We earn a commission for products purchased through some links in this article.
Historical books and novels remain enduringly popular – for who doesn’t love journeying back into the past and discovering long-buried secrets? Whether set in medieval times or only a few short decades ago, the time period immediately draws you in.
Thriller books perhaps have the best reputation, but we have a soft spot for hisorical books. With fact and fiction often blurring, the opportunity for historical writers to use their own unique flare and showcase their take on events means you’re always in for a dramatic reading experience with historical novels.
But which time period appeals most to your imagination? And which historical books should be added to your reading list or book club books list in 2020? Here we reveal our pick of the best reads that this genre has to offer…
Best historical books in 2020
The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave
Inspired by true events, this bewitching historical book captures a real sense of the suspicion that’s soon to tear a small Norwegian community apart. On Christmas Eve, 1617, the island of Vardø suffers a tragedy as a sudden storm lays waste to the local men. Eighteen months later, godly Absalom Cornet arrives, determined to stamp out what he sees as female evil. This is one atmospheric and unforgettable read.
Katheryn Howard: The Tainted Queen by Alison Weir
Charting the rise and fall of Henry VIII’s fifth queen, historian Alison Weir is an expert at weaving together historical detail and political powerplay. When her uncle’s machinations get naïve Katheryn Howard noticed by the ageing Henry VIII, all of her past liaisons are set aside in favour of this more advantageous match. Now all she can do is hope her old secrets won’t be revealed…
Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell
Delving into the Elizabethan era with great flair, Maggie O’Farrell’s first historical tale is inspired by the life of Shakespeare’s beloved son. When a young girl falls ill one summer day in 1596, her twin brother Hamnet is desperate to find help. But with both their parents at work far away, it becomes clear that only one child will survive the week. Will the family’s love be enough to hold them together despite their grief? Moving and beautifully written.
The Foundling by Stacey Halls
The writer of the bestselling The Familiars returns with a vengeance with this tale set in Georgian London. Bess Bright is devastated to discover that the daughter she left at London’s Foundling Hospital has now been claimed. Meanwhile, widow Alexandra lives in comparative luxury, determined to protect herself and her daughter from the past. With a strong emotional core, you’ll be carried along by the historical details.
The Queen’s Rival by Anne O’Brien
It’s 1459, and the English nobility are bitterly divided over whether to remain loyal to their weak-minded King Henry VI and his haughty French wife Marguerite of Anjou. And when powerful Cecily Neville, Duchess of York, is imprisoned, she does everything to get her family back where they belong. A compelling story of divided loyalties and family betrayals. Dramatic and highly evocative.
A Room Made of Leaves by Kate Grenville
Inspired by the real life of Elizabeth Macarthur, Kate Grenville imagines the private life of a remarkable woman whose husband was a pioneer of the Australian wool industry. It’s 1788 when Elizabeth makes the decision to marry John Macarthur, but soon realises her mistake as he proves himself to be devious and angry with the world. Elizabeth must find an inner strength if she is to steer her husband away from danger. Packed with wonderful historical detail, this is an absorbing read.
Victorian and Early 20th Century
Spirited by Julie Cohen
Blending together supernatural elements with a historical setting, Julie Cohen brings us Victorians Viola and Henriette. After losing her father, the only thing that can lift Viola’s grief is photography, though her pictures seem to pick up spirits that are invisible to the naked eye and after meeting spirit medium, Henriette, she is drawn even further into a very different world. Wonderfully written and evocative.
SHOP NOW: Spirited by Julie Cohen (Orion, HB)
Meet Me In Bombay by Jenny Ashcroft
Vividly set against the backdrop of colonial India, Jenny Ashcroft’s latest historical tale brings to life the colour, love and heartbreak that make life worth living. When Madeline and Luke first meet at a party in 1914 on the shores of Bombay, the love that blooms is unstoppable, despite the war on the horizon. But when Luke is called to fight, all Maddy can do is think of the promise he made her – that they would once again meet in Bombay.
Islands of Mercy by Rose Tremain
In this literary read, Tremain negotiates the complexity and fragility of the human condition with great skill. Opening in 19th century Bath, a cast of distinctive characters, ranging from Doctor Valentine Ross, to doctor’s daughter and nurse, Jane Adeane, bring forth a tale of passion and soul-searching as Jane must choose between a conventional marriage and an affair with a female lover. Intertwined with their tale is that of eccentric British ‘rajah’, Sir Ralph Savage in Borneo and together, Tremain boldly explores our very human need for sanctuary and expression.
The French Wife by Diney Costeloe
With her sister’s spectacular wedding fast approaching, Helene St Clair’s growing feelings for a young Englishman, Rupert, and friendship with orphan Annette may yet prove dangerous. Following the 1871 siege of Paris, Annette and Helene have grown close and now working for the St Clair family, Annette’s dark secret lies squarely in her friend’s hands. This is a truly captivating read that brings together vibrant characters and historical setting with great success.
World War II Era
The Animals at Lockwood Manor by Jane Healey
It’s the beginning of the Second World War when Hetty, a young female museum curator and evacuee, arrives at Lockwood Manor with a large part of the Natural History Museum’s collection. She hopes to keep them safe, but there is something strange going on and when Hetty feels she is being followed through the corridors the book takes a more gothic turn. Part love story and part-mystery, this historical book is sure to draw you in.
The Unwanted Dead by Chris Lloyd
Released 17 Sept
For Paris police detective Eddie Giral, the day the German forces march into Paris is a day he will never forget. Feeling helpless, he throws himself into investigating the murder of four refugees – people who no one seems to want to claim. But with Europe in turmoil and eyes everywhere, he must be careful. He must do what he can to survive, but Eddie soon begins to unearth a truly horrific conspiracy that goes right to the heart of the German leadership and must soon see the light of day. Tense, emotional and vividly written.
PRE-ORDER NOW: The Unwanted Dead by Chris Lloyd (Orion, HB)
The Governess by Wendy Holden
In her first foray in historical fiction, Holden focuses on Scottish educator and governess, Marion Crawford, who soon took the young princesses, Elizabeth and Margaret under her wing. Just what was Marion doing there when she had intended to teach in the slums, and why was she shunned from the Royal family years later? This intriguing fictionalisation of real-life events offers a fascinating insight into the Queen’s childhood.
Post-World War II Era
Finding Clara by Anika Scott
Set in Essen, Germany in 1946, Anika Scott’s extraordinary novel follows iron works heiress Clara as she desperately tries to evade the Allied authorities, accused of being complicit in her father’s wartime crimes. When Clara returns to find her hometown in ruins, she realises that for her to have a future she must first face up to her past. Fans of The Tattooist of Auchwitz will be fascinated by Scott’s portrayal of post-war Germany in this tale of guilt and redemption.
Tell Me How It Ends by V.B. Grey
Grey brings to life a plot that is as dramatic as its characters, rich with 1960s period detail. Singer Delia Maxwell has been adored and envied since the 50s, although Private investigator Frank thinks Delia’s ambitious new assistant Lily is more obsessed than most. Despite his fears, however, Delia doesn’t seem concerned. With brilliant homages to film noir, this intriguing novel is packed full of tension.
Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers
Clare Chambers’ tender 1950’s mystery follows Jean Swinney, a features writer on a local newspaper, whose world is turned upside down when she is sent off to investigate Gretchen Tilbury’s ‘virgin birth’. Her life quickly becomes intertwined with the charismatic Tilburys, though their story seems to be casting a darker shadow the more she looks deeper. A stunning novel that will steal your heart.
The Jane Austen Society by Natalie Jenner
Just when the little village of Chawton think that they can finally start to put the devastation of the recently ended war behind them, they look set to be dealt another blow in the form of the sale of Jane Austen’s former home. Faced with the possibility of the estate being purchased, eight of the villagers band together to fight to preserve this historic site, calling themselves The Jane Austen Society. Uplifting and warm, the characters and charming settle can’t fail to bring a smile to your face.
This Lovely City by Louise Hare
In her atmospheric debut, Louise Hare transports us to post-war London with newly arrived jazz musician, Lawrie. Touring the music halls of Soho by night, by day he paces the streets as a postman – which is when he happens upon a terrible discovery and becomes the prime suspect. It soon becomes clear that the new arrivals from the Caribbean may not be as welcome as they’d been led to believe. A thought-provoking mystery that’s sure to get people talking.
SHOP NOW: This Lovely City by Louise Hare (HQ, HB)
She Came To Stay by Eleni Kyriacou
It’s London, 1952 and Dina has arrived from Cyprus with her brother, looking for a better life. When she meets the glamorous Bebba at the notorious Pelican Revue, she sees her chance to start really living. Only, Dina soon learns that everyone has a secret. This is an intriguing tale of friendship, betrayal and hope.
Liar by Lesley Pearse
Set in 1970s London, Pearse’s latest dark tale follows saleswoman Amelia White, who has ambitions to become a reporter. Luckily, these might just be about to become reality when she discovers a murdered woman’s body. Determined to report the truth amidst a media frenzy that spreads outrageous lies, Amelia convinces her paper’s editor to allow her to delve deeper. A superbly twisting and intense historical book that will have you gripped to the end.
Summer in Mayfair by Susannah Constantine
It’s 1979 and Esme Munroe has escaped the Highlands to work at a prestigious art gallery in Mayfair. After befriending glamorous Suki, Esme visits the most fashionable bars and clubs London has to offer. This summery tale gives a glimpse into the secret lives of the upper classes and is complete with vivid characters.
Happy historical reading!