Review of Painting by Numbers by Tom Gillespie

Title: Painting by Numbers
Author: Tom Gillespie
Published: 06 September 2012
Publisher: Crooked Cat Publishing
Genre: mystery, thriller
Source: eARC from the author
Rating: 5/10

Jacob Boyce is obsessed with a painting, an obscure piece of Spanish Baroque art entitled ‘The Loss of Innocence’. The artist is unknown, although some believe it to be a lesser work by the famous Spanish painter Diego Velázquez. Jacob’s theory is that it was painted by an almost unknown artist named Manuel Piñero a student and understudy of Velázquez. Every day, Jacob goes to the museum, finds his ideal spot on the bench in front of the painting, and studies it in minute detail. He assigns numbers to the different pigments, measures the distance between objects in the picture, and analyses the meaning of the imagery, jotting everything down in his notebook. Jacob believes the painting “may contain or demonstrate a unique mathematical formula” that could be used to predict uncertainties, like the tectonic plate movements that create earthquakes.

In pursuing this bizarre hypothesis, Jacob neglects both his job as an Earth Sciences professor at the university, and his wife Ella, who is still grieving after her father’s suicide. Nothing can deter him from his daily museum visits, until he comes home one day to find that Ella has disappeared. Unsure if she’s left him or if something more sinister has happened, he chases after her to her mother’s villa in Spain, and from there goes to Barcelona and Madrid. Jacob’s search for his wife soon becomes entangled with his obsession with ‘The Loss of Innocence’, the artist Manuel Piñero, and a mysterious young woman named Jude who has her own obsession with paintings.

Painting by Numbers gets off to quite a slow, detailed start, but I liked it in a nerdy kind of way. Jacob’s studies meant that I got to learn a bit about art and drawing, such as the use of shape, perspective, colour and symbol. There are also obscure theories about art and science, like the notion that a painting, if designed according to a specific formula, will react to being observed and begin to move in minute ways. This is something that actually starts happening to Jacob’s painting, although he’s the only one who’s studied it closely enough to notice.

Gillespie uses infodumps for all this academic stuff, but they feel natural enough. When it comes to details like character traits however, he employs more elegant methods, weaving information into the narrative when it’s appropriate to do so. I really appreciated this; I hate when authors just dump a clunky paragraph of character profile into the story the moment someone enters a scene. Overall, Gillespie’s writing is pretty good. I know readers are often worried about the writing in indie novels, and there is some misplaced punctuation and a few minor mistakes, but nothing to cause a fuss about.

The novel could use a bit of work in terms of pace and plot though. The mystery/thriller aspect of the story kicks off when Ella disappears, but for me the plot starts to unravel here, and it becomes rather dull. Jacob goes running after his wife, who has been spotted in the company of a mysterious man, but at some point he starts chasing paintings. It’s implied that his studies have somehow gotten him in danger but n. His short-term goals don’t always make sense, and most of the time he seems kind of loopy and daft. Overall, his character is a bit deadpan, and the mystery he finds himself involved in lacks tension.

There are also a lot of odd occurrences that baffled rather than intrigued me. For example, Jacob finds a beautiful but unfamiliar letter opener in his fireplace, then drops it into what looks like a pool of blood on his kitchen floor. The blood turns out to be candle wax, but when he tries to get the letter opener out of the wax, it’s disappeared. In Madrid, he goes to an art gallery and gets some kind of spasm in his foot that makes it difficult for him to walk or even put his foot on the floor. He also experiences sudden bursts of pain in his head, or sees inexplicable flashes of light. You have no idea why these things happen, but what’s even stranger is that Jacob acts like nothing’s amiss. He doesn’t ask what a pool of blood-red wax is doing in his kitchen or why it seems almost as if his foot is being repelled by the surface of the floor. At the very least I’d like him to frown and wonder what the hell is going on at that moment.

Another oddity is the way Jacob keeps having long, meaningful conversations with strangers. They eagerly discuss their personal philosophies about life and frequently give him lot of useful information or provide some kind of assistance, usually in the form of free stuff. I have to admit that Gillespie is very good at writing these conversations. They’re generally quite engaging, and although Jacob always seems a bit deadpan, the people he talks to are lively and passionate. The problem is that you’re left to wonder why all they all open up to Jacob in this way, and why they’re so eager to help him. One such encounter is fortuitous, but multiple encounters don’t feel natural and I wondered if Gillespie was just writing these conversations simply because he enjoyed doing it.

In the author’s defence, there is a twist in the ending that excuses all peculiarities, but I raised the issues anyway because the ending doesn’t offer sufficient explanation. It’s the kind of twist that should change the way you view the rest of the book, but for me the effect was simply to confirm that the story really was as just as unhinged as I’d thought. I think I can see what the author was trying to achieve, part of which is to create a parallel between Jacob’s life and the painting he’s fixated with. The ideas are great but the execution is vague and ultimately unsatisfying. There’s too much running around, too much confusion. And that’s a shame, because it had a lot of potential.


Buy a copy of Painting by Numbers:
Crooked Cat Books

Up for Review: Painting by Numbers

It’s been a while since I reviewed indie fiction. I’m starting again with this novel.

Painting by Numbers by Tom Gillespie (Crooked Cat Publishing)

Blurb from the publisher’s website:

Day after day, Jacob Boyce – faltering academic and failing husband – visits a 17th century allegorical painting which hangs in a Glasgow art gallery. By using a series of measurements and calculations, he attempts to create a mathematical theory that will decipher the code locked into its canvas.

As more of the painting’s hidden secrets are revealed, and he meets a mysterious young woman, Jacob’s life spirals into chaos.

The object of his obsession has begun to move.

Painting by Numbers is a dark, surreal thriller that follows one man’s relentless pursuit into an old truth buried deep within.

Painting by Numbers was published as an eBook on 6 September 2012 by Crooked Cat Publishing. A print version is set to follow shortly.

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Tom Gillespie’s website

Buy a copy:
Crooked Cat Books




May Round-Up

Considering the fact that I spent most of month either away on holiday or preparing for it, I think I did quite well with my reading – 6 books and one short story.

Things started off badly with the dreadfully dull Strindberg’s Star by Jan Wallentin. Avoid.

Edie Investigates” was a charming eShort from Nick Harkaway. It introduces Edie Banister, a major character from Harkaway’s novel Angelmaker.  She’s a retired spy, now in her eighties, but totally defying all your expectations of little old ladies.

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn was perhaps by best read this month, and undoubtedly one of the best new books I’ve read this year. It’s a dark, demented psychological thriller about a marriage, a missing wife, and the husband who’s soon suspected of killing her. A very smart, surprising read, and utterly compelling.

The only thing that could rival Gone Girl as my best read this month is one of my favourite books – Perfume by Patrick Süskind. I re-read it to complete two different reading challenge tasks, and because I’ve been meaning to re-read it for a long time. It’s as brilliant as ever. I’ve seen the movie a few times since last I read the novel, so it was also interesting to note the differences. I also thought it would be a good holiday read for my Paris trip, since part of the novel is set in Paris (albeit a much older and stinkier version). I read the last few pages sitting on the Trocadero, waiting for the light show to start on the Eiffel Tower.

I finished Amped by Daniel H. Wilson last night. I jumped at the chance to review it after hearing all the hype about Robocalypse, Wilson’s first novel. Unfortunately, there’s nothing new or particularly exciting about Amped,  where American society turns against people who have ‘amplified’ abilities thanks to cybernetic implants. Conservatives fear and hate the amps and deem them non-human, leading to terrible oppression and civil conflict. It’s a familiar story, and Wilson does nothing innovative, so it’s average at best. Review to follow.

There are two other books I read this month. The first is Design as Art by Bruno Munari. I bought this and another book on art at the famous Shakespeare and Company in Paris (more on that in another post). This came after a visit to Centre Pompidou, a stunning modern art gallery that left me both awed and confused, hence the books on art. Design on Art has a series of easy-to-read essays that provided a few basic insights into modern art, which I really appreciated. On the downside, some of the essays are little more than lists of stuff rounded off with a minor point that Munari wanted to make about design. All in all, it balanced out to an average read.

I’ve had an eBook edition of The Beggars’ Signwriters by Louis Greenberg for a few months, but when I got the wonderful opportunity of meeting him for dinner in Paris, I wanted to read his book asap! (By the way – dinner with an author in Paris, how awesome is that! And Louis is a very nice guy.) It’s one of those books that’s almost impossible to properly sum up in a few words, and the blurb doesn’t do it justice. It follows the intertwined lives of South Africans living in Melville, Joburg, but also takes us to London, where two artists and a writer live and work for a few years. The novel explores personal relationships and modern art without binding itself to any definitive plot. I’m quite fond of novels that meander in this way, and although there were parts of The Beggars’ Signwriters that I didn’t like as much as others, I found the book as a whole to be a soothing, reflective read. I wanted to talk to Louis a bit more about the book than I did, but in person I’m dreadfully shy about that sort of thing, and I’m not sure if authors are always keen on those conversations… Anyway, no review for now because it was one of my leisure reads and I didn’t take notes, but maybe another time.

I couldn’t sleep last night, so after finishing Amped I jumped right in to what will be my first read for June – Kingdom of Strangers by Zoë Ferraris. It’s a murder-mystery set in Saudi Arabia, where the extreme social restrictions inhibit the lives of the characters – especially women – and the investigation itself, when notions of honour and propriety come before police procedure. It’s very good so far. I’ve got other good things lined up for June, but more on that later.

What did you read this past month? Anything you’d recommend?