Historical Fiction With Strong Women Characters

I facilitate two book clubs at the library where I work.  We have been reading some amazing books and here are some of the books we have read and a couple that we will be reading this year. Do you have a favorite historical fiction novel? Please share it because I love to find out what people are reading and loving. I also love to receive new suggestions for future book discussions.

The Paris Secret 

     by Natasha Leste

The Paris Secret is set before, during and after WWII.  A big part of the story is about a secret collection of Christian Dior gowns with ties to the first female pilots of World War II.  Moving between 1928 Cornwall, 1939 England, Paris in 1947 and then to present day Australia, we follow sisters Skye and Liberty Penrose and their descendants.

The book begins in 1928 when Skye and Liberty Penrose are living with their mother, Vanessa, in Cornwall. When  ten-year-old Skye meets Nicholas Crawford they instsntly become best friends and spend their days on the coast, exploring the beach, caves and looking for shells.  Her little sister, Liberty, is a pain and jealous of their relationship because she wants to be the center of her sister’s attention. Vanessa taught Skye and Nicholas how to fly a plane and they are instantly in love with flying. When Nicholas was old enough to go to college he left for New York but promised to stay in touch with Skye, no matter what. However, life has a way of interfearing with the best intentions. Many years later, when war breaks out, Skye, Nicholas and Liberty are reunited again as pilots but it isn’t smooth sailing for them.  

In present day, Kat Jourdan discovers a closet full of Christian Dior gowns in her grandmothers vacant cottage.  How could her beloved grandmother have received these gowns and why hadn’t she told Kat about them?  Kat begins to investigate and  the story unfolds.

This meticulously researched book is an example of historical fiction at its finest. Before reading The Paris Secret, I didn’t know that there were female pilots in World War II or that Catherine Dior, the sister of Christian Dior, fought in the French Resistance and was imprisoned in Ravensbrück Concentration Camp.

Natasha Lester has a wonderful website where you can read about the research she did for The Paris Secret and you can see pictures of the Christian Dior gowns she mentions in the book here . The book club said that they couldn’t put this book down and I felt the same way about it.  If you love historical fiction, don’t miss this one!

The Social Graces

                                               by Renée Rosen

 My historical fiction book club at the library read and discussed The Social Graces by Renee Rosen and loved it. It is about the notorious feud between Caroline Astor, the queen of New York society, and Alva Vanderbilt who wants to take control from her. While these women were subserviant to their husbands, they ruled society and were sought after by everyone. Although they were married to wealthy, influential me, this made them very powerful women in their own way.  People in the book club shared pictures of the Astor and Vanderbilt homes, discussed women’s rights in The Gilded Age and how things have changed, the suffragette movement and lifestyles of the rich and famous. Based on true events, this book spanned three decaes and gave the group a lot to discuss.

The Exiles

by Christina Baker Kline

When I read The Exiles by Christina Baker Kline I knew that my bookclub would love it as much as I did and that I must add it to the list for next year. Our group read A Piece of the World by this author and really liked it so I can’t wait for our discussion of The Exiles.

The book focuses on three very different women in early nineteenth centurry Australia. Naive Evangeline, a vicar’s daughter, is working as a governess for a wealthy family in London. When she is seduced by her employer’s son and becomes pregnant, she is sent to Newgate Prison on a trumped up theft charge. She is then put on a converted slave ship, the Medea, to be sent to the penal colony in Van Diemen’s Land (Australia). Evangeline knows that her baby will be born on the long trip and hopes that perhaps she will find a better life in Australia for herself and her child, once she has served her sentence.

On board she meets Hazel, a young, street smart woman who has been sentenced to the penal colony for seven years for stealing a silver spoon. Hazel’s mother was a midwife and Hazel helped her and she is also a skilled herbalists. These skills will serve her well while she is on the Medea.

Mathinna is a very young Aboriginal girl and the daughter of a tribal leader who has died. The new govenor and his family decide to take her into their home to see if this ‘savage’ can be tamed into a proper young women with disastrous reults. This beautifully written novel will pull you right into this story of female friendship under challenging circumstances.

The Best of Everything

by Rona Jaffe

Many years ago I saw the movie The Best of Everything and loved it and I also read a lot of books written by Rona Jaffe but I hadn’t read this one. I chose it for my book club because I thought that it would provide us with a lot of discussion points. It did! First published in 1958 and set in a 1950’s publishing house in New York City the story focuses mainly on four young women who came to New York to forge careers only to find the male dominated workplace relegated them to the typing pool. All of these young women are struggling to find love and careers in New York City during a time when marriage was expected of young women.

Caroline graduated from an Ivy League college and thought that she would be marrying her college sweetheart. After he jilted her, she moved to New York in in the hopes that she would find a job as an editor in a pulishing house.

April, a young, naive country girl reinvents herself and soon finds herself involved with a handsome, wealthy man.

Gregg ia a free spriti and aspiring actress who develops an unhealthy relationship with a famous Broadway director. Although Gregg is a free spirit, she secretly yearns for domesticity.

Barbara is a divorced single mom who is in love with a married man.

Although this book is somewhat dated, it still tackles issues that many women are struggling with today: marraige and motherhood versus a career, sexual harrassment in the workplace and male dominated offices.

It has been said that The Best of Everything was the first book to address sexual harrassment in the workplace. Also, if you are a fan to the TV show Mad Men, there is ans episode where Don Draper is reading The Best of Everything.

The Best of Everything has some noted differences between the book and the movie but I enjoyed them both.

Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk

by Kathleen Rooney

Based on a real person, this delightful book will charm you. On Christmas Eve, 1984, eighty-four year-old Lillian Boxfish puts on her fur coat and starts to walk in her beloved New York City. On her walk she meets a cross section of New Yorkers. As she walks past New York landmarks she tells us about her amazing life. In the 1930’s Lillian was the highest paind advertising women for R.H. Macy’s. She was also a poet and author. She was at the top of her game and was celebrated in the news for her outstanding accomplishments. All of that changed when Lillian got married to the love of her life and became pregnant. Because there was no pregrnancy leave for woemn at that time in a male dominated workplace, Lillian had to quit her job. Although she loved her child with all her heart, she never adjusted well to being a stay at home mom and she struggled with it.

You will fall in love with feisty, amazing Lillian as she recounts her life story with its ups and downs in the city that she loves so much. Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk was inspired by Margaret Fishback, a poet and Macy’s real life advertising woman.

The Lost Apothecary

by Sarah Penner

Caroline Parcewell is spending what was to be a celebratory 10th anniversery trip to London, alone. Her husband has been cheating on her and so Caroline decides to go on the trip to try and clear her head and decide what she wants to do about her marital situation. As she begins touring the city she meets a man who invites her to join a group of mudlarkers. Caroline joines the group along the Thames where she finds a small glass bottle with abear on it. Caroline has always had an unfulfilled desire to be a historian so she decides to investigate what this little bottle was used for and what the imprint means. She heads to the library and as she begins her research with the help of a librarian she discovers that the imprint on the bottle appears to be an apothecary’s symbol.

We are then taken to 1791 London where Nella, an apothecary, is waiting for her next client. Nella’s mum was an apothecary who used her knowledge of herbs to help women in a positive way. However, Nella does not use her apothecary for good. Her potions are given to women who want to take revenge on men who have wronged them. Nella is, in fact, a serial killer. Her only rules are that her potions must never be used against women and the record of her transactions are kept in a ledger. When the client arrives it is a twelve year-old girl named Eliza. Her mistress has sent her to retrive the potion . Nella befrends young Eliza and that begins her downfall.

As Caroline learns more about the apothecary’s stamp she becomes determined to try and find where her apothecary shop was loacated and in the process discovers what she really wants to do with her life and marriage.

Going back and forth between the present London and 1791, I was fascinated with the three strong female characters in this book. I loved the premise of this book, the setting and the characters.

Thanks to Harlequin and NetGalley for providing me with ARC for an honest review.

The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek

by Kim Michele Richardson

Cussy Mary Carter is the last of the Blues. She has a generic skin condition that turns her skin blue when she blushes. Her ailing fatherwho works in the mines wants to marry her off to secure her future but Cussy doesn’t want to get married. She is one of the Pack Horse Librarians who delivered books to remote areas of Easter Kentuck and Applacia.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt start this program during The Great Depression. It ran from 1935-1943 and provided women a way to support their families. Not everyone was in favor of this program and most people in that region did not like the Blues, blaming them for anything bad that happened. If Cussy married, she would have to quit her job but she was devoted to her patrons, braving dangerous conditionson on her mule, Juvia, to get reading material to these poor, underserved people. She often read to them and also helped some of them learn to read.

Pack Horse Librarians

This inspiring story of one woman’s courage, love of books and determination to serve these poor Applachian people despite her own difficult lifeg, will inspire you.

Kim Michele Richardson has a sequel to this book. The Book Woman’s Daughter will be published in 2022.

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