12 Breakthrough Historical Fiction Books of Summer 2017

Posted on August 29, 2017 by

If you love stories that transport you to another time and place, check out our list of the best historical fiction books by debut authors released this summer. These novels are sure to captivate you, from the untold story of Charlotte Brontë’s Mr. Rochester to the events of the Six-Day War. Publishers’ descriptions included below.

 

Mr. Rochester by Sarah Shoemaker

“Reader, she married me.”

For 170 years, Edward Fairfax Rochester has stood as one of literature’s most romantic, most complex, and most mysterious heroes. Sometimes haughty, sometimes tender — professing his love for Jane Eyre in one breath and denying it in the next — Mr. Rochester has for generations mesmerized, beguiled, and, yes, baffled fans of Charlotte Brontë’s masterpiece. But his own story has never been told.

Now, out of Sarah Shoemaker’s rich and vibrant imagination, springs Edward: a vulnerable, brilliant, complicated man whom we first meet as a motherless, lonely little boy roaming the corridors and stable yards of Thornfield Hall. On the morning of Edward’s eighth birthday, his father issues a decree: He is to be sent away to get an education, exiled from Thornfield and all he ever loved. As the determined young Edward begins his journey across England, making friends and enemies along the way, a series of eccentric mentors teach him more than he might have wished about the ways of the men — and women — who will someday be his peers.

But much as he longs to be accepted — and to return to the home where he was born — his father has made clear that Thornfield is reserved for his older brother, Rowland, and that Edward’s inheritance lies instead on the warm, languid shores of faraway Jamaica. That island, however, holds secrets of its own, and not long after his arrival, Edward finds himself entangled in morally dubious business dealings and a passionate, whirlwind love affair with the town’s ravishing heiress, Antoinetta Bertha Mason.

Eventually, after a devastating betrayal, Edward must return to England with his increasingly unstable wife to take over as master of Thornfield. And it is there, on a twilight ride, that he meets the stubborn, plain, young governess who will teach him how to love again.

It is impossible not to watch enthralled as this tender-hearted child grows into the tormented hero Bronte immortalized — and as Jane surprises them both by stealing his heart. Mr. Rochester is a great, sweeping, classic coming-of-age story, and a stirring tale of adventure, romance, and deceit. Faithful in every particular to Brontë’s original yet full of unexpected twists and riveting behind-the-scenes drama, this novel will completely, deliciously, and forever change how we read and remember Jane Eyre.

 

Salt Houses by Hala Alyan

On the eve of her daughter Alia’s wedding, Salma reads the girl’s future in a cup of coffee dregs. She sees an unsettled life for Alia and her children; she also sees travel, and luck. While she chooses to keep her predictions to herself that day, they will all soon come to pass when the family is uprooted in the wake of the Six-Day War of 1967.

Salma is forced to leave her home in Nablus; Alia’s brother gets pulled into a politically militarized world he can’t escape; and Alia and her gentle-spirited husband move to Kuwait City, where they reluctantly build a life with their three children. When Saddam Hussein invades Kuwait in 1990, Alia and her family once again lose their home, their land, and their story as they know it, scattering to Beirut, Paris, Boston, and beyond. Soon Alia’s children begin families of their own, once again navigating the burdens (and blessings) of assimilation in foreign cities.

Lyrical and heartbreaking, Salt Houses is a remarkable debut novel that challenges and humanizes an age-old conflict we might think we understand — one that asks us to confront that most devastating of all truths: you can’t go home again.

 

See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt

Lizzie Borden took an axe
And gave her mother forty whacks.
When she saw what she had done,
She gave her father forty-one.

Or did she?

In this riveting debut novel, See What I Have Done, Sarah Schmidt recasts one of the most spellbinding murder cases of all time into a sensitive and humane portrait of two sisters caught inside a volatile household — and what it means to be free and truly loved.

On the morning of August 4, 1892, Lizzie Borden calls out to her maid Bridget: Someone’s killed father. The discovery of the brutal axe-murders of Andrew and Abby Borden under their own roof in Fall River, Massachusetts paralyzes the small community. No one can understand why anyone would want to harm the respected Bordens. But secret witnesses to the crime have a different tale to tell — of a father with an explosive temper; a spiteful step-mother; and two spinster sisters, with a bond even stronger than blood, desperate for their independence.

As the police search for clues, Emma comforts an increasingly distraught Lizzie whose memories flash in scattered fragments. Had she been in the barn or the pear arbor to escape the stifling heat of the house? Before or after she last spoke to her stepmother? Were they really gone and would everything be better now? Through the overlapping perspectives of the unreliable Lizzie, her older sister Emma, the housemaid Bridget, and the enigmatic stranger Benjamin, we return to what happened on that fateful day.

 

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Lilli de Jong by Janet Benton

A young woman finds the most powerful love of her life when she gives birth at an institution for unwed mothers in 1883 Philadelphia. She is told she must give up her daughter to avoid lifelong poverty and shame. But she chooses to keep her.

Pregnant, left behind by her lover, and banished from her Quaker home and teaching position, Lilli de Jong enters a home for wronged women to deliver her child. She is stunned at how much her infant needs her and at how quickly their bond overtakes her heart. Mothers in her position face disabling prejudice, which is why most give up their newborns. But Lilli can’t accept such an outcome. Instead, she braves moral condemnation and financial ruin in a quest to keep herself and her baby alive.

Confiding their story to her diary as it unfolds, Lilli takes readers from an impoverished charity to a wealthy family’s home to the streets of a burgeoning American city. Drawing on rich history, Lilli de Jong is both an intimate portrait of loves lost and found and a testament to the work of mothers. “So little is permissible for a woman,” writes Lilli, “yet on her back every human climbs to adulthood.”

 

Becoming Bonnie by Jenni L. Walsh

One of Bookbub’s “Biggest Historical Fictions Books Coming Out This Summer,” from debut historical novelist Jenni L. Walsh — and just in time for the 50th anniversary of the Oscar award-winning film, Bonnie and Clyde — Becoming Bonnie is the untold story of how wholesome Bonnelyn Parker became half of the infamous Bonnie and Clyde duo!

The summer of 1927 might be the height of the Roaring Twenties, but Bonnelyn Parker is more likely to belt out a church hymn than sling drinks at an illicit juice joint. She’s a sharp girl with plans to overcome her family’s poverty, provide for herself, and maybe someday marry her boyfriend, Roy Thornton. But when Roy springs a proposal on her, and financial woes jeopardize her ambitions, Bonnelyn finds salvation in an unlikely place: Dallas’s newest speakeasy, Doc’s.

Living the life of a moll at night, Bonnie remains a wholesome girl by day, engaged to Roy, attending school, and working toward a steady future. When Roy discovers her secret life, he embraces it — perhaps too much, especially when it comes to booze and gambling — she tries to make the pieces fit. Maybe she can have it all: the American Dream, the husband, and the intoxicating allure of jazz music. But her life — like her country — is headed for a crash.

Bonnie Parker is about to meet Clyde Barrow.

 

The Wardrobe Mistress by Meghan Masterson

The Wardrobe Mistress is Meghan Masterson’s fascinating and visceral debut, an inside look at Marie Antoinette’s luxurious life in Versailles remarkably juxtaposed against life in third estate as the French Revolution gains strength. A propulsive exploration of love, loyalty, danger, and intrigue… not to be missed.

It’s Giselle Aubry’s first time at court in Versailles. At sixteen, she is one of Marie Antoinette’s newest undertirewomen, and in awe of the glamorous queen and her opulent palace life. A budding designer, it’s a dream come true to work with the beautiful fabrics and jewels in the queen’s wardrobe. But every few weeks she returns home to visit her family in Paris where rumors of revolution are growing stronger.

From her position working in the royal household, Giselle is poised to see both sides of the revolutionary tensions erupting throughout Paris. When her uncle, a retired member of the secret du roi, a spy ring that worked for the old King, Louis XV, suggests that she casually report the Queen’s actions back to him as a game, she leaps at the chance. Spying seems like an adventure and an exciting way to privately support the revolution taking the countryside by storm. She also enjoys using her insight from Versailles in lively debates with Léon Gauvain, the handsome and idealistic revolutionary who courts her.

But as the revolution continues to gain momentum, and Giselle grows closer to the Queen, becoming one of the few trusted servants, she finds herself dangerously torn. Violence is escalating; she must choose where her loyalty truly lies, or risk losing everything… maybe even her head.

 

The Half-Drowned King by Linnea Hartsuyker

An exhilarating saga of the Vikings that conjures a brutal, superstitious, and thrilling ninth-century world and the birth of a kingdom — the debut installment in a historical literary trilogy that combines the bold imagination and sweeping narrative power of Game of Thrones, Vikings, and Outlander.

Centuries ago, in a blood-soaked land ruled by legendary gods and warring men, a prophecy foretold of a high king who would come to reign over all of the north… 

Ragnvald Eysteinsson, the son and grandson of kings, grew up believing that he would one day take his dead father’s place as chief of his family’s lands. But, sailing home from a raiding trip to Ireland, the young warrior is betrayed and left for dead by men in the pay of his greedy stepfather, Olaf. Rescued by a fisherman, Ragnvald is determined to have revenge for his stepfather’s betrayal, claim his birthright and the woman he loves, and rescue his beloved sister Svanhild. Opportunity may lie with Harald of Vestfold, the strong young Norse warrior rumored to be the prophesied king. Ragnvald pledges his sword to King Harald, a choice that will hold enormous consequence in the years to come.

While Ragnvald’s duty is to fight — and even die — for his honor, Svanhild must make an advantageous marriage, though her adventurous spirit yearns to see the world. Her stepfather, Olaf, has arranged a husband for her — a hard old man she neither loves nor desires. When the chance to escape Olaf’s cruelty comes at the hands of her brother’s arch rival, the shrewd young woman is forced to make a heartbreaking choice: family or freedom.

Set in a mystical and violent world defined by honor, loyalty, deceit, passion, and courage, The Half-Drowned King is an electrifying adventure that breathtakingly illuminates the Viking world and the birth of Scandinavia.

 

Kings of Broken Things by Theodore Wheeler

With characters depicted in precise detail and wide panorama — a kept-woman’s parlor, a contentious interracial baseball game on the Fourth of July, and the tragic true events of the Omaha Race Riot of 1919 — Kings of Broken Things reveals the folly of human nature in an era of astonishing ambition.

During the waning days of World War I, three lost souls find themselves adrift in Omaha, Nebraska, at a time of unprecedented nationalism, xenophobia, and political corruption. Adolescent European refugee Karel Miihlstein’s life is transformed after neighborhood boys discover his prodigious natural talent for baseball. Jake Strauss, a young man with a violent past and desperate for a second chance, is drawn into a criminal underworld. Evie Chambers, a kept woman, is trying to make ends meet and looking every which way to escape her cheerless existence.

As wounded soldiers return from the front and black migrant workers move north in search of economic opportunity, the immigrant wards of Omaha become a tinderbox of racial resentment stoked by unscrupulous politicians. Punctuated by an unspeakable act of mob violence, the fates of Karel, Jake, and Evie will become inexorably entangled with the schemes of a ruthless political boss whose will to power knows no bounds.

Written in the tradition of Don DeLillo and Colum McCann, with a great debt to Ralph Ellison, Theodore Wheeler’s debut novel Kings of Broken Things is a panoramic view of a city on the brink of implosion during the course of this summer of strife.

 

A Kind of Freedom by Margaret Wilkerson Sexton

Evelyn is a Creole woman who comes of age in New Orleans at the height of World War II. Her family inhabits the upper echelon of Black society, and when she falls for no-account Renard, she is forced to choose between her life of privilege and the man she loves.

In 1982, Evelyn’s daughter, Jackie, is a frazzled single mother grappling with her absent husband’s drug addiction. Just as she comes to terms with his abandoning the family, he returns, ready to resume their old life.

Jackie’s son, T.C., loves the creative process of growing marijuana more than the weed itself. He was a square before Hurricane Katrina, but the New Orleans he knew didn’t survive the storm. Fresh out of a four-month stint for drug charges, T.C. decides to start over — until an old friend convinces him to stake his new beginning on one last deal.

For Evelyn, Jim Crow is an ongoing reality, and in its wake new threats spring up to haunt her descendants. A Kind of Freedom is an urgent novel that explores the legacy of racial disparity in the South through a poignant and redemptive family history.

 

All Is Beauty Now by Sarah Faber

Set against the seductive world of 1960s Rio de Janeiro, an exquisite debut novel about family secrets, divided loyalties, and what we’re willing to do to save ourselves.

This mesmerizing first novel follows a glamorous family as they prepare to leave the seeming paradise of Brazil for Canada in the wake to the mysterious disappearance — and presumed drowning — of their eldest daughter a year earlier. As the novel moves back and forth between the members of the Maurer family, we are taken into the heart of a family whose beauty and charm belie a more troubling reality. We meet the family’s brilliant and charismatic father, whose bipolar extremes are becoming increasingly disturbing; his long-suffering wife, who once had a brief affair that proves to have shattering consequences for the family she swore to protect; their two remaining daughters, both on the brink of understanding the darker currents that run in their once-proud family; and the lost daughter herself, a beautiful young woman undone by her own grand delusions.

Taking readers from the golden beaches of Rio to the poverty of its fishing villages, from the glamour of the legendary Copacabana Club to the austerity of a remote convent, this revelatory novel takes us into the soul of a family already living in the shadow of loss and now poised to leave behind everything they’ve ever known, if only they could make peace with the past.

 

The Hidden Light of Northern Fires by Daren Wang

Rooted in the history of the only secessionist town north of the Mason Dixon Line, Daren Wang’s The Hidden Light of Northern Fires tells a story of redemption amidst a war that tore families and the country apart.

Mary Willis has always been an outcast, an abolitionist in a town of bounty hunters and anti-Union farmers. After college, she dreams of exploring the country, but is obligated to take over the household duties and management of her family’s farm, while her brother Leander avoids his own responsibilities. Helping runaways is the only thing that makes her life in Town Line bearable.

When escaped slave Joe Bell collapses in her father’s barn, Mary is determined to help him cross to freedom in nearby Canada. But the wounded fugitive is haunted by his vengeful owner, who relentlessly hunts him up and down the country, and his sister, still trapped as a slave in the South.

As the countryside is riled by the drumbeat of civil war, rebels and soldiers from both sides bring intrigue and violence of the brutal war to the town and the farm, and threaten to destroy all that Mary loves.

 

Things That Happened Before the Earthquake by Chiara Barzini

Welcome to LA? Nineties’ Hollywood gets an Italian makeover in this poignant and ruefully funny coming-of-age novel featuring a teenage girl who’s on shaky ground — in more ways than one.

Mere weeks after the 1992 riots that laid waste to Los Angeles, Eugenia, a typical Italian teenager, is rudely yanked from her privileged Roman milieu by her hippie-ish filmmaker parents and transplanted to the strange suburban world of the San Fernando Valley. With only the Virgin Mary to call on for guidance as her parents struggle to make it big, Hollywood fashion, she must navigate her huge new public high school, complete with Crips and Bloods and Persian gang members, and a car-based environment of 99-cent stores and obscure fast-food franchises and all-night raves. She forges friendships with Henry, who runs his mother’s movie memorabilia store, and the bewitching Deva, who introduces her to the alternate cultural universe that is Topanga Canyon. And then the 1994 earthquake rocks the foundations not only of Eugenia’s home but of the future she’d been imagining for herself.

Which books do you plan on reading? Tell us in the comments!

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