Punch your ticket on the Time Travel Express! This spring’s most transportive historical fiction offers an itinerary across the ages – Edinburgh in 1869; the Algonquin territories in 1657; Windsor, Ont., in 1921 and the House of Windsor in 1981. It’s a whistle-stop tour through the past, told by the best tour guides you could have. These nine writers make dry facts dance, blow the dust off history books, and weave an enchanted, immersive spell from all those cobwebs. All aboard!
The People’s Princess, Flora Harding (HarperCollins)
Bored and lonely, the newly engaged Diana Spencer is wandering the oppressively quiet halls of Buckingham Palace when she spies a portrait, full of the life and sparkle that’s sorely lacking in her stiff, protocol-bound new family. The subject, it turns out, is another Princess of Wales named Charlotte, who left a diary in the archives, detailing her life as heir to the throne in the early 1800s. The two women find much in common – popularity with the public, struggle with the strictures of royal life and (spoiler alert) tragic early deaths that plunge a nation into crisis.
Lessons In Chemistry, Bonnie Garmus (Doubleday Canada)
A brilliant chemist stymied by appalling, blood-boiling sexism in 1960s America, Elizabeth Zott is no Julia Child – but here she is, hosting a cooking show to support her daughter, who was part of the reason she was fired from her job as a researcher. Originally planned as filler for “the Afternoon Depression Zone” on a local station, Zott’s show is an instant hit. Her formula for success? Taking the women who watch it, and the work they do in the home, seriously. Deeply droll and terribly wise at the same time, this book is a delight. Six-Thirty, Elizabeth’s dog with an emotional IQ of 130, is worth the price of admission alone.
Daughters of the Deer, Danielle Daniel (Random House)
This stunning adult debut from Daniel, who has already won awards for her children’s books, has threads of what makes great kid lit: simple but powerful language, harnessing complicated ideas into strikingly distilled images. Drawing from her own Algonquin, Scottish and French heritage, Daniel weaves together the stories of Marie, a healer from the Deer Clan forced to marry a French soldier, and Jeanne, her daughter, whose sexuality makes her a target for condemnation and violence in her father’s New France. A beautiful book, this is urgent reading for anyone seeking to understand more about the myriad ways European colonization in the 1600s still reverberates today, to devastating effect.
A Rip Through Time, Kelley Armstrong (St. Martin’s Press)
When Mallory Atkinson steps out of the hospice for a stress-relieving jog, the worst thing she expects to happen will be that her beloved grandmother will have passed while she’s gone. The prospect of being strangled – nay, almost murdered, and suddenly finding herself transported into a housemaid’s body circa 1869 – certainly never occurred to this homicide detective. Now that it’s happened, however, she’s determined to find her way back to 2019, even if that means solving the bizarre series of murders that, even more strangely, seem to be connected to her own attack 200 years later.
Take My Hand, Dolen Perkins-Valdez (Penguin)
As a fresh-from-school Black nurse working in family planning in 1970s Alabama, Civil Townsend never expected her work to be easy. What she couldn’t have anticipated, however, was the way the community she served would impact the course of her own life. Specifically, it’s the Williams sisters – living in a ramshackle one-room home, and shouldering far too much responsibility for children – who are faced with an unspeakable tragedy. What happens here haunts Townsend to the end of her career, and is based on real events that none of us should ever forget.
The Vanished Days, Susanna Kearsley (Simon & Schuster)
It seems like a straightforward case: A young widow comes forward to claim her sailor husband’s outstanding wages, which she is her due after he is one of more than 2,000 lives lost in Scotland’s disastrous Darien Scheme (an attempt to colonize what is now called Panama). What complicates this, however, is that there is no record of her marriage, nor witnesses who can attest that this humble guardsman’s daughter was married to the son of one of Scotland’s oldest noble families. It’s up to retired soldier Adam Williamson to sort fact from fiction while not letting her beauty cloud his judgment, which proves to be a tricky task in Scotland of 1702, where the union with England is still fresh, rumours of a Jacobite uprising swirl and nothing is ever as it seems …
Bluebird, Genevieve Graham (Simon & Schuster)
When you work at a quiet local museum, visitors are always a treat – especially when they’re handsome DIYers who’ve unearthed a cache of old-seeming liquor bottles in the wall of the house they’re renovating. For Cassie, the assistant museum curator in question, there’s an added intrigue: The bottle comes out of a house in Windsor, Ont. with a family connection and a rumour about brothers who used to run booze across the border during Prohibition. What starts with present-day curiosity takes the reader deep into the trenches of the First World War and the little-told story of the “bluebirds,” Canada’s nursing sisters who served in distinctive blue uniforms and returned home with wounds just as deep as the men they cared for.
Bloomsbury Girls, Natalie Jenner (St. Martin’s Press)
If The Jane Austen Society was a rare bright spark in the early months of the pandemic, readers will be delighted to learn that its author is back with another, equally lovely novel about the joy that books can bring. This time, she’s traded classic tomes for the shelves of a stodgy bookstore in 1950s London, where three enterprising women try to change its offerings from Pale, Male and Stale to the kinds of books that chime with the post-war sea change that’s happening outside Bloomsbury Books’ hidebound walls. This one’s good for the soul, in a non-saccharine way we think Daphne du Maurier and Samuel Beckett would approve of.
Four Treasures of the Sky, Jenny Tinghui Zhang (Flatiron Books)
In the wake of a recent rise in racially motivated crimes against Asian-Canadians and Americans, this regrettably timely debut tells the story of Daiyu. Named for a tragic figure in folklore – her first clue that her life would be a sorrow-filled one – Daiyu’s parents vanish in mysterious circumstances. Shortly afterward, she herself is kidnapped in broad daylight from the Zhifu fish market and trafficked to San Francisco to work in a brothel. It is 1883, the year after the Chinese Exclusion Act, which excluded Chinese people from legal migration to the US, was passed. It’s against this wave of anti-Asian violence that Daiyu must fight to survive and – despite the odds – forge a destiny of her own making.
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