Over 550 book reviews with full author links

29 January 2014

Tom Rob Smith: The Farm

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Who would you believe?
This is a very different kind of psychological thriller which catches your interest from the beginning and holds it to the very end. The essence of the tale is "How well do you know your parents? Would you believe them if each one tells you something unbelievable and different?"

Daniel has had a good childhood and has been close to his mother and father until they retired, sold their garden centre business and moved from England to a small Farm in a remote Sweden for what promised to be an idyllic retirement. For his mother, Tilde, it was a return to the country of her birth - a new start.

Daniel had been in regular email contact and had believed that they were settling down well when he gets a phone call from his father, Chris. "Your mother ... she's not well....She's been imagining things - terrible, terrible things....She's been committed." On his way to the airport to fly to see them he gets another phone call from his father to say that his mother has escaped from the mental hospital and is flying to England.

After Daniel meets his mother at the airport, Rob Smith takes us through Tilde's emotional story as she tells it to Daniel. "I'm sure your father has spoken to you. Everything that man has told you is a lie. I'm not mad." She then unfolds a story of secrets, and sabotage of their acceptance in the local community by their powerful neighbour, Håkan, who wants to buy "The Farm". His mother believes that Håkan has a sinister hand in terrible things happening in the community. She distances herself from Chris as he befriends Håkan and between them they eventually have her committed to a mental hospital.

Daniel is caught between two different stories told by his parents, and is unsure of who to believe or trust. When his Mother's emotional health deteriorates he decides that the only way to find out the truth is to visit Sweden and meet the people that Tilde believes are involved in her breakdown.

At some times you believe one story, at other times the other story, right up to an unexpected ending. Rob Smith has done a great job in writing a first class, unusual and emotional psychological thriller where the reader is part of the story from the beginning to the end.

28 January 2014

Boyd Anderson: The Heart Radical

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The Malayan "Emergency" through the eyes of a young girl
This is a beautifully written, well researched and frequently riveting and emotional story of two families caught up in the Japanese occupation of Malaya and later in the often now forgotten Malayan "Emergency", one of the first East-West Asian Communist conflicts to gain independence from foreign colonialism.

Su-Lin Tan, a Malayan Chinese girl, was eight years old in 1951 when she had a life-changing experience as she watched her father, esteemed defence barrister K. C. Tan, defend a controversial case where Toh Kei, the leader of the Communist jungle rebels is accused of two murders that helped to spark the Emergency. Seated beside her are Toh Kei's lover, Dr Anna Thumboo, and her six year old son Paris. Anna, a Eurasian with a Dutch father and Indian mother, had known Toh Kei since the Japanese occupation when she provided medical care for his anti-Japanese resistance group and later on when he went back into the jungle to fight for freedom from British colonial rule.

Anderson skilfully explores contrasting cultures and outlooks in Malaya during and after the war, especially how the British rulers handled taking back control of their old colony after the Japanese have left. Toh Kei changes from a British decorated hero of the anti-Japanese resistance to a hunted leader of the "Communist Terrorists" fighting for Malayan independence from the British.

More than fifty years later Su-Lin Tan is an esteemed human rights lawyer in England, specialising in human rights cases. She barely recognises Professor Paris Thumboo when he delivers a history lecture in London. Despite the wide difference in their worlds since they last met, Paris gives Su-Lin a copy of his mother's personal account to him of her torture by the Japanese and her relationship with Toh Kei and asks Su-Lin for her reactions.

The story is written in the present and the past through the eyes of Su-Lin, Paris and Anna Thumboo slowly taking the reader into the "Japanese Time" and "The Emergency". It explores the education and development of Su-Lin in both Western and Chinese ways and languages and the influence of her father which starts a journey of discovery of what she wants to do in the world to fight for what she believes in, despite the odds.

Boyd Anderson has written a well-researched, sometimes provocative and uplifting story that  skilfully explores contrasting cultures in Malaya and their views of the world. It has characters to care about and to hate, and a compelling understanding and sense of Malaya at its most difficult times. I would highly recommended it to those who enjoy reading the best in historical literary fiction.

Anderson is an Australian author of Amber Road, which was set in Singapore during WWII which is now on my must-read list. It fascinates me that so many talented contemporary Australian authors can write such meaningful novels about fairly recent history in their near neighbours.

22 January 2014

Isabel Allende: Maya's Notebook

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Maya's Magic Notebook
Isabel Allende is renowned for her works of literary fiction featuring her homeland of Chile and the ghosts of the Pinochet dictatorship. "Maya's Notebook" is a remarkable coming of age story told through the eyes of the current generation and an interesting glimpse at the life of everyday rural Chileans and a look back at the horrors of the past in Chile.

Maya Vidal had a good childhood, being brought up in  in Berkeley CA in a loving, libertarian but paradoxically strict household by her activist Chilean grandmother, Nini, and her kindly and beloved African -American step-grandfather, Popo. Despite this loving upbringing, Maya is extremely rebellious during her adolescence. At a party she gets into the mood "with a cocktail of my own invention, gin, vodka, whiskey, tequila and Coca-Cola - and smoked a pipe of marijuana mixed with cocaine and a few drops of LSD that hit me like dynamite."

When her beloved Popo dies, Maya is devastated and flees home to a desperate life in Las Vegas and becomes an alcoholic, drug addict and minor thief, helping a habitual major criminal to peddle drugs in Casinos to support her habits. Her life goes out of control when her criminal mentor is murdered, she lives on the streets and is on the run from the FBI, Interpol as well as a murderous Las Vegas criminal gang.

Just in time a good samaritan rescues Maya and partly rehabilitates and delivers her home to Nini. Recognising the danger, Nini arranges for Maya to go into exile/sanctuary on the remote island of Chiloé off the southern coast of Chile, living with Manuel Arias, an old acquaintance from Nini's days in Chile. Before she leaves Nini gives Maya a notebook to record her experiences in Chiloé and to understand her personal experiences and failings that led her to this exile.

With author's licence, in remarkable prose Maya tells the story in her notebook of her acceptance by the ordinary people of Chiloé and their remarkable lifestyle of helping one another in a remote, poor and challenging environment. She also slowly discovers herself as she recalls her devastating past and becomes a valued part of the people around her, especially Manuel who she grows to love and respect dearly.

In "Maya's Notebook" Allende has written a powerful message of concern, love and hope for the current generation, a loving description of the life of ordinary Chileans and a continued memory of violence and torture during the Pinochet dictatorship. This is one of most memorable mainstream literary fiction books I have read for some time.

19 January 2014

Jaye Ford: Blood Secret

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Great psychological suspense thriller
Jaye Ford has written a very clever and riveting psychological suspense thriller that keeps you enthralled and guessing almost to the very end.

Rennie Carter and Max Tully have been living together as partners in a small town on the shores of Lake Macquarie for the last 4 years. When they are dressing to go to a friend's 50th birthday party things get steamy and serious between them. With a tense atmosphere in the car, the tension increases when a teenage driver tailgates them in a fit of road rage. Rennie is relieved when they get to the party as she feared that the other driver could attack or even run down Max.

Rennie helps out in the kitchen and doesn't catch up with Max much during the party. When she is ready to go home Max cannot be found and nobody saw him leave. After a long search Max is still not found and after finding blood in the car park Rennie reluctantly reports him missing to the police. Rumours abound as Max has been known to go away suddenly before. She also hears that Max and his business partner and cousin, James have had a huge row over the finances of their business.

Things are more complicated because Rennie is on the run from her vicious and ruthless father who had tried to kill her. She has never told Max the full story of her terrible early life. Max is still recovering from being buried alive in a mine disaster where his best friend was killed.

Jaye Ford  builds up the tension by presenting a range of people who might be responsible for Max's disappearance - Rennie's father, the road rager, the cousin or even the local Serbian cafe owner. In the middle of everything and to make things more difficult, Max's son Heydon from his failed marriage arrives unannounced in a cloud of teenage angst at the world and at Rennie in particular.

Ford is a very clever writer who keeps you guessing almost to the end. Can Rennie face the loss of Max and can she find him before it is too late. What will happen to the new life she was building when Max knows her history.

This is a great psychological thriller by a world class writer that could easily be set in any other small community elsewhere in the world . It was a great read and is highly recommended to those who like this kind of thriller.

Chris Muir: A Savage Garden

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The future hope for the Congo
This is a debut novel by an Australian author set in a part of Africa he knows well - The Republic of Congo. It is a dangerous place (5.5 million people were killed in the second Congo War and subsequent famine) and free-lance militia still roam the country killing anyone who gets in their way.

Jack Norton, ex US Navy SEAL and helicopter pilot, came to Africa 20 years ago wanting to make a difference. Jack is still there, now a jaded mercenary who will take any job as long as it pays enough for his beer in seedy bars in dangerous countries throughout Africa. When Jack agrees to fly some injured children in a borrowed helicopter to a remote hospital in the Congo he doesn't realise that it will change his destiny, the destiny of many children and possibly the destiny of the country.

At the hospital Jack meets Sophie Boissieux, a doctor with Médecins Sans Frontières, and asks her why she came to Africa. She replies "Guilt..(the children) have so little and I have so much". Despite their differences Jack and Sophie make an emotional connection that will change his life for ever. He also meets Jolie, a spirited teenager with a wooden leg, and agrees to fly her to an orphanage which will be able to give her an education. As they fly out Jack sees the hospital overrun by rebels who fire at the helicopter and he flees.

Jack's world collapses and he goes back to a world of eternal hangover until he is approached for help by a huge African American who wants him to help protect him and his a troop of child soldiers. The children call him "Papa Jim", a kindly doctor with a plan to send these boys abroad to be educated so they can return and become the future leaders of a stable country. Papa Jim is funding his "intelligent revolution" from a secret diamond mine but his enemies want to take the mine away from him. Jack gets involved in a bloody battle to save the mine and the boys.

All in all this was a promising, action-packed and surprisingly compassionate debut novel about a part of the world which is rarely covered in fictional thrillers. At the end of the book I found it difficult to rate it so I revisited parts of the book and found  that they were much better than first time around. My main reservation was that the battles with the diamond dealers became a bit over the top and similar to many of the action-packed escapist adventures where the heroes take on an army and win despite overwhelming odds.

It is good to find another contemporary author with the knowledge and skills to write something about Africa that is action-packed, realistic and compassionate. It is also interesting that Chris Muir has a similar background to one of my favourite authors, Tony Park, also an Australian, who has also travelled widely in modern Africa, and fallen under its spell.

13 January 2014

Russell Blake: BLACK Is Back (BLACK #2)

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Another amusing dose of BLACK
Artemus Black is a private detective (call him Black, only his mother would be brave enough to call him Artemus) who gets into some amusing scrapes. His business is hardly surviving, he has the receptionist from hell (who he couldn't do without), he's in poor shape, smokes, has appalling fashion sense and really doesn't understand women. Apart from that he is a pretty good PI with a heart of gold, which is one reason why he is unsuccessful.

Black's favourite form of transportation is a 1973 Cadillac Eldorado, but his last one was blown up in a previous case, along with the mechanic who was the only one who could keep it on the road. Fortunately the insurance just allowed him to buy a replacement but he is desperate to find a well heeled client. Out of the blue he is hired by a top Rap star - "B-Side" - to find out who is trying to kill him. There have been 2 attempts on the star's life so far, a microphone that was hot wired and a poisoning (fortunately the food was eaten by a young female groupie who became very sick).

The only thing on the plus side is that for once Black is getting well paid. He soon gets immersed in the murky world of pop music, and its managers and promoters as well as a host of rap singers most with street gang backgrounds. The problem gets worse when a dispute emerges over whether B-Side stole his rap songs from his dead cousin Blunt. Black blunders through the maze of the pop world to try and solve the problem and protect his rich street-wise client.

While Black is a great new character his receptionist Roxie is not far behind. Wearing her typical ensemble of full black with her full sleeve tattoos on display and neon-red died hair she is a perfect front for Black's rundown office. This time her main priority is not looking after Black but finding Mugsy, an overweight and destructive stray cat who Black despises, who has disappeared.

Once again Russell Blake shows his talent for comedy with this amusing tale of a small-time detective working among the lowlife of LA. I didn't connect with the story as well as Black 1# because at lot of things went over my head because I don't live in the US and know nothing of the pop scene. I did worry about Mugsy a bit, but in doing so I got a bit distracted from the action.

Robert Harris: An Officer and a Spy

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True life almost unbelievable espionage saga
I had read somewhere about the Dreyfus affair but never knew what really happened. In "An Officer and a Spy" Robert Harris brings the real history of the affair to life and examines the motives and reasons for the worst debacle in French military history and one of the most striking examples of a complex miscarriage of justice in a democratic country.

The truth is much stranger than fiction and Harris transports you back to what really happened. The characters are real and the environment carefully reconstructed.

This is a complex espionage novel set at the turn of the 20th Century. Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a young French artillery officer of Alsatian Jewish descent was convicted of treason for allegedly having passed French military secrets to the German Embassy in Paris. His sentence is severe with a public humiliation in front of a huge crowd where his rank is stripped and his sword broken, followed by incarceration on the notorious Devil's Island in Caribbean which was re-opened especially for a single prisoner.

The background to the intense feeling about the offence was the 1870 French defeat in the Franco-Prussian war that seceded Alsace-Lorraine to the Prussians. Tensions are still high between the two countries with Prussia outspending the French on military preparations. Antisemitism is rife in the French military.

Harris tells the story through the eyes of  Georges Picquart who was involved in the preparation of evidence for the Dreyfus trial and then promoted to Lieutenant Colonel in charge of the "Statistical Division" responsible for military intelligence. He paints a vivid picture of espionage of the day with domestic staff selling closely torn waste paper from the German Embassy and Piquart's staff painstakingly reconstructing the original documents. This leads to the identification of a French Officer who is selling military information to the Germans to pay off his gambling debts. Picquart eventually concludes that this proves that Dreyfus was innocent and the wrong person was convicted.

This is not really a spoiler because anyone can check out the history of the Dreyfus affair by reading a most comprehensive and complex Wiki history. Harris unfolds an unbelievable chapter of events with the military defending its decisions under "the authority of the principle of already judged". Emile Zola and the family of Dreyfus bring the matter into the public arena and the popular Dreyfusard movement is formed. False statements are made; a key player commits suicide; Picquard and Zola are arrested and stand trial, Dreyfus is brought back from incarceration to face trial again. Retributions and restorations abound.

This is a well researched, action-packed and well written "factual" reconstruction of an amazing affair in history and is highly recommended.

Helen Dunmore: The Lie

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Another aspect on the horrors of war
In "The Lie" Helen Dunmore has made a very different contribution to the miriad of novels about the Great War. In a series of interconnected and carefully crafted stories of events, Dunmore looks at the war through the eyes of Daniel Branwell who has returned to Cornwall, shell-shocked from the war. Daniel is continually is haunted by the fate of his best friend Frederick Dennis who was one of the fallen.

On his return Daniel has no home and little money but finds a friend in Marie Pascoe, a dying old lady who gives him shelter near his home village.When Mary dies, Daniel takes over her smallholding, but tells people that she is alive but not able to see them. It is important to Daniel to be able to stay in the district because it is close to the big house where Frederick lived.

Despite different backgrounds Daniel and Frederick grew up together and became "blood brothers". Daniel, with an almost eidetic memory, could have easily got a scholarship, but had to leave school to work to support his family, while Frederick from a rich family was able to continue his schooling. Despite this separation the two boys formed a bond that was never parted until the end, even when Frederick was officer-in-charge of Daniel's platoon.

Dunmore tells a poignant, sometimes beautiful and elegant and revealing observation of Daniel's recovery from the war and the effect of shell shock, grief and guilt. It is a very sad tale which also encompasses Frederick's sister Felicia, herself widowed by the war, looking after a small child on her own in a huge house who befriends Daniel as a connection to her dead brother.

Daniel has a great memory for poetry and in the days before the big battle he recites part of a poem by Matthew Arnold to Frederick - "Oh love let us be true" .... "Where ignorant armies clash by night" - these messages clearly have a different meaning and importance to each of the blood brothers.

Despite the skilful and sometimes poetic writing, I didn't fully connect with the story and found it slow, rambling, and sometimes a bit obtuse. This may be because my normal genre is more action-packed, page-turning and linear. Those with a greater affinity to Dunmore's writing style will have a better appreciation of this book.

11 January 2014

Vince Flynn: Term Limits

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Vince Flynn's First Book
"Term Limits" is the first book published by the late Vince Flynn and shows all the page-turning, adrenaline-packed writing that made him so famous with his Mitch Rapp series. While Rapp is not in this book, many of the characters in later books are there, including Thomas Stansfield, then head of the CIA, and his chief analyst Irene Kennedy, and Scott Coleman, ex Navy SEAL.

The background to the plot is almost contemporary. The President and Congress cannot agree on a budget and a debt ceiling. The Budget is packed with funding designed to buy the votes of individual members of Congress and the White House is manipulating the budget to get it passed. "The country is going bankrupt, both morally and financially. We need some drastic changes or the most powerful country in the world is going to go the way of Rome". Sounds familiar, doesn't it? The main difference is that, with a small number of carefully planned and targeted assassinations of corrupt leading politicians, a group of angry ex-military try to force The President and Congress to make major changes - or they will target the President. The demonstration of how they might target the President is Vince Flynn action-writing at its best.

Combine all of this with an egotistical Chief of Staff, a retired and dangerous ex-CIA covert ops killer and an ambitious and unscrupulous National Security Advisor and you have a very explosive situation.

There are few laugh-out-loud situations in the White House so reminiscent of Mitch Rapp where FBI and CIA staff are able to face up to the President's helpers and make them look stupid. The action scenes are meticulously planned and detailed and most of the plot is plausible.

I understand that Vince Flynn had to self-publish this book before it was picked up and promoted by a publisher when it immediately became a NY Times bestseller for several weeks. While there are signs of a debut novel, the writing is good enough to stand the test of time as an exciting first book of a popular author who would set the standard for so many other books in the politico/CIA/assassin genre.

Andrew Sean Greer:The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells

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Living in 3 different time-worlds
Imagine living in 1985, and spending every other week in 1918 and 1941. In each time-world you have the same twin brother, aunt, partner or husband, and other friends.

Greta Wells lives in 1985 and has just lost her beloved twin brother, Felix, to AIDS. She is mourning him, along with his lover, Alan, who is also dying of AIDS. Greta has been living with her partner, Nathan (a doctor) for 10 years when, without warning, he leaves her for a younger woman. Greta plunges into a deep depression and medication and therapy can't help. "How I longed to live in any time but this one. It seemed cursed with sorrow and death."

Ruth and her doctor suggest one last chance treatment - electro-convulsive therapy. He advises her that the side effects are minimal but what he doesn't know is that it gives Greta her wish and she wakes up in 1918 just before the end of WWI. In that era she is married to Nathan, who is in Europe tending the wounded. She is living with her Aunt Ruth, her twin brother Felix is engaged to be married but is already secretly friends with Alan. Conveniently Greta is also on the same kind of electro-convulsive therapy each week which returns her back to 1985.

After the next treatment Greta wakes up in 1941 just before Pearl Harbour. She is having the same treatment because she has become depressed after Aunt Ruth is killed in a car crash when Greta was driving. She is married to Nathan and has a small child. Felix is also married with a child. And so it goes on with Greta spending a few days in each time and a few days back.

Full marks to Andrew Gear for a very imaginative and unusual plot which is more like parallel worlds than time travel but I found it difficult to imagine that Greta would be having the same treatment in such different times. The book was fascinating but I frequently got confused about which time-world Greta was living and how the different people related to one another at different times. While Greta was the main character I found the sub-plot of the different worlds faced by her homosexual brother to be a bit of a distraction.

Of course the big question was what time world Greta would end up in. I really didn't worry too much because I never really empathised with Greta as she was a pretty weak character in all worlds. I felt she was getting so much stimulus and answers from her other worlds that she could pull herself out of her depression and face life again in her own world. 3.5 stars.

06 January 2014

J D Robb: Naked in Death

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A start to new kind of crime/romance/futuristic series
In "Naked in Death" J D Robb (aka Nora Roberts) starts an interesting new Eve Dallas mystery series which is a combination of a police crime/thriller with a touch of romance to give it a bit of spice.

Lt. Eve Dallas is a very tough and independent homicide detective who fights for what she believes. Eve is shocked when she was not on time to prevent a man slitting the throat of a young girl. As she is recovering from the shock of killing the perpetrator, she is called urgently to the up-market apartment of a licensed prostitute who has been shot three times with a old handgun in what looks like a sexually motivated killing. The killer leaves a note "One of six"! The case is high priority because the victim is the granddaughter of a very powerful and bombastic Senator.

One of the first suspects is a charming Irish multi-millionaire, Roarke, whose successful business dealings sometimes seem to verge on being shady. While he is a suspect, Eve is immediately attracted to him and her instincts quickly eliminate him from the suspect list - but others don't agree. The killer plays Eve along by leaving video of the killing in her apartment and fulfilling his promise by killing again in a similar way.

Although Eve is a very tough and effective cop she is also personally very vulnerable because of abuse in her early life which she has wiped from her memory. Her work is her life, and she finds it difficult to let Roarke get close to her despite a strong attraction. The first book builds up Eve's strong but vulnerable character and opens the door on the enigmatic, interesting and mega-rich Roarke.

Probably to distance the series from the myriad of other crime thrillers, Robb has set the series in the future - 2058 when your car drives you and flies over traffic jams, there are "auto chefs " in house, car, even your office for beverages and meals, prostitution is strictly licenced with pimps outlawed, and (unbelievably) strict gun control laws are enforced in the US. I really didn't find that the things meant to happen in the next  50 years or so to be plausible or see the reason for basing the stories in a futuristic environment as most of the action (at least in the first book) could just as easily take place in the current day.

This is start of a somewhat different new series and I am of two minds if I will stay the course, especially with the strange futuristic setting. Nevertheless J D Robb, aka Nora Roberts, shows her skills as a storyteller in a different genre to her other popular romance and romantic thrillers and I will probably read the next in the series to see if keeps my attention.

05 January 2014

Graeme Simsion: The Rosie Project

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" Wife Project" + "Father Project" = "The Rosie Project"
Once in a while I come across a gem of a book which, despite the fact that the year has only just started, will undoubtedly be in the list of the most memorable books I will read in 2014. "The Rosie Project" is an entertaining and amusing feel-good story that made me laugh, and sometimes cry and looked at love, personal relationships and self-discovery in a very different way.

On the surface, Professor of Genetics, Don Tillman, appears to be living a successful life as a top academic. However, Don is different from other successful academics because he has Asperger's syndrome and is autistic with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). He strictly timetables and regiments his personal life with the same meal plan each week and has his time strictly organised, day in, day out. He gets angry when someone arrives early or late for a meeting because he believes that everyone should arrive exactly on time.

Don knows that he is wired differently and has difficulty empathising and relating to others who don't meet his view of world - one of the defining criteria of the autism spectrum. Because of this Don has difficulty in finding a girlfriend who meets his precise standards. Following his need for precise information he starts up his own "Wife Project" by designing a multi-choice internet questionnaire to identify someone who completely meets his specific requirements for a wife. The outcome of his attempts to relate to girls who seem to pass his test is hilarious and sometimes a bit pathetic.

Along comes Rosie, who on the face of it would fail most of Don's questionnaire, asking for his help as a geneticist to find her biological father. Her late mother told her that her father was one of her graduating class of budding medicos - and there were nearly 50 males in the class. Don and Rosie start a hilarious search to get the DNA of all surviving male students or their relatives and descendants without their knowledge - of course Don calls it the "Father Project".

I found Don to be exasperating but I was always cheering him as he blundered around trying to discover his place in the world. Rosie is completely different, a delightful caring whirlwind who has her own deep seated problems. While she doesn't meet Don's expectations, a close and almost tender relationship develops between them which neither of them expects - hence "The Rosie Project".

One of my New Year's resolutions was to read "outside the wheelhouse" of my usual choice of thrillers and historical sagas. It was very gratifying to find a different kind of book so early in the year that rewarded my choice of resolution. I would highly recommend this book to anyone who wants a to read a different, amusing, fairly light and rewarding book.

Last year I read and thoroughly enjoyed "600 Hours of Edward" about someone who has a much more extreme case of OCD than Don. The two books are very different, but if you enjoyed "The Rosie Project" I am sure that you would enjoy reading about how Edward faced up to major changes in his rigidly regimented life.