The Rosie Project ~ Graeme Simsion

  • Title: The Rosie Project
  • Author: Graeme Simsion
  • Genre: Mainstream
  • Format: Paperback
  • Source: Library
  • Reviewed by: Olga
  • Rating: 5 out of 5

Description:  An international sensation, this hilarious, feel-good novel is narrated by an oddly charming and socially challenged genetics professor on an unusual quest: to find out if he is capable of true love.

Don Tillman, professor of genetics, has never been on a second date. He is a man who can count all his friends on the fingers of one hand, whose lifelong difficulty with social rituals has convinced him that he is simply not wired for romance. So when an acquaintance informs him that he would make a “wonderful” husband, his first reaction is shock. Yet he must concede to the statistical probability that there is someone for everyone, and he embarks upon The Wife Project. In the orderly, evidence-based manner with which he approaches all things, Don sets out to find the perfect partner. She will be punctual and logical—most definitely not a barmaid, a smoker, a drinker, or a late-arriver.

Yet Rosie Jarman is all these things. She is also beguiling, fiery, intelligent—and on a quest of her own. She is looking for her biological father, a search that a certain DNA expert might be able to help her with. Don’s Wife Project takes a back burner to the Father Project and an unlikely relationship blooms, forcing the scientifically minded geneticist to confront the spontaneous whirlwind that is Rosie—and the realization that love is not always what looks good on paper.

Review:
I loved this book, loved everything in it: from its rosy title (pun intended) and its vulnerable protagonist to the subtle, slightly twisted humor, simple plot, and complex psychology.

The novel starts with the hero Don preparing a lecture on Asperger’s syndrome. According to his research (and mine), most of Asperger’s symptoms are “simply variation in human brain function that had been inappropriately medicalised because they didn’t fit social norms—constructed social norms—that reflected the most common human configurations rather than the full range.”

The deviations have to do with the social milieu. Simply put, Aspergers are dismal at social interactions. Their empathy is askew, and as a result, many consider them odd and undesirable as companions. Aspergers don’t fit in almost any company, and neither does Don. He knows he is inept at communications and dismal with women, but despite being a brilliant genetics scientist and an extremely smart person, he doesn’t recognize Asperger’s in himself. He just knows that he is different and lonely and he wants to share his life with a good woman.

Alas, dating has never worked for him. He’s never even had a second date, so instead he decides on the scientific approach: he constructs a 16-pages questionnaire of multiple choice questions and posts it online, hoping that at least one suitable applicant will answer all his questions correctly. He calls it a “Wife Project.”

Then Rosie enters his life. She is a psychology student and totally unsuitable, according to his questionnaire. Her every answer is wrong, she is opinionated and sarcastic, chaotic and emotional. And she smokes. Nonetheless, Don feels happy whenever he is with her. Unfamiliar with the feeling, this usually detached man stumbles like a toddler, breaks all his routines, belatedly learns to navigate the emotional landscape, and fails again and again. And still he wouldn’t give up.

Don’s personal journey is sad, poignant, and uplifting, almost painful in its intensity and honesty, but the book is so full of humor, so light and hopeful that reading it feels like flying. You’re dizzy from the quick visceral transitions, from the juxtapositions of the incomparable. One moment, you laugh hysterically, riding the mirth wave, the next you swallow a lump in your throat, plunging into Don’s despair.

Sometimes, both feelings interweave and you can’t separate them: like when Don practices cha-cha dancing with a skeleton, on loan from the Anatomy department. Or when he practices sex with the same skeleton, exercising different positions from an illustrated manual.

When his friend Gene talks to Don about sex, you wince and laugh and shake your head and squirm with pity for the poor schmuck. That twisted Asperger’s chemistry in his brain is really screwing his life.

‘You have had sex before?’
‘Of course,’ I said. ‘My doctor is strongly in favor.’
‘Frontiers of medical science,’ said Gene.
He was probably making a joke. I think the value of regular sex has been known for some time.
I explained further. ‘It’s just that adding a second person makes it more complicated.’
‘Naturally,’ said Gene. ‘I should have thought of that.’

Don’s intelligence and erudition are amazing, but his inability to discern symbolism, to identify colloquialisms is equally astounding.

‘If I find a partner, which seems increasingly unlikely, I wouldn’t want a sexual relationship with anyone else. But I’m not good at understanding what other people want.’
‘Tell me something I don’t know,’ said Rosie for no obvious reason.
I quickly searched my mind for an interesting fact. ‘Ahhh…The testicles of drone bees and wasp spiders explode during sex.’

No wonder, he is stuck on sex theme. The guy is head over heels in love with Rosie but doesn’t know how to express himself. His psychological deficiency hampers him, makes him socially and emotionally lame.

I know the feeling; it resonates with me. When I read about Don’s bumbling romance, the zing of recognition was very loud. Like Don, I have Asperger’s. Like him, I’m schooled in self-damnation: ‘Nothing would change the fault in my brain that made me unacceptable.’ Those are his bitter words, but I couldn’t take my eyes off them. Those are my words too.

The love story of Don and Rosie is written beautifully, without melodrama or clinical aloofness. The writing flows like a stream and carries you along the ups and downs of Don’s life. The plot moves fast, and the characters are all 3-dimentional. But Don stands out among his book-mates. He is the real hero, and his courage in overcoming his affliction, in ‘rewiring’ his brain, makes this multilayered book much more than a comic romantic caper. It’s also a tale of his profound transformation, a painful quest to find his place among all of us… and keep it.

This was one of the best books of the past year. Highly recommended.


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Heirs of the Body ~ Carola Dunn

  • Title: Heirs of the Body
  • Author: Carola Dunn
  • Series: Daisy Dalrymple, #21
  • Genre: Cozy mystery
  • Format: Hardcover
  • Source: Library
  • Reviewed by: Olga
  • Rating: 4 out of 5

Description:  The Daisy Dalrymple series continues. When one of four potential claimants to the title of Lord Dalrymple dies a sudden, nasty death, the question on everyone’s mind is, “was it murder”?

In the late 1920s in England, The Honourable Daisy Dalrymple Fletcher is recruited to help her cousin Edgar — i.e. the Lord Dalrymple. About to turn fifty, Lord Dalrymple decides it is time to find out who would be the heir to the viscountcy. With the help of the family lawyer, who advertises Empire-wide, they have come up with four potential claimants. For his fiftieth birthday, Edgar invites those would-be heirs — along with Daisy and the rest of the family — to Fairacres, the family estate.

In the meantime, Daisy is asked to be the family’s representative at the lawyer’s interviews with the claimants. Those four are a hotelier from Scarborough, a diamond merchant from South Africa, a young mixed-raced boy from Trinidad, and a sailor from Jamaica. However, according to his very pregnant wife, the sailor has gone missing.

Daisy and Alec must uncover a conspiracy if they are going to stop the killing.

Review:  The latest installment in the Daisy Dalrymple series, this cozy murder mystery was a delight to read. As always, Daisy and her husband Alec Fletcher, the DCI from Scotland Yard, are in the thick of it, but this time, the action takes place too close to Daisy’s heart – in her ancestral home Fairacres. After her father and brother’s death, the estate now belongs to a distant cousin Edward, but unfortunately, he and his wife are childless.  

As Edward’s 50th birthday approaches, his lawyer starts looking for an ‘heir of the body’ to ensure primogeniture. Four contenders show up, each with his own story and the supporting set of documents, and all are invited to Edward’s birthday celebration.

Daisy is there too, of course, and the deadly game commences, starting with trifling accidents and escalating to murder. Someone is set on eliminating all the heirs, or maybe all but one? Daisy and Alec investigate.

Daisy is her own charming self, compassionate and acute. She notices the details others might overlook, but her kindness moves her sometimes in unexpected directions. It’s hard to write about her after 20 previous novels. I don’t have any new insights to offer, but I was glad to read her new story. Like an old friend, Daisy comes into my life only occasionally, but with every new book, she becomes more and more familiar, and she never fails to make me just a little bit happier for meeting her.

The book is fast, light, and original. Daisy’s interactions with her disgruntled mother, the Dowager Lady Dalrymple, provide some humorous dialog snatches, while the bountiful red herrings kept me guessing the identity of the culprit to the very end.

I’m accustomed to finding unfamiliar words in Dunn’s novels. This one was no exception.      
Celerity – swiftness in acting or moving
Snook – the gesture of thumbing one’s nose in defiance or derision. Cock a snook at – used to indicate contempt by this gesture

 

Author Interview ~ Fran Clark

Today SSV welcomes Fran Clark, a professional singer and songwriter, and now the author of Holding Paradise – a novel of mother, daughter, and their search for connection. Fran was born and currently lives in West London. She is studying for a Creative Writing MA at Brunel University. Recently, she released her second album of original songs. She is now working towards the completion of her second novel. Fran talked to me about her novel and her writing.

~*~*~

Fran, please tell us about your book and where you got your inspiration for it? Why did you feel you had to tell this story?
Holding Paradise is about love, trust, betrayal. It explores relationships and takes us from the Caribbean to London and back again. I was inspired by my mother’s stories about life in the Caribbean that I compared to that of someone raised in London, as I was. That sparked an idea about the lives of two women from different worlds.

What did you enjoy the most about writing it?
I think the thing that was most satisfying was my relationship with the characters. They lived with me for almost three years – the time it took me to write it. I watched them grow and they helped me move the narrative along into places I may not necessarily have planned.

Is anything in your book based on real life experiences or is it all imagination?
In some respects, there are similarities, but I would have to say that it was important to infuse more imagination into the story than real life. Who wants to read about real life anyway? Most of us are pretty boring. A novel is a place to escape real life.

What do you think about research? Did your book require lots of it? How do you research?
I recently wrote a post about research. I think it is absolutely necessary if it adds to the authenticity of your story. As writers we need to achieve a believable sense of time, place and setting. Imagination alone is not always going to get you there. If historical detail is needed then you need to get your facts straight. Holding Paradise did not need a lot of research, and I was able to find answers by talking to family and reading up on the time the novel is set. Research can be very exciting but you don’t want your fiction to sound like a history book. Making the researched material flow into the narrative is important.

Have you ever hated something you wrote?
Well hate is a strong word but I certainly disliked many attempts at writing along the way. I write short stories and some of them should never see the light of day. I have two novels filed away on my laptop that I’m sure I will never resurrect although I may borrow some of the better ideas within them some day.

What are some things you learned from writing this book?
Mostly I learned that I love to write. I haven’t always wanted to be a writer. I am a singer-songwriter, and music has always been my passion. I’m happy when I’m making music and can’t imagine my life without it. And that is exactly how I feel about my writing now too.

What do you think about editors: writers’ best friends or necessary evil? What was your experience with editors?
Yikes – don’t get me started.  Pretty sure I’ve written a post about this on my blog too! Firstly I have to say editors are completely necessary. All top writers have them and so should all the rest of us. I get tired of reading awful grammar and typos in books. Those writers who feel they don’t need them are mistaken. Writing is a lonely job but to make your writing really work you need to bring in expert help. I didn’t always see eye to eye with my editor about some of the changes he wanted to make but with compromise we worked it through and he absolutely improved on a few aspects of my writing.

What’s next? What are you working on now?
I’m in the middle of writing my second novel. Unfortunately it is taking a bit of a back seat because of family commitments and the heavy workload from my Creative Writing MA. But I intend to finish it this year. Lots of research is needed for this story, so I need to get stuck in and get it written. I’m really looking forward to completing it – having a second novel will make me feel truly initiated into the title of writer.

What is your writing environment (a quiet room, a coffee shop, loud music, etc)?
I usually need as much quiet as I can get. I sometimes write late at night when everyone else is tucked up in bed or in the early hours of the morning when everyone else is still asleep. As a bad sleeper this tends to work for me. But it must be said that I can lose myself in my writing and whether I have music playing softly in the background, or the television is loud in the room next door, I can click away at the keys and not notice anything else.

When did you first tell yourself: I’m a writer?
That didn’t happen until I let other people read my work. The feedback I got from the first readers of Holding Paradise was very encouraging but it wasn’t until I paid for a professional critique. After I read the report I thought, ‘Hey, a professional has read this and didn’t laugh out loud.’ It was a positive report and to have someone I didn’t know speak about my work like that made me want to pat myself on the back: I had arrived.

Are you scared of sharing ideas – so nobody could steal them?
That has never really occurred to me. It is often said that there are no new stories or plots and in many respects that’s true. The important thing is the telling of the story and that’s what sells books. I focus on my storytelling and making sure I’m writing something that is worth reading. That’s all I can do. If someone has to steal ideas, then that’s pretty sad, don’t you think?

What do you do when a new idea pops up in your head while you’re working on something else?
Notebooks. The writer’s friends. Jot all your ideas down. You can come back to them anytime and by recording it you’ll never forget the idea. But there is no problem with writing more than one story at a time. Some writers prefer to work that way while others find they have to focus on one. I’m a multi-tasker but I don’t think I could work on two novels at once. I can fit in the odd short story and my assignments for University but that’s about all. That’s more than enough if you want to do your writing justice.

What tips do you have for aspiring writers?
Just start. Be dedicated and persevere. There will always be difficult times and times when you feel you are writing rubbish. But that’s what editing is for. As long as you are passionate about your story then the ideas will come. See if you can finish the whole piece, that is do a complete first draft, without the input of others. When you get to second draft stage, then get opinions as those can sometimes help you improve your writing. Trust your own opinions too. Don’t assume that because someone doesn’t like something about your story that it is wrong. Writing should never feel like hard work. I’ve spent some really happy times just tapping away on my laptop.

 

~*~*~

Holding Paradise

On a grey and miserable morning in 2008, London businesswoman Angelica Ford boards a plane and flies off to the blues and greens of her mother’s island in the Caribbean. Angelica is desperate. She is looking for a way to save her marriage and win back her daughter. A web of lies has torn a hole into her seemingly perfect world and she is convinced that only her mother, Josephine Dennis, can help her turn her life around.

Josephine Dennis arrived in England by ship on a cold winter morning as a young mother joining her husband. She weathers a lifetime of secrets and betrayal, as she raises her family in 1960s London. A matriarch with strong family values, she told her children colorful stories to guide them through life. It is the wisdom of one of these stories that Angelica seeks. Josephine has one last story to tell – the story that could change both of their lives.

~*~*~

Fran will have her online book launch on Friday April 25 on her website, from 9am to 9pm GMT. See details on her blog to sign up for the party and a chance to win a copy of Holding Paradise. You can also view the book trailer on Youtube.

 

Royal Airs ~ Sharon Shinn

  • Title: Royal Airs
  • Author: Sharon Shinn
  • Series: Elemental Blessings #2
  • Genre: Fantasy
  • Format: Hardcover
  • Source: Library
  • Reviewed by: Olga
  • Rating: 4 out of 5

Description:  Josetta is a princess of one of the Five Families. But she is far from the throne, so she is free to spend her days working in the poorest sections of the city.

Rafe Adova, an outcast since he was born, lives the life of a career gambler in those slums. He has no ambition other than cheating at the card tables—-until the night he decides to help a girl named Corene, who looks like she’s stumbled into the wrong bar. She, too, is a princess—-sister to Josetta, who finds her with Rafe. He fascinates her.

Josetta has never encountered anyone like him—-someone seemingly devoid of elemental blessings. He is drawn to her, though he thinks they are unlikely to ever meet again—-but their connection grows strong when she nurses him back to health after he is assaulted by foreign mercenaries.
And when they learn the reason he’s being hunted, they know that the truth about his history could endanger not only their love but also their very lives.

Review:  I enjoyed this novel. Not surprising, as Shinn is one of my favorite writers. Her new books automatically go on my To-Read list, and I own most of them. This one is the second in the author’s new series Elemental Blessings.

The story occurs several years after the first book in the series, Troubled Waters, and many familiar personages pop up on the pages. The action revolves around two central characters: Josetta and Rafe. A more disparate set of lovers is hard to imagine.

Rafe is a professional gambler, living in the slums of Chialto, the capital of Welce, and plying his card trade nightly in a semi-respectable tavern. He doesn’t like what he is doing very much (who among us likes their jobs very much?) but he is good at it and he makes a decent living. Until fate brings him in contact with Josetta, he never questions his way of life. Afterwards… things happen, and his life turns upside down. And he doesn’t even mind that, as long as his new existence includes Josetta. His first impression of her: “The door opened, and spring stepped inside.” So simple and so beautiful!

Josetta is a princess. Strong-minded and resilient, with the unswerving moral code and a kind heart, she doesn’t have any royal blood, but her mother was a queen, married to the late king, and Josetta has been in line for the throne of Welce since she was born. She doesn’t want the position though. She hates the palace, detests its endless intrigues and its scuffle for power, and spends most of her days in the shelter for the poor she operates in the slums, where she provides food, medicine, and warm beds to anyone in need. Her life is orderly and well-regulated, until she meets Rafe. Then, all bets are off, and what this princess will do for her guy is not easy to predict.

The world is interesting and original, on the verge of an industrial revolution. It incorporates automobiles and horses, sailing ships and flying planes, test pilots and homicidal princes, and of course magic, subtle but implacable.

The pacing is slower than I would like, and like most Shinn’s novels, this one is low key – a quiet love story between a young man and a young woman, lyrical and enchanting. Despite the adventurous plotline, all the escapades and brawls and general swashbuckling are only surface deep, a painted backdrop for the heroes’ journeys, which unfold inside their souls. Both Josetta and Rafe are trying to find their places in life, establish their mutual zone, and investigate their connection. Their search for each other and for the meanings of their lives is the focus of this book.  

My only objection: I don’t really believe that a princess would be allowed to manage a shelter, or a royal regent would gallivant around the countryside unescorted. The power structure of the society depicted in the book is too democratic for a kingdom, and the power players are too casual and unassuming. If the royal retinue’s fussing makes the king, then what does the lack of such a retinue signify?   

The 4 stars of my rating are comparative, but it’s not a comparison with other writers. I simply like some of Shinn’s other novels better. Still, this is a solid fantasy tale with a romantic subtext and I’d highly recommend it to anyone who likes a blend of fantasy and romance. 

Seraphina ~ Rachel Hartman

  • Title: Seraphina 
  • Author: Rachel Hartman
  • Series: Seraphina #1
  • Genre: Fantasy YA
  • Format: Hardcover
  • Source: Library
  • Reviewed by: Olga
  • Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Description:  Four decades of peace have done little to ease the mistrust between humans and dragons in the kingdom of Goredd. Folding themselves into human shape, dragons attend court as ambassadors, and lend their rational, mathematical minds to universities as scholars and teachers. As the treaty’s anniversary draws near, however, tensions are high.

Seraphina Dombegh has reason to fear both sides. An unusually gifted musician, she joins the court just as a member of the royal family is murdered—in suspiciously draconian fashion. Seraphina is drawn into the investigation, partnering with the captain of the Queen’s Guard, the dangerously perceptive Prince Lucian Kiggs. While they begin to uncover hints of a sinister plot to destroy the peace, Seraphina struggles to protect her own secret, the secret behind her musical gift, one so terrible that its discovery could mean her very life.

In her exquisitely written fantasy debut, Rachel Hartman creates a rich, complex, and utterly original world. Seraphina’s tortuous journey to self-acceptance is one readers will remember long after they’ve turned the final page.

Review:  A solid YA fantasy, this book has everything: a girl with a mystery, dragons who could fold themselves into human forms, a forbidden love, a charismatic prince, a political intrigue, and of course, music. The only thing this novel lacks is humans able to unfold into dragons. Maybe it is too much for one story?

The protagonist Seraphina is a talented musician, working at the palace as an assistant to the court composer. She harbors a deadly secret about her heritage, and although she tries to keep to herself, she lies and prevaricates constantly. Her unruly tongue often lands her in trouble too.

This time, she is thrust unwillingly into the middle of a complex plot, the plot involving a peace treaty between humans and dragons. The treaty’s anniversary is approaching, and the tension is high in both camps. Not everyone wants the treaty renewed. Some hot heads long for war and are ready to kill to achieve their goals.

Seraphina comes across as a gifted and spirited teenager, with all the baggage inherent in her age: angst, self-hatred, self-doubts, and a deep craving to belong, to find someone who would understand. Unfortunately, her self-hatred is so well defined it transmits itself to the readers, who wonder: maybe they should hate her too?

I wanted to like Seraphina; she is a good person and a multifaceted personality, but her self-hatred dominated everything she did in the story and interfered with my struggling goodwill. In the end, I decided to sympathize with her anyway, but my sympathy is shallow. I don’t approve of many of her choices and I don’t really care about her. Unfortunately, that’s the worst a reader can say about a book.

The pacing of the narrative is highly uneven. The first third of the book drags like a snail. I almost abandoned it but I persevered, and the tale rewarded me after about 100 pages by picking up its speed. After that, it was a gallop to the end. I couldn’t stop until I finished the last page. I read all night, so obviously, this book has many redeeming qualities.

The story is absorbing and well-constructed, the world-building fascinating, and the dragons are original. I also liked many secondary characters: they are all different and deep, leaping off the pages, both humans and dragons, but my attitude towards the protagonist colored my perception of the entire novel.

Nevertheless, I found the writer’s voice beautiful, very expressive. Here is a description of a street the heroine walks:

…the upper stories cantilevered over the street, as if the houses were leaning together to gossip. A woman on one side might have borrowed a lump of butter from her neighbor on the other without leaving home. The looming buildings squeezed the sky down to a rapidly darkening ribbon.

Don’t you just see the scene in your mind?

Another quote is the heroine’s contemplations of art and lying:

If one believes there is truth in art—and I do—then it’s troubling how similar the skill of performing is to lying. Maybe lying is itself a kind of art.

Overall – not a bad novel, although not the perfect one either. Did I enjoy reading it? – Yes. Would I ever re-read it? – No. Would I recommend it to the other readers of fantasy? – Yes.

The Valley of the Shadow ~ Carola Dunn

  • Title: The Valley of the Shadow 
  • Author: Carola Dunn
  • Series: Cornish Mystery #3
  • Genre: Cozy mystery
  • Format: Hardcover
  • Source: Library
  • Reviewed by: Olga
  • Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Description:  While out on a walk, Eleanor Trewynn, her niece Megan, and her neighbor Nick spot a young, half-drowned Indian man floating in the water. Delirious and concussed, he utters a cryptic message about his family being trapped in a cave and his mother dying. The young man, unconscious and unable to help, is whisked away to a hospital while a desperate effort is mounted to find the missing family in time.

The local police inspector presumes that they are refugees from East Africa, abandoned by the smugglers who brought them in, so while the countryside is being scoured for the family, Eleanor herself descends into a dangerous den of smugglers in a desperate search to find the man responsible while there is still time.

Review:  This mystery is so cozy it doesn’t even have a murder. Although there are definitely victims, bodies floating in the sea, and a villain, the crime itself is entangled with the British foreign policies of the 1960s or perhaps ’70s – the author herself is unclear on her dates.

The entire root for the crime is an immigration issue. When the British Empire began to crumble in the ’60s, many African states, previously under the British rule, declared independence. British citizens were expelled. The white Brits returned to England. Unfortunately, many East Indians also worked for the British in Africa and held British passports. They were expelled too, of course, but the British government denied them the rights to settle in England. Those people had nowhere else to go. No other country, India included, would grant them citizenship. With British passports but no entry visas, many of them had no choice but vagrancy. Others opted for some illegal ways into the country. And of course, where the law is so inhuman it has to be broken, a number of greedy felons enter the fray. Human smuggling, money, and racism intertwine in unholy combinations, creating the background for this story.

Most of the characters investigating the crime are familiar to the readers from the previous novels of the series. Our old acquaintances include Eleanor, an absent-minded, retired lady who forgets to lock her doors but always remembers people and faces, and her niece Megan, a sergeant with the Cornish Police. There is also Megan’s boss, the grumpy DI Scumble, and Eleanor’s assorted friends and neighbors. Together, they solve the crime perpetrated before the novel started, but I won’t relay the details here to avoid spoilers. I would also point out that it’s not necessary to read the other novels of the series to appreciate this one; it stands firmly on its own.

The action is rather lagging, despite the urgency of the victims’ situation. Too many unnecessary chats, tea cups, and other trifling aspects are woven into the tale like red herrings, so the readers always wonder, together with the heroes: is this man important? Will this woman play a role later in the story? Some of those hints even pay off eventually, while others peter to nothing.  

As always in Carola Dunn’s novels, I found a number of delightful British colloquialisms, some new to me, others not, but all worth repeating:

Fascia – a board over a shop front
Hoick – to rise or raise something abruptly and sharply
Gimbal – a device (see the technical explanation elsewhere)
Load of codswallop – nonsense, lots of it

On the whole – an easy, entertaining read, although nothing special.