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Best of 2016: Book Edition, Part 2

This year I’m in the unusual position of having already written posts about almost every book in my top 5. Sometimes it’s harder to write about books that I really love because I just want to say, “It’s sooooo good,” but I’m happy to have longer musings to offer. Here are my favorite books of 2016!

5. Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson

Dead Wake Cover

I feel like I’ve read a great deal about World War II and very little about World War I. Thankfully Erik Larson, the wizard of history writing, turned his attention to that era. Dead Wake follows the events leading up to the sinking of the Lusitania, one of the catalysts for the U.S. entering the war in Europe. This being Eric Larson, he gives the full scope of the event, from the ship’s passengers to military intelligence to the soldiers aboard the German submarine. I consider it one of his most fascinating works. (You can read my full review here.)

4. The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

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As Gillian Flynn did in Gone Girl, Paula Hawkins plays with timelines and perspectives. The Girl on the Train follows Rachel, an alcoholic woman who becomes interested in a couple she sees from the train every day. Although this thriller is mainly focused on plot, I keenly felt Rachel’s loneliness and desperation. Other perspectives come from Anna, the new wife of Rachel’s ex, and Megan, the girl she watches from the train. I relished looking into these flawed women’s psyches. (You can read my book-to-film comparison here.)

3. To the Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey

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Eowyn Ivey made us wait four years for her second novel, but this was worth the wait. To the Bright Edge of the World is another piece of exquisite historical fiction set in Alaska. While her first novel focused on quiet moments, this one has plenty of action as Colonel Allen Forrester leads an expedition up the Wolverine River. Yet their journey also contains simple moments of human connection. Back at the military barracks, his wife Sophie pursues an interest in photography that raises eyebrows with the other wives. A beautifully written, beautifully human novel with a hint of the uncanny. (You can read my full review here.)

2. Room by Emma Donoghue

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Room is a triumph of character voice. The story of a woman held captive in a single room is narrated by her five-year-old son Jack, who has never known the outside world. Even though I committed the cardinal sin of watching the movie first, I could appreciate what Emma Donoghue achieved with this novel. Jack has a distinctive way of speaking that reflects his age and bizarre upbringing. I wanted to jump through the page and hug him, but that’s not to say that the story is saccharine. As was mirrored in the film, Ma and Jack are perfectly imperfect.

1. Three-Martini Lunch by Suzanne Rindell

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Suzanne Rindell is my favorite new author on the literary fiction scene. Three-Martini Lunch deals with three characters searching for literary success in 1958 New York City. As in her first novel The Other Typist, Rindell explores the ways that we present ourselves to others and how small decisions shape our lives. The narrators range from Cliff, a deluded Greenwich Village hipster, to Miles, a black man coming to terms with his identity. Even as they made mistakes, I cared so much for these characters and hated to leave their world. I suspect this isn’t the last time Suzanne Rindell makes my list. (You can read my full review here.)

Thanks for joining me on this year-end review!

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The Girl on the Train, Page and Screen

I was late to the party, but The Girl on the Train is one of the most entertaining thrillers that I’ve read this year. My mom and I both waited impatiently for it to be released in paperback, and last weekend we saw the movie together. As you may have gathered from the previews of disgruntled Emily Blunt demanding to know WHAT HAPPENED THAT NIGHT, it’s about an alcoholic woman trying to piece together her involvement in another woman’s disappearance.

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What makes the novel so interesting is also what makes it difficult to adapt to film. Paula Hawkins tells the story from three women’s perspectives and uses a nonlinear structure. The narrators are Rachel, the titular “girl on the train”; Anna, her ex-husband’s new wife; and Megan, the woman who disappears. Like Gone Girl before it, an easy criticism of this novel is that none of the characters are particularly likable. I happen to love Gillian Flynn’s penchant for deeply flawed women, and I feel the same about Paula Hawkins. Also similar to the experience of reading Gone Girl, I find my sympathies evolving as the book reveals more about each character. I wouldn’t want every book I read to have characters like this, but I enjoy it under the right circumstances.

Nonlinear story structure is usually an exciting device in fiction, especially for mystery writers. It can add to a sense of unease or confusion while also necessitating that the reader be engaged with the details of the mystery in order to follow along. However, visually indicating shifts in time can feel awkward on screen. The Girl on the Train attempts to do this with time and narrator shifts, which felt clumsy to me as a viewer. I also spent the first 20 minutes confused about why almost everyone in suburban London had an American accent, only to realize that the film switched the setting to New York and the Hudson River Valley. Except Rachel is still British and Anna has a slight Scandinavian accent. Paula Hawkins has pointed out that the story could take place in any commuter town, but I certainly missed the British-ness of the novel.

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The three female perspectives are my favorite part of the novel. At first they seem quite different, but the reader begins to see commonalities in their experiences. On the other hand, the film is shot from a very male perspective. This is particularly apparent with Megan, who is frequently half-dressed and being ravaged by her husband with a bored look on her face. An aggressive sexuality is part of her character, but the film makes her an object rather than an agent. There’s also a certain meekness to Anna that isn’t present on the page. For a story that delves into three women’s psyches, a detached and sexually voyeuristic mood feels incongruous. Rachel suffers the least in this respect, both from getting the most screen time and Emily Blunt’s committed performance.

As is often the case with adaptation, I might like The Girl on the Train better with a second viewing, but for now I’ll stick to the book.

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