Books·Reading List

15 historical fiction books to lose yourself in this summer

Looking for a good summer read? Transport yourself with these historical fiction books by Canadian and international authors.

Looking for a good summer read? Transport yourself with these historical fiction works by Canadian and international authors.

When We Lost Our Heads by Heather O'Neill

Heather O'Neill is a Canadian novelist, poet, short story writer, screenwriter and journalist. (HarperCollins Canada, J Artacho)

When Marie, the spoiled daughter of a sugar baron living in 19th-century Montreal, meets the brilliant Sadie, the two are immediately inseparable. Marie has bubbly charm and sees the pleasure of the world, whereas Sadie's obsession with darkness is all-consuming. Class and circumstance lead them down different paths, while each woman plays an unexpected role in the events that upend their city.

When We Lost Our Heads is a story that explores gender, power, sex, desire, class and status.

Heather O'Neill is a writer and author from Montreal. O'Neill's debut novel, Lullabies for Little Criminals, was a finalist for a Governor General's Literary Award and won Canada Reads 2007. The Montreal-based writer was the first back-to-back finalist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize: her novel The Girl Who Was Saturday Night was a finalist in 2014 and her short story collection Daydreams of Angels was a finalist in 2015. Her latest books are the novel The Lonely Hearts Hotel and the nonfiction book Wisdom in Nonsense

If Heather O'Neill hadn't been able to get her first novel published, she figured she'd open a laundromat. An extreme and imaginative idea; much like her latest book 'When We Lost Our Heads'. O'Neill's fifth novel is a fresh contribution to feminist literature -- centering two little girls in Victorian era Montreal who are channeling some of the crazed key players of the French Revolution.

Bloomsbury Girls by Natalie Jenner

Bloomsbury Girls is a book by Natalie Jenner. (Sarah Sims, St. Martin's Press)

Bloomsbury Girls tells the story of Vivien Lowry, Grace Perkins and Evie Stone — three women with a complex web of relationships, goals and dreams — as they interact with famous literary figures. The novel is set in the 1950s world of publishing and the women work in an old-fashioned bookstore, run by men, called Bloomsbury Books. As they juggle their lives, the women work toward a future that is richer and more rewarding than anything society will allow. 

Natalie Jenner is the bestselling author of The Jane Austen Society, which was the 2020 Goodreads Choice Award runner-up for historical fiction. Jenner is a former lawyer and independent bookshop owner. She was born in England and now lives in Oakville, Ont. 

Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch by Rivka Galchen

Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch is a novel by Rivka Galchen. (HarperCollins Canada, Sandy Tait)

Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch takes place in a small German town in 1618, where an elderly widow is accused of witchcraft. In the German duchy of Württemberg, fear is palpable — the plague is spreading, and the Thirty Years' War has begun. So when a woman named Ursula Reinbold accuses widow Katharina of offering her a witchy drink that has made her ill, Katharina is in trouble.

Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch was shortlisted for the 2021 Atwood Gibson Writers' Trust Fiction Prize

Galchen is a Canadian American writer. She is also the author of the novel Atmospheric Disturbances. She lives in New York City.

The Canadian-born American novelist talks about magic and science and her new book about the real-life witch trial of the mother of 17th century astronomer Johannes Kepler.

Em by Kim Thúy, translated by Sheila Fischman

Em is a novel by Kim Thúy, translated by Sheila Fischman. (Random House Canada, Carl Lessard)

Em follows the story of a young boy named Louis, the child of an American soldier, who takes care of an abandoned baby. Louis calls the baby em Hồng, em meaning "little sister" or "beloved." Although Louis lives on the streets of Saigon and holds the baby in a cardboard box, em Hồng's life opens a realm of possibilities. The novel is inspired by historical events, including Operation Babylift, which evacuated thousands of orphans from Saigon in April 1975. 

Em was on the 2021 Scotiabank Giller Prize longlist

Born in Saigon, Kim Thúy left Vietnam in a boat at the age of 10 and settled with her family in Quebec. Her other novels include Vi, Man and Ru. Ru won the Governor General's Literary Award for French-language fiction and was a finalist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize in 2002. It also won Canada Reads 2015, when it was championed by Toronto International Film Festival CEO Cameron Bailey. Her books have been translated into 29 languages and are available in 40 countries and territories. 

Wan by Dawn Promislow

Wan is a book by Dawn Promislow. (Freehand Books)

Wan tells the story of Jacqueline, a privileged artist in 1970s South Africa. After an anti-apartheid activist comes to hide in her garden house, Jacqueline's carefully constructed life begins to unravel.

Dawn Promislow is a writer from Johannesburg, South Africa. She is the author of the collection Jewels and Other Stories, which was longlisted for the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award in 2011. Her writing has appeared in places like the Maple Tree Literary Supplement, Berfrois, Munyori Literary Journal, StoryTime and Hazlitt. Promislow lives in Toronto.

Velvet Was the Night by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Velvet Was the Night is a novel by Silvia Moreno-Garcia. (Del Ray, Martin Dee)

Set in the 1970s in Mexico City, Velvet Was the Night follows a secretary named Maite who lives to read the latest issue of Secret Romance. She escapes into stories of passion and danger, ignoring the student protests and political unrest that consume the city.

When her next-door neighbour, Leonora, a beautiful art student, disappears under suspicious circumstances, Maite searches for her and uncovers her secret life as a student radical and dissident. Eccentric criminal Elvis, at the request of his boss, is also looking for Leonora. As Maite and Elvis come closer to finding out the truth behind Leonora's disappearance, they can no longer escape the danger that threatens to consume their lives. 

Silvia Moreno-Garcia is a Canadian writer born and raised in Mexico. She's the author of novels Mexican Gothic, Gods of Jade and Shadow, Signal to Noise, Certain Dark Things and The Beautiful Ones. She has previously won the Goodreads Readers Choice Award, the Copper Cylinder Award and Aurora Award.

Vancouver-based author Silvia Moreno-Garcia has just followed up her bestselling novel Mexican Gothic with a new political noir, Velvet Was the Night. The story is set in the shadowy world of spies, student activists and gangsters in 1970s Mexico City. She joined guest host Ali Hassan to tell us more.

A Rip Through Time by Kelley Armstrong

A Rip Through Time is a book by Kelley Armstrong. (Kathryn Hollinrake, Raincoast Books)

In this time-traveling novel, a homicide detective named Mallory finds herself transported 150 years in the past after she is attacked and left unconscious in an alley. Mallory wakes up in the body of housemaid Catriona Thomson, who was also attacked in the same spot in 1869. Mallory must put aside her shock and find a way to catch her murderer, which hopefully leads her back to her modern life before it's too late. 

Kelley Armstrong is a bestselling author of YA and middle grade books, horror novels and thrillers. Her standalone novels include Aftermath and Missing, but she is best known for her Darkest Powers and Darkness Rising series and her Cainsville and Otherworld series.

The Great Passion by James Runcie

The Great Passion is a novel by James Runcie. (Bloomsbury Publishing, Charlotte Runcie)

The Great Passion is a historical novel about Johann Sebastian Bach's writing of St. Matthew's Passion. In 1727, Stefan Silbermann is a grief-stricken 13-year-old, struggling with the death of his mother and his removal to a school in distant Leipzig. Narrated by the fictional teen, The Great Passion is a story of Bach over the course of a year as an ambitious, passionate musician and father, navigating grief and professional rivalries — through faith, love and the transcendence of music. 

James Robert Runcie is a British novelist, documentary filmmaker, television producer and playwright. 

James Runcie's latest novel, The Great Passion, imagines a year in the life of Johann Sebastian Bach, culminating with the writing and first performance of his St. Matthew Passion in 1727. Told through the eyes of a fictional, 13-year-old student, it explores the man behind the legendary composer: an ambitious working musician and father of eight, coping with grief and loss, through faith and music. Runcie is also the author of the popular Grantchester Mystery series.

Mansions of the Moon by Shyam Selvadurai

Toronto-based author Shyam Selvadurai's latest novel is Mansions of the Moon. (Kevin Kelly, Knopf Canada)

Mansions of the Moon is set in ancient India and traces the life of Siddhartha Gautama, otherwise known as the Buddha, and his marriage to the intelligent and spirited Yasodhara. From their early life together to their crumbling partnership as Siddhartha's spiritual calling takes over, Mansions of the Moon paints a portrait of a marriage and illuminates a woman who has remained in the shadows of history.

Shyam Selvadurai is an award-winning Sri Lankan Canadian novelist. His books include Funny Boy, which won the 1995 Books in Canada First Novel Award, now known as the Amazon Canada First Novel Award. It was also adapted into a film by Indian Canadian filmmaker Deepa Mehta, which is available on CBC Gem. His other books include The Hungry Ghosts and Swimming in the Monsoon Sea.

Shyam Selvadurai, author of Mansions of the Moon, takes the Next Chapter's Proust questionnaire.

Everything Turns Away by Michelle Berry

Everything Turns Away is a novel by Michelle Berry. (Fred Thornhill, Wolsak & Wynn)

Everything Turns Away is a novel set in the aftermath of 9/11. On Sept. 11, 2001, the lives of two couples are about to be unraveled when their neighbour is murdered, their babysitter goes missing and the World Trade Centre collapses. This domestic thriller is a haunting exploration of marriages and what tears them apart, of what happens to people during shocking events, and of how everything can change in an instant.

Michelle Berry is the author of three collections of short stories and six novels. Her books include I Still Don't Even Know You, The Prisoner and the Chaplain, This Book Will Not Save Your Life, How to Get There from Here and What We All Want. Berry lives in Peterborough, Ont. where she operates an independent bookstore, Hunter Street Books.

We, Jane by Aimee Wall

Aimee Wall is a writer and translator from Newfoundland. We, Jane is her debut novel. (Richmond Lam, Book*Hug Press)

We, Jane is a novel inspired by the real-life The Jane Collective, an underground healthcare initiative that started in 1960's Chicago. We, Jane is about a young woman named Marthe, who ends up befriending an older woman while living in Montreal. She learns about how the woman used to help young women in rural Newfoundland get abortions, and the two return to the island to continue this cause. But over time, things become more difficult — and more complicated — than Marthe ever imagined.

Aimee Wall is a writer and translator from Newfoundland who now lives in Montreal. Her translations include Vickie Gendreau's novels Testament and Drama Queens. We, Jane, her first novel, was on the 2021 Scotiabank Giller Prize longlist, the shortlist for the 2022 ReLit Awards and was a 2022 finalist for the Amazon Canada First Novel Award.

"If you want to write about the difficulties of accessing abortion, you don't actually need to look to the past or to invent some possible future." Aimee Wall talks about her first book "We, Jane" and what its group of rural Newfoundland women have to say about reproductive rights.

Vile Spirits by John MacLachlan Gray

Vile Spirits is a novel by John MacLachlan Gray. (Douglas & McIntyre)

Vile Spirits is a follow-up to mystery novel The White Angel, which was inspired by the 1924 murder of Scottish Nanny Janet Smith. Vancouver is once again plagued by two suspicious deaths. Alcohol is legal again after prohibition failed, but anti-booze sentiments remain strong. To attempt appeasement, Attorney General Gordon Cunning establishes the Liquor Control Board to oversee supply. But when both Cunning and the wife of a bureaucrat are found dead, people wonder if it's pure coincidence that they were both drinking the same brand of "tonic."

John MacLachlan is a writer, playwright, composer and theatre director who lives in Vancouver. He has created many productions, most notably Billy Bishop Goes to War. He's the author of several fiction and nonfiction books, including The White Angel. MacLachlan is an officer of the Order of Canada.

What Storm, What Thunder by Myriam J.A. Chancy

What Storm, What Thunder is a novel by Myriam J. A. Chancy. (HarperCollins Canada)

What Storm, What Thunder is a novel that delves into the lives of characters affected by the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. As markets and businesses begin to close down after a long, sweltering day, an earthquake of 7.0 magnitude hits the capital of Haiti, Port-au-Prince. Survivors and victims of the tragedy share their stories of heartbreak, trauma and resilience. 

 Myriam J.A. Chancy is the author of four novels and four books of literary criticism. Her novel The Loneliness of Angels won the Guyana Prize for Literature Caribbean Award in 2011 and was shortlisted for the 2011 OCM Bocas Prize in Caribbean Literature for fiction. Chancy was raised in Haiti and Canada and now resides in the U.S.

Novelist Myriam Chancy talks to Eleanor Wachtel about her new book, What Storm, What Thunder. Multilayered and lyrical, it features a variety of inter-connected characters, each with a moving story.

Daughters of the Deer by Danielle Daniel

Danielle Daniel is the author of Daughters of the Deer. (, Random House Canada)

Daughters of the Deer begins in 1657 with Marie, a gifted healer of the Deer Clan. She does not wish to marry the white French soldier, but at the urging of her chief, Marie accepts his proposal to save her people from disease, starvation and violence. Eighteen years later, Marie has a daughter named Jeanne, who is torn between cultures. When Jeanne falls in love with a young woman named Josephine, she knows their relationship will be forbidden by her father, while her mother's people see her two-spirit nature as a sign of special wisdom. 

Danielle Daniel is a writer and artist of settler and Indigenous ancestry living in the traditional territory of the Atikameksheng Anishnawbek (Sudbury, Ont.). Her other books include The Dependent, which was shortlisted for the 2017 Northern Lit Award, and the picture books Once in a Blue Moon and Sometimes I Feel Like a Fox, which won the Marilyn Baillie Picture Book Award and was a finalist for the Blue Spruce Award and First Nation Communities Read Awards. She also illustrated the 2018 Marilyn Baillie Award-shortlisted picture book You Hold Me Up, written by Monique Gray Smith.

Danielle Daniel talks to Shelagh Rogers about her debut historical fiction novel, Daughters of the Deer.

The Orphan Girl by Kurt Palka

The Orphan Girl is a novel by Kurt Palka. (Heather Chisvin, McClelland & Stewart)

The Orphan Girl is a historical fiction book about friendship and courage that follows Kate, an energetic and spirited young woman in England during the Second World War. Already dealing with loss of her father, she is caught in an air raid and is injured when her house is bombed. While recuperating, a doctor named Claire invites Kate to live with her. But when Claire's husband returns home from the war, the women's lives are forever changed.

Kurt Palka is a bestselling novelist based in Toronto. Three of his books are works of historical fiction — Claraa Hammett Prize finalist set in 1930s Vienna, The Piano Makera national bestselling book set in 1930s Canada, and The Hour of the Foxwhich follows a lawyer named Margaret Bradley through the death of her son in the 1970s. Palka was raised in Austria and spent most of his career as a journalist.

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