The Book Adept

Memory and time

About her book What Alice Forgot, Liane Moriarty says the following:

I had always wanted to write a story about time travel but I found the logistics made my head explode. Then I read a story about a woman in the U.K. who lost her memory and behaved like a teenager – she didn’t recognize her husband or children. I realized that memory loss is a form of time travel. So I came up with the idea of a woman, Alice, who loses 10 years of her memory. She thinks she is 29, pregnant with her first child and blissfully in love with her husband. She is horrified to discover she is 39, with three children and in the middle of a terrible divorce. It’s like the younger Alice has travelled forward in time.

aliceforgotIt’s 2008. Alice Love is 39 years old. She is at her spin class at the gym. She didn’t eat any breakfast or drink any water before she began the class, and as she begins to sweat, she becomes faint and falls off the bike, hitting her head quite hard on the way down.

These are all details that you find out later in the book. The opening scene is one of confusion—Alice opening her eyes to discover she is lying on a cold floor with a bunch of people staring at her, and not knowing where she is, why she is there, or what has happened. And when people start trying to explain it to her, she is more confused than ever. She remembers that she is pregnant with her first child, who she and her beloved husband Nick have nicknamed the Sultana (since that’s about the size of the fetus at this point). She doesn’t understand why she was at the gym, because she hates working out, and she is baffled by the thin and taut state of her body, since she remembers it as larger and softer. Once the hospital calls her contacts, she notices that her sister is acting weird around her, almost like a stranger, and when she calls Nick (who is for some reason on a business trip) to tell him she has had an accident, he yells at her and hangs up the phone. What in the world?

Alice has a temporary case of amnesia. She thinks it’s 1998. She doesn’t remember anything at all subsequent to that, including the fact that she now has three children and is in the midst of a nasty and bitter divorce. How is that possible? She and Nick are so happy! After a couple of days at the hospital trying to come to terms with all of this, she returns home to confront what was a ramshackle fixer-upper but is suddenly imbued with every single advantage Alice and Nick had daydreamed when they bought it. Her husband returns from his weekend with the three children, ready to drop them off as usual on Sunday night, and Alice is in a panic—she’s never cared for one child, let alone three, and hers are now actual little people, with personalities and phobias and quirks with which she is completely unfamiliar! She doesn’t know what to feed them, or the addresses of their schools, or that she’s supposed to drop Tom at swim class and take Olivia to her violin lesson—none of it rings the faintest bell. And Nick looks at her with anger and disgust, when all she longs to do is throw herself on his chest and cry.

Readers tell me that what they liked best
about this novel was how it made them
think about the choices they’d made and
wonder how their younger selves would feel
about the lives they are leading now.
—Liane Moriarty

This book is a a journey of self revelation, but not just for Alice; because of her condition, she has suddenly gone back to being who she was 10 years ago, and all the people surrounding her must similarly take a look at who they have become in the decade she is missing. Alice discovers that she doesn’t much like many of the decisions she has made that have brought her to this point, and because she can’t remember her life, she busily goes about reversing some of them. This is my favorite part of the book, because her simple naiveté leads her to mend fences that she couldn’t and wouldn’t choose to attempt if she remembered why they were broken. The story is, indeed, a form of time travel, and at this point, I was actually rooting for Alice to remain contentedly in the past!

The book is by turns serious, looking at such subjects as infertility, infidelity, and bullying, and comical in its recounting of Alice’s mishaps as she flails around trying to figure out who she is and who she wants to be. It similarly challenges the reader to think about decisions made that have led to this point and to wonder—would I do things differently, if I could suddenly revise them?

Both an enjoyable and a rewarding read.

 

Elly Griffiths

The Stranger Diaries is an interesting mix. It is a contemporary version of a Victorian Gothic novel; there is also a story within the story, which brings the past into the present and makes it relevant again. It’s the only stand-alone novel (that I know of) by Elly Griffiths, who is best known for her Ruth Galloway archaeology mysteries set in the wilds of Norfolk (most of which I have enjoyed quite a bit), and a series called Stephens and Mephisto (which I haven’t read—yet).

strangerdiariesThe diaries mentioned in the title belong to Clare Cassidy, a divorced English teacher with a 15-year-old daughter named Georgia. Clare teaches at a local comprehensive, Talgarth High, on the coast of Sussex, which includes an old building that was formerly the home of a reclusive Victorian writer. R. M. Holland was most famous for a short story entitled “The Stranger,” a murder mystery with which Clare became fascinated, and which led her to decide to write a biography of its author. She also occasionally teaches the story in her upper-level English class, which means there is a fair degree of familiarity with it amongst both staff and students.

The set-up for the book includes the typical Gothic trappings: Holland’s wife, Alice, was rumored to have fallen to her death from the staircase of the house that descends from Holland’s study on the top floor, and is said to haunt the school; the legend is that if Alice’s ghost is seen, the incident foreshadows a death. The atmosphere is amped up by the location of the book in moody Sussex, with dense sea mists, lonely downs, and abandoned factories.

Clare’s friend and colleague Ella Elphick is found murdered, accompanied by a note that is a quote from “The Stranger.” The police investigation is led by Detective Sergeant Harbinder Kaur (herself an alumnus of Talgarth High), who initially suspects Clare, until other events take place that seem rather to target than to implicate her.

The book is alternately narrated by Clare, DS Kaur, and Clare’s daughter, Georgia, and the story grows quite complex, due both to the variety of narrators with their markedly different points of view and insider knowledge, and to the proliferation of interesting and potentially sinister secondary characters. It also grows wilder and more strange as it incorporates echoes of the Victorian past. I never guessed the murderer, but greatly enjoyed trying to figure out who it could be, as my potential suspects kept meeting an untimely end!

DS Harbinder Kaur was a great character (she and Georgia both introduce some humorous notes that are a nice contrast to Clare’s slightly hysterical tone), and I’m hoping perhaps Griffiths will bring her back in subsequent books, now that she has established such a thorough back story for her.

I hesitated to review this book right now, because it would be so much more effective if you were to read it in October, just when Hallowe’en is approaching! Perhaps you should put it on your list and revisit it then for maximum creepiness.

 

Angst and romance

That headline may be a little misleading. The angst isn’t necessarily in the romance, it’s more about the romance.

People who claim to be expert (or at least, er, Adept) at readers’ advisory need to be
well-rounded enough as readers to be able to recommend books in every genre,
but I confess there are a few in which I am not well versed. One is romance;
while I enjoy the occasional book dubbed a “cozy,” wherein the romance is not the entire point of the story, I am mostly a novice and a stranger when it comes to reading mainstream romance.

I did read a few Harlequins in my youth, because my mother adored them so they were always lying around the house. And in my 30s, when I was struggling to become a writer, it occurred to me that an easy way to make a buck might be to try my hand at writing one. I went so far as to send away to Harlequin for the specs to their various series, but I was put off by the incredibly stereotypical requirements. There was a set number of pages, a prescribed age range for the man and a similar profile for the woman (men were late 20s to early 40s, while the women had to be 18-24), and a specific story structure to follow. I decided, from the heights of youthful idealism, that this would be a betrayal of principle and never went farther with that aspiration.

No longer are romances planned out in that way—not even those from Harlequin.
Not even the sacred HEA (happily ever after) is guaranteed any longer! There are still prevailing formulas, but with a lot more wiggle room. But romance as a genre is still a relative stranger to me, so I enrolled in an online readers’ advisory class for romance to see if I could garner some tips about referring romance readers to their ideal books.

We were assigned two books to read in the second week: A Rogue by Any Other Name, by Sarah MacLean, and What the Librarian Did, by Karina Bliss.

rogue1Of the former, I’m not going to say much, except that if this is supposed to be a good example of a contemporary historical romance, then the bar has been set way too low.

Clichés abounded, human interactions were awkward, dialogue was overdramatic and talky, and historical context was distinctly lacking. A few torrid sex scenes (and the requisite ripped bodice) were just not enough to carry the rest.

On the other hand, What the Librarian Did surprised me. I had low expectations for a Harlequin based on what I used to read in my (long-ago) youth, but this book had good characters with assets and flaws, a believable story line, and a subplot that had nothing much to do with the romance, but was therefore a nice balancer. I liked it!

librariandidThe story follows Rachel Robinson (ha-ha, Ms. Robinson), a university librarian, who has a secret in her long-ago past that is about to come back to haunt her. Meanwhile, new student Devin Freedman is garnering an extravagant amount of attention from everyone except Rachel, who’s never heard of him. Devin, lead guitarist in a wildly successful American rock band, has quit the biz to return to his native New Zealand and pursue a business degree. Rachel encounters him on his first day at school when he arrives to tour the library, and her lack of knowledge about him piques his curiosity, while she takes one look at his bad-boy charms and is intrigued, despite herself. The cat-and-mouse that follows switches off from one to the other, and is made more complex by the intrusion of the secret from Rachel’s past, with which both of them must come to terms.

The first thing I liked is that these characters are both adults in their 30s. There was none of this experienced macho man mentoring the naive young girl nonsense—these are two people with an equal amount of years behind them, multiple relationships (and failed marriages, on Devin’s part), and a lot of complex baggage. But there is also “the spark,” which is the essential ingredient for a really satisfying romance, in my opinion, and Devin and Rachel definitely have it. Add to that wit and humor and the aforementioned plot twist complication, and you have a story. I’m all about the story, so this book made me happy!

Hopefully I can find more like this to give to my readers’ advisory clients.

(One caveat: The cover looks like something from the 1970s meant to appeal to swoony teenagers. Which is one reason why I don’t spontaneously pick up Harlequin novels! I think it highly probably that the best thing ever to happen to romance readers is the anonymity of the Kindle!)

 

Charmed by books

After dwelling in darkness with Sharon Bolton for a couple of days, I felt the need for lighter fare. I initially chose these three books because of their titles and covers, which revealed they were all books about books. As an avid reader, I’m always looking for more of those!

charmerThe first one I read—The Book Charmer, by Karen Hawkins—also has the element of magical realism going for it. It did, in fact, remind me of Practical Magic, by Alice Hoffman, in some of its elements, notably the two sisters who are dumped at a young age for someone else to raise, and in the fact that books actually talked (maybe out loud or maybe just in her head) to one of the residents of the small town in which the story ultimately takes place.

It was, indeed, a charming book about books, about family and friends, about small towns and the very real dangers of their dying out in the face of progress. It also dealt delicately and accurately with the issue of Alzheimer’s disease.

I would have liked more about the growing-up years of sisters Grace and Hannah, and the parallel years of Sarah Dove, lucky seventh daughter (and the book charmer) of the Dove family of the town of Dove Pond. But after an introductory chapter about each,
we jump to present day when everyone is an adult, and proceed from there. Not that the “there” wasn’t a good tale, I just wanted a bit more of the back story.

I thought the portrayal of Grace was excessively curmudgeonly, although I could understand her point of view. But she could have relented a bit sooner in instances where people were actually trying to help or befriend her, or both.

I liked this book’s gentle quirkiness, and will probably seek out the author’s subsequent stories about the same town.

ninahillThe next book I took up was The Bookish Life of Nina Hill, by Abbi Waxman. Talk about your basic wish fulfillment!

At the beginning, given that you are a person who thinks like me, Nina has it all: A job in a cool bookstore, a lovely guest house lined with bookshelves filled with books, a companionable cat named Phil, and a busy schedule taken up mostly with book clubs and trivia contests.

Only child: check
Likes books better than people: check
Likes cats better than many people: check
Enjoys her work putting together readers with books: check
Likes her routine and doesn’t want to be dynamited out of it: check

Then, Nina discovers that the father she never knew has called her out in his will to receive some sort of legacy, thereby putting her in touch with a raft of unknown and unsuspected brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews, aunts and cousins…which is in one way kind of a dream come true for a wistful only child who has previously been an observer but not a participant in family life…and in another way kind of a nightmare for a self-sufficient, slightly anxious introvert.

Also, the team leader of one of the competing trivia teams in her league is showing definite interest in Nina…but it will never work out, because he’s not a reader. Oh well… But he IS good looking, and persistent, and maybe…no, definitely not. But…

You can guess how things play out from fairly early on in the book (obvious portents), you can see the “event horizon” clearly, but you’re so caught up in it you don’t really care. This is the ultimate feel-good book for the bookish and the romantic.

overdueI didn’t think I’d be a fan, initially, of
The Overdue Life of Amy Byler, by Kelly Harms, because of the whole martyrish deserted mom thing. I mean, I get it, and she had a perfect right, and I’ve been there as the deserted wife, although not with the mom thing piled on top of it;
I just didn’t think I’d enjoy a book about it. But I did, quite a bit!

Amy is soldiering on as a single mother after being completely abandoned by her husband and partner, John. When the children were 12 and 9, John went to Hong Kong on a business trip, and never came back. Amy had to go back to work full-time as a school librarian, and scrape absolute bottom to keep her kids in their school and put food on the table. Not only did John desert them, he didn’t pay child support or communicate with any of them for three years. Small wonder that Amy harbors major resentment.

Then John comes back—because he misses his kids and wants to make things up to all of them. They all know that’s not possible, but Amy agrees (with some counseling by her friend, Lena) to give John a week with the kids, and she takes off for New York City on a part-professional, part-personal trip. The week stretches into a summer, and Amy finds herself at loose ends (and somewhat uncomfortable with it) as all her responsibilities are picked up by someone else.

I loved that the book included attendance at a librarian convention, accompanied by a presentation by the protagonist about a concrete idea (Flexthology) on how to promote reading to reluctant teen readers through choice and anonymity. This made the character feel solid and real, and made the subsequent events (even though they were more fanciful) seem plausible and possible. Her makeover (to be featured in a magazine article) by her publisher friend, Talia, was fun (and only a little patronizing). I adored Daniel, the “hot librarian,” and rooted for him despite Amy’s #momspringa (a play on the Amish Rumspringa) dates with other guys. Part of what kept the book going was the witty banter—Harms knows how to write dialogue.

These books all three definitely fit the bill when you’ve been reading a lot of brooding thrillers or books heavy on emotion and description—while there is still poignancy, these authors keep the tone light while exploring some serious issues. They are all three great additions to my rapidly growing “canon” of books-about-books-and-readers!

 

Booklover

Dark deeds

I am a big fan of the books of Sharon J. Bolton. A mystery-reading friend turned me on to her and (being a little obsessive in my reading methodology) I decided to start with her debut, Sacrifice, written in 2008, and work my way forward. Her protagonists are women in unusual professions and offbeat settings, and the books cross that line from mystery to thriller, almost to gothic. They are definitely dark, but also compelling enough that I have been undeterred by subject matter that might make me stop reading another writer’s book.

I like both her series, featuring Detective Constable Lacey Flint (yes, British), and her stand-alone novels, which encompass a far wider array of characters and situations, with settings from Dorset to the Scottish border to the Falkland Islands, and plots that range from mistaken identity to serial killers to something eerily reminiscent of Children of the Corn. They are uniformly well written, well plotted, and harrowing to various degrees.

craftsmanAfter having read her latest, The Craftsman,
I concluded that the name of the book should rather be reserved for its author. Bolton is truly a craftsman of storytelling, and her latest is even creepier than some of her former offerings, which I wasn’t sure was possible.

The central modus operandi of the killer in this one is something I wasn’t sure I could persist in reading about, it horrifies me so much. If it’s not your worst nightmare, it will be after you read this.

The character of WPC Florence Lovelady, a green but smart and enterprising 22 years old in 1969, immediately engaged me, particularly her trials with smoothing it over and dumbing it down in order to operate as a policewoman in those misogynistic times (not that things are leaps and bounds better today…). The setting—the bleak beauty of northern England—was likewise captivating. And the mystery was topnotch, wandering as it did from past to present and infecting the reader with certainties and doubts in almost equal measure.

In 1969, three teenagers have gone missing (one at a time, over a period of months) from the small town of Sabden. There is speculation each time one disappears that they could be runaways, out there in the world somewhere doing just fine; but after the third disappearance, the police (and particularly newbie Lovelady) are starting to think otherwise. Detailed to follow up on the claims of some children who swear they heard a voice coming from a recent grave, Florence makes a horrifying discovery that starts her on a chase that will make her career…and change her forever.

In 1999, the death of the imprisoned serial killer brings Assistant Commissioner Lovelady back to town, in company with her son, to attend the funeral. But subsequent events suggest that what she thought was buried in 1969 with the confession of Larry Glassbrook may just emerge from the grave to haunt her.

This is apparently the first of a trilogy, with the next book not due out until October of 2020. I don’t know if I can wait…

 

Big Little Lies

I hadn’t previously read anything by Liane Moriarty, although several librarian friends had recommended her to me, so I decided to start with Big Little Lies, since the TV series stars some of my favorite actors and I’d like to have read the book before embarking on that.

biglittleliesI didn’t know anything about the book, except that it’s classified by some as “women’s fiction,” a category title I have always found insulting. Joyce Saricks, readers’ advisory guru, defines women’s fiction as consisting of “books written primarily by women for women, that feature female characters, and that address the issues women face in their professional and domestic lives.” I find the descriptor “women’s fiction” to be dismissive and ghettoizing. When men were the primary writers of fiction, it was all just fiction, whether literary, mainstream, or genre-based. Why do we need to use condescending terminology that puts female writers in a “less than” category?

It is true that the three main protagonists of Big Little Lies are women with issues (some of them dark): Madeline, Celeste, and Jane. It’s also true that this is primarily a book about white privileged people whose children attend private school. But it’s ultimately a story of parents acting badly, and it features the real lives of children, teens, friends, husbands, wives, second wives, and exes. And the interplay between all these characters, primary and secondary, is smart and witty, making the book completely engaging.

It’s also suspenseful, given that the pivotal moment (which is mentioned at the beginning and then built up to in timed chapters) is a death at the annual Pirriwee Public School Trivia Night, an annual fund-raising event. You know what happens, but not to whom, nor how, nor why. There are small glimpses fed to you in the guise of gossip shared with an unknown interviewer by various secondary characters at intervals throughout the book, which lend further tension as some get it entirely wrong and others come perilously close to guessing secrets they’re not supposed to know.

I loved the way Moriarty sets up the story—the countdown to the trivia contest, the fragments of gossip and commentary, the glimpses into all the lives involved in the broader story. But I particularly loved the entire array of characters, both main and secondary. This is a quintessential example of a character-driven plot, and although its stated theme is suspense, the real content of the book lies in understanding every woman portrayed here. The character development is fresh, intuitive and nuanced, and doesn’t stop with the first few moments of set-up on their personalities, but portrays complex, flawed people with real issues. Moriarty is equally good at capturing the quirks and personalities of all the children involved, and she seasons serious interactions with moments of humor and even hilarity.

I didn’t figure out the climactic moment ahead of time, and honestly spent the second half of the book hoping passionately that she wouldn’t kill off any of the people in which I had invested so thoroughly!

I have put three more books by Moriarty on hold at the library.

 

Reacher

Past Tense is Jack Reacher book #23, by Lee Child. I read a bunch of the books in this series in long-running binges, and then got tired of them and went away for a while. But after reading a surfeit of quirky and thoughtful mainstream fiction and some angsty teen fantasy, this was the straightforward, somewhat creepy dose of suspense I needed in the moment.

pasttenseThe Reacher books are, admittedly, pure formula, but when it’s a good formula (as with so many mystery or suspense series), it’s easy to go with it. Jack Reacher is former military police, but in a way he’s been ruined by his career. The typical nomadic existence of military life, constantly picking up sticks and moving to a new base, a new assignment, doesn’t lend itself to putting down any roots. People who retire from that either react by finding a home and never leaving it, or they remain perpetually restless. Reacher is an extreme example of the latter, roaming randomly and impulsively back and forth across the United States with no baggage but a toothbrush and no transportation but his thumb stuck out by the side of a highway. (If he gets work and makes some money, he occasionally takes a bus or train.) Because of a combination of his background training and his hardline personal ethics, no matter where his curiosity leads him, Reacher inevitably becomes embroiled in some local trouble and acts as a knight errant to help the innocent and punish the guilty.

If you’ve seen the two movies starring Tom Cruise, most faithful readers will tell you that you haven’t met Jack Reacher. There was major outrage when he was cast, since Jack is a rangy six foot five in his stocking feet, 220-250 pounds, with blond hair—scarcely a description of the tough and enigmatic but nonetheless short and dark Cruise. I always thought, if he’d been 30 years younger, that the recently deceased Rutger Hauer (the replicant from Blade Runner) would have been good casting. Ironically, when she first sold the film rights to Interview with the Vampire, Anne Rice had pictured Hauer as perfect for the role of the vampire Lestat, which role Cruise also bogarted, to his and everyone else’s eternal regret!

In this particular book, there are two parallel story lines that persist throughout and only come together near the end. Reacher’s part of the story is initially fairly benign; with autumn coming on, he is departing soon-to-be-chilly Maine with plans to take a zig-zag path that will eventually lands him in California for the winter. He puts his thumb out and gets a ride that promises to take him a good ways on his first day, but then the driver’s business calls him back to town, and Reacher is stuck out in the middle of the New Hampshire woods. A road sign for Laconia, New Hampshire decides him on his next leg; he’s never been there, but recognizes the name from family stories as his father’s birthplace, and decides to explore for a day before continuing his journey.

Meanwhile, a young Canadian couple is traveling to New York City to sell something valuable and parlay that into a new life in Florida; but car trouble sends them limping down a long country lane in search of assistance. From the minute Shorty and Patty arrived at the out-of-the-way motel, their old Honda knocking and backfiring, and met the four co-owners, I knew something was up; the guys’ bouncy, friendly affect was too much like Mormon missionaries at the door to be for real. The elaborate web of lies they wove to keep Shorty and Patty from going anywhere kept amping up my nerves as I waited to see what was intended for these two, even as they rationalized and justified their way from uneasiness to optimism and back again. The whole story line was fraught with anticipation.

At first, I assumed Reacher’s part of the story was simply designed to put him in the neighborhood of the hotel when it came time for whatever terrible thing was going to happen there to require his services. But his accidental and fairly casual research into his father’s small-town origins revealed more and different facts than he expected, puts him up against a couple of tough customers, and leads to some trouble of its own.

Although some people thought both story lines were drawn out too much, I really liked the switching back and forth between them as a vehicle to build suspense. The situation with Shorty and Patty eventually blows up, and Reacher is instrumental in his familiar role as a fixer. Despite a few departures from Reacher’s usual modus operandi, I enjoyed this quite a bit—it kept me reading until my Kindle died at 1:30 a.m., and I recommenced at 7:30 after the Kindle (and I) had recharged! There’s something to be said for a recurring theme with individual characteristics enlivening each iteration!

 

Ash & Bramble

“What if the stories aren’t told?
What if they’re lived? What if you were forced
to live your life in the shape of a story that is
not your own, with no choice about who you are
and where you’re going?”

Ash & Bramble, by Sarah Prineas, has an intriguing premise…and buries it so deeply (the above quote is from page 265) that it’s hard not to be confused and frustrated before you arrive at a partial explanation; and after that it’s equally difficult to put up with the lack of certain details that end up detracting from the true potential of the book.

ashbrambleDespite all its publicity copy, I would not
call this a true fairy tale retelling.
It’s a book with a bigger concept,
a philosophical question in which fairy tales are used as illustrations, in a way. It reminded me a little of Cornelia Funke’s Mirrorworld series (Reckless, Fearless, and The Golden Yarn), in which various remnants of fairy tales are present but in a dark and twisted setting that isn’t about that trademark feel-good happy ending they all promise (marry-the-prince trope).

People may scream “spoiler” when I explain, but honestly, I would have been somewhat happy had someone spoiled things for me a little earlier on in the book. Basically, Story has become a powerful force in the world, and wants everything its way; it has co-opted the Godmother (nothing fairy-like about her) to enforce its will on the people by making them all act out the same stories, over and over and over again. In service of this series of “passion plays,” the Godmother has enslaved countless unfortunates to labor without ceasing behind the scenes to make shoes, sew dresses, dip candles, construct props, and spin straw into gold. So between the people working their fingers to the bone as prop-makers and the ones being forced onto the stage to re-enact the same tales, pretty much everyone in this book is miserable.

Pin (a seamstress) and Shoe (a shoemaker) are trapped in the Godmother’s fortress of fairy tale props, but because Pin possesses a secret artifact (a magic thimble), they have an advantage over their zombified colleagues and are able to look outside their presumed fates and aspire to something better. Unfortunately for Pin, the Godmother has her own magic thimble, is aware of Pin’s speshulness (although not aware of the twin thimble), and Pin wakes up one day to find herself cast by the Godmother as the lead in that hoary old tale of Cinderella.

In this way, the book itself echoes the state of its characters: There is the Before (everyone’s past), and the After (in which they have been brain-wiped and re-set to participate), and there is also the Before (in the fortress) and the After (in the tale) for the reader.

I’m not going to say that I didn’t enjoy the book, because it had some wonderful aspects to it. I thought the world-building and scene-setting were good; I was enamored of a couple of the characters, intrigued by the idea of Story as a power all its own, and caught up in the action of rebellion. But when we get to the end of the book without finding out one simple thing—where the thimbles came from and what was their intended use (as opposed to the perversion of powers wielded by at least one of their wearers)—I have to admit that I gave the writer a great big “C’mon!” There were several other glaring unlikelihoods that I won’t share here but that have caused an outcry among some reviewers on Goodreads. With all of that, I wouldn’t tell you not to read Ash & Bramble, because in many ways it’s better than the bulk of the true retellings out there. But be aware that it is more a foe than a fan of fairy tale.

HEA.jpg

Parenthetically, can we talk for a minute about that cover? Ornate typography? Good. Brambles with accompanying thorns? Good. Big floaty red chiffon skirt edged with ashy gray? Good. Backless sequined slutty Las Vegas-style “bodice”? C’MON. So close.

 

Autism in fiction

A few years back, I read the book The Rosie Project, by Graeme Simsion. At the time, I didn’t have what you would call a significant reaction to the book; it was more along the lines of “charming, funny, and enjoyable relationship fiction.”

I did comment in my notes on Goodreads that the protagonist, Don, put me in mind of an adult version of Christopher Boone, the kid from The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon—I could see him growing up to be Don: precise, literal, frustrating, yet engaging in his innocence and bewilderment about the social norms that escape him.

rosieprojectDon Tillman, Australian genetics professor, is an odd duck. His lifelong difficulties with social rituals and situations have caused him to create an orderly, easily navigated life with a precise routine and little human contact. He does have a few friends, and one of them comments to him that he has many attributes that would make him a good husband. This sets Don, who has never gone on a second date, to thinking about how best he could find a partner for himself with the least amount of fuss. His conclusion is The Wife Project, a questionnaire he devises that he intends to submit widely (mostly via a dating site) to weed out the things he can’t abide and narrow his search to the perfect woman for him: no smokers, no vegetarians, no late people, no messy people…the list of what he doesn’t want far exceeds the list of what he does!

Rosie Jarman shows up at his door intending to ask for his assistance on a genetics project, but because she has been sent by his friend and mentor, Gene, Don thinks she is there in response to The Wife Project questionnaire, and asks her out. He is baffled when he discovers that she is a smoker, a drinker, perpetually tardy, and in no way his ideal woman. But when he questions Gene about her, Gene (with some suppressed mirth) says he threw her in as a “control,” and encourages Don to continue to see her. Don takes up the challenge of Rosie’s genetics project, and begins to learn that perhaps the ideal woman on paper isn’t the one for him.

Although it is obvious to other characters in the book that Don is “on the spectrum,” as it has become modish to say about degrees of autism, Don has not self-diagnosed as such. When he is asked by Gene to substitute for him at giving a lecture and the lecture turns out to be on Asperger’s Syndrome to an audience of children with Asperger’s and their parents, Gene’s wife, Claudia, a psychologist and also Don’s friend, asks him if, in preparing his notes, anything seemed familiar. Don seems baffled by her question and doesn’t arrive at the answer she is obviously implying.

A few readers’ reactions to this novel have been negative, because they felt it mocked or made fun of autistic people, but the book’s author has noted that when he wrote it, he didn’t research Asperger’s, and in fact had based Don on “people I met in physics, information technology and doing a Ph.D.” He follows up by adding, “Experts in the field assure me that Don has Asperger’s and that community says the same thing. It was not my intention to make light of Asperger’s, and the Asperger’s community…regards Don as typical but not stereotypical. He’s seen as a good role model; readers generally love him, and that’s a good thing for the image of ASD.”

Remembering how I had enjoyed this somewhat light but entertaining and thoughtful read, I was pleased to see that while I wasn’t paying attention, Simsion had written two follow-up novels, continuing Don’s and Rosie’s story, and I snagged both sequels from the library’s e-book collection as soon as I could get them.

rosieeffectThe Rosie Effect picks up fairly soon after the events of the first book; Don and Rosie are married (sorry, that’s a spoiler, but you kind of knew how it would end, right?) and living in New York City; they both have satisfying work, and everything seems to be going according to plan, which makes Don feel happy and secure. Then an unexpected pregnancy throws everyone for a loop. Don had always agreed, in the abstract, that he would enjoy having offspring, but as far as he knew, birth control was in place and nothing along those lines would happen without a lengthy discussion and negotiation. Rosie, observing their friend Sonia’s struggles to conceive, realizes she isn’t young any more in terms of optimum child-bearing years, believes it could take some time to become pregnant, and “decides” to forget to take her birth control pills, resulting in an almost immediate “success.”

Don does his best to cope with this news, but approaches it with his usual lack of emotion, choosing instead to make lists of tasks and goals that need to be accomplished before the baby is born and setting about them in typical Don fashion, which is to say he almost immediately finds himself in trouble on every front. Meanwhile Rosie, who was happy as Don’s wife, begins to question what kind of father he will be able to be for their child, and as Don seems increasingly incapable of understanding the emotional commitment she needs, Rosie withdraws. Don will have to rein in his various projects and focus instead on his relationship with his wife and child, or all his good intentions will be for nothing.

I had a little trouble with the evolution of Don’s and Rosie’s relationship as a result of the pregnancy. Don continued to be himself; but Rosie, confronted with parenthood, had an extreme reaction to everything about him that she had previously found charming (if maddening). Her reaction seemed over the top, even for someone whose instincts were telling her to place the welfare of her child over the viability of her marriage. For the first time in their interactions, you see Rosie have as little emotional understanding of Don as Don has of Rosie, and it’s unsettling. But it’s a strong story over all, and with the help of their friends they are both able to attain clarity.

rosieresultThere is a considerable hiatus in years between the ending of the second book and the beginning of The Rosie Result; Don and Rosie’s son, Hudson, is now 11 years old. The family has returned to Melbourne, where both Rosie and Don are working full-time in their professions. It soon becomes clear, however, that one of them will need to suspend a busy schedule to give time and attention to their son, who is having trouble fitting in at school and needs more parenting. Coincidentally, Don does something that is typical (and without agenda) for him but which his students find offensive, and concludes that putting some distance between himself and this problem is congruent with his goal of tutoring Hudson in how to get by in a world that thinks you’re weird. Don quickly realizes that the best thing he can do for Hudson is to “outsource” some of this instruction to people with better social instincts than his, and the following year becomes a good example of a “village” raising a child.

In this third book, Simsion openly confronts the topic of autism; while its effects in Don’s life were duly noted in the first two, it is Hudson’s difficulties in school that bring the topic into focus, and Simsion uses the interactions of the Tillman/Jarman family with school administrators, teachers, and counselors, other parents and students, and their unusual group of friends to highlight various sides of the issue. He shows the prejudices that confront people who don’t fit in with perceived social norms, and specifically discusses the pitfalls that lie in allowing a child to be “diagnosed” with something that will follow them for the rest of their school career and beyond. Labeling and identity, both specifically with regard to autism but also in a wider sense, are prevalent themes, and the book directly questions people’s assumptions about autism.

There is a particularly effective scene in which Don and Rosie attend a panel discussion about autism, participated in by a mother who has taken every route—including intensive tutoring, medication, and behavior modification—to help her daughter conform to neurotypical norms, as well as an activist who maintains that autism is not a disease but an identity. Her example is that she doesn’t ‘have’ lesbianism, she is a lesbian; therefore, she doesn’t ‘have’ autism, she is autistic—it’s part of who she is, not something visited upon her that she needs to confront and conquer.

Far from turning the book into a polemic, I felt that this debate, fictionalized and exemplified by the relationships amongst the participants in the story, made it all the more compelling. It is particularly touching as Don, who is determined to make Hudson’s life better than his own by teaching him to cope with society’s expectations, comes to realize that perhaps his response isn’t the best one for Hudson, and that if Hudson can navigate his life by being himself, there may be more wiggle room in his experience than his father had assessed. While maintaining the gentle humor inherent in Don’s (and Hudson’s) misunderstandings of social norms that Simsion portrayed in the first two books, in this one the intensities of the relationships become truly heartfelt. The arc of this three-book story is completed with vastly more depth than one would expect from light, “relationship” fiction.