Sascha Arango’s ‘The Truth and Other Lies’ Is A Dark And Churning Comedy

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My boss and I were trekking through the oven-like dry heat of another Arizona evening, finished with another day at work. “What are you reading, Kali?” she asked.

How to explain this one, I thought myself.

At the time I was reading The Truth and Other Lies by Sascha Arango, an ever-churning book, a dark comedy that dives deeper and deeper into the sea it takes place beside. The death and destruction here are oddly gleeful. Sascha Arango is a popular German author who has already won awards for his detective series Tatort. And now, of course, I need to know–when is Tatort being translated? Give it to us, please.

In The Truth and Other Lies, Henry Hayden should be a man of mystery and yet he’s astonishingly simple. When he met his future wife Martha, he wasn’t too taken with her, but after falling upon a brilliant manuscript underneath her bed, he realized she was something special. As the simple Martha desired no fame, Hayden reluctantly agreed to publish Martha’s amazing novels under his name. The novels have become booming successes (think Stephen King-level hysteria), and Martha’s authorship is entirely unknown. Profiting from his wife’s writing ability, Henry lives a simple, comfortable life, enjoying the riches of success.

Until his mistress announces her pregnancy.

While Martha is clearly a master of plots, Henry’s attempts to solve his problems lead him deeper and deeper into a tangled web of betrayal and violence. Who is Henry Hayden, really? Henry’s lovers, along with the police, and a childhood friend who recalls Henry’s poor writing skills from grammar school, all seek to answer this question. The results are often interrupted, always hilarious, and occasionally terrifying.

I won’t tell you how I explained the book to my boss, as I summarized so many plot twists I’d be spoiling things. “Wow,” she said, “that sounds really dark.”

“Dark,” I said, “but very funny too!”

The Truth and Other Lies on Amazon.com/Powell’s.com/Indiebound.org

In Robin Kirman’s ‘Bradstreet Gate,’ College Is Hell

bradstreet gate

Robin Kirman’s Bradstreet Gate elicits strong emotions, good and bad. I read it in two days. I saw its premise online and knew I needed an advanced copy STAT. Once I found one and dove in, I wasn’t able to put it down, causing sleep deprivation and a neglect of life’s other demands for a day.

Bradstreet Gate focuses on the bright, beautiful, blonde Georgia Calvin, the crush of all young Harvard men from the day she steps foot on campus. Aloof from years spent transferring schools, trailing after a successful photographer father, the story follows Georgia and those put under her spell through their years at Harvard and beyond. The story is juicy and unpredictable from the start, as Georgia becomes involved with headstrong and moody professor Rufus Storrow. We meet Georgia’s small circle of friends as they each take turns narrating, illuminating their own motives, insecurities, and views of each other. There is young Republican, bow-tie wearing Charlie, and cold, determined journalist Alice.

Harvard’s small enclave is rocked when a student, Julie Patel, is murdered on campus. Friendships begin to fall apart as Professor Storrow, Georgia’s secret lover, is the prime suspect in the murder. But this isn’t primarily a mystery novel. It is a book of betrayals and hidden motives, our private definitions of success and those we measure ourselves against.

The novel is less literary than some of the college-friends-gone-wrong fare we’ve known and loved: it is compared to Donna Tartt’s The Secret History in its blurb, which I’m glad I didn’t see until after I completed it. If I had gone into this book with Secret History-esque expectations, I would have been disappointed. Based on plot alone, I went in expecting a soap-opera-style drama set on a college campus, and I feel those expectations were certainly met.

Professor Storrow reminded me of an unhinged Christian Grey, popping up at odd times, saying inappropriate things, making demands. The murder, while a background mystery, just hung like a foreboding cloud over this small group of friends and their already strained relationships. Those relationships, these characters, are the focus of the book. If you don’t fall in love with Georgia Calvin, you’ll definitely want to be her. The fiercely disciplined, slightly unhinged Alice is the perfect combination of wicked and vulnerable.

I read this on my Kindle and when I got to the last page, I kept madly poking the screen to get to something more. If you are the type of person who needs their endings nicely tied up, you might want to skip this one or prepare to be infuriated at the end. But if you can tolerate ending with questions unanswered, Bradstreet Gate’s characters are compelling and the story of their high points and struggles will keep you riveted.

Bradstreet Gate on Amazon.com/Powell’s.com/Indiebound.org

Hempel And Climent Bare Their Teeth In ‘The Hand That Feeds You’

the hand that feeds you

Imagine your bright, brave friend is dying of cancer. Imagine she falls in love, in spite of her illness. And then, imagine your friend betrayed, as the man she fell in love with was already married to another woman. Inspired rather than scorned, she decides to write a book about the experience. And then she dies, less than a chapter of the novel created.

Is this the plot of A.J. Rich’s The Hand That Feeds You? No, not at all. This is the plot behind the plot. A.J. Rich is not a person, but a pseudonym, a merger of three names: A. (Amy Hempel), J. (Jill Climent), and Rich for Katherine Russell Rich. Hempel and Climent wrote The Hand That Feeds You to honor their friend Katherine Russell Rich, who passed away without the chance to put to paper her own idea for a story. The Chicago Tribune explains:

“And then she, this amazing accomplished woman, met a guy,” Ciment says. “And he knew she had Stage IV cancer and he fell in love with her. Over the course of a period of time, she discovered — and I notice it always happens at Christmastime, when you discover that your lover is married.”

And out of heartbreak, out of death, comes a thriller of heartbreak and death. I love books unafraid to peer under the bed where the monsters live, and this is where The Hand That Feeds You goes. Hempel and Climent hand you a flashlight, and urge you to push into the darkness, beckoning you into the closets and basements where their bold questions about the nature of crime and its victims await.

The Hand That Feeds You begins with a mauling. It’s gruesome, and it gave me nightmares. Victim and victimology student Morgan arrives home to what she thinks are rose petals on the floor. At second glance, she realizes she’s looking at red paw prints. Her dogs are covered in what looks like red paint. But it isn’t paint, and her fiancé’s body is in the bedroom. Morgan is shocked that her beloved dogs (big dogs, but tame ones) mauled her fiancé Bennett, and left him lying dead.

As Morgan seeks to make sense of the tragedy, as she seeks Bennett’s family to notify them of his death, things that normally should fall into place after such an incident don’t. The body remains unidentified at the morgue–the man she knew as Bennett was a fraud, the family he told her lived in Canada nonexistent. Who was this man, and how was she, a student of the ways criminals take advantage of their victims, susceptible to such a lie? How was she not immune?

This is a book that pushes boundaries at every twist and turn. Morgan, as narrator, isn’t a strong and independent femme fatale but a woman rocked to her very core by past events and current ones, a woman trying to protect herself by intellectually understanding the evils of the world, and failing miserably.

The Hand That Feeds You on Amazon.com/Powell’s.com/Indiebound.org

Horror Gets Meta In Paul Tremblay’s ‘A Head Full Of Ghosts’

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Think of the classic exorcist story reinterpreted with a modern hook: innocent girl turned evil, religious obsessives gone mad with thoughts of casting the demons out, documentary cameras filming every move. Even this doesn’t sound very interesting, because we know this story, right? Plenty of current movies chronicle this sort of thing. Even with that modern handheld camera twist, it’s already been done.

But now take it to a level of deeper awareness, in which the girl possessed may or may not be riffing off of those old classic films. In which the documentary film crew is from the same television station that brings you hits like Duck Dynasty, and they may or may not be staging the entire thing to make great TV. Paul Tremblay’s A Head Full of Ghosts nestles into a sort of self-awareness of its genre and its story that leaves its characters questioning themselves at every turn.

In small town New England, a family is being pulled apart from financial strain and something else. Something is not right with Marjorie Barrett. She’s either going through a serious case of teenage angst or she’s showing signs of a very dark and very creepy mental illness. Or, as her out-of-work blue collar father John concludes, Marjorie might be in need of a more religious variety of healing.

As Marjorie fights against normal psychiatrists and the Barretts savings dwindle, the sort of precarious agreement that makes fiction great is brokered between John Barrett’s local Catholic church and a documentary film crew. John wants his daughter saved and is convinced an exorcism is the solution, and is desperate for the money to do it. The church brings in the film crew to record the ordeal, thus saving the family from financial ruin while locking them in to an agreement to air their daughter’s struggles on nationwide television.

Thus, The Possession is created, a television documentary part-terrifying and part-homage to all the horror that came before it. A Head Full of Ghosts Marjorie’s illness and the making of the documentary about it through the eyes of her younger sister Merry. In the novel, a biographer seeks Merry’s side of the story fifteen years after the events of The Possession. Merry’s interactions with the biographer and her memories of childhood alongside Marjorie are spliced with blog posts from horror fangirl Karen, who analyzes both the intricacies and the gaping holes throughout The Possession.

If a novel about a fictional TV documentary has you thinking of that other book about a fictional documentary, House of Leaves, you’re correct in making the connection. Where House of Leaves never lifts the mask on its facade, A Head Full Of Ghosts picks up that eerie aura and throws it around, shines a light on it, then drops it down some stairs. This is mind-bending, very scary stuff that laughs at itself all the way to hell.

A Head Full of Ghosts on Amazon.com/Powell’s.com/Indiebound.org

In ‘The Bones of You,’ Debbie Howells Channels Alice Seobold’s ‘The Lovely Bones’

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The Bones of You channels a popular mystery that came before it, The Lovely Bones, in both title and narrative style. When Jo’s daughter Rosie goes missing, neighbor Kate steps in to provide comfort. When Rosie’s body is found, and news of foul play emerges, Kate finds herself becoming more enmeshed with the Anderson family during their time of grief: beautiful, trim housewife Jo; her newscaster husband, Neal; and their surviving timid daughter Delphine.

The story is told not only through Kate’s eyes but also through Rosie’s, who is now all-seeing in some heavenly afterlife. What Kate couldn’t know about the Anderson family because she sees only their perfect kitchen, breath-taking garden, and stylish clothes, Rosie reveals in an angelic mash of memories. Behind closed doors, the family is falling apart. Rosie reveals a mess of abuse and suffering that may or may not have led to Rosie’s death.

Dreadful scenes of Rosie’s home life contrast with Kate’s naivety as she becomes more involved with Jo. Kate is all concern and stability, a trainer of horses who appreciates their ability to intuit human emotions. Jo, after losing her daughter, is all blank stares and pretty blouses, ordering new furniture while she stays stoic and tries not to reveal any emotion. Her behavior, as well as that of her husband and Delphine’s, is strange. As the novel continues and the reader knows more than Kate, thanks to the passed-on Rosie’s angelic narration, the thrill becomes less “whodunnit” and more “when will sweet Kate get a clue, a bad vibe, anything…”

The Bones of You is compulsively readable, and fans of The Lovely Bones will appreciate the nod to its narrative style. I enjoy a book where the clues are discovered rather than revealed through narration, so this omniscient angel-esque narration style isn’t my favorite. In spite of that, I read it in a few days, and was always eager to get back to it and settle in with its eerie atmosphere. Get your (patriotic) snacks and settle in, once you start this one you won’t come up for air until you’ve finished.

The Bones of You on Amazon.com/Powell’s.com/Indiebound.org

Read an excerpt of The Bones of You

When Your Rich Dad Gets Busted For Fraud: Christina McDowell Lives ‘After Perfect’

after perfect

I went to see the Wolf of Wall Street without context, with two friends, totally unprepared for the movie’s unapologetic, intentional excesses. I felt myself sinking deeper and deeper into my seat at the theatre as the movie played on, realizing I’d never watched a character more on screen that I wanted to punch in the face than Jordan Belfort.

So I noted and appreciated Christina McDowell‘s piping hot, fury-laden open letter to the movie’s makers in the LA Weekly, where she called the film out on its pandering to a Wall Street con man, its buying in to the misogynistic and coke-sniffing American dream. Whether you think Martin Scorsese revealed something repulsive in Belfort through his behavior, or glamorized his lifestyle, there’s no denying that McDowell’s voice appeared as another side of the story. A side of the story demanding to be heard.

And now McDowell’s full story is here. In After Perfect, she recounts her childhood as Christina Prousalis (she has since changed her name). She grew up in the wealthy suburb of McLean, Virginia, blocks from the Kennedy estate, in a mansion where Corinthian columns and ivy frame marble floors and chandeliers. As a girl she played with the children of other Washington elites, tended to by a socialite mother and a businessman father who flew his own Porsche Mooney plane around for fun.

The curtain was pulled back on this illusion of wealth when the FBI stormed the McLean estate, guns at the ready, and arrested her father, Tom Prousalis, for fraud.

In his wake, Tom Prousalis left a trail of lies, confusion, and debt. Her mother discovered credit cards in Christina’s name, which Prousalis apparently applied for and used to try to save the family’s lavish lifestyle in the face of financial issues. Their home and belongings were then seized by the FBI and sold at auction. Christina’s mother was faced with entering the workforce and managing wrecked finances, and Christina and her sisters were unable to get clear answers from their father, who kept promising riches and big payouts from his prison cell.

This is the story of a unique type of victim–McDowell was raised with a level of privilege that shielded her from learning basic skills, then she was suddenly thrown into life headfirst. Everything she learned to value as a child, like designer labels and social status, couldn’t help her find a job or balance her checkbook. She finds herself oddly straddling two worlds, homeless in a BMW, hungry for food but clutching onto her designer handbags. She ends up working in nightclubs, drowning her sorrows in alcohol, seeking attention from men who will never replace the father who broke her heart.

This was a quick read for me, and one I told a lot of people about because the story is just so crazy. The writing is simple and honest, and McDowell’s struggles (financial, emotional) read like a roller coaster of desperation riddled with appearances from an ever-emerging Tom Prousalis, who pops up like the energizer bunny of broken promises.

After Perfect on Amazon.com/Powell’s.com/Indiebound.org

Further Reading:

Summer Reads: S.J. Watson’s ‘Second Life’ Is A Sexy, Slow Burn

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I loved S.J. Watson’s first novel, Before I Go To Sleep. I read it last summer, by the pool and by the air conditioning, in just a few days. It is a Memento-style thriller that keeps you guessing throughout its infuriating repetitions as its narrator wakes up each day forgetting the last. It has been adapted into a movie starring Nicole Kidman (which I didn’t think was as great as the book).

This translated to my excitement upon landing an advanced copy of Second Life, Watson’s new book out earlier this month. Second Life focuses on Julia, a woman adrift after the murder of her sister.

Julia is happily married to surgeon Hugh, raising son Connor, when she gets the horrible news that her sister has been killed in Paris. The history between Julia and her sister Kate is full of strife, as their childhood wasn’t a happy one. Julia seems haunted by her memories: not only of her relationship with Kate, but also of her own past, in which she struggled with addiction while living as an artist in Berlin.

Seeking answers where the police find none, Julia teams up with Kate’s best friend Anna to explore the dating site which Kate frequented before her death. While investigating her sister’s murder, however, Julia finds herself feeling undeniable chemistry with a stranger in an online relationship. Her stability, her sobriety, everything she thinks she knows–Julia loses these remnants of normalcy as things spin around her. Her identity fractures and she finds solace in a second life separate from her happy home, with deadly results.

For those who are expecting an equivalent follow-up to Before I Go To Sleep, this felt quite different to me. Second Life felt hazier, the headiness was more prominent, even though both novels focus on women confused by the world around them. This is something I’d love to ask S.J. Watson about, in an interview: “Why these books from the perspectives of manipulated women?” I’d love to see him write about a man in the same vulnerable position as either of his two main characters. Other than this similarity however, Second Life moves at a much slower pace than Before I Go To Sleep. The book spent quite a bit of time describing Julia’s emotions; none of the descriptions explained to me some of her behavior.

If you loved the sexy sinister vibe of Apple Tree Yard, however, this book has your name all over it. I never saw its ending coming. The ending made up for some of the slower parts of the story, as I always love a great twist.

What will come next from S.J. Watson? At this point, I consider him one of the modern masters of the plot twist. I’m already eagerly awaiting his next book.

Second Life on Amazon.com/Powell’s.com/Indiebound.org

Renee Knight’s ‘Disclaimer’ Is This Summer’s Big Thrill

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Imagine picking up a book, and being drawn into its story. But suddenly the action swerves, the story turns much darker, and you find yourself appear in the text, a character recognizable except for a name change. The book begins to reveal a secret–a secret you’ve kept to yourself for years, that simply no one could know. And yet, there it is, drawn out on the page, this horrible action, stepping out of the past and into this plot.

When you flip to the disclaimer at the beginning of the book, that page with copyright information which assures the novel’s status as a work of fiction and says, “Any resemblance to any persons living or dead…,” the entire disclaimer is crossed through with a red line. Someone, you realize, is playing with you. Someone, you realize, has written this book just for you.

This is what happens to Catherine Ravenscroft in Renee Knight’s novel Disclaimer. Catherine, successful documentary film maker, transforms from a successful businesswoman into a bundle of nerves as she tries to trace The Perfect Stranger, the novel infiltrating her life and her history, down to its source.

In alternating chapters, the author of the novel is revealed, but this is a story of appearances and expectations, two of the most difficult things to interpret. By the end of the book we’ve learned many times over, thanks to Knight’s nuanced characters, just how much looks can deceive, and just how far the stories we tell ourselves can be from the truth.

Disclaimer on Amazon.com/Powell’s.com/Indiebound.org

Robert Charles Wilson’s ‘The Affinities’ Is ‘Divergent’ For Grown Ups

Affinities

I loved Robert Charles Wilson’s sci-fi Spin trilogy, about an earth which loses its night sky and what comes after those lights go out. When I heard he had a new novel out called The Affinities, I was super eager to pick it up.

The concept of The Affinities is a little bit Match.com, a little bit socialism. Adam Fisk is an early adopter of Affinity Testing. Thanks to the new field of socionomics, he’s led through a battery of tests which may qualify him for one of twelve Affinity Groups. This isn’t just a dating service, though, or a group of like-minded folks: affinity group members get each other from their first meeting, often live together, hire each other, and (eventually) care for their own much more than they do the rest of society.

Lucky Adam tests into the elite Tau Affinity, and the book skips forward to a world brimming over with the potential of affinities able to work perfectly together, people finely tuned for trust and cooperation, but cooperation with only a slice of humanity. Tau is at war with Het, another prominent affinity, and Adam and his family are caught in the crossfire.

As a lover of Wilson’s previous trilogy, this felt rushed to me. The glossing over of Adam’s nestling into the Tau Affinity, and the global shift as affinities rose from an early phenomena to an over-arching issue, felt like an introduction rather than the first half of a novel. And although other reviewers have noted the obvious parallels with social networking, I couldn’t help but think of the Divergent series and other sci-fi with social testing elements as I read. So, if you love Divergent (hey, no shame in that!) and are looking for a story that takes on some of its issues on a more plausible, understated level, this is your book. And if you haven’t checked out Spin yet, make sure to add it to your list.

The Affinities on Amazon.com/Powell’s.com/Indiebound.org

The Real Alex Vause Speaks Out: Cleary Wolters Goes Humble In New Memoir ‘Out of Orange’

out of orange

Cleary Wolters finished watching TV with her declining mother. After tucking mom into bed, she went back to the television. Remote in hand, she watched a woman in an orange jumpsuit step out of a van with a familiar pinstripe pillow. She heard the phrases “lesbian lover” and “drug smuggling” as she watched a montage of prison life. Then she saw Donna from That 70’s Show wearing her own trademark glasses, and she realized she was watching a trailer for her own life. Made into a television show! Can you even imagine?

That story, of how Cleary Wolters, AKA the real Alex Vause, found out about the show, is told in the prologue of her new memoir Out of Orange. I found it to be the most interesting one in the book. To have your life’s illegal choices made into a hit television show without your consultation, seems bookworthy in itself. In relating her story, Wolters seems determined to keep events rooted in her downfall, in the unglamorous truth behind her life as a drug smuggler. I give her props for refusing to hype up her time in the drug trade, but this translates to a memoir unpeppered with Hollywood-style action or Kerman’s own meditations on the inequalities of the justice system.

Wolters loses enchantment with smuggling early on in the story, but fears the powerful African drug boss Alaji so much that she finds herself recruiting others to smuggle drugs to avoid the risky job herself. Wolters experience of smuggling is often one of waiting around for a call in a foreign country, watching money spent at hotels burn through previous earnings, hoping to recoup costs on the next run. It sounds unbelievable stressful, and although there are some glimpses of the high life, with wads of cash thrown around a room or champagne drunk in a warm ocean, the majority of the story documents the struggle of Wolters and her sidekicks as they try to stay above water.

Throughout the memoir juicier stuff is (intentionally?) glossed over–the level of partying among the group (Wolters mentions popping pain pills, but doesn’t expand on the habit), time spent at Alaji’s compound in Africa early on, her motivations for drug smuggling, her feelings for Kerman throughout their time together. She spends quite a bit of time on details difficult to care about without a bigger picture–different cats and their Wolters-caused plights, morning damage control of forgotten drunk fights from the night before, hotel amenities and airport surroundings and where to plot down next. Is all this important? Of course. Does it relate to any larger message on Wolters as a person, justice, drug use in America, being in a relationship with Piper Kerman, or Orange is the New Black? No.

So, what’s the deal with Piper? If you are Orange in the New Black obsessed, read the book. It gives more background on how exactly Piper (real last name Kerman) met Wolters, and ended up being recruited by Wolters. First for watching her cats while she traveled the world, and eventually for traveling with her. Although this is Wolters story, her love affair with Kerman comes on slow and strange, and much more about it is revealed here than in Kerman’s own memoir. Which makes me wonder–will Kerman write another, more personal memoir now, as her first was so focused on the injustices of the prison system?

If you don’t want to read the book, here’s the breakdown: Kerman and Wolters meet at a restaurant where Kerman waitresses. When Kerman comes over to Wolters’s house with a group of people, Wolters is impressed by Piper’s handling of her freaked out cats, who are scared after a move. The kitties love Kerman. Really, Kerman’s downfall could be blamed on her cat whisperer tendencies here. There’s a heavy love of kitties throughout Out of Orange: prison cats, San Francisco cats, cats recruiting Kerman to the darkside. Although the attraction between the cats and Kerman is instant, the attraction between Wolters and Kerman isn’t. Wolters gets the pretty blondie’s phone number, but nothing happens that night.

When Wolters needs someone to watch her kitties and house sit for her during her next smuggling trip, who does she think of but cat whisperer Kerman! She meets Kerman and lays it all down–the drug smuggling, the need for a cat sitter. Thus begins an odd sort of relationship, where Kerman stocks Wolters’s home with healthy foods and tends to her cats, sleeps nude in a guest bedroom, but they remain just friends. There is one scene in the memoir where Wolters gets home from a trip abroad and tries to wake up a sleeping Kerman, throwing money around. I believe this is in the TV show, right? So yes, that happened.

Eventually, Kerman becomes more involved with Wolters, and travels with her. Kerman dresses like a sexy businesswoman, sleeps nude, and spends way more of Wolters money than Wolters secretly desires. Internally, Wolters is losing control of everything. They pose as a couple, although their relationship is a strange business/friendship deal full of power issues. Kerman is the hot one, Wolters is the one with the drug money. Wolters is hoping to groom Kerman for her role in the smuggling operation, but Kerman doesn’t even know this. Kerman clearly likes the attention and the life of luxury, but the luxury part can’t hold out much longer. They never seem to get the payoff they’re hoping for. Finally, they have a threesome with sidekick Phillip, which opens the doorway for the Wolters and Kerman relationship.

Their breakup is as sudden as their hookup. At a hotel in Brussels, Kerman tells Wolters she “can’t do this anymore.” Wolters understands and lets her leave.

When Wolters is arrested, she does ask for protection for a list of people including Kerman. She is terrified that Alaji will kill them all, if he finds out that she has been arrested. As Alaji was involved romantically with Wolters’s sister, she immediately thinks her sister is in danger. Eventually, Wolters claims, what she said didn’t matter as they all pled guilty to conspiracy.

Amazingly, “Alaji,” who is really Prince Buruji Kashamu (is it okay to say this?) has won a senate seat in Nigeria. I wonder what he thinks of the show. Or when we’ll get his memoir…

Out of Orange on Amazon.com/Powell’s.com/Indiebound.org

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