Taking a summer vacation in the pages of a book is cheaper than any cruise, and puts you at zero risk of delays, tourist traps, and glasses-shaped sunburns (unless, of course, you fall asleep reading on the beach). This season’s most exciting historical fiction will take you on a twisting ride through the past, from the gaslights and narrow streets of Victorian London to the cop cars and fluorescents of 1970s Atlanta. Here are the titles we’re reading right now:
The Quick, by Lauren Owen
There’s a big, fat, genre-jumping twist waiting for you on page 101, and I don’t want to be the one to reveal it. Instead I’ll start where the novel does: at Aiskew Hall, the creepy ancestral home of siblings Charlotte and James. The two grow up nearly parentless, and deeply reliant on each other—so when a grownup James, pursuing a writer’s life in London, goes missing, Charlotte enters the labyrinth of the Victorian city to find him. The streets teem with indelibly scary characters, but the book’s most frightening locale is the Aegolius Club, whose elite membership shares the kind of bond the Masons can only dream of.
The Girls at the Kingfisher Club, by Genevieve Valentine
Every night, the 12 daughters of a rich businessman sneak out of their tomblike house on Park Avenue, fleeing to the jazz, liquor, and dancing partners of Prohibition-era speakeasies that are always on the edge of the next raid. But the girls aren’t naive flappers pulling a quick one over on their parents: in this evocative feminist rewrite of fairy tale The Twelve Dancing Princesses, they’re desperate prisoners of an ice-cold father, who hides them away for the crime of being born female. When he announces his intent to sell them off in marriage to the first rich men who will have them, they’re pushed to consider a more permanent form of escape.
China Dolls, by Lisa See
Three young Chinese American women walk very different paths to the Forbidden City, a San Francisco nightclub where they meet and audition to be dancers in 1938. The girls—Grace, fleeing an abusive father and life in a fly-speck town; Helen, the dissatisfied daughter of a big-money family in Chinatown; and Ruby, a bubbly girl with Hollywood dreams—form a quick bond, and make their way together and apart through the dusty landscape of pre–World War II California. But all the work they’ve done to build worthwhile lives threatens to wash away in the aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor, which irrevocably changes the lives and fortunes of Asian Americans.
Midnight in Europe, by Alan Furst
Meanwhile, to the east: Furst’s book also opens in 1938, in the treacherous months before the dawn of World War II. It’s a spy novel that’s both intelligent and pulpy, with pages destined to become sunscreen-stained and fat with sand. At a time when even a whiff of treason was enough to make a person permanently disappear, a Spaniard living in Paris is drawn into arms dealing during the Spanish Civil War.
Cop Town, by Karin Slaughter
The 1970s is recent for historical fiction, but Slaughter so captures the political and cultural gap between that age and today that it’s hard to keep her latest off the list. Set on the brutal, segregated streets of 70s Atlanta, this standalone thriller follows two very different female cops, one a former society girl trying to survive her first week on the job, the other the proud daughter of a cop family that would much prefer she buck birthright and become a secretary. The two are investigating a serial cop killer, and are confounded as much by his movements as by their male colleagues, who can’t stand to see women doing a man’s work. You’ll feel every jolt, bruise, and insult that comes with being one of the first women to put on a police uniform, and you’ll be shocked to see how far we’ve come in just 40 years.
What historical fiction is on your summer reading list?