The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, by Stuart Turton

>> Thursday, February 28, 2019

TITLE: The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle (aka The 71/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle in the US)
AUTHOR: Stuart Turton

PAGES: 528
PUBLISHER: Bloomsbury

SETTING: Alternate reality, seems like a version of England between the world wars
TYPE: Speculative fiction

How do you stop a murder that’s already happened?

At a gala party thrown by her parents, Evelyn Hardcastle will be killed--again. She's been murdered hundreds of times, and each day, Aiden Bishop is too late to save her. Doomed to repeat the same day over and over, Aiden's only escape is to solve Evelyn Hardcastle's murder and conquer the shadows of an enemy he struggles to even comprehend--but nothing and no one are quite what they seem.

Deeply atmospheric and ingeniously plotted, The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle is a highly original debut that will appeal to fans of Kate Atkinson and Agatha Christie.
I heard about this book when it won the Costa book awards first novel category last year and there was an interview with the author on Front Row. It sounded intriguing: Agatha Christie + Groundhog Day? What on earth would that look like?

Well, basically, it's like this: a man comes to without any memories, while running in a forest, shouting the name "Anna!". He sees what he thinks is a woman being pursued in the distance, then hears a shot and is convinced he's witnessed a murder. Another man comes to him, places a compass in his hand, and tells him to go east. By doing so, he arrives at a country house where a party is being held, and where people recognise him as one of the guests. He is, understandably, a bit disconcerted by it all.

It turns out he's a soul that has been tasked with finding out the truth about the murder of the titular Evelyn Hardcastle and with getting justice. To do that, he will inhabit the bodies of 8 different people, and live the day during which the murder takes place again and again and again. If he fails at the end of the last day, he starts again.

It all starts out feeling like a bit of a lark, but things start getting darker as we go along. As we discover more and more secrets, we start to care more and truly understand the horror of what's going on.

I really enjoyed reading this, and it turned out to be a more affecting book that I thought it would be during the first sections. For the first half or so, I was enjoying the clever plotting and the almost video game quality of it, but without becoming emotionally involved. But then our main character starts to feel more real, like more of an actual person, and there are quite interesting questions that are explored, albeit not in a terribly explicit way. Who is he, really? He doesn't have memories from before his time in the house, and with each host, he finds the host's personality pressing harder and harder on the dividing line between them and him. So which reactions are truly his, and which are not? I found the exploration of this quite interesting, particularly the way our narrator learns to make this conflict work towards his mission. There is also what feels like real growth and change in the character, when it comes to what we find out about what's really going on and why he's there. I don't want to say much and spoil the ending, but while some aspects of it felt weird and I still don't know how I feel about it, it did all make sense...

I was also impressed by the plotting, both the complexity of it (which was the Agatha Christie element for me, in addition to the setting), and the way Turton was able to take me along as a reader, without requiring me to keep notes or refer back to earlier sections. Honestly, from the way they were talking about it in the Front Row interview I did have some doubts about whether the audiobook would be a good option, but it was absolutely fine. You need to pay attention, but not in an exaggerated way. Also, this was sort of time-travel, which is one of those things that make my head hurt if I try to think about them too hard. So I was surprised by how well it all worked for me, because I tend to avoid time-travel stories precisely because of this.

I must say, though, at the beginning, I was a bit lost, even though I knew the setup I revealed above. But that works, because I was sharing that confusion with the narrator (actually, the narrator is even more confused!). I did have a moment of doubt when I started seeing people around the narrator behaving in very weird, unnatural ways. Is this going to be one of those books were we're just supposed to accept this as the way people would act? But soon even that made sense, because it turns out our narrator gets to keep the memories from when he was in each of his hosts, only losing them if he goes back to the beginning. So his future personas are responsible for some of those 'unnatural' behaviours, and that's perfectly logical.

All this said, I was a bit taken aback by the main character's reactions when he woke up in a host that was morbidly obese. I get it that dealing with a body that just won't do the things that you're used to finding natural, and where you have to put up with your body doing things that are uncomfortable and even embarrassing, would be a bit of a shock. I get that. But some of the language used felt hateful. That element was relatively fleeting, though, so I was able to let it go a bit (and it happens early on, so it didn't leave me with a bad taste in the mouth at the end, which helped).

On the whole, I found this a fun read, and one that felt quite fresh, for all that it's marketing seems to suggest it's a homage to this and that!



The Ones Who Got Away, by Roni Loren

>> Friday, February 22, 2019

TITLE: The Ones Who Got Away
AUTHOR: Roni Loren

PAGES: 354
PUBLISHER: Sourcebooks

SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: Romance
SERIES: Starts a series

It's been twelve years since tragedy struck the senior class of Long Acre High School. Only a few students survived that fateful night—a group the media dubbed The Ones Who Got Away.

Liv Arias thought she'd never return to Long Acre—until a documentary brings her and the other survivors back home. Suddenly her old flame, Finn Dorsey, is closer than ever, and their attraction is still white-hot. When a searing kiss reignites their passion, Liv realizes this rough-around-the-edges cop might be exactly what she needs…

Liv's words cut off as Finn got closer. The man approaching was nothing like the boy she'd known. The bulky football muscles had streamlined into a harder, leaner package and the look in his deep green eyes held no trace of boyish innocence.
Olivia Arias and Finn Dorsey are part of a small group of survivors of a school shooting. Several years later, a filmmaker is doing a documentary about the tragedy, and since any proceeds are being donated to the families of the victims, Liv and Finn both feel they should participate. And that's how they meet again after not seeing each other since the shooting. They were always super attracted to each other, and that doesn't seem to have changed.

The Ones Who Got Away popped up on quite a few 'best of 2018' lists, so it seems I'm the odd one out here. The first third or so, which was as far as I got, bored me to tears. There just didn't seem to be any tension at all in the book. Considering Finn and Liv's history, there really should have.

After all, at the time of the shooting, they were unable to keep their hands off each other, but since Liv was the weird Goth latina girl, daughter of middle-class Finn's parents' landscaper, she was his little secret. The night of the shooting, which was a party, Finn had gone with another date, someone of his social class, and when the shooting started he and Liv were angrily making out in a cupboard. Lots of potential for drama there, but in the present, it was all super tepid. I could not see this supposedly huge chemistry between them.

I was hoping things would get interesting at some point, so I kept forcing myself to pick it up. After a while, though, it didn't seem worth it.



Transcription, by Kate Atkinson

>> Tuesday, February 19, 2019

TITLE: Transcription
AUTHOR: Kate Atkinson

PAGES: 352
PUBLISHER: Little, Brown and Company

SETTING: 1940s and 1950s England
TYPE: Fiction

In 1940, eighteen-year old Juliet Armstrong is reluctantly recruited into the world of espionage. Sent to an obscure department of MI5 tasked with monitoring the comings and goings of British Fascist sympathizers, she discovers the work to be by turns both tedious and terrifying. But after the war has ended, she presumes the events of those years have been relegated to the past forever.

Ten years later, now a radio producer at the BBC, Juliet is unexpectedly confronted by figures from her past. A different war is being fought now, on a different battleground, but Juliet finds herself once more under threat. A bill of reckoning is due, and she finally begins to realize that there is no action without consequence.

Transcription is a work of rare depth and texture, a bravura modern novel of extraordinary power, wit and empathy. It is a triumphant work of fiction from one of the best writers of our time.
It's the early days of World War II, and Juliet Armstrong, an 18-year-old just out of school, is recruited by MI5. She's soon sent to work on efforts to keep the Fifth Column contained and harmless. Instead of simply arresting these people and trying to prove their guilt (such a faff!), MI5 let them go about their business, thinking they are doing the Fuhrer's work, while in reality, that work is being neutralised pretty effectively. An MI5 agent, Godfrey Toby, has been set up as a supposed agent of the Third Reich, and it is to him that Nazi sympathisers in London bring their reports, with the intention that they be passed on to Berlin. Most of these reports are pointless, but there are always some that are not quite so harmless. They all die with Godfrey.

Juliet's role is supposed to be purely secretarial. She simply types up transcripts of the conversations that are being monitored and recorded in Godfrey's flat next door, under the supervision of her boss, Perry. But things are never quite so simple.

Interspersed with the events during the war, we also get to see Juliet 10 years later, in 1950. She's working at the BBC, but it's clear that she's never managed to shake off the spy business completely...

This was quite excellent. Atkinson's writing just clicks with me, and it seems to be particularly effective in audiobook form (and narrator Fenella Woolgar is just wonderful. She strikes just the right tones).

The voice and the tone were my favourite things about the book. Things start out in a way that seems very 'fun and games' on the surface. The fifth columnists visiting next door feel ridiculous and harmless, for all that they are people with very nasty opinions. It feels like they are playing at what they're doing, and it's not anything serious. And Juliet is just typing things up, so surely she's not in any sort of line of fire. Even when she's asked to take a more active role in certain activities, it's all initially quite genteel. But as the book progresses, it becomes clearer and clearer that there is darkness just below the surface, and veeeery slowly, a sense of dread builds up. And when the nastiness breaks through, it's shocking, even though we knew it was there all along. It was perfect.

Juliet's voice works beautifully with this story arc. It's dry and full of a very British amused tone. The narration is very much from her point of view. Everything is as she sees it... or rather, as she's telling it to herself, which means that even though we're squarely in her point of view, we are clearly not necessarily seeing everything...

I did think, though, that the voice didn't seem to change all that much between the young Juliet at the start of the book, who was only 18, and the one in 1950, who had so much more experience behind her. This creates a bit of a dissonance in some small sections of the action during the war, particularly some of Juliet's interactions with Perry. She'd think things that were pretty naive, but do so in a very worldly voice, if that makes sense. Still, this was a relatively minor issue.

And speaking of the 2 distinct time settings, Atkinson does seem to like non-linear structures, but with her this has a point. The non-linearity is not there just for the sake of being experimental. Here we shift between the early days of the war and 1950, but it's pretty long sections each time, so the reader becomes fully immersed in the particular period each time. And with the events of the 1940s clearly affecting the events in 1950, the back-and-forth worked particularly well in revealing the plot gradually and moving the story forward.

MY GRADE: A very strong B+.


To See the Sun, by Kelly Jensen

>> Sunday, February 10, 2019

TITLE: To See the Sun
AUTHOR: Kelly Jensen

PAGES: 293
PUBLISHER: Riptide Publishing

SETTING: Planets of Zhemosen and Alkirak
TYPE: Romance

Survival is hard enough in the outer colonies — what chance does love have?

Life can be harsh and lonely in the outer colonies, but miner-turned-farmer Abraham Bauer is living his dream, cultivating crops that will one day turn the unforgiving world of Alkirak into paradise. He wants more, though. A companion — someone quiet like him. Someone to share his days, his bed, and his heart.

Gael Sonnen has never seen the sky, let alone the sun. He’s spent his whole life locked in the undercity beneath Zhemosen, running from one desperate situation to another. For a chance to get out, he’ll do just about anything — even travel to the far end of the galaxy as a mail-order husband. But no plan of Gael’s has ever gone smoothly, and his new start on Alkirak is no exception. Things go wrong from the moment he steps off the shuttle.

Although Gael arrives with unexpected complications, Abraham is prepared to make their relationship work—until Gael’s past catches up with them, threatening Abraham’s livelihood, the freedom Gael gave everything for, and the love neither man ever hoped to find.
In the depths of one of the nasty undercities of the otherwise beautiful planet Zhemosen, Gael is struggling. His life has always been difficult, and now it's turned desperate. After a failed attempt to clear his debts (none of which he incurred himself, but all of which he's responsible for, according to the powers that be), he's in an even deeper hole than he started in, and ready to consider his only friend's suggestion to become a mail-order groom in a planet far, far away.

In one of those distant planets, Alkirak, farmer Bram is feeling a bit lonely. After 30 years working a challenging mining job, he's taken retirement and built his farm. It has been and still is a challenge as well, but the hardest work is done and Bram's job now is mostly about keeping things going. And now that he has some time to himself, he thinks a bit of company would be nice. His planet is still pretty sparsely populated, so his best bet is to place an ad on the galactic online matchmaking site.

Both Gael and Bram like what they're seeing in the other, and before long Gael, has entered into a contract with Bram. He'll travel to Alkirak to live with Bram, and they'll see if they suit. But when he arrives, it becomes clear he's brought some trouble with him.

This started out well. The setup was one I really liked: two people slowly getting to know each other in an isolated location, learning to rub along. It also had two elements I find really satisfying: the person who finally finds safety, a place they can relax in, after living a life of constant stress (that would be Gael), and the person who finds their loneliness alleviated (Bram).

I also really enjoyed the setting. Alkirak is a harsh planet, one where the atmosphere is still a work-in-progress and people have to live in deep crevices to stay out of the burning sun during the day. These crevices are huge (big enough for cities and farms) and traverse the whole planet, going deep into the planet (not such a great thing, as sometimes poisonous mists waft up from the depths). It was all really vivid and different, and I loved the frontier feel of it all.

So all very promising, but did the story fulfil that promise? Well, unfortunately, not really. There was something about the characters that didn't fully gel for me, and the chemistry between them was a bit anaemic (not just sexual chemistry, but the way they clicked together). And then, the last third of the book was a bit of a change of pace, with someone turning villainous in a way that didn't make much sense. I kind of stopped caring about then.

MY GRADE: This was a C+ for me. It was just ok.


Dead Woman Walking, by Sharon Bolton

>> Monday, February 04, 2019

TITLE: Dead Woman Walking
AUTHOR: Sharon Bolton

PAGES: 368
PUBLISHER: Transworld Digital

SETTING: Contemporary UK
TYPE: Mystery/Thriller

Just before dawn in the hills near the Scottish border, a man murders a young woman. At the same time, a hot-air balloon crashes out of the sky. There’s just one survivor. She’s seen the killer’s face – but he’s also seen hers. And he won’t rest until he’s eliminated the only witness to his crime. Alone, scared, trusting no one, she’s running to where she feels safe – but it could be the most dangerous place of all...
The opening of Dead Woman Walking is absolutely fantastic. A group of people are doing a sight-seeing tour on a hot-air balloon, enjoying the beautiful Northumberland landscape. At one point, when they've come down relatively close to the ground, they see a murder take place. Hot-air balloons are silent things, and the murderer only notices them after the act. Realising his face can be seen clearly from the balloon, he shoots at them. Panic ensues, and the balloon crashes soon thereafter. Our protagonist, Jessica, is one of the few survivors, and manages to get away before the murderer arrives to ensure there are no survivors. We then follow the investigation and follow both Jessica and the murderer as he chases her.

As I said, the opening is excellently done. It's dramatic and fast-paced, and written in such a way that chaotic events feel clear. After that, however, I felt things disintegrated rapidly.

For starters, I felt Bolton was holding back too much. She's clearly withholding facts to increase the drama of future twists (it's pretty obvious there are a lot of those coming!), but to me, she gets the balance wrong. I didn't know enough to care about Jessica and about her relationship with her sister, which is revealed in frequent flashbacks. I didn't know who she was as a person, I didn't know what she knew or remembered after the clash, I didn't know what she was trying to do. Reading the scenes about her was frustrating and annoying.

The book also seemed to feature two of my least favourite plot devices: the villains who manage to track their prey so incredibly well it's almost supernatural, and spending time with a group of completely amoral people. The murderer is part of a crime family, and every single one of them seems to take murder and mayhem with absolute equanimity. I did not want to spend a second more with these people.

And to make matters even worse, the crime family turned out to be Scottish Travellers, and Bolton seemed to delight in all the stereotypes. They live in caravans outside a manor, which they've trashed and where they're running their criminal enterprise, they sit around a campfire in cheap camping chairs, seats ripped out from cars and even overturned car tyres. It made me very uncomfortable.

I read about 40% of the book and gave up. Out of curiosity, I looked up spoilers for the plot twists, and a couple of those would have definitely pissed me off, so I'm glad I stopped where I did.

I loved one of Bolton's recent stand-alone novels (Little Black Lies), but this did not even feel like the same author.



In a Dark, Dark Wood, by Ruth Ware

>> Saturday, February 02, 2019

TITLE: In a Dark, Dark Wood
AUTHOR: Ruth Ware

PAGES: 308
PUBLISHER: Gallery / Scout Press

SETTING: Contemporary England
TYPE: Suspense/Thriller

In a dark, dark wood

Nora hasn't seen Clare for ten years. Not since Nora walked out of school one day and never went back.

There was a dark, dark house

Until, out of the blue, an invitation to Clare’s hen do arrives. Is this a chance for Nora to finally put her past behind her?

And in the dark, dark house there was a dark, dark room

But something goes wrong. Very wrong.

And in the dark, dark room....

Some things can’t stay secret forever.
When writer Nora Shore receives an invitation to Clare Cavendish's hen do, she's very surprised. She and Clare were best friends in secondary school. But Nora left that school at 16 under quite traumatic circumstances, and even though the trauma wasn't anything to do with Clare, the two haven't spoken since, for over 10 years.

Only Clare's bridesmaid Flo, who's organising the do, insists Clare would especially love to see Nora again, and fellow former classmate Nina is coming as well, so what's the harm? It's just a weekend, after all.

But we know from the first scene that something goes badly wrong during that harmless weekend, culminating in some sort of car accident that leaves Nora struggling to remember what happened. And the police sitting outside her room are muttering something about 'murder'...

Ruth Ware seems to be a bit of a polarising writer. Her books receive more 1- and 2-star reviews than usual on Goodreads, and those seem to be right at the top. People who dislike her books seem to really dislike them. Lots of complaints about her heroines being unlikeable or behaving in unlikeable, stupid ways. And to be fair, reading some of those reviews I do recognise some of those issues, particularly about some motivations in this book being not completely believable.

But you know what? I don't care. I loved this book. There's something about Ware's voice that pulls me in and makes me believe in her characters, even when they're not behaving particularly well or particularly cleverly. I care about what happens to them and I care about her plots and finding out what happened. I definitely did so here.

I loved the characters. Ware brings together a motley group of people at the hen do. In addition to quiet, antisocial Nora there's perfect Clare, with her perfect life, Flo, with her disturbingly intense adoration for Clare, privileged playwright Tom, supercool doctor Nina and mumsy Melanie. Many of them don't know each other, and the way the dynamics between them develop was fascinating and rang completely true. You can feel the tension ratcheting up, not helped by the isolated location and lack of phone signal.

But it's not just the main characters who are well-done. The minor ones, even the ones you see only for a short scene, feel like they have a full life outside of the book. I particularly wanted to know more about the detective investigating what happened, DC Lamarr.

I thought the structure worked great, as well. I'm not usually a fan of flashbacks, but cutting back from the events at the house to Nora in the hospital trying to figure out what happened increases the tension dramatically. It all hangs together really well.

It's not a perfect book. As I suggested earlier, some things require a bit of a suspension of disbelief, and it's not that hard to guess the broad shape of what happened. Still, to me, this was immensely enjoyable.

MY GRADE: A solid B+.


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