I like to read fiction with plots that drive forward with cinematic pacing. Not sure why. Well, yes I am. I studied filmmaking back in school and worked for Warner Bros. for a few years. That's probably why. However, I've delved into some historic non-fiction and biography a tad. But none of the boring ones! It's got to fit in with my healthy diet of spy thrillers.
Tim's Staff Picks:
Title: Prodigal Son: An Orphan X Novel
Comments: The best mystery-thriller series you've never heard of. Hurwitz has been writing thrillers since the 90s, and he's just one of those whose books fly under the radar. But this particular series featuring Evan Smoak, aka Orphan X, really deserves greater attention within the thriller genre.
Title: The Barnabus Project
Comments: What I love about this one is the DETAIL in the illustrations! There's so much extra story hidden in these pictures, below the already-fun tale that is being told with the help of some words.
I love Barnabus! (And Blinky! And Quirt! And Lowell! and... ... )
Title: I See Faces
Comments: Faces in things, that's all this book is. I absolutely love this cast of characters frozen in a single moment of one extreme emotion or another. I can't help but imagine the stories behind these goofy personalities...
Comments: It's the art that I noticed first, which drew me into a charmingly odd tale of Eric, an "exchange student."
You will love the mystery behind Shaun Tan's story here - especially if you were a fan of his superb wordless picture book The Arrival.
Title: Everything Sad Is Untrue: (a true story)
Comments: "[Sam] gasped: ‘Gandalf! I thought you were dead! But then I thought I was dead myself. Is everything sad going to come untrue?..."
What a beautiful blurring of the lines between memoir and mythology! The author is telling you his actual life story. But right now he's only eleven, and trying to convince his classmates (and you!) that he really is descended from kings and heroes in Persian folklore. They really did (just barely!) escape the Iranian secret police to come to Oklahoma. The funny and fantastical narration, full of childlike sincerity, pathos, and comedy, feels like a cross between "The Princess Bride" by William Goldman, "Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights" by Salman Rushdie, and, of course...Scheherazade telling her tales in "1001 Nights"
This is my favorite book I've read in 2020, hands down.
Title: The Burning: The Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921
Fans of the "Watchmen" graphic novel may have seen HBO's big budget series that recently received 26 Emmy nominations (the most of any TV series this year!). The very first episode traces superhero trauma and lineage back to the historical massacre in Tulsa in 1921, which, for nearly 80 years, was unjustly underreported or seldom ever talked about. Dive into this gripping non-fiction tragedy, that's told like a compelling narrative thriller.
Comments: This book is hilarious and perplexing and wonderful. Charlie Kaufman's enigmatic creativity shows up in full force, which you will enjoy only if you liked his screenplays for films such as "Adaptation" and "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind." Here, a film critic on a trip happens upon a lost piece of cinematic history, and devotes his life to making sense of it. The first-person narrative happens to be inside the mind of a very strange individual, which took me some time to get used to, but 50 pages in I was hooked! The absurd humor is sometimes laugh-out-loud funny, and, true to Kaufman-form, always poignantly existential
Title: The Splendid and the Vile
Comments: I've never been a major "Churchill person" - but that may have changed now. Maybe all I needed was Erik Larson's unique and perfect lens through which to view a fresh portrait of the historical colossus. This beautiful narrative follows a day-by-day account of the public and private lives of the people of London during the blitz. Such a simple concept, but what a rich tapestry of stories this allows for! You'll stand in awe of the courage and even laugh at the dry English wit of these resilient wartime heroes.
Title: Into the Fire
Comments: In this 5th installment of Orphan X's adventures, once again all the ingredients for a smart action-thriller are here: a deadly assassin on the trail of an innocent victim, the last-resort call for help on The Nowhere Man's "bat-phone" hotline, and the good vigilante who can operate outside the law to save the day. But this time, the villain has more layers than a bad onion, and Orphan X must follow the crooked trail. With a hydra-head plot like this, you're kept guessing all the way down the line.
Title: Mr. Nobody
Comments: If you can't remember who you are, how do you know who you can trust? Or, if you're England's leading psychiatrist on missing memories, how can you avoid the secrets from your own past?
Catherine Steadman weaves a taut psychological thriller here with intense wit and gifted writing. And it's only her 2nd book ever! (Read Something in the Water if you haven't already - but it's not necessary for this story.)
I love that I liked all the characters - they're incredibly relatable - and they're all making intelligent choices here. (There's nothing worse than a thriller with dum-dum characters making their situations worse.) But that all makes the conflict all the more intense!
Title: You Look Like a Thing and I Love You
If only AI knew how funny it was to us humans! Janelle Shane does a fantastic job making the science behind machine learning algorithms informatively hilarious; she started a humor blog called aiweirdness.com devoted entirely to ridiculous AI miscalculations.
Read this for a fun way to learn about AI, or just to laugh at the absurd results that the AI brains produce as they try oh so very hard to think like a human. Indeed, most examples read like experimental poetry written by aliens.
Find out why we're safe from an AI apocalypse (for now), how AI use pick-up lines (which produced this book's title) and how to bake things that AIs think humans will eat (we won't.)
Here's one example of an original AI recipe for "Spread Chicken Rice"
2 lb hearts, seeded
1 cup shredded fresh mint or raspberry pie
1/2 cup catrimas, grated
1 tbsp vegetable oil
2 1/2 tbsp sugar, sugar
And you don't even want to see the step-by-step instructions.
According to one AI neural net, this book is “a featureless masterpiece of tough-minded language.” Click here to read more hilarious AI reviews of this book.
Title: The Fate of Fausto: A Painted Fable
This beautifully crafted book feels hand-made. (Even the typeface inside is printed lithographically, rather than with a computer, lending glorious subtle imperfections.)
But more importantly - this story is GREAT!
It's like the classic "The Giving Tree" except the greedy anti-hero here gets his comeuppance.
These amazing paintings on the pages just blow me away - and yet they're not overdone. (You know Jeffers' art from "The Day the Crayons Quit" series.)
Title: Life Undercover: Coming of Age in the CIA
Could you ever have guessed that a spy's most valuable item to carry around would be, not a gun or a disguise, but 3x5 index cards?
Want to know how agents use the balance on coffee cards to communicate with their handlers?
Ever wonder what the clandestine training at "The Farm" is really like?
As a reader of spy fiction, I absolutely loved Amaryllis Fox's memoir and the light is sheds on the real world corners of the intelligence lifestyle. Her soulful observations about terror, love, and genuine human connection give the espionage here more heart than you might expect.
You'll love it, too, if you like fiction like "The Expats" and "I Am Pilgrim," or TV shows like "Alias," Covert Affairs," or "The Americans."
Title: Nothing Ventured
This is a pleasingly British detective story about art forgery, museum heists, new loves, and antique deceptions.
For all that Jeffrey Archer has written, I had never read him until this book. I loved the introduction of the new character Warwick, as well as the 1979 London setting.
Read this for:
- A great mystery with a gentle soul
- A trip across the pond and back a few decades
- A new series to start with no baggage attached
Title: Cold Storage
Even a deadly mutating fungal-virus hybrid can't dampen the fun you'll have with these characters, if you can stay un-infected long enough.
Imagine a pseudo-zombie-infection plot, brief and concise and occurring mostly over a single day and night. I had a lot of fun seeing two characters in particular cope with the events: it was as if Jesse Pinkman and Jane Margolis from "Breaking Bad" are coworkers on the night shift at the doomed self-storage facility, and Koepp's sense humor through their dialogue is delightfully infectious.
Title: The Typefaces
Comments: Coming soon.
Title: The Snakes
This story is a psychological thriller, but only in the same excellent way that "Breaking Bad" was a crime procedural show. The necessary elements are all there, but it's the way that it's told -- pacing, perspective, detail -- that elevates it to a higher lever of superb drama.
Lesser writers confuse mere conflict for drama. Sadie Jones is far better. Here, the conflict is subtle (at first), pulsing just beneath the surface, like unseen snakes in your attic. And yet, the diminutive conflict leaves room for massive drama that is fragrant, rich, and delicious.
I love how these characters are nearly under-described, but so clearly defined by their simple existence: they way they speak or how they order at a restaurant or the way they hold their room keys.
Sadie Jones is a master magician -- a snake charmer. But this illusion isn't with big set pieces, it's close-up gallery magic. Perfect sleight of hand. This is the best kind of un-contrived thriller, and one that rattles around in your head long after you put it down.
*PS: If you loved "Something in the Water" by Catherine Steadman, you must read this one.
Title: Sounds Like Titanic
This book feels like the a classical-music-version of Almost Famous, an on-tour-with-the-rock-band story with a great soundtrack. Even though “writing about music is like dancing about architecture,”* you can really feel the dance in this memoir. This story is a crazy dance that was so fun to read, and thought provoking, too. Hindman's beautiful prose describes a bizarre plot: Playing the violin for a traveling ensemble that secretly mimes along to a CD player, a detail which the audience never realizes.
I was truly fascinated by the cast of real life characters that are straight out of a Wes Anderson film. A successful Composer who has never heard Beethoven's Fifth. The sensitive mustachioed roadie who gets teary-eyed every time he hears the ensemble perform. The Russian classical violinist who only listens to techno in his car. And Jessica, the young woman in the big city fresh from Appalachia trying to make a living as a professional musician.
I love how weird the real world can be!
*credited to comedian-musician Martin Mull in 1979
Title: Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup
I started writing this review when I was only one-third of the way into this book: that's how good this is! Because it's almost not about what happens or where this true story goes (even though those aspects are truly captivating!), it's really about how superbly Carreyrou crafts the messy real-life events into a grippingly dramatic business thriller!
DEFINITELY READ if you:
Title: Love Poems for Married People