Perhaps most famous for her debut novel, The Sunne in Splendour, about Richard III, Penman now turns her attentions further back to that king's namesake, Richard I, the Lionheart. Dividing her plot between affairs of state and heart in England and Richard's daring battlefield exploits in the Holy Land, Penman conjures up a tangible world both alien and familiar, where cultures clashed and larger-than-life personalities turned the wheel of history.

April 19: "What you see first, after the starting gun's crack, is a column of bobbing runners, thousands of them, surging downhill..."

Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch is the winner of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. James Parker calls this Dickensian coming-of-age novel "an enveloping…