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.


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Circe by Madeline Miller


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.


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.

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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.

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Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

GileadGilead is a difficult book to define. I’m not a religious person, and so I appreciate that the current of Christianity running beneath the book never fully rises to the surface, but it’s always there. It is, after all, about a man who spent his life as a minister, and it’s undeniably spiritual, but what it celebrates is not religion or God but the human desire and definition for happiness. It doesn’t have a traditional narrative, but it doesn’t need one. In a series of letters to his son, John Ames writes down his thoughts and meditations. We’re privy to his difficulties and regrets, but ultimately, Gilead is a celebration of life.

Within that celebration, Gilead is a deep, moving reflection on family and the importance of being there for your child, in some form if being there physically is not always possible. It’s the story of John Ames’s life and his father’s and his grandfather’s. It’s a message about acceptance and unconditional love.

Gilead has a distinctly melancholy feel throughout. From the beginning, you know the narrator is going to die, but it’s conversely hopeful and optimistic. Despite everything Ames has been through, including a long period of “darkness” that he alludes to several times, he remains appreciative of the life he was given. He regrets that he’s dying because he genuinely loves life, and he loves all the simple things and moments that make life what it is.

As I mentioned, there isn’t really a defined narrative in Gilead. It reads like you would expect a man on the brink of death’s journal to read, more like a stream of consciousness than a series of events, although the arrival of his son adds more layers to his thoughts and how he records them. Ames shares everything, from simple musings to deep-rooted fears, the joys of his past and worries about his departure from his beloved world. I feel like a better person for reading them.

Bottom line: Gilead is a deep, meditative book about the human condition. It’s probably not suited to those who prefer a more action-driven plot, but it’s filled with valuable insights.