OFF THE SHELF
January 4, 2023 BY OFF THE SHELF STAFF
It’s not exactly a secret that, here at Off the Shelf, we’re historical fiction enthusiasts. Some may say “obsessives,” but hey when you work in book publishing that’s already assumed. So in order to scope out the hottest historical fiction works of 2023, we were more than ready to rip through in-house marketing materials, pester editors (in a nice way), and track down early copies to give our readers the best recommendations. Without further ado, here are our most anticipated historical fiction books of the new year.
Megan’s Pick: Patti Callahan Henry is a master storyteller, and in THE SECRET BOOK OF FLORA LEA, she transports readers to WWII London, where sisters Hazel and Flora Lea are evacuated to a countryside village during the Blitz. There they take comfort in their made-up fanciful world called Whisperwood. But then Flora goes missing while playing near the River Thames. Fast-forward twenty years, when Hazel comes across the story of Whisperwood in a picture book published in the U.S., which is shockingly similar to the story she created for her little sister all those years ago. How can this be? Is it possible Flora Lea is still alive? Be on the lookout for this highly anticipated, sweeping story about sisterhood and the power of storytelling next May!
Danielle’s Pick: If you, like me, are a fan of historical fiction based on little-known true events, you won’t want to miss Rachel Beanland’s THE HOUSE IS ON FIRE. Based on the events and aftermath of the Richmond Theater Fire of 1811, this story imagines the lives of four characters who find themselves caught in one of the early United States’ deadliest tragedies. The book opens on the night after Christmas, when the Virginia theater is packed with hundreds of attendees for an evening performance. Midway through the show, the theater suddenly goes up in flames, leaving those trapped inside to make a series of split-second decisions that will have lasting consequences. Told through alternating perspectives—Sally, a grieving widow; weary Cecily, who is taking a small break from her hard-scrabble life to watch the show from the colored galley; Jack, a young stagehand working backstage, and Gilbert, who will have to buy his wife’s freedom before she can ever attend such a performance—THE HOUSE IS ON FIRE begins with a tragedy, and becomes a story of love, redemption, and finding freedom.
Heather’s Pick: Since the Supreme Court’s shocking-but-not-surprising ruling in Dobbs vs. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the tumultuous history of women’s reproductive rights in America has never been far from my mind. LOOKING FOR JANE by Heather Marshall is a timely work of historical fiction that focuses on a brave group of activists who formed what became known as the Jane Collective to help pregnant people access abortion services from 1969 until 1973, when the procedure itself was still illegal. Jumping between time periods—2017, 1980, and 1971—the novel centers on three women whose stories intersect in unexpected ways. The concept alone intrigued me, but Kristin Hannah’s ringing endorsement of the book as a “searing, important, beautifully written novel” sealed the deal; I must read this one.
Emily’s Pick: Sadeqa Johnson’s historical fiction (remember Yellow Wife?) always fills in the gaps of history with much-needed clarity and imbues it with an emotional pull. Her latest, THE HOUSE OF EVE, is especially touching, as it stems from her curiosity about her own grandmother, who became a mother at the age of just fourteen. Driven by questions of what happened to young unwed Black women like her grandmother in the 1950s, Sadeqa created the intertwining narratives of Ruby and Eleanor. Each young women comes from a different walk of life—high school Junior Ruby in urban Philadelphia is set to become the first person in her family to go to college, and Eleanor’s middle-class suburban life in Cleveland doesn’t help her fit in as much as she’d hoped at Howard University—but unexpected pregnancies send them on separate (and then colliding) trajectories that explore class, race, and gender mixed with ambitions in the mid-twentieth century.
Abi’s Pick #1: I am a sucker for second-chance stories, so this upcoming novel was an immediate favorite. In Liverpool, in 1935, Viv Byrne’s life has just been turned upside down. A good Catholic girl, she’s always followed the status quo—until a fling with a Jewish man named Joshua Levinson leaves her unexpectedly pregnant and stuck with her severely disapproving family. Five years later, Viv has made the agonizing decision to evacuate her young daughter to the countryside in the hopes of escaping World War II, and Joshua is serving in the Royal Air Force. Soon, Viv discovers that the estate their daughter resided in did not escape the war, and now her little girl is nowhere to be found. All seems lost, until years later Viv stumbles upon a clue that leads her to believe she might be able to reunite with her daughter after all, but only with Joshua’s help. Julia Kelly’s THE LOST ENGLISH GIRL will take you on a journey of long-kept secrets, heart-wrenching moments, and what it takes to piece a family back together. Trust me, you won’t want to miss out!
Sara’s Pick #1: Would it really be a historical fiction list without a Kate Morton book on it? And the author’s latest novel, HOMECOMING, sounds like it'll be yet another treat! The book spans several generations as a perplexing murder investigation in 1959 Australia blooms into a tale of family intrigue, the challenges of motherhood, and the corrosion of the soul that comes with keeping secrets. Not to mention it features a grandmother-granddaughter duo, in a link to the 1959 murder twenty years later, which only amplifies the themes of generational trauma and triumph.
Sara’s Pick #2: Wouldn’t it be lovely to inherit a big, beautiful library, somewhere cozy and secluded where you can just brew a cup of tea and enjoy some leisure and literature? Well, that's my dream at least. But such a bibliophile's dream turns into a nightmare for Ivy Radcliffe, who, after WWI, suddenly becomes the Lady of Blackwood Abbey, a place that has been in her family for generations but where she's never visited. Within its walls, she finds tales of ghosts, dark secrets, and a strange manuscript. THE LAST HEIR TO BLACKWOOD LIBRARY is a twisting, atmospheric tale sure to delight any Gothic and historical fiction fan!
Holly’s Pick: Although I first discovered Jeannette Walls through her marvelous and best-selling memoir, THE GLASS CASTLE, I always admired that her prose read like a riveting work of fiction. So, as a devoted fan of her writing, I was naturally over the moon to hear about her upcoming novel. HANG THE MOON tells the story of Sallie Kincaid, the daughter of the “Duke” Kincaid—a volatile man with the biggest personality in town. After Sallie’s mother dies during an argument with Duke, Sallie has little memory left to hold on to as she grows up. By the time Sallie is eight years old, her father has already remarried and fathered a son, and Sallie is eventually estranged from them. Nine years later, Sallie returns to her hometown to confront the secrets of her past and the scandals that shed a dark shadow on her family—as well as to take her place as a bootlegger in her own right. Set during the Prohibition era in Virginia, I’m anticipating that this novel will be a literary hit.
Abi’s Pick #2: As a huge fan of historical dramas, including those of Kristin Harmel, this was a must-read for me! Set in 1939, Paris, the story begins with a pair of young women—one, Juliette, a mother of two sons with a third child on the way, and the other, named Elise, pregnant with her first child. Soon after becoming fast friends, while bonding in a bookstore that Juliette’s family owns, Elise becomes a target of the German occupation and makes the hasty decision to leave her daughter with Juliette and her family, which now includes a daughter, the same age as Elise’s. A year later, with the war winding down, Elise returns to find the world she left behind destroyed by a bomb, and Juliette and both of their daughters have disappeared. The only thing Elise concretely has is confirmation from a neighbor that her friend and one of the girls got out alive. Now, against all odds, she’s on a mission to find out what happened to her child. THE PARIS DAUGHTER will take you on a heartrending journey of friendship, tragic loss, and finding your way back to the people you love. Don’t miss out on what I believe is Kristin Harmel’s best book yet!
Andie’s Pick: Calling all historical fiction fans! Bestselling author Armando Lucas Correa’s THE NIGHT TRAVELERS has everything I love: multi-generational stories, complex characters, and a tale that will tug on your heartstrings. One generation’s story begins in 1931 Berlin with Ally, who must send her mixed-race daughter, Lilith, on a dangerous path to Havana in order to save her from Hitler’s deadly ideology of Aryan purity. Next we follow an adult Lilith, who must save her daughter, Nadine, from the upcoming Communist war by sending her to live in America. Decades later in 1988, Nadine finds herself back in her grandmother’s country of heritage, Germany, as a scientist, but one who has spent her entire lifetime avoiding the truth about her own family’s history. It is Nadine’s daughter, Luna, in turn, who begins to unravel the past and discovers a shocking betrayal that changes everything she thought she knew. This unforgettable story of mothers and daughters, sacrifice, and self-discovery will have you hastily turning the pages to discover what happens next. Over four generations, strong women captivatingly take center stage.
Lauren’s Pick: The bestselling author of ORDINARY GRACE and THIS TENDER LAND, William Kent Krueger, is back with a novella of a family, a storm, a complicated rescue, and the true cost of survival. Krueger creates a totally immersive atmosphere set against the Mississippi River in 1927 as a devastating flood threatens to overtake an ancestral home, and a cast of characters work to save the property, though each with his or her own motives. With themes of man versus nature and biological versus chosen family, THE LEVEE is a vivid, perfectly told story in under three and a half audiobook hours. It’s available exclusively as an audiobook on February 28, 2023.