The Girl on the Train

9781594633669_p0_v3_s260x420Although Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train has been at the top of the bestseller list, I have resisted reading the book – because reviewers have compared the story to Gillian Flynn’ Gone Girl – and I did not want to revisit a sordid tale with miserable characters and an ending with no acceptable possibilities.  But The Girl on the Train is so much better.  Like Alfred Hitchcock, Hawkins understands that the audience wants twists and turns, red herrings, and scary scenes in a psychological crime thriller – but above all, readers want closure and relief – hopefully with the villain finally being defeated.  Hawkins, unlike Flynn, delivers.

The story flips back and forth from several unreliable narrators – basically, almost everyone is lying to someone.  Rachel is the girl on the train; she imagines lives for people she sees in houses along a short rail stop.  Have you ever played that game sitting in a restaurant or a park, watching people go by – wondering what their lives are like – sometimes creating fantasies about who they are and where they are going?  A friend tells me she has done this with her husband, as she blithely identifies who belongs to the neighborhood and who is on vacation.  Rachel has an insider’s view to the game; she is divorced from Tom who lives in one of the houses with his new wife and baby.  A few doors down, she creates a better life for neighbors Megan and Scott, assigning the perfect marriage to this couple – until she sees Megan with another man, as the train moves on.

Eventually, all these characters connect – and Megan’s disappearance fuels the beginning of the mystery.  Hawkins cleverly introduces police detectives and a psychiatrist into the mix, as Rachel’s credibility as the key narrator continues to fall apart.  As each character’s fatal flaw unravels, Hawkins changes the scene and the possibilities of whodunnit:  Rachel, an alcoholic with blackouts, leaving her wondering what she did in those empty hours; Scott, Megan’s husband, a secret wife beater; Tom, the corrosive liar.  Even Anna, the new wife with a guilt complex, becomes a possible co-conspirator.

Since it’s more fun to read the story yourself and try to figure out the next turn, I won’t tell you more or offer any spoilers.  But – if you liked the dark side of Gone Girl, you will probably like The Girl on the Train.  And – if you did not like Gone Girl – you will find The Girl on the Train a better thought-out drama.

The Girl on the Train is Paula Hawkins’ debut in the crime thriller genre, and I can’t wait until her next book.  I may even check out some of earlier books –  romance novels, written under her pseudonym, Amy Silver.


Stories Not for the Nervous

Ghost stories for Halloween – or anytime.  Alfred Hitchcock edited a collection of scary tales – short stories, novelettes, and a novel – in the 1965 Stories Not for the Nervous that includes “various tomes of terror, sagas of suspense…groupings of grue…” from the master of suspense.  From a futuristic Twilight Zone short story by Ray Bradbury to a complete novel – “Sorry, Wrong Number” – the collection will have you looking over your shoulder and turning on all the lights.

I found this classic through the Dave Eggers interview in the New York Times book review section.  Eggers wrote one of my favorite nonfiction books – Zeitoun. When interviewed for By the Book,  Eggers admitted to “reading ghost stories and having a blast {when he} found a collection Hitchcock edited.”

Perfect for Halloween or anytime you are looking for old-fashioned scary fun.

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Waiting for Sunrise

Sometimes even when you are minding your own business, you can get into trouble. Lysander Rief has no idea that his quiet existence in Vienna is about to become a nightmare in William Boyd’s Waiting for Sunrise. Rief, an itinerate British actor, has come to the Vienna of Freud in 1913 to find the cure for his anorgasmia. After about one hundred pages of civilized banter, psychoanalysis, and an affair with a beautiful artist, Lysander finds himself an unwilling fugitive and a conspirator.

After his lover, Hettie Bull, cures him of his sexual dysfunction, she falsely accuses him of rape, and Lysander finds himself in a Viennese jail.  He escapes from Vienna with the help of a British diplomat and a military attaché, forfeiting the bail posted by the British Embassy.  Although he manages to reprise his role as an actor in London for a while, World War I intervenes and he enlists.  Suddenly, the two Brits who had helped him escape in Vienna, have reappeared and are demanding he repay his debt – seems they are really spies, enlisting Lysander for a new role:

“My life seems to be running on a track I have nothing to do with — I’m a passenger on a train but I have no idea of the route it’s taking or its final destination.”

Lysander fits his new role as undercover sleuth well, using his former life as an actor to create characters and disguises as he goes behind enemy lines to seek an elusive counterspy. When he finds himself in the midst of crossfire,  Boyd gives his actions credibility, with a smattering of a reluctant James Bond – all lots of fun, especially when Hattie reenters the action and his gay uncle becomes an accomplice.

After a slow start, Boyd delivers a very British spy novel with colorful characters and a plot that will have you wondering who the real spies are.   The time and tone is Downton Abbey with a smattering of Alfred Hitchcock’s 39 Steps.  If you like a little espionage with your crumpets, Waiting for Sunrise might be just your cup of tea.

The Case of the Blind Woman and Her Invisible Manuscript

If you’ve ever had a flash of inspiration, but couldn’t find a pen and paper to record it, or if you’ve wakened in the middle of the night to write down brilliant ideas, and then could not read your scribblings in the morning…

…you might be able to relate to the bereft blind British writer whose manuscript disappeared.

In an article published in the New York Times, John F. Burns reports on The Case of a Blind Woman and Her Invisible Manuscript. After writing the first 26 pages of her novel, Mrs. Vickers discovered that her pen had run out of ink before she had ever started; all the pages were blank when she later showed her efforts to her son.

“I could remember the gist of what I’d written, but there was no way I could have written exactly the same way again….”

You may feel her pain, but the story has an unusual and happy ending. A police forensic expert recovered the words by using a light source to reveal the pen indentations; movie director Alfred Hitchcock used a somewhat cruder technique, having Cary Grant lightly move a pencil over a blank page to reveal a message in the mystery thriller, North by Northwest.

Mrs. Vickers is back on track, writing her novel – Grannifer’s Legacy – with a volunteer regularly typing her words. Her experience reminded me of The Blind Contessa’s New Machine – a fictionalized version of another true story.

Before I Go To Sleep

Every morning Christine wakes up surprised to find she has aged twenty years and that the strange man in her bed is her husband.  Each night, as she sleeps, her memory is wiped clean.  Although this is the same premise as the comedy film, 50 First Dates, with Drew Barrymore, S.J. Watson’s Before I Go To Sleep is not funny.  This gripping mystery thriller will have you wondering from the beginning who and what is behind Christine’s mysterious dilemma.

As her husband feeds her restricted information in small doses  – pictures on bathroom mirrors, a scrapbook of the few pictures remaining from the fire that destroyed most of the family memorabilia, Christine suspects he is lying to her, and only revealing part of the history she cannot remember.  She secretly meets with a doctor specializing in memory loss, and as she records her impressions  in a journal, she begins to remember swatches of events and people from her past.   Although she is beginning to remember, the disconnect between her flashbacks and the story her husband tells her about her past keeps her from revealing the journal to him. Who can she trust? Is her husband lying to protect her or for some other reason? Visions of Ingrid Bergman in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Gaslight” flashed through my head, as I read.

Watson keeps the suspense taut, slowly unraveling the details to a surprise ending. I couldn’t stop reading.

Caution:  If you start reading this before bedtime, you will not get to sleep until you finish.