HISTORICAL//Crimson and Bone- Marina Fiorato*

Crimson and Bone (Jun) On New Year’s Eve, Annie Stride, a desperate and pregnant young woman stands on the edge of a bridge, contemplating the icy water below. As she’s about to step off the ledge, a gentleman appears in a hansom cab and saves her. What seems to be a blessing quickly turns into something strange…

This novel is being touted as one for fans of The Crimson Petal and the White (which I loved) and does have some similar themes: a Victorian prostitute is saved from poverty by a richer man with a good reputation- in this case, a talented Pre-Raphaelite painter, for whom Annie becomes a muse and his ‘wife’. But no matter what her new life brings her, she’s still haunted by her past- and the friend whose death led to Annie’s life spinning out of control. It’s a novel about one man’s obsession and the woman who is unwittingly trapped in a gilded prison- and I bloody loved it.

To be honest, this book had me at ‘Victorian’ and ‘Pre-Raphaelite’; I also noticed that the names of Annie and her protector Francis have a link to another famous Victorian person of interest (which I won’t give away here- you’ll have to read the book!) It’s a great book that really took me on a journey to Victorian London and Florence through wonderfully vivid descriptions, and there’s undercurrent of menace that lurked beneath the shiny, respectable exterior of Annie’s new world is ever present. It’s one of those stories where you know there’s something not quite right, but you can never quite put your finger on it- only for the ending to make you realise it all makes sense.

This is a satisfyingly brooding novel that never lets you trust yourself- or any of the characters- until the final page is finished.

 

FICTION//Girl With a Pearl Earring-Tracy Chevalier

Girl With a Pearl Earring (Paperback):  This is one of those books that I’ve been aware of for years, but never really found the impetus to read until recently. I went to see Tracy Chevalier give a talk about the Brontes (she’s one of the main people involved in promoting the Bronte 200 celebrations and curated a collection of short stories based on Jane Eyre). I found her so warm and compelling as a speaker-and lovely afterwards when I got my book signed- that I just HAD to go away and read something she’d written. So where to start but the most famous of her novels?

I don’t know what it is about me and books set in The Netherlands, but I always seem to love them. This is no different. I should really go and visit the country sometime (before Brexit?) and I have no excuse, as my good friend Carolina lives there. Anyway. The protagonist of the story is Griet, the daughter of a tile painter who, after her father is blinded in an accident, accepts the position of housemaid to the painter Vermeer and his family. This is no easy job for her though- Vermeer is cold and distant, his wife a complete nightmare and the couple’s daughters hard work. Griet does find a kind of ally in Maria Thins, the mother of Mrs Vermeer and it is because of this that she maintains her job. However, Griet struggles to connect the world within the household and that without; her family and her sweetheart unable to comprehend the pull of the enigmatic painter and his work. This becomes stronger as he begins to use her in his work, first grinding paints together and later, the ultimate risk, using her as a model for the famous painting.

I found myself completely drawn into the story; the atmosphere that Griet finds herself living in- claustrophobic yet thrilling- perfectly captured. It’s as much a story about a reserved girl becoming aware of her sexuality and sense of self as it is about an enormously famous painting. The book itself is a work of art.

FICTION//The Muse-Jessie Burton

The Muse (Aug):

It must be hard to write a follow-up novel when your debut was so popular; I imagine that Jessie Burton had that very problem after the stonking success of The Miniaturist (which I LOVED, FYI).

The Muse tells the stories of two women, thirty-odd years apart: Odelle, a young woman from Trinidad who has emigrated to London in the 1960s and Olive, the daughter of well-to-do Anglo-German parents living in Spain at the time of the start of the civil war. Linked, possibly, by a mysterious painting painted by a young Spanish revolutionary, the story weaves the two narratives together in surprising and heart-breaking ways. Love, betrayal and identity are dealt with deftly and in a way that just made me want to get home and devour the book (I didn’t quite get the book read in 48 hours like I did with The Miniaturist, but I wasn’t far off!) Burton pulled off the changing between times well as well- it felt natural and understandable, even when I wasn’t entirely sure what the connection was. I’m not ashamed to admit that a few of my plot-twist guesses were entirely wrong, too. But that’s the best bit about a book like this, isn’t it? It’s good to be kept on your toes.

So, does this book match up to its predecessor? It’s very different, but it’s just as enjoyable.

Face Paint: The Story of Makeup- Lisa Eldridge

Face Paint: The Story of Makeup (Dec):

My love affair with makeup is deep and long-lasting (although my essential ‘look’ of thick black eyeliner and minimal everything else has remained unchanged since I was a teenager.) This book is less a ‘how-to’ book- there are no tutorials, which in the age of vlogs seem redundant anyway- and more a ‘how we got here’, which is way more my thing.

Speaking of vlogs, Lisa Eldridge is a very well respected makeup artist, known for her online videos and partnerships with well-known makeup brands. If anyone knows how makeup works, it’s her.

The book itself is beautiful. It’s broken into sections, although not chronilogically. The history of makeup in different cultures is covered, through the focus of the main colours used throughout the ages: black (did you know that Japanese women used to paint their teeth black, as it was considered a sign of beauty? Me neither. Apparently it was brilliant at preventing tooth decay. I might mention it to my dentist next week.), red and white; there’s a section on how makeup developed, with special focus on the Hollywood effect; the key brands and players in the makeup industry; and how science and technology has developed the things we wear and what we expect. Seriously, I came away from the book full of interesting facts and my mind bursting with new information. Makeup, it seems, is not simple- for example, when I wear my eyeliner, I’m influenced by 1960s makeup, which was in turn inspired by a 1920s craze for all things Egyptian (thanks to Tutankhamun), which dated back thousands of years. When I wear blusher, I’m wearing the one makeup item that was deemed acceptable- if worn lightly- for Ancient Greek women and beyond.

My favourite parts, though, are the ‘Makeup Muses’ chosen by Eldridge as being significant contributors to the way we see and wear makeup. Alongside the usual suspects- Marilyn, Audrey, Liz- there are some that made the history buff in me squeal with delight- Marie Antoinette and Elizabeth Siddal are included, as is the much underrated and almost forgotten silent film star Anna May Wong.

This is a treasure trove of information for anyone interested in what we put on our faces and why- and you might just learn a few things, too.

Alexander McQueen: Blood Beneath the Skin- Andrew Wilson

Blood Beneath The Skin (May)

I’ve got to stop reading about Alexander McQueen, as I’ve started dreaming about him and his work and, quite frankly, it’s a bit freaky. However, I read this quite quickly, as it was more focused than Gods and Kings, which I recently reviewed (mainly because this one is only about McQueen.)

I think one of the reasons I feel an affinity with McQueen is his working class background, something I can and do identify with (although he was fifteen years older than me and I think I would have found him terrifying if I met him in real life.) Whereas the previous book reviewed on this blog focused on the business side of his life, here McQueen’s personal life is fully explored, with the blessing of his family. Lots of photos and anecdotes are peppered throughout the book and, although some of the people featured seem to be the same ones who will talk about him at the drop of a hat/for exposure, there genuinely seems to be warmth and love present in many of the stories, which I think is crucial, as it would be so easy for McQueen to come across as an egotistical, drug-addled, stereotypical fashionista (which he could clearly also be at times.)

The book deals with this duality of McQueen’s life: working class boy, Lee, who was always ready with a laugh and adored his family and friends; and the world-famous designer Alexander, immensely talented, addicted to cocaine and the high-life. It reads like one of those ‘tell all’ biographies of old Hollywood stars- and I wonder what the McQueen family thought of the final product.

I would recommend you have a book of McQueen’s fashions nearby when reading this, as you will want to check what things looked like (my favourite collection, I think, is The Girl Who Lived In The Tree, one of the later ones) and I had the excellent catalogue of the current Savage Beauty exhibition at the V&A, which I was able to borrow from the local library. It’s an expensive book, so do see if you can borrow it- the other sourcebooks were nowhere near as good and often got things wrong, I found.

Anyway- to sum it up, this is a fairly detailed account of the life of one of our greatest modern designers, and well worth a read if you’re preparing to go to the exhibition and want to know more about the man behind the genius on show.

Buy the book here– currently 50% off with free p+p (affiliate link/read my affiliate policy)

Gods and Kings: The rise and fall of Alexander McQueen and John Galliano- Dana Thomas

 

Gods and Kings: The Rise and Fall of Alexander McQueen and John Galliano (Apr)

I think it surprises people that I’m genuinely interested in fashion, especially high-fashion, as I’m not particularly fashionable (as I write this, I’m wearing what I call ‘day pyjamas’, made up of clothing that’s all older than my son.) But I’m interested in the process and creativity of designers, especially Alexander McQueen, who I think was the designer who probably influenced my generation more than any other. When I found out that I worked with someone who had modelled for Galliano in the 80s, I grilled her for all the details. As the famous scene in Devil Wears Prada states- we’re all influenced by fashion, whether we acknowledge or reject it.

Anyway. I’m planning on going to the McQueen exhibition at the V&A in July and thought I’d read up on my subject beforehand (so be prepared for more books gracing the blog; I have a ton of reservations scheduled at the library.)

It’s a good book if you’re at all interested in the luxury fashion business or have just lusted after a Tom Ford lipstick; the two designers were working at the start of the present era of conglomerates owning luxury fashion houses and both worked as part of the machine- Galliano at Dior and McQueen at Givenchy and later with his own brand became part of the Gucci group. It’s fascinating to see how both of these men reacted to this- Galliano becoming ever more wild and McQueen becoming stifled. The power plays, bickering and competitiveness between the companies courting designers were just as highly charged as any rivalry between designers- although there’s little of that here, no Bette Davis/Joan Crawford-style ‘divine feud’ going on. In fact, despite the photo on the cover, the two men rarely meet in the book. I found it interesting to learn that the businesses don’t expect to sell much of the runway collection, instead focusing on ‘middle market’ items like bags (which used to sell at twelve times their cost price, but horrendously more now), glasses and makeup. So the perfume you wear funds the catwalk.

Personally, I was most interested in reading about their influences. Both were geniuses in their own style; Galliano’s feminine and somewhat ethereal and McQueen’s bolshy, challenging shapes and as someone with a self-confessed ‘butterfly brain’ but none of the talent to do anything with it, I found it satisfying to read, however briefly, about the process from idea to reality. As a result, I’m going to be looking for sourcebooks and photos of the clothes so I can look at them in detail (another reason I’m off to the V&A. Both designers loved the museum.)

 

It’s also a fascinating look at their personalities, temperaments and influences. Both McQueen and Galliano could be demanding, selfish and occasionally believe their own hype; neither was particularly pleasant when self-medicating with drugs and alcohol. I would say that I felt there was a definite McQueen bias; the author is a fashion journalist who worked with both designers over the years. Whereas Galliano comes across as diva-ish, demanding and selfish, McQueen is portrayed more as a man caught between his East End upbringing and the facetiousness of fashion, although not without his own moments of selfishness, especially when it came to Isabella Blow. Both careers ended abruptly- McQueen by suicide a few days after his mother’s death and Galliano by the now-infamous anti-Semitic comments made around Paris.

I found the book a really riveting read, although I would have liked more  photos of some of the clothes- a late night google of the hat from The Girl Who Lived In A Tree show was a bit frustrating and I felt that, as the author went to such trouble describing it, it should have been included in the colour plates. But that’s a minor grumble. Although true fashionistas probably don’t approve of the book, for mere mortals, it’s a toe in the water of a fascinating story.

Source: library

Format: Hardback

Pages: 432