Book Review: Good Me, Bad Me

With many thanks to Goodreads — I won this in a giveaway!

HOW FAR DOES THE APPLE REALLY FALL FROM THE TREE?

Good Me Bad Me is dark, compelling, voice-driven psychological suspense by debut author Ali Land:

Milly’s mother is a serial killer. Though Milly loves her mother, the only way to make her stop is to turn her in to the police. Milly is given a fresh start: a new identity, a home with an affluent foster family, and a spot at an exclusive private school.

But Milly has secrets, and life at her new home becomes complicated. As her mother’s trial looms, with Milly as the star witness, Milly starts to wonder how much of her is nature, how much of her is nurture, and whether she is doomed to turn out like her mother after all.

When tensions rise and Milly feels trapped by her shiny new life, she has to decide: Will she be good? Or is she bad? She is, after all, her mother’s daughter.

Good Me, Bad Me is an intense first-person visit inside the mind of a troubled teen. Milly is struggling to figure out who she really is: Can she live a normal life after 15 years with a psychopathic murderer for a mother? Does she truly have a shot at being good?

Milly’s story starts when she turns in her mother after the 9th in a long series of child murders. On the outside, her mother wears a kind and lovely public face, working at a women’s shelter, providing care and comfort to desperate women and their children. In reality, though, she’s an expert at gaining people’s trust, never letting them see below to the hellish, sadistic creature underneath. Milly (whose real name is Annie) has been living alone with her mother since age 4, when her father left and took her older brother with him. Since then, Milly has been both horribly abused and victimized herself, and forced to watch (and sometimes participate) as her mother abducted, tortured, and murdered young children.

Finally free, with her mother behind bars, Milly is taken in by a foster family. Her foster father Mike is also the psychologist who works with Milly to prepare her for her mother’s trial, where she’ll be the star witness, but the home life isn’t all rosy. Saskia, the mother, is a mentally unstable coke addict who’s physically present but emotionally absent. Most problematic for Milly is Phoebe, Mike and Saskia’s teen daughter, who emphatically does not want another foster kid in the house, resents the attention Milly absorbs, and sets out to bully and harass Milly at every turn, especially at school, away from her parents’ eyes.

We see everything from Milly’s point of view — and inside Milly’s head isn’t a very comfortable place to be.

Milly’s narrative of events is continuously peppered with 2nd person comments, as she maintains a one-way dialogue with her mother — the “you” who fills Milly’s thoughts and to whom Milly is constantly trying to justify herself. She doesn’t want to be like her mother, but the darkness keeps threatening to engulf her. We see her struggle to find a place for herself and be normal –but there are also lapses, incidents where Milly lets her inner demons take over as she engages in behaviors that are questionable, at best.

Like Milly, we never see the mother directly over the course of the book’s action. The closest Milly comes is when she testifies in her mother’s trial, during which she’s sheltered from viewing her mother by a screen. She knows she’s there, can sense her presence, but never actually sees her — and this holds true for the reader as well. Milly’s mother’s presence is a constant, even though we never see her directly. Between Milly’s inner dialogue with her mother and her nightmares about her, we feel her shadow over every scene.

I did have a few minor quibbles with the plot and the narrative. While we get enough information over the course of the book to get the basic idea of what Milly’s mother did over all those years and how Milly was victimized, we don’t see any of it directly. I’m not looking to wallow in the muck here, but there’s a bit of vagueness that started to irritate me after a while. A few more details would have been helpful about Milly’s earlier life — did none of her teachers over the years ever notice anything off about this poor abused child? Her scars may not have been visible, but surely some professional might have noticed her emotional damage?

I question too the lack of proper attention Milly received after her mother’s arrest. Mike represents a huge problem for me — he’s her foster parent, and is supposed to care for her, yet is also her court-sanctioned psychologist and is secretly writing a book about her. After all of the years of suffering, it would seem to me that Milly needs much more than she’s given, and the assumption that she can live a normal life with just weekly therapy seems terribly misguided. Without giving too much away, it’s clear that this is not a good foster placement for Milly, but if Mike is the only one providing her mental health care, there’s no way for the situation to improve.

When Milly gets into her inner monologues and dialogues, the writing becomes choppy and disjointed, reflecting her mental state. This is effective, but occasionally veers into Yoda territory: (“Committed, she is.” “Slice we do, a cut here, a snip there.”) Still, the sentence fragments that form Milly’s narration illustrate the way her thoughts push and pull at her constantly:

Your voice in my head. THAT’S MY GIRL, YOU SHOW THEM. THANKFUL NOW, YOU SHOULD BE, FOR THE LESSONS I TAUGHT YOU, ANNIE. Your praise, so rare, when it comes, rips through me like a bush fire swallowing houses and tress, and other teenage girls who are less strong, in its hot, hungry mouth. I meet their stares, the remnants of Izzy’s gum hanging off my chin. Thrown by my defiance, they are, I see it. Fleeting. The twitch around their succulent lips, eyes slightly wider. I shake my head, slow and deliberate. Izzy, the hungrier of the two, takes the bait.

The book builds to a climax that was not at all what I’d expected. It’s disturbing but makes sense, and left me with a huge sense of unease — which is a sign that this thriller accomplished what it set out to do.

Good Me, Bad Me is a tense, suspenseful read that I really couldn’t put down or get out of my thoughts. The inner life of a damaged soul is not a pleasant thing to see. Definitely check out this book if you like psychological depths and twists, but be prepared for sleepless nights.

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The details:

Title: Good Me, Bad Me
Author: Ali Land
Publisher: Flatiron Books
Publication date: September 5, 2017
Length: 304 pages
Genre: Psychological thriller
Source: Goodreads giveaway

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Book Review: The Girl Before

girl-before

Please make a list of every possession you consider essential to your life.

The request seems odd, even intrusive—and for the two women who answer, the consequences are devastating.

Emma
Reeling from a traumatic break-in, Emma wants a new place to live. But none of the apartments she sees are affordable or feel safe. Until One Folgate Street. The house is an architectural masterpiece: a minimalist design of pale stone, plate glass, and soaring ceilings. But there are rules. The enigmatic architect who designed the house retains full control: no books, no throw pillows, no photos or clutter or personal effects of any kind. The space is intended to transform its occupant—and it does.

Jane
After a personal tragedy, Jane needs a fresh start. When she finds One Folgate Street she is instantly drawn to the space—and to its aloof but seductive creator. Moving in, Jane soon learns about the untimely death of the home’s previous tenant, a woman similar to Jane in age and appearance. As Jane tries to untangle truth from lies, she unwittingly follows the same patterns, makes the same choices, crosses paths with the same people, and experiences the same terror, as the girl before.

For a book that consumed my attention nonstop for an entire day, I sure was left feeling unsatisfied.

The premise sounds delicious. A beautiful home, stark and pristine and worth far more than the rental price. Okay, so fine, there are rules — about 200 different items that tenants must agree to in order to live there. And then there’s the fact that only a select few are considered worthy: A lengthy, intrusively intimate questionnaire only possibly gets you in the door for an interview with the property’s architect and owner, and even then, you’re likely to get turned down..

But still, in a tight housing market where even exceeding your budget gets you little better than a dump, this place is a true find.

(Okay, not for me. Once the “no books” clause comes into play, I’m out. But I digress…)

The Girl Before is told in alternating chapters, of “Then: Emma” and “Now: Jane”. As their stories unwind, there’s no doubt that these two women, both vulnerable and bearing emotional scars, are just the sort of easily manipulated prey that might appeal to someone who needs total control. As we get to know each woman, we learn why the house at One Folgate Street appeals to them, and why they’re so eager to upend their lives that they’re willing to accept the terms and conditions that come with the home.

Warning signs abound. There are the odd little facts about the history of the house’s origins, the architect, Edward, and his personal life. There’s Edward himself, who’s quite overly involved for a rental landlord. Emma moves in after a terrifying crime, and Jane after a personal loss, but both are desperate for a fresh start — desperate enough to overlook the little clues (oh, like a house that’s programmed to only turn on the shower after you do a regular assessment of your moods) that they may be in over their heads.

The Girl Before is a thriller that pushes all of a reader’s buttons, with plenty of clues and alarms and suspicious behavior. I could not put it down… but that doesn’t mean that, in the aftermath, I actually enjoyed reading it.

Here’s the deal:

This book certainly makes for compulsive reading — but by about the 2/3 mark, the narrative and the personalities started to change. We find out more about each of the characters, and certain stories and statements get turned on their heads. Emma’s storyline in particular gets completely turned inside out, and I found myself filled with disgust for her actions and their fall-out. (Trying to be non-spoilerish here…)

In fact, certain characters are so not at all what they seem that the revelations and the book’s climax seem to come completely out of the blue. And yes, that’s what thrillers try to do — throw the reader off the scent, come up with a scenario that hasn’t been done before, one we never see coming. But it has to make sense, and I’m not sure that the climax and denouement of the story actually do.

I also, I will admit, am predisposed to dislike “girl in peril” stories, and setting up these two characters as victims and people easily controlled, for different reasons, kind of set my teeth on edge. By the end, although Emma’s circumstances should make her an object of pity and sorrow, it’s hard to feel any compassion for her, the more we get to know her. And Jane is all over the place too, although at least she ultimately displays some backbone and agency.

In the end, while I couldn’t stop reading, I wound up feeling rather cheated. Plot points that were practically lit up in neon ended up being red herrings. Characters’ actions in the big reveal seemed totally divorced from what we’d known of them up to that point. And again, I found it pretty much impossible to care at all about Emma once a particularly unforgivable action of hers is revealed.

So, do I recommend The Girl Before? Not so much. It’s a thriller, to be sure, and it was a good diversion on a rainy day (which is why I spent all day indoors today reading it, instead of going out where it’s wet and chilly). But I don’t like the portrayal of the women characters’ actions or motivations, and didn’t feel like their inner lives made a whole lot of sense or did credit to them as people.

Also, a minor complaint: Why is this book published under a pseudonym? Is that the trendy thing to do now? The author bio on the back flap says that J. P. Delaney is a pseudonym for “a writer who has previously written bestselling fiction under other names”. Hmm. I looked it up, and the identity of J. P. Delaney isn’t hard to find. From an article in the New York Times, it sounds like the author chose to use a non-gender-specific pseudonym to keep readers guessing. (Spoiler: He’s a man.)

Are we supposed to be impressed by his ability to get inside the women characters’ heads? For me, at least, it didn’t work. Maybe that partially explains my feelings about the characters. Not that a male author can never write from a female perspective, but it takes a great deal of talent and empathy to do so convincingly. The Girl Before misses the mark.

I’ll end this rambling review with a not-too-surprising insight: Writing reviews is pretty cathartic. As I sat down to right, I was still feeling overall kind of positive about The Girl Before. But now that I’ve been actually putting my thoughts together, I’m left with a pretty deafening UGH. The last third or so of this book made me feel used and manipulated, and that’s not a good thing.

Can I get my rainy day back for a do-over?

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The details:

Title: The Girl Before
Author: J. P Delaney
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Publication date: January 24, 2017
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Thriller
Source: Library

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