The Collector’s Apprentice

by B. A. Shapiro
First sentence: “This isn’t how it was supposed to be, Edwin.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There are a couple of f-bombs, and a couple of tasteful sex scenes. It’s in the fiction section of the bookstore.

It’s 1922 and Pauliene Mertens is in Paris, abandoned by her ex-fiance (he took the money and ran, ruining her family’s fortune and name) and disowned by her family. So she changes her name to Vivienne Gregsby and reinvents herself, as a secretary to an American, Edwin Bradley, who is in Paris looking to collect art and start a museum. Knowledgeable about Impressionism and post-Impressionism, Bradley soon discovers that Vivienne is indispensable, and brings her to America to help him set up his (private) museum. From there, it’s a lot of drawing-room drama: alleged and actual affairs, money issues, ex-fiance popping up with another scheme, Matisse and Gertrude Stein, and the whole undercurrent of whether or not anyone will figure out who Vivienne really is.

It’s a little bit of a mystery — who killed Edwin? It’s a little bit 1920s art history. It’s a little bit romance (Vivienne takes up with Matisse, not to mention her relationship with George that starts the whole book off). It’s a little bit of a lot of things, which maybe is what kept me from loving it. I enjoyed the art history part the best; the way Shapiro writes Matisse is fabulous; he (and Gertrude Stein) was my favorite character. Vivienne was kind of a bland character to spend most of the book with, and it made the ending kind of surprising. (In fact, the only thing I wanted out of the book was George to get his comeuppance. Seriously.)

It’s (really) loosely based on history, and I found myself wondering what was true (answer: not much, really) and what wasn’t. And while I enjoyed it well enough, it wasn’t my favorite novel this year by a long shot.

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A Mad, Wicked Folly

by Sharon Biggs Waller
First sentence: “I never set out to pose nude.”
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Content: There’s one steamy kissing scene and some posing “undraped” (it’s not naked, it’s nude if it’s art). It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

it’s 1908, and all Vicky Darling wants is to be an artist. She has found a community in Paris that she sneaks away to, away from her finishing school, and draws to her heart’s content. The thing is: Art is not done in Vicky’s social circles. At least not by women. Sure, they can paint… but only acceptable things: flowers, furniture, etc. Not Art. And definitely not Nudes.

So, when Vicky poses nude for her (all-male) art class, it causes a scandal. And she’s sent home to London where her parents decide the best thing is to marry her off as quickly as possible (she’s 16!) to curb her desires to Make Art. Because, of course, being a wife and mother will be so fulfilling that Vicky won’t have time for Art.

Except, it doesn’t really work. it’s also the time of the suffragette movement, and Vicky is inspired to help out. Initially, it’s only to draw them to work on her application to the Royal Art College, but eventually, she finds herself emboldened and empowered by these women who are fearlessly trying to exercise their right to vote.

It doesn’t help, either, that she’s met a supportive (and cute!) police officer, who’s willing to be her muse.

Vicky ends up faced with a choice: please her parents and society and give up her passion or follow her passion and give up her place in society?

Two guesses as to which one she picks.

I actually really enjoyed this one. It’s good to be reminded of the initial fight for equal (such as they are) rights for (white, mostly) women, and the struggles and trials they went through. And while Waller was sympathetic to Vicky and the suffragettes, she never really painted the upper class world that Vicky ran in as completely morally bankrupt. Constricting, yes. And lacking in understanding. But her parents did care for her (even if her friends and their parents did not). I especially liked the end (well, most of it), when Vicky left. Waller never hid the amount of privilege she had. She didn’t sugarcoat what it cost Vicky — monetarily, but also personally — to leave, and how much she had to learn when living on her own.

It was a really well done bit of historical fiction. And thoroughly enjoyable.

My Name is Asher Lev

by Chaim Potok
First sentence: “My name is Asher Lev, the Asher Lev, about whom you have read in newspapers and magazines, about whom you talk so much at your dinner affairs and cocktail parties, the notorious and legendary Lev of the Brooklyn Crucifixion. ”
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Content: It’s long and often philosophical. It’s in the adult fiction section, but I think high schoolers who are interested in art should read this.

I’ve briefly talked about this book (in 2004 and in 2007), but I’ve not written a proper review. I probably haven’t picked up the story of Asher Lev in about 10 years, and doing the #ICTReads challenge gave me a chance to revisit this world of Brooklyn Hasidic Jews and the struggle between religion and art.

The basic story — if you haven’t heard — is that of  prodigy artist and orthodox Jew Asher Lev’s childhood and teenage years. His father was an ambassador for their sect leader, the Rebbe, and his mother ended up going to school to learn Russian to help with the work as well. They were both fully committed to their religion, to helping build up yeshivas (schools) around the world, and to helping Jews escape communist countries in the years after World War II. Asher’s passion, on the other hand, was to draw. He had a drive to do it, sometimes not even realizing that he was drawing. That’s not to say he wasn’t religious — he was. He went to school and to synagogue, he studied the Torah, he kept kosher. But, he wanted to create art. Which meant that his parents just didn’t understand him or his desires to do something so frivilous.

And it all comes to a head in his 20s, after he goes to Florence and Paris and has been abroad for many years. He comes back with paintings that use the form of the crucifixion —  he says in the book something along the lines of “what better way to depict anguish?” — and his parents, for whom Jesus is the symbol of suffering and hate, just cannot accept that.

It’s a very introspective book, musing about the meaning of art and the purpose of religion and whether there’s a place in religion for art that doesn’t conform to the rules of religion.  And while it’s often philosophical and sometimes has a tendency to be sluggish, I do think Potok does an excellent job walking the line between religion and art, and showing not only the conflict within Asher, but also between him and his parents (especially his father) and between his parents. And while I wish, now, that there were more female characters (there’s his mother, their housekeeper, and the art gallery director), it’s still an excellent book.

 

Module 9: Capture the Flag

Messner, K. (2012). Capture the Flag. New York, NY: Scholastic.

Genre: Middle grade private eye-style mystery.

Book Summary:  Anna is the daughter of a Vermont senator, José the son of an art historian, and Henry the nephew of a huge art collector. What brought them all together was a gala for the restoration of the flag that inspired the Star Spangled Banner (I’ve seen it at the National Museum of American History… it’s… an old flag). A flag which was stolen. And since the three plucky kids are holed up in a DC airport (National? Dulles?) snowed in (I suppose that’s plausible for DC, but improbably) and stuck there, they take it upon themselves to find the missing flag.

Impressions: This one, for me, suffered from too many coincidences. BOTH the people running for president were from Vermont? All the kids were headed back to Vermont? (WHY Vermont?!) And their moms/aunts were all part of this secret art protection society (which I could never figure out what that had to do with the plot). There was a “bad” guy that turned out to be a maguffin, but I called the real culprit fairly early on, so there wasn’t any real mystery to this mystery. I’m guessing kids would like it (who doesn’t like kids outsmarting adults?) and I did like that Anna was the character that pushed the plot forward, but overall,  it just fell flat for me. There are much better art mysteries, or middle grade mysteries, out there.

Review: The Kirkus staff really liked the book, calling it “gripping” and “a sparkling start for a promising new series”. They did admit that the ways in which the kids accessed the inner workings of an airport was “improbable” but noted that this probably wouldn’t bother the target audience.

Staff. (2012). Capture the flag. Kirkus Reviews. 80 (11). Retrieved from: https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/kate-messner/capture-flag/.

Library Uses: This one would be good on a library display of mystery books or books about U. S. artifacts or art.

Readalikes:

  • Framed by James Ponti – This is the most similar: set in Washinton, D.C. and involving an art theft. Except this one was a lot less predictable — even though there were clues throughout — and a lot more enjoyable — it was definitely action-packed! — to read.
  • The Greenglass House by Kate Milford — This one has a slight paranormal element, but mostly it’s just a mystery of figuring out who the different travelers are, and their connection to the Greenglass House and why each traveler suddenly appeared at the house on Christmas Eve.
  • Three Times Lucky by Sheila Turnage —  A delightful, quirky Southern mystery as Mo, the main character, tries to clear her best friend’s name when he discovers a dead body. It’s got fantastic characters, a lot of charm and drama, and a great mystery to solve (and the kids do solve it!) in addition.

Jane, Unlimited

by Kristin Cashore
First sentence: “The house on the cliff looks like a ship disappearing into fog.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Release date: September 19, 2017
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There are six (or so) f-bombs, some mention of sex (none actual). It will be in the Teen Section (grades 9+).

Jane’s guardian, her Aunt Magnolia, made her promise one thing before Magnolia left for Antarctica (and then subsequently died): don’t turn down an invitation to Tu Reviens, the home of the eccentric millionaire Octavian Thrash. Jane promises, and so when her former tutor, and Thrash child, Kiran invites Jane to a gala the mansion, Jane agrees to go, unsure of what she’ll find.

At this point, the book reads like your typical YA novel: a girl who’s trying to find herself, a dead “mom”, a mansion with secrets. But, at one point, Jane is asked to make a decision of which person to find and talk to: Mrs. Vanders (the housekeeper), the little girl (whom Jane has seen around the mansion), Kiran, Ravi (Kiran’s twin), or Jasper (the basset hound). And from there the novel diverges into incredibly unique territory. Jane is allowed, throughout the course of the novel, to make each of those decisions, and in doing so, lives five different versions of the day.

I’ll be frank: it took a bit to settle into this. But, as the different versions went on, I caught on to what (I think) Cashore was exploring. One version of “reality” bled into the next, and it got more and more fascinating as it went on. I liked the exploration of the idea of multiverses, I liked seeing how Jane reacted to each of the situations she found herself in. And I found myself getting caught up in each version. Of course, Cashore’s writing is impeccable, and while I caught the Jane Eyre and Winnie the Pooh references, I missed the biggest homage: to Rebecca. (Which means, I should reread this one!)

It really was a delight to read.

Brave

by Svetlana Chmakova
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s some bullying, but it’s really appropriate for 4th-6th graders. It’s in the Middle Grade graphic novel section.

I really don’t know what inspired me to pick this up; perhaps it was lack of time, and a graphic novel is easy to get through… I’ve not read Awkward, but that didn’t stop me from enjoying this one.

Jason is a 6th grader, and in his dreams he’s got big plans to be an astronaut at NASA and help figure out sunspots. In real life, however, he’s not so great. He’s bad at math, his friends (such as they are) are constantly poking fun at him, he’s often left out of groups, and he’s got two bullies on his tail. But, as the story progresses, things start to look up for Jason. Because he’s left out of the art club planning, he gets to help out at the newspaper. He makes a friend in Jorge, with whom he has nothing in common, but who is kind and interested in what Jason has to say. And, perhaps most importantly, he realizes he’s being bullied (not just by the kids on his tail, but also by his “friends”), and stands up for himself.

It’s that last thing that made this book so good for me. It’s easy for adults to say “stand up to bullies”, but honestly, not many kids realize they’re being bullied. (I sure didn’t, when I was in middle and high school. Neither did C when she was bullied in middle school) A lot of people brush it off as “jokes” or “criticism” but, honestly, it’s just plain bullying. I loved that Chmakova addressed that, that Jason had to REALIZE he was being bullied in order for him to take ownership of his own world. It makes me want to give it to all kids — because maybe those who are doing the bullying don’t realize they are hurting other people — just to get a conversation going.

I really enjoyed this one.

I Believe in a Thing Called Love

by Maurene Goo
First sentence: “When I was seven, I thought I moved a pencil with my mind.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher
Content: There’s a propensity to use the s-word. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8; I debated, but decided that it ultimately wen there) of the bookstore.

Desi does it all: she’s student body president, involved in practically every club, soccer star, valedictorian, and a model daughter for her dad (especially since her mom’s sudden death seven years before). The only thing she doesn’t have (and hasn’t ever had): a boyfriend.  And then Luca shows up at her school: reserved, artistic, with a shady past, and that… something… that makes him completley desirable to Desi. The problem? Desi is absolutely lousy at flirting. (Or as her two best friends, Fiona and Wes, call what she does: flailure.) So, Desi turns to one of her father’s passions to get help, and starts binge-watching K-Dramas. She comes up with a list of 28 tried-and-true (and also a bit cliche) steps to Get the Guy and starts her project.

The best part of this incredibly sweet book is that you don’t have to know K-Dramas (though I suppose it helps) in order to enjoy that this is parodying K-Dramas while also following the formula. (It’s  Jane the Virgin in book form!) Yes, there’s a definite arc to the book, but it feels, well a bit wink-wink-nudge-nudge about it all. It’s very self-aware, and that was something I really enjoyed about it. That, and the father-daughter relationship. Sure, there’s a dead mom, but Desi’s dad is the most well-adjusted adult in a YA novel I’ve read in a while. I liked that he was a mechanic with a passion for funny shows (Desi was named after Desi Arnez) and K-Dramas. I liked his relationship with Desi, and the love that I could sense between the two.

It’s cute, it’s sweet, it’s a little silly, and it’s thoroughly enjoyable.