Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll

This girl is not on a train, nor is she gone. She is the Luckiest Girl Alive

After reading Girl on the Train and lamenting the death of the domestic noir genre, I immediately started reading another one.

The Luckiest Girl Alive instantly grabs the reader’s attention with the striking cover, and within the first two pages it attacks with a bite that Girl on the Train simply didn’t have.

We are presented with Ani, the main character, choosing her wedding list, and she is contemplating taking the knife she is looking at and sliding it into her husband-to-be’s gut.

Immediately, there is a sense of tension, of danger, that Girl on the Train lacked. A few pages later and it becomes clear that Ani is not a particularly likeable character, but she doesn’t come across as unreliable.

The book alternates between Ani in her late twenties and Ani – then known as TifAni in her – as a fourteen year old and transferring to a new school.

It is clear that something horrific has happened at the school, specifically something horrific happened to Ani at the school, but it is not immediately revealed. What is clear from the beginning is that whatever it was had a big impact on Ani.

Fourteen year old TifAni is not the same as grown-up Ani, and it is finding out exactly what changed her that keeps the pages turning in this thriller.

Ani isn’t a particularly nice person and it is hard to side with her, or relate to her inner conflict about whether to marry Luke or not – I found myself not caring whether she did or not, but the ending is the ending that Ani deserves, and does give some hope that she might become a likeable character.

That is what this genre is seemingly all about – if the benchmark is Gone Girl, a novel which presents us with a host of unlikeable characters, that we are fascinated by, then the writer above all else needs to concentrate on that.

Perhaps that was the problem with Girl on a Train. While I didn’t particularly like the main character, I did pity her, and she was very much the victim. Ani, on the other hand actually IS a victim, but there’s not much time for pitying her.

I still think the domestic noir genre has peaked and will settle down into just another strand of thrillers. Before that happens, though, we will get a whole avalanche of Luckiest Gone Girl Alive on a Train type books. Luckiest Girl Alive deserves to stand out as one of the better examples.

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The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

Every now and then a book comes along that sells and sells and sells. The likes of Grey and Go Set A Watchman come along occasionally and sell – to use a technical term – shitloads in a short space of time.

But some books sell and they consistently sell well and they top the charts week after week.

The Da Vinci Code, The Hunger Games, Gone Girl, Fault in Our Stars, all of these are amongst the bestsellers with some of them still going even now, years after their publication.

After the phenomenon that was Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code, the sequel The Lost Symbol was released to great fanfare in 2009 and spent a record breaking nineteen weeks in the number one slot in the Fiction Hardback chart.

To put that into context, there are SO many books published each week, that the average title stays in the charts for around six to seven weeks.

The Lost Symbol spending that long at the top of the chart is the book-world equivalent of a man living to be 250 years old.

Earlier this month, that record was broken by the book that even the most casual of readers will have noticed hanging around in bookshops – The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins.

Since Before I Go To Sleep and Gone Girl first hit the heights of popularity, a new genre has emerged in fiction – domestic noir. Basically tense thrillers involving a married couple – The Girl on the Train is just the latest in a long line of hit titles in the genre – but it may well be the peak.

I finally got round to reading GotT this week and… I struggled. There is nothing wrong with it. There’s a nice twist – literally – at the end, there are some very tense moments, and it’s well written.

But parts of it are predictable – in fact, that’s the nature of domestic noir novels – not always that the husband did it, but they feature a small cast of characters, and so it is often easy to spot the bad guy (or girl).

Where these books succeed is in the character’s motives and the ‘how do they get through this’ factor.

The Girl on the Train is just not worth the hype. There is no discernible reason why it has had the success it has had, when others that are equally good or even better have not fared as well.

It’s a good read, it’s a quick read, but it’s distinctly average. Perhaps as a gateway drug to the genre, it’s a good book, or even for those desperate to read more of this type of title, but I suspect we are now at the point with any resurgent genre where we will see a huge cascade of copy-cat titles.

Besides, she’s not even on the train that much.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone

It has been eighteen years since the lines “Mr and Mrs Dursley of number four Privet Drive were proud to say they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.” were first released to the general public.

I read it shortly after it’s publication, at the age of ten and it coincided with a class project on creative writing. One of the pieces of work we had to do was write a book review about a title we had recently enjoyed.

That was the very first book I reviewed, and now eighteen years later, I’m returning to it to see how it’s stood the test of time.

That, perhaps, sounds slightly ridiculous, since we all know the juggernaut that the Harry Potter brand has become, but sometimes it’s worth looking at things objectively, and separate of their going legacy and re-evaluate them for what they are.

In short, is Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone a good book?

Ten year old me, certainly seemed to think so. Unfortunately, I don’t have my original review, but I do remember three things about it. I know that I drew a picture, copying the now-iconic face of Harry Potter from the front cover and I remember stating that the authoress (I’m sure I used that word) had a done a great job in setting up for a second – and maybe even a third – book and that I would very much enjoy reading it if and when it came.

Today, it was very difficult for me to read something that I knew so well, especially if I put it down for a period of time. It’s a book I could read without actually needing it in front of me I know it so well.

It us, however, hugely underwritten, when compared to the later novels. While a lot of us might agree that some of the later books in the series (stand up Order of the Phoenix) were hugely overwritten, Philosopher’s Stone rattles through the events of Harry’s first year at breakneck speed.

The moment Dumbledore confronts Harry about the Mirror of Erised, for example, takes place over just a single page, in later books, that would have merited at least a chapter just to that one conversation. It is tantalisingly brief and Dumbledore himself remains an enigmatic character throughout.

Harry has two conversations with Dumbledore in the whole book, once at Christmas, and then once at the end of the book, after the events behind the locked door on the third floor corridor.

No wonder ten year old me wanted more, the book was astonishingly brief, and as such it suffers a little bit for it. The characters are well-developed and the plot, while more basic than later ones, proceeds at a good pace, but there is a lack of warmth and everything feels too streamlined.

Still, it’s a great introduction to the series, it sets some things up nicely for the on-going series (whether those set-ups were intentional or not) and for a ten year old boy looking for something more to read, it’s a great gateway novel.

In reading Philosopher’s Stone, I’m reminded that the series did not become a runaway success straight from the beginning, it wasn’t really until the third book was released that it became a hit amongst adults as well as children.

Back to my question then… is Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone a good book? That really depends on who’s answering. The nearly 28 year old me says it’s comfortably on the high end of average, the ten year old me say it’s the best book he’s ever read. And that’s a good thing, because it wasn’t written for me, it was for him.

I’ll finish this review with the way I finished my review eighteen years ago, with my favourite quote from the novel, a quote that comes my favourite scene, one that sets the tone for the remainder of the series.

‘Ah! Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans! I was unfortunate enough in my youth to come across a vomit-flavoured one, and since then I’m afraid I’ve rather lost my liking for them – but I think I’ll be safe with a nice toffee, don’t you?’

He smiled and popped the golden-brown bean into his mouth. Then he choked and said, ‘Alas! Ear wax!’