The Girl Before by J.P. Delaney

There’s been a real trend in books featuring “girl” in the title, from Gone Girl to the Girl on the Train and a few more besides. I don’t know why I picked up this one because I find the diminutive “girl” problematic rather than recuperative when discussing women. Nonetheless, I think the premise (and rave reviews) fascinated me – the idea of someone having died in a house you move into and the sense of being haunted by that… I was, however, worried that perhaps this was just a “jump on the ‘girl’ bandwagon book” and I would have read it or better before.

Yet, The Girl Before by J.P. Delaney manages to be so much more than simply “on trend” and, when the reveal at the end occurs, the title resonates in ways I didn’t expect. Despite criticisms that it doesn’t stack up to some of its predecessors, I think where it really succeeds is in the structure – where we have two primary narrative voices, both female, who are described simply as “Emma/Then” and “Jane/Now”. The interweaving of immediate past and present as the two women’s lives come together through the minimalist structure of One Folgate Street – the house both Emma and Jane live in, albeit at different times – is very well executed. Designed by an award-winning and quite mysterious architect, Edward, who suffers his own burdens, the house strikes different people in different ways – as does the man. From the opening pages, the house is as much a character as the people who dwell within its controlled, “perfect” white walls.

Living in One Folgate Street comes at a price: for reduced rent, the tenants have to be prepared to follow a strict set of rules (200) which also involves an interview, answering a series of questions periodically (and some of these questions appear as epigraphs to chapters), and basically being prepared to shed whatever baggage physical – and, it turns out – emotional, they may carry.

Both Emma and Jane have baggage they want to shed and One Folgate Street, a house that responds sensitively – through technology –  to its residents, seems the perfect setting for doing so.

But when Jane (now) discovers Emma died in mysterious circumstances in the house, and that other parts of their lives have certain parallels, including a physical resemblance to each other and the architect’s wife, Jane begins a quest to uncover the truth of Emma’s death, the architect’s past and One Folgate Street itself.

Fast-paced and very well written, I found the first three-quarters of the book almost unputdownable. Unlike some people who found the lengthy questionnaire in order to qualify as a renter and mystique around the architect a bit too much to stomach, I found the explanations for his behaviour and various decisions worked within the world being created.

Clean though the house is, and burdened by rules, it’s keeping dirty secrets and a dark, oppressive and quite claustrophobic mood is created that the women seem unable to sense. I thought Delaney evoked this very well and this makes you, as reader, worry for their security.

However, the last quarter of the book sort of unravelled. What had seemed like logical progressions and character behaviour/development in the realm of the story, suddenly didn’t gel and some of the explanations (there’s a great deal of exposition at the end) were a bit too pat and even clichéd. I finished the book a wee bit disappointed after such a promising and thrilling beginning and middle. The book went, for me, from being quite unique to being almost ordinary. What elevates it above that is the writing. It is as clear and as uncluttered as the house and sparkles from the page.

So, overall, I give it 3.5 to four stars. What started with a bang, ended with a whimper, albeit, a lyrical one.

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The Physician, by Noah Gordon

The Physician, by Noah Gordon, was recommended to me by a lovely book shop owner in Launceston when I was there one day doing a book-signing. Without telling me too much about the tale, the owner pressed the very thick book into my hands and said, “I think you will love this.” I always feel a shiver of trepidation come over me when someone I like or even whose reading tastes I share says this to me.  More than anything, I want to like, no, love the books that are recommended with such passion and I fear that if I don’t, I am somehow letting them down.

The good news is with The Physician, I did indeed love this book – so much so, I felt bereft when it ended.

Set mostly during the 10th Century, this is the story of a young Englishman, Robert J Cole who, from a very young age, learns he possesses a gift – the gift, basically, of sensing a person’s life force. The reader follows his life from the discovery of this gift around the age of nine to middle age; from the tragedy of his beginnings to the triumphs of his later years. Rob J has a varied and amazing life and how and why he becomes a physician and the journey he takes to train is, quite simply, sensational. We’re taken around England and given insight into the peripatetic life of a Barber-Surgeon (to whom Rob J apprentices himself), to France, across Europe and to war-riven Turkey and then Persia and its amazing culture and religious Otherness. Determined to train under the man he’s been told is the best physician in the world, Rob J makes incredible sacrifices: physical, emotional and, above all, spiritual. But in making these he gains more than his heart and mind’s desire.

The pace is wonderful, the characters so well drawn you feel emotionally attached to them in ways that are sometimes painful but always deep and meaningful. The settings are magnificently and realistically drawn and the different cuisines, the food and drink are mouth-wateringly described. I adored this book – the detail, the humanness of it and the way the macroscosm of the worlds and religions Rob J encounters are also microcosms of the everyday – of the humanity (or lack thereof) in us all.

Shaman is the sequel and I will read that with joy – only, for now, I want to savour the affects of this magnificent book – rightly hailed as a triumph. I cannot recommend it highly enough, so much so, I dare to say, read it, “I think you will love this…”

 

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The Romance Reader’s Guide to Life by Sharon Pywell

The Romance Reader’s Guide to Life by Sharon Pywell was such an unexpected delight. Provided to me by NetGalley and the publishers (both of whom I thank for the opportunity to read and review), I confess the rather unusual and slightly formal title didn’t prepare me for the marvellous and very different content.

The novel is essentially two books in one, both of which are framed by the conventions of the world’s most popular genre: romance. The main narrative centres around two sisters: Lilly and Neave Terhune, and it’s primarily their voices that tell their utterly compelling story of growing up and entering the adult world pre and post World War II in small town America. The second narrative, which interweaves Lilly and Neave’s story, is called The Pirate Lover and it uses the usual romance conventions of the stricken heroine, wealthy, dashing and dastardly hero and a terrible villain to tell its tale of love, loss, and triumph over evil.

30319080While The Pirate Lover is a rollicking romance in the grandest sense, played out in Parisian salons and the high seas, what occurs between the characters is echoed meaningfully and with chilling consequences in the sisters’ story. Both narratives also deal with the social expectations of women; how marriage is regarded as an inevitable outcome that should socially elevate them. Independence of thought action and through being financially independent is an outrageous prospect for women yet it’s precisely this that nevertheless, Lilly and Neave embrace. In this regard, both stories, but particularly, Lilly’s and Neave’s, portray a particular slice of cultural history – including, through their brother Synder, pop culture history (and I love the way Pywell plays with the devaluation of that; how it’s discredited as meaningless froth by most) – in really evocative and accurate ways.

Lilly could not be more different to her more forthright and yet romantic sister, Neave. When Neave is still quite young, she is hired by a wealthy woman to read to her daily, and it’s the relationship between the woman and Neave and the stories and books they share (and those they don’t – Neave steals a romance novel), that provide Neave with not only imaginative foundations, but emotional ones as well – which, for better or worse, will guide her throughout life.

In the meantime, Lilly embraces life, refusing to think too deeply about people’s motives or lack thereof or enter into arguments. Lilly is there for the moment; understanding and reflection can, if it does, come later… if not too late.

Establishing a successful business together, proving that women aren’t just ornaments or objects of men’s desires, Neave and Lilly, with their bond that transcends life, use their knowledge and business acumen to empower other women towards autonomy and freedom: social, economic, romantic and sexual.

But it’s the very same ability to forge careers and be single-minded and pragmatic, that also drives them towards men who don’t have their best interests at heart. When Lilly disappears, Neave’s world – real and imagined – collide in ways she never could have foreseen. Deadly danger stalks her and the family she loves and, unless she is able to utilise the help she’s being offered from beyond, then she, and the business she and Lilly worked so hard to build, is doomed.

While the novel draws on romance conventions, it also deconstructs and plays with them, weaving elements of magical realism, fantasy, history, crime and other genres into the tale. The writing is lyrical and lovely and, even if you think you don’t “like” romance” (all books are at heart, romance, even if it’s with the reader), the parallel stories – one very literary, the other more clichéd, draw you in and have you turning the pages.

My one slight issue is I felt the last quarter of the book took the magic realism element a tad too far. While I was happy to go along for the afterlife ride, it reaches a point where it’s difficult to suspend disbelief. Without spoiling the tale, there were elements to certain characters and the focus they were given at the end, which detracted slightly from what should have been their primary purpose – a purpose we’d been led to believe was the reason they still existed (albeit on another plane) in the first place. It strained even the credibility required to accept what was happening (which had been easy up until then).

Nevertheless, this is a tiny gripe about such an original, beautifully written and lovely story with lead characters to whom you lose your heart. Recommended for readers of romance, history, and damn fine books.

 

 

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Ragdoll by Daniel Cole

513u4CwDsoLSent a copy of Daniel Coles’ Ragdoll by the publishers through NetGalley (thank you to both), I was excited to read a new crime book by a debut author. While the premise of the book was quite daunting and ugly (six dismembered bodies sewn together to form one Frankenstein’s monster), I was keen to see how Cole developed the professional and personal relationships of his leads, as well as resolved the hideous crime, in the first book in a series.

After reading a really charming foreword where readers learn Cole thought to write a screenplay after watching the character of Jack Bauer in the TV series 24 and, having his efforts rebuffed, wrote this novel, it’s easy to see the influence of what was, at the time, cutting edge television.

The main character in Ragdoll is Detective William (Wolf) Fawkes – his entire name forming the neat and symbolic anagram. Having disgraced himself and his profession in an earlier case, and served time, Fawkes is assigned to track down the ragdoll killer along with his former partner, the edgy Emily Baxter.

Complicated, irascible and capable, Wolf is a loner in every sense. Divorced from his wife, the anchor of a tabloid news show that is stalking the Ragdoll investigation’s every move and impeding it, he’s also loyal and believes himself smarter than everyone in the room. This is fair enough, as he mostly is – he’s also attractive to all the women, including his professional partner and ex and even a suspect in the crime. But for someone so smart, he really ends up doing some very silly things. This, frankly, annoyed me.

Well-written, paced and mostly plotted, I loved the first three-quarters of the book. But, for me, the last quarter lost a bit of credibility – and it was Wolf’s character that caused this. I was happily taken for the ride he started, enjoying the repartee between characters, pop culture references, the way tabloid TV and it’s unethical practises and cut-throat manner were exposed, and even the reminders of Wolf’s masculine superiority and inability to put himself first (unlike, apparently, his ex-wife – though she is redeemed – sort of) gelled. But, in the end, I found my credibility stretched to breaking point, even within the world Cole has created. While Jack Bauer got away with a great deal, it was partly because his organisation operated outside the law. Wolf tries to and while that’s fine, it’s how and why he does and what he gets away with (he is only a detective after all) which most often happens because others are prepared to risk their jobs and reputations for him or, worse, are conveniently blind to what’s going on, and the consequences of this that left me a bit disappointed.

Having said that, I do think this is a really good read, with some terrific writing that throws some interesting characters in the mix. And, though I was a tad disappointed with the outcome, I am looking forward to another instalment of the man called Wolf and his pack.

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The Scandalous Life of Sasha Torte by Lesley Truffle

31306285The Scandalous Life of Sasha Torte is the fantastically titled second novel by Melbourne-based writer, Lesley Truffle and I have to say, it is unlike any book I have ever read. Part historical fiction, part-fantastical and whimsical romp, part crime mystery, cooking extravaganza and cautionary fable, it’s also a picaresque novel that tells the tale of the irrepressible Sasha Torte, flame-haired daughter of a murderess and heiress to a bad reputation and melancholy, who becomes not only a world-famous pastry-chef in, of all places, the wilds of Tasmania in the early 1900s, but courts men, drugs and danger with abandon.

Told with Truffle’s wonderful flair, at first I wasn’t sure what to make of a book that opens with the heroine in a luxuriously appointed prison accused of murder. Deciding to pen her memoirs, Sasha then takes the reader back through her childhood, revealing how she grew up in a brutal and unconventional family surrounded by dedicated servants and a doting grandfather. As she matures, she learns to deal with nepotism, bullying, the cruelty of strangers and their kindness in equal measure. When her Aunt Lily enters her life, she finds a soul-mate and confidant to whom she can also aspire.

Launched into the society that wants to reject her, but finds they’re unable to resist her, the beautiful Sasha appears set to conquer not only men, but the globe.

But in earning devotion, Sasha also attracts enmity, even from those who purport to love her and it’s when the handsome Dasher brothers enter her sphere that trouble for Sasha and those she cares about looms large and deadly.

Featuring wilful, sassy and smart women, dedicated and dastardly men, horses, dogs, a psychic goldfish (no, I’m not kidding) ghosts, gangs, and, of course, amazing confectionary and pastries, this novel is fast-paced, enormous fun and heart-aching at the same time. Able to transport you from the docks of fictitious and rough Wolftown, to parties on wealthy estates, then sail you to London (where the Hotel Du Barry has a cameo role), Paris, Vienna and beyond, you find yourself captivated by Sasha – honest, steadfast and fair – as you ride the roller-coaster of her full and often tragic life.

For all its fantastical elements, the book coheres into a luminous whole, an adventure and story like no other that you feel the richer and more fulfilled for reading. Like one of Sasha’s sweet creations, it lingers in your mouth, head and heart long after you’ve finished it. Quite simply, it’s so completely different and a real treat.

 

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Cavalier: The Story of a 17th Century Playboy, by Lucy Worsley

As I read this wonderful book, Cavalier: The Story of a 17th Century Playboy, by Lucy Worsley12834777, I could hear her voice with all its lilting passion telling me the history of William Cavendish and his rise, downfall and rise again – the latter occurring along with the Restoration of Charles II. Poetic, often moving and with incredible detail about the social mores and hierarchy of the English aristocracy at the time (from old King James, his son Charles I, the Civil Wars and Cromwell, to Charles II), it’s also a tale of sexual intrigue, gossip, and conspiracy.

 

Recommended for lovers of history, architecture (there is a long chapter on the Cavendish home – a former abbey) and those who like beautifully written books. It’s clear Worsley knows her subject so well and the detail leaps from the pages and is underpinned by meticulous footnoting and research. A terrific read.

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