The latest Booker Prize-winner opens in 1527, as Henry VIII is trying to get rid of his wife of sixteen years, Katherine. He is interested in Anne Boleyn, a well-connected young woman at court who has kept him interested by refusing to consummate their relationship until they are married. Thomas Cromwell is the King’s man to move things along. Cromwell’s eye is on the main chance. “You don’t get on by being original. You don’t get on by being bright. You don’t get on by being strong. You get on by being a subtle crook.” Although society no longer burns people at the stake or beheads them, jockeying for political position and religious hysteria endure. The book’s appeal is not only in its oft-told story, but Mantel’s particular telling of the story. Humor and horror are close together—that is a characteristic of Mantel’s writing and what gives her narrative so much power.
Lorrie Moore taps into 21st-century unease through her young protagonist, Tassie Keljin. Tassie grew up in a hick town in the Middle West and reflects on the world she moves into at the prestigious state university. In order to make ends meet, she applies for a position in child care and finds one with Sarah Brink, a woman who owns a French restaurant in town. She accompanies the woman when she adopts a biracial two-year-old and becomes a nanny for the child. All of this provides opportunities for Tassie to reflect on food culture, residual racism, urban/rural discontinuities. Furthermore, Tassie’s brother enlists in the Army because his grades aren’t good enough to get him into college. Moore tackles the gut issues of our times: war/peace, race, and class. She does so in her distinctive voice, joking and punning so that we are laughing and nodding at the same time.
This big, bold, and ambitious novel tells the story of a group of artists—playwrights, potters, puppeteers, and writers—in the last years of the 19th century and leading up to the onset of the First World War. At the center is Olive Wellwood, a writer of fairy stories, her large family, and a close-knit group of Fabians (a progressive British political movement that laid the foundation of today’s Labour Party) and their children. The two families share parties, vacations, artistic workshops, and trips abroad, oblivious of the dark political clouds that will so dramatically change everything. This is a rich historical novel of ideas and aesthetics, showcasing a fascinating and too-little-explored period.