Book Corner

Book Review: The Girl in Cell 49B

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Emily Calby disappeared at age twelve, the only survivor of a notorious home invasion. Three years after her terrifying odyssey in The Hiding Girl, she’s safe, living in anonymity with her mentor, ex-gang member Lucas Jackson—before life blows up again on her Sweet Sixteen birthday. Arrested for carrying her birthday gift—an illegal handgun from Lucas—a fingerprint scan shows her to be the missing Calby girl and worse: she’s wanted for murder in another state.

Extradited to a corrupt juvenile prison in the middle of nowhere, Emily struggles to adjust to a new code of survival while battling a vindictive prosecutor willing to resort to any means to convict her. As The Law thwarts her every move, she begins to appreciate its awesome power. She discovers an unused prison law library and buries herself in the books, casting her destiny.

As she fights for her life in court, the dark secrets behind the prison walls close in. Her cellmate, a spookily prescient drug addict, is in grave danger. So is her first love, a gentle boy sentenced to life without parole. Emily’s desperate to help them, but how can she, when her explosive trial brings one new disaster after another? A courtroom thriller like no other.

This was an ARC, (advanced reader copy).

This is the second book in Emily Calby’s story though is easily a stand alone book. I did not read the first book and though I do wonder why the men who raped and killed her mother and sister targeted her family specifically, (was it random?), where her father is, and if the men who did this heinous crime are still alive or still looking for her (and why), Box does a good job of bringing me up-to-date with Emily’s back story without giving away too many details. In other words, I’m curious enough to want to go back and read book one.

Emily has survivor’s guilt over the death of her mother and sister. She ran away but feels like she should have stayed to try and help her family only she knows, realistically, she likely would have died as well. In a lot of ways, she wishes she had. As a result of this horrific experience she has PTSD from the event and she has trouble controlling her anger at times.  Lucas is a gang member and professional forger who takes her under his wing. In a lot of ways, he saved Emily’s life by extending her kindness and guidance when she needed it the most. Lucas’ girlfriend (wife?) is a boxer and teaches Emily how to fight and defend herself. Emily channels her rage and aggression into working out and her body is toned and tough.

Because Emily is hiding, and because she is trying to put distance between her new life and her old life, she goes by Alice Black. Lucas forges documents for her and Emily is Alice for three years. She is now 16 years old. Emily is a walking juxtaposition – she’s tough and will not shy from trouble if she sees someone getting bullied or hurt, and yet, she has a big heart and a lot of compassion. These are unusual traits to package into one character but I think Box does a good job of melting these characteristics into a likeable character.

And that’s just it, I really don’t want to like Emily. She’s a badass that has killed people. True, the circumstances she killed people were due to self defense, still, she killed them. She graduates from self defense to murder and that’s the gray line that Emily struggles with. In a lot of ways, her character reminds me of Dexter from the TV show Dexter. In essence, if you haven’t seen Dexter, he’s a man who has homicidal tendencies. He knows this and recognizes this and yet, he can’t stop himself from killing people. So, he channels this disorder (?) into “good” – he only kills murderers, people who have gotten away with murder and are free to terrorize society. Only, there’s a twist, he’s also a blood-splatter expert who works with police. This juxtaposition is interesting and disturbing. I’ve watched a handful of Dexter episodes and I wanted to like the show but it was too gory for me and honestly, I couldn’t justify the premise, though I certainly could appreciate him getting rid of society’s cancerous people.

Emily is a bit  like Dexter in that she channels her aggression and anger into people who are scum, bad people. I don’t know if anyone can justify murder even if it’s for the “good” of society, but I can certainly understand it if not exactly condone it. As a result, I have mixed feelings about Emily.

She starts the story out being super aggressive but once she is caught and recognized as the girl who escaped the tragedy of her youth, (no one knew what happened to her – she just disappeared), and was thrown in juvenile jail she softens almost to the point where I’m left wondering, “is this even the same girl?” That shift nearly caused me to knock this star rating into a four but again, Box does a good job of “reforming” her to the reader – her actions really were justified, if not disturbing on so many levels.

While in juvenile jail, she befriends her cell mate who she suspects might be a bit clairvoyant and falls in love with Ben, a boy from the neighboring boys’ juvenile jail. Once she learns Ben’s story of why he’s in jail, she begins to question the legality of what happened to him.  After getting into some trouble while in jail, she is given a job in the jail library. She’s saddened to see so many of the girls are not very well educated and are reading below their grade level. She also discovers a little-used law library tucked into the corner with books that have never been cracked open. Emily begins reading about the law in order to try and help Ben but ends up teaching herself more and more in order to try and help her own defense against a murder charge of a man who picked her up while she was hitch hiking.

Emily soon learns that THE LAW pretty much dictates her life and if she has any hope of saving her own life, she has to not only learn THE LAW but to navigate it so she can be her own best advocate. I have mixed feelings about the ending. I can understand Emily’s decision to some extent, but her tendency toward bloodthirst borders on disturbing.

Emily’s journey is far from over and I’m intrigued enough that I would like to read more about her adventures.

In summary:

The Girl in Cell 49B is a story about a girl battling her darkest demons. She has multiple demons: guilt, aggression, and rage. She also has a soft spot for underdogs. Emily has a dark past – her mother and sister were raped and her family home was burned to the ground, nearly killing her in the process. She carries a lot of guilt around because she feels she should have somehow saved her family instead of running away, which ultimately saved her life. After changing her appearance and assuming a new identity and living as Alice for three years, her aggression gets the best of her when she witnesses a nasty bully abusing his girlfriend at a gas station. Unable to stop herself, she walks up to the bully and points a gun in his face. The bully stops his behavior and they drive off but not before the gas station employee reports her to the police and they capture her using the gas station security camera.

This lands her in juvenile jail where the authorities discover, after taking her fingerprints, that she’s the lost girl that disappeared after the horrific home invasion that killed her family all those years ago. She’s also a person of interest wanted in a murder in another state.

Once she’s in juvenile jail, she quickly learns how to navigate the various caste systems and befriends a few underdogs who she feels compelled to try and save. Once her own trial starts, she quickly learns that THE LAW could quickly make or break her and in order to give herself the best chance of surviving a “fair” trial, she begins using the law library in juvenile jail to teach herself how the law works and how she can make it work for her.

This is a story about grit, determination and self-perseverance. This character has had to adapt to a cruel world, learn how to fight and defend herself while somehow managing to keep her sense of self. She’s unusual in that she has a big heart and she can’t stand to see good people being treated unfairly. But she also has a dark side. A side that she finds hard to control and keep under control. Once that dark side of her is unleashed, she can be cruel, dangerous and unpredictable. Emily’s journey is just beginning and she intends to use her new-found interest in the law to help people who can’t help themselves while trying to keep her dark past from destroying her and those she cares about.