Serendipity

I always find it interesting how one has a thought about something and suddenly that subject is popping up everywhere in life. This happens to me frequently with books: I will decide to read a book about Paris, for instance, and three more will come to me, purely by chance, after I’ve finished the first. This time, the theme was the Romany, otherwise known as travelers or, in less politically correct nomenclature, gypsies.

MeridonFirst, I bought a Kindle book as one of my “daily dollar deals,” called The Snow Gypsy, by Lindsay Jayne Ashford. I have always liked stories about Travelers, ever since reading Rumer Godden’s book The Diddakoi as a child, and following it up with Meridon, the last book in Philippa Gregory’s Wideacre trilogy as an adult. I didn’t read this one right away, though; my friend Bix had mentioned the other two books in the Chocolat series by Joanne Harris, and I decided to catch up with those first. But those introduced me to the itinerant boat people, including Vianne’s love interest, Roux, who seem to be some variation on Romany or pavees, as the Irish travelers call themselves, except that they travel by river boat rather than by horse and wagon. The French townsfolk of Lansquenet unflatteringly designate them “river rats.”

snowgypsyAfter finishing the three-book series, I went back and read The Snow Gypsy on my Kindle. Rose Daniel is an English veterinarian who specializes in alternative medicine for animals; in other words, she is an herbalist in her practice. Rose’s brother disappeared in 1938 in the mountains of southern Spain, fighting alongside gypsy insurgents during the Spanish Civil War. Rose knows that he had a love interest (or possibly a wife) in one of the villages near their base, and decides, in 1946, to drop everything and go there to see if she can find any trace of what happened to him. (She has, of course, an irrational hope that she will actually locate him, and/or possibly the woman and child.) She is on a collision course with Lola Aragon, whose entire family was murdered by the fascists eight years ago in one of those same villages while she was herding goats up on the mountain, and who rescued a baby girl from her dead mother’s arms when she descended and found the slain villagers. Rose connects with Lola, an aspiring flamenco dancer, hoping to get her help finding some trace of her brother and his family.

I enjoyed this story quite a bit, though it had its flaws. The parts I liked best were the details about flamenco (tantalizingly few, as it turned out), the herbalist knowledge Rose exhibits and learns throughout the book, the scene-setting in the mountain villages of Spain, and the lingering atmosphere of the Spanish Civil War that casts its shadow over all the characters. The coincidences were a few too many, and at least one of the relationships was hard to buy. I wished (in light of the title) that there had been a bit more detail about the Travelers—the few pictures that were given were evocative but not elaborate. Some of the details of the book that seemed superfluous became more understandable when I learned from the afterword that it’s based on the true story of a woman herbalist, so I reserved one of her autobiographies at the library and am waiting for its delivery.

outsideboyIn the meantime, my memory was jogged about another Traveler-related book that I read a few years back, and will mention here: The Outside Boy, by Jeanine Cummins. It’s poetic, beguiling, and different; a coming-of-age story, but within the subculture of the Irish Pavee—gypsies, tinkers, whatever name they are called by outsiders—circa 1950s rural Ireland. And within the already arresting picture of this nomadic people is the intimate story of Christy, who is at the brink of many unexpected discoveries about his family’s past and his own. I had planned, when I read it, to suggest this as a selection for my 10-12 Book Club—it was a real charmer, poignant and inspirational but also a good tale. Alas, I couldn’t get copies of the book in sufficient quantities at the time to make it work for the club.

That was my Romany serendipity; the following week, everything was about bees. Stay tuned…

 

Addressing bigotry

I have read two books recently that dealt with the ideas, emotions, and results of bigotry, both focused on the Muslim experience. One was, somewhat weirdly, the third volume in the Chocolat series, by Joanne Harris, called Peaches for Father Francis (I reviewed the other two books earlier on this blog); the other was a newish young adult novel, A Very Large Expanse of Sea, by Tahereh Mafi.

The first was a story of clashing cultures trying to co-exist in the same small French village, while the second was the devastating effect high school ignorance has on one Persian Muslim girl in a sea of white kids, one year after 9/11. Both were powerful statements and, while quite different, arrived at some of the same conclusions.

PeachesFrancisIn Peaches for Father Francis (otherwise sold as Peaches for Monsieur Le Curé), it is eight years after the events of the original book Chocolat, and Vianne and her two daughters have made a life for themselves in Paris, floating on the Seine in a houseboat with the traveler Roux, father of Vianne’s daughter Rosette. Then comes in the mail a posthumous letter from Vianne’s old friend Armande, via her grandson, Luc, summoning Vianne back to Lansquenet because “someone here needs you.”

It’s August in Paris, which means it’s stiflingly hot and empty except for the tourists, so Vianne decides to indulge the impulse to take Anouk and Rosette for a holiday in the country. Roux somewhat surprisingly decides to stay behind, in Paris.

What Vianne discovers when she arrives is that the derelict housing on the other side of the bridge from Lansquenet, near where the travelers used to dock their boats, has been appropriated by a rather large immigrant Muslim community, the Maghrébins, and although their occupation had initially been accepted with cautious enthusiasm by many of the other villagers, now factions have broken out on both sides of the river, and friction is growing. Somehow, despite their formerly oppositional roles, the solution comes down to a cooperative relationship between Father Francis, the town priest, and Vianne to solve the impasse and narrowly avert a war.

The characters and situations in this novel are masterfully drawn. While it still retains a bit of the magical realism for which the first book is known (the shadow of Pantoufle still follows Anouk), this third tale is deadly serious in its exploration of warring cultures, tolerance, and understanding. It clearly and sometimes horrifically demonstrates the degree of misperception that can exist when people make shallow and blatant assumptions about one another and fail to take either human nature or love into account.

OceanThe young adult book, A Very Large Expanse of Sea, was more problematical for me, partly because it relies so heavily on high school tropes, which become wearying after so many teen novels based on them; but the fact is, they do still exist, and are potent, especially for the teenagers experiencing them.

I found the protagonist, Shirin, confusing because she is so vulnerable and yet so hardened in her angry cynical belief that no one will ever give her a fair shake. Several things baffled me about her character, the first being that she spends almost a hundred pages (basically a third of the book) being angry about how people react to her because she covers her hair with the hijab; then, when asked why she wears it, her reason seems inadequate. Her parents don’t require her to wear it, and in fact questioned her decision to do so; while she celebrates Ramadan with her family, she isn’t particularly religious and doesn’t otherwise have any kind of spiritual practice; and what she finally reveals to her new boyfriend is that wearing the scarf is a control issue for her—she gets to decide who can see her hair. I was kind of stunned that she would put up with the treatment dealt out to her post-9/11 for such a stubborn but singular reason.

While acting and talking like she doesn’t care whether anyone sees and knows her or not, she seems completely blown away when her brothers’ friends, who are in the siblings’ break-dancing club (the side story of a break-dancing hijabi was one of the best images of the book), tell her she’s beautiful. This scene may have been constructed so that the black friend, Jacobi, can subsequently tell her that she’s also scary and mean, and that she has let her anger convince her that all people are assholes when in fact they’re not and she needs to let go of that belief; but the degree of her investment in her looks, after rejecting every superficial nice remark and compliment from absolutely everyone, felt a little off.

There is one raw-ly honest moment in the book when a teacher embarrasses Shirin in class and then keeps poking at her (after she cuts his class for three days) to find out why she’s so upset that calls out white privilege and is probably the penultimate speech Mafi wrote the book in order to include:

“I’ve been trying to educate people for years and it’s exhausting. I’m tired of being patient with bigots. I’m tired of trying to explain why I don’t deserve to be treated like a piece of shit all the time. I’m tired of begging everyone to understand that people of color aren’t all the same, that we don’t all believe the same things or feel the same things or experience the world the same way. I’m just—I’m sick and tired of trying to explain to the world why racism is bad, okay? Why is that my job? It’s not.”

But there are also a couple of bigoted remarks by Shirin herself—like when she somewhat snottily hopes that the boy who likes her will just give up and “find a nice blond girlfriend.” Ultimately, though, the book does a good job of breaking down stereotypes and misperceptions on both sides of the divide, and provides along with it a sweet, satisfying, and occasionally swoony romance. Most significant, perhaps, is the reaction to the book by this former teenager on Goodreads:

“Y’all mind if I cry? because if you’d told 16-year-old me that one day I’d read a NYT best-selling book where a Muslim Hijabi teen gets her own coming of age story and her own big romance instead of being the token (stereotyped) minority character or some cultural prop used only to further the writer’s favorite white girl…it would have made a world of difference.”

(Despite searching its pages, I have not figured out the title of the book: The boy protagonist has the unlikely first name of “Ocean,” but other than that, there’s no reference to a large expanse of sea. I’m sure it’s hugely symbolic and that I’m just being obtuse; if you get it, please enlighten me!)

 

A book with heart

I have either liked or loved and frequently recommended the books of Deb Caletti, ever since I discovered them in the Young Adult section. Hers can be thought of, I suppose, as a more mature version of the “soft read” so beloved of the parents of middle-schoolers, in that they tell compelling, real-life stories that are also frequently sweet. Her books are often compared to those of the ever-popular Sarah Dessen. But as Caletti’s career has progressed, the subject matter of her books has grown grittier and more real, even as she keeps the dialogue civil and mostly expletive free (something that is of much more concern to parents than to any teenager!).

Recently, she took a time out from YA and wrote a couple of books for adults, and although I read them, I found myself slightly let down. I can’t put my finger on why, but I didn’t connect with them or find them as involving as her YA books.

38244389I waited, therefore, with both hope and trepidation for Caletti’s new offering for teens, A Heart in a Body in the World. Caletti talked on Facebook about how pleased she was with the book, its cover, and all the positive attention it was garnering, and I should have had confidence that she would deliver. I purposely avoided finding out the themes of the book and began it with no prior knowledge of its contents (I didn’t even read the cover flap), and the whole thing bowled me over.

The character of Annabelle was unlike yet familiar to me. As a woman (like most) who has had my share of difficulties, both in my teenage years and during the early years of adulthood, keeping men beyond the boundaries I tried to set—even while also guiltily trying to be nice and not upset or hurt anyone—I can see that this would be even more difficult for a beautiful, five-foot-three, 110-pound girl. (In fact, I believe that some of the large, ungainly, overweight girls and women like me may simply be attempting to reinforce those boundaries with our ponderous bodies, as we have come to realize that many men can’t be trusted to respect them, and that we don’t want to have to work so hard to do so ourselves.)

Caletti does a masterful job of letting the reader know that there has been a tragedy
here—perhaps a violation, certainly an event from which Annabelle hasn’t and may never recover—without initially coming out and describing what it was. The story unwinds along the road as Annabelle literally runs away from it—while hopefully running towards something else—and is revealed organically along with every apprehension, guilty feeling, and tic of Annabelle’s. Comic relief—or at least the relief of normalcy—is provided by Annabelle’s grandfather, Ed, her brother, Malcolm, and all the other people in her life who love her and are willing to support her on this journey. It’s a saga, a road trip, an adventure both internal and external, and it’s beautifully pictured and told.

hatelist       metoyou

For some reason, other YA books popped into my head as I read this. I wouldn’t go so far as to say they were similar, but perhaps both theme and feel suggest some affinity. The first is The Hate List, by Jennifer Brown, and the second is The Distance from Me to You, by Marina Gessner; one for the comprehension of just how deeply we can misunderstand other people and what they’re about to throw at us, the other for the sheer perseverance and determination necessary to undertake such an iconic journey alone, on foot, and dependent for the most part only on your own resources. Read
them—you might enjoy them as well—but definitely don’t pass up Caletti’s book, which is deserving of every award it has received, and more.

 

Segue

If you are a Tana French fan, as I am, there is no question that you will read whatever book she has written next; you just put a check in the “want to read” box on Goodreads and wait for its publication. And if you don’t want to buy your own personal copy so as to read it the instant it is released (I do, but I’m trying to come to terms with a new, slimmer budget, now that I am semi-retired), you resignedly log onto your local library catalogue, place a hold, and wait.

That’s what I did about six weeks ago, opting for the e-book with the idea that it would take less time to get than it would a hardcover copy. Then I promptly forgot about it and went about my business, until my email notification popped up to tell me that the e-book was awaiting me on my Kindle.

If you are a Tana French fan, then you know that all her books to date (six previous to this one) are part of a loose series called the Dublin Murder Squad, and each deals with a murder mystery to be solved by a Dublin detective. Each book has a different protagonist, although the others crop up in big, small, or completely incidental ways in the background of the books in which they don’t play lead. So while there is a familiarity about each book (a murder to be solved, a member of Dublin’s finest to do so), there is also a certain variety. You don’t know exactly what to expect, as you do with series in which the lead detective is always the same person. It’s kind of a genius way to write, if you can pull it off. Although I am a fan, for instance, of John Lescroart’s Dismas Hardy series, I have been vocal about my disappointment in those books in which he chooses one of his other characters as the lead. But so far, in her six books, French’s choices have never disappointed me, and I haven’t wavered in my slavering desire for the next one.

So, as I mentioned, The Witch Elm popped up on my Kindle a couple of days ago, and when I finished Michael Koryta’s book, I started to read. Imagine my confusion when, not having looked at a physical copy of the book for a flap synopsis or author blurb, I slowly realized that the Dublin Murder Squad was nowhere to be found? I kept reading as Toby, the average guy with a good job, friends, and a lovely girlfriend, went about his life, until one night he was mugged by burglars in his own home, and lay in the hospital recovering. Finally, two detectives showed up to take his statement, and I thought “Ah! here we go.”

Nope. The detectives came and went, and we stuck with Toby.

For her fans, this is a huge departure for French, and reactions will be mixed. Mystery readers and procedural fans may be disappointed. As with many procedurals, the crimes in French’s books, while clever, are the incidental vehicle, but the detectives’ engaging personal histories are what draw readers in and tempt them to return.

There is, eventually, a murder in this book, and there are some Dublin detectives taking an active part in its investigation; but the story continues to be told by the victims and, later, the perpetrators. Rather than featuring as the leads, the detectives maintain the persona that they represent to most people in real life: initially friendly and helpful, but also a looming source of panic and dread as their attention falls on you and you wonder, Do they really think I did this?

The book is a slow and intricate read, and takes almost 100 pages to build up to the discovery of the murder. Although some may believe that French’s editors were simply too afraid at this point to curtail the prose of such a successful writer, I don’t believe that’s the case here. Yes, I was initially somewhat frustrated to sit through the transformation of Toby from a basically happy-go-lucky guy to a man who didn’t know how or when he would ever recover from what’s been done to him. He’s pathetic, but he’s not the most sympathetic of characters, and my impatience grew with the narrative. But when the story transitions to the search for a murderer among Toby’s family, and so many questions are raised, you begin to realize that this book isn’t a whodunnit, it’s a psychological character study that, because of the unreliable nature of the characters, ramps up the tension exponentially with every page. In hindsight you see that all (okay, most) of that angst and drama you sat through with Toby was in service of everything that comes after, and you grow to appreciate your insider’s view as things continue to swing out of control. Although I had to make a little effort to get through the first part of this novel, I whipped through the last 30 percent of it between midnight and 3:00 a.m., and I don’t regret staying up one bit.

It’s hard, when you love unreservedly the kind of book that an author has reliably delivered as many times as has Tana French, and then she changes her focus. But I would call The Witch Elm a successful step in her career. If I’m honest, I still hope she returns to the Dublin Murder Squad, but I won’t be sad if, as well, we get a few one-offs like this one along the way.

Books for artists

Don’t you think that everyone likes to read a book with a protagonist or supporting character who shares something in common with them? As mentioned earlier in my review of The Art Forger, my particular extracurricular interest is painting, and I love books with art as a theme. So in the same train of thought as the books about books that readers love, here are some books about or containing art that artists may enjoy. Some are big family sagas or historical fiction, a few are coming-of-age stories, and the rest are all about the painting. There are both adult and young adult fiction titles included, but don’t let a label deter you: Read them all!

carduelisThe Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt
Theo Decker survives a brutal bombing at an art museum that takes the life of his beloved mother. In the confusion during the explosion, Theo rescues (but then decides to keep for himself) a priceless painting, which comes to symbolize for him his idyllic lost youth. Powerful, moody, poetic (and lengthy) literary fiction. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize. Adult fiction.

The Very Picture of You, by Isabel Wolff
Elsa is a portrait painter who elicits the stories of those she paints while they pose for her, and discovers some truths about herself in the process, especially while painting her sister’s fiancé. Adult fiction.

The Shell Seekers, by Rosamunde Pilcher
Set partly in the past, partly in the present, this is the story of Penelope Keeling, whose father was a famous Cornish painter. Now in her declining years, her prize possession is a portrait by him called “The Shell Seekers.” Her three children all become aware of its value, and each has an opinion about what she should do with both the portrait and with herself. Penelope has different ideas. This is a wonderfully drawn family saga, and if you like books set in World War II, half of this book takes place during that time period, in Penelope’s youth. Adult fiction.

truthcommissionThe Truth Commission, by Susan Juby
Dawn, Neil, and Normandy go to the Green Pastures School of Art and Applied Design. Each is artistic in a different way, as are all their crazy classmates, but Normandy has always felt overshadowed by her older sister, Keira, who preceded her at the school and went on to become a famous graphic artist. She is also discomfited by the fact that in her graphic novels, Keira has drawn her family—mother, father, and Normandy—as characters, and in a particularly unflattering (verging on vicious) way. Her response to this is to begin a project at school destined to bring the truth, however difficult and dangerous, into the open. YA fiction.

I Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You, by Courtney Maum
Not my favorite, but some people may like it. It’s about a guy who tries to bring some pizzazz into his life by having an affair. After having alienated both the mistress and the wife, he then tries to revive his ailing art career by exploring new media and methods. I liked it for the setting and the discussions about the art world. I never did figure out the title, because no one, anywhere in this book, is having any fun! Adult fiction.

A Paris Apartment, by Michelle Gable
Another one where the premise is better than the result, but again, the setting (Paris) and the convoluted process of holding a Sotheby’s auction for the art discovered in an untouched 70-year-old apartment was intriguing. Adult fiction.

wolvesTell the Wolves I’m Home,
by Carol Rifka Brunt
This book isn’t specifically about art, but uses it as a vehicle. June Elbus’s uncle, Finn Weiss, is dying of a mysterious disease (AIDS), and he chooses to spend his final days painting a portrait of his nieces, June and her older sister. Although the bulk of the book is June’s coming of age through the process of discovering and coming to terms with the secret parts of her uncle’s life that were kept from her by her parents, the painting plays an ongoing role throughout the book that ties it all together. An Alex Award winner. Adult fiction.

sunI’ll Give You the Sun, by Jandy Nelson
Twins Jude and Noah are both artistic, but Noah’s art just burgeons out of him. At 13, he is being coached by his mother to apply for an arts high school, while Jude is busy acting out as a typical teenage girl. Jumping to three years later, Noah has ceased to make any art, while Jude is struggling as a student at the school Noah was supposedly destined to attend. What happened in those intervening three years? And who will help the twins to regain their balance and express their art and themselves? Beautifully written and characterized, with a touch of magical realism that enhances the story. YA fiction (but should be for everyone).

gravityThe Gravity of Birds, by Tracy Guzman
An art historian and an art authenticator are hired by a famously reclusive artist to sell a portrait that had a devastating effect on the two sisters who sat for it. But is the sale of the portrait the artist’s real motive? This is a fairly simple story, and simply written, yet the complexity of human emotions and betrayals involved made it intricate and nuanced, and the imagery is compelling. Adult fiction.

 

 

heistHeist Society (and sequels), by Ally Carter
An art caper book. The protagonist, Katarina Bishop, is the youngest generation in a family of international art thieves. A big robbery has taken place, and the mafia guy who owned the paintings thinks her father did the robbery, but he didn’t. She’s been given a deadline to give them back, so she and her cousins/friends have to figure out who DID take the paintings, and steal them back! Completely implausible, of course, but big fun. YA fiction.

 

painterThe Painter, by Peter Heller
This book pairs thoughtful, in-depth musing about life’s tragedies and how we react to them with breathless scenes of action worthy of the latest blockbuster thriller. The protagonist paints Expressionist masterpieces, while acting like a character gone astray from a Hemingway novel. I love all three of Peter Heller’s novels. Adult fiction.

 

The Improbability of Love, by Hannah Mary Rothschild
Annie is a hapless aspiring chef who happens upon a tiny Watteau painting in a junk shop, buys it for a new boyfriend who stands her up for their date, and then is intrigued enough by it to start looking into its history, which includes stories of Nazi Germany and the hidden and circuitous route the painting takes through centuries of diverse ownership. (The title of the book is the title of the painting.) Adult fiction.

girlThe Girl You Left Behind, by JoJo Moyes
In 1916, French artist Edouard Lefevre is forced to leave his wife, Sophie, and the portrait of her he has painted, to fight at the Front in World War I. A century later, Liv is given the painting as a wedding present by her new husband, shortly before his unexpected death. The past and present of the painting tie these two stories together and make for an engaging history. Adult fiction.

 

spendingSpending, by Mary Gordon
Monica Szabo is a painter in her 50s who has struggled her whole life with the dichotomy between making a living and expressing her art. Then a man comes along who wants to be her patron, in the sense of classical artists who were sponsored by the Medici so they were free to make art. Monica struggles with the concept of being a “kept woman” even as she delights in the freedom to begin her most powerful and controversial work. Then their roles abruptly change, and new philosophical questions are up for review. An engaging story that addresses gender stereotypes, religion, and artistic integrity, without losing the immediacy of the relationship. One of those that merits a re-read. Adult fiction.

I’m sure there are many more books about painting to be discovered. When I do, I will share those, too!

The Horse Dancer

horsedancerHaving read the most recent five of JoJo Moyes’s books, I decided I would visit her back catalogue as well, and being a soft touch for a horse story (as you can see from my nearly unwavering fandom for Dick Francis), I chose
The Horse Dancer.

There are three intertwined stories in this book—one in the past, the other two present-day. The first involves Natasha and her soon-to-be-ex-husband Mac. Natasha is an up-and-coming attorney in the area of child protective services, and channels all her repressed feelings about the end of her marriage into her work and her tentative new relationship with a shiny partner at her firm. Mac is a freelance photographer, and appears to be fairly happy-go-lucky and irresponsible next to the upright and uptight Natasha, but seems to have major regrets about the end of the relationship. The two are in the process of sorting out their mutual possessions and financial issues on the way to divorce when their paths cross with Sarah.

Sarah is a 14-year-old girl who has two major loves in her life: her beloved grandfather, Henri, with whom she lives, and her horse, “Boo.”  Her grandfather was, in his youth, a professional rider for the prestigious Cadre Noir, a French dressage academy, but he gave it all up to come to England to marry Florence, the love of his life, recently lost to cancer. Sarah’s dream is to follow in her grandfather’s footsteps and ride with Le Cadre Noir in Saumur, France. Meanwhile, she and her grandfather train the horse in the shadow of an old railway siding in the seedy part of London, where they stable the horse with Henri’s friend, Cowboy Joe. When something terrible happens to Henri, Sarah discovers the fragility of her situation as a child with too many adult responsibilities, and tries her best to deal alone with all the potentially terrible outcomes.

I found this book tremendously moving in several areas. The relationship between Sarah and her horse brought back memories of being that age and wanting that special partnership so badly. (My grandfather, an impulsive bidder at auctions, actually gave me a horse for my birthday when I was 12—an unbroken two-year-old palomino
stallion—and my parents, dismayed by the thought of dealing with the housing, feeding, and exercising of him from the comfort of our suburban lifestyle,  made him take it back. I can hardly remember ever feeling more heartbroken.) The scenes that depict the tie between Sarah and Boo are so viscerally and immediately written as to be impossible to resist.

The interplay between Mac and Natasha was painful and confusing, and there were parts I flat-out had trouble believing, but ultimately the idea of the walls we build to protect ourselves that do us more damage than those we built them against resonated with me. The picture Moyes paints of a teen girl who depends on her grandfather and no one else, and of what happens to her when she is thrown on her own resources and believes she must cope all alone, is poignant, real, and frightening. The back story of the grandfather’s youthful experiences in Le Cadre Noir gave the book additional legs. All in all it was a satisfying and touching, albeit somewhat dark, read.

This is a book that is written for adults, but it explores the adult-child (or adult-teen) relationship from both sides, given that it shows both Natasha’s and Sarah’s views of the proper way to deal with the situation in which they find themselves; and I think that there are teens who would appreciate and even benefit from reading this book. Natasha has to transform her view of Sarah as a frustratingly opaque, surly compulsive liar and see that she is a child adrift in an adult’s world who is convinced she has to be as strong and resourceful as an adult; while Sarah has to get past her view of Natasha as a controlling authority figure and see that she is doing her best to be helpful even though Sarah is keeping the bulk of her life secret from everyone. The thing Moyes gets right is that final push through misunderstanding that is essential to a true and lasting love, whether it be between a couple, a parent and child, friends, or a girl and her horse.

craigdarkhorse

In search of Paris

As I have mentioned before on this blog, I am a sucker for any book set in Paris. I keep reading any and every book that boasts that city as its backdrop, and more often than not, I am disappointed; Paris, wonderful as it is, just can’t carry a whole book. But occasionally I am not disappointed; here are two books with the Parisian flavor that also delivered as good stories.

unbe1The first book is Unbecoming, a debut novel by Rebecca Scherm. I’m happy that I read it before looking at Goodreads to see what people had to say, because everyone there was comparing it to The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt, to The Talented Mr. Ripley, by Patricia Highsmith, and (inevitably and inanely) to Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn. Because I did not see all the comparisons to other authors and styles, I was able to approach it “fresh”; and without all those judgments to hinder me, I was delighted by it.

The book takes place partially in the present day and partially in flashback. A girl named Grace is living in Paris, and although she is from Tennessee, she tells people her name is Julie and that she hails from California, because she is in hiding. She is living a quiet life, working for a small shop that specializes in restorations, and spends her days mending teapots and re-setting gems. But there is a mystery in her past, to do with the boy she married and the boy she loved (two different boys); she has just learned that the two have recently been paroled from prison sentences they served after an art heist gone bad that was planned by Grace but from which she escaped unscathed, and now she’s afraid they’ll be after her.

The evolution of the main character and the degrees of denial and self-knowledge, combined with the plots and plans, the failed heist, and the anticipation of revenge, all kept me intrigued throughout this novel. Ironically, the only thing that disappointed me a tiny bit was that the Paris setting wasn’t all that distinct—she worked in a shop with a girl from Poland via Amsterdam; she lived in a suburb outside the city with a German landlady; and there was almost no Parisian “feel” to it, not even in the street market scenes, which were more grim than they were picturesque. Also, more of it actually took place in Garland, Tennessee than in Paris. But that’s a small caveat—this was a skilled debut from an author I will revisit should she write more.

week1The second book, A Week in Paris, by Rachel Hore, fulfilled every expectation I had for a book that would evoke the feel and ambiance of Paris—the streets, markets, music, cafés, churches, schools, everything. That by itself sets the bar pretty low for a reason to like a novel, but after having read a slew of books that promised me Paris and didn’t deliver, this one was completely satisfying—not only for that reason, however!

Although the two protagonists, mother and daughter, are both English by birth, both of their stories—one beginning in 1937 and the other in 1961—take place in the City of Light. Fay Knox, the daughter, knows little of Kitty Knox’s story, or in fact her own; her childhood before the age of six is a complete blank to her, and her mother doesn’t talk about it, with the excuse that it’s too painful to revisit the time directly after she lost her beloved husband, Eugene.

Two things happen nearly simultaneously that lead Fay to that past: Kitty has what amounts to a nervous breakdown and is hospitalized in an asylum to recuperate; and Fay is hired by an orchestra (she is an accomplished violinist) to play three dates in Paris over the course of a week’s time. When Kitty’s doctor convinces Fay that in these early stages of her depression her mother won’t even notice that she’s gone, Fay takes the job and, while in Paris, connects with an old friend of her mother’s who reveals a surprising and disturbing version of the past that Fay has never heard before.

Both the story and the style of writing reminded me of Kate Morton, particularly evoking her book The Distant Hours. I’m tempted to describe it as Kate Morton “lite,” although I don’t mean that in a negative way; simply that, as detailed as Hore’s book is, it’s simplicity itself when compared to the microscopic descriptiveness of Morton’s works. But the pattern of a mystery from the past intruding itself on the present, and a daughter attempting to solve the puzzle of her mother’s life, are quite similar, and equally well done. I haven’t read anything else of Hore’s, but will definitely seek something out soon.

Either of these books, in fact, would appeal to someone who appreciates a mystery but doesn’t wish to read about murder, victims, police, or the other trappings of a straight-up mystery novel. I guess you could call them “puzzle” books rather than mysteries, but the solution to a secret from the past is integral to their plot lines.

An extra comment: I am always intrigued by what publishers do to sell their books once they make the move from hardcover to paperback. Unbecoming went from a cover that did express its contents, though weirdly turned on its side, to something that looks like a rather obvious young adult novel about a girl who disappears, while the cover of A Week in Paris morphed from a photo that evoked the somewhat somber mood of the story to one that might more accurately portray its contents, but with a typeface choice that gives it a slightly upbeat chick lit feel. Do book art directors ever actually read the books, one wonders?

unbe2         week2

 

 

 

JoJo Moyes

meb4youMany have by now read the popular book Me Before You, by JoJo Moyes, about the lower-class girl living an ordinary and rather stultifying life, who first works for, then falls for the upper-class guy who happens to be a quadriplegic. Both of their lives are transformed (and also derailed) by their relationship, and hankies are passed at the end. I’m sure some have also seen the movie.

Although the first book was wildly popular (#1 NYT Bestseller), the second book, After You, got fairly short shrift by some readers (and reviewers), who apparently didn’t think that Louisa Clark was a compelling enough character to carry the story on her own. I differed with that opinion, and though my first judgment of the book was “adequate and somewhat endearing sequel that wasn’t quite up to the first book,” upon re-reading it recently I revised my opinion upward. The thing I particularly enjoy about Moyes’s books is her character development: She doesn’t just flesh out her protagonist and other main folks, she makes sure to create a complete and usually quirky personality for everyone who appears for even a moment. The result is lively and specific interaction on every page.

afteryouI will say that the first third of the book bored me a little, and I was just about to opt out when a couple of new and unexpected characters popped up and put some pizzazz into the story. I ended up enjoying it quite a bit more than I initially expected.

The third book, Still Me, took Louisa out of her British background and environment and put her up against a new life in New York City, which finally gave her the chance to expand beyond Will Traynor, and beyond the essentially small-town girl she remained in the second book, despite her travels and new relationships. It still, however, highlighted the gaping trench between the classes, with the difference that in New York City, it’s all about the money. The glimpses of city life and how much it differs for the rich vs. the poor were intriguing, the ups and downs of romance were good, but where this author shines, again, is in the creation of her characters. Although they were all compelling, I particularly enjoyed the elderly fashion maven, Margot, and her pug dog, Dean Martin.

DeanMartinIf you liked the first but hated the second, you might enjoy the third. If you liked both books #1 and #2, then you definitely should get you some more Louisa Clark. And if you never got around to reading any of them, maybe you will want to give them a try!

The author, JoJo Moyes, has been quite outspoken about the presentation of some of her titles as “chick lit,” saying
“I just try to tell a story which will maybe make people feel something, and perhaps think a little too. Ultimately, fiction is entertainment and no matter how beautifully or thoughtfully done, it succeeds or fails based on whether people are entertained.” We touched on this in my readers’ advisory class in our discussion of mainstream fiction: Joyce Saricks, readers’ advisory guru, in the chapter entitled “Emerging Genres” she penned for the book Genreflecting, argues that this type of book falls into a bigger category called “Women’s Fiction.” She defines women’s fiction as consisting of “books written primarily by women for women, that feature female characters, and that address the issues women face in their professional and domestic lives.” While acknowledging that this is a solid and definite trend, especially if you include the outliers of chick lit and erotica, I find the descriptor “women’s fiction” to be somewhat pejorative—dismissive and ghettoizing. Perhaps I am wrong, and should look at the positive elements of this: that women are writing, that women are writing about other women, that we have a positive trend to claim. But! No one ever called any aspect of fiction (except perhaps the truly macho genres, such as westerns) “men’s fiction.” When men were the primary writers of fiction, it was all just fiction, whether literary, mainstream, or genre-based. So why do we need to distinguish “women’s fiction”? It raises my hackles a bit.

stillmeI would like to propose that a more useful way of designating this subset of mainstream fiction might be “relationship fiction.” It still focuses on the most important aspect of so-called women’s fiction, which is the relationships between the characters, but it would include such male writers as Nicholas Sparks, Chris Bohjalian, Matthew Quick, and other men who write about relationships, sometimes from the viewpoint of a female protagonist, and would additionally embrace so-called family stories, while avoiding the condescending terminology that puts female writers in a subtly “less than” category.

Regardless of how you label them, JoJo Moyes’ books are, as she aspires to be, both thoughtful and entertaining.

My year in books

This is the time of year when I look back at all the books I read in the past 365 days, and ponder which were my favorites, which were the best books I read this year, and whether those are one and the same. Goodreads, where I record my reading, conveniently keeps track of statistics for those who set a reading goal, so before I get to the specifics, here are some of mine:

I read 41,346 pages across 113 books.

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My shortest book was an e-book-only novella (71 pages) by Sharon Bolton, while my longest was a reread of a Diana Gabaldon book (928 pages) in preparation for the next season of Outlander on TV. The average length of book I read was 365 pages.

The most popular book I read this year was (surprisingly) The Princess Bride, by William Goldman (which I read for high school book club), while the least popular (though one of the most useful to me) was the “textbook” (Reading Still Matters, by Catherine Sheldrick Ross) that I assigned to my readers’ advisory students in the masters program at UCLA. And the highest rated book that I read, according to Goodreads, was The Empty Grave, a young adult horror novel that is the final chapter of the Lockwood & Co. books by Jonathan Stroud, a wonderfully entertaining series for 8th grade and up.

thickasthievesOne of my favorite books of the year, but not one I would consider a “best book,” would be Thick as Thieves, by Megan Whalen Turner. It was a favorite for a couple of reasons: It was a long-anticipated fifth in her beloved Queen’s Thief series (beloved by me, though apparently unknown to far too many people); and it had her typical intricate yet understated plotting and humor that made me appreciate it throughout and also at the end. But for most people, it would probably be far too subtle to consider as a “best book,” and it needs to be viewed within its setting as part of a series to give the full effect. If you are, however, looking for a good and also untypical fantasy immersion to start off your year of reading, pick up The Thief (the first book) and savor the story through The Queen of Attolia, The King of Attolia, A Conspiracy of Kings, and finally, Thick as Thieves. It’s one of those series that gets exponentially better as it goes along.

A couple of young adult books that particularly caught my attention in 2018 were the fantasy Tess of the Road, by Rachel Hartman, and the start of a sci fi series, Defy the Stars, by Claudia Gray.

TessTess is a slow, compelling, character-driven fantasy, so if you are impatient for breathless action, it may not be for you. But I found the writing, the characters, and the story all to be completely gripping. Tess’s transformation throughout the book was a fabulous coming-of-age story for resentful and impetuous young women everywhere. I identified with her repression by a rigid, religious mother, was dismayed by the ways she tried to disengage from her life, and was delighted by her choices, though some of them seemed idiotic in the moment.

DefyDefy the Stars was entertaining from start to finish. I loved the characters—Noemi is so idealistic, stern, determined, and committed, but with a squishy interior that occasionally surfaces. Abel is, well, a ROBOT—this is my favorite robot book since the Lije Bailey/Daneel Olivaw pair-up in Isaac Asimov’s old mystery series. As with Daneel, Abel turns out to be so much more, mostly because his creator, Burton Mansfield, gave him enough agency to continue developing on his own. But Noemi is really the catalyst who brings him to his ultimate personhood. What I especially liked about this book is that it gave you a glimpse into possible worlds that could have been colonized from Earth, and how they evolved differently depending on the expectations and ideals of their colonizers. This isn’t just space opera; it also goes into religion, environmentalism, and politics, and is thought-provoking in all areas.

5491a-eleanorOne of my faves that I would also consider a “best book” was Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, by Gail Honeyman. Her quirky character Eleanor is, in many ways, profoundly broken, and Eleanor’s metamorphosis depends on courage that she wouldn’t have found without making some human connections, but it is not a romantic book, for which I was grateful. Her story is told in a tender, sweet, and humorous way that isn’t manipulative and never descends into mawkishness, that pulls both Eleanor and the reader out of melancholy into hopefulness. I was impressed that this was the author’s debut novel: The language, the characters, and the world in which she places them are smart and engaging, and she writes with confidence. I have always believed re-reading potential is the true test of a good book, and as soon as I finished this one, I wanted to go back and read it again to feel the emotions brought forth in me by the story.

28170940In the mystery category, I thoroughly enjoyed the reliable offerings from among my list of favorites: Louise Penny, Elly Griffiths, Robert Crais, Cynthia Harrod-Eagles, Sharon Bolton, and Craig Johnson; but the most anticipated and most enjoyed one had to be Lethal White, by Robert Galbraith, aka J. K. Rowling. I was completely enthralled by everything about the book: The initial mystery, of the mentally ill homeless man who has fastened onto the fame of detective Cormoran Strike and touchingly believes that only he can ferret out the truth about something the man witnessed as a child, is just the kind of thing that Cormoran latches onto like a dog with a chew toy and won’t let go until he’s thoroughly decimated it. But then, to have not one but two more cases to solve, both of which go somewhat against the usual principles that Strike and his partner Robin Ellacott consult before taking on a client, boosted up the energy exponentially. I was thrilled that the book picked up right where book #3 (Career of Evil) left off, which was immediately after the wedding ceremony in which Robin married the detestable Matthew Cunliffe. When she returns to work as Cormoran’s partner, he labors to keep their private lives carefully separate, giving the reader a delicious simultaneous sensation of frustration and anticipation as we find out where their personal choices will lead them.

MuseNightmaresI have already mentioned, in a recent post, my favorite fantasy of this year, Muse of Nightmares, by Laini Taylor; if you have, in your past, been prejudiced against books because they were given a “young adult” categorization, please let go of that long enough to pick up and read Strange the Dreamer and Muse of Nightmares. You won’t be sorry. I will add to the best fantasy category another, completely different offering: Vengeful, the long-awaited sequel to Vicious by V. E. Schwab. 

As usual, being the bibliophile that I am, I managed to find a few new novels based on reading and bookstores to add to my list, including The Bookshop of Yesterdays, by Amy Meyerson, Paris by the Book, by Liam Callanan, and The Lost for Words Bookshop, by Stephanie Butland. I think the last would be my favorite of these.

Please feel free to respond with your comments on any of my favorites, and share your own—if I receive enough responses, I will publish an end-of-the-year book bonanza from readers, full of ideas for January catch-up!

 

Pastiche

The definition of “pastiche” is “an artistic work in a style that imitates that of another work, artist, or period.” I am not accusing B. A. Shapiro of ripping off another author; rather, I am praising her skill in presenting the fictional story of an art forgery within the confines of an actual historical event.

Being a Sunday painter who has had occasion to try copying the art of another artist in the course of a school assignment, I have always been in awe of the art of the forger. While not an admirable profession—since you’re deliberately trying to fool people into paying millions for a Van Gogh that you created in your kitchen—it is nonetheless an accomplished profession, given the extreme difficult of getting each color and brushstroke so close to identical that the imitation is undetectable by experts from the great art collections of the world.

artforgerGiven this interest, I eagerly chose The Art Forger, a novel by B. A. Shapiro, as a representative work of mainstream fiction, so I could join my readers’ advisory students in their reading assignment this week.  My favorite quote from amongst the reviews is from Amazon’s editors’ picks:

“The most absorbing story every written about watching paint dry.”

It truly was absorbing, and yes, there was quite a bit about drying paint in its pages! The thing that is so difficult about the forger’s craft is that in addition to making a painting look right in terms of style and color, it also has to test as a work of its era, which means using a canvas of the proper age, and getting the paint to dry in such a way as to duplicate the craquelure, which is “a network of fine cracks on old paintings caused by the deterioration of pigment or varnish” (Free Online Dictionary). Author Shapiro manages, by alternating the details of this craft with a taut mystery/thriller, to make it fascinating.

A summary of the story:

Accomplished painter Claire Roth was previously involved in an art-related scandal that has made her name mud and sidelined her career. To support herself while she continues to paint in obscurity, she has signed on with Reproductions.com, a company that produces high quality reproductions of masterpieces for sale. After extensive training in all the anomalies of “reproduction,” she is their specialist on the works of Edgar Degas.

The story is set in Boston for an important reason: In 1990, there was a legendary art heist in which 13 master works were stolen from Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, never to be seen again. Soon after the story opens, Boston’s most prominent gallery owner brings a Degas that went missing in the heist (not disclosing the details of how or from whom he has acquired it) to Roth, and asks her to make a copy of it for him. The trade-off is that she will receive a one-woman show of her own paintings at his gallery. Claire is engaged and challenged, and can’t resist the temptation, but as she begins this arduous task, she makes some interesting discoveries about the painting’s provenance and origins that lead her to investigate the personal life of art collector Isabella Gardner and her possible relationship with the artist, Edgar Degas, as well as pointing her towards some contemporary scandals.

artstuff

I appreciated the multiple levels of this novel: mystery, art, and moral dilemma. It’s always fun to put yourselves in the shoes of the protagonist and say to yourself, What would I do if presented with this Faustian bargain? Claire is at once ambivalent and determined, and the stages she goes through are enlightening to observe, as she struggles with whether it is acceptable to do something wrong for all the right reasons. The art world itself is equally exposed as Claire questions whether her art is popular because it is good, or because she is notorious and people are buying it as a result of the “famous factor” and not because they love it. Ultimately, the book is about ambition and obsession, in work and in love. The historical element gives it an extra fillip of verisimilitude, and the revelation at the end is unexpected. A truly engrossing and engaging read.