I haven't been to the movies much lately. Far too many superhero action movies for my tastes. When some decent films for the discerning mature-age moviegoer come back to our cinemas, I'll go to them and write some reviews.
In the meantime, as I've probably commented before, I have returned to reading: yes, real hard-back books, like your parents and grandparents used to read. Or, in one or two cases, talking books or "audio books" as they seem to be called now. The latter have been quite interesting. More on them later.
I have just finished “After You” by the UK writer JoJo Moyes, published by The Penguin Group (Australia) in 2015. Some may call it "chick lit", but that's probably irrelevant; this is approximately 400 pages of most enjoyable entertainment. It is the sequel to the writer's hugely successful "Me before You", which was recently turned into a movie of the same name. I reviewed it not long ago (the film, that is), and thoroughly enjoyed it. I gave it quite a high score, if I remember right. I didn't read the book of "Me before You"; just saw the film. But, if the film accurately reflects the first book, then "After You", the sequel, is that rare thing, a sequel as good as the original.
Fans will remember the basic storyline of "Me before You": lovable, but slightly scatty young woman (Louisa) hired as carer to tragic, broodingly handsome quadriplegic Will Traynor, who is determined to have himself euthanised. They fall in love, have an affair, she begs him to live, but he won't change his mind. He goes off to Switzerland and dies, she is left devastated.
"After You" picks up Louisa some two years after Will's death. She is still devastated, tried to get over it by travel, failed dismally, and is now working a dead-end job in a bar. Then one night, she accidentally falls from her apartment's roof and is seriously injured. She is rushed to hospital by handsome ambulance paramedic Sam. She survives and becomes increasingly friendly with Sam. Could this be True Love for our sad heroine? Then, out of the blue, a distraught, wild, 16-year-old girl, Lily, turns up on Louisa's doorstep. Lily is Will's daughter by a long-ago ex-girlfriend. Not surprisingly, this unexpected development throws Louisa's life into new turmoil. Lily badly needs sorting out and Louisa feels obligated to try and rescue Will's out-of-control daughter.
This scenario gives JoJo Moyes, an excellent and entertaining writer, opportunities to investigate many contemporary social issues: teenagers with their sex and drugs, the malevolent influence of sexting and social media, gang culture, the on-again, off-again nature of so many modern relationships, divorce and re-marriage, blended families, and the deadening effect of many modern workplaces, to name a few. Louisa's efforts with Lily complicate her relations with Sam, while Lily's efforts to get to know her grandparents – Will's mother and father, who have now split up – cause ructions. At the height of all this kerfuffle, Louisa receives a dream job-offer to go and work in New York. She is torn three ways: take the New York job, persist with Lily, or stay with Sam? Her heart and her loyalties struggle to cope with this dilemma.
I was glued to the book right to the end. A fascinating, all-too-possible mixture of modern social situations, well told with alternating flashes of humour and pathos. Moyes knows her characters well and makes you care about what happens to them. Apart from telling a darn good tale, she knows how to write engagingly, so that the reader is entertained and drawn right into the action. Without giving away the ending, the conclusion is not entirely predictable, with enough loose ends left over that another sequel could easily be written. Will this instalment of Louisa's fraught romantic life be turned into a movie? I don't know, but I wouldn't be surprised.
Gilbert's star rating (out of five): * * * * 1/2
While "After You" is not a mystery thriller in the classic sense, "The Girl on the Train", by British writer Paula Hawkins, is. I read it – or rather, listened to it – recently in "talking book" format. This is the very first time I have ever used a "talking book", or "audio book" I think is the preferred expression. I thought it might be an entertaining way of spending time in bed when there is nothing on TV, and so it proved. "Girl" is a crime thriller that grips you from first page to last – or, in this case – from first CD disc to last. Don't know how many pages there are in the printed hard copy version of the novel, but in my Random House Audio Books version (released in 2015), it takes nine CDs with roughly one hour 15 min of audio on each disk. As far as I know, the CD version of the novel is unabridged.
Rachel catches the same train every morning from suburban London into the city. She gazes at the houses and their residents as she passes them every day, getting to know them by sight, giving names to their inhabitants, and inventing back stories for them. Then, one day, during a scheduled signal stop, she looks into one of the houses she has come to know, and sees something that is out of place, something that jars with her. Then, the woman, Megan, who lives in that house with her husband, Scott, disappears and turns up dead, murdered. Rachel feels compelled to report what she saw from her train window to the police.
But, in creeping, relentless fashion, the author reveals, piece by piece, that Rachel's relationship to the dead Megan extends far beyond being an innocent witness from a train window. Megan once worked briefly as a babysitter for Tom and his new wife Anna who both live nearby. Tom is Rachel's ex-husband, and she has not recovered from his ditching of her in favour of Anna. In fact, Rachel stalks Tom and Anna and her own life threatens to fall apart. And then, why is Rachel for ever catching the same train into London? More menacingly, is she involved in the actual murder? Bit by bit, the author spins these elements into a riveting, toxic mix, and you, the reader, struggle to work out the killer's identity.
With its motif of "witness looking through a window and spotting a crime", "The Girl on the Train" invites comparisons with Alfred Hitchcock's classic 1954 movie "Rear Window". Here, James Stewart, ably helped by his girlfriend Grace Kelly, spots a crime going on in a next-door apartment, while observing his neighbours from his bedroom window. (Rather topically, James Stewart spends much of the film in a wheelchair.) Given we are comparing a novel with a movie, it's hardly surprising that Hawkins' story is more complex and more layered. Also, "Girl" explores the modern-day complexities of family relationships far more so than Hitchcock's film. But both stories share a foreboding sense of claustrophobia: much of "Rear Window" takes place in James Stewart's bedroom, while in "Girl", most of the action takes place in one suburb, indeed in one street.
However – stop press – "Girl" is being turned into a movie starring Emily Blunt as Rachel. I caught the back-end of a trailer some weeks ago. I just hope the Hollywood screenwriters get it right. Hopefully they won't change the book's ending; I suspect Hawkins wrote her ending with Hollywood in mind, anyway.
The main challenge for a Hollywood adaptation of the book may be the way the story is structured. It is narrated, in the first person, by the three main female characters, Rachel, Anna, and Megan. As a book, this works really well. Quite how it will work in a film version, I'm not too sure. In my audio-book version, the story is told by three separate female readers, one each for the three principal characters. The three readers are very English, and do a really nice job with their characters. The only slight drawback with this, is that one of the minor male characters, the psychiatrist Kamal, is given rather different accents by two of the readers: one plays him with a nice Home Counties accent, while another presents him with a slightly middle-European accent. Never mind: this is a very minor criticism, not meant in any way to detract from the overall high quality of the audio-book version.
In short, a highly effective thriller that grips your attention right to the end, whether you read it as a printed book or listen to it in audio-book form. Highly recommended.
Gilbert's star rating (out of five): * * * * 3/4