The Rosie Project – Graeme Simsion

rosieIt’s easy to see why Graeme Simsion’s debut novel The Rosie Project was such a huge hit with readers all over the world. It’s one of those books with easy to like characters, a straightforward story and just enough quirk to make it stand out from the pack.

Don Tillman is a scientist in the Genetics department at an unnamed university in Melbourne, Australia. It’s clear from the book’s opening pages that while Don clearly has a super-sized brain, he also has some issues which have prevented him, thus far, from finding a suitable partner. Thus, the Wife Project.

Don’s two friends Gene and Claudia try to help with Don’s project, but Don felt their assistance was lacking. Their approach “was based on the traditional dating paradigm, which I had previously abandoned on the basis that the probability of success did not justify the effort and negative experiences.”  He eventually writes a sixteen-page questionnaire that he hopes will sort the wheat from the chaff.

Don describes everyone he meets by telling us their Body Mass Index and by the time he tells us that he is “thirty-nine years old, tall, fit and intelligent, with a relatively high status and above-average income” and that he should be “attractive to a wide variety of women. In the animal kingdom, I would succeed in reproducing” we know for sure that Don is somewhere on the Autism spectrum.

According to Autism Canada

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a complex neurobiological condition that can affect the normal function of the gastrointestinal, immune, hepatic, endocrine and nervous systems. It impacts normal brain development leaving most individuals with communication problems, difficulty with typical social interactions and a tendency to repeat specific patterns of behaviour. There is also a markedly restricted repertoire of activity and interests. Individuals on the autism spectrum tend to have varying degrees and combinations of symptoms

All things considered, Don does pretty well in the world. Where he struggles is with human interaction. So when Rosie blows into his life, ostensibly looking for someone to help her discover the identity of her biological father, Don’s ordered world is thrown completely off-kilter. That’s when the fun really starts.

There are several laugh-out-loud moments in The Rosie Project, and it is fun to watch socially challenged Don and prickly Rosie work their way towards each other. It’ll make a great movie.

 

The Most Dangerous Thing – Laura Lippman

mostdangerousIt took me forever (it seems) to finish Laura Lippman’s novel The Most Dangerous Thing, a book that the Wall Street Journal called “a creepy, genre-bending, stand-alone novel.”

Lippman’s novel is the overly long story of five childhood friends, Gwen, Mickey, Tim, Sean and Go-Go who are reunited as adults after Go-Go is killed in a car accident that may or may not have been deliberate.  The real story, though, is about what happened to these five when they were kids – a bit of nasty business that is alluded to and then covered up. It’s the seventies, after all.

The story bounces between then and now and the big reveal  – which comes in the novel’s final pages – doesn’t really equal the sum of its parts. My problem with the book is that it took forever to get anywhere and when I finally arrived I was just sort of meh about the whole affair. As a novel of “psychological suspense,” as the Globe and Mail purports it to be, it was lacking the actual suspense.

Actually, I think the real mystery in The Most Dangerous Thing is  who is telling the story because Go-Go is dead and the remaining four are all referred to in the third person. In the author’s notes at the back of the book Ms. Lippman says: “I don’t want to tell you.”

As another kind of story, The Most Dangerous Thing is quite compelling.  The children are children only in flashback; we are actually dealing with them as adults and their lives are messy and complicated – as lives tend to be. We also spend time with their parents and those lives aren’t much better. But the thing is – is The Most Dangerous Thing a family drama  times three or is it a mystery, or a thriller, Maybe it’s social commentary?

Ms. Lippman says it’s her most autobiographical novel – geographically speaking. She says “I have been circling the unusual neighbourhood in which I grew up, determined to write about it, but wanting to wait for the right time and story.”

If I hadn’t been itching for the book to move along already, I would probably have enjoyed it more. Ms. Lippman is a wonderful writer, no question…but this book was only just okay for me. Maybe if I hadn’t been expecting something different, I would have been less disappointed.

Me Before You – Jojo Moyes

mebeforeyouLast night, my book club met to discuss Jojo Moyes’ novel Me Before You.  I was the only member of the group that didn’t love the book. I liked the book a lot, but it won’t go down in my personal annals as one of the most amazing, romantic, beautiful, (insert other appropriate adjective here) books ever. Trust me, I am the gushiest romantic on the planet so it came as just as much of a shock to me when I didn’t get all weepy and heartbroken at the end.

Me Before You is the story of  26-year-old Louisa Clark, an ordinary girl from an ordinary family. Until recently, she’d been working at the local cafe in the little market village she lives in in England. She lives at home with her parents and her younger sister, Treena and Treena’s young son, Thomas. Their house is too small; they don’t have much money and so when Louisa loses her job at the cafe she is desperate to find new employment so she can continue to contribute to the family coffers.

Enter the Traynors.  They live in Granta House which is on the other side of Stortfold Castle – I presume that’s the posh side. Camilla Traynor hires Louisa as a companion to her son Will who, two years ago, had been in a serious motorcycle-meets-pedestrian accident that has left him as a quadriplegic. He’s a bit of a git.

Circumstances being what they are, Louisa doesn’t feel like she’s in a position to quit, even when Will is arrogant and unkind. Instead, Louisa is determined to make friends with Will and so, of course, that is what happens. Will softens because of Louisa’s friendship; she  flourishes because of his. They are both irrevocably changed.

Me Before You was an easy book to read. I motored through 200 pages on Saturday night. I liked Louisa and I liked Will and I liked their story. Although I didn’t agree with the stylistic choice Moyes made to interrupt the story’s predominantly first person narrative to give readers a glimpse into the heads of a few other characters, I did appreciate this observation by Will’s mother:

It’s just that the one thing you never understand about being a mother, until you are one, is that it is not the grown man – the galumphing. unshaven, stinking, opinionated offspring – you see before you, with his parking tickets and his unpolished shoes and complicated love life. You see all the people he has ever been rolled into one.

I am a mom and so I knew what she was talking about. Could I have lived without her insights?  Absolutely.

I also took issue with the epilogue. It felt cheap to me. Way, way too tidy. But no matter.

One of the questions  posed last night was whether or not Me Before You was a great book. Define great. That’s the cool thing about reading. Everyone’s definition of what makes a great book is going to be different. I am going to have to figure out how to articulate what makes a book great for me and get back to you.

As for Me Before You – it was a very enjoyable book to read. Could I niggle over a bunch of little things? Sure, but none of them really detracted from my reading experience which was totally pleasant. I didn’t shed any tears, but I did well up once or twice. So, almost, Ms. Moyes.

 

 

 

Joyland – Stephen King

joylandAlthough I devoured Stephen King as a teen and young adult, it’s probably been 15 years since I’ve read a King novel (Bag of Bones, which I loved). I decided to give Joyland a go and it was like settling into a comfortable pair of slippers. (I know, it’s ridiculous to compare the Master of Horror to a pair of comfy slippers, but I’m talking more about that feeling of just knowing that you are in really good hands – which you always are with King.)

Joyland is not a horror story really. It’s the story of Devin Jones, a college student who takes a job at Joyland, a Disney-style amusement park (I imagined Family Kingdom at Myrtle Beach, S.C., which I visited once as a teen) in North Carolina.  Devin tells the story of his summer and autumn at Joyland through the lens of late middle age. He says

That fall was the most beautiful of my life. Even forty years later I can say that. And I was never so unhappy. I can say that, too.

Devin’s unhappiness stems from his recent break-up with his first serious girlfriend, Wendy. Devin has an inkling that their relationship has run its course when Wendy doesn’t even hesitate to encourage him to take the job at Joyland, even though it means that they will be separated for the summer. “It’ll be an adventure” she tells him, without realizing just how much of an adventure it’ll actually be.

Devin meets a cast of interesting characters at Joyland and in the little seaside town he calls home while he works there. Characters like Lane Hardy (who shows him the ropes around the park) and Rosalind Gold (the resident fortune teller who makes a couple of astute predictions about Devin’s future) and Emmalina Shoplaw (who owns the boarding house where Devin rents a room and who tells him about the murder associated with Joyland’s  Horror House) add a bit of local character to the story.  Other characters, like Mike and his mother, Annie, have a more profound impact on Devin’s life.

Devin Jones calls that summer “the last year of my childhood” and he is right. King expertly balances the story’s nostalgic look back, and his protagonist’s bittersweet reminiscences (“I still want to know why I wasn’t good enough for Wendy Keegan”). Joyland is as much a coming-of-age tale as it is a murder-mystery. Both aspects of the novel will keep you turning the pages.

Master of the Delta – Thomas H. Cook

masterofthedeltaI always say Thomas H. Cook is a mystery writer and he is…but I think he is also so much more than that. Master of the Delta is my 8th outing with Cook and it didn’t disappoint, even though some of the themes were familiar. The novel has the propulsive energy of a mystery, a book with a thread of whodunit twined with a ribbon of ‘is this going to end like I think it’s going to end?’ And of course – nothing is ever quite what it seems. But Cook operates on another level and this is where I think he excels.

Master of the Delta is Jack Branch’s story. Branch is a twenty-three year old teacher who has returned to his hometown to teach at Lakeland High School. Branch has had a priviledged upbringing: he grew up at Great Oaks, one of the town’s massive plantation homes.  It is 1954.

As a boy I’d sat with my father on just such a veranda, evenings that despite all that has happened since still hold a storied beauty for me. There was something calm and sure about them, and it would never have occurred to me that anything might shatter the sheer stability of it all, a father much admired, a son who seemed to please him, a family name everywhere revered and to which no act of dishonour had ever been ascribed.

Branch is a fussy young man – no, fussy isn’t the right word. He’s cocky. He believes his own hype. I don’t mean to say that he is without merit, but his youthful arrogance is partly to blame for events that haunt him for the rest of his life.

And that’s one of the cool things about Master of the Delta (and Cook’s novels in general). Cook always manages to weave past and present together seamlessly so Branch’s story is told as it unfolds, but also from the vantage point of Branch as a much older man – someone who is, from this vantage point at least, able to see his own character flaws.

Branch is teaching a course on evil through the ages and he discovers that one of his students, Eddie Miller, is the son of Luke Miller, the Coed Killer – a man who had killed a local girl and subsequently been killed in jail. Branch encourages Eddie to write a paper about his father. He feels it will help Eddie get out from under the weight of his awful heritage. So Eddie starts to research the father he barely remembers, but when this research reaches into his own life, Branch’s age and inexperience begin to show.

Really, Master of the Delta is a book about fathers and sons, about the part luck plays in how our lives turn out, about kindness and cruelty.  It is a book that has something to say about teachers and books and as a teacher who loves books, I enjoyed that. I truly believe Cook is a masterful observor of human life – our weaknesses and our strengths.  He might wrap it all up in a mystery, but I can’t think of anyone who does it better than he does.

The Doctor’s Wife – Elizabeth Brundage

thedoctorswife_325Interesting timing. I finished Elizabeth Brundage’s novel The Doctor’s Wife just a couple days before Dr. Henry Morgentaler passed away at the ripe old age of 90.  What do a novel and a  doctor who changed the laws regarding abortion in Canada have to do with each other? Well, it’s the polarizing subject of abortion which is at the centre of Brundage’s over-written and  uneven novel.

Annie and Michael Knowles live in upstate New York. Michael is an obstetrician who practices in Albany. Annie is a journalist who teaches at the local college. When the novel opens, it is clear that their marriage is rocky: Michael is a workaholic; Annie is dissatisfied with her role as mother and the doctor’s wife.

Then there’s Lydia and Simon Haas. Simon was a renowned artist, but now he’s a bit washed up and he teaches at the same college as Annie. His wife, Lydia, is much younger and clearly unstable. She’s also found Jesus and is hanging out with a bunch of bible thumping right wing conservatives.

When Lydia discovers that Simon and Annie are having an affair and her church friends decide that Michael’s new role at the local abortion clinic is worthy of punishment, The Doctor’s Wife propels the reader into page-turner territory.  But it’s a weird mash-up of social commentary and scorned-wife-gone-wild.

None of the characters in this novel are particularly likeable. Usually when people enter into an extramarital affair it’s sort of easy to choose a side. Simon might be sympathetic if you really had a better of understanding of his relationship with Lydia. Does he love her? Is he afraid of her? (If not, he should be!) Does he love Annie?

And Annie’s feelings for her husband are equally ambiguous. She is “no longer the college girl Michael had fallen in love with.” When she and Simon hook up at a faculty party it’s like they hop a fast-moving train that’s not able to stop until it either runs out of fuel or crashes. The fact that Simon is a bit of a doofus makes you question Annie’s sense.

I actually didn’t mind the affair part of the story. And Lydia was bat-shit crazy. Where the story really  veered off the believability path was how Lydia was involved with these crazy church people and how she had the cunning to plan and execute some of these outlandish crimes.

By the end of the book, the whole thing felt a little bit like a made-for-tv-movie. Which is too bad, as there was potential there at the beginning.

 

Hawkes Harbor – S.E. Hinton

hawkes

There was a time – perhaps not in recent memory, but in my memory at least – when the Teen section of a book store didn’t offer quite the selection that it does now. Books written specifically for a teen audience were not so readily available; I did most of my book-buying from the Scholastic flyer and a great deal of my reading from the stacks of the local library. Perhaps the fact that there weren’t so many ‘teen’ books is the reason why so many people of my vintage have read many of the classics (and all of Trixie Beldon and Nancy Drew!)  But if you had to compile a list of YA fiction from the 70s (which is when I was a teen) S. E. Hinton would surely be at the top of the list. (I also have a very vivid memory of this romance that took place at the beach – an insecure, plain girl falls in love with this Greek Adonis, who just happens to have a prosthetic leg. Can’t remember the book or the author, though. Damn.)

Anyway.

S.E. Hinton is best known for her novel, The Outsiders. Seriously, is there a person on the planet who is not familiar with this book? Hinton was still a teenager when the book was published. (I love to tell my students she was just 16 when she wrote it, but I don’t know that for sure.) The Outsiders is pretty much the slam-dunk book to give to a student who claims he doesn’t like to read. Works for girls, too, by the way. But then I love to tell them that if they enjoyed Ponyboy and Johnny and the rest of the greasers, they’ll love That Was Then, This is Now, which is my favourite Hinton novel. Her characters feel authentic to me and I suspect that’s why teens still love them, even though some of the stuff  feels dated.

Which brings me to Hawkes Harbor. Published in 2004, it was Hinton’s first novel in 15 years. It was also her first adult novel. It’s also really, really strange. And, truthfully, i don’t know if I mean that in a “don’t waste your time” way or in a “I couldn’t stop reading it even though it was really bizarre” way.

Jamie Sommers (not to be confused with the bionic woman) is orphaned at a very young age and sent to love with the nuns.  It is 1950…and that is all you get to know about that. When we catch up with him he’s a mental patient at Terrace View Asylum. Bad stuff has happened and Dr. McDevitt is trying to help him remember. McDevitt can’t decide if Jamie’s tales of derring-do are authentic or the fantasies of an addled brain. In any case, the reader learns that after a stint in the navy, Jamie hooked up with an Irishman named Kell and the two of them sailed around the world looking to make their fortune – mostly illegally. Eventually they ended up in Hawkes Harbor and that’s where things took a turn for the worse.

Um. This is where we meet the vampire. It’s not what I was expecting. At all. And I can’t say that I believed it because it was at this point that Hinton broke her contract with me. Really? A vampire? I just didn’t get it.

The writing is decent, albeit choppy, which might have something to do with the nature of the narrative  and the fact that the story jumps around. Jamie is compelling enough. This is a decidedly adult novel, so I won’t be recommending it to my students.  Sadly, I doubt I’d recommend it to anyone.

No matter. I still love you, Ms. Hinton.

Gone Girl – Gillian Flynn

gonegirl

That I read Gone Girl so soon after finishing Dark Places is a tribute to Gillian Flynn’s talent. With so many books on my tbr shelf, I don’t generally read books by the same author back-to-back. Gone Girl had a few extra things going for it, though. Virtually everyone has been talking about it and I just couldn’t resist its lure any longer.

Nick Dunne and Amy Elliott Dunne are just about to celebrate their fifth wedding anniversary when Amy goes missing. There are signs of a struggle in their rented Missouri home and Nick can’t really account for his whereabouts that morning, so it doesn’t take too long for the police to start treating him like the prime suspect.

Flynn uses a dual narrative approach to tell the story of their courtship and life in New York where Nick was a magazine writer and Amy wrote quizzes for a variety of publications. Life was pretty good for them. They were beautiful, smart and rich. Well, Amy was rich because her parents – Rand and Mary Beth – had written a series of books called Amazing Amy which had, until recently, been a bit of a cash cow. Then Nick and Amy’s fortunes take a turn for the worse and suddenly they find themselves back in Nick’s hometown.

From the start we know that the golden lives of these two protagonists is slightly tarnished. On the morning of the anniversary, Nick’s reaction to his wife’s greeting of “Well, hello, handsome” is one of “bile and dread” inching up his throat. Then: Amy’s missing.

Gone Girl is a supremely entertaining game of cat and mouse. Their married lives had been marked with anniversary treasure hunts and this year is no different. Amy has left the first in a series of clues for her husband. The clues, and the letters which accompany them, seem to indicate Amy’s  awareness of her husband’s unhappiness and her own part in it. But Amy wants to patch things up. The treasure hunt also seems to point to Nick as the person responsible for Amy’s disappearance and slowly the media, Amy’s parents and even his twin sister, Go, start to regard him with suspicion.

But there is more to Gone Girl than a suspenseful mystery. There’s actually quite a damning indictment of the fakery of  relationships; the  potential for infidelity, boredom, entitlement. We want the fairy tale until we don’t. Marriage is hard work. Nick and Amy’s story is extreme, but recognizable nonetheless.

Flynn is a terrific writer. I mean – gifted. She inhabits Nick’s brain as easily as she inhabits Amy’s. They are sympathetic and reprehensible and downright scary in equal measure. To say much more about the plot would be to spoil the novel’s twists. Suffice to say, this is one married couple I wouldn’t be inviting over for dinner any time soon!

Dark Places – Gillian Flynn

dark-places-book-coverLibby Day is a survivor. She’s survived a drunken, dead-beat father, Runner,  extreme poverty, and the horrific massacre of her mother, Patty, and two older sisters, Michelle and Debby. Well, maybe to call her a survivor is a stretch because Libby is reclusive and mean. She says it herself at the beginning of Gillian Flynn’s terrific novel, Dark Places.

I have a meaness inside me, real as an organ. Slit me at my belly and it might slide out, meaty and dark, drop on the floor so you can stomp on it. It’s the Day blood. Something’s wrong with it. I was never a good little girl, and I got worse after the murders.

Ah, yes, the murders. For the past 24 years Libby’s older brother, Ben, has languised in prison for the crime. He was 15 when he is alledged to have killed his mother and younger sisters. Libby has never once visited him partly, perhaps, because it was her testimony that sent him there. She was seven at the time.

Now, at 30, Libby is alone, broke and desperate. That’s how she comes to accept The Kill Club’s offer. Lyle, one of the Kill Club’s members, reaches out to Libby and makes her a propostion. If she’s willing to come to a meeting and talk about the case, they’ll pay her $500. That original deal morphs into something more and suddenly Libby is revisiting the night that changed her life forever.

gillian-flynnGillian Flynn (right) is a new-to-me writer although everyone and their dog has likely heard about her by now due to her recent novel, Gone Girl. She started her writing career as a journalist and was the TV critic for Entertainment Weekly for a decade before turning her hand to fiction. Look at her: she’s beautiful. And scary. And it just occurred to me that her writing reminds me of one of my all-time favourite writers, Lisa Reardon. Her writing is fearless…and fear-inducing.

Dark Places unspools the Day murders in two ways: as Libby digs for the truth and as the events of the day unravel. For this, we spend time with Patty and Ben. Patty is a sympathetic character, a mom who loves her children and tries to care for them, but whose dwindling emotional and financial resources make it nearly impossible. Ben, on the other hand, is a fifteen-year-old boy in a house full of women. He’s desperately searching for a place to belong and an outlet for the anger which bubbles inside him.

Flynn skilfully weaves the threads of this story together offering the reader equal measures of horror and heartbreak.  I couldn’t put the book down – that’s just about the highest praise I can give a book.

Now You See Her – Joy Fielding

now you see her

Well, there’s a few hours I’m never getting back.

I am not a book snob. I like a fast-paced, plot-driven suspense thriller as much as the next girl. Now You See Her, on the surface at least, seems like a book that would be right down my dark alley. Marcy Taggert is on holiday in Ireland. It was supposed to be a second honeymoon, but her husband, Peter, has run off with the golf pro from his country club and so Marcy has gone solo. While enjoying a cup of tea with a man she’s met on her day-trip to Cork, Marcy sees her daughter, Devon. Which isn’t possible because Devon is dead. (cue music)

I really wanted to like Now You See Her. For one thing it’s written by Canadian Joy Fielding (who has had a great deal of success in this genre). For another, I felt like I should be able to relate to Marcy. We’re of the same vintage, at any rate. But nothing about this book spoke to me.

So Marcy sees Devon and tears off looking for her. Of course, she doesn’t find her. But she returns to Cork and sets up camp and becomes more and more convinced that Devon is not dead. Marcy’s supposition might, in fact, be possible because Devon’s body was never found. She meets various characters along the way, some of whom have nefarious motives, some who want to help her. Some who think she’s crazy and as the book plods along it’s possible that crazy is exactly what Marcy is.

Here’s why the book didn’t work for me:

1. Marcy is stoo-pid. She actually meets a man in a pub and goes off with him after he tells her that, yes, miraculously, he knows her daughter. Really? Really?

2. The writing is clun-ky. Sometimes,  apropos of nothing, we get a little history lesson.  No one sounds Irish. The transitions are often confusing.

3. There are characters who just appear – out of nowhere – conveniently. Fresh baked muffins, anyone? Also, the characters are not believable. Seriously, wait until the lacklustre denouement, see who plays a part in it and then see how you’ve been mislead all along.  But not in a plausible way. Peripheral characters, Marcy’s son, for example, are footnotes.

4. If you are going to weave a tangled web, the spider at the center wants to be believable. Um. Just no.

I don’t know where Now You See Her comes in Fielding’s canon, but I won’t be rushing to read any more of her work.