Historical Fiction Unique Twist

Not Your Average Historical Fiction

I used to think I loved historical fiction, but one quirk of book blogging has been the gradual teasing out of my very specific reading preferences. I don’t love most historical fiction—or whatever we try to nail down as historical fiction—at least not in its most straightforward form. But I do love novels that take a historical setting or story and fuss it up by making things weird with speculation or style. These are just a few of my favorite books that fall into this odd little category.

No One Is Here Except All of Us by Ramona Ausubel

As the horrors of World War II inch closer to a small Jewish village in Romania, the villagers decide to reinvent their world and halt the movement of history. Ramona Ausubel’s writing is just stellar in this World War II novel that is magical and gutwrenching and completely unlike anything else you’ve read.

 

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

In many ways, Life After Life hugs close to more traditional historical fiction story lines in following the life of Ursula Todd from her birth in 1910. But the story takes a twist as Ursula dies—and is reborn—numerous times over the course of the novel, charting dozens of wildly different courses through the 20th Century.

 

She Weeps Each Time You’re Born by Quan Barry

From birth, Rabbit is able to speak with the dead. Through the stories of her ancestors, Rabbit must learn to come to terms with Vietnam’s past, her ability to see it, and her place in its future. She Weeps Each Time You’re Born is exactly what I love about books like this—fascinating history with a unique, magical element to pull you in.

 

The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt

You could just categorize The Sisters Brothers as a Western, but that would be doing it a pretty huge disservice. Patrick deWitt’s novel is bold, bloody, and funny in the best ways possible.

 

Bats of the Republic by Zachary Thomas Dodson

Well, half of this is historical. It’s also a novel inside another novel, which is set in the future. But the parallels between Zadock Thomas, crossing the country to deliver a letter and win the hand of his love in 1843, and Zeke Thomas living three hundred years later merge together in a fascinating tale.

 

Equilateral by Ken Kalfus

A nineteenth century British astronomer attempts to contact Mars by excavating a giant triangle in the desert and setting it on fire. As crazy as it sounds, Ken Kalfus makes the story of Sanford Thayer sound insanely real and eerily historically accurate.

 

The Wives of Los Alamos by Tarashea Nesbit

The story of the Manhattan Project and the community of Los Alamos has been told from many different angles, but The Wives of Los Alamos tells the tale in the unique, collective voice of “we”.

 

The Shore by Sara Taylor

Spanning close to two hundred years of life on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, including a glimpse at the future, The Shore is a novel of heavily linked stories that examines lives in an incredible and immersive experience of a book.

Can you recommend some historical fiction with a twist?

 

  • Alex (Sleepless Reader)

    You might be interested in We, the Drowned by Carsten Jensen about the life of a small Danish island. There’s also Mantel’s Cronwell’s trilogy, that’s unlike any historical fiction I’ve ever read, but the difference is more in the writing style, not the plot. Octavia Butler’s Kindred has a bit of time-travelling.

    • Ohh, We, the Drowned was one I remember being interested in when it first came out – thanks for the reminder!

      • Rebecca Foster

        We, the Drowned is one of my absolute favorite novels. Another 1st-person plural book you might enjoy (it’s very much along the lines of Wives of Los Alamos) is The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka.

  • I honestly can’t think of any books that are apart from the “usual” historicals this early in the morning and pre-coffee, but you’ve given me some books to put on my back burner because they look so interesting. I love love loved The Shore and don’t think I’ll forget that one.

    • Same here with The Shore – it’s definitely one that keeps coming back to me and will stay a favorite for a long time.

  • This is a great list. I’m reading A Guide to being Born right now and loving it. I want to read more of Ausubel’s work.

  • Oooh, The Wives of Los Alamos sounds particularly intriguing. I was torn a bit on Life After Life – part of me enjoyed it, but I also found the patterns of repetition and rebirth to be a little dull at times.

    • There were a few things that bothered me about Life After Life (I wasn’t thrilled by the whole Hitler tie-in), but overall I enjoyed it much more than I thought I would. I know it was one that people seemed to be divided on, though!

  • I’ve discovered that I really enjoy historical fiction when it is set in an area/place that I’m able to connect with; for example, I read Under a Dark Summer Sky last year and it’s about a famous hurricane of the 1930s. I’m not from Florida, the setting for the novel, but I’m very familiar with hurricanes, having grown up along the Gulf Coast, and that theme transcends time for me. I still need to read The Shore!!

    • Ooo, yes…dark historical fiction is great, too. You should check out The Tilted World by Tom Franklin & Beth Ann Fennelly if you haven’t read it!

      • WOW! I just looked it up; it sounds amazing! Thanks so much for the suggestion, Shannon!

  • I love good historical fiction, with or without a twist. This is a great list – just added a bunch of new books to my list!

    • Something tells me you’d love Ramona Ausubel’s book if you haven’t read it yet :)

      • I think you’re right. That’s the first one I added!

  • I struggle with “traditional” historical fiction, but really enjoyed the historical aspects of books like Life After Life and The Shore. I think “historical with a twist” should be an official genre!

  • Amanda

    I’m now wracking my brain – but how to do beat life after life as a suggestion? I really want to read The Sisters Brothers – I need to get on that.

  • I feel the same way you do about historical fiction…I used to love it, but have realized I don’t really love it that much anymore. I like that you’ve been able to find a small niche of historical fiction that does work for you. The only one of these I’ve read is The Shore and I would never have thought of it as historical fiction, but now that you mention it, it makes sense! Wives of Los Alamos is on my backlist TBR!

    • Historical fiction covers such a huge territory that it seems silly to keep it all under one umbrella, but most of the time we do. It’s hard to love everything that falls under that single category!

  • Rebecca Foster

    The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North comes to mind — it’s like Life After Life, but better. The most unusual piece of historical fiction I’ve read recently is The Cauliflower by Nicola Barker. (I had some other ideas but checked your Goodreads shelves and you’ve already read them all!)

    • Thanks for the reminder about First Fifteen Lives! I remember hearing about it when it came out and thinking it sounded like a good one :)

  • I would read the Ausubel for the cover alone!

    I really, really loved Connie Willis’s DOOMSDAY BOOK, though you have to be OK with some time travel mixed in. One of my favorite reads in 2014!

    • You should TOTALLY read some Ausubel, she’s a gem :)
      And thanks for the Doomsday Book rec – I don’t mind time travel when it’s mixed in with some other genre, actually!

  • Debbie Rodgers

    Great list! I would never call The Sisters Brothers just a western, but I admit I’m flummoxed every time I try to describe it to some one who is not familiar with it. I loved it! And I really liked Atkinson’s Life After Life but I enjoyed her A God in Ruins even more!

    • The Sisters Brothers is SUPER hard to describe! It almost has the setting/vibe of a western, but just felt more like a movie to me than anything else.

  • I wish I could identify a common thread in the historical fiction I like, but I can’t. The pattern seems to be just, I hate and am bored by historical fiction, except when I’m not. I loved Wolf Hall, I love Sarah Waters, I love Mary Renault. Loved Life after Life. Loved Sea of Poppies. Perhaps there is a common denominator here but I canNOT figure out what it is.

    • “The pattern seems to be just, I hate and am bored by historical fiction, except when I’m not.” SO true!

      I feel like Wolf Hall is my white whale. I’ve tried to read it two or three times and just can’t get past the first 1/4 or so, but in so many ways it’s a book I should be BANANAS for.

  • Christy

    The Ausubel and Barry books look intriguing. As for me, I don’t read a lot of historical novels, but I like historical novels that are also time travel novels.

    • My husband and I just started watching the TV series based on 11/22/63, which I loved, and it’s reminding me how much I like that little corner of fiction, too!

  • My mind is drawing a blank on other suggestions, but you did remind me I need to read The Wives of Los Alamos soon!

  • Ahh, I really enjoyed The Sisters Brothers more than I ever expected to. I just loved the humor and humanity…especially the protagonist. And The Shore. Well, that’s a damn near perfect book. <3

    • The Sisters Brothers isn’t anything I thought I would ever like, either, but it was such a great read. And I just wish I could find another book I enjoy nearly as much as I loved The Shore.

  • Debbie Stone

    I don’t have suggestions, but I did just put most of this list in my “want to read’ list on Goodreads. Thanks.

  • Meaghan Walsh Gerard

    I absolutely loved THE SISTERS BROTHERS. So glad to see someone else rec it. And I loved EQUILATERAL. I get what you mean about neither really fitting into a “genre”, but they definitely rely on the historical setting to make their stories possible.
    I suggest the ERAST FANDORIN books by Boris Akunin, DE POTTER’S GRAND TOUR by Joanna Scott, THE RACE FOR PARIS by Meg Waite Clayton, and the WATCHMAKER OF FILIGREE STREET by Natasha Pulley.

    • Ohhh, thanks for the recommendations!! I haven’t heard of Erast Fandorin or DePotter’s Grand Tour, so I’ll definitely be checking all of them out.

  • Very interesting topic! I really love historical fiction, or novels that take place in a historical setting, but have been disappointed with a lot of the stuff I’ve picked up recently. Although, Rush Oh! just nailed it for me– so funny. Anyway, I’ve noticed this trend to offer the perspective of a marginalized individual in history and offer their story (which is great!), but the voice/personality of said individual doesn’t ever seem any different from any other novel with the same objective. I can’t really articulate my reaction other than it just seems formulaic. I’m slowly getting through Terrible Virtue (the story of Margaret Sanger and the creation of Planned Parenthood), and find that it’s a little different, but still encounter hints of the aforementioned. Does this make any sense?

    • I totally know what you mean! I tend to gravitate toward that type of story, too, but have been finding that they don’t seem to dig into the issues as much as I’d like. Great to hear about Rush Oh! It’s one I’ve been curious about.

  • The Sisters Brothers and The Shore! I also have a special place for The Wives of Los Alamos and that time period in general.

  • Yes! I love a unique historical fiction novel myself.

    A Long, Long Time Ago and Essentially True reminds me a bit of No One Is Here Except All of Us.