You know you have a good historical fiction book on your hands when there’s so much history and growth packed into a well-plotted story that a quick review won’t suffice. In our latest Rediscovered Reviews roundup, we’ve gathered some previously reviewed books on Off the Shelf that shed new light on past events.
Hannah and Anna, two 12-year-old narrators living in different countries 75 years apart, are both lost. Each is unaware the other exists, though they are connected by a family history scarred by loss. Hannah’s narration focuses on her family’s attempts to flee Germany and her life as a refugee over decades. Anna, born and raised in present-day New York, has never known her father and cares for a mother who has been severely depressed since he died. Anna gives a voice to the present, and we learn details about her connection with Hannah and what happened to her father. It’s revealed that Hannah is Anna’s great-aunt—her deceased father’s only living relative. Anna knows nothing about her father or his family history, and through Anna’s story, the secrets of Hannah’s past begin to unravel. As Anna learns, so does the reader; the aha moments and slow reveals make this story an incredible and emotional one, and I am not embarrassed to admit I cried more than once.
Read more of Carrie’s review!
While based in London, Australian-American journalist Geraldine Brooks often explored the English countryside. It was on one such journey that she came across a sign indicating the direction of the “Plague Village,” a discovery which led to her first novel, YEAR OF WONDERS, an intense, horrifying, and beautiful read. The town in YEAR OF WONDERS is based on lore from a real seventeenth-century village in the English countryside called Eyam, which voluntarily quarantined itself to prevent plague from spreading beyond its borders. The narrator, Anna Frith, serves as a maid to the town’s minister, and accounts from Eyam mention their minister had a maid who survived the plague, indicating a real-life inspiration for Anna. While this story encompasses lives and deaths throughout the village, it is all witnessed through Anna’s eyes, and it is her character development that truly moves the story. The plague outbreak coincides with the Reformation. The village is a combination of Puritan and Protestant faiths, including a strong belief in the existence of witches. Anna does not share all strict Puritan values, but her fear also keeps her from challenging them.
Read more of Erin’s review!
Even after closing the final chapter of YELLOW WIFE by Sadeqa Johnson, I find myself continually revisiting Pheby Delores Brown’s story in my mind. The intensity of emotions displayed throughout the pages of this historical fiction book caught my heart right from its opening pages. Growing up on a plantation as the daughter of the estate’s medicine woman, Pheby inherited a sense of confidence and self-worth that had been stripped from the other working slaves. Pheby learned to read, mastered the piano, and—most important—was promised freedom on her eighteenth birthday. But after the plantation master and Pheby’s mother were caught in an accident, Pheby’s entire life was derailed. Her fate was ultimately left to Master Jacob’s cruel wife, Missus Delphina, who was more than ready to rid the plantation of her husband’s favored slave. In the pit of Pheby’s heartache, Missus Delphina sent her away to the most infamous slave jail in Virginia, Devil’s Half Acre.
Read more of Holly’s review!
Called “wholly engrossing” by New York Times bestselling author Kathleen Grissom, this “fully immersive” (Lisa Wingate, #1 bestselling author of Before We Were Yours) story follows an enslaved woman forced to barter love and freedom while living in the most infamous slave jail in Virginia.
Born on a plantation in Charles City, Virginia, Pheby Delores Brown has lived a relatively sheltered life. Shielded by her mother’s position as the estate’s medicine woman and cherished by the Master’s sister, she is set apart from the others on the plantation, belonging to neither world.
She’d been promised freedom on her eighteenth birthday, but instead of the idyllic life she imagined with her true love, Essex Henry, Pheby is forced to leave the only home she has ever known. She unexpectedly finds herself thrust into the bowels of slavery at the infamous Devil’s Half Acre, a jail in Richmond, Virginia, where the enslaved are broken, tortured, and sold every day. There, Pheby is exposed not just to her Jailer’s cruelty but also to his contradictions. To survive, Pheby will have to outwit him, and she soon faces the ultimate sacrifice.
This powerful novel finds Mary in the ancient Greek town of Ephesus in the years following her son’s death. Here she lives quietly and contemplatively, but under the supervision of her two intrusive keepers: men who constantly ask her to recount her son’s final years for the purpose of inscribing them in Gospel form. As these men attempt to elucidate the last days of Christ’s life through interrogation, Mary recounts her side of the world’s most famous narrative. Tóibín captures the most honest expression of Mary seen in fiction. His lyrical writing style and emotional prose sheds new light on the most unique mother–son relationship in history. From start to finish, the novel paints a raw, convincing portrait of Mary’s true humanity, culminating in the novel’s breathtaking scene of Christ’s crucifixion. It is a bold, daring approach to depict Mary for the modern age, and one that succeeds on many levels. Simply put, THE TESTAMENT OF MARY is one not to miss.
Read more of Chris’s review!
Shortlisted for the 2013 Man Booker Prize and adapted into a Tony-nominated play, Tóibín’s provocative, haunting, and indelible portrait of Mary presents her as a solitary older woman seeking to understand the events that become the narrative of the New Testament and the foundation of Christianity. This woman whom we know from centuries of paintings and scripture as the docile, loving, silent, long-suffering, obedient, worshipful mother of Christ becomes a tragic heroine with the relentless eloquence of Electra or Medea or Antigone. Tóibín’s tour de force of imagination and language is a portrait so vivid and convincing that your image of Mary will be forever transformed. Audiobook fans won’t want to miss Meryl Streep’s reading of this stunning work.
Perfect for fans of OUTLANDER and GIRL WITH A PEARL EARRING, this novel follows accomplished neurosurgeon Beatrice Trovato, who travels to Siena on a whim as an attempt to process and resolve her grief after the death of her brother. One day, she stumbles across a fourteenth-century diary, written by an artist named Gabriele Accorsi and finds a picture of a woman’s face that looks nearly identical to her own. Suddenly, Beatrice is transported back to Siena in 1347, where she meets Gabriele himself, and falls in love not only with him, but with life in the past as well. Reading this novel is more than just entertaining; it’s an experience. As Beatrice walks the city, so do you. As she eats and smells and learns about figures of the past and present, so do you.
Read more of Julianna’s review!
I was extraordinarily engrossed in the exceptionally detailed plotline Jess Kidd imagined. Even if you’re not one to suspend any disbelief for a surrealistic story, the atmospheric energy emanating from the pages as Bridie and her tag team trudge through 1860s London is enough to captivate any historical-fiction lover. The writing is gorgeous, the characters are bursting with personality, and the story takes readers through a rollercoaster of emotions. From Bridie’s dark and sinister past to the relationship with her ghost companion (who seems all too familiar to Bridie), my entire heart felt for the hardened detective.
Read more of Holly’s review!
In this “miraculous and thrilling” (Diane Setterfield, #1 New York Times bestselling author) mystery for fans of The Essex Serpent and The Book of Speculation, Victorian London comes to life as an intrepid female sleuth wades through a murky world of collectors and criminals to recover a remarkable child.
Bridie Devine—flame-haired, pipe-smoking detective extraordinaire—is confronted with the most baffling puzzle yet: the kidnapping of Christabel Berwick, secret daughter of Sir Edmund Athelstan Berwick, and a peculiar child whose reputed supernatural powers have captured the unwanted attention of collectors in this age of discovery.
Winding her way through the sooty streets of Victorian London, Bridie won’t rest until she finds the young girl, even if it means unearthing secrets about her past that she’d rather keep buried. Luckily, her search is aided by an enchanting cast of characters, including a seven-foot-tall housemaid; a melancholic, tattoo-covered ghost; and an avuncular apothecary. But secrets abound in this foggy underworld where nothing is quite what it seems.
Blending darkness and light, Things in Jars is a stunning, “richly woven tapestry of fantasy, folklore, and history” (Booklist, starred review) that explores what it means to be human in inhumane times.
They say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but in the case of Marjan Kamali’s THE STATIONERY SHOP, the stunning package was quick to catch my eye, so I did! Fortunately, the jacket ably represents the beautiful story within—a star-crossed love story set against the backdrop of the Iranian revolution in 1953, with a present-day framing narrative that’s as moving as the romance. It’s the perfect read for fans of THE KITE RUNNER or THE BEEKEEPER OF ALEPPO, but the emotional heart of this novel will satisfy readers who loved more contemporary stories like Ask Again, Yes or The Dearly Beloved.
Read more of Abby’s review!
A poignant, heartfelt new novel by the award-nominated author of Together Tea—extolled by the Wall Street Journal as a “moving tale of lost love” and by Shelf Awareness as “a powerful, heartbreaking story”—explores loss, reconciliation, and the quirks of fate.
Roya, a dreamy, idealistic teenager living amid the political upheaval of 1953 Tehran, finds a literary oasis in kindly Mr. Fakhri’s neighborhood stationery shop, stocked with books and pens and bottles of jewel-colored ink.
Then Mr. Fakhri, with a keen instinct for a budding romance, introduces Roya to his other favorite customer—handsome Bahman, who has a burning passion for justice and a love for Rumi’s poetry—and she loses her heart at once. Their romance blossoms, and the little stationery shop remains their favorite place in all of Tehran.
A few short months later, on the eve of their marriage, Roya agrees to meet Bahman at the town square when violence erupts—a result of the coup d’etat that forever changes their country’s future. In the chaos, Bahman never shows. For weeks, Roya tries desperately to contact him, but her efforts are fruitless. With a sorrowful heart, she moves on—to college in California, to another man, to a life in New England—until, more than sixty years later, an accident of fate leads her back to Bahman and offers her a chance to ask him the questions that have haunted her for more than half a century: Why did you leave? Where did you go? How is it that you were able to forget me?
THE MAP OF SALT AND STARS is a moving literary debut. It weaves together the stories of two heroic girls who experience similar harrowing journeys centuries apart through North Africa and the Middle East as they battle and overcome forces bigger than themselves. Bound together by undaunted courage on their course to find home, this stunning, lyrical, and timely coming-of-age novel urges readers to focus on the devastating reality of Syrian refugees. Through captivating prose and empathetic characters, this book is an important read that uses fictional specifics to present the very real sacrifices, dangers, and risks of the refugee experience. Reading it made me utterly heartbroken, but also filled me with hope and resolved humanity. To me, the book beautifully illustrates the ways in which we try to define ourselves in relation to a physical place and the struggle that comes when that place no longer exists, and how we ultimately learn that the parameters of home, love, and loss aren’t defined by geography, but rather always carried within us.
Read more of Ana’s review!
Anyone who’s had the gift of reading Park’s writing will understand why his powerful novel set in 1960s South Korea found a home among the strong feminine writers I hold dear. Reading THIS BURNS MY HEART was an astonishing experience: I’d been prepped for a “good” novel following a wife’s unhappy marriage and dreams of love and success. I was not prepared for the breathless emotional journey of an extraordinary woman whose hard-fought aspirations are called violently to a halt. A character filled with so much nuance in her longing and love, your heart yearns and breaks alongside hers. Pages rich with historical setting, detailing the rapid changes in post-war Korea and the resulting friction between tradition and modernity. A mother’s deep well of sacrifice and the drama of acknowledging the ties that bind.
Read more of Elizabeth’s review!
THE WINEMAKER’S WIFE is set in the Champagne wine region of France during the German Occupation and centers on two couples—Michel, who owns the winery, and his wife, Inès, and Michel’s chief winemaker, Theo, and his half-Jewish wife, Céline. The book revolves around the work of the French Resistance and is filled with many heart-stopping moments of courage and adversity. I particularly liked Harmel’s descriptions of how the winemakers in the region drew together to help one another and also what life was like in Reims during that period. But it is the tale of Inès and Céline that is the most mesmerizing. Both women have their own secrets and emotions that they can’t get past and which affect everyone around them. One of Harmel’s strengths is how she makes the reader care about each character without judging them. Inès especially has to make many difficult choices, and not all of them are wise. Harmel does a wonderful job of portraying Inès’s struggles to do the right thing as she deals with her own hurts, and the outcome is very moving.
Read more of Anita’s review!
The author of the “engrossing” (People) international bestseller The Room on Rue Amélie returns with a moving story set amid the champagne vineyards of France during the darkest days of World War II, perfect for fans of Heather Morris’s The Tattooist of Auschwitz.
Champagne, 1940: Inès has just married Michel, the owner of storied champagne house Maison Chauveau, when the Germans invade. As the danger mounts, Michel turns his back on his marriage to begin hiding munitions for the Résistance. Inès fears they’ll be exposed, but for Céline, the French-Jewish wife of Chauveau’s chef de cave, the risk is even greater—rumors abound of Jews being shipped east to an unspeakable fate.
When Céline recklessly follows her heart in one desperate bid for happiness, and Inès makes a dangerous mistake with a Nazi collaborator, they risk the lives of those they love—and the vineyard that ties them together.
New York, 2019: Recently divorced, Liv Kent is at rock bottom when her feisty, eccentric French grandmother shows up unannounced, insisting on a trip to France. But the older woman has an ulterior motive—and a tragic, decades-old story to share. When past and present finally collide, Liv finds herself on a road to salvation that leads right to the caves of the Maison Chauveau.
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