I am a sucker for a RomCom. There’s something about their familiar feel-good factor that I just love and can’t stop watching. But, I don’t really ever read Romantic Comedies. I’m not sure why. I think it’s perhaps something to do with an internalised stigma that they’re somehow less worthwhile than “more serious” fiction. I know they’re not, and yet something has held me back from really getting into them.

That was until I chose Graeme Simsion’s The Rosie Project as my holiday read last month. I knew I wanted something easy and fun, and I thought, after reading glowing review after glowing review, I thought The Rosie Project would be the perfect pick and it really was. I had such a good time reading it, and honestly, it felt so good just to be sucked into a story and get to revel in an upbeat love story.

This month’s cover redesign takes inspiration from Don’s relationship with ice cream (and relationships)

The Rosie Project is the story of “a brilliant yet socially inept professor of genetics, [Don Tillman], who’s decided it’s time he found a wife”. So, he decides to apply logic to the problem and designs what he calls ‘The Wife Project’, a survey to find his ideal woman by filtering out the smokers, the heavy drinkers, the late arrivers, and those with any dietary requirements. Surprisingly, he runs into a couple of hiccups along the way.

One such hiccup is Rosie Jarman, who although being recommended by one of Don’s only friends Gene, quickly fails to meet The Wife Project’s standards. Despite not being wife material, the pair do embark on another project together, one to find Rosie’s father. The progression of that project sees their friendship begins and many hijinks ensue.

As I said in my intro, what really stood out to me was just how easy The Rosie Project is to read. That might sound like a strange thing to praise, but finding a book that really pulls you through its pages and makes you smile as you go can be hard to find. While I didn’t find it to be laugh out loud funny (it’s rare I find a book that makes me audibly chuckle) I did find myself grinning at the end of each chapter. It was a story I could imagine on screen, which is I think why I enjoyed it so much.

That enjoyment was sustained throughout. But there were moments when Don’s Asperger’s seems to be skated over or easily forgotten in a way that doesn’t quite ring true. For example, he describes his intense dislike for being touched, but when it’s convenient to the plot that seems to be forgotten. As a novel that tries to get into the mind of a man with high-functioning Asperger’s to me at times that felt like it didn’t ring completely true. However, maybes those quick solutions are just part and parcel of creating a book with such pace, and similar plot solutions are generally taken as part and parcel of the genre.  

If like me you’re a fan of a romcom, or you just want a story you can race through I’d highly recommend The Rosie Project. It’s fun and light, and sometimes that’s exactly what you need.

SOME QUESTIONS TO PONDER AS YOU READ

  • Romantic Comedies characteristically have quite set plot points, how does having a sense of what’s going to happen before you go into a novel change how you read it?
  • How well do you think Simsion presents and handles Don’s “cognitive difference” in the storyline?
  • The Rosie Project was originally started as a screenplay, do you think that has had an effect on the writing style?
  • How does Don’s initial Wife Project compare to how the web has tried to make a science out of dating?
  • What’s your favourite ice-cream flavour? Can you tell the difference between it and something similar? (This is the aspect of the book I’ve probably spent the most time thinking about)

IF YOU WANT SOME FURTHER READING TRY…

 

IF YOU WANT MORE BOOKS LIKE THIS HAVE A LOOK AT…

Why not use The Rosie Project themed bookmark I designed to keep your place as you read? You can print and download it for free here.

As ever, let me know if you’ve read The Rosie Project, or if you have any recommendations for what I should be reading next.

I almost picked up a copy of Naïve. Super by Erlend Loe a few years ago. It was a staff recommended read in Waterstones, and its unusual size and simple cover caught my eye. But, for some reason I didn’t buy it. Then, earlier this year, I came across Naïve. Super again, in another recommended reading list, and it brought me back instantly to reading the first page of it in store. So, I got myself a copy, nestled into my favourite reading nook, and got started.

Naïve. Super is the story of an unnamed man having a quarter life crisis. At the age of 25 he has lost his sense of purpose and joy, and so leaves his master’s program and goes to stay in his brother’s apartment while he is away. He has nothing to do all day but send the occasional fax, throw a ball, and mindlessly play with a hammer and peg game. He’s trying to quiet his thoughts, to feel okay, but he’s not quite sure how.

Along the way he befriends a boy named Børre and takes a trip to New York. But all the while his focus moves between the tiny details of the day to day and huge questions of the nature of time and the universe.

It’s a navel-gazing novel, but it never feels like its wallowing. Even when the plot isn’t necessarily moving forward, he has a sense of progression of hopefully looking towards a solution towards a happier future. He’s finding his way rather than being completely lost. That really struck a chord with me. Even if all feels lost, you can look forward and you can still be good. He’s depressed (or at least he seems to be for many of the novel’s pages) but he’s also a good person, who is impacting on so many other lives without even really noticing. That’s what’s heart-warming, at least for me, about this short little novel.

Loe’s prose is remarkably simple. The sentences, like the chapters and the book overall, are simple. The language is simple. The structure is simple. But it never feels unintelligent, or lacking depth. There’s something endearing about the narrator’s voice, just as there is something about how he views the world. That endearing simplicity was what I enjoyed most about this book. It was a much needed 150 pages of respite from books, and quite frankly a world, that are so jaded.

I’m so glad that I waited until now to read it. I think I got a lot more out of it than I would have when I was in my teens. There’s something about its naivety that I really appreciated now, and found almost soothing, that might have irritated me before.

I will say that if you’re looking for a book that’s packed with action or fast paced dialogue, this isn’t going to be one for you. But if you’re looking for something hopeful and reflective, and that can act as respite for a busy mind and a burdened soul, you should probably go and grab yourself a copy.

It’s a little bit weird. It’s a little bit introspective. It’s a little bit philosophical. It’s a little bit sad. It’s a little bit hopeful. And it’s more than a little bit readable.

SOME QUESTIONS TO PONDER AS YOU READ

  • There are a number of reproduced searches and letters in the book, did you enjoy their inclusion? Did the change in reading format add to your reading experience?
  • Loe writes in very simple language, how did you relate to the naïve voice of the narrator?
  • Naïve. Super is extremely short, are you a long-read or a short-read kind of person?
  • If you’re reading Naïve. Super in English, as I did, you’re reading a translation, to what extent do you feel you’re reading the same book as someone in Loe’s native Norway?
  • The narrator makes a lot of lists, lists of things that used to make him happy, things that make him happy now, how do his lists compare to your own?

IF YOU WANT SOME FURTHER READING TRY…

There’s not as much out there (in English at least) about Naïve. Super as previous reads, so this list is a little short than the last few book club’s recommended reading lists.

IF YOU WANT MORE BOOKS LIKE THIS HAVE A LOOK AT…

Why not use Naive. Super themed bookmark I designed to keep your place as you read? You can print and download it for free here.

As ever, let me know if you’ve read Naive. Super, or if you have any recommendations for what I should be reading next.

I would never have thought to have described myself as a fan of non-fiction, but here I am recommending my second work of non-fiction to you in the book club. That book is The Lonely City by Olivia Laing. It’s part memoir, part art history investigation, and part philosophical investigation into loneliness. As someone who moved to a big, lonely city not that long ago it was a wonderful introspective companion.

In her mid-30s Laing moved to New York for a relationship, which fell apart just as she crossed the ocean. In a new city, half away across the world from friends and loved ones and feeling the acute space left behind by losing a partner, this moment of intense loneliness sparks Laing’s investigation into the feeling. She documents her own experience of loneliness and her growing understanding of works of art she had seen a million times before.

This investigation into art and loneliness begins when Laing realises she could cast herself as a figure in a Hopper painting. The Lonely City is broken up into four artist studies: Edward Hopper, Andy Warhol, David Wojnarowicz, and Henry Darger. Each study really delves into the life of each artist and touches on how their loneliness is present in their works. Laing doesn’t limit herself to simply discussing the artist in question, in each section she investigates parallels in other works and the characters who surrounded them.

I learned so much in these sections. Like Laing, I had never really paid much attention to Warhol or Hopper despite, or perhaps because of, their popularity. But when I heard more about their lives and their loneliness images I had seen time and time again took on a new depth and humanity. While I feel like that happens whenever you learn more about an artist, there’s something so private about a person’s loneliness that Laing’s depictions really cut to the bone in a way that was at once beautiful, fascinating, and a little intrusive.

The only thing I would have wished of this book is that Laing’s personal moments of loneliness were given greater weight and better interwoven into the artist’s stories she tells. The art history moments feel at once like interludes where you wait for the author to return and also Laing’s focus. Laing investigates the stories of other artists’ but seems to forget at moments that perhaps the most compelling story she could tell is her own. But then again, maybe Laing is simply distancing herself in the same way that she describes Warhol and others doing.

That imbalance didn’t detract from my fascination with gaining a greater understanding of the people behind some of the most famous names in art. There is something wonderful about realising, and re-realising, you aren’t alone in feeling alone. However, fleeting that comfort might be it is the true power of literature.

Laing’s dedication to The Lonely City reads: “If you’re lonely, this one’s for you.” I think that’s my recommendation if you’ve ever felt lonely or lost in a city, isolated in a sea of people, then this book is for you. You’ll see and understand yourself in some of its pages but you’ll also feel a little less lonely whether that’s in comparison or companionship with the lonely characters she describes.

SOME QUESTIONS TO PONDER AS YOU READ

  • Try looking up the artworks for one chapter as you go. Or, if you’re naturally a look-er up-per, try just imagining for a chapter. How does having the images, or not, in front of you change the reading experience?
  • What would you say the tone of the book is?
  • Did you end up mapping your own experiences onto the book? If so where?
  • Are there any other artworks, or images, which conjure loneliness for you?
  • How does knowing the story of an artist change how you view their works? Does it make them more personal? Less lonely? More lonely?
  • After reading it, do you see the feeling of being lonely as a positive or a negative one, or something else?

IF YOU WANT SOME FURTHER READING TRY…

IF YOU WANT MORE BOOKS LIKE THIS HAVE A LOOK AT…

Why not use The Lonely City themed bookmark I designed to keep your place as you read? You can print and download it for free here.

As ever, let me know if you’ve read The Lonely City, or if you have any recommendations for what I should be reading next.

After hearing Ariel Bissett, who is one of my absolute favourite booktubers, rave about All We Shall Know by Donal Ryan, I knew I had to read it. I ordered a copy almost immediately after hearing her review, but it took me a while to work my way through my pile of books to get to it.

“Martin Toppy is the son of a famous Traveller and the father of my unborn child. He’s seventeen, I’m thirty-three. I was his teacher. I’d have killed myself by now if I was brave enough.”

That’s how All We Shall Know begins. That first confession sets up the premise and the tone of the rest of the novel. Melody Shee is pregnant. It is not her husband’s child. It is her Traveller student’s. This story is her confession and her penitence. She is blunt.

Ryan’s fourth novel is set in a claustrophobically small town in Ireland, where everyone knows everyone’s business and where Melody can’t escape the glares of her community. A failed attempt to revisit the father of her child leads to her finding a friend and a perfect foil in the form of Traveller Mary Crothery. From the moment they meet, their stories become intertwined tales of women ostracised by childless marriages.

Melody’s story is broken into the weeks of her pregnancy. As that biological clock drives the plot forward towards an inevitable end, Melody looks back and recounts how her marriage fell apart, how she betrayed her best school friend and her relationship with her mother.

She narrates how she perceives her failures as a wife, a friend and as a daughter. But she sees this new baby as a potential redemption, just as she sees her relationship with Mary as an opportunity to right the wrongs of her past. She never takes full accountability for her mistakes, but, instead, ruminates on them. She isn’t a victim but she never sees herself as a free actor. On one hand, for me, this made her a deeply unlikeable character. But on the other, this is one of the greatest qualities of Ryan’s writing. Melody is a flawed anti-hero of her own story, she’s human. Nowhere is that more visible than in the descriptions of her arguments with her husband Pat. Their relationship is caustic and abusive but seeing it through Melody’s eyes you can see how it came to that point, you can understand it.

All We Shall Know is the first book I’ve really raced through this year. One part of that is that it’s a compact little novel. But the other is that it’s a compulsive read. It’s short chapters, it’s sense of time counting down, Ryan’s bitterly angry language and its interspersed snippets of plot all come together to keep you turning the pages. However, I will say that this book didn’t blow my mind in the way I thought it would. I found the traveller plot a little ham-fisted and stereotyped and Melody’s sudden outbursts often incongruous and shoe-horned. Those factors didn’t detract from my enjoyment but I want these reviews to be honest. If you’ve read All We Shall Know, I’d love to know your thoughts and discuss them!

SOME QUESTIONS TO PONDER AS YOU READ

  • How does knowing the novel has a set timeframe, the 9 months of a pregnancy, affect your reading experience?
  • Do you warm to Melody as a character, do you feel sympathy towards her? Why?
  • How does Ryan create the sense of a claustrophobic town where everyone knows your business?
  • What impact do the socio-economic and cultural differences of Melody and Mary have in your understanding of their relationship?
  • The novel is centred on women and their relationships as mothers, as friends, as wives what difference do you think it makes that these very female interactions are written by a man?

IF YOU WANT SOME FURTHER READING TRY…

IF YOU WANT MORE BOOKS LIKE THIS HAVE A LOOK AT…

Why not use the All We Shall Know themed bookmark I designed to keep your place as you read? You can print and download it for free here.

As ever, let me know if you’ve read All We Shall Know, or if you have any recommendations for what I should be reading next.

I picked up a copy of The Shepherd’s Life as an impulse purchase. I liked the cover. I’ve spent my summer, and often winter, holidays in the Lake District since I was very small and the image of a green fellside conjured up some of that nostalgia as I walked past a table in Waterstones.

I’m so glad that cover spoke to me. Sometimes you can judge a book by its cover. The Shepherd’s Life: A Tale of the Lake District, by James Rebanks, is a truly glorious book. A memoir of both Rebanks life and fells he has spent that life farming is a captivating read about a captivating landscape, that’s at once personal and pastoral.

The Shepherd’s Life isn’t told chronologically. Instead, Rebanks shares his memories in fragments that are loosely sorted into seasons. These fragments jump between his childhood, adolescence and present-day adulthood and cover everything from his memories of his grandfather to the ins and outs of shearing a sheep.

As someone who has walked many of the fells mentioned in its pages, it was so interesting to read about them from the perspective of someone who has worked them for a lifetime. Rebanks’ is a story I had only ever briefly considered when asking my mum as a child how the dry-stone walls were built, when counting all of the different markings on the sheep we spotted, when marvelling at the intelligence of the dogs I saw working the hills. Getting to read such an in-depth account of a way of life I had only ever glimpsed at by proxy was such a treat.

That said, I don’t think The Shepherd’s Life is only for those who already love the Lakes. You don’t need to have visited the Lakes to imagine them, or to imagine Rebanks rural life because he puts it all on the page. One of the major reasons people say they read is to get an insight into someone else’s way of life, their way of thinking, and that’s exactly what The Shepherd’s Life offers. I think what struck me the most about The Shepherd’s Life is the way that it made me reflect on my own life, and how my own environment had shaped me. Not to over-egg this review but I genuinely think this book changed my life a little bit, or at least how I think about it.

SOME QUESTIONS TO PONDER AS YOU READ

  • What do you think about how the book flows? How do you feel about its fragmentary structure?
  • Rebanks’ account of his understanding of his home and his work is inextricably tied to his understanding of his family. Reflecting on those unbreakable links, how has your own environment and family shaped you?
  • The book almost starts off in opposition to the reader, how do you find the constant distinctions of ‘them and us’ affect your reading experience?
  • If you’ve ever been to the Lake District, or anywhere similar, as a tourist, how does reading the account of someone who works the land change your opinion on the place you visited?
  • The Shepherd’s Life tells a story that isn’t often heard, as Rebanks often reminds us, what lives and stories have gone unnoticed in your own environment? Is there any way you can find out more about them?

IF YOU WANT SOME FURTHER READING TRY…

  • There’s a lovely review in the FT by Melissa Harrison
  • Author of On The Crofter’s Trail, David Craig has also penned a great review if you want a better sense of the book, this one for The Guardian
  • I really enjoyed reading The Durham Book Group’s thoughts on the memoir
  • But I think the best piece of further reading I’ve found is the interview Stephen Moss of The Guardian did with James Rebanks, it really gives you an extra insight into the author and his way of life from an alternative perspective.

IF YOU WANT MORE BOOKS LIKE THIS HAVE A LOOK AT…

 

Why not use the Shepherd’s Life bookmark I designed to keep your place as you read? It even features the topology of a section of the Lakes Rebanks discusses. You can print and download it for free here.

As ever, let me know if you’ve read The Shepherd’s Life, or if you have any recommendations for what I should be reading next.