Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, general, Graeme Simsion, Michael Joseph, New York, Publisher, Setting

‘The Rosie Project’ by Graeme Simsion


Fiction – hardcover; Michael Joseph; 329 pages; 2013. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

I often think that voice is everything when it comes to the enjoyment of a novel, particularly if that voice is distinctive, unique, intimate and funny.

The first person narrator in Graeme Simsion’s The Rosie Project has one of those voices. It’s droll and original and quirky and often laugh-out-loud funny. I read this book with a mixture of delight and joy, and found it the perfect antidote to a slew of much harder hitting novels.

Offbeat search for a life partner

The Rosie Project is a lovely offbeat story about a socially inadequate man trying to find a wife. That man is Don Tillman, a 39-year-old professor of genetics at a university in Melbourne, who doesn’t seem to have much luck with women. That’s probably because he’s unconventional — in all senses of the word. He has odd fashion sense, lacks empathy with other people and doesn’t have the faintest clue about small talk or social niceties. He is the type of person that lacks any kind of “situation sense” . Everything is run to a very tight and precise schedule, right down to a minute-by-minute blow of his entire day.

This compulsive need to have everything timetabled follows through into Don’s search for a “life partner”. He devises a rather complicated 16-page multiple-choice questionnaire which he gives to prospective candidates so that he can filter out those women he thinks will be unsuitable. If you smoke, you’re out. Ditto if you are vegetarian, have no cooking skills or lack punctuality.

As Don sets out to find the ideal woman for him, his project gets sidelined by Rosie, an academic (and barmaid) with a penchant for cigarettes, laziness and lateness, who seeks his professional help in using DNA analysis to determine her biological father. A new project is set up to acquire the DNA of potential “suspects” in somewhat underhanded and dubious ways. As it evolves, the pair find themselves spending more and more time together — but can Don put aside his prejudices to accept Rosie for who she is, and not what she isn’t?

A series of funny set pieces

The novel is structured around a series of humourous set pieces designed to show Don’s wacky and unusual side, including his extraordinary ability to absorb vast quantities of information in a short space of time. For instance, Don learns an exhaustive amount of dance moves and sexual positions, he learns how to make every single cocktail in a cocktail guide, and he manages to teach himself all the rules about baseball without having ever seen a game.

Pretty much everything he does is hilarious — even if he doesn’t quite see it that way. This is what makes the book work, because the reader knows that Don is “different” you can’t help but predict the way in which ordinary people will react to his behaviour. It’s not so much that you are laughing at Don, but the people around him who get caught up in his bizarre escapades.

Of course, the entire novel is preposterous — and the way in which Don changes over time so that he becomes more and more normal probably wouldn’t happen in reality — but that is all part of the fun.

And Don’s voice, so beautifully dull, dry and monotonous, is a treat to read because it so perfectly captures his personality. I thoroughly enjoyed spending so much time in his company and can understand why other readers claim to have fallen in love with him. He might wear quick-dry clothes and cycling attire on his dates, but he is utterly charming and strangely beguiling in an odd sort of way.

The Rosie Project is published in the UK in hardcover and ebook on 11 April. It is already available in Australia, where it has received many favourable reviews, including this one by Lisa Hill at ANZLitLovers.

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, crime/thriller, Fiction, London, Michael Joseph, Nicci French, Publisher, Setting

‘Blue Monday’ by Nicci French


Fiction – hardcover; Michael Joseph; 416 pages; 2011. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Regular readers of this blog will know I have a weak spot for Nicci French, the pseudonym for husband-and-wife writing team Nicci Gerard and Sean French. I have followed her career right from the start and read each of her 12 bestselling novels, often as soon as they become available in hardcover.

Of course, they are not “literary” novels, but they are wonderful fun — and very entertaining. My only quibble is that in recent years the formula — of embattled female on the run from a threat no one else can see — has become a little jaded. Hence, I was rather excited when I found out that French was branching off into a new direction, moving away from nail-biting psychological thrillers, and focusing on a new series of crime thrillers (with the emphasis on crime).

Blue Monday, published two months ago, is the first in a series of eight novels based around psychotherapist Frieda Klein.

In this story, which oozes London ambiance — it’s particularly evocative of North London and the Square Mile — Frieda is treating Alan Dekker, a troubled man who is desperate to have a child. Sadly, his wife seems unable to fall pregnant, but he is so obsessed with becoming a father that he is dreaming of his son-to-be. He relates these dreams to Frieda, describing the child in minute detail.

At about the same time, a major police hunt is underway, looking for a missing five-year-old boy called Matthew Farraday, who is believed to have been abducted. Matthew’s description matches the boy in Alan’s dream. Could it be that Alan has snatched him from the street? Is the “dream” merely a cover story?

Frieda takes her concerns to Detective Chief Inspector Karlsson, who is leading the investigation into Mathew’s disappearance, but he think she is wasting his time. But when an important link with another unsolved abduction — of a young girl 20 years go in similar circumstances — emerges, Frieda suddenly becomes a vital cog in the inquiry.

Blue Monday isn’t a police procedural, so it’s not that sort of crime novel. But it is very much a page-turner, with a mystery to solve and a relatively satisfying — if slightly unrealistic — ending. And while Karlsson — a divorced father of two young children — and Frieda — a loner with a troubled family background — are well drawn and believable characters, you get the feeling that French has deliberately kept many things about them under wraps in order to flesh them out in later books.

It may also be the reason why the narrative has quite a lot of distractions — Frieda’s academic background, her tendency to walk the streets at night to overcome insomnia, her delicate relationship with a demanding 16-year-old niece and a fledgling friendship with a Ukrainian builder, just to name a few. There are so many of these subsidiary storylines it feels as if French decided to lay the foundations of a thousand different threads to draw upon in future novels.

I can’t say Blue Monday feels that much different from the usual Nicci French fare. The fear and paranoia  — and even Karlsson’s refusal to believe Frieda’s initial claims — are distinctive trademarks from her earlier work. Perhaps the only real significant change is that the narrative has switched from intimate first-person to “remote” third person.

Regardless, Blue Monday is a fast-paced read, with a few twists and turns along the way, making it far from predictable. It certainly kept me entertained last weekend when I was holed up in bed with a nasty chest cold.

Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, London, Michael Joseph, Nicci French, Publisher, Setting

‘Complicit’ by Nicci French


Fiction – hardcover; Michael Joseph; 384 pages; 2010. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

When it comes to books, everyone has their guilty pleasure — and mine is Nicci French*. Her novels are not exactly highbrow literature, but each one delivers an entertaining and thrilling read, with plenty of twists and turns in the plot to keep you guessing right until the final page.

I’ve read each of her 11 novels (although you’ll only find six reviewed on this site), and Complicit, her 12th (published last week), was eagerly anticipated by Yours Truly. I saved it for my four-day Easter break and raced through it in a matter of a day, because, as cliched as this sounds, I could not bear to put it down!

The story begins with our narrator, Bonnie Graham, visiting her boyfriend’s flat only to find the body of a man laying face down, arms splayed, with a dark stain of blood spreading from under his head. Quite clearly he is dead. But instead of calling the police and doing what you would normally expect someone to do when caught up in such terrible circumstances, Bonnie calls her best friend, Sonia, to help her dispose of the body.

But who is the victim? And did Bonnie murder him? If so, why did she commit the crime? And will Sonia help, or go to the police herself?

The psychological tension is strengthened by the method in which the story is told. There are no chapters in the book, but the narrative is broken into two threads — before and after the murder — which are chopped up into bite-sized chunks and interleaved. This allows you to contrast the events leading up to the murder with those that occur long after the body has been dumped.

It’s difficult to flesh out the storyline without giving away crucial plot spoilers, but I can tell you that it’s set in London over a six-week period. Bonnie, who is a music teacher, has agreed (against her better judgement) to put together a band to perform at a friend’s wedding in September. She assembles a motley crew of musicians, young and old alike, none of whom get on particularly well. This creates its own set of tensions as petty jealousies and old rivalries come to the fore. The more you read, the more you begin to realise that any one of these characters could be the murderer — or the victim.

But, as ever with a Nicci French book, all is not as it seems. Just when you think you’ve got a handle on the story and know where it is most likely headed, a new bit of information comes to light that turns everything upside down. I’d got about half-way through the book, convinced that I knew the outcome, only to find I was utterly wrong when I did, at last, reach the end.

Is it plausible? Probably not. But who cares? This is a deliciously fun and genuinely thrilling read. I just wish I didn’t have to wait another 12 months for the next one!

UPDATE: This novel is being published in the US under the title The Other Side of the Door.

* Nicci French is a pseudonym for the husband-and-wife writing team of Nicci Gerrard and Sean French.