The best historical fiction about women slogging through turbulent times

Why am I passionate about this?

Foreign cultures have always intrigued me. I am a Midwesterner who lived for several years in Latin America, teaching English and later doing field work in anthropology. As a young woman, I lived through a violent coup d’état in Chile, and I drew on that experience when I later wrote about political upheaval in Guatemala. A Ph.D. in anthropology gave me the opportunity to spend time in Guatemala and Mexico, some of it in Mayan towns. My love of historical fiction stems from my desire to enter and understand other worlds, and I am grateful to authors who spin their magic to bring far-off places and times to life. 

I wrote...

Reading the Knots

By Susan Garzon,

Book cover of Reading the Knots

What is my book about?

It’s 1954, and as civil war looms in Guatemala, the lives of three women become interwoven at an archaeological dig. Meg Fuente is an expatriate American, and while her husband unearths an ancient town with mysterious origins, Meg befriends members of a political party supporting the embattled socialist president. Noemi, an indigenous girl, is happy that her older brother is foreman at the dig, even though some Elders warn of impending disaster due to the excavations. Meanwhile, Patricia, an upper-class teenager, is determined to dig despite the opposition of her authoritarian father and her aversion to working under an Indian foreman. A startling discovery at the Fuentes’ dig sets in motion a chain of events with life-shattering consequences. 

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton

Susan Garzon Why did I love this book?

I love Lidie Newton. She is a newlywed who accompanies her abolitionist husband from Illinois to Kansas Territory, at a time when the territory is mired in partisan rage and violence. Lidie narrates the story, and her straightforward, often insightful accounts pulled me in immediately. I was right there with her as she forged her way through numerous exploits, some humorous, others heart-breaking. The story is populated with characters who are both colorful and believable, and I came away with a heightened understanding of the role played by events in Kansas and Missouri during the frightening months leading up to the Civil War.

By Jane Smiley,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Lidie joins the pioneering Westward migration into America's heartland. It is harsher, more violent and more disorientating then Lidie could ever have imagined. They find themselves on a faultline - forces crash against each other, soon to erupt into the he American Civil War.

Book cover of The Women in the Castle

Susan Garzon Why did I love this book?

I was initially reluctant to read a novel about Nazi Germany, but I’m so glad I did. Shattuck introduces us to three women—Marianne, Benita, and Ania. Each has a uniquely compelling story, and I came to care about them all. These characters brought me a new understanding of how German women dealt with the Nazi era and its terrible aftermath. And importantly, Shattuck brings compassion to the three women, each of whom was striving to find a way through a treacherous and sometimes soul-warping period. Ultimately, the author leaves us with insights into our own often frightening times.

By Jessica Shattuck,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Women in the Castle as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?


In war they made impossible choices. Now can they live with them?

'Moving . . . surprises and devastates' New York Times
'Masterful' People
'Mesmerising . . . reveals new truths about one of history's most tragic eras' USA Today

The Third Reich has crumbled. The Russians are coming.

Marianne von Lingenfels - widow of a resister murdered by the Nazi regime - finds refuge in the crumbling Bavarian castle where she once played host to German high society. There she fulfils her promise to find and protect the wives and children of her husband's…

Book cover of Nobilissima

Susan Garzon Why did I love this book?

Nobilissima swept me into a time of historical upheaval--the disintegration of the Western Roman Empire. And I watched events unfold through the eyes of a real historical figure, Placidia, sister to the outrageously incompetent Roman emperor, and an influential leader in her own right. This fast-paced, well-researched novel begins with the city of Rome encircled by Germanic invaders. Soon, Placidia is abducted by the Goths, with astonishing consequences. Bedford portrays Placidia as a warm person, loyal to her friends and followers, but also as a leader capable of making hard decisions, and I cheered for her as she steered a survival course for her beloved Roman Empire. By the end, I couldn’t help wishing that history might have turned out differently.

By Carrie Bedford,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Placidia seems destined to live in the shadow of her brother, the Emperor, until the night in 410AD when the Visigoths launch a vicious attack on Rome and she is taken hostage. Forced to march with the enemy on a perilous journey through Italy and the far reaches of the Roman Empire, she relies on her wits and determination to survive. Overcoming imprisonment, violence, and the treacherous quicksands of Roman politics, Placidia proves to be a skillful diplomat and leader, building alliances with generals, kings and popes.

This exciting, heart-stirring story celebrates a woman’s unbreakable will and rise to power…

Book cover of The Madonnas of Leningrad

Susan Garzon Why did I love this book?

Some books allow us to experience the unendurable—at a safe distance, of course. This story takes us to Leningrad during World War II, when the city is under siege, its inhabitants freezing, starving, and worn down from German bombardments. Through it all, Marina shows up every day at the magnificent Hermitage Museum to help safeguard the precious artwork and the building that housed it. Even as I ached for Marina, it was clear that her devotion to the museum elevated her life. This is what made the book memorable for me. Marina and her co-workers created meaningful lives, even in the midst of terrible hardship.

By Debra Dean,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

“An extraordinary debut, a deeply lovely novel that evokes with uncommon deftness the terrible, heartbreaking beauty that is life in wartime. Like the glorious ghosts of the paintings in the Hermitage that lie at the heart of the story, Dean’s exquisite prose shimmers with a haunting glow, illuminating us to the notion that art itself is perhaps our most necessary nourishment. A superbly graceful novel.”  — Chang-Rae Lee, New York Times Bestselling author of Aloft and Native Speaker

Bit by bit, the ravages of age are eroding Marina's grip on the everyday. An elderly Russian woman now living in America,…

Book cover of Hearts and Bones

Susan Garzon Why did I love this book?

This is a darkly beautiful novel, set in the period after the American Revolution, a time of great hardship for many Americans. Hannah Trevor has lost her husband and three children, and she cobbles out an independent if marginal life for herself as a midwife in rural Maine. She finds love with a married man, and when he is falsely accused of rape and murder, Hannah sets out to uncover the truth. I was drawn in by Lawrence’s striking prose and by Hannah, who is strong, resourceful, and in many ways, a loner. 

By Margaret Lawrence,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Hanna Trevor, a midwife in 1780s Maine, is drawn into the investigation into the rape and murder of a young woman when an honorable man--her former lover and the father of her child, is accused of the crime. Reprint.

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Book cover of Saving Raine

Marian L Thomas

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What is my book about?

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Saving Raine

By Marian L Thomas,

What is this book about?

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