The Literary Hill

In “Courting Mr. Lincoln,” Louis Bayard takes a fresh look at the future president through the eyes of two influential people in his life.

All About Abe
In “Courting Mr. Lincoln,” novelist Louis Bayard has given readers a remarkable gift: a fresh perspective on the future president from two people who knew and loved him.

In alternating chapters, we hear from Joshua Speed, a Springfield dry goods merchant who offers to share his lodgings with the raw-boned lawyer and Mary Todd, who has come to stay with her sister for the purpose of finding a husband.

Speed helps to even out Lincoln’s rough edges with lessons in etiquette and soon the two are a fixture in Springfield society, entering drawing rooms shoulder to shoulder and amusing guests with stories that they pass back and forth in a droll verbal volley. They pledge themselves to bachelorhood and brotherhood. But, as the local doyenne informs them, “a politician without a wife has not a prayer of rising in this world.”

Mary Todd is also making the social rounds and with her good looks, quick wit and enough charm to “make a bishop forget his prayers,” she quickly becomes the Belle of Springfield. But none of the prospective swains paraded before her captures her attention until she meets a rangy fellow who shares her passion for politics — and can quote Shakespeare. Suddenly, “she felt herself being blown in a direction she had never consented to.”

With the sides of the triangle in place, the story unspools in a manner that is both familiar and, with its wealth of intimate detail, utterly new. “Courting Mr. Lincoln” is a revelation. You may never think of the 16th president in the same way again.

Louis Bayard is a New York Times Notable Book author and has been shortlisted for both the Edgar and Dagger awards for his historical thrillers, which include “The Pale Blue Eye” and “Mr. Timothy.”

The dystopian world that Ben Larracey creates in “Flora 5” seems doomed to repeat the mistakes that nearly destroyed it.

Welcome to Dystopia
Talk about challenging first assignments. Due to a computer glitch, a newly-minted member of the Intergalactic Diplomatic Corps is the only one of her delegation to land on Flora 5, a former Earth colony that has devolved into a post-apocalyptic nightmare. Michelle Corso’s mission: to establish an embassy and bring peace to a planet where “everyone knows someone with blood on their hands.”

In “Flora 5,” Ben Larracey has created a dystopian world where the privileged live in domed and gated luxury. The government and its goons ooze corruption. People survive by scrounging in filthy city streets or harvesting coconuts from deserts pocked with landmines. As one observer says, “There is no good and bad on Flora 5. There’s just bad and worse.”

Hope arrives in a young woman named Azra Diamond, an aspiring singer who is taken in by a peaceful protest movement called the Crying Doves. Unfortunately, more contentious factions are also resurging, including the Resistance in which her parents once played a role.

While Corso struggles to find compromise amidst the unrest, revolution appears inevitable. The only question is whether the new generation of leaders will succeed in establishing peace or whether one character’s jaded wisdom will prevail: “On Flora 5 things go round and round…and nothing ever changes.”

Ben Larracey is a musician and author of several screenplays and a novella, “Endz Casino & Resort.” and @BLarracey on Twitter

Reporter Jon Ward focuses on the pivotal battle for 1980 Democratic presidential nomination in “Camelot’s End.”

Family Feud
When Jimmy Carter was denied a second term as president in 1980, the reasons were myriad. An inflation-fueled recession, gas shortages, the Iran hostage crisis and his own inability to forge constructive relations all contributed to the popular perception of him as ineffectual. But in a new book, reporter Jon Ward identifies yet another important factor: Ted Kennedy.

“Camelot’s End: Kennedy vs. Carter and the Fight That Broke the Democratic Party” describes how Kennedy challenged Carter for the Democratic nomination and, in so doing, splintered the party. Ward provides a thoughtful analysis of the two men, parsing their histories, personalities and motivations.

Carter, he notes, saw “politics as a quasi-pastoral calling,” but was ruthless in his pursuit of office. He “displayed the street-fighter political instincts hiding behind his toothy grin” and was willing to use “morally dubious methods” to win.

Kennedy, on the other hand, felt compelled to run as part of his family’s legacy of public service, but at times seemed uninspired by the realities of campaigning. In addition to his inherited pressures, he had his own personal failings to overcome, including the 1969 debacle at Chappaquiddick when he drove his car off a bridge and left a young aide to drown.

Kennedy lost the bitter nomination battle, tearing “the Democratic party in two, leaving the sitting president badly wounded and vulnerable to his Republican challenger.” The rest, as they say, is history. Ronald Reagan won by a landslide and, as Ward argues in “Camelot’s End,” the election proved a turning point for the Democratic party, realigning its traditional support and ushering in a new era in American politics.

Jon Ward was a DC city desk reporter, White House correspondent and national affairs correspondent whose work has appeared in the Washington Post, the New Republic, the Huffington Post and other publications. He is currently a national correspondent for Yahoo News. Follow him on Twitter @jonward11.

A British fangirl with a crush on an American TV star has a surefire plan to win his heart in Claire Handscombe’s “Unscripted.”

Wishful Thinking
Libby Bolton has a plan. Ever since she got hooked on an American TV show about an endearing and earnest teacher, she’s been enamored of its star, Thom Cassidy. It was his character who inspired her to become a teacher herself. But now she intends to make him an even bigger part of her life. She’s going to write a novel so brilliant that he’ll find it — and her — irresistible.

In “Unscripted,” Claire Handscombe has created the ultimate fangirl. “Irrational but somehow coherent,” Libby devotes all her energies to her quixotic quest. Her gang of old Cambridge classmates indulge her in her “Libby Logic” — and her ever-devoted friend Dan, who works for a publisher, even helps edit her manuscript.

But what happens when the impossible comes true and she actually gets the chance to fly from London to LA to work with the man of her dreams? Will the reality live up to her fantasy? As a friend advises her, “Don’t decide in advance what happiness should look like. Let yourself be surprised.” Surprises abound in “Unscripted” — as well as second chances, regrets at what might have been and hope for what’s yet to come.

Claire Handscombe is a British writer who moved to Capitol Hill in 2012. She was recently longlisted for the Bath Novel Award and her journalism, poetry and essays have appeared in a variety of publications, including Bustle, Book Riot, Writers’ Forum and the Washington Post.

On the Hill in May
Visit these websites to find listings for readings, book clubs, discussions and signings:

Capitol Hill Books

East City Bookshop

The Folger Shakespeare Library

The Hill Center

Solid State Books