The 7 ½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle

By Stuart Turton

Evelyn_HardcastleThis is like Wibbly-Wobbly, Timey-Wimey: the novel. The book is covered in blurbs raving about how original and fascinating it is, but I’m not sure that I ever got a full grasp of what was happening. Every so often, I’d get a spark of understanding, which was pretty cool, but then it would inevitably lead to even more confusion.

The novel opens with the narrator running through the woods, calling a woman’s name, with no memory of who or where he is. So, the reader starts as lost as the narrator, and it is a slow start as he puts together the pieces of the country house party he is attending. That’s basically as much as I can say without beginning to spoil things, but it isn’t really enough to get anyone interested in reading it. The basic publisher’s description realized this, too, so does provide some additional context.

The young society lady, for whom the party is in honor, dies at the end of the ball, and a mysterious cloaked figure tells our narrator that he must solve her murder. He has eight days to solve it, or rather eight cycles of the same day – the day of Evelyn Hardcastle’s death. The added twist is that each day, he will wake up in the body of one of the houseguests and he must run the detection through that person’s perspective. Which is really cool, and the author does a great job of showing how each different host affects the narrator (though it does lead to a chapter of some very uncomfortable fat shaming that made me like the book a little less).

It gets even more complicated, of course, with a slew of other houseguests and other strange characters in addition to the narrator and the eight guests he inhabits. Schemes, dangers, and suspicions abound, and I could never have predicted the final conclusion. (Like I said above, I’m not super sure that I understood everything, but I for sure did not anticipate it!)

Jane Steele

By Lyndsay Faye

Adobe Photoshop PDFHave you ever thought Jane Eyre would be improved if the heroine had simply murdered all the villains who cross her? Well, have I got a book for you! The very first sentence sets the tone: “Of all my many murders, committed for love and for better reasons, the first was the most important.”

The whole thing is much improved, actually, and I say that as someone who enjoyed the original. Thornfield (Rochester)*, in particular, is a breath of fresh air, as a soldier returning from East India after having “gone native” in the English army’s estimation, rather than a surly recluse. I always had to suspend disbelief that anyone would fall in love with Jane Eyre’s Rochester; Jane Steele’s Thornfield, of the other hand, has the perfect mix of charm and cynicism.

Like Abdul-Jabbar’s Mycroft Holmes, Lyndsay Faye takes a quintessentially British story and livens it up with a focus on other cultures that were always there historically but tend to be whitewashed out. Thornfield’s ward is the half-Sikh daughter of a fellow soldier, he has staffed his estate entirely with Sikhs, and the Sikh culture is woven throughout. An additional small but significant point that allows this revision to avoid seeming gimmicky is that Jane Eyre (the novel) actually exists in this world, and Jane Steele (the character) is a fan.

A few years ago, I read Jane Slayre, which does some of this – turning Jane into a murderer of vampires, which definitely added interest, but other than the vampires, it stayed pretty close to the original plot and even original prose. Faye, on the other hand, has revitalized the entire plot. Jane Steele retains a very similar feeling to the original, but skillfully updates the plot and characters for more modern sensibilities. (Reading this Jane returning violence against her with extreme prejudice is a real salve to the soul in the midst of the continually unfolding news of sexual exploitation and abuse by powerful men.)

When discussing the book at work, a coworker commented that she never really liked Jane Eyre because it was just so unrelentingly sad, with such terrible things happening to Jane, and I realized that the addition of the murders contrarily brightens everything up. It has quite a bit of sly humor, which kept me amused well after reading it.

*I only later realized that Thornfield is the name of Rochester’s house in Jane Eyre, so a clever little turnaround there.

A Study in Scarlet Women

scarletBefore I started writing this review I searched through our past blog entries several times, because this seemed like such an “us” book that I couldn’t believe one of us hadn’t already written about it. It’s a lady Sherlock Holmes! A Study in Scarlet Women is the first in a series of (currently) three books by Sherry Thomas about Charlotte Holmes, a brilliant woman who throws off the constraints of her conservative Victorian family and starts solving mysteries.

Overall this is a quick, enjoyable genre read but there were a couple of things I really appreciated about it.

  • Friend of the blog Jo originally made this observation, but there is not a one to one character match. There are plenty of parallels with the original Holmes stories, but Thomas constructs a world around Charlotte that makes sense and doesn’t try to wedge everything into exact characters and relationships when another arrangement offers more insight into her characters. So you get the fun of seeing the connections, but it doesn’t feel the author has just renamed characters from the original work.
  • Charlotte is portrayed as exceptionally smart and deductive, but not superhuman. As a woman raised in a sheltered environment, she has to learn lots of things and, as the story moves along, all of the different characters in her orbit contribute to her detective work. Sherlock Holmes is traditionally this lone genius who is completely self-sufficient when it comes to solving mysteries. I liked the slightly more realistic idea that even a genius isn’t going to know everything right out of the gate and might gladly rely on friends and family for help.
  • Thomas is known for her romance novels, and there is a bit of that sensibility here, just in that the relationships in the book are treated with a lot of respect and are central elements to the story. Love is as important here as figuring out who committed the murders.

Kinsey’s Three-ish Word Review:  Fun, feminist mystery

You might also like:  The Deanne Raybourne mystery books–I particularly like the series that starts with Silent in the Grave. And they’ve got a slightly different feeling, but I also enjoyed the Ruth Galloway books by Elly Griffiths, starting with The Crossing Places.

Slade House

By David Mitchell

Slade_HouseKinsey has read a fair number of Mitchell’s books, but this is my first one, and the only way I was able to put it down at all was to try to stretch it out for longer, it was so good! It is also very spooky, so I recommend it for a good October reading, leading up to Halloween. (I realize I’m cutting it a bit close here.)

The story is broken into five chapters, which are all set in the same mysterious house but which each take place 9 years later than the previous one. That alone would be enough to get me, but what really sold me was that each chapter is told in first-person from people from a fairly wide variety of backgrounds and, of course, generations.

The first chapter is set in 1979, with a young teenage boy, clearly on the autism spectrum, accompanying his middle-class but social-climbing mother to an afternoon soiree at the prestigious Slade House. Because this first narrator doesn’t always see things the way neurotypical people might, the awareness that something is off about Slade House came to me gradually. Which, of course, only enhanced the spookiness!

Each chapter unlocks more about what is going on in the house, until the final climatic reveal, which takes a bit of an L from where it appeared to be going. This turned out to be a bit controversial in my household, where I thought it was an intriguing departure from the norm, and Rebecca thought it was lame (though she really enjoyed the rest of the book).

Other Media

Kinsey has mentioned this before, but in addition to reading, we also watch a lot of television and listen to podcasts. I have two very particular* recommendations that are bringing me joy in these extremely trying times:

The Dragon Prince

Netflix

TheDragonPrinceOh, The Dragon Prince! The first season of this cartoon just hit Netflix a few weeks ago, and it probably would have passed me by entirely except for a thread of kudos on twitter. And I absolutely loved it! It reminds me of my favorite cartoons from when I was a kid: character-driven and quest-oriented fantasies like The Secret of NIMH and The Last Unicorn. Rebecca and I rationed ourselves and watched the nine half-hour episodes over three days, but were still real sad when we finished them.

About halfway through, I commented to Rebecca that in a weird way it made me think of Game of Thrones for kids. The world is split into multiple kingdoms that have been fighting each other for some vague number of years. A variety of characters from different lands and backgrounds must form and break alliances to strive for their own goals. And, of course, the violence is turned way down and the sex eliminated entirely. Dare I say I enjoyed it more?

Wolverine: The Long Night

Stitcher

TheLongNightIf The Dragon Prince is Game of Thrones, then Wolverine: The Long Night is True Detective (season 1, the only season). The Long Night is Marvel’s first authorized podcast and it is a beautifully done drama in the style of old radio shows like Dragnet and The Shadow. Now I love a classic radio drama to begin with, but I really think this is something special.

Also like The Dragon Prince, each episode of The Long Night is disappointingly short, only about half an hour. For the first five episodes, at least, Logan himself is very much a peripheral character: talked about briefly, but only showing up in person (in voice?) a very few times. The primary narrators are two FBI agents who have been dispatched to rural Alaska after a fishing boat is found with the entire crew slaughtered. Once the agents are in town, they discover that previous suspicious deaths had been hastily charged to bear killings, and that the whole town is a tangle of secrets centering around the one wealthy family.

The whole show does a wonderful job of creating atmosphere just through different tones of voice, and some light musical overlay. The writers manage to convey an impressive amount of information through dialogue without a lot of single-person narration or exposition. It just makes me so, so happy, and my only qualification is that there isn’t enough of it (yet), so it can be a bit frustrating.

*I say particular because while I love both of these, they are each for distinct fan-bases. Rebecca loved The Dragon Prince, as well, but doesn’t care for any radio dramas, and certainly wouldn’t like a noir-like mystery radio drama. Kinsey, a big podcast fan, is not super into cartoons, though it is possible that The Dragon Prince is charming enough to overcome that.

One of Us is Lying

By Karen M. McManus

One_of_Us_is_LyingThis book is literally The Breakfast Club, but if someone killed Anthony Michael Hall (and if Anthony Michael Hall had a real mean streak). Simon, the victim, wrote a gossip blog, revealing secrets about his classmates. He’s killed before he can post a new piece, while in detention with the four classmates he wrote about. Of course, those four are an over-achiever, a delinquent, a queen bee, and a jock.

Which could have been a little too clichéd except that the chapters all rotate through the four teenage suspects in their own voices. It is just so clever because it is pretty much a locked-room mystery, but we get to read the thoughts of all the suspects and truly none of them seem to have done it. As the book goes on, in addition to being a real stumper of a mystery, the characters become more complex and sympathetic, and I don’t want any of them to have done it.

They all have their own different struggles, which are naturally not helped by being suspected of murder. But the investigation turns their lives around in such a way that each one has to discover how to be true to themselves, and that’s very satisfying to read, too.

A quote from one of the chapters really captured the feeling of the book for me: “I guess we’re almost friends now, or as friendly as you can get when you’re not one hundred percent sure the other person isn’t framing you for murder.”

Magpie Murders

By Anthony Horowitz

Magpie_MurdersYou know how sometimes you want something interesting and different from what you’ve read before but also still want the same comfort and satisfaction as you get from those familiar books? I have to assume that I’m not the only reader chasing this catch-22.

Magpie Murders is a perfect fit for that particular mood! (Teaser: the rather awkward lack of “The” in the title is pertinent.) The novel is actually two mysteries from different genres, both titled “Magpie Murders”. The prologue introduces us to a modern-day editor who is sitting down to read the publisher’s proof of the latest mystery in a very popular mystery series. The next 175 pages is then that proof, a post-WWII English village mystery featuring an eccentric German detective. I was almost immediately sucked into this mystery, forgetting the more modern setting until it ended.

It was a bit jarring to then jump to the modern day, but the editor is very likable and sympathetic. She is convinced that the proof contains clues into a mystery regarding the author in her own time, and the remaining 200 or so pages follow her investigation.

Both mysteries are very good, and contrast well with each other, as well. I had some concern that the author would try to do something modern and clever and leave the reader hanging on one or both mysteries, but luckily it all ties up very satisfactorily. Almost anything more I say would begin to contain spoilers, so I guess I can only finish up with heartily recommending it.

Also, I found the book per a review on another wordpress blog that had been recommended to me, and which I promptly followed for the name alone (Anna’s unite!) and which I also recommend.