Book Review: “The Book Of Dust: La Belle Sauvage”, by Phillip Pullman

Let me preface this review by stating that I’ve been waiting for this book–any book in the His Dark Materials series, really–for almost two decades. Rumors of The Book Of Dust have been swirling out there in Publishingland for at least a decade, if not longer. The fans of His Dark Material I know wondered whether we would ever see it, and what it would be like. Pullman himself once described it as a “very big book”, which I always took to mean that it would take forever to write and that we may never get to enjoy the finished product.

Behold! The finished product has arrived!

And what an arrival it is. La Belle Sauvage is the first book in this new series, entitled The Book of Dust. I have not found a book recently that I dropped into immediately and felt comfortable being led by the nose by the author through the land of his invention, Lyra’s Oxford. And make no mistake, we are indeed led by the nose, the author’s lyric prose the golden ring to which the lead is hitched. Pullman has brought us right back to where we started, an alternative England that is by turns a steampunk world and the Holy Roman Empire. It is a world where the church exhibits tremendous authority and power over state affairs, and where the world is lit by a combination of electric light (called “anbaric”) and good old fashion fossil fuel (naphtha). It is the world of Gyptians and their strange ways and uncanny foresight of the natural world, and of the bravery of boys called upon to be heroes too young.

It is the world of unspeakably evil characters that make you desperately fear for the heroes safety.

The heroes in question are Malcolm Polstead, a boy who works in his parents’ tavern, helping as part of the wait staff and as busboy when not in school or doing homework; and Alice, the eighteen year old girl who washes dishes in the tavern. Despite their grievances toward each other, they find a away to put aside their quarrels when they rescue the infant Lyra from a flooded nunnery. The flood that comes to Oxford is a flood to end all floods, Pullman’s version of the Biblical flood, and it washes them in Malcolm’s canoe, the titular La Belle Sauvage, south toward London in search of Lord Asriel, the girl’s father. They are pursued by a madman whose calm demeanor is betrayed by the hideously maimed hyena that is his daemon, the physical embodiment each human’s soul.

If everything I’ve just said is gibberish to you, then you have not had the enjoyment of the original His Dark Materials series. Pullman spend almost no time grounding you in the world. You are plunged once more into Lyra’s world, and like the rest of Oxford when the great flood comes, it’s either sink of swim. In his trip down the River Thames with our two heroes and their infant ward, we encounter all manner of beings, fearful and fantastic, revealing in part the direction Pullman appears to be taking this new series. The second book, tentatively due out next year, is entitled The Secret Commonwealth, a reference to a book of the same name written four hundred years earlier, and detailing the world of fairies in England. The groundwork for a world of fairies is laid in this first book.

Is The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage as good as the original trilogy? If pressed, I’d probably say no, not quite, but that is my own prejudices talking. The Golden Compass, known as The Northern Lights in the U.K., is one of my favorite books, and my favorite of the series. I could argue that the second and third books aren’t as good as the first, and I would make that argument for La Belle Sauvage as well. But don’t let my silly nostalgia dissway you from reading this one. It is a fine, fine book, and one that I will likely go to again, something I reserve for a very few select titles. The Book of Dust is a marvelous book, and my autumn was made richer by it.


Harry Potter at 20

Quite a lot can happen in twenty years. When I think back on my own life in the last two decades, I marvel how much it’s changed. In the last twenty years, the following has happened: I got married, moved to a different state, bought a condo, had two kids, sold the condo and bought a house, changed companies six times, gone through half dozen cars, lost two cats, gained one dog, written several first drafts of novels, self-published one, and read an untold number of books. 

Seven of those books were the Harry Potter books. 

The last twenty years were not quiet for J. K. Rowling, Jo to her friends, celebrated author of the Harry Potter books. From that fertile mind sprung seven books of the Harry Potter story, which in turn spawned eight feature films, at least three side books such as Tales of Beedle the Bard, one of which has now spawned a new feature film, which is the first of a planned five, plus a two-part play that is essentially the eight Harry Potter book, not to mention a copious amount of ancillary writing that appears on the official Harry Potter website, Pottermore. Hundreds of characters, dozens of locations, scores of magical spells, potions, charms, and encantations, all in the course of twenty years. 

And then there’s that little thing about Rowling getting married and raising a family. 

I was in books when Harry Potter emerged on the scene. At the time of the first book release in the US, there was little to no fanfare. It was just a book. I worked for Borders Books & Music back then, and our initial stock of the Sorcerer’s Stone was a whooping three units. But despite the fact that there wasn’t the worldwide media buzz that all things Harry Potter generates today, you could still tell that there was something special happening. Those three units were always sold out. Without fail, when someone would request it, a quick search for the book in our database would show that, yes, once again, the book was out of stock. It came up in morning team meetings, and then in emails from the corporate headquarters. Something was happening. 

It wasn’t long before the publishing phenomenon that became the full Harry Potter franchise was in full bloom. Bookstores were hosting wizarding parties, and opening at midnight for the release of each new book. By the time the releases hit the mega frenzy they would become, I was out of the book industry, and working my way through corporate America. But I went back to the bookstore for those release parties. Not to buy the book, mind you, though of course I did. No, my interest was drawn far more by the crowd and the excitement and anticipation and overwhelming exhilaration a buyer displayed when they got the book in their hot little hands. There was the sense that you were witnessing something special that would not be matched again for a very, very long time, if ever. 

It’s hard to overstate the impact Harry Potter, and J. K. Rowling had on the publishing world. Certainly, there had been huge publishing successes, and books that sold out in record numbers despite anyone’s expectations. Books like The Bridges of Madison County and Angela’s Ashes stayed on bestseller lists for years. But Harry Potter was different somehow. The way I saw it was in the children. Kids, who otherwise might not be interested in reading, were picking up Harry Potter books willingly. It was not uncommon to see a child with a Harry Potter book plunked down in the middle of the Children’s Section, plowing through page after page, while their parents continued to shop. These same children would be a quarter of the way through the book before it had even made it to the cash register. Harry Potter, perhaps more than any set of books before it, got children reading. Willingly. 

And why not? Who doesn’t want to feel special the way Harry did? Who doesn’t want to think, when they are young, that the hospital made some kind of awful mistake, and that the people who are raising us that we call “mom” and “dad” are not really our parents, but that we are the scions of extraordinary people, and that we are called on to do extraordinary things? Literature is full of these stories. From Little Orphan Annie to Frodo Baggins, from Ender to Sparrowhawk of Earthsea, across the spectrum, literature of all kinds is filled with instances of outcasts reaching for something higher. 

And, of course, with success come critics. They come in all forms and flavors, from those with legitimate gripes to those who are simply after a money-grab. There was the person who sued Rowling for supposedly stealing the idea of “muggle” for use in Harry Potter. There was Ursula K. Le Guin, who didn’t decry Harry Potter but didn’t think it was all that original, wishing Rowling had done more to acknowledge those who came before. It was a fair gripe, considering her own fantasy series had an orphan wizard learning how to live in his world predated Harry Potter by decades. But while there’s certainly merit to the idea that Harry had progenitors, but it cannot be said that Harry Potter was derivative. There is simply too much packed into the million plus amount of words to describe it as derivative. Some critics had nothing better to do than to bash it for being simply commercial escapism and not aspiring to something higher. Those critics are full of stuffing. They spend countless hours and wasted breaths decrying the wasted opportunities of the written word, yet are incapable of contributing anything worthwhile to the very body of literature they deem themselves experts in. They can, proverbially, pound sand. And what would a book about witches and wizards be without concerned parent groups having those books banned, ostensibly because of concerns their children would become wiccans or satanists?

I was not without criticisms of Harry Potter as I read it. From some unimaginative descriptions in the early works (the “deluminator” was, in the first book, described awkwardly as a “light put-outer”), to the speed of some of the action scenes that I had to read again because they went too fast for me to take it all in (of course, that could be, I sheepishly admit, my issue), to the editorial largess that crept into the fourth book and continued to until the end, to the unpleasant read that was The Order of the Phoenix, I certainly had my own issues with aspects of the narratives. In the case of The Order of the Phoenix, watching Harry go through that awkward, hormone-driven, mopey, unpleasant teenage period was simply not fun. I realize all teens go through it, and if you’re charting a story arc that starts when the boy is eleven and continues until he is eighteen, you are required to deal with it. But I didn’t really care to read it. 

However, these things are minor annoyances in a grand, monumental achievement. When taken as whole, the world, story, characters, and villains are some of the most memorable in all of literature. I still maintain that Dolores Umbridge is most insidious villain in the last fifty years of literature. She is the Nurse Ratchet of the wizard of world and she’s absolutely horrifying. It is no mean feat to create such memorable moments such as the kind found in nearly every chapter in every single volume. 

Twenty years goes by fast and slow. For Jo Rowling, the time spent crafting the Harry Potter works must have been both a great toil and positively a blur. I can state from experience that waiting for each one to be released was a toil, and reading was a blur. But, looking back, I can say that I witnessed something incredible, something, yes indeed, magical. For many writers, Rowling is the embodiment of the “unicorn”. A struggling, single mother, writing in cafes in Edinburgh to keep warm, strikes it big with a sweeping epic magical fantasy that turns her into the most beloved children’s author since Mother Goose. The real life story is a magical epic in and of itself, one in which any author, especially those still struggling, would use the Cruciatus Curse to be in. But while we can’t all share in that kind of success, we can say we were witness to something that we may never see again in the publishing world. And that’s okay. Because, while the anxious eagerness of the wait for each new book may never come again, the joy of discovering the magic for the first time will never leave. And few things were more enjoyable than watching my own eleven year old devour the books, one right after another, with the same hungry anticipation that we all had we began the journey Jo Rowling set forth for us twenty years ago. 

Movie Review: “The Jungle Book”

MV5BMTc3NTUzNTI4MV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNjU0NjU5NzE@._V1_SX640_SY720_I won’t keep you in suspense: I loved this movie. I was looking forward to seeing it for some time, really since I saw the first trailer. I have a weakness for movies that take place in a jungle. Yeah, that sounds weird, I realize that. But I grew up seeing Disney’s animated Jungle Book in the theaters (perhaps for a fifteen year anniversary, maybe?), Romancing the Stone, and the movie with the best jungle opening ever (and maybe the best opening ever, period) Raiders of the Lost Ark. Explorer/adventurer movies suck me in, even when they’re so-so, as in The Mummy.

I had to take my biases and try and put them aside to really get a sense of how well Disney’s newest version of The Jungle Book works. And boy-howdy, does it ever work.

The story takes most of its cues from the animated version, from the characterizations of the animals, to some of the songs (though it’s not really a musical), all the way down to Mowgli’s red loincloth. So much of what is in the move is inspired in some way by the original animated feature that it doesn’t feel like you’re meeting a brand new person, but rather catching up with a childhood friend who has now reached adulthood. The world is larger, the dangers more real, the stakes are higher.

Just like the original, the primary conflict is that Mowgli, an Indian boy orphaned in the jungle as an infant, has been raised by the wolf pack. He’s not as swift or strong as the other wolf cubs, but his “mother”, the wolf Raksha, played by Lupita Nyong’o, raises him as one of her own and is fiercely protective. With good cause. The tiger Shere Khan is anxious to find the small boy, and kill him. For Mowgli is a man cub, and a man cub will eventually grow to be a man. And man brings nothing but death to the jungle whenever he comes. Man’s superiority is because he knows the secret of the “red flower”, which is how the animals of the jungle think of “fire”. It doesn’t matter that Mowgli has been in the jungle all his life, and that he has never learned to make fire. He is man, and man must die. One would think all the animals fell that way about Mowgli, but he is still a cub, even though he man, and though they may fear the tiger, none of them like Shere Kahn. When Shere Kahn calls the wolf pack out for breaking the law of the jungle about man, Raksha calls him out for his own lack of law in that he kills for pleasure, not just for food.

This single conflict propels the action, with heart-stopping chases, flights through the trees, and a climatic fight between Mowgli and Shere Kahn that will leave you panting. All the actors put in fine performances, especially Ben Kingsley as the black panther Bagheera, Bill Murray as Baloo the sloth bear, Scarlett Johansson as Kaa, and Christopher Walken, who’s take on King Louie is somewhere between Robert De niro and Marlon Brando, and manages to be pitch perfect as the king of the Bandar-log. But the greatest performance is that of Idris Elba as the homicidal tiger Shere Khan, who turns in a stunning vocal performance. I was reminded of Heath Ledger as the Joker, because whenever Shere Kahn wandered onto the screen, I grew genuinely scared I had no idea what he might do next, only that his next action would scare me.

But perhaps the greatest achievement is how the movie was filmed. If you wait until the credits are over, you’ll see that the last line is”Filmed in downtown L.A.” That’s right, the entire movie was filmed as bluescreen, with all animals and environments added later. It’s a stunning visual experience (the mudslide scene in particular is mind-blowing), and shows what can be done with CGI technology in the hands of a filmmaker who knows how to tell a story. Movies such as the Star Wars prequels were criticized in part for relying too heavily on digital wizardry. But that was not their issue. Their issue was a problem of storytelling. Screenplay author Justin Marks and director Jon Favreau know the fundamentals of storytelling. In their hands, the story is safe, and the medium to tell it doesn’t matter. As such, a nearly completely CGI movie is just a story to be told, and they tell it in a visually beautiful and breathtaking way.

Book Review: “Made To Kill” by Adam Christopher

81ufyzQWMuLMade To Kill” is a book by Adam Christopher that I really wanted to enjoy. Like, *really* wanted to enjoy.

Alas, I couldn’t even finish it.

There have been a lot of reviews for this book that praise it lavishly for marrying two genres into one good, old-fashioned, B-movie pulp fiction novel. Which is exactly what Christopher is going for in “Made To Kill”. The concept is deceptively simple: What if Raymond Chandler had written science-fiction? It’s an interesting thought, considering how notoriously down on the genre of science fiction Chandler was. In 1953, Chandler sent off a really fantastic letter to his agent regarding science fiction. It’s too fun not to include, so here it is below:

(Source: Selected Letters of Raymond Chandler)

6005 Camino de la Costa
La Jolla, California

Mar 14 1953

Dear Swanie:

Playback is getting a bit tired. I have 36,000 words of doodling and not yet a stiff. That is terrible. I am suffering from a very uncommon disease called (by me) atrophy of the inventive powers. I can write like a streak but I bore myself. That being so, I could hardly fail to bore others worse. I can’t help thinking of that beautiful piece of Sid Perelman’s entitled “I’m Sorry I Made Me Cry.”

Did you ever read what they call Science Fiction? It’s a scream. It is written like this: “I checked out with K19 on Aldabaran III, and stepped out through the crummalite hatch on my 22 Model Sirus Hardtop. I cocked the timejector in secondary and waded through the bright blue manda grass. My breath froze into pink pretzels. I flicked on the heat bars and the Brylls ran swiftly on five legs using their other two to send out crylon vibrations. The pressure was almost unbearable, but I caught the range on my wrist computer through the transparent cysicites. I pressed the trigger. The thin violet glow was icecold against the rust-colored mountains. The Brylls shrank to half an inch long and I worked fast stepping on them with the poltex. But it wasn’t enough. The sudden brightness swung me around and the Fourth Moon had already risen. I had exactly four seconds to hot up the disintegrator and Google had told me it wasn’t enough. He was right.”

They pay brisk money for this crap?


It’s Chandler’s love affair with detective fiction and his loathing for science fiction that inspired Christopher to combine the two in a single story.

The main character is Ray Electromatic, the world’s last robot. He (it?) just happens to be a private detective in 1960’s Los Angeles. But, due to some basic reprogramming, he now operates more as the world’s last robotic hitman than detective, though being a private detective certainly has it advantages. It lets him move around, ostensibly investigating private cases for clients, but actually killing people for money instead. In this endeavor, he is assisted, if not guided, by Ada, a supercomputer that acts more as an operative handler than a receptionist, though it’s as a receptionist that Ray imagines her in his mind (circuits?). The book opens in a way that has become synonymous with the beginning of a hard-boiled detective novel, a dame walks into the office.

There is so much material in the basic premise that could have been mined for gold. A robot investigating crimes: how does he relate to people who can’t get over the novelty or fear of being questioned by a robot? How does he react when faced with a situation that would willfully go against his base programming?  How does he handle himself in a bar fight or a high speed car chase? Or is he perhaps his own vehicle?

Christopher wastes these and other opportunities by making the character a reprogrammed killing machine. Clearly he’s playing against Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics. Because Ray is a robot, he has no feelings to feel. He’s simply carrying out instructions as fed to him by Ada. Even when stumbling into a weird variation on the commie-Red-Scare motif, around which most of the primary plot takes place, there are no emotional reactions from him. Because our character is nothing more than a thinking piece of metal who kills people for a living, we have no accessible way to empathize with him. He is an anti-hero who is not interesting.

Therein lies another major fault with the book, the distinct lack of character development. Any possibility of making the character of Ray, or his situation, interesting is completely overlooked. A good example is how Ray’s memory works. He runs on a data tape system (this is the ’60s, after all). He has twenty-four hours of data tape, and a battery that lasts on a 24 hour charge. Essentially, if he is not back at his office by midnight, he turns into a pumpkin. This offers so much potential that is missed. The opportunity to turn this into a “Memento” style mystery, where the character must relearn things again each day, could offer such a complex and twisting narrative that you cling on every word, wondering what mystery will be revealed next. Instead, every morning, Ray is filled in on the day before by Ada, then sent on his merry investigative-cum-murderous way. If Ada is filling Ray in at the start of every day, why bother having the prop of a data tape in there at all? Even if Ada feeds Ray bad information for her own purpose, and I suspect maybe she eventually does, it still does not make the characters any more compelling than a hunk of walking metal. 

Perhaps the book picks up as it moves along, redeeming itself in the final act. I gave a good 100 pages before I gave up looking for reasons to continue it. 

Much of what Christopher is going for is striking a balance between the noir and the fantastical, while keep things from becoming so heavy they sink the book. But in the end, it simply a boring read, with little interesting in the way of character development, to keep you asking “What happens next?” Instead, as we see Ray go and ask another person another question, we ask ourselves, “Who cares?”

The answer is, “Not me.”

TV Review: “And Then There Were None”

I’ve been posting nothing but photos everyday for the last three months, it felt like I needed to get back to some posts with more than three words. And the perfect way to do that is to post a review of a TV mini series that hit Lifetime about a month ago.

And Then There Were None is the most recent adaptation of the Agatha Christie book of the same name. (Historical note: actually, before it was called “And Then There Were None”, it went by the more disparaging title of “Ten Little Indians”, which in turn was not the original title. The original title substituted the N-word for “Indians”.) It was commissioned for the 125th birthday of the First Lady of Crime.

If you’re not familiar with the story, if you come to it with no advanced knowledge of the story, then it ends up being an edge of your seat thrill ride. It’s slow moving to be sure, but at no time does the pacing impact the enjoyment of viewing. Rather, it is a slow burn where each scene ratchets up the tension from the scene that came before. The visuals are lush and dark and moody, as if Guillermo del Toro decided to direct a locked room mystery. Despite it being grounded in reality, there are ghosts and phantoms and haunting memories that plague the characters almost as much as the killer does. These manifest as visuals within the series, some of which are truly frightening.

And there is a killer. If you have read the book or seen the stage version, you already know how it ends, though the endings of the book and the stage version differ significantly. I had seen the stage play many years ago when a high school put it on for a summer theater program. It had been so long, I thought I misremembered the ending, but then the killer is revealed, and my memory was vindicated. And yet, even if you know the ending, that knowledge is irrelevant in this version. This version hues closer in tone to the book, and that, plus moody direction and a wonderful cast, are what make this rendition so special. When your cast includes Sam Neill, Charles Dance, Miranda Richardson, Toby Stephens, to name a few, you know you’re in for a treat.

That is because the story is all about character. Each one has been lured to an island retreat, only to find they are being hunted for their supposed crimes. Each one must face who they really are and acknowledge their failures before facing down an unknown Grim Reaper. Some of these characters admit their transgressions openly, while others hold on to their secrets to the bitter end. The characters are wonderfully drawn and portrayed by the cast, with most having multiple layers motivating them. There are subtle points to the characters past, hints of homosexual desires for example, and there are not so subtle motives as well. Greed for fame or fortune or fidelity are all on full display. One of the magical things about this version is how it keeps you guessing about the characters, and their pasts, right up to the last moments.

But the true fun comes when the final credits roll, and you back it up to the beginning and start all over again, this time noting all the interactions, hints, and little gestures that betray the characters. I’ve watched it twice already. I’m contemplating a third.

Movie Review: “Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens”

Just to make sure I really got the full experience, I’ve seen this film twice. And this review will be largely spoiler free, and made upon my own careful reflection of the film. 

I’m probably going to get trouble with this one. But here it is: Star Wars: The Force Awakens is not a great movie. It barely qualifies as a good one.  Is it better than the prequels? Yes…and no. From a movie-making perspective, including directing, acting, and writing, yes, it’s light years better. From a storytelling perspective it’s a dud.

The storytelling failure of this one is in what it fails to do. The primary purpose of the canonical and eventual nine movies that are “Star Wars” is to tell the story of the Skywalker clan. (I’m leaving the forthcoming “Anthology” movies out of this.) Lucas started with chapter four in 1977 because it was the only story he thought he could get made at the time. And because he was unsure if he would make another, the original Star Wars (now called A New Hope) was a complete story arc unto itself. With its unprecedented success, Lucas was able to make the next two movies, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. These three movies completed the storyline of a young Luke Skywalker and his attempt at redeeming his fallen father. They closed the loop on that segment of the Skywalker clan storyline.

The prequels were an attempt, sixteen years later, to tell the first part of the story of the Skywalkers, the impressive rise and spectacular fall of Anakin Skywalker. Yes, the execution was clumsy, to say the least. Who, after all, finds a dispute of trade routes and intergalactic bureaucratic red tape interesting? Lucas does, as do legions of Star Wars fans who are fully immersed in the world and cannot see past the world to the failings of the movies. I can’t help but think that, were the prequels only books and not movies, they might have been compelling reads. Compelling books do not always translate into compelling movies, as book narratives and cinematic narratives often require different components to work. The Lord Of the Rings is a perfect example of this. 

The Force Awakens does virtually nothing to move the next story arc of the Skywalker clan forward. Luke Skywalker, in this film, is really nothing more than a MacGuffin. This movie is less about moving the canonical story to the Skywalker clan forward, and more about crafting a multi-million dollar love letter to the most famous franchise is modern history.  The result is a film that borders on pastiche, a fan-film made with high-priced camera equipment, yet with the same super 8 mindset. The plot is a rehash of earlier plots, the characters are recycled from old parts, and the story is stale as a result. There are plot holes in this movie big enough to choke a space slug. 

To a degree, it feels as though JJ Abram and Lawrence Kasdan are trying too hard to make a movie that atones for the prequels. This is a noble idea, but the road to the Dark Side is paved with good intentions. I’m reading a lot of reviews that say it’s the best Star Wars movie since Empire, and that the order of movies, from best to worst, now goes 5, 7, 4, 3, and then the prequels, which are all mostly equally bad. I would disagree. I think this movie sits solidly between Revenge of the Sith and Return of the Jedi, with Jedi, for its problems with teddy bears, exceeding this one easily in quality. 

It’s not for lack of trying on the part of the filmmakers. JJ Abrams does what he does best, which is to create a film of ridiculous kinetic  energy, with the crazy skin-of-their-teeth escapes and near misses that you might find in the last two Star Trek movies. There is a scene with monsters that escape from the cargo containers on a freighter that reminded my of Chris Pine being chased across a snowscape by beasts you can’t quite fathom. The high-octane nature of this movie is too much, and the JJ Abrams influence cannot be ignored. Stormtroopers do not fall down when hit by a blaster blot, they fly backwards as hit with a 400 pounds steel bar. Settings do not explode under blaster fire without bodies sailing end over end to accentuate the destruction. People are not cut down by lightsabers, they are impaled mercilessly and left to die. And for the first time since the original ’77 movie, we see blood. And it’s not Walrusman blood, it’s human. 

There is a decided lack of newness to this movie that is sorely missed. With each new Star Wars film, the viewer could count on new ships, new aliens, new settings, new equipment. The Force Awakens skips most of that, with only a handful of new items, including a mean-as-cat-shit looking lightsaber and a beachball droid. The ships are largely as they were in previous films. You have X-Wings, TIE Fighters, a Star Destroyer, and a transport with wings that fold upward upon landing.

Not to seem that I hated the movie, it does have some shining moments. It has the best flight sequence for the Millennium Falcon of any of the movies, as well as the best droid of any of the movies. BB-8 may very well be the best new character period. And as lightsabers go, none are sacrier than Kylo Ren’s, with its laser crossguard.

In the end, however, the return of origin characters and a rehash of older plots does not make a great movie. It makes one hell of an homage, and with inside jokes such as Rey saying, “This ship made the Kessel Run in 14 parsecs,” and Han replying testily, “It was twelve.”, the movie feels like a fanboi’s daydream, and little else. 

Book Review: “The Girl On The Train” by Paula Hawkins

girl on trainThe last of the books I snarfed down at the end of this summer was “The Girl On The Train” by Paula Hawkins. This was the “it” book of the summer, the one everyone was talking about and that everyone couldn’t put down. It was supposed to be the page-turner with the twists you couldn’t see coming. And so I too engulfed this one to see what everyone was talking about.

Truthfully, if I had to sum the book up in a word, it would be “meh”.

It’s hard to give too much of a plot summary without giving too much away, and while I, unlike the rest of the world, did not think the book was all that and a bag of chips, I still don’t wish to spoil it for those you enjoy these things more than I do. Or as my wife would describe it, “everyone else but you.”

Fair enough.

The essence of the plot, then, is that a woman named Rachel, down on her luck and sipping gin and tonics from a can while taking the train back and forth to London, fantasizes about what the people in the houses behind the tracks do, the kind of lives they lead. Her own life has fallen apart and she takes a kind of solace in the lives these fantasy people lead in her head. She has even given them names, since their real names are unknown to her.

Then, one day, she sees something as she’s staring through the train window, something that turns her fantasy on its head. At that moment, her life changes from fantasies about these people to an all out obsession about what she saw. An obsession so deep, she risks her life and livelihood, and perhaps darkest of all, her integrity to get close enough to discover the truth.

It sounds like an enthralling premise, doesn’t it? Critics have been using the term Hitchcockian to describe it. It does have a certain “Rear Window” quality to it, that strange voyeuristic quality of Jeff Jefferies looking out his back window and seeing something he thinks is a murder. But that’s were the comparison ends. It starts with a voyeur and turns into a study of a life in freefall. In that regard, the book actually became hard to read. As the main character made bad, then worse, then catastrophic decisions, I wondered how much longer I could read until the unraveling of her life became too unpalatable. It never quite got there, but it came really darn close.

The plot relies largely on what the New York Times referred to as “unreliable narration”, meaning you can’t trust what the narrator is telling you. Except that you can. The narration flickers between three narrators, all of the women, all of whom are involved in the plot. Each one has their quirks and problems, each has moments of fooling themselves, but that’s really all they’re fooling. Unreliable narration only goes so far, and when at least one of the characters is a blackout drunk, you can readily expect that their memory will be a bit, shall we say, fuzzy.

Another of the devices used to confuse the reader is a jumbling of the timing of the scenes. The cutting is designed to bring the reader back and forth and possibly add some confusion, but a careful reading will show that each chapter is timestamped. You get a certain anticipatory feeling as you near the time when you know that the precipitating event happened, and that you’ll finally get to see it, feeling like maybe you’ll be surprised by what’s around the corner. But you aren’t.

Or at least I wasn’t.

Also, the book was written in the first person present tense. Don’t get me started.

The climax doesn’t twist nearly as much as everyone had been claiming it did. I found myself unsurprised at the ending, indeed, hoping for something different. I was disappointed when I was right. Of the four books I’ve reviewed in the last few days, having gulped them all down like a thirsty man in a desert, I’d have to say that “The Girl On The Train” was my least favorite.

Sorry everybody.

Queue up the backlash.