The best historical novels that make history feel like it happened just the other day

Who am I?

I'm a novelist, born and raised in New York City. To train myself to write realistic fiction, I started working in journalism first. I worked for New York magazine for a decade, writing about crime, politics, and other forms of anti-social behavior. Later, I wrote for television shows like Law & Order and Blue Bloods. But writing novels is what it's all about for me. I have nine of them so far. The audience is obviously quite small compared to the number of people who watch TV shows. But that doesn't matter. Nothing else allows you to communicate so directly from the studio in your mind to the theater in someone's else mind.


I wrote...

Picture in the Sand

By Peter Blauner,

Book cover of Picture in the Sand

What is my book about?

Picture in the Sand is unlike anything I've written before. Most of my other books are crime novels. But this is a historical suspense novel that takes place in Egypt in 1954, when the most extravagant Bible epic in Hollywood history showed up in the aftermath of a revolution. A young local movie fan named Ali Hassan gets his dream job working with the legendary Cecil B. DeMille, on his most famous film The Ten Commandments. Instead, Ali winds up on a journey of love and loss that takes him from the movie set with Charlton Heston and Yul Brynner, to an assassination plot based on real-life events, to prison, a daring escape attempt, and finally to a chance for redemption. It’s a story that Ali has kept secret but now he’s forced to share it because his Americanized, college-bound grandson has decided to become a Holy Warrior instead.

The books I picked & why

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Palace Walk: The Cairo Trilogy, Volume 1

By Naguib Mahfouz,

Book cover of Palace Walk: The Cairo Trilogy, Volume 1

Why this book?

When I first decided to write a historical novel that takes place in Egypt, I stopped by my local falafel joint in Brooklyn and asked the owner for pointers. He said, “Read Mahfouz, that’s all you need.” These are three interconnected stories that span the period from World War I to World War II. Without getting too deeply into the plot, I’d say they do what all the best historical novels do; they give you a sense of life’s movement, with the specifics that allow you to enter another time and place.

I met Mahfouz on my first trip to Egypt in 2005, shortly before he died, and asked him something about the country’s late leader Gamal Abdel Nasser. Mahfouz said he didn’t know the immediate answer himself, but “when I see Nasser, I’ll ask him.”

Palace Walk: The Cairo Trilogy, Volume 1

By Naguib Mahfouz,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Palace Walk as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

THE ACCLAIMED INTERNATIONAL BESTSELLER BY THE NOBEL PRIZE WINNING AUTHOR.

'A masterpiece' - The Times
'The Arab Tolstoy' - Simon Sebag Montefiore
'Shamelessly entertaining' - Guardian
'Luminous' - New York Times

A sweeping and evocative portrait of both a family and a country struggling to move toward independence in a society that has resisted change for centuries. Set against the backdrop of Britain's occupation of Egypt immediately after World War I, Palace Walk introduces us to the Al Jawad family.

Ahmad, a middle-class shopkeeper runs his household strictly according to the Qur'an while at night he explores the pleasures of…


The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories

By Leo Tolstoy, Richard Pevear (translator), Larissa Volokhonsky (translator)

Book cover of The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories

Why this book?

My first job in journalism was as an assistant to the great New York newspaperman Pete Hamill. He told me to always read people who were better than you and to back up his point he had a shelf of Russian literature in his bathroom. For years, I was too intimidated to read Tolstoy. When I finally did, I was shocked to discover that much of his writing is as accessible as the New York Post. War and Peace is his most famous work, but for me he’s most alive and urgent in his shorter fiction. The title story is among the most harrowing descriptions of death ever, “Kreutzer Sonata” reveals an understanding of the psychopath’s mind that would have Hitchcock and Kubrick whimpering the covers, and “Haji Murad” is a tale of terrorism and betrayal that could come straight from the current Russian war. Some of Tolstoy’s work is now 170 years old, but he speaks to us clearly across the centuries.

The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories

By Leo Tolstoy, Richard Pevear (translator), Larissa Volokhonsky (translator)

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A vibrant translation of Tolstoy’s most important short fiction by the award-winning translators of War and Peace.
 
Here are eleven masterful stories from the mature author, some autobiographical, others moral parables, and all told with the evocative power that was Tolstoy’s alone.  They include “The Prisoner of the Caucasus,” inspired by Tolstoy's own experiences as a soldier in the Chechen War, “Hadji Murat,” the novella Harold Bloom called “the best story in the world,” “The Devil,” a fascinating tale of sexual obsession, and the celebrated “The Death of Ivan Ilyich,” an intense and moving examination of death and the possibilities…


Billy Bathgate

By E.L. Doctorow,

Book cover of Billy Bathgate

Why this book?

For most of my life, I’ve written about the present. Historical novels usually didn’t move me, especially if they had the whiff of costume drama. Doctorow’s novels were no exception. Ragtime, when I first read it, seemed more about the scenery than the souls of its characters. But Billy Bathgate gripped me immediately. The first chapter imagines the impending death of Dutch Schultz’s henchman “Bo” Weinberg as a tub of cement hardens around his ankles, and the rest of the narrative took me along as swiftly as Bo found his way to the bottom of the East River. The novel tells what could be a familiar story from the angle of an impoverished Irish Bronx kid who manages to catch on with the Schultz crew.

The author described it as “a young man’s sentimental education in the tribal life of gangsters.” I’d second that, and say that I found elements that were familiar to my experience as a reporter, but had a resonance far beyond the headlines. 

Billy Bathgate

By E.L. Doctorow,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked Billy Bathgate as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'I was living in even greater circles of gangsterdom than I had dreamed, latitudes and longitudes of gangsterdom'

It's 1930's New York and fifteen-year-old streetkid Billy, who can juggle, somersault and run like the wind, has been taken under the wing of notorious gangster Dutch Schultz. As Billy learns the ways of the mob, he becomes like a son to Schultz - his 'good-luck kid' - and is initiated into a world of glamour, death and danger that will consume him, in this vivid, soaring epic of crime and betrayal.


The House of Mirth

By Edith Wharton,

Book cover of The House of Mirth

Why this book?

Unlike the other titles listed on my list, The House of Mirth was not written with history receding in the rearview mirror. It was published in 1905, and meant to reflect the moral character and social context of a beautiful young woman at the century’s turn in New York. It’s the kind of book I would have wrongly dismissed as a trifle when I was a teenager. But Wharton writes with such pitiless precision and ferocious insight that she makes her story seem as modern as a Netflix show about Anna Delvey, the grifter. Of course, Wharton portrays her protagonist, Lily Bart, with far more compassion. But the author is so tough and knowing about the world Lily is operating in that I was reminded at times of Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas. Then as now, the city can be a jungle.  

The House of Mirth

By Edith Wharton,

Why should I read it?

7 authors picked The House of Mirth as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A bestseller when it was published nearly a century ago, this literary classic established Edith Wharton as one of the most important American writers in the twentieth century-now with a new introduction from Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jennifer Egan.

Wharton's first literary success-a devastatingly accurate portrait of New York's aristocracy at the turn of the century-is considered by many to be her most important novel, and Lily Bart, her most unforgettable character. Impoverished but well-born, the beautiful and beguiling Lily realizes a secure future depends on her acquiring a wealthy husband. But with her romantic indiscretion, gambling debts, and a maelstrom…


Atonement

By Ian McEwan,

Book cover of Atonement

Why this book?

McEwan is a modern master, one of the few we have. And like most true masters, he’s often flawed. Not every sentence is perfect, his plots sometimes have potholes, and he’s been accused, at times, of borrowing without attribution. But I’ve been reading him for forty years and I think Atonement has a fair claim to be his masterpiece. The novel takes place in three time periods – 1935, the Second World War, and 1999 – and traces the implications of child’s misapprehension in witnessing a sexual encounter. The novel was published in 2001 and I suspect that some ideologically-minded contemporary readers might protest its inclusion on a best of list. But for those who still have a taste for nuance and ambiguity, It’s a devastating story about families, class, and literature. 

Atonement

By Ian McEwan,

Why should I read it?

9 authors picked Atonement as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

On the hottest day of the summer of 1934, thirteen-year-old Briony Tallis sees her sister Cecilia strip off her clothes and plunge into the fountain in the garden of their country house. Watching her is Robbie Turner, her childhood friend who, like Cecilia, has recently come down from Cambridge. By the end of that day, the lives of all three will have been changed for ever. Robbie and Cecilia will have crossed a boundary they had not even imagined at its start, and will have become victims of the younger girl's imagination. Briony will have witnessed mysteries, and committed a…


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