Friday, February 27, 2015

Film Friday: Oscar Winners

The Oscars have come and gone and for the most part, I had a pretty good sense of who the winners would be, whether they were who I thought would win (this ballot) or who I wanted to win (this ballot). The streak of correct Best Picture guesses continues with BirdmanBig Hero 6 helping Disney get the animation double was a pleasant surprise, considering The Lego Movie was left off the ballot completely when it should have won.

But my bigger issue is with the Academy itself. The Hollywood Reporter and Cinema Blend ran stories in the days leading up to the Oscars that Academy members had not seen many of the Best Picture nominees. For example, nearly 10% did not see Selma, a terrific movie I saw at my local multiplex. Some didn't see the films for political reasons (American Sniper, Selma), but Academy members have no excuse. It detracts from the artists that helped create that picture, whether you agree with it or not.

Academy membership is an exclusive privilege and yet, these industry professionals didn't see the films their group nominated for Best Picture. Meanwhile, YouTube reviewers like Chris Stuckmann, Jeremy Jahns and the Schmoes managed to see every movie nominated. I saw five of the eight myself and had some difficulty getting to screenings of Boyhood and Whiplash. I can't speak for the YouTubers, but I'm sure they'd be doing somersaults if they got Academy membership. And they saw these movies the old-fashioned way, seeing them in a theater. They didn't get the DVD screeners that are sent out to most guild and Academy members, which means voters have even less excuse.

While I didn't like Birdman as much as the Academy, it deservedly won for director and cinematography. It did try to push the envelope and had something to say about art and commercial viability in an era of superhero blockbusters (though I could have done without the award ceremony speeches bashing those flicks, considering many Oscar-caliber actors have been involved in that genre, just ask Hugh Jackman, Amy Adams, Christian Bale and Anthony Hopkins, among others.) Also, Birdman had the best ensemble cast of any film this year.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Wish List Wednesday: March

As most of the U.S. continues to freeze its collective buns off, spring cannot come soon enough for many. But while we wait for the seasons to change, bookstores are preparing for an onslaught of a different sort. Like a rapid snowmelt, the number of March books rushing toward store shelves is huge. While there are many noteworthy titles debuting this month, here are five to add to your wish list.

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro
(March 3, Knopf)
Available via hardcover, ebook and audio
One of the most talked-about books this year, Ishiguro's novel is about an elderly couple trying to find their son. As they head toward their son's village, they embark on an adventure through mystical Arthurian England. The book focuses on themes of memories lost and found, love and war. The novel has already received starred reviews from Kirkus and Publishers Weekly as well as being named to the Indie Next List, though the New York Times and Goodreads reviewers have been more mixed.

Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania
by Erik Larson
(March 10, Crown)
Available via hardcover, ebook and audio
Larson is one of the best in writing narrative nonfiction histories. After showing readers The Devil in the White City and taking them In the Garden of Beasts, he turns his attention to the sinking of the Lusitania. The centennial of the sinking is this year and was a turning point in American involvement in World War I. The book was also given a starred review at Kirkus and was named to both the Indies Next and LibraryReads lists for March.

World Gone By by Dennis Lehane
(March 10, William Morrow)
Available via hardcover, ebook and audio
Lehane continues the story of Joe Coughlin from 2012's Live by Night as he tries to put his violent past behind him. Unfortunately for Coughlin, the past still haunts him and his connections to crime in Tampa, including the mob, will again weigh on him. Lehane is a master at crime fiction and has been a recent favorite for Hollywood adaptations (Gone Baby Gone, The Drop, Mystic River). World Gone By did receive a starred review from Kirkus.

The Lost Boys Symphony by Mark Andrew Ferguson
(March 24, Little, Brown)
Available via hardcover, ebook and audio
There's always those moments in life that you'd rather have back. In the case of Henry, he is visited by alternate future versions of himself, one dubbed 41 and the other 80. Meanwhile, the girl that left Henry for NYU, Val, is readjusting to life in Manhattan and Henry's best friend Gabe is worried for him. The story is a coming-of-age tale fused with romance, music and fantasy. In the interest of full disclosure, I was privileged to receive an advanced review copy of this book and a review is forthcoming.

Around the World in 50 Years: My Adventure to Every Country on Earth by Albert Podell
(March 24, Thomas Dunne)
Available via hardcover and ebook
In recent years, I have been bit by the travel bug hard and started charting where in the world I'd want to visit. For Podell, there was no chart, because he sought to visit every country. In the book, he travels all over the world and details the places, people and culture (even going so far as to rate countries by toilet paper). The book is an irreverent take on travel literature. At press time, there was no word on an audiobook version.

With as many books as there are coming out in March, I'm sure there are others to be excited about? What did I miss? Is there a book you're interested in reading this month?

Monday, February 23, 2015

Audiobook Review: The Enchanted

The Enchanted (2014)
Written by Rene Denfeld
Narrated by Jim Frangione
Run Time: 7 hours 4 minutes
Publisher: Harper Audio

A death-row prison may be the last place one would find "enchanted," but in Denfeld's novel, the prison is a mix of horrible reality and an escape for one prisoner as he contemplates death in his cell. A prison with golden horses and little men with tiny hammers may sound like they're more at home in a fantasy novel, but they play prominent roles in this one. That is, if you believe the narrator, an inmate kept in the darkest and most isolated part of the prison, isn't just making up a fantasy of his own.

Other characters include the Lady, an investigator who assists defense attorneys in trying to overturn death sentences, a fallen priest who starts to better understand the prisoners he has under his care as well as growing affections for the Lady, and a warden whose wife suffers from terminal cancer.

This is a hard book to review, because it depends on what you take into it. Some readers will get irritated by the lack of firm place (the place where the prison is located is never explicitly said, so it leaves a lot to the imagination) or the few named characters. However, as the book progressed, I realized that the book couldn't have much definition to it in order for it to work. Readers in book clubs will want to discuss whether the narrator is going mad and seeing these fantastical figures in his mind or whether this prison exists in a fantasy world or some other explanation. I found myself a few times still thinking about the imagery of the golden horses with molten manes well after the fact and not what was going on in the story.

The other thing that the book depends on is whatever your opinion is of the death penalty. Whether you're for or against it isn't the issue, but the book challenges those pre-conceived assertions from both sides, from the Lady's efforts to overturn an inmate's sentence to the reminders of the horrific crimes that these inmates did to get to death row. The narrator is likable and an avid reader, but then again, can someone be likable if they did such a horrendous crime?

The imagery is superb and the driving force of the novel. I really liked some of the characters, namely the Lady and the warden. Both of these characters have conflicted home lives and want to do the right thing, even if their job requires them to partake in the horrific.

Jim Frangione delivers a very good audio performance with a hard-scrabble tone. He manages to embody the narrator who, after seeing the horrors and wonder of life inside the prison walls, can alternate from sounding gruff to tender and back again.

Rating: 4/5 stars. It can be difficult to read at times and make readers question some of the fantastical elements long after they've turned the page, but the characters and descriptions kept me engaged and wanting to see more enchantment.

The Enchanted is available in hardcover, ebook and audio formats. A paperback version is set for publication this week.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Film Friday: Oscar Predictions

Oscar Sunday is almost here! Have you filled out your Oscar ballot yet?

For many years, I've printed out an Oscar ballot or shared my picks with Facebook friends. This year, I'm putting it all on the line and you're more than welcome to follow along. Four of the last five Best Picture Oscars I guessed correctly (2010 was the misstep; I picked The Social Network over The King's Speech), but thanks to this year's open-ended race, picking the correct ones will be even tougher since there isn't a prohibitive favorite. And while the Best Picture films this year were very good, there wasn't a knockout one like last year's 12 Years a Slave or previous year's Argo.

To see who I think will win, click here. To see who I want to win, click here. Next week, I'll dive in to the picks and see where I more than likely messed up.

Good luck with your ballots and as The Hunger Games say, may the odds be ever in your favor!

Monday, February 16, 2015

Audiobook Review: The Secret Wisdom of the Earth

The Secret Wisdom of the Earth (2015)
Written by Christopher Scotton
Narrated by Robert Petkoff
Run Time: 13 hours, 32 minutes
Publisher: Hachette Audio/Grand Central

While The Girl on the Train has burned up the bestseller lists since it debuted last month, there was another January novel I liked even better. When initial reviews mentioned this book and classic writers such as Harper Lee and Mark Twain in the same sentence, I quickly added it to my TBR list.

But does it match the hype?

Scotton, who runs a technology firm, wrote a powerful debut novel on a subject that seems well-worn: a boy growing up. But sometimes, the stories that seem familiar are the best ones. Like the paintbrush strokes on its cover, the novel has a fairly simple plot, but told in a beautiful way (especially on audiobook).

Kevin is a teenager who has moved with his mom to his grandfather's house in Kentucky after a terrible accident has left them both in a state of grief. Summer has started and as Kevin connects with his grandfather Arthur, the owners of a nearby mine plan to increase mountaintop removal efforts, decimating the Appalachian hill country as a result. One of the local townspeople leads efforts to resist further demolition, but is badly beaten afterward. In part to get away from the increased tensions in town, Arthur takes Kevin and his friend Buzzy deep into the mountains to Glaston Lake. But an unfortunate incident sets off a race against time to get back to town in time.

The first half of the novel reads like a snapshot of the fictional town of Medgar, Kentucky. The atmosphere of the town, its residents, and daily life there seeped off the pages. The first half almost reminded me of a blend of Wilson Rawls' Where the Red Fern Grows and Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird in how it deals with a child coming to terms with tragedy in the South and facing issues of the day like environmentalism and prejudice. The book absolutely sparkles in this portion.

The second half, the trip to Glaston Lake and the race back, reads more like a thriller. However, there's also some magical realism involving a white stag that seemed out of the blue to me. I understood what the author was going for, the stag being a protector in the forest, but it seemed out of place compared to the style of the rest of the novel. The race back had me questioning whether or not it would unfold the way it did as one character seemed to have nine lives.

Also, the main villain in the book at first seems plausible and almost sympathetic. He wants to provide jobs to a town reeling from a down economy and lack of new business, even if it means destroying the beauty of the town's surroundings. But as the novel goes on, particularly in the climax, it felt like he devolved into a villain I used to see on the old Captain Planet animated TV show.

Despite the wobbly finish, I'd still heartily recommend this book to just about anybody. The first half's observations of small-town life and how a community can rally to support a grassroots effort (or turn against it) drew me right in. The novel has a great sense of setting, some very likable characters (and some truly roguish ones too), and a heartfelt story of compassion, healing and making memories. Scotton is working on a second novel and I'll be interested to read his future writings.

Grade: 4/5 stars. This novel is a fantastic debut and while it is still very early in the year, it has established itself as the early pacesetter for 2015.

A note on the audiobook version: The last book I listened to narrated by Petkoff was Michael Koryta's similarly-set though otherwise very different Those Who Wish Me Dead, so it was a little difficult at first to separate them. Otherwise, the audiobook is a treat and its 13+ hours flew right by. Petkoff once again does a terrific job giving each character a distinct voice and/or dialect.

For more on Scotton, visit his website.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Film Friday: Silver Linings Playbook

Valentine's Day is tomorrow, so love is in the air. Plus, the Academy Awards and its celebration of the best films of the previous year is coming up on Feb. 22. That got me thinking back to one of my favorite movies in recent years, the romantic dramedy Silver Linings Playbook. To my chagrin, I saw the movie long before I read the novel, so I tried to make amends for that this year.

The Silver Linings Playbook (2008)
Written by Matthew Quick
Narrated by Ray Porter
Run Time: 7 hours 18 minutes
Publisher: Blackstone Audio/Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Sports fans are some of the craziest people around. Whenever the Los Angeles Lakers win an NBA championship, police get put on tactical alert because there have been riots, car fires and general mayhem in the past. When the Vancouver Canucks lost to the Boston Bruins in Game 7 of the 2011 Stanley Cup on home ice, fans set fires, looted stores and destroyed cars.

In the case of Pat Peoples, he's a diehard Philadelphia Eagles football fan who is let out of a Baltimore mental facility, or "the bad place" as he calls it, when the book begins. As he reconnects with family and friends, he hopes to reconnect with his wife Nikki and end "apart time." When over at a friend's house, he meets Tiffany, who herself has had issues stemming from the loss of her husband. From there, it's a mix of football games, a dance, therapy sessions, running and awkward social moments as the two literally run with each other and start to fall in love, albeit in an unlikely way.

The book was a complete joy to listen to and was a real page-turner. I devoured this book in two days and was hooked from start to finish. At one point, I laughed hysterically on a lunch break at my work, inadvertently spooking a co-worker. I was rooting for Pat and Tiffany most of the way, even as their relationship is messy and tangled with challenges. The side characters are a joy as well, particularly Pat's brother and therapist. Porter's narration is spot on, with each character clearly discernible and he often switches from voice to voice without any noticeable difficulty.

Grade: 4/5 stars. The book is a ton of fun on audiobook while still telling a compelling love story that even those with major mental health challenges can find their silver lining.

Silver Linings Playbook (2012)
Written for the screen and directed by David O. Russell
Rated R for language and some nudity
Run Time: 2 hours 2 minutes
Distributor: The Weinstein Company

Before the book was even published, Hollywood studios were aiming to make it into a film. Renee Witt, an executive at The Weinstein Company, convinced founder and major Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein to option the film rights. Four years later, the movie was a smash hit made on a $21 million budget, earning more than $130 million at the North American box office.

The film version of Silver Linings Playbook comes from the Jurassic Park school of screenplay adaptations where the basic structure of the story remains, but a lot of the details and sometimes whole sequences are added or removed. That's not to say the adaptation is bad. I love both of those films, but then again, I saw the movie first and the book much later in both cases. Screenwriter and director David O. Russell admitted to the Huffington Post that he rewrote the screenplay 20 times over a five year period because he was trying to get the tone balance right between the romance and humor aspects and the serious depictions of bipolar disorder and obsessive compulsive disorder.

The changes from book to celluloid are numerous, but here are a few. For starters, character names are tweaked and both the brother and therapist, two of my favorite characters in the novel, are featured far less in the movie than the book. Also, Kenny G and his tune "Songbird" terrorize Pat in the book, forcing him to often "close my eyes, hum a single note and count to ten." In the movie, the song that haunts him is Stevie Wonder's "My Cherie Amour." Pat's dad is markedly different in both versions. In the book, he's very distant, moody and obsessive whereas in the movie, he has a gambling problem in addition to being obsessive compulsive. Pat's condition is never spelled out in the novel, though it's strongly hinted that he suffered a traumatic brain injury, while in the movie, he's diagnosed as bipolar.

The scene in the diner is vastly different from the book as well as the dance scene, which the movie makes out to be a major competition and in the book, it's more casual.  The movie essentially ends at the dance, but it happens at about the 3/4 mark of the book. By extension, the endings have the same net result, but very different ways of getting there. Personally, as much as it is a "Hollywood" ending, I like the film version better in part because it has my favorite line in the movie, delivered by Robert DeNiro:

Grade: A-. Terrific performances from the ensemble cast (Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert DeNiro, Jackie Weaver and Chris Tucker) and the film's sensitivity to its depictions of mental illness make for a movie that didn't follow the book, but still maintained its spirit.

The movie was nominated for eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, all four acting categories and Best Adapted Screenplay. It lost the Best Picture race to the Iranian hostage drama Argo, a fantastic movie in its own right. Ironically, Jennifer Lawrence took home the movie's sole win (Best Actress) despite Russell's initial concerns that she was too young for the part. While the actors were already established by the time the movie came out, the film did propel the musical group The Lumineers to stardom, thanks to their song "Ho Hey" ("I belong with you, you belong with me, my sweetheart") being used in many of the film's ads and trailers.

Have you seen the movie or read the book? Is there a version you prefer?

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Audie Awards and Those Who Wish Me Dead

On Wednesday, the Audie Awards were announced online via Twitter. The awards are essentially the Oscars of the audiobook industry and consisted of 29 categories. Since I only started listening to audiobooks full-time in late December, I've got some catching up to do. However, there were plenty of books on my wish list, such as James Lee Burke's Wayfaring Stranger, Michael Lewis' Flash Boys, Hampton Sides' In the Kingdom of Ice and even some like Amy Poehler's Yes Please that I've gone back and forth on. For a full list of categories and nominees, click here.

But I did manage to read one nominated book...

Those Who Wish Me Dead (2014)
Written by Michael Koryta
Narrated by Robert Petkoff
Run Time: 10 hours, 30 minutes
Publisher: Hachette Audio/Little, Brown

It's a scary thing to trek into the wilderness without much experience. It's even scarier to see a murder. It's unbelievably scary when you have two killers tracking your every move. For teenager Jace Wilson, he has the misfortune of having all three happen to him over the course of a summer as he tries to evade two murderous brothers in a burning Montana wilderness.

Luckily for Jace, there's Ethan Serbin, who runs a wilderness survival program the teen has been entered into under a false ID. There's also an emotionally scarred fire lookout that becomes entangled in the escalating cat-and-mouse game. Ethan's wife Allison also has a role to play as the admirable husband and wife team up to protect the boy from two of the creepiest villains I've seen in a long time.

Patrick and Jack Blackwell are like a weird cross between the albino twins from The Matrix sequels and Anton Chigurh from No Country for Old Men. They finish each other's sentences in a creepy monotone and are deadly accurate. When they aren't around, the book lagged a bit, but it absolutely crackles with them. The tension ratcheted up as I went about my work commute and often took the long way home so I could hear what would happen next. Petkoff's narrating of these two cold and calculating characters is stellar and made them that much more unnerving.

The main contention I had with the book, which was very good overall, was that the climax hinged on the audience not deducing the true identity of a key character. I figured it out way early and there's a point where the character is nearly found out, but it manages to delay for a few more chapters. Despite this setback, the book is still recommended and I'd read Koryta again in the future.

Grade: 3.5/5 stars. Come for the superb narration by Petkoff and excellent story set up and stay for the memorable villains, despite the blown plot twist.

The book is currently available in the U.S. in hardcover, ebook and audiobook formats. A paperback edition is expected in mid-July from Back Bay.

As one might expect, Hollywood has set its sights on Koryta's novel and with such memorable villains, why not? 20th Century Fox acquired the film rights in September 2013 with Steve Zaillian set to produce. He is best known for being the screenwriter of such films as Schindler's List, Gangs of New York, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, American Gangster and Moneyball. A year ago, Charles Leavitt, who wrote the Blood Diamond screenplay as well as the first draft of the upcoming In the Heart of the Sea, was hired to write the script.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Book Review: Station Eleven

Station Eleven (2014)
Written by Emily St. John Mandel
304 pages
U.S. Publisher: Knopf

A trend that has gone through the literary world like wildfire is the dystopian novel. The young adult crowd has devoured the likes of The Hunger Games and Divergent, but the genre of literary fiction has not been as receptive to it as of late.

And then along comes Emily St. John Mandel's Station Eleven.

The story begins in a Toronto theater, where an established actor dies while performing King Lear. But the day gets worse as a global pandemic known as the "Georgia Flu" spreads from eastern Europe around the world via air travelers. As the years pass, generations of survivors cope with the "new world" while still trying to sustain some of the "old world" traditions, namely the arts. A traveling symphony performs Shakespearean plays in a parking lot. A stranded air traveler forms a museum of relics from the world pre-flu in an airport lounge. But not everyone makes a benevolent transition to the "new world." A self-proclaimed prophet twists passages from Revelations and leads a terrifying cult following to claim dominion over a town near the Great Lakes.

The book switches between three areas: 1) the real world prior to the flu, 2) the real world post-flu and 3) the fictional world of a comic book called Station Eleven that bridges the two previous areas in interesting but totally plausible ways.

The book's opening is fantastic and the world-building was terrific. My favorite character was Kirsten, one of the members of the Traveling Symphony, so whenever the narrative follows her and the Symphony, the book just soared. It was often in these sections where the author's observations of what the world would be like post-pandemic fascinated me. Where the book had a misstep for me was in its second quarter, when characters like Arthur, the actor destined to die on stage in the opening chapter, take up a significant portion of the plot. That section left me longing to see the Traveling Symphony or Jeevan, the man who tries to save Arthur's life on that stage.

As the second half starts connecting the story threads together, the story got right back in a groove and made for a great read. Scenes involving travelers at an airport allowed St. John Mandel to make some humorous notes about modern air travel, much in the way she made wry observations with the symphony earlier in the book. It also helps that one of the more likable characters, Clark, is the primary character in these sequences.

Shortlisted for the National Book Award last year, the novel successfully melds dystopian speculative sci-fi and serious literary fiction. St. John Mandel, above right, managed to make a Star Trek line ("Survival is insufficient") the main theme of the book. The characters of Station Eleven don't just want to survive, they want to live fulfilling lives and care for each other just like they would pre-flu. As one character puts it, "Hell is the absence of the people you long for." There was a point when I was worried it would veer off and become a pretentious read, but by the three-quarter mark, I knew why this book had been rightfully shortlisted. Grade: 4/5 stars.

The book is currently available in hardcover, audiobook and ebook formats. A paperback version is due Stateside in June.

To see the book's trailer, click here. Below is a Mashable Q&A with the author, but be warned: Spoilers ahead.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Harper Lee News Jolts the World

When it was announced in December that Toni Morrison would have a new novel published in April (God Help the Child), the literary world was abuzz. But if the Toni Morrison news was a large wave, then consider the Harper Lee announcement Tuesday a full-blown earthquake.

HarperCollins will publish Lee's long-lost novel Go Set a Watchman July 14, her first since the 1960 publication of the classic To Kill a Mockingbird.

"In the mid-1950s, I completed a novel called Go Set a Watchman. It features the character known as Scout as an adult woman and I thought it a pretty decent effort. My editor, who was taken by the flashbacks to Scout's childhood, persuaded me to write a novel from the point of view of the young Scout," Lee said in the publisher's press release. "I was a first-time writer, so I did as I was told. I hadn't realized it had survived, so I was surprised and delighted when my dear friend and lawyer Tonja Carter discovered it. After much thought and hesitation I shared it with a handful of people I trust and was pleased to hear that they considered it worthy of publication. I am humbled and amazed that this will now be published after all these years."

The press release also said that the manuscript was found attached to an original typescript of Lee's classic novel. In Go Set a Watchman, Scout will be heading back to Maycomb, Alabama 20 years after the events of To Kill a Mockingbird to visit her father Atticus. At this point, it would be the 1950s (Mockingbird takes place during the Great Depression), so issues of race in a small Southern town will likely play a role as well as the continued relationship between father and daughter.

I first read Mockingbird the spring semester of my freshman year of high school. In the fall, we had read John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men and I did not care for it. My honors English teacher, Mr. Webb, was effusive toward both Steinbeck and Lee. As is the unfortunate norm today, the class was skeptical about reading them. Reading Lee's novel was a delight for me and most of the class agreed. It was through his class that I read Lee's terrific novel and saw the film adaptation starring Gregory Peck, featuring one of my favorite scenes ever, Atticus' closing argument.

The book has been the target of bans over the years and been called naive and idealistic in some circles, which I completely disagree. The novel's essence is about growing up and realizing things don't always work out the way they should because of accepted societal horrors like institutional racism. After all, if it were truly idealistic, Tom Robinson would have been set free in the end.

Lee, left, is famously private, so any news regarding her is big news. One of her more recent public appearances was in 2007 when she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President George W. Bush. In 2010, she was awarded the National Medal of Arts by President Barack Obama. Last year, former Chicago Tribune reporter Marja Mills wrote a memoir about living next to Lee, who vehemently blasted it on multiple occasions. The literary world is still split on the merits of that book (I have opted not to read it), but it speaks to the general public's desire for more from Lee, since she only wrote one published novel. Thanks to the discovery of the Watchman manuscript, we get to go back to Maycomb as Lee originally wrote it and on her own terms. You can bet that I'll be reading it this summer.

Already, people are speculating as to whether or not it will be able to be successful in the shadow of Mockingbird. Thankfully for me, it has been years since I read Lee's original masterpiece, so I plan to read the sequel first, then the original, so as to not taint the newer novel.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Audiobook Review: The Girl on the Train

The Girl on the Train (2015)
Written by Paula Hawkins
Narrated by Clare Corbett, Louise Brealey and India Fisher
Run Time: 10 hours 59 minutes
Publisher: Penguin Audio/Riverhead

Occasionally, I take the commuter train to downtown Los Angeles' iconic Union Station for certain work items. Along the way, I often gaze out the window, only to see the back of industrial buildings and districts. It was with this frame of reference that I gravitated toward the first big bestseller of 2015, Paula Hawkins' highly anticipated debut The Girl on the Train.

Take a mystery, add Hitchcock voyeurism, British flair and a dash of Gone Girl to make a gripping thriller. Rachel the title character, has been battling alcoholism and coming to terms with a divorce. During her commute, she sees her idea of a perfect couple on a house balcony and imagines their lives. On an average day, she sees the wife is not there and an investigation ensues. Anna is the wife of Rachel's ex-husband and despises Rachel for her various afflictions. The third narrator is Megan, the wife that has gone missing.

The book is unmistakably British and it's all the better for it. I read some early reviews that complained about the use of British slang like "petrol" and "bonnet," but for me, it made me like the novel even more. I like books that give a real sense of time and place and this novel does that in spades.

The Girl on the Train's voyeuristic tones trace directly to Alfred Hitchcock. Most people think of his style in the form of the infamous shower scene in Psycho, but a better example is that film's opening sequence. After the opening credits and the famous Bernard Hermann score, the camera pans across the Phoenix cityscape and glides through the window of an open office building to where the action begins to unfold. I kept thinking back to that whenever Rachel described what she was seeing outside the train.

Understandably, the book has been compared to Gone Girl, which it does have some similarities. Both feature marriage troubles and a desperate housewife, but the likeliness pretty much ends there.

Overall, I liked The Girl on the Train despite it having characters I didn't root for. It's hard watching characters make the wrong choices over and over again, but I was genuinely surprised at the ending. One of the narrators desperately tries to right the ship and solves the case in a way that I didn't see coming and when I looked back on it, the plot made perfect sense. It wasn't just a plot twist for the sake of having a twist. Hawkins constructed a realistic, detailed world and trusts her audience, while managing to stay one step ahead.

Grade: 4/5 stars. It's a dark thriller, but it wasn't as bleak or jaded as some other books in the genre like Gone Girl, which made it more palpable for me. The audio narration was superb, with each character clearly defined and the book breezed right by like a commuter train. If you like the genre, pick this one up and enjoy the ride.

As one may expect, a film version is in the works. Per the latest news, a script is due to be turned in soon.