50 best historical fiction books of all time

Historical fiction allows us to immerse ourselves in eras long past. our edit of the best historical fiction books is perfect reading inspiration for when you want to lose yourself with a cast of characters in another time and place..

best selling fiction book in history

The best historical novels are meticulously researched and wonderfully evocative of times gone by. Whether you’re looking for the sweeping historical romance of Winston Graham’s historical fiction series Poldark , or feminist retellings of ancient Greek myth like Natalie Haynes’ Stone Blind , there’s a historical fiction novel for everyone. Here, ancient history expert and historical fiction fan Dr Jean Menzies shares some of the very best historical novels of all time.

There’s a reason we’re drawn to the past. History is inescapable. Decisions are made on the back of past events, and lives are affected by the stories of those that came before us. Historical fiction books resonate with modern readers because they give us the chance to immerse ourselves in another time. Each of the historical fiction novels on this list tells the stories of different characters, from the plains of Ancient Greece, the dark middle ages, or the battlefields of WWI and WWII.

The best historical fiction of 2024

Maude horton’s glorious revenge, by lizzie pook.

Book cover for Maude Horton’s Glorious Revenge

If you like your historical fiction on the mysterious side, be sure to add Maude Horton's Glorious Revenge to your 2024 reading list. Set in the heart of Victorian London’s seedy underbelly, Lizzie Pook’s newest novel follows young Maude Horton as she embarks on a search for her missing sister Constance. With only the cryptic clues her sister left in her diary to help her, Maude finds herself uncovering the city’s darkest secrets and mixing with some of its most sinister characters in this twisty and addictive historical thriller.

The World and All That It Holds

By aleksandar hemon.

Book cover for The World and All That It Holds

Rafael Pinto's life hasn't quite turned out as he expected. But he is, on the whole, happy. He spends his time crushing herbs at a pharmacy, a far cry from his poetry-filled student days in libertine Vienna. And then the world explodes. In the trenches in Galicia, fantasies fall flat. War devours all that they have known, and the only thing Pinto has to live for is the attentions of fellow soldier, Osman. Together, Pinto and Osman will escape the trenches and find themselves entangled with spies and Bolsheviks. As they travel all the way to Shanghai, it is Pinto’s love for Osman that will truly survive.

by Kate Morton

Book cover for Homecoming

A gripping mystery set between Australia and London, Homecoming , is the much-anticipated new novel by Kate Morton. When 89-year-old Nora's health takes an unexpected turn for the worse, Jess boards the first plane out of London, her home of twenty years, to be by her grandmother's bedside in Sydney. Soon, she discovers that the usually stoic Nora has been hiding a family secret and vows to get to the heart of the mystery of what happened on a fateful Christmas Eve sixty years before. 

by Kate Foster

Book cover for The Maiden

A thrilling historical murder tale and so much more besides, The Maiden is inspired by a real-life case from seventeenth-century Edinburgh. Lady Christina is newly married, wealthy and respected. A year later she is on trial for the murder of her lover, James Forrester, her story splashed across newspapers: Adulteress. Whore. Murderess. Why did she risk everything for an affair? And did it really end in murder? She certainly wasn't the only woman who might have wanted Forrester dead. . .

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The best historical fiction of 2023, stone blind, by natalie haynes.

Book cover for Stone Blind

This retelling of the famed myth of Medusa asks who the real monsters are, after all. The sole mortal raised in a family of gods, Medusa is alone in her ability to experience change and to be hurt. Then, when the sea god Poseidon commits an unforgivable act in the temple of Athene, the goddess takes her revenge where she can – and she is changed forever. Writhing snakes replace her hair, and her gaze now turns any living creature to stone. Unable to control her new power, she is condemned to a life of shadows and darkness. Until Perseus embarks upon a quest . . .

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By james hynes.

Book cover for Sparrow

This vivid coming of age story set at the end of the Roman Empire, follows Sparrow – a boy of no known origin living in a brothel. He spends his days listening to stories told by his beloved ‘mother’ Euterpe, running errands for her lover the cook, and dodging the blows of their brutal overseer. But a hard fate awaits him – one that involves suffering, murder and mayhem. To cope he will create his own identity – Sparrow – who sings without reason and can fly from trouble. This is a book with one of the most powerfully affecting and memorable characters of recent fiction, brought to life through James Hynes meticulous research and bold imagination. 

The Armour of Light

By ken follett.

Book cover for The Armour of Light

In 1792, England hungers for supremacy while France witnesses Napoleon's ascent. Meanwhile, Kingsbridge, a once-tranquil town, stands on the brink. Industrial innovation sweeps the land, shattering the lives of workers and tearing families apart. In the face of encroaching tyranny, a small but resolute group from Kingsbridge emerges. Their intertwined stories encapsulate a generation's struggle for enlightenment, as they rally against oppression and fight passionately for a future free from the shackles of an oppressive regime. The Armour of Light is the latest instalment in Ken Follett's Kingsbridge series.  

Ken Follett's Kingsbridge novels in order

Once a monster, by robert dinsdale.

Book cover for Once a Monster

Robert Dinsdale brings Victorian London to life in this unusual blend of historical fiction with ancient myth. Ten-year-old orphan Nell belongs to a crew of mudlarks who work a stretch of the Thames. She spends her days searching for treasure in the mud in order to appease her master, Benjamin Murdstone. That is until she finds a body on the shore – a seven-foot matted creature with horns. As she ventures closer the figure draws breath and Nell is forced to make a decision that will change her life forever. 

The Dance Tree

By kiran millwood hargrave.

Book cover for The Dance Tree

It's 1518 in Strasbourg, and in the intense summer heat a solitary woman starts to dance in the main square. She dances for days without rest, and is joined by hundreds of other women. The city authorities declare a state of emergency, and bring in musicians to play the devil out of the dancing women. Meanwhile pregnant Lisbet, who lives at the edge of the city, is tending to the family's bees. The dancing plague intensifies, as Lisbet is drawn into a net of secret passions and deceptions. Inspired by true events, this is a compelling story of superstition, transformative change and women pushed to their limits.

The House of Fortune

By jessie burton.

Book cover for The House of Fortune

A glorious, sweeping story of fate and ambition, The House of Fortune is the sequel to Jessie Burton’s bestseller  The Miniaturist . Amsterdam, 1705. Thea Brandt is about to turn eighteen and she can't wait to become an adult. Walter, her true love, awaits Thea at the city's theatre. But at home on the Herengracht things are tense. Her father Otto and Aunt Nella bicker incessantly and are selling furniture so the family can eat. And, on her birthday, the day her mother Marin died, secrets from Thea's past threaten to eclipse the present. Nella is feeling a prickling sensation in her neck, which recalls the miniaturist who toyed with her life eighteen years ago.

A guide to Jessie Burton's books

The darkest sin, by d. v. bishop.

Book cover for The Darkest Sin

It's spring in Florence in 1537, and Cesare Aldo is investigating a report that a convent in the northern quarter has been breached. Soon Aldo finds himself immersed in a bitterly divided community. And when a man's body is found in the convent, it seems as if one of the nuns must be the murderer. Meanwhile, Constable Carlo Strocchi finds human body parts in the Arno, which turn out to be the remains of a much feared officer who went missing in the winter. Aldo and Strocchi search for the truth, in an investigation that is increasingly full of peril.

The Ghost Ship

By kate mosse.

Book cover for The Ghost Ship

The third book in the Joubert Family Chronicles beging on the Barbary Coast in 1621. A mysterious vessel floats silently on the water. It is known only as the Ghost Ship. For months, its captain - Louise Reydon-Joubert - and her courageous crew has hunted pirates to liberate those enslaved during the course of their merciless raids. But now the Ghost Ship is under attack – its hull splintered, its sails tattered and burnt, and the crew at risk of capture. But the bravest among them are not who they seem.

Kate Mosse’s books in order

The square of sevens, by laura shepherd-robinson.

Book cover for The Square of Sevens

Set in Georgian high-society, The Square of Sevens is a historical fiction novel packed with fortune-telling, travels and mystery. A girl known only as Red, the daughter of a Cornish fortune-teller, travels with her father making a living predicting fortunes using the ancient method: the Square of Sevens. When her father suddenly dies, Red becomes the ward of a gentleman scholar. But soon, she can't ignore the burning questions about her family. The pursuit of these mysteries takes her across the country in an epic tale of intrigue, heartbreak and audacious twists. 

by Hannah Kent

Book cover for Devotion

It's 1836 in Prussia, and teenage Hanne is finding the domestic world of womanhood increasingly oppressive. She longs to be out in nature, and finds little companionship with the local girls. Until, that is, she meets kindred spirit Thea. Hanne is from a family of Old Lutherans, whose worship is suppressed and secret. Safe passage to Australia offers liberty from these restrictions. But a long and harsh journey lies ahead, one which will put the girls' close bond to a terrible test.

Learned by Heart

By emma donoghue.

Book cover for Learned by Heart

In 1805, at a boarding school in York, two fourteen-year-old girls cross paths. Eliza Raine, an orphan with an Indian heritage, feels isolated due to her differences. Anne Lister, a rebellious spirit, defies societal norms for women. Their love story blossoms, creating a profound bond that transcends time and shapes their lives forever. Learned By Heart is the heartbreaking story of the love of two women – Anne Lister, the real-life inspiration behind Gentleman Jack, and her first love, Eliza Raine – from the bestselling author of  Room  and  The Wonder.

A complete guide to Emma Donoghue's books

Moonlight and the pearler's daughter.

Book cover for Moonlight and the Pearler's Daughter

It's 1886, and the Brightwell family has just arrived at Bannin Bay in Western Australia after a long sea voyage from England. Ten-year-old Eliza has been promised bright pearls, shells like soup plates and good fortunes in a new land. Ten years later, and Eliza's father Charles Brightwell is the most successful pearler on the bay. When he goes missing from his boat at sea, rumours of mutiny and murder swirl across the bay. But Eliza refuses to believe that her father is dead and, in a town mired in corruption, she sets out to find the truth.

The Midwife

By tricia cresswell.

Book cover for The Midwife

1838. A violent storm has hit the Northumberland coast, and a woman is found alone, naked and on the verge of death. She has no memory of how she got there, but she can speak fluent French, dress a wound and help women give birth. She starts to rebuild her life, helping those around her and finding a fragile happiness. Until tragedy strikes and she must go into hiding. Meanwhile in London, respectable Dr Borthwick assists mothers and babies in high society, and in the slums of Devil's Acre. The solitary doctor has a secret though, one which threatens to engulf him.

by André Dao

Book cover for Anam

Anam takes us on a poignant journey from 1930s Hanoi to Saigon, Paris, Melbourne, and Cambridge, exploring memory, inheritance, colonialism, and belonging. The narrator, born into a Vietnamese family in Melbourne, grapples with his grandfather's haunting tale of imprisonment in Chi Hoa prison under the Communist government. Straddling his Australian upbringing and Vietnamese heritage, he faces the impact of his grandfather's death and the birth of his daughter on his own life's trajectory. André Dao artfully weaves fiction and essay, theory and personal experience, revealing forgotten aspects of history and family archives. 

Mrs Porter Calling

By aj pearce.

Book cover for Mrs Porter Calling

The third in A J Pearce's charming and uplifting World War Two series find Emmy Lake enjoying huge success at Woman’s Friend  magazine, where she is the much-loved agony aunt. But the arrival of a glamorous new owner puts this all at risk, as Mrs Porter's plans are slowly revealed and it becomes clear she will destroy everything readers love about the magazine.

Other Women

By emma flint.

Book cover for Other Women

Emma Flint’s evocative historical novels transport you to another time and place. In her new book, Other Women , the destination is London, devastated by the impact of the Great War. For unmarried Beatrice Cade, the war has robbed her of the chance to find true love and have a family, just like it has for millions of others. One day a chance encounter changes her life, and she falls head over heels in love with someone she should never have met. An enthralling tale of obsession, murder and lives intertwined by forbidden love, Other Women is a novel that you won’t be able to put down. 

The Librarian of Auschwitz: The Graphic Novel

By antonio iturbe.

Book cover for The Librarian of Auschwitz: The Graphic Novel

Based on the life of Dita Kraus, a holocaust survivor , The Librarian of Auschwitz tells the story of the smallest library in the world – and the most dangerous. Imprisoned by the Nazis at Auschwitz aged fourteen along with her mother and father, Dita is asked to take charge of the eight precious books the prisoners have managed to smuggle past the guards. But in the children's block of Auschwitz, where the slightest transgression can result in execution, Dita must risk her life to keep the books alive. Out of one of the darkest chapters in human history, this graphic novel tells an extraordinary story of courage and hope. 

by Hernan Diaz

Book cover for Trust

Everyone in 1920s New York knows of Benjamin and Helen Rask, the Wall Street tycoon and the daughter of bohemian aristocrats. They live in a sphere of untold wealth, but what is the true cost of their fortune? This mystery sits at the heart of Bonds , a bestselling 1938 novel that all of New York has read. But, like all stories, there are different perspectives, and Hernan Diaz puts these different narratives into conversation with each other, in a novel that tracks across a century and documents the truth-bending power of money, with provocative revelations at each turn. 

A Jewish Girl in Paris

By melanie levensohn.

Book cover for A Jewish Girl in Paris

Against the backdrop of Nazi-occupied Paris in 1940, Judith, a young Jewish girl, falls in love with the son of a wealthy banker and Nazi sympathiser. As restrictions on Jews tighten, the couple plans to escape, but Judith mysteriously disappears before they have the chance. 1982, Montreal: Lica Grunberg confesses to his daughter, Jacobina, that she has an older half-sister, Judith. Determined by the encouragement of her friend Béatrice, Jacobina takes on the mission to uncover the truth. Delving into the past, they unearth a concealed family secret spanning continents and decades, forever altering the course of their lives.

The best historical fiction of 2022

The red tent, by anita diamant.

Book cover for The Red Tent

In the Bible, the fate of Dinah is only given a brief and violent reference: she features in the Book of Genesis story that tells the tale of Jacob and his twelve sons. But Anita Diamant’s  The Red Tent  gives Dinah space to live and breathe. The narrative, which uses Dinah's voice, is one of betrayal, sorrow and love. Diamant’s feminist text weaves vivid storytelling with original insights into the lives of women in early history.

She Who Became the Sun

By shelley parker-chan.

Book cover for She Who Became the Sun

An absorbing historical fantasy,  She Who Became the Sun  reimagines the rise to power of the Ming Dynasty’s founding emperor. In 1345, China lies restless under harsh Mongol rule. And when a bandit raid wipes out their home, two children must somehow survive. The boy despairs and gives in. But the girl resolves to overcome her destiny. So she takes her dead brother’s identity and begins her journey. Can she escape what’s written in the stars, as rebellion sweeps the land? Or can she claim her brother’s greatness – and rise as high as she can dream?

Daughters of Night

Book cover for Daughters of Night

This historical crime fiction novel is the second from Laura Shepherd-Robinson, following her award-winning debut Blood & Sugar . Set in London in 1782, it’s the story of Caroline Corsham, who is determined to seek justice for a string of murders of high-class prostitutes – crimes that the police are all too happy to ignore. As she delves deeper into the darkest, hidden corners of Georgian society, Caroline soon finds that much more than her reputation is at stake. . .

Circus of Wonders

By elizabeth macneal.

Book cover for Circus of Wonders

1866. In a coastal village in southern England, Nell picks violets for a living. Set apart by her community because of the birthmarks that speckle her skin, Nell’s world is her beloved brother and devotion to the sea. But when Jasper Jupiter’s Circus of Wonders arrives in the village, Nell is kidnapped. Moving from the pleasure gardens of Victorian London to the battle-scarred plains of the Crimea,  Circus of Wonders  is an astonishing story about power and ownership, fame and the threat of invisibility.

The Four Winds

By kristin hannah.

Book cover for The Four Winds

Texas, 1934. Elsa Martinelli finally has everything she had wished for – a family, a home and a livelihood on a farm on the Great Plains. But when drought threatens her family and community, Elsa must decide whether to stay and fight for the land she loves or flee to California in search of a better life. Hailing praise from Matt Haig and Delia Owens, author of Where the Crawdads Sing who called The Four Winds ‘powerful and compelling’, this is a must-read historical fiction book of the year. 

A complete guide to Kristin Hannah's books

The lamplighters, by emma stonex.

Book cover for The Lamplighters

Inspired by true events, Emma Stonex’s debut historical novel is a riveting mystery which will grip the reader, and a beautifully written exploration of love and grief. In Cornwall in 1972, three keepers vanish from a remote lighthouse, miles from shore. The door is locked from the inside, and the clocks have stopped. Twenty years later, the women they left behind are still struggling to move on. And then a writer approaches them. He wants to give the women a chance to tell their side of the story. What happened to those men, and to the women they left behind?

The Attic Child

By lola jaye.

Book cover for The Attic Child

It's 1907, and twelve-year-old Celestine is locked in the attic of a house by the sea. He has been forcibly removed from his home in Africa and is treated as a servant. He dreams of home and family, even as his mother's face, and his real name, begin to fade. Decades later a young orphan girl is banished to the same attic. Under the floorboards she finds mysterious artefacts, and on a wall there is a sentence etched in a language she does not recognise. What she does recognise though, is that she is not the first child to be held captive in the attic. This dual-narrative tale of love, loss and family secrets shines a light on the early Black British experience. 

Pippo and Clara

By diana rosie.

Book cover for Pippo and Clara

It’s 1938, Mussolini is in power in Italy and war is on the horizon. Pippo and Clara are brother and sister, newly arrived in an unspecified city with their family. When their mother goes missing one morning they both go in search of her, with Clara turning right and Pippo left. As a result of their choices, the children’s lives will be changed forever. Diana Rosie’s Pippo and Clara tells the story of a family and a country divided. But will Clara and Pippo – and their mother – find each other again?

Kololo Hill

By neema shah.

Book cover for Kololo Hill

Neema Shah’s debut is a heartbreaking historical fiction novel set in Uganda and Britain. Uganda, 1972. When a devastating decree is announced which says all Ugandan Asians must leave the country in ninety days, Asha and Pran and Pran’s mother Jaya must leave everything they’ve ever known for a new life in Britain. But as they try to rebuild their lives, a terrible secret hangs over them. Neema Shah’s extraordinarily moving novel explores what it means to leave your home behind, what it takes to start again, and the lengths some will go to protect their loved ones.

Soul Sisters

By lesley lokko.

Book cover for Soul Sisters

Soul Sisters tells the story of the friendship between Scottish Jen McFadden and South African-born Kemi Mashabane. Since they were children, Jen and Kemi have lived like sisters in the McFadden home in Edinburgh. On a visit to London the women meet handsome South African lawyer Solam Rhoyi and he has a great impact on them both. Kemi returns to her birth country, and Jen decides to come too, but it soon becomes clear that Solam is looking for a wife to help further his political ambitions. The women, bound by friendship and love, are also connected by a family secret, one which threatens to reveal itself with shocking consequences.  

The best historical fiction of all time

Dead man's walk, by larry mcmurtry.

Book cover for Dead Man's Walk

The first book in the famed Lonesome Dove series from Larry McMurtry, Dead Man's Walk takes us into the heart of the American West. Gus McCrae and Woodrow Call first encounter the untamed frontier that will form their characters. The two young men experience their first great adventure in the barren, empty landscape of the great plains, in which arbitrary violence is the only law – whether from nature, or from those whose territory they must cross in order to reach New Mexico. Danger, sacrifice and fear test Gus and Call to the limits of endurance, as they seek the strength and courage to survive against almost insurmountable odds.

Les Misérables

By victor hugo.

Book cover for Les Misérables

A historical fiction classic, it took seventeen years for Hugo to write this epic novel set in impoverished 19th-century Paris. Made up of interrelated stories that follow his characters’ lives, Les Miserables explores how deprivation leads to crime, and ends with the Paris Uprising of 1832. Using big theatrical scenes, extremes of characters, and a fondness for ‘The Fallen Woman’, Hugo’s novel has a fairytale quality which delivers his message with a punch.

Blood Meridian

By cormac mccarthy.

Book cover for Blood Meridian

Written in 1985, but set in the 1850s Blood Meridian explores the anarchic world opened up by America’s westward expansion. Through the hostile landscape of the Texas–Mexico border wanders the Kid, a fourteen year-old Tennessean who is quickly swept up in the relentless tide of blood. But the apparent chaos is not without its order: while Americans hunt Indians – collecting scalps as their bloody trophies – they too are stalked as prey. Powerful, mesmerizing and savagely beautiful, Blood Meridian is considered one of the most important works in American fiction of the last century.

A guide to the literary great: Cormac McCarthy

The miniaturist.

Book cover for The Miniaturist

In 1686, eighteen-year-old Nella Oortman knocks at the door of a house in the wealthiest quarter of Amsterdam. She has come from the country to marry merchant trader Johannes Brandt, but instead she is met by his sharp-tongued sister, Marin. Only later does Johannes appear and present her with an extraordinary wedding gift: a cabinet-sized replica of their home. It is to be furnished by an elusive miniaturist, whose tiny creations mirror their real-life counterparts in unexpected ways. Does the miniaturist hold their fate in her hands? And will she be the key to their salvation or the architect of their downfall?

The Land Beyond the Sea

By sharon penman.

Book cover for The Land Beyond the Sea

Set in 1172 the Kingdom of Jerusalem is also known as Outremer – the land beyond the sea. When the men of the First Crusade captured Jerusalem from the Saracens in 1099, many crusaders stayed on and built a life in this new world of blazing heat, exotic customs and enemies who are also neighbours. But now Saladin, leader of the vast Saracen army, is seeking retribution for the massacre in 1099 In The Land Beyond the Sea, Penman expertly weaves a complicated tapestry to create a historical fiction saga of epic proportions. 

The Pillars of the Earth

Book cover for The Pillars of the Earth

Welcome to medieval England, where a civil war ravages the country and a monk is on a mission. Ken’s The Pillars of the Earth follows Philip, a devoted monk, who joins forces with Tom, a talented builder, to undertake the most ambitious project either has ever set themselves to. In a world in turmoil, however, their journey will not be a smooth one. The first book in Ken Follett's Kingsbridge series, this historical saga is one to get lost in.

The Sin Eater

By megan campisi.

Book cover for The Sin Eater

Set in a thinly disguised 16th century England, Megan Campisi’s debut novel is a wonderfully woven tale of treason and treachery, women and power. When fourteen year old May is arrested for stealing a loaf of bread she is sentenced to become a Sin Eater, a devastating sentence that will see her shunned by society and exiled to the edge of town. For a Sin Eater hears the confessions of the dying and eats their sins as a funeral rite, and is believed to be stained by these sins. When May is called to hear the deathbed confessions of two of the Queen’s courtiers she hears whispers of a terrible rumour her invisibility allows her to investigate. 

Ross Poldark

By winston graham.

Book cover for Ross Poldark

Historical fiction is often the basis for some of the most acclaimed and popular period dramas, and Winston Graham’s Poldark series is no exception. In the first book Ross Poldark, the eponymous hero, returns home to Cornwall, tired from a grim war in America. But the joyful homecoming he has anticipated turns sour, for his father is dead, his estate is derelict and the girl he loves is engaged to his cousin. Then, his sympathy for the destitute miners and farmers leads him to rescue an urchin girl –  an act which alters the course of his life. 

The Water Dancer

By ta-nehisi coates.

Book cover for The Water Dancer

This is the historical novel that Oprah Winfrey called, ‘One of the best books I have ever read in my entire life.’ Hiram Walker was born into slavery on a Virginia plantation, but one fateful decision will take him away from his plantation family and into the heart of the underground war on slavery. For Hiram is a man with a secret, a mysterious power he was gifted at birth. 


By c. j. sansom.

Book cover for Dissolution

This is the first book to feature Matthew Shardlake, Sansom’s insightful Tudor lawyer. Set in 1537 as Henry VIII becomes Supreme Head of the Church and the bloody dissolution of the monasteries is beginning, Shardlake investigates the shocking murder of one of Thomas Cromwell’s commissioners. But Shardlake's investigation soon forces him to question everything he hears, and everything that he intrinsically believes. Dissolution  is the first book in this bestselling phenomenon, where C. J. Sansom creates both a stunning portrait of Tudor England, and an unforgettable character in Matthew Shardlake. 

The Underground Railroad

By colson whitehead.

Book cover for The Underground Railroad

Winner of the 2017 Pulitzer Prize and also a major TV series, The Underground Railroad is Colson Whitehead's razor-sharp imagining of the antebellum South. Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. When Caesar, a slave recently arrived from Virginia, tells her about the Underground Railroad, they take the perilous decision to escape to the North. At each stop on her journey, Cora encounters a different world. Whitehead brilliantly recreates the unique terrors for black people in the pre-Civil War era, as his narrative seamlessly weaves the saga of America, from the brutal importation of Africans to the unfulfilled promises of the present day. 

by Ian McEwan

Book cover for Atonement

One of the Guardian's 100 best books of the 21st century, Atonement is a formidable modern classic. On the hottest day of the summer of 1935, thirteen-year-old Briony Tallis sees her sister Cecilia strip off her clothes and plunge into the fountain in the garden of their country house. Watching her too is Robbie Turner who, like Cecilia, has recently come down from Cambridge. By the end of that day, the lives of all three will have been changed for ever, as Briony commits a crime for which she will spend the rest of her life trying to atone. 

Things Fall Apart

By chinua achebe.

Book cover for Things Fall Apart

First published in 1958, Chinua Achebe's stark, coolly ironic novel reshaped both African and world literature. Okonkwo is the greatest wrestler and warrior alive, and his fame spreads throughout West Africa like a bush-fire in the harmattan. But when he accidentally kills a clansman, things begin to fall apart. Then Okonkwo returns from exile to find missionaries and colonial governors have arrived in the village. With his world thrown radically off-balance he can only hurtle towards tragedy.

One Hundred Years of Solitude

By gabriel garcia marquez.

Book cover for One Hundred Years of Solitude

Originally written in Spanish, One Hundred Years of Solitude weaves a mesmerizing tapestry of magical realism and generational storytelling. The novel is set in the fictional town of Macondo, where the Buendía family's triumphs and tribulations unfold across generations. As the Buendía family navigates love, war, and the passage of time, Márquez delves into the intricate web of human connections. With its vivid imagery and lyrical storytelling, One Hundred Years of Solitude is a timeless exploration of love, loss, and the inexorable march of time.

War and Peace

By leo tolstoy.

Book cover for War and Peace

War and Peace traverses the tumultuous landscape of early 19th-century Russia, interweaving the lives of a diverse cast against the backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars. The novel follows aristocratic families as they grapple with love, ambition, and existential questions during a time of immense societal upheaval. Pierre Bezukhov's quest for meaning, Prince Andrei Bolkonsky's search for purpose, and Natasha Rostova's journey of self-discovery are among the narrative threads that converge. The novel's canvas spans grand ballrooms, bloody battlefields, and intimate chambers, deftly blending historical events with profound philosophical musings. 

by Min Jin Lee

Book cover for Pachinko

Pachinko is a captivating multigenerational saga set against the backdrop of 20th-century Korea and Japan. The novel centers on Sunja, who, after becoming pregnant by a wealthy man, becomes determined to forge her own path. The story delves into the lives of Sunja's descendants as they grapple with discrimination, ambition, and the complex ties that bind a family together. Pachinko is a deeply moving journey through generations, inviting readers to witness the enduring power of love, the pursuit of belonging, and the indomitable human spirit that thrives even in the face of adversity.

by Hilary Mantel

Book cover for Wolf Hall

Set in 16th century England, Wolf Hall follows the rise of Thomas Cromwell, a shrewd and capable commoner, in the court of King Henry VIII. As Henry VIII seeks to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn, Cromwell becomes instrumental in navigating the complex political and religious landscape of the time. The book delves into the intricate power struggles, religious conflicts, and personal ambitions of the characters and provides a fresh perspective on the events leading to the English Reformation and the establishment of the Church of England. A Booker-prize-winning novel, this is an essential read for all fans of historical fiction. 

by Colm Tóibín

Book cover for Brooklyn

Set in the 1950s, Brooklyn traces Eilis Lacey's journey from a small Irish town to Brooklyn, New York. Eilis grapples with homesickness but gradually forges a life in America, working and falling in love. Unexpectedly, a family crisis summons her back to Ireland, where she becomes torn between her two worlds. The book delves into Eilis's inner conflict as she navigates questions of identity and belonging. The novel is a poignant exploration of personal growth and cultural displacement, showcasing the complexities of choosing between two lives.

For even more historical fiction recommendations, don't miss this episode of Book Break:

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The week’s bestselling books, Feb. 25

Southern California Bestsellers

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Hardcover fiction

1. The Women by Kristin Hannah (St. Martin’s Press: $30) An intimate portrait of coming of age in a dangerous time and an epic tale of a nation divided.

2. The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store by James McBride (Riverhead: $28) The discovery of a skeleton in Pottstown, Pa., opens out to a story of integration and community.

3. The Book of Love by Kelly Link (Random House: $31) Three teenagers become pawns in a supernatural power struggle in the author’s long-awaited debut novel.

4. North Woods by Daniel Mason (Random House: $28) A sweeping historical tale focused on a single house in the New England woods.

5. Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin (Knopf: $28) Lifelong BFFs collaborate on a wildly successful video game.

6. The Bee Sting by Paul Murray (Farrar, Straus & Giroux: $30) A family comes apart, financially and otherwise, in post-crash Ireland.

7. Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver (Harper: $32) The story of a boy born into poverty to a teenage single mother in Appalachia.

8. Martyr! by Kaveh Akbar (Knopf: $28) An orphaned son of Iranian immigrants embarks on a remarkable search for a family secret.

9. Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus (Doubleday: $29) In the 1960s, a female chemist goes on to be a single parent, then a celebrity chef.

10. Tom Lake by Ann Patchett (Harper: $30) At a Michigan orchard, a woman tells her three daughters about a long-ago romance.

Hardcover nonfiction

1. The Creative Act by Rick Rubin (Penguin: $32) The music producer’s guidance on how to be a creative person.

2. The Wager by David Grann (Doubleday: $30) The story of the shipwreck of an 18th century British warship and a mutiny among the survivors.

3. How to Know a Person by David Brooks (Random House: $30) The New York Times columnist explores the power of seeing and being seen.

4. Hits, Flops, and Other Illusions by Ed Zwick (Gallery Books: $29) The filmmaker’s dishy, behind-the-scenes look at working with some of the biggest names in Hollywood.

5. A Murder in Hollywood by Casey Sherman (Sourcebooks: $27.99) The story of Lana Turner and her daughter, who finally stood up to the abuse that plagued their family for years.

6. Atomic Habits by James Clear (Avery: $27) The self-help expert’s guide to building good habits and breaking bad ones via tiny changes in behavior.

7. Alphabetical Diaries by Sheila Heti (Farrar, Straus & Giroux: $27) A record of the author’s thoughts across 10 years, rearranged into sentences from A to Z.

8. Prequel by Rachel Maddow (Crown: $32) The MSNBC anchor chronicles the fight against a pro-Nazi American group during World War II.

9. Democracy Awakening by Heather Cox Richardson (Viking: $30) A people’s history of the rise of U.S. authoritarianism and its resisters.

10. The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse by Charlie Mackesy (HarperOne: $23) A modern fable explores life’s universal lessons through four archetypes.

Paperback fiction

1. A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J. Maas (Bloomsbury: $19)

2. Trust by Hernan Diaz (Riverhead: $17)

3. Bride by Ali Hazelwood (Berkley: $19)

4. Horse by Geraldine Brooks (Viking: $28)

5. A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara (Anchor: $18)

6. The Midnight Library by Matt Haig (Penguin: $18)

7. Normal People by Sally Rooney (Crown: $17)

8. Love Poems by Pablo Neruda (New Directions: $12)

9. Big Swiss by Jen Beagin (Scribner: $17)

10. Pedro Páramo by Juan Rulfo (Grove Press: $17)

Paperback nonfiction

1. All About Love by bell hooks (Morrow: $17)

2. The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine by Rashid Khalidi (Picador: $20)

3. The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron (TarcherPerigee: $19)

4. Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann (Vintage: $18)

5. Caste by Isabel Wilkerson (Random House: $20)

6. The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk, M.D. (Penguin: $19)

7. How to Love by Thich Nhat Hanh, Jason DeAntonis (Illus.) (Parallax Press: $10)

8. The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz (Amber-Allen: $13)

9. Meditations by Marcus Aurelius (Modern Library: $11)

10. Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner (Vintage: $17)

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25 Best Historical Fiction Books to Take You Back in Time

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Barbara Kingsolver The Poisonwood Bible

The Poisonwood Bible

Evangelical Baptist Nathan Price moves his wife, four daughters and all the contents of their household to the Congo in 1959, during a calamitous fight for independence from Belgium. The historic turmoil sets the backdrop for a powerful story of a family struggling to survive across three decades in a tale that feels both epic and familiar. 

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Colson Whitehead The Underground Railroad

The Underground Railroad

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award and all of our hearts, this gripping novel chronicles a young enslaved woman's struggle toward freedom. In Colson's telling, the underground railroad is no metaphor, but an actual railroad that Cora has to travel through space, time and the horrors of the antebellum South. 

Sue Monk Kidd The Book of Longings

The Book of Longings

Ana, the daughter of a wealthy Galilee man and sister to a man named Judas, has always been ambitious and creative. So when she's promised to an older widower, she can't stand the thought. She meets a young Jesus and the two flee to his mother Mary's house in Nazareth. What follows is a reverential tale of a woman who survives against the odds, introducing us to a different side of a very familiar cast of characters. 

Vaddey Ratner In the Shadow of the Banyan

In the Shadow of the Banyan

The story of a girl who comes of age during the Cambodian genocide, this is tale of hope and perseverance amid staggering loss. As the Khmer Rouge brutalizes the populace and her world is thrown into turmoil, seven-year-old Raami finds solace in the folk stories her father taught her even as her world is enveloped in horror. 

Ian McEwan Atonement


When 13-year-old Brionny witnesses a flirtation between her sister Cecilia and her childhood best friend and Robbie, she doesn't fully understand what she's seen. And as a result, she sets in motion a devastating crime that reverberates through all of their lives. Set before, during, and after WWII, it's a meditation on family, class, love and jealousy that's masterfully timeless. 

Tracy Chevalier Girl with a Pearl Earring

Girl with a Pearl Earring

Even if you haven't read the book, you probably know the Vermeer painting. This classic takes readers inside the relationship between the Dutch painter and anonymous girl who was his muse in a stirring portrait of a bygone era. 

C Pam Zhang How Much of These Hills Is Gold

How Much of These Hills Is Gold

When their father dies unexpectedly, siblings Lucy and Sam are left orphaned in their dicey Gold Rush-era mining town. They steal a horse, grab the body, and take off on a journey to find a safe place to lay him – and their own pasts – to rest. This gorgeous novel marries Chinese symbolism with a uniquely American sensibility and the timeless force of familial love. 

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Umberto Eco The Name of the Rose

The Name of the Rose

A highly secretive monastery in the year 1327. Suspected heresy within the Italian elites. Seven mysterious deaths and a monk-turned-detective following symbolic clues that become increasingly sinister the more he learns. This is part historical fiction, part delicious mystery and totally absorbing.  

Louise Erdrich The Night Watchman

The Night Watchman

It's 1953 and Thomas Wazhashk works as a night watchman at a jewel factory near the Turtle Mountain Reservation. Patrice works there too, saving up to follow her sister Vera off the reservation to the big city, but she gets more than she bargained for when she travels to find her. All the while, there's a bill working its way through Congress that threatens the Chippewa's rights to their land, as well as the very identity of this memorable cast of people. 

Chinua Achebe Things Fall Apart

Things Fall Apart

Told through the voice of an Igbo warrior in the late 1800s, this first in a series of three explores his community's resistance to British colonialism and the European presence on the continent as a whole. It vividly captures life in a pre-colonial African village, as well as takes a hard look at the tragedy of what is lost under imperialism.

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Isabel Allende A Long Petal of the Sea

A Long Petal of the Sea

With Spain in the throes of civil war, two refugees embark for Chile on a ship chartered by the poet Pablo Neruda to start a new life in exile. A story of hope, of finding love amidst horrible circumstances and the promise of home, this one is poetically beautiful. 

Viet Thanh Nguyen The Sympathizer

The Sympathizer

Part spy novel, part page-turning historical fiction, this Pulitzer Prize-winner follows a man who comes to Los Angeles after the Fall of Saigon to build a new life among other Vietnamese immigrants. But the former army captain is secretly a communist double-agent. 

Kate Quinn The Rose Code

The Rose Code

Three very different women arrive to work as code breakers at Bletchley Park, untangling German messages to help Britain fight the Nazis. But as the war grinds on, their bond frays with it. Years later, the friends-turned-enemies are reunited by an encrypted letter, a mysterious traitor and the thrilling, dangerous work of breaking one last code. 

Carol Edgarian Vera


Vera Johnson has grown up between two worlds: The corrupt glamour of her bordello-owner mother and the squalor and danger of the family paid to raise Vera in her stead. But after the great earthquake of 1906 levels San Francisco, Vera has to assemble some unlikely allies to build a new kind of life from the rubble. 

Min Jin Lee Pachinko


This sweeping epic that spans four generations of a Korean immigrant family starts with a pregnant teenage Sunja making the difficult choice to reject her son's powerful but duplicitous father in favor of a sickly but kind minister. Her decision ripples through the ages in this stunning story of sacrifice, loyalty and ambition.

Jillian Cantor Half Life

Half Life

In a time when many of us are more tuned in to scientific advances than we've ever been before, this reimagining of what might happen if pioneering scientist Marie Curie had taken a different path is just what the doctor ordered. In parallel timelines, the book explores Curie's actual path and an alternate lifetime, as well as its consequences for the world. 

Gabriel Garcia Marquez One Hundred Years of Solitude

One Hundred Years of Solitude

Winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, this expansive work follows the rise and fall of the fictional Macondo. Alive with vibrant characters, the tragedies and triumphs of human life and everything that comes with it, this is a must-read. 

Kristin Hannah The Four Winds

The Four Winds

Eerily resonant during the COVID-19 pandemic, this story set during the Great Depression is a testament to women's resilience. Elsa marries a man she barely knows to escape a spinster's uncertain future. But when drought devastates the Great Plains, she has to make difficult choices not only in the face of a rocky marriage, but the threat to her family's very survival. 

Linda Rui Feng Swimming Back to Trout River

Swimming Back to Trout River

During the tumultuous years of China's Cultural Revolution, 10-year-old Junie receives a letter from her parents in the United States promising to come retrieve her before her 12th birthday, but Junie doesn't want to leave her grandparents or the Chinese countryside. Her reluctance could derail her parents' plan, especially since long-buried family secrets and their individual struggles have already driven them apart.

Toni Morrison Beloved


Sethe was born an enslaved person and escaped to Ohio, but she's still haunted by the hideous things that happened on the farm that she left. Not to mention the ghost of the baby who died there, whose grave is marked with one word: Beloved. 

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60 Best Historical Fiction Novels of All Time

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Blog – Posted on Friday, Jul 17

60 best historical fiction novels of all time.

60 Best Historical Fiction Novels of All Time

Is time travel impossible? For theoretical physicists, the jury’s still out, but book lovers can answer with a resounding “no”. Whether you’re keen to visit biblical Judaea or feel like living through the chaos of World War II, historical fiction can make you feel immersed in the colors and textures of the distant — or recent — past. If you’re feeling just a little sick of the present, look no further: here are the 60 best historical fiction novels to bring you back in time.

If you're feeling overwhelmed by the number of great historical fiction novels out there, you can also take our 30-second quiz below to narrow it down quickly and get a personalized historical fiction recommendation  😉

Which historical fiction book should you read next?

Discover the perfect historical fiction book for you. Takes 30 seconds!

Ancient History

1. the red tent by anita diamant.

The Red Tent is narrated by Dinah, the daughter of Jacob — the patriarch of the Israelites in the Old Testament. While not prominently featured in the Bible, Dinah is given the spotlight in this novel: she gets to speak about her experience as a woman in the early days of humanity.

When they menstruate, the women in Dinah’s family stay in a red tent together, where  they discuss all sorts of local events. Diamant admits that there is no concrete evidence for this practice in ancient Israel, but it was common across many early civilizations. Her novel brings biblical history to life, and more importantly, gives voice to a crucial half of the human population, a group too often disregarded. 

2. Lavinia by Ursula K. Le Guin

Ursula K. Le Guin is best known for her pioneering work in fantasy, but Lavinia proves she’s a master of historical fiction too. In this gorgeous retelling of the Trojan War and Rome’s subsequent founding, Le Guin draws on Virgil’s Aeneid to tell a moving, feminist story of war, family, and political destiny.

In the Aeneid , Lavinia is a silent figure, more chess piece than character — a princess fated to marry the hero Aeneas and stand by his side as he forges an empire. Le Guin, however, invests her with a rich inner life and a canny awareness of the tricks played by historical memory. In the book that bears her name, Lavinia converses with the shade of Virgil himself, wresting the narrative out of his control to rewrite it herself.

3. I, Claudius by Robert Graves

When you hear about Roman emperors, you typically think of Augustus or Nero — few actually remember Claudius. But if you are well-versed in Roman history , you probably remember Claudius as a physically weak, stuttering historian, an unlikely candidate for the position of Emperor. Yet the novel I, Claudius makes the case for his subdued existence being the driving force behind his ascension.

A fictionalized autobiography of Claudius, this pioneering piece of historical fiction offers his own documentation of his family and the political intrigue that happens within it. Through detailed observations recited in an incredibly orderly fashion, Claudius, the disdainful scholar, transports you into his mind and to the center of elite life in ancient Rome.

4. The Book of Longings by Sue Monk Kidd

At once painstakingly researched and painfully human, The Book of Longings tackles a provocative subject with a sensitive, lyrical touch: the hypothetical marriage of Jesus Christ. But you don’t have to be a regular Gospel reader to appreciate this touching, feminist-inflected story.

Born to a well-heeled family in first-century Galilee, Ana is brilliant — and bored. She’s expected to be silent and yielding, but she spends her hours writing in secret, longing for something to do with all her unappreciated talent. That’s when she meets Jesus, an eighteen-year-old with big ideas. The young rabbi with the revolutionary spirit shakes up Ana’s staid world for good — and steals her heart in the process.

5. The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffmann

In 73 CE, a Roman legion laid siege to the mountain fortress of Masada, where a group of Jewish rebels had taken shelter. Completely entrapped, with the Roman battering ram closing in, the rebels chose to die instead of submitting. To avoid breaking the religious taboo against suicide, they drew lots and killed one another. Still, two women and five children survived the tragedy by hiding inside a cistern.

The siege of Masada, recorded by the Jewish historian Josephus, forms the backdrop for The Dovekeepers , which fills in the gaps left by Josephus’ account. Alice Hoffman breathes life into the women of Masada, who support the mountainside community by raising doves.

Medieval History

6. the winter king by bernard cornwell.

Historical fiction writer Bernard Cornwell has built a career off vivid, richly detailed reimaginings of the English past. In The Winter King and its sequels, Cornwell centers his narrative on the most iconic Brit of all: King Arthur. But his grounded take on the legend removes the magic — without making Arthur’s story any less interesting.

Cornwell’s Arthur isn’t a fantasy protagonist , a Chosen One shielded by powerful enchantments. He’s just a warlord, forced to protect a kingdom gone to chaos. The illegitimate son of High King Uther Pendragon, Arthur is a prince without a title. But now his father is dead, and the new ruler, the infant Mordred, is too young to hold the kingdom together. With the Saxons poised to attack, can Arthur save his homeland from ruin?

7. The Pillars of the Eart h by Ken Follett

When Ken Follett took a sharp turn from suspenseful spy novels to historical fiction, readers didn’t know what to expect. Little did they know that this twelfth-century adventure featuring a down-to-earth mason, an outlawed witch, and a warm-hearted priest would become one of Follett’s bestselling novels. 

The Pillars of the Earth opens with said mason — Tom Builder — searching for a job to sustain his family only to fall in love with the outlawed witch. Eventually, Tom is employed by the priest to build a cathedral, but all doesn’t go smoothly, thanks to a villainous earl and archdeacon who fear they’ll lose their clout if said cathedral gets built. From impressive word-pictures of majestic architecture to dramatic sieges, this novel gives you everything you need to feel like you’ve travelled to medieval England.

8. The Wreath by Sigrid Undset

As far as Nobel laureates in literature go, Sigrid Undset has slightly less name recognition than Bob Dylan. After all, no one can reflexively sing out lines from Kristin Lavransdatter , the historical fiction trilogy that netted her the book world’s biggest lifetime achievement award. Still, this masterful exploration of life in 14th-century Norway deserves a place on your bookshelf. Though the first installment, The Wreath , was published in 1920, it makes for a spellbinding read even today. Sexy, yet exhaustively researched, it’s sure to change your view of the Middle Ages.

The child of a wealthy landowner, Kristin Lavransdatter (the surname literally translates to “Lavran’s daughter”) grows up happily enough, taking solace in the Catholic faith she learned from her mother. But when she survives a rape attempt, she’s sent of to faraway Oslo, to live in a Benedictine convent. There, Kristin falls in love with a man who was excommunicated for raising children with someone else’s wife. As her exposure to the wider world challenges her faith, how will her conservative family respond?

9. The Name of the Ros e by Umberto Eco

Imagine a Dan Brown novel — an action-packed race to solve a serial murder mystery that can only be unraveled by decoding ancient manuscripts and artistic clues. The Name of the Rose is all that, but it’s set in a prestigious monastery in 14th-century Italy. A young monk by the name of William arrives at this monastery right as the killings begin, and he is asked to take on the task of uncovering the truth behind them. As William dives deeper into the clues embedded in the texts and the architecture of the grounds, the other monks become embroiled in a battle of accusations. 

Drawing from his well of knowledge on semiotics and ancient literature, Umberto Eco crafted a complex and enticing novel that’s difficult to put down. Though it’s his debut novel, The Name of the Rose is one of the best-selling books ever published.

Renaissance and Early Modern Europe

10. wolf hall by hilary mantel.

Perhaps it’s because we grow up with stories of castles and kings, but historical fiction tends to be most exciting when it features Tudor England. Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall will take us through the most scandalous years of the dynasty —  the reign of Henry VIII, the English king who broke away from the Catholic Church in order to marry a new wife (the first among many). Thomas Cromwell was the man who made this unorthodox move possible, and who rose to power because of it. This story follows his ascension to the top. 

Well-researched and  ingeniously written in modern English and the present tense, Wolf Hall pulls readers into the elite world of 1500s England almost instantly. But be prepared before diving into this one — you’ll probably want to jump to the next volume in Mantel’s trilogy the moment you finish this first installment. 

11. The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory

In Wolf Hall , you get to see the scandalous marital life of King Henry VIII through the eyes of his trusted lawyer; in The Other Boleyn Girl , you’ll get to watch how the story unravels from the perspective of Anne Boleyn’s sister, Mary. After he gets his marriage to Catherine of Aragon annulled, Henry VIII marries Anne — although rumor has it that he previously had his eyes on Mary.

While the facts are unclear, Philippa Gregory’s dramatic novel picks up on traces of what might have happened and presents a breathtaking picture of the intrigue and betrayal at works behind these supposed affairs. If you enjoy A Song of Ice and Fire and are (still) waiting for the next book, The Other Boleyn Girl might be a good stand-in. In any case, you’ll get to immerse yourself in the almost -magical world of castles and knights in Tudor England.

12. As Meat Loves Salt by Maria McCann

The English Revolution has never been quite so sexy. In As Meat Loves Salt , the hot-tempered Jacob Cullen joins his friend Christopher Ferris in the army, fleeing a troubled marriage — and a potential murder charge. But there’s something more between them than comradely affection, and 17th-century England isn’t the safest place for two men in love.

As rich in historical detail as it is steeped in sensuality, this moody historical romance doesn’t shy away from depicting the horrors of war. Be forewarned: Jacob, with his violent rages and checkered past, isn’t the cuddliest of protagonists. His brooding, anti-heroic bent lands this book firmly in grimdark territory.

13. Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier

Even if you’re not an art history buff, you’ve probably seen Dutch master Johannes Vermeer’s most famous painting. Next to the Mona Lisa, the so-called Girl with a Pearl Earring just might be the Western world’s most famous two-dimensional lady. She’s been enchanting viewers with her wistful gaze (and tasteful accessorizing) since the 17th century, but no one knows much about her — not even her name.

In Girl with a Pearl Earring , Tracy Chevalier fills in the gaps, giving Vermeer’s anonymous model a rich inner life. Sixteen-year-old Griet joins the Vermeer household as a maid. Soon enough, the great painter himself takes notice of her sharp eye and artistic temperament. But, as Griet comes to find, life as a muse comes with its share of unexpected dangers.

14. Abundance by Sena Jeter Naslund

First of all, let’s get one thing straight: she probably didn’t tell them to eat cake. Since the revolutionaries led her to the guillotine in 1793, Marie Antoinette has suffered something of a bad rap. The silly queen, with her wigs skimming the chandeliers and her panniers stretching from wall to wall, was held to represent the worst of the ancien régime . 

In Abundance , however, Sena Jeter Naslund shows us the woman underneath all that silk and powder. Only fourteen when she leaves Austria, Maria Antonia — as she was born — crosses the threshold into her new homeland naked and alone. Forced to shed her Austrian clothing and her Austrian name to be remade as a princess of France, Marie must find her place in a cold and isolating court.

15. A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

First published chapter by chapter in Dickens’s literary periodical, A Tale of Two Cities is set during the French Revolution. It follows the various people in Lucie Manette’s life: her previously imprisoned revolutionary father, her exiled aristocratic suitor, Charles Darnay, and his romantic rival , Sydney Carton — a smart but failing English lawyer.

The mid to late nineteenth century was a chaotic time for Europe, as modernization heightened  the ugly disparity between the rich and the poor across the nations. Darnay’s disavowal of his family and Carton’s determination to address injustices emerge as heroic acts that only highlight the horrific inequality of the time.

16. Outlander by Diana Gabaldon

Interested in the nationalistic history of Scotland? You can live it all via Outlander . Tag along with English nurse Claire Randall as she gets lost in time while exploring the wilderness of the Scottish Highlands on her second honeymoon. Starting out in 1946, she is transported back to 1743, right as the tension between Scotland and England is mounting. Finding a way home takes the backseat as she finds herself having to seek help from either a brutal and domineering English captain or a sceptical but good-natured Scottish clansman in order to survive. As she becomes embroiled in a conflict that she’s only ever heard about in her 20th-century life, Claire begins to find a place for herself in this unfamiliar setting. 

Outlander is the first instalment of Diana Gabaldon’s eight-book series of the same name, which is considered one of the most successful series ever written.

17. Perfume by Patrick Suskind

Cinephiles and scent enthusiasts probably know Perfume : the film version of this 18th-century crime thriller won accolades for its luxuriant cinematography. However, critics complained, about the screenplay. That’s where Patrick Suskind’s original novel comes in: its lush, potent storytelling is as intoxicating as a bottle of the finest scent.

Jean-Baptiste Grenouille’s mother is executed almost as soon as he’s born, leaving him to fend for himself on the Parisian streets. Fortunately, he wields an unusual superpower: a perfect sense of smell. Soon, his talent catches the attention of a top perfumer, who takes him on as an apprentice. But as he masters the techniques for crafting perfume, Grenouille becomes haunted by the most alluring fragrance of all — the scent of a beautiful virgin, that can only be captured in death.

Global Early Modern

18. silence by shusaku endo.

In 1637, a group of masterless samurai took up arms against the Tokugawa shogunate, aided by the mostly Catholic peasantry who farmed tJapan’s Shimabara Peninsula. The shogun cracked down hard on the rebels, leaving more than 27,000 dead. In the aftermath, Japan’s Catholics went underground, worshipping their God in secret.

The submerged history of the Kakure Kirishitan, or “hidden Christians,” forms the backdrop to Shusaku Endo’s Silence . The Portuguese Jesuit Sebastião Rodrigues arrives in Japan looking for a senior colleague who’s rumored to have turned his back on the church. He’s greeted by an atmosphere of dread: Tokugawa officials, determined to enforce a state ban on Christianity, roam the countryside looking for followers of the forbidden religion.

19. The Twentieth Wife by Indu Sundaresan

Born to a Persian family robbed of their fortunes en route to India, Mehrunissa — the titular twentieth wife of Prince Salim of the Mughal empire — experiences a true rags-to-riches life.

Indu Sundaresan’s debut novel retells the story of how this determined young woman meets the prince, charms him with her intelligence, and eventually becomes his last wife, even though convention forbade it (Mehrunissa was a widow when she married the then emperor). Through harems and political battles, their love for one another shines through, as does Mehrunissa's undying desire to realize her vision of a better life for herself as well as her people.

20. Alex and Eliza by Melissa De La Cruz

Like so many other history buffs, YA author Melissa De La Cruz is a Hamilton fan. In fact, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hip-hop-inflected, Tony Award-winning take on the “ten-dollar founding father” inspired Alex and Eliza . This soft, swoonworthy romance recounts the courtship of Hamilton, then an up-and-coming colonel, and Elizabeth Schuyler, the practical, socially conscious middle daughter of a wealthy New York magnate.

Like her musical inspiration, De La Cruz sometimes plays fast and loose with the facts in the service of telling a good story. But the romance at its center — not to mention the sisterly banter between the Schuyler girls — makes this an utterly charming read.

21. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See

If you’re a fan of late imperial Chinese history, you should definitely give Snow Flower and the Secret Fan a read. Set in the final decades of the last dynasty in China, the story follows two women, Lily and Snow Flower, who accompany one another through various rites of passage. As they suffer and grow together —  exchanging letters and poetry when they’re not face to face — both come to terms with the societal expectations restricting them as women. 

Elegantly written, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan brings its readers back in time and presents to them a realistic image of what it was like to be a woman in late imperial China. It’s brilliance lies in its account of women’s ingenuity and the agency they seize despite the limitations imposed on them.

22. Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

Homegoing can be described as an interlinked series of short stories following the lives and descendants of two Ghanaian sisters. One got married off to a slave trader, and the other got traded to America. The chapters alternate between them, switching back and forth between Africa and America and illustrating the lives of Black people through slavery and colonialism, civil rights movements and nationalist uprisings.

The chapters don’t give readers the complete knowledge of each generation’s experience, but they do offer an emotional and comprehensive picture of the African diaspora, unpacking historical circumstances that continue to affect millions of people today.

19th Century

23. war and peace by leo tolstoy.

You’ve very likely heard of this historical epic  — Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace is a pillar of classic literature that’s known and studied all across the world. Set in a Tsarist Russia under attack by Napoleon and his mighty army, the book follows a cast of characters from all walks of life. There’s Pierre Bezukhov, the bastard son of a famous count, who struggling to understand his position in society; Natasha Rostova, the romantic and vivacious countess who lives in the moment; and Andrei Bolkonsky, the high-born prince who rejects the safety provided by his status to join the war effort against the French.

No one is spared from the suffering caused by a war that’s focused on protecting the empire and not its people — a poignant reflection that comes through thanks to Tolstoy’s thorough research of the period. This colossal masterpiece is no easy read, but it’s a gem that history buffs should not skip over.

24. How Much of These Hills Is Gold by C. Pam Zhang

This Gwyneth Paltrow-approved Goop pick shines a light on the Chinese immigrants who found their way to California in the 1840s, drawn by the promise of gold. Lucy and Sam are the children of one such prospector. But when their father dies suddenly one night, they’re left alone, in a ramshackle mining town where their very existence makes them unsafe.

How Much of These Hills Is Gold centers on Sam and Lucy’s quest to give their father a proper burial. This isn’t an easy book to read: after all, we’re tracking two children, neither of them into their teens, as they drag a corpse around a desert landscape teeming with threats. But thanks to C. Pam Zhang’s lovely narrative style, this novel rewards as much as it devastates.

25. Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood

It’s 1843 in Canada, and Grace Marks has been convicted of murdering her employer, even though she has no memory of the event. She’s sentenced to lifelong imprisonment, although a young doctor, Simon Jordan, proposes that he study her psyche and memory some more to uncover the mystery behind her apparent amnesia. 

Alias Grace is a historical fiction novel for lovers of psychological thriller . The fact that it’s based on a true event and set in the grimy early modern era only enhances the mysterious mood of this suspenseful novel.

26. The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

This sprawling 800-pager made 28-year-old Eleanor Catton the youngest-ever winner of the prestigious Booker Prize. Remarkable for its intricate plot as well as its prodigious length, The Luminaries takes inspiration from an unlikely pair of sources: the New Zealand gold rush of the 1860s and the zodiac. 

A Scottish lawyer driven by dreams of gold, Walter Moody is ready to make his fortune from the mines of Hokitika. But then he stumbles into a strange meeting in a hotel lobby. From Maori hunter to Danish merchant, Chinese goldsmith to French clerk, twelve odd odd bedfellows have gathered to discuss a mysterious death. Each member of Catton’s fascinating ensemble cast corresponds to a zodiac sign or an astronomical body. Watching their paths converge and diverge in enigmatic patterns makes this book’s central mystery all the more enthralling.

27. The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

You might say The Underground Railroad was the book of 2016. A cerebral, sardonic alternate history — with an emphasis on the “history” — it swept the full slate of literary prizes, from the National Book Award to the Pulitzer. The celebrated Black author Colson Whitehead, famed for the irony lacing his prose, tackles slavery with his trademark ingenuity and wit. The result is an unsentimental, yet deeply affecting, look at a violent and far-reaching institution.

Cora, a slave on a Georgia plantation, gets the chance to escape when new arrival Caesar tells her about the Underground Railroad. Faced with the prospect of freedom, Cora feels torn — her own mother fled the plantation some time ago, leaving her to suffer alone. Still, she and Caesar ultimately decide to take flight. Together, they must make their way to the Underground Railroad which, in Whitehead’s reimagining, becomes a literal railroad, complete with conductors, tunnels, and tracks.

28. The Twelve Rooms of the Nile by Enid Shomer

She invented a discipline that changed medicine forever. He wrote one of the finest novels in  history. And now, the Fates have brought them to the same place, at the same time. This might sound like the premise of a charmingly kooky romance between made-up characters, but it actually describes two real-life historical icons: Florence Nightingale, the mother of modern nursing, and Gustave Flaubert, the author of Madame Bovary . For a while, in 1850, both happened to be sailing up the Nile.

In reality, Nightingale and Flaubert didn’t seem to have bumped into each other at all on their Egyptian treks. But The Twelve Rooms of the Nile envisages what might have happened if they had. In Shomer’s dazzling imagination, no-nonsense Florence and hedonistic, womanizing Gustave strike up the unlikeliest of friendships.

29. Measuring the World by Daniel Kehlmann

The science of measurement might not sound like the most exciting subject for a work of historical fiction, but Austrian author Daniel Kehlmann pulls it off with wit and aplomb. In Measuring the World , two German geniuses, intoxicated by the promise of the Enlightenment, set out to change the world by, well, measuring it.

In 1828, at a convention for scientists, Alexander von Humboldt meets Carl Friedrich Gauss. Humbolt, a polymathic adventurer from a family of landed gentry, has already plumbed the depths of South America. The homebody Gauss, meanwhile, is rapidly developing a reputation as a once-in-a-century mathematical mind — he can map the world through number theory without leaving his home. Kehlmann’s account of their meeting is cerebral, fast-paced, and gently funny,

30. The Marriage of Opposites by Alice Hoffmann

From the author of The Dovekeepers comes this story of transcendent beauty and forbidden love in 19th-century Paris. Camille Pissarro, the father of French Impressionism, produced a new way of looking at the world: a light-drenched, expressive style that makes staid scenes look alive with movement. The Marriage of Opposites , however, takes a look at the extraordinary relationship that produced him — a love affair that changed the shape of art.

Rachel, then a spirited French-Jewish girl and not yet Pissarro’s mother, is married off to an aging widower in a last-ditch effort to save her family’s business. But then her husband dies, and she finds herself in the unexpected — an inexorably charming — company of his nephew, a young man seven years her junior.

31. The Master by Colm Tóibín

A master of Gothic literature , the English novelist Henry James made an indelible impression with the haunting characters in his fiction, from the sinister twins in The Turn of the Screw to the high-spirited socialite in The Portrait of a Lady . In The Master , however, James himself becomes a character. Colm Tóibín’s subtle, psychologically incisive novel excavates the great novelist’s inner life — and casts his extraordinary output in a new light. 

It takes guts to ventriloquize one of the greatest writers in Anglophone history, but Tóibín pulls it off with an exacting thoughtfulness: his James emerges on the page as both a literary giant and a flawed, vulnerable human being.

32. Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

Lincoln in the Bardo might be George Saunders’s first novel, but he had a long and vibrant writing career before it ever went to press: he racked up National Magazine awards for his short fiction and was even named a MacArthur genius. In this Booker Prize-winning tour de force, you see the luminous style and emotional sensitivity that made him such a compelling voice in short fiction.

The Civil War is already raging when President Lincoln’s son dies. Only eleven years old, Willie Lincoln finds himself in the “bardo,” the Tibetan word for the liminal space between this life and the next. There, the ghosts of men and children swirl around him— some of them cut down by the war that will consume his father’s presidency.

33. Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell

This classic needs no introduction, but we’ll give you a brief synopsis anyway. Scarlett O’Hara, daughter to a wealthy plantation-owning couple in 19th-century Georgia, USA, is raised in luxury, but she finds herself in hardship as an adult. Widowed at a young age, she raises her child as a single parent while the American Civil War wages. As she struggles for survival in a land ravaged by warfare, disease, and famine, she continuously encounters Rhett Butler — a pompous opportunist with whom she maintains a love-hate relationship. 

While some are tempted to call Gone With the Wind a romance, Margaret Mitchell’s only published work has long been considered a historical masterpiece — though its regressive, period-appropriate view of race can be painful to read today. Spanning the whole war, this epic takes you through the horrors that armed conflicts inflict upon civilians. And while it focuses only on the perspective of slaveholders, it provides a vivid insight into a defining moment in American history.

34. Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier

Going back to the period of the American Civil War, we meet W. P. Inman and Ada Monroe in Cold Mountain . Inman is a soldier with no interest in the war, and he’s now deserting to return to his lover, whom he hopes remains in their hometown of Cold Mountain, North Carolina. Meanwhile, Ada, said lover, has been struggling to survive in an economy broken by war, on a patch of land left to her by a wealthy father. Circumstances forced her to travel to find work, not knowing whether Inman was alive.

From the battlefield to the home front, Cold Mountain covers the many facets of the Civil War. Throughout it all, the loyal love of the two protagonists for one another acts as a guiding light.

35. March by Geraldine Brooks

Little Women might be one of the best children’s books of all time , but its nuanced take on war, family, and sacrifice make it an absorbing read for grown-ups too. If you want to immerse yourself in the classic’s more mature themes, head on over to Geraldine Brooks’s March . Experience this well-loved story from the perspective of the absent March father, whose “little women” hold down the fort at home while he’s off on the front lines of the Civil War.

A staunch abolitionist with an unshakable religious faith, Mr. March feels compelled by his conscience to serve the Union Army as a chaplain. As the soldiers under his care clash with the Confederate troops, he writes letters back home that conceal the true depth of the suffering all around him.

Early 20th Century

36. arthur and george by julian barnes.

The titular Arthur is the famous creator of Sherlock Holmes , Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, while George is George Edalji, a half-Indian lawyer falsely imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit. The two knew each other as children but fell out of touch as adults — that is until George faces carceral injustice. In his time of need, Arthur comes to his aid. Using his skills as the crafter of ingenious detective stories, Arthur tries to find the true culprit and get his friend acquitted.

While the author warns that this account of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s life should not be taken as factual, plenty of research went into the  well-crafted Victorian world of Arthur and George .

37. Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

If you think that racial and ethnic discrimination exists only in terms of skin color, read Pachinko to learn how incomplete that perception is. The story starts in the early 1900s with Sunja, a young Korean farmer’s daughter, who is courted by the wealthy fisherman, Hansu. By the time she learns that he’s married to someone else, she’s already carrying his child. But instead of becoming his second wife, Sunja chooses to marry an ailing minister and follow him to Japan. There is where the trouble begins, as Sunja and her children face discrimination by the Japanese for being Korean. The Korean descendants go on to work all kinds of odd jobs, from kimchi-making to running Pachinko parlors — popular arcades which can also function as casinos — to survive the highly competitive environment of Japan. 

Pachinko is as riveting as it is eye-opening. It’s a must-read for historical fiction fans who want to broaden their understanding about ethnic diversity and international migration.

38. The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

Considered one of the best books of all time, The Remains of the Day is a dazzling account of the life of Stevens, an English butler working in the early 20th century. Stevens visits an old colleague in 1956 and is reminded of his time serving with her in a nobleman’s mansion. For thirty years, he worked for Lord Darlington, devoting himself loyally to the lord, his exploits, and his reputation — as was his duty. And yet, all wasn’t as perfect as it seemed, and now, as butler to a new gentleman, Stevens finds himself questioning his purpose.

British aristocracy never fails to intrigue, and it’s even more fascinating to watch as their way of life slowly crumbles. The Remains of the Day satisfies our curiosity by letting us into the minds of thoughtful characters who are learning to let go of a receding era.

39. Fingersmith by Sarah Waters

If you’ve encountered Fingersmith , it’s probably through The Handmaiden , the sensual, darkly funny South Korean film that reimagines Sarah Waters’ crime story in Japanese-occupied Korea. The original novel moves through the same narrative beats: two women running elaborate cons on each other end up falling in love and teaming up against other grifters. But unlike the movie, Waters’s book is set in Victorian Britain.

Sue Trinder, an orphan, was raised among thieves. Maud Lilly — also an orphan — was taken in by her wealthy uncle, an amateur scholar who forces her to assist him on a mysterious bibliographical project. The two meet thanks to a conman known as Gentleman, who hatches a scheme to seduce Maud for her considerable inheritance — with Sue’s help. His scheme hits a roadblock when the two women realize exactly how much they have in common.

40. The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka

In The Buddha in the Attic , Japanese-American author Julie Otsuka tackles the phenomenon of “picture brides,” young women who immigrated from Japan to California to marry men they knew only from photographs. Spare and evocative in its prose, this National Book Award winner features a startlingly unusual narrative choice: it’s told entirely in the first person plural. The resulting text reads like a poem backed by the rigor of historical research, at once lyrical and incisive.

This hauntingly poetic book resists summarization. Instead of plot points, Otsuka fashions moods — starting with the picture brides’ trepidation as they prepare to meet their fates, battling homesickness as well as seasickness on the long journey across the Pacific.

41. A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

If you’re looking for a historical novel to move you to tears, A Gentleman in Moscow is the one for you. Famously recommended by Bill Gates , this elegantly written novel follows Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, a good-natured gentleman whose birth status makes him a target of the new regime installed in 1922. He’s moved to the luxury Metropol Hotel opposite the Kremlin, where he watches as his whole  way of life crumbles under the pressure of the Bolshevik Revolution. 

A Gentleman in Moscow is a story about a revolutionary era that defined international history for decades to come, but it’s also a timeless tale of a man searching for meaning in an ever-changing world.

42. The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

The Historian combines a lot of narrative threads: it’s an epistolary novel detailing the Gothic mysteries surrounding the myth of Dracula and the history of Vlad the Impaler. The story features three generations of researchers — the unnamed narrator, her father Paul, and his mentor, Professor Bartholomew Rossi — who documented their journeys through Eastern Europe in search of the truth behind vampire legends.

From secret codes in medieval texts to hidden tombs, expect to be sucked into a spine-tingling adventure in which the line between myth and history blurs.

World War II

43. all the light we cannot see by anthony doerr.

There’s no shortage of World War II novels , even on this list. But in this crowded corner of historical fiction, Anthony Doerr’s stunning, stylish epic manages to stand out. In All the Light We Cannot See , he uses wartime strife to deepen and enrich a story that comes down, in the end, to two unforgettable characters.

Marie-Laure, the blind daughter of a museum locksmith, flees Nazi-occupied Paris with her father. With them, they carry a priceless jewel salvaged from the collections they left behind. Meanwhile, the brilliant German orphan Werner Pfennig is forced to join the Hitler Youth — and then sent out to track down enemy radio signals.

44. Atonement by Ian McEwan

Perhaps you already know the story from the movie — Atonement stars Briony Tallis, a budding writer who misinterpreted the relationship between her sister Cecilia and their housekeeper’s son, Robbie. Her innocent mistake caused her to make unfounded accusations against Robbie  — leading the sisters to become estranged. World War II comes and takes Robbie away to France, leaving Briony with her own guilt. Now that she’s matured and understands the rippling consequences of her actions, and she’s left with little chance to make up for it. 

Atonement is a beautiful novel in many ways. One of its key strengths is its poignant representation of the conscripted soldier’s experiences in a foreign land, fighting a seemingly losing battle far from home.

45. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

While this is yet another book about World War II, The Book Thief ’s unique narrator sets it apart. Readers accompany Death during a busy period in his career as one young girl — heartbreakingly separated from her mother and sick brother while evacuating the war zone — catches his attention. The girl, Liesel, moves into the home of Hans and Rosa Hubermann, a weary but kind-hearted couple who is sheltering a Jewish man in their basement. Hans teaches his new daughter how to read in an effort to help her recover from the trauma of losing her family, and Liesel begins to steal books that are being burned by the Nazis. Despite how low the Hubermanns try to lay, trouble is just around the corner under this vicious authoritarian regime… 

The unusual curiosity that Death has about Liesel’s life makes this story both beautiful and harrowing: it highlights the depravity and inhumanity of the force that took over much of Europe in the 1940s.

46. The English Patien t by Michael Ondaatjie

Four people from four different cultures are united under one roof towards the end of World War II: a Canadian Army nurse, a heavily injured, supposedly English man, a British combat engineer of Indian origin, and a Italian-Canadian spy. While each has their own tasks and goals, they begin to share their traumatic experiences of the war — and their mutual desire to survive.

Ondaatjie’s The English Patient is unique in the way it treats this global conflict: it focuses on the many cultures involved, as well as on how the differences between them can’t outweigh people’s shared humanity and longing for normalcy.

47. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Maria Ann Schaffre and Annie Barrows

Through a series of letters between comedic writer Julie Ashton and book-lover Dawsy Adams, the story of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is told. Julie is a rising author who recounted her experience of World War II and is now in search of a new topic to treat. Dawsy lives in Guernsey and is a member of the strangely specific society in the novel’s title, which appears to be a little book club. Through their exchanges, Julie learns about the German wartime occupation of the island — and, more importantly, the origin of the society’s peculiar name, which prompts her to visit it.

Full of quippy correspondence and humorous circumstances, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society avoids being overly heavy, and yet still manages to present readers with another facet of life during the deadliest conflict in history.

48. Half-Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan

With its lilting, musical prose, Half-Blood Blues accomplishes many things at once. It’s a gripping mystery tale and also a love letter to jazz. But above all, it tells the story of a community that gets overshadowed in conventional World War II stories: the Afro-Germans persecuted by the Nazi regime.

Hieronymus Falk is a gifted jazz musician: though only twenty years old, he’s already been hailed as a master trumpeter by Louis Armstrong himself. But it’s 1940, and Hiero’s genius can’t save him from the Nazi Party’s stranglehold over his native Germany. Half-black and a purveyor of “degenerate” music to boot, he’s soon arrested and silenced. The bassist Sidney Griffiths is the last person to see him before he’s taken away. Fifty years later, with documentary retrospectives on Hiero starting to air, Sid still can’t let go of what happened to his bandmate.

49. Human Voices by Penelope Fitzgerald

As World War II rages and German bombs rain down on London, a group of radio employees hunker down in Broadcasting House. The city might go to rubble outside, but nothing’s going to stop them from delivering the Nine O’Clock News. After all, they are the BBC.

Penelope Fitzgerald’s moving — and sharply funny — Human Voices shows a group of flawed human beings doing their best to bear up under an unwanted historical mandate. Sam Brooks, the Recorded Programme Director, might be a selfish, neurotic manager. And Annie Asra, his assistant, might have a less than prudent attachment to her boss. But together, they’ll do their best to insure the nation’s never at a loss for radio programming.

50. The Night Watch by Sarah Waters

The Night Watch literally takes you back in time — it opens in 1947 and closes in 1941. Diving into the midst of World War II and its aftermath, Waters weaves together the lives of four different people: Kay, Helen, Viv, and Duncan. Some of them barely knew each other, but they’re united by their experiences of the war, their participation in national mobilization, and the strangeness of having to find new meaning after peace is achieved.

This is more than a novel about war: it’s a story of love and loss in an incredibly uncertain and extraordinary period when life swung rapidly from one emotional extreme to another.

Post-War Era

51. sophie's choice by william styron.

Thanks to William Styron’s searing, thought-provoking novel, the phrase “Sophie’s choice” has entered the popular lexicon, denoting an impossible decision where every possible outcome horrifies the chooser. In Sophie’s Choice , the titular Sophie — a Polish-Catholic concentration camp survivor — was forced to decide which of her two children to spare from the gas chambers.

The story kicks off years after Sophie made her choice. In a Brooklyn boardinghouse, she shares her harrowing personal history with the young writer Stingo. But their blossoming friendship inspires the jealousy of Sophie’s lover, Nathan, a brilliant Jewish-American scientist with an undiagnosed case of schizophrenia. As the three of them draw ever closer in a dark, psychosexual dance, Sophie’s past continues to haunt her.

52. My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

Elena Ferrante is arguably the most successful historical fiction writer working today — and almost no one even knows her real name. Her wildly successful Neapolitan Novels proved you don’t need a cult of personality to sell books. Even without any author photos on their covers, these novels managed to enchant readers with their subtle, exacting depictions of female friendship and ambition in a turbulent era. 

The series’ first installment, My Brilliant Friend , offers a richly textured look at 1950s Naples, in a neighborhood where gangsters have a hand in every business and the specter of poverty haunts every home. Friends Elena and Lila grow up together among workaday crime and domestic strife. They dream of escape, and school seems to offer a way out. But while the diligent Elena manages to claw her way up the educational ladder, the rebellious prodigy Lila is kept from further study by her own parents.

53. The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich

Chippewa novelist Louise Erdrich based The Night Watchman on her own grandfather’s story: he fought the US government’s efforts to seize Native land in the 1950s. In Erdrich’s reimagining, this real-life activist becomes Thomas Wazhashk, a Chippewa Council member who works as a night watchman at a factory near North Dakota’s Turtle Mountain Reservation.

Congress is set to vote on a bill that threatens the Chippewas’ rights to their own land — all under the guise of “emancipating” them. Alarmed, Thomas finds himself drawn into the fray on behalf of his entire community.

54. The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

A modern classic and a perennial showpiece on school syllabi, The Poisonwood Bible is the kind of required reading that students tend to adore, revisiting it again and again long after class is out of session. It’s a book with universal appeal — no wonder it received nods from both Oprah’s Book Club and the Pulitzer committee.

In 1959, the Price family moves from Georgia to the Belgian Congo, where patriarch Nathan is determined to win souls to the Southern Baptist faith. As they acclimate to life in the Congo, the four Price girls begin to question their father’s mission — and their own place in a country wracked by brutal, colonialist rule.

55. The Sympathize r by Viet Thanh Nguyen

Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Pulitzer prize-winning novel, The Sympathizer , is the account of an undercover agent’s confession of espionage during the war between North and South Vietnam. The unnamed protagonist retells his climb up the command chain in Saigon and his eventual flight to the US, all the while reporting to his comrades in North Vietnam. And yet his story isn’t the simple tale of a loyal communist — he forges genuine friendships with the Southern generals and agents, who had been with him through life-and-death situations.

Beyond reflecting various perspectives on this controversial war, Nguyen novel is also an ode to humanity — something that’s so often pushed to the side by political conflict.

56. A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini

Let us go now to 1970s Afghanistan, where Mariam and Laila, born a generation apart from one another, are forced to marry the same man. As expected, the relationship between them starts out cold — both are trying to determine their position within the marriage. But the longer they stay with each other, the more they realize they have in common. Thus begins the sisterhood between the two. Together, Mariam and Laila help each other survive the increasingly harsh conditions that women have to live through as the Taliban gain influence and start implementing drastic measures to strip away their rights.

Soulfully written, A Thousand Splendid Suns explores not only the difficulties that many women still face today in Afghanistan, but also the indestructible strength and solidarity they draw on to overcome those difficulties — for themselves and for their families.

57. Human Acts by Han Kang

It’s 1980. Park Chung-hee, the dictatorial ruler of South Korea, was assassinated just last year. Now pro-democracy activists are rising up, demanding political power, a free press, and an end to martial law. In the city of Gwangju, demonstrators and soldiers clash — until paratroopers open fire on protesting students. By the time the rubble settles, around 2,000 citizens are dead.

The Gwangju Uprisings form the harrowing backdrop to Human Acts , written by acclaimed South Korean novelist Han Kong and translated with remarkable sensitivity by Deborah Smith. Weaving together fiction, history, and even memoir, this difficult but brilliant book gives a voice to both those who survived and those who didn’t.

Postcolonial History

58. the god of small things by arundhati roy.

Arundhati Roy’s first novel packs a punch — it’s the story of a pair of twins, brother and sister, growing up in politically unstable postcolonial India. Between the pull of tradition and an unclear national future, between the ingrained caste system and new possibilities in foreign lands, Estha and Rahel can only hold onto each other for support as the world around them changes.

Roy reflects boldly on the messiness of a period in Indian history that’s often glorified. Her brave exploration of previously unexamined themes made The God of Small Things controversial when it was published in 1997. However, it’s those exact same things that make this book so important to read.

59. Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

The titular symbol of Half of a Yellow Sun is the emblem adorning the flag of Biafra, a nation that briefly seceded from Nigeria in the late 1960s. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s story revolves around this short-lived nation. As the Igbo people of Southern Nigeria declare their independence from a state that wasn’t built to represent them, civil war breaks out. University professor Odenigbo, a Biafran nationalist, struggles to keep his young family not only alive, but also in a position to fight for their culture and communal identity. 

The legacy of colonialism in Africa is harrowing and powerful, particularly when it comes to the arbitrary borders that bound conflicting peoples under one nation not of their choosing. One book can never cover everything, but Half of a Yellow Sun provides a poetic portal into this turbulent era.

60. The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende

If you’re unsure whether historical fiction and magical realism mix well, give Isabel Allende a chance to change your mind with her debut novel. The House of the Spirits features Clara del Valle and her uncanny ability to predict life events, from sudden deaths to inevitable marriages. Following her intuition, she marries Esteban Trueba, a formerly impoverished, now ruthless plantation owner and politician. In the years that follow, as postcolonial Chile undergoes massive political changes, the Trueba family also face its internal challenges — the younger generations start to rebel against their predecessors.

Subtly fantastical and wholly passionate, The House of the Spirits blends familial and national histories to create a portrait of postcolonial Chile that’s both eye-opening and entertaining.

Want some historical facts to go with your historical fiction? Check out our roundup of the best nonfiction books of the 21st century !

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28 historical fiction books that will whisk you away to a different world

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  • Historical fiction books transport us through time.
  • They captivate readers and illuminate an important moment in history.
  • Our recommendations range from historical fiction classics to new releases.

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Books can transport us across galaxies and mythical lands. With historical fiction books in particular, we can be taken through time by characters who illuminate real events and stories that demand to be told. Our favorite historical fiction novels may highlight the trials of refugees in the early 1900s or a familial tale that stretches generations, but they all use compelling characters and memorable plots to bring the past to life.  

To create this list of recommendations, we looked at readers' favorite historical fiction books of all time, from new titles on bestseller lists to classics that are still receiving rave reviews on Goodreads. So whether you want to explore 12th-century England or a Pulitzer Prize-winning story about the underground railroad, here are some of the best historical fiction books to read in 2022.

The 28 best historical fiction books of all time:

A historical fiction book about books, world war ii, and murder.

best selling fiction book in history

"The Diamond Eye" by Kate Quinn, available on Amazon and Bookshop , from $16.19

Known for her bestseller " The Rose Code ," Quinn's latest historical fiction read is about a bookworm name Mila Pavlichenko who becomes World War II's deadliest sniper when she's pulled from her life and thrust onto the battlefield. Torn once again from her world after her 300th kill, Mila is sent on a goodwill tour in America where an old foe and a new enemy bring the battlefield and haunting demons across the world for the deadliest battle of Mila's life. 

A historical fiction read that serves as a lens for forced sterilization

best selling fiction book in history

"Take My Hand" by Dolen Perkins-Valdez, available at Amazon and Bookshop , from $18.90

Civil Townsend is fresh out of nursing school in 1973 when her new job at the local family planning clinic introduces her to the Williams sisters who, at ages 11 and 13, have their lives irrevocably changed forever. Based on the true horror of forced sterilization of poor Black people and the case of Mary Alice and Minnie Lee Relf, "Take My Hand" is a moving and gripping novel that not only illuminates real events but highlights the importance of even one voice in the face of injustice. 

A historical fiction story within a story

best selling fiction book in history

"Trust" by Hernan Diaz, available at Amazon and Bookshop , from $25.20

All of New York seems to have read "Bonds," a 1938 novel about the mysterious wealth of Benjamin and Helen Rask in the 1920s, though this isn't the only version of the story. A book within a book, "Trust" tells a story where fact is interwoven with fiction, allowing the reader to unravel the truth as money, power, and what the characters want to believe about themselves manipulates the truth.

A historical fiction book about separated and reconnected siblings

best selling fiction book in history

"We Measure the Earth with Our Bodies" by Tsering Yangzom Lama, available at Amazon and Bookshop , from $24.30

Lhamo and Tenkyi are sisters who have just survived a perilous journey across the Himalayas to a refugee camp on the border of Nepal as China invaded Tibet in 1959, though the trip left them orphaned. Decades later, the sisters are separated but connected through Lhamo's daughter, who finds a statue in a collector's vault that was once from her mother's village, carved in the image of a nameless saint and known for vanishing and reappearing in times of need.

A historical fiction critique on sexism in the science industry

best selling fiction book in history

"Lessons in Chemistry" by Bonnie Garmus, available at Amazon and Bookshop , from $18.48

In 1960s California, Elizabeth Zott's career as a chemist in a male-dominated science industry takes a sharp turn when she finds herself the star of America's favorite cooking show. With an unusual and revolutionary approach to cooking, Elizabeth isn't just teaching women a new way to cook — she's teaching them how to defy the status quo in this delightful and hilarious new historical fiction read.  

A historical fiction story that's part coming-of-age and part murder mystery

best selling fiction book in history

"Where The Crawdads Sing" by Delia Owens, available at Amazon and Bookshop , from $9.98 

In this coming-of-age story driven by the mystery of a possible murder, Kya Clark is a young woman with only one day of schooling who's been surviving alone in the marsh since she was seven, earning herself the nickname "Marsh Girl." When a popular boy is found dead, Kya is an immediate suspect. This novel shows both the beauty of the natural world and the violence of pain, shifting between Kya's resilient life on the marsh and the tantalizing murder mystery. 

A multi-generational historical fiction story of a Korean family's migration to Japan

best selling fiction book in history

"Pachinko" by Min Jin Lee, available at Amazon and Bookshop , from $14.99 

This National Book Award finalist takes place in the early 1900s Korea where readers meet Sunja, a teenage girl who falls in love with a wealthy stranger who promises her the world. When she discovers that he's married and she's pregnant, Sunja must instead accept a proposal from a minister on his way to Japan, rejecting the powerful father of her son in the process. This read contains a lot of fascinating history and follows four generations of a Korean family through Japanese colonization, war, and the divide of North and South Korea.

A historical fiction book about women’s bravery during World War II

best selling fiction book in history

"The Nightingale" by Kristin Hannah, available at Amazon and Bookshop , from $8.18

"The Nightingale" takes place in France and begins just before the Nazi invasion in 1939. It's the story of unbreakable resolve and an untold perspective of World War II, following two sisters as one trying to keep her daughter safe as a German captain claims her home, while the other risks her life by joining the resistance. Despite being over 400 pages, it's a fast read that brought me to tears on more than one occasion and is my personal favorite historical fiction book.

An intertwining historical fiction tale of twin sisters

best selling fiction book in history

"The Vanishing Half" by Brit Bennett, available at Amazon and Bookshop , from $18.65 

"The Vanishing Half" is a historical fiction novel about twin sisters who grew up to live very different lives. At 16, the Vignes twins run away together from their small, Black town to later separate and become starkly different women whose fates still manage to intersect through their children. Years later, one sister once again lives in their hometown with her daughter, while the other lives with her white husband, quietly passing as a white woman. Told from the 1950s to the 1990s, this is a generational story of identity, community, and family that was widely considered one of the best books of 2020.

An award-winning historical fiction classic

best selling fiction book in history

"Beloved" by Toni Morrison, available at Amazon and Bookshop , from $9.31 

Winner of the 1988 Pulitzer Prize , Toni Morrison's "Beloved" is a devastating and unflinching story of slavery and survival. Sethe was born a slave and escaped to Ohio. Yet, 18 years later, she's still tormented by her memories of the farm and the ones she left behind. Now, her home is haunted by the ghost of her baby, whose tombstone is engraved with only "Beloved." This story is an emotional and brutal tale of the complex legacy of slavery.

A historical fiction read about love and relationships between women

best selling fiction book in history

"Snow Flower and the Secret Fan" by Lisa See, available at Amazon and Bookshop , from $13.19

With flowing prose that easily transports readers to 19th century China, Lisa See shows how the power of friendship can help us endure life's greatest challenges. Lily and Snow Flower were paired as emotional matches when they were seven years old, communicating with each other in "nu shu" or women's writing, a secret code women used to communicate despite seclusion. Through the years, Lily and Snow Flower share their hopes, dreams, and accomplishments through messages sent on fans, outlining the agony of foot-binding, the joys of motherhood, and their thoughts on their arranged marriages.

A Holocaust historical fiction novel with an original narrator

best selling fiction book in history

"The Book Thief" by Markus Zusak available at Amazon and Bookshop , from $6.99 

Set in 1939 Nazi Germany, Liesel is a foster girl living outside of Munich who begins to steal books after finding "The Gravedigger's Handbook" partially buried by her brother's grave. As she falls in love with reading, the country around her descends deeper into war. When her foster family hides a Jewish man in their basement, Liesel's understanding of the death and danger surrounding her grows as her exterior world shrinks. Narrated by Death, this is an intense and emotional World War II story as Liesel steals books from wherever she can — including Nazi book burnings.

A heart-racing historical fiction story about escaping slavery

best selling fiction book in history

"The Underground Railroad" by Colson Whitehead, available at Amazon and Bookshop , from $10.25 

Cora is an enslaved young girl in Georgia, an outcast who knows she must escape before she reaches womanhood and faces even greater horrors. When Cora and her new friend decide to flee through the Underground Railroad, they soon find they're being hunted. The pair travels from state to state, risking their lives for the chance of freedom. Colson Whitehead's ability to instill in readers the terror that Cora feelsis astounding, making it no surprise this extraordinary title won the National Book Award in 2016 and the Pulitzer Prize in 2017.

A heartbreaking historical fiction book about friendship

best selling fiction book in history

"The Kite Runner" by Khaled Hosseini, available at Amazon and Bookshop , from $10.50 

Set in Afghanistan from 1963-2001, this book tells the story of Amir, a wealthy young boy, and his best friend Hassan, the son of his father's servant. Like brothers, the boys spend their days flying kites to escape the difficulties of their lives, until a devastating act changes their relationship forever. This is a moving tale of friendship, guilt, and redemption that follows the real-world histories of military intervention and the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan while keeping the relationships between Amir, his father, and Hassan in the foreground.

A lyrical historical fiction book

best selling fiction book in history

"The Water Dancer" by Ta-Nehisi Coates, available at Amazon and Bookshop , from $12.31 

"The Water Dancer" is a historical fiction novel that combines elements of magical realism in an engaging and moving story of memory, family, and slavery. Hiram Walker is the enslaved Black son of a plantation owner who has the ability to remember everything except his mother, taken and sold by his father when Hiram was only nine. After Hiram has a near-death experience, he decides he must escape the plantation and rescue his family in this dramatic and heart-racing journey. 

A historical fiction novel about an empowered henna artist

best selling fiction book in history

"The Henna Artist" by Alka Joshiavailable at Amazon and Bookshop , from $13.98 

"The Henna Artist" is an immersive read that tells the stories of many women in Jaipur in the 1950s. At only 17, Lakshmi is the most highly sought-after henna artist in Jaipur, having recently escaped her abusive marriage. While creating beautiful henna for her wealthy clients, she becomes a confidant to many women, offering wise advice while avoiding gossip. One day, Lakshmi is confronted by her husband, who brings her a young sister she didn't know she had. With her secure and independent life in jeopardy, Lakshmi must care for her teenage sister on her journey to a life she never knew she wanted.  

A familial historical fiction book that spans centuries

best selling fiction book in history

"Homegoing" by Yaa Ghasi, available at Amazon and Bookshop , from $8.82 

"Homegoing" is a multi-generational story that spans 300 years and is beloved by readers for the unforgettable forces that shape families on opposite sides of the world. In 18th century Ghana, two half-sisters are born in different villages, each unaware of the other's existence. One is married off into wealth, while the other is imprisoned in the dungeons of her sister's castle, soon sold into the slave trade and raised in American slavery. This tale of legacy follows the descendents of each sister through centuries of colonization, migration, and war. 

A queer historical fiction book set in Uruguay

best selling fiction book in history

"Cantoras" by Caroline De Robertis, available at Amazon and Bookshop , from $15.29

In 1977, Uruguay was ruled by an authoritarian military dictatorship under which homosexuality was not just a crime, but punishable by unspeakable means. Despite the dangers, five cantoras (women who sing) find each other through a friendship that blooms to love, family, and freedom. This novel is a passionate celebration of the safety and sanctuary of found families that begins with a trip to an isolated cape. 

A lyrical, Indigenous historical fiction novel

best selling fiction book in history

"Where the Dead Sit Talking" by Brandon Hobson, available at Amazon and Bookshop , from $13.69 

"Where the Dead Sit Talking" is an emotional and authentic coming-of-age story featuring Sequoyah, who is placed in foster care after his single mother is jailed on drug charges. Set in 1980s Oklahoma, Sequoyah is a 15-year-old Cherokee boy and a survivor of childhood trauma and abuse. He quickly bonds with another Indigenous foster girl named Rosemary, sharing their past pains and precarious present in this award-winning, profound novel of suffering and strength.

A historical fiction story of love and redemption

best selling fiction book in history

"The Color Purple" by Alice Walker, available at Amazon and Bookshop , from $14.99

The winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, this historical fiction book is about Celie and Nettie, two sisters who were separated as girls yet connect through letters spanning 20 years. This book brings to light the extent of abuse women of color have often faced and been expected to quietly endure — a devastating and emotional read about the resiliency of the human spirit and the persistent bond of sisterhood.

A historical fiction story about spiritual growth

best selling fiction book in history

"The Samurai's Garden" by Gail Tsukiyama, available at Amazon and Bookshop , from $10.19

This historical fiction book is about the emotional and spiritual journey of a young Chinese painter named Stephen, set against the backdrop of the Japanese invasion of China in the late 1930s. When Stephen is sent to his family's coastal home to recover from tuberculosis, he meets four new people, including Matsu — a samurai of the soul who's dedicated himself to living a generous and nurturing life and helps Stephen gain physical, mental, and spiritual strength as the novel progresses.

A historical fiction novel that follows a family over 200 years

best selling fiction book in history

"The House of the Spirits" by Isabel Allendeavailable at Amazon and Bookshop , from $12.79 

Spanning three generations of a family in Chile, "The House of the Spirits" incorporates magical realism into an epic narrative that weaves joy, love, and fate through a history of rich culture and political unrest. Beginning just after World War I, this novel follows the women of the Trueba family whose gifts, triumphs, and tragedies are reflected in each generation of beautiful and meticulously crafted characters.

An engrossing historical fiction journey in 12th century England

best selling fiction book in history

"The Pillars of the Earth" by Ken Follett, available at Amazon and Bookshop , from $7

Ken Follett is most well-known as a bestselling thriller writer, so it's no surprise this hugely popular historical fiction novel has all the suspense, passion, and intricacies for which he's revered. Set in 12th century England, this medieval story of morality, betrayal, and love is about a monk who is driven to build a Gothic cathedral so great it will dawn a new age. Told with vivid detail, "The Pillars of the Earth" brings an incredible cast of characters and their hardships to life.

A historical fiction novel interwoven with magical realism

best selling fiction book in history

"The Night Tiger" by Yangsze Choo, available at Amazon and Bookshop , from $13.59 

"The Night Tiger" is a historical fiction read that incorporates elements of magical realism, ancient superstition, and mystery to create a lush and exhilarating coming-of-age story set in 1930s Malaysia. Rin is a young Chinese houseboy and Ji Lin is an apprentice dressmaker, their paths unlikely to cross until their journeys intertwine over a severed finger. Rin has 49 days to reunite his master's missing finger with his body, lest his soul roams the earth. One night, Ji Lin's dance partner leaves her a severed finger. Convinced it's bad luck, she sets out to return it to its owner.

A historical fiction retelling of Indigenous heroes

best selling fiction book in history

"A Novel About the Navajo Marines of World War Two" by Joseph Bruchac, available at Amazon and Bookshop , from $6.73 

The Navajo Code Talkers were an instrumental group of native men who used their language to code messages during World War II, saving countless American lives. In this fictionalized retelling, Ned Begay is a teenage Navajo boy who becomes a code talker through rigorous Marine Corps training, fighting through some of the war's most brutal battles. While the novel highlights the discrimination the Navajo men faced, the story is also a celebration of Navajo culture and the code-talker heroes of World War II.

An emotionally trying historical fiction book

best selling fiction book in history

"The Darkest Child" by Delores Phillips, available at Amazon and Bookshop , from $10.99 

Set in 1958 Georgia, Tangy Mae is 13 years old and one of 10 children, the darkest-skinned of her siblings and dubbed the ugliest by her light-skinned mother. The siblings all suffer horrific emotional and physical abuse by their mother, so when Tangy Mae is offered a spot in a nearby high school looking to assemble its first integrated class, she knows how life-changing yet impossible escaping her mother may prove to be.

A historical fiction read that begins in a remote village in China

best selling fiction book in history

"The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane" by Lisa See, available at Amazon and Bookshop , from $12.91 

Li-yan is raised in a remote mountain village where the lives of those in the community revolve around tradition, ritual, and tea farming. When a stranger arrives in the first automobile the villagers have ever seen, it dawns a modern awakening for the community and some begin to reject its customs and traditions. When Li-yan has a child out of wedlock, she brings the baby to an orphanage and leaves her village in search of an education and city life while her daughter is raised in California by her adoptive parents in this story of heritage, familial bonds, and sacrifice.

A vibrant historical fiction story set during the Civil War

best selling fiction book in history

"Gone with the Wind" by Margaret Mitchell, available at Amazon and Bookshop , from $3.95

This classic historical fiction novel was originally published in 1936 but is set in Georgia in 1861 during the Civil War. The story focuses on Scarlett O'Hara, the spoiled daughter of a wealthy plantation owner whose life is forever changed by the Civil War. This is an intense book that captures the depth of transformation during the war, known for the manipulative and selfish ways of the unlikeable main character. "Gone with the Wind" won a Pulitzer Prize in 1937 and is widely considered a great American novel.

best selling fiction book in history

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12 Must-Read Historical Fiction Books That Will Send You Back in Time

Woman's World books editor (and book lover!) shares her top 12 historical fiction novels — enjoy them all!

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Best Historical Fiction Books

Books are like balms — grabbing the right book at the right time can provide the perfect antidote for what you’re going through at that very moment. Whether you need a dose of hope, happiness, comfort, inspiration, courage…you name it, a great book has the power to ease worries and offer a safe haven to rest and recharge. And there are few things better than curling up with a good read that transports you to another place and time. Enter one of the most popular book genres: historical fiction. This beloved literary genre provides fictional stories that take place within the setting of historical events — sometimes these novels are even based on real-life true stories. Here, we’ve rounded up some of the best historical fiction books — both new and old releases — that are guaranteed to enthrall you.

Keep scrolling to discover 12 of the best historical fiction books that will magically take you back in time to the 1800s, 1900s and beyond. Happy reading!

For a captivating WWII story told in dual timelines…

Try the things we cannot say by kelly rimmer.

The Things We Cannot Say by Kelly Rimmer  (Best Historical Fiction Books)

From bestselling author Kelly Rimmer, The Things We Cannot Say will enchant any historical fiction fan. In 1942 Poland, 15-year-old Alina Dziak yearns to marry her fiancé, Tomasz, but WWII changes it all. In 2019, Alice is a mom of two. Then, one day her 85-year-old grandmother asks her to go to Poland for information. Going back and forth between Nazi-occupied Poland and modern life, Rimmer delivers a poetic, emotional and intricately layered storyline.

What readers are saying: “This book was beautifully heartbreaking. The author, Kelly Rimmer, masterfully balanced two timelines, both from a first-person perspective. I recommend this book to anyone who enjoys having their heart broken, only to be put back together word by word throughout this story. I initially listened to the audiobook, but I loved it so much that I had to buy a physical copy for my own personal library.”

For a thought-provoking story set in 1850 Virginia…

Try the yellow wife by sadeqa johnson.

The Yellow Wife by Sadeqa Johnson   (Best Historical Fiction Books)

This immersive, vibrant story takes readers back to Charles City, Virginia, in 1850. Pheby Delores Brown grew up a slave on a plantation where her mother was the medicine woman. Pheby was promised freedom on her 18th birthday, but instead of a free life with her true love, Essex Henry, Pheby is thrust into life with the owner of a jail called the “Devil’s Half-Acre.” An extraordinary tale about a brave heroine’s true sacrifice, courage and fight for freedom.

What readers are saying: “A must-read. A wonderfully written story of a woman’s trials and struggles to seek freedom for herself and later her family. This story pulls at your heart strings — it is hard to read at times, but it’s so powerful.”

For an emotional story about family set in 1938 California…

Try only the beautiful by susan meissner.

Only The Beautiful by Susan Meissner   (Best Historical Fiction Books)

Characters who feel like real-life friends and a deeply compelling storyline combine in this novel written by bestselling author Susan Meissner. Rosie’s parents never told anyone of her ability to see colors when she hears words, but when they die in 1938, her secret gets out, and Rosie ends up in a hospital for the mentally ill where she suffers injustices. Years later, a friend, who has seen her own horrors, tries to reconnect with Rosie. A deeply heart-wrenching journey of grief, hope, family and second chances.

What readers are saying: “I have read many books by author Susan Meissner and have enjoyed them all. Only the Beautiful was no exception. Her research was impeccable. Meissner explored some very sensitive topics in this book. It was both heartbreaking and uplifting. The characters were well developed and the two female protagonists were both strong, determined and committed to what they believed in.”

For an illuminating story set in 1973 Alabama…

Try take my hand by dolen perkins valdez.

Take My Hand by Dolen Perkins Valdez  (Best Historical Fiction Books)

An unforgettable tale unfolds in this novel inspired by true events. It’s 1973 and nurse Civil Townsend works at the Montgomery Family Planning Clinic — and she’s determined to make a difference in her African American community. During her first week on the job, she meets her newest patients, Erica and India, whom she takes under her wing. Decades later, Civil is ready to retire, but people and stories from her past return to the present and refuse to be forgotten. A riveting, redemptive and hope-filled story.

What readers are saying: “From the very first page of this book, I knew the heroine, Civil, was going to take my heart on a roller coaster ride. She did not disappoint at all! All of the characters in this book are well-defined and their stories are gut-wrenching. When I finished the last page, I was emotionally exhausted, but like Civil, I had closure and peace.”

For an engrossing story set in 1961 Britain…

Try the princess by wendy holden.

The Princess by Wendy Holden  (Best Historical Fiction Books)

This fascinating novel about beloved Princess Diana Spencer is set in 1961 Britain. Born into the Spencer earldom, Diana grew up amid her parents’ divorce, and her refuge was always her romantic novels. So when she becomes a candidate for the Prince of Wales, her dream to be loved intersects with Charles’ need for a bride. What follows is an astonishing story of Diana’s route to the altar and beyond.

What readers are saying: “This book is brilliant. Diana tells a childhood friend about the string-pulling that brought about her engagement to her Prince charming. What if all those Barbara Cartland books on Diana’s shelves shaped the future princess into a hopeful romantic? A woman who just wanted her own happy ever after? Reading this brought back memories of teenage me watching the wedding of the century. If you are a royal watcher and have a fondness for Princess Di, you will not want to miss this book.”

For an empowering tale set in 1920s Seattle…

Try the roaring days of zora lily by noelle salazar.

The Roaring Days of Zora Lily by Noelle Salazar  (Best Historical Fiction Books)

This sweeping, glamorous saga begins in 2023 at the Smithsonian’s National Museum, where a costume conservator sees a name — Zora Lily — hidden in the label of a gown once worn by Greta Garbo. Flash back to 1924: Zora Hough spends her days dreaming and her nights sewing to make money. Soon, Zora makes connections that may just lead her to the life she’s always wanted.

What readers are saying: “I read this entire book in one day. The book opens in present-day Washington, DC at a museum that is doing a display of iconic movie dresses. Then, the story is set in the Seattle area in the 1920s, where classes of people are looked down upon. Noelle takes you on a roller coaster of emotions with Zora’s story. You will not want to put it down.”

For a dazzling, mystery-laced story set in 1920s New York…

Try the magnolia palace by fiona davis.

The Magnolia Palace by Fiona Davis  (Best Historical Fiction Books)

Opening up this thrilling novel will first whisk you back to 1919 New York City. Lillian Carter’s life is in shambles: She lost her mother to the Spanish flu and all her work as a sought-after artists’ model has dried up. When she’s offered a job at the majestic Frick mansion, she decides to accept. Then, 50 years later, another model, Veronica Weber, has a job at the Frick Collection museum, and she stumbles upon dark secrets that reveal the eerie truth about the Frick family.  A mesmerizing historical thriller that richly captures two eras.

What readers are saying: “After spending all day on screens, I love picking up an actual book — especially if the story transports me to a pre-screen era! I adored going back in time to New York in the ’20s — and I was so intrigued by the mystery that connects the two women!” 

For a stirring, wintry mystery set in the 1700s…

Try the frozen river by ariel lawhon.

The Frozen River by Ariel Lawhon  (Best Historical Fiction Books)

Inspired by real-life Revolution-era diarist and midwife Martha Ballard, this novel is set in the winter of 1789. When the body of one of the most respected men in Hallowell, Maine, is found in a frozen river, Martha is called in to investigate. Relying on her medical knowledge as a healer and the diaries she keeps about the goings-on in her village, she begins to unearth the truth behind an unspeakable crime. Now, Martha must overcome secrets and lies to solve the case. A tense yet tender story about a remarkable woman meant to be remembered.

What readers are saying:  “When starting this book, the reader immediately feels part of the community and is invested in Martha’s life and the lives of the vulnerable women she assists. This well-researched novel is a five-star read for me and one of my favorites so far this year. The action never stops. Make sure you read the author’s extensive notes at the end of the book. You will miss out on the real story if you don’t!”

For a haunting and evocative WWII story set in France…

Try the nightingale by kristin hannah.

The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah (Best Historical Fiction Books)

This #1 New York Times bestselling novel — now set to be a major motion picture — paints a powerful portrait of love and strength in the midst of war. In a sleepy French hamlet, Vianne must say goodbye to her husband as he heads for the front and to her sister, who will join the resistance. Vianne never believed the Nazis would invade France, but here they are, requisitioning her home as she tries to save herself and her daughter from the perils of war. A haunting and rich tale that celebrates the strength of the human spirit.

What readers are saying: “This book is a beautifully tragic sisterly love story about two sisters in WWII surviving in their own way. It showcases how the human spirit can survive in the darkest of places. It’s wonderfully written — and the scenes really take you there.”

Related: Kristin Hannah Talks About Her New Novel ‘The Women’ + How She Went From Attorney to Bestselling Author

For a moving family saga novel set in 1945 Japan…

Try the storm we made by vanessa chan.

The Storm We Made by Vanessa Chan  (Best Historical Fiction Books)

Readers are transported back to 1945 Malaya in this rich, spellbinding saga that follows Cecily Alcantara, a mother who was also an unlikely spy for Japanese forces during WWII. Ten years prior, a chance meeting with General Fuijwara lured her into a life of espionage. Now, she’ll do anything to save her family. This captivating story shines a light on the dangers of war and the lengths to which we’ll go to save the ones we cherish. 

What readers are saying: “My favorite way to unwind is by brewing a hot cup of tea and cracking open a historical fiction book, so when I saw this WWII epic, I knew it would fit my mood to a tee. I devoured this debut novel in one weekend. This story was so moving that it stayed with me long after I finished the last page — now I cannot wait to read the author’s next book!” 

For a gripping story about a strong heroine set in 1937 Ukraine…

Try the diamond eye by kate quinn.

The Diamond Eye by Kate Quinn (Best Historical Fiction Books)

Bestselling author Kate Quinn captures readers’ hearts again with her newest WWII novel. Set in 1937, in Kyiv, Ukraine, college student Mila Pavlichenko only cares about two things: her job at the library and her son. But when Hitler decides to invade both Russia and Ukraine, Mila must step up and defend her homeland. She transforms from a studious girl to an elusive sniper known as Lady Death. Now everyone knows her name, and Mila is sent to Washington, D.C., on a goodwill tour, where she befriends Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. But will her traumatizing past get in the way of her potential happiness?

What readers are saying: “ The Diamond Eye is just the sort of historical fiction that I love to read. It’s based on a true story about an incredible woman, and not only did I get a feel for the era, how women survived in the military and what the life of a sniper is like, I fell completely under the spell of Lyudmila (Mila) Pavlichenko.”

For a showstopping story about a group of thieves in 1920s London…

Try queens of london by heather webb.

Queens of London by Heather Webb  (Best Historical Fiction Books)

Bestselling author Heather Webb’s new novel Queens of London delivers an exciting ride through the criminal underworld of 1925 London. Alice Diamond is the leader of the Forty Elephants, a network of all-girl thieves in 1920s London — and she’s the target of Lilian Wyles, one of Scotland Yard’s first female detectives, who wants to prove herself by putting Alice behind bars. What follows is a scandalous series of events about crime, sisterhood and the meaning of justice.

What readers are saying: “The premise of Queens of London sounded exciting enough, and then, several chapters in, I found a character who stole my heart: Ten-year-old Hera and her friend, Biscuit. That sealed the deal and I had to know what happened. Webb has written a diamond of a page-turner with real heart and soul. It is made even more memorable by the audio — narrated by Amy Scanlon — which hits all the right tones and accents.”

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The Best Books of 2023

A Smithsonian magazine special report

The Ten Best History Books of 2023

Our favorite titles of the year resurrect forgotten histories and illuminate how the United States ended up where it is today

Meilan Solly

Meilan Solly

Associate Editor, History

Best history books of 2023 illustration

For many, 2023 was a year of momentous change and loss, marked by events that will be chronicled in history books for generations to come. Longstanding tensions in the Middle East erupted when Hamas invaded Israel on October 7 and have continued to reverberate through the Israeli counterattack and humanitarian crisis in Gaza. To the north, the Russia-Ukraine war entered its second year, continuing a conflict that shows few signs of slowing.

In the United States, book bans in public schools and libraries spoke to the growing debate over how history—especially the nation’s long history of racial inequality —is taught. The conversation reflects not only broader divisions in an increasingly polarized country, but also a push to redefine the very nature of the discipline. “Most of our prior arguments were about who to include in the story, not the story itself,” Jonathan Zimmerman , an education historian at the University of Pennsylvania, told the Washington Post earlier this year. “America has lost a shared national narrative.”

This year, the ten history books we’ve chosen to highlight served a dual purpose. Some offered a respite from reality, transporting readers to places like ancient Rome and Tudor England. Others reflected on the fraught nature of the current moment, detailing how the nation’s past—including white supremacist violence during Reconstruction and the history of restrictions on women’s reproductive rights—informs its present and future. From a biography of Martin Luther King Jr. to the story of a deadly shipwreck, these are some of Smithsonian magazine’s favorite history books of 2023.

The Wager: A Tale of Shipwreck, Mutiny and Murde r by David Grann

David Grann ’s newest page-turner, The Wager , has much in common with his 2017 book, Killers of the Flower Moon , which was recently adapted for the screen by Martin Scorsese. Both tell the tale of a once-infamous, now more obscure chapter in history, resurrected through meticulous research and a gift for immensely readable prose. Just as the Reign of Terror , a string of murders that struck the Osage Nation in the early 20th century, was more widespread than an FBI investigation suggested, the circumstances surrounding the 1741 wreck of the HMS Wager were more mysterious than survivors initially claimed.

A Royal Navy ship that set sail from England in 1740, its crew tasked with pursuing an enemy galleon during a war with Spain, the Wager ran aground off the coast of Patagonia in 1741. A few years after the shipwreck, two sets of sailors returned home, each with their own competing version of events—one a story of survival under horrific conditions and the other a harrowing account of mutiny, a crime then punishable by death.

To untangle this web of contradictions, Grann, a longtime staff writer at the New Yorker , “spent years combing through the archival debris: the washed-out logbooks, the moldering correspondence, the half-truthful journals, the surviving records from the troubling court-martial,” as he explains in an author’s note. Grann frames his tale as a mystery, though he leaves readers to draw conclusions for themselves; the result is a tour-de-force book that will leave readers satisfied while prompting them to consider larger questions of imperialism and the notion of truth itself.

Preview thumbnail for 'The Wager: A Tale of Shipwreck, Mutiny and Murder

The Wager: A Tale of Shipwreck, Mutiny and Murder

From the author of "Killers of the Flower Moon," a page-turning story of shipwreck, survival and savagery, culminating in a court martial that reveals a shocking truth.

Madame Restell: The Life, Death and Resurrection of Old New York's Most Fabulous, Fearless and Infamous Abortionist by Jennifer Wright

When the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June 2022, Jennifer Wright was putting the finishing touches on her latest book, Madame Restell , a biography of the woman she deems “a businesswoman, a scofflaw, an immigrant and an abortionist [who] made men really, really mad.” The timing of the decision wasn’t lost on Wright, a journalist and author of pop-culture history books. It “disabuses us of the notion that we’ve come as long a way in our treatment of women as we liked to imagine we did,” she says in a statement. “A lot of people have talked about how we went back 50 years with the Dobbs ruling. I would say we went back 150,” to the 1870s.

By that decade, Restell had been offering abortions for more than 30 years. Born Ann Trow in England in 1811, she immigrated to the U.S. with her husband and daughter in 1831, only to find herself a widowed single mother just two years later. By a stroke of luck, she formed a connection with a neighbor who taught her how to compound pills and likely showed her how to provide surgical abortions when the abortifacient drugs she gave patients failed. With the help of her brother and her second husband, Trow developed a new persona, Restell, and started advertising her “celebrated preventative powders for married ladies whose health prevents too rapid an increase of family.” This straightforward acknowledgement of the nature of Restell’s services—risky at a time when abortion was a criminal offense in New York—attracted both satisfied customers and powerful enemies, among them the anti-vice activist Anthony Comstock , who would eventually bring about the abortionist’s downfall.

This biography presents a searing portrait of an indomitable woman, examining the experiences that shaped Restell’s career choice and the challenges she overcame, including multiple arrests and a stint in prison. Wright juxtaposes her subject’s story with those of Restell’s patients and an overview of the broader conversation surrounding abortion in the late 19th century.

Preview thumbnail for 'Madame Restell: The Life, Death and Resurrection of Old New York's Most Fabulous, Fearless and Infamous Abortionist

Madame Restell: The Life, Death and Resurrection of Old New York's Most Fabulous, Fearless and Infamous Abortionist

Madame Restell was a self-taught surgeon in pre-Gilded Age New York, and her bustling “boarding house” provided birth control, abortions and medical assistance to thousands of women—rich and poor alike.

Anne Boleyn & Elizabeth I: The Mother and Daughter Who Forever Changed British History by Tracy Borman

Tracy Borman is a prolific chronicler of Tudor England, with each of her books offering a novel take on the world’s most-discussed dynasty. In recent years, she’s examined the male influences in Henry VIII’s life and the private lives of the Tudors, from their romps in the bedroom to their bathroom habits. Now, Borman—an author who serves as joint chief curator of England’s Historic Royal Palaces—has turned her attention to the relationship between Anne Boleyn and Elizabeth I, a mother and daughter who she says “changed the course of British history.”

Anne was Henry’s second wife, a strong-willed, worldly woman whose refusal to become the king’s mistress pushed him to break with Rome and launch the English Reformation . Her time on the throne was brief, ending with her execution in 1536, but she left behind a daughter, the future Elizabeth I. Popular lore suggests Elizabeth, who was just 2 years old when her mother was beheaded, rarely acknowledged Anne, whose existence was all but erased by Henry after her death. When Elizabeth took the throne in 1558, she didn’t actively attempt to restore Anne’s reputation by overturning the annulment of her marriage or moving her body from a chapel at the Tower of London.

“The obvious conclusion is that Elizabeth was at best indifferent toward, and at worst ashamed of, Anne,” writes Borman. “But the truth is both more complex and more fascinating. Exploring Elizabeth’s actions both before and after she became queen reveals so much more than her words.” Evidence laid out in the book points to Elizabeth’s enduring love for Anne, whose push for religious reform reached new heights during her daughter’s reign. Borman suggests Elizabeth fulfilled a request made by Anne on the scaffold: “If any person will meddle of my cause, I require them to judge the best.”

Preview thumbnail for 'Anne Boleyn & Elizabeth I: The Mother and Daughter Who Forever Changed British History

Anne Boleyn & Elizabeth I: The Mother and Daughter Who Forever Changed British History

Anne Boleyn may be best known for losing her head, but as Tudor expert Tracy Borman reveals in a book that recasts British history, her greatest legacy lies in the path-breaking reign of her daughter, Elizabeth.

King: A Life by Jonathan Eig

In his biography of civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr., Jonathan Eig follows the winning formula laid out in his 2017 book , Ali: A Life , using an impressively researched deep dive to present a more nuanced portrait. “In the process of canonizing King,” Eig writes, “we’ve defanged him, replacing his complicated politics and philosophy with catchphrases that suit one ideology or another.”

Eig argues that contemporary observers have “mistaken King’s nonviolence for passivity” and “failed to recall that [he] was one of the most brutally divisive figures in American history.” Though he’s lionized today, King was widely disliked at the time of his assassination in 1968, attracting the disapproval of Southern segregationists, the government, militant Black activists and white liberals alike. Some thought he’d gone too far in his calls for equality; others said he hadn’t gone far enough. By reframing King’s life in a more realistic light, Eig seeks to “recover the real man from the gray mist of hagiography,” showing his strengths, like the power of his speeches, and his weaknesses, from his numerous affairs to his penchant for committing plagiarism .

A magisterial addition to the literature on King, Eig’s book is a clear-eyed, sympathetic tribute to a man who reshaped America in just 13 years, bringing “the nation closer than it had ever been to reckoning with the reality of having treated people as property and secondary citizens,” as the author writes. Based on newly declassified FBI papers, more than 200 interviews and a trove of previously unpublished archival materials, King: A Life is poised to replace David J. Garrow’s Pulitzer Prize -winning 1986 book, Bearing the Cross , as the standard biography of the activist. Garrow acknowledges as much in a review for the Spectator , praising Eig’s work as “the best-informed account of this deeply courageous, yet also deeply flawed, life.”

Preview thumbnail for 'King: A Life

King: A Life

Vividly written and exhaustively researched, Jonathan Eig’s "King: A Life" is the first major biography in decades of the civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr.―and the first to include recently declassified FBI files.

The Sisterhood: The Secret History of Women at the CIA by Liza Mundy

Liza Mundy ’s newest is a worthy successor to her 2017 best seller, Code Girls , which explored the stories of the unheralded American women who served as code breakers during World War II. The Sisterhood offers a comprehensive exploration of a similarly understudied topic: women at the CIA. Though women have worked at the agency since its founding in 1947, Mundy, a journalist and former Washington Post staffer, argues that their contributions have long been overlooked, in part due to the secretive nature of the job but also because of sexism.

From Jeanne Vertefeuille , a typist-turned-investigator who exposed the most damaging mole in CIA history, to Heidi August , who witnessed the 1969 coup in Libya and the Cambodian Civil War firsthand, The Sisterhood shows how “women made contributions not despite their gender but because of it, using their sex to move around the world unremarked,” as Mundy writes in an author’s note. Beyond the women who worked at the CIA, the book profiles individuals on the periphery of the organization, like Shirley Sulick , the Black wife of a white agent, who enjoyed surveilling KGB operatives during trips to the store and making dead drops by pretending to pick up items that had fallen out of her purse.

Based on more than 100 interviews, published histories, academic articles, declassified documents and personal writings, The Sisterhood is a deeply researched, exhaustive read spanning seven decades of CIA history. “Women were behind numerous intelligence ‘wins’ that have never seen the light of day, and [they] made points, papers and predictions that more attention should have been paid to,” Mundy writes. At the same time, the journalist acknowledges the harm women have done as participants “in some of the agency’s darkest, most controversial chapters.”

Preview thumbnail for 'The Sisterhood: The Secret History of Women at the CIA

The Sisterhood: The Secret History of Women at the CIA

The acclaimed author of “Code Girls” returns with a history of three generations at the CIA, “electric with revelations” about the women who fought to become operatives, transformed spycraft and tracked down Osama bin Laden.

Master Slave Husband Wife: An Epic Journey From Slavery to Freedom by Ilyon Woo

The story of Ellen and William Craft , a couple who escaped slavery in 1848 by disguising themselves as an ailing white planter and his enslaved attendant, has received renewed attention in recent years, inspiring a short film , a children’s book and several academic studies . But it’s Ilyon Woo ’s biography of the Crafts, Master Slave Husband Wife , that’s poised to become the authoritative account of their journey to freedom.

Born to a white planter and an enslaved woman, Ellen fell in love with William, an enslaved cabinetmaker, while working in the Georgia home of her white half-sister. The couple hatched an escape plan, taking advantage of Ellen’s white-passing appearance to transform themselves into an unassuming duo: a master and his servant. Ellen dressed as a man, wore a sling on her arm to avoid being asked to write, applied poultices to her neck to indicate she had trouble speaking and wore hand-sewn clothing that spoke to her supposed high status. Traveling via train and steamship, the Crafts reached the free state of Pennsylvania on Christmas Day, after several close calls. They briefly found fame on the abolitionist speaking circuit, but following the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, they fled to the United Kingdom. While living abroad, they wrote a book about their escape, though Woo points out that William downplayed Ellen’s role, claiming sole authorship of the text and referring to her only as his wife.

Master Slave Husband Wife is meticulously sourced, with “every description, quotation and line of dialogue” coming from historical materials, according to Woo. Yet the author’s prose is novelistic, immersing readers in the escape through descriptions of the “gentleman’s drawers” Ellen wore as part of her disguise and the tools of torture that awaited enslaved people at the Sugar House in Charleston, South Carolina, where the couple stopped on their way to Philadelphia. The dangerous voyage was “very cinematic,” Woo tells NPR . “Whenever I got stuck in trying to figure out how to tell this story, I sort of tried to picture: where would the camera move, and which camerapeople am I going to use in terms of the angles that I’ll get into the story?”

Preview thumbnail for 'Master Slave Husband Wife: An Epic Journey from Slavery to Freedom

Master Slave Husband Wife: An Epic Journey from Slavery to Freedom

The remarkable true story of Ellen and William Craft, who escaped slavery through daring, determination and disguise, with Ellen passing as a wealthy, disabled white man and William posing as "his" enslaved servant.

I Saw Death Coming: A History of Terror and Survival in the War Against Reconstruction by Kidada E. Williams

Reconstruction , the government-sanctioned push to reunite the nation in the aftermath of the Civil War, is often deemed a failure by historians . The federal government gave Southerners significant freedom to choose how they wanted to rebuild; rebellious states responded by passing laws that limited the rights of Black Americans and establishing white supremacist groups like the Ku Klux Klan. Given the systematic nature of this campaign against Black Americans, historian Kidada E. Williams believes that classifying Reconstruction as a failure is an oversimplification. “Black Reconstruction didn’t ‘fail,’ as so many are taught,” she writes in I Saw Death Coming . “White Southerners overthrew it, and the rest of the nation let them.”

Williams’ painstakingly researched book centers firsthand testimony from Black Americans, as recorded in transcripts from a congressional investigation into the KKK; affidavits provided to the Freedmen’s Bureau; interviews given to the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s; newspaper articles; and personal papers. Though these sources have long been available to historians, Williams approached them from a new perspective, focusing on “African Americans’ efforts to articulate what their families had gained with Reconstruction (what they had achieved with freedom and the expansion of democracy) and what they had lost and were losing to racist violence,” as she tells the Detroit Free Press .

I Saw Death Coming is a timely, incisive read at a time when white nationalism is on the rise , even as many Americans take steps to confront systemic racism in the U.S. Instead of attributing Reconstruction-era violence to “pockets of white resistance,” Williams suggests that “a kind of crypto-Confederacy emerged from the collective rage of a fallen white South that refused to cede an inch to those they had subjugated,” notes the Los Angeles Times in a review. “White Southerners did not seek to completely exterminate all African Americans,” Williams argues, “but the successive violence they used, rejecting newly freed people’s right to any rights, was genocidal-like in nature.”

Preview thumbnail for 'I Saw Death Coming: A History of Terror and Survival in the War Against Reconstruction

I Saw Death Coming: A History of Terror and Survival in the War Against Reconstruction

From a groundbreaking scholar, a heart-wrenching re-examination of the struggle for survival in the Reconstruction-era South and what it cost.

The World: A Family History of Humanity by Simon Sebag Montefiore

“The family,” writes Simon Sebag Montefiore in The World , “remains the essential unit of human existence.” From the Egyptian king Khufu and his mother to the “conquering family” of Genghis Khan, the Habsburg and Romanov dynasties, and the Roosevelts, Montefiore’s sweeping history traces the trajectory of the world through the relatives who ruled over it. Some of his subjects are household names, but many others are lesser known to many readers in the U.S., among them Jacques I of Haiti, the Mughal Emperor Babur and Chinese Empress Wu.

The historian’s sweeping exploration captures the complicated nature of family dynamics, particularly when politics is involved. He details acts of violence against relatives, including Ptolemy IV’s dismemberment of his son and Kim Jong-un’s likely murder of his brother; battles over succession rights among heirs; political marriages in which parents sent their daughters “to marry strangers in faraway lands where they then die[d] in childbirth”; and (comparatively rare) heartwarming moments between loved ones. The portrait that emerges is one of dysfunction , with the pitfalls of hereditary power, whether formalized or embodied by political dynasties like the Kennedys, readily apparent.

Packed with memorable anecdotes and lurid details, The World focuses less on how family units have evolved over time than on the stories of families throughout history. This approach succeeds in large part because of the encyclopedic depth of Montefiore’s research evident throughout the book’s 23 chapters and 1,344 pages. “In every family drama, there are many acts,” the historian writes. “That is what Samuel Johnson meant when he said every kingdom is a family and every family a little kingdom.”

Preview thumbnail for 'The World: A Family History of Humanity

The World: A Family History of Humanity

A magisterial world history unlike any other that tells the story of humanity through the one thing we all have in common: families.

On Savage Shores: How Indigenous Americans Discovered Europe by Caroline Dodds Pennock

Books about the Age of Exploration tend to focus on the Europeans who journeyed to the Americas in the 15th and 16th centuries. Historian Caroline Dodds Pennock opted for a different approach, reversing focus to discuss the tens of thousands of Indigenous Americans who traveled to Europe between 1492, when Christopher Columbus supposedly “discovered” the New World, and 1607, when the colony of Jamestown was founded.

“These overlooked multitudes of Indigenous travelers—nobles, diplomats, servants, translators, families, entertainers, enslaved people—overturn our understandings of early modern exploration and empire,” writes Pennock in On Savage Shores . “And the vast network of global connections they inhabited … sowed the seeds of our cosmopolitan modern world more than a century before” the Mayflower landed in Massachusetts in 1620.

Pennock’s book draws on archival records to tell the stories of a diverse group of Indigenous people, including Martín Cortés , the mixed-race son of conquistador Hernán Cortés, who “lived the life of a young Spanish nobleman, essentially,” as Pennock told Smithsonian earlier this year; Guaibimpará (Catherine du Brasil), a Brazilian woman who settled in France with her husband, a shipwrecked Portuguese sailor, in 1528; and Diego de Torres y Moyachoque, a cacique , or tribal chief, who traveled to Spain on a diplomatic mission in 1575.

Many of Pennock’s subjects are anonymous, their names unrecorded in European sources that offer limited glimpses of their lives. But the historian deftly navigates these gaps in the archives, interrogating the colonialist bias of the records available to present a fuller portrait of cultural exchange at a pivotal moment in world history. As historian David Olusoga puts it in a review for the Guardian , On Savage Shores is a “work of historical recovery.”

Preview thumbnail for 'On Savage Shores: How Indigenous Americans Discovered Europe

On Savage Shores: How Indigenous Americans Discovered Europe

A landmark work of narrative history that shatters our previous Eurocentric understanding of the Age of Discovery by telling the story of the Indigenous Americans who journeyed across the Atlantic to Europe after 1492.

Emperor of Rome: Ruling the Ancient Roman World by Mary Beard

Classicist Mary Beard follows up her epic 2015 history of ancient Rome, SPQR , with a more intimate discussion of the empire’s rulers. As Beard writes in the book’s introduction, Emperor of Rome “explores the fact and fiction, … asking what [rulers] did, why they did it and why their stories have been told in the extravagant, sometimes lurid, ways that they have.” In addition to addressing “power, corruption and conspiracy,” the book asks what these individuals’ everyday lives were like, from what and where they ate to whom they slept with and how they traveled.

Beard begins her narrative with Elagabalus , a Syrian teenager who took the throne at age 14 and was murdered just four years later, in 222 C.E. The emperor is better known for his banquets than his achievements as a ruler: Ancient chronicles claim he forced guests to sit on whoopee cushions; served fake food crafted from wax or glass; and released tame animals in rooms occupied by hungover attendees, who died of fright upon waking up face to face with a lion, leopard or bear.

As entertaining as these anecdotes are, historians generally agree that they’re grossly exaggerated, concocted by those eager to win the favor of Elagabalus’ successor. Though these stories are unreliable, Beard argues that they open a window into “the anxieties that surrounded imperial rule,” chief among them “the terror of power without limits.” The scholar also uses archaeological evidence to examine the veracity of ancient accounts; as she points out, the limited nature of cooking facilities at Hadrian’s Tivoli villa contradicts the suggestion that feasts featuring peacock brains and flamingo tongues were regular occurrences there.

The biggest question posed by Emperor of Rome is why some rulers are considered good and others bad. The answer, according to Beard, comes down to succession . Roman emperors didn’t simply pass on the throne to their eldest son, as generations of European rulers would later do. Instead, they designated a successor, who could be a relative but was often not. Whether this individual ultimately claimed the title—and what happened when emperors failed to name an heir—was an entirely different issue, and “the transition of power was almost always debated, fraught and sometimes killed for,” writes Beard. “Once the old ruler was dead, it was others who could turn, or refuse to turn, the implied promises of succession into reality.”

The emperors deemed successful, the classicist concludes, were the ones succeeded by their chosen successor, who was “almost bound to invest heavily in honoring the man who had put him there, and on whom his right to rule depended.”

Preview thumbnail for 'Emperor of Rome: Ruling the Ancient Roman World

Emperor of Rome: Ruling the Ancient Roman World

"Emperor of Rome" goes directly to the heart of Roman fantasies (and our own) about what it was to be Roman at its richest, most luxurious, most extreme, most powerful and most deadly, offering an account of Roman history as it has never been presented before.

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Meilan Solly

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Meilan Solly is Smithsonian magazine's associate digital editor, history.

10 Best-Selling Black Authors Who Shaped Literary History

Exploring themes of racism, oppression and violence, these African American writers have rightfully earned their place in the canon of great authors.

james baldwin

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What's more, these eloquent storytellers, who have contributed endless works of art, from poems, plays and essays to novels and nonfiction staples, have also taken up the mantle for their ancestors — many of whom were forced, in chains, from their African homeland to the United States — to tell their stories that had previously been passed down only verbally.

Here are some of the best-selling Black authors whose voices have both shaped and defined literary history:

Maya Angelou

maya angelou gestures while speaking in a chair during an interview at her home in 1978

One of the most prolific writers of our time, Black or otherwise, Maya Angelou's storied career spanned several decades and included the publication of everything from poetry and essays to several autobiographies, including 1969's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings . The deeply personal (and highly successful) book — which chronicled Angelou's experiences of rape, identity and racism as a young girl in the south — earned the author the distinction of penning the first nonfiction best-seller by an African American woman.

Twenty-four years after I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings' release, Angelou read her poem "On the Pulse of Morning" at President Bill Clinton's 1993 inauguration, and the 1969 autobiography once again landed on the bestseller list, with sales reportedly skyrocketing 500 percent. (Her 2014 death at the age of 86 had the same effect on sales.) With other works, such as Angelou's 1981 memoir, The Heart of a Woman , flying off shelves, the Pulitzer nominee was a longtime fixture on bestsellers lists.

READ MORE: The Meaning Behind Maya Angelou's Poem "Still I Rise"

Zora Neale Hurston

zora neale hurston

The daughter of two formerly enslaved people, Zora Neale Hurston was a prominent figure in the Harlem Renaissance . After releasing acclaimed short stories, such as 1926's "Sweat," and essays, including the autobiographical "How It Feels to be Colored Me" in 1928, Hurston eventually wrote her classic novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God , in 1937. Three years later, she published her autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road , to great critical acclaim.

In 2005, Winfrey’s Harpo Productions aired a television movie version of Their Eyes Were Watching God , which starred actors Halle Berry , Michael Ealy and Terrence Howard.

Chinua Achebe

chinua achebe in new york city on march 6, 1988

Chinua Achebe's seminal first novel, Things Fall Apart , has sold an estimated 20 million copies and has been translated into more than 50 languages since its 1958 release. The book, which thoughtfully examined discord in the wake of Christian missionaries exerting influence over African culture under Nigeria's colonial government, has been hailed as one of the bestselling literary novels by an African author, based on sales figures.

The native Nigerian, who later taught as a professor at the University of Massachusetts , also wrote such titles as 1960's No Longer at Ease , 1964's Arrow of God and Anthills of the Savannah in 1987.

Langston Hughes

langston hughes

Langston Hughes summed up his mission in a 1926 manifesto, “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” writing, “We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, it doesn’t matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly too. The tom-tom cries and the tom-tom laughs. If colored people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, their displeasure doesn’t matter either.”

Famed as a Harlem Renaissance poet, novelist and playwright, Hughes published his first novel Not Without Laughter in 1930, earning great commercial success — and the Harmon gold medal for literature. In addition to myriad poems and plays, the one-time student of New York City's Columbia University also published autobiographies, The Big Sea and I Wonder as I Wander , as well as one of his most famous poems, “Harlem (Dream Deferred)" in 1951.

READ MORE: Langston Hughes' Impact on the Harlem Renaissance

alex haley at the broadway department store book department in fox hills mall

While there's some disparity over official sales figures, it's safe to say that Alex Haley's 1976 classic, Roots , has sold well over five million copies. (Most estimates actually hover near the six million mark.) What's even safer to say is that the story of Haley's ancestors — beginning with 18th-century enslaved African Kunta Kinte — is one of the most important works depicting the horrors and subsequent fallout of the Atlantic enslaved person trade. In 1977, Haley won the fiction Pulitzer Prize for Roots , which was also adapted into two miniseries.

Another of the author's best-known works, 1965's The Autobiography of Malcolm X , a collaboration between the journalist and the civil rights activist who was assassinated in Harlem in 1965, also sold in comparable numbers to Roots .

Michelle Obama

michelle obama discusses her book becoming with sarah jessica parker at barclays center on december 19 2018 in new york city

When they went low, Michelle Obama's sales numbers went high. Although it was only released in November 2018, the first-time author and the former first lady's memoir, Becoming , has already made history.

With reading enthusiasts buying more than three million books shortly following its publication, not only did the tome sell more copies in just one-and-a-half months than any other book in all of 2018, it also is “among the fastest-selling nonfiction books in history and already among the best-selling political memoirs of all time,” according to the Associated Press.

Toni Morrison

toni morrison photographed in new york city in 1979

In 1988, Toni Morrison won both the Pulitzer Prize and the American Book Award for her novel Beloved , which told the harrowing story of a formerly enslaved person following the Civil War. After writing the 1987 release, which was also adapted into a 1998 film starring Oprah Winfrey and Danny Glover, Morrison went on to earn 1993's Nobel Prize in Literature for her 1997 book, Song of Solomon .

Additional titles, like her first novel, 1970's The Bluest Eye , as well as 1973's Sula were but a few of Morrison's works that made a lasting mark on the record of the African American experience.

READ MORE: Oprah Winfrey Once Described Longtime Friend Toni Morrison as 'Our Conscience'

Alice Walker

alice walker

Also adapted into a 1985 film starring Winfrey and Glover and directed by Steven Spielberg , The Color Purple , which Alice Walker had published three years prior, won the 1983 Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award in the fiction category. In addition to her 1930s-set book, which also spawned a Broadway stage adaptation, Walker's later bestsellers included 2006's We Are The Ones We Have Been Waiting For and 2010's The World Has Changed .

James Baldwin

james baldwin

Famed essayist, playwright and novelist James Baldwin rose to literary prominence through works such as his insightful semi-autobiographical 1953 novel Go Tell It on the Mountain , 1955's Notes of a Native Son , 1962's Another Country , and 1963's The Fire Next Time . After selling more than one million copies, his 1961 collection of essays, Nobody Knows My Name , earned him a spot on the bestsellers list.

The Harlem-born writer, who was highly adept at tackling issues of race, sexuality and spirituality, had several of his pieces adapted for the big screen. Among them: 2016 Academy Award Best Documentary Feature nominee I Am Not Your Negro which was based on his unfinished Remember This House manuscript, as well as the 2019 Barry Jenkins-directed (and also Oscar-nominated) If Beale Street Could Talk , based on Baldwin's 1974 novel.

READ MORE: Martin Luther King Jr. and James Baldwin’s Complicated Relationship

Terry McMillan

terry mcmillan

Waiting to Exhale , Terry McMillan's breakout female-centric third novel that she published in 1992, spent several months on The New York Times bestseller list, and, by 1995, sold more than three million copies. The same year, a Forest Whitaker -directed big-screen adaptation hit theaters, with Whitney Houston , Angela Bassett , Loretta Devine, and Lela Rochon leading the ensemble cast.

Another of the Michigan native's bestsellers, 1996's How Stella Got Her Groove Back , was adapted into a 1998 film also starring Bassett, this time alongside Whoopi Goldberg and Taye Diggs.

Black History

inventor garrett morgan helping responders lift the body of a tunnel disaster victim while wearing his safety hood device on his back

Get to Know 5 History-Making Black Country Singers

frederick mckinley jones, may 1949, by sharee marcus, minneapolis tribune, inventor

Frederick Jones

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Lonnie Johnson

bob marley smiles and wears a red, yellow and green knit hat with a denim collared shirt over an orange v neck sweater

Benjamin Banneker

josephine baker

Josephine Baker

lewis howard latimer stares at the camera in a black and white photo, he wears a suit with a patterned tie and wire framed glasses

Lewis Howard Latimer

jackie joyner kersee

Jackie Joyner-Kersee

rubin carter

Rubin Carter

toussaint l'ouverture

Toussaint L'Ouverture

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Neil deGrasse Tyson

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best selling fiction book in history

Here are the Biggest Nonfiction Bestsellers of the Last 100 Years

(and the books we remember instead).

Last week, we published a list of the biggest fiction bestsellers of the past 100 years —and gently compared them to the books we still read and talk about from those very same years. Sometimes the difference was striking, and sometimes, readers of the past, you kind of nailed it. A few of our own, present-day readers wrote in to request that we give nonfiction books the same treatment, and since  Publishers Weekly  also kept lists of the bestselling nonfiction of the past 100 years, those readers are in luck. The data below comes almost entirely from those lists, which count sales of nonfiction books in the United States, and are of course subject to all of the flaws, faults, and inaccuracies of any similar best-seller lists.

As with the fiction list, for each year I also added a few of what I’d consider to be some of the most famous, best, and/or most influential books published in each year—that is, the books we still read and talk about in 2018. Again, these picks are subject to the flaws, faults, and inaccuracies of any list of books made by a human with her own tastes and interests and awarenesses.

Some general takeaways from the nonfiction lists:

1. Certain books counted as nonfiction by  Publisher’s Weekly are . . . not exactly nonfiction. Religious texts and books of poetry pop up repeatedly on these lists (the Bible held serious sway in the 50s, a fact which I will not make any comments about), and I’ve left them, but to be true to my own sense of propriety, I haven’t added any of my own in the “also published” lists.

2.  As with the fiction list, sometimes it took notable books a cycle or two to “arrive” as bestsellers.

3 . Everyone was playing (or at least reading about) Canasta in 1949.

4. Some of the years, like 1950, give a great snapshot of American culture at the time. Others are a little more obscure. And whether demonstrative of the era or not, some of these years do not age well. 1987, I’m looking at you.

5. Diet books have always been popular, and so have self-help books, but in the 80s they begin to really strangle the lists. I wonder if this is a primarily American phenomenon. Either way, we all need to learn to accept ourselves and read a good travel narrative or something.

6. On that note, I have to admit that, while there were periods in the fiction list that I found a bit troubling, the nonfiction version is a lot more depressing. I mean, in 1994, three of the top ten bestselling books of the year in this country were Magic Eye books. Three. Three! Maybe this is merely a matter of categorization, but it still made me groan loudly in the Lit Hub office, multiple times. [Ed. note: we thought she was ill.]

Perhaps you will groan too. Perhaps you will cheer. Either way, without any further ado, I now present the biggest nonfiction bestsellers of the last 100 years:

Robert W. Service, Rhymes of a Red Cross Man

The best-selling nonfiction of the year:

1. Robert W. Service, Rhymes of a Red Cross Man 2. G. H. Clark, Treasury of War Poetry 3. Everard J. Appleton, With the Colors 4. Viscount Morley, Recollections 5. Douglas Fairbanks, Laugh and Live 6. Albert Bigelow Paine, ed., Mark Twain’s Letters 7. Richard Harding Davis, Adventures and Letters of Richard Harding Davis 8. Edgar Guest, Over Here 9. Edith O’Shaughnessy, Diplomatic Days 10. Alan Seeger, Poems of Alan Seeger

Also published that year:

Henry Adams,  The Education of Henry Adams

Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams

1. Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams 2. Rudyard Kipling, The Years Between 3. Brand Whitlock, Belgium 4. Margaret Cameron, The Seven Purposes 5. John McCrae, In Flanders Fields 6. John Spargo, Bolshevism

H. L. Mencken, The American Language

Philip Gibbs, Now It Can Be Told

1. Philip Gibbs, Now It Can Be Told 2. John M. Keynes, The Economic Consequences of the Peace 3. Joseph B. Bishop, ed., Roosevelt’s Letters to His Children 4. William Roscoe Thayer, Theodore Roosevelt 5. Frederick O’Brien, White Shadows in the South Seas 6. Cornelia Stratton Parker, An American Idyll

William Strunk Jr.,  The Elements of Style  (first commercial edition)

H. G. Wells, The Outline of History

1. H. G. Wells, The Outline of History 2. Frederick O’Brien, White Shadows in the South Seas 3. A Gentleman with a Duster (Harold Begbie), The Mirrors of Downing Street 4. Margot Asquith, The Autobiography of Margot Asquith 6. Robert Lansing, Peace Negotiations

Edward Sapir, Language: an Introduction to the Study of Speech

1. H. G. Wells, The Outline of History 2. Hendrik Willem Van Loon, The Story of Mankind 3. Edward Bok, The Americanization of Edward Bok 4. Lulu Hunt Peters, Diet and Health 5. James Harvey Robinson, The Mind in the Making 6. J. Arthur Thomson, The Outline of Science 7. Josephine A. Jackson and Helen M. Salisbury, Outwitting Our Nerves 8. Lytton Strachey, Queen Victoria 9. Clinton W. Gilbert, Mirrors of Washington 10. A Gentleman with a Duster (Harold Begbie), Painted Windows

e. e. cummings,  The Enormous Room Albert Einstein,  The Meaning of Relativity Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (English translation)

Emily Post, Etiquette

1. Emily Post, Etiquette 2. Giovanni Papini, The Life of Christ 3. Burton J. Hendrick, ed., The Life and Letters of Walter H. Page 4. James Harvey Robinson, The Mind in the Making 5. H. G. Wells, The Outline of History 6. Lulu Hunt Peters, Diet and Health 7. Emile Coué, Self-Mastery Through Conscious Auto-Suggestion 8. Edward Bok, The Americanization of Edward Bok 9. Hendrik Willem Van Loon, The Story of Mankind 10. Edward Bok, A Man from Maine

Carrie Chapman Catt and Nettie Rogers Shuler,  Woman Suffrage and Politics: The Inner Story of the Suffrage Movement Winston Churchill,  The World Crisis (Vols. 1 & 2)

Lulu Hunt Peters, Diet and Health

1. Lulu Hunt Peters, Diet and Health 2. Giovanni Papini, The Life of Christ 3. Fannie Farmer, ed. The Boston Cooking School Cook Book 4. Emily Post, Etiquette 5. André Maurois, Ariel 6. Prosper Buranelli et al., The Cross Word Puzzle Books 7. Mark Twain, Mark Twain’s Autobiography 8. George Bernard Shaw, Saint Joan 9. Albert E. Wiggam, The New Decalogue of Science 10. Edward Bok, The Americanization of Edward Bok

Emma Goldman,  My Further Disillusionment in Russia Lowell Thomas, With Lawrence in Arabia

1. Lulu Hunt Peters, Diet and Health 2. Fannie Farmer, ed., The Boston Cooking School Cook Book 3. A. A. Milne, When We Were Very Young 4. Bruce Barton, The Man Nobody Knows 5. Giovanni Papini, The Life of Christ 6. André Maurois, Ariel 7. Edward Bok, Twice Thirty 8. Lord Grey, Twenty-Five Years 9. J. J. Brousson, Anatole France Himself 10. Prosper Buranelli et al., The Cross Word Puzzle Books

Sarah Bernhardt, The Art of the Theater (English translation) Alain Locke, ed.,  The New Negro

Bruce Barton, The Man Nobody Knows

1. Bruce Barton, The Man Nobody Knows 2. George A. Dorsey, Why We Behave Like Human Beings 3. Lulu Hunt Peters, Diet and Health 4. Mark Sullivan, Our Times, vol. 1 5. Fannie Farmer, ed., The Boston Cooking School Cook Book 6. Milton C. Work, Auction Bridge Complete 7. Bruce Barton, The Book Nobody Knows 8. Will Durant, The Story of Philosophy 9. Edgar A. Guest, The Light of Faith 10. Claude G. Bowers, Jefferson and Hamilton

T. E. Lawrence,  Seven Pillars of Wisdom

Will Durant, The Story of Philosophy

1. Will Durant, The Story of Philosophy 2. Emil Ludwig, Napoleon 3. T. E. Lawrence, Revolt in the Desert 4. Alfred Aloysius Horn and Ethelreda Lewis, Trader Horn, vol. 1 5. Charles A. Lindbergh, We 6. Julian Spafford and Lucien Esty, Ask Me Another 7. Richard Halliburton, The Royal Road to Romance 8. Richard Halliburton, The Glorious Adventure 9. George A. Dorsey, Why We Behave Like Human Beings 10. Katherine Mayo, Mother India

J. W. Dunne,  An Experiment With Time E. M. Forster, Aspects of the Novel The Tibetan Book of the Dead (first English translation, by Walter Evans-Wentz)

André Maurois, Disraeli

1. André Maurois, Disraeli 2. Katherine Mayo, Mother India 3. Alfred Aloysius Horn and Ethelreda Lewis, Trader Horn, vol. 1 4. Emil Ludwig, Napoleon 5. Eugene O’Neill, Strange Interlude 6. Charles A. Lindbergh, We 7. Lowell Thomas, Count Luckner, the Sea Devil 8. Emil Ludwig, Goethe 9. Richard E. Byrd, Skyward 10. George Bernard Shaw, The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism and Capitalism

Nan Britton,  The President’s Daughter Margaret Mead,  Coming of Age in Samoa

Ernest Dimnet, The Art of Thinking

1. Ernest Dimnet, The Art of Thinking 2. Francis Hackett, Henry the Eighth 3. Joan Lowell, The Cradle of the Deep 4. Lytton Strachey, Elizabeth and Essex 5. Chic Sale, The Specialist 6. Walter Lippmann, A Preface to Morals 7. Robert L. Ripley, Believe It or Not 8. Stephen Vincent Benét, John Brown’s Body 9. Claude G. Bowers, The Tragic Era 10. Will Durant, The Mansions of Philosophy

Virginia Woolf,  A Room of One’s Own

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Historical Nonfiction: 30 of the Best Books in the Genre

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Emily Martin

Emily has a PhD in English from the University of Southern Mississippi, MS, and she has an MFA in Creative Writing from GCSU in Milledgeville, GA, home of Flannery O’Connor. She spends her free time reading, watching horror movies and musicals, cuddling cats, Instagramming pictures of cats, and blogging/podcasting about books with the ladies over at #BookSquadGoals (www.booksquadgoals.com). She can be reached at [email protected].

View All posts by Emily Martin

Historical nonfiction is so much more than the history books you read in school. These stories are well researched, thought provoking, and are just as riveting as fiction. In fact, these historical nonfiction books are even harder to put down, because all of this stuff really happened.

The following books are some of the best books in the genre. But I’ve divided them into categories to make it even easier to find your next favorite historical nonfiction read. Choose your poison: general historical nonfiction, historical biographies, historical memoirs, microhistories, historical graphic novels, or even historical true crime.

Historical Nonfiction Books

Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World's Greatest Nuclear Disaster by Adam Higginbotham book cover

Midnight in Chernobyl by Adam Higginbotham

Adam Higginbotham’s page-turner of a historical nonfiction book tells the story of the April 1986 meltdown of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine. Higginbotham’s book draws from hundreds of hours of interviews. In addition, the author referenced letters, unpublished memoirs, and documents from recently-declassified archives. This is the story of a human-made tragedy, and the propaganda and secrecy that kept the true horrors of this story under wraps for so many years.

best selling fiction book in history

Black and British: A Forgotten History   by David Olusoga

This book is a comprehensive look at Britain’s long and complicated relationship with the people of Africa. British historian David Olusoga points out how Black British history has long been an integral part of the cultural and economic histories of the nation. Drawing from genetic and genealogical research, original records, expert testimony, and contemporary interviews, Olusoga retraces how Black British history has shaped the country. This book looks all the way back at Roman Britain, Shakespeare’s Othello, Trafalgar, the World Wars, and much more.

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best selling fiction book in history

Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World by Jack Weatherford

This is the true history of Genghis Khan, written by anthropologist Jack Weatherford. This book looks at Khan’s rise through Mongol tribal culture and his waging of wars. But what makes Weatherford’s book the most fascinating account of Khan is the focus on how the leader shaped our culture. Genghis Khan’s conquests lead to the rise of the Mongol Empire and modern civilization as we know it.

best selling fiction book in history

American Rebels by Nina Sankovitch

In American Rebels , author and historian Nina Sankovitch tells the story of American’s revolutionaries. With extensive research and thoughtful prose, Sankovitch traces the lives of John Hancock, John Adams, Josiah Quincy Jr, Abigail Smith Adams, and Dorothy Quincy Hancock, examining how each of these historical figures played their own distinct roles in the American Revolution.

best selling fiction book in history

Square Haunting by Francesca Wade

In the time between the two world wars, London’s Mecklenburgh Square became a home to students, struggling artists, and revolutionaries. Among those who made their home there were five women writers: modernist poet H. D.; detective novelist Dorothy L. Sayers; classicist Jane Harrison; economic historian Eileen Power; and author and publisher Virginia Woolf. This time in history was a time of great change, and these writers were revolutionaries at the center of that change. Francesca Wade’s biography tells of this specific time and specific place in five significant women writers’ lives.

stamped from the beginning

Stamped from the Beginning by Ibram X. Kendi

It’s no fluke that Stamped from the Beginning has been on bestseller lists in the recent months. If you’re looking for a comprehensive and unflinching look at Black history and racism in America, Ibram X. Kendi’s book is the one to read. Kendi looks back at the history of America through the lens of five “tour guides.” Those guides are: Puritan minister Cotton Mather, Thomas Jefferson, abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, W.E.B. Du Bois, and activist Angela Davis. Through the stories of these American intellectuals, Kendi gives readers a clear picture of racism in America, both past and present, and why we are not living in a post-racial society.

best selling fiction book in history

For All Humankind by Tanya Harrison

The moon landing was quite the accomplishment for the United States. But how did other countries view this accomplishment? Dr. Tanya Harrison tells the previously untold stories behind the moon landing. Speaking to people from all across the world, she wants to get to the bottom of how people outside of the United States viewed astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin’s first steps on the Moon on July 20, 1969. What did having a “man on the moon” mean to the international community?

best selling fiction book in history

Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments by Saidiya Hartman

If you’re looking for historical nonfiction that focuses more on the lives of Black women, read this book. In Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments , author Saidiya Hartman writes about young Black women and the revolution of their intimate lives that happened in Philadelphia and New York at the beginning of the 20th century. This was a time period where free love, common-law and transient marriages, serial partners, cohabitation outside of wedlock, queer relations, and single motherhood became more commonly accepted. Hartman’s book considers the way these revolutionary changes affected the Black community and Black families.

best selling fiction book in history

Last Boat Out of Shanghai by Helen ZIa

Some of the best historical nonfiction reflects issues that we’re still dealing with to this day. For instance, you’ll certainly see some parallels between contemporary immigration issues and what Zia writes about in Last Boat Out of Shanghai. With impeccable research and beautiful prose, Helen Zia relates the true stories of four young people caught up in the mass exodus of Shanghai in the wake of China’s 1949 Communist revolution.

best selling fiction book in history

Rivers of Power by Laurence C. Smith

The books on this list thus far have focused on the history of humanity and specific people, but geographer Laurence C. Smith explores looks at natural history in Rivers of Power. In this book, Smith asks how and why rivers have been able to shape civilization and our past, present, and future as a whole. Of course, rivers provide water supply, transportation, and sanitation, but they also define borders and force cooperation between nations. Rivers affect wars and politics. So really, this history of rivers is also a history of humanity. We just can’t escape people, it seems.

best selling fiction book in history

England’s Other Countrymen: Blackness in Tudor Society by Onyeka Nubia

The Tudor era has always been an obsession for fans of historical nonfiction and fiction. But when most people think of the Tudor period, they think about a country and culture that was predominantly white. However, in England’s Other Countrymen , historian Onyeka Nubia points out that there were many people of African descent in Tudor England. In fact, Nubia argues that ideas about race during this time period were a lot more nuanced than we realize, and a lot of the idea of racism that we project on the Tudor period are actually more recent developments. Nubia’s book not only contextualizes race in the Tudor period, it also forces readers to reexamine their contemporary understanding of race and racism.

Historical Biographies

best selling fiction book in history

You Never Forget Your First by Alexis Coe

This book is unlike any other biography of a president you’ll ever read. Historian Alexis Coe’s You Never Forget Your First is a book about George Washington, America’s first president. But Coe isn’t interested in simply focusing on the linear history of Washington’s life, like many other biographies have already done. Instead, she examines the mythology surrounding Washington and gets to the heart of who America’s first president truly was, beyond all of the normal information we are taught in school. This biography is both informative and entertaining. And Coe includes a healthy dose of humor too.

best selling fiction book in history

American Sherlock by Kate Winkler Dawson

This book is the story of Edward Oscar Heinrich, who has been called (you guessed it) “the American Sherlock Holmes.” Heinrich cracked at least 2,000 cases in his 40 year career and pioneered forensic science as we know of it today. This was essentially the birth of criminal investigation in the 20th century. Kate Winkler Dawson’s book is compelling, impeccably researched, and features thousands of never-before-published primary source materials.

best selling fiction book in history

Butch Cassidy by Charles Leerhsen

You’ve likely heard of the film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,  but Leerhesen’s biography goes beyond the character we know from the film and the legends. This Butch Cassidy is very real, and through his story, Leerhesen paints a vivid portrait of not only this man but the realities of the Old West and crime as it was viewed during this time period.

best selling fiction book in history

Lafayette in the Somewhat United States by Sarah Vowell

This is a unique and interesting look at Revolutionary War hero Marquis de Lafayette. Vowell’s book examines the life of this Frenchman and the impact he was able to have on the then very young United States of America. She also looks at Lafayette’s relationships with and influence over some of America’s most important historical figures, such as George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and Thomas Jefferson.

best selling fiction book in history

Parting the Waters by Taylor Branch

If you’re looking for a biography on civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., Taylor Branch’s Parting the Waters is an excellent read. This Pulitzer Prize–winning book is a thorough look at the Civil Rights Movement. At over 1,000 pages, this is an epic portrait of King’s rise to greatness, the strengths and weaknesses of the man behind the movement, and a country on the verge of revolution. Yes, that’s right. I said “over 1,000 pages.” This book is long, but the story is compelling. You won’t want to put it down.

best selling fiction book in history

A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare : 1599 by James Shapiro

While Parting the Waters takes a look at one time period in Martin Luther King Jr.’s life, James Shapiro’s book gets even more specific with his subject, William Shakespeare. As you probably guessed from the title, this book is about one year of Shakespeare’s life: 1599. In this year alone, Shakespeare wrote four of his most famous plays: Henry the Fifth, Julius Caesar, As You Like It,  and Hamlet . Kind of makes you look back at 2020 and wonder where the time has gone, doesn’t it?

Historical Nonfiction Memoirs

best selling fiction book in history

Driving While Black by Gretchen Sorin

Historical nonfiction mixed with memoir is such a fascinating combination. It contextualizes history and makes it more personal. For instance, Driving While Black reflects on Gretchen Sorin’s own personal family history and experiences with traveling on the road. But she also focuses on traveling by car and how this mode of transportation has been liberating for Black people in America. Sorin looks at how travel guides, Black-only businesses, and informal communications networks have helped keep Black people safe on the roads in the 20th century. At the same time, despite the freedoms that cars offered, driving also created new challenges for Black people: segregated ambulance services, unwarranted traffic stops, and racist violence.

best selling fiction book in history

My Vanishing Country by Bakari Sellers

This is the memoir of CNN analyst, and one of the youngest state representatives in South Carolina history, Bakari Sellers. Sellers writes his own personal story while also asking readers to acknowledge the crisis affecting the other “Forgotten Men & Women” of America. Black people in the rural South lack access to healthcare, sustainable income, and even their own identities and traditions. This is Sellers’s story of growing up in the South, but it’s also the history of the many Southern Black people’s struggles.

best selling fiction book in history

The Other Madisons by Bettye Kearse

Bettye Kearse is a presumed descendant of an enslaved cook and President James Madison. As Kearse tries to get to the bottom of the truth behind her family’s history, she finds obstacles at every turn. The history of her ancestry has been kept a secret and has thereby essentially been erased. So while Kearse writes her family’s history here, she also examines the stories of African enslaved people whose voices have been silenced throughout American history.

The Woman Warrior- Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts by Maxine Hong Kingston

The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston

The Woman Warrior is such a unique addition to the historical nonfiction and memoir genres. And so it’s unsurprising that this book is now considered a classic. In this feminist memoir, Maxine Hong Kingston mixes mythology and personal stories to examine her life and her identity as a Chinese American woman. Kingston uses personal history and cultural history to contextualize the many facets of her identity.

Microhistory Books

best selling fiction book in history

The Plaza by Julie Satow

The Plaza Hotel has become synonymous with wealth, fame, and glamour, and it’s also had its share of scandals. And in The Plaza, author Julie Satow traces the history and the stories behind famous hotel. She starts from the moment it opened in 1907 and welcomed millionaire Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt as its first guest to today’s Billionaire Row. This is an eye-opening portrait not just of a hotel but of a city.

best selling fiction book in history

Marriage, A History by Stephanie Coontz

I picked up this book for research purposes, not knowing what a fascinating read it would turn out to be. But author Stephanie Coontz really shines a light on the history of marriage and romantic love. Reading this book opened my eyes to a lot of the practices we take for granted as being “normal.” This book is about the history of marriage and how the institution became what it is we have today. This is an interesting look at relationships and gender roles, a lot of which were established more recently than you may realize.

best selling fiction book in history

Heaven and Hell by Bart D. Ehrman

We’ve looked at a lot of books that cover earthly issues. But what about the history of life after death? What happens when we die? And where did our beliefs about the afterlife come from? Historian Bart Ehrman seeks to answer those questions and more in this book. Heaven and Hell is about the long history of the afterlife, humanity’s beliefs in heaven and hell, and all of the competing views about what happens after we die.

best selling fiction book in history

The Black Death: A Personal History by John Hatcher

There’s a lot of medieval historical nonfiction out there in the world. But The Black Death: A Personal History might be the most unique. In this book, John Hatcher, a celebrated economic and social historian, draws on his knowledge and research on the impact of the Black Death on medieval England to imagine what it was like to live through this time. Hatcher is able to recreate everyday medieval life in a parish in Suffolk, from which most of the still-available documents about the Black Death originate.

Historical Nonfiction Graphic Novels

March: Book One cover

March by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell

With John Lewis’s recent passing, many people (myself included) have become even more interested in the important work Lewis did in his lifetime. The graphic novel series March looks at John Lewis’s lifelong struggle for civil and human rights, comparing where we are now to the Civil Rights Moment of the 1950s. The first book in the series covers Lewis’s youth in rural Alabama, the meeting with Martin Luther King Jr. that changed Lewis’s life forever, the creation of the Nashville Student Movement, and the movement’s fight against segregation.

best selling fiction book in history

Trinity by Jonathan Fetter-Vorm

A graphic novel that is part science book, part historical nonfiction, and has beautiful illustrations? This one is a no-brainer. You have to pick it up. In his debut graphic novel, illustrator Jonathan Fetter-Vorm gives readers a scientific and historic overview of the atomic bomb. Even though Fetter-Vorm gets into psychics (which, for me, a non-science-y person, is a pretty heavy topic), the book remains easy to follow while still being informative. And of course, Fetter-Vorm pays close attention to the detailed illustrations.

Historical True Crime

best selling fiction book in history

The Golden Thread by Ravi Somaiya

Speaking of books that are a fun mix of genres, enter The Golden Thread by Ravi Somaiya. Somaiya’s book is a fun mix of true crime, investigative journalism, and history. This is the story of the death of renowned diplomat and UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld. Hammarskjöld boarded a plane in Leopoldville, the capital of the Congo, and hours later, his dead body was found in an African jungle with an Ace of Spades tucked in his collar. Somaiya’s investigation of this crime includes entirely new evidence, firsthand accounts, and interviews.

The Trial of Lizzie Borden book cover

The Trial of Lizzie Borden by Cara Robertson

If you’ve ever wanted to know more about the Lizzie Borden case, this is the only book you need to read. The Trial of Lizzie Borden is a well-researched book about the infamous case. Robertson bases her information on 20 years of research, featuring newly discovered evidence. As you read and learn the true story of a crime that has almost become the stuff of legends, you be the judge and jury: what really happened when Andrew and Abby Borden were brutally hacked to death in Fall River, Massachusetts, in August 1892?

best selling fiction book in history

Truevine by Beth Macy

In 1899 at a tobacco farm in the Jim Crow South town of Truevine, Virginia, 10-year old black albino twin brothers named Willie and George Muse were kidnapped. The twins were then displayed as part of a traveling freak show for over ten years. The Muse twins became world famous, but at the root of their success was prejudice. The twins were forced to play racist caricatures throughout their careers. This is the story of these brothers’ lives as “circus freaks” and their mother’s 28-year-long struggle to get her sons back.

If you need even more historical nonfiction, we’ve got you covered. Check out this list of 50 of the Best Nonfiction Books . A lot of historical nonfiction is included. Or try this excellent list of Nonfiction/Historical Fiction Book Pairs .

best selling fiction book in history

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Historical Fiction

The Best Historical Fiction of 2023

It’s been a roller coaster of a year. Thankfully, we’ve had novels to whisk us to days gone by, even if those eras had their own highs and lows.

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In this kaleidoscopic illustration, pocket watches, white pillars and a ship's wheel are layered over a circle of open books with robin's egg blue covers.

By Alida Becker

Alida Becker was an editor at the Book Review for 30 years. She was the first winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for excellence in reviewing.

This year, there have been dozens of first-rate historical novels — so many that choosing even the 25 best would have been a chore. Which makes it that much harder to whittle the list down to 10. After much regretful tossing, here’s my roster, arranged alphabetically.

ABSOLUTION, by Alice McDermott (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 336 pp., $28). You don’t expect to find a McDermott heroine — a woman steeped in the Irish Catholicism of New York and its suburbs — in a place as foreign as Southeast Asia. But you do expect to find her assessing the intricacies of guilt and responsibility wherever she might be. And among the wives of American expatriates in 1963 Saigon, watching the Vietnam hostilities intensify, there’s quite a lot to assess — particularly when it comes to the complicated and compromised leader of this group of women.

THE FRAUD, by Zadie Smith (Penguin Press, 454 pp., $29). Smith’s title refers to a bizarre, long-drawn-out inheritance trial that captivated late-19th-century Britain and incited much argument about honesty and class loyalty. It’s also a sly dig at William Ainsworth, a once-popular, real-life novelist (swiftly eclipsed by his friend Charles Dickens) whose tartly observant, aspiring novelist housekeeper, Eliza Touchet, is drawn to the trial’s key witness. Formerly enslaved on a Jamaican plantation, Andrew Bogle is now a resolute defender of the clearly fraudulent plaintiff.

THE HEAVEN & EARTH GROCERY STORE, by James McBride (Riverhead, 385 pp., $28). A chorus of rambunctious voices pulls McBride’s readers back to a down-at-the-heels community of African Americans and immigrant Jews living together, from the 1920s to the 1970s, in Chicken Hill, a neighborhood on the fringes of a small Pennsylvania town whose intolerant citizens barely acknowledge their existence. A bighearted Jewish shopkeeper’s suspicious death and a hard-working Black child’s brush with the law are the pivots for a deeply engaging plot. Looming on the horizon is Pennhurst, a once-feared asylum with conditions so dreadful it was called “the shame of Pennsylvania.”

THE HOUSE OF DOORS, by Tan Twan Eng (Bloomsbury, 320 pp., $28.99). Inspired by W. Somerset Maugham’s sojourn in 1920s Malaya, Eng’s narrative sets the secrets and subterfuges of his hosts, a married couple firmly entrenched in the gossip-prone European colony on the island of Penang, against the esteemed British writer’s desperate attempt to salvage his dwindling finances by writing about a scandalous murder case. Background tension is provided by the political maneuverings of the local Chinese, many of whom have clandestinely supported Sun Yat-sen’s independence movement.

KANTIKA, by Elizabeth Graver (Metropolitan, 287 pp., $27.99). This account of one extended family’s tumultuous exile is a fictional riff on the life of the author’s maternal grandmother. The novel begins among the Sephardic elite of early-20th-century Istanbul, whose sense of security (not to mention their fortune) vanishes with the destruction of the Ottoman Empire, and it finishes in the 1950s in the polyglot neighborhoods of Queens, where some of them have finally found refuge. Along the way, there are stops amid the precarious bustle of émigré enclaves in 1930s Barcelona and Havana.

NORTH WOODS, by Daniel Mason (Random House, 372 pp., $28). An inventive pastiche of history and fabulation set on a densely forested property in western Massachusetts. The land remains true to itself, but as the centuries pass its inhabitants are a diverse and ever-changing lot: a pair of lovers escaping the Puritan colony, a Revolutionary-era soldier-turned-apple-grower, twin sisters locked in a deadly rivalry, a sexually thwarted painter. Enhanced by poems, ballads, letters, real estate listings and even medical case notes, the narrative progresses up to the present. Yet the natural world — embodied by a wild creature that may or may not be a ghostly catamount — continues to withhold crucial mysteries from the people who seek to tame it.

RIVER SPIRIT, by Leila Aboulela (Grove, 311 pp., $27). The hypocrisies of colonialism and religious fanaticism are explored from many perspectives in this kaleidoscopic portrait of late-19th-century Sudan. When a charismatic leader claiming to be the Mahdi, prophesied as the redeemer of Islam, rallies an army of malcontents and true believers that rampages throughout the countryside, old bonds and old certainties are imperiled, and then smashed to bits. The intrepid young woman at the center of the story is caught up in the resultant turmoil, sold into slavery yet determined to be reunited in Khartoum with the scholar she has come to see as her personal savior.

SOUTH, by Mario Fortunato. Translated by Julia MacGibbon (Other Press, 384 pp., paper, $18.99). The forces of both world wars and Italy’s seemingly endless political turmoil buffet the members of two eccentric bourgeois clans in Fortunato’s archly observed family saga. The novel’s very different small-town Calabrian patriarchs (known only as the Notary and the Pharmacist) preside over a teeming cast in which the servants and hangers-on often vie for center stage. It is, as Fortunato’s omniscient narrator observes, “like a page out of Proust but without any aristocrats.”

THIS OTHER EDEN, by Paul Harding (Norton, 221 pp., $28). Malaga Island was first settled in the late 18th century by a formerly enslaved Black man and his white wife, and over the years it became a refuge for outcasts of different races and conditions. In 1912, its people were forcibly evicted by the state of Maine, and their homes destroyed. Some were sent to the Maine School for the Feeble-Minded, while the rest were dumped on the mainland and told never to return to the island. From this tragic event, Harding (a previous winner of the Pulitzer Prize) has created a devastatingly lyrical fictional portrait of a tight-knit community dismissed as degenerate by those who would “save” it. With heartbreaking empathy, he evokes their daily rhythms, their fears and fascinations and, above all, their improvised harmony with both the sea and one another.

THE WITCHING TIDE, by Margaret Meyer (Scribner, 327 pp., $28). Martha Hallybread, the midwife heroine of Meyer’s first novel, leads a precarious existence: Unable to speak, she communicates via an improvised system of gestures as she plies her trade and wanders the fields collecting an array of healing herbs. How, then, to protect herself and the household she serves when her East Anglian village is caught up in the feverish mid-17th-century hunt for hidden servants of the devil? Meyer’s painstaking research into this period of mass hysteria yields a tension-filled narrative dominated by an impassive stranger known as the witchfinder and his ever-so-proper (and ever-so-cruel) female aide. From one day to the next, friends become enemies and innocent gestures become signs of depravity. No one is safe; everyone is suspect.

An earlier version of this article referred imprecisely to James McBride’s novel “The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store.” It takes place between the 1920s and 1970s. It does not take place just in the 1950s.

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  8. List of best-selling fiction authors

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    Meilan Solly. Associate Editor, History. November 20, 2023. Smithsonian 's picks for the best history books of 2023 include King: A Life , The Sisterhood and The Wager . Illustration by Emily ...

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