The three new books in this week’s book club all contain juicy secrets awaiting exposure. They’re full of mysteries and missions, detectives and whistle-blowers, and they will keep you in suspense until everything is revealed. While the novels detail the eternal struggle between those who want to keep the truth hidden and those who want to bring it to light, it’s not as simple as pure heroes and lying villains. If there’s one thing these novels show, it’s that everyone’s got a secret.
1. Who Is Vera Kelly? by Rosalie Knecht ($16): Vera Kelly’s path to working for the CIA in the 1960s isn’t exactly conventional; then again, nothing else about her is, either. In 1957, as a teenager, she’s trying to deal with an emotionally and physically abusive mother, suicidal thoughts, and a burgeoning attraction to women. When she starts failing at school, one final blow-up with her mother lands her in a juvenile detention center. Years later, she’s noticed for her behind-the-scenes work at a New York City radio station, and at 25, she’s rapidly entrenched in a spy mission in Buenos Aires, where there are pointed whispers of a radical regime change in the air. When things go south, Vera doesn’t know if she’ll make it out of Argentina alive.
“As Gerry had said, if things went bad, I could be killed. And yet, in the place where my fear should have been, there was a blank space. I felt that I had been living for a long time in a place beyond fear, where my life was contingent and didn’t amount to much anyway. Back home, I had known that if I were arrested at a dyke bar I would lose my job, and if I lost my job I would end up in a flophouse or worse. I went out anyway, because living was a dry waste if I didn’t. When I started working for Gerry and made enough money to keep some in the bank, I knew that if Gerry found out I went with girls, I would be fired twice over – the CIA did not pay out to homosexuals, because they were too easy to compromise. For a long time already, I had been half a step from the edge of a cliff. That was how I lived. I did not look over.” Knecht cuts between Vera’s past and present, showing how Vera’s shifting identity led her to the Argentine job, as well as detailing her daily life as a spy in a way that makes it seem at once glamorous and mundane.
Vera must navigate both the political landscape and interpersonal relationships, bugging both government offices and student hangouts. The girlfriend of one of the students she’s been told to surveil may prove her most difficult challenge; Victoria immediately sparks Vera’s interest, but she may not be exactly as she seems. Vera’s ingenuity and poise are constantly tested through the action; she’s in search of not only information but also a sense of self. Equal parts literary novel and spy thriller, and perfect for Pride, Who Is Vera Kelly? features a smart and iconic queer heroine with depth and nuance.
2. The Book of Essie by Meghan MacLean Weir ($26):Reality TV is all about exposing one’s supposedly secret life to an audience of millions, but even the “secrets” shown can be heavily edited to highlight some and hide others. Esther Ann Hicks, also known as Essie, has been on camera for as long as she can remember. Her evangelical family, headed by her preacher father and domineering mother, stars in Six For Hicks, a highly popular program reminiscent of the Duggars’ but with fewer children (Essie’s the youngest of the six). People love their squeaky-clean antics. Now, though, Essie is pregnant at 17, and when her mother finds out, a decision has to be made behind the scenes.
“On the day I turn seventeen, there is a meeting to decide whether I should have the baby or if sneaking me to a clinic for an abortion is worth the PR risk. I am not invited, which is just as well, since my being there might imply that I have some choice in the matter and I know that I have none. I listen in, though, the way Lissa and I used to before she went away. It was Lissa who discovered the vent in the wall of the laundry room, who realized that you could eavesdrop on everything that was said in the production office if you climbed onto the dryer and put your ear up against the filigreed bronze grate.” Lissa is Essie’s older sister, who left home, and the show, under mysterious circumstances. This secret is just one that Essie now wants to uncover. She’s sick of the “consequences” that inevitably occur after the cameras turn off for any moment of perceived disobedience.
To expose these secrets, Essie has a different plan than either her parents or the producers. This includes a carefully orchestrated wedding to Roarke Richards, a senior at her high school who also needs an escape, and a partnership with a formerly ultraconservative teen blogger named, of course, Liberty Bell. Liberty will make as big a splash as possible with the couple’s “love,” ideally increasing their popularity as America’s sweethearts until they are trusted enough to spill the big secrets. Can they do it, though, with an entire industry designed to keep hypocrisy hidden? You’ll have to “tune in” to find out.
3. Lying in Wait by Liz Nugent ($26): “My husband did not mean to kill Annie Doyle, but the lying tramp deserved it. After we had overcome the initial shock, I tried to stop him speaking of her. I did not allow it unless to confirm alibis or to discuss covering up any possible evidence. It upset him too much and I thought it best to move on as if nothing had happened. Even though we did not talk about it, I couldn’t help going over the events of the night in my mind, each time wishing that some aspect, some detail, could be different, but facts are facts and we must get used to them.” Though we know Lydia and Andrew Fitzsimmons’ big secret by the end of the first sentence of Nugent’s book, it’s why they did it that initially remains a mystery.
Lydia is cool and calculating, a control freak of terrifying intensity who wants to keep her husband to herself, not host or socialize with other couples. Her 21-year marriage to pedigreed judge Andrew was orchestrated in a match made by her “Daddy,” whose Dublin mansion they all lived in together, and where the body is buried. (“He always called me his prize, his precious jewel. I loved him too. My father always knew what was best for me,” Lydia says.) Now, though, they are house-rich and cash-poor, as Andrew has, ironically, poor judgment when it comes to investments. Lydia has been trying to make sure they stay afloat, if for nothing else but their 17-year-old son Laurence, whom Lydia adores to the point of wanting to monitor his every move. When his parents begin to act even stranger than usual, Laurence begins to suspect that something is wrong and investigates.
Also investigating Annie’s disappearance is her sister, Karen. Annie, a 22-year-old heroin addict and former teen mother (who gave her baby, Marnie, up for adoption), is someone society, in general, doesn’t seem to miss, but Karen wants justice for her sister. As Karen cozies up to the Fitzsimmons family, we get glimpses of Annie’s sad life and an increasingly dark look into the mind of the sociopathic but multifaceted Lydia. The secret may be out, but the intrigue remains.
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