Past Tense

Soak Up the Last Seconds of Summer with Seaside Historical Fiction

Welcome to Book Riot’s newest newsletter, historical fiction fans! If your shelves and e-readers are filled with books set in the past, just consider Past Tense a great excuse to grow your TBR. And I’m here to help you find your next favorite read!

It’s hard to believe that summer is basically over, but September is here and fall is well on the way. That doesn’t mean you have to give up your vacation mood just yet, though; not with these great seaside reads, anyway. Put off your priorities for just a little bit longer and enjoy these historical getaways before the real world catches up.

Malibu Rising Book Cover

Malibu Rising by Taylor Jenkins Reid

It’s hard to imagine a better beachy summer read than one about a big end-of-summer blowout part hosted by a family of surfer siblings living in their famous father’s shadow. Before the night is over, Nina’s glorious cliffside house will burn to the ground. But before that, she’ll throw a party people will talk about for years to come, a party with celebrities and fighting, a surprise new sibling, and maybe even an appearance from their estranged movie star father.

In classic Taylor Jenkins Reid style, you’ll be drawn into the lives of the rich and famous. Close your eyes, and before you know it you’ll find yourself right there among them, sitting on the sands of a Malibu beach.

The Last Train to Key West by Chanel Cleeton

1930s Key West might seem like paradise, but for the three women at the heart of this novel, it is also a place of escape. It is a place to escape to or be escaped from. As one woman struggles to finally break the ties that hold her to this town and two others find themselves passing through, their paths cross during the course of one holiday weekend. From arranged political marriages to long-lost brothers and mafia intrigue, the women’s complicated struggles become increasingly entangled even as a deadly storm approaches.

Based on true historical events, including the Labor Day Hurricane in 1935 that devastated the Florida Keys, The Last Train to Key West is a historical thriller of disastrous proportions.

Trigger warnings for domestic abuse, assault, and murder.

Island Queen Book Cover

Island Queen by Vanessa Riley

Based on the incredible life of Dorothy Kirwan Thomas, a free woman of color who became one of the wealthiest and most powerful landowners in the Caribbean, Island Queen follows Doll from the moment she buys her own freedom from her Irish father to the building of her entrepreneurial empire throughout the West Indies. It’s a sweeping epic following a remarkable women, determined to not only survive but thrive in a time full of people deadest against seeing her succeed.

Trigger warnings for racism and sexual assault.


The Mad Women's Ball Book Cover

The Mad Women’s Ball by Victoria Mas

Every year during the Lenten Ball, the patients of Salpetriere Asylum are dressed up and paraded out for all wealthiest of Parisian society to gawk at. It may provide them one glittering moment of hope, but the Madwomen’s Ball is a manifestation of the dehumanization the patients face on a daily basis. Dive deep into the horrifying history of nineteenth century asylums with this book in translation.

Release date: September 7, 2021 by The Overlook Press

Matrix Book Cover

Matrix by Lauren Groff

Journey to an impoverished tenth century English abbey with a woman cast out of Eleanor of Aquitaine’s royal court in this book about bold women and religious fervor by the author of Fates and Furies.

Release date: September 7, 2021 by Riverhead Books

Harlem Shuffle Book Cover

Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead

Colson Whitehead is back with a historical thriller that sounds like an Ocean’s Eleven style heist story set in 1960s Harlem.

Release date: September 14, 2021 by Doubleday


Learn about Taylor Jenkins Reid, author of Malibu Rising as well as Daisy Jones and the Six, in this article about her growing fame from the New York Times.

Explore the Norwegian island of Vardø at the heart of Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s The Mercies with National Geographic.

Island Queen author Vanessa Riley explains how woman-centered historical fiction novels use the author’s note to push back against questions of historical accuracy.

That’s it for now, folx! Stay subscribed for more stories of yesteryear.

If you want to talk books (historical or otherwise), you can find me @rachelsbrittian on Instagram, Goodreads, Litsy, and occasionally Twitter.

Right now I’m reading Travelers Along the Way by Aminah Mae Safi, Luck of the Titanic by Stacey Lee, and The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich. What about you?