Book Review: The Girl on the Train

The_Girl_On_The_TrainI recently read this after getting a little bogged down with a more clunky read I do hope to finish but needed a breezy thrill to grease the cogs. I picked up The Girl on the Train recently; I’d seen it a lot out and about and I almost wondered in the back of my mind if it was too commercial a thriller to enjoy. But I let my preconceptions slide and bought the book.

The Girl on the Train, while not the perfect thriller, certainly held my attention enough for it to be enjoyed like a thriller. I credit this to several aspects: crisp prose with a strong storytelling style and at the root of it an engaging plot thread.

The prose, as I said, is crisp and well-constructed. The chapters shift point-of-view from one of the three women protagonists around whom the story is hung. It reads a lot like diary entries; each chapter interspersed with either morning or evening sections. As a storytelling mechanic this was different enough and a novel enough approach to propel me through

This I felt complimented the story; normal prose detailing the domestic minutiae of the protagonists day-to-day would’ve been unengaging; instead the prose was filleted right down to what mattered to the story. That’s not to say the prose was unengaging; it was, but neither was it meandering. It’s definitely the style of writing I appreciate more, and it’s a trait in thriller writing I expressly appreciate too; less so the purple, overwritten prose so emblematic to other genres.

The plot behind The Girl on the Train dug its claws in – I wanted to see the mystery solved, and it did, as thrillers do, neatly wrap itself up in threads in the first two thirds of the book for these threads to unwind in the final third. I was gripped and immersed enough to want to know what was happening. The payoff at the end, with the final confrontation, was satisfying and smacked me right in the face a little – an of course! moment neatly subverted until the climax.

But what struck me as a criticism of the book was the characters – three women, Rachel, Anna and Megan – that it revolves around are steeped in suburban melodrama. Rachel, the primary protagonist, is an unreliable narrator in the sense that she’s always drunk but that’s only a surface illusion. The book plays on the reader’s expectations about a narrator who is quickly characterised as an alcoholic and twists it around. That distrust of Rachel as an unreliable narrator (which becomes a key point in the climax) is another reason to stick at it; the story may seem mundane, but an undertone of suspicion and not-quite-right-ness kept up the intrigue. It helps because the crisp prose and initially-melodramatic characters, who can come across as pastiches of suburban living could so easily grate the book to a halt.

It is this suburban melodrama that ultimately drives the story to its ugly twist. The characters, all bored and depressed wives at their core, were melodramatic and the source of their squabble was succinctly suburban. These characters ultimately are all defined by their husbands or their children. I do feel we could’ve seen more into the characters beside those attributes, to get a deeper understanding of them as I feel the characters had so much more to give beside the narrow viewpoint of their husbands (and feeling towards) and children but alas that was what the plot demanded we focus on. These characters are petty, petulant and, strangely enough, that seems not all-to-farfetched in the nebulous world of boring suburbia.

This seemed two-dimensional but on reflection this two-dimensionality fitted the remit of the book. The Girl on the Train tells the story of what happens behind closed doors in sleepy suburbia. Ultimately the image of suburbia is cast aside and the unsettling truth behind it is revealed. Ultimately though suburbia is not a subject area I am particularly interested in exploring but the book held my interest to the very end.

I wavered a little on the rating but ultimately had to settle down to a 3. It’s not a bad book at all things considered and I quite liked it for what it was! There’s enough here to hold my interest and keep me intrigued through a journey through the underbelly of “perfect” suburbia.

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Book Review: Sirens

SirensAs part of my recently-concluded Creative Writing degree course I had the opportunity to briefly study Crime fiction, which proved an enjoyable divergence from my recent reading. Indeed, this lead onto a conversation with a friend of mine who’s been urging me to dip my toe into noir crime fiction for as long as I can recall; serendipitously, Sirens happened to be on sale on Amazon and, after a little prod from my noir-aficionado friend, it ended up sitting on my bedside table not very long after.

From the off, I recognised a lot of traits in Sirens that I had identified as part of my studies, in particular in relation to the set text I examined and enjoyed for the Crime strand of the module, Shut Eye by Adam Baron. There are some flawed, morally-ambiguous characters, a seedy, gritty underbelly and the usage of the city, in the case of Sirens, Manchester, becomes a character in itself. Reflecting on my studies, Sirens was making, well, all the right noises.

The book has a gritty, bleak tone that is exemplified by the deliberate choice of setting and time: Manchester in November. Even as someone that is not familiar with Manchester at all (indeed I’m a Londoner) that alone does a great deal to set a mood and tone that the book keeps going all the way through. The presentation of Manchester is vivid in accentuating that sense of tone, even when the action and story move across distinctly disparate areas of the city – abandoned industrial areas to exclusive penthouses to what amounts to the epitome of suburbia are all facades that contain the overarching mood. It’s deeply atmospheric and engrossing, the city itself drawing me in as a reader.

The characters, too, are equally atmospheric; they all occupy shades of grey in terms of morality that are reflected in the bleak winter skies that permeate the Manchester in Sirens. It’s an effective mix, the sensation of not knowing who can be trusted, and certainly having ideas of who is bad and who is good upended and subverted just aided in my immersion. Like Shut Eye, there’s a corrosive, and compelling mix of corruption, vice and politics. Better, none of it is presented in a polemic way; if anything, it’s presented in a realistic, gritty stance. As nice as the reader may consider themselves, they can’t help but relate to how real this all could be, behind the façade of closed doors.

The protagonist, Aidan Waits, is perhaps initially a little cliched, the down-on-his-luck detective caught with his hands in the till but the journey he embarks on allows exploration of the character’s depth – who is he working for? Is it ultimately himself? Overall the protagonist is engaging and effective – both as a character and at his job, so there’s something to relate to beneath the multi-faceted surface. He’s an engaging protagonist and the ambiguity over his end goals is another point that propels the reader to finish the book; now he’s waist-deep in this mess, how is he going to get out of it? Or, more to the point we’re led to question, can he?

Being fairly new to the genre of crime thrillers, I’d cut my teeth on pacey books such as the Jack Reacher books from Lee Child. These are action-oriented and, most pleasing for me, unpretentious and accessible. Approaching Sirens I was a little concerned that, being a more serious, “noir” story, it might not quite live up that accessibility. These concerns were for naught; Sirens has a breathless pace that, while perhaps not as unrelenting as Lee Child’s works, which became a reference, still allows for a great deal of immersion into the atmosphere and world created, but it doesn’t linger too long to outstay its welcome. It strikes what I would say is a very good balance. There’s a lot going on that we experience as a reader throughout the first two-thirds of the book that immerses us in the world; details begin to stick out and make us ask questions. It is these questions that propel us, the reader, into the final third of the book where the threads we’ve been wrapped around begin to unravel. This was very satisfying, and Sirens sets up and ending and then delightfully subverts it; the payoff for persevering through the bleak and brutal landscape of Manchester that is portrayed is very satisfying.

I can only wonder how much more concentrated this would be to someone familiar with Manchester; however, this prior knowledge is not essential and this does well to not impede the accessibility of Sirens as a book; as before, Manchester becomes but another character in the story. It’s refreshing, too; while the story briefly touches the classical setting of noir, London, it purposefully doesn’t linger. If anything, London feels an alien landscape from the familiarity of Manchester. This is an effective subversion of the genre, and I feel choosing a setting the author is clearly familiar with, and isn’t London or Edinburgh helps set it apart. There’s no reason these s orts of urban crime stories couldn’t take place in any large metropolitan area, and again the fact that Manchester becomes its own character in the story helps justify that choice.

All this is pulled together with Joseph Knox’s immersive, haunting and evocative prose. It isn’t flowery by any stretch, but neither is it utilitarian. The sparse, pointed and precise construction of the prose is something I appreciated; it lacks pretention, but it doesn’t lack style. It propels the reader through the story but doesn’t linger for self-indulgent reasons, which is why I burned through the book so quickly once it had bitten into me. This is certainly a characteristic it shares with Lee Child’s work which is a major factor in my enjoyment of those books and the writing fits the mood an accentuates it effectively.

Overall as an introduction to potentially wider reading of noir fiction, Sirens was a strong candidate. Gritty, arresting and immersive; I’d highly recommend it! On the back of Sirens I’m certainly looking forward to reading both more of Joseph Knox’s work and more noir crime as a genre!

Book Review: Station Eleven

Station_ElevenStation Eleven is a book I have various feelings about. It’s one of those books that is festooned with awards and I can see why it has those accolades but simultaneously wonder if it’s deserving.

The most important thing is that Station Eleven, I feel, works well as portraying an apocalypse – the Georgia Flu is a plausible and devastating malaise and how it destroys civilization is quite palpable, but it is how the author chooses to highlight how the apocalypse came about that is, bizarrely, both effective and irritating in equal doses.

The first question I feel obliged to answer: does Station Eleven work as a novel? Not quite. I felt this book had so many threads and jumped between them quite schizophrenically. We begin the book two weeks before the Georgia Flu takes hold at a performance of King Lear where esteemed actor Arthur Leander dies mid-performance. To a British reader this is eerily close to a real-life occurrence that is culturally significant, and this scene is well dressed in the novel, an interesting frame for the coming end of civilization. But I don’t feel Station Eleven really has one narrative and protagonist, so seems to work more as a series of vignettes that are tenuously interlinked and it feels confused and almost contrived to attract praise, but narratively I felt it was a bit muddled.

Am I reading a book about a travelling troupe of performers in a post-apocalyptic scenario or am I learning about life before the Georgia Flu? Or am I learning about the reformation of some kind of society from the ashes in the time between? It’s hard to pin down, and the narrative jumps around so much it’s almost confusing; indeed, I became fairly disinterested in the backstory chapters regarding Arthur Leander (to whom one of the Travelling Symphony members, naturally, has a fixation on for reasons I feel are still fuzzy) and indeed started skimming them because, while I am sure they built up this character, I was simply uninterested in this presentation of the history as it seemed so focussed on this apparently-idolised character it felt contrived to give that character depth and it simply didn’t work.

Better were the chapters focusing on the Travelling Symphony’s exploits in escaping the clutches of a religious extremist whose warped ideology seemed to have enslaved a settlement, turning it from wholesome to bad, but again this plot seemed fairly tenuous and threadbare. Again I enjoyed the vignettes dealing with life in the post-apocalyptic world set up by the pandemic alluded to in the other chapters but it wasn’t strong enough. Indeed, I also enjoyed the chapters dealing with how the remnants of humanity formed a new type of society, unable to really harness the modernity that was possible before.

I also appreciated that this was an “elegant” portrayal of an apocalypse; the credo of the Travelling Symphony, that “survival is insufficient” is a noteworthy and auspicious goal to aspire to when so much post-apoc work seems focussed on preserving humanity on a functioning level that culture and sentimentality is stripped away from the emergent society. Indeed, one of the reflections I took away from Station Eleven for my own work is that, in events such as an apocalypse, the emergent society is well represented by what it chooses to preserve from before.

But does Station Eleven ultimately work as a novel once those thematic elements are stripped away? I’d find it difficult to say that it does – the book asks questions but the plot and characters become instantly forgettable. As I said, Station Eleven is less a story, but more a series of vignettes exploring the degradation of civilization. And despite some haunting unknown moments – the last plane to land at the Severn City Airport taxis to a remote part of the airport and goes into a self-imposed quarantine for one; the mysterious brightly-lit city visible from the control tower that we learn nothing about being another – executed with some classy, understated prose that lacks pretension, it just doesn’t quite work out as a narrative.

And that, for me, disappointed me a bit because the author does so much almost-right with the worldbuilding and the execution – as a post-apocalyptic tale it does a lot right in terms of setting and I gleaned a fair bit of inspiration for my own work from it – it’s a terrible shame that there’s very little actual plot in there to take place, and what’s there does seem a bit muddled. Where is the focus of the plot at – the post-apoc “now” or the pre-event “then”?

Ultimately my mixed feelings did impede my enjoyment of Stattion Eleven. Conceptually, and on paper, Station Eleven does lots to attract the awards it’s been nominated for but unfortunately is a plot-starved half-birth that just doesn’t quite scratch the itch it sets itself up to induce.

Book Review: The Fireman

The_FiremanI’d been recommended this a while ago so it was with some trepidation and excitement that I approached this book. This was my first experience with Joe Hill’s fiction and I found it held up its own – certainly, the fact the author is Stephen King’s son didn’t sway me. The book stood up fine on its own.

The Fireman tells the story of Harper Grayson, a nurse at a time when a mysterious, and deadly, spore named Dragonscale that literally causes the afflicted to spontaneously combust. Naturally, in the line of Harper’s work she contracts the disease and is forced to relocate to a nearby camp of other infected.

First of all, the characters were really well fleshed out. Harper is a sympathetic character that I related with; interestingly, her husband, Jakob, deals less successfully with her contracting the Dragonscale, and their paths quickly diverge; she flees to Camp Wyndham while Jakob, disgusted by the disease that has befallen his wife, joins one of the roaming vigilante Cremation Crews who take it upon themselves to search out and purge what’s left of America of the infected.

While this is happening, the book quickly delves the reader into life at Camp Wyndham, which was ostensibly set up as a safe refuge for the infected but, like the wider world outside the camp, society begins to fall apart as people’s natural suspicions seem to take over. The slow degeneracy of the camp is quite compelling to read; I found myself wanting to read on, to find out what happens to these characters in the camp that become gradually more unpeeled and their motivations revealed. Indeed, Harper herself becomes somewhat ostracised inside the camp – she is sceptical of the quasi-religious nature of the camp, where singing brings about an euphoric trance-like state known as The Bright – plus she quickly develops an allegiance to The Fireman, an outsider who has mysterious abilities with his Dragonscale whose relationship with Camp Wyndham is at arms-length at best.

I enjoyed the bleak depiction of the horrors that a disease like Dragonscale would bring – the inherent widespread societal collapse is beautifully put across with some haunting but vivid imagery. Entire states literally seem to go up in smoke and the tranquillity of what was once thought to be normality is quickly shattered. Early on there’s a depiction of the horror of the Dragonscale outbreak on TV in Toronto, which seems so distant yet the outbreak quickly envelops not only the continental USA but the world in which the characters reside. Indeed, the main focus of the book is the collapse of society at Camp Wyndham, but that reflects and is analogous to what’s happening in the wider world.

As events transpire the reader, too, learns both of Camp Wyndham’s unpleasant past and the history of the Dragonscale itself. I had some initial concerns that the Dragonscale affliction was a bit witches-and-wizards but the more I learned through the gradual unpicking of the backstory the more I found myself at ease with it. And as the book shifts toward the finale, some brilliantly-written and tense confrontations lead to a bittersweet but believable ending – as is the case with a lot of books that deal with society-destroying events, there isn’t room or the plausibility to wrap things up in a nice package; but The Fireman wraps them up in a believable package that kept me thinking for a good while after I finished the book.

There’s some subtle but powerful themes at work – the zealous nature of the Cremation Crews bringing to mind the ugly worst confrontations of the US civil rights movement and the empowerment that is given to supremacist groups. The infected almost become an underclass – able to live with their affliction as they learn more about its dynamics – rushing to escape from the zealots that won’t entertain their very survival.

Overall though, The Fireman was a compelling, thrilling and thought-provoking read. Definitely pick it up!