The best books where past and present collide: dual timelines

Why am I passionate about this?

My instinct as a writer is to have two timelines. Having set up a story now my natural instinct is to dive back into the past to see why. My father was always taking us around ruins and castles and battlefields, I grew up reading history. It helps me to write if I try to put myself there, in a character’s shoes and clothes, surrounded by the smells and words and motivations from the past. Immersing myself in the past feels like going to an exotic location. I hope you enjoy visiting the timelines in these novels.

I wrote...

Secrets of the Cottage by the Sea

By Rebecca Alexander,

Book cover of Secrets of the Cottage by the Sea

What is my book about?

When Ellie Roberts inherits a cottage on a remote Scilly Isle, she’s shocked. She’s never heard of the previous owner, Patience Ellis, so why did she leave Ellie her legacy?

Overwhelmed with unanswered questions, Ellie travels to the isolated island. When she steps inside, the house feels strangely familiar, and she has a memory of laughing as a child with her beloved mother in the window seat… The mother she lost when she was only a child. Determined to find out more, Ellie meets enigmatic local Branok Shore. While at first he seems uninterested, he believes he can help. When Branok prises open Patience’s dresser, filled with letters from the Second World War, Ellie discovers the shocking secret Patience was forced to hide—and the truth that will change her life forever.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Chalk Man

Rebecca Alexander Why did I love this book?

In 1986, four friends follow chalk pictures of a hanged man to a dismembered body; in 2016 they start getting pictures again… I love this book because of its brilliantly curated tension, ramping up through the book. The two timelines work because they are distinct, the past full of cultural references and even behaviours that are different from 2016. We see through Eddie’s point of view, from a twelve-year-old fascinated and repelled by a dead girl, to a forty-something teacher. Each friend has grown in a different direction, and it’s difficult to maintain the friendship, so much so that one of them ends up dead. I loved the parallels between the two timelines, suspected teacher, ‘the pale man,’ and the person Eddie has become. 

By C. J. Tudor,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Chalk Man as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?




It was only meant to be a game . . .

None of us ever agreed on the exact beginning.

Was it when we started drawing the chalk figures, or when they started to appear on their own?

Was it the terrible accident?

Or when they found the first body?



Book cover of The Bone Garden

Rebecca Alexander Why did I love this book?

I loved this book partly because it was such a surprise! There are historical bones in Julia’s new garden near Boston. Norris Marshall, studying medicine back in the 1830s, funds his studies by providing cadavers. He buys from a body snatcher, but starts to wonder where he is getting the bodies from… The link between the two strands is delicate, crisscrossing the book and making each strand dependent on the other. The 1830s is viscerally exposed, through the brutal medical techniques at the time to the hunger and desperation of the poor. I couldn’t put it down, and it has a poignant if surprising ending that brings both timelines together.   

By Tess Gerritsen,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Bone Garden as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Unknown bones, untold secrets, and unsolved crimes from the distant past cast ominous shadows on the present in the dazzling new thriller from New York Times bestselling author Tess Gerritsen.

Present day: Julia Hamill has made a horrifying discovery on the grounds of her new home in rural Massachusetts: a skull buried in the rocky soil–human, female, and, according to the trained eye of Boston medical examiner Maura Isles, scarred with the unmistakable marks of murder. But whoever this nameless woman was, and whatever befell her, is knowledge lost to another time.

Boston, 1830: In order to pay for his…

Book cover of The House of Special Purpose

Rebecca Alexander Why did I love this book?

This book moved me. This book expertly tells a single story but from each end. One timeline travels back from 1981, as Georgy watches over his dying wife, Zoya. The poignancy of these two old people, still in love, still themselves spoke to me. The other timeline follows him from early childhood through Romanov Russia, as nine-year-old Georgy saves the life of the tsar’s cousin. The relationship grows between the main characters, told back and forth, revealing layers of connection and history between them. The two strands end at the shocking revelation of the ‘special purpose.’ I enjoyed the mystery but fell in love with the characters, and the wonderful settings. The two timelines added powerfully to the reading of the story.  

By John Boyne,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The House of Special Purpose as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In Russia during the year 1915, at the age of 16, Georgy Jachmenev steps in front of an assassin's bullet intended for the heart of a senior member of the Russian Imperial Family. He is instantly proclaimed a hero. Before the week is out, his life as the son of a peasant farmer is changed forever when he is escorted to St Petersburg to take up his new position - as bodyguard to Alexei Romanov, the only son of Tsar Nicholas II. Sixty five years later, visiting his wife Zoya as she lies dying in a London hospital, memories of…

Book cover of The Thirteenth Tale

Rebecca Alexander Why did I love this book?

I loved this book, but looked over my shoulder while I was reading it. Vida Winter is a reclusive writer, who asks Margaret Lea to write her biography. Lea mixes taking notes and recording interviews with visiting the Gothic locations in the story. Vida tells the tale from the past, about the feral twins and their neglectful, volatile mother. Margaret uncovers evidence from the present going backwards. The two narratives arrive at a satisfying conclusion via a fire, a ghost, and a governess. Vida is delightfully unreliable. The reader is left to come to their own conclusions about who dies in the fire, and who fathered what child. I loved the film, too, although for different reasons. 

By Diane Setterfield,

Why should I read it?

6 authors picked The Thirteenth Tale as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'Simply brilliant' Kate Mosse, international bestselling author of Labyrinth


Everybody has a story...

Angelfield House stands abandoned and forgotten.

It was once home to the March family: fascinating, manipulative Isabelle; brutal, dangerous Charlie; and the wild, untamed twins, Emmeline and Adeline. But the house hides a chilling secret which strikes at the very heart of each of them, tearing their lives apart...

Now Margaret Lea is investigating Angelfield's past, and its mysterious connection to the enigmatic writer Vida Winter. Vida's history is mesmering - a tale of ghosts, governesses, and gothic strangeness. But as Margaret succumbs to the power…

Book cover of The Time Traveler's Wife

Rebecca Alexander Why did I love this book?

This book is told from multiple time points. Henry and Clare fall in love, but Henry can’t help his biology which forces him to jump back and forth in time. The costs are high, their time together is often short, but their relationship develops. The time jumps confuse the characters as much as the readers, which has divided reviews ever since. I loved it because the characters and their relationships are bigger than the sci-fi idea of ‘chrono-impairment’, a trait inherited by their daughter. Knowing Henry will die at some point haunts the book, yet a clever twist directs away from it and resolves it at the end. A book I return to again and again, which could only be told through multiple timelines.  

By Audrey Niffenegger,

Why should I read it?

20 authors picked The Time Traveler's Wife as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Now a series on HBO starring Rose Leslie and Theo James!

The iconic time travel love story and mega-bestselling first novel from Audrey Niffenegger is "a soaring celebration of the victory of love over time" (Chicago Tribune).

Henry DeTamble is a dashing, adventurous librarian who is at the mercy of his random time time-traveling abilities. Clare Abshire is an artist whose life moves through a natural sequential course. This is the celebrated and timeless tale of their love. Henry and Clare's passionate affair is built and endures across a sea of time and captures them in an impossibly romantic trap…

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The River of Eternity

By Bruce Balfour,

Book cover of The River of Eternity

Bruce Balfour

New book alert!

What is my book about?

1184 BCE. Ramesses III, who will become the last of the great pharaohs, is returning home from battle. He will one day assume the throne of the Egyptian empire, and the plots against him and his children have already started. Even a god can die.

Ray was raised with the teenage children of Ramesses as their friend, but his own mysterious past exposes him to threats inside and outside of the Egyptian court. When a prince is killed, Ray is framed for the murder and must run to protect Bull, the oldest son of Ramesses. So begins Ray’s dangerous journey from the snake pit of royal palace intrigue into a violent world of treachery and enemies that will take years to conquer if he can survive.

The River of Eternity

By Bruce Balfour,

What is this book about?

From the national bestselling author of The Forge of Mars and The Digital Dead, an Ancient Egyptian epic adventure thriller series, based on real events, for fans of Wilbur Smith, Steven Saylor, and Paul Doherty.

This is the first book of a series leading up to the event known as The Harem Conspiracy, the assassination of Pharaoh Ramesses III in New Kingdom Egypt (1184 BCE), which was led by members of his own family. Details were drawn from the first recorded judicial trial transcript ever recovered (Judicial Papyrus of Turin plus other fragments of the original papyrus).

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