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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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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Jasper Jones by Craig Silvey

JapserJonesJasper Jones is the second novel by Australian author Craig Silvey. The story is situated in the fictional town of Corrigan in Western Australia. The residents of Corrigan, the majority of whom work in coal mining or the local power station, thrive on gossip yet still harbour secrets. Set during the turbulent 1960s, the oppressive heat of an Australian summer holiday period is a predominant aspect of the novel.

Jasper Jones is narrated by Charlie Bucktin, a thirteen year old dreamer who has a love of reading and is preoccupied by his infatuation with the amiable and bookish Eliza Wishart. He is wise for his years in his questioning of faith and the actions of others, yet his displays of intelligence attract the unwanted attention of school bullies. He also tries to assert himself with his bitter and volatile mother who is a force to be reckoned with in his youth.

The novel begins when Charlie is approached by Jasper Jones, the teenage son of an alcoholic, unemployed, Anglo-Australian father and Indigenous Australian mother who passed away when he was young. Jasper is the antithesis of Charlie, self-assured and skilful, even though he is blamed for the misfortunes of the town and the target of unfounded rumours. What Jasper reveals to Charlie becomes a secret they share, which results in the loss of Charlie’s innocence and naivety and the basis for a promise he maintains throughout the book.

Another character who features strongly in Jasper Jones is Jeffrey Lu, the child of the town’s only Vietnamese residents. Jeffrey is relentlessly bullied and oppressed due to his racial heritage, yet never ceases to be optimistic and excitable. The banter between Jeffrey and Charlie with their talk of sport, girls and superheroes is typical of adolescents and a joy to be privy to.

As the story unfolds and tragedy is revealed, Charlie and the town’s residents become driven by panic and anxiety. Racism, domestic violence, fear and courage are powerful themes throughout the novel, along with luck, destiny and what motivates the choices people make. Silvey also includes poignant references the classic works of writers such as Harper Lee and Mark Twain within his text. The conclusion of Jasper Jones and the revelation of secrets is very moving. It is difficult to write about the plot without disclosing the intricacies of Silvey’s story but both the characters and narrative make for a mesmerising read. I thoroughly enjoyed Jasper Jones and recommend it for teenagers and adults alike.

Publisher Synopsis
“Late on a hot summer night at the tail-end of 1965, Charlie Bucktin, a precocious and bookish boy of thirteen, is startled by an urgent knock on the window of his sleepout. His visitor is Jasper Jones, an outcast in the mining town of Corrigan. Rebellious, mixed-race and solitary, Jasper is a distant figure of danger and intrigue for Charle. So when Jasper begs for his help, Charlie steals into the night by his side, terrified but desperate to impress. Jasper takes him through town to his secret glade in the bush, and it’s here that Charlie bears witness to Jasper’s horrible discovery.

Carrying the secret like a brick in his belly, Charlie is harried by a suspicious town tightening in fear. In the simmering summer where everything changes, he locks horns with his tempestuous mother, falls nervously in love, and battles to keep a lid on his zealous best friend, Jeffrey Lu. And in vainly attempting to restore the parts that have been shaken loose, Charlie learns to discern the truth from the myth, and why white lies creep like a curse; why the truth of things is so hard to know, and even harder to hold in his heart.”

ISBN: 9781742372624

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One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

OneDayInTheLifeOne Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is based on Solzhenitsyn’s own time “spent in a camp in the town of Ekibastuz in Kazakhstan” ( and if his other works are as profound as this novel it is clear why he won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1970. The story details a single day in the life of its protagonist, Ivan Denisovich Shukhov, who has already spent eight years within the Soviet Gulag system in the 1940s. Having first spent time in the general Ust-Izhma camp, Shukhov, amongst others who were imprisoned for alleged political crimes, was transferred to the ‘special’ camp where this story is based. Death, disease and violence are commonplace within the forced labour camp and day to day survival becomes all encompassing, for body, mind and spirit. Solzhenitsyn describes an inhumane existence where prisoners are reduced to mere numbers and set to work on various building sites or plants at least six days of the week in freezing conditions. Fed meagre portions of bread, porridge or soup and dressed in identical clothes hardly fit for the climate and even then stripped from them at the whim of guard searches, the men are grouped in teams and only granted reprieve from their duties when the temperature drops to -41°.

The teams in which the men live and work are the closest to family or friends, particularly in conditions where negotiating the system is paramount to survival and alliances can change within moments. The sources and targets of frustration and ill will interchange rapidly, particularly when food or fleeting moments of personal time are threatened. Mutual respect with team leaders is all important given their slight sway in making deals with the authorities. Learning the politics of the camp is integral, such as who to befriend, aid or share rare gifts of food with. Communication with the outside world or family is scant and almost becomes irrelevant in the monotony of camp life, unless a prisoner is the recipient of a food parcel. Resigned to their fate, the prisoners eventually stop counting the days of their sentence, some still with the hope of freedom, others just doing the best they can to stay alive, relishing small pleasures such as the butt of a cigarette or an extra serving of the daily ration.

Solzhenitsyn’s narrative is honest and frank and his style isn’t overly emotive in order to emphasise his views. By describing just one day in such detail he allows the reader to comprehend the horror of living such a punishing existence day in, day out with no respite. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich grants perspective to current first world complaints and privileges taken for granted and is also a testament to the strength of people who suffer at the cruel hand of other human beings. Most definitely a valuable read.

Publisher Synopsis
“This brutal, shattering glimpse of the fate of millions of Russians under Stalin shook Russia and shocked the world when it first appeared.

Discover the importance of a piece of bread or an extra bowl of soup, the incredible luxury of a book, the ingenious possibilities of a nail, a piece of string or a single match in a world where survival is all. Here safety, warmth and food are the first objectives. Reading this book, you enter a world of incarceration, brutality, hard manual labour and freezing cold – and participate in the struggle of men to survive both the terrible rigours of nature and the inhumanity of the system that defines their conditions of life.”

ISBN: 0141184744