Daughter of a Daughter of a Queen by Sarah BirdInspired by: the life of Cathay Williams, the first African American woman to enlist in the U.S. Army.
What happens: After describing her life in bondage, Williams recounts how she became Union Army "contraband" during the Civil War and how, disguised as a man, she later served as Buffalo soldier "William Cathay."
You might also like: James McBride's The Good Lord Bird; Paulette Jiles' The Color of Lightning.
Washington Black by Esi EdugyanWhat it's about: In 1830, 11-year-old enslaved child George Washington Black -- a.k.a. "Wash" -- is hired out as a manservant to Christopher "Titch" Wilde, an inventor who needs the boy's help to test his hot-air balloon. Everything goes wrong, and that's just the beginning.
Reviewers say: "strong, beautiful and beguiling" (The Guardian)
Book Buzz: This novel by acclaimed Canadian author Esi Edugyan (Half-Blood Blues) was recently shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.
The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock by Imogen Hermes GowarWhat it's about: When London merchant Jonah Hancock becomes the owner of a mummified "mermaid" specimen, his decision to display it publicly results in some colorful new acquaintances, including brothel madam Mrs. Chappell and beguiling courtesan Angelica Neal.
Read it for: well-developed characters; witty, period-appropriate dialogue; and a vividly drawn setting that captures the sights, sounds, and smells of 18th-century London.
For fans of: the panoramic view of British society in Michel Faber's The Crimson Petal and the White.
The Air You Breathe by Frances de Pontes PeeblesWhat it's about: Dreams of musical stardom lead orphaned Dores and privileged Graça to run away from their convent school and head to Rio, where they immerse themselves in samba. From there, they head to 1940s Hollywood, where Graça reinvents herself as "Brazilian Bombshell" Sofia Salvador and Dores pursues a songwriting career.
Want a taste? "Being a woman is always a performance; only the very old and very young are allowed to bow out of it. The rest must play our parts with vigor but seemingly without effort."
The Underground River by Martha ConwayIntroducing: Seamstress May Bedloe and her cousin, actress Comfort Vertue.
What it's about: After surviving a steamship explosion, the women follow separate paths: Comfort becomes a speaker on the abolitionist circuit, while May joins a riverboat theater troupe and is blackmailed into ferrying enslaved children across the Ohio River to freedom.
Publication history: The Underground River was originally published in the United Kingdom as The Floating Theater.
Fools and Mortals by Bernard CornwellStarring: Richard Shakespeare, younger brother of playwright William.
What happens: A junior member of the Lord Chamberlain's Men, Richard leaps at the chance to prove himself when the company's scripts are stolen by a rival playhouse. Meanwhile, Puritans would shut down every theater in London if they could.
Author alert: Known for fast-paced, action-packed series about soldiers (Sharpe) and warriors (Saxon Stories), Bernard Cornwell shifts gears in this stand-alone, which brings to life the world of Elizabethan theater.
The Tumbling Turner Sisters by Juliette FayFeaturing: Kit, Gert, Winnie, and Nell Turner, sisters who -- under the direction of their overbearing mother -- form an acrobatic troupe after their father loses his job.
Why you might like it: Set in 1919, this upbeat novel offers an authentic depiction of Vaudeville shortly before the nascent motion picture industry transforms American entertainment.
Did you know? Author Juliette Fay is the great-granddaughter of a Vaudeville performer.
Church of Marvels by Leslie ParryWhat it's about: Shortly after a fire consumes the Church of Marvels, their mother's Coney Island sideshow, teen sword-swallower Belle Church disappears, prompting her twin sister, Odile, to search for her.
Why you might like it: This richly detailed novel, set in a gritty 1895 New York City, takes place within a 24-hour period and contains four interwoven storylines.
You might also like: Alice Hoffman's The Museum of Extraordinary Things.
The Chosen Maiden by Eva StachniakIntroducing: Bronislawa "Bronia" Nijinska, a talented dancer and choreographer overshadowed by her "genius" brother, Vaslav Nijinsky.
Don't miss: appearances by Serge Diaghilev, Anna Pavlova, Coco Chanel and others.
You might also like: Adrienne Sharp's The True Memoirs of Little K, which also explores the life of a ballerina in the years leading up to the Russian Revolution and its aftermath
The Life She Was Given by Ellen Marie WisemanWhat it's about: Lilly Blackwood, a nine-year-old with albinism, becomes a sideshow attraction after her mother sells her to a traveling circus. In a parallel narrative, set 25 years later in the 1950s, 19-year-old Julia Blackwood investigates her family history.
Why you might like it: The Life She Was Given introduces resilient young protagonists thrust into difficult circumstances and provides a well-researched depiction of circus life during the Great Depression.
For fans of: Sara Gruen's Water for Elephants.
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