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on 1 June 2017
I give this book my highest compliment: I couldn't put it down! (I have just this second finished it, and it's a work day and I should be working, so that tells you everything!) The subject is fascinating, the characters are beautifully drawn (and easy to differentiate as you read - often a problem, I find) and the language is a delight. As a writer myself, I can only admire the HUGE amount of historical research that has gone into the book, and the lightness with which the author wears her expertise - you absorb the information painlessly and enjoyably. You really must read this book - it is a delight.
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on 3 May 2017
A lovely, lively book (with a brilliant cover). It travels from Venice in the 16th century to New York and London in the 21st, giving wonderful insights into several lives, and all connected by the pull of a painting. The writing is muscular at times, full of chewy descriptions and conversations that hint at different meanings, and then you feel pulled, gently at first but then gathering pace, towards an ending that leaves you feeling uplifted. A recommended read.
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Reading Titian’s Boatman by Victoria Blake is akin to embarking on a highly enjoyable journey through gorgeous settings and two distinct periods of time. This novel is a series of seemingly unrelated stories set in London, Venice and New York City, which slowly intertwine then merge towards the end.

It was fascinating to be privy to the inner thoughts of a master painter, famous courtesan, Venetian boatman, English stage actor, Italian film director, New York City police man, Italian nun, Manhattan cleaning lady, Italian poet and aging movie star. Revenge drives one character, the desire to reach a higher social standing another, fame and perhaps wealth motivates a third, and memories of better times keep a forth going. All of their stories are connected via a single painting, Titian’s Man With the Blue Sleeve.

The cast of characters is quite large yet two remain central: Terry, an important British stage actor who is grieving the loss of his mother and breakup with his lover in the year 2011, and Sebastiano da Canal, a gondolier who worked for Titian’s friends and a courtesan in sixteenth century Venice.

Each chapter provides a snippet of information which reveals another insight into the character’s lives, place and time. The novel reminded me of a jigsaw puzzle that has to be reassembled before one can truly understand it. I was quite impressed by how the author tailored her writing style to the era portrayed and characters described. In all instances, her prose is beautiful and evocative. The short chapters and large cast keep the reader alert and it is a delight to discover what twist or turn the author introduces next.

Based on the book’s description, cover design and the fact that the author’s father is a well-respected historian, I was expecting a story seeped in historical detail with long, flowery descriptions of setting and place. This novel isn’t like that; instead it is a tight series of family histories connected together by bloodlines, servitude and the paintings of Titian. Don’t get me wrong, the author’s descriptions are lavish and even sumptuous, yet every detail matters. She provides enough information about the time and place to engage and inform, then stops.

Within a span of merely 369 pages, the author covers several important and complex historical events: the Inquisition, medieval punishments, Jews’ banishment to the Ghettos, pagan rituals versus organized religion, courtesans and patrons, sons and priesthood, dowries and nunneries, households and creditors. Her explanations are compact and efficient; short, quick scenes that effectively sketch the background of current events and social attitudes held without turning the book into a university lecture.

She has wisely chosen characters whose actions help explain the events leading up to the decisions and attitudes held. Though several of them are based on real people and many of the events described did happen, history provides the outline and the author’s imagination fills in the rest.

The events happening in both eras mirror each other, informing and supporting each other through a parallel plot structure that works incredibly well. All of the threads draw to a satisfying close, perhaps too happy, but fitting for such a novel. I can imagine on a second or even third read, I would pick up even more connections between time, place and characters.

Art and art history are important to this novel, and the reader learns about Titian’s painting practices, use of models and the role of his patrons. The art historian in me loved the art history jokes sprinkled throughout the novel, in particular those concerning the popularity of certain painters and the role of museums educators. “He sighed and lingered just long enough to see what painter they would bring up. His worst fears were confirmed – Van Gogh and his wretched sunflowers. How inevitable!” (page 137) Passages such as these cracked me up, and are an excellent example of the author’s subtle humor and gift for timing.

I really enjoyed visiting both historic and contemporary Venice with this author. Her evocative descriptions of place were a pleasure to read and often worked into the text in a most unique way. “He was as transparent as the lagoon” (page 207) is one of many beautifully descriptive examples.

Present day Venice is also described as I recall it. The author shows you the glorious cathedrals, squares and cafes of the city center and take you on a trip around the city, highlighting both the tourist hotspots and local favorites. The city is described by someone who has clearly spent time wandering along the canals and bridges crisscrossing the main islands and riding the vaporettos (water buses) to the outlying areas.

Her descriptions don’t just focus on the architecture and famous churches. She provides a realistic look at the use of planks when the city center floods, compares the pigeon problematic at St. Mark’s in Venice to London’s Trafalgar Square, mentions pricy cafes on historic squares, overcrowded scenic routes along the Grand Canals and eerily empty side streets and squares a few blocks away.

As far as the historical chapters are concerned, the era is as well described as the city of Venice. Readers see the Ghetto and squalor as well as the beauty wealth could provide during and after the plague in the 1570s.

Central London, in particular Trafalgar square and the National Gallery come to life. You feel the rain and winds, crowded streets and irritations with the Tube. I love how she describes the Thames River running through the city: “In a city this crowded, why on earth didn’t they use it as a source of transport? Then at least it would have some use; it would get back its pride and dignity. All it had was its ebb and flow, and of course the dubious pleasure of transporting tourists between the two Tates, but there was no dignity in that.” (page 128)

Titian’s Boatman was a joy to read, as much for the fascinating characters and historical what ifs?, as the setting – both London and Venice. She describes the cities in a way that makes you feel as if you are there walking alongside her characters.

I highly recommend this book to fans of art history, historical fiction, European travel, and pretty much anyone else who loves reading a great book.
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on 21 April 2017
They say don't judge a book by its cover. But in this case do!
Just as Titian's 'Man with the Blue Sleeve' gazes provocatively at us from behind a torn strip of canvas, so Blake's recreation of 16th century Venice envelops us in its wonderful detail and flavour.
Blake has a tremendous talent for the visceral in her writing - from the intensity of a great artist's studio to the choking atmosphere of a plague-ridden city struggling for survival. And then we are whisked away to 21st century New York and London.
This novel is a joy of interlinked stories.
And through it all runs the power of art.
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on 2 April 2017
I loved this book, and it was unlike any story I had read before. Titian's Boatman is a wonderfully eclectic mix of art, history and romance, with a focus on the necessity of savouring life and making the most of every second. This is a story that is gritty and brutally dark, but also warm and uplifting.

The huge array of characters in Titian's Boatman were vivid, colourfully creative and came to life right before my eyes on the page. My favourite character was undoubtedly Tullia and I loved her chapters the most. I adored the overlapping narratives and how the different stories fitted together, united in association with one artist and one painting, revealing how art can transcend ages and generations, and force relations and connections with members of the living and members of the dead.

Titian's Boatman is a superbly clever book; not one which provided me with all the answers but encouraged me to join the dots and figure out the answers for myself. It was great how everything fitted together at the end and the ending brought everything together for me - a sign of a fantastic book!

Overall, I loved Titian's Boatman and if you like history, intrigue and a story you can lose yourself in, pick up yourself a copy!
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on 26 February 2017
A series of tales or several strands, rather than a novel, linked by Titian and his work. I now really want to go and see the portrait with the gorgeous blue sleeve. A sensual book that at times is looking at love in many forms – the loved and the lovers, some who don’t feel they are worthy of love and a wealth of emotions. Tender, emotive and visceral. I also found myself feeling very much as if I was in the locations in this book, as the descriptions hit all the senses. I sometimes find myself skating through descriptions in books but didn’t want to in this one, as they were neither too long nor too self-indulgent. Vicky writes with a great sense of humour that gives you a wry smile every now and then, as well as building the Venetian elements with some well researched period detail which were also interesting – what does a courtesan of that era require in her house?
Also interesting to consider the subject of a portrait and all that they see over the centuries. Does art talk to us? What do we each get when looking at a painting? What goes through the mind of the artist when painting? The book raises questions and doesn’t always need to answer them.
A really great read.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 13 February 2017
Titian’s Boatman is very different than any book I’ve read before, which isn’t a bad thing. In fact it was a big part of the thing that drew me to Victoria Blake’s latest novel, as I often love diving into a novel I have no idea what to expect from. The other thing which drew me to Titian’s Boatman was how extremely intriguing it sounded from the blurb, and honestly this book did not disappoint me one bit.

There are many layers to this complex story. The book begins with the boatman, Sebastiano, who has brought into a city torn apart due to plague and crime a hooded man, who turns out to be someone he hates, Pomponio, the son of Titian. As if these three characters weren’t intriguing enough, there were many more parts and people to this story that I couldn’t wait to learn more about. One thing in particular I enjoyed about this book was the character development. The portrayal of each character was rich in colour and detail. Victoria Blake paints a picture as good with her words as Titian painted his masterpieces. I felt like I could really accurately see each character which was really absorbing and helped me connect really well with the book.

The story in Titian’s Boatman travels many years, from its early days in the 1540s to 2011. There is also changes in the location from Venice to London and to New York, although Venice is the most prominent place in the book. Although the book changes characters quite often throughout, I didn’t find this in the least bit confusing. The author’s style of writing is beautifully vivid and engaging. I love the way she details moments and scenes in the book which were truly brought to life through the atmospheric tone to the writing and the use of my own imagination. When reading a book outside of my comfort zone, I can sometimes find them a bit tricky to get to grips with but when reading Titian’s Boatman, I was completely engrossed in the story and every time I put the book down, I was compelled to pick it up again and continue reading what was a highly entertaining novel.

At the beginning of the book where we meet the main characters, the one thing that helped me keep up with the character changes was how they were all linked in some way to one person, Titian. Everything seemed to lead back to Titian and his art and he was really such a fascinating person. I had so many questions about him and was always dying to find out more about him. Early on there’s this painting, and later on there’s a second painting, another one of Titan’s masterpieces, and I don’t want to spoil any aspect of the story so I won’t, but I was hooked. I could picture the painting and the story that went with each one. The author’s storytelling possesses such a force that pulls the reader into the story she has created and leaves you eager for more. I absolutely loved reading this book and it’s a really memorable one which I’m sure will linger on my mind for a long time to come.
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on 8 February 2017
'Imagine you can begin anywhere'. From this first line, I was enchanted by this stunning book and knew I was going to love it. The story weaves between 16th Century Venice and modern day New York and London, the characters' stories linked by the fates of two of Titian's paintings. The Venice depicted here drips with atmosphere: plague-ridden but opulent, beautiful but corrupt. Its characters are as well-drawn and evocative as the city: the painter, the boatman, the courtesan, the nun. This is a magical world that I inhabited for a while through the author's words. And the modern day story is just as compelling, the links between past and present becoming clear as the story unfolds. Sometimes when a book is written from the viewpoint of a number of characters some are more interesting than others, so you're tempted to skip pages to get back to the more interesting ones, but that isn't the case here - I was invested in every character, desperate to find out more. Each story is interesting, each has something different to offer, but the book brings all of the stories together in a satisfying conclusion. I'm still haunted by this book, one of those that you wish you'd never read so that you could read it all over again.
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It is 1576, and Titian is living in plague-ridden Venice – an old man, refusing to flee from the city he loves. As he waits for death to find him, he thinks back to his young days, when his career was just beginning, recalling the time when he painted the portrait that became known as The Man with the Blue Sleeve. By the time his one surviving son, Pomponio, reaches Venice, Titian is dead; and, in the disorder of the time, his studio has been ransacked and many of his paintings stolen. As the plague eventually recedes from the city, we meet Tullia, one of the city's courtesans, returning to find that she too has had her home looted. With her wealth gone, she realises she will have to start again, sending out signals to the rich men of Venice that she is available for their pleasure – at a price. In this city where the main mode of travel is by water, Sebastiano the boatman is an observer of the great people of the city, knowing their weaknesses and sometimes their secrets, their lives often touching on his.

In London in 2011, actor Terry Jardine is currently in rehearsal of A Winter's Tale. Terry recently lost his beloved mother, and that, together with a break-up of a long-term relationship, has brought him to a kind of crisis in his life. When he breaks down during rehearsals, his director, Ludovico, comforts him, and so begins a love story between these two men. Meantime in New York, we meet Aurora, a Cuban-born maid working for Mr and Mrs Pereira, a couple who are being surreptitiously investigated by the police.

These four characters – Terry, Aurora, Sebastiano and Tullia – are all loosely linked through Titian and his art. The book jumps back and forwards between them, which could easily have made it feel disjointed. But the quality of the writing, together with some excellent characterisation, makes each section compelling, so that, rather than feeling irritated by the jumps, I found I was looking forward in each case to finding out a little more of the story of whichever character came to the fore. There is no over-arching plot as such, but the links to Titian's paintings give the book a structure that stops it from feeling too fragmentary.

Blake has clearly done her research for the Venetian strands, and creates a marvellously authentic-feeling picture of the 16th century society of the city. As we learn more about Sebastiano, we see how his family was severely affected when his father became briefly caught up in the schemes of Titian's son, Pomponio, and how different the rules of justice were for rich and poor. But in the Venice section, it's Tullia's story that stood out for me – the precarious life of the courtesan dependant entirely on youth and beauty, and the need to achieve wealth before these begin to fade. There is a recurring theme throughout the strands of children separated from their mothers, and in Tullia's case this is both fascinating and moving, as we learn of younger or less pretty daughters of the wealthy farmed off to convents to avoid the need for families to find dowries to enable them to marry.

In the contemporary section, Aurora is fascinated by a Titian owned by her employers, of the death of Saint Sebastian. Blake writes with a lovely light touch, so its only gradually that we discover why this painting means so much to her, and how it is connected to her own childhood when her parents sent her to the US to escape from Castro's Cuba.

Terry's connection to Titian comes when he is in the National Gallery admiring The Man with the Blue Sleeve, when it suddenly seems to him that the painting is talking to him, prophesying his death. The growing love between Terry and Ludovico is beautifully done, giving the book its emotional heart. We see the importance of the theatre to Terry – he can't imagine himself as anything other than an actor, and can't imagine life continuing if he were ever to become unable to act. Ludovico was also separated from his mother as a baby and never knew her identity, but now she wishes to meet him and he doesn't know how to feel about that. The two men give each other the emotional support each needs to get through these difficult moments in their lives.

I've been deliberately vague about each strand, because the joy of the book is in the slow revelations through which the characters are gradually built-up, layer on layer, so that we see what has made them who they are. In the end, all the strands come together, but as with the whole book it's done gently – there's no big dramatic denouement or stunning twist, just a somewhat understated unfolding of the connections through Titian's art that link these people about whom we've come to care.

I know Victoria Blake somewhat through our blogs, but as always I've tried not to let that colour my review. In truth, I loved this book. The slowish start when all the various strands are introduced meant that it took a little while to grab me, but the quality of the prose carried me until the gradual deepening of the characterisation caused me to become completely absorbed by the stories of these people. Of course, it's about art and the effect it can have in many different ways, but mostly it's about people, told with a depth of understanding and sympathy for human frailties, and the various kinds of love that give us the strength to withstand life's blows. Highly recommended. 4½ stars for me, so rounded up.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Black & White Publishing.
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on 3 February 2017
This is a stunningly written and enticing story about Venice in the 1500s. The writing is so vibrant and the one thing that really struck me all through the book is how alive the settings feel - particularly the noises and smells of Venice in that time period. I absolutely loved this book. It took me a while to read it - not because I wasn't enjoying it but because the writing was so rich and beautiful I just wanted to take my time and savour every little bit.

Titian's Boatman has a really interesting premise. It centres around three different places - London and New York in 2011, and Venice in 1576. It's a fascinating contrast between the two, and it's hauntingly beautiful the way the paintings create little rippling effects hundreds of years after they were painted. The story is told in alternating points of view between the different locations, making for a beautifully complex, layer narration. This book was a pleasure to read, and really came alive the more I progressed through the story.

The characters in Titian's Boatman really come alive on the page. Their stories are different, but all contain human emotions - anger and fear, love and loneliness. I loved that there was such a wide variety of characters. It offered so many perspectives, and made for such a beautiful and compelling story. I also must point how that I loved the simple and elegant cover design, I think it fits so well with the book. If you're looking for beautiful writing, a complex and multi-layer plot and an enticing story, Titian's Boatman will be just the think you're looking for.
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