The Downstairs Girl Author Stacey Lee on Must-Read Historical Fiction

Perhaps the toughest genre for even the most seasoned writer to explore is historical fiction. When done right, it’s intensely complex and well-researched, but told in a seamless, well-paced rhythm that will keep you turning pages to unfold the narrative without realizing just how much you’re absorbing of the bigger picture, the deeper meaning. Good historical fiction is always a delightful “I know it when I see it” discovery. Perhaps no one in current day YA knows it quite as well as Stacey Lee, the author behind acclaimed works like Under a Painted Sky, Outrun the Moon, and, most recently, the highly anticipated The Downstairs Girl. Set in 1890s Atlanta, it centers on orphan Jo Kuan, a 17-year-old maid who moonlights as a anonymous, controversial advice columnist for the genteel Southern charmer when a particular letter sends her chasing a piece of her own history.

Today, Lee swings by the B&N Teen blog to share historical fiction (YA and otherwise!) she can’t wait to devour!

I read most every genre, but historical fiction hits my sweet spot. I’ve always been a sentimental person, and I love going back into the past and remembering who was there before me. Plus, I like feeling like I’m making myself smarter while at the same time being entertained. Good writers of historical fiction make us forget we’re learning; great writers of historical fiction make us crave to learn more. If you think about it, historical fiction is the only time machine that exists in present day. Here are a few more time machines I’m waiting to add to my shelf. (Oh, and dessert is always involved.)

The Fountains of Silence, by Ruta Sepetys
I have been looking forward to this book ever since Ruta told me she was writing about stolen babies during the thirty-six year Spanish dictatorship of Francisco Franco. The day was sunny, the bookshop café where we were chatting, convivial, and the Boston Cream pie was out of this world. But all of it faded when Ruta shared how parents who opposed Franco’s totalitarianism were jailed or assassinated and their children trafficked into families with more acceptable politics. We’re not talking just a few kids but hundreds of thousands. In Francoist Spain, political eugenics was actually a thing, not some dystopian fantasy with women in red cloaks. Ruta excels at helping us view lesser-known periods of time through multiple lenses, in this case, four teenagers including an American teen photographer and a Spanish hotel maid. Her books are not just stories, they are experiences to learn from.

The Blossom and the Firefly, by Sherri L. Smith
The last time I hung out with Sherri, we shared a chocolate bombe at a local Japanese bakery. There is strange irony that years later, her next book would take us to 1940’s Japan where young men are trained to be tokko, special attack forces trained to ‘body crash’ into enemy targets, and young women show their patriotism by washing and mending the pilots’ laundry and providing emotional support. Taro, a violinist who is ready to die for his country, meets Hana, a young woman recovering from a traumatic bomb raid, and suddenly their lives take on new meaning. Sherri always manages to craft beautiful stories which read like poetry and her research is flawless. I can’t wait to read this one.

The Spindle and Dagger, by J. Anderson Coats
No one does Welsh history like J. Anderson Coats. Her debut, The Wicked and the Just is unflinching in its portrayal of the vanquished and the victors, showing women controlling their own fates instead of being controlled by them. In The Spindle and the Dagger, after a brutal attack on her village, Elen survives by aligning herself with the warband leader, spinning a tale about his immortality that hinges on whether he keeps her safe. This works out until he abducts the wife of a Norman lord, triggering a war that threatens to expose her falsehood, and she must decide where her loyalties lie. I recently acquired a recipe for Welsh apple cinnamon scones that I will be making to accompany my read of this epic sounding novel.

In the Shadow of the Sunby E.M. Castellan
Set in 17th century France, Henriette hides her magic and tries to be content in an arranged marriage with King Louis’ brother, a man who prefers the company of men, but when court magicians turn up killed by a sorcerer wielding forbidden magic, Henriette allies with King Louis to defeat this dark threat, and help him build the enchanted palace that will secure his power—Versailles. I can already smell the brioches in the pages of this book and I can’t wait to dig into this scrumptious sounding tale.

Wild Savage Stars, by Kristina Perez
I’ve been obsessed with Cornwall ever since watching the BBC’s Poldark, and Kristina’s books provide the perfect antidote while I wait for the final season to start. The sequel to Sweet Black Waves, a retelling of the Tristan and Isolde mythology centered around Branwen, lady in waiting to Princess Eseult, Wild Savage Stars finds Branwen trying to conceal the treasonous affair between her best friend Eseult and Tristan, her former love, before the enemy king that Eseult must marry finds out, while at the same time, trying to keep her ancient magic powers under control. One of my favorite memories of this past summer was sitting in Kristina’s kitchen, listening to her talk Celtic mythology over a homemade apple tarte. She has a Ph.D. in Medieval Literature and it shows in her fantastic world building and rich language.

The Ventriloquistsby E. R. Ramzipoor
The only advanced reading copy I picked up at the last book conference I attended was blue, the same exact shade my tongue had turned after eating one of the free macarons given out at the conference. The cover made me look, but the story description compelled me to put it in my bag. Ramzipoor builds a story around the “Faux Soir,” the singular spoof issue of the Belgian newspaper Le Soir, that ridiculed German propaganda and became a symbol of Belgian resistance to the Nazi regime. The plotters behind Faux Soir have agreed to die for their joke. High stakes, little known stories of historical events, that’s worth a blue tongue.

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