The Rosie Effect by Graeme Simsion (2014)

This book is a sequel to the adorable, funny book by Simsion, The Rosie Project. and this post may include spoilers about that book. I would recommend reading the first book if you get a chance.

The Rosie Effect begins approximately one year from the end of The Rosie Project. After their very unusual but lovely courtship, Don and Rosie have married and relocated from Melbourne, Australia to New York City. Despite some of the quirks of Don’s Asperger’s personality, he and Rosie seem to have settled into a happy relationship. In the first chapter Rosie surprises Don with the news that she is pregnant. Don, a man made most comfortable by schedules, planning, and spreadsheet-driven research is caught very off guard by her announcement. As he tells readers, “I was happy in the way that I would be happy if the captain of an aircraft in which I was traveling announced that he had succeeded in restarting one engine after both failed. Pleased that I would now probably survive, but shocked that the situation had arisen in the first place and expecting a thorough investigation into the circumstances.”

At first the book continues on its merry way, giving readers humorous glimpses of Don fumbling through his attempts at preparing for baby. He is unaware of what to expect of Rosie or what is expected of him and is surprised at the extent to which he must find out on his own what to do. For example he has no idea that he is expected to attend doctor’s visits, speculate on the sex of the baby, or chat about possible names.

Soon though the humor dissipates into heartbreaking sadness as Rosie begins to lose faith in Don. Her previous understanding of his difficulty with social situations and emotional relationships quickly evaporates and his missteps at helping her adjust to pregnancy begin to infuriate her. When she expresses her displeasure at his ignorance and his social awkwardness, Don doubles his efforts and soon begins researching pregnancy on every level: he spends time with babies; researches diet, exercise for expectant mothers; learns the physiology of pregnancy and the science of birth; and even finds them very best of the baby gear.

Rather being appreciative of his efforts and feeling loved by his attention, Rosie grows even more distant and judgmental. Soon she accuses him of knowing too much and making her look like a bad mother-to-be. Don, is seems, cannot win. He slowly comes to agree with Rosie that he is not a suitable father and that their marriage should end.

I found this story so distressing and felt so sorry for Don. While in the first book his missteps seems harsh and at times cruel, in this book his efforts are so genuinely for the benefit of Rosie and their baby that I cannot forgive his wife for her outrageous expectations of perfection. As I woman who has been pregnant three times, I understand the wild emotional roller coaster that ensues. But any woman who loves the man with whom she is making a family should have it in her heart to recognize his efforts, especially — as with Don — they are motivated by such obvious love.

In the end it is not Don that sways Rosie back to their marriage but their motley collection of friends who work very hard to show her what a capable and caring husband he is and father he will make.

While not nearly as charming as Simsion’s first of the pair of stories, it does deliver some important thoughts about marriage: that both partners must be honest with one another — both about their fears and their expectations; that they must have high, but realistic, expectations about the future; and that when working from the same blueprint, two loving adults are almost certain to do right be their children.

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A Dangerous Place by Jacqueline Winspear (2015)

A Maisie Dobbs Novel, #12

If you are not familiar with Jacqueline Winspear’s wonderful series of mysteries, the Maisie Dobbs novels, you really ought to consider reading all twelve of the books in order. They represent a truly unique take on the British detective story: historically rich in fact and detail, narrated by a modern and refreshing heroine.

The first of the novels begins at the start of the twentieth century where we meet Maisie Dobbs, a servant in a manner house in London who — when caught sneaking into the house library to read at night — is not fired but rather taken under the wing of a wise mentor, the forensic scientist and investigator Maurice Branche. In the first book we see the bright, dedicated, young Maisie rise up from being in service to heading off to college. However, World War I sweeps across Europe and soon Maisie abandons her studies to serve as nurse on the front lines. There she gains an education that she could never have prepared herself for and becomes a young nurse with intimate knowledge of death, injury, and mental anguish.

After the war Maisie returns to England to continue her very, very unique education. By the start of the second novel, we meet the fully educated Maisie who has just started her private investigation agency. However, Maisie is not your run-of-the-mill investigator. Not only are her clients surprised that M. Dobbs is a woman, a self-employed one at that, but that her background includes forensics, psychology, nursing (with special training focusing on the mental injuries of war), as well as private investigative techniques. What makes her even more shockingly modern are both her embrace of eastern techniques, such as meditation, and her use of her psychic abilities to help her solve cases.

Maisie Dobbs believes very strongly that her clients have stories to tell her — stories that are both truth and lies — but also that that the missing and the dead have their own stories to tell as well. As the books progress, readers have become familiar with Maisie Dobbs as a very accomplished investigator who brings her unique style to closing cases in ways that heal the psychological wounds of her clients, as well as solving their more immediate dilemmas.

Maisie Dobbs, as we meet her at the start of book 12, A Dangerous Place, has suffered through a series of personal traumas that have caused her to shutter her practice for the past three years. She has spent those years alone, traveling the globe, trying to make peace with her psychological wounds. Accidentally ending up in Gibraltar, readers find Maisie bruised and vulnerable, a shadow of the vibrant woman she was at the end of book 11. Maisie soon discovers the body of a local man and she is drawn into the investigation of his murder. Although she wishes she could continue to ignore work in order to focus on her internal struggles, she finds that the dead man is calling out to her for help.

Using her now trademark style of interviews, evidence collecting, and psychic talents she begins to work to help the dead and the living they have left behind. Without any allies or resources in the foreign land and with no official client who has authorized her to investigate, Maisie becomes involved in a plot that involves more than one murder, war time secrets, and many shady characters. She shoulders on, certain that she can tie all of the strands of evidence together to solve the murder and give the victim’s family peace.

These books are a joy to read, well-written and engaging while providing a wonderful historical look at England from the turn of the twentieth century until the brink of World War II, painting a vivid portrait of women’s lives during those decades. Winspear also treats us to an amazing main character, one who is years ahead of her peers in her independence and her east-meets-west wisdom.

NOTE: Rather than re-reading A Dangerous Place, I listened to this book as e-audiobook that was narrated by the delightful Orlagh Cassidy. Her reading was perfectly paced and she voiced Maisie perfectly: proper, insightful, kind and fiercely independent. A wonderful option for commuting or long walks.

The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta (2011)

The Leftovers is a story with a truly fascinating plot line: several years before the book’s action one-third of the world’s population suddenly disappeared in a supernatural event that some believed to be the biblical Rapture, soon purposely re-branded by Christians as the “Sudden Departure” when they realized many of their devout had been left behind. The missing never returned, causing shock, grief and chaos around the globe with the Leftovers wondering how to put their lives back together. Existing religions have begun to crumble, the once-faithful no longer believe in their promises of salvation. In their place several alternative religious cults have emerged; the two which affect the action of the book are The Guilty Remnant (where members forgo family, wealth, even speaking and whose sole purpose to is torment those whose lives have returned to normal) and Holy Wayne movement (led by a false prophet who tells members he can hug away their pain.)

The book focuses on a few residents of a small east coast town, Mapleton, as they struggle to move forward. We meet Kevin, town mayor and father of two, whose wife Laurie has left him to join the Guilty Remnant which requires her to divorce him and never to speak with her family again. Their son Tom has run off to join to Holy Wayne movement; their daughter Jill has fallen into wild behavior and lethargy in the face of her mom and brother’s abandonment. Aimee is an orphaned teen living with Jill and Kevin — badly influencing Jill, inappropriately tempting Kevin. We also meet Meg, Laurie’s religious partner and surrogate daughter in the Guilty Remnant, and Nora, a neighbor and part-time love interest for Kevin, whose entire family disappeared during the Sudden Departure and is just now unsteadily putting her life back together. The group members all have missteps and moments of doubt as the years unspool; the religious struggling to stay committed, the left behind struggling to start new lives without the missing.

Starting out very strong, the story introduces the characters and details their internal and external struggles with the missing and the new world order the Sudden Departure has created. Sadly, the book loses momentum midway through and never regains it. The author seems to stall out, unsure what direction the characters should move; his intensity fizzles out.  The plot action slows in lieu of too much internal development of the characters: what was once well-paced action gives way to unnecessarily complicated plot lines that go nowhere or end abruptly. It feels frustrating to be forced to spend time so much getting to know the characters, only to have Perrotta dash off half-hearted endings for them.

In addition, the author’s early chapters seemed to hint that the book was going to offer some stinging criticism of religion, but that never develops. The tension between traditional religions and the cults would have been an interesting subplot, but the author keeps it as a footnote. Similarly, the development of the cult the Guilty Remnant could have focused more on the group dynamics rather than the minutiae of the cult members’ day-to-day lives and the relationship between just two members — Meg and Laurie — and so it seems like another missed opportunity.

Perhaps in the hands of a more accomplished writer, such as Stephen King, the subject could have really come to life rather than feeling like a half-hearted attempt at psychological supernatural thriller. Under the Dome stands as a much better discussion of life after an unexplained phenomenon than Leftovers.

The Revenant by Michael Punke (2002)

“A revenant is a visible ghost or animated corpse that was believed to return from the grave to terrorize the living”

The Revenant took me by absolute surprise. Originally checked out from the library by my husband, I picked it up on Saturday to casually flip through the first chapter and was immediately drawn into the story. Although it was unlike any book I have read in recent memory — and quite unlike books I usually seek out to read — I found it both gorgeously written and totally engrossing. Punke’s historical fiction novel is set in 1823 and focuses on the men fighting to press further westward into the frontier, exploring unmapped sections of the upper Midwest and hoping to make a fortune off the riches of the land. Considered a western, this book centers on a largely lawless time and place, but do not expect the Hollywood version of horse chases and cowboys squaring off at noon. Rather this story is richly grounded in fact, not fiction, and told with such precise language that you are transported to the wild forests and rivers of (modern day) Nebraska, Missouri, and South Dakota.

Punke’s style is reflective both of his work as a reporter — detailed, specific, descriptive but never tiresome — and also of his role as a history professor. Punke transforms the facts of the story from a historical footnote to a full fledged story. His words are so finely wrought and his plot so skillfully handled that it is as if Punke has brought a history textbook to life. While reading his passages we can see the herds of bison, hear the roar of the grizzly, and feel Glass’s pangs of hunger and the agony of his wounds. His style is undeniably masculine, as is his subject matter, but not in the abrupt, sparse prose of Hemingway or McCarthy. His details are so precise, his images so rich, and his characters so full-bodied that the story springs to life as vivid and visceral as if we are experiencing it ourselves.

Although much has been made about The Revenant being a revenge story, that is almost a secondary part of the book. At its heart it is a story about the lure the West and the wilderness has on men and the skills it takes to build a life in a most inhospitable place. “From the west Hugh felt a tantalizing lure of terra incognita, of freedom unmatched, of fresh beginnings,” not only could a man make his fortune there but he could also test his wits and strength in the most vital of ways — by learning to stay alive in a place that most definitely hoped to see him dead.  The men in the story can only survive because of the vast number of skills they employ. Their very lives depend on their ability to: hunt, shoot, track, trap, forage, skin, smoke, preserve, cook, sew, tend wounds, walk (as many as 30 miles per day), hike, row, climb, navigate, and hide from enemies. Almost more important, the characters must have the mental stamina to handle cold, fear, exhaustion, starvation, and pain all while outwitting wild animals and hostile local inhabitants. In the most real way, Punke is drawing a picture of the men who dragged the country west by sheer perseverance, pushing onward even in the face of certain death.

In the story we meet Hugh Glass and a company of trappers who have been employed to scout out the river systems northwest of St. Louis and bring back a fortune in the currency of animal pelts. The men are besieged by native Americans and bad luck from the outset, none more so than Hugh. Hugh is attacked by a grizzly, mortally wounded, and left for dead by his company. Only he refuses to die, he musters every ounce of cunning, strength and grit he possesses to recover and return to safety. His rage of being left is the fuel for his journey, he is intent upon finding the men who not only left him for dead, but who stole all of his possessions and weapons, leaving him no resources with which to survive. This was the ultimate act of murder to a man in the wild.

“Though no law was written, there was a crude rule of law, adherence to a covenant that transcended their selfish interests. It was biblical in its depth and its importance grew with each step into the wilderness. When the need arose, a man extended a helping hand to his friends, to partners, to strangers. In doing so, each knew that his own survival might one day depend upon the reaching grasp of another.”

In all, Revenant, is a stunning book that will thrill readers, even those — like me — who have never felt the call the wild. Through Punke incomparable prose, you will experience a time and place, though long gone, so clearly brought to life that feels as if it could have happened yesterday.

HughGlass-map

A map showing the territory covered by the characters in The Revenant, with important events highlighted.

The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George (2013)

This book is a delightful, quirky, (slightly wandering) gem of a novel that is one-third love story, one-third adventure story, and one-third journey of self-discovery. It is one hundred percent wonderful!

In Bookshop, we meet our main character Jean Perdu, the proprietor of a bookstore that resides upon an old, permanently-moored barge. Jean, however, does far more than sell books; he finds them homes. Referred to throughout the novel as a psychic, a soul reader, miracle worker, Jean sees himself as a literary pharmacist. He looks deep into the hearts and minds of his customers, and often unsuspecting passersby, and gives them a book to heal what is ailing their souls. He prescribes readers books that “treat the feelings and afflictions of inner life, those not recognized and never diagnosed by doctors because they are intangible. He was able to discern what each soul lacked.” While he looks to cure patrons of heartache, melancholy, and loneliness, he also treats their other ailments: nostalgia for childhood, a need for adventure for the stifled, a need for frivolity for the serious, a need for blood thirst for those with “intense emotions to release,” the need for patience among women with “recently retired husband syndrome,” or perhaps the need for erotica among the long- ago widowed.

Jean Perdu, however, cannot prescribe books for his own heartache. We find him at the opening of the book living the austere life of a monk — no music, no friendships, no love, no wine or good food — with his heart locked away: “He had spent more than twenty years on the far side of the bank of the river, avoiding color, caresses, scents, and music… he has fossilized alone and defiantly withdrawn.” For two decades he has pined for a woman who he deeply loved but who left him to marry another. When a new tenant moves into his building and an old love letter resurfaces, it is as if Perdu can no longer hold on to his frozen life. The dam begins to break and soon he begins to long for all the things he has denied himself for so long. “It is a safe life, but it is shit,” he tells us.

Perdu unleashes his book barge and steers his boat towards the south of France, to the town where his long-lost love left him for life with another. Setting sail along with Perdu is Max Jordan, his young neighbor and a first-time author seeking to escape his sudden celebrity and the pressure he is under to write another best seller. The two cast off with nothing but the companionship of one another and the healing powers of the books surrounding them on the boat. Somehow, that is more than enough to fuel their trip south.

As they journey south from Paris, we are gifted with gorgeous descriptions of the French countryside and its charming inhabitants. We are also gifted with the growing friendship between the two men who have embarked on a journey that is equal parts humorous adventure and profound self-discovery. Perdu and Max are reawakened to the magic alive in the world and begin to open themselves to love, passion, and inspiration they have been lacking. Joining them are a handful of colorful characters who are also on their own quest for love and happiness. Each stop and each new friend unlocks some long neglected part of Jean’s soul, and he throws his arms open wide, welcoming back grief, pain, and longing but also laughter, music, and friendship. As his barge moves south he is brought back to life.

On its surface, this book is a love letter to books. Reading and books have an almost magical power over the characters; they can — if found and read at the right time — change their lives. Books open their hearts and expose their deepest desires, force them to see the world from another’s perspective, or even require them change their minds when the truth is revealed. We, the readers, are affected too, not just the characters in the story. Perhaps books will show us our longing for adventure, or our desperate need for quietude, or the truth that our small love is no longer a good fit for the life of big love that we pine for. When correctly prescribed, books pull off our blindfolds and pry the boards loose from our boarded up hearts and bring us fully awake. “Reading is an endless journey, a long never-ending journey that makes one more temperate as well as more loving and kind. Each book allows us to absorb more of the world, its things and its people.”

At its very core, however, this book is a love letter to Love. It is a story about love found, love lost, love longed for, love sought after, and most of all, the love that we welcome into our hearts even though it terrifies us to do so. Perdu tells us, “you will find yourself again in love, but only if you get lost on the way. Completely lost, lost in love, lost in longing and lost in fear.” It is this real love that the characters are all searching for, and this story’s true center is their realization that love read about in stories is not enough. It is only through action, risk-taking, and full commitment that Love can be found. “Books can do many things but not everything. We have to live the important things, not read them. We have to experience our own books.”

George’s Bookshop is a wonderful story that will fill your heart full to bursting and reignite in you the belief that love is out there waiting for us all, love that will we find in books and the Love we will find by opening ourselves up to life’s experiences.

little paris

This is the book leaf showing the map of Perdu’s journey from Paris to the southern coast of France.

Bootlegger’s Daughter by Margaret Maron (1992)

Book One in the Deborah Knott Mystery Series

This book came to me by way of the Book Lover’s Club which I am a member of at my local library branch, a group I have mentioned before on this blog. Although this book is more than twenty years old, it was mentioned as a good one to list as an E-Audio book by two group members. I have to admit that I rarely ever listen to audio books — with the exception being Jim Dale’s magnificent narration of JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series — and indeed only very rarely use my IPad to read e-books. Although no Luddite, I am a stalwart fan of the hardback library books, plastic crinkly covers and all.

However, this weekend found me with dozens of pre-holiday household chores to finish and I like to have something to listen to on my smartphone while I get everything done. Bootlegger’s Daughter was available from the library for immediate download as an audio book and so I found myself listening on a rainy Sunday to Maron’s inaugural tale of Deborah Knott. Deborah is a small-town defense attorney in rural North Carolina, running a private legal practice along-side two of her (many, many) relatives. At the beginning of the book we learn that she has recently thrown her hat into the political ring and is running — despite her youth and the incredulity of her traditional “women belong at home” neighbors — for district court judge.

The story is categorized as a murder mystery, but do not look for any wild suspect chases or rapid-fire plot twists here. Rather Maron writes a story that unfolds very, very slowly; one that carefully draws a picture of Deborah, of the rural region where she has lived all her life, and the many colorful characters that inhabit it with her. Indeed more than half of the book unfolds without much action to speak of, a fact that had me considering discarding it altogether.

However, I am a woman married to a man from a rural southern town and I know that some people and some stories simply cannot be rushed. My patience was rewarded. Not only was I introduced to a charming cast of characters, but also a story that grew more intriguing with each chapter. First Deborah is drawn into a dirty political campaign fight, then into an eighteen-year-old unsolved murder mystery, and finally into a current day homicide investigation. Using her wits, her local connections, and succumbing to her unwavering loyalty to friends in need, Deborah beings to find answers to all three problems plaguing her.

In the end, the (at times) plodding, wandering story, comes together nicely and we see Deborah emerge as an “accidental PI”-esque heroine. I am looking forward to seeing where Maron takes her next.

I should add that C.J. Critt does a lovely job of narrating the novel and although I am more likely to read, rather than listen to, the other books in the series, it would be no hardship to her Critt read another book or two in this twenty book series. In fact, in preparation for cleaning out my basement I have already downloaded book two, Southern Discomfort, in case I need a book to keep me company while I organize.

Why Not Me? by Mindy Kaling (2015)

I have the opposite of a dry sense of humor. My sense of humor is wet and loud and risque, like topless day at the water park.”

Mindy Kaling’s second book is every bit as charming and enjoyable (and of course, funny) as her first book, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? I spent the better part of my Friday reading and laughing over her hilarious stories. While her books are often compared to the memoirs of Tina Fey (Bossypants) and Amy Poehler (Yes, Please), I much prefer Kaling’s work. I find her sense of humor to be the right balance of insightful and irreverent. She really has perfected the art of laughing at herself without making fun of herself, which I think is critical for female comedians who all too often are overly harsh on themselves in order to get a laugh.

She tells stories about college, work, dating, and show business with her signature style: plenty of pop culture references and unflinching commentaries on how ridiculous we all really are sometimes, herself included. Some of her best stories include glimpses into just how absurd celebrity culture is (and how much celebrities are all lying to us about how effortless their lives are.) She is more than happy to pull back the curtain on all the bullshit and make fun of life in LA, always being certain to laugh at herself as much as she does others. As she points out, we are not that different from movie stars, “most Americans are a treadmill and six laser hair removal sessions away” from looking just like their favorite movie star, only movie stars want you to think it is impossible for you to join their ranks.

Her essays do not skirt around issues of race, class, gender or politics but she always keeps the tone light and the keeps the jokes coming. Her commencement speech to Harvard Law School graduates is absolutely wonderful: poking fun at herself, lawyers, ambitious people looking to get rich, and Harvard University all to great effect. Also a must read is Kaling’s funny but quite insightful essay, “Coming This Fall” which offers readers a funny take into misrepresentations of women and minorities on television. Her essay “A Perfectly Reasonable Request” about what she is looking for in a man is wonderful…one part honest desire for a long-term relationship, one part joke about the absurd number of restrictions we put on who we are willing to date.

There are some more serious moments towards end of the book where she discusses success and confidence without apology. She admits to readers that more than a few people expect her — and all women really — to lack self-confidence and hate herself, an assumption she  she finds outrageous. Her success is due to hard work, persistence, and belief in herself and she refuses to downplay that for anyone. Doing so, she points out, would cheapen all she has done for herself. I applaud her for these sentiments and thank her for giving us such a funny, delightful book to read.