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The Girl on the Train

The Girl on the Train: Paula Hawkins, February 16—26, 2015
My rating: ♦♦♦♦◊

BOOK Book Reviews 11514819042

The Girl on the Train is a tense thriller about a missing woman, told by multiple narrators in a non-linear arrangement. It might sound like Gone Girl, and has been heavily compared to it, but the comparison does both a disservice.

The most prominent narrator is Rachel Watson, an infertile alcoholic who has been divorced and fired and is staying with a university friend while pretending to put her life back together. She is the titular girl on the train, and while pretending to go to work each day she looks longingly at the street she used to live in, fantasting about a perfect couple she often sees. The other narrators are Anna, her husband’s new wife who lives in the same house as they used to, and Megan, one half of Rachel’s perfect girl and the one who goes missing.

Megan’s disappearance draws Rachel into their lives, having observed them from the train for some time. She believes she has information that might help. Soon, the three households become rapidly entwined in each other’s dramas.

None of the characters are immediately likeable, but it’s hard not to feel sorry for Rachel. She may be her own worst enemy, but it wouldn’t do her any harm to catch a break. Hawkins does well to maintain such a tight cast, keeping a very small core of characters central to all of the action. They all have backstories, all have secrets and are all very carefully devised, though none of them have any particularly distinct personality.

There are some surprises in store along the way, though the pace is sluggish in parts and the ending isn’t particularly difficult to predict. The Girl on the Train instead provides some compelling character drama; this is a real study in how people affect each other, the impact that one life has on another, and how each person is the sum of their history. It traces the butterfly effect of relationships and lies.

There may be some delays, but The Girl on the Train is well worth the ride.

 
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Posted by on February 26, 2015 in 4 star

 

Doctor Who: Only Human

Only Human: Gareth Roberts, January 17—February 15, 2015
My rating: ♦♦♦♦◊

OnlyHumanThe Doctor, Rose and Captain Jack explore what it is to be human in the latest Doctor Who novel. A Neanderthal shows up in present-day London, while futuristic humans travel back in time 28,000 years, by now emotionless due to an endless array of injections which preclude any fear or negativity.

As Captain Jack babysits the Neanderthal, the Doctor and Rose discover the future humans living in the past are genetically engineering Humanity 2.0, devoid of unhelpful traits in a Cyberman-esque design, all the while early-day humans and Neanderthal tribes fight for dominance.

The themes are not new to Doctor Who; the Ninth Doctor had a particular bee in his bonnet about the depravity of the species. But it is explored in significant detail, and the juxtaposition of the various versions of ‘humanity’ work very well.

The writing is good, and the patter is brilliant. The Doctor, in particular, is captured extremely well by Roberts. Although most of the guest characters are bland and forgettable, this was probably intentional given the comatose state most of them had elected to be in.

With the continuity of Doctor Who novels historically disputed, the Nu-Who series seems to be much more credible. Every book until now has featured the “Bad Wolf” phrase that was key to the concurrently running Series 1 (2005), and the events of The Monsters Inside were referenced in the TV episode Boom Town (2005). While there is no Bad Wolf reference in Only Human, Rose does allude to the events of the TV episode The Unquiet Dead (2005), and the TV episode Gridlock (2007) was partially inspired by Only Human. Although these references are fleeting, they’re appreciated.

While some aspects of Only Human seem a little too madcap even for Doctor Who, in general there is a very interesting question at the heart of this outing. Jack is underused, but the Doctor is on form and overall, this is a hugely entertaining, if not entirely memorable, jaunt.

 
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Posted by on February 15, 2015 in 4 star, Doctor Who

 

Mockingjay

Banner_HungerGames

Mockingjay: Suzanne Collins, February 2—14, 2015
My rating: ♦♦♦♦♦

HungerGamesMockingjaySuzanne Collins delivers the powerful third and final instalment of the critically acclaimed Hunger Games series with Mockingjay. If following Catching Fire was a challenge, it didn’t seem like it.

The third novel picks up directly after its prequel, with the aftermath of the rebel plot to sabotage the Quarter Quell. That, and the dramatic ending which saw District 12 annihilated by the Capitol in response.

Throughout the series, Collins has carefully balanced two distinct but inter-related narratives: the epic tale of the ruling Capitol’s oppression of the people of Panem, and the personal struggle of Katniss Everdeen’s transition from child to figurehead. Never more so is this apparent than in Mockingjay, where the dramatic rebellion spearheaded by Katniss comes with the very human evolution of her complex relationships with Gale and Peeta in particular.

The final book is different in that there are no Hunger Games taking place, though many of the features of the Gladiatorial battles remain key to the plot. Instead, the plot is one of attempts to overthrow President Snow and Capitol in a hearts and minds campaign with the Districts, as much as with the brute force required against the Capitol loyalists and Peacekeepers.

Collins has structured each of the books into three parts; the ever-faithful beginning, middle and end. But with Mockingjay it’s clear the same is true of the trilogy itself, and with this instalment the action swells to become not just the crescendo of the book but the finale of the series. There is a real sense, especially in Part Three, that this really is an endgame for the entire series and the magnitude is brought home throughout. This, in part, may be due to the subtle well-placed homages to the earlier books that pepper the novel. They provide context and, yes, an emotional punch.

As the climax looms, the outcome is refreshingly, exhilaratingly unpredictable. Sometimes Collins hints at an Orwellian dystopia where a happy ending will never be realised; other times there’s so much energy that it seems impossible the rebels won’t succeed. But how can so much atrocity be happily resolved? With twist upon twist, Collins delivers a strong and satisfying conclusion that deals with both the Panem-wide and the Katniss-centric plots. Collins chooses her message, and delivers it with a  punch.

Throughout, the complexity of human relationships remain central with the ever-shifting dynamics between so many of the central characters. From the colourful eccentrics of Capitol fame to the bold personalities from the Districts, characterisation remains spot on, and investment in the cast is well embedded which leads to so many emotive payoffs.

You will go into Mockingjay not knowing what to expect, and the further into it you get, the less you will be able to predict. But one thing is for certain, this is a stunning end to a superlative series and as far as critics go, the odds are likely to be ever in Collins’ favour.

 
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Posted by on February 14, 2015 in 5 star, Hunger Games

 

The Colour of Magic

The Colour of Magic: Terry Pratchett, January 16—30, 2015

My rating: ♦♦♦♦◊

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The Discworld series begins with A Colour of Magic, which stars hapless failed wizard Rincewind saddled with the job of protecting a tourist, Twoflower, and his aggressive Luggage from the gold-hungry men around town. Their adventure, we soon learn, is the result of an ongoing chess game amongst the gods who are undecided on their fate.

It’s easy to see why the series took off. Rincewind is a brilliant protagonist; an anti-hero who knows but one magic spell, though the result of it is unpredictable and precludes him from using even that. He has no interest in adventure or nobility, and behaves in selfish, cowardly and exasperated ways. It’s a refreshing change from the endless line of strapping young leads with hearts of gold, and despite his many flaws Rincewind is very likeable. He is, quite possibly, much more similar to the average reader than most fantasy heroes.

Twoflower, by comparison, is an adrenaline junkie who wants to meet all manner of mythical creatures, including barbarians and dragons, and gleefully whips out his goblin-powered camera at every perilous opportunity. He delights in the scrapes that drive Rincewind mad, and actively pushes them on through dangers he seems incapable of appreciating. His reckless enthusiasm and total failure to ever worry is just as amusing as Rincewind’s chagrin.
Although most of the other characters have smaller roles, Death must be highlighted as simply brilliant. Although he too is only a supporting character, his portrayal as an entity who sees taking life as just a day job, and the ability of Rincewind to evade him as quite annoying. His humour is very droll, and raises many a chuckle.
The narrative is peppered with very dry humour, which appeals to me, and doesn’t take itself seriously at all. In fact, many of the crazy conventions, such as seeds which can be planted in order to produce a harvest in the past, are clearly designed to send up the genre. Perhaps it is an effort to lampoon the grandiose nature of some fantasy, but Pratchett’s narration often seems vague and aloof, and makes it difficult to become properly immersed. Something acts as a barrier, and that’s the novel’s main weakness.
The storyline moves at a steady pace with each disaster leading to the next. Full of colourful characters, hilarious one-liners and just a sparkle of magic, this first Discworld book comes highly recommended.
 
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Posted by on January 30, 2015 in 3 star, Discworld

 

Decision Points

Decision Points: George W. Bush, January 10—15, 2015
My rating: ♦♦♦◊◊

DecisionPointsThe memoirs of George W. Bush are arranged thematically rather than chronologically, with each chapter devoted to a particular topic such as stem cell research, the financial crisis and, of course, 9/11 and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. In each, he discusses his “decision points”. The running theme is very much a walk through of Bush’s thought process and explaining why he took the decisions he did. Refreshingly, these are explanations and not justifications. Bush candidly asserts some decisions were right, others wrong and many will be judged by history.

Love him or hate him, the 43rd President of the USA was in office during some of the most defining moments of the country’s recent history. It is fascinating to read his own account of those days. Bush talks in very emotive language and frequently talks about his duty as president to, to coin a phrase, serve and protect. He talks about not wishing to repeat the mistakes of his predecessors and the responsibility of stewardship.

Perhaps what Decision Points does best is capture Bush’s personality. Writing conversationally, Bush comes across as warm and, when possible, jovial. He also seems highly principled and often alludes to having integrity, determination and a willingness to make the right, rather than popular, decisions. Most surprising for me is the degree to which Bush’s faith influenced his life and presidency. It’s affirming to see him discuss it so openly.

What Decision Points doesn’t offer is any particular insight into the party politics of Bush’s presidency. When he refers to his team it is often to simply call them invaluable or wonderful, but rarely to provide any detail on White House or wider American politics. No character besides Bush himself is given much personality. That in itself is not a criticism, so long as you’re not hoping for it. This memoir is very much an emotive retelling of key events with the rough detail you could find impersonally on most news websites.

Having said that, there was a little more exposition surrounding the UN and NATO discussions, particularly around the crucial 2001-2003 period. The delicacy of international politics is well relayed. What was especially interesting for me as a UK reader were the fleeting appearances from then-Prime Minister Tony Blair. Though brief, to read the thoughts of another world leader on our Premiere was a rare treat; it was much as you would expect.

Ultimately, your enjoyment of Decision Points will be determined by your interest in each of the chapters. Those looking for a straightforward account with some commentary on the President’s reasoning will be delighted; those hoping for new information or a behind-closed-doors look at Stateside politics will not. Love him or hate him, these are Bush’s decisions.

 
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Posted by on January 14, 2015 in 3 star

 

Doctor Who: The Deviant Strain

The Deviant Strain: Justin Richards, January 3—11, 2015
My rating: ♦♦♦♦◊

TheDeviantStrainThe Doctor and Rose find themselves in an abandon Russian village in The Deviant Strain; the fourth instalment of NuWho’s book series. This time joined by Captain Jack Harkness, they are faced with a being that is ageing and jellifying its victims.

While some of the previous editions of the series read like screenplays, The Deviant Strain is very much a novel and embraces its point of difference. Elements such as the unreliable light would be frustrating to watch on screen, but atmospheric in print. The whole story is much creepier than could have been shown in a television episode which gave it real bite. There were also some great twists that made it consistently interesting.

Richards has a firm hold of the Doctor, Rose and Jack’s voices. The Doctor has some witty lines, while this is the first time Rose doesn’t ramble on about the oddity of travelling time and space with an alien. Whether this is indicative of Rose’s character development in the wider arc or Richards’ sensitivity that it’s getting a bit old, it was very welcome to see a move away from this. Although the number of guest cast made it a little confusing at first, there were good back stories and some interesting personal subplots. Again, Richards took advantage of the power of print to explore the complex background of the setting.

The pace is spot on. Where The Clockwise Man had a painfully slow start and The Monsters Inside had an ending that was dragged out to an inch of my life, never mind its own, The Deviant Strain maintains a great structure; a brilliant balance of action and dialogue and a running tension with perfect timing.

By embracing the opportunities of print, devising a creepy and suspenseful story and really getting into the skin of the lead characters, Richards delivers the best Doctor a Who novel so far.

 
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Posted by on January 11, 2015 in 4 star, Doctor Who

 

Dead Wrong

Dead Wrong: Patricia Stotley, January 7—9, 2015
My rating: ♦♦◊◊◊

DeadWrongDead Wrong has an exciting premise: an accidental suitcase switch sees a dangerous criminal and runaway wife entangled in a dangerous game. It’s not original but it’s the collision of lives that makes for a thrilling read.

The opening scene is brilliantly written and draws the reader straight into the drama, and Stotley’s narration adapts to suit the voice of each scene’s key character.

Despite all of these ingredients, Dead Wrong fails to pull it off. Fat Ass Sammy is irredeemably unpleasant, with many of his thoughts uncomfortable to read. It’s as if Stotley revels in his offensive depravity; he’s just too crude to be believable.

A bigger issue is that our protagonist Lynnette is also quite unlikeable. The initial sympathy for her character disappears and she soon grates. Her association with Grace and Blue is baffling and far-fetched.

It’s disappointing because I had so much goodwill towards this piece. It is with regret that it seems this book is Dead Wrong by name, dead wrong by nature.

Disclaimer: the publishers provided an advance review copy free of charge for the purpose of review.

 
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Posted by on January 9, 2015 in 2 star

 
 
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