If you love historical fiction and are looking for a new author to read, we’ve compiled a list of the biggest recent historical fiction debuts. Featuring new releases from first-time novelists, these reads will transport you from Civil War America to 1970s South Korea. Publishers’ descriptions included.
We Were the Lucky Ones by Georgia Hunter
An extraordinary, propulsive novel based on the untold true story of a family of Polish Jews who are separated at the start of the Second World War, determined to survive — and to reunite.
It is the spring of 1939 and three generations of the Kurc family are doing their best to live normal lives, even as the shadow of war grows closer. The talk around the family Seder table is of new babies and budding romance, not of the increasing hardships threatening Jews in their hometown of Radom, Poland. But soon the horrors overtaking Europe will become inescapable and the Kurcs will be flung to the far corners of the world, each desperately trying to navigate his or her own path to safety.
As one sibling is forced into exile, another attempts to flee the continent, while others struggle to escape certain death, either by working grueling hours on empty stomachs in the factories of the ghetto or by hiding as gentiles in plain sight. Driven by an unwavering will to survive and by the fear that they may never see one another again, the Kurcs must rely on hope, ingenuity, and inner strength to persevere.
A novel of breathtaking sweep and scope that spans five continents and six years and transports readers from the jazz clubs of Paris to Kraków’s most brutal prison to the ports of Northern Africa and the farthest reaches of the Siberian gulag, We Were the Lucky Ones demonstrates how in the face of the 20th century’s darkest moment, the human spirit can find a way to survive, and even triumph.
The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir by Jennifer Ryan
As England becomes enmeshed in the early days of World War II and the men are away fighting, the women of Chilbury village forge an uncommon bond. They defy the Vicar’s stuffy edict to close the choir and instead “carry on singing,” resurrecting themselves as the Chilbury Ladies’ Choir. We come to know the home-front struggles of five unforgettable choir members: a timid widow devastated when her only son goes to fight; the older daughter of a local scion drawn to a mysterious artist; her younger sister pining over an impossible crush; a Jewish refugee from Czechoslovakia hiding a family secret; and a conniving midwife plotting to outrun her seedy past.
An enchanting ensemble story that shuttles from village intrigue to romance to the heartbreaking matters of life and death, Jennifer Ryan’s debut novel thrillingly illuminates the true strength of the women on the home front in a village of indomitable spirit.
The Second Mrs. Hockaday by Susan Rivers
“All I had known for certain when I came around the hen house that first evening in July and saw my husband trudging into the yard after lifetimes spent away from us, a borrowed bag in his hand and the shadow of grief on his face, was that he had to be protected at all costs from knowing what had happened in his absence. I did not believe he could survive it.”
When Major Gryffth Hockaday is called to the front lines of the Civil War, his new bride is left to care for her husband’s 300-acre farm and infant son. Placidia, a mere teenager herself living far from her family and completely unprepared to run a farm or raise a child, must endure the darkest days of the war on her own. By the time Major Hockaday returns two years later, Placidia is bound for jail, accused of having borne a child in his absence and murdering it. What really transpired in the two years he was away?
Inspired by a true incident, this saga conjures the era with uncanny immediacy. Amid the desperation of wartime, Placidia sees the social order of her Southern homeland unravel as her views on race and family are transformed. A love story, a story of racial divide, and a story of the South as it fell in the war, The Second Mrs. Hockaday reveals how that generation — and the next — began to see their world anew.
The German Girl by Armando Lucas Correa
A stunningly ambitious and beautiful novel, perfect for fans of The Nightingale, Schindler’s List, and All the Light We Cannot See, about 12-year-old Hannah Rosenthal’s harrowing experience fleeing Nazi-occupied Germany with her family and best friend, only to discover that the overseas asylum they had been promised is an illusion.
Before everything changed, young Hannah Rosenthal lived a charmed life. But now, in 1939, the streets of Berlin are draped with red, white, and black flags; her family’s fine possessions are hauled away; and they are no longer welcome in the places that once felt like home. Hannah and her best friend, Leo Martin, make a pact: whatever the future has in store for them, they’ll meet it together.
Hope appears in the form of the SS St. Louis, a transatlantic liner offering Jews safe passage out of Germany. After a frantic search to obtain visas, the Rosenthals and the Martins depart on the luxurious ship bound for Havana. Life on board the St. Louis is like a surreal holiday for the refugees, with masquerade balls, exquisite meals, and polite, respectful service. But soon ominous rumors from Cuba undermine the passengers’ fragile sense of safety. From one day to the next, impossible choices are offered, unthinkable sacrifices are made, and the ship that once was their salvation seems likely to become their doom.
Seven decades later in New York City, on her 12th birthday, Anna Rosen receives a strange package from an unknown relative in Cuba, her great-aunt Hannah. Its contents will inspire Anna and her mother to travel to Havana to learn the truth about their family’s mysterious and tragic past, a quest that will help Anna understand her place and her purpose in the world.
The German Girl sweeps from Berlin at the brink of the Second World War to Cuba on the cusp of revolution, to New York in the wake of September 11, before reaching its deeply moving conclusion in the tumult of present-day Havana. Based on a true story, this masterful novel gives voice to the joys and sorrows of generations of exiles, forever seeking a place called home.
The Other Einstein by Marie Benedict
In the tradition of The Paris Wife and Mrs. Poe, The Other Einstein offers us a window into a brilliant, fascinating woman whose light was lost in Einstein’s enormous shadow. It is the story of Einstein’s wife, a brilliant physicist in her own right, whose contribution to the special theory of relativity is hotly debated and may have been inspired by her own profound and very personal insight.
Mitza Maric has always been a little different from other girls. Most 20-year-olds are wives by now, not studying physics at an elite Zurich university with only male students trying to outdo her clever calculations. But Mitza is smart enough to know that, for her, math is an easier path than marriage. And then fellow student Albert Einstein takes an interest in her, and the world turns sideways. Theirs becomes a partnership of the mind and of the heart, but there might not be room for more than one genius in a marriage.
The Patriots by Sana Krasikov
A sweeping multigenerational debut novel about idealism, betrayal, and family secrets that takes us from Brooklyn in the 1930s to Soviet Russia to post-Cold War America.
When the Great Depression hits, Florence Fein leaves Brooklyn College for what appears to be a plum job in Moscow — and the promise of love and independence. But once in Russia, she quickly becomes entangled in a country she can’t escape. Many years later, Florence’s son, Julian, will make the opposite journey, immigrating back to the United States. His work in the oil industry takes him on frequent visits to Moscow, and when he learns that Florence’s KGB file has been opened, he arranges a business trip to uncover the truth about his mother, and to convince his son, Lenny, who is trying to make his fortune in the new Russia, to return home. What he discovers is both chilling and heartbreaking: an untold story of what happened to a generation of Americans abandoned by their country.
The Patriots is a riveting evocation of the Cold War years, told with brilliant insight and extraordinary skill. Alternating between Florence’s and Julian’s perspectives, it is at once a mother-son story and a tale of two countries bound in a dialectic dance; a love story and a spy story; both a grand, old-fashioned epic and a contemporary novel of ideas. Through the history of one family moving back and forth between continents over three generations, The Patriots is a poignant tale of the power of love, the rewards and risks of friendship, and the secrets parents and children keep from one another.
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
#1 New York Times Bestseller. The long-awaited first novel from the author of Tenth of December: a moving and original father-son story featuring none other than Abraham Lincoln, as well as an unforgettable cast of supporting characters, living and dead, historical and invented
February 1862. The Civil War is less than one year old. The fighting has begun in earnest, and the nation has begun to realize it is in for a long, bloody struggle. Meanwhile, President Lincoln’s beloved 11-year-old son, Willie, lies upstairs in the White House, gravely ill. In a matter of days, despite predictions of a recovery, Willie dies and is laid to rest in a Georgetown cemetery. “My poor boy, he was too good for this earth,” the president says at the time. “God has called him home.” Newspapers report that a grief-stricken Lincoln returns, alone, to the crypt several times to hold his boy’s body.
From that seed of historical truth, George Saunders spins an unforgettable story of familial love and loss that breaks free of its realistic, historical framework into a supernatural realm both hilarious and terrifying. Willie Lincoln finds himself in a strange purgatory where ghosts mingle, gripe, commiserate, quarrel, and enact bizarre acts of penance. Within this transitional state — called, in the Tibetan tradition, the bardo — a monumental struggle erupts over young Willie’s soul.
Lincoln in the Bardo is an astonishing feat of imagination and a bold step forward from one of the most important and influential writers of his generation. Formally daring, generous in spirit, deeply concerned with matters of the heart, it is a testament to fiction’s ability to speak honestly and powerfully to the things that really matter to us. Saunders has invented a thrilling new form that deploys a kaleidoscopic, theatrical panorama of voices to ask a timeless, profound question: How do we live and love when we know that everything we love must end?
Everything Belongs to Us by Yoojin Grace Wuertz
Two young women of vastly different means each struggle to find her own way during the darkest hours of South Korea’s “economic miracle” in a striking debut novel for readers of Anthony Marra and Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie.
Seoul, 1978. At South Korea’s top university, the nation’s best and brightest compete to join the professional elite of an authoritarian regime. Success could lead to a life of rarefied privilege and wealth; failure means being left irrevocably behind.
For childhood friends Jisun and Namin, the stakes couldn’t be more different. Jisun, the daughter of a powerful business mogul, grew up on a mountainside estate with lush gardens and a dedicated chauffeur. Namin’s parents run a tented food cart from dawn to curfew; her sister works in a shoe factory. Now Jisun wants as little to do with her father’s world as possible, abandoning her schoolwork in favor of the underground activist movement, while Namin studies tirelessly in the service of one goal: to launch herself and her family out of poverty.
But everything changes when Jisun and Namin meet an ambitious, charming student named Sunam, whose need to please his family has led him to a prestigious club: the Circle. Under the influence of his mentor, Juno, a manipulative social climber, Sunam becomes entangled with both women, as they all make choices that will change their lives forever.
In this sweeping yet intimate debut, Yoojin Grace Wuertz details four intertwining lives that are rife with turmoil and desire, private anxieties and public betrayals, dashed hopes and broken dreams — while a nation moves toward prosperity at any cost.
The Midnight Cool by Lydia Peelle
The Whiting Award–winning author of the story collection Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing delivers her enchanting debut novel, set in 1916 Tennessee: a rich and rewarding tale of two flawed yet endearing grifters who pursue women, wealth, and a surprisingly valuable commodity for the troops in Europe — mules.
A middle-aged Irish immigrant, Billy has a gift for illusion — making damaged objects look new. His companion, Charles, the smooth-tongued teenage son of a prostitute, is a natural salesman, just like the mythical father he’s never met. Longtime horse traders and partners, they’ve recently turned their talents to trading mules. But in the summer of 1916, these seasoned grifters skilled in the art of the underhanded deal have just been swindled themselves. They’re saddled with the one thing they may not be able to unload: a gorgeous, murderous black mare named The Midnight Cool.
Charles should have listened to Catherine, the beautiful, rebellious daughter of Leland Hatcher, the richest man in Richfield, Tennessee, and the former owner of The Midnight Cool. The horse would be worth a fortune — if she weren’t a verified man-killer who attacks on sight. Charles and Billy are rooted in this muggy town until they can miraculously retrain their recalcitrant mare, and in the shadow of the growing inevitability of war, their bond begins to fray. Falling in love with Catherine — and under the spell of the deceitful, wealthy Leland, the vision of himself he’d like to be — Charles pulls away from the older man.
Despite their growing distance, Billy and Charles find their business thriving when the war in Europe pushes the demand for mules sky-high and the United States enters the fight. But when a trade goes terribly wrong, Charles is forced to reevaluate his allegiance to his country, the moral implications of his lifestyle, his relationship with Catherine, and, ultimately, his mysterious and surprisingly deep connection to Billy.
Populated by spirited, memorable characters, The Midnight Cool is a startlingly profound tale of aspiration, loyalty, and love — and the eternal search for something lasting in a transitory world.
Have you read any of these books yet? Let us know in the comments!
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