BuzzFeed Books recently asked Goodreads about the historical fiction books that its users have been loving lately. Below are 17 titles that have been getting high ratings and ample attention from the site’s many lovers of history.
In first-century Galilee, a curious, ambitious, rebellious young woman named Ana is raised by a wealthy family but defies their expectations. When she meets an 18-year-old Jesus, both are drawn to each other’s ideas and spirits, and they eventually marry. The book tracks the trials of their imagined life together.
5-star review: “I was completely blindsided by the elegance of this book — a story rich with courageous women who persevered through a time deeply rooted in masculinity. Amidst discrimination and subjugation, the protagonist battles a myriad of obstacles including love, personal expression, family, and loyalties. Again and again her displays of steadfastness and persistence are on full display. I would strongly suggest listening to this book if possible. The narrator’s voice is made for this story — strong but soothing at the same time.” —Aaron S.
Thomas Wazhashk works as a night guard, is a chair on the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa council, and becomes instrumental in the 1953 fight against a bill that would allow the government to abandon treaties that protected Native Americans’ rights to their land. Thomas’s niece Patrice works at the factory he guards at night; she stretches her small salary to support her brother and mother while dreaming of abandoning the expectations she feels from the tribe and following her big sister Vera to Minneapolis.
5-star review: “I loved everything about this book – the writing, the characters, the story, the importance of it and that Louise Erdrich pays a wonderful tribute to her grandfather who inspired this story. It’s a beautifully written and depicts a strong sense of community, of family, and of the hard life on the Chippewa Turtle Mountain Reservation in North Dakota. It’s filled with characters that are easy to love, to admire, to root for as they fight for their identity, their land, not to be ‘terminated’, as they struggle with managing their daily existence.” —Angela M.
In the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, a young and pregnant widow and an Army doctor rely on each other for survival as they flee on the SS Winnipeg and emigrate to Chile, starting their lives over on a new continent just as World War II erupts.
5-star review: “Isabel Allende is at her finest in this sweeping historical family saga. It’s a richly wrought story of hardship and exile and a relationship born of necessity that develops into a deep and abiding love.” —Jeanette
In the Gold Rush–era American West, siblings Lucy and Sam (the children of Chinese immigrants) find themselves orphaned when their father dies in the middle of the night. Knowing there’s no one left to protect them in their dangerous mining town, they hit the road with a stolen horse and their father’s body — in search of a proper burial site that will allow them to say goodbye to their pasts.
5-star review: “This was, simply put, one of the best novels I’ve read in years. A stunning story that was dripping with originality, and writing that bled truth on every page. This book broke barriers and literally had me captivated late into the night, and the only thing C Pam Zhang left me with was an unbearable need for more — of her writing, of her beautiful short prose, and poetic sentences that blew me away.” —Jonathan
5. The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave
In 17th-century Norway, 20-year-old Maren Magnusdatter sees the fisherfolk of her hometown drowned, leaving the women to fend for themselves. When a Scottish stranger arrives three years later, he sees an evil place in need of a conquerer — but his wife sees freedom.
5-star review: “I found this novel totally unputdownable, with its depictions of the landscape and harsh lives in those days. While reading I was no longer in my sofa — I was out there, with Ursa attending to her suffering sister, on the ship, in the kirk of Vardo, and on the cliff looking out for the whale which comes to Maren in her dreams. I believe it is a genuine gift on the part of the author to write in such a way. It will send chills down your spine.” —Beata
Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell trilogy, which began with 2009’s Wolf Hall, finally comes to an end. The novel covers the last years of Cromwell’s life, starting shortly after the execution of Anne Boleyn.
5-star review: “A brilliant end to this superb historical trilogy on Cromwell, the ordinary man who rises to an exalted status under Henry VIII. Mantel’s research is impeccable, her blend of fact and fiction is extraordinary, nowhere is this more apparent than in her amazing characterizations. Despite knowing where this is all heading, the tension and suspense had me biting my nails! Simply marvelous and highly recommended.” —Paromjit
It’s 1960s New York; Cuffy Lambkin, better known as Sportcoat, a deacon at the Five Ends Baptist Church, has just shot 19-year-old drug dealer Deems Clemens in the face — effectively putting a target on his own back. Residents try to make sense of the shooting as the mystery behind it slowly unravels.
5-star review: “This book was a balm for my soul, a portrait of a black church community circa 1969 with sweet characters (well, most of them), interconnections that stretch back decades, and a plot with more than one mystery at its heart. The poverty and racism are there, but so too are McBride’s huge heart, laugh-out-loud humor, and amazing writing. I loved it.” —Jan
In small-town Louisiana in 1987, a first-year teacher arrives to find she can’t quite engage her new students. Then she discovers a book telling the story of three young women — recently freed Hannie; the heiress Lavinia; and Lavinia’s Creole half sister, Juneau Jane — trying to find their families in the aftermath of the Civil War over a hundred years earlier.
5-star review: “Slow to start, this book packed a powerful punch. Wingate did a great job building her plot and joining the two-story lines. I found this book to be captivating, thought-provoking, and emotionally moving. I love books that not only teach me something but affect me emotionally as well.” —Debra
Starting at the beginning of the Civil War and jumping back and forth in time to span multiple generations, Conjure Women tells the stories of three women — Miss May Belle, a healer and midwife; Rue, her enslaved and precocious daughter; and Varina, the plantation owner’s daughter — and follows the secrets and histories that connect them.
5-star review: “Afia Atakora’s depiction of slavery and freedom in the era of the American Civil War is heartbreaking and incredibly raw. An immense amount of research has gone into writing earnestly about this painful period in history, and yet she is able to weave in a beautiful story of a mother-daughter relationship, womanhood, enslaved life on a plantation, the harrowing awakening that women have always been up for sale by even those who claim to love and protect them regardless of their proximity to wealth and status, and the bitter realization that came with abolition — that freedom did not equate to equality and respect.” —Biblio Bushra
The man known as Stanford Solomon is actually Abel Paisley, who faked his death more than 30 years ago and abandoned his life in Jamaica to start anew in the US. Jumping between the past and future, These Ghosts Are Family explores the stories of Paisley’s ancestors and descendants — enslaved women in colonial Jamaica, his struggling daughters in modern Harlem — and the ways each generation’s trauma bleeds into those that follow.
5-star review: “Wow. Just, wow. This book was such an incredible dive into all of the twists and turns that formed this family throughout the generations. I was reading it like my life depended on it. Card transported me to a time and place I don’t think I’d ever have experienced otherwise. I’m hoping that the longer I sit and think about this book, I’ll come up with a more coherent review. But I’m not above shoving it at people with jazz hands and a ‘READ IT NOW!’ for good measure.” —Amber
As the communist government rises in Vietnam, Trần Diệu Lan is forced to flee her family farm with her six children. Years later, her granddaughter, living in Hanoi, has to watch her parents and uncles leave to fight in a war threatening to tear her life apart.
5-star review: “When I read this book, I was right away transported to the dense highlands and the lush tropical lowlands of Vietnam. Nguyễn’s writing enveloped me into the lives of characters who have experienced harrowing struggles — as well as survived triumphantly against all odds. This is an engrossing story told in the eyes of two generations of a family who have lived through horrific cruelty and hate brought upon by war. Inspired by real life events, Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai told a very engaging narrative in her debut novel that I more than highly recommend.” —Nursebookie
Moyes’s latest novel (which sparked controversy last October, when author Kim Michele Richardson described “alarming similarities” between their two books) follows Alice Wright, a British woman who marries an American man but soon finds herself restless in small-town Kentucky. Everything changes when she signs up to join Eleanor Roosevelt’s traveling library project — and she, with four other amazing women, become known as the Packhorse Librarians of Kentucky, changing lives (including their own) as they go.
5-star review: “Moyes writes with passion and verve in this impeccably researched novel, full of details and rich descriptions of this historical era. The women are a disparate group of unconventional, stand-out, complex characters. This is a terrific read that immerses the reader in this period of US history and the norms, expectations, and attitudes of the time, with the drama enhanced by the beautiful location.” —Paromjit
The Water Dancer is a coming-of-age story about Hiram — a young man with a photographic memory who was born into slavery — and his personal journey of self-discovery and freedom. He’s the son of a white plantation owner and an enslaved black woman, whom his father ultimately sold away. In a community divided into three class systems — the Tasked (black slaves), the Quality (white landowners), and low-class whites — we follow Hiram as he dissects the true meaning of “family” and why kin doesn’t always equate to bloodlines.
5-star review: “Everything about this novel is superb. Coates is a fabulous writer with a wonderful sense of place, history, time, and character. It is his particular take on a form of the Underground Railroad, with an enormous cast of characters who are beautifully drawn and completely memorable.” —Elizabeth George
Elizabeth Gilbert’s City of Girls takes the reader back to 1940s New York City, through the perspective of 89-year-old Vivian Morris reminiscing about her wild time in the theater. Her story is rich with memorable characters — the eccentric aunt she moves in with who owns her own theater (albeit one in major disrepair), the larger-than-life leading lady, the chorus of showgirls, the alluring leading man — and a vibrant setting, all of which come tumbling down when Vivian finds herself in the midst of a sexual scandal.
5-star review: “I INHALED this book! It’s an absolutely gorgeous novel about a woman figuring her life out before, during, and after WW2. It manages to be a fun, fast read, while also grappling with big messy issues like shame, grief, and how we live with our choices and mistakes. Read it!” —Amy
It’s 1969, and the Levin kids are breaking tradition by not spending the summer at their grandmother’s Nantucket home. The oldest sibling, Blair, is pregnant in Boston; middle sister Kirby’s time is split between protests and her first job on Martha’s Vineyard; and their brother Tiger has been deployed to Vietnam — leaving 13-year-old Jessie alone with her mother and grandmother, each hiding secrets from the others.
5-star review: “Elin Hilderbrand’s beautiful and intricate descriptions of Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard made me feel like I was actually there experiencing it all along with the characters – the houses, beaches, restaurants, food, country club, etc., all sounded wonderful. The lifestyle, pop culture, clothing, dialogue, and opinions came across as authentic to the time period, and I like that the author thought to include real events. Song titles as chapter headings really set the mood, and the handy Spotify list that Hilderbrand created allowed me listen while reading, making it feel even more like 1969. The perfect book to unwind and relax on the beach with.” —NZLisaM
Elwood Curtis is an ambitious, socially conscious, law-abiding teenager in 1960s Tallahassee who gets into the wrong car on his first day of elective community college classes and winds up arrested for auto theft. His sentence is enrollment at the Nickel Academy — which, despite its solid reputation, turns out to be built on cruelty, racism, and corruption. As Curtis discovers that his good behavior and best intentions won’t be enough to keep him safe, his worldview shifts, and survival becomes more of a strategy.
5-star review: “Unlike many historical fiction novels, or novels based on true events, Whitehead doesn’t spend hundreds of pages building up his setting, or dumping information on the reader. He goes straight into the horrific depths of the story, constructing a novel that shows incredible restraint and nuance. It is the ending that elevated this book from being great to being absolutely stellar and incredibly poignant! I was truly surprised by the revelations in the end, which totally clarified how brilliant and important the non-linear structure is for the story.” —RodKelly
Cilka is 16 years old when she’s taken to Auschwitz, but she’s quickly separated and saved by a commandant who finds her beautiful. When the war ends, Cilka is charged as a collaborator and sent to a Siberian prison camp — but when a kind female doctor takes her under her wing, Cilka starts to develop a greater understanding of resilience and humanity.
5-star review: “This was an engrossing and heartbreaking read. I read this novel in just a few sittings. At times the suffering was very hard to read but then I thought about what people had gone through. I am always amazed at the resilience of those who endured so much. Although there was so much cruelty there was also compassion and bravery. A deeply compelling and thought-provoking read with complex and well-developed characters, Cilka’s Journey will stay with me for a very long time.” —Deanna