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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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.

This Rough Magic ~ Mary Stewart

  • Title: This Rough Magic
  • Author: Mary Stewart
  • Genre: Romance, Mystery
  • Format: Hardcover
  • Source: Own
  • Reviewed by: Olga Godim
  • Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Description:  British actress Lucy Waring believes there is no finer place to be “at liberty” than the sunny isle of Corfu, the alleged locale of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”. Even the suspicious actions of the handsome, arrogant son of a famous actor cannot dampen her enthusiasm for this wonderland in the Ionian Sea.

Then a human corpse is carried ashore on the incoming tide …

Review:  This novel was written 50 years ago, but with one exception, it reads as fresh now as it did then. The story is Stewart’s classic romantic suspense. There is a love interest and danger, a villain and Shakespeare, a plucky heroine and a bevy of charming male sidekicks. Everything unfolds on the pastoral island of Corfu, the island baked by the sun and kissed by the sea. The author even included a dolphin in her enchanting tale, and the creature feels organic to the milieu, one more cute male for the female protagonist’s admiring retinue.

Lucy is a poor, second-rate London actress. Fortunately, her sister is married to a very rich man, and Lucy is invited to her sister’s summer villa on Corfu to lift her bruised spirits, after her third-rate play folded (un)expectedly.  Her idyllic vacation is interrupted by the sudden, suspicious death of a local fisherman, and from this point on, the action rolls very fast.

The author tries to paint the heroine in lively colors, but it doesn’t really work. Lucy seems rather bland, while the male characters revolving around her are vivid and distinct. The old thespian, Sir Julian Gale, is a British theatrical icon, an object of near-worship for Lucy. She reveres him and feels awed when she learns that he is her neighbor on Corfu. As she gets to know the aging actor, she begins to see the truth behind his legend: a tired and sweet old man, recovering from a personal tragedy, while his talent sparkles even when he is not trying.

A young Greek man Adoni, Sir Julian’s servant, is an embodiment of a Greek hero, beautiful and undaunted, a dream guy for any girl. Sir Julian’s son, Max, is a gruff musician, ruthlessly protecting his father from prying eyes and malicious tongues. Unlike Sir Julian, who welcomes Lucy without reservations, Max is surly with her to the point of rudeness, at least in the beginning of the book.

His crusty temper feels incongruous on the luxurious and bucolic landscape of Corfu, the island steeped in myths and history. The beautiful groves, warm Ionian Sea, fragrant flowers and mysterious caves form a background so strong, it becomes a character in its own right. It affects the story and flavors it, and no character in the book is immune to its sun-drenched charms.

The love line of the tale seems abrupt, without gradual development. One moment, the hero and heroine dislike each other, the next, they’re kissing and more. In contrast, the suspense line progresses gradually. Each twist of the plot raises the tension, each interaction of the heroine with the villain deepens her understanding of his perversity and her determination to see him punished. If she sometimes behaves in a silly way and puts herself unnecessarily at risk – well, I suppose the story demands it. She wouldn’t be the protagonist if she didn’t get herself into trouble … and back out.

Overall, I enjoyed this novel. Although the beginning is a bit slow, the finale is grand and explosive. The language flows easily, the storyline is masterful, the scenery picturesque, a feast for all senses, and the characters are delightful in their variety, even the bad guy – he is delightfully sinister.

The only problem I see is the author’s superior (or maybe colonialist) attitude towards the Greek. She portrays them en masse as simplistic, unsophisticated folk, peasants to the refined British. It rubbed me the wrong way, even though all the Greek characters are invariably kind and honorable. Such attitude might’ve been acceptable in 1964 but it’s definitely repulsive now.

Otherwise, a really good novel. Recommended.

The Splendour Falls ~ Susanna Kearsley

  • Title: The Splendour Falls 
  • Author: Susanna Kearsley
  • Genre: Mainstream, Mystery
  • Format: Paperback
  • Source: Library
  • Reviewed by: Olga
  • Rating: 3 out of 5

Description:  Chinon: château of legend, steeped in the history of France and England. It is to Chinon that Emily goes on a long-awaited holiday, to meet her charming but unreliable cousin, Harry. Harry wanted to explore the old town and the castle, where Queen Isabelle, child bride of King John, had withstood the siege of Chinon many centuries ago, and where, according to legend, she hid her casket of jewels. But when Emily arrives at her hotel she finds that Harry has disappeared, and as she tries to find him she becomes involved with some of the other guests and learns of a mystery dating from the German occupation during the Second World War. Another Isabelle, a chambermaid at the hotel, fell in love with a German soldier, with tragic results.

Emily becomes increasingly aware of strange tensions, old enmities and new loves; as she explores the city, with its labyrinthine dungeons and tunnels and its ancient secrets, she comes ever closer to the mystery of what happened to both the Isabelles of Chinon’s history.

Review:  A very lyrical story, this novel is slow and introspective. On occasion, the narration rambles aimlessly among medieval streets and their denizens or stops altogether to contemplate a mystical treasure or a human folly. Personally, I prefer more action and less woolgathering, but in case of this novel, the author took the only possible approach. She invested most of her skills in her characters.

They’re alive and diverse, a fascinating bunch, each one with his or her distinct personality, although none of them appeared substantive to me. Like the novel’s situational landscape, the characters are dreamlike. I’ve never met such people in real life. They’re all a bit too literary, indigenous to the fictional world the author had created, but not the world I live in. Maybe I live in the wrong world? Or maybe the protagonist’s worldview is decidedly different from mine.

The plot of this novel seemed unnecessary, almost accidental. Emily, the protagonist, is a young British woman, on vacation in France. The entire story revolves around her leisurely stay in an old hotel and her wandering around the small tourist town of Chinon. There is a mystery there too and a couple of murders as well, but those lines didn’t seem organic to the story. The integrity of the novel would’ve been served better without them.

On the other hand, the historical vignettes grafted into the modern day tale feel natural. They enrich the story and deepen its emotional impact, and so do the numerous poetic descriptions of people and locations.

The only description that is lacking is that of the protagonist. Unlike most of the secondary characters, who are portrayed in detail: clothes and eye color, mannerisms and professions, Emily is an enigma. I don’t know how she looks or what she does for a living. I don’t know her back story either, and my lack of knowledge hampers my understanding of her inner conflicts. Sometimes, Emily’s dilemmas feel as obscure and incomprehensible as the problems of another, minor character – a French queen who died 700 years ago.

Despite this little quirk, the writer’s language is beautiful, inviting the reader to relax and enjoy the muted, pastel flow of her story. And I did enjoy this novel, although I won’t ever re-read it. 

Wedding Night ~ Sophie Kinsella

  • Title: Wedding Night
  • Author: Sophie Kinsella
  • Genre: Romance, Mainstream
  • Format: Hardcover
  • Source: Library
  • Reviewed by: Olga
  • Rating: 3 out of 5

Description: Lottie just knows that her boyfriend is going to propose during lunch at one of London’s fanciest restaurants. But when his big question involves a trip abroad, not a trip down the aisle, she’s completely crushed. So when Ben, an old flame, calls her out of the blue and reminds Lottie of their pact to get married if they were both still single at thirty, she jumps at the chance. No formal dates—just a quick march to the altar and a honeymoon on Ikonos, the sun-drenched Greek island where they first met years ago.

Their family and friends are horrified. Fliss, Lottie’s older sister, knows that Lottie can be impulsive—but surely this is her worst decision yet. And Ben’s colleague Lorcan fears that this hasty marriage will ruin his friend’s career. To keep Lottie and Ben from making a terrible mistake, Fliss concocts an elaborate scheme to sabotage their wedding night. As she and Lorcan jet off to Ikonos in pursuit, Lottie and Ben are in for a honeymoon to remember, for better… or worse.

Review:  I’ve liked every other book that’s come from Sophie Kinsella, until this one. This novel has me divided. On one hand, I like the protagonists, the two sisters, both in their thirties. On the other hand, the story of those two sisters, the entire conflict is based on one triviality: un-slackened lust. If I was Shakespeare, I would’ve called this novel Much Ado about Nothing. The novel is really about nothing, or rather, as one of the characters aptly said, about “putting the sausage in the cupcake.”

The younger sister, Lottie, is ditzy and flaky. Her only goal in life seems to get married. She’s expecting the proposal from her beloved Richard; she tells everyone the proposal is coming… soon… today… during lunch… she can hardly breathe, but Richard has no inkling of her expectations. With her marital plans in disarray because of Richard’s inability to realize they’re destined to be together, Lottie breaks up with him.

Out of the blue, comes her former flame Ben. They were in love 15 years ago, when they were eighteen, spending the summer on a Greek island. When Ben proposes to her on their first date after 15 years, Lottie can’t say ‘No’. They get married and fly for their honeymoon to the same island where they first met.

The older sister, Fliss, is a much deeper person. Embittered because of her hellish divorce and worried about her seven-year-old son, Fliss is horrified by Lottie’s reckless, rebound marriage. Of course it’s a mistake. And when Lottie realizes that it is a mistake, there is another divorce on the horizon, as terrible as Fliss’s own. To save her younger sister from such a dire fate, Fliss does all in her power to sabotage Lottie’s honeymoon, especially her consummation of marriage. While the horny Lottie desperately wants to shag her new husband, Fliss’s agents make sure sex doesn’t happen between the newlyweds. Every step of the way, Lottie and Ben are dogged by misfortunes that prevent them from having an intercourse. Fliss hopes for an annulment for her little sister.

That’s the story in a nutshell. Of course, such a farcical plotline leads to lots of laughable situations, some of them hysterical, but if you look closer, the humor is shallow, focused on a feeble premise. Only the writer’s formidable skills – the writing is terrific in its expressive powers – saves this novel from being a low taste trash.

Most of the secondary characters are, not surprisingly, males, depicted with depth and affection. Each one has a distinctive personality, and together, they provide a fitting frame for the female protagonists.

Unlike other Kinsella’s books, this one is not as much a relationship story as a self-discovery story. Every character in the book is on a path of self-exploration. Because of the quality of writing and the well-defined characters, I’m giving this book 3 stars. But I’ll be wary when Kinsella’s next book comes out.