15 Phenomenal Historical Fiction Books That Bring Your Favorite Era to Life

Updated 05/06/19
Historical Fiction Books
@adenorah

Historical fiction books are like doors that give us a glimpse into the past. Aside from attracting history buffs hungry for adventure and perspective, this also tends to be one of the most entertaining genres. Indeed, historical fiction books present a world in which the real and the imagined mix, which can be just as revealing a textbook about a given era.

To prove just how much fun they are, we compiled a reading list of the historical fiction books out there. So if you've ever daydreamed about what your life would have been like in Paris during the Jazz Age or in 19th-century England, the 15 books below will bring you there while also teaching you a thing or two. Get ready to trade in the now for a mental vacation to the past.

Paula McLain The Paris Wife $12
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Time-travel to 1920 when Ernest Hemingway meets his first wife, Hadley Richardson, in Chicago. The two then move to Paris with the likes of Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

The couple is deeply in love, though things begin to fall apart for the couple in Jazz Age Paris while Hemingway writes The Sun Also Rises. Even though their relationship is torn apart by betrayal, Hemingway writes in his later book, A Moveable Feast, "When I saw Hadley again, I wished I had died before I ever loved anyone but her."

Similar reads: Z and Loving Frank

Milan Kundera The Unbearable Lightness of Being $12
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Time-travel to the Prague Spring, the period of liberalization in 1968 during Soviet rule. 

At the crux of it, The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera is a philosophical story about love and fate. It explores the complexities of choice and how our decisions shape us and those around us. Exploring the personal lives of four very different individuals within the historic setting of Prague Spring, Kundera challenges the reader to think about the interconnectedness between personal and public life. 

Similar Reads: American Pastoral and Lilac Girls

John Darnielle Universal Harvester $12
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Time-travel to '90s Middle America, where a VHS store becomes the center of a suspenseful mystery.

The protagonist is just an average guy who spends his time working at Hollywood Video until customers start complaining about an unsettling glitch in a tape, which leads to an even more unsettling discovery.

Similar reads: The Night Ocean and Ill Will

Emma Cline The Girls $13
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Time-travel to 1960s Bay Area, where we hear about the young women who orbit a Manson-like cult leader.

Emma Cline pulls us into a world that's simultaneously alluring and grotesque, idyllic, and widely dystopic. The book paints a sharp, vivid image of teenage vulnerability and the power of manipulation that illustrates how the characters easily get drawn in.

Similar reads: Manhattan Beach and Before We Were Yours

Toni Morrison Beloved $10
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Time-travel to Ohio during the reconstruction era. 

Beloved investigates the legacy of slavery, which maintains a strong, haunting presence throughout the novel (and today). It also emphasizes the transformative but undefinable power of romantic, paternal, and self-love. It's a book that you'll read over and over again, finding something new to admire each time. 

Similar reads: Invisible Man and The Wind Done Gone

Ellen Umansky The Fortunate Ones $11
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Time-travel to 1939 Vienna and modern-day Los Angeles, where we witness a work of art connect women from different generations.

When Rose's family is unable to get out of Nazi-occupied Austria with her, she moves in with strangers in London. We then jump to the end of the war, when the young girl tries to find a painting her mother had cherished. Years later, we meet L.A. native Lizzie Goldstein, and the story of unexpected connection unfolds.

Similar reads: Girl With a Pearl Earring and Commonwealth

Colson Whitehead The Underground Railroad $14
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Time travel to a cotton plantation in the 1800s where Cora, a slave, flees for freedom.

This novel introduces an alternate history of the Underground Railroad as an actual subway system. There's also a plot twist that refers to the Tuskegee syphilis experiment that occurred in 1932.

Similar reads: Lincoln in the Bardo and The Sellout

Gina Apostol The Gun Dealer's Daughter $12
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Time-travel to 1980s Marcos-era Philippines, where a wealthy girl named Sol is drawn to the rebellion and present-day Manhattan.

Though this book doesn't follow a linear chronology, it reflects Sol's fragmented memory and trauma. As a young woman limited by the comfort of her wealth, she seeks to overthrow the Marcos regime.

Eve Babitz Sex and Rage $8
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Time-travel to 1960s Los Angeles. 

In Eve Babitz's seminal novel Sex and Rage, you'll get to know the dreamy heroine Jacaranda, who is just as much a protagonist as the city of L.A. itself. It's written in the first person and chronicles her life from her childhood through to her early 30s. Born and raised in Santa Monica, Los Angeles, all she wants to do is surf in the ocean, drink in her empty apartment, and write (when she feels like it). It's about our capacity to grow and change as well as the underbelly of Hollywood, where materialism and hedonism rule.

 

Similar Reads: Southland and Play It as It Lays

Emma Donoghue The Wonder $10
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Time-travel to the mid-1800s, where an English nurse goes to a small fishing town in Ireland to save a girl who has survived months without food.

Written by the same author behind The Room, this novel is a gripping psychological thriller, love story, and piece of historical fiction. The book follows a nurse and a journalist who discover the miracle of the young girl.

Octavia E. Butler Kindred $10
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Time-travel to 1970s America on a plantation in the antebellum South.

The reader gets a glimpse inside two different eras, as a black woman is abruptly transported from her home in 1970s America to a plantation in the 1800s. It reveals the similarities between past injustices and contemporary patterns of inequality while capturing the darkness of time travel.

Anne Rice Interview With a Vampire $8
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Time-travel to New Orleans in the 1700s.

Known for her gothic fantasies and perfect conjurings of bygone eras, Anne Rice crafts an intelligent, gripping, and moving thriller meets historical novel with Interview With a Vampire. It's written in the form of a vampire's first-person confessions are at once and haunting, philosophically enlightening, and erotic. It's an easy favorite. 

Similar Reads: The Bellwether Revivals and Lilac Girls

Virginia Woolf Orlando $3
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Time-travel to the English countryside and London over a 300-year period, from the Elizabethan era to 1928. 

This book is a metafictional novel that presents itself as a biography. The narrator tracks the experiences of a genderless and timeless individual. While it's not quite surrealism, fantasy, or sci-fi, Woolf urges her readers to move away from traditional notions of truth as objective. This book illustrates the importance of imagination and ambiguity in all forms of storytelling, legend, fiction, and biography alike. 

James Baldwin Another Country $12
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Time-travel to 20th-century New York City, where several people are connected by the loss of one man.

This book explores connection and disconnection, love and violence, taboo topics, and the many facets of identity. With a perceptive omniscient narrator, each section reveals the interiority of the characters in one man's life in the wake of his death.

Similar reads: The End of Eddy and Enigma Variations

Markus Zusak The Book Thief $9
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Time-travel to Nazi Germany in 1939.

We meet protagonist Liesel Meminger, who escapes the bleak present with books that she steals and shares with the Jewish man hiding in her basement.

This was originally published on January 4, 2018, and has since been updated.

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