Sunday, 28 July 2013

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion

***SBRs 5th Best Read for 2013*** 

Publication date: 11th April 2013
Published by: Penguin
Genre: Contemporary Romance

The Rosie Project was high on the list of new contemporary romance books tipped to be big this summer.  I heard an interview with the author, Graeme Simsion and was immediately taken in by the plot.

The story is set in Melbourne, Australia and is about Don Tillman, a reasonably good looking, intelligent, financially comfortable single man in his late thirties. In theory he ought to be a good catch.  In reality Don is nerdy, socially awkward, can count the number of friends he has with one hand (and still have digits to spare) and his experience with the few women he has dated has been disastrous. Where most people use eye or hair colour, height and possibly ethnicity to describe someone, Don estimates average age and BMI (body mass index), the rest being irrelevant.  He is almost ready to give up on a chance of finding a partner when he comes up with a plan to find ‘the one’.  

Don is a university professor and his plan is to approach what he calls ‘the wife problem’ as a scientific research project (‘The Wife Project’), and is convinced this could work.  He sets about collecting his primary data by devising a questionnaire.  In this way he will be able to identify all the unsuitable characteristics early and rule out the unsuitable candidates, thus increasing his chances of finding the perfect match.  He seeks advice from his only two friends – Gene and his wife Claudia – also both university academics.  They help him tweak his questions and he gets started on his project.  

One day, Rosie turns up in his office.  She has been sent to him by Gene and Don assumes she is for the wife project.  He asks her out and they arrange to have dinner.  During the date, Don discovers that Rosie is completely unsuitable and should have been ruled out by the questionnaire. He cannot understand why Gene would propose her. However, he also recognises that he actually enjoyed her company.  He decides he would like to befriend her and, having discovered during a conversation that she would like to find her biological father, comes up with a plan to help her….

The above synopsis may sound very strange.  I did leave something out.  Don has Asperger’s and this is why he has problems forming relationships with others and why, although highly unconventional, his approach to finding a partner sort of makes sense.  I have to say I liked Don a lot.  His honesty is refreshing and his approach to adapting to his environment makes for interesting reading.  In this way, he is like Christopher Boon of The Curious Incident of theDog in the Night Time.  No doubt many will draw parallels between this book and that one for that reason.  Interestingly, Mark Haddon said that when he wrote the Curious Incident…, he deliberately left out the word ‘autism’ because he did not want readers to focus on this.  He felt that Christopher’s experiences and situation should relate to anyone.  I am not convinced he achieved this.  In contrast, the Rosie Project, which incidentally does mention Asperger’s several times, did.  I am convinced that there are countless individuals who do not have Asperger's who can relate to Don’s social awkwardness, his embarrassing blunders made in public places, his difficulty with making friends, etc.  These are common universal problems – just not the kind people are necessarily willing to admit to.  

The romance in this book is pitched perfectly – neither sentimental nor without heart.  Talk about dramatic irony; throughout the story we the readers see Don fall in love with Rosie while he is completely oblivious.  His honesty is very touching (like when he tells us about his sister and about Daphne).   It is also very funny in parts.  I was on the train when I read the part about Rosie making air quotes to emphasise the word ‘father’ and Don’s mind working out what it meant and finally reciprocating like it was a game.  I had to bite my lip to stop myself laughing out loud like a crazy person on public transport.  Also, although I do not condone Gene’s behaviour, I have to say it was funny the way he came up with his own ‘research project’ to justify his behaviour – and you have to admit it was clever to use Don’s questionnaire results as his ‘secondary data’ for that ‘research project’.  Don is humble and rather self-deprecating; he does not see what a wonderful human being or great judge of character he is.  (He may only have had a few friends in his life but the ones he has chosen have been the very best kind.) 

 Like David Nicholls’ ‘One day’, I can picture guys reading this one as much as ladies – and they should because I think it will appeal to them too.  

I always include criticisms in my reviews – for balance – but I could not fault this book.  Writing a great novel is hard work and so I admire those who are able to achieve an excellent debut.   For me, The Rosie Project is just that.  

Friday, 26 July 2013

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

***SBRs 6th Best Read for 2013***

Publication date: 24th May 2012
Published by: Weidenfeld & Nicolson
Genre:  Contemporary/Crime Mystery

Gone Girl is a popular novel.  It is one of those novels that I have seen countless people reading on my daily commute into central London.  I generally avoid popular books.  I only became interested in this one after listening to an interview with the author, Gillian Flynn, on a book-related podcast - it might have been the Guardian or BBC R4, I can’t remember.   It seemed to me that this book was not a typical crime thriller but something more.  Having read it, I can confirm that this is indeed the case.

For me this book is not a crime thriller.  It is a mystery but it is more about a breakdown of a marriage and a clash of the genders than anything else.  

The premise of the book is that Nick, the male protagonist, discovers that his wife, Amy, has gone missing on their 5th wedding anniversary.  We know that on the morning of the day she went missing he got out of bed and prepared himself to face her, following a blazing argument of the night before.  We know that, having psyched himself up to face her, a major event occurs between them, but we don’t know what.  We know at some point Nick leaves the house after that and when he returns Amy is missing.  The front door has been left open, the iron has been left on and the living room is in disarray, as if there was a struggle - all suggesting that Amy may have been taken against her will.  These events are told to us by Nick (first person narrative) and at the same time (alternating chapters) we get to know Amy through extracts of her diary.  Once the police are involved it becomes a crime mystery and Nick is the prime suspect.  As the novel progresses it increasingly appears as though Nick is a nasty character and that Amy was becoming increasingly fearful of him – to the point where she tried to buy a gun to protect herself (just in case).  It would seem clear to the reader what has happened and it is hard not to dislike the culprit and hope they get what they deserve...

I think Gone Girl is well-written, original and clever.  I was impressed by the portrayal of US contemporary life.  It would seem to me that, although this marriage was destined for disaster, things kicked off because of socio-economic factors that led to the couple losing their jobs; here is a financially well-off couple with a comfortable life in New York who find themselves with no alternative but to move to a small town in Missouri – and just as it is on the verge of economic decline!  There are plenty of references to what life is like living within the constraints of the current economic downturn, which made it more real and gave it context.  

Amy struck me as very much the ‘City Girl’. (I kept wondering if this would have happened to Sex and the City’s Carrie Bradshaw if she had chosen Aiden over Mr Big.) This new environment was never going to bode well with her.  It would be fair to describe Amy as ‘high-maintenance’ and Nick finds he has to constantly jump through hoops in an attempt to satisfy her – to no avail – resulting in a downward spiral of their relationship - a relationship I would describe as extreme love-hate.  They both struck me as screwed-up characters.  One of them (I won’t say which) – the abuser – has psychopathic tendencies and I could not understand or reconcile with this behaviour.   The other – the abused – seemed to be trapped by the desire to remain with the abuser, also hard to reconcile with.  It was all very strange.

I mentioned that there is a clash of the genders.  For me the book is very much about gender inequality and misogyny – (‘Clean and bleed’, need I say more?)  

I loved reading every page of this book and I found it thought-provoking.  I’m still thinking about it days later.  By the end I was left feeling uncomfortable and a little melancholy on account of the controversial ending, but that is part of the appeal for me. It is part of what made it such a good book. I think, like the rest of if, the ending was brilliantly done.

Now I know what all the fuss is about!  Gone Girl is definitely one of my best reads so far for 2013. 


Friday, 19 July 2013

Six Years by Harlan Coben

Publication Date: 19th March 2013
Published by: Dutton Adult

Genre: Mystery Thriller

Jake Sanders is a college professor in his mid thirties.  The story begins with him attending a wedding and the bride is the love of his life.  He finds it painful to watch but feels he has to do so in order to help him accept that she has chosen to be with someone else.  After the ceremony, Natalie, the bride approaches him.  She tells him he must accept that she does not love him and her marriage should be proof of this.  Then she asks him to promise never to try to contact her or her husband again, which he agrees to. Heartbroken, Jake returns to his life of academia but he cannot forget Natalie and thinks of her everyday.  Even so he makes no attempt to contact her.

Six years later Jake sees an obituary on the university website.  He recognises the face of the dead man and realises it is Todd, Natalie's husband.  This brings back old memories and, despite his promise, he feels compelled to seek her out and offer his condolences.  He attends the funeral but, to his surprise, the grieving widow is not Natalie but some other woman.  He starts to wonder if it could be a case of mistaken identity - that this is a different Todd - but is not convinced that this is the case.  He starts to do some digging, starting with a telephone call to Natalie's sister but he gets a frosty response and is none the wiser after their conversation.  He visits the area in Vermont where he met Natalie, the same place she got married but, strangely, all the people he met while he was there six years previously now claim not to remember him or know who Natalie is.  It is as if he imagined the whole thing.  Jake is determined to get to the bottom of things and hopefully find Natalie.

During Jake's attempts to find Natalie he finds many doors closed to him - no one wants to talk about it and most people want him to drop it.  He doesn't, and soon he starts to attract the attention of some unsavory characters, who it turns out are also looking for Natalie.

Six Years is a mystery with an intricate plot that has been executed fairly well (although not without holes).  Although I could work out in general what was going on:  Was the the wedding genuine or staged?  Why doesn't Natalie want to be found?  Could it be that she is running from something?  Could it be that she is trying to protect someone?  All that stuff is pretty obvious.  However, the reasons for her disappearance and how it ties in with events and links to characters involved is not so obvious, which keeps the story fresh and there are a few twists in there also.  I usually give examples of plot holes in order to back-up my statement but in this case it would be hard to do so without ruining the plot - so I'm afraid you'll have to take my word for it on this occasion (sorry).

I wasn't keen on the writing style if I am honest. There was too much of Jake explaining stuff to the reader that wasn't necessary - the reader is already two steps ahead and is left waiting for Jake to catch up. 

At first I found Jake to be self-righteous and a bit preachy (but he is a lecturer after all).  He does go on about what he believes to be right: How a professor should behave with his students, Why fraternizing with them is a no no, Why in the past he felt strongly about bringing down a colleague who failed to live up to his rules while other members of the faculty were willing to look at the circumstances and be more flexible.  Of course this is the protagonists personality and that's all fine - one does not have to like him or her in order for a story to be enjoyed, after all.  Also, these characteristics turn out to be key to the plot - which I thought was very well done.

Six Years is a light and easy read.  By no means brilliant but not at all bad either. That said, I did not find it particularly gripping and would not call it thrilling either, unlike Undreamed which is a better alternative in my view.  Gone Girl is also a better alternative.

Saturday, 6 July 2013


Publication date:  1st January 2013
Published by: Amulet Books
Genre: Fantasy (YA)

I am not one to be easily charmed by an attractive book cover, but I must admit I was by this one.  In fact, it is one of the most impressive covers I have come across.    Okay yes, it consists of yet another pretty girl – but there is a darkness to it; she looks like she could have psychotic tendencies, which leaves you curious. Not only does it draw you in, but it is also very telling.  Hmm... curiouser and curiouser.

The premise of the story is that Alyssa Gardner is a descendant of the real Alice – the one that inspired the novel, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll.  For some reason the female descendants (Alice’s granddaughter, great-granddaughter and great-great-granddaughter) seem to suffer from madness. The first sign, the ability to hear and understand plants and insects, manifests itself at puberty, which was the case for Alyssa. Alyssa’s mother, Alison (Alice’s great-great-granddaughter), is in a psychiatric hospital about to undergo electric shock treatment that could leave her permanently brain damaged, which Alyssa cannot accept.  She is terrified that this will also be her fate.  

A supernatural creature that appears as a moth but can take human form reveals itself to Alyssa.  He seems familiar to her and she starts to remember him from her childhood and realises he once visited her regularly; that they were childhood friends but somehow her memory of him had been lost.  His name is Morpheus and he is central to the main plot.  Alyssa discovers that her mother is not mad but cursed - along with all of Alice’s descendants, that the rabbit hole and Wonderland exist, and by finding them she will find Morpheus who will help her break the curse, save her mother and herself…

The beginning of the book provides us with Alyssa’s back story but with a major emphasis on her relationship with the object of her desire, Jeb Holt.  Jeb is the boy next door (literally).  They have known each other since they were kids and were once close.  Jeb is dating the popular rich girl, Taelor, who has tormented Alyssa throughout high school for her connection with crazy Alice and this has caused Alyssa and Jeb to be distant.  It is quite obvious that Alyssa and Jeb are in love (there are plenty of examples where Jeb demonstrates his devotion), so I was left wondering why the hell he was with someone else.  Aside from aiding the romantic plot, i.e., creating a situation where there can be sexual tension between Alyssa and Jeb.  Admittedly there is a justification for them not to get it together (i.e. they both have emotional baggage), which I could go along with, but the explanation for Jeb being with Taelor is unconvincing.

For me things got interesting when Morpheus seeks Alyssa out and lures her down the rabbit hole.  Jeb, who was spying on her, follows and they both find themselves in Wonderland.  

The plot is original and clever (although I had some issues*) and there are a few twists and turns that aren’t easy to second guess.  In that sense it is a really good read.  [Can you feel a BUT coming on?] But for me it wasn’t as good as I thought it would be.  It would seem that, generally speaking, young-adult fantasy novels have a check-list and Splintered ticked the boxes.  Two that come to mind are:

  • ·        The alpha male love interest who is dominating and over-protective
  • ·        The obligatory love triangle (that always plays out the same way)

I would not say that Alyssa is a damsel-in-distress type but she sure is treated as though she is by Jeb.  Like Christian Grey (from ‘50 Shades of’, which is not a YA fantasy novel but is based on one and follows the same format), Jeb Holt is a pseudo Edward Cullen (from Twilight) and like Mr Grey he cannot pull it off.  The only reason Edward Cullen gets away with being an alpha male who is dominating and over-protective (and I appreciate many don’t agree that he does get away with it) is because of what he is (i.e. it has to do with the nature of a vampire and how they perceive humans.  EC tries to suppress his natural urges but his personality reflects what he is).  

Although the central plot is original, I could not help but draw parallels with Twilight and Wicked Lovely (the scene in Morpheus' bedroom with the melding of birthmarks was very similar to one that occurred between Aislinn and Keenan).  If you’re into those books and you can’t get enough of that stuff, you’ll probably like this one. 

Plot issues
*Jeb’s mother and sister rely on him to work and support them.  Protecting them is paramount to him, yet he is about to quit his job and go off to London (courtesy of financial support from his girlfriend’s Dad – so he’s an alpha male who is not too proud to be taken care of).
*The medical justification for the cause of Alison’s symptoms, i.e. adverse effects of the sedative, is unrealistic. That’s not how it works – thankfully.