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Review: The Kind Worth Killing by Peter Swanson

Where did I get this book? The library.

Where did I get this book? The library.

Fans of the Patricia Highsmith novel Strangers on a Train or the Alfred Hitchcock movie of the same name will recognize the initial set-up: a random encounter between two travelers leads to a murder plot. In The Kind Worth Killing, author Peter Swanson uses this familiar starting point to launch into a twisty and unsettling tale worthy of Patricia Highsmith herself.

Ted first meets Lily in an airport bar in London. A few gin martinis and the anonymity of international travel lead to a very frank conversation about Ted’s recent discovery that his wife Miranda is cheating on him with their building contractor. When he admits that he would like to kill his wife, Lily isn’t shocked or horrified. If anything, she’s encouraging. When they both end up seated in first class on the same flight back to the United States, they make an agreement to meet again if Ted decides he’s serious about wanting to go through with the murder.

At this point in the book, I was enjoying the vivid characters but I also felt reasonably sure I knew where things were going. Nope! The story takes one unexpected turn after another and the suspense and tension build throughout.

As a protagonist, Lily Kintner follows in the footsteps of Tom Ripley and other sociopath anti-heroes. She has her own strange moral code, but no trace of a conscience. It’s always unsettling to realize you’re almost rooting for someone so cold-heartedly lethal, and the author plays on that ambivalence as Lily teeters on the edge of discovery. That unnerving tension continues right up until the satisfying conclusion.

Genre: Suspenseful, deliciously twisty psychological thriller.

Read it if: You loved The Girl with a Clock for a Heart, Swanson’s first book; you are a fan of Patrician Highsmith and/or Alfred Hitchcock; you are particularly fond of anti-heroes and unexpected twists.

Skip it if: You like to feel unambiguously supportive of your main character; you only like thrillers when you can successfully guess the ending; or you are cheating on your spouse and nervous about your life expectancy.

Movie-worthy: Yes, please!



Review: Babel-17 by Samuel R. Delaney

Where did I get this book? I read it on my Kindle.

Where did I get this book? I read it on my Kindle.

First, some trivia: wrestlers mentioned in passing in this novel, which first appeared in 1966, are named Ruby and Python, just like the two coding languages. Coincidence? Maybe, but it would make sense if computer language developers were inspired by this book considering the subject matter: the eponymous Babel-17 is a uniquely efficient language, unlike any other known to the Alliance. Transmissions in the mysterious language have been detected at the sites of several acts of sabotage. Because the Alliance is at war with an enemy coalition known as the Invaders, they need to quickly and quietly resolve the mystery.

They turn to Rydra Wong, a linguist with an uncanny gift for mastering and comprehending languages. She also happens to be a famous poet and a certified ship’s captain. Rydra wastes no time putting together a crew and, with the full support of the Alliance, she sets out to find the next targeted site and prevent the attack.

As she bonds with her crew, the density of Babel-17 as a language continues to amaze her. In just a few words, the language conveys an extraordinary amount of specific information. It changes the way she perceives the world when she thinks in it. This idea, that the nature of a language can shape the nature of perception, is further explored when Rydra meets a man called Butcher, who lacks any understanding of the words “I” and “you.” Drawn to Butcher, Rydra uncovers the secret truth about Babel-17 and its import for the future of the Alliance.

The future envisioned in Babel-17 combines old-school technology like radio and flashing lights with “discorporate” (i.e., dead) crew fulfilling essential functions on the ship and institutionalized polyamory. Some of these details are interesting, but it’s the language aspect that held my attention. Rydra’s efforts to understand Babel-17 and trace it to its source lead her to finally solve the enigma of her own strange gifts. It’s also kind of awesome that she essentially has rock star status as a poet.

Genre: Science fiction with a xenolinguistic spin.

Read it if: You speak Klingon or Dothraki; you would like to see the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis explored in a science fictional setting; you want to read all the books mentioned in Jo Walton’s brilliant novel Among Others.

Skip it if: You only read books from this century, no matter what century they’re set in; you have a worm phobia; you think everyone should just learn English.

Movie-worthy: It’s probably too late for that.


Review: The World Before Us by Aislinn Hunter

Where did I get this book? The library.

Where did I get this book? The library.

Jane, a 34-year-old archivist at the Chester Museum, is haunted. Haunted, not only by a tragic incident that occurred when she was fifteen, but also by an indeterminate number of spirits who follow her life in hopes of learning something crucial about who they once were. Even to each other they are mostly voices: the soft-spoken one, the poet, the theologian, the idiot. Jane has no idea that they exist.

Now the Chester Museum is closing, but Jane is unable to concentrate on finding a new job or even carrying out her final duties. She is distracted by the prospect of seeing someone from her past for the first time in 20 years, a meeting that will send her tidy life off the rails. She takes refuge in the search for answers to a long overlooked mystery: the story of N., a young woman who apparently disappeared from the Whitmore insane asylum in the mid-19th century.

Perhaps it’s Jane’s fixation with the past that draws the others to her. They watch over her shoulder as she examines documents from the old asylum and the Farrington household at Inglewood, places that are familiar to some of them. They cling to flashes of recognition and debate the meaning of their own persistence.

While Jane and her unseen companions are able to put some mysteries to rest, other questions will never be answered. This lyrical and thought-provoking novel suggests that Jane, and the reader, will have to learn to live with that uncertainty.

Genre: A literary blend of contemporary and historical fiction, with a dash of the supernatural for good measure.

Read it if: You like your genres fluid, your protagonists conflicted, and your endings ambiguous.

Skip it if: You are strongly anti-ghost; you dislike reading about 19th-century British people roaming about in nature; you can’t stand it when a novel ends with the main character writing down the first line of the actual novel you just read.

Movie-worthy: Everyone would say the book was better.

Review: Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert

Where did I get this book? I won it from The Writers' Table!

Where did I get this book? I won it from The Writers’ Table!

First, a confession: I did not love Elizabeth Gilbert’s smash bestseller Eat, Pray, Love. Like many other readers, I envied Gilbert’s amazing opportunity to travel the world and write a book about the experience, but I couldn’t imagine going to Italy and not setting foot in a single museum. As a broke grad student spending a precious two weeks in Rome and Florence, I ate yogurt straight out of the container in grocery store parking lots just so I could afford admission to the Uffizi Gallery; the thought of ignoring frescoes in favor of pesto strikes me as borderline sacrilegious.

So when I won this Advance Reader’s Copy of Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear from the delightful Eleanor Brown’s website The Writers’ Table, I was curious but skeptical. Would the advice be to travel to India and meditate? Or would it be something I could use?

I’m happy to say Big Magic far exceeded my expectations. With humor and self-deprecation, Gilbert skillfully explores the contradictions of creative life, especially the need to balance devotion to art with the reality that external validation may never come. She embraces the viewpoint that creative living should be an essentially joyful pursuit, not a tormented path of suffering focused on ultimate material or critical reward.

She also rejects the idea that most creative individuals should expect to make a living from their art, noting that dreams can suffocate under that kind of burden. Instead of self-serious perfectionism, Gilbert advocates for the playful “highly disciplined half-ass” approach to creativity. Just show up every day, keep working at it, trust that what you’re doing makes your life better–regardless of whether the world ever recognizes its value. It may only ever be valuable to you, and that’s enough.

There is something so liberating about her take on this, and it really resonated with me. Granted, I am not entirely sold on the more mystical aspects of her approach–I doubt the Earth loves me and I’m skeptical that Creativity has any feelings about me or anything else for that matter. But hey, I understand what she’s saying: you have to be open to the flow of ideas, wherever it is they come from. You have to trust that good things will happen if you keep working.

Who knows, maybe mysterious forces of the universe are at work–it does feel like this book came at exactly the right time for me. It’s been about a year since I’ve been able to focus on writing, a particularly tumultuous and difficult year. Reading Big Magic reminded me how important that part of my life really is to me, how much I need it. And “highly-disciplined half-ass” is not only an achievable life goal, it could basically be the subtitle to my autobiography. If I’m waiting around for someone to give me permission to write again, it’s going to be a long wait. Instead, I just need to park myself in a chair and make the magic happen.

Genre: Creativity self-help guide.

Read it if: You are considering pursuing a creative dream; you have doubts about your qualifications to live a creative life; or you wonder if you’ll ever make or write something worth sharing.

Skip it if: You have zero interest in exploring your creative side, or you’re already so in tune with the universe that you don’t need any advice.


Review: Prisoner of Trebekistan by Bob Harris

Where did I get this book? From the library.

Where did I get this book? From the library.

I checked out a copy of this book at my local library after an exciting plot twist in my own life: I had passed the online Jeopardy test and been invited to audition for Jeopardy. So I didn’t read this with the distant objectivity of a reader, but with the fervent attention of a student seeking knowledge from the master.

Bob Harris mostly delivers. He describes his rise to champion status after a five-time win in humorous and self-deprecating terms, and he doesn’t hold back on the initial shame he felt after a major crash and burn at his first Tournament of Champions. Interwoven with details of his Jeopardy experience are elements of his personal life: the memory of his late father, the health struggles his sister faces, the ups and downs of his career as a stand-up comic, the fate of his relationship at the time of his most intense Jeopardy study sessions.

More than anything, I was amazed at the intense and methodical nature of Harris’ efforts to mentally prepare himself for Jeopardy. He spent long hours and weeks cramming knowledge into his brain, using quirky mnemonics that often involved vivid off-color imagery to keep it locked in.

At first this strategy struck me as absurdly elaborate. After trying my own scaled-down version of it, though, I have to say it really works. (Go ahead, ask me an African capital! I’ve finally got them down!) The key for me seems to be a simple visual cue that I can associate with the correct answer (e.g., a bright red Santa hat in the center of New Mexico, to remind me the capital is Santa Fe.) They are also very idiosyncratic; a picture of Bam-Bam from the Flintstones and a baby girl to remind me that Bamako is the capital of Mali (my baby niece is named Molly.)

While Harris has a slightly cornball sense of humor, his deeply personal account of his Jeopardy experience makes for an interesting and enlightening read.

Now on to the audition! It’s happening this Tuesday–I’ll let you know how it goes.

Review: Before the Fall by Noah Hawley

Where did I get this book? I requested an ARC from the publisher, and they sent me one!

Where did I get this book? I requested an ARC from the publisher, and they sent me one!

Ten people are on board a small private plane when it leaves Martha’s Vineyard for New York. Eighteen minutes after take-off, the plane plummets into the ocean, the reason for the crash a mystery.

One man, a middle-aged painter named Scott Burroughs, survives and manages to save a four-year-old child. Scott quickly becomes the object of media obsession and government scrutiny. Why was he on the plane? How did he live through the crash? Was it part of a conspiracy or a terrorist plot? Or is he just lucky?

Scott has spent the last year on Martha’s Vineyard trying to start over. His youthful promise as an artist never bloomed into true success and he spent far too much time drinking himself into oblivion. With a year of sobriety behind him and a new series of paintings to show, Scott has finally found a cautious hope for the future when he accepts a ride on the doomed plane. The circumstances that led him to be on the flight, the chance moments that allowed him to survive: do they mean something, or are they simply random coincidences in a world determined by chance?

Thematically, Before the Fall reminded me a bit of Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey; the author looks at each passenger on the flight in turn, examining each life and the path that led to that plane at that moment. Ben Kipling, a rich banker involved in some shady dealings, and his wife Sarah. Maggie Bateman, the woman who invites Scott to join them on the flight to New York; her husband David, the plane’s owner and the head of a polarizing 24-hour news channel; their nine-year-old daughter, Rachel, who had survived a kidnapping as a toddler. The family bodyguard, Gil Baruch. Pilot James Melody, and his crew Emma Lightner and co-pilot Charlie Busch.

As the search for the plane’s flight recorder and black box drags on, conspiracy theories thrive and speculations about Scott’s private life spread unchecked. Judged on plot alone, this novel is a fantastic read, a suspenseful search for the truth. Yet it is also a thoughtful and moving look at the myriad choices that make a life.

When I requested this ARC, I didn’t know much about it.  Before the Fall wildly exceeded my (admittedly non-existent) expectations. The official publication date is May 31, 2016–I predict a Gone Girl-level runaway bestseller!

Genre: Suspenseful disaster novel that will make you ponder the existential mysteries of life.

Read it if: You love books that hook you immediately and refuse to let go until you’ve reached the end; you enjoy plots that involve art and artists; you like your suspenseful thrillers with a heaping helping of deft characterization and compassionate humanity.

Skip it if: You have a phobia about air travel; you dislike strong language; you have a lot of things to do and can’t afford to stay up all night reading this book.

Movie-worthy: YES. This would make a fantastic movie. I demand to see this movie!

Kitten Seeds of Evil

My banned books mug. So many kitten seeds of evil!

My banned books mug. So many kitten seeds of evil!

Normally I just use this blog as a way to record my thoughts about books I’ve read, but an article in today’s Washington Post got me sufficiently fired up to veer off onto the subject of politics–and the slippery slope to book banning. Specifically, the object of my rage is proposed Virginia legislation that would allow parents to review and potentially block books deemed “sexually explicit” from reaching the vulnerable eyeballs of their children. Here’s how the Post describes it:

“The bill would require K-12 teachers to identify classroom materials with ‘sexually explicit’ content and notify parents, who would have the right to ‘opt out’ their children and give them something less objectionable to study.”

The bill, approved on Thursday by the Senate education committee, was inspired by a parent who tried and failed to keep Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved out of Fairfax County classrooms in 2013. Now, I realize Beloved is an intense book. It doesn’t shy away from difficult, painful subject matter: slavery, sexual assault, murder. It’s also a powerful and important part of American literature, as well as a Pulitzer Prize winning novel.

First of all, who gets to define what “sexually explicit” means? And second, why would a parent attempt to restrict the reading material of their high school senior anyway? At that age, kids are one step away from independence and adulthood; preventing them from reading Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man or Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (two other books mentioned by the outraged parent in question) will not keep them in a bubble of ignorant safety forever. Personally, I will be THRILLED when my kids start reading such challenging, engaging and profound works of literature. (My oldest is currently halfway through The Catcher in the Rye. Good times!)

More importantly, this type of legislation could easily lead to teachers shying away from controversial literary works and sticking with more anodyne choices to ensure that no kids have to opt-out. Ultimately, the state’s curriculum could be skewed away from reading assignments based on merit to books chosen for their innocuous content. As a parent in Virginia and a life-long reader, this prospect is chilling.

Parenting is about instilling values and judgment in your kids, not putting blinders on them, and certainly not diluting the education of children across the state.  I would suggest that parents who have concerns with what their children are learning take a close look at the materials assigned over the course of the year, actually read the books, and then discuss them with their child. Imagine what opportunities that sort of ongoing conversation could provide!

Unfortunately, however, not all of the state senators who voted the proposed bill out of committee have even read Beloved. Senator Charles “Bill” Carrico admitted he’d only read excerpts, and he had this to say in the Post article:

“Evil is just–when you plant the seed, it’s a kitten,” he said. “You feed it, it becomes a lion and it eats you.”

That’s right. The Virginia state senate is here to protect our children from the kitten seeds of evil. I feel so much better now.


Review: Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll

Where did I get this book? I won it from a fellow blogger!

Where did I get this book? I won it from a fellow blogger!

TifAni FaNelli, the distractingly capitalized protagonist of Luckiest Girl Alive, has worked hard to reinvent herself. At 29, TifAni (now known as Ani, pronounced “AH-nee”) has a successful career as a magazine writer in New York. She’s engaged to a good-looking guy from a wealthy family, and she diets (i.e., starves) herself into the most fashionable outfits with ruthless dedication and an eye on her wedding dress.

Despite her success, Ani’s fashionable veneer hides a black hole of bitterness and cynicism. It gradually becomes clear that something in her past damaged her in a way that she believes is irreparable. The cause of that damage, the events that occurred at her high school during her freshman year, will be the subject of a documentary, and Ani plans to use the opportunity to finally tell her side of the story.

The novel alternates between Ani’s increasingly shaky grip on her life as the start of the documentary approaches, and 14-year-old TifAni’s brutal introduction to the cruel realities of the social hierarchy at her new private school. It is difficult to watch as TifAni makes terrible choices in her pursuit of the popular kids’ approval. As it turns out, this is only a prelude to the true tragedy at the heart of TifAni’s transformation.

Ani is not an easy character to ride along with. She can be profoundly unpleasant and manipulative to the extreme, so focused on winning the admiration of others that it seems uncertain she even knows who she really is or what she would want if no one else could see her. She hopes to show the world how far she’s come by participating in the documentary, but ultimately, she reveals more than she intended.

Genre: Suspenseful dark fiction.

Read it if: You think Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep would have been better with more violence; you are a fan of Gillian Flynn’s Dark Places; you really hated high school and would like to imagine how it could have been even worse.

Skip it if: You are sensitive to depictions of sexual assault, gun violence, or eating disorders; you prefer likable protagonists; you were hoping the title meant this was a light, cheerful read (hint: it’s ironic!)

Movie-worthy: Honestly, it would be hard to watch.




Review: The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

Where did I get this book? Bought it, and it's GORGEOUS!

Where did I get this book? Bought it, and it’s GORGEOUS!

Set in the world of post-Arthurian England, The Buried Giant is Kazuo Ishiguro’s first foray into the world of fantasy. While it’s true that ogres, pixies and dragons play pivotal roles in the story, The Buried Giant is a fantasy novel in the same way that Never Let Me Go is science fiction; Ishiguro’s exquisite skill as a storyteller ultimately makes the question of genre irrelevant.

Axl and Beatrice, two elderly Britons, resolve to leave their subterranean village and undertake a journey to see their son. They have become increasingly marginalized by the other villagers, taunted by children and reduced to spending their nights in darkness when their candle is taken away. More troubling, however, is the mist that seeps through the region, clouding and erasing memories. Axl and Beatrice can recall only that they love each other; details of their past together, even of their son, are scant and difficult to retain.

When the two shelter at a nearby Saxon village, Beatrice seeks out a wise woman, hoping to get help for the pain in her side and perhaps learn more about the cause of the mist. Her friend advises her to travel to a monastery to find a monk reputed to be a healer. Axl agrees to the detour, even though it means a more arduous climb, and soon they have acquired a pair of unexpected traveling companions whose fates become intertwined with their own. It becomes clear that there may be a way to lift the mist and recover what they have forgotten, but will they want to remember?

The Buried Giant displays the  gorgeous, heartbreaking subtlety that makes all of Ishiguro’s novels so deeply affecting and powerful. Axl and Beatrice are pulled toward the conclusion of their quest by the enigmatic power of dream logic, their lost memories an irresistible unknown.

Genre: Fantasy quest with surreal elements and existential resonance.

Read it if: You loved (and/or were permanently scarred by) Never Let Me Go; you enjoy movies like Memento or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind or books like Kafka’s The Trial or Harvest by Jim Crace; you are intrigued by the unreliable nature of memory.

Skip it if: You dislike ambiguity, fantasy elements, fairy tales or stories weighty with meaning; you’re looking for a fast-paced adventure story; you prefer your protagonists young and spry.

Movie-worthy: I don’t know if it could be done. I never saw the movie they made of Never Let Me Go because a) it sounded too emotionally painful to contemplate and b) it seemed impossible for a movie to even approach the level of the book.


Review: The 500 by Matthew Quirk

Where did I get this book? My dad gave it to me. (He liked it too!)

Where did I get this book? My dad gave it to me. (He liked it too!)

Mike Ford, the hero of The 500, is a Horatio Alger success story–raised by a single mother after his father went to prison, he dabbled in crime but found discipline and purpose in the military. His hard work pays off big time:  while pursuing dual degrees in law and politics at Harvard, he earns a coveted spot at the Davies Group, a firm with legendary influence in the world of Washington power.

Soon Mike has the respect he’s yearned for, along with more money than he could have imagined. Until, of course, he discovers that his new bosses are into some nefarious activities and that he’s expected to participate. Henry Davies, the founder of the Davies Group, believes that everyone can be bought. It’s just a matter of finding the right price, the perfect pressure point, the secret sin.

If this sounds an awful lot like The Firm, you’re not wrong. The plot trajectory is similar, but The 500 takes place in a distinctly Washingtonian milieu. (It was especially fun for me when the characters roamed around the northern Virginia suburbs, my new home since last summer.) The author previously wrote for The Atlantic and has a flair for authentic detail. Mike’s distinctive voice and the novel’s fast pacing make for an entertaining read, even if some of the wilder action sequences require a certain suspension of disbelief.

Genre: Politico-legal thriller with DC street cred.

Read it if: You harbor deep suspicions about the integrity of our country’s leaders; you really loved The Firm; you’re looking for an action-packed, fast-paced read.

Skip it if: You thought this was the sequel to Kass Morgan’s The 100; you prefer to believe in the honesty and incorruptibility of lawmakers and law enforcement; you are a big fan of the artist Dan Flavin.

Movie-worthy: Sure, I’d see that movie.