In the Woods by Tana French

In the Woods

In the Woods is not a murder mystery. It was marketed as one, and it’s hailed as a preeminent example of crime fiction. But if you read this book expecting to solve both of its core mysteries or feel good about yourself for picking out all the baddies within the first few chapters, then you’re going to be disappointed.

What Tana French has done here is create a psychological character study disguised as a crime novel, and it’s one of the most brilliant books I’ve ever read. I’m already reading her latest, The Witch Elm, and I’ve picked up two more of her books.

In the Woods is the first of the Dublin Murder Squad series, each of which has a different protagonist. In this book, we’re thrown into the mind of Detective Rob Ryan, who’s the definition of an unreliable narrator. He even admits as much upfront. He’s a skilled liar, and his life has been irrevocably affected by an incident he experienced as a child. In the ’80s, he went into the woods in his hometown of Knocknaree, Ireland, with his two best friends. Several hours later, he walked back out with his shoes soaked in blood and his friends missing. In an attempt to perhaps protect him from breaking down completely, his brain has eradicated all memory of what happened in the woods, but when a new case forces him to revisit Knocknaree, things begin to crack open in much the way you would expect.

Except that nothing is really what you would expect. I can’t say too much without going into spoiler territory, but Rob is not a particularly likable protagonist. He lets his preconceived notions take over, and they’re often unjustified and unfair. He slips up on the job and devalues his relationships with people. His partner, Cassie Maddox, begins to wonder what’s going on in his head. I spent most of the book wanting to yell at him for being an idiot, but in the end, I realized that Tana French had spent over 400 pages expertly making me understand him, and that’s so much more complicated and ultimately satisfying than simply disliking him.

SLIGHTLY SPOILERY BIT BELOW!

Continue reading “In the Woods by Tana French”

Circe by Madeline Miller

saintanything

I’m shocked Circe is only 385 pages long. It feels like a vast and sprawling epic, as though it could be five or six books in one. The majority of it takes place in a single location, the island of Aiaia where Circe is exiled, yet her story spans countries, centuries, viewpoints, and emotions.

Expanding upon the Greek myth, this book casts the Titan goddess in a new light — one that is both feminist and humanist. Circe gains a deeper respect for humans than her fellow gods, who fail to see them as more than pawns. Her unique viewpoint among divinity is informed by her own treatment by her family, who revile her as much as any mortal when they’re not being actively worshiped by them.

Circe offers explanations for its protagonist’s habit of turning sailors into pigs and her desperate act of transforming the nymph Scylla into a monster. It adds depth to a common narrative surrounding powerful women — that they must be ill-tempered, ugly, and generally unlikable, luring men into their capricious traps. It allows Circe her flaws and mistakes (she’s still jealous of Scylla) but gives her agency and remorse. She gets to tell her own story rather than seeing it told by a man as a thinly-veiled allegory that furthers the stories of other men (namely Odysseus and Jason).

Circe reads much like a coming-of-age story. At its core, it’s about a woman who comes into her own, transforming from an idealistic young Titan into a self-determined sorceress who learns, to her detriment, how complex humans can be. All the while, she’s dealing with the familial difficulties that arise from being part of a pantheon of gods in a world that’s defined by things like status and beauty.

Miller’s prose is exquisite. It moved me to tears, particularly during one part which I wouldn’t dare spoil because it should be discovered the way things once were, by witnessing it in its rawest form. I can’t wait to read Song of Achilles, Miller’s other published novel about heroic yet ill-fated Achilles and his lover Patroclus.

Bottom line: Miller’s epic is a sympathetic retelling of Circe, whose sweeping insight had me reeling as I experienced her pain, love, and solitude through the author’s clear-flowing prose.

heart FAVORITES SHELF

The Momentum of War: American Involvement in Afghanistan and Pakistan

Note: This article was originally written for a university class on Eurasian politics and security. It discusses how the war’s momentum has changed from the Bush administration to the Obama administration. There’s more to explore and more complexities that have arisen since Trump was elected in 2016, but I’ve saved those for a later discussion.

American diplomat George Kennan warned that war tends to change momentum once it gets going, evolving from the initial purpose into something entirely different by the end.1 American involvement in Afghanistan and Pakistan can be encompassed by that idea. What began as a desire to preserve and promote American values, exacerbated by an attack on American soil, has become a much more complicated entanglement with various interests and groups in the region. Furthermore, it has facilitated an “identity crisis” in Pakistan, which has led to a military state that the U.S. has had to contend with even while cooperating with it.1 For Afghanistan’s part, it has remained a country whose stability has often been neglected in favor of other states’ competing interests. While Afghanistan has served as the main stage of the conflict between American interests and al Qaeda, the Taliban, and later the Islamic State (ISIS), it has also developed into a proxy for Pakistan’s interests in the Kashmir insurgency and the U.S.’s interests in Iraq.

Continue reading “The Momentum of War: American Involvement in Afghanistan and Pakistan”

Saint Anything by Sarah Dessen

saintanythingI’ve been a fan of Sarah Dessen for a long time. I got into her books after watching How to Deal, which I honestly don’t remember much about except that it starred Mandy Moore and introduced me to The Flaming Lips. I liked it when I was 14, though, enough to go out and buy the two Sarah Dessen books it was based on—That Summer and Someone Like You.

Dessen’s books are often cited as essential contemporary YA. They follow teen girls who are usually going through a significant transition in their lives. Romance is involved, but it takes a backseat to the other major events, which lead to personal growth and often familial healing.

Saint Anything follows this basic Dessen formula, but the details are what make it stand out against her other books—and other YA contemporaries as well. It’s sprinkled with pizza and lollipops, nighttime jaunts through the woods, a band that kept reminding me of Hep Alien from Gilmore Girls, and a group of best friends better than any best friends have ever bested. The plot digs deeper than most of Dessen’s previous books, confronting things like unwanted sexual attention. Its moments of conflict and reprieve are equally balanced, and the dialogue is interesting and believable. Through it all, Dessen weaves details that felt so natural that I kept being reminded of my own high school experience.

Bottom line: Saint Anything is Dessen’s most recent book and her magnum opus, with characters I wanted to hug and scenes I wanted to hide in. It’s going to be a tough one to follow.

Blackwell: A Captivating Adventure

Point-and-click adventures were the bread and butter of my earliest gaming experiences. I spent plenty of time killing zombies in Resident Evil and breaking boxes in Crash Bandicoot, but I’ve always been a lover of stories first and foremost, and adventure games are all about a good narrative. You could almost get away with calling them interactive novels if it weren’t for the fact that those are completely different things. Wadjet Eye Games’ Blackwell series is one of the more compelling stories I’ve run across in an adventure game, taking me back to my childhood while tapping into the unavoidable existentialism of my adult life.

The Blackwell Bundle comprises four separate games: The Blackwell Legacy, Blackwell Unbound, The Blackwell Convergence, and The Blackwell Deception. They’re short on their own, but when played one after the other they feel like a full game, and it’s well worth it for the $14.99 price tag.

The overarching story’s main protagonist is Rosa Blackwell, who you take control of in all but Blackwell Unbound. Rosa is a writer living in New York City who discovers she’s also a Medium. She’s a kickass character, sharp and driven and brimming with sarcasm. She could be anyone at first glance, but she has a well of depth under the surface that’s impressive considering the modest length of these games.

Continue reading “Blackwell: A Captivating Adventure”

My Top 5 Atmospheric Video Games

Video games are increasingly tailored to keep players coming back for more, and not just when it comes to multiplayer. Single player games offer multiple campaigns, varying endings, or dynamic plots that adjust to your choices as you play. While those features make for an interesting experience, they won’t matter if the in-game world doesn’t take hold of us and refuse to let go. Since we’re human beings with those pesky things called feelings, a good atmosphere is vital to us—sometimes all it takes to make us want to stay in a game, even after we’ve explored every inch of its world.

A combination of things can add up to a good atmosphere, but ultimately it’s what initially pulls you in. It answers the question of whether you want to explore a game’s world, and it’s absolutely crucial to that oft-cited feature that’s imperative for most of us: immersion. The feeling I get from being in a game will determine how absorbed I am by it and how much I’ll want to stay that way.

Merriam-Webster defines atmosphere as follows:

a :  the overall aesthetic effect of a work of art

b :  an intriguing or singular tone, effect, or appeal

Taking the definition into account, it’s important to note that atmosphere is also somewhat subjective. Different aesthetics will appeal to different people, so for that reason, this list is a personal one. Below are a few games that kept me lost in their “overall aesthetic” along with my attempts to figure out why.

Continue reading “My Top 5 Atmospheric Video Games”

Please Ignore Vera Dietz by A.S. King

Please Ignore Vera DietzThere are two things a book can possess that are guaranteed to pull me in:

1. A first-person narrative with a believable voice.

Vera Dietz is the best YA main character I’ve met in a while. She might just be my all-time favorite. She’s independent and sharp and complicated and a genuinely good person. She loses perspective and makes some bad decisions, mostly involving vodka, but underneath it all is a teenage girl who’s dealing with some heavy stuff and trying her best to keep going in spite of it. Her best friend Charlie is dead, and she’s left to cope with her complicated feelings for him, which often seesaw between love and hate, and the secrets she holds about his death.

Plus, she loves animals, she listens to Sam Cooke and Al Green, and she shops for back-to-school clothes at Goodwill. Those little details serve her character so well and make her even more real, and they make me want to hang out with her. She could really use a good friend.

2. Little quirks thrown in that help set the book apart from others I’ve read.

There are several of these:

  • Vera’s vocabulary words
  • Ken Dietz’ flow charts
  • Different character perspectives
  • Hilarious chapter titles
  • Zen quotes
  • Charlie’s napkin writings

All of these details add spice to the story, enhancing an already rich and engaging book.

Other things I loved:

  • Ken Dietz, Vera’s father. He’s dealing with some complex emotions too while trying to raise a grieving teenage daughter on his own, and you get to explore his thoughts and struggles in chapters written from his perspective. The way his relationship with Vera develops throughout the book is realistic and super sweet, putting him right up there with Keith Mars in the pantheon of awesome single dads.
  • Alternating past and present tense. The book switches between present events and flashbacks that serve as clues to Vera and Charlie’s complicated relationship and everything that led to his death. It seems like it could get confusing, but it never does. Everything flows so well.
  • A satisfying ending, despite some loose ends. Things that need to be dealt with are dealt with appropriately, and some details are left open to interpretation, but it leaves you contemplating them rather than feeling annoyed that they’re not resolved. It’s like we are Vera and Ken and the town. Sometimes we don’t have the answers to everything, so we’re left wondering about them instead, imagining how they could have been or how we wish they were. That’s real life, and that’s Please Ignore Vera Dietz.

Bottom line: A.S. King effortlessly combines quirk and realism into a gut-wrenching story about dealing with loss.

heart FAVORITES SHELF