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Saturday, October 18, 2014

'Leaving Time' by Jodi Picoult

Received from the Publisher

From the BLURB:

Alice Metcalf was a devoted mother, loving wife and accomplished scientist who studied grief among elephants. Yet it's been a decade since she disappeared under mysterious circumstances, leaving behind her small daughter, husband, and the animals to which she devoted her life. All signs point to abandonment - or worse. 

Still Jenna - now thirteen years old and truly orphaned by a father maddened by grief - steadfastly refuses to believe in her mother's desertion. So she decides to approach the two people who might still be able to help her find Alice: a disgraced psychic named Serenity Jones, and Virgil Stanhope, the cynical detective who first investigated her mother's disappearance and the strange, possibly linked death of one of her mother's coworkers. 

Together these three lonely souls will discover truths destined to forever change their lives. Deeply moving and suspenseful, Jodi Picoult's 21st novel is a radiant exploration of the enduring love between mothers and daughters.

Jenna Metcalf’s life should have been very different. She should have been raised at the Elephant Sanctuary that her father, Thomas, started and ran alongside her mother, Alice Metcalf; a brilliant scientist whose seminal work was on grief among elephants. Jenna should have been raised by the village behind the sanctuary, fellow keepers Nevvie, Grace and Gideon. Jenna should have been raised to be her mother’s shadow, the little miniature of her with pink Converse shoes and a bright mane of red hair.

Instead Jenna’s childhood was railroaded when she was just a baby, and never got back on course. At thirteen she now lives with her guardian grandmother because her father is institutionalised and her mother disappeared a decade ago after the trampling death of a fellow keeper at her parent’s sanctuary. But Jenna has never stopped hoping that her mother is alive, and that her cold case will lead to a missing person who has either forgotten about her past life or has been searching as desperately for Jenna as she has for her mother. 

So Jenna is employing the help of two unlikely people – once internationally renowned television psychic (with a high success rate) Serenity Jones has been out of the public eye for a number of years, ever since her psychic abilities dried up after a disastrous child abduction case. Then there’s Virgil Stanhope, the detective who worked the elephant sanctuary death case and still feels partly responsible for Alice Metcalf’s disappearance. 

This unlikely trio will set out to answer Jenna’s most burning question once and for all – what happened to her mother?

‘Leaving Time’ is the new novel from Jodi Picoult.

I had so been looking forward to this novel – I am a huge Jodi Picoult fan, and proudly display her backlist on my bookshelf. I’d count ‘My Sister’s Keeper’ and ‘The Pact’ among my most enjoyable reads of the last decade, and last year I thoroughly enjoyed her novel ‘The Storyteller’. I classify Jodi Picoult as one of my ‘tried and true’ authors – I know I’m going to get suckered into her novels, and I rarely care how outlandish the storylines are because I enjoy the journey so very much. So I’m a little bit heavy-hearted to report that ‘Leaving Time’ wasn’t the steadfast read I’d been hoping for …

The story is told from four perspectives. Jenna Metcalf is the precocious thirteen-year-old narrator, admittedly too smart for her own good and so unlike the other kids in her class that she’s often labelled a freak. Jenna’s voice does feel out of touch with her age, but we can assume that the traumatic history around losing her mother (and, in many ways, her father) has left her a wise and scarred old soul in the body of this adolescent;
I know that I used to be a girl whose hair was strawberry blond, who ran around like a wild thing while my mother took endless notes about the elephants. Now I’m a kid who is too serious for her age and too smart for her own good. And yet as impressive as I am with scientific statistics, I fail miserably when it comes to real-life facts, like knowing that Wanelo is a website and now a hot new band. It eighth grade is a microcosm of the social hierarchy of the human adolescent (and to my mother, it certainly would have been), then reciting fifty named elephant herds in the Tuli Block of Botswana cannot compete with identifying all the members of One Direction.

Jenna pours over her mother’s old scientific research on elephants, and it’s in these segues that we also get first-person narration from Alice Metcalf explaining her life’s work – studying grief among elephants, how she came to this thesis working in Botswana where she met Thomas Metcalf and made the journey with him back to America to work at his sanctuary and marry him, after discovering she was pregnant after a one-night stand in Africa. Alice is narrating the events and circumstances leading up to her disappearance, all of her chapters are set in the past and hurtling towards a terrible night that Jenna is still reeling from the repercussions of.

“Ten years isn’t a cold case, it’s an ice trail. There’s nothing still here now that existed back when your mother disappeared.” 
“I’m here,” I say. 

Then we have Virgil and Serenity – each carrying their own demons and personal reasons for helping young Jenna sift through the sands of the past to get to the truth. 

“I used to think I saw my mom all the time,” I say softly. “I’d be in a crowded place and I’d let go of my grandma’s hand and start running toward her, but I was never able to catch up.” 
Serenity is staring at me with a strange look on her face. “Maybe you are psychic.”  
“Or maybe missing someone and finding someone have the same symptoms,” I say. 

There’s a lot going on in ‘Leaving Time’, but that’s not unusual for Picoult who prefers multiple narrators and stringing loose threads together to make an intricate pattern. The pattern of ‘Leaving Time’ is not hard to discern either; elephants, memory and grieving, with heady doses of the matriarchy/ allmothering aspects of elephant life – the mother/child connection. And that’s what worked the most for me – the research into elephant memory, particularly relating to traumatic events.

Picoult, through Alice, does write beautifully and tenderly about elephants – from their grieving process to a mother’s patience for her calf and the way a herd plays together. These descriptions are gorgeous, and even without reading Picoult’s acknowledgements at the back of the book (where she cites the work of people like ‘Elephant Whisperer’ Lawrence Anthony) and speaks about ivory trade, I’d know how deeply moved she was in the process of researching these animals for this book. 

It was the human connections that were harder for me to enjoy. Indeed, it wasn’t until halfway through this book that I even felt I was semi-hooked, interested in Jenna’s story and how it would all end. Where Picoult in the past has drawn readers in with moralistic “what would you do?” premises, ‘Leaving Time’ felt murkier for leaving readers out of such conundrums – we’re very much along for the Alice/Jenna ride, and little is asked of what we’d do in their shoes – which is so often how Picoult’s books work.

**MAJOR SPOILER – do not read until you’ve finished the book – but I can’t write a review without saying it** highlight to read 

[I guessed the ‘twist’ about 100 pages out from the end. And I was guessing in a “oh, I hope that isn’t what she’s been doing here…” kind of way. Because, let’s be honest, M. Night Shyamalan and ‘The Sixth Sense’ have spoiled that twist for everyone – I think it will cross a lot of people’s minds because by now it’s not really a twist at all. It’s been played, and it felt that way in ‘Leaving Time’ I’m sorry to say.]

I felt a disconnection in this book, and maybe that’s me missing some of my favourite Picoult staples: heart-warming (though complicated) romance, courtroom drama and moral grey-area. ‘Leaving Time’ was okay, but I’m used to being consumed by a Jodi Picoult book instead of the limp-along way I read her latest.


Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Race, growing up and 'Nona and Me'

My new column for Kill Your Darlings is an interview with Clare Atkins, author of new YA book 'Nona and Me': 

'The Rosie Effect' Don Tillman #2 by Graeme Simsion

From the BLURB:

The Rosie Project was an international publishing phenomenon, with more than a million copies sold in over forty countries around the world. Now Graeme Simsion returns with the highly anticipated sequel, The Rosie Effect.
Don Tillman and Rosie Jarman are now married and living in New York. Don has been teaching while Rosie completes her second year at Columbia Medical School. Just as Don is about to announce that Gene, his philandering best friend from Australia, is coming to stay, Rosie drops a bombshell: she’s pregnant.
In true Tillman style, Don instantly becomes an expert on all things obstetric. But in between immersing himself in a new research study on parenting and implementing the Standardised Meal System (pregnancy version), Don’s old weaknesses resurface. And while he strives to get the technicalities right, he gets the emotions all wrong, and risks losing Rosie when she needs him most.
The Rosie Effect is the charming and hilarious romantic comedy of the year.
'The Rosie Effect' is the sequel to Graeme Simsion’s 2013 internationally best-selling novel 'The Rosie Project', which I enjoyed immensely (as did Bill Gates). 
I had been very excited to read its sequel and revisit Don and Rosie – and I said as much in my 'Rosie Project' review. 

But now I have read the sequel, and I did not care for it. 

Allow me to try and relay the things I did not enjoy about this book, and assign them some sort of quantifiable value. I shall list what I did not like, and use a percentage marker to indicate how much their inclusion annoyed me and affected my enjoyment of 'The Rosie Effect'. 

• The Baby Project – 5% 

'The Rosie Project' was about geneticist Don Tillman concocting a scientific survey to find the perfect wife. He found an imperfectly-perfect wife in Rosie Jarman, who failed at his Wife Project but succeeded in the hands-on role. 'The Rosie Effect' begins when Don and Rosie are happily married and living in New York – Don is a professor at Columbia and Rosie is completing her PhD. It is not a good time for them to “get pregnant”, but that’s exactly what happens … which triggers The Baby Project – which sees Don attempt to prepare for impending fatherhood by conducting extensive research into everything from suitable diet for Rosie to child-rearing techniques. Don is particularly keen to conduct such research because of an altercation with a friend-of-a-friend, who states that Don would make an unsuitable parent. 
It follows that after The Wife Project comes The Baby Project (as indicated by famous rhyme: first comes loves, then comes marriage etc, etc, etc…) but this storyline quickly falters, and the book started to feel like the nine-month gestation period itself. Or, as Alfred Hickling for The Guardian noted: “it fulfils a formula familiar to many sequels of bestelling novels in that it is twice as long and only half as good.” 

• Gregory Peck – 25%

Simsion repeats many jokes in this book. The Gregory Peck ha-ha was particularly annoying for it’s repetitiveness.
Rosie thinks that Don bears a resemblance to the famous actor Gregory Peck (circa: 'To Kill a Mockingbird'). This was a lovely visual in 'The Rosie Project'. In 'The Rosie Effect' we learn that Don has taken his resemblance and amplified it by repeating famous lines from Gregory Peck films ('Roman Holiday' in particular) which often results in Rosie feeling amorous towards Don. This is nice, and when Don first mentions his subtle ‘strategy’ it’s funny, and I cracked a smile … but Simsion repeats a variation of this joke about 20 times throughout the book.
It is a sad day when mention of Gregory Peck in a novel becomes frustrating. 
A sad day indeed. 

• Marital Violence joke – 35%

It’s not just the Gregory Peck joke that Simsion repeats.
There are two elaborate comedy-of-errors situations that take quite a bit of build-up, but the premise is people thinking that Don means to do some sort of harm to Rosie and/or the baby. He doesn’t. The misunderstanding comes from Don being somewhere on the autism spectrum (what was once called Asperger syndrome) and being entirely too honest and direct with people, particularly those in positions of authority. This sees him participating in a domestic violence counselling session, and giving the wrong impression to a flight marshal about intending to hurt Rosie. 
This “funny” clunked on the page … twice.

• 'The Rosie Project' similarities – 10%

A lot of The Rosie Effect is set-up to be a mirrored sequel to 'The Rosie Project'. The Wife/Baby Project plot is just one of them. Simsion reuses another in the friendly neighbour who Don becomes emotionally (unbeknownst to him) attached to. In 'Rosie Project' Don’s kind, elderly neighbour Daphne was the person who encouraged him to become a husband … hence, The Wife Project. Simsion conveniently contrives a similar scenario for Don in 'The Rosie Effect', except this time the neighbour is an old rocker called George who has his own family dilemmas and both gives Don advice, and benefits from Don’s “boy’s night out” initiative. George also provides Don and Rosie an unrealistic housing opportunity in New York. 
I didn’t love the skewed-slightly plot, especially since George didn’t hold a candle to Daphne who was a crucial part of Don’s character arc. 

• Gene – 5%

Gene’s wife, Claudia, finally leaves the serial-philanderer and Don convinces Gene to come and take a position at Columbia and stay with him and Rosie. 
This book is in no way improved by more Gene. 
… I don’t think anything is ever improved by more Gene. 

• The Women – 20%

This is a very male-centric story. Don spends a lot of “boys nights out” with his friends George, Gene and new acquaintance Dave working through various husband and fatherhood difficulties. By comparison, Rosie actually feels like a depleted character in this book – it didn’t feel like she was physically present for a lot of it (and probably wasn’t, as she’s frequently working on her thesis) – but emotionally it felt like Simsion left her to lag behind. Maybe this is because he writes her as a silly pregnant woman – irrational, baby-brained and forever frustrated – rather than an actual human being who we’ve come to know and love through Don’s search for her in 'The Rosie Project'. As Helen Elliott said in her Sydney Morning Herald review: "If ever there was a formulaic pregnancy, this is it. It might make men laugh. Women will be unamused and even cross."
Other women in the book are equally hollow – there’s the second emotionally overwrought pregnant woman (Sonia), evil professional lady (Lydia), Skype-chat ex (Claudia) or simply background extras B1, B2 and B3 (I’m not kidding). 

100% disappointed. 

I didn’t like 'The Rosie Effect'. I first became worried when I got to Chapter Eight and realised I hadn’t chuckled once – compared to my belly-laughing by that point in 'The Rosie Project'. 
Sure, a few scenes elicited smiles:

Loud Woman laughed. Loudly. ‘He’s Rain Man! You know. Dustin Hoffman when he remembers all the cards. Dan’s the cocktail Rain Man.’ 
Rain Man! I had seen the film. I did not identify in any way with Rain Man, who was inarticulate, dependent and unemployable. A society of Rain Men would be dysfunctional. A society of Don Tillmans would be efficient, safe and pleasant for all of us. 

But they were far and few between.

To be honest, I rushed through reading the end because I just wanted to be done with it. I still think Don is a great character, and I will pick up the third book when it comes out … but I might have to rein in my expectations, and I suggest you do the same if you’re going into 'The Rosie Effect'. 



Saturday, October 11, 2014

Australian Romance Readers Convention - ARRC2015 - 'Young Love'

Hello Darling Readers!

This is just a little note to *squeeeeee* that next year I'll be attending the Australian Romance Readers Convention ... and moderating the young adult romance panel 'Young Love'. 

I'm really excited to discuss YA with these fabulous authors: 

Friday, October 10, 2014

'El Deafo' by Cece Bell

From the BLURB:

Going to school and making new friends can be tough. But going to school and making new friends while wearing a bulky hearing aid strapped to your chest? That requires superpowers! In this funny, poignant graphic novel memoir, author/illustrator Cece Bell chronicles her hearing loss at a young age and her subsequent experiences with the Phonic Ear, a very powerful—and very awkward—hearing aid.

The Phonic Ear gives Cece the ability to hear—sometimes things she shouldn’t—but also isolates her from her classmates. She really just wants to fit in and find a true friend, someone who appreciates her as she is. After some trouble, she is finally able to harness the power of the Phonic Ear and become “El Deafo, Listener for All.” And more importantly, declare a place for herself in the world and find the friend she’s longed for.

I have been excited for this middle-grade graphic semi-autobiographical novel for the longest time! I remember when BEA was on earlier this year, lots of publishing articles were writing about how autobiographies and memoirs were a predicted trend coming to youth literature – a few titles that intrigued me were Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out by Susan Kuklin, We Should Hang Out Sometime: Embarrassingly, a true story by Josh Sundquist, not to mention David Burton’s How to Be Happy which won the Text Prize for Young Adult and Children's Writing this year … and El Deafo by Cece Bell.

EL Deafo is Cece Bell’s semi-autobiographic graphic novel that begins when Bell is four and a half years old and contracts meningitis. During her recovery it’s discovered that she has become severely to profoundly deaf, and so begins her new life as the only deaf member of her hearing family, and the beginning of her relationship with The Phonic Ear – a hearing aid pack that she wears like a backpack and connects to her ears via cords.

I particularly loved the way that Bell portrays her gradual hearing loss – while recovering in hospital odd things start happening (like the nurses giving all the kids ice-cream, except her). The strangeness continues at home, where Bell becomes anxious when she can’t find her mother in the house. The gradual silence is expressed through speech-bubbles with fading text … and during these chapters Bell is speaking from her four-year-old perspective, unable to pinpoint exactly what’s changed in her world, but with a deep sense that something is missing.

Bell’s childhood plays out during the 1970s, so at her specialist kindergarten she – along with her fellow deaf and hard of hearing classmates – are taught how to lip-read. 

This proves a complicated lesson for Bell, who details the myriad of ways that lip-reading is about a lot more than just looking at people’s lips – you have to look out for visual, context and gestural clues for one thing. And if a person is talking to you at night, with a moustache/beard, with their head turned or amongst a big group of people – all those clues are of little help.

By the time Bell’s family moved to a different town, she had done so well at kindergarten that when she started first grade, she went to a hearing school and was the only student there who had hearing loss. Outfitted with The Phonic Ear and a microphone for her teacher to wear (that transmitted to Bell’s hearing aid) it was during this time that Bell came to think of herself as El Deafo – a superhero with super hearing!

Bell explores so many facets of her childhood, and all of it is entirely relatable. From trying to extricate herself from a bossy friend, to experiencing her first crush – so much of El Deafo is universal. And then there are the ways that Bell explores how her childhood was ever so slightly different and sometimes more complicated – the friend who insisted on introducing Cece as her “deaf friend” for instance, her initial embarrassments with sign-language.

El Deafo is also laugh-out-loud funny. Bell has hijinks with her Phonic Ear and microphone, which turns her into a fly-on-the-wall in the teacher's lounge ... and during her teacher's toilet breaks. It's great to watch Bell transform into a self-confident superhero on the page, but only when she starts being a little more honest and lets her classmates into her unique world. 

I really loved El Deafo. I interviewed Kayla Whaley recently, a moderator over at the wonderful Disability in KidLit blog and someone you should definitely follow on Twitter. In my Kill Your Darlings interview, Whaley spoke about how important it is to show varied and positive forms of disability in youth literature – “I think that’s a point that doesn’t get made often. There are innumerable disabled experiences, not one single authoritative experience. It’s critical that we have varied portrayals, that we show young readers that their experience of disability is valid, no matter what that experience looks like.”

What’s really great about Cece Bell is that she acknowledges El Deafo is very much based on her unique childhood experiences; “It is in no way a representation of what all deaf people might experience,” she says in a note from the author. She also acknowledges that many in the Deaf community do not want to “fix” themselves, or see being deaf as a disability. But she’s very honest in this book, and explores the many ways that she struggled and railed against her hearing loss – “I was a deaf kid surrounded by kids who could hear. I felt different, and in my mind, being different was not a good thing. I secretly, and openly, believed that my deafness, in making me so different, was a disability. And I was ashamed.”

These are the positive and varied portrayals that Kayla was talking about – and El Deafo is such a wonderful example of how powerful such stories can be. At the end of her author’s note, Bell summarises what it took so long for her younger-self to learn: “Our differences are our superpowers!” 

This is a favourite book of 2014 for me – an absolutely stunning semi-autobiographic graphic novel that middle-grade readers will love, but everyone should read!


Sunday, October 5, 2014

'Us' by David Nicholls

Received from the Publisher

From the BLURB:

David Nicholls brings to bear all the wit and intelligence that graced ONE DAY in this brilliant, bittersweet novel about love and family, husbands and wives, parents and children.

Longlisted for the Man Booker Prize for Fiction 2014.

'I was looking forward to us growing old together. Me and you, growing old and dying together.'

'Douglas, who in their right mind would look forward to that?'

Douglas Petersen understands his wife's need to 'rediscover herself' now that their son is leaving home. He just thought they'd be doing their rediscovering together. So when Connie announces that she will be leaving, too, he resolves to make their last family holiday into the trip of a lifetime: one that will draw the three of them closer, and win the respect of his son. One that will make Connie fall in love with him all over again. The hotels are booked, the tickets bought, the itinerary planned and printed. What could possibly go wrong?

Us’ is the much-anticipated new novel from David Nicholls, coming five years after his successful ‘One Day’, which sold 5 million copies and was made into a movie starring Anne Hathaway.

After ‘OneDay’ came out, Nicholls was heralded as something of a lad-lit novelist, with Richard Curtis rom-com undertones … and perhaps for that novels’ enormous commercial success, he was marked as something of a lightweight. As Mark Lawson summarised for The Guardian recently: “assumed to be a sentimental populist by those who have read about his success rather than reading his books.” So it came as somewhat of a surprise when before ‘Us’ even hit bookshelves, it was longlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize for Fiction. The longlisting has probably left some to wonder if there’s more to Nicholls than they first thought (undoubtedly), or if the Man Booker should go down in their esteem – but I quite liked Nicholls’ summary of the accolade: “I'm trying to give an answer that isn't too insipid, but I was extremely flattered by it, and in the same way I was a bit surprised, I'm sure lots of other commentators were surprised."

I, personally, loved ‘One Day’ – and his novel before that ‘Starter For Ten’ is also a favourite of mine. And while he hasn’t released a book in five years, I’ve also enjoyed following his television-writing career – his most recent TV movie ‘The 7.39’ was particularly wonderful. So I was just excited to read something new from Nicholls, accolades or no, because I find his books to be both comforting and mildly confronting as he explores rather ho-hum aspects of middle-class existence with cutting humour and uncomfortable introspection. I loved ‘Us’, and will mark it as a favourite of 2014.

‘Us’ is about the Petersen family Grand Tour of Europe – London, Paris, Amsterdam, Munich, Venice, Florence, Siena, Madrid and Barcelona – with Connie, Douglas and their 18-year-old son Albie who is about to go off to college and study photography. But the Grand Tour is a more weighted affair for Douglas, who a few weeks previously was told by his wife that she intends to leave him:

‘Is it really so … horrific to you, Connie, the thought of you and I being alone together? Because I thought we had a good marriage …’ 
‘We did, we do. I’ve been very happy with you, Douglas, very, but the future–’ 
‘Then why would you want to throw that away?’ 
'I just feel that as a unit, as a husband and wife, we did it. We did our best, we can move on, our work is done.’ 
‘It was never work for me.’ 
‘Well, sometimes it was for me. Sometimes it felt like work. Now that Albie’s leaving, I want to feel this is the beginning of something new, not the beginning of the end.’ 
The beginning of the end. Was she still talking about me? She made me sound like some kind of apocalypse. 
As a man of science, biochemist Douglas believes that with forethought and planning he can use the Grand Tour as a last-ditch effort to save his marriage. But of course it all goes horribly, horribly wrong amidst the Botticellis and Uccellos of Paris and the Rembrandts and Vermeers of Amsterdam.

Douglas is our narrator, and for reasons of openness and thoroughness (and just plain common sense) he would probably be the first to admit that he’ll be an unreliable one at that. The book is told in ‘real-time’ as the Grand Tour gets underway, while Douglas also recounts his and Conie’s decades-plus marriage in flashback chapters that run concurrently to his detailing their family’s holiday from hell.

I would hesitate to call ‘Us’ a romance – because by the time we meet them on their Grand Tour, I think it is unmistakable that Douglas and Connie are at a rather perilous point in their marriage. This is further evidenced by their opposites-attracting courtship that Douglas recounts. Connie is the artistic, bohemian in their marriage, while Douglas is the Type-A personality who, try as he might, never quite grasped the spontaneity and laissez-faire attitude Connie has been trying to instil in him since they met.  But, at the same time, I would call ‘Us’ a romance of sorts, as the book is very much about the relationship between Douglas and his son, Albie.

Albie takes after his mother in all things, and since wriggling out of his father’s grasp at age eight Albie has treated Douglas with a special kind of contempt, while also harbouring a deep-seated (not entirely inaccurate) belief that he is a great disappointment to him: 

In short, my son makes me feel like his step-father. 
I have had some experience of unrequited love in the past and that was no picnic, I can tell you. But the unrequited love of one’s only living offspring has its own particular slow acid burn.

Something that struck me while reading ‘Us’ was that there is a hint of ‘One Day’ in the book, and I do wonder if the kernel of an idea was planted back in Dexter Mayhew’s relationship with his father, Steven. Dexter’s father quite openly disapproved of his son’s lifestyle choices, and Dexter was much closer to his mother (the two of them often sharing private jokes at his father’s expense). There was also something quite lovely about that relationship by the end of the novel, when Dexter’s father (knowing from experience what his son was going through) helped get Dexter through a great depression and out of bed in the morning.

I know that lots of people read ‘One Day’ and couldn’t quite champion the romance aspect, because Emma Morley and Dexter Mayhew were often prickly characters and not very easy to like. Those same people will probably struggle with ‘Us’ too; as Douglas, Connie and Albie are all hard to swallow at times. But that’s half the appeal of Nicholls, for me anyway – it’s not just that he writes flawed characters, but that he writes them with such uncomfortable aplomb. If you can’t see your own flaws in them, then they’ll at least remind you of what you so dislike about other people in your life … Though, having said that and for all his flaws, there’s something charming about Douglas. I was going to write ‘pathetically charming’ but it’s not even that – he is so downtrodden and beaten in this book, but that he champions his own marriage and family is kind of remarkable, even when faced with such devastating odds;

A great deal of stress is placed on the importance of humour in the modern relationship. Everything will be all right, we are led to believe, as long as you can make each other laugh, rendering a successful marriage as, in effect, fifty years of improv. 

While reading this I did also think that Douglas Petersen has something of the Don Tillman to him (the Asperger's hero of Graeme Simsion’s own publishing phenomenon ‘Rosie Project’ and this year’s ‘Rosie Effect’). Douglas and Don are the men of science in love with carefree wives Connie and Rosie, and I can imagine that if Rosie threw down a divorce gauntlet, Don would pick it up in much the methodical, calculated way that Douglas does … but at the same time, I think ‘Us’ has more in common with Rainbow Rowell’s 2014 novel ‘Landline’. Both are about marriage-in-crisis, and begin at a crossroads in the very real possibility of separation. Rowell and Nicholls also employ similar flashback techniques, though with varying success – for Douglas, recounting his and Connie’s life together is all part of gathering the facts and empirical evidence of happier times and also trying to pinpoint where it all started to go wrong. In ‘Landline’, protagonist Georgie discovers an old rotary phone that allows her to dial her husband (before he became her husband) in the past – reliving a happier time in their courtship. I wasn’t a huge fan of ‘Landline’, and found the recounting of a marriage in strife to be quite dull … Nicholls, for his telling this tale from the perspective of stick-in-the-mud husband whose battle changes to being more about connecting with his son, was far more interesting to me.

Us’ does read like a coming-of-age novel, even though Douglas is 54-years-old when he starts having these cataclysmic revelations about his wife and life. And the book is a bit like reading a car crash in slow motion, as readers reach the inevitable conclusion far quicker and easier than Douglas ever does. But for all that this is a sad subject to be exploring (and a somewhat pedestrian one – how many marriage end in divorce now, and late-in-life divorce is also on the rise) it didn’t feel like a sad book. I laughed so much while reading, and I admired Douglas as a quiet everyday-hero who is doing something so ordinarily admirable in his life. I loved that this is really more a father-son relationship book, and that it felt like the resounding BOOM! of echoes from Nicholl’s ‘One Day’, and even ‘Starter For Ten’ which explored the absence of a father in protagonist Brian Jackson’s life.

I love David Nicholls, I’ve missed him and am quietly thrilled that despite a five-year absence, I count his triumphant return to bookshelves as a favourite of 2014.