Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Behind the Canvas (Alexander Vance)

Behind the Canvas
Alexander Vance
Fiewell and Friends
Fiction, YA Fantasy
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Middle-schooler Claudia Miravista loves nothing more than a good art gallery - which, combined with her shyness, hardly makes her the most popular girl in class. It's not like she's a great artist herself, no matter how her grandfather praises her doodles and sketches... but she can still enjoy gazing into a painting.
She never expected anyone to gaze back.
Pim first appears in a painting at the small art museum in downtown Florence, Indiana, during a school trip, a blue-eyed boy nobody else saw. It's only later, when he "follows" her home to an oil painting in her room, that she learns his story. For three centuries, he claims, he's been trapped in a world created ages ago by mages known as Artistis, cursed by a witch. When it seems she might help him break free, Claudia willingly agrees; he's the first real friend she's ever had, after all. But art, like reality, has many more layers than meets the eye... as do people, a lesson she learns all too quickly when she steps into the world behind the canvas.

REVIEW: With a great concept and a reasonably interesting (if occasionally stubborn) heroine, Behind the Canvas makes for a fast, adventurous read. Claudia starts with the usual middle grade baggage of shyness and insecurity, her love of painting tempered by fear that she'll never be any good at art herself, plus her chronic social awkwardness. Her adventure starts fairly fast, with little of the usual dithering and foot-dragging. Naturally, she learns important life lessons in her journey, but not without a few false turns and setbacks and the odd relapse - most of which play out believably, given the often-intense situations she's in. Pim seems a simple victim of circumstances at first, but along the way, as more of his story comes out, Claudia must make some hard choices about how much to trust him. The evil witch, Nee Gezicht, is a nasty villainess and formidable foe whose taste in minions and decor has a disturbingly Surrealist streak. Defeating her is no easy task, as she has several tricks up her sleeve. Along the way, a decent helping of real-world art history is sprinkled into the tale, often with helpful footnote "excerpts" from Claudia's favorite art book, Dr. Buckhardt's Art History for the Enthusiast and the Ignorant - excerpts with the humorous touch the title implies. I read this with an internet browser window open; it was rather interesting to look at the art and the styles as Claudia encountered them. But this isn't just a thinly-disguised attempt to force-feed culture into reluctant young brains; it's a decent story in its own right, whether or not it inspires any genuine art appreciation in its readers. The ending has a few nice twists, and there are some moments of true wonder. For now, it looks to be a stand-alone tale, but I wouldn't mind exploring further behind the canvas if Vance finds more stories lurking back there.

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