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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Murder at Hatfield House by Amanda Carmack

16101141Murder at Hatfield House by Amanda Carmack is, as the title suggests, an historical mystery featuring an amateur sleuth – a female musician, Kate, who is tasked with/takes it upon herself to solve the gruesome deaths occurring around Hatfield House. Hatfield House being the place where the young Princess Elizabeth was placed under house arrest by her sister, Queen Mary.

Set in 1558, in the months before Elizabeth ascends to the throne, suspicion between the Protestant Princess and her Catholic half-sister and the forces that align on either side of them are thick and plots abound. When the servant of an envoy of the queen’s, the obnoxious Lord Braceton, sent ostensibly to find heretics being shielded by Elizabeth, is killed, the envoy determines that the princess and her household must be guilty.

As other bodies appear and mistrust grows and the envoy’s bullying tactics to elicit confessions reach new heights, Elizabeth employs Kate to act as her spy and try and seek out those responsible for the horror. Aligning herself with her friend, the lawyer Matthew, a handsome actor, and various servants of the princess, Kate must risk life and limb to not only stop more of her friends dying and the princess being put at risk, but to protect the future of her country as well.

I had mixed feelings about this book. On the one hand, I really enjoyed the setting and timing of the novel and felt this was well done – the political and religious tension, the finger-pointing, and even the vulnerability of the young Elizabeth who, despite being feisty, was at the whim of her sister’s good grace. On the other, I found Kate, while clever and kind, was too modern for the era in the sense of what she was able to do (wander the countryside unescorted, disappear and roam all over houses, and even in her friendship with Matthew etc). Some of her actions also belied her intelligence and I wanted to shout at her not to be so stupid as to put herself at such obvious risk. I understand characters do have to do perilous things, build narrative tension and show their heroic stripes, but really, sometimes Kate was just a dolt.

The ending was also strange. When the big expose comes, the “who dunnit” if you will, though I half-expected it, the reasoning didn’t seem sound. I thought, somehow I’d misread something and went back to reread the part before – but no, it was as is and, for some reason, I found it didn’t sit as well as I’d hoped.

Overall, however, despite these misgivings, I did enjoy the book.

 

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Hotel Du Barry by Lesley Truffle

27429443Urged to read Hotel Du Barry by Lesley Truffle by a dear friend, she began telling me a little about the book in order to persuade me. She had me sold when she described the opening scene (this isn’t a spoiler, either, because it’s part of the blurb) where a baby is found hanging on the clothesline of a chic hotel in London during the 1930s. What’s not to love about such a gloriously unusual beginning?

Just who the chortling baby’s mother might be is uncertain – never mind her father. Enchanted by the splendid little girl, the hotel staff determine to keep her. When the owner of the place, Daniel Du Barry, who is grieving the loss of his lover, discovers the child, he too falls under her spell.

Naming her Cat, after his favourite bottle of champagne, Daniel is captivated. Unfortunately his new wife, Eddie, sister of his lover is not, but she’s forced to tolerate this child everyone else adores – the clever little girl with violet eyes and the propensity to fall asleep at the most inopportune moments – or is it only in Eddie’s presence? Over the years, Cat grows into a charming and talented young woman, as comfortable with the luxury of the penthouse as she is with the maids and various staff below stairs. Raised on a diet of classic and modern art, music, great (and sometimes inappropriate for her age) literature, as well as gossip, the sexual high-jinks, drug-taking and alcoholism of her step-mother and dirty habits of too many hotel guests, Cat isn’t at all damaged by what she bears witness to – she has her insatiable curiosity piqued again and again and her zest for life and people grows.

When, however, tragedy strikes her rather charmed existence, Cat decides to get to the bottom of not only the mystery surrounding the death of loved ones, but to also find her mother. Drawing on the help of her all too eager hotel family, together they plumb the depths and scale the heights of the hotel and its associates searching for answers… answers that not only take her beyond English shores, but prove dangerous to find…

This is a delicious romp filled with such memorable characters, witty, snippy asides that had me laughing out loud, heartfelt scenes that make your soul ache, and characters you want to sit back and swill gin with. The tone is marvellous – light and yet not at the expense of beautiful writing or deeper meaning. It’s so very different to the kind of books I’ve been reading lately and utterly refreshing. What I also found really stimulating was the fact that not all threads are neatly tied together at the end of the story. Truffle (what a great name) allows the reader to make their own minds up about some of the characters’ pasts and, indeed, their futures beyond the pages of the book and I simply loved that.

This is a sizzler of a read that I cannot recommend highly enough for those who love to be emerged in a past they can smell, see, feel and taste, like a good mystery packed to the brim with three-dimensional characters with personalities you love and loathe, or for those who simply enjoy great writing.

Unexpected and simply delightful.

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Out of the Ice by Ann Turner

29372165There’s something about books set in the Antarctic that really appeal. I don’t know whether it’s the pristine environment, the abundant wildlife, the climatic conditions, the human isolation, desolation, horrific and courageous history and the potential all of this has as an incredible setting, but I find books that tackle all this hard to resist. My only condition, is these novels have to be really well written and maintain a pace as far from glacial as possible or, like the old huts and equipment left to rot down there, I forsake them…

Fortunately, Ann Turner’s Out of the Ice is a cracker of a read. Beautifully written, suspenseful, haunting and, at times, nail-biting, it tells the story of scientist, Laura Alvarado who, when the book opens is facing the end of her term at a remote Antarctic Station, that is, until she’s given a new role. Chosen to conduct an Environmental Impact Assessment on a whaling station that was abandoned in the 1950s, she travels to the nearest outpost, a very male-dominated and British-owned station from which she must conduct her study.

From the moment she steps onto the British base, she finds herself marginalised and treated with hostility by the leaders. When she finally gets to the whaling station she’s to assess, something is amiss. If humans have been forbidden from this Norwegian outpost for decades, why are the penguins and seals so aggressive? And why is there evidence of both recent human habitation and interference?

When, after a dive into an underwater cave, Laura bears witness to strange and impossible things, she determines to get to the bottom of the mystery. Calling upon the help of colleagues and superiors from her former station, Laura dares to both question and investigate exactly what’s going on. But there are those who will stop at nothing, even murder, to keep their secrets from emerging out of the ice…

From Antarctica to Nantucket and Venice, the book is action-packed but without sacrificing lovely prose, superb descriptions of settings, or creating a wonderful back story for Laura and thus a hero that you champion. I also liked the ambivalence expressed around whaling (which I find utterly abhorrent); how we know it’s shocking, cruel and a complete travesty of which we should be ashamed, but historically, for those involved, it represented something different. Turner doesn’t steer away from presenting both sides and while some of the descriptions of what went on are gut-wrenchingly awful, that she didn’t steer away from depicting all sides is a credit to her – especially when it’s very clear on which side she stands.

My only slight misgivings were I thought Laura made some decisions and took some actions that didn’t seem to fit with her intellect and previous caution, that didn’t quite sit with her scientific mind and appeared narratively convenient rather than plausible. Likewise, I thought for a brief time the plot had gone off the rails, and I had to work a bit harder than I would of liked to suspend my disbelief. To my relief, it quickly found its firm feet again and the conclusion was gripping and heartfelt.

But these are simply small moments of disquiet in a book I found really hard to put down. In fact, I stayed up too late the night I started it and even read it while doing my morning exercise on a treadmill because I had to know how it ended.

A terrific read that I recommend for lovers of a good mystery, those interested in the Antarctic and what drives humans to do both great and terrible things.

Thank you to the publisher and NetGalley for the opportunity to enjoy such a wonderful book.

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Make Me by Lee Child

When you pick up a Lee Child, Jack Reacher novel, you know you’re in for one rollicking ride and this latest instalment in the series, Make Me, is no exception.

25017440-1Commencing with a train rumbling through the American heartland, the story begins just before it screeches to a halt in a small town called Mother’s Rest. Embarking is none other than our man-with-no-(obvious) baggage, Jack Reacher.

Finding the deceptively sleepy place filled with suspicious folk behaving strangely, and none of whom seem to be able to tell him why the town bears such a sweet appellation, Reacher’s curiosity is piqued. Helping fuel this is the lovely, Michelle Chang, a retired FBI agent who now works privately as an investigator and who happens to be in town because she’s responded to a back up call from her partner, Keever. A big man who resembles Reacher, Keever, it turns out, has gone missing and no-one claims to know where he is.

Teaming up with Chang, Reacher determines to help her find her partner and, if not, at least uncover what happened to him and why. Only, this scant place with the appealing name and odd residents is not what it seems. The further Reacher and Chang delve into Keever’s fate, the less they seem to understand. Barriers are thrown up and hostility greets every enquiry. Left with no choice but to leave Mother’s Rest, they back and forth across the country and in doing so start to piece together a shocking puzzle, one they know they’ll finally solve when they return to where they started.

But that proves harder then they thought. There are those determined to prevent Reacher and Chang from progressing any further, but if there’s one thing Reacher cannot abide, its being told what to do or forced to stop something he’s started, even if he knows what he finds could have deadly consequences…

In the first half, this novel is a slow build that really takes the reader along for the investigative ride. Flanking Reacher and Chang, we patiently sift through the clues, listen to various people reveal or conceal what they know and then follow as Chang and Reacher try to work out how what they’ve learned or found fits (or doesn’t) into the dilemma they’re trying to unravel.

Dogging their every move, their every call, are groups of shady people – assassins, tech experts and those with no other motive than to obey their faceless superiors and do whatever it takes to ensure these two people get no further. With dead bodies either in their wake or awaiting them, Chang and Reacher know time is running out and they must discover the dark secret at the heart of Mother’s Rest and Keever’s disappearance and what it is the citizens of that dozy town will do anything, pay anything, to protect.

When the climax of the novel comes, just what this secret is comes as a terrible shock – not just to Reacher and Chang but to the reader. It was unexpected, horrific at so many levels, and thus the enormity of what the entire investigation and the people involved are about is shown in a new, ghastly and desperate light.

A well-paced read, much like the train that appears and vanishes, the book takes you from one point to another, yet with a visceral thrill running through every page that keeps you on the edge of your seat. Like all Child’s books, Make Me delivers the kind of punch and panic at which he, and his protagonist, are so good.

 

 

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