I read The Girl Before for book club, and I can safely say that I hated it. I don’t often despise books, but this one deserves it. Why?
It’s written by a dude (and he’s not a man, he’s a dude) from the perspective of two different women. He has very little idea of what a woman’s inner life is actually like or how women work.
The brilliant male architect who may or may not have committed the murder ultimately is given the most robust characterization and is arguably the main character of the novel, despite it theoretically being about women.
Said architect and his talent are completely fetishized.
There’s another, not brilliant, man in the book who is dehumanized because he is NOT the brilliant architect.
I am done with books about brilliant men making art and saving the world, despite their flaws. ESPECIALLY when women are used as the vehicle for both the motivation AND the storytelling but don’t actually get to be robust characters.
I’ve read other books in the Maisie Dobbs series, but never the first one. So, it was a pleasure to get her backstory, to learn where she came from and what a truly extraordinary woman she is.
The Maisie Dobbs series takes place in London in the 1930s. She’s a private detective, well-read and thoughtful, who solves crimes, mostly murder, amongst a certain class of people. (They may not all be a certain class, but they are all filtered through that certain class’s lens.) Maisie has humble origins, but has worked hard to grow out of them.
In Maisie Dobbs, we learn that she went to work as a maid for a progressive wealthy woman who caught Maisie working her way through the library before her morning shift started. Instead of firing her, she found her a tutor and sent her to college; Maisie dropped out to go be a nurse during WWI. It’s a characterization that is at once intelligent and practical and will appeal to anyone who wants to put their world in order.
It’s a slim book, and the mystery takes up only about a third of the story. The rest is devoted to the backstory and setting up the relationships as they are now. It is a book designed to kick off a series. It’s done its job well.
What’s it about? I first heard of I Capture the Castle on the boards of the Go Fug Yourself book club, where it was described as “people having romantical problems during wartime.” It was published in 1948. It’s about a poor family, the Mortmains, living on not very much in an old castle that they’d secured a long-term lease on back when their father’s famous book was still paying the bills. An elderly, wealthy neighbor dies and his heirs are wealthy American half-brothers. The older sister, Rose, immediately sees that marrying one of them would keep the family from starving and convinces herself that she’s in love with him. It… it doesn’t work out so well.
Why should you read it?
It’s so old that it’s lack of an automatic happy ending (spoiler) is refreshing. (It’s not that the ending is unhappy. But it’s not a standard Hollywood ending either.) The Mortmains are charming and artistic, living the Bohemian lifestyle that you’d expect from poor artists: the father is a writer, as is Cassandra – the younger sister who’s POV the story is written from – Topaz, the step-mother and former model/current painter. Rose is the one who wants to not worry about where their next meal is coming from all the time. Ms Smith’s love of the English countryside also comes through loud and clear – the setting is amazing and lovingly described.
Overall, there’s so much affection in this book for the place and the characters and the impossible situation they’re in – really, where *is* their next meal going to come from – that you can’t help but also enjoy it. (In fact it’s a bit odd, because the book contrasts affection and love so very well. But the book’s love and affection of everything and everyone in it is what makes it so wonderful. Hm.)
What’s it about? The Shadow Cabinet is the third in The Shades of London series. They are not stand-alone books. The premise of the series is that a young woman, Rory, has been sent to London to boarding school. After a near-fatal accident, she can see and talk to ghosts. This is A Thing in the series: she ends up joining a little-known branch of the London police made up of three other people who can also see ghosts. Sometimes the ghosts are good, sometimes not. They sort it out and take action when needed. In this episode of the story, they uncover more about the cult that Rory has discovered in the second book. It doesn’t end the series (I’d thought it was going to be a trilogy. It’s not.)
Why should you read it?
It’s not a book to read on its own. Start at the beginning with The Name of the Star. You should read the series because it’s a good adventure – Rory leaves her Louisiana home for London and is almost instantly plunged! into! adventure! The story is scary enough (says the person who hates being scared, ymmv) and the mystery is the right amount complicated. Overall: I enjoy it. (Plus Maureen Johnson has a fabulous twitter account. You should follow her.)