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All Historical Fiction Coverage

For Americans who’ve traveled to Paris, the name Shakespeare and Company will ring a bell; it’s the famed English-language bookstore founded by Sylvia Beach in 1919, a bookstore that’s intimately linked to Lost Generation writers such as James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. In The Paris Bookseller, novelist Kerri Maher tells the story of how Shakespeare and Company came to be.

Soon after returning to Paris, where she lived with her family as a teen, American Sylvia meets Parisian Adrienne Monnier, who runs a bookshop on the Left Bank. Sylvia is drawn to the cultured, literary Adrienne, and as their connection deepens, Sylvia decides to take on the mantle of bookseller, too: She’ll open the first English-language bookstore in Paris. And thus Shakespeare and Company is born.

The Paris Bookseller follows Sylvia from her bookshop’s first days to the end of the 1930s, as war approaches. Sprinkled throughout are Sylvia’s and Adrienne’s regular encounters, mostly at Shakespeare and Company, but also at dinners, parties and café gatherings with those literary luminaries—Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Joyce, Gertrude Stein and others.

Sylvia’s friendship with James Joyce is at the heart of the novel. James, lauded but struggling, can’t find a publisher for his latest work, Ulysses, as American and British publishers are too prudish to take on the modernist novel and its graphic passages. Out of friendship, Sylvia volunteers to publish Ulysses, a quest that turns epic as James misses deadlines, rewrites already typeset pages and demands much, sometimes too much, of Sylvia and other literary friends.

Amid Shakespeare and Company’s ups and downs—thriving in the 1920s, when American tourists begin to visit the shop in the hopes of glimpsing famous writers, and then struggling through the Depression—Sylvia and Adrienne create a loving partnership in a time when queer relationships were far less accepted, even in Paris. Background characters are occasionally placed a bit too far into the background, but this is Sylvia’s story, and Maher has stayed true to her. With its insider’s view of the literary expat world of 1920s Paris, The Paris Bookseller will appeal to fans of Paula McClain’s The Paris Wife.

With its insider’s view of the literary expat world of 1920s Paris, The Paris Bookseller will appeal to fans of Paula McClain’s The Paris Wife.

Jabari Asim isn’t limited by genre or form. He’s a poet, essayist, children’s book author, cultural critic and novelist who is adept at navigating language and story.

Asim’s latest novel, Yonder, draws readers into the heart of plantation life and the existence of the “Stolen” who live there. Notably, Asim never uses words such as enslaved or slave in describing their stories, and skin color is rarely mentioned. Instead, Asim emphasizes the individual experiences of his characters, focusing on their humanity.

“As my William has said to me more than once, a story depends on who’s telling it, what they choose to mention, and what they leave out. There’s also the way they tell it, and the way they tell it has been shaped by everything that’s happened to them,” a character says early in the novel. Asim’s storytelling approach mirrors this explanation as he unravels the tale from five perspectives.

William is one of the strongest, most respected Stolen men at Placid Hall. Even William’s captor, a “Thief” called Cannonball Greene, holds begrudging respect for William after seeing him stare down a loose horse, stopping the runaway animal in its tracks before it plowed into a Thief child.

Cato is William’s closest friend. He’s frustrated by William’s spiritual skepticism and bereft after being torn from his love. Margaret is William’s lady. She’s captured his heart and wants to have his baby, but William has been permanently scarred by things he saw before arriving at Placid Hall. Pandora has also seen quite a lot, observing others at Placid Hall and drawing lessons from their behavior. She believes a better life is possible, despite the odds. Ransom is an itinerant preacher to whom William’s companions look for guidance, but William distrusts a man who can move freely through the country without interference from Thieves.

Asim weaves together these five voices in lyrical prose. He is a gifted storyteller, first building the world in which his characters are bound before setting in motion their united mission toward freedom. Throughout, the five main characters wrestle with their doubts, beliefs and hopes for something more. Yonder reminds us that even in despair, love and the human spirit can endure.

Like Jabari Asim’s talent, stories of slavery and racism transcend boundaries. His latest novel draws the reader into the hearts of five people pursuing freedom.

In the July 1845 issue of the Democratic Review, an editorial urged “the fulfillment of our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.” It’s believed to be the first time the expression “manifest destiny,” a staple of high school history papers for over a century, ever appeared in print.

The phrase doesn’t show up as such in Jonathan Evison’s epic seventh novel, Small World, but its presence—and its role within American immigrants’ and Native Americans’ destinies, spread across three centuries—is woven into every page.

There’s Amtrak executive Jenny, whose great-great-great-grandfather was a Chinese immigrant and forty-niner who parlayed his gold into intergenerational wealth; budding basketball player Malik, son of a single mother and descendant of an enslaved man; abuse survivor Laila, whose Miwok ancestor internalized white people’s cruelty; and retiring train conductor Walter, whose Irish forebear was on the crew that drove the golden spike that connected America’s coasts by rail in 1869.

In fact, it’s Walter’s 2019 train crash that kicks off the odyssey, as the engineer tries to imagine the lives of his passengers and “what circumstances, what decisions, had delivered them all to that moment.”

As Evison tells the tale of America through immigrants’, Native Americans’ and their descendants’ eyes, readers are treated to seemingly unrelated vignettes that jump back and forth across time and space. Piece by piece, Evison successfully corrals this sprawling history into a cohesive whole, coalescing it into a vivid mosaic.

Part of the reason this 480-page book seems like a novel half its girth is Evison’s ability to drop the reader into a scene. You can feel the bone-rattling lurch of a wagon carrying its hidden human cargo to freedom. You can smell the pinewoods as a young couple seeks a place to build their nest in the Sierra foothills. You can taste the congealed oats at a Dickensian orphanage. You can revel in the dreams of a young athlete on the verge of greatness.

Throughout it all, Evison underscores a sense of a shared America, not so much in the kumbaya mythology of the melting pot but a feeling—oft-neglected these days—that we are all in this nation-building adventure together. That’s a destiny worth manifesting.

Jonathan Evison underscores a sense of a shared America, that we are all in this nation-building adventure together. That’s a destiny worth manifesting.

Set in 1893 London, Paraic O’Donnell’s The House on Vesper Sands follows an appealing cast of characters as they try to unravel a mystery involving missing working-class women and a menacing group called the Spiriters. Inspector Cutter of Scotland Yard takes on the case, and his investigative efforts are shared by journalist Octavia Hillingdon, who’s on the hunt for a good story, and university student Gideon Bliss, who’s romantically linked to one of the missing girls. Readers will enjoy losing themselves in O’Donnell’s atmospheric adventure, which explores themes of feminism, class and Victorian mores.

Clare Beams’ The Illness Lesson takes place in 1800s Massachusetts, where Samuel Hood and his daughter, Caroline, open a progressive girls’ school after his dream of establishing a utopian community fails to bear fruit. Trouble brews when Eliza, a smart, inquisitive student, starts experiencing seizures and episodes of mania. After Caroline and other students experience similar symptoms, Samuel enlists the help of a doctor who proposes an unusual treatment. Beams’ ominous historical thriller is rich in period detail and brimming with tension, and its questions concerning gender and female agency will inspire great reading group discussions. 

A Black teacher encounters ghosts both spiritual and emotional on a visit to her hometown in LaTanya McQueen’s When the Reckoning Comes. Mira is in town for her best friend’s wedding, which is taking place at the Woodsman, a renovated tobacco plantation that’s supposedly haunted by the ghosts of the enslaved people who were forced to work there. Mira hopes to see her old friend, Jesse, who was arrested for murder years ago. But events take a terrifying twist, and Mira is forced to come to terms with the past. Reading groups will savor McQueen’s well-crafted suspense and enjoy digging into topics like historical accountability and the weight of memory.

The House of Whispers by Laura Purcell tells the story of a 19th-century maid named Hester who goes to work for Louise Pinecroft, a mute older woman who owns Morvoren House, a lonely estate in Cornwall. Staff members at the house harbor strange beliefs related to fairies, superstitions that are somehow connected to Louise’s late father, a physician whose questionable work with patients took place in caves thought to be haunted. Beyond its eerie aura and propulsive plot, The House of Whispers boasts many rich talking points, such as Purcell’s use of Cornish legends and her ability to create—and sustain—a mood of omnipresent foreboding.

These atmospheric thrillers—quintessentially gothic, decidedly unsettling—are perfect winter book club picks.

In 1952, a young Somali sailor named Mahmood Mattan was arrested for the murder of a Jewish shopkeeper in Cardiff, Wales, a crime he did not commit but nonetheless was convicted of and hanged for. This true story is the inspiration behind Nadifa Mohamed’s masterful Booker Prize short-listed novel, The Fortune Men, a powerful evocation of one man’s life and a harrowing tale of racial injustice.

In the 1950s, the Tiger Bay area of Cardiff is a multiracial, multilingual community of Somalis, Arabs, Jews, West Indians and West Africans. It’s also the home of Mattan, his Welsh wife and their three sons. When Violet Volacki is stabbed in her shop, her sister, Diana, thinks she sees a Somali at the door. A gambler and petty thief, Mattan tries to ignore the tidal wave of suspicion flowing from the police, his landlord, even the men at his mosque. But he grossly underestimates the racism of the local community, which wants to punish not only him but also his wife for marrying an African immigrant. Mattan’s protestations of innocence and his belief in the British justice system are no match for the prosecution’s fabricated testimonies and false witness statements.

Mohamed brilliantly re-creates Tiger Bay’s bustling world of racetracks, milk bars and rooming houses, filled with diverse characters who range from the bigoted detectives to the sheikh from the local mosque. Part of the novel is told by Diana, whose family immigrated to England to escape antisemitic violence in Russia and who never names Mattan as the man she saw, despite pressure from police. The Fortune Men is a reminder of a particularly egregious example of injustice and prejudice, but by including Diana’s point of view, Mohamed suggests that Mattan’s experience is not an isolated incident but one that was and is repeated wherever systemic racism exists.

In the real-world case, after decades of campaigning by his family and the wider Somali community, Mattan was exonerated. His name was cleared almost 50 years after his death, and the wrongful conviction and execution was the first miscarriage of justice ever rectified by the British courts. But these events happened decades after the action in Mohamed’s novel. She instead focuses on Mattan’s childhood in Hargeisa, his globetrotting years with the merchant navy and his final weeks in a Welsh jail, where a renewal of faith leads to a new assessment of life. Mohamed’s command of both Mattan’s place in the historical record and the intimate details of his life makes for a remarkable novel.

A true story inspired Nadifa Mohamed’s masterful novel, a powerful evocation of one man’s life and a harrowing tale of racial injustice.

“I suppose I prefer being in the thick of it,” American heiress Nanée Gold explains when asked why she hasn’t fled the dangers of Nazi-occupied France. She’s a flamboyant, daring character who flies a Vega Gull airplane and entertains friends with her beloved dog, Dagobert, who barks ferociously whenever he hears the name “Hitler.”

In The Postmistress of Paris, Meg Waite Clayton fictionalizes the fascinating story of Mary Jayne Gold, a wealthy American socialite who spent the early years of World War II helping to finance and shelter 2,000 Jewish and anti-Nazi refugees near Marseille, France, and aiding in their escapes over the Pyrenees. Gold worked with American journalist Varian Fry as part of the Emergency Rescue Committee, obtaining fake passports and planning escape routes to Spain and Portugal for luminaries such as Marc Chagall and Hannah Arendt. Clayton is well versed in this era, having written bestsellers The Race for Paris, about two female American journalists in 1944 France, and The Last Train to London, about the Kindertransport rescue.

Clayton excels at creating fictional worlds, weaving historical details with lively dialogue and rich scene-setting details. Readers meet Nanée in 1938 as she flies into Paris on a freezing cold night, quickly swaps out her wool stockings for silk and throws on several strings of pearls. She’s headed to a surrealist art exhibition, where she sees the works of Salvador Dalí and plays party games with André Breton. Danger is at the doorstep, but life is a joyful whirlwind for Nanée—until the Nazis invade Paris, abruptly forcing her to escape to the countryside near Marseille, where she rents a villa to house her artist friends.

Nanée falls in love with fictional Jewish German photographer Edouard Moss, a widower with a young daughter named Luki. Much of the novel focuses on Nanée’s attempts to rescue Edouard from a French labor camp, reunite him with his daughter and get the pair out of the country. While Clayton superbly crafts banter, parlor games, romance and philosophical discussions among her cast of talented, intellectual characters, her writing is at its sharpest whenever Nanée faces great danger—which is often. Tension builds throughout the novel, culminating in a grueling, dangerous escape attempt that’s full of surprises. Fans of Kate Quinn and Kristin Hannah will want to dive right into The Postmistress of Paris.

Meg Waite Clayton superbly crafts banter, romance and philosophical discussions, but her writing is at its sharpest when Nanée faces danger—which is often.

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