Louisa May Alcott. Jacqueline Kennedy. Joan of Arc. Mark Twain. You think you may know them—a handful of the most iconic figures in history—and yet these ten authors have something more to tell you about their lives and their legacies. Enriched by passionate re-imaginings and dedicated research alike, these ten titles offer the stories of history’s most famous people and legends from new perspectives and with unexpected twists. Covering some of the most visible showmen like Harry Houdini and the overlooked strength of Haitian Revolution leader Gran Toya, this list and its books seek to unearth those who informed history’s lynchpin moments in unexpected and over unseen ways.
10 Fictional Tales of Historical Icons
When Bess, wife of famed magician Harry Houdini, begins to see a code only she and Harry knew in unexpected places after his death, she knows her late husband has something important to tell her, and she begins following the signs. They take her back through their whirlwind romance, the rising star of his fame, and lead her to a young photographer who reveals a secret she never knew about her husband and his supposed illusions. Set in the glittering world of turn of the century globetrotting and 1920s Hollywood, MRS. HOUDINI is a feast of a novel.
“Richly lyrical and thought-provoking” (Publishers Weekly, starred review), this “stellar debut from a novelist to watch” (Geraldine Brooks, Pulitzer Prize winning author) explores the passionate marriage of Harry Houdini and his wife, Bess—a love story that defied death itself.
Before escape artist Harry Houdini died, he vowed he would find a way to speak to his beloved wife, Bess, from beyond the grave using a coded message known only to the two of them. But when a widowed Bess begins seeing this code in seemingly impossible places, it becomes clear that Harry has an urgent message to convey. Unlocking the puzzle will set Bess on a course back through the pair’s extraordinary romance, which swept the illusionist and his bride from the beaches of Coney Island, to the palaces of Budapest, to the back lots of Hollywood. When the mystery finally leads Bess to the doorstep of a mysterious young photographer, she realizes that her husband’s magic may have been more than just illusion.
In surprising turns that weave through the uncertain days of the dawn of the twentieth century and continue into the dazzling 1920s, Mrs. Houdini is a “dazzling and enchanting” (Shelf Awareness, starred review) tale, “a marvel that gallops through time and space” (Associated Press), and a “mesmerizing reimagining” (People) of one of history’s greatest love stories.
Susan Gray and her cousin Louisa May Alcott have always enjoyed a world of insular imagination. But when the Civil War breaks out, the two volunteer as nurses together. There, they face the daily horrors of war with the help of their idol, the legendary nurse Clara Barton. But when one wounded soldier—an unusually sharp blacksmith—captivates them all, they begin to wonder who he might really be. Set before Alcott’s rise to fame with LITTLE WOMEN and her immortalization of the wounded blacksmith in HOSPITAL SKETCHES, this is a story about female friendship and bravery.
From childhood, Susan Gray and her cousin Louisa May Alcott have shared a safe, insular world of adventures—a world that begins to evaporate with the outbreak of the Civil War. Frustrated with sewing uniforms and wrapping bandages, the two women journey to Washington, D.C.'s Union Hospital to volunteer as nurses. Which is a horrifying experience. There they meet the Clara Barton—the legendary Angel of the Battlefield—and she becomes their idol and mentor. Soon one wounded soldier begins to captivate and puzzle them all—a man who claims to be a blacksmith, but whose appearance and sharp intelligence suggest he might not be who he says he is.
Journeying through the apex of Louisa's fame as the author of Little Women, and Lincoln's appointment of Clara, this novel is ultimately the story of friendship between the women who broke the mold society set for them.
In 1412, France is in dire straits: its king is in hiding, its people are starving, and it’s losing a war with England again. Strong-willed and intelligent teenaged Joan emerges from a tumultuous childhood, determined to lead. Her unexpected rise to fame leaves her at the head of the French army, facing the dangers of the battlefield and the royal court alike. But many are determined to take a woman in charge down, and Joan must face her own hunger for ambition once she gains access to power at the top in this lively and triumphant reimagining.
Before she was a real estate magnate, Josephine Leary was just a young woman eager to build her future, as well as maintain a family legacy, in the aftermath of emancipation. After moving to Edenton, North Carolina from the plantation on which she was born, Josephine finds herself busy being a wife, a mother to daughters, and a daughter herself. While she makes smart investments and begins building her business from the ground up, with each passing year it becomes harder to carve out time for herself in a life of duty to others.
This “exuberant celebration of Black women’s joy as well as their achievements” (Kate Quinn, New York Times bestselling author) novelizes the life of real estate magnate Josephine N. Leary in 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 away, it becomes increasingly difficult for her to pursue her real estate aspirations. She finds herself immersed in deepening her marriage, mothering her daughters, and being a dutiful daughter and granddaughter. Still, she manages to teach herself to be a businesswoman, 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.
“Filled with passion and perseverance, Josephine Leary is frankly a woman that everyone should know” (Sadeqa Johnson, author of Yellow Wife) and her 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.
In this tender, sweeping epic, master storyteller Colm Tóibín tells the life story of one of history’s most celebrated novelists: Nobel Prize winner Thomas Mann. Growing up in turn-of-the-century Germany, Mann hides his artistic and homosexual desires. Years later, after marrying the daughter of a cultured Jewish family, Mann longs for a boy on a beach and writes Death in Venice. As his literary career rises alongside—and in opposition to—Hitler, his bohemian children begin to fight back in their own ways, and Mann is forced to flee to a series of new lives around the world.
A New York Times Notable Book, Critic’s Top Pick, and Top Ten Book of Historical Fiction
Named a Best Book of the Year by The Washington Post, NPR, Vogue, The Wall Street Journal, and Bloomberg Businessweek
From one of today’s most brilliant and beloved novelists, a dazzling, epic family saga set across a half-century spanning World War I, the rise of Hitler, World War II, and the Cold War that is “a feat of literary sorcery in its own right” (Oprah Daily).
The Magician opens in a provincial German city at the turn of the twentieth century, where the boy, Thomas Mann, grows up with a conservative father, bound by propriety, and a Brazilian mother, alluring and unpredictable. Young Mann hides his artistic aspirations from his father and his homosexual desires from everyone. He is infatuated with one of the richest, most cultured Jewish families in Munich, and marries the daughter Katia. They have six children. On a holiday in Italy, he longs for a boy he sees on a beach and writes the story Death in Venice. He is the most successful novelist of his time, winner of the Nobel Prize in literature, a public man whose private life remains secret. He is expected to lead the condemnation of Hitler, whom he underestimates. His oldest daughter and son, leaders of Bohemianism and of the anti-Nazi movement, share lovers. He flees Germany for Switzerland, France and, ultimately, America, living first in Princeton and then in Los Angeles.
In this “exquisitely sensitive” (The Wall Street Journal) novel, Tóibín has crafted “a complex but empathetic portrayal of a writer in a lifelong battle against his innermost desires, his family, and the tumultuous times they endure” (Time), and “you’ll find yourself savoring every page” (Vogue).
By 1909, iconic author Mark Twain was in his twilight years. While he at first seems to bless the marriage of his long-time secretary Isabel Lyon and his business manager Richard Ashcroft, he soon turns on them, working with his daughter Clara to publicly slander Isabel as a “salacious slut pining for seduction.” Lynn Cullen recreates Isabel’s story from her diary and Twain’s correspondences to bring to life the complicated relationship between Isabel, Richard, and Mark, as well as other entangled relationships between historical figures that complicate our narratives of moral propriety.
From the bestselling and highly acclaimed author of the “page-turning tale” (Library Journal, starred review) Mrs. Poe comes a fictionalized imagining of the personal life of America’s most iconic writer: Mark Twain.
In March of 1909, Mark Twain cheerfully blessed the wedding of his private secretary, Isabel V. Lyon, and his business manager, Ralph Ashcroft. One month later, he fired both. He proceeded to write a ferocious 429-page rant about the pair, calling Isabel “a liar, a forger, a thief, a hypocrite, a drunkard, a sneak, a humbug, a traitor, a conspirator, a filthy-minded and salacious slut pining for seduction.” Twain and his daughter, Clara Clemens, then slandered Isabel in the newspapers, erasing her nearly seven years of devoted service to their family. How did Lyon go from being the beloved secretary who ran Twain’s life to a woman he was determined to destroy?
In Twain’s End, Lynn Cullen “cleverly spins a mysterious, dark tale” (Booklist) about the tangled relationships between Twain, Lyon, and Ashcroft, as well as the little-known love triangle between Helen Keller, her teacher Anne Sullivan Macy, and Anne’s husband, John Macy, which comes to light during their visit to Twain’s Connecticut home in 1909. Add to the party a furious Clara Clemens, smarting from her own failed love affair, and carefully kept veneers shatter.
Based on Isabel Lyon’s extant diary, Twain’s writings, letters, photographs, and events in Twain’s boyhood that may have altered his ability to love, Twain’s End triumphs as “a tender evocation of a vain, complicated man’s twilight years and a last chance at love” (People).
In fin-de-siècle Vienna, twelve-year-old Emile Flöge, raised by a bourgeois family, is about to begin drawing lessons with a painter hired by her father. That man turns out to be the infamous libertine Gustav Klimt, a rising star in the Austrian art world, as well as the leader of a decadent subculture of bohemian painters and their extravagant models. As Klimt introduces Emile to this adventurous, exciting, and terrifying new world, Emile transforms herself into a sought-after couturier, and Klimt’s most well-known model and mistress, the woman who will make his career.
Gustav Klimt, one of the great painters of fin de siècle Austria—and the subject of Helen Mirren’s latest film, Woman in Gold—takes center stage in this passionate and atmospheric debut novel, which reimagines the tumultuous relationship between the Viennese painter and Emilie Flöge, the woman who posed for his masterpiece The Kiss, and whose name he uttered with his dying breath.
Vienna in 1886 was a city of elegant cafés, grand opera houses, and a thriving and adventurous artistic community. It is here where the twelve-year-old Emilie meets the controversial libertine and painter. Hired by her bourgeois father for basic drawing lessons, Klimt introduces Emilie to a subculture of dissolute artists, wanton models, and decadent patrons that both terrifies and inspires her. The Painted Kiss follows Emilie as she blossoms from a naïve young girl to one of Europe's most exclusive couturiers—and Klimt's most beloved model and mistress. A provocative love story that brings to life Vienna's cultural milieu, The Painted Kiss is as compelling as a work by Klimt himself.
In this origin story of an American icon, it is 1949, and Jacqueline Bouvier has one year away from the social pressures of her family to study abroad in Paris. There, she is quickly enamored by the dazzling cafes, jazz clubs, and theaters, as well as distressed by the brutal aftermath of the Occupation and the passionate rise of communism. In the midst of it all, she begins a romance with a passionate young writer—who would horrify her mother—even though she knows to deliver her family from a precarious financial position, she must marry someone else.
In this extraordinary novel of female resistance, two women’s paths are inextricably linked in the lead up to the most successful Black uprising in history. Abdaraya Toya was once selected as a female warrior sworn to protect King Dahomey in West Africa. But when she is kidnapped and sold into slavery, she becomes the surrogate mother to a boy who will become the revolutionary leader Jean-Jacques Dessalines. Meanwhile, free woman of color Marie-Clair Bonheur falls in love with Dessalines. When war erupts in Saint Domingue, Marie-Claire and Toya meet and become lynchpins of the Haitian Revolution.
In this passionate retelling of a true historical love story, two young people must choose between love and duty. Heloise d’Argenteuil has been groomed from a young age by her father to become an abbess and serve God. But when Heloise meets Pierre Abelard, the headmaster of the Notre-Dame Cloister School, the course of both their lives changes forever. Pierre’s reputation and looks may attract women in droves, but his poetic and philosophical mind is drawn to Heloise’s quick wit and intelligence alone. Soon, their connection becomes a forbidden love affair that will haunt the ages.
The first retelling of the passionate, twelfth-century love story since the discovery of 113 lost love letters between Heloise d’Argenteuil and Pierre Abelard—the original Romeo and Juliet.
"While I sleep you never leave me, and after I wake I see you, as soon as I open my eyes, even before the light of day itself." —Abelard to Heloise
Among the young women of twelfth-century Paris, Heloise d’Argenteuil stands apart. Extraordinarily educated and quick-witted, she is being groomed by her uncle to become an abbess in the service of God.
But with one encounter, her destiny changes forever. Pierre Abelard, headmaster at the Notre-Dame Cloister School, is acclaimed as one of the greatest philosophers in France. His controversial reputation only adds to his allure, yet despite the legions of women swooning over his poetry and dashing looks, he is captivated by the brilliant Heloise alone. As their relationship blossoms from a meeting of the minds to a forbidden love affair, both Heloise and Abelard must choose between love, duty, and ambition.
Sherry Jones weaves the lovers’ own words into an evocative account of desire and sacrifice. As intimate as it is erotic, as devastating as it is beautiful, The Sharp Hook of Love is a poignant, tender tribute to one of history’s greatest romances, and to love’s power to transform and endure.
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