Barbara’s Fiction Picks, Jan. 2014, Pt. 5: Chiavareni, Cornwell, Johnson, Jungersen, & Sansom, plus Poetry of Witness

Chiaverini, Jennifer. Mrs. Lincoln’s Rival. Dutton. Jan. 2014. 352p. ISBN 9780525954286. $26.95. HISTORICAL
Having demonstrated her talent for revivifying real-life women from the Civil War era with Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker and The Spymistress, Chiaverini introduces us to Kate Chase Sprague, who helped her much-widowed father get established as secretary of the Treasury in Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet and ended up marrying charismatic Rhode Island governor William Sprague. Alas, she shone so brightly in Washington society that she threatened to eclipse Mary Todd Lincoln, and therein lie’s Chiaverini’s tale. With a five-city tour and a reading group guide.

Cornwell, Bernard. The Pagan Lord. Harper: HarperCollins. Jan. 2014. 464p. ISBN 9780061969706. $27.99. lrg. prnt. CD: HarperAudio. HISTORICAL
Cornwell is back with the seventh book in his Saxon Tales saga, in which Alfred the Great’s beloved warrior Uhtred finds himself out of favor with the new king, Alfred’s son Edward. So he’s leading a ragtag bunch in an effort to recapture his old home, the Northumbrian fortress Bebbanburg, even as the Viking Cnut Longsword prepares to invade. Nice lead-in: the latest in the saga debuted at No. 2 on the New York Times best sellers list.

Johnson, Deborah. The Secret of Magic. Amy Einhorn: Putnam. Jan. 2014. 416p. ISBN 9780399157721. $26.95. HISTORICAL/LITERARY
When Thurgood Marshall receives a letter asking the NAACP to investigate the murder of a black war hero who had returned to Mississippi, he assigns the case to Regina Robichard, a young lawyer he had been mentoring. The letter was sent by reclusive white author M.P. Calhoun, whose The Secret of Magic Regina had loved as a child; its depiction of white and black children playing together in a magic forest led to its being banned in the South. Johnson, whose first novel, The Air Between Us, won the Mississippi Library Association Award for Fiction, drew her inspiration from real-life figures: Isaac Woodward, a World War II soldier blinded after being beaten by police; Constance Baker Motley, the first woman lawyer hired by Marshall, whose work in Mississippi lay the groundwork for Brown v. Board of Education; and Johnson’s own grandfather.

Jungersen, Christian. You Disappear. Nan A. Talese: Doubleday. Jan. 2014. 352p. ISBN 9780385537254. $27.95. LITERARY
Dublin-based Danish author Jungersen has a way with edgy, ethically challenging premises; his second novel, The Exception, winner of two literary awards in Denmark and an international best seller, features four women at a nonprofit reporting on genocide who turn on one another when they start receiving threatening letters. In his latest, Mia must ask herself whether husband Frederik is still the man she married—and indeed responsible for his actions—when a brain tumor begins altering his personality. Her concerns come to the fore when it emerges that Frederik has defrauded the school where he serves as headmaster of a significant amount of money.

Sansom, C.J. Dominion. Mulholland: Little, Brown. Jan. 2014. 640p. ISBN 9780316254915. $28. THRILLER/ALTERNATE HISTORY
In Sansom’s reimagining of 20th-century history, Britain hasn’t lost World War II (as in Robert Harris’s Fatherland) or settled into uneasy power sharing (as in Guy Saville’s The Afrika Reich). Instead, it surrendered to Nazi Germany without a fight, the appeasers having trumped Churchill. There’s a Resistance, though, and Civil Servant David Fitzgerald belongs to it. His latest assignment? Get crucial scientist Frank Muncaster out of a mental hospital. Alas, nasty Gestapo agent Gunther Hoth is on his trail. Sansom, best known for his entertaining Shardlake novels, had huge success with the 1940s-set Winter in Madrid and could repeat it here.

And one poetry pick…

Forché, Carolyn, & Duncan Wu, eds. Poetry of Witness: The Tradition in English, 1500–2001. Norton. Jan. 2014. 704p. ISBN 9780393340426. $29.95. POETRY
Two decades ago, Lannan Literary Award–winning poet Forché issued Against Forgetting, which included poems from more than 140 poets worldwide that bore witness to the violence of the 20th century. Edited with Georgetown English professor Wu, this companion volume offers 300 poems that examine a five-century tradition of protest in English-language poetry, embracing Shakespeare and Milton, religious martyr Anne Askew and Phillis Wheatley, abducted by slave traders. Proof positive that poetry matters.

Barbara Hoffert About Barbara Hoffert

Barbara Hoffert (, @BarbaraHoffert on Twitter) is Editor, LJ Prepub Alert; past chair of the Materials Selection Committee of the RUSA (Reference and User Services Assn.) division of the American Library Association; and past president, treasurer, and awards chair of the National Book Critics Circle.