This week: Hannah Tinti's excellent new novel, inspired by the 12 labors of Hercules, plus Emma Donoghue's new children's book.

The Devil’s Feast

M.J. Carter. Putnam, $26 (432p) ISBN 978-0-399-17169-7

Mystery with possible political ramifications drives Carter’s superlative third Victorian historical featuring Jeremiah Blake and Capt. William Avery (after 2016’s The Infidel Stain). In 1842, Blake has been working regularly as a private inquiry agent for Theophilus Collinson, a man “quietly influential in London’s highest political and social circles,” but Blake chafes at being considered a hired hand and refuses a new assignment. Claiming that Blake was already paid for work unperformed, Collinson has the stubborn detective arrested and imprisoned for debt. With his sleuthing friend in the Marshalsea prison, Avery ends up having to take the lead when an MP, Charles Rowlands, is poisoned at a fancy dinner party at the Reform Club. Since the club is soon to be the site of a banquet for an Egyptian minister at a time when the Russians are trying to draw Egypt into an alliance against Turkey and ignite a Mideast war, identifying Rowlands’s killer is a national priority. Carter again has crafted an ingenious, fast-moving plot with emotional depth and plausible surprises.

Universal: A Guide to the Cosmos

Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw. Da Capo, $35 (320p) ISBN 978-0-306-82270-4

Acclaimed British physicists Cox and Forshaw (The Quantum Universe) team up once again in this accessible, lucid, and entertaining introduction to cutting-edge astrophysics and cosmology. Revealing how scientists explore the universe, the authors celebrate the scientific method as much as the scientific discoveries they address. They begin close to home, asking “How old is the Earth?” That simple question leads naturally through discussions of plate tectonics, atomic structure, and radioisotope dating while demonstrating the roots of the scientific method: observing and collecting evidence, and applying logic to reach conclusions. From here, it’s smooth sailing through increasingly complex topics. Determining astronomical distance introduces such concepts as Cepheid variable stars, supernovas, and redshift. Pondering the Earth’s weight leads to measuring gravity with a watch, a ball, and a ruler. The authors also proffer an inventory of the universe and dig into the mysteries of dark matter and dark energy. At the book’s core are the Big Bang and considerations of relativity theory, gravity, and curved spacetime. The minimal-math approach progresses from simple to complex ideas, and detailed diagrams and colorful photographs help illuminate concepts. Curious readers will appreciate how Cox and Forshaw celebrate the scientific process as heartily as they embrace the wonder of the universe.

The Lotterys Plus One

Emma Donoghue, illus. by Caroline Hadilaksono. Scholastic/Levine, $17.99 (320p) ISBN 978-0-545-92581-5

One of the most diverse families readers are likely to meet, the Lotterys—whose name was inspired by the winning lottery ticket that made a dream for a family come true—are four longtime friends turned coparents (a lesbian couple and a gay one) and seven homeschooled children of various racial backgrounds, quirks, and talents. The family enjoys a harmoniously unconventional existence in its 32-room Toronto mansion until the estranged father of one of the Lottery parents arrives for a visit of undetermined length. The change in dynamics caused by the elderly man’s stubbornness and conservatism is especially hard on nine-year-old Sumac, who is assigned to be his personal guide. In a drily funny story about adjusting to new situations, Donoghue (Room) vividly captures the Lotterys’ chaotic but always loving home through a flurry of inside jokes, banter, and nicknames. If some readers have difficulty keeping the members of the large family straight, Hadilaksono’s lively David Roberts–esque illustrations, not all seen by PW, provide a colorful guide to the Lotterys’ wonderfully offbeat home.

Richard Nixon: The Life

John A. Farrell. Doubleday, $35 (752p) ISBN 978-0-385-53735-3

Journalist and biographer Farrell (Clarence Darrow: Attorney for the Damned) skillfully revisits Richard Nixon’s long political career, in this history of American politics from the postwar period through his resignation as president in 1974. Farrell, an exceptional writer, examines minor anecdotes and Nixon’s world-altering choices to illuminate his fundamental and contradictory qualities: a mixture of intelligence, ambition, insecurity, paranoia, and deviousness, all put in service to great success and catastrophic failure. Farrell reveals how these traits drove Nixon in his early days as a young red-baiting California senator, his year as vice president, his failed 1960 Presidential candidacy, his phoenix-like 1968 resurrection, and his final devolution to a paranoid figurehead beset by demons. Nixon’s life is a cornucopia of controversy replete with dramatic moments, including his famous 1952 Checkers speech, and such history-changing events as the 1972 SALT treaty with the U.S.S.R., détente with China, his conspiracy to frustrate President Johnson’s Vietnam peace initiatives, the 1973 Paris Peace Accords that ended the Vietnam War, and, of course, Watergate. It may not have been Farrell’s intent to produce a cautionary tale about the dangers of a presidency run aground on lies, paranoia, prejudices, and delusion, but that’s what he’s accomplished. Farrell makes the most of his material to offer insights and well-considered opinions about each of these historic events.

Uncomfortably Happy

Yeon-sik Hong, trans. from the Korean by Hellen Jo. Drawn & Quarterly, $29.95 (576p) ISBN 978-1-77046-260-1

The story is as simple as they come: Hong draws himself and his wife, both struggling artists, going about daily life after they move from overcrowded, overpriced Seoul to a run-down house on a forested mountain. But a tale is in the telling, and this irresistible graphic novel turns every mundane moment into an adventure. Hong’s art suggests an unpredictable mash-up of comic strips, indie comics, and animated cartoons like Steven Universe. When Hong tries to concentrate on drawing, his head cracks open and distractions pop out; when he’s frustrated, his characters climb out of the pages and harangue him. As winter drags on and money runs out, life on the mountain becomes less idyllic, but husband and wife approach every challenge as allies in a possibly doomed cause. Acclaimed American cartoonist Hellen Jo provides a loose, natural translation.

Honestly Ben

Bill Konigsberg. Scholastic/Levine, $17.99 (336p) ISBN 978-0-545-85826-7

Seventeen-year-old Ben Carver is under a lot of pressure. He’s having a hard time in calculus, a subject that could torpedo his stellar GPA and ruin his chances at receiving the prestigious Pappas Award, which would look fantastic on his college résumé and provide a needed scholarship. He’s also having difficulty with Rafe Goldberg, his gay former friend (with whom he got quite close in Konigsberg’s Openly Straight), and might be falling for a girl named Hannah. The trouble is, Ben is in love with Rafe, but he can’t accept the idea of being in love with a boy. Ben isn’t homophobic, but that doesn’t make it any easier for him to see himself—captain of the baseball team, son of a farmer—as gay or even bisexual. Konigsberg again realistically explores what happens when one’s self butts up against the world’s expectations and assumptions. Ben refuses to be labeled, and the result is a refreshingly honest exploration of modern relationships and an understanding that love can take many shapes and forms.

Strange the Dreamer

Laini Taylor. Little, Brown, $18.99 (544p) ISBN 978-0-316-34168-4

In the first book of a duology, Taylor (the Daughter of Smoke and Bone trilogy) again creates a complex and layered world of battling gods and humans. The tale begins 200 years after humans wiped out the powerful Mesarthim in a war so devastating that the city where it took place was said to have vanished and became known only as Weep. Lazlo Strange, an orphaned young librarian raised by monks, is obsessed with Weep and dreams of traveling across a dangerous desert to find it. Almost miraculously, the opportunity comes his way, and Taylor’s story takes shape in Weep itself where, unbeknownst to humans, five “godspawn”—each with a special power—and the ghosts that serve them still endure, waiting to take revenge. While the pace is initially slow, momentum and tension build as love blossoms between two young people from warring factions, mysteries of identity develop, and critical events unfold in dreams, thanks to the gifts of a blue-skinned godspawn named Sarai. Gorgeously written in language simultaneously dark, lush, and enchanting, the book will leave readers eager for the next.

The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley

Hannah Tinti. Dial, $27 (400p) ISBN 978-0-8129-8988-5

Seamlessly transposing classical myth into a quintessentially American landscape and marrying taut suspense with dreamy lyricism, Tinti’s beautifully intricate second novel is well worth the wait since 2008’s The Good Thief. As his beloved daughter, Loo, hits adolescence, longtime criminal Samuel Hawley forswears life on the run and moves with her to the coastal Massachusetts town where her late mother Lily was raised. Though father and daughter both struggle to adjust, Samuel finds a place in the town’s fishing industry as Loo experiences first love with the quirky son of environmentalists who oppose it. But the consequences of Samuel’s violent past continue unfolding, while Loo’s quest to understand the truth of her mother’s death by drowning may fracture her bond with her father forever. Alternating chapters chronicle Samuel’s past—traced through the 12 bullet wounds that scar his body—and Loo’s attempts to find an authentic self and a future. As the story lines converge, Tinti’s imagery evokes time, space, the sea, and the myth of Heracles without losing the narrative’s sure grounding in American communities and culture. This is a convincingly redemptive and celebratory novel: an affirmation of the way that heroism and human fallibility coexist, of how good parenting comes in unexpected packages, and of the way that we are marked by our encounters with each other and the luminous universe in which we dwell.