For True Growth and Lessons in Bravery, Turn to Historical Fiction

By Becca C.

Becca is a 30-something mom of two and public relations professional from Houston, Texas. She currently works for a public relations agency, but she took a break from the PR world to teach high school English for five years. In addition to wrangling two kids under five and working her full-time job, she loves to read and write—she runs an Instagram account devoted to books (a “bookstagram” as it’s known), where she shares her current reads, reviews, various stacks of books that make her happy, and random bookish content. Becca is attempting (heavy emphasis on “attempting”) to write her own book—historical fiction based during WWII. She also recently started making bookmarks (because what’s one more thing?), which you can find on her Etsy shop.

As someone who reads enough for myself, my husband, and a few of our friends, I’m often asked for book recommendations from seasoned readers and those who are hoping to read more. Maybe it’s a new year’s resolution, or they’ve seen the light and decided reading is the best use of their free time (that’s the reason in my mind, at least), but my first question is always, “What kind of books do you want to read?”

If it were up to me, I would always recommend historical fiction. Whether based during WWII or lesser-known time periods, historical fiction is my absolute favorite genre. It’s rich in lessons learned, fantastic character development, setting details, and poignant writing. I love these books so much that I’ll annotate as I read sometimes!

While I know it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, I can guarantee there’s a historical fiction book out there for everyone. Whether you’re new to the genre or a seasoned pro, I bet I have a recommendation for you.

If you’re interested in WWII stories with strong, female leads:

  1. The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah: This book’s five-star rating (79,000 ratings) and 4.57 rating on Goodreads (nearly 870,000 ratings) speak for themselves. This is my all-time favorite book and one of the few I have re-read. It’s beautiful and heart-breaking and riveting and everything I look for in historical fiction. Just don’t finish in public. I know from experience here.
  2. The Things We Cannot Say by Kelly Rimmer: Another that I do not recommend finishing in public (that should probably be a disclaimer throughout this post). This is a dual timeline story, which I don’t typically love, but it’s very well done here. It’s a hard read, but an important one, and it explores the lengths we’ll go to protect the people we love in the most dire of circumstances.
  3. The Rose Code by Kate Quinn: Female spies doing the most important work during one of the most critical times in our world’s history? Sign me up! This one is fantastic and has been one of my favorite reads of 2021. It’s pretty long, though, so bring your patience with you when you read this!

If you’re interested in learning about lesser-known pieces of history:

  1. Calling Me Home by Julie Kibler: This story is inspired by the author’s grandmother: her grandmother, a White woman, was in love with a Black man, and their love was forbidden. Many people don’t know that it wasn’t until the 1967 Loving vs. Virginia case that deemed “anti-miscegenation” laws unconstitutional. And if you think about it, 1967 wasn’t that long ago.
  2. The Home for Unwanted Girls by Joanna Goodman: The Home for Unwanted Girls is based on the true story of a controversial law in 1950s Quebec that provided more funding to psychiatric hospitals than to the impoverished orphanage system, resulting in the government declaring orphans mentally ill. And because of this, the orphans were subjected to horrific treatment at the hands of those meant to protect them, with little hope for adoption. I don’t see this one around enough—I highly, highly recommend it.
  3. The Book of Lost Names by Kristin Harmel: This is set during WWII, but it tells a lesser-known story of a woman who worked as a forger to help get children and other innocent people to safety in neutral Switzerland. Most of the people she forged documents for were Jewish. This is another book that is mostly character-driven with some “action,” but another good reminder that the most poignant stories from WWII are of the heroism of people, not of the atrocities perpetrated by the Nazis.

If you want to learn about different parts of the world:

  1. The Cuba Series by Chanel Cleeton: Admittedly, I am not much of a series person because I have a hard time committing to finishing a series, but I LOVE these books and am looking forward to the fifth coming out soon. And the good news is you don’t have to read all of them in a certain order to understand the story; they can all be read as standalones. Here’s how I recommend reading them if you’re new to historical fiction (this is the chronological order of the setting, not the order in which they were released):
    1. The Most Beautiful Girl in Cuba, set in the late 1800s. This is the most “historical” of the four (in my opinion). There are three different storylines it follows spanning from New York to Cuba and from the Cuban War for Independence (from Spain), to the machine that was the newspaper industry at the turn of the century, to the Spanish-American War.
    2. The Last Train to Key West, set during the 1935 hurricane that hit the Florida Keys. This is my favorite of the series. It has more of a romance feel to it, so it may be good for those who are newer to the genre.
    3. Next Year in Havana, set in the 1950s with a dual timeline in 2017. This one is rich in Cuban history and setting detail!
    4. When We Left Cuba, set in the 1960s in the U.S. Love the fierceness of the protagonist in this one. Talk about a strong female lead!

My ranking of the series (followed by my star ranking): The Last Train to Key West (5), When We Left Cuba (5), Next Year in Havana (5), The Most Beautiful Girl in Cuba (4). And the next book, Our Last Days in Barcelona, will be out on May 24, 2022. **Adds to cart.**

If you want to confront some uncomfortable truths about our world’s past:

  1. Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi: Gyasi’s Homegoing is short but it packs a powerful punch. Homegoing traces familial ancestry over 300 years from Ghana, ending in the United States as it explores one family’s story through the slave trade, British colonization, slavery, segregation and today’s America. It is a hard read but a must read.
  2. The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett: This was one of my favorite reads of 2020. It’s impossible to sum up in a single sentence, but something that has stuck with me is that so many Black people (namely here, women) who were “white passing” felt the need to hide who they are because of the nature of our nation’s ugly history.
  3. Pachinko by Min Jin Lee: This is a long read, but it’s one of my favorites. It’s a generational tale that explores important themes topics such as loyalty, sacrifice, and ambition all within the context of something I wasn’t super familiar with prior to reading—strained relations between Japan and Korea and the blatant racism many endured.
  4. Kindred by Octavia Butler: Imagine being a Black woman in the 1970s and suddenly waking up in the Antebellum south. That is Kindred.

What I’m currently reading and what’s up next:

  1. Currently reading Things We Lost to the Water by Eric Nguyen: This is set in 1970s New Orleans and tells the story of a Vietnamese family that immigrates to the United States without their father and essentially has to start over, while they all have their own issues, futures, and reckonings with the past to deal with.
  2. Currently reading The Personal Librarian by Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray: This tells the story of Belle Da Costa Greene, a Black woman who passed as a White woman (similar to The Vanishing Half) and worked as J. P. Morgan’s personal librarian, becoming one of the most powerful women in New York. This is definitely more character-driven. It’s not plot-heavy and there’s not a ton of “action,” but I don’t think that’s the point. I think we’re meant to learn about the person, the story, and the sad truth about what she had to hide from those around her to do the work she wanted to do.
  3. Reading soon: Three Sisters by Heather Morris, the third installment in a series following Morris’ The Tattooist of Auschwitz and Cilka’s Journey (have read and enjoyed both!). I’m especially excited to read this one following an Instagram post I saw of one of the sisters the story is based on, holding this book, and knowing her story and that of her sisters will be told for the masses to learn from.
  4. Reading soon: The Other Einstein by Marie Benedict, because clearly I’m on a Marie Benedict kick, and I was super intrigued by the premise. This tells the story of Einstein’s first wife, a brilliant physicist in her own right, but she lived in the shadow of her famous husband at the turn of the 20th century, when it was uncommon for women to work, let alone as a scientist.

I could go on and on, but those are a few to get you started on your historical fiction reading journey (or more to add to your list). I hope you find something that speaks to you!

Follow along!

For book recommendations and reviews, bookish conversation, and a little bit of life intertwined, check out Becca’s Instagram page devoted to books at @bookedwithbecca. You can also follow her blog for more in-depth reviews at HerStory, and feel free to send any emails her way to bookedwithbecca@gmail.com. And if you’re looking to gift some bookish merch to a friend this holiday season (or yourself!) check out her Etsy shop! Happy reading!

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2 Comments

  1. 11.30.21
    Autumn Carter said:

    I need to save this whole list for when I start reading again.

    • 12.1.21
      Kalley said:

      Christmas list done.