Picks and Pans Main: Books

updated 10/26/2009 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/26/2009 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Wolf Hall

by Hilary Mantel |

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There are no new stories, only new ways of telling them. Set during Henry VIII's tumultuous, oft-covered reign, this epic novel—which won the Booker Prize, Britain's most prestigious literary award, this month—proves just how inspired a fresh take can be. Mantel recasts Henry's quest to divorce Katherine of Aragon (who had failed to produce a male heir) through the lens of a lesser-known character, Thomas Cromwell. The son of a blacksmith, Cromwell rose, improbably, to become advisor to the impetuous king, all the while knowing that one false move could cost him his head. Henry's demand for an annulment had already destroyed one adviser; his challenge to papal authority threatened to send Europe into turmoil. And then there was his bride-to-be, Anne Boleyn, deliciously portrayed here as a ruthless manipulator in a size 6 ballgown. "The pope will learn his place," she warns, before she gets her way. She will, of course, be sorry.

Mantel's dizzying array of characters takes some sorting out (the book includes a five-page who's who list), but the reward comes when she draws back the curtain on this excruciatingly tense drama. She's an author as audacious as Anne herself, imagining private conversations between public figures and making it read as if she had a glass to the wall.

Mennonite in a Little Black Dress

by Rhoda Janzen |

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After medical and marital setbacks left her broke and aching, the author moved back home. As a writer, she was in luck: Her Mennonite family's particular brand of nuttiness is new territory. Janzen is both hilarious and touching as she examines how she was shaped by this culture dedicated to God, work—and cooking. "We're idiot savants when it comes to food preparation," she writes. "Those developmentally delayed folks who can shout out what day of the week it was on May 16, 1804? That's us, only we're shouting, 'Dinner's ready!'"

Twisted Tree

by Kent Meyers |

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Opening this beautifully lyrical novel with one of the tensest, most harrowing first chapters in recent memory, Meyers grabs the reader and never lets go. A serial killer who preys on anorexic young women has set his sights on 20-year-old Hayley Jo Zimmerman. Luring the emaciated girl into his big blue Lincoln, he begins his torture by offering her a candy bar. Meyers then tells intimate stories of those connected to Hayley Jo in the tiny, desolate town of Twisted Tree, S. Dak. Her buffalo rancher father comes unmoored after his daughter's death; her best friend Laura is saddled with guilt and regret—recurring themes throughout this powerful tale. Once you enter Twisted Tree, you'll be spellbound.

Cowboy & Wills

by Monica Holloway |

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Dogs are often projections of the selves we want to be—which is why the quiet among us own terriers, the timorous lean toward Rottweilers. So it was rather a stroke of genius when Holloway (Driving with Dead People) got her autistic, anxious and isolated son Wills a golden retriever. Is there any breed sweeter, goofier—and more connected to people? "Sometimes," Holloway writes, "I'd hear [Wills] in his room?.?.?.?telling Cowboy all of his troubles." For many autistic children, talking with other humans is fraught. A dog is different: "She didn't offer solutions. She just listened." Readers would do well to listen to this sweet and heartbreaking tale of boy-dog love. There are so many of us, with or without autism, who have our animals to thank for helping us connect.


by Barbara Ehrenreich |

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Economy got you down? Provocateur Ehrenreich (Nickel and Dimed) says: Don't try cheering yourself up. In this attack on positive thinkers from Dale Carnegie to Oprah, she maintains that today's rah-rahers undermine the U.S. by suggesting happiness will make you healthier and wealthier. Her sharp, funny critique finds that sunny types don't necessarily live longer or better than grumps. Besides, can you really get rid of all negativity in your life? "It is not so easy," she notes, "to abandon the whiny toddler or the sullen teenager."

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