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BOOK REVIEW: GIRL IN HYACINTH BLUE by Susan Vreeland

Monday, January 18, 2016


A lot of my reading time in the past month has been taken up with research for the new novel I am working on, but I always make time for reading for pleasure as well. 

This month my reading list includes some fascinating non-fiction, some tattered old favourites, and a few new books hot off the presses. Oh, and some poetry! I hope you find something here to inspire and entertain you.

THE BLURB:

A professor invites a colleague from the art department to his home to view a painting he has kept secret for decades in Susan Vreeland's powerful historical novel, Girl in Hyacinth Blue.

The professor swears it's a Vermeer -- but why exactly has he kept it hidden so long? The reasons unfold in a gripping sequence of stories that trace ownership of the work back to Amsterdam during World War II and still further to the moment of the painting's inception.

WHAT I THOUGHT OF THIS BOOK:

One of my all-time favourite books by one of my all-time favourite authors, GIRL IN HYACINTH BLUE tells the story of a painting in a series of interlinked vignettes moving backwards in time. 

The first is set in contemporary times, telling the story of a middle-aged man who has in his possession an extraordinary painting of a young girl which he believes is a lost Vermeer. He cannot prove it, however, for the painting has no provenance. And he cannot show it to any specialists, because the painting was, he believes, stolen by his father from a Jewish family in the Second World War.

The next vignette is told from the point of view of a young Jewish girl in Amsterdam, bewildered as her world is destroyed around her by the invasion of the Nazis. Backwards in time each story goes, connected only by the silent presence of the painting, until we reach the 17th century and the story of the girl who sat as the model for the painting. 

Each story is told with a marvellous economy of style, giving us just enough to understand what has happened before the scene shifts to the next point of view, yet the overall effect is almost unbearably moving. A wonderful book. 

I WOULD LOVE TO HEAR YOUR THOUGHTS ON THIS BOOK:


BOOK LIST: Best 25 Books Set in Italy

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Italy is one of my favourite places in the world, and I have a particular love of historical novels set there. My own novel BITTER GREENS is set half in Venice and in a tower on the shores of Lake Garda - t gave me a wonderful excuse for a trip there! 



Today I've gathered together a list of what I consider the BEST 25 BOOKS SET IN ITALY:
(in alphabetical order)

1. The Wedding Officer – Anthony Capella

I loved this books so much! Its set in Sicily during the Second World War, and is all about food and love. It'll make you want to cook, I warn you!


2. Four Seasons – Laurel Corona

A beautiful book about Vivaldi and the women musicians of the Pieta in Venice.

3. A Thousand Days in Venice - Marlena de Blasi

This is really a memoir and not a novel, but I really loved it and so wanted to include it. Another gorgeous book about love and food. 

4. The Principessa – Christie Dickason
Set in the Italian city-state of La Spada, the gateway to Europe, this is an absolutely wonderful book of romance, palace intrigue, murder and fireworks. 

5. The Birth of Venus – Sarah Dunant

I loved this book - its bold, passionate and brilliantly brings the world of Renaissance Italy to life.

6. In the Company of the Courtesan - Sarah Dunant

One of my all time favourite books!

7. Sacred Hearts - Sarah Dunant

This one is set in a convent in Ferrara, Italy, in the year 1570 - I sat up till after 2am to finish it. An absolute zinger! 


8. Leonardo’s Swans – Karen Essex
Set in Renaissance Italy, the book charts the lives, loves and marriages of two sisters. Isabella and Beatrice, and their relationship with Leonardo da Vinci. This is historical writing at its best, vivid, alive, crackling with sexual and political tension, and uncompromising in its reality. 

9. The Glassblower of Murano – Marina Fiorato

This novel tells the parallel stories of a glassblower in Venice, 1681, and his descendant centuries later, a young woman who dreams of being a glassblowing artiste herself. It’s a simple, romantic story, but well told and with lots of lovely Venetian details. 


10. The Madonna of the Almonds - Marina Fiorato
A story of love, art, war and the story behind the making of the Amaretto di Saronna liquer - loved it! 



11. The Botticelli Secret - Marina Fiorato
A grand romp of an adventure through Renaissance Italy and Botticelli’s most famous painting, ‘La Primavera’, this was a great read (though you may need to willingly suspend your disbelief about quite a number of things). I loved it, though. The heroine Luciana is a delight, and the illumination of some of the possibly meanings behind the figures in the painting quite fascinating.

12. Daughter of Siena - Marina Fiorato

This lush historical novel set in 18th century Siena is a fabulous read, with a perfect blend of action, mystery and love. 


13. The Venetian Contract - Marina Fiorato
Her latest book and just as good as all her others. 



E.M. Forster

14. A Room with a View- E.M. Forster
An old favourite of mine and one I like to re-read every few years. A beautiful, subtle love story set partly in Italy and partly in England, with a gentle satire on English manners and mores – a wonderful book.

15. Where Angels’ Fear to Tread – E.M. Forster
Not as well known as A Room with a View, but just as good - romance and misunderstandings among English ex-pats in a small Italian village


16. Juliet – Anne Fortier 
A brilliant read! I really recommend it. This book tells the story of the original Juliet of Shakespearean fame, in parallel with the modern-day quest of a young American woman to find an ancient family legacy. I love books which parallel two historical periods, particularly when it is done as well as this one. 

17. The Thief Lord - Cornelia Funke
An absolutely wonderful and magical children's book set in Venice. I love all of Cornelia Funke's books but this is my favourite.  A must read for all ages. 

17. The Confessions of Catherine de Medici – C.W. Gortner 
An absolutely fabulous historical novel told from the point of view of Catherine de Medici, one of the most maligned women in history. The parts dealing with her childhood are set in Italy; the rest in France. 

18. The Falconer’s Knot – Mary Hoffman
‘A tale of poison, bloodshed and passion’ ...  a fabulous book, and one I can highly recommend.

19. I, Mona Lisa – Jeanne Kalogridis 
This was the first book I have read by Jeanne Kalogridas and it won't be the last. I really enjoyed this book, which tells the story of the woman behind Leonardo da Vinci's most famous painting. So little was known about Lisa Gherardini, Kalogridas was able to position her right in the heart of the intrigues, murders, and religious fanaticism of Florence in the days of Savaronola. A really good, exciting, romantic book.

20. The Borgia Bride - Jeanne Kalogridis 
The tagline for this book reads ‘Incest. Poison. Betrayal. Three wedding presents for the Borgia Bride.’ This sums up the book really well. It’s a real historical page turner, set in Italy in the 1490s when the Borgia family ruled Rome. Riveting stuff. 

21. The Book of Unholy Mischief – Elle Newmark
An utterly fabulous read! Set in 15th century Venice, with a boy who seeks to protect an ancient book that holds the secret to unimaginable power. Lots of intrigue, drama, danger and cooking. 


22. Vivaldi’s Virgins – Barbara Quick
Another wonderful book about Vivaldi and the girl musicians of the Pieta in Venice - full of atmosphere and beauty.

23. Miss Garnet’s Angel – Salley Vickers
This novel tells the story of a prim and proper Englishwoman who goes to Venice and finds her life transformed by the power of art and love. It made me want to move to Venice!


24. The Passion of Artemisia – Susan Vreeland 

A novel inspired by the life of Artemisia Gentileschi, one of the few women to ever be admitted into the salons of Renaissance Florence. Read my Interview with Susan Vreeland for more.




INTERVIEW: With Susan Vreeland

Monday, June 25, 2012

Interview with Susan Vreeland

 

I first fell in love with Susan Vreeland’s work when I read Girl in Hyacinth Blue which was just the most extraordinary book. It told the story of a painting, going backwards from contemporary times to the day the painting was created. Each chapter is complete in itself, making it a collection of interlinked short stories, each detailing the impact the painting made upon an individual. Some of the stories are hauntingly sad, others filled with small pleasures and preoccupations. I absolutely loved the book, and so whenever a new Susan Vreeland book came out, I would buy it at once. This is a rare occurrence. Since Girl in Hyacinth Blue was published in 1999, Susan Vreeland has published only five new books. All of them have a preoccupation with art and artists, and all of them bring a place and a time vividly to life.

Just briefly, here are a round-up of her other books:

The Passion of Artemisia (2002) which tells the life story of Artemisia Gentileschi, a woman painter in the Renaissance. She was raped at 18 by her father's colleague and had to endure a trial in which she was tortured to see if she was telling the truth. She went on to paint some extraordinary paintings, and to become the only woman ever to be accepted into the Florence salon. Brilliant!

The Forest Lover (2004) is told from the point of view of the Canadian Impressionist painter Emily Carr. I had never heard of Emily Carr before I read this book. Afterwards I was googling her paintings and could not believe that this feisty, strong-willed, pig-headed and vulnerable woman was not more widely known. Her paintings are extraordinary - bold, unconventional and filled with light and mystery.

Life Studies (2005) is a collection of short stories revealing the inner and outer lives of well-known Impressionistic painters. Luminous and entrancing.

Luncheon of the Boating Party (2007) looks at Renoir's famous creation of the painting of the same name. The cover shows a replica of the painting – I was constantly turning the pages to stare at the cover and identify each character – and I marvel at her skill at turning this summer in Renoir's life into a compelling page-turner.

Finally, her new book Clara and Mr Tiffany (2012) which looks at the unknown woman designer of the famous Tiffany leadlight lightshades. It’s another piece of forgotten art history illuminated and brought to life. I loved it:

Here are Susan’s answers to my questions:

 Are you a daydreamer too?
I sometimes work myself into a quiet mental space whereby the next chapter of a novel will come to me, or the next thing a character says or does.

 Have you always wanted to be a writer?
No. The urge started in 1984 when I was forty.

 How did you get the first flash of inspiration for this book?
By seeing Clara's gorgeous lamps in an exhibit at the New York Historical Society in 2007, the exhibit that introduced her to the world.

 How extensively do you plan your novels?
I make a list of chapters or scenes, but this list constantly is altered as I proceed.

 Do you ever use dreams as a source of inspiration?
My own dreams? No, but I like to have my characters dream.

 Where do you write, and when?
I have a beautiful office with wood built-ins. From my desk, I can look through the glass French doors onto a patio. When? Morning, noon, and night, my dear.

 What is your favourite part of writing?
Rewriting.

 What do you do when you get blocked?
Change activities, while keeping the chapter that comes next floating in my thoughts.

How do you keep your well of inspiration full?
I remind myself to listen to the one divine Mind of the universe which is offering me ideas and directing me. I deeply feel gratitude to this source for what I've just written.

 Do you have any rituals that help you to write?
I try to do some reading of a spiritual nature in the morning before I start work.

 Who are ten of your favourite writers?
Virginia Woolf
Shakespeare
Robert Frost
Sena Jeter Naslund
Stephen Dunn, poet
Emily Dickinson
Emily Carr, Canadian painter
Harper Lee

What do you consider to be good writing? 
A delicate touch of imagery, a compelling story, a handful of themes that resonate currently even though the work may take place ages ago, an appealing voice, an occasional surprise.

 What is your advice for someone dreaming of being a writer too?
Read, read, read, keep a journal of favorite sentences or passages arranged by topic. Readers can email me for my list of topics.

 What are you working on now?
LISETTE'S LIST, a novel taking place in Provence, France, of two generations who own a small collection of paintings by Pissarro, Cézanne, Picasso, and Chagall, and what happens to their lives and the paintings during and after World War II.

A link to Susan Vreeland's website describing how she came to write Clara and Mr Tiffany:

 Susan Vreeland's website

You may also like:

My review of 'Clara and Mr Tiffany' 

My review of 'Vienna Waltz' by Teresa Grant

REVIEW: 'Clara and Mr Tiffany' by Susan Vreeland

Wednesday, June 20, 2012


Title: Clara and Mr Tiffany
Author: Susan Vreeland 
Genre: Historical Fiction
Pages: 432 
My stars: 4/5 stars 

The Blurb:
Against the unforgettable backdrop of New York near the turn of the twentieth century, from the Gilded Age world of formal balls and opera to the immigrant poverty of the Lower East Side, bestselling author Susan Vreeland again breathes life into a work of art in this extraordinary novel, which brings a woman once lost in the shadows into vivid color. 

It’s 1893, and at the Chicago World's Fair, Louis Comfort Tiffany makes his debut with a luminous exhibition of innovative stained-glass windows, which he hopes will honor his family business and earn him a place on the international artistic stage. But behind the scenes in his New York studio is the freethinking Clara Driscoll, head of his women's division. Publicly unrecognized by Tiffany, Clara conceives of and designs nearly all of the iconic leaded-glass lamps for which he is long remembered. 

Clara struggles with her desire for artistic recognition and the seemingly insurmountable challenges that she faces as a professional woman, which ultimately force her to protest against the company she has worked so hard to cultivate. She also yearns for love and companionship, and is devoted in different ways to five men, including Tiffany, who enforces to a strict policy: he does not hire married women, and any who do marry while under his employ must resign immediately. Eventually, like many women, Clara must decide what makes her happiest--the professional world of her hands or the personal world of her heart. 

My Feelings:
I love Susan Vreeland’s books. She is interested in art and poetry and history, all the things which I love too. Her books always feel like a journey of discovery for me, illuminating the forgotten life of some brilliant, creative, unknown woman. Her latest book is called Clara and Mr Tiffany, and it brings to life Clara Driscoll, the woman behind the beautiful and exotic stained glass lamps that the House of Tiffany produced just before the turn of the century. The Mr Tiffany in this case is the son of the famous Mr Tiffany of the well-known aquamarine box. He was an extraordinary character too, and the relationship between him and Clara is quite fascinating. He made it a rule that none of the women artists working for him were permitted to marry, so that Clara was constantly having to choose between her art and love.  I really loved this book, and look forward to Ms Vreeland’s next wonderful creation. 




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