fiction · Over 18

The Con Artist by Fred Van Lente

I picked up Fred Van Lente’s first books Ten Dead Comedians because I was searching for books for my annual Frighteningly Good Reads. The cover was adorably intriguing. I was pleasantly surprised by the caliber of the writing and subsequently not surprised at all to discover that Van Lente is a heavily published and popular comic book writer. I am always in awe of a comic book writer’s ability to tell a whole story in so few words. When I saw that he had a second book out I could hardly wait to read it. I finally had the chance to enjoy it last week and it was everything I was hoping it would be and more!

conartistFirst of all, again, how fantastic is this cover? If I didn’t know better, I would have guessed it was a graphic novel. Second, this book was published by Quick Books and I am absolutely obsessed with everything they have to offer. I found myself on their website for more than an hour just scribbling an extended birthday wish list for myself and everyone I have ever met. Check it out and I dare you to not find a dozen things you want.

 
On to the review! Much like Ten Dead Comedians Van Lente does a masterful job at blending fantasy and reality. I loved spotting points he made in Comedians and attempting to figure out who he was referencing. I had the opportunity to play the same fun game with The Con Artist. And, since Van Lente is a comic book artist and has sat on artist’s alley himself, the whole book felt grounded in reality. Well, hopefully the multiple murders haven’t been something he has experienced…

In The Con Arist, veteran comic book artist Mike Mason finds himself at San Diego Comic-Con ready to work artist alley, make some money, and give the lifetime achievement award to his mentor. But Mike’s mentor, the comic book genius Ben K, has died. Ben’s death is just the first of many during the con and as the bodies pile up so does the attention on Mike as he becomes the prime suspect. As he copes with obsessive fans, protestors, old friends, enemies, and his ex-wife, Mike will have to solve more than the murders to clear his name and help finally resolve a seedy comic secret.

If you have never been to a con, this book will bring it to life for you. If you have attended one you will absolutely recognize many of the background characters. I have only been to my local con and I still felt like a total insider reading this book. The book just painted the experience so well. Meanwhile, Van Lente cleverly slips the ins and outs of what it means to be a published comic book writer both during a con and while trying to stay a published author. Much like Mike Reiss’ insider perspective in Springfield Confidential, I was shocked at the amount of work and the apparent speed that these artists can produce a finished product. It always looks so laid back when I see them drawing at cons that it never occurred to me that they were rapidly working under a deadline. I can only hope that the industry is marginally less cut throat than in this story but I suspect this aspect is also grounded in reality.

This multi-layered mystery was just as much fun as Ten Dead Comedians with the added bonus of being at a con. If you are a comic book nerd, you want to write comic books, or you just like trying to solve clever mysteries this book is a perfect pick!


Tell me, please!

Have you ever been to a comic book con?


 

fiction · funny · SeriousSeriesLove

Serious Series Love: Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan

 

How much fun can you have seeing how the unimaginably rich live? The answer: A LOT.

I read Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians more than a year ago and adored it. The story of Nick Young bringing his American-born Chinese girlfriend, Rachel, back to Singapore to meet his, ahem, “comfortably,” rich family introduced me to the multifaceted glory of insanely rich people. The end of the first book wrapped the story up so nicely the next two books didn’t really register with me. What is wrong with me?! If anything, the second and third book are even more fun to read than the first!

I picked up China Rich Girlfriend happy to find that nearly all of the characters were already old friends from Crazy Rich Asians. The second story opens with Rachel and Nick getting married. Even though Nick and his family are estranged, his mother is working to reconnect by finding Rachel’s long-lost (and long thought dead) father. When she discovers his identity she flies to interrupt the wedding and disclose his identity! And, for fans of Crazy Rich Asians, it will come as no surprise that all of this action happens in the first few chapters. The real quandary is how Rachel, her father, and his family will blend together. And, of course, there are all the other characters’ stories (Kitty and Astrid are back!) that keep the book at a wonderfully quick pace.

The third book opens with the news that Nick’s grandmother Ah Ma is on her deathbed. Nick is not alone in rushing home for a final goodbye. The whole family descends on Su Yi’s home. Some are them are there to see their beloved matriarch. Others are there to lay claim to the massive fortune. But there are more surprises in Su Yi’s story than yachts in the Singapore marina.

The three books work so well together because Kevin Kwan has invested us in these characters. If you read the first book and enjoyed the adventures of the rich and not-at-all famous, you will enjoy the next two books. The magic of these books is how the author makes you care about almost all of these people even as they spend ten million dollars shopping in Paris. By providing us backstories, shifting perspective, and a healthy dose of cultural understanding, the author helps us understand these characters as people. It doesn’t make you feel sorry for them and their insane bank balances, but it does save you from feeling dirty or seedy watching their stories unfold. I know, I know! These aren’t real people. But, I don’t enjoy stories that focus on mocking or diminishing people to stereotypes. These books do neither. Also, I relished all of the footnotes that will simultaneously explain things to the reader and remind you that the author himself spent most of his childhood living among all of this craziness.

I have Serious Series Love for Crazy Rich Asians.


Tell me, please!

Have you read the books / seen the movie? What are your thoughts?


Audio Book · fiction

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon

I don’t remember adding this book to my to be read shelf and, honestly, I couldn’t have told you what it was about at all. And so, it languished for years in TBR purgatory. But, since I am still deeply into my New Years resolutions I delved into it when I saw, by chance, that it was immediately available to borrow from my library

curiouscaseAnd I loved it. Many have labelled this a coming of age story and, while that is accurate, it is also a story of metamorphosis. That enormous moment in time between being a child and becoming an adult when you suddenly understand that your parents are people (not simply your parents) and there is far more grey in the world than there is black and white.

Except, for main character Christopher, it would be more accurate to say that there are more colors than red and yellow and brown. Fifteen year old Christopher is clearly highly intelligent but struggles daily with an exceptionality that is not labelled in the story. He attends a school with other children with exceptionalities but he is planning to sit for his A level Maths.

Christopher’s world falls crisply into two timelines. Before the dog Wellington is murdered and after. Before Wellington’s murder Christopher knows that seeing five red cars in a row on the way to school makes it a very good day but seeing yellow cars in a row makes it a bad day. Before Wellington’s murder Christopher knows that his mother is dead and he loves math and dreams of being an astronaut. After Wellington’s murder Christopher is still those things but now he is also a detective. And once he begins to investigate Wellington’s murder he finds mystery after mystery in the world around him. Will he be brave enough to figure out what is happening?

I loved Christopher, his Dad and all of the other characters because they were interesting and unique without being cliche. The author seemed to both embrace the positives to being an individual with exceptionalities and the strain that being different puts on a person and his family. Also, I really appreciated that the story allows us to see how having a child like Christopher can radically change you as a person and as a parent. I laughed, I sighed (but never cried) and I listened anxiously while Christopher solved the numerous mysterious of his world.

If you have read this book, please come over for a cup of anything so that we can talk in detail about all the best parts. If you haven’t yet, do read it and let me know what you think!


Tell me, please!

Do you enjoy stories featuring unique characters like Christopher?


 

fiction · historical fiction

Bedlam Stacks by Natasha Pulley

badlamstacksMy favorite book of 2018 was The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley. For me, it was like eating my favorite meal complete with a perfectly sized (but decadent) desert. Ms. Pulley’s new book Bedlam Stacks was just as delicious although it lacked that certain little bit of sweet and depth that made Watchmaker such an ideal story. Like Watchmaker, Bedlam Stacks is a mixture of historical fiction, magical realism and mystery. Pulley’s careful and meticulous story building could be seen by some as boring but I consumed this story quickly even as I tried to slowly enjoy myself.

Bedlam Stacks features Merrick Tremayne. He is the second son of an impoverished family who finds himself living at home after an injury that nearly cost him his leg. It is the mid-1800’s and so Merrick nothing but a drag on his brother’s estate. When he is faced with taking a new job from the India Office to gather cinchona trees for quinine or be sent to a location of his brother’s choosing, he elects to travel to Peru. He is concerned that he is losing his mind and he expects to die during the expedition but that is preferable to the former Naval man over a slow death in the English countryside.

In Peru, Merrick meets Raphael. Raphael is the keeper of a small town with an enormous secret. There is also a character from Watchmaker that plays a tiny but instrumental role in this book. Figuring out what is happening in Bedlam Stacks consumes both Merrick and the reader as navigating the mystery may open a path to the life saving quinine supply.

I cannot decide exactly why I loved this book. I know that it is not as good as Watchmaker but, honestly, that is an epically high bar. But the characters that Ms. Pulley creates stay with you. The story, the expedition, even the mystery all faded to the background as these characters consumed my imagination. I find myself revising it again and again in my mind and desperate to discuss the subtle nuances of the book.

Some have complained that Merrick was flat and boring. I disagree. Instead, Merrick has grown up poor but privileged. As a former Navy man with a physical disability he continues to live between two worlds. Individuals that do so gain a perspective so many others cannot experience. He is, by nature, a man made for observation and I enjoyed the opportunity to watch him.

Natasha Pulley has written another fantastic book. I sincerely hope that she is planning a third and that she will continue to include reoccurring characters!


Tell me, please!

Have you read either book? What are your thoughts?


Audio Book · fiction · humor

Today I Will Be Different by Maria Semple

I was surprised by how much I loved Where’d You Go Bernadette? and so when I saw that Marie Semple had a new book out I knew I would read it. I was even luckier to have the opportunity to enjoy the audiobook version of this book because the narrator, Kathleen Wilhoite, did an amazing job capturing the feeling of all of the characters. Perhaps that is why she also narrated Bernadette!

todaywillbedifferentIn Today I Will Be Different Eleanor Flood, her famous husband, Joe, and her son Timby live in Seattle. Eleanor and Joe are New Yorkers and atheists. While Joe has found grand success as a sought-after hand surgeon in Seattle, Eleanor has been struggling to fit into their community and especially with the parents at Timby’s school. She begins the morning by setting small obtainable goals that she feels will make today different. She makes a promise to herself to shower and get dressed, to take her son Timby to school and then attend her poetry lesson, and to initiate sex with her husband. But before she can quietly change her day in these small ways her son Timby plays sick. That small change in her plans, unintended by Eleanor, alters the course of her life dramatically.

Maria Semple delivers, in Eleanor, another complex female character that I could not help but connect with deeply. Her problems may be first-world ones but they are so common that if you can read this book and not see women you know then you either; (a) don’t know any women or (b) you aren’t paying attention. Eleanor’s quick wit and self-deprecating sense of humor furthers my love of this character and keeps the story moving. As Eleanor and Timby work through their day we see the subtle (and not-so subtle) layers of Eleanor more and more clearly. Much like Where’d You Go Bernadette there are twists and turns. But, for me, the characters drive this story and Eleanor will stay with me much longer than any the plot.

The narrator for this audiobook has a wonderfully gravelly voice that captures both the New Yorker feel of Eleanor as well as the other characters, especially Timby, perfectly. Perhaps it is because I just finished The Princess Diarist but her voice reminded me of Carrie Fisher’s. This is also a short audiobook, only about six and a half hours, and it goes too quickly.

If you enjoyed Maria Semple’s first novel you are sure to enjoy Today Will be Different.


Tell me, please!

If you read this book, what did you think?

If not, what are some of your favorite female characters?


Fantasy · fiction · FrighteninglyGoodRead · YA

FGR #8: Scythe by Neal Shusterman

I am going to confess something. I didn’t want to read this book. I believe that I purchased it two years ago and started it only to quit three chapters in and shelf the book. If not for a combination of Frighteningly Good Reads and my 2018 Resolutions I probably would never have forced myself to read what turned out to be a phenomenal story.

scythe
A figure in a hooded red cape holds a scythe looking like a futuristic grim reaper.

Scythe by Neal Shusterman takes place in a world without hunger, disease, general misery or even death. Unfortunately, without natural death the world’s population must be controlled. Scythes are the only ones with the ability to take a life and Citra and Rowan have just been selected as apprentice Scythes. Now, only one can rise to the rank of a full Scythe. Citra and Rowan must master the “art” of death. As they do so they learn that living in a perfect world comes with a price.

Initially, I didn’t really find any of the main characters appealing. Which is why I put the book away for so long. However, as the story unfolded I began to comprehend the apathy to which these people must be acclimated in a world where there is no reason to worry, no purpose in hard work and the ability to die only to be whisked off to a revival center and brought back to life. If there is no threat of old age then do you lose the thirst and hunger of youth? Certainly when Citra and Rowan are faced with a permanent cessation of their lives their personalities change dramatically into characters that I grew to love and genuinely cared about.

And there in lies the magic of this story. At first glance I believed this was another annoying futuristic tale and the cautionary story of a world without death. Instead, I became slowly aware along with the characters of the importance of death in giving life value and purpose. As I watched Citra and Rowan struggle with that realization and the lengths they would go to in order to continue to live, even if that meant taking lives, I found myself completed immersed in the story. And now, as so frequently happens, a book I thought I would enjoy has become a series I cannot wait to continue!


Tell me, please!

Have you ever started a series determined to hate it only to be won over?

Fantasy · fiction · FrighteninglyGoodRead · Middle Grade

FGR #6: The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

This book came into my hands highly recommended and I only wish I could, in turn, place it directly into your hands. The characters alone have me cuddling the book tightly in my arms as I type. But the story…this story. Sigh. Well, there is a reason this book won both the Newberry Medal and the Carnegie Medal.

graveyard
A blue cover with gold writing featuring an antique headstone and a golden Newberry sticker.

The Graveyard Book gives us the story of Nobody Owens and, much The Jungle Book, Nobody Owens is as unique as Mogli because his home is unique. He is being raised by ghosts, taunted by ghouls, and protected by magical beings. Bod, to his friends and family, has the blessings of the graveyard and many of the unusual gifts of his long dead family and friends. In short, Bod is the very coolest of characters.

It is why he is in the graveyard that matters. He doesn’t belong there but he is only safe while he remains inside. But safe from what? Or who? And for how long?

Neil Gaiman is a prolific and talented writer. I have enjoyed several of his other books. But I doubt that any other story of his will remain with me the way The Graveyard Book is sure to from this day onward. I loved it like so many others before me. It is, without a doubt, a perfect Frighteningly Good Read.


Tell me, please!

Have you read this book or others by Neil Gaiman? Which is your favorite?

fiction · humor

Surprise Me by Sophie Kinsella

I always enjoy Sophie Kinsella’s books. I have even featured her in an Author Obsession spotlight. Most people know her for her Shopoholic series but I vastly prefer the books she has written outside of Becky Bloomwood’s insatiable thirst for things. I didn’t even know Kinsella had a new book coming out until I ran across it in the Indigo bookstore in Montreal. It is the lone fiction book I purchased in my Canadian travels.

surprise_meSurprise Me is the story of Sylvie and Dan. They have been blissfully coupled for ten years, they have twin girls and they are so in sync that they can predict each others meal choices and finish one anothers sentences. All is idyllic. Except, of course, it can never stay that way. After a visit to their doctor they are told they could live another sixty-eight years. The realization that they will be eating together and sleeping together for that much longer fills them with panic. They decide (well, mostly Sylvie decides) to embark on Project Surprise Me to shake up their predictable routine. But not all surprises are fun.

The magic of Sophie Kinsella lies in her ability to redeem her character from the tailspin of poor choices they make in the first half of each story and present you with a reformed character that you adore by the end of the book. This may be a predictable formula but it never stales since Kinsella always manages to make me cheer and applaud as the characters eventually climb out of the mess. This particular story went a step farther and I found myself gasping aloud in surprise at one of the plot points. I went so far as to make a friend read the book so we could have the following conversation.

Me, “(Character redacted to avoid spoilers) was the absolute worst right?!?”

Friend, “The worst.”

Me, “But could you believe…???!!!??”

Friends, “NO.I.COULD.NOT.”

I admit that there were moments I wanted to strangle or slap Sylvie. It is difficult to explain why without spoiling some of the finer moments, but she just struck me as too fragile to be a true fictional friend. Dan had his moments with me as well. And just when I wondered how this was going to end, Sophie Kinsella worked her magic and gave me another fantastic read.


Tell me, please!

Have you read Sophie Kinsella’s books?


fiction

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikery by Gabrille Zevin

Two nights ago I heard a noise around one thirty in the morning. It was probably my cat, Merlin, but that was all it took to upset my sleep. Insomnia had me in its grip and I was up for hours. Thankfully, as always, there was a book to keep me company. I selected the next book off the top of my pile and started reading The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin.

storied lifeThe blurb on the back jacket told me three basic things: A.J. owns a bookstore, he lives alone and a rare possession of Poe poems as been stolen. Then, the twist: a mysterious package appears at the bookstore.

I assumed at the beginning that the mysterious package would include Amelia Loman, the new representative for a publishing house, that is introduced on the first few pages. After all, she is traveling to see A.J. and attempt to sell him books. I cozied into my bed, one part of my brain open to the idea of sleep and the other ready for a romantic story. But, this book wasn’t at all what I was expecting. It opened up, chapter after chapter, like a flower and half way through I didn’t care about sleep or fatigue.

Eventually, sleep did come back to me. I finished the book over coffee yesterday morning. Through the story we meet more characters than just A.J. and Amelia. There is a police officer, Lambaise, A.J.’s sister-in-law, Ismay and her husband Daniel, and another character that everyone should have the privilege of meeting themselves. By the end of my breakfast I loved them all, save one.

I bought The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry because I thought it was set in a bookstore. I always purchase books with that setting. It found its way back to me, unexpectedly, in the middle of a Sunday night when I should have been asleep. Just like this story, sometimes the things we find when we are not looking are those that we require the most. I probably shouldn’t love this book, but it’s undeniable, I do.


Tell me, please!

Have you ever read a book that surprised you into loving it?


fiction

Circe by Madeline Miller

I remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when I finished Madeline Miller’s first book, The Song of Achilles. That book tore something in my heart and for days afterwards I carried it around the house as one would a beloved stuffed animal. When I learned that she had a new book I was ecstatic but unsure if I could withstand the heartache. I needed to read it but I didn’t want it to be over. So, I purchased Circe and did what I always do. I held onto it delaying the moment for as long as possible.

circeWhen I started Circe I was thrilled to see that Madeline Miller’s beautiful prose is as full and lush as the gorgeous cover. I expected nothing less from this author. In a book comprised almost entirely of description I fell into a lull that was almost hypnotic, especially once Circe was banned to Aiaia. When Circe interacted with people I felt the invasion of our private time together, Circe and myself, acutely. In short, I loved it.

Madeline Miller has an innate ability to take a well known subject and shift our perspective. She doesn’t change the story. Circe is still a witch. She is still banned to Aiaia. And, she interacts with all the heroes our education informed us should cross her path. But, this time, we are not subjected to this woman’s story as told through the lens of a man. Instead, we hear it from the witch herself.

When I finished Circe I put it down, smiled at it and squinted my eyes like you would at a clever child or a quick witted quip. Madeline Miller got me again. I expected a strong preconceived notion to be melted away and with it, my heart. I was surprised instead to watch a white hot spark flutter slowly into existence until it grew into golden fire. I squinted at the book and felt the desire to wink at Circe but couldn’t manage to avoid whispering, “You go girl.”


Tell me, please!

Have you read Madeline Miller’s books? What are your thoughts?