From the moment readers open "Inside These Walls" by Rebecca Coleman, they are transported to the world of a women's prison and introduced to Clara Mattingly, who is serving a life sentence for murder. Coleman's writing is superb, and Clara is instantly a likeable and sympathetic character, whom readers will cheer for in spite the fact that she's also a cold-blooded killer.
Coleman isn't tricking the reader into liking Clara. It's obvious that there's more to the story than just murder — that Clara has the proverbial skeletons in her closet. After 25 years, she's choosing to forget the past and stay focused on her present, which in prison means keeping her head down and staying out of trouble.
The problem is Clara's famous, and so other inmates love to pick on her, which often results in serious injuries. The story of her and boyfriend Ricky's crime was made into a movie. Hollywood turned their story into an almost Charles Manson-type drama, where Ricky led Clara and his other friends into a 24-hour crime spree that resulted in several murders.
Clara lives her prison life helping her blind cellmate and working on Braille textbooks while remembering her life as an artist and her love for ballet before the night that changed her life forever. Readers will keep turning pages because of the author's setup, trying to discover how this bright, young, talented girl followed her boyfriend and murdered people.
Coleman reveals the story once an unexpected visitor appears to see Clara in prison, and her heart immediately yearns once again for love and freedom. At the same time, a reporter writing a book about Ricky asks Clara for information, even though she has never before granted an interview. Because of the visitor, Clara decides it's time to reveal the truth; as the book progresses, readers discover the true circumstances leading up to the crime.
Themes in this book include religion — Clara is Catholic and follows her faith in prison, including going to confession and taking communion; forgiveness; self-preservation; abuse; independence and freedom; friendship; loyalty; love; truth; and more.
This is the perfect book club choice, as readers will debate Clara's crimes, her confessions, her circumstances and even the ending. At rebeccacoleman.net, book clubs can sign up for a possible Skype or phone visit from the author.
This is Coleman's third novel. Her first, "The Kingdom of Childhood," was a 2010 Amazon Breakthrough Novelist finalist. She has a bachelor's degree in English literature from the University of Maryland. Although she is a native New Yorker, she now lives in Washington, D.C.
"Inside These Walls" will keep you up past your bedtime because you want to discover the secrets Clara has kept and what landed her in one of the worst places imaginable. Although the publisher is Harlequin, which is often associated with traditional romance reads, the MIRA line is more for women's fiction.
There's a hint of romance in Coleman's book, but it's not traditional romance. If you're looking for a good read with a strong, female character, check this one out.
Margo L. Dill is the author of "Finding My Place: One Girl's Strength at Vicksburg," a middle grade historical fiction novel. She often reviews books as a columnist for "WOW! Women On Writing" e-zine and her blog, "Margo Dill's Read These Books and Use Them" (margodill.com/blog/). She lives in St. Louis with her family.