Confessions of a Sociopath by M.E. Thomas

Confessions of a Sociopath, by M.E. Thomas

Reviewed by Michelle Richmond

You probably won’t like M.E. Thomas, the pseudonymous author of Confessions of a Sociopath: A Life of Hiding in Plain Sight. That said, you may recognize some of her characteristics in people you know: an ability to turn on the charm when something is to be gained, a lack of conscience, a tendency to orchestrate relationships and to discard friends and acquaintances when they are no longer useful. You may even begin to wonder if you’re a sociopath yourself.

Thomas, a Texas law professor who also happens to teach Sunday School at her Mormon church, details her own journey to diagnosis. She grew up knowing she was different, but not understanding why. At the age of thirty, a psychiatric evaluation revealed that Thomas had “a prototypical psychopathic personality.”

What makes the book initially interesting–the author’s recitation of her own sociopathic character traits and actions–is what makes it ultimately easy to put down. Thomas contends that she, like the majority of other sociopaths, lives successfully in society, undetected. She believes that her sociopathic tendencies make her, in some ways, a more evolved human being, highly capable and very well-liked. She also finds herself to be exceptionally good-looking, stylish, and somewhat brilliant. A sympathetic reader might argue that Thomas be blamed for these narcissistic tendencies, as sociopaths by definition tend to have a very high opinion of themselves, often unsupported by the facts.

The book’s strength is that it may provide some comfort to anyone who suspects they are married to–or perhaps raising–a sociopath. While sociopaths are over-represented in prisons, Thomas contends that many more are living among us, “hiding in plain sight.” She estimates that four percent of the population fit the diagnosis for sociopathy. For sociopaths and those who love them, it should be heartening to know that a diagnosis of sociopathy does not doom a person to a life of crime or loneliness. While Thomas fantasizes about killing, for example, it’s not something she would ever consider acting upon.

Parents of sociopaths may find the book to be a sometimes painful, sometimes comforting insight into the elementary school years.

“I usually had friends despite my perceived oddness,” Thomas writes, “but I experienced periods in which I was avoided or even ostracized by everyone. I could overwhelm people, put them off. I was too aggressive for them, or they could see how deceptive, untrustworthy, and scheming I was.”

She notes, however, that she was “never bullied or picked on,” because her peers were afraid of her. Instead, she was often the one who picked on others, coldly choosing her victims and targeting their vulnerabilities. She also lacked the insecurities that plagued many of her friends, and didn’t care very much what others thought of her.

Just as the sociopaths you know probably begin to wear on your nerves at some point–self-centeredness, in the end, being a friendship-killer–the memoir begins to grow old a few chapters in. The fact that it is interesting but not entirely illuminating should come as no great surprise. The best memoirs work because the author is able to reflect with some degree of honesty and humility on his or her own flaws. While Thomas is honest to a point, it is difficult to trust a voice that confesses to thoughtlessly bending the truth to her own purpose; is she being truthful now? Thomas’s self-congratulatory tone tends to wear after a while. The premise is certainly compelling. But what is missing, ultimately and perhaps unsurprisingly , is the author’s ability to truly connect with her audience.

Crown, May 14, 2013

ISBN 9780307956644

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Michelle Richmond is the author of three novels, including the New York Times bestseller The Year of Fog. Her new novel will be published next year by Bantam, and her new story collection is forthcoming from Fiction Collective 2.

The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout

The Burgess Boys

Reviewed by Mia Lipman

When Elizabeth Strout won the Pulitzer Prize in 2009 for her linked story collection, Olive Kitteridge, reviewers praised her gift for elevating the ordinary. Among the rarefied breed of unrushed authors who produce an enviable book every 5 to 10 years (see: Jamaica Kincaid, Junot Díaz, Ann Packer), Strout also has a particular talent for spinning empathy out of misery. Her characters are mean, stupid, bumbling, frustrating, and hard to get enough of.

Strout’s new book, The Burgess Boys, reimagines an unhappy neighbor family from her childhood as even worse off than they probably were: dead father, incompetent mother, blowhard older brother Jim, hopeless younger brother Bob, and wayward sister Susan. The three kids have managed to avoid each other for years, resenting from afar—but when Susan’s teenage son, Zach, acts out by throwing a pig’s head into a mosque, Bob and Jim are forced into an awkward attempt at solidarity to help him survive the public outcry. The Burgess boys never wanted to go back to Shirley Falls, Maine, so they can’t muster much enthusiasm when it becomes obvious they have no choice.

Woven into this family mess are glimpses at the life of a local Muslim man, Abdikarim Ahmed, who emigrated from Somalia and belongs to the mosque that Zach defiled. Strout isn’t quite as successful at reading his mind, but Abdikarim and his family offer a quiet, pointed reflection on what it means to be in community.

Weirdly and brilliantly, Zach turns out to be the moral compass at the center of the Burgess brouhaha. By all accounts a sweet kid, he doesn’t really understand why he did what he did, and the adults around him sure as hell don’t. But in the course of trying to figure it out, each of these broken people manages to do a little better than usual. Also a lot worse—there are no miracle cures in Strout’s world. But the moments of connection, through hatred as well as love, are riveting.

Only a writer this deeply tapped into how humans work could make you want to sit still and watch as the Burgesses flail, suffer, and endure.

Random House, March 2013

ISBN-10: 1400067685

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Mia Lipman

Mia Lipman is the former reviews editor of San Francisco magazine, a founding editor of Canteen magazine, and the host of Lit Fix, a quarterly reading and music series in Seattle.

The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards

unchangeable spots of leopards

by Kristopher Jansma

Reviewed by Susanna Daniel 

At the start of Kristopher Jansma’s slippery and energetic debut novel, The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards, the unnamed narrator tells about his childhood spent in Terminal B of an American airport, making up stories — he will be a writer, of course — about passengers and the shop people who oversee him while he waits for his flight attendant mother, whose questionable parenting choices are almost all we ever learn about her.

Like most literary orphans, the boy is plucky and precocious, and one dramatic afternoon he learns that the grownups who have been distractedly looking out for him regard him less with affection and amusement than annoyance and pity. It’s an experience the narrator will continue to have throughout the the book: first he sees himself through one funhouse mirror, then through a different and equally distorted one. And the reader never knows which perspective to believe.

The twists and turns of the novel’s plot, which spans three decades, veer confidently into familiar literary territory, jockeying nimbly between bildungsroman and rags-to-riches and love triangle and caper. The setting jumps just as agilely — New York, Dubai, Sri Lanka, Iceland — as does the narrative style: one chapter is an unbroken monologue told to a couple of tourists in a hotel.

Before he is thirty-five, the narrator has remade himself half a dozen times. He is a liar of many stripes: identity thief, plagiarist, heartbreaker, and author. Like many authors, however, he’s far more enchanted with the notion of having written a book than the act of actually writing one, and therein lies the rub. On one of its many levels, this is a book about how to avoid writing a book.

The novel is rapid in pace, the language and details tightly controlled. Each time the story swerves into well-trod literary territory, the swerve is embraced fully. (Waiting on a train platform, the narrator not only invokes Hemingway, but also shares a local liquor with another American tourist who, to take it all the way, quotes from “Hills Like White Elephants.”) The few characters who break into the narrator’s self-involved bubble are quirky and colorful without ever becoming entirely of-the-flesh; this is more a story of hijinks than of hearts. Even this reader, who admittedly prefers a more reliable narrator, found myself rooting for the storyteller. He’s a liar and a thief, sure, but he’s also an underdog with more nerve than he’s earned.

At the center of the ever-shifting story is the question of truth — slanted, as the narrator professes to prefer it, or altogether disassembled. Each chapter spins a more outlandish yarn that the last, leaving the reader with the sense that the truth is sliding around even as the book sits closed on the shelf.

It’s tremendous fun, this book. One might wish for a little more of a typical debut’s raw, hard-beating heart, but what the book lacks in heart it makes up for in exuberance.

Viking Adult, March 2013  ISBN 9780670026005

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Susanna Daniel is the author of STILTSVILLE, winner of the PEN/Bingham Prize for debut fiction, and SEA CREATURES, forthcoming in July 2013 from HarperCollins. Visit her website at http://www.susannadaniel.com.

Cover of Snow by Jenny Milchman

Cover of SnowJenny Milchman’s debut novel, Cover of Snow, will likely please fans of cold-weather crime writers like Arnaldur Indridason (Arctic Chill) and Camilla Lackberg (The Ice Princess).

When Nora Hamilton discovers her cop husband Brendan dead of an apparent suicide in the home they share in the small town of Wedeskyull, NY, the police force she has long trusted quickly rallies around her. But as the unlikelihood of his suicide nags at her, Nora begins to question the omnipotence of third-generaton police chief Vern Weathers, known to everyone simply as Chief, and his band of loyal officers–including the trigger-happy Club Mitchell and the aptly if obviously named Tim Lurquer.

Bombarded by questions about Brendan’s past, Nora must face how little she really knew about him. Much of the plot hinges on the death of Brendan’s little brother in a tragic accident when Brendan was just a child. The description of the aftermath of the child’s death, perceived through photographs at a distance of more than two decades by Nora, who never knew him, is brilliantly and chillingly executed.

Readers may be puzzled by Nora’s lack of curiosity, which, though key to the plot, sometimes feels strained. It seems implausible that she would never have heard about the worst and most talked-about tragedy the town ever suffered, particularly when her own husband was at the center of it. It’s a minor complaint, however, in what ultimately is a very compelling mystery.

Milchman excels in unexpected moments, such as when she describes Nora’s sister’s stiflingly hot New York City apartment:

Teggie’s bedroom was as sweltering as the cramped rest of her apartment. I went back to the bed, crawled across it, and tugged at a window. It opened with a sticky separation of paint, and the volume of the city instantly increased.

The author clearly knows the frozen landscape that serves as backdrop to her story. The characters are frequently seen sliding down banks of ice, scraping it off their windows, or hiking over hills of snow. Milchman masterfully describes the ice-bound setting in the way that only someone who truly lives it can. Like the best Nordic crime thrillers, the novel succeeds in making you feel very, very cold.

Milchman also displays a keen eye for character. Characters who might be mere plot devices in a lesser thriller are thoughtfully rendered here. There is Chief, who rules over the town like a not-always-benevolent father, firm in the belief that he is called upon to protect his flock, and that too many rules and regulations only get in the way. His junior officers’ devotion to him feels entirely real, and the ways in which he is tangled up with members of the community, including Brendan’s Aunt Jean, becomes clearer and more menacing as the novel progresses.

Another fascinating character is Dugger, an autistic man who has been recording the town in images and sound for nearly three decades. Dugger’s photos and audio recordings lend an intriguing and essential layer to the plot.

But the real triumph of Milchman’s first novel is the pacing. The plot unfolds at an excellent clip, stalling in just the right moments, lingering on characters long enough for us to get to know them, ultimately rushing headlong to a series of startling revelations. I found myself completely wrapped up in the story, unwilling to put the novel down until I had reached the fascinating and unexpected conclusion.

Ballantine Books, Jan. 2013 ISBN 978-0345534217

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year of fog coverMichelle Richmond is the author of the international bestseller The Year of Fog, the novels No One You Know and Dream of the Blue Room, and the award-winning story collection The Girl in the Fall-Away Dress. Visit her at http://michellerichmond.com.

If you like Cover of Snow, you might also like Arctic Chill (Arnaldur Indridason), The Ice Princess (Camilla Lackberg), and Sun Storm (Asa Larsson).

The Book of Lost Fragrances by M.J. Rose

M.J. Rose has cemented her reputation as one of our leading writers of suspense, fusing thriller elements with history and a fascination with how the past can affect and alter the present. While reincarnation themes dominate her most recent books, including the brilliant THE HYPNOTIST, you don’t have to be a believer to sink into her carefully constructed ambiance, often populated by damaged yet hopeful characters seeking redemption in a chaotic and dangerous world.

In THE BOOK OF LOST FRAGRANCES, Rose introduces a new character, Jac L’Etoile -a young woman haunted by her past and the ethereal scents that filled her childhood as heir to the French perfume company, House of L’Etoile. Jac’s youth is marred by the pain of her mother’s untimely death and a difficult relationship with her family, but after fourteen years of living abroad in the United States, her attempts to flee the past catch up with her when she and her talented brother Robbie inherit the family business. The inheritance is rife with trouble; plagued by financial trouble in a relentless corporation-driven era that is destroying the art of natural perfume making in favor of mass production, the once legendary House of L’Etoile is on the brink of ruin. But when Jac’s brother stumbles upon a potentially life-changing secret in the family archives and soon thereafter disappears under frightening circumstances, Jac finds herself thrust into a desperate gambit to find her brother, unravel the mystery of the legendary fragrance of Cleopatra – a possible tool to restore past-life memories – and find a way to confront, and make peace, with her shattered past.

Ms Rose excels, as always, at depicting her troubled heroine’s journey as Jac navigates the glamorous boulevards of the City of Lights and the lethal underworld of reincarnation tools and those who will stop at nothing to obtain them. Rose also populates her fast-moving, breathtaking narrative with a host of memorable secondary characters, including assassins and a shadowy figure that her fans will recognize from past books. But it is her meticulous attention to the evanescent, fascinating world of perfume that sets this novel apart. At moments, the very pages of THE BOOK OF LOST FRAGRANCES emanate the ambergris and musk of ancient Egypt, so that you find yourself sniffing your fingers for traces of the elusive, lost perfume. In Jac, Rose has also developed her best heroine yet: a woman whose outward fragility conceals an inner courage that propels her into the terrifying catacombs of Paris on a quest that will re-define her belief in, and powers to, retrieve the past, even as these exact heart-breaking sacrifice.

Readers of historical fiction, suspense and mystery should flock to this captivating and unusual novel.

Atria Books, Paperback release-Feb. 2013,  ISBN 9781451621488

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Visit MJ Rose’s website.

C.W. Gortner is the bestselling author of four historical novels, including his most recent, THE QUEEN’S VOW. Visit him at www.cwgortner.com

Touch & Go by Lisa Gardner

Lisa Gardner’s latest thriller, Touch & Go, opens with the kidnapping of the wealthy Denbe family–the parents and a teenaged daughter–from their home. The investigation is complicated by the fact that the family are such pillars of the community that no one wants to step on their toes, and the company they own has hired its own investigator. Some posturing ensues–whose jurisdiction is it, just who gets to touch what evidence–though ultimately, the various parts find a way to work together.

The large cast of characters includes the secretive family members, a bunch of bad-ass kidnappers, D.D. Warren (whom Gardner fans will recognize from the eponymous series),  and another recurring character, Tessa Leoni from Love You More. Added to the mix is a sheriff named Wyatt Foster. Gardner is masterful, of course, at creating suspense, and Touch & Go is no exception. While the characters at times feel like parodies, this is nonetheless a fun ride, a well-plotted pot-boiler that will keep you turning pages.

Buy the book.

 Dutton Adult

ISBN-13: 978-0525953074