BOOK REVIEW: Gillespie and I by Jane Harris

Gillespie and I by Jane HarrisGillespie and I
By Jane Harris
Completed March 24, 2012

Oh Jane Harris – you masterful storyteller. You captivated me with your debut novel, The Observations, to the point that I could barely wait to read your sophomore effort, Gillespie and I. I worried that you couldn’t “do it again” – but as I delved into your new book, my worries quickly vanished. Oh yes, you did it again. And marvelously so.

I don’t want to give away too much of the plot because I don’t want to spoil one thing for future readers. In a quick summary, the story is about Harriet Baxter, a middle-aged, unmarried English woman who takes up residence in Scotland during the 1888 International Exhibition. There, she befriends the artist, Ned Gillespie, and his family: his wife, Annie; Ned’s mother, Elpsbeth; and Ned and Annie’s children, Sibyl and Rose. As the story progresses, a terrible tragedy strikes the Gillespie family, and Harriet is thrust into the brink of it.

As we learn about Harriet’s life in 1888, Harris mixes in Harriet’s narrative as an older woman, living in 1933 London. Harriet is writing her memoir but vexed by her live-in companion, Sarah. Why is Sarah so quiet? Why does she not talk about her past? Why does she dress head to toe in Victorian clothing when the styles are much more liberal?

Gillespie and I is a book much like a roller coaster. The first half is full of foreshadowing, with small twists and turns that seem insignificant as you read them. Then, at the end of the first half, the story seems to stall a bit, but I liken it to the “scenic part” of the roller coaster ride – when you’re up high and can enjoy the view before being plunged down at break-neck speeds. And the second half of the book is the downward plunge, and you’re left holding on, turning each page, almost not believing what you’re reading. When the book is over, just like a good roller coaster, you get off and contemplate going for another ride. You want to relive the whole experience and discover things you missed on the first ride.

I’ve said enough – go get your copy of Gillespie and I and prepare for a literary ride that will leave you breathless, contemplative and thoroughly pleased. (  )

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BOOK REVIEW: The Last Nude by Ellis Avery

The Last Nude by Ellis AveryThe Last Nude
By Ellis Avery
Completed December 3, 2011

Ellis Avery was inspired to write her latest book, The Last Nude, when she learned about Tamara de Lempicka and how Lempicka met the model for her famous nude paintings. Though little is know about Lempicka’s real model, Avery used her imagination, crafting a tale that showcases the whirlwind lifestyle of 1920’s Paris and the dreams of an American girl.

Rafaela, en route from the U.S. to Italy to meet her bethrothed, wanted a better life for herself, and escaped the ship on the arm of a French man. She became a prostitute in return for freedom and a Parisian life. One day, while on a walk, Rafaela met Tamara, who asked Rafaela to model for her. She agreed, and as the two began to work together, they started a torrid affair.

Most of the story is told from Rafaela’s perspective. We see the parties, drugs, sex and art that marked Paris during the Roaring 20’s. We also see Rafaela’s innocence as a 17-year-old girl who finally takes control of her body and choices. Rafaela was fallible and sympathetic, caught in a web between love and greed. Overall, I liked The Last Nude because I liked Rafaela’s character. When Avery moved the last section of the story to Tamara’s perspective, I was not as enthralled, and the speculation about what happened to Rafaela was unsatisfying.

Other reviewers have remarked (and often criticized) Avery’s historical licenses with the story, specifically about the art and literature scene in 1920’s Paris with Picasso, Hemingway and Stein at everyone’s elbow. Admittedly, I do not know much about this era of history, so I was not bothered by any mistruths or exaggerations. If you’re familiar with this time period, you may want to read other reviews to make sure this is the book for you. Otherwise, if you like art and literature, then give The Last Nude a try. (  )

FTC Disclosure: The publisher sent me a copy of this book for review on my blog.

REVIEW: The Glass Room by Simon Mawer

The Glass Room
By Simon Mawer
Completed April 10, 2011

Many forces come into play when I select a book to read. Often, I rely upon the reviews and comments of other book readers whose opinions are like mine. I also take into consideration any literary awards, which often tip me off to a great book. And, of course, the story must sound compelling.

Using this process, I picked The Glass Room, which seemed to be a sure-fire win for me. Several of my like-minded friends raved about this book. It was short-listed for the 2009 Man Booker Prize, which I usually have good luck with. And the plot of a Czech family caught up in the tragedy of World War II should be up my alley.

Even the best laid plans can go array, though. Sadly, that is what happened when I read The Glass Room. Despite my best efforts, this book didn’t click for me.

Let me express the good qualities of this book first. First, Mawer’s writing style is descriptive and rich. He can paint a picture in the mind’s eye, which helps propel his novel. Additionally, he did a great job incorporating the arts into the novel. With an architectural feat such as the Glass House, that’s an important thing to do, but he also wove in music, painting and sculpture – and did so beautifully. Finally, the plight of early Czechoslovakia as it struggled to get its legs between the World Wars was illuminating, and I learned more about this aspect of history.

Here’s where I struggled: the characterization. It was very one-dimensional, and as a result, I didn’t like one character. Perhaps I would have liked them more if Mawer had given me more information about them. His characterization centered around their sex lives. Each character’s lives were qualified by their sexual activity or desires. Making this worse was the unequal descriptions about sex. Mawer fills us with intimate details about the female characters – the size of their breasts, the color of their nipples, the roundness of their bellies, the texture of their pubic hairs. However, with the male characters, we got nothing – not even a chest hair. Sex was definitely told from a male perspective in this story.

I am in the minority when it comes to The Glass House, so I encourage you to read other reviews before deciding on this book. Many other readers were moved by this story, and you might be too. As for me, I am happy that The Glass House is over and ready to find a book that better fits my fickle tastes. (  )

BOOK REVIEW: The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova

The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth KostovaThe Swan Thieves
By Elizabeth Kostova
Completed March 28, 2011

The Swan Thieves, the second novel by Elizabeth Kostova, has many themes: the artist, the lover, French Impressionism, insanity and obsession. A stout novel, it’s not a surprise that it encompasses so many themes, but under the writing mastery of Kostova, they manage to flow together, like watercolors on a canvas.

At the heart of this novel is troubled artist, Robert Oliver, who becomes obsessed with a minor French Impressionist painter, Beatrice de Clerval. Robert was taken by her beauty, but it was her art that intrigued him the most. When finally losing it at the National Gallery of Art, Robert is institutionalized at a psychiatric hospital and placed under the care of Dr. Andrew Marlow.

Marlow knows Robert is no ordinary patient, and despite Robert’s unwillingness to speak, Marlow begins piecing together Robert’s life through interviews with Robert’s ex-wife, Kate, and former lover, Mary. Marlow is adamant that if he could learn more about the woman in Robert’s paintings, it would aid his recovery. Marlow’s quest for knowledge takes him multiple places, from Mexico to France, with the reader in tow.

The book is told from multiple viewpoints but never from Robert’s, which is an interesting way of creating a character. We develop Robert’s character through the eyes of his wife, lover, psychiatrist and professional acquaintances. Even the mysterious Beatrice gets her own voice through letters and short narratives. I always wonder, when an author constructs a character this way, how accurate the portrayal could be. Wouldn’t it be nice to crawl inside Robert’s head – just once?

While I enjoyed this book, it does have a major drawback:  its length.  There were many long-building moments that could have been tightened for the reader. The book kept my interest, but it could have benefited from less pages and side stories.

Despite this flaw, I would recommend The Swan Thieves to people who love art history, especially French Impressionism. Kostova, despite her long-windedness, is an apt writer, and she fills her pages with landscapes, colors and backgrounds. It was a beautifully told story. (  )

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