My daughter is four.

She loves Talking Tom games and You Tube episodes.

I was more invested in the relationship between Tom and Angela on those cartoons than I was in the relationships between Laura and Freddy, or the post-death relationship between Anthony and Therése or between Eunice and Bomber.

It is a nice enough premise: Anthony Peardew is a widower who fills his life and home with lost things which has finds, collects and collates. Buttons, jigsaw puzzle pieces, a hair band, an umbrella.

When he dies, he charges Laura – his housekeeper – with returning them to their rightful owners. In exchange for his house.

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This is one of the most unusual and beautiful books I’ve read for a while.

Hard to define. Difficult to keep track of people. But beautiful and lyrical. Radio 4 do a slot of “slow radio” sometimes and this book reminds me of that. And of my childhood. And of a familiarity with the country and countryside which I fear I’ve lost. Or am losing.

Perhaps it is easier to explain what this book is not. Despite beginning with a thirteen year old girl’s disappearance, the book is not a thriller or a police procedural or a detective novel. The girl – Rebecca or Becky or Bex – is recalled and mentioned throughout the thirteen years of the novel’s scope but never drives the novel.

There is no driving narrative or central character. Except perhaps the village itself.

There are no paragraphs. It is sectioned up and I struggle not to refer to those sections as stanzas.

We skim over the lives of the variety of characters at a distance and we may briefly linger here to overhear a conversation or there to watch a badger sett. But we stay nowhere terribly long. The narrative style is often that of a report rather than a story.

And yet McGregor intertwines and weaves and flows these moments together over thirteen years and I became strangely committed to the characters and to the community. Rohan, James, Lynsey and Sophie; Richard and Cathy; the Jackson boys; Cooper, Su and the twins; even Jones and his sister.

The novel, because of its taut focus on the village reveals the musicality and rhythm of the village – each chapter opens with New Year fireworks, the well-dressing, Mischief Night and the pantomime – and of the natural world of the births and deaths of fixed and badgers and the migration of birds. And those rhythms wove together beautifully as characters worked, lived in, ignored and learned about nature.

McGregor echoes and repeats phrases throughout – with and without variation – and has created an absolute gem of a novel. Maybe not a novel. A prose poem, a prose paean to the community he created.

little-fires-everywhere-by-celeste-ng

Sometimes, you read a short story that leaves you wanting more and makes you wish that the writer had extended it to a novel length.

With this novel, well written and crafted as it is, I wonder whether it could have been reduced to a short story. Or began life as a short story or a vignette and grew from there.

Family drama. Courtroom drama. Coming of Age. The novel explores all of these and they all intersect – bound by the constant exploration of motherhood – and it feels very carefully planned and constructed. And somehow left me wanting more rawness.

The novel opens as Lexie, Trip and Moody Richardson sit on the hood of their car in Shaker Heights, Ohio watching their mother as she watches their house burn down. Ng then tracks back other the months prior to the event in order to introduce a variety of conflicts and characters: the Richardson’s itinerant artist tenant, Mia Warren and her daughter Pearl; Mirabelle McCollough – or May Ling Chow – the Chinese baby adopted by the McCollough family but tracked down and wanted by her birth mother Bebe; Lexie and Pearl growing up and discovering the joys and pleasures and responsibilities of sex. And Izzy, the wayward child of the Richardsons, struggling to find a place to fit into.

The city of Shaker Heights – if it is a city – I don’t profess to know beyond what Wikipedia can tell me, which is that “Shaker Heights is an inner-ring streetcar suburb of Cleveland, abutting the eastern edge of the city’s limits… Shaker Heights was a planned community developed by the Van Sweringen brothers, railroad moguls who envisioned the community as a suburban retreat from the industrial inner city of Cleveland” – seems to me to be the main character of the novel. The intensively planned and ordered city, designed to be harmonious and regulated to match. The home that Mia rents from the Richardsons is a clear symbol of the value of appearance in this world:

Every house on Winslow Road held two families, but outside appeared to hold only one. They had been designed that way on purpose. It allowed residents to avoid the stigma of living in a duplex house—of renting, instead of owning—and allowed the city planners to preserve the appearance of the street, as everyone knew neighborhoods with rentals were less desirable.

Through the novel, Eleni Richardson starts to learn that each identical home, each regulated exterior, held a myriad of narratives and sacrifices and angst and love and loss. Even the regulated exterior of her own safe and secure home.

Ng uses a very omnipotent narrator: she relates – and there is a lot of exposition through the novel – backgrounds and stories for the characters, very carefully placed through the novel, before reminding us the reader that her characters do not and cannot possibly know this. An occasionally hints at a future outside the world of the novel too. I found the technique and the narrative voice somewhat distancing as a result, somehow cool. Perhaps that was deliberate: the character Mia is a photographer and that narrative voice may be a reflection of the distance between photographer and subject because of the camera lens. It may simply be Ng’s style: I’ve not read her first book, Everything I Never Told You.

The arrival in an established setting of a new character sowing – consciously or not – discord is familiar and Mia is drawn with a subtle brush, rarely being followed by the narrative, and was a sympathetic character. One aspect of the novel that could have been explored more – which I was intrigued by – was Pearl’s adoption as another sister by the Richardson children, each for their own reasons; and Izzy – and possibly Lexie – Richardson’s adoption by Mia as a daughter… or, possibly more accurately, their adoption of her as a mother. It was hinted – more than hinted, each characters explicitly said that they felt like that – but not developed and not explored.

What was beautiful was one of the final scenes: a package of photographs left by Mia for each of the Richardsons. Taking one example, Trip – the jock of the family – was left a photograph of a

hockey chest pad, lying in the dirt, cracked through the center, peppered with holes. Mia had used a hammer and a handful of roofing nails, driving each one through the thick white plastic like arrows, then prying it out again. It’s all right to be vulnerable, she had thought as she made each hole. It’s all right to take time and see what grows. She had filled Trip’s chest pad with soil and scattered seeds on it and watered it patiently for a week until from each hole, burgeoning up through the crack, came flashes of green: thin tendrils, little curling leaves worming their way up into the light. Soft fragile life emerging from within the hard shell.

These varied photographs were gorgeous and, it seemed to me, the heart of the novel. Which is why I wondered whether the novel began with just this one germ of an image – a packet of poignant images – and had filled out from there…

Overall, I did admire the novel and I liked parts but it felt too thoughtful and too intellectual and too crafted for me. It touched on issues of race, surrogacy, adoption – and the tug-of-love between the McColloughs and Bebe Chow should have been heart-breaking – but didn’t explore or delve into them.

I like to be dragged into the world of a novel viscerally and this didn’t do that for me.

Broken-Harbour Tana French

Recipe for a Tana French Dublin Murder Squad novel:

Take an atmospheric and intense setting, such as the last remnant of an ancient forest, a secluded mansion or a half completed housing project abutting the sea; insert a handful of characters with intense and golden relationships; raise the pressure and temperature; remove from the oven when those relationships start to rip slowly and tortuously apart; dust with a subtle hint of the supernatural.

This is the fourth of Tana French’s explorations of the fictional Dublin Murder Squad, after In The Woods, The Likeness and Faithful Place. I first read The Secret Place and loved it enough to gorge on the rest of the series which I continued to love – although Faithful Place has been a struggle to get into. This entry, however, I think is the strongest in the series so far.

The setting, the characters, the language here are all pitch-perfect: heightened but utterly convincing; rooted in the economic reality of the recession in Ireland but with a poetic lyricism. The Spain family is found slaughtered in their safe and middle class home in a housing project which was abandoned as the investments ran out surrounded by shells of houses and ghosts of what could have been: their children had been smothered; the father, Pat, knifed to death; the mother, Jenny, barely alive. An experienced detective, Mick “Scorcher” Kennedy – being offered a chance to reclaim past glory following some vaguely hinted at disaster – is paired with a rookie detective to investigate. As usual with French, the relationship between the detectives and the budding trust and respect between Kennedy and Richie Curran – a mentor-mentee relationship growing into a putative partnership – is a beautiful and tender as the victims’ relationships. Kennedy is not immediately likeable saying such things as

“in this job everything matters, down to the way you open your car door. Long before I say Word One to a witness, or a suspect, he needs to know that Mick Kennedy is in the house and that I’ve got this case by the balls. Some of it is luck—I’ve got height, I’ve got a full head of hair and it’s still ninety-nine percent dark brown, I’ve got decent looks if I say so myself, and all those things help—but I’ve put practice and treadmill time into the rest. I kept up my speed till the last second, braked hard, swung myself and my briefcase out of the car in one smooth move and headed for the house at a swift, efficient pace. Richie would learn to keep up.

But a softer side to him emerges, whether it be consoling Curran in the autopsy or keeping his sister, Dina, whose mental state is simultaneously vulnerable and perceptive, safe or in his own deeply tragic personal history. He is a man who presents a mask to the world and may not know himself where the real face lies beneath it.

In terms of the plot, French keeps up a cracking pace: the advantage of the detective fiction form, perhaps. Pat, the dead father, is initially suspected; a stalker is discovered quickly but the case keeps deepening.

French’s prose, in the lips of different protagonists in each novel, is, as always, beautiful, poised between the lyrical and the real. As he enters the house, Kennedy tells us

that was when I felt it: that needle-fine vibration, starting in my temples and moving down the bones into my eardrums. Some detectives feel it in the backs of their necks, some get it in the hair on their arms—I know one poor sap who gets it in the bladder, which can be inconvenient—but all the good ones feel it somewhere. It gets me in the skull bones. Call it what you want—social deviance, psychological disturbance, the animal within, evil if you believe in that: it’s the thing we spend our lives chasing. All the training in the world won’t give you that warning when it comes close.

And when he sees the harbour, where his own personal tragedy is centred, we are told of the

rounded curve of the bay, neat as the C of your hand; the low hills cupping it at each end; the soft gray sand, the marram grass bending away from the clean wind, the little birds scattered along the waterline. And the sea, high today, raising itself up at me green and muscled. The weight of what was in the kitchen with us tilted the world, sent the water rocking upwards like it was going to come crashing through all that bright glass.

And, finally, when looking into the Spains’ attic, an attic guarded with a thick mesh and holding a vicious bear trap, Kennedy says that

For an instant I thought I saw something move—a shifting and coalescing of the black, a deliberate muscled ripple—but when I blinked, there was only darkness and the flood of cold air.

As well as location and atmosphere, which she manages and manipulates with an exquisite Gothic sensibility, French is very good at insanity here. No spoilers, but the Spains, behind their own affluent and successful mask – which marks them out as snobs to their few neighbours – both disappear into different rabbit holes. And they are both wholly credibly described and experienced by the reader.

This is one of the best detective novels I have ever read. Full stop. It is literary and eloquent but never loses its way as a piece of detective fiction. And its conclusion and final revelation – and the ethical dilemmas explored – are enough to warrant tears. Hauntingly, chillingly beautiful.

Okay. Please put Lafferton and Bevham in the list of places I don’t want to visit because of their high body count. Midsomer, Stockholm, Lafferton. 

Poor Lafferton. I think this, the fifth book in Susan Hill’s Simon Serrailer series, has the third serial killer in the Cathedral city since the first book. I don’t think Serrailer needs his high profile SIFT work: Lafferton is awash with killers! I know it’s an easy complaint to make of detective fiction series, but there are other crimes than serial killing!

This time round, we witness an underbelly of Lafferton which we haven’t seen before: prostitution. Sympathetically portrayed local prostitutes Abi Righton and Hayley and Marie with their own dreams and problems. For a series which has felt – to me at least – uncomfortably middle class and complacent, this more inclusive tone was a pleasant change. These girls felt real and authentic, balancing the need to put money on the table with family commitments and health problems and the temptation to escape it in cider or cannabis.

Besides them, Hill juxtaposes the new Cathedral Dean, Stephen Webber and his wife Ruth and the canon residentiary Miles Hurley who had arrived with the Webbers. The politics of their changes to Cathedral hymns and services and committees were cloistered and less engaging … but turned out to be vital.

Beyond these changes, not much has altered in Lafferton since the end of the previous book: Simon Serrailler remains canonised at work but retains an inability to form any meaningful with women – and finally someone does the right thing and thumps him for descending on Taransay and hooking up with someone else’s fiancee. I don’t know why no one’s done it before! – and his relationship with his new  step-mother Judith improves . Almost to the point when I was anticipating them  having an affair! Cat continues to be the saintly caring voice in the novels. 

And prostitutes start disappearing and being found dead.

And then other women start to be preyed on.

It is a series which struggles with gender, thinking back. Brides. Sisters. Mothers. Prostitutes. Victims of Serrailler’s womanising. Women get hit hard by Hill. Even those who survive are haunted.

This novel – with a fresh DS – was perhaps the most successful in the series so far. It is still more of a soap opera than police procedural: it is through no dint of police work that the killer is caught – but Hill does like to play with genre conventions. Pure luck rather than Serrailler’s genius solved the case.

They are very comfortable and familiar now. The reading equivalent of a warm woollen jumper and cup of tea. And there’s nothing wrong with that!

ove

We all know that old bloke on the corner who glowers at us, the one with a face like a bulldog sucking lemons, the one who barks at us for dropping litter or parking in the wrong place. The one who we suspect goes around the house grumbling about the radiators being on.

Hell, I fear I am becoming that man. Becoming Ove.

We first meet Ove as an irascible and archetypally grumpy old man seeking simply to drill a hook into his ceiling when he in interrupted by new neighbours reversing a trailer into his fence and post box. The neighbours, Parvaneh and Patrick and their daughters slowly inveigle their way into Ove’s life bit-by-bit as the novel progresses – interrupted by a series of flashbacks to Ove’s childhood and young adulthood, and his courtship with his wife, Sonja. And there is real tragedy within the story: dead fathers, burned homes, babies lost, cancer.

The trials and tribulations of the neighbourhood in which Ove was a stalwart member and founder of the Residents’ Association, however, was heartwarming and touching. The threat to remove Rune, a neighbour and one-time friend, long-time rival of Ove’s, to a nursing home because of Alzheimer’s, which finally motivates Ove to stand up to the anonymous men in white shirts. Jimmy, the overweight neighbour whose mum Ove and Sonja had helped to stand up to an abusive boyfriend and who styed behind in his mum’s house. Mirsad, struggling to come out as gay to his paprents. And, of course, Parvaneh who manages to be supportive without being a doormat.

I believe the novel started life as a blog and it does have that episodic feel to it, especially in the first half as it bounces between past and present but there is a coherent narrative running through the novel: six months before we meet Ove, his wife had died and he has started methodically and doggedly planning to commit suicide in order to meet her again in Heaven. And this is where the novel jarred a little for me: attempted suicide, interrupted by the mundane demands of life, are not really the stuff of humour and it felt like Backman was playing it for humour. His attempt to hang himself fails because the rope breaks, for example; his attempt to gas himself in the car fails because Patrick fell from a ladder. These section felt off to me. Uncomfortable.

And too easily solved: bleed a radiator here, adopt a cat there, all your suicidal ideations will be fixed. Offer a neighbour a box of saffron rice to save their lives. Pretend your kids are allergic to cats – cats who bizarrely trot happily around the neighbourhood and pop into cars and restaurants with their new owners, despite an apparent feral and stray life previously – and all will be well. Foist a gay teenager onto them and they will thrive!

The writing style does take a while to get used to – and listening to it as an audiobook may not have helped – as it is very much from Ove’s point-of-view and replete with his dismissive and judgmental observations. But it is convincing and well put together and the conclusion – whilst inevitable – did bring a tear to the eye and a lump to my throat on a drive to work. So Backman was obviously doing something right!

The book that seems to be most often linked to this one on Amazon, Audible and Goodreads is Eleanor Oliphant is Perfectly Fine by Gail Honeyman: two unconventional protagonists, both misunderstood, both dealing with a tragic and secret backstory. This is a shame because, whilst A Man Called Ove is an effective and moving and, yes, heartwarming read despite my discomfort in places, Eleanor Oliphant is, in my opinion, by far the superior book: more honest, more painful, more authentic and convincing.

But this is a strange book, a difficult book. And probably a book that will stay with me for some time.

origin

Oh dear. Oh, poor Dan Brown. Poor, incredibly rich and famous Dan Brown.

It seems that you have become a parody of yourself. But, as an aspiring writer, I thank you. I can look at my writing and yours and think…. “If Dan Brown can get that published, I must have a decent chance!”

Let’s be frank and open upfront: I read and enjoyed this as a half-term read. In the same way that I might enjoy a MacDonalds. Neither are good for me but they give a childish comfort. And I have read all of Dan Brown’s previous work: his earlier novels were fresher and more lively than this one perhaps. I wonder whether Brown’s success has gone to his head, or whether he is struggling to live up to the pressure created by The Da Vinci Code. Either way, his more recent books have become downright silly in places.

The Brown formula is in full force once again: exotic and foreign location, check; a murder of a friend, check; a beautiful woman accompanying Robert Langdon through various locations, check; a suspiciously helpful ally, check; twist at the end which anyone with half a brain cell would have anticipated 25 pages in, check; references to art, check; self-aggrandisement of Langdon, check; a series of fatuous ‘clues’, check.

The basic scenario is that Langdon’s erstwhile pupil and friend, Edmund Kirsch, has uncovered a scientific breakthrough which will undermine all religions and just as he is about to reveal it in the Guggenheim Museum, he is assassinated. Langdon helps the authorities by fleeing with Ambra Vidal, the museum’s director and fiancée to the Prince of Spain. Dodgy churches, suspicious machinations, looming royal security.

And – oh god! – the dialogue. It is just awfully written! Allow me to drop in a small sample here:langdon

Let it go.

Oh God.

At least there is one moment of genius here: Dan Brown must have been told that dialogue is not his main strength, that his characters sound robotic and unconvincing, so in this novel one of the main ‘characters’ is Winston, an Artificial Intelligence who guides and assists Langdon and who is robotic and… well… unconvincing. Have you seen 2001, A Space Odyssey, or The Terminator or I, Robot? Trust me, so has Dan Brown. Not convinced he’s read Asimov et al, but he has seen those films.

And what is it with his obsession with numbers? Never has my understanding or appreciation of a book been assisted by knowing exactly which model of gun, car or plane I’m looking at, nor it’s engine horsepower statistics, nor the precise measurements of a room. Seriously, “vast”, “cavernous”, “cosy” or “cramped” would do! There are almost more numbers in this books than words. Writers are told repeatedly, “Show don’t tell.” Brown never shows and tells oh so badly! Delay information to create suspense, that’s another piece of advice I give students… and Brown does that, but does it so clumsily it’s almost painful to read!

And the biggest problem with the novel? The eventual “reveal” of the discovery which will destroy all religion and which we, as readers, are meant to believe would prompt religious leaders to arrange the assassination is just so weak!

The plus points: mindlessly entertaining if you overlook the writing; better than Inferno, the fallout of which is not even mentioned even though Langdon’s other previous adventures are referenced.

And the true tragedy? Tom Hanks may be contractually bound to present this on screen.

There’s nothing new or original in this novel. Touches of Doctor Who, Perhaps. Touches of The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Nighttime. Touches, indeed, of Eleanor Oliphant Is Perfectly Fine.

An outsider struggles to fit into humam society and ultimately fights to understand what it is to be human. Wrap that up with some science fiction and a very much secondary plot and you get The Humans. 

Here, our outsider is an alien. A Vonnadorian. A Vonnadorian sent to Earth to prevent Professor Andrew Martin from disseminating a solution to the Reimann Hypothesis. I’m no mathematician but this seems to be a real world hypothesis broadly connected to the patterns behind the distribution of prime numbers. Apparently, prime numbers are so critical that this one piece of information would secure the next stage in human civilisation. Well. Okay. I’ll buy that as a premise. 

And the civilised, rational and immortal Vonnadorian hosts had decreed that humans were too violent, venal and vapid for that sort of advancement. Too contradictory. Too emotional.

So they murdered Andrew Martin and put our narrator into his life in order to destroy his solution and anyone else he may have informed, including his colleagues, co-workers, his mum, his wife and child.

It comes as no surprise that the mission gets derailed when the narrator develops attachments, discovers his own emotions, allows himself to fall in love with Professor Martin’s wife. Spock balanced by  Kirk; Data by Riker. 

Nothing new but thoroughly enjoyable and amusing in places.

Mental health is a difficult topic to write about. A dangerous topic. It would be very easy for it to trivialise – or even worse, to glamourise – mental illness or trauma. 

And there were times here where is was a little concerned that the novel may be going down that route – the love of a good man, a makeover and a haircut will cure mental illness – but it managed to avoid it, skewing off at the last moment. It is also a book full of humour and comedy which it balances with the trauma beautifully. So that, overall, this was a delightfully tender and uplifting novel. For example, when describing an incident from her limited social life, she recalls a party which 

had merely been a pretext, a ruse of sorts to provide her with the opportunity to attempt to sell us sex toys. It was a most unefifying spectacle: seventeen drunken women comparing the efficacy of a range of alarmingly large vibrators….

I’m familiar with the concept of bacchanalia and Dionysan revels, of course, but… sexual union between lovers should be a sacred, private thing. It should not be a topic for discussion with strangers over a display of edible underwear.

And, on her own sense of loneliness, Eleanor remarks that

Apart from Social Work and the utility companies, sometimes a representative from one church or another will call around to ask if I’ve welcomes Jesus into my life. They don’t tend to enjoy debating the concept of proselytizing, I’ve found, which is disappointing.

Eleanor Oliphant, our eponymous narrator, has been at the same job and followed the same routine, living in the same house, for nearly a decade. We quickly recognise touches of OCD and perhaps ASD in her behaviour, her routines, her wide vocabulary deployed without regard for context. Touches, perhaps of The Rosie Project. Before many pages, however, we realise that Eleanor is scarred both physically and emotionally and her background containing more trauma than any character deserves.

We pick her story up as two incidents affect her life: she develops a crush on a singer in a local band; secondly, a colleague, Raymond, drags her across the road to tend to a pensioner who has fallen over.  Sammy’s accident and Raymond’s quiet and patient insistence – or insistent patience? – disrupt the regime and introduce Eleanor to an increasingly widening circle of acquaintances.

As well as providing her with a range of opportunities to describe her backstory to other characters and, therefore, to us the reader.

The involvement in Sammy’s family was the least convincing part of the story for me: I’ve called ambulances for people in the past And never gone on to visit them or attend their or their family’s parties. Perhaps that says more about me and social adequacy than anything else! But it provides the narrative momentum.

Eleanor herself is immensely engaging without ever being terribly likeable, the reader empathises with her without really liking her for the main part. She is a difficult woman, a difficult character, but a deeply damaged one for whom the reader roots throughout. 

And the issue of mental health wasn’t trivialised and no quick fixes were offered: the revelations when they came generally formed part of a journey towards recovery and no simple answer was offered. Not even the truth. Perhaps especially not the truth.

This was not my usual reading fare but i did thoroughly enjoy it and – more – was moved deeply by it. 

A great read.

If you enjoyed the following, you may enjoy this:

 

Railhead-Philip-Reeve

This is a delightfully fun and engaging tale with all the confidence you’d expect of Phillip Reeve, returning to the steampunk genre, if in a very different world, of Mortal Engines.

Here, rather than walking cities, we have sentient trains and K-gates – wormholes or portals, taking trains and their passengers instantly to different worlds and different planets – androids who may or may not be sentient, AIs who may or may not be divine, street urchins and renegade consciousnesses and hive monks. It is a richly imagined and realised world, only a brief fragment of which we see but with enough detail and verve to make the rest imaginable. A word which exists but which ever impedes the cracking pace Reeve creates.

The story follows Zen Starling, the aforementioned street urchin, fulfilling every child’s fantasy role: a meagre existence, relying on his hard working sister and occasional thefts, is transformed when he meets Nova and her employer Raven who reveal that he is actually a lost scion of the ruling Noon family and employ him to infiltrate their train to steal a valuable item. As is not-unexpected, an item whose value is more than financial: a powerful and dangerous artefact within the world created by Reeve.

On the surface, this is a fairly traditional heist tale: various exploits by Zen and Nova lead to them infiltrating the train and they steal the artefact; when abandoned by Raven and learning more about it, they cobble together a revenge heist to steal it back.

There is however, a real humanity in this book and sympathy, albeit generally directed at the non-human characters: the beautiful and  tender trains bearing tags and art with pride and the motoriks, robots and droids with ore soul than R2-D2 or C3PO. And Phillip Reeve is not scared to give the reader shocks: the fate of the sentient trains destroyed (killed?) in the heist and the fate of Nova and, even more so, the tagger Flex were genuinely shocking and moving in a young adult book. 

Reeves gives a nod to a number of classic and popular examples of the science fiction genre from  Blade Runner to Dune to Stargate with touches of Arthur C. Clarke. 

I hear rumours that this is the first of a trilogy and I hope that’s true because it’s a thoroughly enjoyable and thrilling ride