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Notable books

Notable Books | Two literary prize winners and two mysteries reviewed by Susan Olasky

Issue: "Flame-outs," May 8, 2010

Wolf Hall

Hilary Mantel's riveting novel depicts the intrigue within Henry VIII's court between 1529 and 1535. He casts Thomas Cromwell as the sympathetic protagonist vying for influence against Henry's high-born friends and relations and Thomas More, depicted here as a cruel and opportunistic schemer. Cromwell's power grew as he helped the king (portrayed as a mercurial man of tremendous appetites and charisma) win a divorce from his queen in order to marry the willful Anne Boleyn. Mantel deservedly won Britain's prestigious Man Booker prize for this hard-to-put-down read, which ends with Cromwell five years away from his own execution at Henry's hand, a story she'll tell in a much anticipated sequel.

Too Much Happiness

Munro, a heralded short story writer often compared to Chekhov, won the 2009 Man Booker International Prize for this collection of stories. She sets most of her stories in Western Ontario and fills them with ordinary people whose otherwise quiet lives have been upended by unexpected adultery or violence. Many of her characters are weak or naïve women preyed on by older or controlling men. Other characters seem uncomfortable with basic human relations, alienated and alone. Not all the stories are tragedies, but most of them are sad. I keep thinking about them long after finishing them and find myself wondering where Munro, who was raised by Scotch Presbyterian parents in Canada, finds hope. Some bad language.


Let me admit upfront that I could not read this suspense thriller straight through, and it isn't because Barr is a poor writer. Halfway into the novel I found it too intense. I'd already guessed the plot twist, but my psyche isn't made for psychological suspense, so I skipped ahead to the last several chapters and satisfied myself that the ending was good. Then I went back and skimmed the middle. I think that means that Nevada Barr, author of the Anna Pigeon series of national park mysteries, knows how to craft a suspenseful narrative. Her subject-children who murder their parents-is dark, and her setting is evocative-New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. The descriptions of violence are more psychologically disturbing than graphic, but the book does have some bad language.

Look Again

Scottoline pens a stand-alone thriller about a female reporter and single mother who receives a "have you seen this child?" postcard featuring a photograph of a child with an uncanny resemblance to her adopted son. She tries to dismiss the similarities but she can't-and thus begins a search to find her son's birth mother and reassure herself that the adoption was legit. The search turns up many convenient dead ends. She presses on, risking her job and knowing that at the end of her search she might lose her beloved son. Although this doesn't have the courtroom drama of Scottoline's typical novels, it does have an interesting female character, an intriguing premise, and enough page-turning action to keep the reader going.


A Man for All Seasons was a popular play and six-time Oscar-winning movie, including Best Picture, in 1967. It makes Thomas More the hero, portraying him as a man who refuses to compromise his principles and loyalty to the pope. Mantel offers a more nuanced portrayal. Her More is a brilliant man of conviction, but he also is unmerciful in torturing Protestants and running a miserly household. His more unpleasant traits are particularly noticeable as he relates to his wife and daughter-in-law. "In More's great hall, the conversation is exclusively in Latin, though More's wife, Alice, is their hostess and does not have a word of it." That makes it easier for More to mock his wife: "'Eat, eat,' says More. 'All except Alice, who will burst out of her corset.'"

More also ridicules his daughter-in-law: "'Look there at my daughter-in-law Anne,' More says. . . . 'Anne craved-shall I tell them my dear?-she craved a pearl necklace. She did not cease to talk about it, you know how young girls are. So when I gave her a box that rattled, imagine her face. Imagine her face again when she opened it. What was inside? Dried peas!'"


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