Thursday, August 08, 2019

The Christmas Train

The Christmas TrainThe Christmas Train
  - David Baldacci

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I picked up one of the RD condensed books at the a used-book sale last year. I didn't own any, they are beautiful books, and I think their editors manage to do a decent job. That was how I had first read 'Guernsey Literary Society', well before I joined an online reading group, and before it became such a rage there - I loved it well enough to buy the original book, and loved it too.

One of the novels in this edition was 'The Christmas Train' by David Baldacci. I have never read any of his works, though I wanted to, since he has been recommended to me as a new age thriller writer.
I understand that a condensed version cannot capture fully the essence of the original; even so, I didn't like this book too much. (That is the reason I mentioned earlier that I have thoroughly enjoyed some works in these editions). First of all, I expected it to be a thriller, perhaps something like 'The Oriental Express', but it turned out to be more of the cheesy romcoms HBO and other channels air around the year-end holidays. And of course, nearly all of the characters were terribly stereotyped. Bypassing that, one major flaw in the story line was that the character of Eleanor, the female protagonist, did not make any sense. The book ended with an entertaining twist, but that also left quite a few bewildered questions.

The biggest issue I had with this book was with Eleanor. She was a war zone journalist, with the ability and passion for the work. While I can understand that the stress can reach a breaking point, it didn't sit well with the character that she just wanted to get married, live in a mansion complete with a picket fence, and have a husband with a 9-to-5 job! And she, who claimed to have taught Langdon all about skiing, cannot make it to the resort on her own - because I suppose the author had to have this damsel-in-distress-rescued-by-the-knight angle to make it a cheesy holiday fare. That is something I have come to detest - authors would start writing a spirited, inspiring female character, and then will develop cold feet and reduce her to a delicate creature that needs to be saved by the hero.

The other stereotypes (and the whole cast is full of them actually) notably include Tom Langdon (the broken hero, who is too dense to understand or respect the women in his life), Max (the rich producer with a heart of gold), Agnes (elderly black lady who is like a 24-carat diamond), and so on. Once you accept the book as the quintessential holiday romance, the cliches don't seem so bad, but I still had trouble believing that Lelia would give up on whatever love she had for Tom, only because Max asked her for a favor.


The Sunday Philosophy Club

The Sunday Philosophy ClubThe Sunday Philosophy Club
  - Alexander McCall Smith

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I have read few books from Alexander McCall Smith's "The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency" series. I loved the first two, but after that it was kind of roller coaster due to numerous repetitions and extremely simplistic mysteries, but astute observations and heart-warming outlook. I found about the Isabel Dalhousie series on goodreads, and happened to read the first chapter in one of the Ladies Detective Agency books, which seemed to be a good opening for a murder mystery. So I hoped that it will be engaging, or at least entertaining.

The book starts with the death of a young man after a fall from the upper sections of a theater, where Isabel was also present, watching the performance. Against the advice of her friends and family, who recommend her not to get involved, she is determined to get to the truth of the matter. The mystery part of it is much more interesting compared to the Detective Agency series - there is actually a decent mystery, complete with shady characters, even though I had suspected who the murderer may be quite early on (even if the characters in the book may not be sure, the readers know that it was indeed a murder - why else would the book exist :D). There were a couple of surprising turns in the story, which is the point of any interest it could generate.

Isabel is an editor of a philosophy magazine, and the member of a philosophy club of the title (though it never meets through out the book), so the book has quite a lot of philosophical thoughts attributed to Isabel, and excerpts of essays submitted for the journal. I found them interesting initially, but as they kept on getting lengthier and more abstract; it became boring and I kept skipping these more and more as the book progressed.

I couldn't connect to any of the characters, and if you can't like the protagonist in this kind of a book, there isn't much of a joy left in reading the book. If I look at the other series, Mma Ramotswe is a little flawed, but endearing lady with lots of wisdom and compassion, and a purpose in life. In contrast, Isabel comes across as a rich, somewhat shallow person just meandering through. She is considerably wealthy, and her job as an editor of an obscure journal is little more than a way of occupying her idle time. She is stated as being 42 years old, but I found her to be much more juvenile, in her responses and actions. Her niece Cat shows somewhat more initiative by using her money to follow her passion and open a bakery (which I presume isn't doing bad), but doesn't show much common sense. Jamie is a likeable friend, but unremarkable for his role in the story.

The book had a few dead-ends, which if developed, could have introduced some tension to add an interest in the narrative. Eg, the inspector at the initial scene of death/murder, the nasty journalist, the rich and presumably unprincipled banker (Minty).

I may not exactly be a fan of the Ladies Detective Agency, but I may still read some of that series here and there, because I find it enriching in some way - it is set in cultural environment I haven't read much about, and demonstrates the charming and selfless ways of common people. But I wouldn't read more of Isabel - the privileged lives of English elite is nothing new to read about, the characters were insipid, the philosophical ramblings were annoying and the mystery wasn't exceptional to make it worthwhile to bear the rest.