Wednesday, May 20, 2015

THE ROSIE PROJECT by Graeme Simsion

Don Tillman is a genetics professor in Australia who appears to have an autism spectrum disorder.  Since married men are generally more successful than single men, he embarks on the “Wife Project” and devises a questionnaire for potential marital partners.  Meanwhile, his philandering buddy Gene sends a student named Rosie to meet Gene, and they hit it off, despite Rosie’s obvious unsuitability as a mate, in Gene’s estimation.  You can guess the rest.  The “Father Project” is the activity which binds this pair together, as Don and Rosie surreptitiously gather DNA samples in an effort to out Rosie’s real father.  This exercise has the expected outcome as well and introduces us to a swarm of characters that I found difficult to differentiate.  Unlike me, Don has a near-perfect memory that serves him well, especially when he and Rosie bartend at a class reunion attended by most of the candidates for the Father Project.  Don has memorized the recipes for myriad obscure cocktails, delighting the crowd with his expertise.  Obviously, Don is high-functioning, despite his social disability, which only seems to manifest itself at the most inopportune times.  Gene’s long-suffering wife Claudia takes on the task of mentoring Don in appropriate dress and behavior, with mixed results.  Don narrates the story with the expected nerdy-sounding voice, and I enjoyed seeing the world through his eyes, with his reactions to it.  His literal interpretation of various figures of speech provides the primary source of chuckles as I breezed through this book.  I would rate it as a pretty good summer beach read, and I can already envision it as a run-of-the-mill rom-com movie, unless the casting is particularly inspired.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

A TALE FOR THE TIME BEING by Ruth Ozeki

I am usually a little put off when an author inserts herself into her novel, but here it seems to work.  Ruth (in the novel) is experiencing writer’s block when a plastic bag washes onto the shore near her home in British Columbia.  In the bag is the diary of a 16-year-old Japanese girl, Nao (pronounced “now” to go along with the time-related themes here), and Ruth becomes obsessed with Nao’s story, surmising that the tsunami of 2011 propelled the diary across the Pacific.  We alternate between Nao’s story and Ruth’s reaction to it.  Nao lived in Sunnyvale, CA, until her father lost his high tech job during the dot-com meltdown.  Now Nao and her family have returned to Japan, where Nao is having to adapt to Japanese school and suffers cruel bullying from her classmates, while the teachers look the other way or even join in the harassment.  Nao’s father’s self-esteem has reached rock-bottom, rendering him suicidal, and Nao figures that she may as well end her life, too.  Her great-uncle, a scholar drafted during WWII at the age of 19, died in a kamikaze mission, and Nao meets his ghost while visiting her great-grandmother.  At this point, supernatural events start to seep into the plot, leaving me a little less enthralled.  The author juggles a lot of themes here, but what really captured my attention was the unflattering picture she paints of Japanese society.  The novel Unbroken comes to mind, as well as The Distant Land of My Father, both of which recount the deplorable acts of the Japanese military during WWII, and this novel touches on that but brings us more up to date with what’s happening in civilian life today—suicides, teenaged prostitutes, internet hazing, and teachers complicit in bullying.  We’re obviously not immune to these problems, along with mass shootings and police brutality, here in the U.S., and I have to wonder how prevalent these issues are in Japan.  Are they limited to Tokyo?  The cover-up of what really happened at Fukushima nuclear power plant is particularly unsettling.  Did regulators really allow the dumping of tons of radioactive water into the Pacific Ocean?  Maybe the water just leaked out—shades of the Exxon Valdez and the BP Gulf disaster.  In any case, Ozeki seemingly presents us with a cultural mindset that everything is OK, even when it’s not.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

THE DOVEKEEPERS by Alice Hoffman

My first problem with this book was that I didn’t know what C.E. meant.  Thanks to Wikipedia, I now know that it is the same as A.D., without the Christian overtones, and that means higher numbers are more current.  The Romans have driven the Jews out of Jerusalem and seem intent on slaying them wherever they find them.  Then again, I don’t think the Romans spared anyone that stood in the way of their conquering armies.  This novel, narrated by four women, takes place in the first century A.D., or C.E., if you prefer, in Masada, a town on top of a mesa, with a palace built by Herod.  Yael arrives pregnant with her first child after her lover and his wife have died of a fever during the journey through the desert.  Accompanying Yael is her father, a member of an assassination squad, who barely acknowledges Yael as his daughter, since Yael’s birth killed his wife.  Yael’s brother Amram is in love with Aziza, daughter of Shirah.  Aziza would be one of Masada’s most talented archers, but she is forbidden to use weapons because she is female.  Shirah is the mistress of the leader of Masada and is an expert in spells and potions.  Revka is the widow of a baker and had to kill her own daughter to end her suffering after a vicious attack.  She now has charge of two grandsons, who have not spoken since witnessing their mother’s death.  Shirah and Yael are lusty women in forbidden relationships, but the sex scenes in the book are not particularly erotic.  These were violent times, but, again, the violence is not particularly graphic, until we reach the gruesome finale.  I did not know anything about Masada prior to reading this novel, so that the conclusion struck me as particularly insane.  This is supposed to be a novel about resilient women, but I couldn’t help thinking that their paths would have been a lot less rocky if they hadn’t let themselves become swept up in affairs with married men.  Consequently, the virtues of these women seemed to be diminished by their impractical choices in matters of the heart.  Also, the men come across as brutes, while the women show compassion for doves, a Scandinavian slave, and certainly each other.  Aziza even loses her taste for battle when she witnesses the slaughter of women and children in a raid for provisions.  I wish I knew how historically accurate these opposing portraits of the two sexes are.  Now I’m halfway through the TV miniseries, and I already know that the ending is different, and half the characters are missing.  Perhaps it will be an improvement.

Monday, May 4, 2015

HERE ON EARTH by Alice Hoffman

March Murray, along with her teenaged daughter Gwen, has returned to her Massachusetts hometown of Jenkintown for a funeral, after an absence of almost 20 years.  She knows that she will also see Hollis, the love of her life.  When Hollis disappeared years ago to seek his fortune, March gave up waiting for him and married Richard Cooper, who loves her dearly.  Hollis made his fortune and then some, as he now owns just about everything in town.  While March and Hollis rekindle the flame of their passion, Gwen falls for Hollis’s ward Hank, who happens to be March’s nephew, making Gwen and Hank first cousins.  Gwen also develops a strong affinity for Tarot, Hollis’s washed-up racehorse who has a reputation for violent misbehavior.  When Gwen decides that she’d like to remain in Jenkintown, the way is clear for the two of them to move in with Hollis.  However, Hollis’s attachment to March does not extend to Gwen, another man’s daughter.  Meanwhile, Richard knows about his wife’s infidelity and wants her back anyway.  I would not call this a novel about love or even lust.  It’s about an obsession that gets way out of hand.  I know domestic situations like this exist, where a woman sacrifices everything, including her self-respect, to be with a man who doesn’t deserve her.  Still, March had a seemingly contented existence with Richard, but the unfinished business with Hollis probably tugged at her soul every day.  I found the fringe characters to be more interesting than March:  Susie Justice, who steers clear of all marriage opportunities; March’s cruel brother Alan whose grief won’t allow him to become sober; and Susie’s father (a judge named Justice?  Really?), who carried on an affair for decades under everyone’s noses.  The two big questions of the novel are whether March will come out of her trance and whether Alan will find redemption.  Gwen, though, is the one who really has an opportunity to learn what she’s made of.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE by Anthony Doerr

Marie-Laure LeBlanc and her father travel by foot from Paris to Saint-Malo, France, to escape Nazi aggression during WWII.  Marie-Laure, however, is blind and must familiarize herself with her new surroundings with the help of an intricate model of the town that her father builds for her.  Werner Pfennig is a German boy, living in an orphanage with his sister Jutta.  Facing a miserable future in the mines, Werner plies his skills as a radio technician into an appointment to a Nazi training school.  Conflicted about the horrific hazing of weaker boys that he witnesses in school, he still is grateful for the opportunity to avoid the same fate as his father’s—death in the mines.  Jutta serves as his conscience, trying to coax him back from the influences of evil, but he knows that the consequences will be dire if he tries to leave his military training.  The author flits forward and backward in time—sometimes years and sometimes just a few months—so that we know that Werner will be trapped in rubble, and Marie-Laure will be alone and frightened—both in Saint-Malo.  Of course, even without this advance knowledge, we can assume that these two characters will converge at some point, and the author entices us to follow them back and forth in time.  I am not fond of this technique of telling the reader what is going to happen and then telling us what has already happened, but this book in particular seems to treat the timeline in a rather haphazard way.  As a reader, I would prefer to be challenged in other ways than in an effort to keep track of where I am in the sequence of events.  Each time the author heads a chapter with a date, I should have made a written note, but what a pain in the you-know-what.  Overall, I liked the book.  Almost all of the characters are kind and courageous, especially the townspeople of Saint-Malo.  One heinous villain is dying of cancer, and we can only hope that he fades away before doing any more real damage.  The author does a stellar job of creating Marie-Laure’s visionless world for us, especially during her loneliest and most desperate hours.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

THE PERFUME COLLECTOR by Kathleen Tessaro

At about the same time that Grace discovers that her husband has been cheating on her, she finds that she is heir to a recently deceased woman named Eva whom Grace has never heard of.  The novel bounces back and forth between Eva’s life and Grace’s quest to unearth her benefactor’s story.  Eva forges some fortuitous connections while working as a hotel cleaning woman, finds that she has a knack for counting cards, and becomes involved in perfume making when she impresses a guest with a fragrant homemade cleaning solution.  All in all, Eva leads a pretty exotic, if highly unlikely, existence, and does pretty well for herself, particularly considering that she has a drinking problem.  Grace, on the other hand, plunges into Eva’s history, meets Madame Zed, who created the formula for the perfume My Sin, and picks Madame Zed’s brain to find out why Eva has bequeathed her such a fortune.  Grace’s husband does her a big favor by giving her an excuse to explore a relationship with the attorney handling Eva’s estate.  This novel holds no real surprises and no real conflict, but the book is a pleasant enough read, albeit a little overly tame.  I kept hoping for some big revelation or battle, but none came.  Certainly the descriptions of fragrances, such as wool, hair, wood, rain, and, of course, flowers, that are combined into perfumes are mildly enlightening, but the subject of scents is just not something that really appeals to me.  I can’t say that I can identify the smell of snow, for example.  This book falls squarely in the genre of women’s fiction, and it’s just a tad too frilly for me.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN by Paula Hawkins

Rachel pseudo-commutes to London every day to give her pathetic life some structure and to live vicariously through a beautiful couple whose home she passes on the train.  When the wife, Megan, goes missing, Rachel recognizes her photo and inserts herself into the investigation, because she saw Megan kissing a man that was not her husband Scott.  The man Megan was kissing turns out to have been her therapist Kamal.  Rachel formerly lived in Megan’s neighborhood, and Rachel’s ex, Tom, still lives in their old house with his new wife Anna and their infant daughter.  So we have 3 women and 3 men as main characters, and they are all unlikeable.  Anna was Tom’s mistress while he was still married to Rachel; Tom is a manipulative adulterer; Megan is a nymphomaniac with a creepy past; Scott is possessive and overbearing; and Kamal obviously crosses a line with his patient that he shouldn’t have.  Rachel is the worst train wreck of all.  She is an alcoholic busybody who repeatedly drunk-dials Tom and has had more blackouts than she can count, including one the night Megan disappeared, when she happened to be in the neighborhood to harass her ex.  She takes self-loathing to new heights and struck me as a sort of completely dysfunctional Bridget Jones.  If you’re expecting a twist on a par with that of Gone Girl, I think you’ll be disappointed.  The identity of Megan’s abductor came as no surprise to me, but the author does a good job of building suspense, while leading us down numerous deadend paths.  The biggest mystery to me, though, is why this book has generated so much hype without delivering much in the way of gasp-inducing thrills.  This is nothing more than a whodunit without many choices as to who the culprit is.  A better literary thriller is You Should Have Known by Jean Hanff Korelitz, who pretty much skewered The Girl on the Train for the New York Times Book Review.