The best historical fiction novels featuring strong women

Why am I passionate about this?

I may be only 27, but I’ve spent years researching the Cold War. Mostly because it’s very personal to me…my grandfather was a scientist at a top-secret hydrogen bomb plant in the 1960s. I began researching to understand his work and how it affected my family. I didn’t expect to become so consumed by the sixties. The more I learned about the nuclear arms race and the protests that were led, largely, by women, the more I felt convinced that there was a story here. I’m passionate about the often untold stories of resistance—resilience—endurance. Especially women’s stories. I hope you enjoy these books as much as I do! 

I wrote...

Atomic Family

By Ciera Horton McElroy,

Book cover of Atomic Family

What is my book about?

A nuclear scientist with dark secrets. A housewife with big ambitions. And a child with mounting paranoia… Atomic Family is the story of a family over the course of one life-changing day in 1961. There’s love, disaster, the daily threat of war, and secrets long buried, like nuclear waste in the ground. Dangerous and toxic.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Secrets We Kept

Ciera Horton McElroy Why did I love this book?

As someone who writes about the Cold War, I loved this thrilling novel of espionage and secrecy. The Secrets We Kept follows women in the CIA who helped smuggle the novel Dr. Zhivago out of the Soviet Union. Not only is a story of resilient female spies (who make me want to don trench coats and sunglasses), but it’s a love story—and it sheds light on an under-represented dark spot in American history known as the “lavender scare.” Haven’t heard of that? Well, this book may be perfect for you.

By Lara Prescott,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Secrets We Kept as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • A thrilling tale of secretaries turned spies, of love and duty, and of sacrifice—inspired by the true story of the CIA plot to infiltrate the hearts and minds of Soviet Russia, not with propaganda, but with the greatest love story of the twentieth century: Doctor Zhivago • A HELLO SUNSHINE x REESE WITHERSPOON BOOK CLUB PICK

At the height of the Cold War, Irina, a young Russian-American secretary, is plucked from the CIA typing pool and given the assignment of a lifetime. Her mission: to help smuggle Doctor Zhivago into the USSR, where it is…

Book cover of The Nightingale

Ciera Horton McElroy Why did I love this book?

This novel is wildly popular—and for good reason. It took me a while to finally pick it up, but when I did, I was swept up in the world of war, as seen through the eyes of women. The Nightingale follows two sisters, Vianne and Isabelle, who find themselves on wildly different paths through the war. Rebellious Isabelle joins the resistance movement and helps smuggle downed pilots over the Spanish border. Meanwhile, Vianne is forced to open her home to Nazis in occupied France. What unfolds is a moving story of endurance. No matter which sister you identify with the most, this book is a must-read.

By Kristin Hannah,

Why should I read it?

27 authors picked The Nightingale as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Soon to be a major motion picture, The Nightingale is a multi-million copy bestseller across the world. It is a heart-breakingly beautiful novel that celebrates the resilience of the human spirit and the endurance of women.

This story is about what it was like to be a woman during World War II when women's stories were all too often forgotten or overlooked . . . Vianne and Isabelle Mauriac are two sisters, separated by years and experience, by ideals and passion and circumstance, each embarking on her own dangerous path towards survival, love and freedom in war-torn France.

Kristin Hannah's…

Book cover of The Underground Railroad

Ciera Horton McElroy Why did I love this book?

I am including The Underground Railroad as it’s both historical fiction and magical realism—a beautiful surrealist imagining of Civil War history. This inventive novel follows Cora, who is enslaved on a plantation in Georgia. When Cora hears of the underground railroad, she plots her escape—but in this book, the railroad is more than a secret network. It is a real, physical, underground train. Cora must fight for her life and her freedom on a harrowing journey north, evading the slave hunter Ridgeway as he seeks to track her down. Cora’s strength and independence make her a character that will stick with you.

By Colson Whitehead,

Why should I read it?

8 authors picked The Underground Railroad as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?



'Whitehead is on a roll: the reviews have been sublime' Guardian

'Luminous, furious, wildly inventive' Observer

'Hands down one of the best, if not the best, book I've read this year' Stylist

'Dazzling' New York Review of Books

Praised by Barack Obama and an Oprah Book Club Pick, The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead won the National Book Award 2016 and the…

Book cover of Memoirs of a Geisha

Ciera Horton McElroy Why did I love this book?

Some books echo in your mind long after you finish reading them. I loved Memoirs of a Geisha, which I read as an audiobook. This novel follows a young girl named Chiyo, who is sold to a geisha house as a child. She endures brutal treatment and eventually must train to be a geisha and entertain the highest levels of Japanese elite. But her body and her life are not her own—the novel follows Chiyo as she struggles to make a life for herself in Japan leading up to, and following, the second world war. This novel is both enchanting and haunting.

By Arthur Golden,

Why should I read it?

6 authors picked Memoirs of a Geisha as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'An epic tale and a brutal evocation of a disappearing world' The Times

A young peasant girl is sold as servant and apprentice to a renowned geisha house. Many years later she tells her story from a hotel in New York, opening a window into an extraordinary half-hidden world of eroticism and enchantment, exploitation and degradation and summoning up a quarter of a century of Japan's dramatic history.

'Intimate and brutal, written in cool, lucid prose it is a novel whose psychological empathy and historical truths are outstanding' Mail on Sunday

Book cover of In West Mills

Ciera Horton McElroy Why did I love this book?

When I started a book club in 2019, this was one of the first books we read! In West Mills is set in rural North Carolina and follows Azalea “Knot” who refuses to let her town dictate how she’s going to live. She has a mind of her own. She has spunk. But her life of wild choices is leading to some difficult consequences: ostracization from her family, living as an outcast in her own community. What I loved about this book was how lived-in it felt—all of the characters are flawed, and their dialogue and domestic scenes are so fully realized and believable. I highly recommend this book for fans of historical fiction and family dramas!

By De'shawn Charles Winslow,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

"A bighearted novel about family, migration, and the unbearable difficulties of love. Here's a cast of characters you won't soon forget." -Ayana Mathis, author of The Twelve Tribes of Hattie

"Winslow's impressive debut novel introduces readers to both a flawed, fascinating character in fiction and a wonderful new voice in literature." -Real Simple, Best Books of 2019

A New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice
Winner of the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize

Named a Most Anticipated Novel by

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Blood of the White Bear

By Marcia Calhoun Forecki, Gerald Schnitzer,

Book cover of Blood of the White Bear

Marcia Calhoun Forecki Author Of Blood of the White Bear

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

Author History hound Polyglot Bookworm Neatness averse Yoga beginner

Marcia's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

Virologist Dr. Rachel Bisette sees visions of a Kachina and remembers the plane crash that killed her parents and the Dine medicine woman who saved her life. Rachel is investigating a new and lethal hantavirus spreading through the Four Corners, and believes the Kachina is calling her to join the work against the spreading pandemic.

She finds Eva Yellow Horn, a medicine woman with the key to fighting the pandemic. When Eva demonstrates ancient healing powers beyond science, Rachel recognizes her as the medicine woman who saved her life years before. Eva reveals that Rachel’s father was investigating the 1979 nuclear disaster in Church Rock, when his plane crashed, killing her parents. Now, Rachel undertakes a new investigation, but she is not alone.

Blood of the White Bear

By Marcia Calhoun Forecki, Gerald Schnitzer,

What is this book about?

“Visions of kachinas guide doctor to spiritual healing in pandemic.”

2014 Finalist in the Willa Literary Award

This is a book that once closed and last line read, my mind wandered to explore certain character motivations and potential follow-up responses. I don’t think an author has to answer every possibility, art comes into play best when the reader’s own imagination can wander within the story.

Dr. Rachel Bisette is drawn to the Four Corners to lead the search for a vaccine against a lethal pandemic. One elusive indigenous woman, Eva Yellow Horn, carries the gift of immunity. In her search…

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