Archive for January, 2013


Written by Susan Vreeland,  Luncheon of the Boating Party is imagined in the same style as Girl with a Pearl Earring.  It describes the story behind the painting of a real work of art – this time a painting done by Renoir.  The book tells the tale primarily from Renoir’s point of view, but alternates some chapters with each of the models in this painting.  The models – Alphonsine and Alphonse – brother and sister who work at the family restaurant where the luncheon is set; Gustave – Renoir’s rich friend who supports the arts; Raoul – Renoir’s friend who hurt his leg in the Franco-Prussian war; Angele – a lady who used to be a ‘working girl’ now selling flowers and her Italian journalist friend Antonio; Ellen – Renoir’s friend and previous model who is a mime in the Folies Bergeres; Paul & Pierre – Renoir’s other close friends; and finally, Aline – a seamstress who will become Renoir’s wife in real life.

The book tells of Renoir’s struggles to paint when he had no money and how lucky he was to know some generous vendors of paint who let him buy on credit.  He was also lucky to have a few very generous friends and benefactors.  The timing of the story is in the late 1800’s – after the Franco-Prussian war and after the Commune, but  before WWI.  Impressionism was still being doubted and there were arguments within the ranks of Impressionists (Monet, Manet, Degas, Pissarro, Sisley) about what should be included in a showing of strictly impressionist artists.

The painting Luncheon of the Boating Party was a huge undertaking because Renoir had to paint from real life, and so the models all trooped out to the French countryside every Sunday for a couple of months to have a nice meal and to pose for Renoir.  The joys of the French countryside on the river are described in detail, including swimming trips and boat races. The one problem with reading this book is that it is best done via an actual book – a paperback or hardback.  I read it on my e-reader and kept having to look up the painting on my phone to see whichever piece of the painting the writer was focused on.  It is obviously a beautiful painting and a good story to go along with it.


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LifeClass  TobysRoom

For the first time in a long time (maybe the first time ever!), I read a book out of order! I saw a review of Toby’s Room and immediately picked it up, not realizing that there was a prequel to it already published – Life Class.  While I regret having read them out of order, the books were still engrossing and powerful stories.

Life Class introduces us to Elinor Brooke, a young woman in London at art school (the Slade) and her fellow students Kit Neville and Paul Tarrant.  Elinor is a very talented artist and one of very few women at the Slade (and she is attractive!), and so she is generally sought after by the men, including both Kit and Paul.  Elinor and Paul ultimately become pen pals when Paul enlists in the Red Cross at the beginning of WWI because he was not accepted as a soldier due to respiratory issues.  Paul is stationed as a hospital attendant outside Ypres and the book primarily proceeds via letters between Elinor and Paul.  The descriptions of Paul’s life at the front are the most striking part of this book.

Toby’s Room continues with the story of Elinor, Paul and Kit, but also introduces the character of Elinor’s older brother Toby, who is studying to be a doctor when he enlists in the army.  Kit plays more of a central part in this story, as he has returned from his Red Cross duty with a significant facial wound.  Toby’s Room centers on the true story of Professor Henry Tonks, who actually drew many of the facial wounds at Sidcup, the Queen’s Hospital, where soldiers with facial wounds went for surgeries (you can see the real drawings online today).  Also in this story, Elinor and her family find out that Toby is listed as missing / believed killed in action.  Elinor knows that Kit must have been with Toby when he died and presses Kit for the true story of what happened to Toby.  Elinor and Toby had a very close relationship that throws a bit of a twist into the plot of this story.

While the plots of both books are pretty depressing (WWI and severe facial injuries!), the stories are very well told and leave a big impression on the reader.

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A Soldier of the Great War is by far one of the best books that I have read in a long time.  It is a book primarily set in Italy during WWI, following Alessandro Giuliani.  Alessandro is the son of a prosperous lawyer in Rome, and has the luxury of climbing the Alps with his father when he was young, riding his horse throughout the Italian countryside, and studying aesthetics in school.  He is about to receive a professorship in aesthetics when WWI breaks out and he enlists in the Navy in order to avoid the most brutal fighting.  Little does he know that a former scribe who worked for his father and is now working at the Ministry of War is pulling the strings of Alessandro’s fate, landing him in the dangerous River Guard, protecting a lighthouse at the Austrian line.

From the River Guard, Alessandro’s adventures continue through secret missions to catch deserters forming the early Italian mafia in Sicily, imprisonment at an Italian prison for deserters, hard labor work at a quarry making tombstones for dead soldiers, the front lines at the base of the mountains, and a post at the highest point of the Alps with the alpini.

In 1960, Alessandro is able to tell his story to Niccolo, a young illiterate factory worker, as they walk to a town in the Italian countryside.  Niccolo had not even heard of the war before WWII.  Alessandro is old and still in good shape, and tells the young boy in memories about his experiences.  In this way, we know that Alessandro will make it through all of the dangerous posts and it gives the reader a bit of a sense of comfort to at least know that Alessandro lives through it all.  He meets many interesting characters along the way that do not make it, but that is to be expected in a novel about WWI.

A Soldier of the Great War is a monster of a book (approximately 600 pages), but I flew threw it.  Alessandro’s wit and the conversations he has with his friends or strangers he meets along the way make the book an engrossing story.  Add to all of the fighting and loss the fact that there is a love story (and that we know that something turned out OK because old Alessandro is going to visit his granddaughter when he meets Niccolo), and this book has it all.


Earlier in 2012 I also read In Sunlight and in Shadow, by Mark Helprin.  I LOVED (*****) this book, but found it incredibly hard to write a review about it.  I did not know how to write about it without giving too much away, so I kept postponing my post.  In Sunlight and in Shadow is about Harry Copeland, a paratrooper who fought in WWI and came home to NYC to his father having died and left their leather bag making family business to him.  Harry meets an actress – Catherine Thomas Hale – who just happens to be one of the wealthiest heiresses in America, and they fall in love.  The side story to all of this is what I cannot explain because I do not want to give it away.  In this book as in A Soldier of the Great War, the dialogue is the true star and it makes the reader feel a bit dumb that we do not and cannot speak that way today.  The clever discussions and witty remarks are once again the greatest forces behind Mark Helprin’s writing.

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The Lost Garden follows a young woman horticulturist named Gwen in Britain in 1941.  She leaves London as it is being bombed and signs on as a volunteer for the Land Army – people who are in charge of developing gardens for use (i.e., planting potatoes and vegetables).  She is sent to Devon and lives on an abandoned estate with about 6 other girls/ women who have also volunteered but are not as enthusiastic about gardening as Gwen.  Gwen is not good with names, and so the funniest parts of the book are when she assigns (in her head) to the girls the names of various potatoes.  Most of the girls are more interested in the Canadian soldiers who are living in the main house of the estate, about a mile away. 

Gwen is a depressing figure and does not lead a happy life.  The events in the book are all extremely depressing – I know it is a WWII-era book and should not be happy, but it is so depressing it is not an enjoyable book.  I found myself wanting to give Gwen a kick in the pants.  Her relationships with Jane, one of the girls in the house, and with Captain Raley, a Canadian captain, provide some enjoyment to both Gwen and the reader.  The Lost Garden was a bit of a letdown for me, unfortunately!

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The Weird Sisters

The Weird Sisters is the story of three sisters who have grown up and moved on or out but come together again when their mother is told she has cancer.  The three women are daughters of a college professor who lectures on Shakespeare.  Their names, therefore, all come from Shakespearean works – Rosalind, Bianca and Cordelia.  Rosalind (Rose) is the steady, dependable one.  Bianca is the middle child who moved to NYC as soon as she could get out of their small East coast town.  Cordelia is the ‘hippie’ who was travelling the country finding her place.  The relationship between the three girls is not very good – but they try to come together for their mother’s sake.  Each one is dealing with something that they do not want to tell the others primarily because they don’t want each other to know they are not leading perfect happy lives.

Unfortunately, I really didn’t like any of the characters and wanted to strangle each of them a few times.  If I were forced to choose a favorite sister it would be Cordelia because her only issue is that she is a bit ditzy since everyone always spoiled the youngest child.  The best part of the book was when any one of the family members would quote Shakespeare at will – they all became Shakespeare connoisseurs after living in that house.  Although it’s a quick read, it wasn’t generally enjoyable, which is why I give The Weird Sisters a ** star rating – Blah!.

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Jake Epping is a high school English teacher living in Florida when the owner of a diner he frequents shares a secret with him that will change his life – there is a portal in the diner’s storeroom that takes the person who goes through the portal back to 1958.  Together with the diner owner, who is dying of cancer and can no longer make the trips back to the past, Jake agrees to go to the past and stay there – to attempt to save the life of JFK. 

In order to carry out his “mission,” Jake must live through 5 years in the past.  He has a list of bets that he can make to ensure that he will be able to survive financially, but he also decides to take a job to keep him busy – as a substitute English teacher in a rural Texas high school just outside of Dallas, where the assissination will take place.  Jake also has a notebook of notes that the diner owner made for him on his previous trips back to the past, relating to where Lee Harvey Oswald will be at various times and dates.

The main opposition to Jake’s “mission” is that the past is obdurate and does not like to be changed.  Therefore, any time Jake tries to do something that will change the future (i.e., save someone’s life), the past will find ways to try to derail that path.  The more significant the event, the harder the past will make it. 

11/22/63 is a great book, with a great storyline behind it.  My favorite parts of the book were when Jake was teaching in Texas and became a part of the community and even had a girlfriend, Sadie.  I did feel like the book dragged on a bit, and wondered why it had to go back all the way to 1958 when 1960 would just as easily have sufficed.  The book is huge and a bit daunting, but in the end it is very good.

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This is a cute little book that was a sweet surprise!  I must have downloaded quite a few books a while ago, and I have been really busy so I haven’t read many of them.  Now that I have had time, I have been perusing my inventory, and I picked When Autumn Leaves not remembering a single thing about it!  The book is a mix between Discovery of Witches with some mystical witchcraft and spells, and any of my favorite Sarah Allison Allen books with a bit of whimsy.  So, a book that is a cross between two of my five-star rated books has to turn into another five-star rating!

Autumn Avening is the founder of the town of Avening, a small town on the Pacific coast in Canada.  What no one knows is that she is the founder – from about 400 years prior!  Autumn receives news that she is moving to another coven, and must choose someone to take her place.  She then realizes that there are many women who possess magical qualities (she knew of many of them already) who would be suited to take her spot.  The book then focuses on the various women who could potentially fill that spot – highlighting how they developed or realized their magical ability.  Some of the abilities include making oneself invisible; having premonitions; making shoes that always fit; and using nature to divine spells, among other.

The portrayal of Avening is wonderfully done and made me want to pick up and move there.  I believe (hope) that When Autumn Leaves will become a series since there were quite a few doors left open at the end!

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