Book Review: The Girl On The Train by Paula Hawkins

I picked up Paula Hawkins’ “The Girl On The Train” for just one reason – for the last several weeks, I have seen the book perched on top of the NY Times Bestsellers list (Fiction). Lately, my reading has gone down significantly. Some of it can be attributed to paucity of time, but the bigger reason, I hypothesize, is a distracted head-space. Sometimes, I believe, reading fast paced fiction helps you get back in the groove. And TGOTT seemed to fit the bill. Also, I had seen a rather interesting promo image sometime back – of several ladies sitting side by side on a subway train reading ‘the girl on the train’.


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Rachel, the girl on the train, loves looking out of the window and weaving stories about what she sees. She gives names to people, imagines stories about stranded items like clothes or shoes, and obsesses over them. She is a divorced alcoholic with severe depression and confidence issues, who cannot seem to get over her broken marriage, and just cannot get her life back together. She is the central protagonist. Most of the chapters have been written from her perspective. The male characters in the book don’t get chapters of their own. The other two girls of the story are Anna – the new wife of Tom, and Jess/ Megan – a girl Rachel has seen many times from the train’s window. Tom is Rachel’s ex-husband. And Scott is Megan’s husband. Kamal Abdic is Megan’s therapist. With this much, here is a poll for you to consider – Column A is the murdered. And Column B is the murderer. Take a guess.

Victim Perpetrator
Rachel Rachel
Megan Megan
Anna Anna
Tom Tom
Scott Scott
Kamal Kamal
Some other person briefly mentioned Some other person briefly mentioned

TGOTT excels at its broader plot contours. It delivers a taut murder mystery. The book works well as a single session race to the finish. It uses the standard narrative of a shifting timeline and multiple vantage points to create a sense of darkness, foreboding, and suspense. More often than not, it succeeds. Paula has created a book which is ready to be adapted into a movie (and Emily Blunt will be starring as Rachel). All the right elements. But it is no “Gone Girl”. It neither has characters so grey or flawed, nor a suspense so riveting. Moreover, the central characters are not “that” smart. Megan is a bored seductress, Rachel is a broken alcoholic, Anna is an insecure home-maker and a new mother, Scott an overbearing masochistic husband, Kamal a flawed therapist, and Tom is the ex-husband who doesn’t like anyone touching his phone or laptop. The darkness that permeates that entire narrative of Gone Girl is missing here, save for the end where you see the untapped potential of some of these characters.

Let’s revisit the poll with the additional information I just threw at you. Has your opinion changed?

TGOTT’s problem for me was its predictability. The victim’s too obvious, and so is the perpetrator. The haste in introducing the suspects, and the choice of crime scene makes it a little too obvious. The decoys and breadcrumbs are not the most engaging. Yet, the storytelling is gripping. I envy (and respect) people who can write such engaging stuff.

TGOTT’s other problem is the long drawn moping of Rachel. The continuously repeating montage of her getting drunk, reprimanding herself, and the wine and the gin and the tonic stops serving its purpose beyond a point, unless you are too absorbed to notice the conflict that is established in each such cycle. In the end you might just say – oh yea! remember that?

All in all – It’s a middle of the road – 6 on 10 – kinda thriller. I enjoyed it. I would not, though, go out of my way to recommend it. I won’t diss it either.

In a world where “The Girl On The Train” by Paula Hawkins is a long standing NY Times Bestseller #1 (Fiction), I worry about the quality and quantity of what is being read at large. Am I being extremely critical of the book? No. I definitely do not want to. Do I think the book is an undeserving bestseller? Not at all. It probably is the best thing visible on the shelf right now. My problem – the #1 for weeks should have been a little less obvious.

The novel has quite a few loose ends, which I hope get resolved some day. Someone once told me that to be a good writer, the need to be a good storyteller is way higher than the need to have a good story. So there! More power to Paula, because I do believe that the survivors of this novel can come together for another twist in the tale.

Book Review: When The Snow Melts ( Vinod Joseph)

After a short gap, I again signed up to review a book under the blogadda book review program. First, about the program itself – I think it’s a great idea as it serves two purposes – it gives bloggers a chance to take their blogging seriously (with the realization that you might be representing something bigger than yourself), and at the same time, it creates a network effect/ word of mouth for some good books written by upcoming Indian authors.

The book that I lined up for a review is – When The Snow Melts, by Vinod George Joseph. I first came across Vinod several years back, when he was active contributor for Epic India e-magainze. The e-zine is long defunct, and so are the few forums where saw Vinod’s writing. So, it was good to see that he had published something, and not just something, but a thriller.

About the book

From amazon: Veteran spook Ritwik Kumar is sent by the Indian government to the Intelligence Assessment Group (IAG) in London, where intelligence agents from all over the world work together to fight global terrorism. The IAG has a few pet projects: nabbing Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar is one; purging Pakistan’s secret service agency, the ISI, of rogue elements and fundamentalists, is another. Despite years of working in Central Asia and Afghanistan, things don’t go well for Ritwik at the IAG. Addiction to alcohol and gambling drive him to borrow heavily from loan sharks and even misappropriate office funds. When Ritwik’s senior officer, General West, gives him only a fortnight to return the money he has stolen, Ritwik defects to the al Qaeda.But he is a man who doesn’t easily fall in line and doesn’t share al Qaeda’s ideology. Events take a turn for the worse not only for Rikwik but also for all those who come in contact with him. Even the beautiful Nilofer, who is married to the al Qaeda fanatic and one-man army Junaid, is not spared. When the Snow Melts takes you through a dangerous world of diplomats, spies and fanatics, where appearances are deceptive, and danger lurks around every corner.


Now then! WTSM sets out to be a spy thriller set around an Indian spy working with IAG who ends up defecting to a pro-Taliban sub faction within ISI. Expectedly, the life of a defector is not too rosy to start with, since there are more people who expect the defector to be not that but a double agent. So, our protagonist, Ritwik Kumar, is in a hellhole soon enough. Or rather, moving from one to the other.

I have always been intrigued by how the best thriller writers set up a key event in a prologue which keeps you glued to the plot, and that exact setup that leads to that moment. However, my biggest disappointment from WTSM was that the prologue of the book was too simple a set up that could be smelled from a mile. X caught by bad guys, X in a mess, X shows some moves, but they are not good enough, and suddenly, X gets saved by Y, and Y knows a lot abot X already. Scene begins. You know what’s coming, right?

VGJ’s debut novel is an interesting effort in a space rather untouched by Indian authors. The recent barrage of Indian authors have abused the modern Indian male/female, life in the metros, IIMs/IITs/etc on the one end and adapted the Indian mythodology on the other. There is precious little by way of variety and style. That’s score 1 for VGJ. There are as many facts as there are myths about the Indian spooks, and you can be sure that I have been in the middle of some, given my family background. But, an interesting article to read before you start reading this book would be a recent Caravan article about the case of Madhuri Gupta. There are some minor traces of the case in the book, but that article is a good starting point if you’re new to the Indian spy world. Secondly, don’t forget that the movies have glorified spooks across the world to such heights that beatable, un-crazy spooks are not welcome, usually.

The book is a lazy afternoon read with a decent pace, but does not have much to offer. The plot is is highly predictable and the suspense not layered. The story telling is so obviously linear that it smells of a Yashraj film. It moves continuously from the same scene to the same scene without ever breaking away from the pattern. There isn’t a second vantage point in the entire book, which is its biggest weakness. If you’ve read two spy books before this, most likely, the plot will be staring in your face. In fact the surprise is that there is no surprise. From someone like VGJ, I’d have expected a lot more research into the subject. My fear is that he ended up writing the script for the next Salman Khan movie – Ek Aur Tiger. And you know that script and Salman Khan don’t quite go together, right?

The lack of context – the prologue does not explain the gambling and the debt, the IAG as an entity is never really explained, the set of caricatures that form this faction of ISI, the linkback to RAW, the way intelligence is collected, the rather talkative ring leader – these are just some of the loopholes or missing elements. The extent of stereotyping makes it worse. And there aren’t enough thrills.

The plot’s smartest setup fails because the protagonist talks too much… Or.. err.. thinks out loud too much. His doubt in the moments when he is with Niloufer, reveal the essence of the plot way up front. And the dragging end with Ritwik wanting to save Niloufer, was an avoidable mess.

So, in short, the book promises, but fails to keep them. On the positive side, the narration is breezy and well edited, and does not get boring at any point. Its one of those simple things you can do one lazy Sunday afternoon. or, when you don’t have any work at office and your twitter handle has been blocked by the government.

I remember what AKC (a friend) once remarked about bollywood movies – “These b****** have two problems – the need to explicitly explain everything. And, the need to have an explicit climax!”

If you want to read good stuff, read Mohammad Haneef’s Case of Exploding Mangoes. This one is barely passable.





This review is a part of the Book Reviews Program at Participate now to get free books!

Some of my other book reviews are here.

Roundup…. No Title

Haven’t been blogging for a while, as the seasonal lethargy takes over. I can’t really blame it on anything else. Anyway, just a roundup of things/people/songs of note –

1. Television – I am in love with the 2 singing competitions on telly these days, Zee Saregamapa 2007 Challenge – Sangeet ka Pratham Vishwayud and Amul Star Voice of India. SVOI is going through a dramatic phase with Gajendra Chauhan ( the pioneer of such singing talent hunt shows) getting confused with his self created frankenstein. However, the singers to watch out for are Toshi Sabri (brought back into SVOI by popular demand, after being ejected on the basis of public voting), Harshit (SVOI), Amaanat Ali (SRGMP, an amazing voice from Pakistan) and Raja Hassan(SRGMP). Raja has the rusticness and purity in his voice, Toshi is probably the best trained and a sufi-genre singer. Harshit will make an awesome playback singer while Amanat probably is the most versatile of the lot, and will surely make a great ghazal singer if given a chance. His rendition of “Tujhse Naaraz Nahi Zindagi” yesterday (6th Oct) was plain simple awesome. The idea behind this long para on these people is to remind you guys that for every Dhoni who came out of Jharkhand, there are several who join Tata Steel on a small stipend! Please support, encourage and look out for these raw talents in the years to come. You can see the videos online here – SRGMP, SVOI

2. Music – 1. Main Agar Kahoon (Om Shanti Om) – beautiful romantic song with a very simple melody and another proof of how good Sonu Nigam is. Especially, when it comes to romantic songs, there are few who are as good. His voice has a certain yearning that others don’t
b. Yoon Shabnami from Saawariya  sung by Parthiv Gohil. A lot of you won’t even know who Parthiv Gohil is. Parthiv is the lost find of 1998 Saregama MegaFinal (youtube videos) (the year Sonu was still hosting the show,  Sanjeevani – another finalist, got a few movies as playback singers (such as Kareeb), and there were some truly amazing singers like Mohd. Vakil, Bela, Mukund and Sudeshna). An year or two after 1998 Shreya Ghoshal became the winner of Saregama. Anyway, Paarthiv had a very strong classical learning background and his rendition of songs like Ketak Gulab Juhi, and Dhanyabhaag Seva ka Awsar Paaya back in 1998 were wonderful. So, Bhansali has given Parthiv a break, along with Monty (the music director, who played some part in the background score of Devdas)
c. Songs from Manorama – 6 feet under.  From a collection of 4 songs (excluding remixes and versions), 3 belong to the category of very good to excellent. Woh Bheege Pal, Dhundhla jo sama bandha, Tere Sawalon Ke.. Try them out.

3. Movie – Johnny Gaddar is definitely my pick from bollywood. Bourne Ultimatum would be the hollywood pick. Johnny G is a wonderful movie which takes you back to the 70s thrillers where things just kept happening all through the movie. Director’s tribute to Vijay Anand and James Hadley Chase is visible throughout the movie. The movie could have been shortened by 15 minutes or so. But, but… its a wonderful movie to see on a weekend.

4. Books – Reading “Of Love and Other Demons” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez right now. Seems good so far, while being standard Marquez narration. Will update later.

However, just in case you got a feeling that this is what is keeping me busy.. Naah!  How many of you out there have lived out of a suitcase to get a house renovated. Working your butt off five days a week to reach home on a weekend (travelling usually in the middle of night both ways) to deal with tiles, cement, paints, designs and woodwork! Ugh.. its not easy!

Btw.. quick emotional outburst – Raikonnen has taken the pole. Hamilton has to wait. Vettel seems a driver to keep an eye on. The last couple of races are going to be amazingly interesting! 😀

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