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A J Waines – Girl On A Train

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Sometimes there’s a lot more going on than meets the eye.

Publisher: (self-published)
Pages: 426
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-508-64794-2
First Published: 20th June 2013
Date Reviewed: 29th November 2017
Rating: 4/5

Anna gets on the train and finds a seat. The girl next to her won’t stop fidgeting and as Anna considers whether to confront her about it, the girl gets up, gives her a beseeching look, and leaves the train a stop before the one printed on her ticket; minutes later the train slams into something on the track. As all the passengers are told to leave the carriages, Anna’s bag is stolen and then found. She finds a locket inside that she reckons is the girls’.

Girl On A Train is a fantastic thriller; published a few years before Paula Hawkins’ novel, it has been mistaken for it many times – however it is entirely different, a book about a troubled outsider trying to make the most of what’s good in their lives – and very much worth a read in its own right.

Waines uses a dual narrative to tell her story; beginning with Anna, switching to Elly for the middle, and returning to Anna at the end, you get a fully-fledged story without any need to question; it also allows for you to get to know Elly in her own right which is a wonderful element as you can empathise with her even more.

Anything that might seem unlikely or implausible is dealt with well, Waines knowing that may be how it appears and working to overcome it, which she does. The ending may divide opinion as it’s likely not the outcome you were expecting, but in terms of red herrings it’s super; because of the different parts of it and the subtleties, you will quite likely not guess what happened.

The characterisation is very good, with Anna and Elly sharing enough traits to make the narrative work – their thought patterns, for example; otherwise they’re two very different people. The writing is good, too – there are some editing errors, but the use of language is solid and the book flows well.

A few topics bond the stories together – the question of suicide and death in general that is asked two-fold as Waines explores the possibilities of Elly’s last days as well as Anna’s marriage. (You learn about the marriage early – this isn’t a spoiler.) Sexuality has a place. And religion is explored in terms of the possibilities to take money. Anna is well placed to look at topics in detail; as a journalist she’s initially thinking of Elly’s death as one that may make her name.

Girl On A Train is a good blend of page-turning fiction and details that will make you want to take your time; it manages to explore a lot whilst not losing track of its genre and whilst it’s down to each reader as to whether or not the subjects themselves will be memorable, the book itself will stay with you for a while. A very well crafted novel.

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Claire North – The End Of The Day

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In life, only two things are certain…

Publisher: Orbit Books (Hachette)
Pages: 401
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-356-50733-0
First Published: 4th April 2017
Date Reviewed: 7th December 2017
Rating: 4.5/5

Charlie is the Harbinger of Death – the Milton Keynes office sends him the details of his next appointment, he gets on a train, bus, or aeroplane, and goes to see someone who is dying or whose world is fading away. It’s a tough job at times, very tough, but Charlie enjoys it; his role is to honour life.

The End Of The Day is a philosophical literary fantasy novel that explores many moral and ethical questions and issues we have in our world today.

This book is original; starting with the potential of a Terry Pratchett influence in its basic concept, it uses a gentle fantasy-type humour, and whilst it appears at first simply to be a solid addition to the genre before revealing itself to be a blend of this and literary fiction.

The plot is scant – in fact it’s more a series of events than anything else – and the character development is not big, but both these things are intentional and with good reason; this is where the philosophical nature comes in. North’s book is primarily a study – a very good, enjoyable-in-its-own-right study – and secondly a good old work of fantasy. Death here is of a distinct type – whilst quite likely being fond of cats (its the personality, the basic construction of Death that is like Pratchett) – the defining nature of North’s Death, which doubles as one of the points the author wants to get across – is that it doesn’t just appear at the end of someone’s life, but at the end of an idea, at the end of a world, a culture in decline.

And it’s not just the usual thought of a cultural element ending (though a language dying along with its last speaker is one of the things North looks at) but also things like the end of a tradition that excludes black or poor people, and the start of a society that denies LGBT rights. Here Death comes at the last instance of the old way to usher in the new.

The above is part of the philosophy North includes – most of the blunter referencing, that becomes blunt the more you read, happens in extracts that aren’t directly related to Charlie. It’s apt here to bring in the writing as it’s part and parcel of this; North uses various different writing methods and markings to deliver her commentary; poetical verses sit alongside sentences full of ellipses, dialects, accents; different languages – even different scripts – are scattered throughout; bunches of sayings, stereotypical sentence beginnings, opinions, and presentations are added as paragraphs and verses, the different sentences of one whole effective conversation jumbled up with the others – a handful of different thoughts displayed at once. To summarise (the following statements are here as examples of the sorts of topics covered) “I’m not racist but…”; “won’t anyone think of the children?”, “well I think”; “but they come to this country…”; “I might be a woman myself but I’m not going to go employing young women – they’ll all go off getting pregnant”.

I only get seventy-two pounds a week to cover everything… will that stop, now I’ve got money for my flat?
And the copper wasn’t sure but wondered if maybe it would, if perhaps now that Jeremiah had savings and no roof over his head, the government didn’t regard his welfare as its concern.

There is a great number of ideas, thoughts, political and social points included so often-times these sentences are generalised or simply provide more insight into what North is doing, but on occasion – more than a few occasions – the author looks at something in more detail. The more generalised do include a certain amount of detail for the sheer amount of insight they provide in just a couple of sentences, it’s just that the chapters (very short in most cases) have more space to give a concept.

Speaking of chapters and thus the writing as a whole, North’s use of language is exceptional. Then there’s the way she goes about her philosophy openly, the obscurity near the beginning of the book there only due to the fact you’ve not yet realised what it’s all about.

And then the world turned, and someone tweeted something new, and everyone retweeted it and moved on, and nothing fucking changes.

The subjects are heavy, and North sends Charlie all round the world, showing that it’s not one place but the entirety. One of the more poetical, experimental aspects included – the only experimental (this is an easy enough read) – is the different number of repetitions of the words ‘human’ and ‘rat’ that are used in all parts of the book – both statements and sentences, and Charlie’s narrative. What is it to be human? What separates us from animals? When are we good or bad? There are a variety of ways this can be interpreted.

The one drawback is the book’s length. There is a lot to cover and it’s all excellent but there comes a point where Charlie’s journeys and the philosophy becomes less powerful simply due to the amount to think about. It’s a difficult one because it’s all important and relevant to North’s study but still just a bit too much, and there’s the possibility with it that you’ll become over-exposed to the point of it becoming less powerful.

But then is that the point? Is it, to reference a completely different book that nevertheless shares a few ideas, rather like The Hunger Games, wherein Suzanne Collins seems to be using over-exposure on purpose, making the reader reach a point where the absolute horrific violence ceases to produce a response because they’ve seen so much of it, and then using that lack of response to make her point? Is North showing you what she wants to both to the point where you ‘get’ what she’s saying but also to the point where you become so used to it that it’s easy to just keep reading without being constantly shocked, rather like we’re so used to seeing pictures of starving children in Africa and the many different charities that promote other causes that it becomes a sort of background worry, spoken about, but then left? It’s open to interpretation.

If you’re looking for either a literary book or a fantasy book this isn’t the one to go for because it’s both and neither at the same time and is the opposite of escapism. But you absolutely do want to make the time to read it and see for yourself. As much as any review can tell you what it’s about, there’s a great level of individual interpretation here, a resonance for each reader and, in a very unique way, there is something for everyone.

I received this book for review. The book has been shortlisted for the Young Writer of the Year Award.

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Julianne Pachico – The Lucky Ones

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Please note: as well as today’s post – which is in lieu of yesterday – and Wednesday’s usual post, I’ll also be posting this Thursday. As I haven’t been able to blog much recently I’ve a small backlog of posts that I’d like to share with you before Christmas. Next week will be back on schedule.

Or are they?

Publisher: Faber & Faber
Pages: 259
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-571-32974-8
First Published: 31st January 2017
Date Reviewed: 5th December 2017
Rating: 3/5

In 2003, a girl decides to stay home instead of go to the party at an equally rich family’s house on the top of a hill, agreeing with her mother to tell the maid not to open the door to strange men. A few years later, a professor who may be a prisoner teaches a class made up of ferns, and leaves and twigs of other plants. And as the professor teaches the plants he mistakes as children, elsewhere the girl who lived at the top of the hill listens as her words are delivered as a lecture to the militia.

The Lucky Ones is somewhere between a short story collection and a novel, the stories focusing on different characters who are all fundamentally linked by their school years. Set in Columbia (with a brief sojourn in New York), it looks at the drug war conflict in the country in the 1990s and early 2000s.

Starting with the topic, it’s a difficult one to make out – you can by all means research but you may have to read a fair portion of the book first to work out what you’re looking for, instead of spending your time appreciating what the author’s saying, because so much crucial information has been left out. The identity of each story/chapter’s character is left out until a good way into it, and you have to piece together clues further on. This lack of identity is combined with a non-linear narrative. If you happen to know a lot about the topic already you’ll likely ‘get’ it but the approach may still prove a problem.

In view of the writing, there are some outstanding turns of phrase throughout, most often those that expose the things you should be considering. But there are also many clunky sentences, an abundance of hyphens, and a very noticeable reliance on ‘abruptly’.

Looking at the content, what Pachico is saying is very good. Thankfully there are some moments when proceedings are looked at openly, where times in the characters’ lives are referred to in a manner that clearly shows the shocking reality of the situation. There is also a story written entirely in metaphor – or is it? In this case, at least, you are meant to wonder about what you’re reading.

To speak of another positive, the title of the work is irony at its best, referring to all the characters. Some of them are in good shape but others have been altered forever whether mentally, physically, emotionally – if these damaged people are the lucky ones, what of the rest? It’s an excellent title which, when combined with the use of its singular version as the title of the first story, asks a few more questions.

So, in sum, notes of importance, but it could have used a different approach.

I received this book for review. The book has been shortlisted for the Young Writer of the Year Award.

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November 2017 Reading Round-Up

It’s beginning to look a lot like but not quite feeling so. The weather here has been very mild and it’s rather as though Spring is on the way. Up until mid-November I was reading a lot so there’s a fair number here, but I did lose my way after that with a long book I’ve not yet finished and am still to get myself back on track. I’ve prepared some Christmas reading – books set at Christmas rather than books for Christmas – which includes contemporary romance as it often does; I find finding Christmas romance very easy but books in other genres are difficult. I am thinking of creating a reading list going forward as I reckon actively factoring in different sorts of books will help slumps. It’s one thing to know that reading an easier book after a difficult one works, another to remember that at the time.

All books are works of fiction.

The Books

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April Munday: The Heir’s Tale – A man back from war finds himself torn between his betrothed and the woman he has always wanted to be with. A well-set book with a good use of different points of view.

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Hanif Kureishi: The Last Word – A writer is charged with creating a biography of a literary giant and ends up travelling to the man’s home. No plot or characterisation to speak of.

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Helen Oyeyemi: What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours – A literary collection of short stories, most with a magical realism/slightly creepy factor. Excellent.

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Lewis Carroll: Through The Looking-Glass – Alice wants to know what it’s like in the reversed, mirrored, version of the house she lives in; she goes through the mirror and finds herself in a wonderland. Good but not as well crafted as the more famous story.

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Louise Douglas: The Love Of My Life – Against all advice, Olivia goes back to her home town, back to the familial abuse and the in laws who do not want her there and blame her for everything. Good, but you have to be prepared for the affects of the hatred to never go away.

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Louise Douglas: The Secret By The Lake – Amy returns to work for the family she loved after tragedy strikes but it’s a difficult place to be and there’s a lot of disturbances that she finds difficult to get answers to. Very good.

The Oyeyemi was my favourite – absolutely outstanding; I am again tempted to try more of her work. I am glad to have finished the Kureishi – I had been looking forward to reading it but it did fall very short of expectations.

Quotation Report

None this time – there are some great quotations in the Carroll but I’ve repeated them a couple of times recently already.

It’s high time I got to those Young Writer of the Year books. This year’s shadow panel have chosen Julianne Pachico’s The Lucky Ones as their winner so I’ll be starting with that.

How are your preparations for the festive season going and/or what books are you looking forward to reading over the holidays?

 
Lewis Carroll – Through The Looking-Glass

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Mirror mirror on the wall.

Publisher: N/A
Pages: N/A
Type: Fiction
Age: Children’s
ISBN: N/A
First Published: 1871
Date Reviewed: 29th November 2017
Rating: 3.5/5

Alice is playing with her chess pieces whilst cat Dinah tends to her kittens, but Alice isn’t happy where she is – there’s a big mirror over the mantelpiece showing the room in reverse and she wants to visit it. She goes up to the mirror to have a look, and finds she’s able to climb into it.

Through The Looking-Glass is the slightly lesser known sequel to Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland. Shorter to a fair degree, it shares a couple of the same Wonderland characters but is rather a lot different.

Speaking from an adult perspective, there isn’t any character development here – Alice is exactly the same as she was in the book published 6 years prior and she hasn’t learned anything from her previous time away, that is to say she’s as stubborn as she ever was. It’s an interesting factor because you might reasonably expect a character, particularly in a children’s book, and no matter the era it was written in, to learn something solid, but this book is very much about the fantasy.

Speaking more generally and thinking of the target age group, this is a fun book, just not as good as the first. There is no White Rabbit or Cheshire Cat, and whilst it appears at first glance as though the Mad Hatter and the Hare make an appearance, that appearance is deceiving – they appear to be different characters entirely. The story has a satisfactory concept – a game of chess with human/fantasy creatures, but it’s not as well-plotted as the first. It’s worth a read, but will disappoint if you’re – reasonably – expecting a second visit into Wonderland; this Wonderland sports the same strangeness of character but is otherwise quite different.

But it is fun and has a lot of content for both children and adults. Clever turns of phrase are the ruling factor. The poetry is out in full force. And well-known concepts – such as the afore-mentioned chess – are given a lot of time. There’s having to hurry up if you want to remain in the same place; there’s this:

“I see nobody on the road,” said Alice.
“I only wish I had such eyes,” the King remarked in a fretful tone. “To be able to see Nobody! And at that distance, too! Why, it’s as much as I can do to see real people, by this light!”

And there’s handing round a cake before one actively slices it. Lots of wordplay and thinking.

The relative shortness of Through The Looking-Glass is good – the story and characters are rather too strange for comfort and leaving the world is a bit of a relief; Alice might want to spend longer but it’s more nightmare than dream. It’s a good book but you’ll likely find the original better.

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