Vance - Book Reviews

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

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 the 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 sees. It's only later, when he "followed" her home to an oil painting in her room, that she learns his story. For over 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 believably hard choices about how much to trust him. The evil witch, Nee Gezitch, 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. At the moment, 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.

You might also enjoy:
Dream a Little Dream (Piers Anthony and Julie Brady, Fiction - A dark force threatens Kafka, the world created by human dreams)
The Remnants series (K. A. Applegate, YA Fiction - After Earth's destruction, a handful of survivors awake in a surreal world, partly composed of art)
The Wizard of Oz (L. Frank Baum, YA Fiction - When a tornado drops a Kansas girl in a magical land, she must defeat a wicked witch to return home)
The Journey trilogy (Aaron Becker, YA Picture Book - A girl's magic red pen allows her to enter and explore a world of wonders)
Storybound (Marissa Burt, YA Fiction - A girl falls into the world of Story)
Jeremy Thatcher, Dragon Hatcher (Bruce Coville, YA Fiction - An artist boy buys a dragon's egg in a magic shop)
The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles (Julie Andrews Edwards, YA Fiction - A professor and three children seek the world of the fanciful Whangdoodle, which can only be found through the power of imagination)
The Stoneheart trilogy (Charlie Fletcher, YA Fiction - An act of vandalism plunges a London boy into the unseen war between the city's statues and gargoyles)
The Inkheart trilogy (Cornelia Funke, YA Fiction - A bookbinder's voice can read people out of stories... and into them)
Librarian: Little Boy Lost (Eric Hobbs, YA Fiction - A bookish boy discovers secrets and dangers in a mysterious library)
The Paper Magician (Charlie N. Holmberg, YA Fiction - In an alternate London, an apprentice Folder must use her paper-enchanting skills to save her master's life)
Teller (Chris Howard, YA Fiction - A teen boy learns he can manipulate reality with stories and paintings)
The Book of Story Beginnings (Kristin Kladstrup, YA Fiction - Writing stories in a special journal makes them spring to life)
The Unwanteds (Lisa McMann, YA fiction - A brutal dictatorship culls creative teens, who find refuge in a hidden magical sanctuary)
The Circle of Magic quartet (Tamora Pierce, YA Fiction - Four children must learn to trust and use their elusive magical gifts)
Dragon Rose (Christine Pope, Fiction - 19-year-old Rhianne is sent to the reclusive immortal Dragon Lord as a bride, where she's threatened by his curse)
The Rithmatist (Brandon Sanderson, YA Fiction - In a world where gifted Rithmatists infuse chalk lines with power, an ungifted academy boy is drawn into danger when students begin vanishing)
The Forbidden Library (Django Wexler, YA Fiction - A girl finds dangers, wonders, and her own magic in a library of magical books)
The Otherland quartet (Tad Williams, Fiction - In the trail of a dark and dangerous force, a group of 'net surfers in the near future find their way into a network of exceptionally realistic VR worlds)

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