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Notable Books

Notable Books | Four recent novels

Issue: "Effective Compassion," June 16, 2012

Bring up the Bodies

Wolf Hall, the first of Hilary Mantel's three planned novels tracing the career of Thomas Cromwell, ended with Henry VIII executing Cardinal Woolsey and Thomas More, splitting with Rome, divorcing first wife Katherine, and marrying Anne Boleyn. In this second volume, Anne fails to give Henry a male heir-and her strong personality alienates friends and hardens enemies. The king's roving eye has settled on Jane Seymour, so Cromwell works to undo the marriage to Anne and make way for Jane. Mantel masterfully depicts palace intrigue, as Cromwell manipulates various factions to bring about the desired end. Mantel's robust portrayal of Cromwell shows him to be a friend to the Protestant Reformers, a warm family man, and a ruthless tactician. The book contains bawdy descriptions of sexual activity.

Mitzvah Man

Successful businessman Adam Friedman goes to his high-school reunion, hoping to awaken envy in the people who bullied him when he was a teen. While there, his beloved physician wife dies in a tragic accident-and Friedman's life changes. A moderately religious Jew, Friedman begins to believe that God directly communicates with him. Friedman seems attuned to the suffering of others, and he offers advice and encouragement that change lives. One of his acts receives widespread acclaim, and Friedman's daughter dubs him "Mitzvah Man," from the Hebrew word meaning goodness, justice, and compassion. Is Friedman really led by God, or is he crazy? That's the question the novel asks. Christians will be fascinated by this peek into one kind of Jewish spirituality.

The Flight of Gemma Hardy

I have mixed feelings about this homage/retelling of Jane Eyre set in the 1950s. It is skillfully written, with well-developed characters and settings. Young Gemma's stubborn sense of self survives despite the tragedies and obstacles she overcomes. But in the second half of the book, after she meets the much older man with whom she falls in love, and after she flees the wedding, the book goes astray both in plot and character as Gemma steals money in order to finance a trip to Iceland to discover her roots. Livesey's Gemma doesn't wrestle as Jane Eyre does with the temptation to give in to unrighteous desires. She wrestles with how to become equal to a man 20 years her senior. It's very readable but not very satisfying.

The Dressmaker

This novel is a romance wrapped into a broader story of the Titanic and its personal and political aftermath. Alcott uses a mix of historical people, including fashion designer Lucile Duff Gordon, and fictional characters such as plucky seamstress Tess Collins. The first quarter of the book takes place on board ship. The rest takes place in New York-and that's where Alcott is on shaky ground. She conveys well how politicians tried to use the tragedy to further their careers, and how morally dubious choices by passengers haunted them afterward. But her female characters-a fashion designer, an ambitious reporter, the seamstress-are flat and a bit too 21st century to be believable. Other questionable historical details-was Hollywood really "Hollywood" in 1912?-interfere with the plot.

Spotlight

Sam Allberry's short, well-written book, Lifted: Experiencing the Resurrection Life (Crossway, 2012) describes four fundamental ways that Christ's resurrection "changes everything." It guarantees our forgiveness, showing that the Father accepted Christ's work on our behalf. It transforms us: "We are spiritually raised now. And we will be physically raised at the end of time." It gives us hope, which is independent of our circumstances. And it gives us our urgent mission: to exalt Jesus. Allberry explores through Scripture each one of these themes, showing how central the resurrection is to each-and yet how neglected it is in our day. The book's engaging style and well-chosen illustrations make it accessible to students and anyone wanting to explore this central fact of the Christian faith. -Susan Olasky

Listen to Susan Olasky discuss Bring Up the Bodies and The Flight of Gemma Hardy on WORLD's radio news magazine The World and Everything in It.

Susan Olasky
Susan Olasky

Susan pens book reviews and other articles for WORLD as a senior writer and has authored eight historical novels for children. Susan and her husband Marvin live in Asheville, N.C. Follow Susan on Twitter @susanolasky.

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