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The Shadow King: The Life and Death of Henry VI

Lauren Johnson. Pegasus, $35 (752p) ISBN 978-1-64313-128-3

Johnson (So Great a Prince) seeks to reclaim the unhappy Lancastrian king from the “simple saint” myth with a thorough examination of his difficult circumstances and his pious, peace-oriented personality. The early death of warrior-king Henry V left an infant with a claim to both the English and French thrones and substantial French holdings, but the gentle, insecure Henry VI ultimately lost everything. Surrounded by such strong-willed figures as Richard, Duke of York, who dominated his life, and the queen, Margaret of Anjou, who tried to save him, Henry’s cowed reaction to family infighting, significant personal losses, and his own inadequacies doomed him to failure, forcing him to eventually renounce his son’s claim with the Act of Accord in favor of Yorkist Edward IV. Johnson allows for a bit of fun with the multiple English monarchs (including Richard III and Henry VII), showing how closely intertwined these warring factions actually were. This dense exploration of Henry’s boyhood shows how his passive personality and bouts of psychosis (during which his wife, a stronger ruler, stepped in) led to his making disastrous decisions. Johnson’s intense look at the earthly failures that defined Henry VI’s unpopular reign—and the transformation of a medieval king’s fatal flaws into the basis for a devoted posthumous following—is a treat for committed Anglophiles. (May)

Reviewed on 04/05/2019 | Details & Permalink

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The Second Most Powerful Man in the World: The Life of Admiral William D. Leahy, Roosevelt’s Chief of Staff

Phillips Payson O’Brien. Dutton, $30 (544p) ISBN 978-0-399-58480-0

Military historian O’Brien (How the War Was Won: Air-Sea Power and Allied Victory in World War II) serves up an engaging biography of the under-the-radar WWII power broker, William D. Leahy (1875–1959). O’Brien traces Leahy’s path from naval cadet to his increasingly important combat and administrative posts, culminating in his appointment by FDR to lead the Joint Chiefs of Staff after the U.S. entered WWII. As the country’s highest-ranking military official, he became FDR’s top adviser and later advocated policies to ensure that in the future no one occupying the role would hold a similar amount of power. Leahy is drawn as a complex character who thrived in positions of authority, but who preferred to avoid the spotlight; the book excels at relating the political maneuvering that allowed him to repeatedly upstage better-known historical figures including George Marshall and Douglas MacArthur (whom Leahy called out in front of the president for his nonstandard uniform). O’Brien provides little analysis of the underlying motivations for Leahy’s actions and can occasionally veers into the realm of hyperbole (“He might as well have said: No, Mrs. Roosevelt, I am the acting president of the United States”). But this is a solid and informative account of a relatively underdiscussed influence on Cold War policies, worldviews, and relationships that still matter today. Agents: Alexa Stark and Ellen Levine, Trident Media Group. (May)

Reviewed on 04/05/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Snakeskins

Tim Major. Titan, $14.95 trade paper (416p) ISBN 978-1-78909-078-9

Government conspiracy and magic of the unknown intertwine in an uncanny tale. Caitlin Hext is unprepared for her 17th birthday, marking the time of her first shedding ceremony as a Charmer—people with the power to produce a clone every seven years. These clones, called Snakeskins, usually turn to dust, but Caitlin’s does not. Shocked, she must wrestle with questions of identity as well as the idea that the Hext family is crucial to the lineage of all Charmers. These events are interwoven with politics as Caitlin learns that the Great British Prosperity Party has sinister plans for her and the people of Britain. Each chapter shows a bit more of the different narrators’ various perspectives on events, gradually creating a delightfully tense parallel story that begs the reader to guess what will happen next. This novel earns its verbosity using tact, mystery, and a strong voice, and readers who stick with it will feel well rewarded. (May)

Reviewed on 04/05/2019 | Details & Permalink

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The Archive of Alternate Endings

Lindsey Drager. Dzanc, $16.95 trade paper (160p) ISBN 978-1-945814-82-2

Traversing time and space, the captivating latest from Drager (The Lost Daughter Collective) employs nonlinear structure and the cyclical, 75-year path of Halley’s Comet to link centuries of siblings and partners to the fairy tale “Hansel and Gretel.” In 1835, storytellers Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm collect versions of the narrative, and in one, Hansel is banished to the forest for being gay. Wilhelm recognizes the impact this discovery has on his brother, whom he suspects is homosexual. In 1986, a computer programmer constructing an early form of the internet contracts AIDS and visits the Witch, who dedicates herself to comforting ailing gay men in their final days. A lesbian sent to an asylum in 1910 has an affair with one of her nurses, watches for the comet, and crafts a series of illustrations of “Hansel and Gretel,” while in 1456, Johannes Gutenberg shows his sister the magic of his new printing press by duplicating copies of the fairy tale. Stretching as far back as the comet’s pass in 1378, which incorporates interactions between a real Hansel and his sister, and forward to 2365, when the comet passes an Earth void of life, Drager’s plot is ambitious and emotionally resonant, making for a clever, beguiling novel. (May)

Reviewed on 04/05/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Correspondents

Tim Murphy. Grove, $27 (448p) ISBN 978-0-8021-2937-6

In this ambitious but schematically plotted novel, Murphy (Christodora) refracts the American experience through the lives of an extended Lebanese-American family from 1912 to the early 21st century. The main character, Rita Khoury, is the daughter of Irish and Lebanese parents. Rita is working as a journalist in Beirut when, in the aftermath of 9/11, she is sent to cover the war in Iraq, and her relationships—with Palestinian and Jewish boyfriends and an Iraqi interpreter—and postings in the Middle East and (later) Washington are drawn to encompass the social and political issues that shaped America and the rest of the world around the turn of the 21st century. Rita is well-developed as a character, but as her and her family and friends’ lives progress through decades punctuated by those issues—including war, gay coming-of-age, racism, and domestic gun violence—they seem less to be participants in history than hostages to it. Murphy’s authorial voice also frequently intrudes in the narrative, as when he uses Arabic words for foods and then immediately explains them in English. The resulting story comes across as more instructive than immersive. (May)

Reviewed on 04/05/2019 | Details & Permalink

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The Rationing

Charles Wheelan. Norton, $26.95 (464p) ISBN 978-1-324-00148-5

In this not-so-far-fetched debut satire set just over a decade from now, when American political parties have been restructured and an independent president sits in the White House, the unexpected shortage of a vital medicine leads to national and global political jockeying. Framed as a nonfiction account by a scientist from the National Institutes of Health, this tale reconstructs the chain of events concerning the so-called Outbreak of a mysterious flu-like illness that’s often fatal and can only be treated by the miracle drug Dormigen. Unfortunately, through accident and negligence, America’s supply of Dormigen is unavailable. As the American government attempts to secure the drug from other countries while keeping the scope of the emergency under wraps, doctors and scientists, including the narrator, desperately look for the Outbreak’s cause and other options for treatment. Wheelan (Naked Economics), who teaches public policy and economics at Dartmouth, has a keen handle on political intricacies and maneuverings, focusing on the give-and-take among individuals and countries, the domino effect of minor factors, and the influence of globalism. However, his approach robs the story it of intimacy and immediacy. The plot and characters are not especially unique, but readers looking to explore challenging contemporary topics with just a touch of speculative fiction’s distancing effect will find this well worth a look. Agent: Tina Bennett, William Morris Endeavor. (May)

Reviewed on 04/05/2019 | Details & Permalink

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The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life

David Brooks. Random House, $28 (384p) ISBN 978-0-8129-9326-4

In this ardent follow-up to The Road to Character, New York Times columnist Brooks explores his thinking about factors that form a moral life. He confesses that he wishes to “in part compensate for the limitations of” his previous book, as he no longer believes that character formation is based entirely on individual achievements. Instead, Brooks now professes that one builds character by giving oneself away to a community—or to a cause out of love—a premise that manifests itself in his theory of “the two mountains.” For Brooks, the summit of the first mountain is traditional success based on one’s achievements. Along the way, one can expect failure or setbacks. Through the ensuing stage of suffering (the valley), one gets the strength and life experience to commit to climbing the second mountain, where Brooks believes true joy can be found. Enjoying one’s work, getting married, studying philosophy or religion, and establishing community helps to form the path between the mountains, Brooks writes. As he teases apart his metaphor, Brooks relates his own experiences: a newfound love after divorce and a religious awakening that has brought him to the cusp of Christianity from Judaism. While some readers will find his revelations obvious, Brooks’s melding of personal responsibility with respect for community will have broad appeal. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 04/05/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Sweet on You

Becky Wade. Bethany House, $13.99 trade paper (384p) ISBN 978-0-7642-1938-2

Wade’s pleasing finale to the Bradford Sister Series (after Falling for You) follows Britt, the youngest sister, as she faces the truth about how her longtime best friend Zander Ford has really felt about her. Zander, a renowned author, returns to Merryweather, Wash., from an 18-month world tour to mourn the death of his uncle. From the moment he’s back, he realizes that his unrequited love for Britt, his exuberant childhood friend, hasn’t changed at all. Britt, a successful chocolatier with a thriving business, ignores the twinges of attraction she feels for Zander and is unwilling to explore a romance with the guy everyone else thinks is perfect for her. But when it’s discovered Zander’s uncle might have had a second identity, Britt volunteers to help investigate his past, uncovering a dangerous mystery. In the process, headstrong Britt must face appearing needy and weak—even in front of God—and Zander must confront his greatest fear: losing Britt. Britt’s sisters return as strong support characters. Wade will delight readers with mouthwatering descriptions of chocolate and cozy scenes of friendship. Series fans will find this a fitting conclusion. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 04/05/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Rock, Paper, Scissors

Maxim Osipov, trans. from the Russian by Boris Dralyuk, Alexandra Fleming, and Anne Marie Jackson. New York Review Books, $17.95 trade paper (312p) ISBN 978-1-68137-332-4

Osipov makes his English-language debut with this masterful and sublime collection, largely set in rural Russian villages. In “Moscow-Petrozavodsk” a young doctor is taking the 14-hour trip from Moscow to Petrozavodsk for a medical conference. When Tolya, a fellow traveler, goes into alcohol withdrawal, the doctor, trying to be helpful, alerts the train crew that Tolya needs medical treatment. Instead, he unwittingly causes Tolya to be thrown off the train and beaten by police at the next stop. Indignant, the doctor pays a visit to Colonel Schatz, a local arbitrator of law and order, who promptly turns the doctor’s simple narrative of justice and injustice upside down. In “On the Banks of the Spree,” Betty is flying to Berlin from her home in Moscow to meet a half-sister for the first time, whose existence is one of several secrets her father, a retired KGB spy, has recently revealed. The title story, the stand-out of the collection, begins as a simple, pastoral tale as Ksenia Nikolayevna Knysh, head of the region’s legislative assembly, plans to build a new chapel in memory of her deceased daughter. At first, the story seems a simple sketch of a mid-level bureaucrat, but when an ethnic Tajik seasonal worker is accused of murder, themes of religious tension and gender injustice break the surface. This collection showcases Osipov’s talent in creating subtle, sophisticated character portraits that carry a good dose of suspense. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 04/05/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Crossing

Pajtim Statovci, trans. from the Finnish by David Hackston. Pantheon, $24.95 (272p) ISBN 978-1-5247-4749-7

Two young Albanian men yearn to escape their fractured country in this disorienting but affecting novel from Statovci (My Cat Yugoslavia). Fourteen-year-old Bujar struggles to cope with his father’s death in 1990, just as Albania lurches toward capitalism in the aftermath of communist leader Enver Hoxha’s death. With his mother incapacitated by grief, Bujar and his best friend Agim, who is tentatively exploring his gender identity, decide to earn money any way possible in order to fund their dream of seeking asylum in Western Europe. They sell stolen cigarettes in the capital, Tirana, and then tourist trinkets in the port of Durrës. Their story of escape blends with the Albanian myths Bujar’s father told and appears in between stories about the dizzyingly fabricated identities one of them takes on during a series of moves to Italy, Germany, Spain, and the United States. A final move to Finland in 2003 sets the stage for the deep betrayal of a new love interest and the shocking conclusion that explains why the two boys are no longer together. The matter-of-fact depiction of numerous traumas intensifies the impact. Statovci memorably portrays the struggles and dislocations of his complicated characters. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 04/05/2019 | Details & Permalink

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