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Lives Lived: 14 New Novels for Historical Fiction Fans

From stories about Johann Sebastien Bach and the Buddha to socialites Nancy Mitford and former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy, we’ve got the best new books for the ages / BY Nathalie Atkinson / June 14th, 2022

Dorothy Draper, Talitha Getty and Jackie Kennedy are just a few of the boldface names – from Bing Crosby to Bach – who populate our pick of spring’s significant new historical novels, which will transport readers to a richly imagined past, and resonate in the present.

Obsessive Book Buyers: Zoomer editors have carefully curated our book coverage to ensure you find the perfect read. We may earn a commission on books you buy by clicking on the cover image.

1The Great Passionby James Runcie

Narrated by 11-year-old Stefan, this lavish depiction of artistic creativity is the latest by the bestselling British author of the Grantchester mystery series. Stefan, the newest young member of Johann Sebastian Bach’s choir in 1726 Leipzig, Germany, is dealing with the loss of his mother and bullies at school. Bach is soon mentoring the boy, who also works as a copyist for the eccentric choirmaster’s compositions. After his family suffers a tragedy, Bach channels his overwhelming grief into music and composes what would become “St. Matthew Passion.”

2Sister Stardust by Jane Green

Talitha Getty was the bohemian poster girl of jet-set Swinging London – the image of her in a caftan on the roof of her Marrakesh villa is one of the era’s enduring style moments. Fifty years after Getty’s tragic death at 31 from a drug overdose, English-born American author Green delves into the troubled, decadent, drug- and sex-fuelled lifestyle of the Dutch socialite (who married a scion of the American oil dynasty). The escapades are recounted by a fictional best friend, but expect cameos from her famous real-life circle, including Diane von Furstenberg and the Rolling Stones.

3What is Written on the Tongueby Anne Lazurko

A young Dutch man is released from a German labour camp at the end of the Second World War and sent to the Dutch colony of Java as part of the brutal occupying army in this morality tale about the oppressed becoming the oppressors. Set in Germany, The Netherlands and Indonesia during and after the war, Lazurko – who was born and raised in Saskatchewan – explores a soldier’s reckoning with conscience and colonization.

4The Mayfair Bookshopby Eliza Knight

An American woman and the English socialite and writer Nancy Mitford are connected across time through a quaint London bookstore. After her marriage failed during the Second World War, Mitford worked as an assistant at Heywood Hill bookshop on Curzon Street (a favourite meeting place of the London literati) while figuring out her next steps and writing her acclaimed novel, The Pursuit of Love. In this take by Knight, a Maryland-based USA Today bestselling author, an American book curator is Mitford’s modern-day counterpart, and finds herself on a parallel quest to heal from loss (the death of her mother) and find fulfillment and happiness.

5Mansions of the Moonby Shyam Selvadurai

Award-winning Sri Lankan Canadian novelist Selvadurai (Funny Boy) provides a portrait of a marriage and life that has been an historical footnote. It’s about Yasodhara and the disintegration of her marriage to Siddhartha Gautama as he discovers a spiritual calling and founds a new religion – he would soon be known as the Buddha. Here, we learn what Yasodhara made of her life after Siddhartha left her. (May 10)

6Idle Gossipby Renee Patrick

It’s 1940, and America has not yet joined the war raging in Europe in the latest instalment of amateur sleuthing duo Lillian Frost (a fictional social secretary) and celebrated studio costume designer Edith Head. The suspicious death of a tipster takes readers inside the machinery of golden age Hollywood gossip – a cutthroat ecosystem headed by warring columnists Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons. Patrick, the pen name of Seattle-based married authors Vince and Rosemary Keenan – draws on a deep knowledge of Hollywood history. The result is another absorbing mystery, with cameos and walk-ons by real people, such as Bing Crosby and designer Oleg Cassini (plus cheeky composites) that will be familiar to TCM devotees and will thrill lovers of classic film.

7The Mad Girls of New Yorkby Maya Rodale

The first major assignment for daring Gilded Age journalist Nellie Bly forms the basis of New York journalist Rodale’s latest historical novel. As she did in real life, Bly wanted hard-news scoops to be taken seriously. In this novel, she goes undercover to document abuses at a private women’s lunatic asylum on an island where, typical of the era, mental health was weaponized against women.

8The Memory Keeper of Kyivby Erin Litteken

I never imagined the release of my novel on a past oppression of the Ukrainian people would coincide with such a parallel tragedy,” the Illinois author and historian has said of her sweeping debut. Inspired by her family’s harrowing experiences in Ukraine, it’s set on a farm during the Holodomor famine of the early 1930s – Stalin’s genocide of the Ukrainian people through man-made starvation. Split timelines tell the story of a young woman named Katya and her experience with the secret police, deportations and resistance, and of her 21st century descendant, Cassie, a young widow and single parent who moves in with a relative in failing health. (May 16)

9Last Dance on the Starlight Pierby Sarah Bird

The story of Evie, a young woman from a troubled background training to be a nurse, supplies the pretext for a novel about the workings of a family-run organized crime empire (a thinly veiled version of the infamous Maceo Syndicate) and the Depression-era dance marathon racket. Gangsters, the beach and illicit booze of 1930s Galveston combine for a fascinating look at how a humble sandbar island in Texas became a mecca for vacationers and high rollers.

10Bloomsbury Girlsby Natalie Jenner

Jenner, the international bestselling Canadian writer (and former lawyer), reveals that she is clearly an anglophile with this follow-up to The Jane Austen Society. Her latest heartwarming literary excavation is set among a group of women, each at a crossroads, who work at a fictional legendary bookshop in post-war London, where they mingle with London intelligentsia. The trio stealthily – and not so quietly – rebels against the men in charge of the shop, as well as the literary canon, and instigate progress.

11The Grand Designby Joy Callaway

Renowned American decorator Dorothy Draper established her design firm in 1925 and gave us the throwback style known as modern Baroque, exemplified by New York’s bold Carlyle Hotel. This novel by Calloway, a North Carolina-based bestselling author, explores Draper’s dramatic renovation of the once-grand Greenbrier resort in West Virginia (at the time, the largest redecoration project in the history of American hospitality industry) and posits a romance at the hotel from Draper’s earlier debutante days. The novel spans her Gilded Age youth in old-money Tuxedo Park, N.Y. (where Draper’s father was Franklin Roosevelt’s neighbour and personal physician), and traces her career as the first celebrity decorator – and the development of her trademark cabbage-rose chintz, of course. 

12In the Face of the Sunby Denny S. Bryce

I’m keen to pick up Bryce’s latest novel, after learning a lot about the artistic circles of Jazz Age Chicago from the Virginia-based writer’s previous immersive historical novel, Wild Women and the Blues. It toggles between Los Angeles in 1928 and Chicago in the tumult of 1968, where Frankie, a pregnant young Black woman, seeks refuge from an abuser with her rebellious Aunt Daisy. As they make a road trip to L.A., the earlier timeline explores Daisy’s notorious past as a journalist in the vibrant Black community of the day, anchored in the luxurious new Hollywood hotel catering to African-American celebrities and upper-class clientele. The juxtaposition of the two era’s attitudes towards race and civil rights is insightful.

13The Last Confessions of Sylvia P. by Lee Kravetz

Part multi-generational story and part literary mystery inspired by true events, San Francisco author Kravetz creates a portrait of Sylvia Plath’s later life, after her marriage to poet Ted Hughes fell apart and leading up to her 1963 death by suicide. It is persuasively told through three storylines about three main characters who are connected to the American literary icon through the discovery of fictional notebooks containing a handwritten draft of Plath’s semi-autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar. 

14Jackie & Meby Louis Bayard

Bayard, a Washington, D.C.-based former U.S. House of Representatives staffer turned bestselling novelist, explores the early courtship between Jacqueline Bouvier and the future American president, John F. Kennedy. He opts for the point of view of Lem Billings, Kennedy’s boarding school roommate and a longtime member of his inner circle. Set in Washington, D.C., Billings acts as their go-between and is a narrator in the vein of The Great Gatsby’s Nick Carraway – on the periphery, but keenly observing every telling detail.  


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