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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The Bitch ~ Les Edgerton

  • Title: The Bitch  
  • Author: Les Edgerton
  • Genre: Crime Noir
  • Format: Kindle
  • Source: Netgalley
  • Reviewed by: Mark Matthews
  • Rating: 5 out of 5

Description:  Ex-con Jake Bishop is several years past his second stint in prison and has completely reformed. He’s married, expecting a child, and preparing to open his own hair salon. But then an old cellmate re-enters his life begging for a favor: to help him with a burglary. Forced by his code of ethics to perform the crime, Jake’s once idyllic life quickly plunges into an abyss. Jake soon realizes that there is only one way out of this purgatory . . . and it may rupture his soul beyond repair.

Review:  First off, I should note that the title “The Bitch” is in reference to the main character’s fear of being labeled a “Ha-Bitch-ual” criminal.  More on that later
.

Ex-con trying to fly straight and be a family man gets called back into the lifestyle. Sure, you may  have seen this done before: But this author does it so well that it never gets trite. Feels like true crime, with a language that is never forced.

The tension escalated beautifully. Unpredictable, yet always getting higher, like the tick, tick, ticking noise you hear the roller coaster make as you climb that first hill. You weren’t sure what twist it was going to take, only that the author showed so much skill you would trust it would be somewhere interesting. You get to know the main character so well, that it’s hard not to take him out of the book and back home with you.

As far as the title referring to the legal implications of being labeled a “Ha-Bitch-ual” criminal, I don’t think the author would mind you thinking otherwise. In some ways, the main character lets his past make him his bitch, so to speak, by trying to live by the code of his old world and be happy in the new. Likewise, his wife, tries a ‘cross-over’ with similar results. There is moral ambiguity here and a value system that the main character has that you don’t have to admire, but you will certainly feel it along the way. As the main character, Jake, goes rifling through what to do next, you want to scream out to him, “Dude, did you realize you just ((spoiler alert)) how are you going to shoot a move through this one?”

I have to believe that crime fiction speaks to the voyeur in all of us. The part who want to know how criminals live and what they think. And the best crime fiction makes us realize they are one of us, or we are one of them. We find ourselves identifying with the character at some parts, wishing they had more of a moral compass at other parts. We may get disgusted at their choices, other times we may just wish they’d be more slick and get away with it. All of these things and more crossed my mind as I committed crimes alongside Jake and Walker.

Read this for the story, for the plot, for the characters, and for the concise as a concrete slab prose. If you are lucky like me, you can read it at your parents cottage, isolated, surrounded by snow, which was exactly the setting the characters found themselves in as they tried to cover the tracks of their misdeeds. I was able to go home and live happily ever after with my family. The characters of this book may have not been so lucky.

The Humans ~ Matt Haig

  • Title: The Humans    
  • Author: Matt Haig
  • Genre: Literary Sci-Fi
  • Format: Kindle
  • Source: $11 purchase
  • Reviewed by: Mark Matthews
  • Rating: 5 out of 5

Description:  The critically acclaimed author of The Radleys shares a clever, heartwarming, and darkly insightful novel about an alien who comes to Earth to save humans from themselves.

“I was not Professor Andrew Martin. That is the first thing I should say. He was just a role. A disguise. Someone I needed to be in order to complete a task.”

The narrator of this tale is no ordinary human—in fact, he’s not human at all. Before he was sent away from the distant planet he calls home, precision and perfection governed his life. He lived in a utopian society where mathematics transformed a people, creating limitless knowledge and immortality.

But all of this is suddenly threatened when an earthly being opens the doorway to the same technology that the alien planet possesses. Cambridge University professor Andrew Martin cracks the Reimann Hypothesis and unknowingly puts himself and his family in grave danger when the narrator is sent to Earth to erase all evidence of the solution and kill anyone who has seen the proof. The only catch: the alien has no idea what he’s up against.

Disgusted by the excess of disease, violence, and family strife he encounters, the narrator struggles to pass undetected long enough to gain access to Andrew’s research. But in picking up the pieces of the professor’s shattered personal life, the narrator sees hope and redemption in the humans’ imperfections and begins to question the very mission that brought him there.

Review:  The world is divided into those who have read this book and those who have not.  Those who have read this book are shaking their heads in the affirmative right now.

It is not so much the story, but read it for that.  It is not so much the characters, but read it for that too.  It is for the statement it makes on the flawed yet wondrous nature of humans. This book will resonate with you long after you read it. (if not, we can’t be friends.)  You will be convinced the author himself is from another world, sent here to give us some wisdom, but perhaps also fearful if we can handle it.  I liken it to “Illusions – The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah” by Richard Bach

Yes, I loved this book and I am a better person for it. A beautiful book that made me cry. At times I feared it would become predictable, but there was just enough variance and certainly more than enough genius. A wonderful range of emotions. The prose was both beautiful and simple. How many times have we all wondered, “What would an alien think if they came to Earth and experienced this?” Well, this book provides an illuminating answer.

Highly recomended. Get ready to highlight on your kindle or dog-ear your  paperback.

-Mark Matthews

Time Off for Good Behavior ~ Lani Diane Rich

  • Title: Time Off for Good Behavior
  • Author: Lani Diane Rich
  • Genre: Mainstream
  • Format: Kindle
  • Source: Own
  • Reviewed by: Olga
  • Rating: 3 out of 5

Description:  For Wanda Lane, life has been one long string of screw-ups. Her abusive ex-husband keeps threatening to kill her, she just lost her crappy job, and a head injury (sustained while diving off the witness stand to attack an obnoxious attorney) has left her hearing phantom music no one else can hear. It isn’t until she hits the rock bottom of her bottle of scotch that she begins to wonder if maybe — just maybe — the problem is her.

On her pothole-ridden path to becoming a decent human being, she makes friends with Elizabeth, a single mother looking for her own solid ground; Father Gregory, the patient priest who counsels Wanda, even though she’s not technically Catholic; and Walter, a Jimmy-Stewart-ish lawyer who is smart, sexy and single… and so far out of Wanda’s league that she thinks he must have been sent from God as one last punishment for her past transgressions. Can an angry, lost woman find her way back from failure, or are second chances the stuff of myth?

Wanda’s gonna find out. You may want to move out of her way.

Review:
Reinventing oneself is a slow and gut-wrenching endeavor. Wanda Lane, the heroine of this novel, only resorts to this painful method when she hit the rock-bottom of her life.

Since college, she has been hiding behind the mask of a rude, abrasive, non-caring broad with anger management issues. She has let the sensitive feminine side of her almost disappear. Constantly in terror of her abusive ex-husband, lest he finds her again, and the abuse resumes, she calls herself a ‘wiseass’, which is as good a definition as any. Hating herself and unable to believe that anyone could like her, she meets any friendship overtures with derision, invariably driving people away. Only a chance encounter with a charming single lawyer William forces her to reevaluate her priorities and attempt to revert to what she could’ve been, if her traumatic marriage didn’t occur.

The complex, controversial theme of this novel is emphasized by a number of truly frightening situations and humorous little vignettes. Some of them made me chuckle. Others cause shivers of dread. All of them kept me turning the pages.

But… I can’t truthfully say that I liked this novel or enjoyed it. I didn’t. And the reason for that: I disliked Wanda. She is a rebellious, self-destructive bitch, and I don’t like or respect such women. I don’t understand her drive to self-ruination. 

For half the book, Wanda either wallows in self-pity or drowns her grievances in whiskey. Hers are real grievances, I’m sure, but her troubles are not the worst in the world, and there are several solutions to her problems, none of which she even attempts. At least at first.

Until a perfect guy comes her way – suave, handsome, wealthy (he is a lawyer), and in love with her into the bargain. Only then does she make a push to clean up her act. As if a guy is a necessity for a woman to live with dignity.

Besides, William is not real. He is too good to be true. I’ve never met such men in real life, and I’m certain no one has. He is a ‘prince charming’ of the author’s dreams, almost a metaphor. Why does Wanda need this Disney-style knight in shining pink armor to put her life together? As if her life is meaningless without a penis to enrich it. It doesn’t feel right to me.

I’ve read everything this writer has written so far, in both her incarnations – Lani Diane Rich and Lucy March – and I intend to continue reading her. She is a great writer, even though her novels are uneven. Some of them I loved dearly. Others left me indifferent. This is one of the latter variety, but I hope the next one would be better. She can do it; I know she can do it. Can’t wait.

Bagombo Snuff Box ~ Kurt Vonnegut

  • Title: Bagombo Snuff Box
  • Author: Kurt Vonnegut
  • Genre: Mainstream, Short Stories
  • Format: Paperback
  • Source: Library
  • Reviewed by: Olga
  • Rating: 4 out of 5

Description:  For this unusual collection of vintage Vonnegut, the author selected 24 of his stories, written between 1954 and 1961 and published in magazines, and added a new Preface for the occasion.

Review:  Although this book was compiled in 1999, it contains the author’s early short stories, published in magazines in the 1950s and ’60s. It was not an easy or a fast book to read but it was powerful and it made an impression. I won’t re-read it; it didn’t give me much pleasure, which is why 4 stars instead of 5 stars, but I’ll remember it.  

The stories are all about a small man in America. A couple stories have a scifi slant, but their speculative flavor is unimportant. The spotlight in all the stories is on a real man in the real postwar USA. No stories deal with a female protagonist, and most males on display are so life-like and pathetic, it hurts to read about them. Literary recognition is seldom pretty.

All the human foibles – greed, vanity, ambition, envy, misplaced loyalties – and all the vulnerabilities – loneliness, ignorance, shyness – are bared to the readers. There are no heroes or villains in this book but lots of silly men, misunderstood men, and presumptuous men. Some want to pay the world for ignoring them. Others are resigned to their fate, which is much, much smaller than they had dreamed about.

‘The shattered dreams of America’ could be a subtitle for this book, which includes stories sad and funny, tragic and twisted, but beyond all, believable. It could’ve been me (well, not me, I’m a woman). It could’ve been you or your cousin or your classmate. It’s about us.

And we are as different as the heroes of these stories. Some of them are extremely narrow-minded but come to realize and regret their own pettiness. Others are absorbed in their work to the detriment of the living people around them. Still others are making mistakes but not making connections. The theme of misunderstanding – between fathers and sons, wives and husbands, teachers and students – runs through the stories like a binding thread.

I made a conscious decision not to comment on any particular story, but I’d like to mention one character, a high school music teacher. He appears in three stories and he is probably the most likable of the protagonists in this book, at least for me. His passion for music is rich and rewarding, but his blindness to the human needs of his students is appalling. He is made of contradictions, like all the other characters in the book.  

The introduction by the author is just as fascinating as the stories. In it, he talks about the origins of this collection, about his checkered life and literary career, and about the present times (1999) which was so different and so similar to the times he wrote about.  

He writes about Ray Bradbury:

Fahrenheit 451 was published before we and most of our neighbors in Osterville owned TVs. Ray Bradbury himself may not have owned one. He still may not own one. To this day, Ray can’t drive a car and hates to ride in airplanes.
In any case, Ray was sure as heck prescient. Just as people with dysfunctional kidneys are getting perfect ones from hospitals nowadays, Americans with dysfunctional social lives, like the woman in Ray’s book, are getting perfect friends and relatives from their TV sets. And around the clock!
Ray missed the boat about how many screens would be required for a successful people-transplant. One lousy little Sony can do the job, night and day. All it takes besides that is actors and actresses, telling the news, selling stuff, in soap operas or whatever, who treat whoever is watching, even if nobody is watching, like family.
“Hell is other people,” said Jean-Paul Sartre. “Hell is other real people,’ is what he should have said.

What a pessimistic outlook at our lives. And so close to home, I want to curse.
Vonnegut also gives here, in the introduction to this book, his famous 8 rules of writing fiction:

1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
4. Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.
5. Start as close to the end as possible.
6. Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

He also admits that most good writers break most of his rules, except maybe the rule #1. This book didn’t break that rule.

One critic called Vonnegut “the Mark Twain of our times.” I agree.

Banquet of Lies ~ Michelle Diener

  • Title: Banquet of Lies
  • Author: Michelle Diener
  • Genre: Historical
  • Format: Paperback
  • Source: Library
  • Reviewed by: Olga Godim
  • Rating: 4 out of 5

Description:  LONDON, 1812: Giselle Barrington is living a double life, juggling the duties of chef with those of spy catcher. She must identify her father’s savage killer before the shadowy man finds her and uncovers the explosive political document her father entrusted to her safekeeping.

Posing as a French cook in the home of Lord Aldridge, Giselle is surrounded by unlikely allies and vicious enemies. In the streets where she once walked freely among polite society, she now hides in plain sight, learning the hard lessons of class distinction and negotiating the delicate balance between servant and master.

Lord Aldridge’s insatiable curiosity about his mysterious new chef blurs the line between civic duty and outright desire. Carefully watching Giselle’s every move, he undertakes a mission to figure out who she really is—and, in the process, plunges her straight into the heart of danger when her only hope for survival is to remain invisible.

Review:  I loved this novel – the characters, the tightly woven plot, the tension thrumming in the air, and the fast pacing. A historical thriller, set in 1812, the book also includes a romantic element.

In the beginning of the story, twenty-one-year-old Gigi, the only daughter of a famous British folklorist, is at a society ball in Stockholm. She witnesses her father’s murder by a traitor and knows the killer would be after her next, hunting for an important political document. Fleeing for her life, she arrives in London – to hide and decide what to do. The rest of the story consists of the deadly cat-and-mouse game Gigi and the murderer play with each other. He wants to find her and the document to avoid exposure. She wants to protect the document and survive in the process.  

I like Gigi. A smart and proud girl, she is brave one moment, scared the next. Balancing between grief for her father, fear and loneliness, she has no kin to turn to. Unable to go home, where surely the villain would be waiting, she has to fend for herself in the unforgiving streets of London, and she still finds strength and determination in her heart to help others, less fortunate. Her compassion feels boundless, and her intellect and poise are formidable. An all-together admirable heroine, plucky and emotional, she is nonetheless vulnerable, and some of her decisions are surprisingly silly, leading to more complications in her already entangled predicament. In short – she is alive, the best compliment I could pay to a writer.

The other characters are less so, but the male protagonist, Lord Aldridge, is portrayed skillfully enough to satisfy even the harshest critics. Personally, I’m indifferent to him. I think male characters are not the author’s forte, while her female protagonists are always first class.

Of course there are problems in this novel too; that’s why 4 stars instead of 5 stars. One of the problems concerns the writing. It is terse, almost devoid of adjectives, which some readers might enjoy but I find a tad dry. It’s adequate to convey the non-stop action, but the descriptions suffer, minimized to rare and puny one-liners. For me, that’s a flaw; I like an occasional verbal arabesque or a lovely metaphor enlivening the narration, but that’s my personal opinion.  

Another problem – the romance line seems alien to the plot, tucked in to satisfy the marketing department. The story doesn’t need it and wouldn’t suffer if it was removed.

Other than these two minor hitches, the rest is almost perfect.  Once I started reading this book, I couldn’t put it down. This is the third novel by this writer I’ve read, and they’re getting progressively better. Everything she writes in the future would definitely be on my automatic to-read list.

Well done!