The leaves have fallen, the trees are bare and the nights begin not long after 3 p.m. Grim late fall is upon us and there’s really only one cure: a spot of time-travel, courtesy of an exciting crop of brand new historical fiction. Fancy a jaunt to early 20th-century Florence, circa A Room With A View? A weekend around a wood stove in an early Victorian kitchen? This itinerary includes all those sights (and more!), no leaving-your-house-on-wet-evening required.
When Two Feathers Fell From The Sky by Margaret Verble (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Oct. 12)
We’re not saying it’s all the hippopotamus’ fault, but things were ticking along just fine at the Glendale Park Zoo until Dinah arrived from Memphis and promptly got sick. Set in 1926 Nashville, this ensemble story – starring a Cherokee horse-diver named Two, a groom named Hank and a war-haunted zookeeper named Clive – is a disarmingly charming, slyly intelligent story of strange happenings (moral of the story: never disturb a grave) and unconventional friendships against the backdrop of the still-segregated South.
Beasts of a Little Land by Juhea Kim (HarperCollins; Dec. 7)
Jade is a courtesan, sold into the trade by her family when starvation is the only other option for her. JungHo is a beggar on the streets of Seoul. Together, they are the compelling protagonists of an exciting debut that takes us through a vast arc of 20th-century Korean history, lending an achingly human lens to sweeping historic events that still reverberate today.
A Corruption of Blood by Ambrose Parry (Canongate Books, Oct. 19)
In this third installment of a series, Will Raven (an obstetrician in 19th-century Scotland) and Sarah Fisher (a housemaid turned aspiring doctor) are faced with their toughest case yet: An eminent gentleman drops dead unexpectedly, and his son is suspected of his murder. It’s an open-and-shut case (Junior was seen arguing with Senior just before, after all) until Raven’s new fiancé begs him and Sarah to save who she believes is an innocent man. In doing so, however, they unearth secrets from her past – and stumble upon an even bigger scandal at the heart of Edinburgh’s high society, connected to the body of a baby found in a nearby port.
The Teller of Secrets by Bisi Adjapon (HarperCollins, Nov. 16)
“Secret keeper” is not a role Esi would have chosen for herself. After all, what teenage girl wants the burden of knowing about her father’s adultery and her half-sisters’ misdemeanours? It is those secrets – and some unfair consequences for her own behaviour – that begin Esi’s questioning of the world she was born into, which is the deeply patriarchal Ghana of the 1960s, shortly after the country declared independence. The sheer life force with which Esi leaps off the page makes us excited for what else this new voice in historical fiction has in store.
The Last Dance of the Debutante by Julia Kelly (Gallery Books, Nov. 23)
The year is 1957 and Queen Elizabeth has declared that this will be the last time young society women will be “presented” at court, the final bow of the traditional “season” that functioned as a thinly disguised marriage market for blue-blooded young women. We live this last gasp of pre-war Britain through the eyes of three reluctant (if for different reasons) members of this final cohort: Lily, who wants to go to university and not be married off; Katherine, whose career ambitions rival those of her socially mobile parents; and Leana, who may appear the perfect debutante on the surface but whose interior hides an altogether more complicated truth.
Miss Eliza’s English Kitchen by Annabel Abbs (HarperCollins, Oct. 26)
Based on the true story of Eliza Acton – who became the Ina Garten of 1830s England by writing a cookbook instead of the poetry she really wanted to pen – this is a story of ambition realized one recipe at a time, all the more miraculous when you know that Eliza had no idea how to cook before she embarked on her ambitious project. It’s also the tale of a convention-defying friendship with right-hand woman and sous chef Ann, who works to forge her own path in a world that denies her even fewer opportunities than her more privileged boss.
The Ballad of Laurel Springs by Janet Beard (Gallery Books, Oct. 19)
When Grace first hears the old Appalachian folk tune Pretty Polly – the haunting story of a young woman murdered by her lover – she has no inkling that she has stumbled onto an a family secret, an echo of tragedy that connects her with generations of women who lived on these violent mountains before her, keeping the darkness at bay through the songs they’ve passed down.
Still Life by Sarah Winman (Penguin Canada, Nov. 9)
Art, E.M. Forster and the Tuscan hills – what more could you possibly ask for in a novel? A little more plot explication, perhaps, so here you go: Set mainly in Florence, Italy, this clever novel switches timelines from 1901 to 1944 to 1966 and into the 1980s, weaving together the story of Evelyn, an art historian, and Ulysses, a British soldier whose life she changes through a chance encounter an eerie abandoned villa in the middle of war-torn Italy. It’s rounded out by a motley crew of deeply flawed, deeply lovable characters (mainly Ulysses’s friends plus a parrot named Claude), and imbued throughout with the spirit of that other famous Florentine chronicler, Forster himself.
The Perishing, Natashia Deon (Catapult, Nov. 2)
If you like your historical fiction with a sprinkling of the supernatural, immediately pre-order this reality-bending tale set in 1930s Los Angeles. Our heroine is Lou, the first Black female journalist at the city’s paper of record. An achievement to be sure, but one overshadowed by the fact that, well, she’s an immortal, sent to this time in history for a mission that hasn’t yet been revealed to her. The task at hand is certainly connected to the firefighter she meets, though, startled to realize that his is the face she’s been drawing for years, not knowing who her subject was. You’ll be hooked from page one.
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