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The Year of Agatha

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Art Appreciation: The Last Painting of Sara de Vos | 2016

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"The paintings on your walls, the Dutch rivers and kitchens, the Flemish peasant frolics, they give off fumes and dull with age, but connect you to a bloodline of want, to shipbuilders and bankers who stared up at them as their own lives tapered off. Like trees, they have breathed in the air around them and now they exhale some of their previous owners' atoms and molecules. They could last for a thousand years, these paintings, and that buoys you as you drift off, a layer just above sleep. Skimming the pond, Rachel used to call it, or was that something you once said to her? You should turn everything off in the room, but you don't. You let the lamps burn all night."
- The Last Painting of Sara de Vos

You guys, this book is #gorgeous.

The Sum of It:
Though people are essential to Dominic Smith's atmospheric story, and represent much of the finely wrought detail, the book's main character is really a melancholy painting by a fictional female Dutch master, Sara de Vos, called "At the Edge of a Wood." We first truly meet the painting in 1950s Manhattan, where it hangs above the bed of wealthy and debonair Marty de Groot, who inherited a vast collection of valuable art and a very Don-Draper sounding penthouse from his father. The painting, which readers can see in their mind's eyes as clearly as if the book contained illustrations thanks to Smith's magical powers of description, depicts a winter scene with a forlorn, barefoot girl at the edge of a wood gazing at children ice skating on a frozen river. Though the painting is sad, its one of Marty's favorites, so when something seems off about the nails in the frame, he realizes that somehow his priceless original has been replaced with a forgery. 

We gradually learn more about the painting in a timeline centuries earlier, where the artist, Sara de Vos, and her hometown in Holland are depicted just as vividly as more contemporary scenes. Though she typically paints only still lifes, Sara is brought to this visual depiction of her own grief following a family tragedy. 

The painting and its meticulous copy that even had Marty fooled for a while in the 1950s come together with Marty and the art forger, in the year 2000 in Australia, when both paintings make their way to a gallery for a highly publicized show. 

Along the way, luminous depictions of 1950s New York dinner parties and jazz clubs, fabulous Manhattan homes and humble artist's apartments in Brooklyn, the bleak but beautiful landscapes and ruined villages of the Netherlands of long ago, and well-heeled art galleries and seaside scenery of modern-day Australia all wrap you in the world of the story. Aside from the painting, the book's other beautifully drawn main characters: art collector Marty, art historian Ellie, and enigmatic painter Sara bring to light the very human themes of self-reflection, loss, heartache, and what it means to grow old. 

The YOA Treatment:
Once again we find a tale that toes the line between genre fiction and literary fiction, a line we constantly bump up against (and wonder if we could just throw out?) in our travels here on the blog. This book certainly begins as a #whodunnit; a valuable painting is missing from a very secure penthouse apartment and replaced by a meticulous but still fake copy -- who managed to steal it and how? Was the forger the same person who crept in and stole away with it? This central mystery is also supplemented by the mystery of the painting itself. So little is known of the artist, Sara de Vos, or why she seems to have only one work, despite being the first female member of the artist's Guild of St. Luke. We have the added suspense of the forgery and original coming together under the watchful eyes of both the forger and original owner; how will that situation conclude? Who knows how much? It'll keep you turning the pages, that's for sure.

On the other hand, this book is so beautifully written that those who feel crime fiction is not really capable of being true art might protest to us placing it so close to the genre fiction line (we aren't those people, obvi). Each time period painted in this tale is so painstakingly drawn you might as well be watching a movie (and just to be clear, we'd watch a movie of this one fo sho). As someone who secretly wishes she could go back in time and study art history and spend days studying brushstrokes in a museum, the windows into the world of painters and art collectors is a genuine treat you want to wrap yourself in like a beautiful cashmere blanket. The language (ever important to us, especially Emily) is so lovely and glittering it could high five Annie Dillard. Each character struggles with their own identity, and how their actions reflect who they are (or want to be) as each timeline is drawn closer and closer together. Basically, GO READ IT and THANK US LATER #yourewelcome. 

- E. 

Time After Time: The Rocks | 2016

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“And the seasons, as now, reliably made everything new again. He liked to remember Goethe’s line: 'A man can stand anything but a succession of ordinary days.'” 
-The Rocks

The Sum of It:
Oof - this is a hard one to summarize, but we will do our best! The most important thing to know is that the book is written in reverse time order in that we begin at the end of the tumultuous relationship between main characters Lulu and Gerald and then trace that relationship and the lives that surround it backwards from there. These two used to be married, but when the book begins in 2005, the two are 100% not together and have a super non-friendly confrontation near some seaside cliffs and then (kinda spoilers, but not really because this literally happens in the first chapter of the book) both tumble over the cliff and die. As their two adult children (each from a different marriage, so not related at all #noncousinlove), Aegina and Luc, meet up to sort out the cliff situation, it becomes apparent that those two ALSO have some kind of a romance-riddled past. Each section of the book travels back in in chronology all the way to 1948 a few years at a time, with each section revealing a new piece of the puzzle of the totally mysterious horrible incident that drove Lulu and Gerald apart, and the reason why Aegina and Luc can't seem to look each other in the eye...

Author Peter Nichols weaves an amazing, lushly visual albeit a bit cringe-y at times (see Treatment below for more on that), tale that is full of literal and figuratively rich characters. Lulu's Mallorcan villa/hotel, The Rocks, hosts a constant stream of visitors, from the rich British couple who helped fund her resort venture to a decidedly skeezy regular to a smorgasbord of movie stars and producers, and Nichols will leave you hooked to the last page to see the genesis of each and every one. The settings range from the glittering water and olive groves of Mallorca to Paris apartments to north African bazaars, and each is vividly painted. The settings, images, relationships, and complex emotions that build the story's tapestry are, together, a knock out.

The YOA Treatment:
Opinions on this book range, but we have to say that we really liked it. It is set in Mallorca, a place we've become increasingly fascinated by (especially since "The Night Manager" starring bae Hiddleston; if you haven't watched it, DO IT). The scenes are painted so vividly, my passport was itching. We were also intrigued by the structure of the book, which begins with an extremely dramatic scene that was obviously precipitated by a significant event in the past, so the premise of the whole book is traveling backwards through the lives of the characters until the mysterious situation that sparked lifetimes of drama for both of the initial main characters is finally revealed. Each character in the book brings something else to the story, either demonstrating the consequences of some long ago action or illustrating heartache or unachieved potential. That sounds kind of depressing, but we promise this book is not! None of the characters are perfect, but then, neither are people, and we feel like this book paints a great picture of how simple misunderstandings or actions can have a ripple effect across lives.

In this way, this book strikes us as absolutely a mystery. One of the most compelling features of the narrative is that you are constantly trying to figure out what it is that has caused these two families to be pitted against each other, Capulet vs. Montague style, for like 60 years. Amid this narrative device, the mysteries of actual crimes as well as the emotional damage people can do to each other are totally intertwined. 

In poking around online about this book before reading it, we came across some VERY mixed reviews. Some people described the book as "boring" (which we find COMPLETELY baffling), some were frustrated with the sex scenes (there is one in particular that we agreed we could have done without, though we get why it was there for one character in particular), and some said they didn't like some of the characters. Many reviewers compare it to Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter, which was honestly a bit of a deterrent for us because while we very much enjoyed the portions of that book set in the past, we loathed the modern-day storyline and wished that the author had left it out altogether, and speed-read through it to get back to the interesting parts. The Rocks, for us, was nothing like that, and was a #pageturner from start to finish and by the time we reached the last page, we wanted to just turn the book over and start again. Pick it up!

- E. & A. 

Sister, sister: Dead Letters | 2017

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"Zelda is fully aware that she's enticed me to play, and now I can't let it go until I've figured her out, found her, looked her in the eyes and told her that I know her BEST, that I GET HER. Which, of course, is how she will win too." - Dead Letters, p. 113

The Sum of It:
Dead Letters is like if the twins from Sweet Valley High were from Upstate New York instead of California (question mark?) and then also with more murder/arson. Because here's the thing, this book starts out with one of our main characters, Ava, through whose eyes we see most of the action, flying home to New York from her expat home in Paris to attend her dead twin sister's funeral. ONLY she is feeling a little conflicted about this because she's still getting emails from said sister, Zelda, that could only be written by her #lettersfrombeyondthegrave? Their mom let her know that Zelda died when her barn/hideout at the family's failing vineyard burned to the ground with her inside. Only sister on the plane (Ava) is like, ok, whatever, I'm having a hard time being sad about this because I'm really just wondering what's going on. Is Zelda really dead? Ava thinks not and plans on getting to the bottom of it as soon as she lands. And has a glass [bottle] of wine. 

Once she gets home, the police figure out that the barn doors were chained shut prior to the fire starting. Isn't that peculiar. Maybe the fire wasn't an accident caused by dead (?) sister's candles after all. Meanwhile, the emails keep coming and it quickly becomes clear that Ava is being led on a bit of a scavenger hunt by her supposedly deceased twin, who loved mischief. She starts digging around in her sister's life, which proves a bit tricky initially because they sort of stopped speaking when she moved to Paris, leaving Zelda at home in New York to care for their mother, who is in the throes of dementia. Add in a high school boyfriend, drug dealing strippers, literal gallons of booze, and some poor judgement, and you've got quite the situation.  

The YOA Treatment:
First of all, that cover is bangin', kudos to the designer at Random House. So we snapped this one up in a pre-order because it was recommended by fairly reliable sources as "Agatha Christie-like." Talk about a high bar. And in reading it, we both really looked for the hints of Agatha in the fast-paced tale. The premise is juicy; is the twin sister dead or not?? If not, who's sending the emails?? Is this Pretty Little Liars for grownups?? (#kindof #actuallyreallyalot). Definitely keeps you turning the pages, although for readers who are legit steeped in mystery like us (it's no one's fault but our own that we've read like hundreds of murder mysteries over the last year and a half) the ending started looking pretty inevitable about half way through. While the ending is certainly a "twist," for us the inevitability of the twist took quite a bit of the wind out of the sails (honestly if the twist had been opposite it almost would have been MORE surprising to us). Like The Long Room, I (Emily) read this one on the beach, and UNLIKE The Long Room, this was absolutely a beach read. Almost to a fault, if you know what I mean (I guess what I'm saying is any book that spends more than one scene discussing the way a tshirt lays over various aspects of a man's anatomy starts to feel less like literature and more like a romp, which is fine as long as that's what you're in the market for!) 

All that to say is that I think we both had slightly mixed feelings about this one. It was a pretty compelling mystery and kept you turning the pages, and the author (newcomer Caite Dolan-Leache) knows how to paint a picture for sure. If you're looking for a light mystery to page through while you sip pina coladas poolside, this could be a totally viable candidate. However, we didn't see a lot of Agatha in it. I mean, it was a mystery, and there was a twist, but in our opinion Agatha is in rare air, and this book didn't really carry the weight, offer the clever turns of phrase, or keep the reader guessing the same way the Queen of Mystery would. 

Our tastes are maybe too specific, but where The Long Room was a bit too serious and bleak for our palates, Dead Letters was a bit too meringue. Don't worry, next we'll post about a book that was WAY more than just right ;). 

- E. (& A.) 

International Agatha Christie Conference 2017


We've mentioned it on social media before, but we're SO pumped to be included in the speaker lineup for this year's fourth annual International Agatha Christie Conference at the University of Cambridge's Lucy Cavendish College! There are so many fascinating speakers and panels on the schedule, and we are not only looking forward to sharing our experience with The Year of Agatha with the group, but to dig into the many facets of Agatha's work with everyone else. You can see the lineup of conference events at the conference's website.

If you're in the UK, look into this conference which seeks to "establish Christie Studies as an academic discipline, extending across and beyond the humanities." Readers of this blog will certainly agree that's a worthy goal! We hope to see you there -- do let us know if you're planning to attend.

We can't wait to visit the UK, and would love to hear your tips on what to see, so let us know about your favorite pubs, bookshops, museums, villages, known locations frequented by Tom Hiddleston, etc., in the comments!

- A. & E.

I'll be Watching You: The Long Room | 2016

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"After a sudden snowstorm from the west, Monday morning is cold and dreary; the pavements are slippery, the coats of the crowd crushed together in the trains reek of frying and wet dog, but Stephen is on his way to work with a lift of the heart, in spite of feeling a bit queasy. Monday mornings are good mornings now; they bring new hope and an end to the barren wastes of the weekend, which are devoid of Helen. Mondays used to weigh leadenly on him, but ever since one morning in October they have been as welcome as a lovers' reunion." - The Long Room, p. 29

The Sum of It:
I am a huge fan of the film The Lives of Others (a terrific German film about Secret Police spying on a "suspicious" couple and the effect it has on their relationship: 10/10 - would highly recommend!!), so I was very intrigued by the premise of one of our spring reads, The Long Room by Francesca Kay. Long Room is set in 1980s London, with Cold War drama still totally a thing, spies are also totally majorly sneaking about. One such spy is Stephen Donaldson: a single young man with a sweet old mom and a big old crush on a girl he [sort of] knows from work. However, this crush develops a bit differently than the usual boy-meets-girl. See, Stephen spends his days at the Institute (home base for spies such as himself), listening to tape recordings from wiretaps of potential baddies who are the "subjects" of the Institute's spying. Stephen has been given a particularly important listening assignment (codenamed PHOENIX) by boss Rollo Buckingham (his actual name, and thus far my favorite character name in my readings this year! #British) to listen in on a potential double agent within the organization (#gasp!) HOWEVER, Stephen has fallen head over heels in heart love with the wife of subject PHOENIX, named Helen. Stephen rushes through his everyday work, comes charging in first thing on Monday mornings, and even stays late at work (sometimes when he shouldn't...#oops) to "spend time" listening to Helen walk around or cook dinner or fight with her husband (#hmm).

If it sounds unhealthy (and frankly a bit creepy) it's because it IS. Boss Rollo determines Stephen's special investigation isn't really going anywhere and tells Stephen his days of listening in on the PHOENIXes are numbered AND STEPHEN CANNOT HAVE THAT, so he does what any other spy in love with one of their subjects' wives even though he has never met her would do: he starts making things up...

The YOA Treatment:
It was hard for both of us to get into this book at first. Emily read it on the beach in Mexico, and found some tricky dissonance between the sunny beach scene and the cold and misty London portrayed on the pages #hardknocklife, and the eerie tension of the Stephen's increasingly risky behavior was maybe not best suited for a beach read. I couldn't quite put my finger on the reason why it was tough to connect with- it's a slow read at first, but not necessarily boring. I finally discovered what it was making me feel: claustrophobic.

So much of Long Room is set in the close quarters of Stephen's mind: his obsessive thoughts about Helen, his at times pitifully lonely real-world existence, or his awkward social interactions. Francesca Kay has done a masterful job of painting the picture of Stephen's uncomfortable life, which makes his completely unrealistic crush on Helen totally believable. As we were both reading it, Emily and I kept texting each other about how we were so afraid Stephen would get caught in his ultimate web of lies and rule breakings, and while we shan't spoil anything, it is worth giving Kay kudos for her ability to keep us squirming until the last page.

To be completely honest, I did not end up loving this book, probably for the same reason. I did like the time period (it's one I don't know that much about, but would like to), and I appreciated and admired Kay's premise and plot, however, the experience of reading it was at times tough, and the ending felt a bit abrupt and predictable. Again, we don't want to give anything away, but after finishing it, Emily and I also texted about alternate directions we thought the story was going to conclude and wished our protagonist, after all the tense build up of the novel, had gotten a different wrap up. Kay showed her creative chops throughout, and I was expecting her to surprise me more than she did by the time it was all over. SO if you really love Cold War spies, don't mind some bleakness, and are in the market for some fiction that builds like an avalanche of tension towards the end of the tale, give this a try.

- A. (& E.)

2017 Agatha Madness!

(I realize this photo is SUPER hard to see, so follow this link to see the original document!)
If you live in the States, chances are you or someone you know is quite invested in March Madness at the moment. My husband is not really a sports fan, but whenever March Madness rolls around, it's all basketball, all the time. 

In order to feel like we are somewhat commiserating, Emily and I have created our own Agatha Christie Madness bracket where we are pitting all of Agatha's novels (*with the exception of Passenger to Frankfurt...cuts had to be made...*) against each other and using Instagram to help us narrow down the choices with an ultimate Agatha fan pick favorite over the next few weeks!

Head over to our Instagram to help vote for your favorite Agatha Christie novels, and follow along as we update our Agatha bracket over the next few weeks!


Thrillingly Exclusive Author Interview: Anton DiSclafani and The After Party | 2016

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"It's the women who still ask me about Joan. Young women, who have stumbled upon her story and my part in it. Old women, who used to admire her photographs in the gossip columns: Joan the jewel, a glimmer on some man's arm. Frank Sinatra's, Dick Krueger's, Diamond Glenn's. They want to know who she was. First, I tell them, she was Furlow Fortier's little blond darling. From the very beginning, she was adored." - The After Party, Prologue

We are basically swooning with excitement to share below a little interview with amazing author (and professor at Emily's alma mater, Auburn University #wareagle) Anton DiSclafani #suchanhonor #blogfeelssolegit! The interview was born out of questions we debated after reading her most recent book, which she was kind enough to discuss with us. So first, a bit of a summary of The After Party, followed by our discussion in the YOA Treatment section. 

The Sum of It:
On a recent rainy getaway weekend at a pretty fabulous house on the water, I (Emily) had a chance to absolutely devour Anton DiSclafani's newest novel, The After Party. Audrey and I both read The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls a couple years ago during the first year of the two-person book club that eventually evolved into The Year of Agatha and LOVED it, so when we heard Ms. DiSclafani had a new title (with this absolutely gorgeous cover), we were 100% in. 

The After Party is a sumptuous depiction of the high life in Texas in the mid-century, painting pictures of the clothes, hair styles, home decor, and cocktails that period of time immediately conjurs. More significantly, though, the book is an intricate study of the many depths each person holds, and the way those layers impact personal relationships. As with The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls, the characters in the book are linked not just by friendship but by more than one secret, which ties the action and narration together and is gradually revealed throughout the story. This book will make you want a stiff cocktail and a chaise lounge, and will also make you think and bring you to tears. Can't recommend it enough. Get thee to your local bookshop today!

The YOA Treatment:
This year, as our faithful readers know, now that we've completed our reading of the entire Christie canon we are trying to explore the broader world of crime and mystery fiction. However, as we dig into our "to be read" stacks, we've run up against the question of what exactly is the line between genre fiction of that nature and just the use of elements of it in literary fiction. The After Party is one of the books we've read this year that raised that question for us, so we were really pumped to discuss that very thing with author Anton DiSclafani! Without further ado: 

YOA asks: Books like The After Party have led us to ask ourselves where the line is drawn between the crime fiction/mystery genre and great literary fiction that uses some element of mystery or crime to advance the plot. What are your thoughts on (as you've so eloquently posed) where this line is drawn, how authors straddle or cross it, and what type of books result when the line is crossed or blurred? 

AD answers: I think interesting, vital books result whenever a line is crossed or blurred. I teach creative writing, and I talk to my students a lot about the difference between literary fiction and genre fiction. I don't care if they write about zombies, or a broken marriage, or the dissolution of a marriage brought about by zombies; I care about being surprised by their stories. I want to not know what's going to happen next. For me, that's genre fiction--turning a page and knowing, more or less, what's on the next page. So any fiction that combines certain elements of genre fiction--in my case, mystery--and then the hallmarks of literary fiction--a character-driven story: well, that's my sweet spot, as a writer and a reader.

I appreciate a good plot. Plot is difficult, but it should also be simple. If I'm not able to explain to you in a few sentences what the plot of my book is about, then it's too convoluted. 
YOA asks: Both of your most recent books (The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls and The After Party) have elements of secrecy and crimes that add to the compelling plots and are part of what keeps readers turning the pages to get to the bottom of what really happened in the characters' lives. From where does your inspiration come for these elements in your work (i.e. any authors you're inspired by, stories in the news, photos, strictly your imagination)?

AD answers: I love Kazuo Ishiguro, and his unreliable narrators. I love Kate Walbert, for atmosphere and sheer beauty of prose. (And both these authors are interested in secrets, in their own way.) I'm not inspired by real-life events per se, but I am interested in all the ways women were compelled to keep secrets, historically-speaking, especially when the secrets involved sexuality or children. A friend told a story about a a great-aunt who came of age in the 30s. She had a child out of wedlock when she was a teenager, and that child (a boy) was raised as his mother's brother by her parents (and his grandparents). That's convoluted, I know, but the lengths women (and their families) went to, or were forced to go to, in order to hide children were, well, convoluted. And deeply sad. I suppose THE AFTER PARTY was inspired by a story like that. 

YOA asks: Based on our research over the course of the last year in learning more about Agatha Christie and her peers in the mystery/crime fiction genre, it has seemed that historically, writers of genre fiction such as this have perhaps not received the same level of respect as writers of literary fiction. Do you feel like that has changed/is changing in recent years? And if so, why do you think that might be? 

AD answers: I think I am perceived as writing women's fiction more than I am perceived as writing mystery/crime fiction, though I am flattered by the categorization! I really admire writers who can do plot. I hope the perception is changing, and there are certainly authors who are doing both: John Banville, who writes under the pen name Benjamin Black when he's doing mystery. Sarah Waters is genius at plot, and I don't think anyone could argue with her literary merit. People want to read a good story; I like to believe, as a writer, that readers want to be surprised, not just engaged. Or that their engagement depends on a book doing something interesting, something different. 

YOA asks: Our final question: Have you read Agatha Christie's work in the past, and if so, could you tell us your favorite of her books? 

AD answers: Sadly, a long time ago, and I remember enjoying it but I definitely need to revisit her work. Especially after hanging out on The Year of Agatha!

Well, we are #flattered to hear that, and so, so grateful for Ms. DiSclafani's willingness to share her brilliant thoughts here at The Year of Agatha. We hope you've all enjoyed it as well! 

- E.