[Book Review] The Rosie Project

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Every once in a while, you run into a book that has more than a plot: it has a promise. You get eager to read it because it sounds so unique from its story alone, because you think you’ll run into something innovative and inspiring, something fresh and new. And with the game set, some authors still manage to ruin the completely brilliant premise they had.

That’s what happened to The Rosie Project (Graeme Simsion, Penguin, 329 pages). The story is narrated by Don Tillman, a Genetics professor who supposedly has Asperger’s Syndrome and decides to write down a list of questions to be answered by random girls so he can solve the “wife problem” and get married at last. In the middle of it, he runs into Rosie, a girl who has all the wrong answers to his questions, but becomes his friend in her quest to find out who her biological father is.

The first 100 or so pages of the book are very good: Don is an interesting, out of the ordinary character and the story seems to be set for a great development. The writing isn’t exactly fantastic (it’s pretty ordinary, to be honest), but both Don and Rosie are fascinating in the way they’re presented, and there are some very nice scenes that can be both sweet and meaningful, just like love really is.

Unfortunately, the author gets lost in his own plot. There are so many completely useless and irrelevant scenes you at first wonder if the story really is complex enough to use them all (it isn’t). There are so many scenes that turn out to be petrifyingly embarrassing you wonder if the author really meant for them to be funny (he did). There are so many boring secondary characters you hope your copy has a defect and will actually end before it seems it’s going to end (it won’t). And then you wonder if the ending will be as obvious as you thought at first (it will).

And trust me, I tried. I gave this book a chance. I was so excited at its innovative façade after the first hundred pages I thought it would somehow recover and end in an also innovative way. Turns out everything in the last 200 pages of the book alternated between annoying and cliché. The author reached a point in which he had the main character watch romantic comedies to apparently learn how to be a “romantic comedy guy”: but why, just WHY would anyone want a guy who isn’t purely himself? Good romantic comedies (and chick lit) male characters aren’t loved simply for what they do, but for whom they are. What they do simply reflects their virtues.

As if that complete wreck of a plot weren’t enough, its biggest promise – Don and Rosie – is completely ruined by lack of consistency. If you’re going to write a book about someone with autism, this person better portrait autism throughout the entire book, otherwise it was simply a lie you told your reader to trick him or her into reading about an actually rude and insensitive guy who has no explanation for behaving the way he does. And if you’re selling me a girl who is easy going and comprehensive, she better not create idiotic problems because of small things that have no significance at all.

The author points out in his acknowledgements that he wrote this book in a hurry. It sure shows. Whoever edited it also seemed to be in a hurry, otherwise they would have cut half the pages in this book and told him to rewrite whatever was left after the character’s introduction. If you wanted to read this, take my work for it: just don’t.

[Book Review] 50 Ways To Find A Lover

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I like chick-lit as a genre. I really, really do; ever since I read The Princess Diaries back when I was 13, I have gone from Meg Cabot to Sophie Kinsella and back so many times I have a hard time keeping track of which ones I have and which ones I haven’t read. That does not mean, however, that every chick-lit is fantastic. Hell, it doesn’t even mean it’s entertaining. And sometimes, even though everything about a book makes you hope for classic, simple, sweet romance with a failed main character finding her “Prince charming”, the result is such a disaster you can’t help feel a tiny bit frustrated about love stories for a while.

That is precisely what I felt as I read 50 Ways To Find A Lover (Lucy-Anne Holmes, paperback by Pan Books, 328 pages): frustration. It all begins the moment you have to get over the title and explain again and again to anyone who sees you carrying the book around that no, this is not self-help literature. I understand they must have decided on it as a funny little joke, as if it somehow made the novel more sophisticated because of its mock title, but it is more embarrassing than it is cute.

Then comes the plot: a complete and absolute mess. I can’t remember reading a novel with such poor organization or fluency since Jane Green’s Mr. Maybe, also classifiable as chick-lit. The main character, Sarah, has been single for more than three years (imagine that! Being single! The horror!), is almost turning 30 and becomes desperate after she asks a balding bartender out, but he decides he’s better off watching the new Narnia movie at home. She then joins a reality show after her family and friends enter her name, which sounds like an interesting idea for a chick-lit novel, but is dropped right at the beginning of the book and is completely and absolutely useless. Then she decides to start a blog, trying out fifty different ways to find a lover (whoa, look at how clever that title is) and reporting her success.

From this simple summary one can already gather how absolutely chaotic this plot is. Not only is the part about the reality show useless, it is also obvious from the simple fact that the book is 328 pages long that the aforementioned fifty methods will not be fully executed. The book, released in 2009, has a character in her twenties who had never heard of a blog. Entire chapters could have been cut off without changing the story in the slightest; characters could have been written off and made it a much more pleasant experience. I really hadn’t read anything this bad in quite a while.

Two things annoyed me the most, though, and they were precisely the two key elements to a decent chick-lit novel: the main character and “Prince charming”. While no one can endure reading about a perfect main character to whom one can’t relate, it is equally irritating – or at least so it is for me – to read about someone who simply cannot make a single decent choice, who can’t take a single rational decision and who behaves so recklessly. As to the “prince”, I can only say this man was such an obvious choice and a boring character I had actually convinced myself that Sarah was going to end up with the only interesting, charismatic, polite man she meets in the whole book. By the end of it, I hated Sarah so much I was seriously happy to see her ditch him and end up with the boring boy. It’s the first time I’ve seen chick-lit in which I root against the main character, which is, of course, absurd.

I also need a couple of lines to point out something highly annoying about the idea of this book per se: why does Sarah even need a boyfriend in the first place? I imagined she would throughout the book find independence and notice she was born and would die as a perfectly functional woman who does not depend on the existence of a man, but no. Quite on the contrary: she is miserable until she finds her match. Also, what is the problem with being rejected by a balding man? Does the lack of hair on the top of his head mean he has to accept any girl who is interested in him? How can balding possibly be used as a symbol to decadence? If I were him, I would reject Sarah and spend my night watching Ben Barnes as Prince Caspian as well.

Don’t be fooled by the pretty little cover and the promise of romance: this is such a poorly developed story it hurts. If you don’t mind a poor plot, an annoying main character, a boring “prince”, bad writing and wasting hours of your life on something that basically goes nowhere, maybe, just maybe, you might actually care for it. I’m pretty sure, however, you probably won’t.

[Book Review] The Statistical Probability Of Love At First Sight

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I have never believed in love at first sight. Not in the boy-looks-at-girl-and-they-see-that-their-lives-mean-nothing-unless-they-are-together sort of way. Sure, it sometimes works on some very romantic, highly idealist movies, but it always sounded to me more like passion than real love.

Maybe that has to do, though, with what you consider love at first sight to be in the first place. When I first started reading The Statistical Probability Of Love At First Sight (Jennifer E. Smith, paperback by Poppy, 236 pages long), I wasn’t so sure I was going to fall for the characters just as they fall in love with each other – and, when romance is involved, the reader has to fall for the characters or everything sounds fake, plastic, inorganic. I did.

The magic of Smith’s book stands on the fact that it isn’t, despite its title, all about love, and that the love it contains doesn’t happen, in fact, precisely at first sight. The main characters, Hadley and Oliver, aren’t airheads waiting for love to give their life purpose, but people with real concerns, concerns so great they – at least for me – steal the show and make the book worth it all by themselves. Their relationships with their families are very credible and well built, described in a way that isn’t melodramatic (which would make the reader impatient for the romance parts), but has actual feeling. Unlike so many novels that give characters backgrounds just for the sake of filling up space, you can actually observe how these intricate relationships have made the characters who they are and how they affect what they are on the verge of becoming.

The best part of it all is still the romance. Oliver will make any girl swoon in ways he himself probably never imagined, by pure accident, simply because of his charming personality. And what makes this a great love story is the fact that it is, indeed, love, and not pure passion or lust: these characters get to know each other, their flaws included, and only then fall in love. It reminded me of a line from John Green’s The Fault In Our Stars: “as he read, I fell in love the way you fall asleep: slowly, and then all at once”. They slowly get to know each other – even if they do it in a short period of time, nothing is rushed – and fall in love yes, at first sight, but after a very, very good look.

Without any spoilers, I can also say the end is perfect. The only sad thing is that Smith writes so, so well that the reader has no choice but to become attached to these characters, which leaves one longing for more when it’s all over. I find it amusing that prose this simple can be so effective and delicate. As short and basic as it is, it manages to be a beautiful story about love in every meaning, every manner and with every sort of beginning. Love requires friendship, and great friendships do not require much time to happen.

[Book Review] Hush, Hush and Crescendo

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After the success of the Twilight saga, it is time for romantic angels to take the stand. But do not imagine that these angels will have fluffy white wings and save anyone from peril: in Hush, Hush and its sequels, they are bad-boyish, black-wearing, dark-eyed, flirty creatures.

When I bought Hush, Hush (Becca Fitzpatrick, Simon & Schuster, 416 pages), more than a year ago, I thought it had a 50% chance of actually being any good. Like many supernatural book sagas, it has a mysterious boy, an intelligent female protagonist and a simple plot with conflict being there probably only because an editor wanted it to make the cut. It has a pretty cover, the “prince charming” is attractive and it has positive reviews by other authors of the genre. That’s not, however, an infallible recipe, and it does end up poorly every once in a while.

It didn’t with the first book. On Hush, Hush, we are introduced to Nora, a girl who lives with her mom on a farmhouse and seemingly has only one friend, Vee. She studies, she doesn’t go wild, she calls her mom everyday: she lives as safely as it gets. Then in comes bad boy Patch, who ends up being her lab partner (I don’t know if the author has read Twilight, but this reminded me immediately of how Bella met Edward to the point of it looking awkwardly like a copycat) and has a mysterious aura around him that Nora is desperate to understand.

The story is incredibly simple. They meet, they talk, conflict comes, conflict is solved. Action, just as in Twilight, plays a nearly secondary role; in fact, if you have consumed enough books/movies/tv shows, you will easily solve the “mystery” much faster than Nora and find it a bit silly, but it doesn’t mean the book is bad. In fact, it covers perfectly the most important part of writing a good book: reaching its goal. The romantic parts are well written and Patch is an incredibly sexy “prince”, one of the sexiest I recall ever reading about. Vee is also an interesting, fun character.

On the second book, however, the author isn’t as successful, even though she tried to. She brings a plot much more complex and interesting than the one from the first book, which means the climax does actually work. The problem is, however, that this is a book with 400+ pages entirely told from Nora’s point of view, which requires her to be interesting (I’m not even asking for charismatic) enough to keep the pages being turned. The protagonist is, however, unbelievably irritating on Crescendo (Becca Fitzpatrick, Simon & Schuster, 464 pages), having unexplainable fits of jealousy and self-destructive behavior because of Patch. In New Moon, this worked out with Bella because it made sense: she got sad to the point of depression after Edward left and needed to feel something, anything. In Crescendo, though, Nora sounds like an annoying brat for about three quarters of the story, which made the book, at least for me, feel like an obligation rather than pleasure.

I have heard that everything improves on the third book, which convinced me to read it someday, but, if you don’t have enough patience, I’d advise on reading only Hush, Hush, which does have decent enough an ending to close the story with no need for sequels. But, if you don’t mind having to quickly scan through Nora’s thoughts on Book 2, I believe there is still enough mystery to make the rest of the books interesting enough – or so I hope.

[Book Review] Jinx

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I love chick-lit. I really do. Some people think that the fact that a book does not involve complex psychological evaluations, a political context or profound metaphors makes it bad; some would say that the writing itself has to be intricate and beautiful if a book is to be taken seriously.

I must, however, disagree. I have always considered the hatred on everything that seems to be successful (Twilight, Fifty Shades of Grey and even poor Mr. Justin Bieber) a bit… if I’m being honest, lame. When it comes to arts, I believe a piece of work can, indeed, be judged good or bad, but that judgement needs to take place considering the goals of the artist. I don’t think a living soul would say that Mozart or Chopin weren’t any good because they didn’t have the lyrical complexity of, say, Pink Floyd: they didn’t want to write lyrics in the first place. So if someone dislikes the idea of reading about teens falling in love with vampires or girls having boy issues, simply read something else. If you like a genre and think a piece of work failed to achieve its goal – a catchy chorus, a sweet romance, a supernatural suspense -, call it bad. But let the ones who like these genres consume them in peace.

Having said that, I can now easily explain why I thought Jinx (written by Meg Cabot, published by Harper Teen, 262 pages) was such a nice book: it reaches its goals. The story follows Jean, nickname Jinx, as she moves to New York in an attempt to escape something (yes, a mysterious something) she left at her hometown in Iowa. Jean has the worst luck even seen: from the moment she was born, everything seems to go wrong when she’s around, which, of course, means that sweet neighbor Zach, his dark hair and green eyes, would never be interested in her. The plot’s conflict is mainly centered, however, on her relationship with Tory, her cousin, who seems to be getting a little too fond of the use of not-so-white magic.

Yes, magic. Meg Cabot is such a talented chick-lit author that she can pull anything off, from girls finding out that they are princesses to witchcraft, in short, concise, fast-paced books. Jinx is no exception: it has exactly the right amounts of mystery, romance and humor to keep the reader sat down from the first page until the last. All characters are very well developed and credible, from Jean herself to German au pair Petra and, of course, Zach – the worst sin a chick-lit author could commit would be creating a “prince” that has no personality or that sounds like any other boy from any other novel. Meg, being the experienced story-teller she is, is able to create one of a kind boys in absolutely every book she writes.

Is it profound and introspective? No. Was it written in Shakespeare’s or Scott Fitzgerald’s style? No. But it was never meant to! Sometimes all we want is to read is a simple boy-meets-girl story and Meg Cabot delivers it as brilliantly as very few authors manage to do. Any chick-lit fan would most likely enjoy this fun, sweet book, which is at the same time interesting and well-written, fast and thorough. If I were to rate it, I would give it a 5/5 faster than you can say ‘jinx’!

[Book Review] An Abundance of Katherines

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All of us want to be remembered. Yes, even you, denying it with your head and thinking “No, not me”. It’s natural to want to matter, whether it’s in an ambitious, I-want-to-conquer-the-Universe sort of way, or simply by longing to be loved. Mattering is better than being famous – it’s being assured that we are actually doing something, even if it’s just being who we are, and that our lives are not going to waste.

Colin Singleton (brilliant surname for a brilliant character, as a matter of fact) is a child prodigy who isn’t sure as sure of his importance to the world as he used to be. His father has big plans for him, plans that require him to study everything and anything, learning many languages and memorizing facts. On his leisure time, however, Colin has found a hobby: dating Katherines.

And that’s where An Abundance of Katherines (written by John Green, 215 pages, paperback by Speak) starts: Colin, smart kid with a promising future, has just been dumped by his nineteenth Katherine. A lover of anagramming and languages, he seems to have quite a hard time making these nine letters work for him. This time, however, the heartbreak is mixed with insecurity and doubts about whether he’ll ever have his “Eureka moment” or not, about the possibility of mattering to the rest of the of the world like his childhood promised him to.

So begins an adventure with Hassan, Colin’s fat, Muslim friend, who is one of the highlights of the book. Hassan is funny – hilarious, even -, easygoing, charming and wears his characteristics as an armor (much as Tyrion Lannister, from Game of Thrones), preventing others from putting him down and giving him the confidence that Colin lacks. Hassan also seems to constantly bring Colin back to the rest of society, preventing him from becoming too self-absorbed or getting lost inside his own mind. On their road trip without a destination, they meet Lindsey, a not-so-typical girl from Gutshot who was supposed to show them Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s gravestone and ends up helping them in ways they hadn’t predicted (I know, how vague of me, but I promise I’d spoil the book if I said to much).

The story is centered on Colin’s search for a mathematical function that could predict exactly how relationships will work based on a Dumper/Dumpee variable – and, let’s face it, someone who has dated nineteen Katherines has some experience to analyze the subject. That’s all just an excuse, though, for John Green to, in a very Nick Hornby-ish way, reveal in unpretentious sentences big revelations about relationships, love, intelligence, friendship and (why not?) life itself. Green, more famous for his The Fault In Our Stars, has an easy to read, light, humorous writing style, filled with references and footnotes about many topics, including History and Physics (though he does say the  wave-particle duality was Einstein’s work, when it was actually de Broglie’s, most of the information is fascinating to anyone who enjoys “fun facts”). It has many dialogues, making characters grow on the readers’ hearts and develop in a very credible way. A very, very nice read.

If you enjoy books without great action, but with beautifully written characters and feelings, this is your book. I haven’t yet read The Fault In Our Stars, but I can promise anyone interested on getting started with John Green that they most likely won’t regret it. I hadn’t read anything so modern, simple and enjoyable since David Nicholls’s One Day. It’s the definition of a great story by a great storyteller. As Lindsey would say:

‘That’s how I remember things, anyway. I remember stories. I connect the dots and then out of that comes a story. And the dots that don’t fit into the story just slide away, maybe. Like when you spot a constellation. You look up and you don’t see all the stars. All the stars just look like the big fugging random mess that they are. But you want them to see shapes; you want to see stories, so you pick them out of the sky.’

This book is, in my opinion, a star to pick out of the sky.