“Troublemaker” by Leah Remini

Troublemaker by Leah ReminiLeah Remini gets right to the point on Page One of her autobiography: “I have done some things in my life that I am not proud of,” including falling in love with a married man and “physically threatening” meter maids. She also reveals that her husband used to deal drugs and her mother was “a self-admitted slut in her younger days.”

Usually, celebrity memoirists don’t deliver info-dumps like this, preferring to gradually roll out the shocking details little by little. But Remini knows that when you leave the Church of Scientology, that makes you a target. The church has no problem attacking “apostates” using confidential information disclosed during auditing (counseling) sessions, meaning that there’s never a shortage of juicy gossip to spill about former parishioners. So Remini decided to beat ’em to the punch by writing a book that airs much of her own dirty laundry.

Remini’s mother joined Scientology when her daughter was a child, so Leah was essentially brought up in the religion. She and her sister Nicole joined the Sea Org (Scientology’s clergy) at a very young age, signing billion-year contracts which were quickly broken once Leah got into trouble for messing around with boys. She went on to bigger and better things, appearing in several dozen failed pilots and canceled TV series before finally hitting the jackpot with “The King of Queens,” which lasted nine seasons and made her a star.

All the while, Remini was forced to spend several hours a day taking Scientology courses and giving huge sums of money (she estimates she spent around $5 million total on services and donations) to the church. Unfortunately, while Leah may have been a big star, she was nowhere near the level of Scientology’s biggest star, Tom Cruise—and when she grew disenchanted with the way Cruise was treated as a sort of demigod within the church, with Sea Org members serving at his beck and call, it marked the beginning of the end for Leah’s own status as a Scientology celeb. Everything came to a head at Cruise’s wedding to Katie Holmes, when Remini noticed all kinds of irregularities: not just Cruise’s wedding seemingly “being regarded as ‘official church business,'” but Tom’s Sea Org “handlers”—a man and a woman both married to other people—were canoodling at a pre-wedding dinner, and church leader David Miscavige was there with a date who was not his wife. Even people who aren’t obsessive Scientology watchers like me have probably heard the phrase “Where’s Shelly?” at some point; Shelly is Miscavige’s wife, and she hasn’t been seen in public for many years. Leah and Shelly were friends, and Leah’s questions about Shelly’s whereabouts led to a tremendous amount of drama. Leah eventually filed a police report declaring Shelly a missing person (pages from the report are reproduced in the book).

There’s so much dish in the Cruise/Holmes wedding chapter that I can’t possibly detail it all (Jennifer Lopez, whose father is a Scientologist, plays a big part); suffice it to say this was finally the tipping point that caused Remini to break publicly with the church she’d been a part of for 30 years. Due to Scientology’s “disconnection” policy, overnight, she became persona non grata to all of her friends in the church. Amazingly, Remini’s entire family agreed to leave Scientology with her. This is a very rare occurrence. Most of the time, at least some family members stay, separating grandparents from grandchildren, sisters from brothers.

It’s kind of amazing that Remini, a mouthy girl from Brooklyn, managed to last as long in the church as she did. She obviously has a great sense of humor, a trait discouraged in Scientology (L. Ron Hubbard called it “joking and degrading” and even issued a formal statement declaring it off-policy). Her book is a fast, fun read, and provides a rare glimpse of what life is like for a genuine Scientology celebrity; most run-of-the-mill parishioners “will never experience seeing behind the curtain like I and a handful of others have,” she writes. Thank goodness for troublemakers.

“Dark Corners” by Ruth Rendell

Dark Corners by Ruth RendellIt’s a bit ironic that the final novel by Ruth Rendell deals with an author in the throes of writers’ block. Rendell, who wrote 66 books (including many under the pseudonym Barbara Vine), never seemed to suffer from that affliction, yet she has no problem getting into the mind of a novelist who is having difficulty completing his second novel. (“Tinkering with it was a waste of time… he could create a new detective, a woman, perhaps. He would begin by making a list of characters, looking up names online and finding new ones in the surname dictionary.”)

The blocked writer is a young man named Carl, and even if the new book is giving him trouble, he should, at least, have a steady source of income: renting a flat in the large home he inherited in London’s affluent Maida Vale neighborhood. Unfortunately for Carl, the tenant he chooses turns out to be a sinister blackmailer who threatens to run to the media and spill the beans about the fact that Carl sold some diet pills to an actress friend of his, who promptly dropped dead after taking them. (The diet pills had been left in the bathroom cupboard when Carl inherited his house.) “It would be a juicy story: ‘Author Kills Actress.’ Carl would never have a serious literary career again.”

Carl didn’t intend to give his friend Stacey a fatal dosage of medication, but even if her death was inadvertent, he doesn’t want to be dragged into a scandal. Meanwhile, there are a few other subplots, one involving another friend of the dead actress, Lizzie, who surreptitiously moves into Stacey’s flat by means of a spare key; Lizzie’s dad, Tom, newly retired with a free pensioner’s bus pass that allows him to begin exploring the city of London; and the evil tenant, Dermot, who begins courting a mousy woman he meets at church. I assumed all of the various threads would somehow come together at the end, but most of them (including one in which Lizzie is kidnapped) just kind of fizzle out. In fact, Dark Corners ends so abruptly that I was honestly shocked when I realized the book was over. I couldn’t help but wonder if Rendell had truly completed the book to her satisfaction before suffering the stroke that ultimately led to her death a few months later.

Rendell does a masterful job of depicting Carl’s mental torture as the situation he is in grows worse and worse, but it’s not a particularly enjoyable thing to read about. I found Dark Corners fairly unpleasant to get through, with not many sympathetic characters. (It’s rather surprising that Carl’s lovely girlfriend, Nicola, sticks around as long as she does.) Unfortunately, this posthumously published book is not one of Rendell’s best, but at least she left us with a huge back catalog of novels far better than this one.

“The Room” by Jonas Karlsson

The RoomBjörn, the narrator of Jonas Karlsson’s satirical novel The Room, has just started a new job at the Authority when he makes a discovery. “It was a fairly small room. A desk in the middle. A computer, files on a shelf. Pens and other office equipment. Nothing remarkable. But all of it in perfect order. Neat and tidy.”

The only “remarkable” thing about the room seems to be that none of Björn’s co-workers know it’s there, despite the fact that it’s located “round the corner, past the toilets.” The room becomes Björn’s special place to unwind; it even features a full-length mirror which makes him look a little more attractive than usual.

In a recent appearance at the Bay Area Book Festival, Karlsson said The Room was inspired by an experience he had at the Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm, where he is a company member. Sitting in the wings, waiting to go onstage, he imagined a secret room, perhaps one where the theater’s onetime managing director, Ingmar Bergman, would spend private moments writing in a notebook.

The Room may be written by a Swede (albeit one who admits he’s never worked in an office), but the character of Björn will probably remind viewers of NBC’s “The Office” of the character Dwight Schrute: he feels superior to most of his colleagues, certain that he is the most efficient and hardest working person in his department. A receptionist who doesn’t respond to his awkward advances must be “a junkie… Being taken in by the surface appearance of a drug user was one of the dangers of being an open, honest person.” His co-worker Håkan must have “a hidden agenda… His hair, his sideburns, his scruffy jacket; it all suggested a set of values different from the ones that we in the department live by.”

At just under 200 pages (with 65 chapters), The Room is a brief, breezy read, fun but relatively insubstantial. At his Book Festival talk, Karlsson responded to an audience member who wondered if he would ever turn to writing crime fiction (he’s Swedish, after all!). He said that while his publisher would probably love that, he doesn’t plan to try his hand at the genre. Still, The Room does have a “mystery” at its core: does Björn’s sanctuary actually exist, or is it all in his mind? If he continues to spend time there, will his co-workers assume he’s crazy, which could turn into an H.R. nightmare?

Björn may sometimes be hard for the reader to sympathize with, but upon finishing the book, I suspect most of us will wish we had a room like his: a secret place where upon entering, you suddenly become much more productive, serene and even better-looking.

“The Passenger” by Lisa Lutz

The Passenger by Lisa LutzWhat a coincidence that I happened to read a story about the mysterious disappearance of British author Helen Bailey shortly before I finished Lisa Lutz’s stylish noir, The Passenger. Bailey left a note to say that she needed some time to herself, but when her partner and family declared themselves concerned about her safety, the case was raised to “high risk.” “In this day and age, you would not expect someone to go missing and there to be no footprint,” said the chief inspector in charge of the case.

The Passenger is about the difficulty of going “off the grid” in the U.S., as experienced by a woman whom we come to know as she cycles through many different identities. “Before computers and mammoth databases and the NSA, I could have picked a name, moved to a new town, and run with it,” muses Amelia Keen, formerly Tanya Dubois. “But now it felt like every time I wanted to try on an identity coat, it began to unravel he moment I slipped my arm into the sleeve.”

The book’s protagonist—I’ll refer to her as Tanya—goes on the run after her husband dies. He fell down a flight of stairs, but Tanya is convinced that if she reports his death to the police, they’ll discover her true identity. Tanya is a fugitive, living in Wisconsin after escaping her hometown in the Pacific Northwest a decade ago, after a pivotal event that isn’t fully explained until much later in the book. “I couldn’t imagine how I’d summon tears or sell that shattered look of loss. I can’t show much emotion anymore… There was a time I used to cry, but that was another lifetime ago.”

Tanya’s travels bring her to Austin, TX, and into the orbit of a female bartender named Blue, who turns out to play a crucial role in Tanya’s life, providing her with a place to stay and then yet another identity. Eventually, though, Tanya discovers that she can’t run forever; the 21st century is an unforgiving time for a person who just wants to disappear. When she finally decides to confront her past head-on, old family secrets are revealed.

Tanya is not always a sympathetic character; readers may find themselves debating throughout the book whether she’s more sinned against than sinner, and how reliable a narrator she actually is. The one thing that’s certain is that Lutz has written an exceptionally well-plotted, suspenseful novel.