On a cold winter’s night there is nothing quite like leaning back in a comfortable armchair beside a glowing fire and reading the kind of book that is almost impossible to put down.
Bring Up the Bodies (2012) by Hilary Mantel is that kind of book. It is the sequel to Wolf Hall (2009), a brilliant work that won the prestigious Man Booker Prize.
The author, a remarkably gifted novelist with few peers, continues the compelling story of Thomas Cromwell, the lowborn man who rose to become one of Henry VIII’s closest advisers.
The hero of the story, a historical enigma with a vague background, is fleshed out by Mantel as a boy who fled his father’s beatings to fight for the French, study law and become fluent in French, Latin and Italian.
Three years earlier Cromwell helped Henry annul his marriage to Katherine so he could marry the younger Anne Boleyn — a direct challenge of the church’s power that set off a tsunami of religious, political and societal turmoil that reverberated throughout 16th-century Europe.
But Anne has committed two unforgivable errors: she has failed to give the king a son and grown gaunt and shrewish. He wants to be rid of Anne and it is up to Cromwell to give the king what he wants.
Bring Up the Bodies, like its predecessor, is written in the present tense. It is an excellent choice because telling the story in the active tense allows the events to unfold before us. This approach ratchets up the tension and heightens the suspense with every page: all it takes is one wrong move and all could be lost.
This novel more than stands on its own. It might even be a more compelling read than the award-winning Wolf Hall. Mantel does not just make Cromwell powerful but sympathetic — a remarkable feat for a character described in the first volume as “like a murderer”. And she accomplishes it without violating the historical record.
Bring Up the Bodies just might be the best historical novel of 2012.
The Light of the World (2013) is another novel almost impossible to put down. It is a riveting mystery by James Lee Burke, a master storyteller hailed by critics as possibly the best American novelist writing today in any genre.
This volume is the 20th in the author’s acclaimed Dave Robicheaux series, a book a cataloguer at the Library of Congress aptly assigned the subject heading of “good and evil.”
The struggle between good and evil lies at the heart of the Robicheaux series. Light of the World is no exception. It is a powerful, insightful study of the nature of evil.
The novel opens with Robicheaux, a Louisiana sheriff’s detective, on vacation in Montana with family and friends. There they find themselves hounded and haunted by a psychopathic serial killer, Asa Surrette, a man believed to have been killed in a horrific prison van crash.
This spells big trouble for Dave, his old buddy Clete Purcel, Gretchen Horowitz, a contract killer last seen executing her father in Creole Belle (2012), and Alafair, Dave’s daughter and the ultimate target of Surrette’s pitiless wrath.
Shakepeare’s Rebel (2013) by talented Canadian author C.C. Humphreys is a terribly gripping historical thriller set in London 1599, a city on the brink of revolution.
John Hawley, the protagonist of the story, is the best swordsman in England. He is also a player, or actor, an alcoholic with a great affinity for Ireland’s “finest aqua vitae” and is still deeply in love with Tess, the estranged woman he loves and the mother of their son.
There is more to John Hawley, a veteran of several major battle campaigns, than the reader might appear in the opening chapter. He is desperate to win back Tess, be the kind of father his son can respect and choreograph the fight scenes for the splendid new theatre, the Globe.
John also wants to remain free to help his oldest friend Will Shakespeare complete the play that threatens to destroy him: The Tragedy of Hamlet.
The only problem is the Earl of Essex, Queen Elizabeth’s last, and perhaps, greatest love. The earl, a champion jouster and dashing general, is a man John ardently wishes to avoid. He knows the other side of the earl, an impetuous melancholic, and he has had to risk his life for him in battle several times before. All John wants is to remain free to realize his dreams But he soon finds himself enmeshed in the intrigues of court and forced to play a deadly game of power, politics, conspiracy and rebellion.
These three novels are available at your local branch of the Okanagan Regional Library, www.orl.bc.ca.