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historical fiction books | historical romance books
2020 Reading Recommendations
By Ana Brazil
December 18, 2020

Jolabokaflod-PDX weekend is upon us, which means books, books, books! What better opportunity for us to share our favorite books of 2020?

Here’s Edie Cay’s list:

Evie Dunmore’s Bringing Down the Duke & Rogue of One’s Own. A series about the suffragist movement in Oxford during the late 19th century, it is sexy and heartwarming, and is politically charged. Since we American women are celebrating our 100 years of voting, this series is a lovely way of showing how women can have their cake and eat it too. I loved this series, especially a Rogue of One’s Own, as I identify with independent, prickly women who don’t need a lot to get by.

The Familiars by Stacey Halls. This is a story of two women during the witch-hunt of 1612 in Pendle Hill, England. Birth stories, pregnancies, infidelities, and love are woven together to show how those topics are not just women’s lives–but become the very fabric of the society and economy in which we live. Prepare to be incensed.

An Extraordinary Union by Alyssa Cole. During the American Civil War, it wasn’t just white spies that went South. In this story, a young black woman with a photographic memory is sent into the Confederacy to pose as a slave in an important house. I don’t need to say more.

The Widow of Rose House by Diana Biller. If chills and thrills are not for you, then forgo this romantic suspense ghost story set in 1870s New York City. Content warning: domestic violence.

Mrs. Martin’s Incomparable Adventure by Courtney Milan. This novella will have you cheering! A love story between two women hovering around their seventh decade, is also a show of comeuppance for a young and entitled nephew who overspent his allowance. And you will never want cheese toast more in your life.

Kathryn shares that in this year of sheltering, reading continued to be a source of comfort and joy.

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy. During the early days of sheltering in place I joined an online book club that would read Tolstoy’s masterpiece over four months. Led by the charming and insightful Yiyun Li and joined by a cadre of funny, smart readers from around the world, this experience was a balm for uncertain times.

The Maytrees by Annie Dillard. After we finished War & Peace, the same group (gathered together by A Public Space) embarked on a number of shorter works including this novel by the essayist Annie Dillard. The novel is quirky and occasionally baffling, but so beautifully written that I forgave its foibles.

The Mercies by Kirin Millwood Hargrave. A young girl in 17th century Norway navigates a cruel marriage in a cold and unforgiving climate (both physical and cultural.) I still get the chills thinking about this tale of piety and perseverance.

Magic Lessons by Alice Hoffman. Smart, warm and—well—magical! By the fall I’d recovered from my earlier reading paralysis and was ready for a good yarn. This was it.

Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times by Katherine May. Though this memoir is ostensibly about May’s own troubles, it’s also filled with historical and literary references. May’s language soothed like a heavy blanket, inviting me to take a rest from all the troubles of 2020.

Linda’s list includes an intro—A lot of aunts and uncles and parents are looking for great books for their young adults this time of year. Here are five of my favorite historical fiction books for pre-teens or early teens.

Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes, tells the story of a boy during the American Revolution in Boston. His life plans change when he burns his hand. He can’t marry the girl he admires, and he can no longer follow his chosen career. He must deal with upheaval in his own life as Boston deals with upheaval from the British.

Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai is the story of a young girl who flees Vietnam with her family and ends up in Alabama. It’s told in verse, which makes the story even more beautiful and poignant.

Watsons Go to Birmingham 1963, by Christopher Paul Curtis, is the best brother story I’ve read. The family deeply loves each other and tussles like families do. When the worst happens, though, they circle around each other and protect themselves.

Al Capone Does My Shirts, by Gennifer Choldenko, tells the story of a boy whose father is a guard at Alcatraz when Al Capone is there. New to the island, he must make friends while dealing with his autistic sister. This book is funny and touching in turn, well loved by years of my sixth grade students.

The Paper Magician, by Charlie N. Holmberg, is historical fantasy, which is a favorite of mine. The main character is assigned an apprenticeship to the paper magician, but paper is not the magic she wants to learn. In spite of herself, she is entranced by the animation of folded paper objects. You will be equally entranced by this book.


C.V. Lee has a taste for books that follow the lives of the characters over many years, even decades:

The Miracle at St. Bruno’s by Philippe Carr, is a tale set during the reign of Henry VIII as England goes through the Reformation. An orphan appears at St. Bruno’s abbey on Christmas morning and the monks believe he is a miracle child, but overtime the truth comes out. This is a combination love story, mystery and historical saga.
Penmarric by Susan Howatch, is an older book, a family saga set in Cornwell from the late 19th century through WWII. It follows an aristocratic family as the world around them changes forever. This book was later adapted for a BBC series which unfortunately I have not been able to find in U.S. format.

The King’s Concubine: A Novel of Alice Perrers by Anne O’Brien. Alice Perrers was the mistress of King Edward III. This book is a fictionalized look at how one woman went from being an orphan with no idea who of her parentage to becoming the most powerful and richest woman in England.
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society By Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. If you haven’t read this book, it is a must read. The story is told almost exclusively through letters and is a heartwarming and eye-opening tale of what life was like on the Channel Islands during WWII.
A Cutthroat Business: A Savannah Martin Novel (Savannah Martin Mysteries Book 1) Kindle Edition by Jenna Bennett. – I confess this is not historical fiction but one of my guilty pleasures. This is the first in a series of mysteries (there are now 20). The main character is a real estate agent, so I am naturally drawn since my day job is in the same industry.

And then there are my five:

Even though the surging pandemic prevented me from moderating the Wonder Woman, The Powerful Female Protagonist panel at LeftCoastCrime2020, I did get to read the other panelists’ novels. I loved, love, loved Mike McCrary’s Hard Hearts, a contemporary, action-packed story with a bad-ass heroine.

Speaking about the pandemic, this has been the perfect year to find a soft chair, drop a few marshmallows into a cup of hot chocolate, and settle down for a cozy afternoon with a comfort read. But not me. I went to my bookshelf and pulled out John M. Barry’s The Great Influenza, The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History. It’s an extremely well-written, very uncomfortable read, but it satisfied my curiousity about the course of their plague one hundred years ago and our pandemic this year. Makes me wonder if, decades from now, after someone has written the history of COVID-19, how the two stories will compare.

There are way too many novels about World War II heroines these days and I’m not going to read any of them until I finish all of books in Susan Elia McNeal’s Maggie Hope series. Because I really appreciate how these books open up so many ways that women realized “We Can Do It.”

I don’t consider myself a big fan of Gothics, but I enthusiastically enjoy Anna Lee Huber’s Lady Darby series. My favorite this year was A Grave Matter.

There are not a lot of books that I ABSOLUTELY. MUST. PURCHASE. ON. RELEASE. DAY, but anything written by Julia Spencer-Fleming goes to the top of that list. Hid From Our Eyes is her latest Clare Fergusson/Russ Van Alstyne Mystery and did not disappoint. Since I don’t read a lot of contemporary mysteries, I’ve tried to figure out why I like this series so much and I’ve realized that it’s the characters. (Of course). Clare and Russ have so much humanity, courage, and—here’s an outdated notion—nobility, that I want to spend as much time with them as possible. I’d put them on my speed dial if I could.

Well, that’s our short, short take on our 2020 reading. We’ll be talking lots more about books at our Jolabokaflod-PDX events on Sunday January 20th: Finding Women’s Voices with Linda Ulleseit and Kathryn Pritchett, @ 11:00 am PST, and Charm City: Historical Settings that Transport the Reader with Ana Brazil, Edie Cay, and C.V. Lee @ 3:30 pm PST.

See you Sunday or somewhere amongst the bookshelves!

Ana Brazil
Written by Ana Brazil

Ana Brazil writes historical crime fiction celebrating bodacious American heroines. She is a member of Sisters in Crime, the Historical Novel Society, and a founding member of Paper Lantern Writers.
Ana’s latest historical mystery is THE RED-HOT BLUES CHANTEUSE, which features murder, mayhem, and music in 1919 San Francisco. Her award-winning historical mystery FANNY NEWCOMB & THE IRISH CHANNEL RIPPER is set in Gilded Age New Orleans.

View Ana’s PLW Profile

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