Author, Book review, chick-lit, England, Fiction, general, Jojo Moyes, Michael Joseph, Publisher, Setting

‘Me Before You’ by Jojo Moyes


Fiction – paperback; Michael Joseph; 512 pages; 2012. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Jojo Moyes is a former newspaper journalist turned novelist. Her books tend to fall into the chick-lit category — she has won the Romantic Novelists’ Association Romantic Novel of the Year Award twice for Foreign Fruit (2004) and The Last Letter From Your Lover (2011). But Me Before You, her ninth novel, isn’t so easy to pigeonhole. I was looking for a light read to take away on holiday with me, and convinced by Simon’s recent review, I packed it in my suitcase.

Before I explain about the story, I must say that the pastel pink cover is truly terrible. It looks so girlie and twee, and if I saw it in a bookshop I would pass over it without a second thought. (I was reading a proof edition adorned in a plain, sunset-yellow jacket so I didn’t feel so self-conscious reading it.) Why do marketing departments insist on packaging “women’s fiction” in this clichéd, dare I say it, patronising way? Does it really shift copies?

Me Before You deserves better treatment, because this isn’t your average run-of-the-mill romance. Yes, I can see that it is probably aimed at 20-something women; yes, it’s not “literary”; and yes, it occasionally feels over-written and predictable. But the story deals with big issues — the class divide, quadriplegia, rape and the right to die, among others — and is handled with acute sensitivity and a good dollop of humour to lighten the load.

Waitress turned carer/companion

Louisa Clark is 26 and still living at home with her invalid grandfather, her parents, her younger sister and her sister’s young son. She has a dead end job working in a local cafe, but it’s hugely important to her, because she’s the breadwinner of the family. When she loses that job through no fault of her own — the cafe is closed down — she must hurriedly find something else to keep the family afloat. And that is how she ends up becoming a carer/companion to a local man, eight years her senior, who was paralysed from the neck down in a road accident several years earlier.

The job throws Lou in at the deep end. She has no experience as a professional carer, but she’s been employed because she has a bright personality and it is hoped her presence will lift Will Traynor out of the doldrums. What Lou doesn’t know is that she has six months to convince Will that life is worth living — he has already made an appointment with Dignitas to end his life through assisted suicide.

The narrative, told from Lou’s point of view, shows how her relationship with Will develops and changes over time. (There are also solo chapters from Will’s magistrate mother, Will’s adulterous father, Will’s New Zealand male nurse and Lou’s intelligent sister, which provide a three-dimensional view of the relationship.)

At first, the pair intensely dislike each other. Will was once the type of man who relished adventure sports such as mountain climbing, scuba diving and motorbiking. But now, stuck in a wheelchair for the rest of his life, he is bitter, angry and frustrated. He takes this out on Lou by snapping at her or making patronising comments. (In one scene, he pretends to drool and have a fit, just to scare her off.) But as time goes by and they spend more time in each other’s company a true friendship — and love — ensues.

Two people who change each other

The essence of the story is that these two people, from completely different backgrounds and mindsets, must find common ground to get along. Lou, who has settled for a quiet life living in the town of her birth, learns it’s okay to want to spread your wings and live a different kind of life. And Will, once a richly paid City worker with a beautiful girlfriend to match, discovers that small moments of joy can be found in unexpected places.

Moyes somehow manages to balance deep poignancy with black comedy — there’s one episode at a racecourse which is outright hilarious — so the narrative never feels heavy-handed or overly sentimental. And her depiction of life as a quadriplegic, including the detailed medical care required, is handled with compassion and dignity. She makes Will a flesh-and-blood real, three-dimensional character, when it would have been so easy to resort to cliché and stereotyping.

Despite the sadness at the heart of this novel, Me Before You is actually a life-affirming read about making the most of our lives and not taking anything for granted. The ending is hugely emotional — and not quite what I had expected — so if you decide to take the plunge and give this book a whirl, here’s one piece of advice to take on board: read the last 40 or so pages in the privacy of your home, unless you particularly like sobbing into your Kleenex in public.

Author, Book review, chick-lit, crime/thriller, Faber and Faber, Fiction, Helen FitzGerald, Publisher, Scotland, Setting

‘Dead Lovely’ by Helen FitzGerald


Fiction – paperback; Faber and Faber; 298 pages; 2009. Review copy courtesy of publisher.

Last year I read Helen FitzGerald‘s second novel, My Last Confession, and enjoyed it enough to request her debut novel from the publisher. It was only while holed up at my sister’s place at Abu Dhabi last month that I got around to reading it. It turned out to be perfect holiday reading fodder, the type of book that’s not earth-shatteringly intelligent but one that’s entertaining and a lot of fun, albeit with a dark noirish feel to it.

The story introduces us to Glasgow-based Krissie, a social worker, who is also the star of the show in My Last Confession. That means it would have made more sense to read Dead Lovely first, but never mind, the book still made total sense, even if it had a touch of the déjà vus about it. (It took me awhile to clock that I had already “met” Krissie in the FitzGerald’s second offering, but I digress…)

Krissie is a rather plucky young woman, a kind of good-time-girl, who likes to work hard and play hard. Her best friend, Sarah, is more settled. She’s married to Kyle, a GP, and together the pair of them are trying to have a baby — with no luck.

Krissie’s friendship with Sarah begins to become strained when Krissie accidentally falls pregnant, thanks to a one-night stand during a wild holiday in the sun, and decides to keep the baby.

To patch things up between them, the trio go on a camping holiday to the Scottish Highlands, and this is where things begin to get even messier: Krissie falls in love with Kyle, whom she happened to share a house with back in her university days.

If this sounds a bit too far fetched, you’d be right. But the story goes completely over the top when one of the trio is killed during the trip. Now, I’m not going to spoil it and reveal who the victim is, but it’s what happens after the death that makes this book such a page-turner. The effect on Krissie is paramount — she becomes wracked by guilt and when the paranoia takes hold there’s no knowing what might happen next.

I went to the bathroom to wash my face. In the mirror was a woman with red eyes, bruises, bag-lady hair and very odd clothes. Who was I? And what was I thinking? Hoping for the best? Escaping? I couldn’t get away from this, away from my guilt, ever, I had to tell.

Dead Lovely is not exactly realistic — in fact, I’d go so far as to say that the storyline in completely preposterous — but it’s a fun romp, and perfect fodder for when you are on holiday or in the mood for something that won’t tax the brain matter.

I liked its mix of dark humour, murder and mayhem. The publisher sums it up as “intelligent chick-lit”, but I reckon it’s more accurate to describe it as a crime comedy. Either way, it’s an edgy and entertaining read. And if you like this one, then you can follow Krissie’s story, three years down the line, in the follow-up My Last Confession.

Anne-Marie O'Connor, Author, Book review, chick-lit, Fiction, general, Ireland, Publisher, Setting, Tivoli

‘Everyone’s Got a Bono Story’ by Anne-Marie O’Connor


Fiction – paperback; Tivoli; 352 pages; 2004.

If you ever needed proof that I have rather eclectic reading tastes, then this review coming directly after W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants and George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four should do it. Admittedly, I read Everyone’s Got A Bono Story on my sick bed; my mind couldn’t settle on anything and I was looking for something completely fluffy, something that wouldn’t tax my brain and would be as easy to read as a knife slicing through soft butter. This book, the first by Anne-Marie O’Connor, fit the bill perfectly.

It’s set in Dublin where everyone has a story to recount about Bono, the lead singer of U2. Perhaps they’ve seen him drinking in a bar, maybe a cousin went to school with him, or a friend of a friend once delivered him a pizza. But Aoife Collins, a 20-something office manager who has dreams of becoming a fashion designer, hasn’t got a story to relate. When she loses her job and is evicted from her flat, all in the same week, her lack of a Bono tale seems the least of her worries. Then her best friend, Rory, throws down the gauntlet: if she can engineer her own encounter with Bono he will give her 5,000 euros.

You see where this is going, right? Okay, the story is as cheesy as the cover image, and the whole premise is just ridiculous, but it’s a very witty read. Part of the joy of reading Everyone’s Got a Bono Story is following Aoife’s exploits as she tries lots of different ways to meet the man himself, including dressing up as a nun and knocking on his front door. There’s certainly an element of farce to it, and I’m surprised no-one’s actually made it into a film — it’d be a riot.

O’Connor fleshes out the narrative by giving both Aoife and Rory complicated parental relationships: Rory’s dad is super-rich but oblivious to Rory’s homosexuality; and Aoife’s mother just wants her daughter to return to rural Kerry, where she can settle down with a nice man, rather than running amok in the city.

Of course, there’s the obligatory romantic liaison for Aoife, which doesn’t go according to plan, and a similar amount of angst about her career, because she just lacks the confidence to do what she really wants to do.

There’s no surprises in the rather predicable plot, which ends on a rather happy note for all involved (including Aoife’s mother), but this is a light-hearted read, perfect for those times when you fancy a giggle.

Author, Book review, chick-lit, Fiction, Hutchinson, Margot Berwin, Mexico, New York, Publisher, Setting

‘Hot House Flower’ by Margot Berwin


Fiction – paperback; Hutchinson; 288 pages; 2009. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Having read Susan Orlean’s classic non-fiction title, The Orchid Thief, and Eric Hansen’s similarly acclaimed Orchid Fever, I had high hopes that this fictionalised account of a woman hunting for rare plants in the tropics of Mexico would be something I’d really enjoy. And while it ticked all the botanical boxes, I’m afraid Hot House Flower was slightly too girlie for me. In fact, the cover image and the cursive font should probably have served as a big warning: this is chick lit and I should read at my peril!

Now, don’t get me wrong. I have no objection to chick lit. If it gets people reading and makes people excited about books, then it can only be a good thing. But it’s not a genre I enjoy, for a whole host of reasons. And while Hot House Flower may dish up something slightly more exotic than a girl meets boy romance, when you get right down to it, it is essentially a cosy story about a 32-year-old divorcee looking to find a new man.

Bearing that in mind, it is imminently readable, and I consumed it in two sittings, so eager was I to follow Lila Nova’s journey from high-flying advertising executive in Manhattan to her reinvention as a flower hunter in the luscious rainforest of the Yucatan peninsula.

The first-person narrative is easy to follow and there’s plenty of adventure and thrills and spills to keep you entertained, along with a dash of romance and a bit of magic and witchcraft thrown in for good measure. It’s a fun, light-hearted read and definitely won’t sap the brain power.

However, the magic realism, highly reminiscent of Sarah Addison Allen’s Garden Spells, means you need to suspend belief for much of the story, but especially the latter-third which involves Huichol shamans and herbalists working their supernatural powers. It’s fascinating, if slightly too far-fetched for my liking, but if you’re looking for some sheer escapism this summer, Hot House Flower will fit the bill perfectly.

Author, Book review, chick-lit, Fiction, general, Harper Collins, Lauren Weisberger, New York, Publisher, Setting

‘The Devil Wears Prada’ by Lauren Weisberger


Fiction – paperback; Harper Collins; 400 pages; 2003.

If you have ever worked for an unreasonable boss or taken a job where you have had to compromise your values, then this book is likely to appeal.

I don’t normally “do” chick-lit but I raced through The Devil Wears Prada if only because the plight of the narrator — Andrea Sachs, who takes a job as an editorial assistant on a fashion magazine — resonated so strongly with me, because, I, too, have worked on a successful magazine, albeit not one quite as glamorous as the title portrayed here.

In this book Andrea, a recent college graduate, dreams of writing for the New Yorker. But she knows that hitting such heights requires some legwork and experience, so when she lands the job “that millions would die for” on a glossy fashion magazine in Manhattan she’s prepared to put in the hard graft. What she isn’t quite prepared for is that her boss, Miranda Priestly, is a high-flying control-freak, a kind of cross between Cruella De Vil and Hitler, that sets out to make her job — and her life — hell.

Along the way Andrea must accomplish all kinds of near-impossible tasks to perfection (or risk being fired) while juggling relationships with a long-term boyfriend, Alex, and her best friend, Lily, both of whom she begins to neglect — with dire consequences — as her working life takes its toll. Throw in a smattering of light romance and a lot of humour, some travel tales and an overload of sordid insights into the dual worlds of fashion and magazine publishing, and you can’t really go wrong.

As a debut novel, The Devil Wears Prada is a remarkably accomplished tale that treads a fine balance between all-out farce and Ugly Betty-type soap opera. That everything rings true says a lot for the author’s story-telling abilities. I particularly liked Andrea’s voice, which is sharp, sassy and intelligent — if not terribly wise.

While the plot is not particularly strong — it’s simply a year in the life of the narrator — and is riddled with holes, Weisberger knows how to keep the reader on the edge of her seat. For instance, Andrea does not actually meet her boss from hell until about a third of the way through the book, which builds up the tension to almost palpable proportions.

The narrator’s sense of moral outrage also helps propel the story along. As a reader you long to know if she will ever dish out as good as she gets… but if I told you, that would spoil things, wouldn’t it?

The Devil Wears Prada is a light, fun and entertaining read, perfect if you want to check your brain into neutral or stay in your pyjamas all day.

Author, Book review, chick-lit, Fiction, general, iUniverse, Malaysia, Publisher, Setting, Sharon Boorstin

‘Cookin’ for Love: A novel with recipes’ by Sharon Boorstin


Fiction – paperback;; 308 pages; 2005. Review copy courtesy of the author’s publicist.

Confession time: I have never read a chick lit novel, much less one geared for the ‘older woman’ . For that reason I expected to very much not like Sharon Boorstin’s Cookin’ for Love. In fact, if I am honest, I expected to hate it. But I was rather pleasantly surprised by this light-hearted tale of two 50-somethings going on a girls’ own adventure in exotic Malaysia. It was, quite frankly, a real page-turner and I read it in just a few sittings.

In many ways Cookin’ for Love reminds me very much of the girlie backpacking romp Losing Gemma by Katy Gardner, except the characters are about 20 years older.

Essentially it is a story of two grown women – the married mother ofthree in a rut with a husband who treats her like she’s invisible, and the mutton-dressed-as-lamb floozy who’s desperate to find someone to love her. Miriam, the Beverly Hills cookbook author, is down-to-earth and a little dowdy, while Katy McGrath is rich and glamorous if not a little shallow. Why these two are best friends is a little beyond me, but I guess opposites attract and it does provide a certain frisson between the characters.

Miriam might be the more successful of the two, having raised a family and carved herself an interesting career, but she seems to get dumped on, not just by her children and husband, but by Katy as well. No sooner have the pair of them arrived in Kuala Lumpur, than Katy is off shagging the pants of her lost lost lover, Erik, while Miriam, nervous to be outside of her comfort zone, is left to fend for herself.

Boorstin’s writing is accomplished: you get a real sense of the characters and she brings the exotic landscapes and surroundings of Malaysia to life. The plot moves along quickly, although there’s a couple of off-the-wall moments towards the end of the book that don’t really ring true. The smattering of recipes throughout adds extra interest, although I’d be loathe to cook anything given there’s no UK measurements (what, for instance, is a ‘stick’ of butter?)

All in all, this is the perfect summer read, enjoyable and entertaining no matter what your age (or gender).