Thursday, March 27, 2014

Book Review: Painter of the Heavens by Bart Stewart

Painter of the Heavens, by Bart Stewart
2013, 219p, Crime, Suspense
My Rating=4.5 Stars
Source: Received a copy from the author for an honest review

"A Novel of Crime and the Heart," Painter of the Heavens goes inside the mind of a woman as she is drawn into the bizarre fraud scheme of an eccentric man she is dating. Penny doesn't know going in that Lyle is a con artist. His personality had seemed slightly strange from the start, but charismatic and alluring as well. Only after bonding with him does she learn that the "business plan," which was too sensitive for him to talk about, is in fact an outrageous forgery plot. He needs an accomplice for this caper, and sees Penny as being perfect for the role.

Penny Sturdevant is in flux in her life. Just turning thirty as the decade of the 1980s turns into the '90s, she has taken a leap into the unknown, divorcing her well-placed husband because he had become loveless, distant, and dull. Coming from a background of financial struggles, she feels the insecurities swirling around her after this big move. She dreams of turning the page, getting off of the sidetrack, and being "part of something." Her old circle of friends, and her impoverished parents, aren't much support for her in this time of transition.

One day, on a random whim, she stops off at an indie bookstore on the outskirts of her home town of Chapel Hill, North Carolina. The manager there has a hypnotic presence, with a magnetic gaze that grabs her and leads her to come back again. He is a poet (six original poems are featured in the novel) and Penny finds him more and more intriguing as she gets to know him. The point of view in the novel is all Penny's, so we have only Lyle's mixed signals and trippy, zen-like sayings to know what's happening in his mind.

He seems increasingly suspicious, but we don't know just how bad this bad guy is. One unsettling moment comes at their first date, when he asks Penny to keep it entirely their secret that they are seeing each other. He has a plausible explanation for this, all ready to go. And it turns out that he always does. He talks a very, very good game. At one point Penny reflects that everything he says seems to be both outrageous and indisputable. He is a "plague of vague," and "like boxing with a fog bank." But he is also sexy, and loving for her. He's different, and interesting. They have a hot affair. (Not that this is full-on erotica.)

The novel is character-driven noir fiction that goes deep into the heads of its two lovers. It is not the familiar crime novel or police procedural. Penny and Lyle aren't Bonnie and Clyde, but they become desperadoes in a way, when their perfect, "victimless" crime spins out on them.

A phony letter and a genuine love. Humor, pathos, danger, and two of what Dickens called "lives of quiet desperation" come together in Bart Stewart's debut novel, Painter of the Heavens.

I used to read lots of crime and mystery novels and don't read them as much anymore. This is a great read! Usually, the stories are told from the POV of the "good guy." This one is told from the POV of Penny and the path she takes to become involved in a major crime. We don't get into the head of Lyle, the mastermind behind the crime, but we get a good idea of who he is. And even then, he still surprised me. 

Penny meets Lyle, the manager of an indie bookstore, and she is immediately drawn to him. He convinces her to keep their relationship secret. He's dangerous and exciting and she can't seem to get enough of him. They finally do have sex and the first time has some detail (but it's not graphic) and then it's implied after that. 

Penny is stunned when Lyle explains his plan to her. However, she thinks it's ridiculous and thinks there's no way they'll get away with it, so she agrees to it. She figures they'll try and fail and then they can carry on their relationship as they had before. She's amazed when it appears that they will actually pull this con off. Then everything spins out of control and the ending was a surprise to me.

I liked Penny at the beginning but once she got involved in the con and continued with it, she became harder for me to like. I felt like she had opportunities to come clean but chose not to so I didn't see her as a victim after a while. I knew going in that Lyle was a bad guy. I could understand Penny's initial attraction to him, especially since she was going through a transition herself, but kept hoping she would come to her senses. Lyle does a good job of emotionally and psychologically controlling Penny and is a mystery all the way until the end. How bad is he really? You'll have to read it to find out!

I enjoyed Mr. Stewart's writing style and this book is well-written. The ending is suspenseful and was hard to put down. I'm still not sure how the ending sits with me, though. If this is the type of book you enjoy reading, you will definitely want to read this one!

Content: Sex (some detail, not graphic), there is a scene where he exerts mild violence toward her, mild swearing. (When the author contacted me, I did express concern at the language "They have a hot affair. Not that this is full-on erotica," and asked him about that. He reassured me that he focused mostly on the emotional and psychological side of their relationship rather than the physical. I found that to be true and appreciated his explanation to me.)


Originally from Charlotte, NC, Bart Stewart has lived all over the United States, studying characters and occasionally having his short stories in little literary magazines. For many years he worked in antiquarian bookstores, and for a change of pace spent ten years in the Las Vegas tourist industry as a strolling entertainer. He performed for several years in the live Star Trek show at the Las Vegas Hilton, first as a Starship Enterprise crewman, and later as a Borg drone!

His first book was Tales of Real and Dream Worlds, a collection of surreal short stories in the Twilight Zone tradition. It won a finalist prize at the 2008 National Indie Excellence Awards at Book Expo in L.A. Three of the scarier tales are available on Amazon as an eBook entitled The Statuary Cats.  His debut novel is Painter of the Heavens.

Bart is currently unmarried and living near Boston, Massachusetts, where he is working on his next novel, writing social media for, and tweeting away @BartStewart1.


Paij Slater said...

This sounds intense, and I absolutely love the cover. Great review!

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