THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN by Paula Hawkins

The eternal dilemma of reviewing a thriller.

How to tell the reader something meaningful about the story without spoiling things?  How to praise a book sufficiently without revealing the plot?

Because if ever there is a smashing read, it’s “The Girl on the Train” by Paula Hawkins, a brilliantly crafted book about what someone might (or might not) have seen, in a quick glimpse, from a suburban train.  This is just a fleeting moment, but one that will have ramifications that ripple outwards throughout the course of this dark, gripping story.

Rachel, an unhappy divorcee and a woman battling alcoholism, takes the 8.04 slow train to Euston every morning and from the opening page of the book, we are drawn straight into the world of stuffy trains and the dreary commute to London day after remorseless day:

“The train jolts and scrapes and screeches back into motion…and we trundle on towards London, moving at a brisk jogger’s pace.  Someone in the seat behind me gives a sigh of helpless irritation…”

Every day, as the 8.04 makes its slow way to Euston, Rachel looks out at the houses she passes :

“The train crawls along; it judders past…modest Victorian houses, their backs turned squarely to the tracks.  My head leaning against the carriage window, I watch these houses roll past me like a tracking shot in a film.  I see them as others do not; even their owners probably don’t see them from this perspective.  Twice a day, I am offered a view into other lives, just for a moment.”

It is something Rachel sees, just for a moment, that draws this troubled woman into the lives of the people she passes.  People she doesn’t know in real life, but around whom she has constructed a fantasy life.  Every morning, Rachel looks out for Jason & Jess –  she is sure they must have names like this – a couple she is fond of, from afar.  They seem to her to have the perfect life that she has lost.  Divorced from Tom, largely because of her alcoholism, she treasures her glimpses of what she imagines is the perfect marriage of the perfect couple –  dark handsome Jason and tiny blonde Jess.  Who just happen to have moved into the same street where she used to live with Tom.

And that is all I am going to say about the plot, because otherwise I might inadvertently spoil this great read.

Ms Hawkins tells the story from the point of view of 3 protagonists, a device which could get wearisome, but which she handles with consummate skill, taking us backwards and forwards in the narrative, and giving us tiny snippets of information that gradually build up to a clearer picture of the crime that is at the centre of this novel…at which point, the story takes another twist.  We see the same event from different perspectives, and a detail that we might have overlooked suddenly assumes importance.  There are subtle shifts in the story right until the very last page of this brilliantly constructed thriller.

We are told, by Rachel herself and by everyone she meets, that she is a drunk and that her memory is unreliable, and we know that she often blacks out through over-drinking, so, yes, she undoubtedly is an unreliable witness.  She candidly admits to us that she does indeed imagine things –  such as naming complete strangers Jason and Jess – almost encouraging us not to believe her, so when she suddenly remembers something, or has a partial flashback, we can hardly blame the police for mistrusting her.  At times, we are not even sure whether or not we should believe her, either.  We want to, but should we?

It is this clever play of imagination and half-remembered moments, of flashbacks of terrifying violence, of fears and doubts that make this such a gripping story.

What passes as the ultimate suburban lifestyle – the commute, the young couple drinking wine in their narrow garden that goes down to the train tracks –  all of this turns slowly into a narrative of hidden secrets and violence.

A fabulous read.

I hesitate to use a stock-in-trade expression like  “couldn’t put this book down” but actually, why not?  This book is unputdownable.

Enthusiastically recommended.

The Child of Misfortune by SOUMITRA SINGH

From time to time I am sent books for review, and so many times I have to choose my words oh so carefully, when writing my review. No-one want to be intentionally cruel or harsh, but some of the current fiction coming out of India is truly way below the mark.

And then you have a novel like “The Child of Misfortune”.

What a pleasure. What a treat. What a great read.

Soumitra Singh has written a genuine page-turner, a gripping novel about choice, about friendship and about end-games. This book takes us from Leh to Srinagar to Mumbai to London, as this sweeping adventure unfurls over many years.

I loved the book from the start, and not just because it involved Ladakh, one of my most favourite places on earth.

There are two main, rivaling protagonists in this novel – Amar and Jonah, who meet as teenage boys at a smart school in Mumbai, and theirs is a strange relationship from the start : a desperate rivalry between 2 intelligent boys to be the brightest, the fastest, the smartest. Amar is reasonably chatty and communicative, and therefore easy for we the reader to understand and empathise with. Jonah, the taciturn, white-haired, pale-skinned boy from Pondicherry is altogether different. Intense, hardly speaking enough even to be described as mono-syllabic, he is a distant almost menacing figure from his teenage years. There is something disturbing about this boy.

I cannot (and would not) reveal the plot. It is too much of an exciting read to divulge, but suffice it to say that it encompasses a global quest, in the good old-fashioned Good vs Evil scenario (OK, I’ll tell you a bit – drugs and terrorism figure largely, as does the amazing technology with which we live today).

When the plot shifts to London I still enjoyed the story, but just a fraction less than the Indian sections, which I found super well-written. But that is hardly a valid point. Am just saying.

The book is well-written and fast-paced, though I think Mr. Singh’s editors have failed him from time to time. Again, nothing major, just a few grammatical errors that I doubt a writer of this calibre would have made.

Published in 2104 by Times Group Books, the paperback sells for Rs 350.

 

Great read.

Personally recommended.

If, after reading this review, you would like to order the book, it couldn’t be easier.
Simply click on the link below:

 

And be sure to take time to visit the website www.soumitrasingh.com for news and views about the book.

The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith/J.K. Rowling

Had I heard of the book and/or Robert Galbraith before the latter was unmasked as J.K.Rowling?

No.

Did I read “The Cuckoo’s Calling” because of the above ?

Yes.

Is it a good read, regardless of who wrote it?

Yes, yes and yes.

As a non Harry Potter fan (I read the first tome years ago out of a sense of duty, and that was it.  Just couldn’t hack the others) I didn’t approach “The Cuckoo’s Calling”  – as some people seem to have done – out to find as many clues as possible that, yes, well, obviously, now you mention it, of course it must have been written by J.K.Rowling.

I read it as a stand alone novel that caught my fancy (because of the author thing, obviously) and it is a great, wonderful read.

I think (and hope and pray) that we might just have here the emergence of a fab new detective (and his indomitable sidekick) in the form of Cormoran Strike and the wonderful, so young but oh-so-wise Robin Ellacott.  In other words, Ms Rowling, please, please write a new adventure, and soon.

Mr. Strike is, on the face of it, an unlikely hero.  Overweight, one-legged, down on his luck. He drinks too much, smokes too much, wears crumpled clothes and is in a toxic relationship.

He is 100% human, basically, and that is why you relate to him immediately.  A clumsy, flawed man whose heart is in the right place, who is intuitively clever with cold facts but pretty lousy with those people who care for him the most –  what is not to like and love about the shambling Cormoran?  Plus brainy  = sexy.

Young Yorkshire born (yaay!!) Robin is cool perfection personified, and what I wouldn’t give to have her run and organise my life, the way she organises Cormoran Strike, her supposedly temp boss.

Since this is a crime thriller, I will not spoil the plot.  Worry not.

Suffice it to say that “The Cuckoo’s Calling” is a page turner of note, and that the city of London is more than just a scenic backdrop to the action.  London is fabulously evoked, in all her endlessly dug up roads and traffic jams and noise.  The flaky fashionistas who people the book, the down on their luck characters who wander in and out of the narrative, the cocky cops –  they are all brilliantly depicted.

Loved the book.  Can’t wait for the next one, in what I do hope will become a series.

Jut one teeny weeny quibble.  Not wild about the title.

I read “The Cuckoo’s Calling” on my Kindle (while camping at 5000+metres in the Himalayas, if you must know).

Published in April 2013.

 

If you wish to read the book now, after reading my review, couldn’t be simpler.  Just click on any of the links below:

JEFF IN VENICE, DEATH IN VARANASI by GEOFF DYER

Reading this funny, clever book about Venice and Varanasi, the two ultimate water-based dramatic, atmospheric, crumbling cities, whilst sitting in Varanasi made the whole experience that much more fun.  If not a little bizarre.

Well, to be honest, I read the Venice section in Varanasi, and the Varanasi section once I was back home in Delhi, and by then able to say “Ah yes, the Ganges View Hotel” and ” Of course, Assi Ghat,” having just visited them.

Adding to the deliciousness of it all, having literally just read the incident in the Venice section about real life African sellers of knock-off Prada handbags actually being part of an art installation, we arrived at Assi ghat on our first morning to find a Bollywood shoot in full flow.

So the question remains – were the completely OTT, utterly fabulous, wildly photogenic saddhus and holy men for real, or were they from casting central ?  Whatever the outcome, it was a suitable metaphor for this hilarious, entertaining book.

“Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi” is clever, screamingly funny in parts, with the Venice part definitely funnier than the Varanasi part.

There are two definite stories, one taking place in a dramatic, picturesque, crumbling waterside town, and the other taking place in a dramatic, picturesque, crumbling waterside town.

But are the two stories connected ?  Ah, that is for you, dear reader, to determine.

The Venice story is certainly funnier and more obviously dazzling, writing-wise. I laughed out loud several times reading the Venice part in Varanasi (oh dear, is this getting too interwoven ?)

In the Venice story we meet Jeff, a middle aged jaded, freelance writer going on what is basically a junket to the Biennale in Venice. There, he meets the gorgeous Laura who is young and beautiful and irreverent and mysterious, and they embark on a 3 day fling. Copious amounts of booze, lines of coke and mammoth –  nay epic – sex sessions are the order of the day, and then she leaves Venice, and the novella ends with Jeff alone and downcast.

Cut to the Varanasi section.

Here we see the town through the eyes of an un-named middle-aged, world weary, freelance journalist. Who may or may not be Jeff. We are never told.  But there are enough clever links and references to nudge you into thinking it may well be.

But if you don’t feel that it is Jeff, it doesn’t alter the story in the slightest.

Our narrator goes to Varanasi to write a story for a British newspaper, and just stays on.  He doesn’t make a conscious decision to stay on, just sort of drifts into it, and drifts through his life there, and towards what is possibly his death.

To my delight, when reading this second half of the book, having just watched a Bollywood movie being shot on the ghats, we see that our narrator….yes, you’ve guessed….he also watched a Bollywood movie being shot on the ghats.

So many delicious worlds within worlds.

There are lots of clever little references linking the two halves of the book, be it a dream or bananas (you’ll see why) or a lovely woman whose name begins with L.

As a fellow Brit, I loved Mr.Dyer’s acerbic observations on our country and countrymen.

Here he is describing a sour-tempered Indian shopkeeper in London :

 

 

Or Jeff”s hilarious reaction to his own somewhat unexpected use of the clipped word “Quite” :

 

 

His power of language is so sublime that a waiter, whom we meet for one fleeting second and never again, has an over-powering personality :

 

And as for this description of Venice –  well, after all that possible film within a film feeling in Varansi, with possible saddhus posing for the Bollywood cameras, this seemed to sum up perfectly the deliciously clever mood of this fun, entertaining, clever but ultimately sad book :

 

 

Published by Random House India, the Indian hardback costs Rs 395.  (I have no idea how much the Venice edition sells for…)

To buy the book, simply click on the link below. What could be simpler ?