Good Historical Fiction For My Mother?
June 19, 2007 2:44 PM   Subscribe

Help me recommend a historical novel to my mother.

My mother is going to the beach next week and has called to ask for book recommendations. I'm usually pretty good at this, but this year she has made a very specific request for historical novels that are (her words) "not too dark, not too philisophical or too political, romantic, but reasonably well-written. Also, a page turner."

It should be stated that my mother's view of "historical" does not include fantasy, nor does it include any time period past, say, 1800. (The last novels I read that dealt with the rough period she's looking for were TC Boyle's "Water Music" and Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle, both of which I loved, neither I doubt she'd like at all.) However, she has generally good taste in literature, likes a writer that can turn a phrase, is not one to read bodice rippers, and is pretty progressive (not likely to be offended, in other words).

I know this is not terribly specific, but I'm trying to be a helpful daughter. I own hundreds of books (literally) and yet I seem unable to come up with anything and she's constantly disappointed by the Amazon recommendations and such.
posted by thivaia to Writing & Language (50 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
 
both of which I loved, neither I doubt she'd like at all.

Replace "think" with "doubt." My editing skills are shot today.
posted by thivaia at 2:46 PM on June 19, 2007


James Michener? Always great historical fiction and often a page turner. My faves are The Source, The Covenant, the Drifters, and Poland.

I like Michener better than Rutherford.
posted by k8t at 2:49 PM on June 19, 2007


The Daughter of Time? It's more about a historical investigation into Richard III, but I enjoyed it immensely and had a hard time putting it down.
posted by cadge at 2:56 PM on June 19, 2007


The Aubrey/Maturin novels are set right around 1800. Generally page turners (especially the first one, which she'd presumably start at).

The first one is not terribly romantic (unless you count homoerotic undertones), but the second one is a bit like "Pride and Prejudice," about Captain Aubrey courting a girl on land.
posted by Mayor Curley at 2:56 PM on June 19, 2007


It sounds like she's looking for a Regency novel, so I'd suggest My Sweet Folly by Laura Kinsale. In fact, anything by Laura Kinsale.
posted by watsondog at 2:58 PM on June 19, 2007


I have to give great big vote for Mary Renault; especially Praise Singer and any one of the novels from her series on Alexander the Great, Fire from Heaven or The Persian Boy. The Persian Boy is, IMO, a great love story. She's a very vivid, accessible writer, and brings the ancient Greek world very much to life.
posted by omphale27 at 3:06 PM on June 19, 2007


My mother the librarian has been pushing Mistress of the Art of Death on me all summer: "A chilling, mesmerizing novel that combines the best of modern forensic thrillers with the detail and drama of historical fiction." It's set in medieval Cambridge and apparently well-written and a page-turner.
posted by crush-onastick at 3:06 PM on June 19, 2007


Sharyn McCrumb! Her novels mostly take place in the current day, but are steeped in Appalachian place and history. Some are kinda dark, but they are beautifully written, well researched, and definitely page-turners. I particularly like She Walks These Hills.

Seconding Daughter of Time.
posted by rtha at 3:07 PM on June 19, 2007


Historical as in dealing with actual historical events? (Try The Other Boleyn Girl or anything by Phillipa Gregory-- caveat: they are a little bodice-rippy) or historical as in taking place in a different historical era (try Georgette Heyer-- the original source of many contemporary bodice-rippers, but without the ripping and wonderfully witty.) Start with Venetia or The Toll Booth.
posted by nax at 3:08 PM on June 19, 2007


Katherine by Anya Seton is set in 14th century England - romantic without being trashy.
posted by MrsBell at 3:09 PM on June 19, 2007


The Gallows Thief by Bernard Cornwell is exceptionally good, but a little dark. Anything by Patrick O'Brian is good, but she'll probably want to skip the battle scenes. If she hasn't read through all of Jane Austen's works she should. Emma Bull and Steven Brust wrote a great epistleatory novel called "Freedom And Necessity", but there is an undertone of occult elements in it that may be off putting for her.
posted by BrotherCaine at 3:12 PM on June 19, 2007


This past weekend my mother, who has dependably good taste, was talking up Kept: A Victorian Mystery.
posted by otio at 3:24 PM on June 19, 2007


The peerless, the immortal Dorothy Dunnett.
posted by rdc at 3:29 PM on June 19, 2007


Colleen McCullough's Masters of Rome series is immensely readable and her endnotes show how well researched they are. They show the lead-up to the era of Julius Caesar and then the times of Caesar himself. As a writer her main drawback is in writing occasionally hackneyed dialogue, but at their best these books rise above it. The series stands at six fat paperbacks with a seventh in the offing.
posted by zadcat at 3:39 PM on June 19, 2007


oh! i know just the answer. Corelli's Mandolin. I'm sorry, i'm short on time and i forget the author, but you can do a quick search.

it takes place before, during, and after world war II, on an island in Greece. the main character is a strong, fierce young greek woman, who is being romanced by the goofy Captain Antonio Corelli, a mandolin player and reluctant soldier.

there are many extremely rich side characters, writing from several characters' perspective, a thorough infusion of the history of conflict including the communist guerillas, and it's just an amazing, amazing book. one of my all time favorites.

i must warn you, though. the movie. don't. just don't. maybe, if you love the book, and you're cuirous about the movie, go for it. but... my advice is... just... don't.
posted by entropone at 3:40 PM on June 19, 2007


Sharon Kay Penman. She has more conventional historical fiction (The Sunne in Splendour is good) as well as a series of medieval mysteries.
posted by amber_dale at 3:48 PM on June 19, 2007


Diana Gabaldon's books, starting with Outlander. Not dark, not political, romantic, dramatic, well-researched and lengthy. I am not going to claim that she is Shakespeare, but the books are fun.
posted by posadnitsa at 3:57 PM on June 19, 2007


London, by Edward Rutherford. I've read it at least three times - it's got intrigue, romance, revenge, hatred, love, jealousy, lots of history...

The only part where it fails your mom's requirements is the time period, but the author doesn't spend any effort on writing authentic dialogue for each period, so maybe she wouldn't mind? I know that's what always makes me shy away from historical - ex. the Highlander books are a good read, but the dialogue veers onto farce on occasion.
posted by Liosliath at 4:00 PM on June 19, 2007


Oops, I meant Outlander. And "into farce." Sheesh. Must need some after work chocolate.
posted by Liosliath at 4:01 PM on June 19, 2007


I haven't read much recent historical fiction that would fit her request, but Thomas Costain has some very good medieval novels (The Black Rose, Darkness and the Dawn). I'd probably also suggest Caroline Roe (Chronicles of Isaac of Girona), Sharan Newman (Catherine Levendeur series), Judith Merkle Riley (Oracle Glass, Serpent Garden), Candance Robb (Owen Archer series), Sharon Kay Penman (Sunne in Splendor, Falls the Shadow) for European settings; Lynda Robinson (Lord Meren series) for Egypt; Jeanne Larsen (Silk Road, Bronze Mirror) for China; Mary Renault (the Praise Singer, Fire from Heaven, The King Must Die, etc) for Greece. Fiona Buckley has a series of Elizabethan mysteries which I rather liked (To Shield the Queen, etc). I've not read Steven Saylor's Roma yet, but his Roman mysteries are certainly readable. I'd recommend Georgette Heyer, but she's almost all set post 1800, although there are a few that are set earlier.
posted by jlkr at 4:54 PM on June 19, 2007


Philippa Gregory isn't that bodice-ripping. Have you read bodice rippers? Really not all that bad. There is sex, though, but it's understandable since many political decisions of the time were based on sex.

Outlander is the favorite book/series of my mother, who also likes historical fiction, but good lord is there a lot of sex in there.

I really like Margaret George. "Helen of Troy" is good, so is her "Mary, Called Magdalene." She has a few other good ones as well.
posted by olinerd at 5:06 PM on June 19, 2007


Here's a second for Dorothy Dunnett. It takes a bit of work to get into her novels but they are well worth it. I also loved Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series. She is a very different kind of writer than Dunnett but Gabaldon does have a bit of the bodice ripping romance novel aspects to her writing.
posted by bluesky43 at 5:18 PM on June 19, 2007


i really loved Ahab's Wife by sena jeter naslund which is told from the perspective of…captain ahab's wife. a fantastic read.

i also really enjoyed March by geraldine brooks. it's a story about the civil war experiences of the patriarch of Little Women's march family. also a great read.
posted by violetk at 5:34 PM on June 19, 2007


Pillars of the Earth, by Ken Follet.

Construction of a cathedral in medival England, spanning the lives of several generations of the humans in its shadow. Sounds dry, but really really isn't.
posted by tentacle at 5:55 PM on June 19, 2007


Devil in the White City

4.5/5 Stars on Amazon.
posted by mhuckaba at 5:55 PM on June 19, 2007


Cloudsplitter: A Novel, by Russell Banks. On the life of John Brown. Maybe too political is my worry, given the subject matter but it doesn't really read that way. Here's the NYTimes book review.
posted by .kobayashi. at 6:00 PM on June 19, 2007


Seconding Cloudsplitter, which is amazing. Devil in the White city is also great, although it isn't fiction.

I also enjoyed this book, a novel which is set in Hapsburg era Austria.
posted by jeffmshaw at 6:06 PM on June 19, 2007


(I've tried to keep this to the 1800 end-point.)

Beryl Bainbridge has written a number of intriguing, short historical novels; According to Queeney (about Dr. Johnson & his circle) fits your bill.

Maria McCann's As Meat Loves Salt, set in the seventeenth century, is a fine but very brutal novel, with explicit, albeit non-romantic, sex (both heterosexual and homosexual).

There are a number of strong Australian historical novels out there, most of which emphasize the physical and psychological difficulties of transplanting English culture into an almost totally hostile landscape. Both Thomas Keneally's Bring Larks and Heroes and Kate Grenville's The Secret River focus on late-18th c./early 19th c. emigrants (voluntary and otherwise).

Peter Ackroyd has been writing an entire history of England through a combination of biography and fiction (some of which is alternative history). Chatterton has garnered the most critical acclaim; it's also the most difficult, prose-wise.

Rose Tremain has written some excellent historical novels: Restoration, Music & Silence, and The Colour (the latter, set in 19th c. New Zealand, may be past your mother's cut-off point).

Robert Graves' I, Claudius and Claudius the God are great fun.

If your mother has staying power, then George P. Garrett's trilogy of novels set during the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods might be the ticket (The Succession, Death of the Fox, Entered from the Sun). Speaking of that time period, Anthony Burgess' A Dead Man in Deptford is a fine novel about Christopher Marlowe, with plenty of Burgess' trademark word games.

And speaking of staying power, Mary Lee Settle's "Beulah Quintet"--five novels chronicling American history from the colonial period to the twentieth century--is quite beautiful, as is her I, Roger Williams.
posted by thomas j wise at 6:14 PM on June 19, 2007 [1 favorite]


Anything by Amin Malouf.
posted by dhruva at 6:43 PM on June 19, 2007


Pillars of the Earth, by Ken Follet.


Seconded. Great book.
posted by trishthedish at 6:45 PM on June 19, 2007


I don't suppose an e-text is any good, your mom going to the beach and all, but still: The Seats of the Mighty by Gilbert Parker is a rollicking good read about the conquest of Quebec.
posted by YamwotIam at 7:07 PM on June 19, 2007


Seconding Ahab's Wife. It's an amazing book, one of my favourites.
posted by meghanmiller at 7:13 PM on June 19, 2007


i'm reading Mayflower by nathaniel philbrick, which is great, so far.
posted by brandz at 8:13 PM on June 19, 2007


I would have also suggested Dorothy Dunnett or Katherine Neville, except for the not dark/political/philosophical prohibition.
posted by BrotherCaine at 8:19 PM on June 19, 2007


I would have also suggested Dorothy Dunnett or Katherine Neville, except for the not dark/political/philosophical prohibition.

My thoughts exactly! Still, I have to 3rd or 4th Dorothy Dunnett. Forty, maybe 60 pages into Game of Kings, and she'll be good for nothing else until she's plowed through the whole series. And it is worth the effort.
posted by torticat at 8:30 PM on June 19, 2007


I will second (and if I could, third through a thounsandth) the Dorothy Dunnet recommendation. I preferred the Lymond series over the later series, personally. But I'm still depressed that I finished them all.
posted by bibbit at 8:34 PM on June 19, 2007


Just to comment on the political/dark thing - the novels are very humorous in parts. They are very political, but my grasp of history is, sadly, paltry (and my geography is worse!) - I still enjoyed the books immensly even with skimming a lot of the political stuff.
posted by bibbit at 8:36 PM on June 19, 2007


Sex-wise, the Jean Auel books are way more graphic than the Outlander (Cross-stitch in the UK and commonwealth) series. I liked most of them, but was annoyed by the most recent---the reader had been told that the Zelandonii especially loathe the Clan, but Echozar was allowed to mate Joplaya and Brukevar's mother was allowed to have First Rites.
posted by brujita at 10:04 PM on June 19, 2007


barbara tuchman's a distant mirror.
posted by bruce at 10:25 PM on June 19, 2007


she has generally good taste in literature, likes a writer that can turn a phrase

Willa Cather, then. My Ántonia is a wonderfully written book about Nebraska in the late 1800s. It's a very easy read but is filled with poetry and powerful emotion, and the descriptions of the land are stunningly beautiful. H.L. Mencken, of all people, said "No romantic novel ever written in America, by man or woman, is one half so beautiful as 'My Antonia.'"

Her two previous Nebraska novels, O Pioneers! and Song of the Lark, are also supposed to be very good.
posted by mediareport at 11:08 PM on June 19, 2007


I second any book by Sharon Kay Penman. They're all excellent.
posted by gt2 at 12:26 AM on June 20, 2007


nthing Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follet

Also, Pamela Kaufman's Shield of Three Lions, about a girl dressing up as a boy and going on a crusade with Richard Lionheart. Much better than it sounds.
posted by Skyanth at 2:18 AM on June 20, 2007


louis l'amour's "the walking drum" might be a viable suggestion. lots of action and romance.
posted by lester at 5:04 AM on June 20, 2007


Seconding Patrick O'Brian, Amin Maalouf, and Mary Renault. Gillian Bradshaw has a series of historical novels about a little-noticed period (the early Byzantine Empire); your mother could try The Beacon at Alexandria, and if she likes it go on to the others.

Corelli's Mandolin I hated with a passion (middlebrow sentimental right-wing tripe, I believe was my outcry as I threw it across the room); furthermore, it's well after the poster's cutoff date.
posted by languagehat at 6:44 AM on June 20, 2007


I agree with all who say Pillars of the Earth is excellent.

Edward Rutherfurd's novels are all good. I particularly enjoyed The Princes of Ireland and London.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 6:50 AM on June 20, 2007


I associate summer reading with big sweeping historical epics. To that end, I'd recommend M.M. Kaye's The Far Pavilions, about the British in India at the end of the 19th century (I know, a little late given your time specifications, but it doesn't seem modern...there 's plenty of court intrigue, skulking villains, and the like). Also--it's a bit of a cross between fantasy and history, but I've never been a fantasy reader in the least and I still enjoyed Mary Stewart's Merlin series, starting with The Crystal Cave. As far as seafaring novels go, Patrick O'Brian is great but can be a little dry if you're not familiar with the genre. I'd recommend starting with C.S. Forester's Horatio Hornblower novels.
posted by ethorson at 8:52 AM on June 20, 2007


Oooh, "the Far Pavilions" was definitely good. I came back because I forgot to mention Judith Merkle Riley, an awesome author in the medieval era of historical fiction that I can't recommend enough. She does have spiritual/occult references in her books at times, but I would not think of them as fantasy.
posted by BrotherCaine at 12:38 PM on June 21, 2007


No Sabatini?
posted by rush at 3:47 PM on June 21, 2007


Rafael Sabatini was recommended to me by my favorite used bookstore owner Scott Hamman of Handee books (now sadly Internet only) who is disgustingly well read. He said not to be put off if you find Sabatini's books labelled as romance, as that was the genre that most historical fiction got lumped into back in the day (not that I have anything against a well written romance). Just to clarify which Sabatini I suspect was meant.
posted by BrotherCaine at 6:20 PM on June 21, 2007


Arturo Perez Reverte.
posted by BrotherCaine at 6:21 PM on June 21, 2007


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