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Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Renaissance Novels

No, I'm not talking about Robert Greene or Lazarillo de Tormes, but rather historical novels set in the Renaissance. As in: what's your favorite?

I ask because currently I have nothing to read before bed (my fiction time), having just finished an ordinary contemporary novel. A few books ago I read the excellent Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears; back in May I read Havoc, in its Third Year by Ronan Bennett, and blogged about it. So I'm having a bit of a Renaissance historical novel renaissance. I just ordered Peter Ackroyd's Milton in America (by the way, have you noticed that lately most fiction is available used from Amazon for under $0.75?) But I'm sure some of our readers have better suggestions ...

  • At 10/17/2006 02:31:00 AM, Blogger Pamphilia wrote…

    Ooh! Ooh! Don't get me started . . .

    I like Ross King's Ex Libris-- kind of an early modern Crying of Lot 49, speaking of which, that novel has a great parody of a Jacobean Revenge Tragedy.

    I've read so many of these they're all starting to blur together, but here are some others on my shelf. Some are pure shlock, but still fun reads.

    -- Iain Pears, An Instance of the Fingerpost: late 17th century Oxford murder mystery told from 4 perspectives

    -- M.R. Lovric The Floating Book: Somewhat uneven tale of Venice in Printing's early years. The best parts involve a German printer and his very young Venetian wife

    -- Thomas Wharton Salamander: Ok, so it's not early modern per se (more 18th century) but it's totally history-of-the-bookish and a really good read. I haven't read Wharton's latest, The Logoglyph but judging by its title it's probably also history-of-the-bookish.

    -- Richard Zimmler, Hunting Midnight. Zimmler's books are rather violent and depressing and his writing can be annoying, but this one outshines the other two Renaissance tales (The Last Kabbalist in Lisbon and Guardian of the Dawn).

    --Jane Stevenson's triology about a clandestine affair between an African Scholar and James I's daughter Elizabeth during her exile in Holland . I can't remember the second and third books titles but the first is The Winter Queen

    Also not early modern but a great historical read is Patricia Duncker's The Doctor a novel about James Miranda Barry, a woman who lived her entire life as a man and a doctor.

    A really fun 18th century historical novel is Allen Kurtzweil's A Cabinet of Curiosities

    And finally, Tobias Hill's The Love of Stones: A transhistorical mystery tracing a 16th century ruby pendant.

    That's all I can think of right now. Yes, I'm an historical novel junkie.

    And my word verification was "oinhe," Which I should have had instead of tea because then I wouldn't be up this late reading blogs.


  • At 10/17/2006 11:42:00 AM, Blogger Hieronimo wrote…

    Thanks, muse! I read Ex Libris a couple years back and really enjoyed it. The Jane Stevenson trilogy sounds fascinating--I think The Winter Queen may win the prize for the most common title; there seem to be a hundred books with that title.

    I will ponder this list, buy some of them for 72 cents, and report back when I read one.


  • At 10/18/2006 03:23:00 AM, Blogger bdh wrote…

    Here's a couple:

    -- Rose Tremain, Restoration. Follows the life of a medical student who drops out of his studies to indulge himself in the court of Charles II, only to fall out of favour and return to put his life back together. Apparently flatulence was very funny in Charles's court.

    -- Richard Zimmler, The Last Kabbalist in Lisbon. Agreed with muse, Zimler's writing is very dark. Still, this was a good read.

    -- Geraldine Brooks, Year of Wonders. A painful and uplifting story about an isolated village outside London during the plague of 1666.

    -- Amin Maalouf, Balthasar's Odyssey. Also set in 1666, but following a Levantine merchant as he searches for a rare book. Haven't read it yet, but looks interesting.

    -- Peter Ackroyd, The Clerkenwell Tales. Interesting take on Chaucer.

    -- Gregory Norminton, The Ship of Fools. Like Ackroyd; Chaucer meets Brant. It's Norminton's first novel, and it's a fun

    Other historical novels not medieval or Renaissance:

    -- Matthew Pearl, The Dante Club. Simply fantastic. The blurb is sufficient: "Boston. 1865. A small group of elite scholars prepares to introduce Dante's vision of hell to America. But so does a murderer." Pearl is a Dante scholar, and this is one of my favourite books.

    -- Anthony O'Neill, The Lamplighter. Set in 19th century Edinburgh. Murder, visions. Great read.

    -- Clive Sinclair, Meet the Wife. My favourite author. Two stories in this book - the first is an appropriation/parody of Homer, the second about Wyatt Earp. Simply stunning. Do yourself a favour and get hold of his books!

    -- Caryl Phillips, The Nature of Blood. From the blurb: "an unforgettable novel about loss and persecution, courage and betrayal, and about the terrible pain yet absolute necessity of human memory." It's an insightful meditation on Othello, jumping from sixteenth-century Venice to the Holocaust. Very moving.

    I've also got a number of Arturo Perez-Reverte's novels, most of which are historical fiction. As with Umberto Eco, I find him a little hit-and-miss, either it grabs me immediately or it doesn't.


  • At 10/19/2006 12:31:00 AM, Blogger Pamphilia wrote…

    I thought of some more--

    Patricia Finney's alternative history Elizabethan triology, "Firedrake's Eye," "Unicorn's Blood" and "Gloriana's Torch." The last one's the best. The others are a little over the top but fun.

    Hey, even Philippa Gregory's not bad half the time for a plane ride when you don't have any papers to mark. Especially "The Queen's Fool" about Mary Tudor's female jester, who in this story happens to be a converso printer's daughter. Fun stuff. Her saga of the Tradescant family is also good, although the way she writes about John Tradescant's desire for his master in "Earthly Joys" is a little nauseating.

    And I forgot to mention my favorite of all, which is Alison Fell's "Mistress of Liliput." Another 18th century historical novel, which is more of a literary historical novel. It takes place after Gulliver has returned from his travels. He sets out again and Mary, his wife, decides to follow him. It's about her adventures and part of it is told as a sentimental novel from the perspective of her doll. It's hilarious and delightful, in no small part due to the fact that Fell deftly imitates 18th century writing and style, and I highly HIGHLY recommend it. Her other good novel, "The Pillow Boy of Lady Onogoro" is a 16th century Japanese romance a la Murasaki. Also good.


  • At 10/19/2006 01:25:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous wrote…

    Historical-novel geeks! My people!

    Maria McCann's As Meat Loves Salt is set in and just after the Revolution, with some New Model Army action. I'm still not sure I liked it, exactly, but I found it rather haunting.

    I'll second the Finney recommendation. Kind of trashy, but very fun.

    Judith Merkle Riley's novels are generally more continentally-set, but remain in a generally Renaissance frame. The Oracle Glass and The Serpent Garden are both good, but The Master of All Desires features an appearance by Nostradamus! She also has a medieval-set trilogy that I recall being good fun, and it looks like those are being reissued soon.

    Would it be totally gauche to mention Neal Stephenson's Quicksilver series? Yes, he can be a bit... much, but his description of the Great Fire kind of makes up for a lot. Plus, the Shaftoes are awesome.


  • At 10/20/2006 11:51:00 PM, Blogger Inkhorn wrote…

    OK, the mention of Phillipa Gregory requires me to retail one episode from her novelization of the life of the Renaissance gardener John Tradescant -- employed, at various moments, by people up to and including Buckingham, son of the old beldame. The novel, which I'm now kicking myself for having thrown out because I can't entertain you all with a direct quote, includes -- one could say climaxes in -- a scene between Tradescant and Buckingham on a boat between England and France. I believe it includes a sentence along the lines of "and then he reached into my pants and grabbed ..." Well, natural modesty prohibits me from finishing that, but lets just say that the scene goes a little bit further than Mark Foley's former priest claims to have done.


  • At 10/20/2006 11:52:00 PM, Blogger Hieronimo wrote…

    the scene goes a little bit further than Mark Foley's former priest claims to have done

    What are you talking about? That was a completely innocent naked massage between a priest and his altar boy. Perfectly innocent.


  • At 10/21/2006 12:02:00 AM, Blogger Inkhorn wrote…

    Oh, I'm sure altar boys need a little rubdown from time to time. Shaking that incense thingy must be tiring.


  • At 10/21/2006 12:40:00 PM, Blogger Simplicius wrote…

    Shaking that incense thingy must be tiring.

    Well, I for one will not be looking at the "incence thingy" in the same way again any time soon.

    But in Foley's and the priest's defense--it was the 1960s! Naked massages were in back then. I think my college may even have offered classes in "Naked Massage: Theory and Method" from 1969 to 1976.


  • At 10/24/2006 07:10:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous wrote…

    Dorothy Dunnet's Lymond Chronicles, no question. 15 books spanning two centuries. Start with Lymond, not Niccolo (even though that comes first chronologically). Centered in Scotland, but hops the known early modern world in the footsteps of Crawford of Lymond. Much fun for early modern nerds, who might like to see how many references and translated passages they can score in the first 5 pp.

    Like the blog. Like the Hugh Plat post. Disagree with some of it, but, hey, it's the web...


  • At 10/24/2006 07:25:00 PM, Blogger Hieronimo wrote…

    Thanks, drdebs, I do love long multi-book sagas.

    I'm curious what you disagreed with about Hugh Plat...


  • At 5/15/2007 03:25:00 AM, Blogger Alan Fisk wrote…

    It would be unethical for me to actually recommend my own novel set in Renaissance Florence, Cupid and the Silent Goddess, but it does have art and naked massage...



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