Tag Archives: art

The Art Forger by B A Shapiro

Claire Roth is beautiful, talented, and cursed. Even when she tries to do the right thing, it somehow turns out all wrong. Take Isaac Cullion, all she wanted to do was nudge him out of his funk and help him get his painting done in time for the art opening and look how that turned out? Now here’s Aiden Markell, offering her the chance of a lifetime. All she has to do is paint a duplicate of Edgar Degas’ After the Bath. Who better than Claire, a certified Repro painter specializing in his works? Yet this time her reproduction is more than just a copy, it’s a forgery of a painting which was stolen during the 1990 heist at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Or is it? Despite the thrill of having an original Degas in her studio apartment, something isn’t quite right. Nagging doubts cloud Claire’s mind, notwithstanding the mind blowing sex with her new lover or the promise of her own art show at his gallery. Since there’s no one she can comfortably confide in, Claire starts doing her own investigation to uncover some truths which have been kept a secret for over a hundred years.

Barbara A Shapiro once again uses her knowledge of the Art World plus the mystique of Boston to bring us a novel of art and intrigue in The Art Forger. Developing a fascination with Isabella Stewart Gardner in 1983 which was reinforced after the infamous unresolved heist at the famous Boston museum, Shapiro waited until she found a way to combine past historical events with fictional characters to create a cohesive tale of love and betrayal. Weaving truth and fiction, she fabricates a series of letters written by Gardner to her “niece” describing her titilating encounters with the famed Degas in her attempts to buy one of his paintings for the museum she is determined to build. He agrees, but there are stipulations which might not be acceptable to her high brow society peers, despite her already outrageous behaviors. Although there is no written record of these meetings and no true correspondence to relate, the author still frames a plausible background to her modern day tale.

While Shapiro’s descriptions of the history and techniques of various art forgeries over the years is interesting, at times the details of this and other artistic techniques are perhaps a bit too technical for the average reader. In addition I would have liked a bit more depth of character for Claire and her associates to go along with the richly developed Boston setting. Besides the old time letters and narrative about Claire’s current life, there are also flashbacks from three years prior to the start of this story involving her relationship with Isaac, explaining her pariah status. I liked how the reader is given clues utilizing the three scenarios to help decipher the outcome, although for me, at least, there were no surprises, just reasonable expectations. In the end, Claire was a bit too self righteous and not entirely innocent, plus she made a lousy girlfriend – still from notoriety comes fame (see the Kardasians).

The Art Forger has been on my to read list since last year when I read Shapiro’s book The Muralist and it didn’t disappoint with a plot richly layered just like the paintings Claire designed. Four stars.

This review also appears on Goodreads.

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Dark Matter by Blake Crouch

Reading Dark Matter by Blake Crouch is like walking through a maze – well not exactly since a maze has a beginning and an end, more like a labyrinth with a multitude of paths leading nowhere.

Jason Dessen has the perfect life with his wife Daniela and son Charlie. Perhaps he had to give up a high level career and settle for a professorship in physics at a small college and his talented wife never achieved the artistic fame she had once sought, but they were content. Jason has a chance to find out that happiness doesn’t hinge on money and prestige when he is basically kidnapped and sent to an alternative universe (multiverse) while someone else takes over his idyllic life. The new world is a nightmare and in order to maintain his sanity, Jason needs to find out where he is and how he got there in order to have any hope of discovering the path back “home”. What makes matters worse is that second guessing his own motivations only creates more chaos in an already disjointed and deranged world.

What a wild ride! Just when you think you’ve got things figured out there’s either a dead end or an unexpected plot twist. While I was able to foresee a few events there were others which astounded and the ending remained as bizarre as the original premise. At times the author’s explanation of the scientific phenomena of the Schrodinger’s Cat Paradox and quantum physics were repetitious and frankly, over my head, although I did grasp enough of the essence to accept the situation as plausible in a demented sort of way. The singlemindedness of Jason was both annoying in its doggedness as well as endearing for its root causes. It certainly kept me engaged, especially with the crazy climax which appeared to have no acceptable resolution. Crouch definitely induces the reader to analyze their own motivations in life, pondering the various “what if” alternatives which might have been chosen. The one weakness of this novel is the lack of depth in the characterizations which would have provided some substance to the reasonings of the supporting players instead of leaving open ended suppositions about their particular actions for the reader to contemplate.

I find this novel difficult to categorize – is it an existential love story or a science fiction tale of horror or a psychological thriller? You pick.

Four stars and a thank you to Netgalley and Crown Publishing for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.

The Muralist by B A Shapiro

The Muralist by B A Shapiro is a mystery full of intrigue occurring under the Roosevelt administration during the depression just prior to the United State’s involvement in World War II. Mixed within the fictional narrative are historical truths which affected the events of the war. At the forefront was Assistant Secretary of State Breckinridge Long, a close friend of the President who used his power to limit the number of immigrants entering the US, especially Jewish refugees. Going against the wishes of Congress, Long lied about the numbers while secretly denying visas and publicly justifying his actions with cries of spies mixed amongst the incoming Jews and lamentations over the loss of American jobs usurped from natural born citizens by the intrusive foreigners. (The same rhetoric we hear today about Syrian refugees).

But this is a story about a young artist, Alizee Benoit, whose Jewish family is caught in France swept up into the atrocities of the Holocaust. Desperately trying to obtain visas for her aunt, uncle, and cousins, as well as her brother, Alizee runs into obstacle after obstacle, horrified when even bribery can’t guarantee a safe passage to the United States, despite possible backdoor routes through other countries such as Cuba. Ships full of refugees are turned away and sent back to their fateful deaths. Befriended by Eleanor Roosevelt, even the First Lady fails to persuade her husband to intercede on the Jews behalf.

Alzee turns to her art to express her views and secretly joins a subversive group to attempt a change in the antisemitic policies of certain government officials. Working in the WPA art program in NYC creating public canvases for display, she is surrounded by other aspiring young artists who would later gain world renown (Abstract Expressionists – Mark Rothko, Lee Krasner, and Jackson Pollack). While just as talented as her peers, her future is doomed when she gets caught on the wrong side of the right issue, necessitating her disappearance from view. Despite a thorough search by family and friends, she is never heard from again.

Seventy years later, Alizee’s niece, Danielle Abrams, is fascinated by the stories surrounding her mysterious great aunt. With her own artistic bent, Dani is currently employed by Christies Auction House cataloging various pieces of art from the WPA period in the hopes of identifying the works of the legendary artists who painted besides Alizee. Secretly she is trying to discover the riddle of a myriad of painted squares found taped to the backs of suspected masterpieces, sure that they can be connected to her aunt’s disappearance. Using the two paintings by Alizee which the family still owns as a guide, Dani is sure she has found the key to her aunt’s whereabouts.

Shapiro alternates between Dani’s search and flashbacks from the past to slowly reveal a gripping story from that fateful era. While seeking to clarify the mystery surrounding Alizee, Dani also discovers some truths about herself.

Shapiro has invented a new genre combining history, art, and intrigue. After the success of her previous novel, The Art Forger, she returns to the art world for this current work. Armed with historical tidbits from the era, Shapiro is able to recreate the concerns of the country in the years prior to the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The actual disappearance of the muralist is jumbled and confusing, perhaps reflecting Alizee’s feelings of confusion from the illness within her body and her mind, but the culmination fusing events from present and past straightens out some of the questions posed by the author.

Four stars and a thank you to Netgalley and Algonquin Books for providing an ARC of this title in exchange for an honest review.

Stanley at School by Linda Bailey, illustrated by Bill Slavin

I loved this book, but what’s even more important is that my five year old grandson loved it, too. Linda Bailey has another winner in the Stanley series with her newest title Stanley at School. Stanley, a curious canine, has always wondered what happens to the kids who pass by his yard every day going to and from school, so he decides to take a look-see with his three friends, “Nutsy”, “Alice”, and “Gassy Jack”. Once they figure out how to open the front door they enter a whole new world full of smells. They follow the scent of salami into the coat room containing all sorts of lunch boxes where they gorge themselves silly until the delighted students arrive. What happens next is total chaos with hugs and wagging tails, that is until the custodian arrives and everyone, dogs and children, take off running. The four companions flee through the gym, music room, and art room until they are caught and end up sitting in the chairs outside the principal’s office. Luckily the school’s principal loves animals, so instead of a scolding they get petted before she shoos them out the door. What a day! They run off to the dog park to share the joys of a school full of eating and running. Wondering why kids should have all the fun, the next day when the school doors open, all the neighborhood dogs are waiting at the bottom of the front steps.

The colorful, cartoonish illustrations by Bill Slavin are full of a diverse population of students, even one in a wheelchair. The principal is a black woman who the animals refer to as “top dog” even while she shows them a bit of love. Her authority shines when she says “off”, “come”, and “go” and the four friends follow one another in a single line out the door and for an additional two blocks from the school. The dogs, a mixture of various sizes and breeds, are adorable and their illustrated antics will make the reader laugh out loud – sure to appeal to both adults and children.

A perfect read aloud for all elementary youngsters, ideal for teachers to share with their classes at the beginning of the school year. Four stars and a thank you to Kids Can Press and Netgalley for an ARC of this picture book in exchange for an honest review.

The Fly Trap by Frederik Sjoberg, translated by Thomas Teal

Reading a book featuring an avid amateur entomology collector specializing in Hoverflies (also called flower flies) was not exactly at the top of my “to read” list, yet I was surprisingly entertained by Frederik Sjoberg’s rambling autobigraphical memoir The The Fly Trap. A best seller in his native Sweden (30,000 copies), over ten years later it has been beautifully translated into English by Thomas Teal for those interested readers in the United States as well as other countries. Ironically I had just finished The Girl in the Spider’s Web by David Langercrantz, another popular Swedish book (and a continuation of the original Millennium novels by Steig Larsson). Prior to that series, my last exposure to Swedish writing was Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Longstocking. I guess I should seek out more authors from this country.

Sjoberg has a humorous style, especially considering the subject matter. Who knew that there were professionals who study flies and that there are specialties within this genre. While The Fly Trap mainly focused on Hoverflies, there are also numerous other species of flies (over 4424 species in Sweden, some which disguise themselves as bees) making entomology a complex scientific endeavor. Probably the best known entomologist is René Malaise (1892-1978) who invented the Malaise Fly Trap (the author purchases the mega version at 6 x 3 meters) capable of capturing a multitude of fly species for investigation. The author spends a good portion of the book exploring the life of his hero who was a pioneer in the field and put fly collecting on the map. Yes, people have been interested in flies for generations.

What appealed to me about The Fly Trap was the way the author expressed himself. His turn of a phrase has the potential to be breathtakingly lovely, such as “The high frequency hum of their wings is like a footnote that makes the experience all the richer for those who know the sound.” His enthusiasm towards flies was infectious, at times I even forgot how much I detest these pests. Why Hoverflies? They are “neither too many (202 species so far found on the island) or too few; neither too familiar nor too exotic”. Plus flies “allay anxiety . . . On top of which they’re free.”

Ultimately, the subject of flies is a take off point to discuss other topics. Of interest is the entire idea of collecting. Some people collect dolls or antiques or art work; Sjoberg mainly collects Hoverflies. Strindberg’s theory of Buttonology, the need to sort, store, and catalog a specific collection, was explored, as well as the question of why people are drawn to island life, and, of necessity for those who study insects, the concept of time – slowness vs speed in our daily lives.

Sjoberg is well read and includes many quotes from renowned and obscure authors who explore the themes in this book, especially ones dealing with his beloved flies.

Definitely worth a look see and, surprisingly, the author leaves us wanting more, so I’m looking forward to the next book in the saga. Four stars.

The Witch of Painted Sorrow by M.J. Rose

In The Witch of Painted Sorrow by M.J. Rose, the reader is drawn into the cultural world of 1890’s Belle Époque Paris filled with the romance of the sight, sounds, and language inherent to this time and place. Sandrine Salome has fled her self centered husband in New York City who has driven her beloved father to suicide through his embezzlement from the bank they jointly managed. Sandrine turns to the only place of refuge open to her, the home of her grandmother, Eva Verlaine also known as L’Incendie or The Fire, a celebrated courtesan living at Maison de la Lune. To her horror, the lavish house is dark and devoid of human life. Luckily a neighbor brings her to her grand-mere’s new location, a short distance away. While Sandrine is led to believe that the mansion is closed for renovations, the elegant house is really being inventoried and readied to become the Museum of the Grand Horizontals. Although Eva loves Sandrine, she is horrified at the turn of events and encourages her grand-daughter to return home to her husband Benjamin. Sandrine has no intention of returning to a loveless marriage and feels drawn to her ancestral home where she spends more and more of her time, especially when she discovers the charismatic, handsome curator and architect, Julien, who is inventorying the vast collection of artifacts. Sandrine fears she is as frigid as her husband claims, but discovers she does have a passionate side, both in love and in art. This must have been an inherited talent passed on through the generations, unless it is as her grandmother fears, a ghostly interference by La Lune who is capable of invading the soul of the women in the Verlaine family. Grandmother warns, “For the women in our family, love is a curse, not a blessing.” La Lune feeds on strong emotions, especially the erotic, but Sandrine throws caution to the wind, enjoying her new found freedom as a woman. Her life centers around being an artist and a lover as she immerses herself into the Parisian culture of the bohemian crowd.

M.J. Rose weaves an intricate tale. Her detailed back drop makes Paris comes alive and we don’t blame Sandrine for wanting to take advantage of the opportunities, even if her normally timid personality is overcome by an invading spirit. Of course, La Lune does more than direct Sandrine’s life. Tragedy also paves the way for the ever selfish diva to burrow deeper into her host’s soul. The loving grandmother must be punished for her interference. Others as well feel the results of La Lune’s wrath.

As in all Gothic novels, at times you must suspend your belief and accept the surreal. So, while the story seems a bit far fetched, despite the supernatural theme, it is still an enjoyable read (just don’t look too closely at all the details). Even though there is quite a bit of action within the story, a lot of the narrative consists of Sandrine’s introspection as her desires are awoken. She fears her grandmother is right about the danger of becoming possessed and wonders if her new behaviors come from within or is she reflecting the nature of La Lune. Yet, Sandrine is enjoying life too much to want this experience to stop. My main criticism is that too much time is spent on these repetitive thoughts. I would have liked to have seen more action or a better development of the plot and minor characters. Also, the author tends to go to extremes where the tragedies are just a little too tragic. The husband is made out to be a bigger villain than he really is – not abusive, just an inconsiderate lover. While he brought dishonor through his actions to her father, was he truly a murderer? Then again, when evil is in the heart, who knows how it will be expressed. While Sandrine’s initial reactions to Benjamin seem to be misplaced (as if her life were in danger), perhaps it was her newly discovered personal freedom which she wanted to keep from his grasp. The mores of the times are forever in the background, where women had limited rights in a male dominated world. This puts Sandrine’s outrageous behaviors into greater perspective. Since this is the first of a series, the ending, by necessity, had to be open ended enough for the sequel, but I felt the conclusion was satisfying.

My advice is to read at least the first hundred pages or so before judging the book. Once the stage is set, the pace picks up as Sandrine explores her expanding universe, including Parisian Night Life and the occult, as she sets out to break down barriers. Three and a half stars.

A thank you to Atria and Netgalley for allowing me to read a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

The Notebook by Nicholas Sparks

One of my pet peeves is when an author, whether on television at the movies or in a book, treats all elderly persons as if they have one foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel. Perhaps this is because the more birthdays I celebrate, the older the start of old age seems to become. I know numerous eighty and even ninety year olds who are active and get around just fine, including my own mother. Yes, she’s slowing down, but she’s not a doddering old fool.

I also understand that Alzheimer’s is a terrible disease which robs the victim and their families of so much. However, an author doesn’t do the reader any favors by misrepresenting the realities of these symptoms, although I realize that the “lost and found” of the heroine’s memory is central to the plot of The Notebook by Nicholas Sparks. I suppose we must allow him some poetic license, especially since this is such a baffling ailment (and was even more unknown back in the days when this book was first written).

Nicholas Sparks is one of those authors whose name I have heard repeatedly attached to the term – “romantic novel”. One only has to mention the title of his next book and it is immediately optioned into a movie. When I was informed the book club I had recently joined had never read a romance, I immediately thought of Mr Sparks – the quintessential romanticist, and so I recommended The Notebook, a book on my own to-read list which I had never gotten around to perusing. I even owned my own copy and knew that it would be easy for the group to find at the public library, at Amazon/Barnes&Noble, or even at a “take one/put one back” bookshelf. We had just finished a super long tome and I thought a quick read would be a welcome change.

Now I am somewhat embarrassed by my choice. This was not what I expected.

Don’t get me wrong, my favorite type of book is a Regency Romance, so I often read romantic novels. I even dabble in contemporary romances by authors such as Bella Andre and Melody Ann, so I did have a baseline in mind. Let me just say that The Notebook didn’t meet even the minimal bar and I was left disappointed.

Of course, all romances are contrived and at times unrealistic as couples must overcome various road blocks in order to be together, otherwise why bother to write it all down. The Notebook does have numerous obstacles, not the least of which is a fiancé and an upcoming wedding. So what went wrong?

First one should determine the characteristics of a worthy romance, including:
Romance
Witty dialogue
Well defined characters
An Interesting plot with a few twists
Just long enough to tell the story without a lot of repetition of thoughts or dialogue
Some sexual contact (a plus, but not necessarily a required component)

Well, this book centered on the romance, but the story was one dimensional. Boy loves girl, girl loves boy, they separate and fail to reconnect, she finds another (the problem), girl finds boy again, boy still loves girl, girl discovers she still loves boy, girl sacrifices current life to stay with boy. I wish there was a little more, but that’s basically it. As far as the characters are concerned, Noah Calhoun is a simple, down-home boy who loves poetry and nature while Alison Nelson is a sweet, beautiful girl who appreciates poetry and is a gifted artist. Boom! Not much to build on. The dialogue consists of routine day to day conversations and repetitive thoughts of deep love – nothing clever. The main plot twist is that Allie’s mother Anne hid all the love letters that Noah wrote to Allie after the summer they spent together as teenagers. Mrs Nelson maintains a big town/small town bias, believing that her daughter was meant for something better than the rustic lifestyle Noah has to offer. In addition, pursuit of a career as an artist did not fit into Anne’s overall plan for her daughter’s future. Fiancé, Lon Hammond, definitely exemplifies the life that Allie deserves. Lon is a kind, considerate, wealthy, and well connected man who is respectful enough to wait to consummate the marriage until after the nuptials. The fact that he is devoted to his career as a trial lawyer and doesn’t make Allie the sole center of his universe, seems to be held against him. Yet he cares enough about her that when Allie chooses her old love, he graciously accepts her choice. After fourteen years of denial, Ann experiences a sudden change of heart, removing any sense of guilt her daughter might feel for the switch of future husbands. Conflict over!

The best part of the book is the set up. It starts at a nursing home where one of the residents spends every day reading a notebook containing the love story of Noah and Allie to a woman with Alzheimers. On a good day, the patient realizes that this is her story and she will emerge from the fog of her dementia into the real world for a few hours before the haze descends upon her once again. Noah hangs on to these precious moments, cherishing them along with the letters that his wife has written to him over the years. He leaves little poems under her pillow, in her pockets, etc. for Allie to find. Even if she doesn’t know how they got there, the words cheer her up. Noah is beloved by the other residents and the staff for his devotion to his wife. His dedication is responsible for those lucid moments and the kisses which follow, filling the remainder of his days with some sort of purpose.

Sweet like a cup of tea which is more honey than liquid! Contrived like a forged note to get out of gym class!

I suppose people are drawn to the story because everyone wants to root for the good guy. The book is short, direct, with simple dialect, and mild enough that you could give a copy to your grandparents. Also, who doesn’t want someone to love them so totally that you are the center of their universe. Well maybe not everyone, but it does appeal to our romantic side. There are even people out there who can relate to such a love affair. Forgive me if I’m not one of them.

The highlight of this short novel was the author’s mini autobiography found at the end of the story – if The Notebook could have injected some of the humor found in the vignettes of Spark’s own life, this book would have been a much better read.

To my chagrin, this novel is popular all over the world. I hate to believe that readers in other countries think that this is the best literature America has to offer.

I was going to give The Notebook one star, but, ironically, I was the only person in the book club who didn’t care for the book, so here is a reluctant two stars (which is as high as I can go and still sleep at night).

If this book had a hash tag it would be #SappyMaudlin or #NobodyIsThatGood