The Girl on the Train – Paula Hawkins

girlontrainSo, you know how everyone and their dog was reading and talking about Gone Girl when it was released? The Girl on the Train, Paula Hawkins’ debut novel, is this summer’s version of that book. I talked about books with buzz  last week on Information Morning and this book most definitely had buzz. Is it worthy, though? That’s the question.

Rachel takes the same trains from Ashbury, a tiny suburb outside of London, every day –  into the city on the 8:04 and home from the city on the 17:56. From her seat, she can see into the gardens of the homes she passes and one garden in particular captures her interest. That’s the house where Jason and Jess live.

They are a perfect, golden couple. He is dark haired and well built, strong, protective, kind. He has a great laugh. She is one of those tiny bird-women, a beauty,  pale- skinned with blonde hair cropped short. She has the bone structure to carry that kind of thing off, sharp cheekbones dappled with a sprinkling of freckles, a fine jaw.

Every day when Rachel’s train shudders to a stop at the red signal, Rachel imagines the life Jason and Jess must share (imagining is all she can do because she doesn’t really know them, not even their real names).  But  there is another reason that Rachel is fixated on this house and that’s because for five years she lived just down the road with her husband, Tom. Tom still lives in their old house, only now with his new wife, Anna, and their infant daughter, Evie.

It won’t take the reader very long to figure out that Rachel is an unreliable narrator and the reason for that will be obvious: Rachel is a drunk. She drinks in the morning, in the evening, mostly alone. She throws up, passes out and often doesn’t remember what has happened to her. She calls her ex-husband at all hours. She admits

I am not the girl I used to be. I am no longer desirable, I’m off-putting in some way. It’s not just that I’ve put on weight, or that my face is puffy from the drinking and the lack of sleep; it’s as if people can see the damage written all over me…

Then one day Jess (whose real name is Megan) goes missing and Rachel is sure that she has seen something that will help the police to find her. The problem is, of course, that once she pulls on the thread of what she thinks she saw, a whole lot of things start to unravel.

As messed up as Rachel is, it’s difficult not to empathize with her; her life has gone to hell in a hand basket in a variety of ways and she isn’t quite sure how to right herself.  Hers is not the only viewpoint Hawkins allows the reader, though. We also spend time with Megan and Anna and each woman has their own suspect relationship with the truth.

The Girl on the Train is an entertaining read. I can certainly see what all the fuss is about and given that it only took me a few hours to read, I certainly can’t say that I didn’t like it. But I didn’t love it.

Orphan Train – Christina Baker Kline

orphan2I was unaware of the history which inspired Christina Kline Baker’s novel Orphan Train. According to the notes found at the back of the book “between 1854 and 1929, so-called orphan trains transported more than two hundred thousand orphaned, abandoned, and homeless children – many of whom, like the character in this book, were first-generation Irish Catholic immigrants – from the coastal cities of the eastern United States to the Midwest for “adoption,” which often turned out to be indentured servitude.”

In a nutshell, Orphan Train is the story of one such girl.

But it is also the story of another girl, someone who is also without a home and has spent much of her childhood bouncing between foster homes. The lives of these two people (one just seventeen, the other ninety-one) intersect, but that is actually the least interesting part of this novel.

Niamh Power is a little girl when her parents decide to leave their impoverished lives in Western Ireland and make the arduous journey across the Atlantic to America.

People all around us were fleeing to America: we heard tales of oranges the size of baking potatoes; fields of grain waving under sunny skies; clean, dry timber houses with indoor plumbing and electricity. Jobs as plentiful as the fruit on the trees.

Of course, the reality is something quite different and Niamh finds herself living in a four-room apartment with her parents and three younger siblings. The landlord tells them “I have no trouble with the Irish, as long as you stay out of trouble.”  Still, Niahm is hopeful for a new start because her father “had the promise of a new job. We could pull a chain for light; the twist of a knob brought running water…”

Sadly, Niamh’s hopes for the future soon turn to despair and she finds herself alone and on one of the orphan trains bound for childrenontrainthe west. She is only nine when she is taken on a journey to find her a new family.

They call this an orphan train, children, and you are lucky to be on it. You are leaving behind an evil place, full of ignorance, poverty, and vice, for the nobility of country life.

Not so much, really.

Molly is the other character in this book. She works hard at being different in an attempt to push people away, mostly in an effort to protect herself. She had “liked the distance her persona created, the wariness and distrust she saw in the eyes of her peers.” Just lately, though, Molly has found that maintaining her ‘look’ was making her “impatient.”

When she tries to steal a copy of Jane Eyre from the local library, she is assigned community service and it is that sentence which brings her into Niamh’s world. From a prickly beginning, a real bond is formed between the two disparate women – which is both lovely and problematic for the novel.

I read Orphan Train in an afternoon; the pages literally turned themselves. I loved reading Niamh’s story. I knew nothing about these orphan trains and Niamh’s tale was fascinating and heartbreaking. Molly was also likeable. Despite her attempts at pushing people away, she is clearly smart and resilient. C’mon, her favourite book is Jane Eyre! It would be impossible for an avid reader not to like her.

For about two-thirds of the book I was all-in. Then, things started to speed up a little too much. Characters made decisions  that I just didn’t buy and things happened that made me go “oh no you didn’t!” and even though I kept turning the pages I can’t say that I enjoyed the book quite as much at the end as I did at the beginning.

Nevertheless, Orphan Train is an entertaining and well-written novel about a relatively unknown part of American history and many readers would certainly enjoy it.

Off the shelf – Books with buzz

Listen here.

There are always books which are hotly anticipated by the reading public. Avid readers know, for example, when their favourite authors will be releasing their next book. Publishers generate a lot of pre-publishing buzz and of course books that win major literary awards also garner extra attention. I think book buying has changed a lot in the forty years I’ve been buying books with my own money. I remember when the Scholastic book flyer was my only real opportunity to purchase books – and then all you had was this teensy picture of the cover and the equivalent of a tweet’s worth of description. When you could actually go into a book store and hold the books, well, that was heaven. I have books on my shelf that literally cost 60 cents. Can you believe that? Social media wasn’t even a twinkle in someone’s eye – so word of mouth or checking out top ten lists was really the only ways to hear which books were hot and which books were not.

goldfinchThen you have to wonder if all books with buzz are created equal. Even books that have won big prizes are often mired in controversy. A huge portion of my summer reading time was taken up with reading Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize winning magnum opus The Goldfinch. That book is close to 800 pages long and, for me at least, was thrilling and infuriating in equal measure. Not everyone agreed that it should have won the Pulitzer. In fact, The Washington Post called it “the disappointing novel that just won a Pulitzer”  Lady Vowell Smith, a professor of literature and book blogger, wondered about the book’s merits in her post “Did the Goldfinch Deserve the Pulitzer?” The UK’s Sunday Times said “”no amount of straining for high-flown uplift can disguise the fact that The Goldfinch is a turkey”. Newsweek’s review said that “The Goldfinch neither sings nor flies.”  Ouch.

I am not much of a follower when it comes to reading, but I have read both of Tartt’s previous novels: The Secret History, which is my favourite and The Little Friend. Plus, my son, Con, read this book and really liked it – so I had to give it a go.

Okay – so what’s this book about?

Theo Decker is thirteen and lives with his mother in New York City. They are on their way to a meeting at Theo’s school when they duck into the Metropolitan Museum of Art to take a look at an exhibit of Dutch paintings, including that of The Goldfinch. Theo’s mom wanders off to the gift shop; Theo is entranced by a girl of about the same age, who is in the museum with her grandfather…and then there’s an explosion and Theo’s life is irrevocably altered. The old man, as he’s dying, encourages – insists – that Theo make off with the painting of the goldfinch and that’s certainly central to the book’s story – but that’s really only a part of it. Tartt wrestles with a lot of themes here: family – both biological and the family you choose, art, beauty, addiction. Theo isn’t necessarily the most likable character, even though lots of bad things happen to him he also makes a lot of poor decisions. This book is chock-a-block with characters – Boris, the friend Theo meets while living in Vegas; Hobie, a furniture restorer, the Barbours, family friends who care for Theo when his mom first dies. A lot of people, lots of stuff happens and it’s up to the reader to decide whether any of it matters. Does it add up to something worthy of praise in the form of the Pulitzer – that is if you think prizes matter at all. It probably mattered to Tartt to the tune of $100,000.

Another book that everyone is talking about is Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman. When this manuscript was “discovered” it Watchmanexploded the publishing world – but really: discovered? Everyone knows Harper Lee for To Kill a Mockingbird. Other than Mockingbird she is best known for helping Truman Capote (her childhood friend) with research for his book In Cold Blood. She published a handful of essays – but that’s it. She’s notoriously private and always maintained she’d never publish another book. So, it’s  kinda suspicious that this one turned up after all these years. It’s essentially an early draft of Mockingbird. Lee is 89, lives in assisted care and I think the publication of this book has something to do with the fact that her sister, Alice, sort of her gatekeeper, passed away. There’s an awesome series of articles about the discovery of Watchman and a look back at Mockingbird in The New Republic. The first article, “The Suspicious Story Behind Go Set a Watchman” is particularly interesting for anyone who wants to read the whole story behind the birth of Watchman.

Personally, I’ve resisted buying the book. I love Mockingbird. I’ve read it multiple times. Since I believe I know the story of how Watchman came to be, I’m reluctant to hand over my $30 for a book which has pretty much been panned. And of course it has – it’s unedited because Lee is blind and deaf and perhaps even the teensiest bit senile. The book’s a cash grab. I hate that.

In any case – if you are looking for something to read, something that will guarantee you something to talk about at the water cooler or dinner or with your book club, it’s easy to find those books.

If you are interested in  books that generated buzz, check out some of these titles.

girlontrain

The Girl on the Train – Paula Hawkins

This is this year’s Gone Girl. It’s on my tbr shelf, but I haven’t read it yet. I’m probably just about the last person who hasn’t.

purity

Purity – Jonathan Franzen

Famous for dissing Oprah, there’s no arguing with Franzen’s talent. His newest book hits the shelves Sept. 15.

Euphoria

Euphoria – Lily King

Inspired by the life of Margaret Mead and almost universally praised.

troop

The Troop – Nick Cutter

Unless you love horror novels, you might not have heard of this one…but trust me, everyone was talking about it.

spider

The Girl in the Spider’s Web – David Lagercrantz

Stieg Larsson, the creator of the Millennium series, died of a heart attack in 2004, but that apparently won’t stop Lisbeth Salander, the series’ prickly computer genius. Hotly anticipated and hitting the shelves Sept 1st.

The End of Everything – Megan Abbott

endofeverythingA few months back I read Megan Abbott’s YA novel Dare Me and despite the novel’s caustic depiction of teenage girls, I really loved that book. The End of Everything also tackles the secret lives of girls and, once again, Abbott’s writing is compelling.

Thirteen-year-old Lizzie and Evie are besties. They’ve lived next door to each other their whole lives – swapping bathing suits and secrets. On a bright afternoon, just before school breaks for the summer, Evie disappears. Lizzie remembers

It was long ago, centuries. A quivery mirage of a thirteen-year-old’s summer, like a million other girl summers, were it not for Evie, were it not for Evie’s thumping heart and all those twisting things untwisting.

Thirteen seems incredibly young to me now, but I don’t suppose it did when I was that age – a  million years ago. For Evie and Lizzie it is a time of curious longing, especially because Evie has an older sister, Dusty, “a deeply glamorous seventeen.”  Compared to Dusty, Evie and Lizzie “were all snips and snails, and when permitted into her candied interior, we were like furtive intruders.”

For Evie and Lizzie, thirteen is an age precariously close to the edge of experience – and both girls seem to want to topple, headlong, over the cliff. After Evie’s disappearance, Lizzie finds herself particularly drawn to Evie’s dad, Mr. Verner. He

could throw a football fifty yards and build princess vanity tables for his daughters and take us roller-skating or bowling, who smelled of fresh air and limes and Christmas nutmeg all at once…I couldn’t remember a time when I wasn’t craning my neck to look up at him, forever waiting to hear more, hungry for the moments he would shine his attentions on me

It doesn’t take long for Lizzie to remember a car that she’d seen driving past them on the day Evie disappeared. The suspect is identified and Lizzie makes it her mission to figure out where Evie is. All this makes for page-turning suspense, but that’s not what The End of Everything is really about.

This is a novel about power, sexual power, really, in the hands of girls too young to wield it. It is about an  impossible longing girls feel, but don’t wholly understand. It asks the questions for which there are no satisfactory answers. Lizzie  wonders why the man took Evie “if he didn’t mean to touch her, to do things to her?” and those thoughts send her to her room where she pulls “out a stack of old, gold-spined horse books, and read[s] them for hours.”

When the truth is finally revealed to Lizzie it is “a dark tunnel I stare down, like I might follow it, like it might swallow me whole and I would let it willingly.”

Abbott’s books are like that – but you have to be fearless to read them.

Highly recommended.

The Goldfinch – Donna Tartt

goldfinchMy son, Connor, purchased The Goldfinch in hardcover with his own money when it first came out. He read it avidly, misplaced it for a while, and took to reading it, a little at a time, whenever we visited Indigo. Eventually it turned up (but by then it was out in paperback and he’d purchased another copy)  and he finished it and talked about it for days.

The Goldfinch is not my first kick at the Donna Tartt can. Like Connor, I have read her two previous novels: her 1992 debut, The Secret History, a compelling literary page-turner which has stayed with me for years and which I recommend to everyone and The Little Friend, a slow-moving southern gothic. When my friend Karen chose The Goldfinch as her Facebook summer book club read, I knew I had to participate. For one thing, the novel is huge – 771 pages – and I knew I’d need uninterrupted time to finish it. Also, I flaked out on last summer’s epic, George Eliot’s Middlemarch and I needed to redeem myself.

Despite its accolades (The Goldfinch was the 2104 Pulitzer Prize winner and was (almost) universally praised by critics and authors) the novel isn’t without its detractors. Some critics wonder whether it’s deserving of being called Dickensian. In her 2014 Vanity Fair article, “It’s Tartt – But is it Art?” Evgenia Peretz  quotes novelist and critic Francine Prose’s assessment that “for all the frequent descriptions of the book as “Dickensian,” Tartt demonstrates little of Dickens’s remarkable powers of description and graceful language.” It’s hard to tell whether the vitriol for the author and the book (often in equal measure) is merely sour grapes. Perestz is correct, though, when she concedes that  “No novel gets uniformly enthusiastic reviews, but the polarized responses to The Goldfinch lead to the long-debated questions: What makes a work literature, and who gets to decide?”

Well, that would be you. And me. And Connor. And while this review – any of my reviews, really – won’t be on par with reviews found in well-respected magazines like The New Yorker and The Paris Review I do believe that, like any other reader on the planet, my assessment (as subjective as it might be) is valid. Consider that my disclaimer.

gfTheo Decker is just thirteen when he visits the Metropolitan Museum of Art with his mother to see an exhibition of the Dutch masters, including The Goldfinch, a 1654 painting by Carel Fabritius, which Mrs. Decker claims is “the first painting I ever really loved.”

The day is remarkable and horrific for Theo because after his mother wanders off to the gift shop there is an explosion which kills her and which also precipitates an act of thievery which informs Theo’s life for the next fourteen years.

The Goldfinch has been described as a bildungsroman – a word which was unfamiliar to me and therefore had to look up. It means “a novel whose principal subject is the moral, psychological, and intellectual development of a usually youthful main character.”

The bulk (and I use that word without irony) of the book is spent watching Theo implode – first while living with the Barbours, wealthy parents of his childhood friend, Andy. When his deadbeat father turns up, Theo goes off to Vegas to live with him and his girlfriend Xandra. There he meets Boris, another disenfranchised youth. The two spend their days cuffing school and getting high. Eventually, Theo makes his way back to New York City where he moves in with Hobie, an antique furniture restorer. The one constant in Theo’s life (besides his predilection for self-destruction via alcohol and drugs) is the painting of the goldfinch, which is his only real remaining connection to his mother.

Theo is not particularly likable. I don’t think that matters, actually. Boris shouldn’t be likable either, but I did like him. Quite a lot. I loved Hobie the best, for which Connor berates me. “Why does everyone like Hobie so much? He’s boring and spineless.” Maybe it’s the parent thing; he stepped up when he had no reason and he was unwaveringly supportive of Theo, even when he had every reason to kick him to the curb. Despite the novel’s insular first-person perspective, I felt as though I knew all the characters in this book. And if Theo seems just a tad precocious, chalk it up to the fact that he is setting the events down fourteen years after they’ve happened. He’s an adult, much like Scout Finch, looking back.

“Things would have turned out better if she had lived,” he says. But I wonder if that’s true because he also admits that “I’d been in trouble at school for a while.” Either way, the death of Theo’s mother sets him on a rather arduous and painful journey of self-discovery where ultimately he discovers that “we don’t get to choose our own hearts. We can’t make ourselves want what’s good for us or what’s good for other people. We don’t get to choose the people we are.”

Is Tartt’s world view really this grim? It’s hard to say. If we really spent any time thinking about it, even the most optimistic of us would have to admit that Theo might be on to something when he says:

This was a plunge encompassing sorrow and revulsion far beyond the personal: a sick, drenching nausea at all humanity and human endeavor from the dawn of time. The writhing loathsomeness of the biological order, Old age, sickness, death. No escape for anyone. Even the beautiful ones were like soft fruit about to spoil. And yet somehow people kept fucking and breeding and popping out new fodder for the grave, producing more and more new beings to suffer like this was some kind of redemptive, or good, or even somehow morally admirable thing: dragging more innocent creatures into the lose-lose game.

And if life is just a slow (but not that slow – which is also disconcerting), painful decline to the grave, what can possible sustain us? What gives life its meaning? In his article “Why Poetry is Necessary” Roger Housden argues that “Artists and poets are the raw nerve ends of humanity. By themselves they can do little to save humanity. Without them there would be little worth saving.”

Boris, as reprehensible as he might seem to some readers, seems to at least understand that the world is not black and white and that “Maybe sometimes – the wrong way is the right way? You can take the wrong path and it still comes out where you want to be?…As long as I am acting out of love, I feel I am doing best I know how.”

This is a big ideas book. Some readers might argue that the final twenty or so pages is exposition and something of a cheat. I wondered if we might have gotten there, say, 200 pages sooner, because I liked what Tartt has to say. I liked Boris’s attempt to disabuse Theo of the notion that the world can be boiled down to either pure good or pure bad. He understands that “the world is much stranger than we know or can say.” Theo, comes at least, to recognize that

It’s not about outward appearances but inward significance. A grandeur in the world, but not of the world, a grandeur that the world doesn’t understand. That first glimpse of pure otherness, in whose presence you bloom out and out and out.

I loved The Goldfinch. And I also think the book is bloated and slow and sometimes the punctuation drove me nuts. It is flawed, no question, but maybe – in some ways – the book mirrors life. Life is big and messy and random; sometimes all the pieces don’t fit; sometimes, unexpectedly, there is the “heat-shock of believing. for only a moment, that you might just have what could never be yours.”

There is also a little of Gatsby in this novel, the notion that we  “we beat on, boats against the current.”

I will carry The Goldfinch with me for a long time.

The Troop – Nick Cutter

troopNick Cutter is a pseudonym for Canadian writer Craig Davidson, author of Rust and Bone and Cataract City. I haven’t read anything by Davidson, but The Troop ended up on my reading radar because it was on pretty much everyone’s  radar when it was released in 2014. Even Stephen King, master of all things macabre claimed The Troop “scared the hell out of [him]…This is old-school horror at its best.”

Scoutmaster Tim Riggs takes his troop of five fourteen-year-olds (Kent, Ephraim, Max, Shelley and Newt)  to Falstaff Island, which is located fifteen miles off the northern coast of Prince Edward Island. (Trust me, there is not even a whiff of Anne Shirley here.)  It’s October and it’s time for the annual camping trip – something that Tim (who is also the local doctor) and the boys (as varied an assortment of teenagers as you can get including the alpha male, the nerd and the psychopath) look forward to. Tim is “everything they could possibly want in a leader: knowledgeable and serene, exuding confidence while bolstering their own.”

They’ve only just settled in when a boat arrives at the island   and a man disembarks.

A quivering string of drool spooled over his lip, hung, snapped. His skin was stretched thin as crepe paper over his skull. Capillaries wormed across his nose, over his cheeks and down his neck like river routes on a topographical map. His arms jutted from his T-shirt like Tinker Toys. The skin was shrink-wrapped around the radius and ulna bones, giving his elbows the appearance of knots in a rope.

The man is starving. So hungry, in fact, that Tim watches in amazement as the man “picked up a handful of coarse soil and stuffed it in his mouth.”

A day later, the man is dead and all hell has broken loose on the island.

The man has brought a bioengineered threat with him and it doesn’t take very long for the chaos to begin. The boys, who are loosely divided into factions anyway, start to crumble under the weight of their own terror. Shelley, who is clearly a psychopath, uses the circumstances to “play.” He is, by far, the most horrifying character to spend time with. I could barely read the words on the page.

The other boys are equally well-drawn and you’ll want them all to be safe (well, except for Shel) even when you realize it’s just not possible.

I’m going to say it up front: The Troop isn’t a book for the squeamish. I’m talking skin-crawling, page-skimming squick here. I’ve got a pretty strong stomach when it comes to the written word (I’m less brave when the violence is on the screen) but there were seriously parts of this book that were just….awful.

Cutter includes newspaper articles, courtroom depositions and interviews to help fill in some of the narrative blanks – information the boys and Tim would not be privy to in the circumstances. It all makes for page-turning, gloriously icky fun.