Review: The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle

How lost do you have to be to let the devil lead you home?

Stuart Turton’s debut novel, The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle has been making waaaaves in the reading community since it was published in September — and for good reason. I picked up the novel knowing very little about it, other than the allusions to its Agatha-like qualities and absolutely mind-bending plot.

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In fact, when I started reading, my eye caught on an author blurb at the front, and I laughed for a good long minute: “If Agatha Christie and Terry Pratchett had ever had LSD-fueled sex, then The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle would be their acid trip book baby” (Sarah Pinborough, author of Behind Her Eyes).

I rarely admit to it, but this is one book that lives up to its hype.

Set in what appears to be 1920s rural England, the novel opens in mass chaos: the narrator awakens to find himself without any memories of whom or where he is — and it only gets more twisty from there. Our host soon discovers he’s in the heart of a nearly unsolvable mystery: Evelyn Hardcastle, member of high society and daughter of the owners of the crumbling estate we find ourselves at, will be murdered at 11:00 p.m. It is the narrator’s job to solve her murder . . . but each morning, he’ll wake up in a new host’s body. And he’s only got eight days to figure things out.

Which may seem like a fair amount of time, until you take into consideration the duplicitous nature of pretty much everyone who’s been invited to the estate for the week. And the fact that the narrator is not a detective. And that some of his hosts wake up high as a kite, or paralyzingly hungover, or quickly succumb to various near-fatal injuries.

Our narrator struggles through a series of fumbling attempts to escape the estate, and when that doesn’t work, he begins to focus on saving Evelyn Hardcastle — a task, we’re reminded, that is futile. While the narrator works to cobble clues together, he discovers that his actions can have a bearing on how the day plays out, though the slate is wiped clean with each new host.

Set against a backdrop of a romantic and dark forested landscape, with a decrepit old mansion and expansive grounds as the site of the Hardcastle legacy, this murder mystery is a thrill to unravel. Chapters are categorized by the numbered days of which the narrator has been on the grounds, and sometimes these storylines jump backward. Meanwhile, Aiden encounters “himself” in other hosts throughout the day, which only compounds the amount of mind-buggery that is going on in Evelyn Hardcastle.

This book works in its ominous, classical mystery vibes and the complexity of clues dropped along the way. I promise — you’re not likely to “figure it out” before the book ends, and though this unsolvability is sometimes a ridiculous and unwanted surprise (I’m looking at you, Pinborough), that’s not the case in Evelyn Hardcastle. As I neared the close of the book, I was already anticipating a reread to further my grasp on the tale.

You know what else is great about this book? Turton doesn’t merely write a mystery, friends. He serves to readers a hearty meal of character development and existential soul-grappling conundrums. Though the murder is at the forefront of the reading experience, Turton manages to tuck within the pages the struggle to succeed pitted against the struggle to remain true to core values.

A few suggestions if you want to make the most out of this read:

  • Avoid the audiobook. It may have a great narrator (I wouldn’t know), but this storyline is so freaking complex I can’t imagine many would be able to keep things straight for very long. I spent some time flipping back and forth between chapters, and for that reason, I’d also recommend skipping the Kindle and grabbing a copy from the library, but that’s a personal preference thing.
  • Don’t look at too many reviews on Goodreads. The less you know going into this read, the better!
  • Do make use of the “guest list” at the front of the book. I flipped back to figure out who’s who several times.
  • Stick with it. Honestly, I was bewildered for the first quarter of the book, and I never really stopped feeling like I couldn’t quite grasp the whole thing — until the end. Even then, Turton leaves readers with a great deal to ponder.

Overall: 4/5 stars. If you like to think, and you’re looking for a Clue-meets-Agatha-meets-Inception vibe, this is your book!

Review: Sweet Little Lies

One of August’s Book of the Month picks is a novel that I had the good fortune to receive an early copy of from my friends over at Harper — Sweet Little Lies by English author Caz Frear. If you’re on the fence about what to pick, take it from me: your credit won’t be wasted on this debut procedural.

Sweet Little Lies is one of those books that just vibes noir in every single way. A detective in London is part of a task force met with the grisly murder of an unidentified but seemingly upper-class woman whose body is dumped in the street — and they know that’s not where she was killed. Detective Cat Kinsella is eager to prove she has the stomach for the job after a previous case ended with mandatory time off and visits to the unit shrink. In an effort to prove herself useful, DI Kinsella is suddenly drawn into a much darker rabbit hole than anyone could have expected. Suddenly, her bleak upbringing is brought to the forefront and Cat is forced to hide some unsavory truths from members of both her work and personal lives. (Although, as far as that goes, she’s been withholding on both fronts for years.)

Although the book isn’t void of cliches — the main character becomes an investigator due to some past trauma and a need to right these wrongs from her childhood — characters are tightly drawn and the added element of family drama ups the juice-factor. Cat feels like the kind of person I’d be drawn to in real life: she’s down-to-earth, just the right blend of friendly and sarcastic, and her relationship with her boss — Parnell — is a perfect complement to Cat’s own disastrous personal relationships. She’s also the kind of character readers will empathize with — I think it must have something to do with her utterly normal vibes? — which makes the book that much more enjoyable.

Pacing is just right, motive is logical, and the twist(s): timed perfectly. Though I knew that such-and-such wasn’t likely to occur, I was definitely not expecting the outcome of Sweet Little Lies — and I wasn’t irked to find some “WTF-that-ending” surprise waiting for me from the depths of left field.

Frear manages to write a compelling novel that binds together my favorite mystery elements — dark, dark, dark! — without succumbing to trendy pressure to “blow readers away” with some ridiculous twist (or seven). A perfectly cracking debut novel, Sweet Little Lies read like the start of a lengthy and lucrative career to me.

Overall: 4 stars. Sweet Little Lies is chock full of assumptions, secrets, and childhood memories gone awry. If you’re into Law & Order: SVU and fancy yourself the next Liv Benson, give this debut a peek.

Side note: If you’re interested in reading Sweet Little Lies and want to give Book of the Month a shot, you can sign up using this link — we’ll both get a free book! And who doesn’t love that?!

Review: Whistle in the Dark

The first time I read Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” I was thrilled to my core. Over a decade later, I still remember the tremble of fascination and eeriness that delighted me as the narrator and I spiraled toward the dark conclusion. (If you’ve never read the story, follow the link and do so — it’s a quick read. And one that I consider required reading of like, everyone.)

I suppose the slow-moving paranoia and dedication to uncovering something (that may or may not exist) is what draws me in to Gilman’s work; and it is this same fascination with obsession and the potential for “craziness” that made Emma Healey’s latest novel, Whistle in the Dark, a compelling and spine-tingling read.

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Due out next Tuesday, July 24, from Harper Books, Whistle in the Dark is a slow-burning story about a mother and daughter. The book isn’t rife with action, and it isn’t a “thriller” in the trendy sense of the word, but I was captivated, and I was thrilled, by the time the novel met its end.

Synopsis: Jen Maddox has a pretty normal life: she’s mother to Meg, 26 years old and who’s just told her parents she’s pregnant; and Lana, 15 years old and the epitome of angsty teen. Her husband, Hugh, is a nice guy and the two of them exchange witty banter on a regular basis. “Normal” is the perfect adjective to describe the foursome — until, that is, Lana goes missing on a mother-daughter painting holiday and doesn’t resurface for four days . . . seemingly without a memory of where she was during that time, what happened, and who — if anyone — she was with. As Jen puzzles over the circumstances surrounding her youngest daughter’s disappearance (& recovery), readers learn that Lana has a history of suicidal ideations and depression. Jen is certain this disruption of their lives will lead Lana down a dark path, and frantically seeks to uncover the truth (no matter what the police or her husband think).

I will admit: the book wasn’t quite what I expected when I set out to read it. Based on the cover description, I thought Whistle in the Dark would be more of a fast-paced mystery/suspense novel in which a mother sets off on a journey to uncover the truth about her daughter’s disappearance. And in some ways, this is a fair description of the things that happen in the book; however, a majority of the book is actually devoted to the relationships between family members and Jen’s uncertainty — and resulting timidity — as a mother.

Here’s what I liked about it:

  • Jen’s character, though often frustrating, feels so true to life. While I was irked by her sometimes-passivity, I found her fearfulness of botching things with her tempestuous daughter to be very accurate.
  • The storyline trundles along slowly, but the details that Healey gives us in the family’s daily excursions and mealtimes and arguments feel like a breadcrumb trail that leads to something magnanimous.
  • Whistle in the Dark has just one perspective/POV to follow, and God bless it for that.
  • The prose is something else, my friends. It’s absolutely beautiful in its deliberate, thoughtful way, and I just wanted to write down all the damn phrases to store away somewhere safe, for looking at on rainy days. If ever there were a time to slow clap for an author’s writing style, this would be it.

Here’s what I didn’t love:

  • LANA. She drove me nuts (I feel you, Jen) and I was often repulsed by her behavior. That being said . . . I felt that she, too, was pretty well drawn for a teenager struggling with *not teen angst but real, actual depression*. So, while I hated her a lot, I also related to her, and felt the urge to text my mom several times and say Sorry for being such a difficult depressed shithead in high school. Oof.

Whistle in the Dark is a marvelously drawn, character-driven novel that creates this intimate portrait of a family dealing with the realities of chronic depression and the paranoia that (I assume) exists in parents of children who’ve attempted suicide. There’s an element of dark mystery lurking beneath the surface, as the book centers on the aftermath of Lana’s disappearance/return, and Healey’s ability to produce Jen’s anxiety in the reader (me!) was a truly surreal experience.

Overall: 4.5 stars. Read Whistle in the Dark if you’re okay with slow burns and moseying plots and enjoy a dark story with a payoff at the end.

Review: The Ruin

While I find myself increasingly ambivalent about the suspense/thriller genre as a whole, I am finding an increased appreciation for the artfully constructed detective novel. Perhaps this is a nod to earlier years in which I pored over Nancy Drew and Mandie novels, hell-bent on solving the mysteries before they could; perhaps it’s merely a fascination with the minds of those far cleverer than I. At any rate, I don’t even need a rainy day any more to excuse curling up in a poorly-lit room with a dark mystery and my trusty tobacco pipe. (I kid, I kid.)

Dervla McTiernan’s newly-released (in the US) DI novel is an ideal blend of dark, twisty, and Irish — and what more can you ask for in a work of detective fiction?

The novel opens in the past: 1993, rural Ireland, a young Cormac Reilly dispatched on one of his first cases — what he believes to be a routine domestic disturbance call. When he arrives, he discovers a house in disrepair, two young children equally neglected, and a deceased woman, whom he finds to be the mother of the children (and deceased for hours). When Cormac also finds signs of abuse mingled in with the obvious markings of neglect, he gathers the children up and takes them to the nearest hospital. Later, the case is removed from his hands and he moves on with his career.

Twenty years later, in Galway, a young man commits suicide. When his sister returns from the (presumed) dead days later, Cormac Reilly is called to the case by his superiors: it would seem he made the acquaintance of the two some decades previously, on the night their mother died. . . .

As the past and present are immersed in a tangled dance of fates, Cormac enters a dangerous game with members of the force — some who can be trusted, and others, apparently, who cannot. As the mystery unravels, McTiernan hurtles readers toward a conclusion that is both unforeseeable and nail-bitingly suspenseful. I raced through this work in a couple of sittings and, truthfully, wouldn’t have put it down if it would’ve been considered socially acceptable to let my 1-year-old fend for himself for a day or two. Sink or swim, right? 😉

The Good: See above for sung praises. I was adequately pleased by character construction, plotting, and the not-so-meandering stories-within-the-story. McTiernan has kicked off what I anticipate will be a brilliant dark series, and I can’t wait to get my hands on the second book (rumor on the street has it coming out March 2019).

The Bad: There are several timelines, stories, and characters — seemingly disjointed — being drawn together in The Ruin. At times, the various side stories can be confusing, if not a bit distracting. For the most part, the conclusion of this work cleared up ambiguities and made the short-lived confusion worthwhile.

The Verdict: 4.5 stars. If you enjoy smart, carefully constructed detective fiction à la Tana French and Robert Galbraith, give The Ruin a closer look.

Review: Celine

He laughed too, but what he felt was alarm. He looked past Amana and Gabriela to the outer rocks and saw the dark swell. It was the next wave and it was the second in a set and he watched it as if in slow motion: the wall lightening to green as it rose, rising impossibly tall, the guarding boulders out in the cove dwarfed beneath it, the quivering top frayed by wind and then a piece of it curled and collapsed and the water fell: a surge of whitewater chest-high roared in over the black slack of water of the inner cove and he was slugged and knocked over, his shoulder and neck hit rock, he came up lunging out of ice foam to see the tumult sucking back.

Last week, I made my first trip to a public library in over two years (for two years, I walked my classes to the library to check out books, but never got any for myself); and checked out books for myself for the first time in I-don’t-know-how-many-years. In truth, I only went to the library because I needed to check out the movie version of Of Mice and Men for my senior English class, which had recently finished studying the novel; but while I was there, I decided perhaps I could look into a few books I’d been eyeing on Litsy.

One of my four selections: Celine, a March 2017 fiction novel by author Peter Heller. Wedged neatly between two white spines on the New Releases shelf, Celine‘s lush green cover immediately drew my eye and I knew I’d heard of this mystery before. (A quick review of Litsy confirmed this suspicion.)

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CELINE FTW!

The novel opens in the past with an exquisitely crafted piece of prose that sets the stage for the rest of the story. It is here that young Gabriela is introduced to readers, before meeting her again some forty years in the future when she enlists the help of the novel’s title character, Celine: a 68-year-old private investigator born and bred of the upper crust society that is bourgeoise New York in the 1930s-40s. An anomaly for her breed, Celine challenges the expected roles of the jewel-encrusted “old wealth” families of her time period, bucking tradition to attend a boarding school that encourages students to work like farm hands; enroll and study at college; work for the FBI; and establish her own mostly-pro bono business as a private eye. Celine is everything society raised her not to be — and for that, readers will love getting to know her decadently-layered character.

Anyway. Gabriela, tied to Celine through their alumni status at the same college, seeks out Celine for help locating her father who has been missing for more than twenty years. Although Gabriela’s photographer father is assumed to have been mauled by a bear in the wilderness of Yellowstone National Park, a body was never recovered and more than a few details point to possible alternatives to the conclusions investigators came to just a few short days following her father’s disappearance. Celine is immediately enamored with the graceful, intelligent, and beautiful young woman who shows up at her door with a heartbreaking story of an unbelievable childhood, and she agrees to take the case. After arrangements are made, Celine and her husband (Paul) head to Yellowstone to sift through the puzzle that is not quite as open-and-close as investigators led Gabriela to believe decades ago.

As Celine and Paul work together to uncover the truth, Heller reveals nuggets of Celine’s own past to readers in a teasing manner . . . one tidbit at a time. Readers will race to finish this puzzle of a novel (and then regret not savoring it a bit more slowly, as several early details become important later on, as the mystery unravels).

The Good: Heller’s prose is to. die. for. (See the opening quote and try not to love it.) Although fragments bugged me in a nagging sort of way off and on throughout the novel, I quickly determined Heller is a Writer of Esteem. The opening scenes at the ocean completely drew me in; so much so that I raced through the rest of the novel and wanted to cry a bit when the story was all over. Another reader on Litsy noted that the ending felt a bit like an opportunity for continuation or a series, and though this is purely speculation, I’m happy to imagine a world in which Heller publishes more novels in the Celine vein. The plot of this work is enticing and not overly-populated with characters, which makes for a more intimate knowing of the individuals most central to the story. And, of course, Celine is a total grandmotherly badass. What’s not to love about that?

The (Not Actually) Bad: I read this one too quickly. Seriously. I started it Sunday night and was finished by Tuesday morning — and no, I did not skip work to read. It was just. that. good. My advice to readers: savor it, slowly. This one is definitely going on my to-be-purchased list, and I anticipate a reread in the near future.

The Verdict: 4.5/5 stars. Really, y’all: I just loved this book. I want to be Celine when I grow up, and I don’t doubt you’ll feel the same way.

Review: Where They Found Her

Autumn. Its arrival always stirs feelings of longing and heartache within me, somehow a mirror-like manifestation of the shorter, darker days and increasingly-blustery winds that rip through southwestern Kansas.

One half of me embraces the warm pull of seasonal excitement: plush sweaters, spiced lattes, pumpkin-scented everything; the other half of me bleakly recalls my skin’s hatred of scratchy fibrous knits, the area’s (abysmal) lack of coffee shops, and my personal revulsion to all things pumpkin-flavored. But all of me knows and responds to the call of dark, mysterious fiction to accompany the encroaching dim evenings. Cue my first September read: Where They Found Her, by Kimberley McCreight (author of Reconstructing Amelia, which I kinda liked, kinda didn’t).

The cover of this book pulled me in — the dark, foggy forest looming in sharp contrast to the bright yellow rain jacket of the faceless and nameless girl instantly piqued my curiosity. Adding to my appeal: a blurb by Gillian Flynn in the bottom left-hand corner of the cover. Yep. Sold.

Where They Found Her is set in the small, affluent community of Ridgedale, New Jersey, which is home to a prestigious college (I pictured a private, liberal arts institution). The town is the epitome of small-town communities: people seem to know almost everyone (& their business), the crime rate is low (almost nonexistent), opinions about everything are both “expert” and forthcoming.

Imagine civilians’ shock, then, when the unthinkable happens: a body is found on the banks of a wooded creek. An infant body. Thus begins a fast-paced quest to discover both the mother of the child and the killer — synonymous, in many Ridgedale citizens’ minds.

McCreight’s strengths clearly lie in her ability to meticulously craft lead characters. The story alternates in its telling from the perspectives of Molly Sanderson, a reporter for the Ridgedale Reader (and newbie in town); Barbara Carlson, resident helicopter mom and wife of the Chief of Police; and Sandy Mendelson, high school dropout and the only responsible member of her highly dysfunctional family. Between the narrative chapters that follow these three women closely, McCreight has threaded in newspaper articles, comments from online forums, transcripts from therapy sessions, and diary entries. Her use of these alternative sources adds juicier layers to the story and deepens the readers’ understanding of the prejudices and stereotypes held by the people of Ridgedale. (Which, by the way, are a close parallel to many of the conversations you could expect to find on Facebook or a local news outlet’s web page. Lesson for the reader, much?)

Where They Found Her is more than just a thriller — it’s a cautionary tale about what can happen when people refuse to acknowledge the realities other people face on a daily basis. It’s a bit of a lesson in compassion, asking readers the question (but never outright): What do you really know about your neighbors and their struggles?

What was lacking? Clarity, in the beginning. I read the first half of this novel during the school week in the evenings. By the time Friday night rolled around and I had all the free time in the weekend world, I was ready to knock out the rest of the book . . . but things were so twisted in the novel, and there were so many ridiculous ties to minor characters, I almost bailed at the halfway point. For a good two hours, I halfheartedly read a bit, flipped back to review a minor detail I’d overlooked, set the book down with a sigh, and took it back up again.

What was noteworthy? McCreight’s characters were distinctly developed. Sometimes authors who switch back and forth between multiple characters struggle to create unique, separate identities. This was not the case in Where They Found Her. Barbara, pain in the ass that she is, may be the most well-written character in the entire novel. Additionally, despite the rough start, the second half of the novel had me gripped in its icy clutches. I had some pretty strong hunches about a few outcomes (and ended up being right), but McCreight still managed to keep me hooked — and surprised by some major events — up to the very end.

Rating: 3/5 stars. This one won’t stick with you forever, and probably isn’t worth purchasing . . . but it’s worth borrowing when you’ve got a wide-open weekend and a hankering for dark mysteries.