Atonement of Blood (Book Acquired, Sometime in Early July, 2014)

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Atonement of Blood is historical mystery fiction by Peter Tremayne. Publisher’s blurb:

Winter, 670 AD. King Colgú has invited the leading nobles and chieftains of his kingdom to a feast day. Fidelma and her companion Eadulf are finally home for an extended stay, and have promised their son, Alchú, that they’ll be able to spend some time together after months of being on the road, investigating crimes. Fidelma and Eadulf are enjoying the feast when it is interrupted by the entrance of a religieux, who claims he has an important message for the King. He approaches the throne and shouts ‘Remember Liamuin!’ and then stabs King Colgú. The assassin is slain, but does enough damage to take out Colgú’s bodyguard, and to put the king himself on the verge of death.

As King Colgú lies in recovery, Fidelma, Eadulf, and bodyguard Gormán are tasked with discovering who is behind the assassination attempt, and who Liamuin is. They must journey into the territory of their arch-enemies, the Uí Fidgente, to uncover the secrets in the Abbey of Mungairit, and then venture into the threatening mountain territory ruled by a godless tyrant. Danger and violence are their constant companions until the final devastating revelation.

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Enemies at Home (Book Acquired, Some Time in Late June, 2014)

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Enemies at Home is new historical fiction by Lindsey Davis. Blurb from her site:

The second Albia novel will be published by Hodder and Stoughton and St Martin’s Press in 2014

PLOT SUMMARY: Albia novel 2

Every slave is an enemy, said Seneca

When a newly-married couple are violently robbed and murdered in their apartment, the vigiles take the easy way out and accuse their household slaves. The slaves seek refuge in the Temple of Ceres, a more reluctant haven of liberty than tradition claims. Albia’s new friend Manlius Faustus is tasked with persuading the runaways to leave. He hires Albia to help him work out what really happened…

Books Acquired (Second Week of June, 2014)

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Two historicalish fictions.

First, Merivel: A Man of His Time by Rose Tremain, which is new in trade paperback; the hardback received good reviews last year. Pub’s blurb:

The wonderful new historical novel set in seventeenth-century England from Rose Tremain, author of Restoration (shortlisted for the Booker Prize), The Road Home (winner of the Orange Prize) and Trespass (a Richard & Judy pick). Merivel has been called ‘wonderfully entertaining’ (Guardian Books of the Year) and ‘an unadulterated delight’ (Independent) and has been shortlisted for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction.

The gaudy years of the Restoration are long gone and Robert Merivel, physician and courtier to King Charles II, sets off for the French court in search of a fresh start. But royal life at the Palace of Versailles – all glitter in front and squalor behind – leaves him in despair, until a chance encounter with the seductive Madame de Flamanville, allows him to dream of a different future.
But will that future ever be his? Summoned home urgently to attend to the ailing King, Merivel finds his loyalty and skill tested to their limits.

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Also: Peter Tremayne’s The Seventh Trumpet:

When a murdered corpse of an unknown young noble is discovered, Fidelma of Cashel is brought in to investigate, in Peter Tremayne’s The Seventh Trumpet

Ireland, AD 670. When the body of a murdered young noble is discovered not far from Cashel, the King calls upon his sister, Fidelma, and her companion Eadulf to investigate. Fidelma, in addition to being the sister of the king, is a dailaigh—an advocate of the Brehon Law Courts—and has a particular talent for resolving the thorniest of mysteries.

But this time, Fidelma and Eadulf have very little to work with—the only clue to the noble’s identity is an emblem originating from the nearby kingdom of Laign. Could the murder be somehow related to the wave of violence erupting in the western lands of the kingdom? The turmoil there is being stirred up by an unknown fanatical figure who claims to have been summoned by “the seventh angel” to remove the “impure of faith.” Fidelma and Eadulf, once again grappling with a tangled skein of murder and intrigue, must somehow learn what connects the dead noble, a murdered alcoholic priest, and an abbot who has turned his monastery into a military fortress. When it appears that things cannot get more complex, Fidelma herself is abducted, and Eadulf must rescue her before the mystery can be solved.

Book Acquired, 10.13.2011

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Tides of War, new historical fiction from Stella Tillyard. Publisher (Henry Holt) description—

An epic novel about love and war, set in Regency England and Spain during the Peninsular War (1812-15), by the acclaimed historian and bestselling author of Aristocrats.

Tides of War opens in England with the recently married, charmingly unconventional Harriet preparing to say goodbye to her husband, James, as he leaves to join the Duke of Wellington’s troops in Spain.

Harriet and James’s interwoven stories of love and betrayal propel this sweeping and dramatic novel as it moves between Regency London on the cusp of modernity—a city in love with science, the machine, money—and the shocking violence of war in Spain. With dazzling skill Stella Tillyard explores not only the effects of war on the men at the front but also the freedoms it offers the women left behind. As Harriet befriends the older and protective Kitty, Lady Wellington, her life begins to change in unexpected ways. Meanwhile, James is seduced by the violence of battle, and then by love in Seville.

As the novel moves between war and peace, Spain and London, its large cast of characters includes the serial adulterer and war hero the Duke of Wellington, and the émigrés Nathan Rothschild and Frederic Winsor who will usher in the future, creating a world brightly lit by gaslight where credit and financial speculation rule. Whether describing the daily lives and desires of strong female characters or the horror of battle, Tides of War is set to be the fiction debut of the year.

The Matchmaker of Kenmare — Frank Delaney

Frank Delaney’s new novel The Matchmaker of Kenmare is set against the dramatic backdrop of Europe in 1943. Its narrator is Ben McCarthy (returning from Delaney’s previous novel Venetia Kelly’s Traveling Show), who lets the story unfold in the style of a memoir. Ben’s wife Venetia Kelly has mysteriously disappeared. To assuage his anxiety, Ben begins collecting folklore Irish folklore as part of a government project. In the process, he comes into contact with the titular matchmaker, Kate Begley. The two soon form a close bond, and Kate does everything in her power to aid the grieving narrator. The plot turns when a U.S. intelligence officer named Charles Miller enters the picture. He strikes up a romance with Kate, but their relationship is tested when he asks her — and Ben — to use their country’s neutral status to travel through enemy territory in order to find a man the American’s need before D-Day. Their mission soon turns to finding the man Kate believes she loves, a plot doubled in Ben’s search for his wife Venetia. The Matchmaker of Kenmare, new in hardback from Random House, will appeal to those who enjoy sweeping, richly detailed historical romances with a literary bent.

Two Tales of the Tudors: The Tudor Secret by C.W. Gortner and Death and the Virgin Queen by Chris Skidmore

It’s been nearly half a millennium since a Tudor held the British throne, yet narratives of Tudor exploits seem to proliferate at an exponential rate. The primary reason may be that these monarchs — Henry VIII and Elizabeth I in particular — were such strong characters, people whose fascinating qualities extended beyond their world-changing edicts. And it’s not just the monarchs, of course, who draw our attention, but the characters around them — the Boelyns and the Cromwells, Thomas More and William Shakespeare (the latter was tangential and late, to be sure, but hardly an insignificant figure of the Elizabethan era). We identify in the Tudors a certain sexiness (one milked shamelessly by Showtime’s silly series), as well as its corollary intrigue: personal scandal for these royals was politicized; what happened in the bedroom affected the public sphere. There is something strikingly modern about this fact, which perhaps also makes us turn our attention to the Tudors again and again.

C.W. Gortner delves into the conflict between the political and the private in his historical novel The Tudor Secret. He plants his fictional hero Brendan Prescott into Dudley Castle, where the young man grows up bullied by Lord Robert Dudley –who will later become an “intimate familiar” of Queen Elizabeth. In the summer of 1553, however, Elizabeth is still Princess; her brother Edward VI is king. Around the same time Brendan is brought to court to squire for Robert Dudley, Edward falls gravely ill and then disappears. Princess Elizabeth soon enlists Brendan’s aid as a spy, a situation that quickly becomes more complicated when he finds himself having to serve as a double agent for William Cecil, Elizabeth’s adviser, an employee of the Duke of Northumberland who meanwhile plots to raise Jane Grey to the throne (a move that would cut Elizabeth out of succession). The Tudor Secret is a tightly-plotted, quick-paced read, stuffed with animated historical characters buzzing around in a world of espionage and intrigue. Setting the stage for the ascendancy of a crafty Elizabeth I, the book is the first in a planned series called the Elizabethan Spymaster Chronicles.

Chris Skidmore’s Death and the Virgin Queen will also be of great interest to those fascinated by the darker side of the Tudors. Skidmore’s book is essentially a forensic analysis of the events of September 8, 1560, when the body of Amy Robsart was found dead in Cumnor Place, her neck broken after an apparent fall down the stairs. The problem: Rosbart was the wife of one Lord Robert Dudley (hey, remember him from before?); with Rosbart out of the way, Elizabeth might be free to marry the man she was scandalously close to. Even after the death was ruled an accident, a cloud of suspicion and rumor about the issue hung over Elizabeth’s reign. Skidmore digs into the issue, outlining the motives of possible parties and detailing likely suspects. Skidmore also explores why, even with Rosbart out of the picture, Elizabeth’s advisers would never allow a marriage to Dudley — and how Dudley worked to prevent the queen from marrying another. Death and the Virgin Queen is a nice parallel to The Tudor Secret; both are written in a popular style for a general audience, both are clearly well-researched, and both should satisfy those thirsting for more details about the still-bewildering world of the Tudors.

Death and the Virgin Queen is new this month in hardback from St. Martin’s Press. The Tudor Secret is new in trade paperback February 1st from St. Martins’ Griffin.

Wolf Hall — Hilary Mantel

Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel’s revisionist retelling of the Tudor saga through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell, is new in trade paperback this week from Picador. When the book won the Man Booker Prize last year, chairman James Naughtie credited its success to the “bigness of the book . . . [its] boldness [and] scene setting.” In The Atlantic, Christopher Hitchens noted that the book put Mantel “in the very first rank of historical novelists.” In The New York Review of Books, Stephen Greenblatt pointed out that this “is a novel too in which nothing is wasted, and nothing completely disappears.” Here’s what Biblioklept had to say:

I’m coming to the end of Hilary Mantel’s brilliant treatment of the Tudor saga,Wolf Hall. Sign of a great book: when it’s finished, I will miss her characters, particularly her hero Thomas Cromwell, presented here as a self-made harbinger of the Renaissance, a complicated protagonist who was loyal to his benefactor Cardinal Wolsey even though he despised the abuses of the Church. Mantel’s Cromwell reminds us that the adjective “Machiavellian” need not be a pejorative, applied only to evil Iago or crooked Richard III. The Cromwell of Wolf Hall presages a more egalitarian–modern–extension of power. Cromwell here is not simply pragmatic (although he is pragmatic), he also has a purpose: he sees the coming changes of Europe, the rise of the mercantile class signaling economic power over monarchial authority. Yet he’s loyal to Henry VIII, and even the scheming Boleyns. “Arrange your face” is one of the book’s constant mantras; another is “Choose your prince.” Mantel’s Cromwell is intelligent and admirable; the sorrows of the loss of his wife and daughter tinge his life but do not dominate it; he can be cruel when the situation merits it but would rather not be. I doubt that many people wanted yet another telling of the Tudor drama–but aren’t we always looking for a great book? Wolf Hall demonstrates that it’s not the subject that matters but the quality of the writing. Highly recommended.

Presenting all these reviews is simply a way of pointing out that if you know anything about contemporary lit, you probably already know that there’s a strong critical consensus that the book is excellent. Which it is. And if you like historical fiction, particularly of the English-monarchy variety, it’s likely you’ve already read it (and if not, why not? Jeez). However, I think it’s important–particularly now, with the current brouhaha over what literary fiction is and how female writers are treated by critics–to point out that what makes Mantel’s novel so excellent–and distinctly literary–is the writing: the narrative craft, the intensity of characterization, the vitality of prose. There’s nothing gimmicky about Wolf Hall even though its hero Cromwell has been traditionally reviled. Furthermore, Mantel resists fetishizing her set pieces, unlike so many writers of historical fiction, who feel the need to bombard their readers with extraneous details, as if the author’s painstaking research were a weapon rather than a tool.

My original review of Wolf Hall overlapped with a reading of James Wood’s essay on Thomas More from his collection The Broken Estate (also, incidentally, available in paperback from Picador). More is the major villain of Wolf Hall, and Wood savages him in “Sir Thomas More: A Man for One Season.” It was strange then (not too strange, though) to see Mantel and Wood intersect again a few months later, in Wood’s New Yorker review of David Mitchell’s historical novel The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. Here’s Wood–

Meanwhile, the historical novel, typically the province of genre gardeners and conservative populists, has become an unlikely laboratory for serious writers, some of them distinctly untraditional in emphasis and concern. (I am thinking not just of Mitchell but of Thomas Pynchon, Susan Sontag, Steven Millhauser, A. S. Byatt, Peter Carey.) What such novelists are looking for in those oldfangled laboratories is sometimes mysterious to me; and how these daring writers differ from a very gifted but frankly traditional and more commercial historical novelist like Hilary Mantel is an anxiously unanswered question.

Wood is typically dismissive of the historical novel even as he admits its attraction–one he doesn’t understand (or pretends not to understand)–to “serious writers,” a collective from which he deems to exclude Mantel. Wood’s rubric seems to be that Mantel is too “commercial” and “traditional” to warrant her inclusion in his club (even as he damns her with faint praise), but I think that his Mitchell review reveals a deep antipathy to anything that seems, y’know, approachable for most readers. That Pynchon leads Wood’s list is telling. Pynchon’s historical fictions range from fantastic and funny (V.Gravity’s Rainbow) to belabored and difficult (Mason & Dixon) to dense and inscrutable (Against the Day). But Pynchon is Pynchon and it’s not fair to exclude Mantel from the “serious writers” club for not being Pynchon (I sometimes think that poor James Wood has just been a book critic too long and hates reading). This is a roundabout way of arguing that, yes, Wolf Hall is serious writing, that it is literary writing, that it transcends its subject matter and comments on the human condition, on soul, on psyche, on spirit. That it happens to entertain at the same time is, of course, why we care. Highly recommended.

Occupied City — David Peace

“You want to know what happened, yes?” an old detective asks near the beginning of Occupied City. “No? You want to know the truth? Make up your mind! Which do you want to know; what happened, or the truth?” This preoccupation of “what happened” vs. “the truth” fuels the central tension in David Peace’s new novel, a postmodern noir exercise set in the desolation of 1948 Tokyo. Based on the true story of the Teikoku Bank Massacre, Occupied City investigates the postwar slaying of twelve bank employees who were poisoned by a man dressed (perhaps) as a government official. There’s a parenthetical “perhaps” around just about everything in Peace’s book; he cites Akutagawa Ryunosuke’s short stories “In a Grove” and “Rashomon” (as well as Kurosawa’s film adaptation of that story) as inspirations for the structure of Occupied City.

And rightly so. The few witnesses who survived the massacre get to tell “what happened”; their testimony is combined in a pastiche of sources including official government documents, a detective’s notes, newspaper reports, and personal and professional letters from an obsessed American Lieutenant Colonel. There’s a classically-neutral narrator whose reportorial rationality is undercut at every turn by the interceding lamentations of a Beckettian speaker dipping into madness. And there are the dead, the victims who cry out to be seen as more than just victims. Peace’s techniques are somehow both stochastic and tightly controlled at the same time, as he weaves the disparate voices through his tale to square the different perspectives of “what happened” in an attempt to reach “the truth.” Peace’s language frequently vacillates between elliptical and elusive abstraction and the visceral immediacy one would expect from a detective novel. The verbal tics add up to a visual poetry, as Peace’s repetitions, redaction, strike-throughs, and columns reinvigorate a genre that too-often relies on stodgy convention. For many readers, this eclectic style will be at times challenging or even come off as pretentious, but those who submit to Peace’s tumult of language are in for quite a ride.

Occupied City is a smart, well-researched historical thriller that recalls the verbal grit and energy of James Ellroy, who Peace interviewed earlier thie year. Like Ellory, Peace’s detectives investigate the seamy gaps in history from myriad perspectives, prodding readers into violent alien territory. And like Ellroy’s work, there’s no easy “truth” at the bottom of this book, but there are plenty of unsettling questions. Occupied City is a stark, bewildering challenge from a writer who deserves a wider audience. Recommended.

Occupied City is new in hardback from Knopf this week.

The Coral Thief — Rebecca Stott

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Rebecca Stott’s second novel, The Coral Thief (new in hardback from Spiegel & Grau), tells the story of a naive medical student ensnared in a web of scientific intrigue in post-Revolutionary Paris. In July, 1815, shortly after Napoleon’s fall at Waterloo, Stott’s hero Daniel Connor enters the occupied capitol armed only with the valuable coral specimens he plans to bring to his new place of study, the Jardin des Plantes. Riding on a mail coach into the city, Connor meets an alluring, mysterious woman (of course) who ends up stealing his coral samples, but also introducing him to a radical new idea that will soon change the world: the theory of evolution. In Connor’s pursuit of the coral thief, he also becomes entwined with a sharp police chief who is also searching out the mystery woman.

Stott’s novel moves at a nice, steady clip, propelled by simple dialog and meticulously neat historical detailing that doesn’t intrude into her narrative. The Connor narrative is balanced with short intercalary chapters describing Napoleon’s journey into exile, suggesting a division of ways of thinking: as the Emperor is retired, a new mode of thought going beyond the Enlightenment’s obsession with rationalism is on the rise–evolution. In a sense, Stott’s novel is an attack on dogma, as Connor, the coral thief, and the picaresque band the two take up with, work to challenge the institutions that dominate European thinking. (It’s weird to think in America today that evolution is still a debatable, divisive issue).

While The Coral Thief is a novel that weighs history and philosophy, it’s also a great detective story that will appeal to those who want a bit more out of their adventures than Dan Brown can offer. Stott’s writing is succinct and well-researched, with none of the ponderous pretentiousness that can sometimes weigh down historical fiction. (Stott does, however, include a not-too lengthy bibliography for those who wish to read further into her post-Napoleonic France; listed authors include Victor Hugo and Balzac). The Coral Thief is great good fun for thinking people. Recommended.

Summer Reading List: Tales of Adventure

Indulge yourself this summer by taking a fantastic voyage–literary or literally. To help you get started, check out the following tales of adventure.

William Vollman’s The Rifles, part of his as-yet-unfinished Seven Dreams series is a brilliant engagement of history, colonialism, identity, and all of those Big Profound Issues that we so adore in our modern literature. It’s also a really cool adventure story, the tale of John Franklin’s nineteenth-century exploration of Inuit territory. Sad, beautiful, breathtaking.

If you prefer your adventure tales uncomplicated by postmodern gambits, check out John Krakauer’s Into Thin Air, a journalistic account of the writer’s 1996 ascent of Mt. Everest, and the disasters that befell his expedition. The word “harrowing” fits well, gentle readers.

On the lighter-but-not-too-much-lighter side, Jeff Smith’s self-published comic Bone is fantastic; even better, you can get the entire 1300 page run of the whole series in Bone: One Volume Edition. We use the word “delightful” here in an absolutely unpejorative sense, friends: the adventures of Fone Bone, his cousins Phoney Bone and Smiley Bone, and Thorn, Granma Rose, and the Red Dragon are epic in scope yet retain an honest humor that will keep in the most cynical folks laughing. A major literary accomplishment that has been unjustly overlooked.

Also somewhat overlooked is Herman Melville’s Benito Cereno. In Bone, protagonist Fone Bone lugs around a massive copy of Melville’s masterpiece Moby-Dick everywhere he goes–and while that book is undoubtedly a desert island classic, Benito Cereno is an underappreciated gem of a tale. Revealing the strange secret at the heart of this book would spoil it, so suffice to say that the short novel enigmatically investigates slavery and colonialism in ways that beg for closer analysis. Good stuff.

Perhaps, though, you beg for the real thing. In that case, we recommend Ultimate Adventures (from Rough Guides) for all your camel-trekking-in-the-Sahara, rock-climbing-at-Joshua-tree, Pacuare-River-rafting needs. Beautiful photography and tantalizing descriptions are coupled with informative “Need to Know” sections that spell out the who-what-when-where-and-how that will help you get your adventure under way.

Also in the exploratory vein, Where to Go When: The Americas, from DK’s Eyewitness Travel, serves as a kind of travel almanac–the kind that makes you wish you were very, very rich with an excess of free time. If that were the case, you’d be spending nine days in May on the Amazon River, spotting pink river dolphins, gorgeous macaws, and darling squirrel monkeys instead of reading this blog right now. Even if you’re not excessively rich with nothing more pressing to do other than trek the Alaskan fjords, The Americas is fun daydreaming material–perhaps the realist response to Vollman’s Seven Dreams. In any case, Ultimate Adventures and The Americas both come out at the end of this summer, giving you plenty of time to plan that awesome adventure getaway for next year.

Gob’s Grief — Chris Adrian

It’s the greatest open secret, that death will take everyone, that every person is as transient as a shadow. Embracing this knowledge…was how sane people managed their grief.

In his debut novel Gob’s Grief, Chris Adrian explores the turbulent political, cultural, and social reforms of the immediate post-Civil War era through the lens of personal loss–specifically, the loss of dead brothers. Gob Woodhull, fictional son of agitating feminist Victoria Woodhull, suffers from intense grief and guilt after not running away to war with his twin brother Tomo, who dies at Chickamauga. Deciding that he must perform the impossible, Gob sacrifices his pinkie finger (and much more!) to a sinister, cave-dwelling magical being called the Urfeist, who takes young Gob on as an apprentice. Under the Urfeist’s tutelage, Gob begins designing and building a Frankenstein machine that will bring both his brother and all of the dead back to earth. Gob describes his machine and its purpose:

Don’t you understand? What’s grief if not a profound complaint? It’s what the engine will do; it will complain. It will grieve with mechanical efficiency and mechanical strength. It will grieve for my brother and for your brother and for all the six hundred thousand dead of the war. It will grieve for all the dead of history, and all the dead of the future. Man’s grief does nothing to bring them back, but just as man’s hands cannot move mountains, but man’s machines can, our machine will grieve away the boundaries between this world and the next.

The Urfeist agrees with Gob’s strange logic, explaining just what’s in it for the dead:

Unhappiness is the lot of the spirits. They are denied bodily delight, but they are creatures of desire. Desire is all that’s left to them. They want to live again! They want to be with you, all you desolate millions. How will you live without them? How will they continue without you? What sort of heaven can there be when brothers are apart?

Aiding Gob, often against their better judgment, are Walt Whitman (yes, that Walt Whitman), Will Fie, and Maci Truffant; both Will and Maci have also lost brothers in the Civil War, and these fraternal ghosts literally haunt them. Whitman too has lost a brother, but the poet more keenly misses Hank, a young man who Whitman becomes very attached to while volunteering at a hospital. Although Hank dies, his voice remains in Whitman’s head. Walt, Will, and Maci all make unique contributions to Gob’s bizarre machine. Maci serves as an engineer, Will as a visionary builder, and Walt, “the Kosmos,” serves as the battery that powers the strange, mansion-sized contraption. Added to the mix is Pickie Beecher, an unearthly little kid birthed during an early trial run of the machine.

The novel is divided into three distinct sections, each focusing on the different perspectives of Walt, Will, and Maci, and the most interesting moments of the narrative are when the events overlap, revealing the differences between these characters (the first section, focusing on Walt Whitman, is easily my favorite; it even made me go back and reread portions of Leaves of Grass). Adrian also employs interchapters focusing on young Tomo running away to the war and the Urfeist’s education of Gob. At times, this structure is fascinating, but it often gets in the way of characterization and detail: at nearly 400 pages, Gob’s Grief is a fairly long book, but it feels like it should be much longer. Adrian is fascinated with the cultural, economic, and social upheavals that preceded the Gilded Age, but much of the fine tuning seems edited away in favor of repeated descriptions of, uh, grief (at a certain point, I wanted to yell, “Okay–I get it! He’s mourning! He’s sad! Move on”). I also found the elements of magical realism, particularly the backstory of the Urfeist, to be underdeveloped, often overshadowed by a concern for the tropes of historical fiction.

Still, in Gob’s Grief, Adrian conveys a marvelous aplomb rare in debut novels, a promise he lives up to in his fantastic follow-up The Children’s Hospital (Pickie Beecher shows up again in that novel, and its main protagonist, Jemma Claflin, is a descendant of Woodhull). In all likelihood, Adrian will continue to perfect his craft. And while we’re waiting for his next great novel, we can read A Better Angel, a collection of short stories set to drop this August.