In addition to her Cromwell novels, both of which focus on the same protagonist, Hilary Mantel’s work shows off a range of styles and a rich diversity of subjects. Consistent throughout, however, is a commitment to quality. Her new collection of short fiction, The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher (Holt, $27), is as dazzling as her previous work. The opening story, “Sorry to Disturb,” is a complex sketch of an English woman living in Saudi Arabia. She is frustrated and bored by the strictures of Saudi customs and the complications that arise when simple courtesy encourages unwanted advances. The story “How Shall I Know You?” recounts the overnight adventure of an author who agrees to speak before a neighborhood literary society; Mantel describes how expectations crash into reality with very funny results. These fictions are rich in predicament and flawless in execution.
Stone Mattress (Nan A. Talese, $25.95) began as a kind of game: while on a cruise, Margaret Atwood and her fellow passengers speculated about whether someone could commit a murder on board such a ship and get away with it. Atwood’s character, Verna, in a belated act of revenge, took up the challenge. But to answer the initial question, readers need to look back to Bluebeard. With the buried treasure of a rewritten literary classic in each one, these nine tales, the natural habitat of the wonderful and the strange, are serious fun. A woman who writes a popular science-fiction series turns literature into witchcraft, keeping some men out of her invented world while imprisoning others within it; her late husband doesn’t stop haunting her until she calls him “dead.” Words matter; storytelling has high stakes. A con artist who poses as an antiques dealer meets a woman storing her dead fiancé in a storage unit; when he hears her explanation, he recognizes a liar after his own heart. While Atwood’s characters are mostly past middle-age, little about these characters marks them as retirees, and from a muse finagling royalties on the novel she inspired to an academic researching her subject’s work at his funeral, these lively figures are right at home in Atwood’s delightfully wicked plots and zesty prose.
Observing the way a grieving mother “leapt down and then had to be yanked out of the hole like a weed,” or how, to a man who hadn’t driven in a month, cars “looked like wild animals,” Elizabeth McCracken combines wit with an unflinching gaze into the abyss, crafting unnerving moments that will appeal to fans of Lorrie Moore’s similarly astringent touch. Thunderstruck (Dial, $26) is full of deaths—but life is the force to be reckoned with; “the world goes on. The world will,” its flow like water surging over and around obstacles, gaining texture and resonance from the bumps in its path. People are lost, but never entirely: a dead girl named Missy Goodby animates her schoolmates’ imaginations, transcending familiar images of ghosts; a nondescript woman becomes an enduring mystery when no one can explain her disappearance; a teenager is “completely revised” by a head injury. Parents face the impossible task of shielding their children—and themselves—from the painful lessons they must learn, and, knowing that “the body’s a bucket and liable to slosh,” McCracken takes pains to describe houses and clothing, as if looking for what can contain life’s spillover.