THE WEIGHT OF LIES: murder and mommy issues

Megan Ashley is a socialite struggling to find independence and meaning. Her mother is Frances Ashley, author of the bestselling book KITTEN. I imagine KITTEN as the love child of FLOWERS IN THE ATTIC and WELCOME TO THE DOLLHOUSE. It’s not a literary masterpiece, but it resonates with readers and becomes a cultural phenomenon.    

Frances’s dodgy assistant Asa has contacts in publishing and offers Megan a chance to establish herself as her own person while righting some of her mother’s wrongs. He wants Megan to write a tell-all, exposing Frances’s terrible mothering as well as clearing up the rumors that KITTEN is based on a real murderer.

Megan goes on a truth-seeking quest on Bonney Island, Georgia, where Frances drew the inspiration for her novel. She’s also trying to learn more about her mother who has always been an enigma to Megan, while uncovering the truth about the death that inspired Frances’s novel. Unexpected mysteries and dangers emerge as Megan digs into her mother’s past.

I’m often drawn to stories that center around complicated mother/daughter relationships. And though much of the story is about Megan’s relationship with her mother, it’s about much more than that. It’s about society’s willingness to forgive bad writing for the sake of a good story. It’s about our collective fascination with true crime. But most of all, it’s a damn good mystery. Every time you think you know what’s happening, Carpenter flips the script.

THE WEIGHT OF LIES is a fun and twisty mystery that will make you resent anyone in your life who demands your attention while you’re reading.  

LITTLE WOODS: quiet desperation in North Dakota

Sisters Ollie (Tessa Thompson) and Deb (Lily James) recently lost their mother. Ollie is on probation after being caught illegally crossing the border with pills between North Dakota and Canada. She only has a few days of probation left when her sister tells her that she’s pregnant with her second child, and the father is an unreliable alcoholic. Add to that a foreclosure notice on their mother’s house. The two women are on their own.

Deb is forced to choose between having the baby, the minimum cost will be $8000, or having an abortion in Canada if she can obtain fake Canadian paperwork. Ollie is desperately trying to change her own station by getting a job out of town and moving away from the people who expect her to keep peddling pills.

The sisters are presented with a way out: Ollie can cross the border and bring back pills while Deb gets her paperwork and terminates the pregnancy. The cash Ollie will make from taking this risk will save the house for Deb and her son. The catch is that Ollie will go to prison if they get caught.

For Ollie, drug-dealing is a noble cause. The people in her community are hard workers with pain issues and no access to medications. When her mother was alive, she brought back drugs to prolong her life. It was never about the money before, but now the need for money is undeniable. And her mixture of odd jobs won’t save the house or help her sister.  

Little Woods is a quiet film about the excruciating choices that women have to make for care for their families, and how desperation leads to dangerous situations. Little Woods does not let the viewer forget that women are both strong and vulnerable, and there are always people who will take advantage of these traits.

Thompson and James are both captivating leads whose chemistry brings an authenticity to every scene. And it’s a solid reminder that, as Ollie puts it, “your choices are only as good as your options.”

THE EMPRESS OF TEMPERA: art & obsession in New York

I started THE EMPRESS OF TEMPERA with a healthy amount of skepticism. My cousin/BFF has an art degree and whenever we visit a museum together, he goes on about history and aesthetic and meaning and it’s really interesting for about 30 minutes and then I need a big fat nap. I wasn’t sure an entire novel built around a painting could keep my interest. Then there was a bloody death almost at the very beginning, so I was hooked.

Paire Anjou moved to NYC to escape her dark past and reinvent herself. She’s an artist struggling to find her footing while her boyfriend Derek Rosewood is the toast of the city’s art scene. As she stands in front of the gallery that’s displaying some of his work, she becomes entranced by a painting in the window. An older man joins her on the sidewalk, and promptly stabs himself in the chest.

As far as suicides go, it’s a messy choice. But who am I to tell some old stranger how to do himself in? And the visual of Paire covered in blood while staring at the red-robed Empress is delightfully disturbing.

The incident draws Paire further into the local art scene, where she’s able to spend more time with The Empress and dig into the painting’s history. The Empress brings out emotions and actions in Paire that are frightening and exciting, both for her and the reader. She already has identity issues, and her new obsession causes her to question herself further. She changed her name from Katie Novis when she moved to NYC, and now she’s wondering what this new person she’s become is capable of. Maybe she’s capable of an art heist.

Paire isn’t naïve enough to believe the heist will be without consequences, but she has no idea how dire those consequences will be. She lands herself in the underbelly of the art world, where retribution is more important than beauty or legacy.

Alex Dolan’s story is an exquisite tale of what happens when greed overtakes artistry, and of the young woman hellbent on preserving one artist’s legacy while struggling to reconcile with her own past. THE EMPRESS OF TEMPERA is a gripping tale from beginning to end.

Comoffit, Poopypants

The following is a kick-ass review of KRICKET, written by Goodreads user Mel. I’ve decided I’m not going to wait to die to commission an obituary from her.

I usually avoid dystopians, be they zombie apocalypse, plague, nuclear holocaust… you name it, I avoid it. I’m not a sunny person, okay, if you ask me, after things have disintegrated to say 4/10 on the quality of life scale, I don’t understand why these people don’t just top themselves and get it over with.

What possible value can they still find in life, when they have to spend that life on the run, eating garbage to stay alive, getting in shootouts and fistfights and that all day every day? You’ve already got a gun, there, friendo, what are you waiting for?

There’s that other kind of dystopia, though: the Big Maybe, you might say, where things are pretty terrible, but there’s still a chance they’ll improve. The GP has won the Get the Crap Kicked Outta Ya Contest, sure, but even if it’s down, it isn’t quite out, yet. The Handmaid’s TaleV for Vendetta1984.

And, as another example, Penni Jones’s Kricket

You might be tempted to believe that Kricket‘s a product of the current sociopolitical climate down in the US, but I read an early draft of it, years ago, when the world didn’t seem as scary as it does now. When we weren’t as scared. It was a funhouse mirror prediction, then, and it’s genuinely remarkable for that, you know, we’re not there yet, not exactly, but nobody is going to read this book and think comoffit, poopypants, that could never happen.

What sets it apart from many other books in the genre is its workaday humanity, you know, the author doesn’t content herself with showing a series of forgettable, interchangeable characters subjected to her world’s atrocities, and nor are the atrocities all she shows. She’s built the world–built it very well–but she’s built the people living in it with just as much dexterity. 

Some of the time they’re fighting, on whichever side they’re on, but sometimes they’re just eating pancakes, or having a smoke. It’s often in the small moments that character is revealed, after all. The private moments. You don’t really get a sense of yourself when you’re busy at work, but stuck awake in bed at 2am? 

Um yeah.

Not just the titular protagonist but all of Jones’s characters are fully-realized, flesh and blood, not just nametag automatons to be shuffled from scene to scene as the story unfolds. They have history, layers of it, none of it predictable, and that’s what drives the story, far more so than the world they live in, though the richness of that world is an achievement on its own, just familiar enough to be upsetting.

It’s a world I cared about, reading it, people I cared about. I’m sure you will, too. 

Contextual Wieners

The following is my favorite ON THE BRICKS review, written by Goodreads user Mel. If I die before her, I really hope she writes my obituary.

Okay, so for a while here in Canada, there was this show on OUTtv called Sex and Violence, all about (fictional) social workers and their clients–mostly women but sometimes men fleeing from abusive situations–and the halfway houses those clients lived in, and the people who ran them. And it was generally good, okay, it was realistic and unflinching and it told its stories with tremendous humanity, from all sides. 

But, um.

Increasingly–I mean it was always thus with this show, but then increasingly–there were buckets of wieners; tons of wieners; piles of wieners. Not out of context, I’m not saying that, just, whether it was rape or murder or kidnapping or slavery or whatever, sooner or later there’d be at least one sexy young hardbody just standing around, wiener akimbo.

And the thing of it was, in order to make this titillating, oftentimes even the ugliest, most violent scenes were presented in a sexy sort of way. Not in the WHAMMO! jarring way where you were feeling sexy but now it’s ruined–for effect, like–but more like “We don’t think you’d be watching this program if you didn’t get to see you some spray-tanned wieners.”

But I wasn’t watching it for the wieners, okay, they were nice enough in their way but mostly I was in it for Olympia Dukakis’s boozy, kung fu fighting, sex-positive, octogenarian wig enthusiast.

(And the storytelling.)

And okay, so like sometimes you have this friend whose ritual Airing o’ the Grievances feels a little bit silly to you, you know, the world is crumbling into dust all around you and she’s like “I didn’t hear that guy who plays the harmonica outside Falafel Magic tell me to smile till I’d already passed him, so I didn’t smile, and now I’m being targeted for harassment by the entire homeless population of British Columbia.”

And you’re like Kim, there’s people that are dying.

And so then you read Penni Jones’s On the Bricks, and you take in the halfway house, the crack house, the junkies, the jailbirds, the abusers and the abused, broken people breaking other people, rich people, poor people, everybody fudging up every which way, ugliness on top of ugliness, half of it’s pancake breakfasts and the other half’s hot, smelly punches in the baby factory, you too could be a loser, and she doesn’t fall back on sexy sexiness to try to hold your attention, doesn’t use melodrama to jerk your tears, doesn’t pigeonhole people with their behaviour, good or bad… 

It’s a big, broad, wretched story, for everyone involved, but she just… tells it. Spare and matter-of-fact, making no excuses, offering no answers, trusting the reader to draw his own conclusions. 

It could’ve been gross, okay, it could’ve been schmaltzy, swelling orchestra, oozing tears, rending garments, clutching your Prayer Cross gross, a run-of-the-mill fairy tale of redemption in which everyone gets what they deserve, whatever that may be, and the heroine smiles triumphantly through eyes shining with righteousness, certain of her bright future.

Instead it’s honest without getting smurfy about it, no wisecracking antiheroine–saints preserve us from the GD wisecracking antiheroine, staaaaaahp. It’s a bunch of people who were maybe born into bad luck, maybe brought it on themselves, maybe devolved into misery over time. Whichever, here are the cruddy things that happened to them as a result, and here is what they did about it.

No quirky neighbour, no puppy stealing your ice cream cone, no Motown dance montage, just folks, doing the best they can with what they have, and sometimes the best they can is pretty lousy, but whatever, man, that’s life. We all fall down.

There are some wieners. I’m not gonna lie. But they’re contextual wieners. The importance cannot be overstated. 

What we learned from LORENA

Amazon Prime is currently streaming a four-part docuseries (produced by Jordan Peele) chronicling the infamous 1993 Lorena and John Bobbitt assault cases. John beat and raped Lorena repeatedly over four years, and she subsequently cut off his penis and threw it out of the window in front of a 7-11. We’ve all heard about it, and many of us remember the media circus. But there is a lot more to the story.

WARNING: There are spoilers ahead, but due to the infamy of this case they may or may not be things you already know without watching the series.

Here are five take-aways from LORENA:

  1. FACTS ARE EASILY MANIPULATED IN THE COURT OF PUBLIC OPINION: The thing I remember the most back then was how we heard so little about Lorena’s abuse, and when she finally took the stand in her own trial, it became clear that this woman was not a calculated and evil harpy hell-bent on retribution. She was the victim of prolonged brutality, and she snapped. But before her trial, John stood trial for raping and abusing her. Because of the domestic violence laws in Virginia, the prosecutors were only allowed to discuss the five days leading up to Lorena cutting off his penis. During his trial, she was painted as a jealous psycho who lashed out because he wasn’t satisfying her sexually and planned to divorce her. If you were to only watch the first episode of the series, you would believe that John was the victim.
  2. PENIS WAS A TABOO WORD IN 1993: The media was all over this story. But using the word “penis” in the news wasn’t something Americans were okay with yet. “Organ” seemed to be the most popular alternative, which is preferable to “ding-a-ling”.
  3. WE NEED MORE JOSEPH & DIANA FLETCHER: These two were the Bobbitt’s neighbors in 1993. They’ve both smoked A LOT of cigarettes. They laugh frequently, but they’re not making light of Lorena’s abuse. You can tell they’ve both seen some serious shit and haven’t let it break their spirits. They’re interviewed on their couch where they sit with a chunky lap-dog. Every time they appear on screen, which wasn’t often enough, it is a breath of fresh yet smoky air. I totally want to hang out with them.
  4. HOWARD STERN WAS INSTRUMENTAL IN ELEVATING JOHN BOBBITT’S CELEBRITY: Stern had him on as a guest many times. Stern referred to Lorena as a “psycho-bitch” and suggested she wasn’t pretty enough to be raped. He hosted a telethon for John, raising $260,000 for his legal and medical bills. Stern had a platform to raise awareness of domestic abuse, but chose instead to fuel the eternal flame that is toxic-masculinity.
  5. THEIR LIVES AFTER OFFER MORE EVIDENCE: Since the dissolution of their marriage, John has been arrested multiple times for battery and theft. He was fired from the Bunny Ranch for getting drunk and abusing female employees. He had well-publicized penis enlargement surgery, and lashed out when it turned out to be a bad idea. He desperately clung to his reality-star status by appearing in porn, and making public appearances such as judging a pageant comprised of naked women and a drag-queen Lorena-look-a-like contest. He still blames everyone else for his behavior. The women are all lying about him, his parents messed him up in the first place (which is probably true, but that’s why we have therapists), and none of this is his fault. Conversely, Lorena has remained largely out of the public eye, emerging only to bring awareness to domestic violence. She is an advocate and activist, drawing from the terrible things that happened to her as a way to help others.  

John has written several love letters to Lorena over the years. He says they can get back together for a media tour and make money. According to John, it would be the “ultimate love story” if they could forgive one another. But Lorena has stayed away, probably because she knows a reconciliation would end with him murdering her. Because that’s where domestic abuse often ends. LORENA is worth watching, but the anger will stick with you. As evidenced by the last few years in American politics, we still don’t listen to women.

CHRYSTAL: finding beauty in pain

Twenty years after the car accident that severely injured his wife and killed their young son, Joe (Billy Bob Thornton) returns home.  He spent those twenty years in prison because he was drunk and running from the law when he wrecked the car. He was also growing weed, and that’s why the cops were after him in the first place.  

Ray McKinnon wrote, directed, and has a supporting role in 2004’s Chrystal. Lisa Blount (McKinnon’s late wife, best known as Lynette from An Officer and a Gentleman) delivers a heart-wrenching performance in the lead role.

This is not a movie you should watch if you’re feeling suicidal.  It’s not a pick-me-up, blow sunshine up your ass kind of flick. Except for a somewhat humorous fight scene between Joe and the local hillbilly drug lord Snake, there isn’t much comic relief.   Overall, it’s gritty and devastating. Chrystal’s pain is so obvious in her stiff gait that it’s difficult to not have neck pain while you watch. She has random sex to temporarily forget the chronic pain.  She sees a spiritual adviser who tells her that her dead baby is in her neck and she needs to find a way to let it go. That causes more weird shit. Through it all, Chrystal manages to maintain a sense of humor. But that could be because she’s mentally ill.

Chrystal was filmed on a shoestring budget, and there are a few indie clichés.  For example: Lots of staring, even from the dog, which is pretty creepy. But it carries an emotional depth that compliments the quirks.  There’s a satisfying and happy-ish ending, so the horrible indie habit of ending the movie without wrapping up the plot was completely avoided.

Filmed in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, Chrystal captures the deep-south in a way that is both beautiful and shameful.  The scenery made me miss the summers I would spend at my grandparents in the Ozarks.  I love it when I find an emotional connection with a film, even if I don’t relate to the characters.  The shameful aspects are the hillbilly meth-cooks and small-town politics, with a little racism thrown in for good measure.  

Why should you see it?  Chrystal reminds us of the simplistic splendor that is possible in film, even though it’s rarely accomplished.  It’s a beautiful, understated film that unfolds like a poetic novel.

COTTONMOUTHS: heartbreak & meth in small-town Arkansas

Emily Skinner was eager to leave her small Arkansas hometown and start over at college. But two years later, she has flunked out and has no choice but to move back in with her conservative parents. Her former best friend and childhood crush Jody is also back in town, but she has a baby in tow.

Their friendship ended abruptly years before with Jody disappearing from town and Emily’s life. Emily has spent years believing that Jody left because of Emily’s attraction to her. Against her better judgement, Emily can’t resist attempting to reconnect. But when Emily learns that Jody has a meth lab on her property, Emily knows she must stay away. That is until her parents kick her out and Jody offers her a job as a live-in babysitter.

The more time Emily spends with Jody, the stronger her feelings for her grow. She maybe loves Jody, but also fears what Jody is capable of. And Jody gives her just enough hope to keep her around. When Jody’s business partner goes missing, Emily suspects that Jody’s dishonesty is far more dangerous that she anticipated.

Cottonmouths is heartbreaking and beautiful. Kelly J. Ford weaves a mystery that is easily relatable. The relentless pain of unrequited love, returning to your past when you don’t want to, desperate actions to escape poverty. It’s the familiarity of the themes that makes Cottonmouths a beautiful gut-punch.

THE TERATOLOGIST: wealth and terror in Palm Beach

Two people in 1902 Gilded Age Palm Beach who have very different physical deformities also exhibit paranormal gifts. Dr. Frank Follett studies birth defects and becomes fascinated with them both. One is a young child who was born without limbs but with the ability to channel the dead, including the spirit of Follett’s late beloved wife. The other is a wealthy young man who was born with the appearance of a hairy monster and is a telepath.

Dr. Follett’s work with the young girl is upended when she is kidnapped by a serial killer who has been striking each tourist season. And soon after, the young man becomes possessed by a malevolent entity and goes on a murderous rampage.

Dr. Follett arrived in Palm Beach with a plan to recuperate from his traumatic service in the Philippine-American War. But instead he finds himself searching for a serial killer and trying to stop what might be an actual monster from continuing a killing spree. And THE Mark Twain is in Palm Beach, eager to offer the doctor assistance.

Look, it’s kind of a bananas set-up. But it works.

The protagonist Dr. Follett is a man of science who finds himself entangled with the supernatural. And also with the wealthy upper class who have different rules and expectations than he’s used to. He’s a nuanced character, driven both by a need to help others and by his own selfish urges.

All the characters are well-developed and humanized, even those that aren’t completely human. I found Darryl, the young man who looks like a hairy monster, the most endearing. He can read minds, so he has no delusions about how people see him. He’s spoiled and intelligent but also longs to find his place in the world.

My favorite thing about THE TERATOLOGIST is how immersed I felt in the historical setting. I had no trouble envisioning the luxurious and wild early 1900’s Palm Beach. It’s obvious that Parker did his research, both with teratology and the Florida of the past. His rich descriptions weave a tangible backdrop to this clever novel that is equal parts mystery and horror, with some humor and despair thrown in the mix.

Go into this book with an open mind. You won’t be disappointed.

GRAFFITI CREEK: punk rock pacing and compelling characters

Cary Trubody is pulled over for running a red light late one night with her drunk girlfriend and a purse full of cash in the car. This is a frightening set-up under any circumstances. But within minutes, the traffic stop turns into a nightmare of mistaken identity. Cary is shoved into a car with two crooked detectives, and her girlfriend is taken away in a different car. The protagonist quickly shows us what she’s made of by gathering her wits and escaping. But this is just the beginning of Cary’s ordeal, as she soon learns that she’s been framed for two murders and every cop (especially every dirty one) in town is looking for her. And she has no idea where they took her girlfriend.

Meanwhile, Sameer Zardari is searching for his journalist husband who’s been missing for days. And Marlowe Holliverse is searching for his budding documentary film-maker brother, DoRight.  Both men are on a fast-moving collision course with Cary, and all three are uncertain of whom they can trust. 

GRAFFITI CREEK is paced like a punk rock song. Cary’s life is in danger from the jump and things get worse from there. She’s not former special ops or a trained assassin or even a concealed carrier. She’s just a regular civilian with a curvy figure and a talent for poker. 

Even though the pacing is nonstop, the mystery unfolds slowly. The stakes continue to rise as Cary runs for her life while trying to piece together the events that have put her in the line of fire. If she doesn’t figure out why she’s suddenly a fugitive, she’ll die. And she won’t be the only one. 

In GRAFFITI CREEK and his debut novel JUGGLING KITTENS, Coleman exhibits genius with atmosphere and wit, as well as championing the average person in extraordinary circumstances. Just don’t start GRAFFITI CREEK at bedtime unless you have nothing to do the next day.