE TWELVE ROOMS OF THE NILE imagines these two historic greats as friends, navigating a new country, and a new world, together. They battle against the traumas and expectations of their families, as well as the low opinions of their friends, as they fight to see their ambitions come to fruition. A tale of two opposites connecting in a surprising and delightful way, it’s a must-read for literature and history buffs.

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The Twelve Rooms of the Nile
Enid Shomer

This “mesmerizing new work of historical fiction” (The Miami Herald) imagines the deep friendship of Florence Nightingale and Gustave Flaubert as they travel up the Nile.

Before she became the nineteenth century’s greatest heroine, before he had written a word of Madame Bovary, Florence Nightingale and Gustave Flaubert traveled down the Nile at the same time in 1850. But where history would have these two figures float right by each other, the award-winning writer Enid Shomer brings them together to ignite a passionate friendship that alters both their destinies.

Shomer, whose writing The New York Times has praised as “beautifully cadenced, and surprising in its imaginative reach,” brings to life the opu­lent tapestry of mid-nineteenth-century Egypt as the unlikely soul mates come together to share their darkest torments and most fervent hopes.

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Now in November
by Josephine Johnson

Sure, a time of massive inflation and a weirdly fluctuating economy might not be the best atmosphere for reading about the Great Depression, but NOW IN NOVEMBER is totally worth it. Told by a young woman named Margaret, the novel follows a farming family as they fight to make a living on mortgaged land amid the blights of the infamous Dust Bowl of the early 1930s. But, in a story sure to pull at your heartstrings, it is in their lowest moments that the family is able to pull together and make the best of a bad situation. And, fun fact: this novel, originally published in 1934, made Josephine Johnson the youngest-ever winner of the Pulitzer Prize (1935)!

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Now in November
Josephine Johnson

A lost gem of twentieth-century literature, Josephine Johnson’s 1934 Pulitzer Prize–winning “exquisite…heartbreakingly real” (The New York Times Book Review) novel follows a year in the life of a family struggling to survive the Dust Bowl.

Published when Josephine Johnson was only twenty-four years old, Now in November made Johnson the youngest ever winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1935. It is a beautifully told account of one farming family’s challenges to scrape by and earn a living from mortgaged land over the course of a single year, narrated by one of three sisters—the introspective and thoughtful Margaret. As the household is ravaged by Depression-era hardship and the environmental blights of the Dust Bowl, the family’s unique vulnerabilities are pushed to a breaking point.

In a style typical of Johnson’s body of work, Now in November is strikingly ahead of its time, grappling with questions of mental health, worker’s rights, as well as gender, race, and class and is ready to be rediscovered by a new generation of readers.

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Monsoon Summer
by Julia Gregson

Love knows no borders, but boundaries can still get in the way. Kit is burnt out and exhausted from nursing soldiers in World War II, and heads out to England help a friend with her charity work of sending midwives to India. When she meets Anto, an Indian doctor finishing his training, they fall in love. However, their families are less than pleased with the match: Anto’s family wanted an Indian bride, while Kit’s mother, who is Anglo-Indian, opposes their marriage for her own reasons. Set during the period of Indian independence (1947), Kit works to manage the maternity ward and her marriage in the face of an uncertain future. Dramatic and moving, MONSOON SUMMER is a love story you’ll never forget.

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Monsoon Summer
Julia Gregson

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The Foundling
by Ann Leary

If you’re looking for something a little darker for your summer reading list, THE FOUNDLING is for you. In 1927, Mary Engle gets a job as a secretary at Nettleton State Village for Feebleminded Women of Childbearing Age. But when she finds that Lillian, a childhood friend from her orphanage days, is living at Nettleton, Mary starts to question what this facility is really up to. A look at the eugenics movement, this book is a terrifying reminder that even good intentions can lead to monstrous acts, and even the greatest minds are susceptible to bad ideas.

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The Foundling
Ann Leary

From the New York Times bestselling author of The Good House, the story of two friends, raised in the same orphanage, whose loyalty is put to the ultimate test when they meet years later at a controversial institution—one as an employee; the other, an inmate.

It’s 1927 and eighteen-year-old Mary Engle is hired to work as a secretary at a remote but scenic institution for mentally disabled women called the Nettleton State Village for Feebleminded Women of Childbearing Age. She’s immediately in awe of her employer—brilliant, genteel Dr. Agnes Vogel.

Dr. Vogel had been the only woman in her class in medical school. As a young psychiatrist she was an outspoken crusader for women’s suffrage. Now, at age forty, Dr. Vogel runs one of the largest and most self-sufficient public asylums for women in the country. Mary deeply admires how dedicated the doctor is to the poor and vulnerable women under her care.

Soon after she’s hired, Mary learns that a girl from her childhood orphanage is one of the inmates. Mary remembers Lillian as a beautiful free spirit with a sometimes-tempestuous side. Could she be mentally disabled? When Lillian begs Mary to help her escape, alleging the asylum is not what it seems, Mary is faced with a terrible choice. Should she trust her troubled friend with whom she shares a dark childhood secret? Mary’s decision triggers a hair-raising sequence of events with life-altering consequences for all.

Inspired by a true story about the author’s grandmother, The Foundling offers a rare look at a shocking chapter of American history. This gripping page-turner will have readers on the edge of their seats right up to the stunning last page…asking themselves, “Did this really happen here?”

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Photo credit: iStock / -slav-

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