Archive for the Category ◊ Book Reviews ◊

• Tuesday, February 19th, 2019

Ali Land wanted to become a mental health nurse from an early age because, as a thirteen-year-old, she was intrigued by unusual children. She fulfilled her dream by obtaining a university degree in children’s mental health and worked for ten years as a qualified child and adolescent mental health nurse in hospitals and schools in the UK and Australia.

One of Ali Land’s duties was to look after a fifteen-year-old girl, who did not want to continue living, being afraid of turning into a bad person like her mother, who severely injured young children. This experience influenced Ali Land with her novel’s fifteen-year-old main character, Milly, in Good Me Bad Me.

Ali Land said she needed to write this book to release the heavy psychological burden weighing on her. She said in one of her interviews: “I had nowhere else to go. My mind was full to bursting of the things that worried me, of the young people I’d looked after, and this burning desire to provoke discussion around how to care for children who had been damaged by their pasts”.

“My biggest fear when writing Good Me Bad Me was that readers wouldn’t feel compassion for my main character, Milly, that they would write her off as a child that couldn’t be helped. Of course, that risk remains very real, but by making a conscious decision to place her in a foster family that was, in its own way, toxic, I hope that I’ve managed to buffer the thought that there’s no hope for Milly and instead prompt readers to ask questions such as: But what if she’d been placed in a more appropriate setting? Where should children like Milly go? How can we look after them?”

It took Ali Land thirty years to dedicate herself fully to writing. Nevertheless, she worked part-time as a personal assistant nanny during the time she was writing her book. She now lives in west London.

Good Me Bad Me was published in 2017 and has been translated into several languages. It is her first novel to receive high praise as well as being Heat’s Best Book Of The Year, The Telegraph’s Crime Book Of The Year and The Sunday Times Best Seller.

The narrator of the story is the fifteen-year-old protagonist, Annie Thompson, who is given a new identity and becomes Milly after her psychopath mother is jailed. Annie, wanting to stop her mother’s serial killing, denounces her to the police for torturing and murdering nine little boys.

Meanwhile Milly is sheltered by her psychologist, Mike Newmont, awaiting being a witness in her mother’s upcoming trial. Mike Newmont was treating Milly as well as writing a book about her. She lived in his dysfunctional house with his destabilised, drug addict wife, Saskia, and his bullying, jealous, troubled daughter, Phoebe.

Milly’s mother is single, working as a nurse in a home. Outwardly she appears kind and caring so that the mothers in her care trust their children to her to have them adopted in the USA. But instead of sending the little boys for adoption, Annie’s mother tortured and murdered them while making her daughter watch through the keyhole.

The author keeps the emotional strain until the end with an unexpected twist revealing that Milly is no angel either and when given a choice, chooses the violent solution, her mind having been damaged and corrupted by her mother since her childhood. Milly nevertheless convinces all those around her that she is a victim while being very secretive about her dark plans. Presumably, she has been more affected by her mother’s evil deeds than those around her envisaged.

Good Me Bad Me is a compelling, as well as a thought-provoking novel. It is slow going, disturbing, heavy and dark. It is a psychological character-based story of a teenage girl, unable to escape from her past. She is in constant conflict between good and evil and her persistent worries about the unknown area of the unexplored and unapparent effect of genetics on her.

The reader cannot help feeling the girl’s suffering and her unbearably tormented soul. Her wanting to break free from her overpowering serial killer mother, while at the same time still loving and yearning for her company to the extent of having a constant imaginary conversation with her.

Notwithstanding all the horrible things her mother committed, as well as what she did to her and put her through from an early age, including sexually assaulting her and the psychological, distressing damage she caused her by twisting and perverting her, Milly cannot help feeling guilty for betraying her mother who seems to continue holding a firm emotional, influential grasp on her.

Good Me Bad Me is well written with skillfully developed characters. It is compelling as well as a thought-provoking novel exploring the concealed twisted and complicated side of the human psyche. It is slow going, disturbing, heavy and dark with extremely gruesome parts. It is a psychological character-based story of a teenage girl who is not able to escape from her past. She is in constant conflict between good and evil and her persistent worries about the unknown field of the unexplored and unapparent effect of genetics on her.

• Friday, January 25th, 2019

Susan Vreeland was born in Racine, Wisconsin in 1946 and grew up in North Hollywood before her family moved to San Diego, California where she died in 2017, aged seventy-one, after complications following heart surgery.

Susan Vreeland’s father worked as a production manager in the aircraft industry and her mother, who comes from an artistic family and had a long-standing interest in art, studied at the Art Institute of Chicago. Vreeland’s mother and grandmother were china painters.

After obtaining a B.A. degree in English from San Diego State University in 1969, Vreeland taught high school English for a while in San Diego. While still working in 1980, she wrote features for newspapers and magazines on subjects related to education, art, travel and cultural topics and in 1988 wrote some fiction. After a thirty-year teaching career, she retired in 2000, dedicating herself full-time to writing.

She said in one of her interviews that: “Coming out of the Louvre for the first time in 1971, dizzy with new love, I stood on Pont Neuf (in Paris) and made a pledge to myself that the art of this newly discovered world in the Old World would be my life companion (…) I couldn’t imagine then, I have been true to this pledge”.

Susan Vreeland is known for combining literature with visual art and fiction in most of her novels. She says: “Entering the mind and heart of painters has taught me to see, and to be more appreciative of the beauties of the visible world. That I can agree with Renoir when he said: “I believe that I am nearer to God by being humble before his splendour”.

Vreeland says it takes her about three years to write a novel. She goes on by saying: “Archival and published history don’t always record personal relationships so characters must be invented to allow the subject to reveal intimate thoughts and feelings through interaction. Scenes must also be invented to develop plot and themes (…) otherwise it would be dry facts, dates, numbers, place names, with people and feelings completely left out, but I take care not to change known history or the character of a historical figure”.

“Luncheon Of The Boating Party”, published in 2007, is the title given to the famous painting of the renowned French artist, Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919). Susan Vreeland kept the same title for her novel since the story is about Renoir and how he achieved his masterpiece. In her book, the author depicts him like the sun surrounded by his satellites.

In the late summer of 1880, the thirty-nine-year-old Renoir invites a group of friends and acquaintances from different backgrounds to model for him. The invitees include the artist, Gustave Caillebotte, actress Angèle Legault, Italian journalist Adrien Maggiollo, the seamstress and Renoir’s future wife Aline Charigot, the restaurant owner’s son and daughter, Alphonse and Alphonsine Fournaise, the Folies Bergère performer Ellen Andrée, the Comédie Française actress Jeanne Samary, art historian Charles Ephrussi and five more.

Thirteen of them come to model for him. However, since the number thirteen was not acceptable around a dinner table (because of Jesus’ last supper with his thirteen disciples and the betrayal leading to the crucifixion), an unknown person was added to make the fourteenth sitter. They are all immortalised in his “Luncheon Of The Boating Party”, which will become one of Renoir’s best-known and most favourite paintings and one which will prove, at the time, to be more problematic to paint than he expected.

In stunning authentic details, the painting represents the new Parisian epoch following the traumatic and painful Franco-Prussian war of 1870-1871. It illustrates “la vie moderne” combined with “la joie de vivre” French style of the time. The scene takes place on the balcony of the Maison Fournaise, a restaurant with a small hotel and boat rental on the north-west side of the river Seine at Chatou, a suburb of Paris, and one of Renoir’s favourite settings for his paintings. The tableau not only depicts fourteen people having a good time over an agreeable summer Sunday lunch but also includes still-life and landscape.

In her novel the author portrays the people in Renoir’s painting in vivid, colourful impressionistic strokes by subtly disclosing their lives a little at a time, following them into cafés, cabarets, artists’ studios, people’s salons, regattas and by even delving into their past. From the way Vreeland animates all the characters in the painting, she demonstrates her genuine admiration for this piece of Renoir’s work of outstanding artistry.

With his impressionist style of art in “Luncheon Of The Boating Party”, Renoir was defying Emile Zola, the French writer and art critic for the daily newspaper L’Événement. In his article, Zola criticised the impressionists as being unable to produce a work of outstanding artistry conforming with their allegations.

Impressionist art was launched by a group of artists living in Paris. To become known to the public, these artists had the honour of exhibiting their work at the prestigious and most celebrated annual or biennial art event in the Western world, the “Salon de Paris”, during the eighteen-seventies and eighteen-eighties.

Renoir’s challenge for painting one of his biggest canvases was a risky task. He was limited by the summer light he wanted to catch before it faded into autumn, just a couple of months away, as well as by his general lack of money for modelling expenses, the cost of oil paints and for paying Monsieur Fournaise’s rent for the restaurant’s upper terrace. There was also the additional cost of the eight delightful Sunday lunches and drinks that Renoir was offering his sitters. Nevertheless, people who believed in his art advanced him credit.

Renoir was also challenged a great deal by his temperamental model, Circe, who refused to have him painting her profile and walked out, replaced by Aline Charigot. Other models could not make it every Sunday, one having a duel to settle while another was busy with her acting career. Renoir also had a feud with some of the other impressionists led by the passionate, well-known French painter and sculptor, Edgar Degas.

In one of her interviews, Vreeland explains why she chose Renoir’s “Luncheon Of The Boating Party” as a subject for her novel. She says: “Some part of me came alive in front of this painting the first time I saw it (…) I saw a lovely, enticing range of cultural attitudes to discover. I sensed that a study of this painting would lead me to an exploration that was bound to enrich my life (…) It was, in fact, the French “art de vivre (…) Such a gift from Renoir to the ages! One must clasp hands before it in awe. My novel is my way of living in the painting, learning its lessons of the art of living.”

The author immersed herself in the subject of her book. She read fiction and non-fiction about Renoir, the impressionist era and about the nineteenth century France. She did extensive research including visiting Paris twice, walking where her characters walked. She also learned French during the three years she was writing her novel to be able to read the original French texts concerning the subject of her book. She even had two lunches at the Maison Fournaise, which is still a restaurant and has also become a museum.

“Luncheon Of The Boating Party” is a charming book for art lovers in general and lovers of the painter, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and his painting of the same name, as well as for all interested in the history of Parisian lifestyle in the nineteenth century.