Book Event

Monday, September 17, 2012

Imitation is the Sincerest Form of Flattery

In The Art Forger, Clarie Roth is plagued by the worst deja vu since Bill Murray was tormented by "I Got You Babe" in Groundhog Day.  Throughout B.A. Shapiro's thrilling novel, poor Claire must be constantly thinking that she's been there and done that.  Art forgeries, prisons, and untrustable men are leitmotifs that are vitally important in this work.

Claire Roth is a Boston artist with baggage.  Through flashbacks, we find out that she's an artist in disgrace, the art world has given her the moniker "The Great Pretender."   In an altruistic moment, Claire helps out her depressive boyfriend Isaac, who has artist's block, by creating a painting for him to pass off as his own for an exhibit at the Modern Museum of Art.  Fortunately or unfortunately, her painting is so good that it becomes a tremendous success and Isaac gets all the acclaim.  Isaac becomes a huge celebrity in the art world and breaks up with Claire, leaving her feeling betrayed and angry.  Isaac refuses to admit that Claire is the painter of his masterpiece and she is unable to get the art experts to acknowledge her as the creator.

Meanwhile, back in the present day, Claire ends up making a faustian deal with Aiden Markel, the owner of a prestigious gallery on Boston's fashionable Newbury Street.  After Claire is disgraced by the Isaac incident, the art world blacklists her so she ends up working for an art reproduction company and develops an expertise in making Degas copies.  Markel has somehow acquired one of the Degas masterpieces that had been stolen in the unsolved Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum heist.  Markel wants to take advantage of Claire's skills by having her paint a copy of the stolen Degas so that he can sell that one to the buyer and thus keep the real painting in order to return it to the museum.  In return for her help, Claire will receive a substantial sum of money, the honor of having been involved in getting a stolen masterpiece returned to the world, and most importantly, the opportunity to have her own art show at Markel's gallery, something she has always dreamed of, a way of showing the art world that she was misjudged and that she truly is talented.  Well, you know what they say about the best laid plans...

After the dust settles, Claire ends up on a quest for the real Degas (the one in the museum isn't what it seems) in order to clear Markel and herself of the charges brought against them.  The forgery theme recurs throughout several of the storylines which are integrated beautifully by the end of the book.  The Art Forger is my favorite book for 2012, I highly recommend it.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Dog On It

Welcome to the Little Detective Agency.  It's named for my partner Bernie, Bernie Little.  You see, Bernie is the brains of the agency and no one can puzzle out a case like my partner, except maybe his reporter girlfriend, Suzy.  I guess I'm the muscle 'cause when I get the perp around the ankle it's "case closed."   I'm also a crack tracker, which comes in handy when our case is about finding missing persons, or elephants, or championship show dogs or movie stars.  But Bernie isn't so wise in the financial department, so we take anything we can get to keep us in food. And speaking of food, there is nothing like a great mess of bbq ribs to take the edge off-much prefer that to the usual kibble. Oh yeah, I'm a dog.  Names Chet, not Chester, not Chetter-boy, just Chet.   I'm big, have a great set of canines and  can be really ferocious if I have to, but I love Bernie's son Charlie-to him I'm Chet the Jet, his private pony.  Bernie got me after I flunked out of K-9 school.  I was passing every test with flying colors, but when it came to leaping (which is my specialty) I got diverted, mid-spring by an interesting scent.  But that turned out great, 'cause I joined Bernie's agency-and I love Bernie.  We even smell a little alike.  We live in the west (Arizona, maybe) and have a house right on the desert, with the backyard facing a canyon.  Bernie "knows" things about me that he thinks are true, like he knows that I can't jump the 6 foot fence around the courtyard, but I do anyway.  Well wouldn't you, if you heard the cry of a certain female across the canyon?  He also doesn't know where I've gone when I'm stolen or catch an irresistable scent and follow it.  He usually muddles into the solution to the mystery with his superior intellect, not with his tiny nose.

Anyway, since I don't have fingers on my paws, I've dictated our adventures to an author named Spencer Quinn, who also writes thrillers under the name Peter Abrahams.  The Chet and Bernie mystery series titles in order are:
Dog On It
Thereby Hangs a Tale
To Fetch a Thief
The Dog Who Knew Too Much
and in September, A Fistful of Collars.

Friday, April 6, 2012

A Fairy Tale Comes to Life

The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey
This novel is based on a Russian folk story of the same name. In this tale a barren couple builds a child made of snow and the next day a little girl, who eerily resembles the one they made, appears out of nowhere. Ivey moves this tale to rural Alaska in the 1920s- a place both beautiful and dangerous.

Trying to escape the lingering grief of their stillborn child and the rift this has caused in their marriage, Jack and Mabel, a couple in their 50s, relocate there from Pennsylvania and attempt to start life anew. Unfortunately they are ill prepared to survive farming in this wild land and the isolation wears on them. Despite living in a tiny cabin they feel more apart from each other than ever.

Then comes the first snowfall of the year and the fairy tale seems to come true. Slowly the little skittish girl, who appeared where once a snow figure was built, starts to trust the couple. Her name is Faina and she unbelievably seems to survive on her own in the vast wilderness with only a fox as a companion. Faina, as well as a new found friendship with a neighboring family, begins to transform the life of the couple. But mysteries abound - Why does Faina disappear each Spring? Why doesn't snow melt on her skin? Why has no one else seen her?

Alaska comes alive with in this tale of loss and hope; isolation and belonging; humankind and nature. It is a haunting, evocative story told elegantly and it stayed with me long after I finished reading it.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Is your son a murderer or not?

Reading Defending Jacob by William Landay is an exercise in twists, turns, bewilderment, red herrings and just plain enjoyment.

Andy Barber, an assistant district attorney, usually handles the more involved felony cases in his community. When a fourteen year old boy is murdered in the local park, Andy assigns himself the case and begins his investigation. What he doesn't expect is that his son Jacob will be charged with the murder by the District Attorney.

As Andy and his wife Laurie, popular and respected members of the community, deal with this horrible accusation, their marriage is tested. And, as the trial progresses, their love for their son undergoes a soul-searching quest for the truth, even as damning facts and heredity come into play and threaten their world. The ending is a real shocker.

This would make a great Book Club choice because the story can be be interpreted differently and the actions of many questioned. I really, really enjoyed this one!

Sunday, February 26, 2012

"Oh, Look at all the Lonely People..."

Arthur Opp's life has been a study in disappointment. If he was a song it would certainly be the Beatles' Eleanor Rigby, as he is the loneliest man in the world. With no family to speak of and no friends to brighten up his day, he stays at home in his Brooklyn brownstone, but only lives on the first floor. The sole happiness he has is to eat, and he has eaten himself up to almost 600 pounds-he isn't sure what he really weighs as he hasn't gone to a doctor in many years, and hasn't even ventured out of his house in a decade. His own stairs are an impossible barrier to conquer. He once had a relationship with a former student, Charlene Turner, which developed into a very satisfying mail correspondence. Wanting to maintain his last tie with humanity, he fudged a little bit about his life, saying that he still taught at the university, and that all was well with him. Even her letters eventually stopped coming. One day, to his surprise, he receives a phone call from Charlene who warns him that she is going to send him a very important letter. When it comes, in it there is only a small photograph of a teenager labeled "my son Kel." She calls again and he learns that she had briefly married and had had a son, Kel Keller. She explains that he has "baseball on the brain," and asks if Arthur will tutor him so that he can get into college. That puts Arthur's life in turmoil-how can he help her child when he can't help himself? But he can't let his friend down, so he proceeds to figure out how he can accommodate her. He begins by hiring a maid. He also tries to call Kel.

Meanwhile, Kel hasn't been having too happy a life either. Even though he attends a prestigious high school, is athletically talented, and is blessed with great looks, he is very troubled. His mom is a drunk and he has to hustle for money to feed them and to pay their utilities. He never knows what he's going to find when he walks into his house-whether his mother will be rational, or more likely passed out on the bed. He has seen this too much to know if she's drunk or ill, but this time its real...the bottle of pills is by her bedside. Of course, no one must know any of these things and while he tries to cling to the normality of his high school life as a way to stay sane, now it isn't working. And strangely enough, he is receiving calls on his cell from a number he doesn't recognize and when he picks up, the line goes dead.

Heft by Liz Moore is a quirky but wonderful book. Readers will identify intensely with the characters, root for them, and wonder how things went, long after finishing the book. The title gives a clue to themes in the novel, referring to Arthur's weight issues, the swing of Kel's bat, but also the ability to "lift something," perhaps like the burden of solitude from the shoulders of the lonely.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Color is Music to My Ears

The ability to hear color is not a common occurrence, but the protagonist in The Woman Who Heard Color by Kelly Jones has that very trait, which turns out to be both a blessing and a curse. Her discovery of this ability leads her to a lifelong love of art that brings both pleasure and misfortune.

The beginning of the novel focuses on the meeting between Lauren O'Farrell, an art detective whose vocation is recovering art stolen during World War II, and Isabella Fletcher, a woman whose mother was an art dealer suspected of collaborating with the Nazis. As Isabella proceeds to tell the story of her mother, Hanna Fleischmann, the preconceptions of Lauren begin to change. When Lauren first meets Isabella, she treats her with suspicion and is prepared to condemn her mother for helping the Nazis dispose of the "degenerate art" and making a profit off of it. As the story unravels, Lauren's opinions of Hanna change as she discovers the motives behind her actions. The dynamics between Lauren and Isabella change as well as the two women start off as adversaries but end up bonding after realizing they share much in common.

It was interesting how Hanna's passion for art both enhances her life and also brings grief. She starts off as a household maid to a wealthy art dealer and subsequently discovers her ability to hear colors. The art dealer helps to develop her interest in art and eventually the two become husband and wife. Unfortunately, her expertise in modern art interests the Nazis and she ends up working for them taking inventory and cataloging the so called "degenerate art". She despises working for them but then realizes that she might be able to save some of the artwork by getting it sold to foreign collectors, dealers, etc.

This book would be a good choice for discussion groups as it explores many challenging issues, especially ones regarding art. Questions such as what is art, should government/taxpayer money be used to fund art, who determines what is good art and what is bad art, and was it possible for a person to work for the Nazis and accomplish something noble? The question regarding government sponsored art is still very relevant today as seen in the challenges to art funded by The National Endowment for the Arts.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

A Duo of Damaged Minds

Recently I read two novels that had something in common - their narrators were unreliable. This was not because they were being untruthful, but because their grasp on reality was fragile due to the fact that their brains were damaged.

In Turn of Mind by Alice LaPlante, Dr. Jennifer White's best friend has been murdered and she finds herself a suspect. But there is a complication. Jennifer is suffering from advanced Alzheimer's dementia and half the time she can't remember that Amanda is dead, never mind if she was involved in her murder. Told completely from the point of view of Jennifer's deteriorating mind, you suffer with her as she slips further away from herself and those she loves. Your view of reality is hers - fractured, unsure and changeable as she has good days and bad days. While the murder and its solution is interesting in itself, it is only one aspect of the novel. It is also a fascinating look into the mind being lost to a horrible disease and a study of relationships - what binds people together and tears them apart.

S.J. Watson's Before I Go to Sleep opens with Christine waking beside a man she doesn't know, only to discover she is a middle age woman- not in her twenties like she remembers. The man, Ben, explains he is her husband and that she is suffering from a strange type of amnesia as a result of an accident. Every night when she sleeps she loses the past 20 odd years of memories. Christine soon discovers that unknown to Ben she is seeing a Dr. Nash who is trying to help her regain her memories and that she keeps a secret journal. As she reads her entries, Christine realizes that Ben may not be telling her the whole truth. Is he trying protect her from painful memories or is something more sinister going on? Knowing only what Christine does, the readers finds themselves on a roller coaster ride trying to figure out what is really going on and who to trust. This page turning thriller is hard to put down.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Liked The Help? This is your next read!

Mudbound by Hillary Jordan

As the novel opens we are immediately drawn into the thread of the story. The two Allen brothers are covertly burying their father. Why are they so secretive and what caused his demise?

Equally involving is the story of the McAllen family. Laura is a city bred woman who has been transplanted to a farm on the Mississippi Delta. Her back story with her future husband Henry, his father Pappy and his brother Jamie is compelling and the story only gets better as we meet the other characters in the story. Jamie’s friendship with Ronsel Jackson, a black sharecropper, is based on their shared war experiences. Jamie has turned to alcohol for comfort and Ronsel is faced again with southern bigotry after having equality during his war service. Although they should not be friends in their circumstances, they find common ground.

Told in alternating chapters by Laura, Henry, Jamie, Ronsel, and his parents, Florence and Hap, the story of deep mindless prejudice and cruelty unfolds with a chilling inevitability. I could not choose which character’s viewpoint was better. All were so fully formed and compelling. And the ending left me speechless…I did not see it coming. The writing is exceptional, the story always forceful.

Highly recommended for all readers. There is so much to discuss here and this would make an excellent choice for book groups.