The Persian Boy by Mary Renault (Vintage, $16). This 1972 novel opened my eyes to the potential of historical fiction. The narrator is a man named Bagoas who served Alexander the Great during his years of conquest, and Renault gives him a thoroughly imagined backstory before she sets him down in Alexander's path. The novel reveals the strangeness of the ancient world but also connects us to it, through the familiarity of unchanging human emotions.
I Should Be Extremely Happy in Your Company by Brian Hall (Penguin, $17). Hall's novel is a deep dive into character, telling the story of Lewis and Clark's expedition through four distinct and remarkably evoked personalities. The most creatively rendered figure is Sacagawea, whose thoughts flow in a Shoshone cadence that is both lush and earthy.
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel (Picador, $16). Mantel seems to know Thomas Cromwell on the cellular level. If I believed in past lives, I'd think she once was him, ducking and weaving through the perilous court of Henry VIII, feeling the nap of the velvet, breathing the mist on the Thames.
An Imaginary Life by David Malouf (Vintage, $14). I read this book in 1979, the year I graduated from the University of Sydney, and I was inspired that a fellow Australian had felt entitled to imagine the mind of the Roman poet Ovid, exiled to the edge of the Russian steppes. If I now have the chutzpah to imagine David's life, it's because Malouf opened that possibility.
Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier (Grove, $16). This Civil War novel has sentences that flash like brightly faceted jewels. But unlike most novels that warrant descriptives such as lapidary and liminal, it also has a propulsive plot and a deliciously sexy romance.
Ahab's Wife by Sena Jeter Naslund (William Morrow, $16). Naslund builds Moby-Dick's scant references to Captain Ahab's young, unnamed bride into a textured story of a woman remarkable enough to have attracted such a man. Una, intellectual, brave, and ardent, is drawn into the roiling movements of antebellum America — transcendentalism, abolitionism, feminism. Her story is formidable enough to stand near Melville's classic.
—Geraldine Brooks won a Pulitzer Prize for March, a novel about a father who leaves his family to fight in the Civil War. Her newest work of historical fiction, The Secret Chord, is the story of the Bible's King David retold by his closest adviser.