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Notable Books | Four bestselling novels about historical events reviewed by Susan Olaskky

The Mercy Seller

Plot: An indulgence seller, a British knight, and a young female copyist raised in Prague are swept up in events surrounding the Roman church's attempt to stop Lollardism-early Protestantism-in Europe in the 1400s.

Gist: Vantrease's sprawling novel, which requires patience as she introduces a large cast of characters, is rich with historical detail. It portrays sympathetically the early Reformation and dramatizes both the risks people took to make available the Scriptures in English and the need for sinners to hear the gospel of grace.

The Mosaic Crimes

Plot: It falls to Dante Alighieri, a newly appointed prior of Florence, to solve the brutal murders of two members of "Third Heaven," a group of intellectuals that meets each night at a disreputable tavern where a mysterious dancer casts her spell.

Gist: The poet Dante in this novel is vain, arrogant, impatient, lustful, and convinced of the power of reason to discern truth. Those with knowledge of medieval philosophy and arcane bits of Italian history may want to navigate a mystery more philosophical than suspenseful.

Burning Bright

Plot: A Devonshire chairmaker moves his family to London, where he benefits from a connection with Philip Astley, circus showman. His two children learn city lessons under the tutelage of several neighbors, including the mystical poet William Blake.

Gist: Tales of the Paris guillotine breed fears of violent revolution in London. That's the backdrop to this story, but the characters are poorly drawn, Blake remains mysterious, and the plot meanders. The book reads sometimes like a faintly veiled protest against current American policies as it recreates an earlier era of loyalty oaths and fear run amok.

What Is the What

Plot: The "Lost Boys" of Sudan in the 1980s and 1990s, displaced by war, trekked hundreds of miles and survived every kind of misery. One of them, Valentino, told his story over hundreds of hours to Eggers, who put it into novelistic form.

Gist: There's much to commend in this book, including the way Eggers captures the voice of his young protagonist. WORLD readers will be particularly interested in Valentino's struggle to maintain his Catholic faith in the face of horrendous events.

Spotlight

Have an idea for a novel and hope to land it on the Publishers Weekly bestseller list? It would help if your name is James Patterson, Nora Roberts, or Dan Brown. Those three authors had between them 10 hardcover novels on the bestseller list in 2006 for a total of 89 weeks. They also had a whopping 26 paperback novels on the list for 115 weeks.

According to Publishers Weekly 200,000 books were published in 2006, and only 495 spent time on the list. Five publishers-Random House, Simon and Schuster, HarperCollins, Penguin USA, and the Hachette Group-accounted for 83 percent of the hardcover bestsellers and 78 percent of the paperback. On a more encouraging note for potential writers: Bestsellers account for only 1 percent of the business. "It's the other 99 percent that is the lifeblood of the book business," according to Publishers Weekly.

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