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Big If

3.09  ·  Rating details ·  335 Ratings  ·  38 Reviews
The Secret Service agents guarding the vice president steel their nerves to a multitude of dangers every day. When he runs for the top spot on the Democratic ticket, however, their personal lives may just be the biggest obstacle to keeping him safe.
Wry, muscular Vi Asplund is the daughter of an atheist insurance adjuster who took the young Vi and her brother, Jens, to the
Paperback, 368 pages
Published April 1st 2003 by Mariner Books (first published 2002)
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Joe Valdez
I went from abandoning two novels on Stephen King's Reading List Part II, 2666 by Roberto Bolaño and The Dirty Secrets Club by Meg Gardiner, to giving a shot to one more, Big If by Mark Costello. I finished this one. Wit, character and research go a long way with me, even in the case of books like this, where those elements become indulgent and prove to be an awkward substitute for a story.

I struggled through the cryptic title (science fiction? romance? self help?) and cover design, with both pr
Ted Burke
May 16, 2008 rated it it was amazing
Mark Costello's novel Big If is a superb and unforgiving comedy of American life involving a low-level Secret Service agent who must get reacquainted with her estranged computer-genius brother when she takes a respite from the paranoid turns and twists of her nerve-rattling job. This is a book of richly skewed characters doing their best to make sense of their lives, or at least have their lives take on a fleeting semblance of normality.The quests, individual and collective, aren't what anyone w ...more
Jun 01, 2011 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Fiction. Though this book will tell you it's about the United States Secret Service, it's really just about some people who happen to work for the USSS and a couple more people who happen to know those people. It's about people. One of those people books where nothing much happens. You meet all these people, you get their flashbacks, you learn about their problems, and then the book is about that. Will Gretchen ever connect with her son in any meaningful way? Will Peta ever get Lauren Czoll to m ...more
Jan 26, 2013 rated it did not like it
“If you're 50 years old or younger, give every book about 50 pages before you decide to commit yourself to reading it, or give it up. If you're over 50, which is when time gets shorter, subtract your age from 100 - the result is the number of pages you should read before deciding whether or not to quit. If you're 100 or over you get to judge the book by its cover, despite the dangers in doing so.” ― Nancy Pearl

I wish I'd read this when I started this book, I would've stopped reading much sooner.
Dec 13, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Big If might contain the most astute cultural observations ever committed to the pages of an assassination novel. OK, that's a joke, because when you hear "assassination novel", you're probably expecting a by-the-numbers, plot-driven tale of brilliant but flawed gunmen, hard-boiled government agents, smuggled rifles and escape routes.

By choosing to mostly ignore plot and focus instead on his characters, Costello gets away with both exploding assumptions and taking us all on a messy, beautiful j
Mike Cuthbert
Aug 09, 2017 rated it did not like it
I have failed to finish only two or three novels in my long reading life. This is one of them. Whatever the author set out to do in this book escapes me. There are more or less three settings in the novel: a sophisticated programmer, a female Secret Service agent who is the programmer’s sister, and a male Secret Service agent. Nothing happens to them and they do nothing throughout the over half the book I managed to choke down before giving up. The sections concerning the programmer were particu ...more
Angelina Souren
Mar 26, 2018 rated it liked it
Reads well. Unusual book.
Eliza Victoria
Aug 30, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Mark Costello’s novel Big If is populated with some of the most interesting, most contemporary, characters. Walter is a moderate Republican atheist working in insurance. He has the habit of crossing out GOD in his dollar bills so that the statement reads IN US WE TRUST. He has two children: Jens, who has grown up as a software programmer, writing code for and pondering the morality (or immorality, or amorality) of the monster game he has developed; Violet has grown up to work in the Secret Servi ...more
Dec 16, 2013 rated it it was ok
A couple of intriguing premises, one involving a sort-or behind-the-scenes scenario at a computer game company and the other an inside look at a team of US Secret Service agents, compose a story which, despite having some well-drawn characters and some really sharp ideas floating through it, never quite seems to come together, and manages to sort of fizzle out in spite of itself.

I don't know; writers in the last couple of decades seem to have either skipped that part of English Lit where they t
Nov 16, 2010 rated it really liked it
Set over a matter of days before a presedential election, Costello explores the past and present of brother and sister Violet and Jens Asplund, Jens' wife Peta, Vi's coworkers Gretchen and Tashmo. Vi, Gretchen and Tashmo are Secret Service bodyguards protecting the current VP running in the presidential race; Jens is a software designer for a violent teenager's computer game, and Peta is a sucessful real estate agent.

Costello does a great job playing these different characters' lives off each ot
Jack Waters
Apr 10, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Mark Costello’s hard-boiled political story tale as prescient and present today as it must have when it was published in 2002. I also think he was robbed of the National Book Award, a mere finalist to Julia Glass’s “Three Junes.”

Costello tosses the reader into the lives of Secret Service agents & video game designers, as familial obligations and obfuscations take the toll during the high-stakes of a presidential election.

It’s about protection and invention with paranoia fueling the weaving p
K2 -----
Dec 26, 2014 rated it it was ok
It took me a long time to finish this book which isn't a good sign. Although I felt I gained some insights into what it is to be an agent working in the Secret Service I kept thinking that something was going to pull it all together and for me it just never did.

I found myself distracted and I'd put the book down and do something else.

Perhaps the reading suffered from so many interruptions but I was on an airplane for a longer flight and I still didn't finish it. Not a good sign.

I couldn't relate
Aug 28, 2011 rated it liked it
The summary to this novel would make it seem dry & uninteresting, but I didn't find it to be so. Costello excels on taking specified fields (Beltway politics, programming a MMORPG) & making them relateable. Even though Vi is the main focus of the novel, I was much more interested in Jens' story & the ethics of creating an alternate reality while trying to make money or predict human behavior. The story is good, but seems to get away from the writer, giving some of the other subplots ...more
Jan 22, 2015 rated it liked it
Good writing, the kind that makes me read a couple of lines or a paragraph to someone else. I like the details about subjects: guarding a V.P., threat-assessment, writing code for online games, appraising insurance claims, selling real estate, getting out the vote. While I was reading, I was very interested, and I may think back on some aspects, but right now, two days after finishing, I have no desire to re-read nor to recommend it to anyone else. I wonder if that will change.
Apr 29, 2014 rated it really liked it
All the way through I'm remembering Delillo's White Noise. It isn't clear till near the end what direction the book is going as you explore different related people's lives. The characters are believable and diverse though related by job and socially. For every character there is always another with the same job who has a different take on things. The book moves well even though there isn't a complex plot. It leaves you thinking about how each character will face the future.
Nov 26, 2011 rated it liked it
I read this because Costello was the only author mentioned in the New York magazine article "Just Kids" of whom I had never heard.

The book is one very long setup without a payoff. If you need payoff stay the hell away from this book. If you like strong characters, this book has them in abundance. It's a first act followed by a long middle without an ending.
Costello is an engaging storyteller, and most of his NH details were on target. The descriptions of the beauty of computer code and what made it satisfying to Jens were very well done. He has apparently never voted in NH however as his description of the way the polls in NH operate is off. I was disappointed by the ending as many threads of his story are left unresolved.
Mar 02, 2011 rated it it was amazing
The writing wasn't fabulous, but the subject matter was unusual and very well covered. This includes Secret Service protection operations and software development for a web game. There were some memorable characters. After I got a couple chapters in, I enjoyed it very much. Nat'l Book Award finalist.
Scott Robins
I'm reading along, thinking "This book is OK, not great but OK", when I get to page 79 and read this: " The tail car swerved, shearing the ambulance and striking a light pole, injuring a deputy, who later died instantly.". Later. Died. Instantly.

Instantly, but later. Not that right away kind of instantly. He lingered while he died instantly.

I will not read another word of this book.
Frederick Bingham
This is the story of Vi Asplund. She is a Secret Service agent who is in charge of guarding the Vice President as he campaigns for office. They make a campaign swing through New Hampshire, where Vi grew up.There are a number of other characters in the book. Vi's boss Gretchen. Her brother and sister-in-law. A fellow agent named Tashmo and another named Bobbie.
Oct 03, 2014 rated it really liked it
Thank you NPR, I would have never found this book on my own. More than a book about the secret service, the book puts you into the craziness and lives of people who do that job. I was surprised to see the book also follow the lives of some of the family members of agents too. Just a good story.
Aug 11, 2008 rated it liked it
Not your typical storyline and characters, which makes it interesting. I read it during the last election, and it made it a little more topical. A glimpse into the secret service and into computer gaming at the same time.
Victor Claar
Aug 05, 2009 rated it it was ok
A rarity: both the Economist and Esquire liked it, but I did not. A political drama that unfolds more like an Elmore Leonard novel than something richer in its approach. So if you like Elmore Leonard & politics, this might be a winner for you.
Roxann Souci
Jul 08, 2013 rated it liked it
Although this book did keep my attention, the characters didn't fully engage me.
Apr 14, 2008 rated it liked it
I feel a now have a small bit of knowledge of how the secret service agents guard important people in the government, especially when they are out and about.
Aug 23, 2007 rated it liked it
Recommends it for: Wanna be assassins
People who guard the president be messed up.
Mar 01, 2008 rated it really liked it
Interesting characters. Mediocre plot.
Mar 02, 2008 rated it liked it
It was a interesting book, but it just ended. Where's the wrap-up??
Sep 15, 2009 rated it it was ok
Interesting story and I really like the way the characters were developed. The ending left me unsatisfied and unresolved. The book just sort of stopped as opposed to ended for me.
Nov 18, 2016 rated it liked it
Less a book about protecting a presidential candidate and political intrigues, more a book about the Big Question that all of the characters grapple with: What the hell am I doing with my life?
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Mark Costello, a native of Decatur, Illinois, is the author of the story collections The Murphy Stories (University of Illinois Press, 1973), which won the St. Lawrence Award for Short Fiction, and Middle Murphy (University of Illinois Press, 1991). The Murphy Stories has received praise and one of its stories, Murphy's Xmas was anthologized in several collections.

Costello's work has appeared in l
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