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Tuesday, October 6, 2015

What I’m Reading: Psychological Suspense Edition The Girl on the Train and The Bones of You

I read The Girl on the Train by Paul Hawkins awhile ago, but I wanted to pair this review with another title since this less literary, more plot driven type of psychological suspense has been becoming very popular. Basically, I am leveraging the popularity of this title to help sell another one which is something we all do every day as we help leisure readers when they book they came in to get is not available and we try to sell them on a similar read.

Let's start with Hawkins' runaway success The Girl on the Train.

Becky's Soundbite Review:
"Rachel, our narrator, is drinking too much and is still coming to terms with the end of her marriage. To cope, she watches the world go by her as she travels into London on the train each morning, making up stories about the people she sees. But then, one of those people, a young woman, goes missing. And then we learn that Rachel is more connected to the people she watches than we knew-- just when we were beginning to trust her. Waiting for her come clean to us about her own story, is as unsettling and suspenseful as watching the mystery resolve. Don't think too much here, just sit back and let this story unfold and enjoy the ride."
That's the essence of the appeal here in 30 secs or less.  But here is a bit more.

First, I want to start with that last sentence. Despite the marketing of this as a Flynn readalike, you are not getting a complex layered story here-- and that is okay. What it is instead is a straight ahead thriller with a unique point of view.

It is with Rachel and that pov that Hawkins excels here. Despite our instincts from the start [who wants to trust an alcoholic?], we are drawn to Rachel. She speaks to us, she confesses her part in the demise of her marriage, and we feel so sorry for her. We want to be her friend and help her so we keep reading. Except, the more we read, the more we learn about her, the more of her true self she reveals, and the more we second guess ourselves for caring about her. But yet, we can't stop it. We like her still. We rationalize her terrible choices, etc...

Combine the intense control Hawkins has over us via her masterful writing of this narrator with the super fast pacing that is both compelling and engrossing, and you understand why people love this book.

That being said, as I alluded to above, if you stop reading and think about it, the book's narrative flaws reveal themselves, but I have to say, those flaws are sorta there on purpose.  I mean when you have a mystery being solved by an alcoholic prone to blackouts who knows she is unreliable and makes blatant bad choices but somehow still saves the day and redeems herself in the process-- they are to be narrative flaws. Rachel is not solving this murder on a straight trajectory; no she is doing it like a drunk trying to walk in a straight line. She wobbles and veers in ways that would seem silly and stupid in many mysteries, but which work because of who Rachel is.

I should also note the addition of 2 other points of view interjected at highly dramatic moments throughout the novel also amps up the anxiety levels. One is the missing woman, revealing her own flawed self to us, the reader, in the days leading up to her disappearance. Here again, Hawkins nails the use of the narrator to draw the reader into the story.

So I think what you need to know here is that this is a satisfying psychological thriller where the narration, the character of Rachel, is what propels the story.  This is important to note because most thrillers or suspense stories are plot driven.  Here, if you focus on the plot, you will not enjoy the novel as much. Focus on Rachel, she is talking right to you. Let her take you with her on the train and just enjoy the ride.

Not surprisingly because of the hold Rachel has over the reader, I have also heard very good things about the audio from trusted colleagues

Finally wanted to include a patron comment here. This is from a big suspense reader, older woman, who wanted to share her thoughts as a "regular" reader with all of you library people:
I loved it! I couldn't put it down. I even stayed up until 1 o'clock one morning just to keep reading it.  I didn't figure out who did it and I read a lot of these books. I was enjoying it so much that I didn't try to figure it out.  The switching narrators was confusing at first but I got used to it, and actually started to like how it switched. 
She then used the word "Beautiful" to describe the book. I stopped her because I thought that was a fantastic word.  I questioned her use of it because terrible things happen in this novel, but as a suspense reader, she found this book "beautiful" because she was expecting horrible things, that was a given, but the story flowed perfectly for her.

I think her testimonial says it all. Feel free to use it with patrons [with credit].

Three Words That Describe This Book: briskly paced, unreliable narrator, unsettling

Readalikes: Besides The Bones of You, discussed below, here are a few other readalikes. with links to my longer reviews, that I think work particularly well for Girl on the Train

Before I Go to Sleep by S J Watson (memory loss, unreliable narrator, narrator driven story)

The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair (dramatic, missing woman, unreliable narrator, plot twists, fast paced)

John Hart does family drama thrillers that have psychological suspense traits, so for readers who are intrigued by missing persons and domestic violence try The Last Child.

There are many, many, many lists of readalikes for this super popular book. Click here to see some.

As I said above, I wanted to review The Girl on the Train with another similar book. In this case, I chose another book about a woman who becomes obsessed with a family that is not her own and their tragedy which she is slightly connected to-- The Bones of You by Debbie Howells.

Becky's Soundbite Review:
"Rosie, a teenage girl from a wealthy British suburb, is dead. Kate, one of our narrators, is the mother of one of Rosie's classmates and a neighbor to Rosie and her surviving family. Kate gets obsessed with finding Rosie's murderer but she has her own demons to battle. The suspense is heightened further because Rosie is also telling us her story-- from the grave-- as she attempts to protect the surviving members of her seemingly perfect family from a danger that comes from within. This is an emotionally charged story of secrets, family, and mother-daughter relationships."
Here Kate, is more reliable than Rachel in Girl on the Train, although still very flawed, but the 1-2 punch of Kate and Rosie telling the story is even more unsettling. The Bones of You is a compelling psychological suspense story, but it is the emotional story here, the complicated family relationships, the secrets families keep from the outside world that makes this a great suspense story.

This novel has a great ominous opening scene that juxtaposes the beauty of nature with the horror of a murdered child. Spoken by Kate:
I have a gardener’s inherent belief in the natural order of things. Soft‑petalled flowers that go to seed. The resolute passage of the seasons. Swallows that fly thousands of miles to follow the eternal summer. 
Children who don’t die before their parents.
This setting of the uneasy tone from the first lines rivals many of the better horror novels out there.

The tension and the story move quickly from there.  As Kate gets more and more into the mystery, the pace speeds up. But, I appreciate the pauses in the page-turning intensity when Rosie steps back in. Her voice is wonderful, sad, authentic, and astute.  She speaks the truth with a clarity that sadly can only come from the grave. She makes you stop reading for the plot resolution and forces you to start think about the implications of this story in your own life; how your own family functions; and what secrets you are hiding from the world, or even from yourself.

By the way, both of these novels reviewed here today have an undercurrent theme of mocking how we, modern Westerners, get emotionally involved in the tragedies of others as we view them from afar. They both do this with a light touch that makes you feel worse because you get totally caught up in the emotion of the story and the obsession of the narrator. Then you fell like-- awww she got me too.  I also enjoyed that satire piece of both of these books.

Three Words That Describe This Book: suspenseful, emotionally charged, secrets

Readalikes: The obsession at finding the killer part is the same as Girl on the Train, as is the engrossing narration, but the emotional family punch is so much more here since it is a teenage girl who is murdered. With the murdered girl from haven narration it is not a stretch to think about The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold as a readalike.  I think they are similar enough, although I should note that The Bones of You has a more traditional thriller ending. [It also gets me to thinking that if you use a dead girl from heaven narration are you supposed to put “Bones” in the title to warn people.]

The Hand That Feeds You by A J Rich is another newer suspense story where the person you thought your knew is not who you thought they were.  In this case, the unreliable narrator appeal is less prominent.  Here it is more the unreliable victim. Family drama is high though. This one is more on the Harlan Coben spectrum of suspense.

Where They Found Her by Kimberly McCreight is more of an all around readalike-- multiple narrators, a dead child, people interconnected more than they knew. This is a good example of the very best of the female focused, psychological suspense trend as it stands right now.

Finally, don't rule out the queen of family's with issues, Jody Picoult as a readalike option here.  While Picoult does not write suspense per say, her novels have some elements of the genre. And, The Bones of You's biggest appeal is the emotionally charged family drama-- not the suspense, so Picoult may work very well for some readers.

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