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4 new historical fiction novels that reimagine real-life figures you’ll get to know better


The Last Daughter of York

By Nicola Cornick

Graydon House, 368 pages, $21.99

Grounded in the mystery of what happened to the York princes in the Tower of London during the reign of Richard III and of an arrowhead that seems to have “miraculous power beyond man’s wildest imaginings,” this dual narrative shifts expertly between Oxfordshire in 2020 and Yorkshire in the late 1400s.

For 11 years Serena Warren has been haunted by the disappearance of her twin sister Caitlin, so when the police identify her remains in Minster Lovell where the girls spent their childhood summers with their paternal grandparents, she is both relieved and bereaved anew.

Francis Lovell, betrothed to Anne Neville when they were children in 1465, becomes Richard III’s right hand man. Through a magical lodestone their legacy connects with the Warrens five centuries later.

Fans of Josephine Tey’s “The Daughter of Time” will be keen to read this vibrant reimagining of the end of the Plantagenet line.

A Beautiful Spy, by Rachel Hore, Simon and Schuster, 432 pages, $22.00

A Beautiful Spy

By Rachel Hore

Simon and Schuster, 432 pages, $22.00

At a 1928 provincial garden party, Minnie Gray meets glamorous Dolly Pyle, an independent woman who enjoys her freedom too much “to give it up for any man.” Dolly tells Minnie that she plans to recommend her to her boss, but it takes another three years before Minnie receives a cryptic letter that leads to her being hired by British Intelligence’s M Section.

Her handler, Captain Maxwell King, tasks Minnie, now known by code name M12, with infiltrating Friends of the Soviet Union, a communist network in London, by volunteering as a typist; all the while she’s investigating their extremist behaviour throughout most of the 1930s. Hiding in plain sight, Minnie’s contribution is part of the intelligence long game, one that eventually has her testifying as “Miss X,” the prime witness, in a 1938 trial.

Leading a double life has its particular pressures as Minnie struggles with conflicting emotions and personal sacrifice to do what she believes is her duty to her country.

Intrepid, intriguing Minnie Gray, based on the life and work of spy Olga Gray, is a heroine who will have you rooting for her from beginning to end.

The Paris Bookseller, by Kerri Maher, Berkley, 336 pages, $35.00

The Paris Bookseller

By Kerri Maher

Berkley, 336 pages, $35.00

This fictional portrait of Shakespeare and Company’s legendary proprietor Sylvia Beach is wholly immersive, a literary romp through Left Bank Paris from 1919-1936, featuring the expat writers whose work she championed including Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and especially James Joyce.

In 1919, Beach’s paramour Adrienne Monnier, owner of “La Maison des Amis des Livres,” helps her to secure a space to open her lending library and English language bookshop in a former laundry not far from rue de l’Odéon where it will move a few years later. As talismans, Sylvia frames precious pages of Whitman’s poetry as well as William Blake drawings. Enjoying the spoils of peace, writers and patrons gather there for “literature, conversation, friendship, debate.”

When an excerpt from James Joyce’s “Ulysses” appears in an American magazine and his work is banned, Beach decides to publish it for his 40th birthday in 1922, rightfully noting that “censorship is not commensurate with democracy. Or art.” 1000 first edition copies are pre-ordered by luminaries including T.S. Eliot, W.B. Yeats and Winston Churchill.

An enchanting glimpse of the storied lost generation through a female gaze by a woman who embraced the progressive literature of her time.

Learwife, by J.R. Thorp, Pegasus Books, 336 pages, $34.95

Learwife

By J.R. Thorp

Pegasus Books, 336 pages, $34.95

Out of Shakespearean absence Thorp has created steely presence in this astonishing debut that is both a poetic paean to grief and the tale of one of the most famous characters written out of literary history — King Lear’s wife who never appears in the play — her story told on her own terms.

A messenger brings word to the convent where the queen has been exiled for an unknown offence for fifteen years: King Lear is dead and so are their three daughters Goneril, Regan and Cordelia. In the weeks that follow, she recalls her life with her first husband and her early years with Lear and wonders what has happened to Kent, her ally who knew them all. She misses the Fool who “bore his wit like a lance,” and recognizes that she must “live through their deaths to be able to remake” herself.

The queen’s grief is rife with rage and “demands space, wilderness. Or else it will crack the earth.” It is a “kind of snow-blindness, snow-deafness,” a poignant nothing. The narrative drives to its pitch-perfect end, her unforgettable voice and name reclaimed from the void.

Janet Somerville is the author of “Yours, for Probably Always: Martha Gellhorn’s Letters of Love & War 1930-1949,” available now in audio, read by Ellen Barkin.

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