Book Reviews: Girl on the Train, Exit West, Slade House, The Miniaturist, and Hard-Boiled Wonderland

Apparently it has been three years since I published a book review on this blog. Have I read any books in the meantime? Yes, yes, I have. Although I don’t think I did crack a book for my entire first year in Amsterdam. That’s how immersive and all-encompassing of an experience this city is. Besides the fact that I was working full-time in a different time zone. I hope I never have to do that again.

At any rate, then I started reading again but didn’t post reviews, I think because I joined a fabulous book club, which filled some of the need to tell the world what I thought of the books. I kinda missed writing these posts, though. So here you go.

 

The Girl on the TrainThe Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I commute to work by train. So I did really like the premise of this book, and the idea of spinning a fictional life for people you see every day from the train window. But I couldn’t manage to get emotionally attached to the characters. And after all the hype, I didn’t think it was so very cleverly plotted. And the writing was just OK, nothing spectacular. Three stars for not being terrible, but not really my cup of tea.

Exit WestExit West by Mohsin Hamid
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a love story, about the things that pull people together, or push them apart, and even just read as a story about two people and their relationship, it’s wonderfully crafted. But the novel is bigger than that. It is also about migration–about how you decide when it’s time to go, and what it feels like starting over in a new place, or another new place.

In essence, the novel is a bit of a thought-experiment. What if the borders between the places people want to leave and the places they want to go were a bit more permeable? What if the story of economic or refugee migration were less about the journey from one place to another, and more about what happened after you got there? What if you could just walk through a door and be in another country? What if the powers-that-be couldn’t imagine a solution to the problem that relied on closing borders, and instead were forced to come up with solutions that presupposed large numbers of immigrants arriving with no way to stem the tide? How would society change? What ways would we find to work together? How would the world be different if we could suddenly connect with a stranger from half a world away?

Or to ask the question another way, how is the world different given that we can do that? And what are the choices we can make, here, in this world, to honor the humanity of all of us, no matter where we come from?

Slade HouseSlade House by David Mitchell
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I always enjoy reading David Mitchell, but this book was unusually creepy, with a dearth of likeable characters. It veered dangerously into the realm of horror, and did it well. But I didn’t find myself loving reading it like I did the Bone Clocks, which is set in the same … universe? Or at least explores the same premise. While suspenseful and terrifying in places, Slade House lacks a certain something that ought to make you care about what’s happening on an emotional level, rather than just being mildly interested on an intellectual one.

For the cinematic version of the experience of reading this book, try Crimson Peak, Guillermo del Toro’s dark, lavish film about a woman slowly discovering the secrets of a disturbing house and family. It’s a visually stunning work of art in every frame, but like Slade House, lacks a bit of heart.

The MiniaturistThe Miniaturist by Jessie Burton
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I really wanted to love this book. It’s set in Amsterdam, my adopted home town, and the plot revolves around one of the Rijksmuseum’s dramatically opulent 17th century doll houses.

Sadly, the idea of the book is a good deal better than the book. What begins as an intriguing plot fizzles out by the end, and some of the more interesting threads just get left by the wayside, with no resolution. I did enjoy stepping into Amsterdam during the Golden Age, and there were some interesting bits of period trivia, as one expects in a historical novel. But I’m still looking for a really great book set in Amsterdam. Any suggestions?

Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the WorldHard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Some science fiction ages well, and Murakami better than most. Science fiction might be a bit of an exaggeration here, but it does describe the element of the fantastical that put off a lot of members of my book club.

As a person who tends to live a lot inside my own head, I was fascinated by the duality of what was going on here: an inner journey paralleled by an outer journey, where the inner journey was the more compelling one. Also, unicorns, but like you’ve never seen them before. I have the most vivid image of that unicorn skull engraved in my brain. I also loved the supporting characters, the dreamlike and bizarre things that happened in The so-called “real” world, and the fact that half the time I could only vaguely guess at what Murakami was trying to say. So many things, like paperclips or a cassette tape, seemed imbued with unusual significance.

If you have a high tolerance for the random and unexplained, you’ll enjoy the twists and turns of this story as much as it’s philosophical implications. Highly recommend.

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