I, Claudius by Robert Graves (Vintage, $17).
An enthralling novel of power play in early imperial Rome. Augustus’ great-nephew Claudius, sickly and stammering, is ignored and abused by most of his family. Yet his brain remains scalpel-sharp as he witnesses years of Technicolor villainy. Eighty years on, this remains an irresistible mix of history and mischief.
The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco (Mariner, $16).
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In this brilliant historical whodunit, a Sherlock Holmes of a 14th-century monk investigates a set of gruesome murders in an isolated monastery. His search takes us deep inside a labyrinthine library and the medieval mind, and the scholastic chutzpah of his answer takes your breath away.
The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje (Vintage, $16).
Ondaatje’s prize-winning novel is set in northern Italy between V-E Day and the bombing of Hiroshima. Poetic and tender, it contains a stunning scene of two lovers hoisted into a Renaissance chapel to view frescoes by candlelight. I’ve had similar experiences inside many Italian churches, sensing the wonder of the past giving way to the disappointment of the future.
The Relic Master by Christopher Buckley (Simon & Schuster, $16).
Historical comedy is a challenge, but this madcap satire on 16th-century relic collecting pulls it off. Our hero plots with Albrecht Dürer to swipe the shroud of Christ and replace it with a fake. A cross between The Princess Bride and old Bob Hope–Bing Crosby road movies, it’s a light reminder of the heavy truth that avarice, mendacity, and corruption are constants in human history.
The Anchoress by Robyn Cadwallader (Picador, $16).
In 1255, a pious teenager is walled up in a cell next to a church in northern England. Her presence is considered holy, but the line between vision and madness soon blurs. This quiet, deeply felt 2015 novel puts you right there, rubbing up against cold stone and the limits of prayer.
Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow (Random House, $17).
The beginning of movies, the wonder of the automobile, the immigrant melting pot, and the exuberance of ragtime: It’s all here, with Doctorow’s ebullient prose mirroring the boundless energy of early-20th-century New York City.
— Novelist Sarah Dunant is the author of The Birth of Venus and In the Company of the Courtesan, both set in Renaissance Italy. Her new work, In the Name of the Family, picks up the saga of the House of Borgia as Niccolò Machiavelli enters the scene.
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