Great art "is capable of grabbing a person," explains one of the characters in Lisette's List, the equally enthralling new historical novel by bestselling author Susan Vreeland. Fans of Ms. Vreeland and her well regarded art-inspired fiction will not be disappointed with this story of a young woman's defining journey into the ordinary life of a rural French village and the power of art that beckons her amidst a world war. Recently, Susan Vreeland answered questions for Between the Covers about her latest effort.
Between the Covers: In Lisette’s List, you introduce readers to one of the most beautiful villages in France and to the organic nature of art in this sweeping story of self-discovery set around World War II. Unlike your previous art-related novels, this story explores more than one work of art. Can you tell us how you came up with the idea and the setting for this latest book?
Susan Vreeland: It began with a feeling that in terms of my development as a writer, I must not write another novel centered on one artist, bringing to literary life part of a biography, and expanding into the artist's friendships and associations. That approach has given me much joy for a decade, but recently I began to feel that it was too constraining. The new book came of a need to outgrow that mode and completely invent for myself, and to devote my imagination to creating characters who I wanted to embrace.
Enter a Provence-loving friend who insisted that I see the village of Roussillon in Provence on an upcoming trip across the south of France with my husband. I fell in love, recognizing this perch of harmonious houses high above ochre cliffs as a treasure of ultimate provincialism. I vowed to come again. And I did, with a novel swimming in my head.
BTC: Lisette tells her own story. What made you decide on a first-person narrator?
SV: First person was a natural choice. I wanted Lisette's realizations and discoveries to be revealed in her own voice. I thought that would lend an air of authenticity to the story if she would be the one to deliver it. Also, this point of view lent itself to her writing of her “List of Hungers and Vows.”
BTC: As a writer of historical fiction, how do you reconcile the facts of the time period with your characters’ development?
SV: One has to be careful with this. A writer of historical fiction cannot stray too far away from recorded fact. Integrating a fictional character is not hard when that character encounters events of history, as in this case, World War II. In fact, the wealth of information about that war helped me invent peripheral characters, like Bernard. An enigma for much of the novel, he ends up illustrating the conclusion that in war, particularly a long war, no one comes out unstained. That applies to Maxime as well.
BTC: Inspired to “do the important things first,” Lisette creates a list of vows to herself. Are you maker of lists yourself?
SV: I suppose I am: lists of ideas for novels and poems, lists of books to read, lists of things I want to learn, lists of places I want to go. However, I don't keep a superficial bucket list, as common parlance calls it, nor should we think of Lisette's list as a bucket list. I consider it to be deeper, at least most of the items on it. They are designed to show the inner Lisette to us.
BTC: At what moment did you realize the power of art could be conveyed through your stories?
SV: This happened very early on. Let's take my first art-related novel, Girl in Hyacinth Blue, and Lisette's List as examples. Both involve the Second World War, and large-scale pillage of art as well as small-scale theft. In writing the separate stories that comprise Girl, I realized that art could be coveted, that art could betray a secret, that art could exonerate bad behavior, that it could be seen as a commodity, that it could be loved by the unfortunate and uneducated as well as the fortunate and educated, and that it could be loved in a pure sense of awe at its beauty. If you reread Girl, you'll see that I have described each chapter this way.
Now, with Lisette's List, I move deeper in developing the theme of the power of art. While the uneducated (Pascal) also adores paintings, it is the educated (Maxime) who sees in them the scope of art history and for what they do for people. Great art, he says, “is capable of grabbing a person...and holding him in a trancelike state of union with the subject until he sees who he is or who we are as human beings more clearly...Being completely absorbed by a piece of art, he becomes minutely different than he was before, less limited to his previous, narrower self, and this equips him to live a better life and to avoid getting swallowed by the world's chaos.”
BTC: Of the works you have researched do you have any favorites?
SV: As difficult a question as choosing which of one's children one loves most. Certainly Renoir's Luncheon of the Boating Party comes to mind, for the joie de vivre of 14 of Renoir's friends enjoying an afternoon on a terrace overlooking the Seine, and so openly allowing me to tell their stories. From Lisette's List, I favor Chagall's exultant Promenade with Marc holding up Bella on one hand as she flutters sideways in the sky, too exuberant after the October Revolution in Russia to remain on the earth. And from The Forest Lover, Emily Carr's monumental painting of a Red Cedar, “…more than a tree, however noble. It was the manifestation of the attitude that brought her this far: reaching.”
BTC: Libraries have played a significant role in your growth as a writer and researcher. Can you share a favorite memory?
SV: Ah, libraries, my second homes from grade school to adulthood, and the groundwork of my fiction. It was a librarian who found for me a dissertation from the Sorbonne on 19th century boating on the Seine which authenticated scenes in my novel Luncheon of the Boating Party.
And it was a librarian who located for me Chagall's historic "Letter to the Paris Artists, 1944," a thrilling discovery. Reading this important letter led me to see that the novel I was writing, Lisette's List, was more than a narrow story of a woman retrieving her family's seven paintings, hidden and lost during the Occupation. Her experience was a microcosm of the vast and systematic seizure of Europe's art by what Chagall called "satanic enemies who wanted to annihilate not just the body but also the soul — the soul, without which there is no life, no artistic creativity." By focusing on one character's loss, I could represent the larger issue of vast art theft, hidden hoarding and threats to national patrimony which are still concerns today.
Books give birth to books, you see, and librarians are vital to that creativity. We don't know what important research is being done today, what projects are underway in our cities — in the arts, the humanities, the sciences — but librarians get glimpses, and that's what must make them so dedicated to helping their researching patrons.
Author Sophie Hannah, with full permission from Agatha Christie’s family, has sharpened her little grey cells and put pen to paper to create a brand new mystery featuring Hercule Poirot, one of Agatha Christie’s best-loved sleuths. The Monogram Murders begins in 1920 as Poirot escapes the bustle of the city by enjoying a cup of coffee in a small coffee house. There, he meets the distraught Jennie who is in fear for her life and spinning a tale of murder and justice. Before he can discover the full story, Jennie flees the coffee shop and is nowhere to be found. Three dead bodies are soon discovered in a nearby hotel, each with a cufflink stuffed into its mouth. Poirot senses a connection. Can the little Belgian detective solve the murder and find Jennie before it is too late?
Agatha Christie fans will rejoice that Sophie Hannah is able to continue the adventures of their beloved obsessive detective. Agatha Christie featured Poirot in 33 novels and 50 short stories, including Cards on the Table, where a game of bridge turns deadly, and Death on the Nile, where a honeymoon vacation abruptly comes to a halt. Every one of the stories and novels were filmed by the BBC and feature actor David Suchet. The final films can be seen in Poirot: Series 13, a collection of five films, including Elephants Can Remember and Dead Man’s Folly.
With over four billion novels sold, Agatha Christie has become the best-selling novelist of all time, and it is only natural for fans to want more. Sophie Hannah, already a successful crime writer, tackles the challenge with panache, and captures Poirot’s voice and mannerisms perfectly. The novel has colorful suspects, devious twists and turns, and the introduction of a new young detective named Edward Catchpool who is ready to assist Poirot in his efforts to solve the crime. The Monogram Murders will appeal to anyone familiar with Christie, but will also serve as a good introduction to new readers who can then delve in to the works of the true queen of crime.
How are houseguests like fish? They both start to stink after three days, or so the joke goes. The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters and The Quick by Laura Owen, both set in London, are stories involving some houseguests that have truly gone bad.
In The Paying Guests, Francis Wray and her mother live alone in their upper crust dignified home, struggling to keep up appearances. Francis’ father died and her brothers were killed in the War, leaving mother and daughter penniless. To make ends meet, they decide to take in lodgers, euphemistically known as “paying guests.” Young newlyweds Lilian and Leonard Barber make the not-yet-30-year-old Francis feel like life has passed her by, until she begins a surreptitious love affair with one of the Barbers, which ends in tragedy and the courtroom. Waters, a frequent flyer on British writing prize lists, pens a literary thriller that examines the consequences of the societal and moral strictures placed on women in early 20th century England.
Author Owen’s debut novel The Quick opens with motherless siblings Charlotte and James exploring their moldering country estate home. As they grow, James heads off to boarding school and then to Victorian London, leaving Charlotte to a quiet country life with an elderly aunt. James becomes a paying guest at the home of a city widow, sharing lodgings and passion with a former schoolmate. What starts as dreamy period piece takes a sharp turn when James and his lover are attacked by a supernatural being and Charlotte leaves her narrow settled existence to become a vampire hunter. From the elite members-only Aegolius club to the Dickensian working poor, Owen’s vampire world is richly and eerily imagined. Fans of Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus or John Harwood’s The Asylum should give The Quick a try.
Martin sits in a doctor’s office.
He experiences disquiet bordering on irritation as the doctor laboriously details the characteristics of his diagnosis. Later, his mind drifts and he is relieved from the intolerable present by the welcome intrusion of a memory. That picnic from a summer’s day so long ago; the hum of the bees, the drone of his parents’ languid conversation; the soft edges of a single cotton ball cloud scudding overhead. It is a memory worth keeping, even if it never happened.
He sighs. It’s been getting more difficult to know the difference these days….
Martin’s recollection of the past is changing. Increasingly, confabulations are taking the place of his real memories, and he knows it won’t be long before the truth of what happened in the distant past is lost. But what is truth and what is illusion? What happens when the line separating the two becomes permeable? In The Confabulist, Steven Galloway plays with these questions as he explores the fateful connection between the humble Martin Strauss and Harry Houdini, the greatest illusionist who ever lived.
Like so many illusions up the magician’s sleeve, The Confabulist is replete with misdirection and second guesses. From the first pages, Galloway puts us on notice that the narrator cannot be implicitly trusted. The story that follows is therefore as much a game of detective work for the reader as it is a work of historical fiction. Galloway’s skillful interplay between past and present, confabulation and real memory, will keep the reader speculating throughout the intertwining tales.
Readers who enjoy Galloway’s treatment of the themes of memory and Victorian spiritualism may also enjoy Emma Healy’s debut novel Elizabeth is Missing.
Did you know that August is Read-a-Romance month? Throughout the month of August, 93 of today’s most popular authors will be sharing their love of the genre with new essays about this year’s theme — Celebrate Romance! Read new essays each day by visiting the official Read-a-Romance month website, and take some time to enjoy one of these fast-paced, funny romances.
When the sister of the bride meets the brother of the groom, sparks fly in It Happened One Wedding by Julie James. While Sidney helps her sister through a whirlwind of wedding planning, she can’t help but cross paths with Vaughn, who is exactly the kind of man she doesn’t want to date. James is one of the most talented writers in contemporary romance today, and her writing sparkles as these two verbally spar like Hepburn and Tracy.
Author Kristen Ashley has built a huge readership over the past two years. Fans know that her novels will have plenty of steamy romance, hilarious hijinks and tough alpha heroes. In Rock Chick, Indy Savage finds herself in some trouble when someone shoots at her and one of her employees. She needs a place to lay low for a while, so she crashes at her best friend’s brother’s apartment. When Lee comes home early, he assesses the situation and decides to mobilize the guys from his private investigation firm to get Indy out of trouble. Indy has been in love with Lee Nightingale since he held her hand at her mother’s memorial service when she was five years old, and she’s shocked when he suddenly makes it clear that he wants them to be together. Rock Chick is the first in Ashley’s enormously popular Rock Chick series, originally published in e-book form. Fans of Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series will fall in love with Ashley’s Rock Chicks!
Travel to the spectacular coast of England this summer in two novels that capture its beauty and serenity. Marcia Willett’s The Sea Garden and Gil McNeil’s A Good Year for the Roses are stories of friendship, family and love that share a picture perfect setting.
In The Sea Garden, Willett introduces us to Jess, fresh from university, and on her way to Devon to receive the prestigious David Porteous painting award. Jess accepts the invitation of Kate, Porteous’ widow, to stay with her in her Cornwall cottage. Jess’ own family fractured with the death of her father several years earlier so she embraces Kate’s friendly overtures and is delighted to become part of her circle of family and friends. Her stay in Cornwall turns into more than a romp on the beach as long-buried secrets from the past come to light. This multigenerational novel is a finely constructed story which weaves together a net of confidences, infidelities and lies. Readers will enjoy the memorable cast of characters in this emotionally charged story which underscores the power of the past.
Molly, recently divorced from a boorish and boring husband, is in need of a new home for herself and her three sons in McNeil’s A Good Year for the Roses. Fate intervenes when she inherits her aunt’s manor house on the coast of Devon. The estate comes complete with her eccentric Uncle Bertie, a foul mouthed parrot and a semi-functioning bed and breakfast named Harrington Hall. Molly’s overbearing father and conniving brother are enraged at her fortune and try everything to convince Molly to add the B&B to the family’s hotel business holdings. As her boys adjust to rural life, Molly reconnects with old friends and finds contentment in her aunt’s beloved rose garden. The luscious locale sparkles in this gem with delightfully quirky characters and an appealing heroine.
The horrors of U.S. slavery will never be forgotten, but can reviving them in modern times truly right past wrongs?
In Dwayne Alexander Smith’s debut novel Forty Acres: A Thriller, up-and-coming lawyer Martin Grey faces more than sudden fame when he lands a high-profile case against legal superstar Damon Darrell. Martin is willingly lured into Damon’s exclusive circle of successful African-American men who then invite him on a weekend getaway. However, this seemingly innocent trip turns into a dangerous moral journey when Martin finds himself on a secret plantation staffed entirely by white slaves, where he is now master.
Between the Covers: How did the idea of the reversed plantation develop? Did it evolve over time or hit you all at once?
Dwayne Alexander Smith: Forty Acres started out as a time travel story, believe it or not. An African-American astronaut has an accident in space, which causes his ship to crash back to earth. Somehow he has gone back in time and finds himself in the Antebellum South. Unable to speak because of an injury, he is captured by slavers and put to work on a plantation. I loved this idea but I couldn’t sell my people on it as a screenplay. I really wanted to write a story about American slavery, so I kept toying with the idea. After several other versions of the story, it struck me that a story about blacks keeping white slaves would be very powerful, if I could make it believable. I worked hard to figure out how such a conspiracy would be pulled off if it were real.
BTC: This book is exceptional not only for the controversial concept behind the Forty Acres plantation but for its page-turning suspense as well. What about the thriller genre made you choose it to tell this unique story?
DAS: I don’t think there’s any other way to tell this story. The core concept, because it’s centered around a conspiracy, just lends itself to the thriller genre. I’ve seen a few reviews where the reader wished that the story wasn’t couched in a thriller. I guess they would prefer a more straightforward approach. They feel the themes tackled in the story should be taken more seriously. I get it but I feel that the plot is too fantastic to be delivered straight. Working it into a thriller gives the reader more license to suspend disbelief and just go with it.
BTC: There are various representations of African-American masculinity portrayed in this book. How did you go about developing such diverse personalities and their differing views on race and history?
DAS: My approach to character is very calculated. I start out with very basic questions. What are his dreams? What is he afraid of? How would he react if a gun was pointed at him? I have a whole list of question. Another thing I do is create a detailed past. I figure out all the major events in a character’s life from birth to starting point of the story. Where did he grow up? How many brothers and sisters? How did he do in school? What major injuries did he suffer as a kid? These details never make it into the story but they inform the character’s behavior. A black man who grew up in a Bronx ghetto is going to have a different attitude toward the world than a black man who grew up in an upper middle class household.
BTC: How challenging was it for you to reveal humanity at its worst and best through your characters? Did any parts of the creation process keep you up at night?
DAS: There are some pretty disturbing scenes in Forty Acres that were not easy to write. I was constantly tempted to soften those moments but I had to keep reminding myself that everything that occurs in my story is a reflection of what actually took place on plantations during the slavery era in the United States. Ultimately, I felt it was important that these scenes be impactful to establish the past horrors that motivate my story’s antagonists and also to establish very high stakes for my protagonist. Martin puts everything on the line at the end of the story, the reason for his sacrifice has to be believable.
BTC: What research went into recreating the horrific realities of American slavery in modern times?
DAS: I tried to make Forty Acres as real as possible. I tried to figure out how a conspiracy like Forty Acres would be perpetrated if it were real. A lot of research went into where to locate the compound. There are not many places in the United States where you can hide a secret slave compound. There’s also the problem of hiding the slaves. You can’t have them picking cotton, so I had to come up with an alternative that still reflected what went on hundreds of years ago. I think that the type of slave labor I decided to use is not only historically accurate but also enlightening to the reader. I don’t want to say what it is, to avoid spoilers, but I’ve found that a lot of people are unaware that slaves were used for this sort of labor in the United States.
BTC: Since Forty Acres: A Thriller is receiving great praise from readers and critics alike, can we anticipate more books?
DAS: Yes. I’m working on another thriller called White Widow that involves a very unique serial killer. I also have a plot ready to go for a sequel to Forty Acres, if the book takes off.
BTC: If you were stranded on an island with an immortal DVD player, what one film would you want? What single book?
DAS: That is a tough question. Approaching it practically, I’d want a movie that is very re-watchable, not just a great movie. I can watch musicals over and over. My favorite musical is West Side Story, so I’d have to go with that. Same approach to what book I would choose. My choice might be surprising, but I never get tired of reading The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams. I can crack that book open on any page and find a laugh. Just the type of book you would need if stranded on an island.
It’s way past midnight on Christmas Eve and the streets of Philadelphia are littered with the lonely, the unlucky, the unloved. They’re all departing from their sacred mecca hidden amongst the Fishtown warehouses: A run-down jazz club called The Cat’s Pajamas, where the tumultuous house band keeps things hopping, even when they aren’t on stage. Amongst the waylaid wanderers are Madeline, a bright and plucky nine-year-old who refuses to let the world win; Sarina and Ben, who are together conflicted as they pick up where they left off after an estranged high school prom years ago; and club owner Jack Lorca, whose prodigal teenage son, Alex, is instrumental in the night’s electric excitement.
Marie-Helene Bertino’s debut novel 2 A.M. at The Cat’s Pajamas recounts the 24 hours prior, affectionately referred to as “Christmas Eve eve” by Madeline. Readers are treated to intertwining stories of determination in the events leading up to the most memorable night at The Cat’s Pajamas since the house drum kit was set on fire during the band’s performance. By its lonesome, the club is just a sad, dilapidated building, but on nights when the Cubanistas are playing and the city’s detritus flocks through the doors, The Cat’s Pajamas is resurrected to its former glories of jazz’s heyday—it’s part symbiotic relationship, part yuletide miracle.
2 A.M. at The Cat’s Pajamas features stories in which the hostilities of city life are conquered by the solidarity of people who have been destroyed by the very place they inhabit. Stories in which good-natured, wounded people stay afloat by looking out for one another, rather than wallowing and commiserating. It’s a great read for those who enjoy literary fiction or heartening stories of blossom.
Readers will know on page one that something terrible has happened to James and Marilyn's teenage daughter, Lydia. It will be the catalyst that splinters the family to its core and one of several throbbing undercurrents in Celeste Ng's emotionally complex first novel Everything I Never Told You. A Chinese-American family, the Lees stand out for the wrong reasons in their small town of Middlewood, Ohio; there just aren't many biracial families in the 1970s Midwest. With Lydia gone, the family now must reconcile the past with a present that threatens their tenuous ties to each other and to the life they thought they had built.
When James and Marilyn got married they made a pact to let the past drift away. A first-generation Chinese-American, James was used to being the Asian who never fit in. When he meets Marilyn, a pretty white pre-med student, while teaching as a graduate assistant, she represents the acceptance he's been seeking. They marry despite her mother's glaring disapproval. For Marilyn, her dream of attending medical school vanishes when she becomes pregnant. Now, the cultural divide they thought blended away has returned with their daughter's mysterious death. Middle child Lydia was the favorite, the one who would accomplish what they did not: be popular (dad) and grow up to be a doctor (mom). It's a heavy burden, perhaps too much so, not just for Lydia but for the other two Lee children who witness their parents' favoritism. The author, herself a first-generation Asian-American Midwesterner, deftly positions the youngest child Hannah as the astute observer to the family's unraveling and the mystery of her sister's death.
With confident, smooth prose, the Pushcart Prize-winning Ng (pronounced "ing") shifts readers back and forth over time to capture the sympathetic and sometimes frustrating portrait of a family betrayed by cultural expectations and personal loss. Ng's thoughtfully detailed writing and spot-on characterizations carry this literary mystery beyond the solving of a death to what it means to be a family of strangers, hoping to rediscover each other. Jhumpa Lahiri fans will find threads of familiarity in Ng's strong debut.
With lyrical text and a moving storyline, Nomi Eve takes the reader along on a journey of a young Jewish girl and her extended family in her upcoming novel Henna House. Eve’s story is that of the Jewish community in Yemen in the early 20th century. Continuing through the far-reaching horrors of the Holocaust and to the birth of the State of Israel, it is a tale as rich and exotic as the warm and beautiful henna that adorn the characters.
Imam Yahya has renewed the statute known as the Orphan’s Decree. If the father of an unbetrothed Jewish child dies, that child would be taken from their family, converted and adopted into a Muslim family. The health of 5-year-old Adela Demari’s father is failing. Her parents are desperate to find Adela a future husband and have the marriage contract written in the hopes that it would protect her from the watchful eye of the Collector. Finding that future husband proves to be a difficult task. It is not until Uncle Zecharia, a spice and perfume merchant, arrives from a distant land bringing with him Adela’s cousin, Asaf, that her luck seems to change. With the betrothal in place and the children contracted to become married once they become of age, it seems Adela’s worries of being confiscated are behind her. But when Asaf and his father leave, young Adela feels abandoned and is only comforted by the arrival of her aunt, a henna artist, and her cousin, Hani.
Follow Adela and her extended family as she grows up and discovers the depth of female companionship, gains a deeper understanding of the world, feels the joy of love, the pain of loss and betrayal, and the power of forgiveness. Henna House is an excellent choice for someone who enjoyed Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent and anyone who enjoys historical fiction, family sagas and coming-of-age stories.