The Rosie Project, Graeme Simsion

I avoided this book for a while, I even looked at the free Kindle Sample and decided that I was not going to like it ... I only caved when I saw how widely it had been recommended and that it was down to 99p as a Daily Deal.  Not for the first time, I admit that I was completely mistaken.  This book is fantastic, it is a brilliant feel-good romantic comedy that is genuinely hilarious.  I really hope that when the inevitable cinematic adaptation hits the big screen that they manage to capture the wit and fun that made this book such a joy to read.  The unlikely hero is Don Tilman, a middle-aged professor of genetics who has never been on a second date.  However, the first line of the novel announce, " may have found a solution to the wife problem."

Early on in the novel, Don gives a talk on Asperger's syndrome and while he responds in confusion when a friend asks if any of the symptoms seemed familiar, it is fairly clear that Don has himself some issues.  Since his neighbour Daphne went into long-term care, Don has only two friends in the world, his colleague Gene and Gene's psychologist wife Claudia.  Although the two of them have tried to help Gene find love, their approach has been based on the 'traditional dating paradigm, which [Don] had previously abandoned on the basis that the probability of success did not justify the effort and negative experiences'.  Don has a far grander plan; a sixteen page questionnaire to filter out the unsuitable candidates.

With the rise of online-dating, The Rosie Project is a very timely satire on our increasingly algorithm-based quest for love.  Don's questionnaire weeds out those who are overweight, the smokers, the STD sufferers, the sports fans, the drinkers, the creationists and of course - those who are unpunctual.  Enter Rosie.  Aside from problems with STDs and BMI, she fits almost every one of these.  Still, given the title, the direction of this novel may seem inevitable.  Still, what we have is a glorious celebration of all that is completely unpredictable about the mysteries of human attraction.

Saturday Poem - Jabberwocky

I have always liked this poem even though I found Alice in Wonderland rather disturbing, despite being nonsense, I think you can still picture what is happening.

Jabberwocky


'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!

He took his vorpal sword in hand:
Long time the manxome foe he sought --
So rested he by the Tumtum tree,
And stood awhile in thought.

And, as in uffish thought he stood,
The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
And burbled as it came!

One, two!  One, two!  And through and through
The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
He went galumphing back.

Lewis Carroll

I Capture the Castle, Dodie Smith

I found a World Book Day copy of I Capture The Castle and since my own one is somewhere in my parents' attic (and may or may not have been destroyed by their builder), I was delighted with my discovery.  However.  Under the terms of World Book Day, one pledges to pass the book on after reading it.  To make things clear: I Do Not Give Away Books.  I will read and reread and I will purchase other copies as presents for friends and family but I give none away.  Leaving I Capture The Castle in a bus stop in Edinburgh felt like abandoning a friend.  I kept glancing back at it as I walked away and I did not see anybody pick it up.  If anyone did - bus stop, bridge, Edinburgh - take care of it.  Love it well.  It has had a long trip and it is a fantastic book.  I have realised again why I loathe giving them away.

I Capture the Castle is a Book to Treasure.  It has one of my favourite ever narrators, the bewitching Cassandra Mortmain.  Middle child in an eccentric, poverty-stricken family, the seventeen year-old Cassandra has left school and is practising her speed-writing by telling us all about her family.  From the very first line, 'I write this sitting in the kitchen sink', we are plunged directly into her world.  Cassandra is with us every step, her voice is distinctive and consistent - she is timid, she is observant, she is naive, she is clumsy, she is honest - she is a teenage girl who is teetering on the brink of self-knowledge.  The local vicar describes her as a mix of 'Jane Eyre and Becky Sharp, a thoroughly dangerous girl'; Cassandra is teetering on the brink of self-knowledge, having to face up to her own desires and the realities of her situation.  Like most people, I first met Cassandra Mortmain when I was a teenager.  Ten years on (crumbs!), I have read far more fiction from that era and can appreciate I Capture the Castle not just as a wistful look-back at adolescence but also at the pre-war era.  Dodie Smith wrote this while in exile in America, she felt that she had missed out on something through escaping the Blitz and I Capture the Castle encompasses her homesickness and is a terribly British sort of story.

Cassandra's father is a celebrated author who has not written anything in over a decade.  After a serious misunderstanding during Cassandra's childhood which landed him in prison, Mortmain moved the entire family to Godsend Castle where he promptly succumbed to writer's block.  Since then, the family has lost a mother and gained their naturist former artist's model stepmother Topaz.  Cassandra's younger brother is happy with his school work but her older sister Rose has reached a state of extreme desperation about their state of poverty.  With no measurable income and an ever-decreasing amount of saleable furniture, the family is struggling even to feed themselves.  When kindly local librarian Miss Marcy gently suggests that they economise by cutting the wages of their late housekeeper's son Stephen, Cassandra cringes as she realises that they had never considered paying Stephen anything.  Not that he minded.  Things begin to look up though one evening when their American landlord Simon and his brother Neil get their car stuck in the lane ...

The Secret Scripture, Sebastian Barry

This was a beautifully written novel, both startling and haunting.  It won the award for the Costa Book of the Year but as I reached the end, it did not leave me with the sense of amazement that I have come to expect from the finalists.  This was an uncomfortable read at times, I even considered putting it down at one point which I never do.  Sebastian Barry's book is painful and tries to expose some very painful truths about Irish history - part of my problem therefore is that my family is Irish and they do not care to expose the hurt.  The Secret Scripture speaks of the very worst being done in the name of religion, the slaughter of love done in the name of God.  The narration is shared between the forgotten centenarian Roseanne McNulty and her psychiatrist Dr Grene.  

Roseanne has been committed to a psychiatric institution for over sixty years, her records are long-lost but as hospital faces closure, Dr Grene searches for her true history and finds himself captivated by her past.  Roseanne is reluctant to confide in him but writes down her secrets and hides them under the floorboards - still, the reader is left uncertain about how far to trust her narration.  She is an old lady, an old lady with secrets to hide and who may or may not have been committed for good reason.  Still, it is hardly a surprise to discover that she has been the victim of those who never had her welfare in mind.

Feminism takes a bad rap - I have heard otherwise rational-speaking females pronounce that it is responsible for all that is wrong with our world.  Still, if the women's liberation movement have made any advances that prevent women being summarily incarcerated against their will and without charge, I am going to stick my neck out and call that a Good Thing.  The idea of someone's life being snatched from them in this awful way makes me shudder.  Roseanne's story is uncomfortable because although she may be fictional, her situation is not.

Northanger Abbey, Val McDermid

I have been highly sceptical about The Austen Project.  I steered well clear of Joanna Trollope's Sense and Sensibility and I would not have read this if I had not been handed a free copy.  However.  I was completely wrong.  Northanger Abbey as imagined by Val McDermid turned out to be terrific fun.  I read the original when I was in my first year at university, my mother had always warned me away from it as being 'odd'.  My own view is that Northanger Abbey is the most hilarious of Austen's novels but that it is far more a novel of 'ideas' than a novel about events; the plot is not the main point.  Its main focus is the power of books on the mind and emotions.  Perhaps because the plot was secondary, Val McDermid is able to transplant the action fairly effectively into the twenty-first century.

Of course, none of this is new, Austen has been done, done and redone.  People are forever trying to find new and inventive ways of telling her stories - there have been the sublime (Lizzie Bennet Diaries, Bridget Jones, CluelessLongbourn, Lost in Austen) but then also the ridiculous (Death Comes to Pemberley, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies).  There is something about Austen that has provoked discussion, contemplation and imagination for two hundred years.  Perhaps because the simple marriage plot has changed so markedly since they were first written, we respond to Austen's work differently.  Do we therefore need to have the stories reworked for a new generation to carry their messages forward?  Or is it more an act of laziness - I have noticed that children shy away from The Secret Garden for The Toilet of Doom, do adults require the classics to be simplified too?

Just like her Regency namesake, Cat Morland is seventeen and has grown up in middle of nowhere.  McDermid emphasises Cat's unworldliness by making her a homeschooled vicar's daughter, surely the most naive demographic in modern society.  Rather than having an obsession with Gothic fiction, Cat is a huge Twilight fan.  It has always been my belief that literary fashions are circular - just as Pamela is like Fifty Shades of Grey, so Twilight mirrors the Gothic romances - it is no accident that many of the classics were reissued with Twilight-esque front covers.  To be fair, with its emphasis on conservative dating and turgid prose, Twilight does stand in nicely for dodgy Gothic horror.  It is the highlight of Cat's hitherto uneventful existence to be whisked up to Edinburgh to keep the rich Susie Allan company while her husband 'does' the Festival.

Sweet Tooth, Ian McEwan

Ian McEwan is a very clever boy.  Of course, he is not the type of author to ever show off this fact.  He is a remarkably shy and retiring type of writer who wears his intellectualism very lightly.  In case it was not obvious, I wrote that and then sniggered loudly.  Affectionate sniggering but sniggering nonetheless.  Ian McEwan is the first Grown Up Author who I ever loved - Atonement was a very important book in my 'personal reading journey'.  However.  He is not to be trusted.  You cannot read one of his novels and expect to reach the end with no surprises.  The other thing that I have learnt to expect from him is the Terrible Awful Moment.  Still after a few years when I read everything I could find with his byline, I had been having a bit of a McEwan hiatus ... Sweet Tooth reignited that which made me a fan in the first place.  It was everything that I could have hoped for and more.

Sweet Tooth is narrated by Serena Frome (rhymes with plume), a blonde recent Cambridge alumna with a third in Maths.  The year is 1972, Britain is in the grip of unions and political unrest.  With the Cold War on one side and Irish terrorism on the other, all is not well.  Groomed by her older lover to enter MI5, Serena finds herself in the middle of a spy operation that she does not quite understand.  Right from the beginning, Serena announces to the reader that all did not end well.  'Within eighteen months of joining, I was sacked, having disgraced myself and ruined my lover, though he certainly had a hand in his own undoing'.  So far, so John le Carré.

The President's Hat, Antoine Laurain

I feel slightly guilty to have read this in the translation - I can read French but a mixture of general literary laziness and being given a free copy in English meant that I did not bother sourcing the original version.  I got through it in a day (albeit a day that involved a decentish train journey) ... it was not a heavy read but I did enjoy it.  François Mitterrand is the President of the title, the only other Socialist French President other than the one currently in office.  This is all a little bit before my time so it was terribly educational.  As a country, France is strangely preoccupied by its own identity (they had a Grande Debat about it a few years ago; conclusion was to sing the Marseillaise more often and hang more flags) so it is not surprising that they are still mulling over their relationship with their former leaders.  Still, The President's Hat is no great searching of the French soul - this is pure fun.

1986: Daniel Mercier's wife and son are away, so he decides to take himself out for dinner.  He is enjoying a delightful meal out at an expensive brasserie when who should sit down at the table next to him but the President of the Republic.  Daniel is naturally stunned and sits quietly while the President and his two associates eat their meal.  However, as Mitterand leaves, he forgets his hat.  In an uncharacteristic moment of daring, Mercier swipes it and goes home wearing it.  Perhaps the wine has something to do with it.  Or perhaps it is the power of the hat.