Top Ten Tuesday: historical fiction meets art history

Top Ten Tuesday - Bayrock, Bookrock - Sidebar crop copyTuesday means it’s time for a list, and this Tuesday is all about the past: historical fiction!

Anyone who knows me (or reads my review guidelines) will know that historical fiction isn’t my favourite genre by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, I tend to avoid it completely if I can.

But there are exceptions to every rule, and in this case there’s one weird little niche of historical fiction that I apparently can’t get enough of: art world novels. And here are more of them than you think (although I have snuck in few that are questionably historical. As ever, click a cover to hop over to the Goodreads page.

The FlamethrowersThe Flamethrowers / Rachel Kushner

1975. New York. Motorcycles. Art. Bloody good prose.

Our heroine Reno is fascinated by speed – which explains her love of motorcycles. After coming to New York to power her art, she also becomes fascinated with Sandro Valera, artist and heir to an Italian motorcycle tire empire. Their love affairs blooms, and soon Reno finds herself wrapped up in an Italian revolution – blurring the lines between loyalty and betrayal, art and life. It’s one of those literary fiction novels that sounds like it tackles a lot of heavy subjects, and it does. But it nails every one of them. And like I said – bloody good prose. Easily one of the best books released in 2014, and the National Book Award nomination agrees.

The Cheese Monkies

The Cheese Monkeys / Chip Kidd

Chip Kidd has been designing wicked book covers for years – and finally stepped up to the writing side of things in 2002 with this novel about students in 1950s art school. It’s irreverent. It’s dated in a way that combines familiarity with a sort of travel journalism. Like many novels set in college, it makes you wish you could attend the school it’s set at – even if the professors are eccentric, the only post-graduation jobs involve selling out, and our narrator can’t decide if he wants to kill or marry his new best friend.

An Object of Beauty

An Object of Beauty / Steve Martin

To add to the list of people you never really expected to write novels, Steve Martin surprises with an interesting and decent read. The prose isn’t likely to blow you away, and the structure of the novel is kind of cliche at times, but I did honestly dig it – the story of a manipulative girl who manages to make a fortune in the art world, and the poor idiot narrator who loves her no matter what.

Sacre Bleu

Sacre Bleu / Christopher Moore

This might be – and I don’t say this lightly – my favourite Christopher Moore novel. It follows the Great French Masters as they attempt to solve the mysterious death of Vincent van Gogh – and an equally mysterious supernatural blue paint that seems to be haunting and killing the best artists of the era. It’s funny, as all Moore’s novels are, and irreverent, as all Moore’s novels are, and honestly taught me more about art history than six credits of art history in my undergrad.

cat's eye Cat’s Eye / Margaret Atwood

Cat’s Eye is a sort of tenuous historical fiction; artist Elaine Risley stages a retrospective of her work and subsequently find herself drawn into a study of the past. How did she get to where she is? Who has made her who she is today? What is the long-term difference in the effects cast by rejection and support? This is a terrible description. It’s always hard to do Atwood justice, and I’m doing a particularly terrible job here. Just trust me when I say it’s an excellent novel.


Diary / Chuck Palahniuk

A exclusive and cult-like island community harnesses the artistic ability of the protagonist for their own profit. Reincarnation? Check. Creepy messages scrawled under wallpaper? Check. A weird fixation with costume jewelry? Check. Ultimately a disturbing tale that dictates the importance of freedom and possibly feminism in a world dominated by cruelly manipulative people? Check. Buckle up for some classic Palahniuk, putting the creepy back in suburbia just when you thought it was safe.


How about you? Any art books to add to my weird niche pile? What are a few of your favourite historical fictions? Feel free to share your top ten lists in the comments!


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