12 Excellent Historical Fiction Novels (Not Set in World War II) For Your Beach Bag This Summer

Claire Handscombe

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The past is a rich and varied place, and there are all kinds of fascinating stories to be found there. If you love historical fiction, but you need a break from the World War II setting which has been popular over the last few weeks, dip your toe into one of these books.

The Buried Giant, by Kazuo Ishiguro

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This story, set in ancient England back when the Saxons and the Britons were battling it out, has the mythological feel of a fairy tale, so it's great on audio. Themes include: memory, forgiveness, what makes a marriage work. I loved the characters and was anxious nothing bad would happen to them.

The Crime Writer, by Jill Dawson

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If you’re a fan of psychological thrillers, you’re in for a treat with this one. The Crime Writer is a fictionalisation of Patricia Highsmith’s life. The American writer retreats to Suffolk, in England, in order to write and to protect her privacy as she maintains an affair with Sam, a married woman who lives in London. But a visit by Sam has deadly consequences, and Patricia discovers what it’s like to live like a character from her own troubling novels.

Don't Think a Single Thought, by Diana Cambridge

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When I first heard about this book, the author’s name sounded very familiar to me – and it turns out that’s because she’s been the agony aunt (what we Brits call advice columnists) at Writing Magazine for years. Don’t Think a Single Thought is her first novel. Inspired by the life of Manhattan novelist Sue Kaufman, it tells the story of Emma, who in New York in the 1960s seems to have it all – until, while in the Hamptons with her husband, she is suspected of being involved in the drowning of a child and begins to unravel.

The Essex Serpent, by Sarah Perry

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This was one of the most talked-about novels in the UK in 2016, and the prominent bookshop chain Waterstones named it their Book of the Year. It certainly sounds unique and intriguing. Recently bereaved Cora moves to Essex, just outside London, with her son. She hears of a rumour about the return of a deadly mythical snake and sets off to explore, meeting a deeply religious man with his own theories about the serpent on the way and striking up a tumultuous relationship with him.

The Gilded Years, by Karin Tanabe

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This book is fascinating: it’s historical fiction based on an African American woman whose pale skin enables her to pose as white and thus be accepted at Vassar. The writing is great, the dialogue is fun, and it's easy to see why Reese Witherspoon has optioned it for a film.

The Hollywood Daughter, by Kate Alcott

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This is a page-turner of a novel set in the 1950s, whose Ingrid Bergman-worshipping heroine is caught between her father’s Hollywood career and her mother’s Catholicism.

The Hours, by Michael Cunningham

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Michael Cunningham has such tenderness for his characters .If you love Virginia Woolf – or if you’re just intrigued by her – you won’t want to miss this one.

Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders

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This story of Lincoln's grief after the death of his young son was experimental and inventive, as well as moving, with plenty to discuss during a Book Club meeting.

The Parisian, by Isabella Hammad

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Zadie Smith has glowing praise for this novel, calling it “a sublime reading experience: delicate, restrained, surpassingly intelligent, uncommonly poised and truly beautiful”. It’s the story of Midhat Khamal, who returns home to Ottoman Palestine after studying in France to find his country under British rule. Over the course of the story, he and his nation strive for identity and independence – a great gift for someone who appreciates thoughtful fiction.

Saint Mazie, by Jami Attenberg

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Set during Prohibition, this novel is made up of diary entries and short oral histories and reimagines the life of Mazie Phillips, who was somewhat of a legend in the Bowery area of New York during the Jazz Age.

A Necessary Evil, by Abir Mukherjee

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In a historical crime novel set in India in 1920, Captain Wyndham and Sergeant Banerjee of the Calcutta Police Force investigate the dramatic assassination of a Maharajah’s son. A Necessary Evil has been called “even better” than his Mukherjee’s first, A Rising Man, which was not short of accolades.

This Lovely City, by Louise Hare

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It’s 1950 in London, and England has put out a call for labour. Lawrie Matthews, like many others, has arrived from Jamaica in response to that call. He works as a postman and plays in the jazz clubs at night, making a new home for himself and falling in love. But everything changes after he makes a horrifying discovery on Clapham Common one morning.

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Claire Handscombe is a British writer who moved to Washington, DC, in 2012, ostensibly to study for an MFA in Creative Writing, but really, let’s be honest, because of an obsession with The West Wing. She is the host of the Brit Lit Podcast, a monthly show about news and views from UK books and publishing; the author of Unscripted, a novel about a young woman with a celebrity crush and a determined plan; and the editor of Walk With Us: How The West Wing Changed Our Lives.

Washington, DC

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