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BOOK REVIEW: On The Blue Train by Kristel Thornell

Sunday, March 12, 2017



BLURB:

What really did happen to Agatha Christie during her mysterious eleven-day disappearance just as she was on the cusp of fame? An entrancing novel of creativity and grief.

Yes, she said, finally. Breaks are important. There are times when it's wiser to get away. From it all.

It was the work of a moment, on 4 December 1926, Agatha Christie of London became Teresa Neele, resident of the spa hotel, the Harrogate Hydro. With her wedding ring left behind her, and her minimal belongings unpacked, Agatha's lost days begin.

Lying to her fellow guests about the death of a husband and child, Teresa settles in to the anonymity she so fiercely desires. Until, Harry McKenna, bruised from the end of his own marriage, asks her to dance.


MY THOUGHTS:

This novel by Kristel Thornell, who won the Vogel award with her first book, was inspired by the true-life story of how Agatha Christie disappeared for eleven days in 1926. Her car was found at the edge of a quarry, its hood up and lights on. Inside the police found her fur coat, her old driver’s license, and a bag of clothes. There was no sign of Agatha Christie herself. Murder was suspected, and thousands of police and volunteers combed the countryside, looking for her body. Eventually she was found staying at the Swan Hydropathic Hotel in Harrogate, booked in under the same surname as her husband’s mistress. 

I’ve long been interested in this story myself and have on my bookshelf an earlier novel inspired by the same incident entitled Agatha: A Novel of Mystery, by Kathleen Tynan, which I read years ago. I also have nearly every book Agatha Christie ever wrote, including her autobiography (in which there is no mention of her Harrogate adventure.) 

So I was really looking forward to On the Blue Train

My feelings on finishing the book are mixed. I think I was hoping for a book that brought Agatha to life, giving insights into her character and her creative processes, as well as illuminating the impulse which led her to run away from her life. Agatha Christie’s books are clever, witty, and very carefully constructed, and I had always imagined her as being acerbically funny and acutely observant. I was also, of course, interested in the relationship between her and her husband, who was at the time suspected of being her murderer. Was that her intention? Was she punishing him?

The heroine of Kristin Thornell’s book is something quite different. Clearly unhappy, she drifts around, buying herself new clothes and eating rather a lot of cake. She falls into company with another drifter, a man named Harry, and they remember past failed love affairs and contemplate the possibility of running away together. The pace of the book is slow and dreamy with little sense of tension or drama; and the heroine seems quiet, timid, and indecisive, which is not how I imagine her at all. 

On reflection, I probably would have liked On the Blue Train better if I was not so familiar with Agatha Christie’s own voice. Compare this:

I like living. I have sometimes been wildly, despairingly, acutely miserable, racked with sorrow, but through it all I still know quite certainly that just to be alive is a grand thing.

(Agatha’s own words) 

She sat and then stretched out, her head by the base of a tree, the coat like a silky languorous animal she was entwined with. She was also entwined with the possibility of death. 

That nacreous eye, watching over her. If she chose to, she could stare into it again, drift towards the magnet of a watery end. The end would come about by her own hand. In her own hand she would write a carnal full stop. 


(Kristel Thornell writing from Agatha’s point-of-view in On The Blue Train, page 295)


The two voices are so very different. I cannot imagine Agatha Christie describing a moonlit pool as a ‘nacreous eye’, or – a little earlier on the same page – ‘on a dim arboreal path she was taken by an imperious desire to lie down.’ 

So, as an act of ventriloquism, On The Blue Train does not succeed for me. 

It is, nonetheless, a slow, melancholy, and beautiful meditation on failed love. 

SPOTLIGHT: My Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2016

Saturday, January 07, 2017

1.1


    Every year I take part in the Australian Women Writers Challenge, in which readers all around the world do their best to read as many books written by Aussie women as possible. Last year I read only 10 books  by Australian women, and so I was determined to do better this year. I'm really rather proud of myself because I managed 28 books in total, and enjoyed them all.


     Here is my list (in the order in which I read them). Most of them have longer reviews that you can read by clicking on the title.


    I hope you are inspired to try the challenge for yourself in 2017. You can sign up here



1. 1. Wild Wood – Posie Graeme-Evans

WILD WOOD is a dual timeline narrative that moves between the Scottish Borderlands in the 14th century and an unhappy young woman in the 1980s who finds herself compelled to draw the same Scottish castle over and over again 


2.  Summer Harvest – Georgina Penney

A funny, romantic story with lots of heart, set in the Margaret River wine region and featuring engaging characters and light-hearted encounters. 



3. The Wife’s Tale  - Christine Wells 
The Wife’s Tale is a dual timeline novel that alternates between the point-of-view of Liz Jones, a young Australian lawyer whose ambition and drive to succeed have put her marriage at risk, and Delany Nash, who was at the centre of an infamous scandal in the 1780s.  




4. Tower of Thorns – Juliet Marillier 
Juliet Marillier’s books are an enchanting mix of romance, mystery and historical fantasy. Tower of Thorns is the second in her new series ‘Blackthorn & Grim’ which tells the story of the damaged and disillusioned healer Blackthorn and her faithful companion Grim. 




5. Our Tiny, Useless Hearts – Toni Jordan
The fourth novel by award-winning Australian author, Toni Jordan, Our Tiny, Useless Hearts is a clever, funny, wise-cracking novel about love, infidelity and divorce. 




6. Nest – Inga Simpson
Inga Simpson is an Australian writer and Nest is a rhapsody about the importance of being at one with the natural world.. 




7. Daughter of the Forest – Juliet Marillier
This is one of my all-time favourite books, that I like to re-read every few years. A retelling of the ‘Six Swans’ fairy-tale, set in ancient Ireland, it is a beautiful story of courage, love, peril and wonder set in a world where magic is only ever a hairsbreadth away from us all. 



8. The Lost Sapphire – Belinda Murrell
I always love a new timeslip adventure from my brilliant sister, Belinda. In The Lost Sapphire, a teenage girl Marli is reluctantly sent to stay with her father in Melbourne. Things began to get more interesting, though, when she discovers an abandoned house with a mysterious past, and makes a new friend, a boy with his own connection to the house. 





9. Hexenhaus – Nikki McWatters
Hexenhaus is a gripping story of three different young women at different times of history who all find themselves persecuted in some way for witchcraft. 




10. Enemy: A Daughter’s Story – Ruth Clare
A memoir of growing up in Australia with a brutal and domineering father who had been damaged by his experiences in the Vietnam war. 



11. The Good People – Hannah Kent
Dark, poetic, and intense, The Good People is a fascinating and atmospheric tale of the ancient fairy lore of Ireland and how it shaped the people who believed it. One of my best reads of 2016.



12. The Summer Bride – Anne Gracie
The last book in Anne Gracie’s delightful Regency romance quartet, ‘The Chance Sisters’. 



13. The Ties That Bind – Lexi Landsman
An engaging and heart-warming read that moves between the story of a modern-day woman’s desperate search for a bone marrow donor for her son, and the hidden secrets of the past.



14. Den of Wolves – Juliet Marillier
The final book in Juliet Marillier’s latest magical historical trilogy, Den of Wolves wraps up the story of Blackthorn and Grim beautifully. A wonderful mix of history, romance, and fairy-tale-like enchantment. 



15. Where the Trees Were – Inga Simpson
A beautiful meditation on the Australian landscape and the Aboriginal connection to it, Where the Trees Were is a must-read for anyone who has ever swung on a tyre over a slow-moving brown river or lain on the ground looking up at a scorching blue sky through the shifting leaves of a gum tree. 



16. On the Blue Train – Kristel Thornell
This novel was inspired by the true-life story of how Agatha Christie disappeared for eleven days in 1926. A slow, melancholy, and beautiful meditation on failed love. 




17. The Dry – Jane Harper
Set in a small Australian country town, The Dry is a tense, compelling and atmospheric murder mystery, as well as an astonishingly assured debut from English-born novelist Jane Harper. 



18. Castle of Dreams – Elise McCune
A gorgeous cover and intriguing title drew me to Castle of Dreams by Elise McCune, described as an ‘enthralling novel of love, betrayals, loss and family secrets.’  



19. The Family with Two Front Doors – Anna Ciddor
Inspired by the real-life stories of Anna Ciddor’s grandmother, The Family with Two Doors is a charming and poignant account of the life of a family of Jewish children in 1920s Poland. 



20. Beyond the Orchard – Anna Romer 
A story that moves between the past and the present, with intrigue, passion, betrayal and the metafictive use of a dark fairy-tale – it’ll be no surprise to anyone that I loved Beyond the Orchard, the first novel of Anna Romer’s that I have read. 



21. The Locksmith’s Daughter – Karen Brooks
An absolutely gripping page-turner of a novel set in Elizabethan times. 




22. The Waiting Room – Leah Kaminsky
Set in modern-day Israel, The Waiting Room tells the story of a single day in the life of a female Jewish doctor who is haunted by her parents’ tragic past. 



23. Rose’s Vintage – Kayte Nunn
A warm-hearted and very readable contemporary romance set in an Australian vineyard, Rose’s Vintage throws failed-British chef-turned-au-pair Rose into the midst of a range of lovable, eccentric characters including two adorable children and their brooding, difficult but gorgeous father. 




24. The Anchoress – Robyn Cadwaller
Set in England in 1255, the story begins with 17-year old Sarah being enclosed within her cell. Her door is literally nailed shut. Yet the world is not so easy to lock away. Sarah sees and hears glimpses of the life of the village, and is threatened by desire, grief, doubt and fear just as much as any other woman. 



25. Kumiko and the Dragon – Briony Stewart
26. Kumiko and the Dragon’s Secret – Briony Stewart
27. Kumiko and the Shadow-catchers – Briony Stewart
A trilogy of charming fantasy books for very young readers, inspired by the tales that Briony Stewart’s Japanese grandmother used to tell her. 



28. Victoria the Queen – Julia Baird
Described as ‘An intimate biography of the woman who ruled an empire,’ Victoria the Queen busts open many of the myths about both the woman and the era. 


Want more? Read my list of Books by Australian Women Writers in 2016 


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