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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Scarlet by Marissa Meyer

13206760I don’t know why I waited so long to pick up this sequel to the remarkable Cinder – The Lunar Chronicles #1. Having loved the first book and how it reinvented a beloved fairy tale in a different genre, I think I didn’t want to be disappointed if the next book didn’t live up to the promise of the first. Silly me.

Scarlet, The Lunar Chronicles #2, more than lives up to what were very high expectations as it continues the story of Cinder, the cyborg mechanic at the centre of a not only a love affair with Prince Kai but a burgeoning war between earth and the Lunars. It also introduces new characters which are loosely based on Little Red Riding Hood. But don’t let the source material fool you into thinking this is a walk in the woods. Like the original tale from which it harkens, “little” red-riding hood, the flame-haired and capable Scarlet, is anything but a victim, to wolves or any other kind of predator.

When Scarlet Benoit discovers her beloved grandmother is missing, she leaves no picnic basket unturned in an effort to find her. Along the way, she discovers that her nana isn’t quite the person she thought. On the contrary, what a big secret you have grandmamma, one that can affect the fate of the earth.

Befriending a street-fighter named Wolf (yes, the analogies are swift and fast, but don’t let them put you off, they are very cleverly done), Scarlet tries to track her grandmother’s whereabouts. Along the way, she meets Cinder and uncovers a connection between them that makes them two of the most wanted people on the planet. Trying desperately to stay one step ahead of those who seek to capture and kill them (looking at you Queen Levana), Scarlet and Cinder quickly learn who their friends and enemies are – sometimes they are one and the same.

Fast-paced, well written and characterised, this is a terrific re-imagining of fairytales casting them into a genre that lends itself in so many ways to exactly this treatment. You don’t have to be a fan of sci-fi, fantasy or fairy tales to enjoy this – it is just a great read.

Tightly plotted, it’s an easy yet fulfilling tale that makes you yearn for the next instalment. Despite my pile of reading books, I won’t leave the next book so long.

 

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