Mimi Jones Hedwig

Writer, Editor, Animal Advocate

Book review blog

"Girls" in Peril -- A Roundup

Posted by mhedwig on August 7, 2017 at 2:15 PM

My late mother’s reading tastes were very specific: “I like any book with a picture on the cover of a woman running away from a castle.”

I inherited this predilection for spooky, Gothic, or suspenseful stories about heroines in danger. My favorite of all time is Dracula, with its innocent paragon of virtuous womanhood, Mina Harker, about to complete her awful transformation into a vampire after being bitten by Count Dracula. The men who love her must pursue the evil Count from England across the continent to his castle in Transylvania and neutralize him with a stake through his heart in his coffin before the next sunrise, when he will regain his supernatural powers and Mina’s eternally undead fate will be sealed. The Christian symbolism in the story added an extra dimension to the supernatural thrills.

Along with my more literary choices in all genres, I usually have a book in the Women-in-Peril (WIP) category going – most often on audio. I have gone through so many in the past year or so that I thought I would write a roundup of brief reviews in the hope that it will aid anyone looking for a page-turning beach read or a pulse-pounding accompaniment to liven up exercise or chores.

Here are my recommendations – and warnings. Ratings are similar to those on Goodreads – 1-5, with 5 being “It was totally awesome” and 1 being “Skip it. Wish I had.”

Behind Closed Doors by B.A. Paris. Rating: 4. Grace, a buyer for Harrods in London, has a dilemma: her Downs syndrome sister, Millie, is turning 18 and will soon age out of her group home. There are no family members to take Millie in; Grace’s parents washed their hands of their daughters years ago and decamped to New Zealand, so it’s on Grace to accommodate her sister. And she loves Millie, but her job requires a lot of travel.

Then the two sisters meet Jack at a band concert in a London park. He is handsome, gracious, apparently smitten with Grace and accepting of Millie. After a short courtship Grace and Jack are married and the future seems set. At Jack’s insistence she quits her job – with regret, but making a beautiful home for Jack in the house he has built for her, maybe having children, and, in time, having Millie come to live with them, seems like a sure bet for happiness. Reality, however, turns out to be terrifyingly different.

I listened to the Audible version, excellently narrated by Georgia McGuire. I found it suspenseful, and, though audaciously plotted, believable. Overall, superior to other women- in-peril psychological thrillers like Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train (and I was grateful to be spared the demeaning "Girl" in the title). This book kept me on the edge of my seat, eager to listen to it at every opportunity. The "perfect" newlyweds Jack and Grace illustrate that we can never know what goes on behind the closed doors of other people's intimate relationships. (Spoiler alert: Especially when one of those doors does not open from the inside, and leads into a room painted all red and decorated with images of fear and pain....)

I balked only at a scene of unbearable animal cruelty, but cheered when Grace’s pluck – and the insight and persistence of a woman whose friendship Grace has been unable to reciprocate throughout the book – bring about ultimate justice.

The Breakdown by B.A. Paris (Rating: 2). I eagerly awaited this next outing by Paris, but was disappointed. (As with most books in this genre, I listened to the Audible version, again competently read by Georgia McGuire.) The problem with this one is that the narrator, Cass, is such a ditz. At key points in the plot, if she had taken her husband, whom she supposedly loves and trusts, into her confidence it might have brought things to a head much sooner. Instead, she keeps a burdensome secret – that she defied her husband’s instructions to avoid a certain shortcut through woods on a stormy night. On that deserted route, in lashing rain, she saw a woman in a car who appeared to be stranded; she stopped in front of the woman’s car but did not get out in the rain, figuring that the other driver would flash her lights if she wanted help. When this didn’t happen, Cass drove on, but is horrified to learn the next day that the woman was murdered, probably soon after Cass saw her. She further realizes that she knew the woman; they had met at a party and had lunch together, which had seemed to be the beginning of a friendship. Cass bears a crushing guilt, and also fears that the killer might have taken her license number and tracked her down in her isolated country home; ominous silent phone calls that have come every morning since the night of the murder stoke her terror. She also dreads the possibility that, like her mother, she is gradually succumbing to early-onset dementia – and indeed recent proofs of her forgetfulness and odd behavior confront her constantly. The mystery has a twisty ending, but I found the setup unconvincing and the narrator’s passivity maddening.

The Girl Before (#1), by Rena Olsen. Rating: 4. From childhood, Clara was raised as one of “Mama” and “Papa”’s adopted daughters on their isolated Western ranch. She was told that her real parents had abandoned her. As Clara grows into womanhood, she falls in love with their son, Glen, and raises a new brood of foster daughters, loving them as her own and grooming them for their brilliant futures as the companions of wealthy or influential “clients.” Gradually, though, certain realities intrude upon her love for her husband and her trust in her “parents.” She sees that girls who don’t adhere to the rules of the “family” organization are banished to a house at the edge of the compound where, it is clear, they have to service random men sexually. There is a murder, after which Glen is arrested and Clara is taken into custody. Gradually she comes to accept the grim truth about her husband and the nature of the family business – and about her own past. I found it a gripping psychological study and a penetrating look into the underworld of sex trafficking.

The Girl Before (#2), by JP Delaney. Rating: 2. Jane, recovering from the grief of a stillbirth, is drawn to the austere beauty and stark simplicity of the house for rent – improbably cheaply -- at One Folgate Street in London. However, to become approved as a tenant she has to answer a long checklist of eccentric and intrusive questions posed by the landlord, Edward Monkford of the celebrated Monkford architectural firm. She passes, meets Monkford, and moves into the house, and soon afterward is drawn into an affair with him. He is incredibly controlling, but she expected that from the detailed checklist about her personal habits and possessions that she had to complete in her rental application, as well as the many rules that she has to follow to maintain her tenancy. She begins to worry, however, as she gradually learns that the previous tenant, Emma, looked just like her...was also Monkford's lover... and died in a mysterious fall from the un-banistered open staircase. The narrative cuts back and forth between her experiences and those of Emma. The resolution of the mystery is clumsy; an editor could have easily saved the author from a serious plot gaffe. Still, I persevered to the end, curious to see how it all played out. An undistinguished “Girl.”

The Girl on the Train, by Paula Hawkins. Rating: 1. A drunken unemployed loser of a heroine, fixated on her ex-husband, takes the commuter train to London just so she can spy on a young couple, who seem to symbolize the marital happiness she has lost, happily canoodling every morning (every morning?!) on the balcony of their tidy suburban home within view of the train line. Then one day she sees the woman kissing another man on her balcony. A short time later the woman is reported murdered – and, on the night that the crime was supposed to have happened, Rachel, our heroine, comes to her senses after an alcoholic blackout to find herself inexplicably dirty and injured….Unlikable protagonist, implausible plot.

Hawkins’ most recent book, Into the Water (Rating: 3), is an improvement. It takes us into a small English village in which a succession of women since the 18th century have been murdered by being drowned in the local river. Many were suspected of being witches; one in more contemporary times plunged – or was pushed – off the cliff above the drowning pool before the shocked eyes of her young son. Now that son is a constable in the town, investigating two more drownings that have occurred: a 15-year-old girl who, as it turns out, was having an affair with her handsome schoolteacher; and a single mother, Nel Abbott, a native of the village who went abroad for years but returned with her rebellious teenage daughter to write a book about the history of the drowning pool. There are a lot of characters to keep track of, and a great many toxic secrets – but I thought Hawkins did a good job with the small-town intrigue and wrapped the story up with a twist I didn’t see coming.

The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware. Rating: 3. Lo Blacklock, a London journalist traumatized by a break-in to her apartment, gets the opportunity to escape her troubles with a plum assignment aboard a luxury yacht. One night in her stateroom on the North Sea she hears sounds from the adjoining cabin that convince her a body has been thrown overboard. She sneaks a peek onto the balcony next to hers and sees streaks of blood. However, all passengers the next day are accounted for, the stains are cleared away, and when she confides her suspicions to the ship’s security chief, he treats her as though she is insane. Just as she is beginning to wonder if she is delusional, the plot takes a menacing turn. Not entirely convincing, but kind of fun.

Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty. Rating: 5. Loved listening to this, with the narrator’s winsome Australian accent. I preferred the book to the HBO series; the Australian setting and characters interested me much more than cliche upscale California and its hyper-privileged denizens, and certain character alterations and plot embellishments made for TV seemed gratuitous -- the wry and urbane character of Ed, particularly, was lost in translation from book to screen. And Madeline was diminished too.

Nevertheless, in book and on screen Moriarty has rendered one of the most truthful portrayals I’ve encountered of the way motherhood brings out the savage beast, red in tooth and claw, in otherwise reasonable women. The story centers on the parents of first graders at a privileged coastal Australian elementary school. It opens with a murder on school Trivia Night – a fundraiser to which parents have to come dressed either as Elvis or Audrey (Hepburn). We don’t find out until the end who the victim was, and who the murderer, but there are plenty of conflicts throughout – and one perilously endangered woman who conceals her bruises and distress behind a façade of beauty, privilege and domestic accord. It’s witty, funny, a sharply pointed social satire with a serious message about the violence that can breed undetected behind closed doors and closed lips.

Categories: Women in Peril (fiction subcategory)