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Bookworm: ‘Gatecrasher’ offers deliciously dishy tales

‘One Year of Ugly’ is fun you can bank on

Terri Schlichenmeyer
Columnist
"Gatecrasher: How I helped the Rich Become Famous and Ruin the World" author Ben Widdicombe.

"Gatecrasher: How I helped the Rich Become Famous and Ruin the World"

  • By Ben Widdicombe
  • c. 2020, Simon & Schuster
  • $27, $36 Canada; 305 pages

Have you heard about ... ? It's true. You learned it from your best friend's husband's boss's wife at a neighborhood get-together last month and it was confirmed last weekend. You don't like to spread stories but, well, actually you do, because who doesn't love a little gossip in their life? Who doesn't crave knowing the skinny about the fat cats? You, nah, you love it, and in "Gatecrasher" by Ben Widdicombe, you'll get an eyeful.

"Gatecrasher: How I helped the Rich Become Famous and Ruin the World" by Ben Widdicombe.

The very idea of living in New York City was exciting. When Ben Widdicombe and his "handsome and naughty boyfriend Horacio" told friends they were moving from Australia to the Big Apple, most were supportive. One, a conman who insinuated that he was of aristocratic descent, even offered them a flat in The Dakota which, of course, never materialized.

This perhaps should've been a good indication of what was to come for Widdicombe. A few minor pays-the-bills jobs and several different apartments later, after exploring their new hometown, getting their bearings, and enjoying the thrill of celeb-spotting, Widdicombe and his boyfriend accidentally moved into a building across the street from the founder of Hintmag.com, one of the internet's first online-only fashion mags. " ... by watching and listening," Widdicombe says, "I picked up a few things," which led him and Horatio to suggest a fashion-industry gossip column for the e-zine. They called it "Chic Happens."

That was fun while it lasted, and it pointed Widdicombe in the direction of what became a career in society-watching, storytelling, and dirt-dishing. It also gave him a front row seat in an ultimate cultural shift.

Back in the mid-to-late '90s, many of this country's celebrities were "'high-net-worth individuals' " in the process of "becoming embraced as a sub-culture," he says. When the new millennium arrived, wealth began to be perceived not as something one was born into or worked hard to get, but as a "bold lifestyle choice" which could be enhanced by outrageous behavior and plenty of publicity. And ultimately, says Widdicombe, this shift in celebrity attitude got us where we are, politically ...

Between deliciously dishy tales and cleverly analogous turns of word, "Gatecrasher" is one hundred percent delightful to read. Separate from the fun, it's also informative.

From its first page, there's very little holding-back in this book, which is gleefully wonderful; even when author and New York Times columnist Ben Widdicombe can't name names, he offers precise-enough hints that most readers will know to whom he's referring. In that, we're whispered-to here, but not pandered-to; pleasantly scandalized but not insulted.

Even better, unlike so many memoirs of this ilk, the life of a gossip columnist isn't presented as all diamonds-and-champagne: Widdicombe also writes of the frustrations of the industry, the everything-faux realities, and the let-down of clearly seeing both.

You shake your head at the latest in tabloid TV. You sigh at Washington politics. You scan the tabs at the supermarket check-out line, and so this is a book for you. Indeed, "Gatecrasher" may be the summer's most fun book you've heard about.

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"One Year of Ugly"

  • By Caroline Mackenzie
  • c. 2020, 37 Ink, Simon & Schuster
  • $26, higher in Canada; 335 pages

The officer at the bank said "yes." And there you were: the proud owner of something big, something you'd wanted your entire life. That's thrilling, on one hand, and scary on the other: you've achieved your dream, but you'll be contributing toward that loan for many years. And as in the new novel "One Year of Ugly" by Caroline Mackenzie, payback is no fun.

"One Year of Ugly" by Caroline Mackenzie.

Wasn't it bad enough that Aunt Celia died? That, alone, was a shocker: her ex-husband, Mauricio, found her on the floor of his house, as dead as his dream of ever getting back with her again. But then, the first weekend the Palacio family gathered without Celia, a greasy man showed up in Mauricio's back yard with a gun, saying his name was "Ugly," claiming that Celia had borrowed money from him for things like private school enrollment and fraudulent papers that allowed her and her family to stay in Trinidad and not be deported back to Venezuela. And now that she was dead, Ugly said, Aunt Celia's debt was Palacio debt.

Twenty-four-year-old Yola could hardly believe it. She held her Aunt Celia in the highest regard. She wanted to be like Celia. How could her father's sister, her beloved mentor, do such a thing?

The clues were in Celia's hand-written memories and, feeling as though the words kept her aunt alive a little longer, Yola resisted finishing the manuscript in one sitting – a resistance that wasn't hard because Ugly had decided that the Palacios would pay off Celia's debt by temporarily sheltering other Venezuelans that he'd sneaked in-country. Yola's parent’s home suddenly had a constantly revolving door, strangers in and strangers out, brought there by Román, Ugly's henchman who made Yola drool.

She couldn't explain it, but yes, she'd fallen in love with her family's captor and she trusted Román with their lives. Right in the middle of everything else, somehow, she knew that if Ugly didn't kill someone Yola loved, the stress of his payback plan surely would.

"One Year of Ugly" author Caroline Mackenzie.

Believe it or not, "One Year of Ugly" is a somewhat of a comedy. It's also a ludicrous romp with a hair-brained plot that can get too outrageous. It's also a romance. It's also a dark look at the assumptions we incorrectly attribute to family members. Really, this novel is somewhat like the kind of stew you make when everyone in your friends' circle is broke: everybody brings something and it's all put in the same pot, boiled until one thing or other bubbles over, and then it's ready to serve.

It's pretty tasty, too, come to think: author Caroline Mackenzie tells this tale enough, but not so much that the mystery of key characters is destroyed. We know them – but we don't, which adds to what is also a thriller-aspect of this novel.

Beware that there is a high abundance of profanity in this book, and a couple of righteously silly scenes that fit. If you can get around that, "One Year of Ugly" is fun you can bank on.

The Bookworm is Terri Schlichenmeyer. She has been reading since she was 3 years old and never goes anywhere without a book. Terri lives on a hill in Wisconsin with two dogs and 11,000 books.

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