On average, Americans read about twelve books per year. But according to the research, avid readers far surpass that number. My own research and anecdotal experience bears this out: reading blog comments, poring over reader surveys, and interviewing guests on my podcast What Should I Read Next. A dozen books on average, you say? Our surveys show some of you read one hundred and twelve books in a year, or three times that many!
Voracious readers tend to read heaps of fiction, especially historical fiction, mystery, romance, and book series of all genres. Our community is comprised largely of these avid readers, and I was curious to find out which titles you have read, loved, and recommended the most over the past five or so years.
And so we dug into our data to discover the answer. avid —so I thought I’d turn to our community of readers to ask: after reading (literal) piles of books, what titles stand out as favorites?
Today we’re focusing on historical fiction; our new book list is packed with favorite historical novels from our community of readers. These are the titles that you say you read and talk about the most—the ones you share on the blog, rave about in the MMD Book Club forums, purchase for your own bookshelves, and check out from the library.
If you’re looking for a well-told story to transport you to a different time, I hope you find your next great read (or a whole pile for your TBR) on this list.
33 well-loved historical fiction books
The titular hotel is a real place: it’s Seattle’s Panama Hotel. In this fictional story, an old man looks back to his 1940s childhood and remembers with fondness his friendship—and maybe something more—with his young Japanese friend Keiko. They lose touch when Keiko and her family are evacuated during the Japanese internment. (I learned so little about this in my U.S. history classes that when I first read the book I kept googling Ford’s historical references to see if they really happened. They did.) More info →
Opening line: “My father, James Witherspoon, is a bigamist.” In this backlist novel set in the 1980s, Jones writes about the link between two African-American half sisters, one legitimate and one secret, only one of whom knows the other exists. That is, until the secret of their father’s second marriage starts to force its way into the open. Rather than writing back-and-forth between two perspectives, the reader encounters almost all of one sister’s point of view in the first half, followed by the other’s. The result is an absorbing coming-of-age narrative wrapped in a complicated family novel. More info →
When a British plane crashes in Nazi-occupied territory, one passenger is captured and interrogated. The young girl known as “Verity” faces a spy’s worst fear: she must reveal her mission or face certain death. As she carefully writes her confession on scraps of paper, we learn about the escaped pilot, her best friend and mission partner Maddie. In her telling, Verity shares more than just their mission; she tells the story of their very different backgrounds and how they came to serve together. This gripping, action-packed novel about bravery, friendship, and loyalty is completely absorbing on audio, as narrated by Morven Christie and Lucy Gaskell. More info →
Among shelves full of WWII historical novels, this tale of four young, warm, wise-cracking friends in wartime England still gets a lot of backlist love from our readers. Through his characters, Cleave throws issues of wartime morality, race, and class into sharp relief. Cleave’s writing perfectly matches the story, and it all feels so real—maybe because Cleave based his novel on his own grandparents’ experiences, or because he put himself on war rations while writing to better experience London during the Blitz? This is for you if you love a great story and admire a beautifully-rendered, wry turn of phrase. More info →
In this well-loved historical novel, Towles tells the story of Count Alexander Roskov, an aristocrat who the Bolsheviks sentence convict in 1922 for crimes of state (involving poetry). His punishment is house arrest, confining him to a small room inside the elegant Metropol Hotel. Towles show us how, over many decades, the Count makes a life for himself after his walls literally close in. With a rich, transportive (if claustrophobic) setting and endearing characters, this novel lingers in readers’ minds long after the final page. More info →
By exploring the stories of two sisters, who met different fates in Ghana more than 200 years ago, Gyasi traces subtle lines of cause and effect through the centuries, illuminating how deeds of ages past still haunt all of us today. Her popular debut novel traces the generations of one family over a period of 250 years, showing the devastating effects of racism from multiple perspectives, in multiple settings. For the first hundred pages I didn’t quite grasp what Gyasi was up to, but when it hit me it was powerful (and the family tree in the front of the book helped me track the characters). A brilliant concept, beautifully executed. More info →
Many readers were delighted to discover this grim and gripping novel from a past Summer Reading Guide. After a scorching summer and months of no rain, the largest fires in Maine’s history swept over its coast, from Bar Harbor to Kittery. In Shreve’s claustrophobic historical suspense we experience this real event through the eyes of Grace Holland, whose marriage is its own sort of natural disaster. Her husband came back from the war a little broken. So did her friends’ husbands, yet they don’t seem as cruel. When wildfires break out, her husband leaves to help dig a fire break, and Grace and her children flee to the ocean to escape the flames. When her husband doesn’t return, Grace thinks she’s lost him forever—and she’s far from devastated. But then he returns, and the real trouble begins. Dark and a little melodramatic, but oh-so-discussable. More info →
“We cannot help but be interested in the stories of people that history pushes aside so thoughtlessly,” writes Min Jin Lee in her unputdownable novel tracing four generations of a 20th-century Korean family back to the time when Japan annexed the country in 1910, affecting the fates of all. Lee portrays the family’s struggles against the backdrop of cultural and political unrest, as they endure fierce discrimination at the hands of the Japanese. Operatic and sprawling, every decision has a reverberating consequence in this intricate portrait of a little-explored period of history. More info →
When Georgia Hunter started getting curious about her family history, a few questions put to the right relatives uncovered something she didn’t expect: a sweeping multi-generational drama just begging to be written down—and so she did. Told over the span of six years, the story follows the Jewish Kurc family as they face exile, escape death, and struggle to survive during WWII. While the war scatters the siblings across the globe, they never give up the hope of one day being reunited. To hear more about Hunter’s writing experience, listen to WSIRN Episode 157: The stories behind the stories we love to read
. More info →
This well-crafted YA release smoothly bridges the divide between present-day Tulsa, Oklahoma and the little-known race riots that occurred there during two terrifying days in 1921. During renovations of seventeen-year-old Rowan Chase’s historic family home, a skeleton is unearthed in the backyard. The police don’t care who the bones belong to, but Rowan sure does. Unbeknownst to her, this skeleton links Rowan with another teen, Will Tillman, who lived in Tulsa nearly a hundred years ago. Latham flips back and forth in time, between two teens facing their own kinds of crossroads, to give her readers a page-turning history/mystery mash-up, as her young protagonists wrestle through issues of family, friendship, identity, and belonging. More info →
Few remember it now, but a thriving art school (the Grand Central School of Art) was housed for twenty years in the upper eaves of the east win of Grand Central Terminal, beginning with its founding in 1924. The story alternates between the art school years and 1974, when the terminal was very nearly razed by developers in order to build a skyscraper. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis (who briefly appears in the novel) led the fight to save the terminal by granting it landmark status. Davis said this novel “touches upon issues dear to me: how women’s voices and agency have changed over time, the importance of the arts in our lives, and the hidden stories within New York’s historic skyline.” More info →
This riveting coming-of-age story and past Minimalist Summer Reading Guide pick features a fabulous setting, amazing female leads, and ultimate redemption. It’s 1974, and Leni Allbright’s father Ernt, a former Vietnam POW, suffers from terrifying PTSD. The family moves to Alaska in search of a fresh start, but they’re utterly unprepared for the harsh reality that greets them. As winter draws near and darkness closes in, Ernt’s mental health deteriorates, with disastrous consequences for the family and community. Yet Leni will find a way to survive—and maybe even thrive. More info →
Inspired by a true story she stumbled upon in the historical archives (which would totally spoil the big reveal—you’re going to have to read the author’s note to learn all!), Quinn weaves together three perspectives to tell a gripping story: Jordan is a Boston teenager who works in her father’s Boston antiques store, Ian is a British journalist determined to bring his brother’s killer— known as “the Huntress”—to justice, and Nina is a Russian fighter pilot and the only woman alive who can identify the Huntress. There’s no weak link in the story; each thread is fascinating—and when they began to come together I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough. A mesmerizing tale of war crimes, coming of age, love and fidelity, and the pursuit of justice, with stirring implications for today. Note: the audio version is fantastic. More info →
Historian-turned-novelist Robson set this beloved novel in 1947, when times are grim: so many have lost so much, war rationing continues, Britain is in ruins. But in a bleak year, there’s a bright spot: Princess Elizabeth’s royal wedding captured the hearts of a nation, and was a beacon of hope to a country on its knees. The people insisted on a real celebration, including a beautiful gown. Robson’s story shifts among three protagonists and spans 70 years, but the common thread is Elizabeth’s gown—and specifically, the women who make it. While Robson has a fine eye for detail, and her behind-the-scenes descriptions of the fine atelier’s workroom are riveting, the heartbeat of the story comes from female friendship, secret pasts, and life after loss. More info →
Colson Whitehead brings Jim Crow-era Florida to life through the real story of a reform school in Tallahassee that claimed to rehabilitate delinquent boys and instead abused and terrorized them for over one hundred years. Elwood Curtis is bound for a local black college when an innocent mistake lands him at The Nickel Academy instead. Elwood finds comfort in Dr. Martin Luther King’s words and holds to his ideals, whereas his friend Turner believes the world is crooked so you have to scheme to survive. All this leads to a decision with harrowing repercussions for their respective fates. More info →
Chiaverini’s novel is inspired by the life of Mildred Harnack, a real historical figure whose story was previously untold because the U.S. government deliberately buried it after the war. Harnack was one of dozens of members of the network of American and German resistance fighters the Gestapo called die Rote Kapelle (Red Orchestra). The bulk of the action takes place between the wars, beginning in 1929; I was initially surprised that a novel about Nazi Germany before and during WWII began SO early, but Chiaverini’s chosen timeline serves her story well: as a reader, you see events escalate over time through these women’s eyes. The setup feels leisurely but the payoff is worth it. More info →
On the South Korean island of Jeju, women are the breadwinners, making their families’ livings by free-diving into the chilly waters of the Pacific Ocean, harvesting seafood to sell, while the husbands stay home with the children. This tradition has gone on for thousands of years, and we see it lived out in the lives of Young-sook Mi-ja. The two girls become fast friends as seven-year-olds in 1938, but their respective marriages take them down different paths, and bring unforeseen tensions into their relationship. A second storyline, set in 2008, gives readers hints of what may have caused the rift between the girls, but it’s only in the final pages that all is revealed. A rewarding story of strong women, little-known history, and human resilience. More info →
We read Kamali’s poignant novel together in the MMD Book Club
in 2019, and it remains one of our group’s favorites to this day. In 1953 Tehran, a young man failed to meet his betrothed in a Tehran square. Sixty years later and half a world away, the woman, now grown old, is about to discover why. This sweeping love story spans 60 years and two continents, taking the reader between contemporary New England and 1953 Tehran, thoroughly immersing the reader in the volatile political climate of 1950s Iran. More info →
Part Grapes of Wrath
, part Huckleberry Finn
: this tough and tender coming-of-age story focuses on four Minnesota kids during the Great Depression, whose respective situations become ever more impossible due to human cruelty and circumstance. After a tornado demolishes the last of life as they know it, they realize no one is going to save them—and so they make a plan to save themselves that starts with escaping down the river. A great story, beautifully told. Audiophile alert: I loved listening to Scott Brick’s wistful, urgent narration. More info →
Berry’s surprising mix of World War I, a love story, and Greek mythology has delighted legions of readers aged 12 to 102. The story begins with Aphrodite and Ares walking into a swanky Manhattan hotel during WWII, and soon enough Aphrodite’s husband Hephaestus challenges her to show him what love really looks like. She obliges, and takes the reader back in time to meet four young lovers in 1917 Britain, showing her fellow gods how each couple fell in love, and what they mean to each other. It sounds unlikely but the interesting narrative structure totally works. Readers tell me the full-cast audiobook is excellent. More info →
Fans of sweeping stories and quiet family dramas should consider adding this graceful novel to their TBRs. Charles and Lily meet James and Nan in 1963 Greenwich Village when Charles and James are both called to serve Third Presbyterian Church. The two men steward the church through upheaval and change, despite their personal differences. I couldn’t stop reading as the couples and their families struggle with faith and friendship over decades of change: change within themselves, among their congregation, and in the city around them. While calling it a read-a-like is going too far, the novel has been much compared to Crossing to Safety
for its portrayal of two linked couples across decades. More info →
This WWII novel tells the story of Nancy Wake, the unsung French Resistance leader who was #1 on the Gestapo’s most-wanted list by the end of the war. The real Nancy was larger than life; bold, bawdy, and brazen—a woman who, as the only female among thousands of French men, was not only respected as an equal, but revered as a leader. Lawhon’s vividly imagined and impeccably researched novel bring Nancy to life: she practically leaps off the page with her Victory Red lipstick, snappy one-liners, and incredible bravery. More than “just” a war story; at its heart this is a tale of friendship, and of love. More info →
In this captivating novel about a little-known historical event, three women’s lives become entangled over the course of Labor Day weekend, 1935, when the storm of the century slams into Key West. The story is told from each woman’s perspective, and though they seem to share little in common, their lives are about to intersect in ways no one could foresee. Helen is a Key West native, poor and pregnant, fleeing her abusive husband. Mirta is Cuban, newly married to a man she barely knows, and just beginning her honeymoon. And Elizabeth, who’s come south on a dangerous search for a long-lost loved one. More info →
Jane Austen lived out her last days in the sleepy village of Chawton, and in the days just after World War II, her legacy still looms large. Times are hard, and in this charming 1940s village, we meet several villagers burdened with their own private sorrows, who are doing what they’ve always done: turning to the works of Austen for solace. When a local business attempts to buy the Austen property and raze her cottage, the villagers band together to preserve her legacy. At one point, a character muses that Austen’s works present “a world so a part of our own, yet so separate, that entering it is like some kind of tonic.” The same can be said of Jenner’s wonderful book. Heads up: Richard Armitage reads the audiobook, and his narration is predictably outstanding. More info →
Bennett’s talented contemporary debut made her an author to watch; her historical sophomore novel cemented her place on many readers’ favorites shelf. Identical twins Desiree and Stella grew up in a town so small it doesn’t appear on maps. They’re closer than close, so Desiree is shocked when Stella vanishes one night after deciding to sacrifice her past—and her relationship with her family—in order to marry a white man, who doesn’t know she’s black. Desiree never expects to see her sister again. The twins grow up, make lives for themselves, and raise daughters—and it’s those daughters who bring the sisters together, years later. It’s a reunion Stella both longs for and fears, because she can’t reveal the truth without admitting her whole life is a lie. Bennett expertly weaves themes of family, race, identity, and belonging into one juicy, unputdownable novel spanning five turbulent decades. More info →
Jiles’s latest novel sweeps readers away to post-Civil War Texas, populated by frontiersman, outlaws, soldiers, and those eager to seize opportunity wherever they can find it. Among them is a poor fiddler named Simon Boudlin, who, though just twenty-three, knows exactly what he wants from life: his own parcel of land and a wife to share it. While playing an officer’s dinner one fated evening, Simon spies the beautiful Doris Dillon across the room and falls in love at first sight. But how can Simon free the indentured Doris from her dangerous master? And how can a lowly fiddler save enough gold to buy the homestead his future wife deserves? With a group of ragtag musicians for companions, Simon sets out on a quest to secure the future he’s dreamed of. This story will make your heart sing as sweetly as the tunes from Simon’s fiddle, and that’s saying something. More info →
In this story’s jolting opening, a beloved drunk deacon named Sportcoat wanders into the courtyard of his Brooklyn housing project and shoots the drug dealer he’d once treated like a son point-blank, in front of everyone. McBride then zooms out to show the reader how this violent act came to take place, exploring the lives of the shooter and the victim, the victim’s bumbling friends, the residents who witnessed it, the neighbors who heard about it, the cops assigned to investigate, the members of the church where Sportcoat was a deacon, and the neighborhood’s mobsters (and their families). The story itself is compelling, but it’s McBride’s warmth and humor that really captures readers as he gently teases out these characters and their unlikely connections. More info →
Many readers don’t know of prolific Harlem Renaissance poet Margaret Walker; Jubilee
is her only novel. Published in 1966, this lesser known work is both historical fiction and a classic. The sweeping story follows an enslaved woman named Vyry through the antebellum era, the Civil War, and Reconstruction, focusing on her struggles and suffering, the men she loved, the children she bore, and her constant yearning for freedom. Walker modeled her protagonist after her own great-grandmother. I highly recommend the 50th anniversary edition and loved poet Nikki Giovanni’s foreword. More info →
In this award-winning novel, Maggie O’Farrell takes a few historically known facts about Shakespeare’s wife and family and, from this spare skeleton, builds out a lush, vivid world. This book is devastating (I know I’m not alone in consuming the better part of a box of Kleenex while reading it). Yet with O’Farrell’s sympathetic central character and evocative storytelling, you won’t want to leave Shakespeare’s world. The story centers on Agnes, Shakespeare’s wife, who is torn apart by grief when their son Hamnet dies at age 11. Soon after, Shakespeare writes Hamlet—and O’Farrell convincingly posits that the two events are closely tied. In her distinctive style, O’Farrell takes you to the heart of what really matters in life, making you feel such a deep sense of loss for Hamnet that you won’t look at your own life the same way. More info →
In Gilded Age Atlanta, a strong, sassy heroine gets herself into hot water when her anonymous advice column gains popularity among society ladies. Seventeen-year old Jo works as a lady’s maid for the grumpy, privileged daughter of one of the city’s wealthiest families, where she overhears the choicest bits of society gossip. In her scarce free time, she writes a column called Dear Miss Sweetie, anonymously, answering questions and addressing contemporary topics affecting both women and people of color in her community. Pretty soon Jo’s snarky and smart column is the talk of the town as the fussy society ladies wonder “who is this brilliant young writer?” But some readers are out to expose the real “Miss Sweetie,” and Jo encounters unexpected dangers in her secret escapades. I loved this on audio as narrated by Emily Woo Zeller. More info →
A chance encounter prompts a renowned surgeon to reexamine the past she left behind in this sweeping historical novel. Daughter to the president’s most trusted advisor, Sitara’s family is murdered before her eyes in a 1978 coup in the Afghan palace. She miraculously survives with the help of a palace guard who whisks her away to safety. Sitara is eventually adopted and grows up in the United States. Flash forward 30 years. Sitara has buried that long-ago trauma and built a life for herself in NYC. But when that same guard shows up in her hospital, his presence awakens her desire for the answers she never got about what happened back then. With references to Anastasia Romanov and nods to the main character’s love of literature, this story has captured our Modern Mrs Darcy Book Club
members and Summer Reading Guide fans. More info →
The characters in this captivating war novel are fascinating and altogether unexpected, and the book’s setting couldn’t be lovelier: much of the action takes place in Saint-Malo, France, a unique walled port city on the English Channel. Though it is a heavy hardcover, it doesn’t feel overlong: its 500+ pages give Doerr plenty of room to build a believable world, and give his characters depth and feeling. An intelligent, detailed, literary novel that will stays with readers long after turning the final page. More info →
Nearly all of Morton’s novels are beloved, but in my opinion, The Secret Keeper
is her finest. When she was 16, Laurel witnessed a violent crime involving her mother, Dorothy. The family hushed it up, and Laurel hasn’t spoken of it since. Now, fifty years later, Dorothy is dying, and Laurel is determined to unravel the secret while there’s still time. As Laurel pursues her clues, the story flips back and forth in time between today and the years before and during World War II, including the London Blitz, which Morton recreates so vividly you can almost hear the bombs dropping. Filled with twists and turns that will keep you guessing to the end. More info →
What are your go-to historical fiction recommendations? Let us know in the comments.
P.S. Check out these 15 immersive historical fiction books about overlooked events and 13 excellent young adult historical novels for readers of any age.
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