Book Foisting

It’s not unusual for patrons to ask us for advice on what to read next here at the Everett Public Library. The advice we give is called, in library jargon, ‘readers advisory.’  Sometimes, our dear library patrons will turn the tables on us and give us some readers advisory of their own, however.

A while back, as I was working at the checkout counter, an effusive patron handed me her library card and a book. Her friend had highly recommended the title and had said she’d laugh her a** off.  “Oh, is that so,” I said in my best hair-in-a-bun-with-a-pencil-stuck-through-it voice. She was undaunted and said that there was another one on the shelf. With that, she dashed upstairs to the travel section.

Before I could protest, I was holding in my hand All Over the Place: Adventures in Travel, True Love and Petty Theft by Geraldine DeRuiter. I have to tell you, I never intended to read it. I was committed to a 600+ page tome that made my wrists hurt to hold at the time. But I started reading – just a little bit before it want back on the shelf – and I found I couldn’t stop. There is so much to love about this book. Deruiter’s easy-going style compliments the hilarious twists and turns of the plot to make it a goofy but heart wrenching page-turner.

The year is post 2008 and the company Deruiter works for in Seattle folds. She’s flailing about, at loose ends, staying in her pajamas all day and eating anything she can get her hands on before her husband makes a little suggestion that turns out to be big suggestion. Husband Rand travels all over the world to attend business conferences. In order to be together, he suggests she join him on his trips and begin a blog about it. It becomes a kind of anti-travel blog since she has no plans and no sense of direction and has to force herself out of the hotel wherever she lands.

This little blog turns into a big deal when Time Magazine names it one of the top 25 blogs of the year (2011 by this time). DeRuiter turns her family history inside out and amid all her misadventures, makes sense of her life. You can’t not love this story and all of her colorful relatives: all while getting glimpses of a Seattle that any native will appreciate.

This is the perfect book to read (or to give) this time of year when you may be spending time with your own relatives, some of which you may not understand very well. The chaos and anxiety, as well as  the love and resolution in this book may even help you embrace those relatives that you’d normally cross the street to avoid.

The Nerdiest Murder Mystery Ever

What do you think of when you read the words Comic Con? Do you think of ECCC, the Emerald City Comic Con in Seattle? Do you think of Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, or Star Wars? Indie comics artists, fandom cosplay, and merch galore? How about murder? Anyone? Bueller? Bueller?

A result of a power partnership between two veteran comics geniuses (writer Fred Van Lente and illustrator Tom FowlerThe Con Artist is more than just a hilarious mystery where a slightly washed-up comics artist is blamed for the death of his bitter rival. The whole book is set up to mimic a written police statement, recounting day by day and hour by hour what exactly happened at Comic Con. Here’s the opening note:

Due to ongoing litigation, many names of the companies, trademarked characters, and real people in the statement of Michael “Mike M” Mason have been changed upon the advice of the publisher’s counsel. However, none of the artwork has been altered in any way; it has been reproduced exactly as it was found in the sketchbook confiscated by the San Diego Police Department.

So let me tell you more about Mike. He had some limited success years ago as a comics illustrator, but is mostly known for his run on Mister Mystery, a popular long-running comics series owned by one of the industry’s most lucrative publishers. In the last few years, he’s become essentially homeless. He flies from convention to convention often giving up some or all of his appearance fee in exchange for a longer hotel stay. He’s running away from permanence, from the possibility that he’s now a has-been and he doesn’t know how to enter the next phase of his life. He’s also running away from a breakup and betrayal that did a tap dance on his confidence and smashed his heart into a tiny million pieces.

But back to the con! After arriving at the airport in San Diego, Mike is immediately swept into the madness that is the world’s biggest and most well-known comic convention: SDCC. It’s not long before he eases back into the norm of con life, the signings and parties, only to be slapped with the news that his comics mentor has died. Everyone thinks it was natural causes, but Mike starts to wonder if maybe someone got to his mentor before he could secure the intellectual property rights to one of his biggest creations.

To make matters worse, Mike’s mortal enemy is also at Comic Con. And who’s on his arm? None other than the ex-love of his life, the one who betrayed him and tossed his life into chaos. Mike tries to keep his cool, but after a well-publicized fight at an after hours Comic Con party, his rival winds up dead and Mike’s the San Diego PD’s prime suspect.

Mike knows he didn’t murder anyone, but he has to convince the police that he’s innocent. He starts his own investigation knowing that serving up the real killer on a silver platter is the only way to completely remove suspicion from himself. But then other people start turning up dead and it becomes a race the clock for Mike. Not only does this need to be wrapped up before the end of the con, but the killer just might decide to kill Mike next.

It’s important to note that both the author and illustrator are seasoned comics veterans and that really shines through the pages. I’ve only been to one big comic con (ECCC, big but not nearly as big as SDCC I know) but I relived some of my experiences (lines! getting to meet rad artists in Artists’ Alley! awesome cosplayers!) while reading this book.

In getting the con experience right, and in highlighting the details that only the people on the other side of the table (comics professionals) would experience, the author holds up con culture, nerd culture, and the entire comics industry for scrutiny. Pay attention to the social commentary, especially surrounding the darker side of comics where artists’ original intellectual properties often become absorbed by mega publishers and where no health care is to be found for these artists and writers who brought so much joy to children and adults through their staple-bound pages.

The text is lightly peppered with sketches from the main character’s notebook and I figured there would probably be clues in them that the reader should try to interpret to determine whodunit. Mike occasionally recalls a clue from one of his sketches, but once or twice he recalled details I could not discern from the sketches I saw. It helped prolong the unmasking of the killer’s identity for me, which added to the suspense.

Thanks to our book vendor for sending us an early copy from the publisher, I was reading this book while in line at Everett Comics for Free Comic Book Day back in May. If that’s not meta I don’t know what is. Nerds, read this book and rejoice!

Who is Vera Kelly?

Student, activist…spy? Who is Vera Kelly? is a spy novel by Rosalie Knecht published earlier this week by Tin House Books. It’s also a question I asked myself many times while reading this engrossing novel of intrigue and identity. What Vera Kelly is not is your typical school girl, and she’s definitely not your typical spy.

1966 is a dangerous time to be living in Buenos Aires, Argentina. For those of you who may have forgotten your world history, events in the summer of 1966 sparked the Argentine Revolution that overthrew the government and began a long period of dictatorship. Up until 1966 Vera was supplementing her low-wage radio station job doing occasional weekend surveillance jobs for the CIA, but the Buenos Aires job would be quite different. I’ll let Vera explain herself:

My handler pitched it to me in January 1966, in a diner where he liked to meet on East Fifty-Second Street. The Argentine president was weak, there could be a coup anytime, and KGB activity had picked up in Buenos Aires. I would have to do infiltration work as well as surveillance. I would be gone indefinitely, months or a year, and I would have to quit my job. For this they would pay me thirty-five thousand dollars.

You math nerds and currency freaks will realize how much thirty-five thousand dollars was in 1966, but I’ll spell it out so the rest of us can understand. According to one inflation calculator I consulted, that would be over $270,000 in today’s dollars. For someone scraping by at $38/per week at her day job (about $259 in today’s dollars) it was kind of a no-brainer financially for Vera to accept the job.

But even more than the money, Vera has found a sense of accomplishment in her work with the CIA. The satisfaction of a job well done in service to her country is what helps make the rest of her lonely existence worth getting up for every morning. I say lonely because Vera is a closeted lesbian and in the 1960s it wasn’t impossible to find female companionship in New York City, but doing so could possibly jeopardize her security clearance. This is a sad way of telling you that Vera suppressed a lot of her identity in service to her country, but she wasn’t always so noble.

The chapters alternate between Vera’s present-day espionage and her formative years growing up in Chevy Chase, MD. Vera’s battles with undiagnosed depression eventually led to a suicide attempt. This is revealed in the very first paragraphs of the book (you’ll get no spoilers from me, but do consider this a trigger warning for a suicide attempt right at the top of the story). Vera’s recovery shut her off even more from a world that didn’t understand her, and would eventually lead to heartbreak and a brush with the law. That sounds very depressing, and it is! But it does steer her down a winding path to the CIA and her life of adventure.

Vera spends much of her time surrounded by other people, and though it’s the nature of the job as a spy to lie to people and not trust what she’s told in return, Vera is essentially a woman alone. It’s hard to make friends when you’re a spy and it’s even harder to find romance or even simple physical companionship when you don’t fit into society’s prescribed heteronormative expectations and ideals.

I would be remiss if I didn’t give more of a taste of the espionage portion of the plot because if this book’s plot were a pepperoni pizza, the spy parts are the cheese and the character development is the pepperoni. It’s got a good sprinkling of character development, but every bite is covered in the cheese of espionage.

The best books make me scattered in my retellings. Just take my awkward pizza metaphor as the gold star this book deserves!

Once the coup in Argentina begins, Vera’s plans go up in smoke and she’s forced to improvise in order to escape the police state and survive. This is where Vera surprises both the reader and herself as she depends entirely on her instincts and cunning to get herself home.

There are secrets, betrayals, weapons, and kisses. This is a book that really does have it all.

I’m not usually a fan of character-driven literature, but apparently if you throw in an engrossing spy plot and some witty dialogue I will fall at your feet in worship. My girl Amy Stewart blurbed this book as “The twisty, literary, woman-driven spy novel you’ve always wanted to read. Dazzling.” And of course she’s right. Vera Kelly is 100% the spy I’ve always wanted. Thank you, Rosalie Knecht, for bringing her into my life.

Now please, please, PLEASE tell me this will be a series?! Because like all great literary characters, after meeting Vera Kelly I’m not ready to say goodbye.

Richard Dawson Doesn’t Host This Version of Family Feud

I believe there are thin places in this world. The term ‘thin places’ refers to areas in the world where the veil between heaven and earth is particularly thin but I think the term applies to other dimensions, other worlds. There are stories about people out for a stroll who blink and suddenly they’re in a place that looks like the road they were walking on but it’s different. Or there’s the story of a man out walking his dog when his dog takes off and the man chases after him. The man soon finds himself in a slightly different world, a world where John Lennon is still alive, the Twin Towers never fell. The McRib is always available.

In A Million Junes by Emily Henry, Jack “June” O’Donnell (all the offspring share the name Jack, even if a daughter is born) has one rule to follow: stay away from the Angert family. There’s been a deep feud between the O’Donnells and the Angerts for a century even though no one can remember exactly why. June lives with her mother, stepfather and two brothers in Five Fingers, Michigan in a house in a powerful thin place.

If you leave shoes on the porch, coywolves (a mix between coyotes and wolves) will come and steal them away. Window Whites, soft floating orbs, travel throughout the house and bonk against windows. Feathers is a ghost with a pink sheen who is always there, drifting in corners, shimmering where June can see her. Another ghost, a black shadow June calls Nameless, hovers nearby and unlike Feathers, who gives off a comforting vibe, Nameless oozes malevolence.

June’s father, Jack the III, died ten years ago and June still lives in the bubble of him: of his tall tales about the O’Donnell family, how both his family and the Angerts are cursed. If something good happens to the Angerts, something terrible befalls the O’Donnell’s and vice versa. Even though June has set her father up on a pedestal she doesn’t know why there’s hatred between the families.

One evening in the fall, Saul Angert returns home after being away for three years. He’s come back to take care of his father who has dementia. Of course they run into each other (literally, she almost knocks him down and somehow manages to bite him in the shoulder) and don’t you know, there is an instant chemistry. They do their best to stay away from each other but both know it is a losing battle.

June has no plans to go to college and puts little effort into school. Until she takes a creative writing class and puts to paper all the stories her father told her. A new world opens up to her. But one evening, one of the Window Whites lands on her skin and she’s thrown into a memory of when she was a child and her father was telling one of his stories. June craves more memories but what she finds at the other end is more than she bargained for.

Soon she and Saul are both given the Window White treatment and both see memories of not only their pasts but the pasts of their relatives. June finds out her father might not be everything she once thought he was. But she’s determined to go into the thin place to find him. And Saul is right there ready to go with her to find out what happened all those years ago to make their families despise one another. They want to break the curse. They want to love.

You guys, I couldn’t put this books down. I know I say that about every book I read but for this one I set my alarm clock an hour earlier than usual just so I could read it. I’m not into woo-woo magic and otherworldly love stories. This novel isn’t like that. The magic and wonder and terror in this story is subtle. It’s a story not only about falling in love but also about realizing the people you love aren’t who you thought they were. But finding that out doesn’t change the fact that you were beyond loved.

If you want a tale about falling in love with someone you’re meant to be with, the wonder of a place that sits between two worlds, and the unbreakable bond of family, get this book. Really. I mean, like, yesterday.

I gotta go. I just found a thin place in the woods behind my house and I swear I can hear Jimi Hendrix and George Harrison tuning their guitars.

The Princess and the Page by Christina Farley

Keira, the heroine of The Princess and the Page by Christina Farley, uses a magic pen to write a story for a contest and ends up winning a trip to France. She takes her best friend Bella and her mom. It ends up that the story she wrote is actually set in the castle they are staying in. The problem is: Keira didn’t know she used a magic pen to write her story or her family’s history of being word weavers.

Keira and Bella meet Chet at the castle and end up having adventures that weren’t on the girls’ itinerary as Keira keeps getting pulled into the story. When she wrote the story she had been angry at her mom and gave it an “unhappy ever after” ending. Now she has to discover a way to change the story to save her life, and that of her Mom and Bella.

I really like fantasy and fairy tale types of stories, so this was a fun book for me. It had just enough twists and turns to keep me wondering what was going to happen next!

My Grandfather Would Have Shot Me

My Grandfather Would Have Shot Me by Jennifer Teege

mygrandfatherJennifer was adopted when she was 7. She remembers a little about her birth mother Monika and grandmother Ruth Irene Goeth. She never met her father, a black man from Nigeria.

She always wondered why her mother gave her up. Then, as an adult she finds a book titled I Have to Love my Father, Don’t I? written by her mother, about her grandfather Amon Goeth, a vicious Nazi Commandant.

Jennifer then begins the struggle to try to overcome her guilt and shame and to try to come to terms with what her family had done and who they were.

I was very moved reading this. It was so hard to imagine what I would have done in this situation. I admire the author’s strength in continuing her struggle to make peace with her mother, and her demons.

How it Ends

I can’t imagine being 15 and waking up one morning to find my parents descending on me a with rope in their hands, tying me up, throwing me into a car and driving me to a mental institution. I remember my mom sneaking into my room to check that I was still breathing (this seems to be a thing moms do) and being a little brat and holding my breath to freak her out. But she was checking on me because she was (is) my protector. For Cassie O’Malley there is no one but herself to look to for protection, both physically and mentally.

firsttimeTold in an alternating Now and Then voice, Kerry Kletter’s The First Time She Drowned introduces us to Cassie who has spent the past 2 1/2 years in a mental institution against her will. When she was 15 she woke up to her parents tying her hands and putting her into a car to involuntarily take her to a mental institution. Now at 18 Cassie is a legal adult and wants a normal life. She’s made friends during those 2 1/2 years, especial with James who is her best friend and whom she doesn’t want to leave behind. But she believes she’s prepared for the real world.

In an odd twist, Cassie’s mother has paid for a year of college. Her mother, her father, and her two brothers barely visited her while she was institutionalized and before you start thinking “Oh God, not another crazy teen in a mental ward that is going to teach me about love, heartbreak, and how to hang myself with that package of gummy worms that the kid down the hall gets in a care package every month from his mother” this is not that kind of book. Not too far into the novel you start to figure out that it’s Cassie’s mother who is at the heart of the abuse and the accusations of mental instability. Think of a mother character from a Gillian Flynn book, just with only one or two attempts at killing a child.

Cassie begins her first week at college in her solitary room, unsure how to make friends. She has pneumonia and spends the week drifting in and out of consciousness. Finally, she drags herself out of her room and to the door of a girl she noticed on her first day and collapses. Of course, they become best friends. Someone passing out in your doorway kind of bonds them to you. Or you get a restraining order. But Cassie sometimes overthinks the friendship and the things Zoey does are alien to her.

Thinking she’s going to experience a normal college life, Cassie dives right in and quickly realizes she is so not ready. Her mother, who she hasn’t really seen in the 2 1/2 years she was in the institution, pops in and out of her life, confiding the weirdest and most inappropriate things to her daughter. Not inappropriate like “When your father and I went to Hawaii and he wanted to scuba diving I was all for it. Then that morning he had diarrhea like you wouldn’t believe. I’ve never seen so many panicked fish. Our instructor got a few pictures of it and I’m thinking about using it as our Christmas card this year.” Reading further, there are many “aha!” moments where you discover the mother should have been put away for a couple of years.

If you like novels about crazy families (and I don’t mean kooky families but families that become a legend down the bloodline) read The First Time She Drowned. I never felt so normal and sane. Most terrifying five minutes of my life.