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 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 Westminster Poisoner by Susanna Gregory

10577975This is the fourth Thomas Chaloner book I’ve read featuring the much put upon and impoverished former roundhead spy who now works for the ungrateful (and disloyal – to him) Earl of Clarendon. This time, a poisoner is at work killing the King’s clerks in brazen circumstances. When the Earl asks both Chaloner and a new man he’s appointed to investigate these crimes and the case of the king’s missing Bernini sculpture, setting them against each other, and the Earl’s own secretaries Bulteel and Haddon take bets on whether Chaloner or the new man will solve the cases, Thomas understands his job is at stake. But, it’s not only his employ that’s under threat. As usual, on the mean streets of Restoration London, it’s his life as well. With his only friend, his former boss, Thurloe, about to leave the city and his old friend, the former Puritan and now brothel madame, Temperance, fast losing patience with him and a new relationship with one of the queen’s ladies to foster, Thomas has his work cut out and many dangers to avoid – never mind worrying about where his next penny will come from.

But as the body count mounts and he’s no closer to solving the case, Thomas understands that his priorities and friendships may have to change…

Gregory has such a rich and detailed understanding of the period, of the complexities of the political, social and sexual machinations of the court, it’s sometimes hard to keep up as a cast of hundreds appear and disappear and the plot thickens until it almost congeals. Only, it doesn’t. Immersing the reader in the murky settings and even murkier plans of those who seek power at all costs, Gregory’s novels are a great way to rediscover history and cleave to a marvellous but also very human and flawed character, Thomas Chaloner.

Once again, I found part of the novel a bit slow and occasionally had to stop and remind myself who is who, but never did I lose my respect and appreciation for Gregory’s lovely writing and ability to recreate history and weave historical fact (detailed facts too and people) with fiction. It’s not surprising, considering Susanna Gregory is the pseudonym of Elizabeth Cruwys a Cambridge academic. She was also once a coroner’s officer, so her eye for detail and for being able to relate it in an authentic way is outstanding.

I do think this series is getting better and better and cannot wait to read the next instalment.

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The Missing and the Dead Stuart MacBride

23883863While I’ve so enjoyed every single book in this series bout DC Logan McRae and his hilariously inappropriate but utterly loyal sometimes boss, DI Steele, so far (so much so, I am saving the last few books so I don’t leave this world yet), this one has to be my favourite.

Unlike the earlier books which saw McRae part of division and investigating murders, this installment has him posted (on secondment for professional development purposes – or so he’s told, but you get the impression and his record indicates, it’s more punishment) to community policing. No longer an Acting Di, McRae is once again a constable, but without the “detective” moniker. In charge of three areas in a remote location, he has his work cut out.

From the opening pages, the reader is thrust into both the humdrum and dynamism of this kind if police work. The way MacBride captures this, the almost staccato yet speedy nature of the narrative, how we move between cases, radio demands, conversations, and crimes is exhausting and exhilarating. You live and breathe the job with McRae and his team. Yet, though there are many cases and criminals, MacBride brings it all together superlatively with some overarching cases and interlinking.

Within a few chapters, you’ve grasped the various capes – geographical, people, cultural and feel as embedded as the cops whose shifts we share.

I didn’t want this book to end. It was thoroughly captivating, peppered with its usual wonderful dialogues and character interactions – positive and negative. It has its quirky characters (both on and off the force) and those who you wish would get Steele’s boot up the proverbial.

I know I promised myself I would wait to read the next McRae book, but it’s going to be hard. This was just so good…

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