A skillful blend of big-picture history and nautical adventure.


In early 1770s Colonial America, a young sailor’s promising sailing career is derailed as colonists clash with their British rulers in Spilman’s (The Shantyman, 2015, etc.) latest historical novel.

When the captain of the brig Mary Ellen dies at sea, 16-year-old Thomas Larkin is the only man onboard who knows how to navigate, so it’s up to him to bring them safely home into Boston harbor. It’s no easy feat, and his success gets him noticed by the ship’s owner, John Brown, who offers him a position as chief mate on a vessel bound for the Indies. But as he celebrates the job offer with his friend John Stevens in a local tavern, he’s unexpectedly impressed into the British Royal Navy—kidnapped and forced to serve onboard the man-of-war HMS Romney, under the command of the cruel Lt. William Dudingston. Determined to help his young friend escape, Stevens enlists voluntarily, and he and Larkin eventually make a daring break for the Dutch island of St. Eustatius during a hurricane. Meanwhile, tensions mount between the British and the American colonists as the latter grow more outraged by the injustice of impressment, corrupt customs officials, and oppressive taxes. Larkin finds himself embroiled in his countrymen’s fight as he plans revenge on Lt. Dudingston. Meanwhile, he also pursues Brown’s lovely daughter, Angela. Spilman’s prose is vivid and assured: “The air swirled with a maelstrom of smells—of tar and drying cod, coffee, tobacco, and horse manure, rum, chamber pots, cooking and low tide.” His depth of research shows on every page, yet it never feels as if he’s showing off. Larkin’s shipboard life of jibs and mizzenmasts and fo’c’sles is ordinary to him, and in Spilman’s hands, such nautical details never become tedious; instead, they bring Larkin’s world into three dimensions. It’s a world that also includes slavery, and although the novel doesn’t avoid the topic, it should be noted that only white characters discuss it—and then only generally about whether they’re for or against it.

A skillful blend of big-picture history and nautical adventure.

Pub Date: Oct. 15, 2017

ISBN: 978-1-943404-19-3

Page Count: 340

Publisher: Old Salt Press

Review Posted Online: Dec. 12, 2017

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The phrase “tour de force” could have been invented for this audacious novel.

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Four men who meet as college roommates move to New York and spend the next three decades gaining renown in their professions—as an architect, painter, actor and lawyer—and struggling with demons in their intertwined personal lives.

Yanagihara (The People in the Trees, 2013) takes the still-bold leap of writing about characters who don’t share her background; in addition to being male, JB is African-American, Malcolm has a black father and white mother, Willem is white, and “Jude’s race was undetermined”—deserted at birth, he was raised in a monastery and had an unspeakably traumatic childhood that’s revealed slowly over the course of the book. Two of them are gay, one straight and one bisexual. There isn’t a single significant female character, and for a long novel, there isn’t much plot. There aren’t even many markers of what’s happening in the outside world; Jude moves to a loft in SoHo as a young man, but we don’t see the neighborhood change from gritty artists’ enclave to glitzy tourist destination. What we get instead is an intensely interior look at the friends’ psyches and relationships, and it’s utterly enthralling. The four men think about work and creativity and success and failure; they cook for each other, compete with each other and jostle for each other’s affection. JB bases his entire artistic career on painting portraits of his friends, while Malcolm takes care of them by designing their apartments and houses. When Jude, as an adult, is adopted by his favorite Harvard law professor, his friends join him for Thanksgiving in Cambridge every year. And when Willem becomes a movie star, they all bask in his glow. Eventually, the tone darkens and the story narrows to focus on Jude as the pain of his past cuts deep into his carefully constructed life.  

The phrase “tour de force” could have been invented for this audacious novel.

Pub Date: March 10, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-385-53925-8

Page Count: 720

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Dec. 22, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2015

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More about grief and tragedy than romance.


Five friends meet on their first day of kindergarten at the exclusive Atwood School and remain lifelong friends through tragedy and triumph.

When Gabby, Billy, Izzie, Andy and Sean meet in the toy kitchen of the kindergarten classroom on their first day of school, no one can know how strong the group’s friendship will remain. Despite their different personalities and interests, the five grow up together and become even closer as they come into their own talents and life paths. But tragedy will strike and strike again. Family troubles, abusive parents, drugs, alcohol, stress, grief and even random bad luck will put pressure on each of them individually and as a group. Known for her emotional romances, Steel makes a bit of a departure with this effort that follows a group of friends through young adulthood. But even as one tragedy after another befalls the friends, the impact of the events is blunted by a distant narrative style that lacks emotional intensity. 

More about grief and tragedy than romance.

Pub Date: July 24, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-385-34321-3

Page Count: 322

Publisher: Delacorte

Review Posted Online: Nov. 14, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2012

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