Grl on train cvrTrains and romance have always gone hand in hand and so have trains and mystery. Take the Orient Express, Midnight express, the Great Train Robbery and the Railway Children for example. Then there’s train journeys in general which, just by the mere thought of them, spark ones imagination, the Rocky Mountaineer railway, the Trans-Siberian, even the Eurostar. Commuter trains are no exception, although the daily trip on the DART (Dublin Area Rapid Transit) which links the city centre with the north and south coastal towns and counties, that I’ve taken for the past 20 years or so, doesn’t really have the same inspirational spark as the London underground,  the Metro in Paris or the New York Subway. Although, there are people in those countries who would disagree and would probably give their eye teeth to have the view over Killiney Bay twice a day, instead of the dark ominous brickwork of a tunnel,  I usually have my head stuck in a book. This brings us on to this month’s book.  It’s the current talk of the literary world, and has being suggested as this years “Gone Girl”, it’s The Girl On The Train by Paula Hawkins.

Rachel Watson takes the same train into London every morning and the same train home again every evening. It stops at the same signal each way and over time she gets to know the routines of the people in the houses that she over looks as the train idles there before moving on. So engrossed in the lives of one couple in particular is she, that she has even given them names Jason and Jess. One day she sees “Jess” in her back garden embracing a man not “Jason”. But the coincidental stopping of the train at that  point is not the only reason for Rachel’s interest in those particular houses, she used to live a couple of doors down, before her marriage broke down and now two years on, she’s struggling to get over the break up, which isn’t helped by her alcoholism. One evening she gets off at the nearest station and in a drunken stupor causes a scene at her old home. Coincidentally Megan Hipwell, the neighbour whom Rachel has Christened “Jess” goes missing goes that night – in the aftermath Rachel can’t remember what happened. Just hazy flash backs, which include her ex-husband Tom, his new wife Anna, a man with red hair, as well as waking up next morning bloodied and bruised. Thinking she has vital evidence she decides to go to the police and with her life spiraling into alcoholic oblivion Rachel blunders further into the investigation, when Megan’s body turns up a couple of weeks later. Is Rachel the killer or has she met them and is she about to be their next victim?

The word on the grapevine was that this was a great book to read and I have to say, it was correct. From the get go, Paula Hawkins builds the tension up superbly in the style of the great British thriller writers of the past. Agatha Christie and the recently departed Ruth Rendell would be very proud. The book is told primarily through the eyes of Rachel, but also from the point of view of Megan Hipwell and Anna Watson, the new wife of Rachel’s ex Tom.  At no point can you tell who the killer is until the very last minute. Every one of the main Characters is a viable suspect; it’s been years since I’ve read a book that has left me guessing till the last couple of pages. Also the initial premise of the story, that of what you see in peoples houses when you stare in fleetingly from a passing train, is not something new to any of us. We’re all “Nosey-Parkers”  deep down and we’ve probably see some strange things going on in peoples houses and often wondered what those people are doing, who lives in a house like that or why did they do that to their house or garden?

Its also been a while since I’ve come across such a flawed main character, her alcoholism is so nicely woven into the story-line that you really do feel for Rachel and almost want to step into the pages and take her by the hand and lead her to an AA meeting or pump her full of Coffee. As well as destroying her marriage, it’s also cost her a lucrative PR job in the city, but she still takes the train every day so that her flatmate Cathy thinks she still has a job. It’s Cathy who is her real and only support, despite being the recipient of all the general detritus associated with Rachel’s condition, although her patience is tested and  a sainthood is lurking somewhere in the ether.

Paula Hawkins

Paula Hawkins

Zimbabwean born Hawkins ( has been working and living in the UK since 1989. She’s a former journalist who credits reading Agatha Christie as a child as her inspiration, but that it was Donna Tarrt’s Secret History which was the real eye opener to the possibilities of psychological thrillers. This is her first book, but in a recent interview with Penguin Canada she admitted she has hundreds of pieces of fiction stored on hard drives, some a few pages long others tens of thousands of words long.

There are loads of similarities to other works set on a train in this 450 frm paddnton cvrbook but the closest is Agatha Christie’s The 4:50 From Paddington. The plot is scarily similar, two trains pull along side each other and a woman travelling alone in her carriage witnesses another woman being murdered in the other train, the only person who can help her is that wiley old sleuth Ms Marple.

So the next time you stare out the train window into houses along the way or another train, be careful what you see, you never know you could be witness to a crime. But in general just smile and wave, even if nobody returns the gesture. Then if you haven’t already, been prompted by this review to get a copy, then jump off at the next available station and pick up this book.



Catch 22If I said Joseph Heller to you, what’s the first thing to come to mind? What if I just said “Catch 22”. Some of you would probably say its a paradoxical situation from which there’s no escape. While quite a few  would think yep read it or its on my “To Be Read” list, because that’s what Catch-22 was. A cult book (if not THE cult book) of the ‘60s. Every self-respecting student had a copy. It’s title is now part of the English language. The paperback edition set sales records. It’s one of the best-selling novels of the 20th century, having sold over 10 million copies.

I first read it in the ‘70s and remember it as being zany, hilarious and hard-hitting. When chosen as our bookclub book recently, I was delighted – imagining hours of laughter and entertainment.  I was sorely disappointed. And it wasn’t only me. Several other avid bookclub readers couldn’t generate the interest or enthusiasm to go beyond page 150 (of 536).

Why? Because Catch-22 is a book of it’s time – for it’s time.

Published in 1961 just as US involvement in the Vietnam war was escalating, it resonated with the growing protest movements that epitomize the 1960s. Often cited as an anti-war book, Catch-22 was more than that for the ‘60s generation who were ripping up their parents’ rule book and challenging all the givens they were expected to live by. It was anti-war, anti-religious, anti-capitalist and anti-authority. And – most particularly – it cocked a snook at all these sacred cows by ridiculing and making fun of them. It was Heller’s satirical approach that truly caught the ‘zeitgeist’ of the ‘60s

Set in the second World War, the book’s main protagonist, Yossarian, is a bombardier whose life is more threatened by the machinations of his superior officers than by German anti-aircraft gunners. Yossarian’s commanding officer, Colonel Cathcart, who is solely interested in his own career advancement, continually increases the number of bombing missions his men have to complete before being discharged. If Yossarian was crazy he could be discharged on medical grounds but – the Catch 22 – in the situation he’s in, claiming to be crazy is proof of his sanity.

Heller’s depiction of the predicament that Yossarian and his fellow soldiers find themselves in is sometimes poignant, sometimes insightful and – most of the time – over-the-top, slap-stick-style satire.  This works for about the first 100 pages but then becomes repetitive, relentless and boring.

There are some gems, though. My favorites include the moment of revelation when the Chaplain, having lied for the first time, discovered “the handy technique of protective rationalization… It was miraculous. It was almost no trick at all, he saw, to turn vice into virtue and slander into truth… brutality into patriotism and sadism into justice. Anybody could do it; it required no brains at all. It merely required no character.”

Also up there with the best is the doctor’s predicament when the plane he was supposed to be in (but wasn’t) was shot down. As there were no survivors, he was dead. The army record said so. When his wife, after a period of mourning, received the widow’s pension she and their children moved home – without leaving a forwarding address.

But the true hero of the book has to be Yossarin’s tent-mate, Orr, the “happy and unsuspecting simpleton” who ditched his plane in the sea on virtually every mission. Though he worried about Orr’s ability to look after himself, Yossarin (understandably given Orr’s record) avoided flying with him, despite Orr’s repeated requests that he do so. But it was Orr, the simpleton, who successfully beat the system by ditching his plane (safely, having practiced this to perfection) and rowing to neutral Sweden using the plane’s emergency dinghy. A true subversive!

Joseph Heller

Joseph Heller

Catch 22 was American author Joseph Heller’s debut novel, he first had the idea for the story in 1953 when the opening lines came to him while sitting at his desk one day, within a week he’d written the first chapter and sent it to his agent. He only started to write the rest of the book a year later . The book was finally published in 1961, not before the title which was originally Catch 18 was changed to 22 so as not to be confused with Leon Uris’s Novel Mila 18. After that he went on to write five other novels including a follow up to Catch 22 called Something Happened, in 1971. He wrote a number of plays and TV scripts most of which had a an anti-war theme to them. In 1981 Heller was diagnosed with the debilitating illness Guillian-Barre Syndrome, after a prolonged period of recovery he married his nurse.

The book was made into a movie in 1970, directed by Mike Nichols and starred Alan Arkin as Yossarian with a supporting cast of Art Garfunkel, Bob Newhart, Anthony Perkins, Martin Sheen and Jon Voight. Heller died in 1999 shortly after the publication of his last novel Portrait of An Artist, As An Old Man.

Unfortunately, in terms of readability and relevance Catch 22 has catch-22-posternot stood the test of time. As a satire it definitely hit the funny-bone of its time and its zany comic style was echoed in many subsequent comedy classics including MASH, The Rowan and Martin Laugh-In and Monty Python. But times have changed. Lack of reverence for authority is now so much part of our culture that it is difficult to even imagine the pre-‘60s world where anyone in a position of authority was automatically deferred to, no matter how inept or self-promoting they were.

However, as a portal through which we can get a flavour of how it felt to BE in the ‘60s the book does deserve its position as a classic of the 20th century. And no matter how jaded the reader or how out-of-date the writing style, nothing can take from Heller the highest accolade of all – it is a book that changed it’s world.