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(Audiobook – narrated by Mandy Weston and Rupert Farley)

The Joy of the title is Joy Stevens, a brilliant and beautiful newly made partner at a prestigious law firm. The story opens a short time after she has fallen – or jumped – from a high balcony at said law firm. The story of what led her to the moment of falling is explored throughout the book.

The chapters alternate from Joy’s point of view (albeit told in the third person) where the day that she fell is narrated bit by bit, while Joy’s history, marriage and the tragedy in her past is also exploited; and the point of view of various people in Joy’s life – Dennis, her husband; Samir, who works in the gym at the law firm; Barbara, her irascible PA; and Peter, husband of Joy’s friend and also Joy’s on-off lover. Their chapters are told in one-sided conversation with a counsellor who has obviously been brought in to help them deal with the shock of seeing their work colleague plummet from the balcony and the fact that she now lies in hospital, clinging to life by the thinnest of threads.

Audiobooks are never my favourite medium for consuming a book but I did enjoy this one in the most part, mainly because of the two narrators. It’s a rare book where none of the characters are likeable, but this book comes quite close to the mark. Although I could empathise to an extent with Joy’s sorrow, I still found her self-centred and in many ways unkind. However, she herself recognised these qualities in herself and at least felt some regret for them. Dennis and Peter were pretty unbearable, but that’s okay because I’m sure they were meant to be. Dennis was one of those crushing bores who nobody wants to get stuck with at a party – full of his own self-importance and in love with the sound of his own voice. Peter was an egotistical chauvinist, who treated his wife and most other people like rubbish. Possibly the most sympathetic character was the obsessive compulsive Samir.

The story unfolded fairly slowly after a somewhat eye-popping start. It’s a drama for sure, if not altogether exactly dramatic. The truth behind Joy’s fall is drip-fed and the ending of the book takes a more surprising turn altogether.

Overall despite disliking all of the characters, I did enjoy the book and found it an interesting read. It did leave me on something of a downer though, and a craving for something light-hearted and upbeat to follow up!

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In this three part drama, Helen McCrory plays Julie, a 44 year old married mother of two, who falls in love with Aaron, a young man in his mid-20s. They meet because Julie is a wedding planner at a posh hotel, and Aaron is a wedding guest devastated that a girl he dated is now marrying his brother. However, their relationship takes them both by surprise and Julie finds herself with a dilemma on her hands – does she stay in her stale marriage where she feels underappreciated, or does she take a chance and leave with the young man who makes her feel alive? And can such a romance ever really survive in the real world?

I enjoyed this a lot, but there is no denying that it is not the cheeriest of watches. The first episode moves fairly slowly as it sets up the background to the romance, but the second and third episodes pick up the pace. However, it bounces back and forth between moments of joy and bliss, and moments of sadness and anger. And it always seemed that just as Julie was about to find a chance at real happiness something would come along to throw her off course.

The acting was pretty much excellent. Helen McCrory was excellent and utterly believable as Julie. Sean Gallagher was also great as her husband, who has problems of his own, which impact on their lives. Callum Turner was also great as Aaron, although as a woman of a similar age of Julie, I struggled to see the attraction! Yes he was nice looking but he was also sulky and a bit self-absorbed. Nick Dunning and Deborah Findlay came across well as his parents, who struggled to understand his attraction to this older married woman, although his mother had some understanding of what it was to want to feel passionate and alive again.

I’m not going to spoil the ending for anyone, but I will say that it was the most believable ending I could have imagined for this couple. Would I recommend it? Well yes, probably – but be prepared to feel on a bit of a downer afterwards.

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Year of release: 2012

Director: Gaby Dellal

Writer: Tony Marchant

Main cast: Helen McCrory, Callum Turner, Sean Gallagher

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friends_with_money_ver5_xlgThis 2008 film is marketed as a comedy/drama/romance, and I’m not really sure that it falls into any of those categories (well, maybe drama). I enjoyed it a lot though, in no small part due to the excellent cast.

Jennifer Aniston is Olivia, the only one of her group of friends who actually doesn’t have money -and who, having left her job as a teacher (for reasons that remain unspecified) is now working as a maid and struggling to make ends meet. She is also the only member of her group who is unmarried, although the marriages of her three best friends range from happy to hateful. There are successful co-authors Christine and David (Catherine Keener and Jason Isaacs) who not only no longer love each other, but don’t seem to even like each other. Their conversations are filed with hate and vicious barbs at each other. Then there is clothing designer Jane and body care entrepeneur Aaron (Frances McDormand and Simon McBurney) who seem generally happy with each other, although Jane is starting to feel old and angry at the world, and almost everyone Aaron encounters thinks that he is gay, and indeed this includes the viewer – well this viewer anyway. Finally there is stay at home wife Franny (who doesn’t need to work because she has a huge trust fund) and accountant Matt (Joan Cusack and Greg Germann) who do actually seem to love each other and have a happy marriage.

The friends try to helo Olivia in various ways – Franny sets her up with a personal trainer named Mike (Scott Can) who right from the beginning is quite obviously a complete swine and only gets worse, and they try to encourage her to get a better job, while being exasperated at her pot-smoking lifestyle.

And that’s more or less it. Lots of things happen, but nothing actually happens if that makes sense. This film is really an exploration of these people’s lives. The kind of scenes that we witness are totally believeable (two of three friends discussing the absent friend), Olivia mooning over a married ex-boyfriend, Christine sobbing over the realisation that she and her husband are no longer happy together…in truth, if you like a lot of action in your films, then this is not one for you. The ending itself is fairly inconclusive. It doesn’t come full circle with a neat conclusion, instead the whole movie is like a slice of life, and the ending is just the point where they’ve stopped showing these lives, but certainly the lives will continue with the little human dramas and triumph that pepper these characters’ stories.

The cast is sublime. Frances McDormand continues to demonstrate exactly why she is so highly regarded – she is one of those actresses who can convey so much with just a facial expression or simple gesture. Catherine Keener’s Christine’s sadness is almost palpable, and Joan Cusack is adorable as Franny, and so real. And if anyone has doubts about Jennifer Aniston’s acting, then there are a lot of films I might direct them to, but I would probably start with this one. She is not always likeable as Olivia, and sometimes I wanted to shake her, but she was absolutely easy to invest in, and just as people do in real life, sometimes I wanted to give her a cuddle and tell her it would all be okay, and sometimes I wanted to yell at her.

Credit also to the male actors – Jason Isaacs played a particularly unlikeable character, but he played him so well. (Isaacs is one of my favourite actors, as he has great range, and is so real in everything he does). Greg Germann was great too as Matt, but I just adored Simon McBurney, who was kind, clever and sweet as Aaron.

In all, I would say that if you like slow paced character studies, rather than high octane thrillers, give this a go. I enjoyed it a lot and hope you do too.

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Year of release: 2008

Director: Nicole Holofcener

Writer: Nicole Holofcener

Main cast: Jennifer Aniston, Frances McDormand, Catherine Keener, Joan Cusack, Simon McBurney, Jason Isaacs, Greg Germann, Scott Caan

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In this romcom (actually it’s more of an unrom-com, in that it has the comedy but is not romantic!), struggling writer Josh (Rafe Spall) and high-flyer Nat (Rose Byrne) have a whirlwind romance and get married after seven months. Only then does reality set in and they begin to realise that they don’t know each other that well, and may not be at all compatible. Further complications arise in the shape of Josh’s ex-girlfriend Chloe (Anna Faris) who clearly still loves him, and American businessman Guy (Simon Baker) who has immediate chemistry with Rose when he hires her firm to do some work for him.

There are laughs-a-plenty in this film – and as a warning, if you don’t like crude humour then I’d recommend you avoid this, as there is a lot of crudeness and toilet humour – but as alluded to above, not a whole lot of romance, at least not between the two leads. I did think the main four actors all played their parts remarkably well, even if there was not much chemistry between Josh and Nat. Or maybe that was the point – they seemed to click with other people but not with each other.

Stephen Merchant plays Danny, Josh’s best friend and best man, whose speech at the wedding made me wince with embarrassment, and who always seemed to know exactly the wrong thing to say! Because of this, his scenes were amongst the funniest for me, although possibly amongst the most annoying for some viewers. It’s also worth mentioning Minnie Driver and Jason Flenyng as unhappily married – or are they? – friends of Nat. Minnie Driver has a real talent for comedy and it shows in her acerbic character here. Olivia Colman also shines in her small role as marriage counsellor who obviously has problems in her own relationship!

I won’t spoil the ending but I will say that it was unexpected, and I liked that. Overall, if you are looking for some good belly laughs and an undemanding storyline, then give this a try.

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Year of release: 2013

Director: Dan Mazer

Writer: Dan Mazer

Main cast: Rafe Spall, Rose Byrne, Simon Baker, Anna Faris, Minnie Driver, Jason Flemyng, Stephen Merchant

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Larissa Stark has it all – a loving husband, three great children, a big house in a good neighbourhood, good looks and lots of money. But everything is turned on it’s head when she meets a young man in parking lot and finds herself drawn to another life. Her existence becomes a ongoing deceit and web of lies as she struggles with her conscience and tries to decide whether to stay or go. But is it possible to exchange one life for another quite so easily – and is the grass always as green as it appears on the other side?…

I have read several of Paullina Simons’ books over the years and enjoyed them all (I especially recommend The Bronze Horseman, The Girl in Times Square and Tully, the latter of which touched on many of the same themes as A Song in the Daylight). So it was with eagerness that I started this book, as well as maybe some apprehension (it’s almost 800 pages long and if I didn’t enjoy it, that could be a bit of a slog!) And after having finished it this morning, I find I have mixed thoughts. On the positive side, I do like Simons’ style of writing – she takes her time telling a story, so if a fast moving plot is what you are after, this may not be the book for you, but she really grounds out the situation for the reader so that you are immersed in events. Her prose flows and I found that I was reading large chunks at a time, and yes I did look forward to picking it up and continuing to read.

However, I found that I absolutely detested the main character. Now, I don’t think it’s necessary to like a character to enjoy a book  – for me, American Psycho is one of the best books I ever read and there is no universe in which I can say I like Patrick Bateman – but there does have to be something about them to draw you in, to maybe see things from their point of view even if you don’t agree with it. But Larissa just came across as a spoiled, selfish and pretentious narcissist who rode roughshod over other people to get what she wanted. Not only did she treat her husband and family badly but she also stopped caring about her friends and stopped seeing when they clearly needed her support.

Most of the other characters were also fairly unsympathetic – I found that as a reader I never really knew much about her young lover Kai; somehow I feel like he was the least fleshed out character of all. I did quite like Jared in the end, and also Larissa’s friend Maggie, but not her pretentious navel-gazing husband Ezra, although he came across better in the last third of the book, when the point of view is switched to that of Jared.

Overall, I did enjoy this book and would still read more by Paullina Simons. That said, if you had never read this author before and wanted to give it a go, this would not be the book I would recommend you start with.

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This book – along with every other psychological thriller written in the last couple of years, or so it seems – has drawn numerous comparisons with Gillian Flynn’s bestseller, Gone Girl. Full disclosure here – I loved Gone Girl while I was reading it, but after I had finished and thought about it, it all seemed a bit daft, and the more I thought about it, the more I decided it wasn’t as good as I had initially thought – so what I would make of Disclaimer, I wasn’t sure.

The story revolves around Catherine, a high powered, happily married woman, who finds a novel in her and her husband Robert’s new house – only when she starts reading it, she realises that the story is based on an incident from her own life some 15 years earlier, and one which she had hoped to put behind her forever.

The chapters alternate between those concentrating on Catherine – told in the third person – and the story of a lonely old man widower named Stephen Brigstocke. The connection between these two characters is revealed about a third of the way through, but I had already guessed at it beforehand.

With Catherine desperate to find out how the secret from her past has come to light, and Stephen bent on seeking revenge for what he believes are injustices that he has suffered, the two stories eventually converge and secrets are revealed. There is a huge twist towards the end, which I had not guessed – but I did guess that a twist was on the way.

This book is certainly a page turner – the writing flows easily and it’s an undemanding read. However, what let it down for me was the sheer implausibility of the characters’ actions – yes, characters plural. I can’t say too much without giving spoilers, which I am reluctant to do, but almost every character seemed to do something which didn’t make sense, and which was clearly only included to move the story along. Also, none of the characters were particularly likeable, although that in itself is not necessarily a bad thing.

Overall, this is what I call a ‘cheap chocolate’ book – it’s fine while you’re consuming it, but you know it’s not that good and when it’s over, you probably won’t feel satisfied. I’m giving it 3 out of 5 for it’s page turning pace, but I don’t think I’d be in a hurry to seek out more by this author.

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At the start of this book, Joanna, her partner Alistair and their 9 week old son Noah are at the airport waiting to fly from Scotland to Melbourne, where Alistair is from. The trip is part holiday, part opportunity for Alistair’s mother to meet her grandson and also in large part for Alistair to make a claim for custody of his 14 year old daughter Chloe, who lives in Australia with his first wife.

After landing in Australia, Noah goes missing; thereafter the story focusses on the resulting search and investigation into what happened to him. The parents, and in particular Joanna, come under close and mainly unkind public scrutiny with people speculating on Twitter, Facebook and in blog posts as to what has happened.

The story is told mainly from Joanna’s point of view (in the third person) and in Alistair’s ex-wife Alexandra’s point of view (in the first person). Alistair and Alexandra’s marriage broke up after his affair with Joanna and she is still bitter.

I enjoyed the book a lot and read it very quickly. I was surprised that the reader is told what happens to Noah straight away – as events unfold in fact – so whereas I was expecting a mystery where I would be kept in the dark as much as the characters, in fact it was more of a study of how people react and treat each other in the face of such a tragedy.

Although I raced through the book, it wasn’t without flaws – I felt that Joanna and Alexandra were fairly well drawn, but other than that, I only got the broadest sense of the rest of the characters. Alistair was almost a caricature, and deeply unlikeable.

Overall I would say that this book was satisfying at the time, but probably won’t stick in my memory for very long after I finished it.

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