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Dreamer amuses, informs

Mary Doria Russell's new book stretches the barriers of genre
by: COURTESY OF RANDOM HOUSE, Mary Doria Russell did her homework in writing about her heroine’s trip to Egypt.
‘Dreamers of the Day’
by Mary Doria Russell
Random House

The latest novel by Mary Doria Russell defies categorization.

'Dreamers of the Day' can be read as a fictional 'cozy' where a spinster schoolmarm finds love and adventure on a trip to the Middle East.

Or it can be seen as an engaging history lesson centered on the 1921 Cairo Peace Conference.

Either way, most readers will be entertained and may be prodded into learning more about this 20th century period when most of the world was rejoicing over the end of one world war and, unknowingly, setting the stage for a second one.

Russell begins by introducing her readers to Agnes Shanklin, a 40-year-old unmarried schoolteacher from Cleveland. Agnes lost her only brother in World War I, and the rest of her family died in the influenza epidemic. Forever labeled the good and obedient child, she now finds herself in possession of a modest inheritance and an overwhelming desire to get out of Cleveland.

Years earlier, Agnes' sister, Lillian, and her husband had served as missionaries in Egypt. Fascinated by Lillian's accounts of the area, Agnes decides to visit the Middle East. She is accompanied by her frisky dachshund, Rosie.

It's Rosie who serves as her owner's introduction to several key players in the peace conference taking place in Cairo, where Agnes spends the majority of the story. The dog's noisy ejection from a luxurious hotel summons help from none other than T.E. Lawrence, aka Lawrence of Arabia, and the indomitable Gertrude Bell. Through these illustrious figures Agnes is introduced to Winston Churchill and his sweet wife, Clementine.

Her canine siren also charms Agnes' future love interest, the charming German spy Karl Weilbacher. Suddenly, the mild yet highly intelligent teacher is swapping political theories with future world leaders and flirting with the enemy. She takes a camel ride out to see the Sphinx and travels to Palestine with a bevy of dignitaries.

Russell keeps her story from reading like a ditzy 'Miss Agnes Goes to Egypt' episode mainly on the strength of her background research (her acknowledgments page reads like a midlevel university course on the history of the early 20th century) and her ability to flesh out atmosphere and locale.

On a trip along the Nile, Agnes observes: 'The green European enclave on Gazirah. To the island's east lay Cairo: spiked by minarets, bejeweled by tiled domes, dotted with dovecotes, immense and golden in the morning sunlight.'

Ultimately, it's the voice of Agnes, uncertain and self-conscious in the beginning and eventually brave and enthusiastic that keeps the reader flipping pages. If her transformation from virginal old maid to woman of the world is less than credible, Russell at least makes it an entertaining and information-packed journey.

Also reading this week

How can you go wrong with a big hunk of carrot cake? Apparently, at least one murder victim can in Joanne Fluke's new mystery.

In 'Carrot Cake Murder,' bakery owner Hannah Swensen is horrified to find her long-lost Uncle Gus dead with two slices of her renowned cake by his side. Now she has to find his killer. Fluke will read at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Powell's at Cedar Crossing (3415 S.W. Cedar Hills Blvd., 503-228-4651).

Richard Price, celebrated author of 'Freedomland' and 'Clockers,' returns to New York City with his new book, 'Lush Life.' This time, Price examines an early-morning murder and its aftermath through the eyes of two homicide detectives, the victim's family and the man who was with him the night he was killed. Price will appear at 7:30 p.m. Monday at Powell's City of Books (1005 W. Burnside St., 503-228-4651).

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Mary Doria Russell

When: 7 p.m. Wednesday, March 19

Where: Beaverton Borders, 2605 S.W. Cedar Hills Blvd., 503-644-6164