Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith

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Two strangers meet on a train and agree to commit a murder of choice for one another. Intriguing? Yes. Implausible? Perhaps. Though Patricia Highsmith’s study of a psychological relationship is close to thrillingly believable. Plus any novel set on a train is fine by me.

Less glamorous than her more famous novel, The Talented Mr Ripley, but more self-contained, Strangers on a Train is deceptively slow and languid, hiding extreme anger, tension and passion underneath the surface.

Drunken playboy Charles Bruno suggests to unhappy architect Haines that he kill his adulterous ex-wife for him in return for Guy killing his overbearing father. Guy brushes the encounter off as a drunken joke, only for Charles to understand differently.

The interactions between the two men are nuanced and loaded with meaning. As they try to second guess and double cross one another whilst staying a step ahead of the law. the plot twists and turns accordingly and the tension ratchets up. It has lots of Hitchcock about it (I think there’s even a film), but with more style, like the pacing and aesthetic of Mad Men.

With so much subtlety and style to recommend her writing, its strange that Highsmith isn’t more popular.

Read: On a long train journey

Mad Love by Nick Spalding

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I very much feel that there is a place for happy romance in Fiction. A book Rom Com if you will.

But *sigh* Mad Love isn’t it for me. The premise is that video game journalist man-child Adam and wholesome sassy American Cassie are a woefully mismatched couple who have agreed to marry on first sight as a publicity stunt for a dating website. As they go on a year long promotional tour they come together, despite inauspicious beginnings.

It does have some good laugh out loud moments. A farting massage scene for instance or the wonderfully cringe-inducing party. The internal monologues of Adam and Cassie are very believable and amusing. But the love story doesn’t ring true- I dont understand why they love each other.

The plot meanders along in a series of set pieces; there are few obstacles for them to overcome other than the fact they’re strangers in a kooky engineered situation which requires photo shoots or to meet the parents. This would work on screen; lots of it has good film potential. As a book it feels a bit flimsy.

Some people will really enjoy this. Maybe I had unrealistic expectations, but won’t someone write me a modern Bridget Jones’s Diary soon?

Read: And imagine it as a film version instead.

The Wheel of Osheim by Mark Lawrence

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I have a secret. I’m an avid Fantasy novel fan.

I’ve been reading this much-maligned genre under the covers for years. Ever since I managed to get my sticky hands on a copy of The Hobbit in primary school, I’ve been hooked. I graduated to Narnia, Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, The Wheel of Time.

I’ve lately culminated in Mark Lawrence’s grown-up series, The Red Queen’s War trilogy. This is anti-hero Prince Jalan’s reluctant quest to save the world. Cowardly, untrustworthy and very flawed, he’s everything the usual Fantasy hero isn’t.

It’s very funny and relatable, which grounds some of the more abstract magic that tends to put non-fantasy readers off. It’s a similar playful, modern tone as something like the Gentleman Bastard Sequence by Scott Lynch or The First Law series by Joe Abercrombie.

Fantasy is a strange genre: once you can get your head round it, there’s so much creative scope and wonderful plotting as HBO can testify. But why then is it my embarrassing secret?

Read: For a modern, relatable take on fantasy. Also after the other books in the series- no matter how funny the characters are, you’ll be lost within 20 pages otherwise.

The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain

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A piece of classical music so lovely and sad it moves you to tears. Except it’s a novel.

Told in three parts (or movements if we want to be musical about this), Rose Tremain gently tells how the lives of two young boys Anton and Gustav intertwine at kindergarten in post-war Switzerland. Anton is a musical prodigy and Gustav is a kind but neglected boy who craves comfort and security.

We also see the lives of Erich and Emilie, Anton’s parents. Young and hopeful, they morph into tired and compromised adults. The sadness of their respective emotional and moral conflicts acts as a foil for Anton’s present day. In some ways their charged and challenging love story becomes the core of the book.

With this book, I think that the devil is in the detail (but in a good way?): Erich is an administrative man who does paper work to save people’s lives rather than a classic war hero. Their betrayals and sadnesses are small and subtle but significant, like a simple melody that stays in your mind.

Read: Before bed to lull you to sleep

The Sellout by Paul Beatty

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Literary establishment meets racial politics, The Sellout is surprising- as if the Times Literary Supplement decided to branch out into gangster rap. So what can I say about The Sellout that hasn’t already been said? Booker prize-winning, universally acclaimed. Needless to say I was sceptical.

Me wants to put his neighbourhood Dickens, California back on the map from the external pressures of gentrification and transience. He decides to do this by reintroducing slavery and racial segregation as a means of redefining the area’s black identity.

Yikes.

I loved it. It’s like reading the wittiest, most lyrical rap you’ve ever heard. Reading being the right term- it’s almost a work of academia in how layered and insightful it is in dialogue on identity and challenging philosophy. It takes every racial stereotype and interrogates it uncomfortably and effectively.

As clever as it is, it’s also side-splittingly funny. Beatty teases the reader with the taboo, the inappropriate, the things you shouldn’t laugh at. There’s an absolutely hilarious scene where Me is encouraged by his bonkers father to wolf-whistle at a white woman in some misguided attempt to demonstrate interracial sexual relations.

For a book dealing with such weighty topics the whole thing is vibrant and spitting with life, joy and rhymes.

Read: for something punchy to wake you up on your morning commute

Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh

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Choose life. Choose Irvine Welsh.

Buoyed up the worthy recent sequel T2, I returned to Trainspotting with a lovely pair of rose tinted glasses.

Which was a bit of a mistake in some ways- I’d forgotten the assault on senses that comes with experiencing heroin in Scots dialect. It’s a very difficult read if you’re not concentrating: the stream-of-consciousness, loosely connected tales of Sick Boy, Renton, Begbie and Spud muddle together in a smelting of Scots slang and sordid squats.

The struggle is real. And ultimately worth it. Trainspotting is a vivacious, raw and pulsing with life as it must have been when published in 1993 (I can’t vouch for this personally having been about 3 at the time).

Something else I can’t personally vouch for? Heroin. But Irvine describes it in a way so poetic that absolute squares like me are able to glimpse the agony and the ecstasy of this most powerful drug.

Read: When you want a literary high

Wild Swans by Jung Chang

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Although incredibly famous, the doorstep size puts some people off. So I must reiterate that Wild Swans is a book we should all read. It documents the turbulence of 19th century China through the story of three generations of women caught on the tide of history.

Jung Chang’s grandmother was a concubine for a Chinese warlord. Her daughter grew up to be a leading light of the Communist party. Then in turn we hear of Chang’s own upbringing in Communist society, her own disillusionment with Mao, and move to the West. The generational gap is vast: in a similar vein, I sometimes think about my Grandad who had to deal with both wartime rationing and iPads in his lifetime.

By focussing on the rich, tightly-told tales of these individual women, Chang makes the macro-scale of historical change comprehensible on a human level. You could listen in class about the vast number of people impacted by the Cultural Revolution but the figure is abstract until you meet Chang’s relatives, friends, and community.

Necessarily sad and tragic at times, Chang’s story is uplifted by the love that keeps their family together, a redeeming hope in the pretty bleak landscape of history.

Read: If you find the scale of China, or indeed history, unfathomable.

So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson

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Shame is one of the most powerful human emotions. When I feel ashamed I get a physiological reaction: my heart revs, a wave of heat envelops my body and I feel a strong pressure on my throat and chest.

So the psychology and sociology of shame in Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed is fascinating. He frames it within a very modern lens, that of social media shamings. Amongst others, Ronson tells the story of the PR executive tweeting the spectacularly unfunny about AIDS on her way to South Africa. I remember this so clearly and thinking ‘what an idiot’.

Ronson digs deeper into what it means to be digitally shamed on social media; what was previously confined to a friendship circle now goes viral as strangers hurl abusive tweets at you. Yikes. My worst nightmare. He delves into the shamers, shamees (is that a word?), motivations, methods and madness.

I find some of the science and psychology behind this book a little fast or too convenient at times. First and foremost, Ronson is a journalist and writes at a reporter’s pace. To be fair to him though, this is a fascinating feature story.

Read: If you’ve embarrassed yourself at work this week.

The Key to Rebecca by Ken Follet

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A handsome British man runs out of the Egyptian sand dunes dragging a beautiful girl by the hand. Kaboom. Something explodes behind them. That’s certainly the feel of this WWII spy novel from Ken Follet, if not an actual scene.

Sounds like a Bond film, and in many ways it’s not dissimilar. The Key to Rebecca is all the elements you want in a spy story; hardened hero, glamorous love interest, exotic location, characterful villain and double crossing.

It’s almost paint by numbers- which sounds damning but actually should be real credit to Follet who manages to balance almost implausible dramatic sequences (be they action or seduction) with meaningful characters. I’m so carried away that I never stop to realise ‘this is ludicrous, why don’t they phone ahead?’ or whatever, as I do with so many other spy novels.

Plus Follet seems fairly aware of the genre he’s writing in with the odd arched eyebrow here and there to acknowledge it: a characters who loves detective fiction or a line of dialogue about trench coats.

Yes, it’s over the top- Field Marshall Rommel is part of the plot. However, along with his completely different The Pillars of The Earth series, it shows he sure can write popular fiction whatever the genre.

Read: For a postmodern Bond.

The Revenge by Shirley Conran

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Shirley Conran is the mother of the Hollywood blockbuster novel. Or perhaps the incredibly glamorous maiden aunt who drinks a martini for lunch every day. Her bestseller Lace is a raunchy, sassy masterpiece about four women through the decades. I loved it.

The Revenge however doesn’t live up to this pedigree. There is less of the verve and vigour, and more dour, moral lessons about revenge and forgiveness.

Set in the Edwardian era, spunky young Mimi runs away from the abuse and poverty at home to join a travelling theatre troupe who tour the music halls. She discovers a knack for performing and forms a tight friendship with Betsy, the company beauty. The two girls fall out, setting the tone for the next 60 years as they feud across career, continents and families.

And it certainly feels the full 60 years- this is a LONG book. Which is fine- the theatrical shenanigans are great, with some brilliant characters and plot lines. Its only in the latter parts of the novel where the emphatic repetition of how bad revenge is that my interest begins to wane. In my opinion, fictional revenge is best served fiery or icy, not a warm medium.

Read: Lace instead.