The best New York City novels past to present

Why am I passionate about this?

I grew up thinking I liked reading about NYC more than I’d like living there. It was too hectic and loud for a bookworm like me, I thought, too dirty and dangerous. Then my husband was accepted to Cornell’s MD/PhD program, and we moved to Manhattan. Immediately, I found that while the city is as dirty as I’d feared (and it smells), its advantages far outweigh the rest. I can’t get enough of the parks, museums, food, diversity, or the history, much of which drives The Light of Luna Park. So, without further ado, here are my five favorite books that take place in New York from the 1800s to today.


I wrote...

Book cover of The Light of Luna Park

What is my book about?

A historical novel for lovers of Before We Were Yours, exploring motherhood, a nurse’s choice to save a baby, and the history of Coney Island and America’s first incubators.

NYC, 1926. Nurse Althea Anderson is heartbroken after another preemie dies at Bellevue Hospital, so it feels like a miracle when she learns about incubators at Luna Park. But Bellevue’s doctors dismiss Althea and this unconventional medicine, forcing her to make a dangerous choice. In 1950, Stella Wright is spiraling. Her mother’s gone, she’s quit her job, and her marriage is disintegrating. Then she discovers a letter questioning everything she knew about her mother, and everything she knows about herself. The Light of Luna Park is an ode to courage and the sacrificial love of mothers.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Nurse's Secret: A Thrilling Historical Novel of the Dark Side of Gilded Age New York City

Addison Armstrong Why did I love this book?

The best characters are the ones with scandalous pasts, and Una Kelly certainly fits into that category. Though she applies to the Bellevue Training School for Nurses in the 1880s to avoid being implicated in a theft, she ends up uncovering far worse crimes happening under the doctors’ noses. Skenandore has done her research here, and you’ll be transported into the Bellevue Hospital of the 1880s with an almost alarming sense of reality. Despite richly detailed descriptions of grimy tenement living, the gore of 19th-century medicine, and all the seedy aspects of New York’s past, The Nurse’s Secret leaves the reader with hope rather than despair. 

By Amanda Skenandore,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Nurse's Secret as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The unflinching, spellbinding new book from the acclaimed author of The Second Life of Mirielle West. Based on the little-known story of America’s first nursing school, a young female grifter in 1880s New York evades the police by conning her way into Bellevue Hospital’s training school for nurses, while a spate of murders continues to follow her as she tries to leave the gritty streets of the city behind…

“A spellbinding story, a vividly drawn setting, and characters that leap off the pages. This is historical fiction at its finest!” —Sara Ackerman, USA Today bestselling author of The Codebreaker’s Secret…


Book cover of A Fall of Marigolds

Addison Armstrong Why did I love this book?

I can’t resist a good dual timeline, and A Fall of Marigolds delivers. The primary timeline centers on an Ellis Island nurse who’s adopted the hospital as her refuge after escaping the notorious Triangle Shirtwaist Fire; the secondary, a woman who loses her husband on 9/11. There are thematic parallels—loss, grief, healing, love—as well as striking similarities between the two events, but it is a scarf that ties the two characters directly together. 

I was only three years old on 9/11, so I don’t have my own memories of it. Even to me, Meissner conveys the tragedy so intimately that I think I came away with a better understanding of its horrors. But don’t be scared away: This book is about new beginnings more than it is about destruction.

By Susan Meissner,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked A Fall of Marigolds as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A beautiful scarf connects two women touched by tragedy in this compelling, emotional novel from the author of As Bright as Heaven and The Last Year of the War.

September 1911. On Ellis Island in New York Harbor, nurse Clara Wood cannot face returning to Manhattan, where the man she loved fell to his death in the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. Then, while caring for a fevered immigrant whose own loss mirrors hers, she becomes intrigued by a name embroidered onto the scarf he carries...and finds herself caught in a dilemma that compels her to confront the truth about the assumptions…


Book cover of Bluebird

Addison Armstrong Why did I love this book?

Bluebird by Sharon Cameron took my breath away. It’s a thriller, a mystery, a romance, and the best type of historical fiction all rolled up together, and though it’s officially young adult, it’s too good for adults to pass up. The novel follows a German girl named Eva who flees Germany for New York City in 1946 seeking justice as much as safety. The daughter of a Nazi mastermind, Eva is hunting down her father for reasons both personal and political, and her journey is filled with both physical and psychological danger. Bluebird is fast-paced and fascinating, as well as thought-provoking and full of well-researched history on everything from Nazi propaganda to Quaker humanitarian relief in New York City. 

By Sharon Cameron,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Bluebird as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it. This book is for kids age 13, 14, 15, and 16.

What is this book about?

Author of Reese's Book Club YA Pick The Light in Hidden Places, Sharon Cameron, delivers an emotionally gripping and utterly immersive thriller, perfect for fans of Ruta Sepetys's Salt to the Sea.

In 1946, Eva leaves behind the rubble of Berlin for the streets of New York City, stepping from the fiery aftermath of one war into another, far colder one, where power is more important than principles, and lies are more plentiful than the truth. Eva holds the key to a deadly secret: Project Bluebird -- a horrific experiment of the concentration camps, capable of tipping the balance of…


Book cover of Behold the Dreamers

Addison Armstrong Why did I love this book?

Behold the Dreamers follows Cameroonian immigrants Jende and Neni Jonga as they build their lives in New York City. We see the many cities within the city through Jende and Neni's home in Harlem, their work for a family in the Upper East Side and the Hamptons, their friends in the Bronx, and Jende's boss' career on Wall Street. Mbue explores home, belonging, family, and identity as it warps or stays the same across racial, national, and economic divides. This human book is joyful and depressing and universal and intimate and personal and political. 

By Imbolo Mbue,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Behold the Dreamers as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A compulsively readable debut novel about marriage, immigration, class, race, and the trapdoors in the American Dream—the unforgettable story of a young Cameroonian couple making a new life in New York just as the Great Recession upends the economy

New York Times Bestseller • Winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award • Longlisted for the PEN/Open Book Award • An ALA Notable Book

NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY 
NPR • The New York Times Book Review • San Francisco Chronicle • The Guardian • St. Louis Post-Dispatch • Chicago Public Library • BookPage • Refinery29 • Kirkus…


Book cover of Olga Dies Dreaming

Addison Armstrong Why did I love this book?

Olga Dies Dreaming had me laughing on the very first page, when the eponymous Olga—a wedding planner—irreverently lists what it is that signifies wealth at a wedding and plots to steal the fancy napkins from just such an event. Though the book is hard to define, it's another one that is both funny and tragic, sweeping and intimate, full of characters who are both deeply flawed and for whom you'll find yourself rooting. As for its New York-ness, Olga lives in Park Slope, Brooklyn, and while the neighborhood is historically Puerto Rican (as is Olga), it is gentrifying. Olga, similarly, is caught between a myriad of worlds and identities. 

By Xochitl Gonzalez,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Olga Dies Dreaming as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • A NEW YORK TIMES NOTABLE BOOK · WINNER OF THE BROOKLYN PUBLIC LIBRARY PRIZE • INTERNATIONAL LATINO BOOK AWARD FINALIST

A blazing talent debuts with the tale of a status-driven wedding planner grappling with her social ambitions, absent mother, and Puerto Rican roots—all in the wake of Hurricane Maria

NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR: Kirkus, Washington Post, TIME, NPR, Vogue, Esquire, Book Riot, Goodreads, EW, Reader's Digest, and more!

"Don’t underestimate this new novelist. She’s jump-starting the year with a smart romantic comedy that lures us in with laughter and keeps…


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Book cover of Liddy-Jean Marketing Queen and the Matchmaking Scheme

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5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in New York City, immigrants, and nursing?

11,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about New York City, immigrants, and nursing.

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