Review 2072: To Paradise

After reading Yanagihara’s deeply touching second book, A Little Life, I couldn’t wait to plunge into To Paradise. While reading the first section, though, I was afraid I was going to be disappointed, especially as it is of the genre speculative fiction, which is not one I’m usually interested in. But Yanagihara knows how to spin a tale.

The novel is split into three books, each set 100 years apart, starting in 1893. Although I’ve seen the novel described as a history of a family, let’s just say that names and personas repeat through the book, only with characters taking different roles. All of the books are set in New York City. They also feature strangely inert main characters.

This New York, though, is different from the one we know. After a civil war, the United States is fractured into pieces, one of which, called the Free States (in which New York resides), believes in freedom of religion and marriage between any two adults. David Bingham belongs to a family whose members are all in same-sex marriages. He is from a wealthy old family, and he is the eldest, but he has been a disappointment to his grandfather. He is subject to bouts of debilitating depression and seizures, and he has shown no interest in pursing any kind of career.

Another characteristic of the Free States is the prevalence of arranged marriages. David’s grandfather has been trying to arrange one for him, and the current candidate is an older man named Charles Griffith, whom David has at least agreed to meet. He likes Charles, but then he meets Edward Bishop, a poor musician. David falls for Edward, a man he knows his grandfather would consider a fortune hunter.

In 1993, David Bingham is a young Hawaiian who has left his home and his heritage as a native prince and with an incomplete law degree is working in a law firm. He is living with the wealthy older head of the firm, Charles Griffith, and although he loves Charles, because of this relationship, he spends most of his time with older men. AIDS is making its way through the community.

Also part of this book is a long narrative by David’s father, who is obsessed by his friendship with Edward Bishop, a Hawaiian nationalist with a dream of a return to a Hawaiian monarchy. Although this action causes a bit of a lull in the novel’s forward motion, we come to understand David’s alienation from his family.

In 2093, Charlie Griffith is a young woman living in a dangerous and autocratic society, the controls of which are designed to limit the spread of a deadly series of infectious diseases. Charlie herself is limited mentally and emotionally because she was a victim of one of these viruses when she was a child.

Her grandfather has arranged a marriage for her, but has traded a possibility of a loving marriage for a secure one with a gay male. Her husband has vowed to care for her in exchange for the appearance of a heterosexual marriage because homosexuality is becoming illegal. Then Charlie makes a friend named David.

This novel has many overarching themes, that of family, particularly relationships with grandparents, as none of the protagonists have functioning parents; sexuality in society; sickness and disease; and self-actualization. I was at first taken aback by the extreme passivity of its protagonists and in fact thought the first David Bingham was selfish and immature. Still, Yanigihara’s narrative pulls you in, and I found this novel completely absorbing. Some readers will be disappointed by Yanagihara’s decision to leave endings open, but I think that’s one of the things that makes this ambitious novel more interesting.

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Review 2071: Death of Jezebel

Seven years before the action of the novel, Isabel Drew essentially pimped out innocent Perpetua Kirk to Earl Anderson by helping him get her drunk. Perpetua’s fiancé, Johnny Wise, broke in upon them and then drove his car into a tree.

Now the three people involved are working on a pageant. Inspector Cockrill is in town for a conference when Perpetua tells him she has received a threat to her life, blaming her for Johnny’s death. Later they learn that Isabel and Earl have also been threatened. It’s odd that so many of the people involved in the pageant knew and loved Johnny.

The pageant calls for 11 knights to ride out in front of a tower, from which Isabel, as the queen, comes and gives a speech. But Isabel falls from the tower and is found to be strangled.

Death of Jezebel is an example of the Golden Age puzzle novel, where the detectives concentrate on how the murder was done instead of who did it. My problem with this type of mystery is that the murders are usually ridiculously complicated and we have endless discussions involving the action of the knights and the backstage participants.

I received a copy of this book from the publishers in exchange for a free and fair review.

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Review 2070: Little, Big

I read this book because of a friend’s strong recommendation. Its genre is magical realism, not one I’m strong on.

In its little sense, Little, Big is the story of a family that has a curious, vague mission. They live in a strange house that is many houses combined on a property to the north of the City. The house is the gateway, they believe, to . . . something. The family are part of the Tale.

Although we get a summary of the lives of some of Violet Drinkwater’s forebears, the story gets going with Smoky Barnable, who meets Daily Alice Drinkwater through her cousin, George Mouse. After Smoky and Daily Alice decide to marry, Smoky must walk to her home and follow some other rituals for the wedding, which is part of the Tale.

Smoky doesn’t ever understand what’s going on, and neither, really, do we. And frankly, nothing much does go on for a long time, although everything is beautifully and minutely described. Children are born, a couple whose parentage is confused. Fairies may or may not exist, but one child is certainly substituted for another. Sophie, Violet’s sister, sleeps for years and then can’t sleep for years. One character has almost certainly been turned into a fish.

This description makes the book sound ridiculous, but it is not. It is for readers who want to take time with a book. It is beautifully written and playful with language. It is also slow building with a carefully constructed plot that everything builds up to. I think it goes a little astray with a political plot in the middle, and how much it pays off for you depends, I think, on how much you put into it. I scented distinct religious overtones at the end, but perhaps others won’t see it that way.

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Review 2069: Mobituaries: Great Lives Worth Reliving

TV host and comedian Mo Rocca loves obituaries and little factoids. So does my husband, so I bought him Mobituaries last Christmas. Then, after listening to the podcast, I decided to read it myself.

Unfortunately for me, a good deal of the content of the book was in the podcast and in seemingly greater detail. Still, it’s a fun book to read and full of factoids.

Rocca has written not just about the lives of people, some well-known, like Audrey Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor, some whose contributions are less known, like Elizabeth Jennings (the first black woman to refuse to leave a streetcar, 100 years before Rosa Parks) or Ada Lovelace (inventor of the computer algorithm in 1843) but also of objects and concepts that are not longer with us—the belief in dragons, Prussia, the station wagon, alchemy, and other medieval sciences. Obviously, this book, while not at all comprehensive, more notional, is wide-ranging. It is also fairly funny, and its asides, quips, and incidental factoids remind me of some of the works of Bill Bryson, although Bryson is a better prose stylist.

In any case, the book is enjoyable to read and provides plenty of fodder for trivia buffs.

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Review 2068: The Secret Adversary

I decided to read all of Christie’s Tommy and Tuppence novels after learning that they were her favorites of all her sleuths. There are unfortunately only a few of these novels, and The Secret Adversary is the first.

Tommy and Tuppence are old friends who haven’t seen each other for a while when they meet again after World War I. They are both broke and have been looking for work, so they decide to band together to look for jobs, calling themselves Young Adventurers, Inc. On leaving the café where they have been lunching and discussing this plan, Tuppence is approached by a man who overheard them and says he thinks he has a job for them, but when he asks her name, she says, “Jane Finn,” a name she heard mentioned in the café. He reacts indignantly and leaves.

After placing an ad, Tommy and Tuppence are contacted for work and find that the job oddly involves Jane Finn, who was a passenger on the Lusitania when it was sunk five years before and is believed to have been the recipient of a package important to the government. Tommy and Tuppence are hired to find Jane Finn.

The search brings with it many adventures, during which their steps are dogged by a mysterious Mr. Brown, apparently a criminal mastermind. This novel has a silly Cold War plot before the Cold War, and the slang spoken by an American millionaire seems completely unlikely. I think Christie must have watched too many gangster movies. However, Tommy and Tuppence are delightful and resourceful, so this was a fun reading experience.

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Review 2067: Christine Falls

Benjamin Black is a pen name for Irish writer John Banville. Christine Falls is the first of his Quirke mystery series, set in the 1950’s.

Quirke is returning to his office in the pathology department of a Dublin hospital when he finds Malachy Griffin working on a report at Quirke’s desk. Mal, his brother-in-law, has no business being there, and Quirke notices he is working with a file for Christine Falls, a new arrival in the morgue whose death is listed as “pulmonary embolism.” Quirke thinks about this and after he finds out that Christine was a maid in Mal’s house, he does an autopsy, finding that she died in childbirth from a hemorrhage.

So, what happened to Christine’s child? Quirke’s inquiries lead him to a laundry run by the Catholic church, where he is told the child died. But information from an inhabitant tells him that isn’t true, and in fact, in the opening of the novel, a nurse is taking a baby on a ship to Boston.

The more Quirke looks into the whereabouts of the child, the more pushback he gets, and the secret seems to involve his wife’s family, with whom he already has difficult relationships. But more is going on, he learns, when a witness is tortured to death.

Christine Falls is a dark novel that comments on the relationship between the powerful and the weak. It is eloquently written and definitely a page-turner.

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Review 2066: The Candy House

The Candy House is billed as a follow-up to A Visit from the Goon Squad, but at first, aside from its structure as linked short stories, I wasn’t sure why. Bix, a wealthy high-tech entrepreneur, is not one of the characters from the original novel, I don’t think, nor is Alfred Nollander, whose quest for authenticity leads him to scream in public just so he can see the expressions on people’s faces. (Although later I realized he was a child in the first book.)

However, as I continued reading, I encountered familiar names and realized I was dealing mostly with descendants and connections of the original characters. A lot of the novel deals with social media run amok, a world where it is common for people to upload their unconsciousness to the internet using the software provided by Bix’s company, Mandala, and the opposition to this and other such practices by the company formed by Chris Salazar, the son of Benny of the previous book.

The novel doesn’t seem as experimental in form as the original, although there is a chapter constructed in Instant Messages and another of a recorded manual, but that’s really because Egan’s approach, which was unusual when the previous novel was published, is more common now. Set from the 1990s to roughly the 2030s, the novel is more futuristic.

Although I wasn’t blown away by this book as I was by its predecessor, I was happy to revisit the lives of its characters, all of whom eventually reappear, even those from the ridiculous tale that parodied the P. R. field. Another good one for Egan.

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Review 2065: The Invisible Bridge

One of the reasons I learned to love reading was that I got swept up into another time or place or even world. As I got older and more discriminating, this experience happened less often. It happened most recently within a few pages of starting The Invisible Bridge, which I read for my James Tait Black project.

Andras Lévi, a young Hungarian Jew, arrives in Paris in 1937 to study architecture. He has brought with him a letter that an acquaintance asked him to mail once he was in Paris. He mails the letter but notices the address.

Soon he is involved in the technicalities of art school, made more difficult because he almost immediately loses his scholarship, a first act of the anti-Semitisim that is perceptibly increasing, although not as bad in Paris as it was in Budapest. He seeks a job at a theater from Zoltán Novak, a man he met on the train from Hungary. When he begins a friendship there with an older actress, she sends him to lunch with friends at the address on the envelope he mailed, and that’s how he meets Klara, an older woman with whom he falls madly in love.

This novel, which starts out seeming very particular, about a love affair between two people, grows into a novel of great breadth, covering events of World War II, the Hungarian Holocaust, life in work camps, the siege of Budapest. All of it is centered in the importance of family.

I absolutely loved this novel. It is sweeping, wonderfully well written, touching, harrowing. And what a story, based on the lives of Orringer’s grandparents. I can’t recommend this book enough.

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Review 2064: Clothes-Pegs

After reading Susan Scarlett’s Summer Pudding, I wasn’t sure she was my jam. However, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed Clothes-Pegs, a Cinderella story.

Annabel Brown is an unassuming young woman whose only ambition is to do well at her job as a seamstress before marrying some young man whom she loves. She has no idea that she is beautiful.

Her employer, Tania Petoff, has noticed her, though. Tania runs an exclusive dress shop, designing and making her own creations in the shop. When one of her models quits without notice, she decides to give Annabel a try.

At first, Annabel feels totally out of place in her promotion. Of the three other models, Bernadette, Freda, and Elizabeth, only Bernadette is nice, and she helps Annabel out with suggestions.

When Annabel sees Octavia Glaye at a fitting, she thinks she’s the most beautiful woman she has ever seen. But Octavia is jealous of how much attention her friend, Lord David de Bett, pays to Annabel. Annabel soon notices David, though, and falls in love with him on sight. She doesn’t have any illusions of a future with him. She is content to love him.

For his part, David is struck by Annabel’s naturalness and innocence but thinks he’ll probably marry Octavia. Octavia is ready to try to make Annabel regret any attention David pays her.

The Cinderella story was fun, but I especially enjoyed the parts about Annabel’s engaging middleclass family. Annabel is a nice, occasionally foolish but usually practical heroine who only gets into situations because of her lack of experience and the venom of others.

I received this book from the publisher in exchange for a free and fair review.

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