“Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup” by John Carreyrou

Bad BloodLike millions of others, I was fascinated by the HBO documentary “The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley,” which recounted the saga of wunderkind Elizabeth Holmes and her heavily hyped company Theranos, which claimed that it was revolutionizing health care with its one-drop blood test. It’s such a crazy, truth-is-stranger-than-fiction story that I wanted to know more, and Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup provides 300 juicy pages. But there’s plenty more to come; both Jennifer Lawrence and “Saturday Night Live”‘s Kate McKinnon are slated to portray Holmes in rival projects.

I do feel I benefited from watching “The Inventor” first so I could see and hear the deep-voiced blonde founder. A true 21st-century startup, Theranos’ brief lifespan was exhaustively documented, most notably in a ton of footage shot by acclaimed filmmaker Errol Morris, who directed several ads for the company. But Bad Blood is the ultimate insider chronicle, written by the Wall Street Journal reporter whose series of articles first brought the company’s misdeeds into the public eye. Before John Carreyrou came along, Theranos was one of Silicon Valley’s brightest stars, a company that seemed destined to change the world and make a lot of people very wealthy. A surprisingly large number of people already knew that Theranos was not what it purported to be, but Holmes had so many powerful friends and lawyers that anyone who dared speak out would live to regret it.

The first several chapters of Bad Blood follow a similar pattern: Somebody gets a job at Theranos, comes to realize that the amazing blood-testing system is a joke and a fraud, and  either quits or gets fired. Everyone has to sign a sheaf of nondisclosure and nondisparagement agreements on their way out the door. Many of the employees try to inform Holmes or someone else in upper management about the problems with the machines, only to be rebuffed for not being a team player. At one all-hands meeting following a slew of resignations, “Elizabeth told the gathered employees that she was building a religion. If there were any among them who didn’t believe, they should leave.”

Carreyrou emphasizes that unlike many other startups, Theranos was playing with people’s lives; covering up the inaccuracy of test results produced by its machines could have dire consequences for the patients who were relying on them. Nevertheless, Holmes and her second-in-command/romantic partner Sunny Balwani resolutely pressed on, inking deals with Walgreens and Safeway. (When a consultant hired by Walgreens to evaluate the Theranos deal warned an exec that it was bad news, he was told, “We can’t not pursue this. We can’t risk a scenario where CVS has a deal with them in six months and it ends up being real.”)

It turns out that what Theranos was trying to do may be impossible: “running seventy different blood tests simultaneously on a single finger-stick sample… Thousands of researchers around the world… had been pursuing this goal for more than two decades… But it had remained beyond reach for a few basic reasons,” including the fact that different types of blood tests require different methods of testing. One micro-sample just isn’t enough.

Holmes managed to stock her board of directors with a bevy of rich, powerful old white men, including Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, four-star general James Mattis, and superlawyer David Boies, who provided legal work for Theranos in exchange for company stock. It’s hard not to draw the conclusion that these men were drawn to Holmes in part by her youth and beauty, and she obviously knew how to turn on the charm. Shultz, in fact, went so far as to side with Holmes after his grandson Tyler blew the whistle on Theranos after working at the company for a few months. Holmes, but not Tyler, attended Shultz’s 95th birthday party.

Finally, it all comes crashing down, despite the strong-arm tactics of Boies and his associates. It’s sobering to think what might have happened if Carreyrou had not pursued this story, and the Wall Street Journal had not backed him (despite the fact that the paper’s owner, Rupert Murdoch, had invested over $100 million in Theranos). Theranos “was first and foremost a health-care company,” not a tech company, he writes. “Doctors base 70 percent of their treatment decisions on lab results. They rely on lab equipment to work as advertised. Otherwise, patient health is jeopardized.” It’s pretty obvious that sooner or later, Theranos would have been discredited—its machines simply didn’t work—but it could have come at the cost of people’s lives.

Holmes and Balwani seemed to think that if they just pushed their beleaguered employees hard enough, eventually they’d come up with a breakthrough. Holmes’ “ambition was voracious and it brooked no interference,” Carreyrou concludes. “If there was collateral damage on her way to riches and fame, so be it.” And while the case against Holmes will go to trial in 2020, she appears to be enjoying a pretty cushy lifestyle in the meantime: she’s attended Burning Man, she recently married a wealthy heir, and she owns a Siberian Husky dog she claims is a wolf. After reading Bad Blood, it wouldn’t surprise me if she manages to escape the consequences of her despicable actions. She certainly seems to display zero remorse for the things she did during the years she ran Theranos.

“The Sentence is Death” by Anthony Horowitz

The Sentence is Death by Anthony HorowitzConsidering that my review of Anthony Horowitz’s The Word is Murder gets approximately 10 times more hits than any other post on this site, thanks to people who are using Google to try to figure out which of its characters are real and which are fictional, I would be remiss if I didn’t review the follow-up, right? Once again, Horowitz has cast himself as the sidekick to an enigmatic private investigator named Hawthorne, and the book combines fact (yes, Horowitz actually did create the TV drama “Foyle’s War” and the young-adult Alex Rider novels) and fiction (no, literary superstar Akira Anno is made up—Horowitz writes that he’s “had to change her name,” but she doesn’t seem to be based on a single person; she’s likely a composite of various lit-world people Horowitz has met throughout his career).

Akira Anno stands accused of murdering divorce lawyer Richard Pryce, who was fatally struck by a wine bottle shortly after Akira publicly threatened him in a crowded restaurant. Richard’s home was in the process of being redecorated, and someone—likely the killer—grabbed some paint and scrawled a three-digit number on the wall. Since Horowitz has a three-book contract to write about Hawthorne and his cases, he starts following him around as he investigates the murder.

Perhaps the funniest scene in this very amusing book is one in which Horowitz attends one of Akira Anno’s readings at his favorite bookshop, Daunt (real!). Someone slips a paperback into his shoulder bag and he is accused of shoplifting and banned from the store by manager Rebecca Le Fevre, who is also a real person. Of all the indignities that Horowitz suffers during his career as Hawthorne’s Boswell, this is surely the worst.

Later, Hawthorne and Horowitz meet with a fictional publisher who may have information relevant to their investigation. “I think it would be a fantastic idea if they got you to write a [James] Bond next. I know the Ian Fleming estate. I could have a word with them if you like…” (Horowitz has published two Bond novels, Trigger Mortis and Forever and a Day.)

Horowitz’s mysteries are always reliably clever and well-plotted, but what really makes these books such a blast are those in-jokes. The reader gets the sense that these novels are just a lot of fun to write—The Sentence is Death merrily sends up pretentious literary offerings as well as the lowbrow “Doomworld” series (“a fantasy version of England in the time of King Arthur, weaving magic and mystery with really quite extreme levels of violence and pornography”)—but more importantly, they’re incredibly fun to read as well.

“The Cactus” by Sarah Haywood and “City of Girls” by Elizabeth Gilbert

The CactusI’ll say one thing about Sarah Haywood, she is nothing if not self-aware. In The Cactus, her main character, Susan, has lent a copy of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie to her neighbor Kate. “I quite liked it,” Kate says to Susan as she returns the novel, “but I didn’t get Miss Brodie. She didn’t seem very likable. I can’t enjoy a book if I don’t warm to the main character.”

“I disagree,” Susan responds. “I’d rather read about someone interesting than someone who’s just nice.”

That passage is definitely delivered with a wink on the part of the author, because Susan could certainly be considered an unsympathetic heroine. As the title suggests, she cultivates cacti, which are prickly, just like her—again, very on the nose. But I really enjoyed The Cactus, which does a superb job of gradually rolling out Susan’s backstory and giving some insight as to why she became the way she is: an extremely self-contained control freak, the very definition of that British expression, “she keeps herself to herself.”

Susan, a Londoner in her mid-40s, has led a very well-ordered life, avoiding other people as much as possible. She’s the kind of person who is super-competent at her job but never wants to socialize with her co-workers, or even spare a couple minutes for a chat. Naturally, she avoids romantic entanglements, too, though for 12 years, she’s enjoyed a no-strings-attached relationship with a writer named Richard, whom she meets every Wednesday for an evening at the theater or the opera followed by a sexual encounter. It’s a satisfying arrangement, until one fateful day when Susan discovers that she’s pregnant. (“I’d always assumed that barriers methods were foolproof, but I’ve learned to my cost that they aren’t.”)

Susan decides to have the baby, which, of course, changes her life in a myriad of ways. As the book progresses, she is forced to renegotiate her relationships with a multitude of people, including her brother, Edward, with whom she has had an increasingly fraught relationship ever since their mother died and left him the family home. Susan vows to challenge her mother’s will, causing an even greater rift between the siblings. Despite that complication, her world starts to expand little by little, preparing her for the chaos that is destined to descend on the day she finally meets the most unpredictable person of all: her own child.

City of GirlsWas there ever a more glamorous era than New York City in the pre-war 1940s? Elizabeth Gilbert takes readers back to that heady time in City of Girls, a book that starts out as light and fizzy as a champagne cocktail but gradually becomes darker and more poignant. Vivian Morris, freshly dismissed from Vassar (“on account of never having attended classes and thereby failing every single one of my freshman exams”), is sent by her disappointed parents to spend the summer with her Aunt Peg. Peg owns a run-down theater called the Lily Playhouse, which serves its working-class audience by presenting escapist fare featuring corny jokes and glamorous showgirls. Vivian, thanks to her talent for sewing, soon becomes a crucial part of the Lily Playhouse ecosystem, but everything changes—and not always for the better—when the theater actually manages to score a massive hit show, “City of Girls.”

The novel’s first-person narrative is by a much-older Vivian, looking back at her life and addressing a younger woman named Angela. What is their relationship? That isn’t revealed until much later in the book, but along the way, it’s such a delight to just sit back and enjoy the ride, savoring the pleasure of spending a few hours in a long-ago world of Manhattan showbiz.

“The View from Alameda Island” by Robyn Carr

The View from Alameda IslandThe very pretty illustration on the cover of The View from Alameda Island does not, in fact, depict the view from Alameda Island. It looks more like the view from a different island—Alcatraz. Also, I can state with some authority (as a resident of 10+ years) that absolutely no one who lives there ever refers to it as “Alameda Island.”

Nitpicks aside, however, I was very eager to read this book, despite the fact that I wasn’t familiar with Robyn Carr. She’s a popular author of women’s fiction, a genre I enjoy, and I was hoping that she’d spent some time soaking up local color to include in the novel. The possibilities are endless: romantic strolls on Crown Beach! Picnics at Crab Cove! Mai tais at Forbidden Island! Maybe her characters would shop for collectibles at the monthly antiques fair, catch a show at Altarena Playhouse, or check out the famous Fourth of July Parade.

Alas, I was very disappointed at the lack of local references; except for some mentions of Alameda’s famous Victorian homes, and the ferry to San Francisco, it could have taken place anywhere. The characters frequent an unnamed pub, but the description is so vague that it didn’t seem to be a stand-in for any actual location (though I guess it could have been the Churchward).

As for the story itself, I found it slightly rough going. The writing is pedestrian, and the main characters are either purely good (the protagonist, Lauren, and her love interest, Beau) or totally evil (Lauren and Beau’s exes). I will admit that I may have enjoyed it more had I not read it immediately after Jennifer Weiner’s Mrs. Everything, which is such an ambitious, thoughtful and nuanced work. Lauren never felt real to me, and neither, sadly, did Carr’s depiction of Alameda.