Elizabeth Schieber

“The Girl on the Train” by Paula Hawkins

“The Girl on the Train” by Paula Hawkins

9781594633669_GirlOnTheTrainA solid twenty-four hours after finishing Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train my heart is still racing and I have the nervous sweats. I think I can count on one hand the number of thrillers I’ve read, and I don’t really want to call this a “thriller” because I liked it so, so, much and thrillers just aren’t my thing.

To start with, the cover is so great. SO GREAT. Second to the cover art, one of the blurbs on the jacket calls The Girl on the Train “Hitchcockian,” a phrase I both love and find incredibly appropriate. If Hitchcock were still around, he’d have optioned this novel before it ever hit the shelves. I can just picture one (or two) of his blondes in the leading roles.

Here is the set up: Rachel, an alcoholic, divorced, unemployed frump of a woman rides the train into and out of London every morning/evening. On her way to and from, the train she takes usually comes to a stop at a certain bend in the track and if she looks out of her window, she can see a row of houses. One of the houses she can see used to be her own – and now her ex-husband lives there with his new wife and their little baby. Another of the houses she can see from her train window is a few doors down and belongs to an attractive young couple that Rachel thinks of as “Jess and Jason.” She loves watching them, seeks them out every time the train stops at this certain bend, often with a pre-mixed gin and tonic or a few mini bottles of wine. And then one day, “Jess” disappears. And drunk, drunk Rachel butts herself right into the investigation.

OH MY GOSH.

At the end I felt like I should have seen it coming, but I didn’t and it was wonderful. If you are in a reading slump, read this right away.


The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins (Riverhead | 9781594633669 | January 13, 2015)

“Etta and Otto and Russell and James” by Emma Hooper

“Etta and Otto and Russell and James” by Emma Hooper

etta_otto_russell_james_9781476755670_9f6afThere are a handful of novels that I think of as falling into the category “fit for most women readers.” This genre would include things like Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand and The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry and Jim the Boy. The everywoman’s novel, perhaps, that is touching and deep and full of characters that hit home. Heartfelt. Tender. Funny. Easy-to-sell. Ones that I enjoy right along side of my mother and grandmother. Initially in my mind, I put Emma Hooper’s Etta and Otto and Russell and James into this category. Partly because the copy on the book jacket makes it sound like the twin novel of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. Partly because the story starts out sweet and heartfelt and feel-good. And although I normally love these easy reads I feel ashamed to have lumped Etta and Otto in with them. Etta and Otto is something wonderful and rare.

The novel opens with a note to Otto, from Etta. Gone to see the ocean, it says. And Otto knows that she will have taken off on foot, and that she will have taken the longest route (can you see why it reminded me of Harold Fry?) What follows is the perfect story. Maybe it is just perfect for me, for my tastes, but it has everything I love to read: small farm town with a one-room schoolhouse, families bursting with brothers and sisters and work to be done. Best friends (Otto and Russell), love stories, a war story, whimsy and art and nature. I was expecting this tale of a woman who walks out of town to be sentimental, rewarding, ending in a happy bow. It was SO MUCH MORE. Every few pages I would find myself thinking “I love Otto best.” And then a few short pages later, “No, Russell is my favorite. I love Russell.” Again, but with Etta and then back to Otto and so on. James, the coyote that accompanies Etta on her journey, was perfect for what he was (a coyote, only mildly lovable).

That is how I feel, but it doesn’t really tell you anything about the story. So here is what I’d say: Etta has gone walking to see the ocean. She is old and maybe ill prepared. She leaves Otto behind at home with a box full of recipes and a promise that she’ll return. Russell, Otto’s best friend, has spent his lifetime loving Etta from the farm next door. As Etta walks, we get the story of their youths – Etta and Otto and Russell – from their childhoods through the war and back again to poor farmsteads. There was WAY more in this novel that I expected to find, I was blown away and think that most readers will be too. Plainsong meets Jim the Boy meets Mutant Message Down Under.


 

Etta and Otto and Russell and James by Emma Hooper (Simon & Schuster | ISBN 9781476755670 | January 20, 2015)

“We Are Not Ourselves” by Matthew Thomas

“We Are Not Ourselves” by Matthew Thomas

I’ve been thinking for a while about how to talk about Matthew Thomas’s We Are Not Ourselves. Right off the bat, it reminded me of Brooklyn by Colm Toibin or Someone by Alice McDermott.

To an extent.

If you read either of those slight, episodic books about young Irish immigrants in NYC and thought “Oh, I really loved that, I wish I knew her entire story,” then We Are Not Ourselves is something that will completely appeal to you.

We meet Eileen Tumulty as a young girl living in an apartment with her problematic/alcoholic parents and follow her well into middle age. The best part of the story, and the meat of it, concerns Eileen’s husband’s descent into illness, which was SO well done. I could picture Eileen perfectly, down to every detail so that even now – weeks after reading it – I can close my eyes and see her right down to her shoes. At times towards the middle/end of the novel, I found myself “remembering” her childhood; it seemed so long ago that I was recalling it as memory, not as something I’d just read. As weird as that is to try to describe, I think it means that by the end of the (long) novel, Eileen was someone I knew really, really well.

Sell this wonderful debut novel to anyone who likes a great family saga and is not afraid of tackling a thick book.

We Are Not Ourselves: A Novel by Matthew Thomas (Simon & Schuster |ISBN 9781476756660 |August 19, 2014)

 

“The Hundred-Year House” by Rebecca Makkai

Does this cover make you think of children’s books? Or cutesy lit? What a misrepresentation!

I really loved, loved this novel. If I had to make comparisons, I’d say it’s a little bit like a less verbose, Canadian version of Kate Morton, with a touch of DuMaurier’s Rebecca and a little bit of Sarah Waters in the mix. I might also say that it’s structured like a Russian nesting doll, inviting readers to work from the present, outer shell in to the very heart of things.

We start in 1999, in a huge mansion in Canada that served for many years as an artist’s retreat but has, at some point, been returned to the family as a private residence. Zee has moved home with her husband, Doug, and taken up residence in the coach house, just off of the main building (where her mother, Grace, lives). Right off the bat, it’s clear that the house itself is the main character — there are all sorts of family secrets, perhaps even ghosts, hiding in its walls. Next, we work backwards in time to see Grace, Zee’s mother, as a newlywed in the home. This section shines. Finally, we go back even further to the crazy set of artists who lived and loved in the house during its years as an artist’s retreat. (This section was my least favorite, but answered some essential questions.)

I enjoyed the multigenerational story tremendously and am still puzzling out some of the book’s revelations.

“Euphoria” by Lily King

euphoria 9780802122551_b3d5cI picked up Lily King’s Euphoria by chance and immediately fell deep into the heart of Papua New Guinea. This is going to be a great, great hand-sell for the summer. Loosely based on the adventures of Margaret Mead, Euphoria is the brilliant story of Nell and Fen, husband and wife anthropologists who venture into the depths of Papua New Guinea to discover unknown tribes circa 1932. Somewhere along the way, they link up with fellow anthropologist Andrew Bankson–a lonely Brit who has been studying a particular river tribe for many years. There is a love triangle (of course! but so good!) and a lot of interaction with the cultures of the tribes (excellent!). I loved Nell, so deeply, for asking questions of the natives that I would’ve liked to have asked. I hated Fen, so deeply, for all of the things he neglected to say. And Andrew Bankson? A brilliant narrator I really found myself pulling for. Perfect for any reader, man or woman, who loved The Mosquito Coast, Poisonwood Bible, Bel Canto or State of Wonder (and especially perfect for people who didn’t love State of Wonder as much as they would have liked).

Euphoria by Lily King (Atlantic Monthly Press | 9780802122551 | June 3, 2014)