Friday, February 23, 2018
Books

Review: A pretty little liar's deadly spell in 'The Girl With a Clock for a Heart'

Who are literature's most lethal women? There are many candidates, of course — male writers keep churning them out — but we might start with Shakespeare's Goneril and Regan, those heartless sisters in King Lear. In the world of crime fiction, we might shudder at the thought of Phyllis Nirdlinger, the determined husband-killer in James M. Cain's Double Indemnity, or more recently, Desiree Stone, the rich, gorgeous and homicidal femme fatale in Dennis Lehane's Sacred.

And here's a new contender: Liana Decter, who causes endless heartbreak and occasional death in Peter Swanson's compulsively readable first novel, The Girl With a Clock for a Heart. Liana's primary victim is George Foss, a well-meaning fellow who falls in love with her at age 18 and still can't resist her 20 years later, even after she has not only broken his heart but framed him for multiple crimes.

George meets the gorgeous Liana when they're freshmen at a small college in Connecticut. Swanson paints a sweet picture of the uncertainties of one's freshman year and of the way the magic of romance can transform it into paradise. When the young couple make love, it's George's first time, and Liana says it's hers, too, although that, like the name she's using, is just one of her lies.

Near the end of their first semester, after Liana's roommate goes home, they spend a week mostly in bed. "The intensity of that week bordered on an almost unbearable sadness for George. He'd read enough books to know that youthful love comes only once, and he never wanted it to end or go away."

Alas, it's never that good again. Each goes home for the Christmas holidays, Liana to a grubby little Florida town called Sweetgum. Then George receives the devastating news that Liana is dead. He takes a bus to Florida and learns that someone is dead but she's not the girl he loves. He also learns Liana had grown up amid squalor and violence in a world far different from his own comfortable home back east. Soon, Liana is suspected of two murders and skips town. George returns to school, still in love.

Twenty years later, he's the business manager of a literary magazine in Boston. He never married and is still haunted by Liana. Abruptly, she appears and pleads for help. She's stolen half a million dollars in cash and is being pursued by killers. She says she wants to return the money but is afraid to take it herself. Will George make the delivery for her?

Swanson tells his story in chapters that alternate between past and present. Each story has its own suspense, and each carries us deeper into George's obsession with Liana and her bottomless deceit.

Near the end, George reflects on what he's learned: "It was a gift, a specialty, a talent. She could become someone else, and she could then just as easily kill what she became, taking out whoever happened to be in the way. And if transformation was her special talent, then George knew what had attracted Liana to him was that he was someone who would never transform. He would always be the same."

For all the book's delights, I had a problem with its ending, when someone escapes from a situation that seems to offer no possibility of escape. But by then I was willing to give Swanson the benefit of the doubt. This is a highly original story, well told, that should be a contender for crime fiction's best first novel of 2014.

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Author Allison Winn Scotch gives a nod to Steven King

Author Allison Winn Scotch gives a nod to Steven King

NightstandAllison Winn ScotchScotch, a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, is the author of several novels. Her newest, Between Me and You, set in Los Angeles, is the story of Ben and Tatum, a couple whose marriage is unraveling, due perhaps ...
Published: 02/23/18

Events: Imbolo Mbue to discuss, sign Oprah pick ‘Behold the Dreamers’ at Largo library

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Review: John Dufresne gives an entertaining short course in ‘Flash! Writing the Very Short Story’

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Don’t tell John Dufresne you don’t have time to read.In fact, don’t tell him you don’t have time to write. Instead, spend a little time with his new book, Flash! Writing the Very Short Story. You’ll find a treasure trove of stories you can read in th...
Published: 02/22/18
Amy Hill Hearth’s ‘Streetcar to Justice’ brings back a forgotten story of black history

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During Black History Month, many students learn about Rosa Parks, the civil rights activist who in 1955 refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Ala., bus to a white passenger — and rode into history.A century before that, another black woman mad...
Published: 02/20/18
Notable: Five new books for young readers for Black History Month

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Published: 02/20/18
‘Hello, Universe’ and ‘Wolf in the Snow’ top American Library Association awards for books for young readers

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Published: 02/16/18
Review: Paul Goldberg’s ‘The Chateau’ sets sharp political satire in a Florida condo

Review: Paul Goldberg’s ‘The Chateau’ sets sharp political satire in a Florida condo

The election is fraught with wild allegations and vicious character assassination, accusations of corruption and kickbacks, misspelled messages and outrageous debates — and of course the Russians have their hands all over it.The 2016 presidential rac...
Published: 02/16/18

Events: Dr. Steven Masley to discuss ‘Better Brain Solution’ in Tampa

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Published: 02/15/18
Lauren Doyle Owens’ ‘Other Side of Everything’ a suspenseful look at life and death in suburbia

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Adel Minor dies alone, in her three-bedroom ranch house in a South Florida suburb. It’s the fire people notice first, a column of smoke rising amid the 1960s ranch houses of Seven Springs, but once it’s put out the firefighters find Adel, a widow in ...
Published: 02/14/18
Jeremy McCarter, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s co-author, tells us what he’s reading

Jeremy McCarter, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s co-author, tells us what he’s reading

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Published: 02/14/18