The best existential and experimental historical fiction

Alison L. McLennan Author Of The Secret Story of a Mormon Turned Madam
By Alison L. McLennan

Who am I?

My imagination opened a portal into the past. And then I found myself spending years researching, reading, and traveling to historical sites across the western United States. Upon visiting historical places, I sometimes become overwhelmed by a visceral sense that is difficult to describe but has compelled me to write about people and places whose stories and spirits are lost and forgotten. An anecdote about a madam in a local museum stirred around in my consciousness for many years before I started writing Ophelia’s War as my MFA thesis. 

I wrote...

The Secret Story of a Mormon Turned Madam

By Alison L. McLennan,

Book cover of The Secret Story of a Mormon Turned Madam

What is my book about?

The priceless ruby necklace secretly given to fifteen-year-old Ophelia Oatman by her dying mother isn't easily given away—nor is her virginity. But Ophelia must choose. The necklace becomes both Ophelia's ticket to freedom and shackles of shame.

Ophelia's War chronicles the battles for love and survival fought by a young frontier girl in the nineteenth century: her limited choices between polygamy and prostitution, the high cost of keeping her jewels, and the impossibility of protecting them. In an era when many women committed suicide so they wouldn't face the shame of being damaged goods, the rebellious and resilient Ophelia uses disgrace and the rubies of her ruin to reinvent herself and win financial freedom. Yet what is the ultimate cost? Can love and reconciliation triumph over her loss and shame?

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The books I picked & why

Lincoln in the Bardo

By George Saunders,

Book cover of Lincoln in the Bardo

Why did I love this book?

I loved this novel because it was haunting, historical, and existential with an experimental format that blew my mind almost like an intense meditation session.

While some people may find the experimental format jarring, it transported me to a surreal disorienting dimension similar to a dream or bardo state. If you’re not familiar with the Bardo, it’s worth researching.

The word Bardo in the title is what originally attracted me to the novel because of my interest in Buddhism. Yet the bardo in this novel reminded me more of Dante’s Inferno!

The technique used at the beginning to establish the time and setting was ingenious, yet I did wonder if it was entirely fiction or pulled from the historical record. It seems people either really love this novel or have some synapses blown. In my case, it was both. 

By George Saunders,

Why should I read it?

11 authors picked Lincoln in the Bardo as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

WINNER OF THE MAN BOOKER PRIZE 2017 A STORY OF LOVE AFTER DEATH 'A masterpiece' Zadie Smith 'Extraordinary' Daily Mail 'Breathtaking' Observer 'A tour de force' The Sunday Times The extraordinary first novel by the bestselling, Folio Prize-winning, National Book Award-shortlisted George Saunders, about Abraham Lincoln and the death of his eleven year old son, Willie, at the dawn of the Civil War The American Civil War rages while President Lincoln's beloved eleven-year-old son lies gravely ill. In a matter of days, Willie dies and is laid to rest in a Georgetown cemetery. Newspapers report that a grief-stricken Lincoln returns…


By Pete Dexter,

Book cover of Deadwood

Why did I love this book?

The HBO series was great, but the book was even better.

Prior viewing of the series in no way detracted from my enjoyment of this book. Dexter’s writing is quirky and unique. Existential insights are slipped seamlessly into scenes of violence and vulgarity. The sacred and profane coexist in ways that shatter notions of duality.

As someone who has lived in the West most of my adult life and studied Western history in depth, I appreciated his nuanced exposure of humanity in the midst of darkness on the frontier. Also, this Western novel features unique female characters who defy stereotypes, which are rare in the Western genre. 

By Pete Dexter,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Deadwood as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

DEADWOOD, DAKOTA TERRITORIES, 1876: Legendary gunman Wild Bill Hickcock and his friend Charlie Utter have come to the Black Hills town of Deadwood fresh from Cheyenne, fleeing an ungrateful populace. Bill, aging and sick but still able to best any man in a fair gunfight, just wants to be left alone to drink and play cards. But in this town of played-out miners, bounty hunters, upstairs girls, Chinese immigrants, and various other entrepeneurs and miscreants, he finds himself pursued by a vicious sheriff, a perverse whore man bent on revenge, and a besotted Calamity Jane. Fueled by liquor, sex, and…

Butcher's Crossing

By John Williams,

Book cover of Butcher's Crossing

Why did I love this book?

Vivid details and excellent writing bring the Western frontier to life in this unique novel that avoids cliché.

A greed-driven frenzy for buffalo hide based on market speculation decimated the species in the late 1800s.

The tragedy of the buffalo is paralleled by the plight of William Andrews who, inspired by transcendental philosophy, sets out to find his true self on the Western Frontier, yet ends up losing more than his innocence as he follows the buffalo into the abyss.

The tragedy of the buffalo is conveyed through story and is in no way pedantic or political. This novel taught me a lot about the economic forces of Western expansion in narrative form. 

By John Williams,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Butcher's Crossing as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In his National Book Award–winning novel Augustus, John Williams uncovered the secrets of ancient Rome. With Butcher’s Crossing, his fiercely intelligent, beautifully written western, Williams dismantles the myths of modern America.

It is the 1870s, and Will Andrews, fired up by Emerson to seek “an original relation to nature,” drops out of Harvard and heads west. He washes up in Butcher’s Crossing, a small Kansas town on the outskirts of nowhere. Butcher’s Crossing is full of restless men looking for ways to make money and ways to waste it. Before long Andrews strikes up a friendship with one of them,…

Book cover of Jezebel: The Untold Story of the Bible's Harlot Queen

Why did I love this book?

This book is a bit of a departure from my other picks because it’s nonfiction and doesn’t take place in the nineteenth-century United States.

Even though this book has a lot of scholarly and historical references, I found it riveting. I’ve always been interested in the ancient world and Jezebel made me feel like I was there. The scholarly digressions from the story are both relevant and fascinating.

This book taught me that propaganda and spin doctoring are ancient practices. The power of the Jezebel story still influences modern culture and attitudes. Zealotry and intolerance are as old as history and still plague our society. 

By Lesley Hazleton,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Jezebel as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

There is no woman with a worse reputation than Jezebel, the ancient queen who corrupted a nation and met one of the most gruesome fates in the Bible. Her name alone speaks of sexual decadence and promiscuity. But what if this version of her story, handed down to us through the ages, is merely the one her enemies wanted us to believe? What if Jezebel, far from being a conniving harlot, was, in fact, framed?
In this remarkable new biography, Lesley Hazleton shows exactly how the proud and courageous queen of Israel was vilified and made into the very embodiment…

Book cover of Now We Shall Be Entirely Free

Why did I love this book?

This novel takes place during the Napoleon Wars.

The guilty conscience, PTSD, and war crimes of a British Captain drive him to seek tranquility in the Scottish Hebrides. Before reading this novel, I knew little about this time period and had never heard of the Scottish Hebrides.

The author transported me to the Hebrides so accurately that when I looked up pictures after finishing the novel they were the exact replicas of those in my imagination.

This novel has an existential heart yet is plot-driven and action-packed with romance and even moments of humor. The flow of prose and the incorporation of dreams into the story carried me to the last page and made me sad when it ended.

By Andrew Miller,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Now We Shall Be Entirely Free as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?



The rapturously acclaimed new novel by the Costa Award-winning author of PURE, hailed as 'excellent', 'gripping', 'as suspenseful as any thriller', 'engrossing', 'moving' and 'magnificent'.

One rainswept winter's night in 1809, an unconscious man is carried into a house in Somerset. He is Captain John Lacroix, home from Britain's disastrous campaign against Napoleon's forces in Spain.

Gradually Lacroix recovers his health, but not his peace of mind. He will not - cannot - talk about the war or face the memory of what took…

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