It’s not exactly a secret that, here at Off the Shelf, we’re historical fiction enthusiasts. Some may say “obsessives,” but hey, when you work in book publishing that’s already assumed. So in order to scope out the hottest historical fiction works of 2023, we were more than ready to rip through in-house marketing materials, pester editors (in a nice way), and track down early copies to give our readers the best recommendations. Without further ado, here are our most anticipated historical fiction books of the new year.
Megan’s Pick: Patti Callahan Henry is a master storyteller, and in THE SECRET BOOK OF FLORA LEA, she transports readers to WWII London, where sisters Hazel and Flora Lea are evacuated to a countryside village during the Blitz. There they take comfort in their made-up fanciful world called Whisperwood. But then Flora goes missing, while playing near the River Thames. Fast-forward twenty years, when Hazel comes across the story of Whisperwood in a picture book published in the U.S., which is shockingly similar to the story she created for her little sister all those years ago. How can this be? Is it possible Flora Lea is still alive? Be on the lookout for this highly anticipated, sweeping story about sisterhood and the power of storytelling next May!
When a woman stumbles across a mysterious children’s book, long-held secrets about her missing sister and their childhood spent in the English countryside during World War II are revealed in this “transporting, heartfelt, and atmospheric” (Christina Baker Kline, #1 New York Times bestselling author) novel from the New York Times bestselling author of Surviving Savannah and Becoming Mrs. Lewis.
1939: Fourteen-year-old Hazel and five-year-old Flora evacuate their London home for a rural village to escape the horrors of the Second World War. Living with the Aberdeen family in a charming stone cottage, Hazel distracts her young sister with a fairy tale about a magical land, a secret place they can escape to that is all their own: Whisperwood.
But the unthinkable happens when Flora suddenly vanishes after playing near the banks of the River Thames. Shattered, Hazel blames herself for her sister’s disappearance, carrying the guilt into adulthood.
Twenty years later, Hazel is back in London, ready to move on from her job at a cozy rare bookstore for a career at Sotheby’s. With a cherished boyfriend and an upcoming Paris getaway, Hazel’s future seems set. But her tidy life is turned upside down when she unwraps a package containing a picture book called Whisperwood and the River of Stars. Hazel never told a soul about the storybook world she created just for Flora. Could this book hold the secrets to Flora’s disappearance? Could it be a sign that her beloved sister is still alive after all these years? Or is something sinister at play?
For fans of Kate Morton, Janet Skeslien Charles, and Kristin Hannah, this is a “fantastical” (Jamie Ford, New York Times bestselling author) celebration of sisterhood and the magic of storytelling wrapped up in a “heartrending, captivating tale of family, first love, and fate” (Kristin Harmel, New York Times bestselling author).
Danielle’s Pick: If you, like me, are a fan of historical fiction based on little-known true events, you won’t want to miss Rachel Beanland’s THE HOUSE IS ON FIRE. Based on the events and aftermath of the Richmond Theater Fire of 1811, this story imagines the lives of four characters who find themselves caught in one of the early United States’ deadliest tragedies. The book opens on the night after Christmas, when the Virginia theater is packed with hundreds of attendees for an evening performance. Midway through the show, the theater suddenly goes up in flames, leaving those trapped inside to make a series of split-second decisions that will have lasting consequences. Told through alternating perspectives—Sally, a grieving widow; weary Cecily, who is taking a small break from her hard-scrabble life to watch the show from the colored galley; Jack, a young stagehand working backstage, and Gilbert, who will have to buy his wife’s freedom before she can ever attend such a performance—THE HOUSE IS ON FIRE begins with a tragedy, and becomes a story of love, redemption, and finding freedom.
The author of Florence Adler Swims Forever returns with a masterful work of historical fiction about an incendiary tragedy that shocked a young nation and tore apart a community in a single night—told from the perspectives of four people whose actions during the inferno changed the course of history.
Richmond, Virginia 1811. It’s the height of the winter social season, the General Assembly is in session, and many of Virginia’s gentleman planters, along with their wives and children, have made the long and arduous journey to the capital in hopes of whiling away the darkest days of the year. At the city’s only theater, the Charleston-based Placide & Green Company puts on two plays a night to meet the demand of a populace that’s done looking for enlightenment at the front of a church.
On the night after Christmas, the theater is packed with more than six hundred holiday revelers. In the third-floor boxes, sits newly-widowed Sally Henry Campbell, who is glad for any opportunity to relive the happy times she shared with her husband. One floor away, in the colored gallery, Cecily Patterson doesn’t give a whit about the play but is grateful for a four-hour reprieve from a life that has recently gone from bad to worse. Backstage, young stagehand Jack Gibson hopes that, if he can impress the theater’s managers, he’ll be offered a permanent job with the company. And on the other side of town, blacksmith Gilbert Hunt dreams of one day being able to bring his wife to the theater, but he’ll have to buy her freedom first.
When the theater goes up in flames in the middle of the performance, Sally, Cecily, Jack, and Gilbert make a series of split-second decisions that will not only affect their own lives but those of countless others. And in the days following the fire, as news of the disaster spreads across the United States, the paths of these four people will become forever intertwined.
Based on the true story of Richmond’s theater fire, The House Is on Fire offers proof that sometimes, in the midst of great tragedy, we are offered our most precious—and fleeting—chances at redemption.
Heather’s Pick: Since the Supreme Court’s shocking-but-not-surprising ruling in Dobbs vs. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the tumultuous history of women’s reproductive rights in America has never been far from my mind. LOOKING FOR JANE by Heather Marshall is a timely work of historical fiction that focuses on a brave group of activists who formed what became known as the Jane Collective to help pregnant people access abortion services from 1969 until 1973, when the procedure itself was still illegal. Jumping between time periods—2017, 1980, and 1971—the novel centers on three women whose stories intersect in unexpected ways. The concept alone intrigued me, but Kristin Hannah’s ringing endorsement of the book as a “searing, important, beautifully written novel” sealed the deal; I must read this one.
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This “powerful debut” (Hello! Canada) for fans of Kristin Hannah and Jennifer Chiaverini about three women whose lives are bound together by a long-lost letter, a mother’s love, and a secret network of women fighting for the right to choose—inspired by true stories.
2017: When Angela Creighton discovers a mysterious letter containing a life-shattering confession, she is determined to find the intended recipient. Her search takes her back to the 1970s when a group of daring women operated an illegal underground abortion network in Toronto known only by its whispered code name: Jane.
1971: As a teenager, Dr. Evelyn Taylor was sent to a home for “fallen” women where she was forced to give up her baby for adoption—a trauma she has never recovered from. Despite harrowing police raids and the constant threat of arrest, she joins the Jane Network as an abortion provider, determined to give other women the choice she never had.
1980: After discovering a shocking secret about her family, twenty-year-old Nancy Mitchell begins to question everything she has ever known. When she unexpectedly becomes pregnant, she feels like she has no one to turn to for help. Grappling with her decision, she locates “Jane” and finds a place of her own alongside Dr. Taylor within the network’s ranks, but she can never escape the lies that haunt her.
Looking for Jane is “a searing, important, beautifully written novel about the choices we all make and where they lead us—as well as a wise and timely reminder of the difficult road women had to walk not so long ago” (Kristin Harmel, New York Times bestselling author).
Emily’s Pick: Sadeqa Johnson’s historical fiction (remember Yellow Wife?) always fills in the gaps of history with much-needed clarity and imbues it with an emotional pull. Her latest, THE HOUSE OF EVE, is especially touching, as it stems from her curiosity about her own grandmother, who became a mother at the age of just fourteen. Driven by questions of what happened to young unwed Black women like her grandmother in the 1950s, Sadeqa created the intertwining narratives of Ruby and Eleanor. Each young women comes from a different walk of life—high school Junior Ruby in urban Philadelphia is set to become the first person in her family to go to college, and Eleanor’s middle-class suburban life in Cleveland doesn’t help her fit in as much as she’d hoped at Howard University—but unexpected pregnancies send them on separate (and then colliding) trajectories that explore class, race, and gender mixed with ambitions in the mid-twentieth century.
From the award-winning author of Yellow Wife, a daring and redemptive novel set in 1950s Philadelphia and Washington, DC, that explores what it means to be a woman and a mother, and how much one is willing to sacrifice to achieve her greatest goal.
1950s Philadelphia: fifteen-year-old Ruby Pearsall is on track to becoming the first in her family to attend college, in spite of having a mother more interested in keeping a man than raising a daughter. But a taboo love affair threatens to pull her back down into the poverty and desperation that has been passed on to her like a birthright.
Eleanor Quarles arrives in Washington, DC, with ambition and secrets. When she meets the handsome William Pride at Howard University, they fall madly in love. But William hails from one of DC’s elite wealthy Black families, and his parents don’t let just anyone into their fold. Eleanor hopes that a baby will make her finally feel at home in William’s family and grant her the life she’s been searching for. But having a baby—and fitting in—is easier said than done.
With their stories colliding in the most unexpected of ways, Ruby and Eleanor will both make decisions that shape the trajectory of their lives.
Abi’s Pick #1: I am a sucker for second-chance stories, so this upcoming novel was an immediate favorite. In Liverpool, in 1935, Viv Byrne’s life has just been turned upside down. A good Catholic girl, she’s always followed the status quo—until a fling with a Jewish man named Joshua Levinson leaves her unexpectedly pregnant and stuck with her severely disapproving family. Five years later, Viv has made the agonizing decision to evacuate her young daughter to the countryside in the hopes of escaping World War II, and Joshua is serving in the Royal Air Force. Soon, Viv discovers that the estate their daughter resided in did not escape the war, and now her little girl is nowhere to be found. All seems lost, until years later Viv stumbles upon a clue that leads her to believe she might be able to reunite with her daughter after all, but only with Joshua’s help. Julia Kelly’s THE LOST ENGLISH GIRL will take you on a journey of long-kept secrets, heart-wrenching moments, and what it takes to piece a family back together. Trust me, you won’t want to miss out!
The acclaimed author of the “sweeping and beautifully written novel” (Woman’s World) The Light Over London weaves an epic saga of love, motherhood, and betrayal set against World War II.
Liverpool, 1935: Raised in a strict Catholic family, Viv Byrne knows what’s expected of her: marry a Catholic man from her working-class neighborhood and have his children. However, when she finds herself pregnant after a fling with Joshua Levinson, a Jewish man with dreams of becoming a famous Jazz musician, Viv knows that a swift wedding is the only answer. Her only solace is that marrying Joshua will mean escaping her strict mother’s scrutiny. But when Joshua makes a life-changing choice on their wedding day, Viv is forced once again into the arms of her disapproving family.
Five years later and on the eve of World War II, Viv is faced with the impossible choice to evacuate her young daughter, Maggie, to the countryside estate of the affluent Thompson family. In New York City, Joshua gives up his failing musical career to serve in the Royal Air Force, fight for his country, and try to piece together his feelings about the family, wife, and daughter he left behind at nineteen. However, tragedy strikes when Viv learns that the countryside safe haven she sent her daughter to wasn’t immune from the horrors of war. It is only years later, with Joshua’s help, that Viv learns the secrets of their shared past and what it will take to put a family back together again.
Telling the harrowing story of England’s many evacuated children, bestselling author Julia Kelly’s The Lost English Girl explores how one simple choice can change the course of a life, and what we are willing to forgive to find a way back to the ones we love and thought lost.
Sara’s Pick #1: Would it really be a historical fiction list without a Kate Morton book on it? And the author’s latest novel, HOMECOMING, sounds like it'll be yet another treat! The book spans several generations as a perplexing murder investigation in 1959 Australia blooms into a tale of family intrigue, the challenges of motherhood, and the corrosion of the soul that comes with keeping secrets. Not to mention it features a grandmother-granddaughter duo, in a link to the 1959 murder twenty years later, which only amplifies the themes of generational trauma and triumph.
Sara’s Pick #2: Wouldn’t it be lovely to inherit a big, beautiful library, somewhere cozy and secluded where you can just brew a cup of tea and enjoy some leisure and literature? Well, that's my dream at least. But such a bibliophile's dream turns into a nightmare for Ivy Radcliffe, who, after WWI, suddenly becomes the Lady of Blackwood Abbey, a place that has been in her family for generations but where she's never visited. Within its walls, she finds tales of ghosts, dark secrets, and a strange manuscript. THE LAST HEIR TO BLACKWOOD LIBRARY is a twisting, atmospheric tale sure to delight any Gothic and historical fiction fan!
Holly’s Pick: Although I first discovered Jeannette Walls through her marvelous and best-selling memoir, THE GLASS CASTLE, I always admired that her prose read like a riveting work of fiction. So, as a devoted fan of her writing, I was naturally over the moon to hear about her upcoming novel. HANG THE MOON tells the story of Sallie Kincaid, the daughter of the “Duke” Kincaid—a volatile man with the biggest personality in town. After Sallie’s mother dies during an argument with Duke, Sallie has little memory left to hold on to as she grows up. By the time Sallie is eight years old, her father has already remarried and fathered a son, and Sallie is eventually estranged from them. Nine years later, Sallie returns to her hometown to confront the secrets of her past and the scandals that shed a dark shadow on her family—as well as to take her place as a bootlegger in her own right. Set during the Prohibition era in Virginia, I’m anticipating that this novel will be a literary hit.
From Jeannette Walls, the #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Glass Castle, comes a riveting new novel about an indomitable young woman in Virginia during Prohibition.
Most folk thought Sallie Kincaid was a nobody who’d amount to nothing. Sallie had other plans.
Sallie Kincaid is the daughter of the biggest man in a small town, the charismatic Duke Kincaid. Born at the turn of the 20th century into a life of comfort and privilege, Sallie remembers little about her mother who died in a violent argument with the Duke. By the time she is just eight years old, the Duke has remarried and had a son, Eddie. While Sallie is her father’s daughter, sharp-witted and resourceful, Eddie is his mother’s son, timid and cerebral. When Sallie tries to teach young Eddie to be more like their father, her daredevil coaching leads to an accident, and Sallie is cast out.
Nine years later, she returns, determined to reclaim her place in the family. That’s a lot more complicated than Sallie expected, and she enters a world of conflict and lawlessness. Sallie confronts the secrets and scandals that hide in the shadows of the Big House, navigates the factions in the family and town, and finally comes into her own as a bold, sometimes reckless bootlegger.
You will fall in love with Sallie Kincaid, a feisty and fearless, terrified and damaged young woman who refuses to be corralled.
Abi’s Pick #2: As a huge fan of historical dramas, including those of Kristin Harmel, this was a must-read for me! Set in 1939, Paris, the story begins with a pair of young women—one, Juliette, a mother of two sons with a third child on the way, and the other, named Elise, pregnant with her first child. Soon after becoming fast friends, while bonding in a bookstore that Juliette’s family owns, Elise becomes a target of the German occupation and makes the hasty decision to leave her daughter with Juliette and her family, which now includes a daughter, the same age as Elise’s. A year later, with the war winding down, Elise returns to find the world she left behind destroyed by a bomb, and Juliette and both of their daughters have disappeared. The only thing Elise concretely has is confirmation from a neighbor that her friend and one of the girls got out alive. Now, against all odds, she’s on a mission to find out what happened to her child. THE PARIS DAUGHTER will take you on a heartrending journey of friendship, tragic loss, and finding your way back to the people you love. Don’t miss out on what I believe is Kristin Harmel’s best book yet!
From the bestselling author of the “heart-stopping tale of survival and heroism” (People) The Book of Lost Names comes a gripping historical novel about two mothers who must make unthinkable choices in the face of the Nazi occupation.
Paris, 1939: Young mothers Elise and Juliette become fast friends the day they meet in the beautiful Bois de Boulogne. Though there is a shadow of war creeping across Europe, neither woman suspects that their lives are about to irrevocably change.
When Elise becomes a target of the German occupation, she entrusts Juliette with the most precious thing in her life—her young daughter, playmate to Juliette’s own little girl. But nowhere is safe in war, not even a quiet little bookshop like Juliette’s Librairie des Rêves, and, when a bomb falls on their neighborhood, Juliette’s world is destroyed along with it.
More than a year later, with the war finally ending, Elise returns to reunite with her daughter, only to find her friend’s bookstore reduced to rubble. Surviving neighbors tell her that Juliette and a little girl survived. But which little girl—and what happened in the bookstore’s final moments? Juliette has seemingly vanished without a trace, taking all the answers with her. Elise’s desperate quest to find out what happened to her daughter ultimately leads her to New York—and to Juliette—one final, fateful time.
An “exquisite and gut-wrenching novel” (Lisa Barr, New York Times bestselling author) you won’t soon forget, The Paris Daughter is also a sweeping celebration of resilience, motherhood, and love.
Andie’s Pick: Calling all historical fiction fans! Bestselling author Armando Lucas Correa’s THE NIGHT TRAVELERS has everything I love: multi-generational stories, complex characters, and a tale that will tug on your heartstrings. One generation’s story begins in 1931 Berlin with Ally, who must send her mixed-race daughter, Lilith, on a dangerous path to Havana in order to save her from Hitler’s deadly ideology of Aryan purity. Next we follow an adult Lilith, who must save her daughter, Nadine, from the upcoming Communist war by sending her to live in America. Decades later in 1988, Nadine finds herself back in her grandmother’s country of heritage, Germany, as a scientist, but one who has spent her entire lifetime avoiding the truth about her own family’s history. It is Nadine’s daughter, Luna, in turn, who begins to unravel the past and discovers a shocking betrayal that changes everything she thought she knew. This unforgettable story of mothers and daughters, sacrifice, and self-discovery will have you hastily turning the pages to discover what happens next. Over four generations, strong women captivatingly take center stage.
Four generations of women experience love, loss, war, and hope from the rise of Nazism to the Cuban Revolution and finally, the fall of the Berlin Wall in this sweeping novel from the bestselling author of the “timely must-read” (People) The German Girl.
Berlin, 1931: Ally Keller, a talented young poet, is alone and scared when she gives birth to a mixed-race daughter she names Lilith. As the Nazis rise to power, Ally knows she must keep her baby in the shadows to protect her against Hitler’s deadly ideology of Aryan purity. But as she grows, it becomes more and more difficult to keep Lilith hidden so Ally sets in motion a dangerous and desperate plan to send her daughter across the ocean to safety.
Havana, 1958: Now an adult, Lilith has few memories of her mother or her childhood in Germany. Besides, she’s too excited for her future with her beloved Martin, a Cuban pilot with strong ties to the Batista government. But as the flames of revolution ignite, Lilith and her newborn daughter, Nadine, find themselves at a terrifying crossroads.
Berlin, 1988: As a scientist in Berlin, Nadine is dedicated to ensuring the dignity of the remains of all those who were murdered by the Nazis. Yet she has spent her entire lifetime avoiding the truth about her own family’s history. It takes her daughter, Luna, to encourage Nadine to uncover the truth about the choices her mother and grandmother made to ensure the survival of their children. And it will fall to Luna to come to terms with a shocking betrayal that changes everything she thought she knew about her family’s past.
Separated by time but united by sacrifice, four women embark on journeys of self-discovery and find themselves to be living testaments to the power of motherly love.
Lauren’s Pick: The bestselling author of ORDINARY GRACE and THIS TENDER LAND, William Kent Krueger, is back with a novella of a family, a storm, a complicated rescue, and the true cost of survival. Krueger creates a totally immersive atmosphere set against the Mississippi River in 1927 as a devastating flood threatens to overtake an ancestral home, and a cast of characters work to save the property, though each with his or her own motives. With themes of man versus nature and biological versus chosen family, THE LEVEE is a vivid, perfectly told story in under three and a half audiobook hours. It’s available exclusively as an audiobook on February 28, 2023.
An audio original novella from the bestselling author of Ordinary Grace and This Tender Land, The Levee is a powerful, captivating story of a family, a storm, a complicated rescue, and the true cost of survival.
It’s 1927, and the most devastating flood in American history has swelled the Mississippi River to a width of eighty miles. In an attempt to save a family trapped by the rising water, four men in a tiny rowboat battle the treacherous flow: three are convicts, on loan from the local prison and pressed into service; the fourth, the leader of the team, is driven by his own hidden motives. But to their surprise upon arrival at Ballymore, an ancestral home protected by a high, circular levee, not everyone in the family feels the need to be saved. Pride, greed, loyalty, and even love create their own complex currents behind the massive wall. As the threat from the flood increases and time ticks away, the crew and the family must decide on a course of action, and a desperate plan is hatched to save the weakening levee and all it was built to protect.
The Levee is a propulsive, heartfelt tale of courage, cowardice, and sacrifice in a historic moment when the indomitable human spirit is pitted against the awesome and destructive power of nature.
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