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5 Great History Novels

A great historical novel floods you with details you can see, hear, smell and touch and delivers you out of your time to someplace strange, new and wonderful. Below are five novels that did so for me. Tell me what books did so for you.

Jem (and Sam): a novel by Ferdinand Mount. The Sam in parantheses is the famous 17th century diarist Samuel Pepys and the Jem is his fictional sidekick in a book that captures the chaos and tumult of restoration London.

The Thousand Autumms of Jacob De Zoet by David Mitchell. Tells of a young clerk's eduation in the ways of the world as he serves at an outpost of the Dutch East India Company in early nineteenth century Japan. Lots of adventure.

The Scandal of the Season by Sophie Gee. The backstory to Alexander Pope's canonical "Rape of the Lock." Ok, you read the famous mock epic eons ago in English and hated it. I promise this interpretive story, full of scandal, rakes, coquettes and all the romantic trappings, makes the poem come alive.

The Children's Book by A.S. Byatt. Long but never dull, this novel charts a vast cast of characters from the promise of the Victorian period through to the despair brought on by the First World War. The finish and detail on this book is just astonishing; Byatt renders a world like few other writers.

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. Everyone has probably already recommended this first installment on Mantel's retelling of the Henry VIII story. Everyone is right. Simply astonishing recreation of time and place and a fantastic character study. Not of Henry, but his fix-it man, Thomas Cromwell.


Jem by Ferdinand Mount
Amazon Says: How does Jeremiah Mount, a dealer in pornography and a failed farmers' son, come to be the lover of the Duchess of Albemarle and the colleague of the great Samuel Pepys? In Pe more...
Amazon Says: How does Jeremiah Mount, a dealer in pornography and a failed farmers' son, come to be the lover of the Duchess of Albemarle and the colleague of the great Samuel Pepys? In Pepys's glorious diary, Jem Mount plays a shadowy role, but in Jem's own memoirs Sam Pepys looms larger. Friends and drinking partners at first, they become vicious rivals for fame and women. A novel of jealousy and envy as intriguing as the story of Mozart and Salieri -- and no less comic or touching. less...
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Jim S. Says: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet by David Mitchell
Amazon Says: From the author of Cloud Atlas, now a major motion picture starring Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Susan Sarandon, and Hugh Grant, and directed by Lana and Andy Wachowski and T more...
Amazon Says: From the author of Cloud Atlas, now a major motion picture starring Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Susan Sarandon, and Hugh Grant, and directed by Lana and Andy Wachowski and Tom Tykwer In 2007, Time magazine named him one of the most influential novelists in the world. He has twice been short-listed for the Man Booker Prize. The New York Times Book Review called him simply “a genius.” Now David Mitchell lends fresh credence to The Guardian’s claim that “each of his books seems entirely different from that which preceded it.” The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is a stunning departure for this brilliant, restless, and wildly ambitious author, a giant leap forward by even his own high standards. A bold and epic novel of a rarely visited point in history, it is a work as exquisitely rendered as it is irresistibly readable. The year is 1799, the place Dejima in Nagasaki Harbor, the “high-walled, fan-shaped artificial island” that is the Japanese Empire’s single port and sole window onto the world, designed to keep the West at bay; the farthest outpost of the war-ravaged Dutch East Indies Company; and a de facto prison for the dozen foreigners permitted to live and work there. To this place of devious merchants, deceitful interpreters, costly courtesans, earthquakes, and typhoons comes Jacob de Zoet, a devout and resourceful young clerk who has five years in the East to earn a fortune of sufficient size to win the hand of his wealthy fiancée back in Holland. But Jacob’s original intentions are eclipsed after a chance encounter with Orito Aibagawa, the disfigured daughter of a samurai doctor and midwife to the city’s powerful magistrate. The borders between propriety, profit, and pleasure blur until Jacob finds his vision clouded, one rash promise made and then fatefully broken. The consequences will extend beyond Jacob’s worst imaginings. As one cynical colleague asks, “Who ain’t a gambler in the glorious Orient, with his very life?” A magnificent mix of luminous writing, prodigious research, and heedless imagination, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is the most impressive achievement of its eminent author. less...
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The Children's Book by A.S. Byatt
Jim S. Says: The Children's Book by A.S. Byatt
Amazon Says: Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize A spellbinding novel, at once sweeping and intimate, from the Booker Prize–winning author of Possession, that spans more...
Amazon Says: Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize A spellbinding novel, at once sweeping and intimate, from the Booker Prize–winning author of Possession, that spans the Victorian era through the World War I years, and centers around a famous children’s book author and the passions, betrayals, and secrets that tear apart the people she loves. When Olive Wellwood’s oldest son discovers a runaway named Philip sketching in the basement of the new Victoria and Albert Museum—a talented working-class boy who could be a character out of one of Olive’s magical tales—she takes him into the storybook world of her family and friends. But the joyful bacchanals Olive hosts at her rambling country house—and the separate, private books she writes for each of her seven children—conceal more treachery and darkness than Philip has ever imagined. As these lives—of adults and children alike—unfold, lies are revealed, hearts are broken, and the damaging truth about the Wellwoods slowly emerges. But their personal struggles, their hidden desires, will soon be eclipsed by far greater forces, as the tides turn across Europe and a golden era comes to an end. Taking us from the cliff-lined shores of England to Paris, Munich, and the trenches of the Somme, The Children’s Book is a deeply affecting story of a singular family, played out against the great, rippling tides of the day. It is a masterly literary achievement by one of our most essential writers. less...
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Jim S. Says: Scandal of the Season by Sophie Gee
Amazon Says: What would you do if you were faced with a dangerous temptation you feared you couldn't resist? The Scandal of the Season tells the story of the real-life seduction of the bea more...
Amazon Says: What would you do if you were faced with a dangerous temptation you feared you couldn't resist? The Scandal of the Season tells the story of the real-life seduction of the beautiful, clever Arabella Fermor by the charming, enigmatic nobleman Robert Petre, seventh Baron of Ingatestone. Arabella is in need of rich husband, but knows that girls have been ruined by risking an affair like the one she contemplates. The object of her desire is also flirting with a perilous Jacobite plot against Queen Anne. Watching the pair with a beady eye, is an outsider, a cripple, destined to become the genius of his age - the poet Alexander Pope. He arrives in London from the country, burning with ambition. If he fails, he will be left destitute. But can he find a story for his next poem powerful enough to make his reputation? A seductive novel about risk and dangerous liaisons in a time of Jacobite plots and Popish fears, when marriage was a market, and sex was a temptation fraught with danger, The Scandal of the Season is a brilliant, witty modern love-story - set in 1711. Sophisticated, sexy and hugely enjoyable, this dazzling debut novel is inspired by events that gave rise to the era's most celebrated satirical entertainment, The Rape of the Lock. The story plays out against the backdrop of 18th-century London: dirty, teeming street-life and glorious buildings, newly restored after the Great Fire; the River Thames, artery of England's trade and commerce; masked balls, operas, eating houses, clandestine courtships and political intrigue. less...
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Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
Amazon Says: In the ruthless arena of King Henry VIII’s court, only one man dares to gamble his life to win the king’s favor and ascend to the heights of political powerEngland in the more...
Amazon Says: In the ruthless arena of King Henry VIII’s court, only one man dares to gamble his life to win the king’s favor and ascend to the heights of political powerEngland in the 1520s is a heartbeat from disaster. If the king dies without a male heir, the country could be destroyed by civil war. Henry VIII wants to annul his marriage of twenty years, and marry Anne Boleyn. The pope and most of Europe opposes him. The quest for the king’s freedom destroys his adviser, the brilliant Cardinal Wolsey, and leaves a power vacuum. Into this impasse steps Thomas Cromwell. Cromwell is a wholly original man, a charmer and a bully, both idealist and opportunist, astute in reading people and a demon of energy: he is also a consummate politician, hardened by his personal losses, implacable in his ambition. But Henry is volatile: one day tender, one day murderous. Cromwell helps him break the opposition, but what will be the price of his triumph? In inimitable style, Hilary Mantel presents a picture of a half-made society on the cusp of change, where individuals fight or embrace their fate with passion and courage. With a vast array of characters, overflowing with incident, the novel re-creates an era when the personal and political are separated by a hairbreadth, where success brings unlimited power but a single failure means death. less...
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