Do you love a can’t-put-down thriller filled with lies, secrets and schemes galore? Yes? Then get your hands on a copy of Nicholas Searle’s The Good Liar. Clever, engrossing and shocking is this tale of an octogenarian lifelong liar working on his last con. A page-turner that will haunt your thoughts long after you read the last word.
We meet Roy as he is preparing to embark on his last con. His mark is Betty, a sweet, trusting widow with a sizeable nest egg. They meet via online dating, arranged by Roy and the con is set in motion. Gain her trust. Move in with her. Have her “invest” with him in a phony high-yielding venture, leaving him with her investment. Easy, right? After all, Roy has been doing this his entire life. But what made Roy a good liar? Working backwards from adulthood to childhood, Searle brilliantly doles out details of Roy’s life, continually building suspense. You will devour each page, wanting to know Roy’s innermost secrets. But you will also need to know if Roy gets his mark. And what happens to Betty? The twists will shock and awe you!
Fans of Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley and James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice will enjoy Searle’s debut offering. The Good Liar also makes for an exceptional book club selection. Multidimensional characters, surprising twists and a good versus evil theme will definitely spark lively discussions. In fact, I was desperate to discuss this book with someone. So grab two copies of The Good Liar today, one for you and one for a friend, and get ready to be entertained and shocked! No lie!
Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air is a publishing phenomenon. Released mid-January, it debuted at number one on The New York Times hardcover nonfiction bestseller list, where it remains. This poetic memoir of life and impending death has the feel of an important book, one that will be read and talked about for years to come. It shines a light on what it means to be human.
Kalanithi was about to complete his residency in neurosurgery at Stanford, when he began experiencing crippling back pain and weight loss. Initial X-rays looked fine, but the possibility of cancer was always in his mind. He chalked up his symptoms to long, grueling days in the operating room and his aging 36-year-old body. He admitted that while he was an authoritative surgeon, he was a meek patient.
Weeks later, when fierce chest pains began, he was forced to confront what he knew all along. A CT scan and subsequent tests revealed stage IV lung cancer. When Breath Becomes Air is a beautiful examination of a life cut short, a memoir rich in introspection and unsparing in emotion. When his health problems began, Kalanithi was under a tremendous amount of stress. The completion of his residency was all-consuming. His wife Lucy, an internist herself, had some doubts about their marriage and was planning some “alone time.” His diagnosis proved a game-changer.
Not only did his wife stay, but the couple decided to accelerate their plans to have a baby, continuing the circle of life. Kalanithi shared his most intimate hopes and fears with readers, as he witnessed his daughter’s birth from his own fragile, uncertain state of health.
He underwent various treatments, soldiering forward not knowing how much time he had remaining. He continued to work on the manuscript that became this book, all the while buoyed by faith and his large family. When he died in March 2015, Lucy completed the book, adding an epilogue of her own to fill in her husband’s last weeks. This section is both wrenching and cathartic for anyone who has sat with a loved one during their final hours. Kalanathi’s dying wish was to leave behind a legacy in print. A true polymath, Kalanithi held both a BA and MA in English literature; he was also a student of philosophy. All of this informs his writing. When Breath Becomes Air ensures he will live on, remembered not only for his story, but for his eloquent words.
If you like your homicides with a side of vegan cupcakes and old school mix tapes, Libby Cudmore’s The Big Rewind is just the book for you. Set in a perfectly realized Brooklyn neighborhood populated by artists, musicians and other assorted hipsters, this debut novel offers an eclectic mix of mystery, love, social commentary and angst.
While attempting to deliver mail to her neighbor KitKat, Jett finds her dead on the kitchen floor, beaten to death with her own rolling pin. When KitKat’s innocent boyfriend Bronco is arrested for the crime, Jett vows to find the true killer. She believes the answer to the killer’s identity is contained within a mix tape that had been sent to KitKat anonymously — it sounds an awful lot like a breakup letter, from someone who was NOT Bronco. While immersing herself in KitKat’s love life, nostalgia takes hold and Jett begins reconnecting with ex-boyfriends who had loved her, deceived her and left her.
If Jett continues to follow the trail, will she find KitKat’s killer? And will she find her own romance worthy of mix tape exaltation?
Readers who enjoy this music-laden murder mystery may also like Simmone Howell’s Girl Defective. For a similar romantic plotline without the bloodshed, try Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity. If you’re interested in a real life romance that ends in tragedy, check out Rob Sheffield’s memoir Love Is a Mix Tape.
Alyce is trying to figure out how to attend the dance try-outs that could secure her future when she's supposed to be working on her father's fishing boat. Dora is trying to build a life for herself away from her abusive parents. Ruth is just trying to get by and avoid the attention of her domineering grandmother. Hank is running away with his brothers. Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock's novel The Smell of Other People's Houses interweaves the stories of four teens as they confront their personal challenges and begin to gain control in determining how their life choices are made.
Set in Alaska during the Reagan administration, Hitchcock makes the Last Frontier seem like home with her descriptions of daily life — hanging out with friends, shopping at Goodwill, eating blueberries — interspersed with that which is wholly new to “Outsiders” (anyone from the mainland United States). By writing this story, she brings to light many challenges of Alaskan society — limited resources, Native rights and government representation—as well as many challenges that are not unique to Alaska — alcoholism, divorce, and abuse. Fans of Rebecca Stead will find a compatible voice in the naturalistic way Hitchcock includes the historical aspects of the ’60s, juxtaposing her characters’ development with Alaska’s acceptance of statehood into the U.S., in this emotionally-driven tale.
In Ronald L. Smith’s novel Hoodoo, twelve-year-old Hoodoo Hatcher’s family has a history of practicing hoodoo or folk magic. Despite his name Hoodoo can’t cast a single spell. His grandmother, Mama Frances, tells him that his heart-shaped birthmark under his eye is a sign he’s marked for magic and his ability to conjure will come in time, but Hoodoo’s time is rapidly running out. A mysterious and malevolent man called the Stranger has appeared in town and he’s stalking Hoodoo. Hoodoo has to discover the truth about his family’s past and find a way to conjure before the Stranger destroys Hoodoo and everyone he loves.
Part coming-of-age story, part Southern Gothic tale, Hoodoo is creepy and mysterious, perfect for any middle schooler who enjoys the supernatural. Even though the story is set in 1930s Alabama during Jim Crow, Hoodoo’s world is a self-contained society with its own secrets and powers. Hoodoo is a likeable and relatable narrator, struggling not just with supernatural forces but also with bullies and his first crush.
Smith currently lives in Baltimore and he recently won the Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe New Talent Author Award. His writing is smooth and easy, with a rhythm to it that lends well to reading the book out loud. Hoodoo is a good read for any fan of scary stories, but fans of Lemony Snicket should definitely check this book out. Read the Between the Covers author interview of Ronald L. Smith here.
Video gaming is one of the most rapidly growing and ever evolving hobbies of the 21st century. The gaming industry grosses more money each year than the movie and music industries combined. With figures like this, it’s no surprise that a gaming counterculture has arisen, eager to create and share games that shun traditional styles in favor of a more indie appeal. In The State of Play: Creators and Critics on Video Game Culture, notable game designers, players and critics sound off their opinions on the current trends and directions of both the AAA and indie game movements.
One of the topics most frequently discussed in The State of Play is the concept of player identity. Evan Narcisse’s “The Natural,” Hussein Ibrahim’s “What It Feels Like to Play the Bad Guy,” and Anita Sarkeesian and Katherine Cross’ “Your Humanity Is in Another Castle” all make great arguments for more diversity in every aspect of the characters players control and interact with.
Zoe Quinn, creator of the notable indie game Depression Quest, details her harrowing experiences developing, launching and living through her game and gives readers a glimpse into what it was like to come under fire during the infamous #Gamergate movement of late 2014. Merritt Kopas’ essay “Ludus Interruptus” makes a great argument for much more open-minded views of sexuality and acts of sex in Western gaming. Despite making massive strides in both technical and creative compositions in the past few years, video games have still remained very old-fashioned when it comes to sex and how it’s initiated, portrayed and perceived in media.
Readers who identify as gamers or are interested in the increasingly complex culture of video games should read The State of Play. Games are currently one of the most powerful creative mediums for expression, offering users the chance to become fully immersed in their experiences through interaction. The State of Play is a fantastic, unprecedented collection of reflective literature on different experiences from every angle. Every essay is spliced with Internet links and footnotes leading to resources for further exploration, and there is much to be learned.
Rebecca Podos' debut novel The Mystery of Hollow Places is a combination coming-of-age story and atmospheric mystery. Imogene has always loved reading detective books, especially the ones written by her dad. When he disappears in the middle of the night, leaving behind only one cryptic clue, Imogene decides to start sleuthing herself. The clue points her toward her absent mother, a figure she only knows from fairy tales spun by her father at bedtime. In order to find him, Imogene is convinced she must find out the true story behind this woman who vanished from their lives so long ago.
As a mystery aficionado, Imogene draws on the skills she has picked up from novels over the years to try and solve her case. Her dad’s first best-seller becomes her how-to manual as she tries to figure out the fine art of private investigation. Along the way, she references dozens of fictional detectives which fans of the genre will enjoy. The fast-paced plot is set against a chilly, snowy New England backdrop, perfect for a good mystery story.
In the hands of a lesser writer, it could become a fun, noir-flavored mystery, but Podos creates a novel with depth. Imogene is forced to start rethinking who she thought she was in the light of the truths she uncovers about her missing parents, both of whom battle mental illness.
Podos hooks readers with a suspenseful mystery, but what makes this book so memorable is her beautiful style and Imogene’s endearing first person narration. Aside from missing parents, Imogene still has to navigate awkward interactions with the boy she has secretly adored forever, fights with her best (only) friend and procuring gas money for her illicit investigation. There is nothing trite or saccharine about Podos’ handling of love, loneliness and the struggle toward self-discovery. Imogene is real, funny and absolutely endearing.
George Saunders is an award-winning author and MacArthur Genius Grant recipient who’s made a name for himself writing dark, occasionally violent stories that satirize capitalism. In other words: not exactly bedtime material. But with his newest book, he decided he wanted to write exactly that: a story to tell his daughters at bedtime. To do this, he had to come up with a whole new bag of tricks and the resulting book The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip is a refreshingly touching defense of tenderness.
The story takes place in the three shack seaside town of Frip, where a young girl named Capable lives with her father and makes a meager living producing goat’s milk with the rest of her community. Unfortunately, Frip is also home to some orange spiky baseball-shaped creatures called gappers who attach themselves to goats, stopping them from producing milk. Getting gappers off of goats is a constant chore for the people of Frip, until the gappers form a new strategy: to gang up on Capable’s yard all at once. Capable asks her neighbors for help, but, sadly, they’ve decided that their sudden gapper-free life is a reward for their good character and that Capable’s bad luck must be punishment for bad character. They offer her ridiculously impractical advice like, “Be more efficient than you’ve ever been before. In fact, be more efficient than is physically possible. I know that’s what I’d do.” In order to survive Capable will have to find a new way of life and a way to teach her neighbors the value of community.
As always, Saunders' prose is a comfort. Even in storybook mode he manages to be scathing and critical without sacrificing warmth, something not many writers have balanced since Kurt Vonnegut. It’s a reassuring voice, and, much like a good bedtime story, you’ll want to read this book again and again. If you have time, check out his most recent appearance on The Late Show to hear him sing a song inspired by Frip (Saunders is one of those rare guitar strumming MacArthur Geniuses).