My Reading and Writing

Personal reviews, writing and appreciation of literature.

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The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

TheGirlOnTheTrainThe Girl on the Train is not a book I would have chosen to read, however I recently joined a local book group and this was the latest selection on the program. Although I’m far from a literary snob, I tend to steer clear of books that are overtly hyped and quickly turned into films.

The Girl on the Train starts by introducing the reader to Rachel, whose daily train travel is highly relatable for those who experience public transport on a regular basis. It soon becomes evident that Rachel has a drinking problem however, and she has lost her partner Tom, her home, and her job. Rachel is lodging with and old friend named Cathy and has a lonely existence, spending most of her time isolated. At the same signal stop of her daily commute, Rachel views a suburban home and its occupants, fantasising about the idyllic life she imagines they live.

The novel is predominantly segmented into morning nd evening narration. It has an epistolary feel, and when it shifts viewpoint from Rachel to Megan, one of the inhabitants of the house Rachel has been observing, the reader becomes aware that Rachel, Tom and Megan are interconnected.  Rachel and Megan’s stories are told from differing timelines, originally one year apart, and gradually intersect. This structure helps to provide tension as Rachel embroils herself in a mystery which she may be able to assist with, were it not for a drinking binge which rendered her memory a blank.

The novel continues on with themes of loneliness, sadness and adultery, hinting that perceptions of people aren’t always what they seem. It also explores the varying ways people deal with trauma. While some of the characters’ thoughts, flaws and surroundings are relatable, I didn’t find any of them particularly likeable. This could be the writer’s intention as all have potential criminal involvement, but it lead to me finding the story more irritating than thrilling. I fluctuated between feeling sorry for Rachel and being frustrated by her, particularly as she alienates herself and continues a cycle of lies, the wretched yet exasperating nature of her alcoholism. With the image of trains ever present, I couldn’t help but wonder if it was a metaphor for Rachel being a train wreck.

About a third of the way through the novel I was hoping it wouldn’t continue along the same path and it does pick up speed a little, with the introduction of another character’s perspective. I was pleased that most secrets were not obvious until Hawkins chose to reveal them but I won’t be rushing to see the film adaptation.

Publisher Synopsis

Every day the same. Rachel catches the same commuter train every morning. She knows it will wait at the same signal each time, overlooking a row of back gardens. She’s even started to feel like she knows the people who live in one of the houses. ‘Jess and Jason’, she calls them. Their life – as she sees it – is perfect. If only Rachel could be that happy. Until today. And then she sees something shocking. It’s only a minute until the train moves on, but it’s enough. Now everything’s changed. Now Rachel has a chance to become a part of the lives she’s only watched from afar. Now they’ll see; she’s much more than just the girl on the train…

ISBN: 9780857522320

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The Shining by Stephen King

TheShiningI was in the mood for a bit of lighter reading recently so decided on Stephen King’s The Shining. I haven’t read a Stephen King novel for many years and find his work a bit hit and miss. The Stand is amongst my favourite books, yet others, like Four Past Midnight, left me wanting back the time I spent reading.  I thought I would read The Shining as it was listed in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die and seemed to be a popular choice.

The Shining begins with an introduction to Jack Torrance who is applying for the position of winter caretaker at the Overlook Hotel. It soon becomes evident that Jack has his demons. He is a recovering alcoholic with violent tendencies and recently lost his job. His wife Wendy is contemplating divorce. The Overlook Hotel has its demons too. The first winter caretaker killed himself and his family, supposedly the result of alcohol and cabin fever. Both the Torrance family and the hotel hold secrets and King delivers revelations from early on, including the disclosure that Jack and Wendy’s son Danny has some sort of extrasensory perception.

The Torrance family become sole residents of the secluded Overlook when Jack assumes his new job, with the hotel soon rendered inaccessible by the winter snow. The Shining is sparse on characters given the isolated setting, yet the hotel itself, built in the early 20th century, is a sinister presence.

The Shining does draw on some haunted house tropes, however King is masterful at describing fear and building urgency. He uses short chapters from differing perspectives and there is an ever-present sense of foreboding and malevolence. The novel also examines familial relationships and voices the private thoughts of its protagonists, even when ugly. There is a motif of ‘like father, like son’ throughout and King also makes use of extended metaphors, particularly with wasps, to examine these relationships, along with threat, pain and dominance.

It has been a little daunting as an amateur to critique a book by an author as prolific as Stephen King and I am conscious of not giving away the plot of the story. Unfortunately the endorsement by Cosmopolitan on the back of the edition I read betrays the book’s ending—best to try and avoid reading it!

Publisher Synopsis

Jack Torrance’s new job at the Overlook Hotel is the perfect chance for a fresh start. As the off-season caretaker at the atmospheric old hotel, he’ll have plenty of time to spend reconnecting with his family and working on his writing. But as the harsh winter weather sets in, the idyllic location feels ever more remote…and more sinister. And the only one to notice the strange and terrible forces gathering around the Overlook is Danny Torrance, a uniquely gifted five-year-old.

ISBN: 9780307743657

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The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide

TheGuestCatThe Guest Cat begins in 1988 when a stray cat comes into the lives of a middle-aged couple, both writers. The cat is initially adopted by a neighbouring child and comes to be known as Chibi. Chibi’s visits to the couple gradually increase and she is shown to subtly influence their lives as they grow accustomed to each other. She has a calming effect on the household, even though she is a free spirit, coming and going as she pleases. The author exquisitely explores the emotional attachment the couple form with their guest, and highlights both the joy of observation and companionship.

Hiraide has magnificent attention to detail, providing intricate descriptions of place, particularly the gardens and neighbourhood in which the couple reside. He emphasises the eccentricities of both animals and people and instead of voicing the cat, as humans tend to do, he shows Chibi’s personality through her behaviour and intimately captures her characteristics.

The Guest Cat is not an exciting book, but a gentle read interwoven with philosophy, history and intertextuality. The role of fate in everyday life also features prominently. Hiraide includes cultural events of the time, such as the death of Emperor Hirohito in 1989, and my edition contains translators notes which help to understand some of the cultural references. It is about times of change in both the characters of the book and the nation. The Guest Cat is a petite book with short chapters, making it an easy read.

While I am a cat lover, I don’t think you need to be one to enjoy the author’s beautiful prose. The Guest Cat is not just about the relationship between people and animals, but finding peace in times of loss. I’m unsure if the book is autobiographical, but I do think it must have autobiographical elements. Like the protagonists of the story, Hiraide and his wife are both writers and they do have a cat.

Publisher Synopsis

“By the acclaimed poet Takashi Hiraide, The Guest Cat is a subtly moving novel that conveys deeply felt ways of being. Two writers, a young couple, enjoy their quiet cottage in a leafy part of Tokyo they work at home as freelance editors. One day a cat invites herself into their small kitchen. She is a beautiful creature. She  leaves, but comes again, and then again and again. New, small joys, radiated by the fleeting loveliness of life, accompany the cat; the days take on more light and color.”

ISBN: 9780811221504

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Thinking About It Only Makes It Worse: And Other Lessons from Modern Life by David Mitchell

ThinkingAboutItBeing a fan of David Mitchell’s work on series such as Would I Lie to You? and QI, I was happy to borrow this book from a local library for a bit of light reading. I could hear Mitchell’s distinctive voice in my head as I read this collection of columns, originally written for the Observer between 2009 and 2014. Unfortunately, the book didn’t live up to my expectations however.

Thinking About It Only Makes It Worse did provide a few chuckles and displayed Mitchell’s acerbic wit, however I found it a little bit of a struggle to get through. The book’s introduction is a reflective look on the global financial crisis of 2008, followed by a range of commentaries on topics including pop culture, politics and current affairs. Being Australian, I found the articles too Eurocentric, although you can generally get the gist if you have a little knowledge of international affairs. The articles are also likely to date or become obscure over time given the subjects and people discussed, such as advertising, BBC television and the 2010 UK general election.

Mitchell provides some entertaining observations whilst also expressing his irritations, most likely stirring up some controversy in the process. He is intelligent, self-deprecating and has a knack for providing well-considered arguments on both well-known and trivial events, but disappointingly this collection fell a little flat with me. To me it didn’t fully articulate the astute humour I am accustomed to from David Mitchell and I consider his comment articles are perhaps better read as they are periodically published.

Publisher Synopsis
What’s wrong with calling a burglar brave? Why are people so f***ing hung up about swearing? Why do the asterisks in that sentence make it okay? Why do so many people want to stop other people doing things, and how can they be stopped from stopping them? Why is every film and TV programme a sequel or a remake? Why are we so reliant on perpetual diversion that someone has created chocolate toothpaste? Is there anything to be done about the Internet? These and many other questions trouble David Mitchell as he delights us with a tour of the absurdities of modern life – from Ryanair to Downton Abbey, sports day to smoking, nuclear weapons to phone etiquette, UKIP to hotdogs made of cats. Funny, provocative and shot through with refreshing amounts of common sense, Thinking About It Only Makes It Worse celebrates and commiserates on the state of things in our not entirely glorious nation.

ISBN: 9781783350698

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A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

ALittleLifeA Little Life begins with Jude, the novel’s primary protagonist, moving into a Manhattan apartment with his friend Willem. Jude and Willem were college roommates, along with JB and Malcom, whose various viewpoints and perspectives are told throughout the narrative. Jude is introverted, secretive about his past, obsessive, and experiences severe pain and restrictions in his movement. He is distant even with his closest friends and fearful of being hurt or disappointed, yet thrives in his career as a lawyer. Willem is Jude’s most loyal companion, a faithful friend, an actor and amiable character. JB, spoiled by the women in his family, is an egotistical, self-involved and opinionated artist, yet the hub of the friends and their social scene. And then there is Malcom, a somewhat obtuse, indecisive and conservative architect who has come from privilege and still living with his parents at the age of 27. Social and financial status is an important aspect of the novel and the characters are all successful in their respective fields.

As the novel progresses, Jude’s physical and emotional scarring is revealed, along with his self-loathing and self-destructive behaviour, due to his traumatic childhood in which his parents are non-existent. Whilst the trauma that Jude experienced is gradually, delicately and artfully told, it does make for an emotionally draining read, with harrowing details of physical, emotional and sexual abuse. Yanagihara expertly writes Jude’s recollections of abuse in a manner not overly emotive or graphic, yet still manages to instil a strong, heartfelt reaction in the reader. At times I did question why I was reading a book which could be so confronting and wretched but it was so beautifully written, and the characters so vivid, that you can’t help but be drawn in. Whilst Jude constantly seems to have heartache thrown into his life, the novel offsets this with moments of beautiful, uplifting narrative of endurance, friendship and love, and he is determined to move past the obstacles he is presented with.

A Little Life focuses on the friendships and relationships between men, the dynamics of these connections, and the ups and downs, clashes and synchronicities that arise with diverse personalities. In addition to Willem, JB and Malcolm, the reader becomes privy to Jude’s close relationships with his doctor, a university lecturer and a social worker. Feelings and insecurities, the extremes between good and evil, and the difficulties in maintaining a relationships with someone who may be mentally ill are explored. We also see how Jude, Willem, JB and Malcolm grow and change (or don’t) over the years, with the novel spanning decades in a predominantly linear fashion, flowing smoothly between the present and flashbacks of characters’ lives and memories.

The novel is character driven with very strong dialogue, and although Yanagihara doesn’t include much about the New York landscape, she does include detailed depictions of art, apartments and buildings. A Little Life is an intelligent book in which the author seems to have done her research. Sadly I had a major spoiler revealed by an inconsiderate person at an audience with the author that I attended a few months back, however thankfully it did little to dampen the impact of the story.

I feel I am merely reiterating the multitude of positive reviews this book has received but it is really a story with characters that leaves a lasting impression on the reader. Have tissues on hand during reading as A Little Life is a very moving book.

Publisher Synopsis
“When four classmates from a small Massachusetts college move to New York to make their way, they’re broke, adrift, and buoyed only by their friendship and ambition. There is kind, handsome Willem, an aspiring actor; JB, a quick-witted, sometimes cruel Brooklyn-born painter pursuing fame in the art world; Malcolm, a frustrated architect at a prominent firm; and withdrawn, brilliant, enigmatic Jude, who serves as their centre of gravity.

Over the decades, their relationships deepen and darken, tinged by addiction, success, and pride. Yet their greatest challenge, each comes to realize, is Jude himself; by midlife a terrifyingly talented lawyer yet an increasingly broken man, his mind and body scarred by an unspeakable childhood, and haunted by a degree of trauma that he fears he will not only be unable to overcome – but that will define his life forever.

A novel of extraordinary intelligence and heart, Yanagihara has fashioned a masterful depiction of heartbreak, and a dark and haunting examination of the tyranny of experience and memory.”

ISBN: 9781447294832

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Ring by Koji Suzuki

RingI’ve had this this book in my collection for some time now and thought it was time to read it, particularly given a sufficient amount of time has elapsed since I saw the film adaptation of the same name (the American version). I was thankful to find that the novel had distinct differences to the film.

The leading character of Ring is Asakawa, a journalist who is feeling disenchanted with his career and by chance comes across a story involving four friends who simultaneously died of cardiac failure, their faces contorted in terror at the time of their death. Some investigation leads Asakawa to a holiday cabin where he views a chilling video which portends his death in exactly one week unless he determines the charm which will alter this fate. The video contains a sequence of both real and abstract images which Asakawa uses to help solve his dilemma.

Asakawa enlists in the help of another journalist and his editor, the latter of whom has doubts as to Asakawa’s reliability due to a previous misjudgement in his career. He also seeks aid from Ryuji, an old school friend and somewhat repugnant character due to his confession of committing a rape and excitement over the prospect of evil energy infiltrating the world. Whilst Ryuji does prove to be a great support for Asakawa in his race against the clock, his motives are at times even doubted by Asakawa himself.

Ring explores themes of paranormal phenomenon, fate and malevolent forces and provides suspenseful text of mystery and investigation. The novel wasn’t quite as gripping or unsettling as I’d hoped, though I did have reasonably high expectations of it due to previous reviews and my appreciation of the film version. I could still sleep quite soundly at night after reading the book in bed! Suzuki details Asakawa’s growing fear with his impending deadline and how this effects his relationship with his wife and daughter, however I would have liked to see greater character development in both Asakawa and Ryuji. The author increases the atmospheric urgency of the situation with an impending typhoon which sadly seems to dissipate all too easily. There is also a slight, unexpected twist at the end of the story which didn’t seem fully realised.

All in all Ring did keep me interested as leads were followed up and more information revealed, but I felt it lacked depth.

Publisher Synopsis
“The body of a young girl is found at her home in Yokohama, contorted in fear, but the cause of her death is a mystery. Soon afterwards the bodies of three more teenagers are discovered – dead in chillingly similar circumstances.

Sensing a story, journalist Asakawa, the girl’s uncle, becomes fixated on unravelling the cause of this bizarre sudden-death syndrome. He discovers that the four victims had shared a log cabin for one night, exactly seven days before their deaths.

In the cabin, Asakawa finds a nightmarish secret – a curious videotape which plays not a movie, but a strange collection of abstract, subliminal images, concluding with a portentous message:

‘Those who have viewed these images are fated to die at this exact hour one week from now. If you do not wish to die, you must follow these instructions exactly…’

Then the tape cuts to static.

This slickly plotted page-turner reverberates with a terrifying supernatural twist. It inspired the cult Japanese movie and the US remake of the same name.”

ISBN: 0007192355

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Down Under by Bill Bryson

DownUnderDown Under is the account of Bryson’s experiences and encounters during various sojourns in Australia. These include a rail journey on the Indian Pacific from Sydney to Perth, a road trip across the south east of the continent (covering Sydney, Canberra, Adelaide, Melbourne and many towns in between), briefly visiting south eastern Queensland, before finally covering the top end of Australia, followed by Perth and Western Australia.

Bryson opens Down Under with dialogue about Australia’s unmemorable Prime Ministers, also beginning his humorous fixation with Harold Holt, who drowned in 1967, disappearing without a trace. He also later describes far right politician Pauline Hanson as “cerebrally unpredictable”, probably one of the more polite yet witty ways to which she’s been referred. He is additionally bemused by how little Australian current affairs feature in international news.

Whilst Bryson offers humorous anecdotes throughout, Down Under is a travelogue in which he considers Australia’s landscape, weather, animals and people. He savours the uniqueness of the country, expressing his fondness for its distinct features—with the exception of the dangerous wildlife, which he is often preoccupied with. Bryson truly seems to love Australia and its residents and delights in learning and sharing his discoveries about the country. He also touches on the colonial history of Australia and the associated oppression of Indigenous peoples. He shares his thoughts on Indigenous culture and sadly indicates the past and present racist attitudes of white Australians toward Indigenous and migrant communities.

The comedic elements of Down Under provide many laugh out loud moments however, such as Bryson’s description of his sleeping habits, cricket and the snippets of conversations he overhears or partakes in. He delights in cheesy tourist attractions, although he does make Australians seem a little backward at times, with little emphasis on the contemporary. He is charmed by the stories of Australian explorers, and the undesirable fates which often befell them, which he sporadically includes in his narrative.

I learned many interesting facts about Australia, such as the number of introduced plants and animals, and their devastating effect on native flora and fauna. As the book was first published in 2000 it may warrant some investigation as to accuracy and currency, however I enjoyed the accounts without concerning myself with this.

Bill Bryson has an impressive array of publications, including various other documentations of his travels. Down Under is the first Bryson text I have read and I would subsequently be keen to read more of his work. I wonder how non-Australian readers who are unfamiliar with the culture or idiosyncrasies of Australia and its people would perceive this book, however it certainly made me keen to see more of the country in which I reside.

Publisher Synopsis
“’It was as if I had privately discovered life on another planet, or a parallel universe where life was at once recognizably similar but entirely different. I can’t tell you how exciting it was. Insofar as I had accumulated my expectations of Australia at all in the intervening years, I had thought of it as a kind of alternative southern California, a place of constant sunshine and the cheerful vapidity of a beach lifestyle, but with a slightly British bent – a sort of Baywatch with cricket…’

Of course, what greeted Bill Bryson was something rather different. Australia is a country that exists on a vast scale. It is the world’s sixth largest country and its largest island. It is the only island that is also a continent and the only continent that is also a country. It is the driest, flattest, hottest, most desiccated, infertile and climatically aggressive of all the inhabited continents and still it teems with life – a large proportion of it quite deadly.

In fact, Australia has more things that can kill you in a very nasty way than anywhere else. This is a country where even the fluffiest of caterpillars can lay you out with a toxic nip, where seashells will not just sting you but actually sometimes go for you. If you are not stung or pronged to death in some unexpected manner, you may be fatally chomped by sharks or crocodiles, or carried helplessly out to sea by irresistible currents, or left to stagger to an unhappy death in the baking outback.

Ignoring such dangers – yet curiously obsessed by them – Bill Bryson journeyed to Australia and promptly fell in love with the country. And who can blame him? The people are cheerful, extrovert, quick-witted and unfailingly obliging; their cities are safe and clean and nearly always built on water; the food is excellent; the beer is cold and the sun nearly always shines. Life doesn’t get much better than this.”

ISBN: 038540817X