MAKE SPACE OR DIE: THE CALCULATING STARS

Maybe you’re one of those people who doesn’t read science fiction, for whatever reasons (too much science? Too geeky? Too much baggage? Too unrealistic?), and maybe you’re a person who doesn’t read alternate history, for whatever reasons (don’t know enough about the real history to appreciate it, or know too much about the real history to appreciate it).  No matter your previous experiences, you really should read Mary Robinette Kowal’s new novel, The Calculating Stars, because it might just change your mind about those genres and your preferences.  If you saw and enjoyed the movie or the book Hidden Figures, that’s even more reason to pick up this fast moving alternate history science fiction novel.

It starts with a bang, literally: a meteorite hits the earth off the Chesapeake Bay in 1952, wiping out Washington, D.C., surrounding areas, and destroying great portions of the eastern United States.  Our protagonist, Elma York, happens to be on vacation with her husband in the Poconos at the time of the impact, and, due to her background as a WASP pilot in World War II, she’s able to fly herself and her husband to safety.  She is not only a former pilot, she’s also a brilliant mathematician, a “computer”, as women doing calculations for the space program were called at the time. Her husband is an engineer for NACA, the predecessor of NASA. Elma realizes fairly quickly that what the earth is facing is an extinction level event (remember what happened to the dinosaurs?  Similar issues), and she and her husband have to persuade the world that humanity’s only hope is to get off the planet while it’s still habitable.

If you thought the push to put a man on the moon in the 1960’s was intense, imagine what it would have been like if there were a life-ending time limit on its success.  In this alternate reality, space flight is prioritized to a much higher degree, and everyone is needed.

Except that this is also set in a 1950’s world that’s not too different from ours (other than that little extinction level event), so when Elma decides she wants to do more than just calculate how to get a man off the earth, that she wants to be an astronaut herself, she’s set herself up for a real uphill battle.  Not only is she a woman (already disqualifying), but she has an anxiety disorder which requires that she take medications (and attitudes toward mental health, especially mental health treated with drugs, were worse in the 1950’s than they are now); all her brilliance and all her piloting experience may not be enough to outweigh those disadvantages.  She discovers, in the course of her fight to be recognized and to do what she longs to do, that she’s not the only one in this position: her relations with African American “computers” (and again we’re in Hidden Figures territory) show her that other people are even more disadvantaged and treated worse than she.

With the future of humanity at stake, and an almost literal ticking time bomb (the world will likely be uninhabitable within a decade or two), sexism, racism and ableism are luxuries the world can’t afford, and Elma battles to save her world and live her dream at the same time.

I will warn you, this is the first book in a duology, but I might just relax my rule on multiple book series for this one, especially since the second book is coming out next month (and we WILL be getting it here at The Field Library).

If this sounds exciting to you (and it should!), do yourself a favor and hurry to read The Calculating Stars.  It will open your eyes and give you a great read in the bargain.

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ADVICE FOR THE HOME FRONT: DEAR MRS. BIRD

The last few years have seen a number of books about World War II, especially on the home front (whether that home front was in America or elsewhere).  Possibly they’re popular because we like to look back to a time when things seemed simpler, more black and white. Possibly they’re popular because we know the good guys won that one, and since then it’s been much harder to be sure if the good guys are winning or not. Whatever the reason, we’re lucky to be able to enjoy a good, charming historical novel set in London in 1940, Dear Mrs. Bird, by A. J. Pearce.

Patriotic and energetic, young Emmeline Lake wants to do her part for the war effort.  First she volunteers as a telephone operator with the Auxiliary Fire Service, but what she really wants is to be a Lady War Correspondent. The advertisement for the job with the London Evening Chronicle, while not exactly focused that way, fills her with hope that she can be on the right path soon.

Imagine Emmy’s disappointment when she discovers that, instead of investigating the battlefield and doing real war work, she’s gotten a job as a lowly typist for the famous advice columnist, Henrietta Bird.  She decides to make the best of it and work as hard as she can, but this turns out to be more difficult than she’d thought. It seems Henrietta Bird doesn’t want to deal with any of the readers’ letters that deal with unpleasant things, like going too far with a young man, or not wanting to have children evacuated from London for their safety.  All such letters are to be pitched into the trash, so Mrs. Bird can concentrate on more elevated issues. And besides, the people who are whining about these unsuitable problems should just buck up and straighten themselves out, as far as she’s concerned.

As the Battle of Britain, also known as the Blitz, intensifies and London is bombed repeatedly, Emmy finds she can’t just throw those letters away without doing something.  So on the sly she starts responding herself to the unpleasant letters Mrs. Bird doesn’t want to deal with. And if she happens to use the magazine’s stationery and to sign the letters as Mrs. Bird, well, there can’t be anything too wrong about that, can there? After all, there’s a war on, and the lonely, worried, frightened people writing to the (mostly useless) Mrs. Bird need to know that someone hears them, someone cares about them.

Emmy and her best friend and roommate, Bunty, exemplify the spirit that got Londoners through the Blitz, resilient and brave and ready to respond even to tragedy with a black humor that keeps people from utter despair.  Join Emmy for an insider’s view of women’s lives during the Blitz, and be prepared to lose yourself in Emmy’s charm and endless energy.

CHILL THRILLERS FOR HOT DAYS

Want to be distracted from the heat and humidity of summer, which always seems to find us around the 4th of July?  Try one of our newest thrillers, sure to send chills down your spine and get you so involved in turning the pages faster and faster that you won’t even notice the temperatures outside (or inside).

The Last Time I Lied, by Riley Sager (the author of Final Girls) even involves a summer camp, so there’s a connection to the heat and humidity right there, though this is not the kind of book that would make a parent want to send a child to summer camp. Fifteen years ago, Emma Davis went to Nightingale sleepaway camp for the first time, and became friends with four other girls who shared her cabin.  They played games together, including Two Truths and a Lie, and then one night Emma’s four friends sneaked out of the cabin in the middle of the night, not telling Emma or anyone else where they were going, and none of them was ever seen again. Now Emma is an adult, an artist, her paintings all circling back to that camp and that disturbing night when everything went wrong.  The new administrator of Camp Nightingale sees Emma’s paintings and asks her to come to the camp to be an art instructor, and Emma, who has never come to grips with the disappearances of the other girls, jumps at the opportunity to investigate and try to find the truth. Going back to the same camp, the same cabin, even, Emma starts noticing different things, like the only security camera in the whole camp, pointed at the door of her cabin, and cryptic notes from one of the lost girls about the camp’s origins.  This might be one of those times when finding out about the past could destroy the present as well.

Or, if you’re more interested in a sojourn at a lake in Maine than a summer camp, you could try Stay Hidden, by Paul Doiron.  Ariel Evans, a writer, has been shot by a deer hunter on Maquoit Island, off the coast of Maine, and to Mike Bowditch, the Warden Investigator working the case, it seems pretty straightforward, an accidental death.  When he arrives at the island, though, what seemed simple and obvious becomes much murkier and more dangerous. It turns out Ariel was in the area to research a book she was writing about the island’s notorious hermit, only there are no signs that she made any notes or did any writing while she was there.  The deer hunter who supposedly shot her now denies having done it, and there’s evidence to back him up. So who DID shoot her, and why? As Bowditch starts delving deeper into the mystery, who should return to the island but Ariel Evans herself, very much alive and very much interested in figuring out who might have wanted to kill her (and who got killed instead of her).  The erstwhile murder victim teams up with the investigator, but neither one of them realizes that they’re being hunted by a killer who’s ready to do just about anything to hide his crimes.

Forget about the heat and humidity for a while: stay cool with our newest thrillers here at The Field Library.

DARK, BEAUTIFUL AND STRANGE: THE GIRL FROM THE OTHER SIDE

One of the categories in this year’s Field Library Reading Challenge is to read a manga. While our teenage patrons are very big into manga, it’s a category of book that many adults aren’t familiar with, unless they have teenagers who are manga readers. My own introduction into the genre was through my daughter, who helpfully explained to me that you don’t read these books the way you read other books (she explained this AFTER I tried to read left to right and got thoroughly confused), but I confess that since she hasn’t been living at home for the last several years, I got out of the habit and stopped reading manga.  I was glad to have an excuse to return to the genre, and my first choice out of the box is a wonderful, absolutely gorgeous book,  Siuil, a Run: The Girl from the Other Side, Vol. 1, by Nagabe, which I highly recommend even — perhaps especially — to people who think they don’t like manga.

The story is fairy-tale simple, until you start thinking about it.  There is the Inside and the Outside. On the Outside there are monsters.  If you touch one of them, or one of them touches you, you will be cursed and turn into a monster yourself.  The people on the Inside are terrified of the Outsiders, to the point where they will hunt down anyone who they think is cursed, and destroy that person.

We first meet Shiva, a pretty fair-haired little girl, who’s out in the woods, picking what look like flowers.  She’s concerned that she shouldn’t stay out there too long because “he” will be angry at her and scold her again. Almost immediately a tall, dark creature emerges from the shadows, beaked and with twisting horns coming out of its head, and we are surprised to discover that this is Shiva’s companion, whom she calls Teacher.  She shows no fear of him, even as he reminds her she is not to touch any of the Outsiders, even he himself.

The story unfolds slowly, and it’s not finished by the end of this volume (I’m obviously going to read the other two to find out how it ends), but it is a powerful and poignant story, conveyed in gorgeous inky tones.  It’s a story about the relationship between Teacher and Shiva, how Shiva first came to live with Teacher, and the danger they are both in from the people on the Inside. The depth of Teacher’s love for Shiva, even as he knows he could curse her with just a touch, even as he keeps secrets from her for her own good, is beautiful and real, and her innocence, which comes across as perfectly reasonable even as she starts to bump up against the real ugliness in her world, is a perfect foil to the darkness of Teacher and his world.  We see empty villages, we see the results of the Insiders’ efforts to protect themselves from the Outsiders, we even see the mythical story that “explains” how the Outsiders first came to be and why they curse the Insiders. The relationship between Shiva and Teacher, anchored in such details as Shiva’s tea parties and the Teacher’s efforts to keep her safe inside the house, upends the obvious good vs. evil, righteous vs. monsters narrative that the Insiders would propagate.

I can’t discuss this book without talking about the art and how amazing it is. Teacher has the head (and hands) of a monster, but the rest of him looks like a tall, slender man, dressed in formal clothes of a hundred years ago (including a cravat), which makes his elongated head and beak, his twisted horns, his white eyes, look all the more strange and disturbing, but his appearance reflects the difference between his personality (gentle and protective) and the way the people on the Inside look at him (as a monster).  The woods are fairy-tale dark, the trees tall and threatening, and the empty village hauntingly drawn. The house in which the two main characters live is detailed and lived-in, the Teacher’s study messy and cluttered, Shiva’s room comfortable and neat. The character who comes closest to looking like the stereotypical manga female is Shiva, but even she isn’t far from what a real young girl looks like, and her rounded face and bright hair heighten the contrast between her and her beloved Teacher and make her innocence visible.

If you think all manga are about violence and competition, if you think you don’t like manga in general, you owe it to yourself to read Siuil, a Run: The Girl from the Other Side.  It may very well change your mind.

 

SPACE: WHERE NO MAN HAS ROCKED BEFORE

As you know, sometimes when I write about a book that’s new to the library, I’m writing a preview and not a review.  Often when that happens, it’s a book that I want to read but haven’t had a chance to read yet. Which sometimes leads to a bit of a dilemma: when I do actually read the book, should I write about it again, because now I know more about it than the publisher’s description gave me, or are there so many other books I should be bringing to people’s attention that it’s wrong to write twice about the same book?  I usually resolve this by doing a review if the book in question is more amazing, more fun, or just wildly different from what it seemed to be when it first came out.

In the case of Space Opera, by Catherynne M. Valente, the description of the book pre-publication was accurate as far as it went, but it didn’t nearly go far enough, which is why I feel compelled to tell you what a fabulous, funny, inventive and just plain wonderful book it is, to encourage as many people with similar senses of humor to mine (and there must be some of you out there, right?) to check this book out and enjoy it.

I’m a big fan of Douglas Adams Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, at least the first three books of the series (he lost some steam after Life, the Universe and Everything, in my opinion), and, having cut my teeth on that warped humor, I’m always looking for someone who can write with as much verve and wit as Adams had.  Space Opera, I’m pleased to announce, is a worthy successor to the Hitchhiker’s Guide, and I can hardly come up with higher praise than that.

The initial alien encounter is nothing like anything you’ve seen in the movies or in other books; as the author dryly observes, it’s much more like the work of Sir Looney of the Tunes than Sir Ridley of the Scott (quoting from Decibel’s beloved Nana).  It’s weird, it’s funny, and it sets the tone for the book quite nicely. I started laughing at that part and didn’t stop until the end, even reading some of the funnier lines out loud to anyone who would listen.

Humanity has to compete in the Metagalactic Grand Prix, but the aliens who first encounter us have a list of the potential performers who might, just possibly, if miracles occur, keep the human race from being destroyed.  Unfortunately for us, most of the performers on the list (including Yoko Ono — does that give you an idea of the aliens’ taste?) are dead, so they are left with Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeroes, two thirds of whom are in fact still alive, even if they’re not performing together, or even performing at all, anymore.  

The aliens are varied and wonderful. They are far from humanoid, and Valente seems to delight in creating different kinds of aliens and imagining what their cultures might be like, what their ideas of musical performance might be like, even what their ideas of sex are like (my personal favorite is the alien race whose idea of sex is brushing hair and sharing feelings, which doesn’t exactly mean what you and I think it means). We get to see previous Grand Prix performances from various winners and near-winners, and, like Decibel himself, we can easily see that the chances of humans being able to keep from placing dead last in the competition are nearly nonexistent.

Of course, this being the kind of book it is, you’re pretty sure from the outset that humanity is not going to be destroyed by the aliens, which means that somehow there’s going to be a “victory”, which just means Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeroes don’t actually come in dead last.  The suspense in the book comes from not knowing exactly how this miracle is going to be pulled off, especially when we discover that cheating is not only allowed but encouraged, and one way some of the alien races manage to succeed in the competition is by hobbling other performers. Humans being both newcomers and ridiculously soft and easy to manipulate, there are all kinds of characters out to sabotage our protagonists before they even set foot on the stage.  

The book is light and hysterically funny. Valente bounces cheerfully back and forth, from tales of the Sentience Wars and their immediate aftermath to depictions of previous Grand Prixes to the background of Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeroes.  It’s a wild ride and a vastly entertaining one. If the world is getting you down and you desperately need a break, I highly recommend Space Opera.

HOME INVASION OR END OF THE WORLD?

Here’s the premise of the newest thriller by Paul Tremblay, The Cabin at the End of the World: a family (two dads and one daughter) is taking a vacation at a remote cabin on a lake in New Hampshire.  There’s no phone reception and no wi-fi. The nearest neighbor is a good two miles or more away, the only access roads are dirt and rutted.

If you’re a fan of horror fiction, you’re probably already filling in the blanks for what happens next, and the interesting thing is, you won’t be far off.  Yes, this family is going to be threatened; yes, there will be strangers coming to the house and ensconcing themselves in it without the consent of the family.  Yes, the isolation is going to come into play and make the family’s situation all the more difficult to resolve in their favor.

There are a few quirks, though.  Those four strangers who come to the cabin are carrying some unidentifiable objects which might or might not be weapons. The first one, who meets the daughter (Wen) outside the cabin, is a kindly seeming person who wins her trust immediately, and then tells her that none of what is about to happen is her fault.  When the others arrive, they inform Wen that her fathers won’t want to let them into the house, but they have to be there because otherwise the world will come to an end. They need the help of Wen’s fathers to save the world from destruction, no matter how strange that might sound.

So who are these people?  Are they really some kind of heroes who are about to save the world, in which case their invading this small family’s home might seem justified, if not a great experience for the family?  Or are they survivalist nutcases, convinced of the imminent apocalypse and seeing signs that nobody else sees because the signs don’t exist? Four men talking about the end of the world: could they be the Biblical Horsemen of the Apocalypse, in new circumstances but with the same basic mission?  Were they telling the truth when they told Wen they weren’t going to hurt her or her fathers, and how could you possibly trust these men?

You should be warned that this is a book that includes violence, and serious violence at that; if you’re squeamish you might want to choose something else. But if you’re in the mood for a book that will keep you frantically turning pages and that will ask questions you haven’t thought about for years, then by all means give The Cabin at the End of the World a try.

TRAVELING AROUND ALASKA’S COAST: TIP OF THE ICEBERG

This is the time of year, especially when we’re dealing with temperatures of 90 + degrees F, when my thoughts turn to the idea of travel, especially travel to somewhere really cool, possibly even cold. It’s in the summer that I first read the book The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey (and if you haven’t read that novel, this would be the perfect time of year to read it, as it’s an excellent book and set in Alaska, I’m just saying), and it’s in the summer that I just read one of the best travel books I’ve encountered in the last few years, Tip of the Iceberg: My 3,000 Mile Journey Around Wild Alaska, the Last Great American Frontier, by Mark Adams.  Whether you’ve always had a secret hankering for a trip to the 49th State (as I have), or whether you’re just in the mood for a well-written, vivid and entertaining book about a place most of us are fairly unfamiliar with, I highly recommend Tip of the Iceberg.

A travel book, for me, is something different from a guidebook. I’ll take a guidebook with me when I go somewhere, so I can find out what the cool places to eat are, where the museums are and what the other potential spots of interest are in the area. A travel book, though, is more like taking the trip without actually leaving home, exploring and experiencing a place with someone who shares his or her insights into this part of the world. I’m pretty demanding when it comes to travel books; the person taking me on this trip needs to be someone with a sense of humor, a willingness to seek out and ask questions of the people who live and/or work in the area, and someone who isn’t too full of him or herself.  The person shouldn’t get in the way of the place, essentially. And, for someone who’s a history buff as I am, if the writer of the travel book can give me a good look at the history of the area, that’s definitely a big selling point.

Which is why I love this book so much. Mark Adams is traveling around the coast of Alaska in the modern era, using the kinds of transports (by sea and air, for the most part) any one of us could use nowadays, but he’s also retracing (to the extent possible) an earlier trip by Edward H. Harriman, the railroad magnate and millionaire (back when being a millionaire was a much bigger deal), who brought some of the best scientists in the country with him to explore the Alaska territory in 1899. The story of Mark’s modern expedition is interspersed with the story of the Harriman expedition, and the combination is magical. The contrast between the conditions of Harriman’s floating university, which included such brilliant people as John Muir and Clinton Merriam, one of the founders of the National Geographic Society, and the conditions in which Mark Adams is traversing the same coast, with a lot less luxury and far fewer intellectual heavyweights, is pretty funny, and Mark makes the most of it. He also points out the changes wrought in the Alaska countryside and especially its glaciers (which were such powerful attractants to Muir) by global climate change in the century between the two trips, not in a polemical way, but matter-of-factly, describing what they saw and experienced and what he’s seeing and experiencing.  

And then there are the characters and situations he encounters.  While this isn’t really a humor book, there are certain parts, including his discussions of bear encounters and the sort of information visitors are given with respect to bears, that had me laughing out loud.  He had a knack for finding the most interesting characters in any of the places he went, however small or large, and getting those people to open up to him. There are certain aspects of the trip which I wouldn’t want to duplicate (an expedition where he and his guide just barely managed to get to base before their transportation left in a horrible storm was one of those nerve-wracking situations that was, undoubtedly, a lot more fun to read about than to experience in person), but on the whole, if I were going to Alaska to journey the inner passage, Mark Adams is just the kind of person I would want to have as my guide and companion. He’s funny and knowledgeable, he’s willing to let people teach him things, and willing to look with a clear eye at the world around him. He writes vividly, whether about the experiences of the members of the Harriman expedition or about the people sleeping on the decks of small ferries he’s taking from one point to another, and by the end of the book I certainly felt I’d been there with him.

The best kind of travel books, in my opinion, are the ones where you feel you’ve experienced the trip yourself, but you’re still filled (or newly filled) with the desire to check the place out for yourself.  The Tip of the Iceberg certainly qualifies.  Check it out for yourself.

 

JULY FIELD NOTES BOOK GROUP SELECTION: THE ABUNDANCE

After an involved and entertaining discussion of Jane Austen’s Persuasion this past Saturday, the Field Notes Book Group has selected its book for our meeting on July 21, 2018: The Abundance: Narrative Essays Old and New, by Annie Dillard.

This is a bit of a departure for the group.  We’ve read collections of short stories before, but never essays.  However, if you’re going to read essays, it’s a good idea to read essays written by a master of the form, and that’s definitely Annie Dillard.  These essays, as the subtitle indicates, are a mix of her older work and newer pieces, and serve as an excellent introduction to her work. A writer who can be fascinating about grains of sand, as well as more obvious subjects like polar exploration and religion and eclipses, is a writer well worth exploring.

Copies of the book will be available at The Field Library Circulation Desk this week.  Come in and pick one up, and then join us for coffee, snacks and scintillating discussion in The Field Library Gallery on July 21 from 11:00 to 12:30 p.m.

 

THE OTHER SIDE OF THE ODYSSEY: CIRCE

I have to say right off the bat that from the time I first read The Odyssey, my favorite character was the witch goddess Circe, who turned Odysseus’ sailors into pigs, and would have (I always believed) turned Odysseus into one as well if he hadn’t cheated (e.g., gotten help from the god Hermes to protect himself).  When my daughter was growing up, she and I listened to the Odds Bodkin version of The Odyssey, in which Circe cheerfully sings, “Pigs, pigs, pigs, is what you are!” as she changes the people into pigs, which was simply adorable. I was always disappointed when Odysseus moved on from Circe’s island, even though Circe does show up as a minor or supporting character in other Greek myths (for instance, she cleansed her niece, Medea, from her guilt for killing her brother as Medea and Jason fled with the Golden Fleece).  So you can imagine my delight to see that Madeline Miller has a new novel, Circe, which tells the story of my favorite character from her point of view.

It’s an excellent book.  Let’s just start with that.  Circe comes across as a real person, a very complicated person who’s neither goddess nor mortal but somewhere in between, someone very different from the nymphs who were her mother’s kin and the titans who were her father’s,  someone interested in mortals but not really able to understand them.

Do you need to know the story of the Odyssey or Greek myths in general to be able to follow this book?  Not at all. Circe tells you everything you need to know in the course of the story (and there’s a very helpful index at the back of the book, explaining who’s who and how people are related to each other, because there are a lot of interrelated characters and sometimes it’s hard to keep track).  However, if you DO have some knowledge of the source material, it is a bit more fun, so that when you first meet Pasiphae, Circe’s sister, your mind immediately goes to the birth of the Minotaur and that colors your thinking about her throughout. It’s a pleasure the first time you see characters with whom you’re familiar, and to see them in a new light, but trust me, you’ll get a sense of who Daedalus was and what Scylla was like just by Circe’s descriptions.

If you do know the basic stories of Greek myths, you’ll still be carried along on Miller’s plot, which tells the stories in a new way, giving you a different perspective on well-known characters and stories, without doing an injustice to the classic stories. So, for instance, the story of the punishment of Prometheus, which normally I don’t associate with Circe, comes into play here (and we meet Prometheus himself), and while we’ve all seen Scylla in The Odyssey, here we discover what Scylla was before she became this horrible monster, and who was responsible for the transformation.  

Miller writes vividly: the scene where Circe witnesses the birth of the Minotaur is visceral and terrifying; Circe’s first encounter with Scylla in the latter’s new form is nerve wracking and powerful.  Circe’s encounters with various gods and goddesses (not to mention various titans) make those characters more than human and at the same time recognizable to us mere mortals.

Her encounter with Odysseus is, naturally enough, the heart of the book.  We understand why Circe changes men into pigs (hint: they pretty much earn it), and why she treats Odysseus’ crew that way, and Odysseus’ trick, which infuriated me and seemed unfair in the original story, is something Circe takes in stride.  Unlike some versions of the story, in this version Circe doesn’t immediately bow down to Odysseus, but treats him and his men as her guests for three seasons before he leaves, and does her best to help him and them on their way back to Ithaka, not because she’s cowed by Odysseus but because she cares about him.  He comes across as a complicated human being, manipulative and intelligent, charming and not necessarily trustworthy, someone you could see Circe being attracted to.

Of course there’s more to the story, and if you’ve ever wondered what happened or what might have happened to Odysseus after the end of The Odyssey, whether he was able to return to being a mere king in Ithaka after having been one of the heroes of the Trojan War, what his relationship with his wife and his son would be like after his return, Circe gives you some answers, plausible and entirely within the characters of the people in the story.

At about the three quarter mark, when once again Circe was trying to protect herself and those she cared about from the malice of the gods, I was beginning to worry that there couldn’t be a happy ending or even a satisfying ending for this book, but I’m glad to report that I was wrong. It’s an excellent read, a lively and entertaining rethinking of Greek myths, not exactly feminist (Circe wouldn’t understand the concept, so kudos to Miller for not getting anachronistic here), but with a different and refreshing viewpoint.

HANDS-ON LESSONS: THE KISS QUOTIENT

Sometimes you just need to read something light, something a little out of the ordinary that will make you feel a bit better about the state of the universe (or at least your small portion of it).  And if the book in question is a little romantic and kind of sexy (all right, more than just “kind of sexy,” a book that definitely spends a lot of time and energy on sex), well, so much the better.  I’ve just described the debut novel of Helen Hoang, The Kiss Quotient.

Stella Lane, the 30 year old protagonist of the book, is absolutely brilliant at math.  She believes mathematics defines the universe and she’s developed an algorithm that predicts customer purchases, and she’s wildly successful and well-paid. Still, in the eyes of her mother, she’s not really a success because she’s not married and having babies.  Sounds familiar? Well, it’s a little more complicated than the ordinary career-woman-needs-to-get-a-personal-life story, because Stella is on the autism spectrum. Touching other people is very hard for her, kissing strikes her as bizarre, and as a result, she believes she’s never going to find a man until she knows how to do sex right.  So she hires Michael Phan to teach her what she needs to know about sex and touching.

He’s half-Vietnamese, half-Swedish and gorgeous, a man who’s working as an escort once a week.  He has strict rules about his business, most importantly that he never goes on more than one date with a client, to avoid stalkers and other nasty experiences.  However, there’s something about Stella that makes him want to break the rules. He may be the only man in her life who’s ever really understood Stella, and he’s certainly the only man in her life who’s ever made her comfortable with the physical side of a relationship.  

Are they Made For Each Other?  Of course they are, though (this being a romance) there are obstacles the two of them have to overcome before their inevitable Happily Ever After.  The two main characters are real, warm human beings with flaws and virtues, and Stella’s autism is treated as a part of who she is and not a damage or something that makes her less.  If you liked The Rosie Project (as I did, and our book group did), and if you’re comfortable with a sexy romance plot, definitely pick up The Kiss Quotient and prepare to be charmed.