Human behavior is a funny thing: watching how someone pushes the boundaries of rational, traditional, and socially acceptable thought processes and rules is fascinating, to say the least. Yes, things can quickly get out of hand. Yes, actions can hurt people or unnecessarily complicate things. Yes, situations often don’t turn out the way people anticipated. But for the sake of plot-building, intriguing character development, thought-provoking exploration, or a cautionary tale for how not to live our lives, here’s a case (eight strong appeals, to be exact) for making books about cons and cults a necessity for your TBR lists.
8 Entrancing Reads About Cons and Cults
As soon as I finished this book, I talked about it to anyone who would listen. To my surprise, most of my friends actually took my advice and got a copy, and I couldn’t be happier, because it deserves all of the reads! Who knew you could become so attached to a pyramid scheme and those involved, secretly championing their successes, arriving at an understanding of their actions, and becoming just as anxious as some of the characters themselves as things begin to deteriorate. Ezra and Orson, as teens, start their cons small scale and build up to their largest scam yet, developing a company that brings about happiness when wearing magnets. Along the way the two engage in a romantic relationship, and that figures into their scams too—or does it? The duo became so real to me that I almost expect to run into them someday at—or on their way to—some crazy, can-you-believe-this tech convention.
Best friends (and occasional lovers) Ezra and Orson are teetering on top of the world after founding a company that promises instant enlightenment in this thrilling caper about scams, schemes, and the absurdity of the American Dream.
At seventeen, Ezra Green doesn’t have a lot going for him: he’s shorter than average, snaggle-toothed, internet-addicted, and halfway to being legally blind. He’s also on his way to Last Chance Camp, the final stop before juvie.
But Ezra’s summer at Last Chance turns life-changing when he meets Orson, brilliant and Adonis-like with a mind for hustling. Together, the two embark upon what promises to be a fruitful career of scam artistry. But when they try to pull off their biggest scam yet—Nulife, a corporation that promises its consumers a lifetime of bliss—things start to spin wildly out of control.
Searing and charming, with the suspense of The Talented Mr. Ripley, the decadence of The Great Gatsby, and the wit of Succession, Confidence is a story for anyone who knows that the American Dream is just another pyramid scheme.
There are certainly stereotypes and speculation about what goes down at a tech startup; many may picture a fast-paced, workaholic crowd glued to their devices, bent on making things more efficient and effective even as the current model continues to meet basic needs. THE STARTUP WIFE has this level of frenetic energy, perky fun-office style, and innovation that comes with a side of unexpected idolatry and hero complex. I was surprised at how quickly things shifted from good idea to tangible accomplishment to expansion to pure fixation to devastation. Asha and her husband, Cyrus, are trying to run both a startup company and their startup marriage, a high-wire combination that requires more than just superb coding skills—and comes to take an extraordinary toll on just about everything and everyone in their path.
Named a Best Book of the Year by NPR
In this “wise and wickedly funny novel about love, creativity, and the limitations of the tech-verse” (Vogue) newlyweds Asha and Cyrus find themselves running one of the most popular social media platforms in the world.
Meet Asha Ray. Brilliant coder and possessor of a Pi tattoo, Asha is poised to make a scientific breakthrough when she is reunited with her high school crush, Cyrus Jones.
Before she knows it, Asha has abandoned her lab, exchanged vows with Cyrus, and gone to work at an exclusive tech incubator called Utopia to develop an app called WAI—“We are Infinite.”
WAI creates a sensation, with millions of users logging on every day. Will Cyrus and Asha’s marriage survive the pressures of sudden fame, or will she become overshadowed by the man everyone is calling the new messiah?
This “scathing—and hilarious—take on startup culture, marriage and workaholism” (Politico) explores whether or not technology—with all its limits and possibilities—can disrupt modern love.
THE ROAD TO JONESTOWN is the only nonfiction book on this list, though it’s certainly wild enough to stand alone (and read like fiction). We all know the name Jonestown, the story of a messianic and mesmerizing cult leader, Jim Jones, persuasive enough to have 900 followers drinking the Kool-Aid and ultimately following him off the proverbial cliff in Guyana. Even so, it’s one thing to immerse yourself in reading about a cult gone terribly wrong (which one doesn’t?) and another to try to wrap your head around the long game and Jim Jones’ astonishing power to persuade. There are so many twists and turns, moments where something could have been stopped and instead impossibly maneuvered on; there are times where you begin to understand the process and the people Jones surrounded himself with, and there are others where you can’t possibly believe any of it, tragically, happened.
2018 Edgar Award Finalist—Best Fact Crime
“A thoroughly readable, thoroughly chilling account of a brilliant con man and his all-too vulnerable prey” (The Boston Globe)—the definitive story of preacher Jim Jones, who was responsible for the Jonestown Massacre, the largest murder-suicide in American history, by the New York Times bestselling author of Manson.
In the 1950s, a young Indianapolis minister named Jim Jones preached a curious blend of the gospel and Marxism. His congregation was racially mixed, and he was a leader in the early civil rights movement. Eventually, Jones moved his church, Peoples Temple, to northern California, where he got involved in electoral politics and became a prominent Bay Area leader. But underneath the surface lurked a terrible darkness.
In this riveting narrative, Jeff Guinn examines Jones’s life, from his early days as an idealistic minister to a secret life of extramarital affairs, drug use, and fraudulent faith healing, before the fateful decision to move almost a thousand of his followers to a settlement in the jungles of Guyana in South America. Guinn provides stunning new details of the events leading to the fatal day in November, 1978 when more than nine hundred people died—including almost three hundred infants and children—after being ordered to swallow a cyanide-laced drink.
Guinn examined thousands of pages of FBI files on the case, including material released during the course of his research. He traveled to Jones’s Indiana hometown, where he spoke to people never previously interviewed, and uncovered fresh information from Jonestown survivors. He even visited the Jonestown site with the same pilot who flew there the day that Congressman Leo Ryan was murdered on Jones’s orders. The Road to Jonestown is “the most complete picture to date of this tragic saga, and of the man who engineered it…The result is a disturbing portrait of evil—and a compassionate memorial to those taken in by Jones’s malign charisma” (San Francisco Chronicle).
I was very late to the game on A VISIT FROM THE GOON SQUAD, and I told myself I would never again miss out on another newly published Jennifer Egan book. And so THE CANDY HOUSE, with its bright, colorful cover, was at the top of my TBR pile the month it came out, and I finished it in the blink of an eye. Desperate characters, new tech, a currency of memory and desire: what a setup for a novel that reframes and unsettles, pokes and engages and questions. The cult angle comes into play through tech god Bix, whose “Own Your Unconscious” gives you clear access to all your memories, as well as everyone else’s who signs on. It’s pretty easy to imagine the cult of followers that would develop from that! There is so much to dive into here, and Egan’s variety of narrative structures adds to the feeling that anything could happen, that there exists an unlimited number of experiences, perspectives, and interpretations.
From one of the most celebrated writers of our time, a literary figure with cult status, a “sibling novel” to her Pulitzer Prize- and NBCC Award-winning A Visit from the Goon Squad—an electrifying, deeply moving novel about the quest for authenticity and meaning in a world where memories and identities are no longer private.
The Candy House opens with the staggeringly brilliant Bix Bouton, whose company, Mandala, is so successful that he is “one of those tech demi-gods with whom we’re all on a first name basis.” Bix is 40, with four kids, restless, desperate for a new idea, when he stumbles into a conversation group, mostly Columbia professors, one of whom is experimenting with downloading or “externalizing” memory. It’s 2010. Within a decade, Bix’s new technology, “Own Your Unconscious”—that allows you access to every memory you’ve ever had, and to share every memory in exchange for access to the memories of others—has seduced multitudes. But not everyone.
In spellbinding interlocking narratives, Egan spins out the consequences of Own Your Unconscious through the lives of multiple characters whose paths intersect over several decades. Intellectually dazzling, The Candy House is also extraordinarily moving, a testament to the tenacity and transcendence of human longing for real connection, love, family, privacy and redemption. In the world of Egan’s spectacular imagination, there are “counters” who track and exploit desires and there are “eluders,” those who understand the price of taking a bite of the Candy House. Egan introduces these characters in an astonishing array of narrative styles—from omniscient to first person plural to a duet of voices, an epistolary chapter and a chapter of tweets.
If Goon Squad was organized like a concept album, The Candy House incorporates Electronic Dance Music’s more disjunctive approach. The parts are titled: Build, Break, Drop. With an emphasis on gaming, portals, and alternate worlds, its structure also suggests the experience of moving among dimensions in a role-playing game.
The Candy House is a bold, brilliant imagining of a world that is moments away. Egan takes to stunning new heights her “deeply intuitive forays into the darker aspects of our technology-driven, image-saturated culture” (Vogue). The Candy House delivers an absolutely extraordinary combination of fierce, exhilarating intelligence and heart.
The cover of this novel incorporates that notion of revealing and also concealing, an open world made of familiar shapes and doors and rooms, and yet something is off-kilter, waiting to be discovered. The book’s premise is of three art thefts in three European cities, ordinary places that become ransacked and perhaps full of unremarkable clues. I love a good mystery, especially one that waits to tie multiple groups together, and the Rome-Paris-London setting is also a thrill. Forgeries and secret plots, discussions of art and scrutinizing of crime, all add up to what it means to be a thief—and that sense of exhilaration is felt in reading this captivating story.
Rome: In the small Baroque church of Santa Giuliana, a magnificent Caravaggio altarpiece disappears without a trace in the middle of the night.
Paris: In the basement vault of the Malevich Society, curator Geneviéve Delacloche is shocked to discover the disappearance of the Society's greatest treasure, White-on-White by Suprematist painter Kasimir Malevich.
London: At the National Gallery of Modern Art, the museum's latest acquisition is stolen just hours after it was purchased for more than six million pounds.
In The Art Thief, three thefts are simultaneously investigated in three cities, but these apparently isolated crimes have much more in common than anyone imagines. In Rome, the police enlist the help of renowned art investigator Gabriel Coffin when tracking down the stolen masterpiece. In Paris, Geneviéve Delacloche is aided by Police Inspector Jean-Jacques Bizot, who finds a trail of bizarre clues and puzzles that leads him ever deeper into a baffling conspiracy. In London, Inspector Harry Wickenden of Scotland Yard oversees the museum's attempts to ransom back its stolen painting, only to have the masterpiece's recovery deepen the mystery even further.
A dizzying array of forgeries, overpaintings, and double-crosses unfolds as the story races through auction houses, museums, and private galleries -- and the secret places where priceless works of art are made available to collectors who will stop at nothing to satisfy their hearts' desires.
Full of fascinating art-historical detail, crackling dialogue, and a brain-teasing plot, Noah Charney's debut novel is a sophisticated, stylish thriller, as irresistible and multifaceted as a great work of art.
I can imagine what it would be like to start over, a fresh beginning out in nature, free from the hustle and bustle of a demanding life. I can’t fully picture, however, what it would be like to choose a new name, to cut myself off from my past, and to embrace someone else’s idea for the future—or, at least, I couldn’t until I picked up THE ASH FAMILY. “. . . You’ll have more freedom here than anywhere else,” the charismatic Bay explains to 19-year-old Berie, a powerful phrase of contradiction that really stuck with me. On the farm, Berie meets the family’s hypnotizing father, Dice, and she’s ushered into a commune world where she can’t share her “fake-world name” and meets others who have been saved. Others who, it seems, will begin to disappear.
When a young woman leaves her family to join a secret off-the-grid community headed by an enigmatic leader, she discovers that belonging comes with a deadly cost, in this “stunning debut,” (The New Yorker) “perfect for fans of Philip Roth’s American Pastoral and the film Martha Marcy May Marlene” (Booklist, starred review).
At nineteen, Berie encounters a seductive and mysterious man at a bus station near her home in North Carolina. Shut off from the people around her, she finds herself compelled by his promise of a new life. He ferries her into a place of order and chaos: the Ash Family farm. There, she joins a community living off the fertile land of the mountains, bound together by high ideals and through relationships she can’t untangle. Berie—now renamed Harmony—renounces her old life and settles into her new one on the farm. She begins to make friends. And then they start to disappear.
“An excellent debut, Molly Dektar probes life in a cult with a masterful hand, excavating the troubled mind of a young woman,” (Publishers Weekly). The Ash Family explores what we will sacrifice in the search for happiness, and the beautiful and grotesque power of the human spirit as it seeks its ultimate place of belonging. “A captivating and haunting tale” (New York Journal of Books).
I read this novel as prelude to a very memorable book club conversation, one where nearly everyone had a different take or reaction. If you’re looking for good discussions and interesting jumps in time and perspectives, this one’s for you. A letter disrupts Libby’s life on her twenty-fifth birthday, sending her to an abandoned mansion full of secrets and people who have waited a long time to meet her. Perhaps not surprisingly, it reveals itself to be a home that was once the scene of a terrible tragedy involving multiple bodies, missing children, and the insinuation of a cult. Don’t be surprised if you fly through this thriller all in one sitting.
INSTANT NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER
A GOOD MORNING AMERICA COVER TO COVER BOOK CLUB PICK
“Rich, dark, and intricately twisted, this enthralling whodunit mixes family saga with domestic noir to brilliantly chilling effect.” —Ruth Ware, New York Times bestselling author
“A haunting, atmospheric, stay-up-way-too-late read.” —Megan Miranda, New York Times bestselling author
From the New York Times bestselling author of Then She Was Gone comes another page-turning look inside one family’s past as buried secrets threaten to come to light.
Be careful who you let in.
Soon after her twenty-fifth birthday, Libby Jones returns home from work to find the letter she’s been waiting for her entire life. She rips it open with one driving thought: I am finally going to know who I am.
She soon learns not only the identity of her birth parents, but also that she is the sole inheritor of their abandoned mansion on the banks of the Thames in London’s fashionable Chelsea neighborhood, worth millions. Everything in Libby’s life is about to change. But what she can’t possibly know is that others have been waiting for this day as well—and she is on a collision course to meet them.
Twenty-five years ago, police were called to 16 Cheyne Walk with reports of a baby crying. When they arrived, they found a healthy ten-month-old happily cooing in her crib in the bedroom. Downstairs in the kitchen lay three dead bodies, all dressed in black, next to a hastily scrawled note. And the four other children reported to live at Cheyne Walk were gone.
In The Family Upstairs, the master of “bone-chilling suspense” (People) brings us the can’t-look-away story of three entangled families living in a house with the darkest of secrets.
Complementing the novels on this list that involve new tech (and another one about memory), THE SHIMMERING STATE centers around a new drug, Memoroxin. This drug means a breakthrough in Alzheimer’s treatments, but as you may guess, drug use isn’t often limited to its original intention. For those who have abused Mem, bring in the treatment center, a confusing place where memories can’t be trusted and motivations aren’t always known. The Center is where Lucien and Sophie meet, both dealing with their own burdens and uncertain about whether they actually knew each other before they fell under the pill’s spell, or if there’s something else at play.
A “moving, astounding, and totally unsettling” (Caroline Leavitt, New York Times bestselling author) literary debut following two patients in recovery after an experimental memory drug warps their lives.
Lucien moves to Los Angeles to be with his grandmother as she undergoes an experimental treatment for Alzheimer’s using the new drug, Memoroxin. An emerging photographer, he’s also running from the sudden death of his mother, a well-known artist whose legacy haunts him.
Sophie has just landed the lead in the upcoming performance of La Sylphide with the Los Angeles Ballet Company. She still waitresses at the Chateau Marmont during her off hours, witnessing the recreational use of Memoroxin—or Mem—among the Hollywood elite.
When Lucien and Sophie meet at The Center, founded by an ambitious yet conflicted doctor to treat patients who’ve abused Mem, they have no memory of how they got there—or why they feel so inexplicably drawn to each other. Is it attraction, or something they cannot remember from “before”?
“Contemplative and wonderfully evocative, finishing The Shimmering State is like waking from a dream, where you reenter the world with fresh eyes and wonder at the frailty of your own memories” (Jessica Chiarella, author of The Lost Girls).
Photo credit: iStock / bitenka