“The World of Tomorrow” by Brendan Mathews

The World of Tomorrow“The World’s Fair, in that summer of 1939, was a place full of promise,” writes Brendan Mathews in his debut novel, The World of Tomorrow. “It promised a world of frozen food and hot jazz, a world that would be better supplied and better organized in power, communications, transport, and amusement. Ribbons of highways would connect skyscraper cities where every citizen had a home in the clouds and a car on the road.”

That passage appears on page 514 of Tomorrow, and the preceding pages don’t really have much to do with the World’s Fair, which drew over 44 million visitors to Queens, N.Y., during its eighteen-month-long run. I had been hoping that this book would provide an exciting and dramatic saga set against the backdrop of the fair; instead, I got a so-so novel which climaxes at the event.

The main focus of the book is on three Irish brothers, one of whom emigrated to New York 10 years ago and two who join him there in June 1939. Martin is a semi-successful musician, married with children, still hoping to get his big break. Francis and Michael set sail from Ireland on the run from the I.R.A. with a bag of stolen loot, which is used to book first-class tickets; once aboard the ocean liner, Francis is no longer a small-time pornographer who busted out of jail by making an escape during his father’s funeral, he’s a Scottish laird named Sir Angus. Michael, a former seminarian rendered deaf and mute in an accident, is now Sir Malcolm, tragically injured while fox-hunting.

Little does Francis know that an encounter with a wealthy mother and daughter aboard the liner will force him to keep up the “Sir Angus” ruse once he disembarks in New York. Meanwhile, Michael is joined by a couple of companions: the ghost of William Butler Yeats, the recently-deceased Irish poet, and a very-much-alive young street photographer named Lilly, who helps Michael after he becomes separated from his brother.

Not surprisingly, stealing money from the I.R.A. manages to get Francis in hot water. Much of the book is devoted to Francis’ pursuit by yet another Irish immigrant; I was never as interested in that story as I was in the subplot about Lilly and Michael. Lilly is a European Jew who is supposed to return to Prague, where her boyfriend awaits, but the gathering storm clouds of World War II cause her to wonder if going home would be a wise move, considering the German occupation of Czechoslovakia.

There are a lot of characters in this book, but I never had a problem keeping track of them; I often got the sense that Mathews is more skilled at creating characters than in conjuring up a sense of place, since I often found myself wanting more of a flavor of 1939 New York. This is a wildly ambitious novel, but perhaps he’d be better off narrowing his focus a bit next time around.

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“The House of Unexpected Sisters” and “My Italian Bulldozer” by Alexander McCall Smith

The House of Unexpected SistersI always look forward to my annual visit with Precious Ramotswe and her colleagues at the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, but as I read The House of Unexpected Sisters, it struck me as… even more slight than most of the books in this series. There are never murders in these mysteries, but there are always a couple good puzzles to solve. In this one, there are two, and they are rather flimsy: first, there’s a woman who claims she was unjustly fired from her job at an office-furniture store; second, during the course of that investigation, Mma Ramotswe finds out that there’s another woman with her same last name in the area, and wonders who she is. (Spoiler alert: check out the book’s title.)

The novel hits all the usual beats readers expect from these series: Mma Ramotswe’s ever-fraught relationship with the prickly Mma Makutsi, her secretary-turned-Principal Investigating Officer; long afternoons spent eating fruitcake and discussing matters with the wise Mma Potokwane; thoughts about the importance of cattle; an appearance by perpetual antagonist Violet Sephotho; etc. However, about three-quarters of the way into this rather slim volume, Mma Ramotswe learns some truths about her late father, and readers get to see an emotional side of her that we’ve never before encountered. I will admit that by the time I finished the book, I felt pretty satisfied.

Even though I wound up enjoying The House of Unexpected Sisters, I do hope that next year’s cases are a little meatier. And that Mma Makutsi remembers that she has a baby (seriously, there’s a point in this book where she seems to have forgotten).

My Italian BulldozerAlexander McCall Smith’s bibliography now spans two full pages at the front of his books, and he seems to publish at least three novels a year, but the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series is the only one I’ve ever really gotten into (Sisters is #18, and I’ve read them all). After finishing Sisters, I decided to try one of his recent stand-alones, My Italian Bulldozer. It’s a breezy read about a Scottish travel writer who is forced to rent a bulldozer to get around the Tuscan countryside (shrug! What can you do? It’s Italy!). His girlfriend has recently left him for her personal trainer, and Paul, the writer, is hoping to finish his latest book. There may be life lessons along the way. And romance.

Once you get past the whole bulldozer thing, the book plays out fairly predictably, but there are worse ways to spend a couple hours than reading about Tuscan food and scenery.

“A Gentleman in Moscow” by Amor Towles

A Gentleman in MoscowI usually don’t write about books after my book group has discussed them—either I review them beforehand, or not at all—but I didn’t have time to write up A Gentleman in Moscow before our meeting. So I thought I’d try to do something a little different this week.

My book group usually only reads crime fiction, and this is not a work of crime fiction by any stretch of the imagination. Apparently, New York’s Mysterious Bookshop listed it as a staff pick, but they do sell other types of books “for those customers that also like to stray from the field”! However, it is definitely a massive best-seller; it’s been on the New York Times hardcover fiction list for 45 weeks. A Gentleman in Moscow, like All the Light We Cannot See or A Man Called Ove, has become a bona fide phenomenon.

Why are so many people reading and recommending this book? Here are a few possible reasons:

1. The protagonist, Count Alexander Rostov, is a man of honor. Admit it—with all that’s going on in the world, doesn’t reading about a genuinely good, decent and admirable man sound pretty appealing right now? As the book opens, in June 1922, Rostov is sentenced to house arrest at Moscow’s Hotel Metropol. Taken before the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs, Rostov is deemed to have “succumbed irrevocably to the corruptions of his class,” and is told, “Our inclination would be to have you taken from this chamber and put against the wall.” However, he has a few well-placed admirers, and thus, he will be allowed to live out his days in the hotel, with the warning that if he ever sets foot outside of it, he will be shot.

Part of his house arrest entails moving from his luxurious suite to a cramped space on the hotel’s top floor, with a low ceiling and only the tiniest of windows. How he adapts to, and even thrives in, his new life is the main subject of the book.

2. Readers enjoy historical fiction and getting acquainted with a particular place and time. Set as it is during the first four decades or so of communist rule, you learn a lot about Soviet life even without leaving the Metropol. Party apparatchiks, true believers, foreign press, even Khrushchev himself—they all walk through the doors of the hotel. At any given time, there may be Bolsheviks arguing in the ballroom, or a glamorous movie star walking her borzois through the lobby.

3. The book is sweet without being sappy. At one point, Rostov figures he’s had enough of being confined and decides to commit suicide by jumping off the hotel’s roof. Of course, something happens up there to ultimately make him decide not to leap, but I was kind of relieved that he wasn’t too much of a Pollyanna.

4. It’s really well written. Towles’ prose can be sly, philosophical or dryly witty, but it’s consistently lovely. A couple of examples:

“As long as there have been men on earth, reflected the Count, there have been men in exile. From primitive tribes to the most advanced societies, someone has occasionally been told by his fellow men to pack his bags, cross the border, and never set foot on his native soil again. But perhaps this was to be expected. After all, exile was the punishment that God meted out to Adam in the very first chapter of the human comedy; and that He meted out to Cain a few pages later. Yes, exile was as old as mankind. But the Russians were the first people to master the notion of sending a man into exile at home.”

“But, alas, sleep did not come so easily to our weary friend. Like in a reel in which the dancers form two rows, so that one of their number can come skipping brightly down the aisle, a concern of the Count’s would present itself for his consideration, bow with a flourish, and then take its place at the end of the line so that the next concern could come dancing to the fore.”

Towles doesn’t sugarcoat the often harsh realities of that period of Soviet life, but I have to admit that visiting the book’s Metropol Hotel, with its charming and compelling cast of characters, is something of a welcome respite from our 21st-century world.

“Origin” by Dan Brown

Origin by Dan BrownIt’s a little embarrassing to come out of the closet as a Dan Brown fan. Most of my bookish friends disdain his pedestrian prose, flagrant overuse of italics and cardboard characters. Even legendary Hollywood nice guy Tom Hanks, who has starred in no less than three films based on Brown’s books, threw shade at the author in a recent New York Times By the Book column:

Q: Which genres do you avoid?
A: Novels of murder and conspiracy.

Sick burn, dude!!

Considering that Inferno (the most recent Brown film adaptation) tanked at the box office, my guess is that Hanks will not be making a return appearance as Robert Langdon, so he can go ahead and talk smack about the best-selling series. But here is why I read Brown’s books:

1. The European settings. Brown is like a Rick Steves for literary thrill-seekers. I always have to read his books with my phone at hand so I can look up photos of all the places he references. In Origin, set in Spain (a country I have, unfortunately, never visited), they include the Sagrada Família, Guggenheim BilbaoValle de los Caídos, El Escorial’s Pantheon of the Kings and Casa Milà.

2. Conspiracies and secret societies. Unlike Hanks, I love ’em. The designated bad guys in Origin are members of the Palmarian Church, a bizarre and apocalyptic offshoot of Catholicism with its own pope and saints. There are also hints of wrongdoing in the upper echelons of Spain’s royal family, headed by a dying king who is close to a very conservative bishop.

3. Puzzles. Langdon is a professor of symbology, and every book requires him to solve numerous brain-teasers in order to get to the bottom of whatever enormous conspiracy he’s delving into (always in the company, of course, of an insanely smart and gorgeous woman—in this case, Ambra Vidal, director of the Guggenheim Bilbao in Brown’s fictional world; the real-life director is this sixtysomething Spanish dude). Incidentally, I discovered a coded message in the jacket copy of Origin; fun!

4. Page-turning factor. I always race through these books, and one reason is that Brown knows how to hook you. One of his clever tricks: end a chapter with a huge cliffhanger, but then don’t resolve it until a few chapters down the road. You’ll keep reading because you’ve got to find out what happens!

Origin kicks off as Edmond Kirsch, a genius billionaire inventor/futurist who is depicted as a combination of Steve Jobs, Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk, is about to make a presentation at the Guggenheim Bilbao that will change the world. Since he’s such a secretive and eccentric guy, no one in the room knows what he’s going to say—and his entire presentation is on a password-protected server. Naturally, he’s assassinated just as he’s about to type in the password. Langdon, Kirsch’s friend and former professor, puts his own life at risk in order to track the killer and access the presentation. Besides the beautiful Ambra, who also happens to be the fiancée of the crown prince of Spain, Langdon is assisted by Winston, an artificial intelligence bot invented by Kirsch. (Not surprisingly, Winston is perhaps the most intriguing and fully-realized character in the book.)

The problem with having a book revolve around a message that is so profound and significant that it will impact everybody on the planet is that eventually, you have to produce said message, and I’m not sure that Kirsch’s presentation would actually cause religious leaders to throw in the towel because “oh well, we’re irrelevant now.” Events of the last year or two have made an Age of Reason seem farther away than ever. Brown seems like something of a techno-utopian atheist, and the acknowledgments section of Origin gives thanks to a long list of scientists and thinkers. There are plenty of Big Ideas to grapple with in Origin, but mostly, it works as an entertaining travelogue-thriller.

“Jane Eyre” by Charlotte Brontë

Jane EyreWhen my book group was assigned to read a modern-day take-off on Jane Eyre, I thought that perhaps I should spend some time with the original source material first. Charlotte Brontë’s 1847 novel is one of the many works of classic literature that I have never read—I’ve never even seen any of the movie adaptations. Because the basic outline of the plot is a pretty well-established part of pop culture, I did know more or less what happened to Jane, and that the famous line “Reader, I married him” figured in somewhere.

The edition of Jane Eyre that I borrowed from my local library is around 550 pages long, and at first, it was kind of tough going, since the writing is definitely not like what one encounters in today’s novels. (Brontë was a big fan of semicolons; almost every sentence in the book employs several of them; there are also some archaic words, but luckily, my edition had footnotes; eventually, I just got used to her style.)

Before long, though, I was really caught up in the book, which is incredibly plot-heavy. Brontë packs a ton of drama, romance and tragedy into Jane Eyre‘s pages. I’m going to assume most people reading this have already read the 170-year-old book or at least know what happens in it, so I’m not going to be as concerned about potential spoilers as I usually am.

One thing that struck me about Jane Eyre is that the brooding Mr. Rochester (who is 20 years Jane’s senior) is really not a very admirable hero. He plays a lot of tricks on Jane, from disguising himself as a “gipsy” fortune-teller in order to trick her into speaking openly about her feelings, to telling her that he’s going to marry the wealthy, beautiful Miss Ingram just to see what her reaction is. He also throws in the fact that she will have to leave Thornfield, Rochester’s estate where she is employed as a governess for his ward Adèle, and go to work for a family in Ireland. Jane’s reaction is to sob “convulsively,” at which point Mr. Rochester says, Psych! I’m actually in love with you. Let’s get married ASAP! Instead of running in the opposite direction, Jane is overcome with joy, thinking “only of the bliss given me to drink in so abundant a flow.”

However, it turns out Mr. Rochester is already married, and his “crazy” wife lives right above Jane’s room! But that’s a big secret (any noise coming from upstairs is blamed on the “seamstress,” Grace Poole, who is actually Bertha’s caretaker). Jane only finds out about her groom’s bigamy when they’re literally standing at the altar. Pretty much every single aspect of Mr. Rochester’s relationship with Bertha is highly problematic, even by 1847 standards, apparently, since mental illness was already being dealt with in more humane ways in the U.K. Even back then, Bertha’s windowless room and lack of company (except for the heavy-drinking Grace Poole) would have been considered unacceptable.

This beautifully-written piece from Harvard chaplain Vanessa Zoltan brings up yet another dicey issue: Bertha’s mixed-race heritage (she’s part-Creole). She calls Bertha “a real victim,” and measures her love of the novel against her discomfort with the harsh treatment of the “madwoman.” The passage she quotes, in which Rochester speculates how he would act toward Jane if she were mad (“Your mind is my treasure, and if it were broken, it would be my treasure still: if you raved, my arms should confine you, and not a strait waistcoat—your grasp, even in fury, would have a charm for me…”), does definitely indicate that there’s some big difference between the two women. Apparently a mentally-ill white orphan would be easier to love than one who is half-Creole and from a wealthy family. (Bertha’s plight has fascinated many other writers over the years, from Jean Rhys, who penned a “prequel” about Bertha called Wide Sargasso Sea, to feminist literary critics Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, authors of The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination.)

Nevertheless, taken simply as a ripping tale, I found Jane Eyre to be very much worth my time. Jane is a strong heroine, and to her credit, Brontë goes out of her way to let us know that she’s not a beauty, meaning Mr. Rochester loves her for who she is: “To women who please me only by their faces, I am the very devil when I find out they have neither souls nor hearts… to the clear eye and eloquent tongue, to the soul made of fire, and the character that bends but does not break—at once supple and stable, tractable and consistent—I am ever tender and true.” When he’s making statements like that one, Mr. Rochester does, indeed, seem like an ideal romantic hero.

“The Color of Fear” by Marcia Muller and “Seven Days of Us” by Francesca Hornak

Yesterday, I received an email from NetGalley, the service that provides me with some of my review copies, chock-full of Christmas fiction. Did I want to read Christmas at Two Love Lane? How about Pride and Prejudice and Mistletoe or The Rancher’s Christmas Song (“Ella and Beckett come from two different worlds, and it might take a Christmas miracle to finally bring them together”)?

My theory is that these books, along with the ubiquitous Hallmark Channel Christmas movies like “A Bramble House Christmas” and “Snow Globe Wishes,” are so popular because most people’s holidays fall short of picture-perfect perfection, and cozying up with a seasonally appropriate book or movie is more fun than arguing with your Trump-loving uncle or rehashing old grievances with your siblings.

The Color of FearMarcia Muller’s The Color of Fear is only tangentially a Christmas book, but it does take place during the holiday week, and features lots of the conspicuous consumption that has made me a little bit fed up with this series lately. Between the Christmas shopping and obligatory references to Sharon McCone’s “buttery leather furnishings,” Muller’s long-running P.I. tackles a case that hits close to home: the seeming hate crime that has put her Native American father into a coma. The issue of racism in the liberal Bay Area has been in the news (the SF Weekly outed a San Francisco Klansman, while the so-called “alt-right” thinks this is a fun place to hold rallies), so this novel, though probably written in the pre-Trump era, is surprisingly timely.

I did enjoy The Color of Fear more than most recent entries in the McCone series—I’m always a sucker for “This time it’s personal!” narratives in mystery novels—but I do find myself missing the young, scrappy and hungry private eye of old. Still, even if half the text of future volumes is devoted to loving descriptions of Sharon and Hy’s rooftop garden and art collection, I’m never going to quit reading these books. McCone has been a part of my life for too long to give up on her now.

Seven Days of UsI read an advance copy of Seven Days of Us a couple of months ago when I was down with a cold and was looking for something easy and light. Despite the fact that it was July, I thoroughly enjoyed the book, and I’m sure it will be even more fun for readers who pick it up when it actually ’tis the season. A dysfunctional-family novel that is extremely heavy on coincidences, this Christmas romp is set in a British country estate and features a large cast of characters.

Olivia is a doctor who has been ordered to stay in quarantine due to her recent work in a disease-plagued African nation—and her whole family’s locked in with her. Phoebe, the antithesis of her serious physician sister, is obsessed with her upcoming wedding. Their parents, Emma and Andrew, have problems of their own, and no idea that a few family secrets are about to come to light and wreak havoc during their period of supposed isolation (naturally, not everyone in the family’s orbit manages to stay outside those four walls, despite the danger).

Seven Days of Us may sometimes strain credibility, but it’ll go down easy after a few glasses of eggnog. The ending may even coax a tear or two.

Note: Seven Days of Us will be published on Oct. 17, 2017. Thanks to Berkley and NetGalley for the review copy.

“George & Lizzie” by Nancy Pearl and “Mrs. Saint and the Defectives” by Julie Lawson Timmer

George & Lizzie by Nancy PearlWhen I heard that the woman known as “America’s Librarian” had written a novel, I’ll admit I may have had a few preconceived notions. Nancy Pearl is famous for providing recommendations on NPR and as the model for the first-ever Librarian Action Figure. I assumed the 72-year-old Pearl’s fiction debut would be something genteel along the lines of a Seattle-based Anne Tyler. I would not have guessed it begins with a teenage girl resolving to have sex with every starter on her high school’s entire football team, and then following through. As a longtime listener to Dan Savage’s sex-advice podcast, it takes a lot to shock me, but… yeah, that’s not quite what I was expecting.

Lizzie Bultmann is the only child of two professors of psychology who view her as little more than a living case study. (When she discusses the sleep-with-the-team plan with her best friend, Lizzie states that rather than grounding her for life if they found out, her parents would “want to watch. Maybe they’d bring along a grad student or two to take notes.”) “She wanted them to be curious about her, to want to know what went on below her polished surface… Maybe if they did find out… it would wake them up enough to finally see her.”

As it turns out, Lizzie’s “Great Game” doesn’t much affect her relationship with her parents, but it does have a hugely negative effect on her psyche. In college, she falls madly in love with a fellow student named Jack, who finds out about her high school exploits through an article her parents wrote for Psychology Today. When he leaves town and she never hears from him again, Lizzie is obsessed with finding him, even after she marries a perfectly wonderful dentist named George. Every time she’s in a new town, she can’t help checking the phone books to see if Jack’s listed. (This habit makes a certain degree of sense in the early chapters of the book, set in the late 80s and early 90s, but for goodness’ sake, the Internet made it almost ridiculously easy to find people by the end of the century; Google was around in the late 90s, and Facebook by the mid-2000s.)

I can sympathize with the pessimistic, book-obsessed Lizzie—temperamentally, I’m quite a bit like her, while my own husband is more of a George—but by the end, which seemed awfully abrupt, I was somehow left wanting more. However, the book, with its many short chapters, is a quick and easy read, and I enjoyed the way that Pearl namedrops a lot of authors, poets and book titles throughout.


Mrs. Saint and the DefectivesFor some reason, I kept wanting to read the title of this book as Mrs. Saint and the Deplorables, but no, this is not a novel about a group of Trump supporters. Mrs. Saint is the next-door neighbor of Markie, a beleaguered mom trying to make a new start in a new town after splitting from her unfaithful husband (who, it turns out, had also driven the family deep into debt). Markie pulls her teenage son out of his fancy private school and moves into a modest rental home, hoping to keep her head down and recover from her emotional wounds. She definitely does not want to get to know her nosy neighbor, an elderly French-Canadian woman who serves as something of a den mother to a group of misfits whom she’s hired to do various odd jobs around her house.

While Markie constantly tries to tell Mrs. Saint that she wants to be left alone, the neighbor always seems to be popping up, offering a basket of muffins (burnt, since they were baked by her inept cook), or asking Markie if she can babysit the young daughter of another one of her “defectives.” Eventually, Markie grows curious about Mrs. Saint, who seems to be all up in everyone else’s business but is a rather mysterious figure herself. She’s apparently rich, and yet she lives in a smallish house, surrounded by people who seem to both help her out and also depend on her. If asked a personal question, she just pretends she didn’t hear it.

Naturally, by the end of the book, all will be revealed, lessons are learned, etc. This is a charming, life-affirming novel in the mold of Fredrik Backman’s A Man Called Ove, which also featured a curmudgeon whose life is changed by his neighbors (though in this case, the younger woman is the cranky loner).