Love and ruin – Paula McLain

“I was dying to write a character as glittering and sharp as Lady Brett from The Sun Also Rises, but since i couldn’t, I would settle for trying to be her.”

The love i feel for some of the characters across hundreds of books, could not have been articulated better. I asked for recommendation to read on twitter, and came across this rather interesting book. If you know enough about Ernest Hemingway – you would know that he was a great writer but a troubled man.

This book encompasses part of life between Martha Gellhorn and Hemingway. Is it the story of either of them – no, is it Gellhorn’s autobiography – again no. This is neither a dry epitome covering Gellhorn’s career as one of the most renowned war correspondent, nor is it totally about the love affair and her marriage to Hemingway. It is somewhat a mix. Book starts with a struggling Gellhorn, trying to find herself and her purpose in life, conflicted between rebelling and yet trying to please her father.

“It seemed imperative not only to be on the move, and feeling things, but also to be my own person, and to live my own life, and not anyone else’s.”

Her chance encounter with Hemingway and deepening of initially their friendship and then something more is mostly from Gellhorn’s perspective. We find occasional narratives with Hemingway’s voice, but it’s mostly Martha’s story and her interpretation of events around her.

Even though, the story revolves around the one great love of her life, the boldness, the independence and the need to be “her own person” shines bright in Martha’s character. Most of us are as lost as she felt, even in this post war world, but how many of us are brave enough to say it out aloud or acknowledge it, even to ourselves. Need to be in control is usually paramount in human beings and yet, Martha came out stronger for having admitted her lack of purpose. She found a purpose with her love for Ernest and seemed lost again when their initial ‘affair’ ended.

“Walking to my room, i felt loneliness and fear come wishing down from wherever they had been waiting. They draped themselves over me, snug and familiar. Filling my pockets and all the spaces inside and out until i though i might have to lean against the wall to stay upright. In moments, I’d been kicked out of love and was alone again. He was never yours, a voice in my head said. But what did that matter? I had lost him just the same.

This book is essentially about strengths of love and then the ruin, end of love brings about. It’s both the beauty and the beast. It shows various facets of human behaviour. Even though you love someone more than life itself, how losing your own individuality will make you chafe,irrespective. How envy and jealousy, maybe hidden, will show up unbidden, when as peers one person does better than the other. The last but not the least, irrespective of how the world might have advanced, the intrinsic thought that a woman should stay home and be the home maker has not died down yet.

I admire Gellhorn. She struggled her way through to be a first class writer – and her struggle was twice as difficult just by the virtue of her being a female wanting to be right in the middle of the war zone. She tried to stay home to be a wife, but her need to be an individual, won. She gave up some things because her need to make a difference was greater and then some things got taken away from her, because she didn’t fit the society mould of what a woman should be like.

“Listen, i wanted to say, when you fell in love with me you must also have been in love with my wings. Love them now. Love me. Love me, and let me go.”

The Muralist – B.A.Shapiro

B.A.Shapiro weaves her magic again with this heart rendering tale of a painter and a muralist. The combination of holocaust, paintings, past and love alternates between the past and the present, in an engaging tale of a young woman who disappears at the age of 22, never to be heard from again, leaving behind bereft friends, bereaving lover and a family she thought did not survive.

Danielle or Dani, the present and Alizee, the past are both searching for an something which seems so elusive and yet so close. Alizee, a struggling painter, works on Murals as part of Roosevelt Franklin’s program to encourage artists, while looking for a way to extract her family from the ever growing turmoil in Europe during 1939. She is young and impetuous and willing to try any forum, which could help her get visas for her dear ones. Since Alizee lost her parents at a young age, she is all the more determined to hold on to the ones that have been part of her life – her brother, and uncles family.

Dani, in the present is equal part fascinated and intrigued by the two paintings, inherited from her family, which were supposedly painted by a talented painter – her grant aunt Alizee, who disappeared during the war years. Dani comes across some painted blocks, which as per her, might have been painted by her aunt, however, her employer Christie’s would rather prefer belong to Rothko – both for fame and money that connection would hence beget.

After some probing and investigation, Dani starts to uncover some details of Alizee’s unconventional life. Alizee’s story which goes in parallel with Dani’s efforts, is in the stage of chaos – where at one hand she is fighting for a chance to prove as an artist – though her painting style is more contemporary vs traditional, more expressive than formative, and on the other getting involved and impacted by the politics of America taking a stand to remain neutral regarding the ever growing unrest in Europe at the heels of Hitler.

Reader comes across many facets of Alizee’s personality – her loyalty to her friends, her ambition to be a great painter, her determination to get visas for her family and her growing unrest leading to a breakdown, which is hidden, mostly, from everyone around her. People she interacts with see a part of her, but no one sees or knows all about Alizee.

Plot comes to head when Dani visits France and on a trip to Drancy comes across some paintings by a baker named Josephine. These paintings and their similarities to Alizee draws Dani to meet Josepine’s husband. Dani is shown determined to unveil the talent that had remained latent over many decades and yet had been crucial as a bridge to the American Modern Art.

Its interesting, at times mesmerising. Not technical in terms of paintings or techniques as  such, but very thought provoking where some of the human emotions are concerned – how we tend to compartmentalise ourselves, unintentionally. The America’s stand to remain neutral during World War did lead to people being turned back, even though they had managed to escape – the hope that was crushed, the lives that were lost and the help that was denied. Historical facts being mostly correct – though the timing of some of them have been changed to make the story plausible, adds to the pleasure of reading.

The Art Forger – B.A.Shapiro

“A painting is above all a product of the artist’s imagination; it must never be a copy” Edgar Degas

The quote sounds most appropriate for opening the review, as the book is. Paintings, Edgar Degas, forgery, Gardner Heist and romance – what can be better than this book, to spend a Sunday with! This is one of my favourite books and i enjoyed reading it yet again today.

Claire Roth – the great pretender, is an astonishingly brilliant artist with a penchant for finding trouble. First, its Issac, her teacher, mentor and married boyfriend, who when facing an artist blocks, allows a painting in 4D dimension painted by Claire to be put forward in a  competition signed under his name. When the painting becomes an instant hit, he breaks up with Claire since he finds himself in need to put a distance from the true artist behind his fame. Claire, in a fit of peeve, follows her heart and tries to tell the truth, causing museums, art society and newspapers to question the provenance of the painting and Issac to commit suicide. “And in contradiction to conventional wisdom, i was fast discovering that there was, indeed, such a things as bad publicity”

Picking up pieces and shunned by the art society in Boston, Claire is approached by Aidan Markel, who wants her to forge a Degas. This part of the book where Claire loses herself in Degas’s painting is a joy to read. “His use of dark and light values to create texture, depth, and shadow. How he seizes an unselfconscious moment of everyday life, like the mother and wet nurse in Races pressed together as they proudly gaze at the infant, then sends it galloping away.” While painting the forgery, Claire also establishes that the painting which Aidan considers to be an original stolen during the famous Gardner heist, is actually not an original Degas after all.

Post forgery detection, which puts Aidan in jail, forces Claire to find the original (not all thirteen paintings stolen during heist) and links her name to yet another notoriety. At conclusion, the reader finally finds the gratification of seeing Claire recognised for her talent associated with her own original paintings and not yet another copy. “But, just desserts, it’s impossible to know if this newfound fortune is due to my talent or to my infamy in a world of instant celebrity. Whether i’m a great artist or just a great forger.”

The book runs in three main parallel themes – Claire’s past, her present and Isabella Gardener’s letters to her niece detailing her affair with Degas and acquisition of the painting in question – “After the bath.” Its hard not to feel bad for Claire who seems to draw a short end of the stick at every turn. She lost one man to death, who couldn’t stand the thought of her being a better painter than him and another one to FBI.

The techniques detailed in the book of original painters and the forgers is quite interesting – reading about creating a copy of more than 100 year old paintings within a span of few days was absolutely fascinating. Author has kept the book details interesting and light, thus allowing the reader to drive pleasure from the same, without getting bored or overwhelmed with it all. Authors ingenuity in taking a painting out of the world famous heist and weaving a spellbinding story around it is commendable.

The Muralist, also by B.A.Shapiro is next on my reading list. Looking forward to it!

The Eight – Katherine Neville

570 pages of pure ambrosia for those who enjoy a good Historical Fiction. Combination of History and chess has been turned into  a scintillating thriller, full of historical characters, transporting readers across the world from America to Europe to Africa, all on a quest regarding Montglane Chess Service, which lies at the very centre of this ingenious plot. In my personal opinion, i would consider this a contemporary version of Alice in Wonderland, with the plot set within the real history of the world.

From within, the forms radiate their magic rules

Homeric castle, nimble knight,

Armoured queen, backward king,

Oblique bishop, and aggressive pawns

Story begins in 1790 at Montglane Abbey in France with two novices – Mireille and Valentine, who are tasked with a special mission by the Abbess and sent forth to Paris. “The Montglane Service” the legendary chess set gifted to Charlemagne by Ibn Al Arabi, governor of Barcelona, in reality came from the Moors and is covered in mystic and black magic. Abbess exhumes the pieces of this chess set, along with the board and the cloth covering the same and attempts to scatter all of them far and wide. This chess set had been buried beneath the Abbey for thousand years with a curse.

Cursed is He who bring these walls to Earth

The King is checked by the Hand of God alone.

While Mirelle and Valentine are swarmed by the French Revolution and trying to collect and keep safe the pieces, the story moves into the present i,e, 1972. Catherine Vellis, a computer expert, hired by a CPA firm is being shipped off to Algeria after a confrontation and minor rebellion against one of the corrupt partners at the firm.

As the author says, “in the game of life the pawns are teh should of chess. and even a lowly pawn can change its dress.”, the reader goes through the journey with Cat – who transforms from a pawn to the Black Queen with fortune teller, chess players, computer genius, murders and mayhem and secret police along the way.

The stories of Mirelle and Cat go hand in hand, both astounded to find themselves in the middle of this dangerous game, first in denial and then seeking to take control, change the course of things.

Its a fast paced story, keeping the reader glued to the pages for more. Dry humour keeps the book from becoming a history tome ” This nation of shoemakers has reversed the very order of nature.” The mathematical and scientific details have been simplified, making them easy to understand and of course, living through the course of history – the French terror, Napoleons rise and defeat and coming across famous poets and mathematicians and musicians keeps things intriguing.

The consolidation of all stories together, towards an epic ending is predictable. What else, but the very “elixir” lies at the heart of this mythical chess service. Question is who will be able to resist the temptation enough to actually destroy the whole set?

“you mean a real chess game? with people as the pieces?”

Sandstorm – James Rollins

Ever since i discovered the “historical genre”, i have been trolling the bookshops for any author who might fit the category. I discovered James Rollins at the airport and within a few months, i had read all the books in the “Sigma” series. They are entertaining, lots of fighting and always a historical mystery to save the world. Reading James Rollins books without wikipedia can often be frustrating (at least for me) since the more involved you get into the history, the more you want to find out and read about it.

Sandstorm is the first book in the Sigma series – and at the onset itself, the team is betrayed by the boss. Post a mysterious bomb blast at British Museum, Painter is assigned to discover the cause and contain any discoveries / materials that could lead to the destruction of the world. At the museum, while escaping the villainous group, who is always one step ahead, he saves the life of Safia (historian) and hence on they embark on the earth saving journey. First half of the book deals with the travel arrangements, lay out of complicated relationships and past and identification of the antagonist.

The story revolves around the discovery of keys to the lost city of Ubar (which i googled and read about, obviously) and why the city was sealed by Queen Sheeba long time ago. The story is set in the desert sands of Oman and the historical places referred to in the book do exist in the modern times. We also encounter a group of Parthenogenesis females – who are genetically capable of giving birth without any contribution from the male species and are the descendants or part of Queen Sheeba herself. The book comes to head with the confrontation of the good and the bad guys. It ends with the death of the treacherous Sigma head.

The main plot is predictable, however what makes it super interesting are the historical details and much trivia thrown in. The authors effort shines through the book and apart from weaving the history into the story line, most of the discovered facts remain as close to the truth as possible. The lineage of various words, beliefs and events are described as are common and yet different from tribes, regions, religions etc.

If you are a historical fiction fan and have the patience to go through a regular thriller for the joy of reading about unusual history (since the author has already done all the hard work for you) this series will definitely resonate with you.