The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle

Rating:
Author: Stuart Turton
Genres: Mystery, Thriller, Science Fiction
Pub. date: Feb. 2018 (read Mar. 2019)

Where do I start with this book? It has such great reviews on Goodreads and I was super excited to read it, but honestly every time I picked this up I found myself literally starting to fall asleep after a single chapter. I really can’t explain it, the plot is totally bonkers but for some reason I just didn’t find it compelling. The book did pick up around the 50% mark and I found it a bit easier to read, but it’s so confusing in the first half that it was just painful to read.

The plot synopsis is super compelling though. The story is set at Blackheath Manor, home of the wealthy Hardcastle family. It’s not clear what year the story is set – there’s both cars and carriages in the story so it’s certainly not modern day and had a bit of an old-timey feel to it, with maids, butlers, and footmen. The Hardcastles have invited a ton of guests to the manor for a party, but what they don’t know is that at the end of the night, their daughter Evelyn Hardcastle will be murdered, though it won’t look like a murder.

Enter our main character, Aiden Bishop. Aiden wakes up in the body of one of the party guests, Sebastian Bell, with absolutely no memory of who he is or how he got there. Through a series of events, he is tasked with determining who killed Evelyn Hardcastle. The catch is that every day he will wake up and re-start the day of Evelyn’s death in the body of a different guest. He will have 8 hosts and therefore, 8 chances to re-live the same day and solve the crime.

Confusing right? But also, super compelling! Why is Aiden stuck in this body-snatching loop, we have no idea, but the idea is certainly intriguing. Overall I thought this was the most well done part of the book. Did I love the writing or the way the characters were portrayed? No, but I liked how the personalities and quirks or each host influenced Aiden’s abilities and slowly started to take over his mind the longer he was in their body. He moves from the cowardly doctor, to the quick-witted Lord, to the perverted creep, to the clever cop, all of who aid and hinder him in his search for the truth.

There’s a lot going on in this book. I won’t get into the intricacies of the plot, but as you can imagine, with 8 different hosts, plus several rival hosts, and tons of party guests – the cast of characters and sequence of events becomes easily confused. It is somewhat effective to chuck your reader into the middle of story without any preamble, because it helps them to relate with Aiden, who has absolutely no memories prior to waking up as Sebastian Bell. It’s just as confusing for the reader as it is for Aiden. But this only takes your reader so far. If they can’t eventually make sense of the story, it makes for a confusing and frustrating read.

There is a really fine line with mystery novels. You want to trick your readers and leave them guessing, but you also want to give them enough information to encourage them to try and solve the mystery themselves. For me, the most satisfying mystery novels are the ones where I think I have things figured out and then the author throws you for a loop with a killer twist and then totally blows your mind (Alice Feeney’s, Sometimes I Lie, and Riley Sager’s, The Last Time I Lied, come to mind – also pretty much anything by Ruth Ware). Mystery books that give you nothing annoy me. I love a twisted, clever plot, but when it’s too convoluted, I don’t even bother trying to think up what happened and it kind of takes the fun out of it. JK Rowling’s latest book in the Cormoran Strike series suffered from this and I wrote a review for that book about how I dislike the dramatic multi-chapter info-dumps for convoluted plots like this. (I love this series though and the characters! Her latest plot was just a little too confused)

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle is definitely a clever plot, I’ll give Turton that. He says in his acknowledgements that he spent 3 years working on this book and I believe it. Any book that looks at the same day 8 times is going to require a tightly plotted story. But there were just too many unexplained details in this book to keep me interested. I do think there’s overdoing it, and for me, this story got lost in the plot. I also disliked how he had Aiden’s different hosts following up on these leads without including us, the reader, in them! Like when Ravencourt starts leaving these random notes everywhere and Rashton was secretly recruiting support to confront Daniel? Turton just sprung those things on his readers without really explaining them. The plot is so convoluted, you can include your reader in some revelations without worrying they’ll solve the mystery. I need some pay-off to follow along with this 450 page book. I don’t want to invest in a confusing mess of a story for this long with no pay-off until the last 10%. Especially if your ending is going to be as f-ed and anti-climatic as this one was (more on that later).

Overall, this book was just too long. We have to read about every single thing all 8 hosts do without even getting any of Aiden’s revelations or clues. I felt like Aiden was getting nowhere with his investigations for 80% of this book and then suddenly he has all the answers? I really wish Turton had taken us on that journey with him. I actually quite liked the story arc with the 19-year old murder mystery and I thought that death was actually easier to solve and we had more clues to work with. But the present day death was a bit of a mess.

The idea of the 8 different hosts was definitely a clever one, but it was pretty painful to read. I’m really unsure what to think about the author or Aiden after reading this book. The fatphobia was disgusting. Can I believe someone would struggle to suddenly be in an obese body? Sure, but we’re supposed to like Aiden and he’s just so fat-phobic when he’s in Ravencourt’s body, it’s awful and I hated him for it. I don’t have a problem with an author writing from this lens if that’s integral to their character (ie, it’s a shitty character and we’re not meant to like them), but because we’re supposed to like Aiden, I place the blame on the author and I really don’t think the fat shaming had any reason to be in this novel. The descriptions were over the top and insulting and went way beyond mere discomfort with a body.

Also, why are none of the hosts women? I mean, thank god none of the hosts were women because I really wasn’t looking forward to reading from the perspective of a man in a women’s body after the mess that was Ravencourt, but like, what are the odds none of the 8 hosts would be women? Seems unlikely. This story was really about men though. The women are all secondary characters and only ever really serve as props to move Aiden’s story forward. This book was published in 2018, like come on, I’m so done with stories with women as props.

But my biggest problem with this book was the flimsiness of the time-travel theory. There’s all kinds of different time-travel theories out there. There’s the “everything is destined to happen” theory a la Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and The Time Traveller’s Wife, where everything that happens in the future is present in the past (ie. future Harry saves past Harry and knows it’s possible because he saw himself do it in the past). In this kind of time-travel theory, you don’t really have any ability to change time. You may not know all of what the future holds, but any interactions with future selves will be the same from both sides of the time travel.

The other theory that comes to mind is the Back to the Future type of time travel, where every action has a direct result on the future, such as Biff going back in time to give himself the Almanac. In this scenario Marty can no longer return to the present because the past has created an alternate future.

I’m going to get into some light spoilers on the type of time travel used in this book now if you want to tap out of the review.

It becomes clear from pretty early on in the novel that Turton is employing the first type of time-travel. Aiden interacts with future hosts and his future hosts also interact with past hosts to ensure the same sequence of events. Presumably his last host creates a compendium of all his interactions that he gifts to Anna because she has a book that she uses in every new life to ensure the days proceed as instructed by Aiden’s future host. I struggled with this type of time travel for this book because if everything is pre-destined, how is Aiden ever supposed to solve the murder? He tries several times to change the day, but ultimately his characters always follow the same course, which makes him a passive player in the whole thing. We learn this is not his first loop inhabiting these 8 bodies and the order of the hosts does change, but it all seems pre-destined to me, so what’s the point. Everyone’s just playing a role for the other hosts and nothing you do is ultimately going to change that.

But where things really get messed up is that he eventually does break the loop. He’s supposed to wake up one of his past hosts in the middle of the night with a message, but he never does, so wouldn’t that make the whole thing collapse? If he never wakes a host up, then it shouldn’t have happened in past host’s timeline. He eventually does appear to follow the rest of the loop, but once it changed I was like, what kind of theory are we following here?? The plague doctor encouraged Derby to give the compass to Bell because otherwise the whole timeline would change, impacting future Aiden, but then he goes and changes it later anyways with seemingly no consequence.

I also thought the ending was weak. I’m going to get into MAJOR spoilers now.

The whole “Blackheath is a prison” thing actually didn’t bother me that much. At least it was an explanation that was somewhat clever. But the whole thing with Anna was poorly done. First of all, despite all their interactions, Aiden and Anna have virtually no relationship. Aiden decides to trust Anna even though she’s done nothing to warrant his trust. His decision to trust her comes before she saves his life, but after he sees her with the Footman attempting to kill him. Why on earth would he trust her after that?? It made no sense. Plus, we have absolutely no sense of who Anna really is because the interactions between Anna and Aiden, while important to the plot, have no character depth or development.

I feel like the author was trying to bring some depth to his story by making it this whole “redemption plot” to move his readers or something. But it was too little, too late for me. If you want me to think Anna is a good person, you should have invested in her character more. You can’t just throw in this bombshell that she’s a horrible murderer at the end of the story and then expect us to buy into her redemption. “It’s okay, Aiden thinks she’s redeemed even though he has absolutely no evidence and can’t remember the 1000 loops that came before, but we should just trust his gut feeling anyways.” NO.

Mostly Aiden was just an enigma to me. Sometimes he was heavily influenced by the personality of his hosts, while other times he was extremely adamant in his morals and feelings. He loved Evelyn based on one interaction with her as Bell, even though all the other evidence from his other hosts indicated she kind of sucked. Also, what was up with Daniel? Now that was a more compelling character, but I didn’t really get how things worked for Daniel and Anna. Didn’t they wake up every day with no memory? I understood Anna because Aiden gave her a book of instructions to follow, but what’s up with Daniel? Would he do the same thing every day or was he different every day? Presumably he had to be the same based on the type of time travel the author employed for Aiden, so wouldn’t he just be doing the same thing for 8 days of every loop? I have no idea really. How did he know about Ravencourt’s letter? Overall, it felt like there’s still a lot of unanswered questions. Why was Bell’s arm all shredded? What happened in previous loops to make Aiden like Anna? Why did the Senior Mr. Hardcastle have to die? How did Aiden figure out who the real Evelyn was? Also, are we just going to skip over the fact that Hardcastle’s response to his artist beating the shit out of his butler is just to string him up in the gatehouse? WTF?!

So that’s my review. It’s long, so I mean, props to the author that his novel did have enough depth to write a review like this, but overall I thought it was flawed. I’m going to give 2 stars because, while I didn’t enjoy the book, it’s undoubtedly clever and original and I think he deserves props for that. Plus, clearly a lot of people really like this book. I wouldn’t recommend this book, but I also wouldn’t be deterred from reading it, except for the fat shaming. That was terrible.

Ten

Rating: .5
Author: Gretchen McNeil
Genres: Young Adult, Mystery/Thriller
Pub date: Sep. 2012 (read Aug. 2018)

I picked this one up based solely on the fact that it was a YA retelling of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, which I absolutely loved. Sadly this couldn’t hold a candle to the original. In my opinion, it failed as both a retelling and a YA novel.

First of all, all of the characters in this book suck. It’s not that the characters were unlikable (they were, but I don’t have a problem with unlikable characters), it’s that they were not believable. I felt like a was reading a bad tv drama about teenagers. The tropes and stereotypes in this book were just the absolute worst. These felt like caricatures of teenagers rather than actual teenagers. Real teenagers are smart – they have depth and emotion – I felt like this was written by someone who hasn’t been a teenager in a really long time and just stole from a bunch of stupid, shallow stereotypes about young people.

I know that teenagers exaggerate everything and that stupid, trivial things can seem like a way bigger a deal than they actually are, but all of these characters were unnecessarily dramatized and I had a huge issue with how the author played around with mental illness as a plot tool in this book. Minnie is supposedly bipolar and the author purposely takes her off her meds to dramatize the plot and make everyone think she’s crazy and I just had a huge problem with that. I also really didn’t like Meg’s voice in this book, she sounded like a whiny 12 year old and I found her character totally unbelievable. I’m sorry, I don’t care how into a guy you are, no one is still actively thinking about romance after 5 people have been murdered in front of you.

I don’t think this worked as a re-write either. I read And Then There Were None last year, so the source material is still pretty fresh in my memory. I didn’t successfully guess who the killer was, so that’s good, but the plot structure was really similar and relied on a lot of the same red herrings. I would have preferred to see something a little more clever, although it was interesting how the author tied all the teenagers together in the end. I hated the ending though. That was one area where I would say if you’re going to do a re-telling, at least commit to the ending.

Anyways, needless to say this book wasn’t a win for me. I know it’s just supposed to be a fun, murder mystery/thriller, but I couldn’t excuse how vapid the characters were (there was a character named TJ, like come on!). I rarely give anything less than 2 stars, but I’m honestly at 1.5 stars for this book. I get mad just thinking about it. Avoid this and stick to Agatha Christie, she’s sold more books than any other author for a reason.

The Life She Was Given

 

Rating: 
Author: Ellen Marie Wiseman
Genres: Historical Fiction
Read: Jan. 2018

 

Oh my goodness, how much suffering can one person take?

The Life She Was Given follows the stories of two women and switches back and forth between their perspectives every other chapter. Lilly’s story takes place in the 1930’s and begins when she is 10 years old. For the first 10 years of her life, Lilly has only known the attic of her parents manor. She is an albino and is shunned by her religious mother who views her as an abomination. However, one night she sees the red and white stripes of the big top being set up in the farmland near their estate and her mother hurries her out of the house for the first time in her life. Lilly is overwhelmed and shocked to discover that her mother has conspired to sell Lilly to the circus and abandons her with a controlling and terrifying man named Merrick who runs the circus sideshow, also known as the freak show.

As Lilly adjusts to circus life, we follow the story of another young woman, Julia. It’s the 1950’s and Julia is 18 and has run away from home, leaving behind her controlling religious mother and their huge manor. When she hears her mother has passed and the estate has been left to her, she reluctantly returns home and begins exploring the manor, discovering several photos of a young circus performer and realizing that her parents may have been hiding some dark secrets in the manor.

This book is a hard read. It is dark and disturbing and filled with an intense amount of suffering. I’m not opposed to reading dark books and I actually really like gritty books that make you feel, but there was very little that I enjoyed about this book.

First of all, Julia’s story was sooo boring. Barely anything happens to her and I found her whole side story with the horses pretty pointless. I can see why Wiseman decided to include it since it goes with her whole anti-animal cruelty theme, but honestly, I thought Julia’s arc with the horses really added nothing of value to the book overall. The whole premise of Julia’s story is that she finds stuff in the house that leads her to investigate what her parents were hiding, but it took forever for her to make any significant discoveries and I was just super bored. Julia was also totally unbelievable to me as an 18 year old runaway. Once she returned to the manor and took up all the responsibilities of running the farm, she seemed more like a 30 year old woman to me than an 18 year old who’d been living on her own with an abusive boyfriend for the last 3 years. She also didn’t read like someone who grew up in the 1950’s and I would have had no trouble believing her story took place in modern day. Overall I thought her characterization and development was very poor.

Lilly definitely had the more interesting story of the two women, but I didn’t love her story either. She was super mistreated, which I can understand because it was the 1930’s and people were afraid of things that were different or that they didn’t understand, but her story was just so dark! I found the whole animal whisperer thing to be a stretch and I didn’t really buy into it. I’m glad I read this book for my book club so that I can talk to some other people about it because I honestly have no idea what the theme of this book was supposed to be. Sure, this educated me a little bit on circus life, but really, what was the point of Lilly’s whole story? She just suffered and suffered without really seeming to grow as a character. I know she was mistreated her whole life, so it is understandable that she would be withdrawn, but she never actively did anything for herself. Things just kept happening to her and she only eventually escapes Merrick and finds any happiness because of Cole.

The ending of the book was just blah. I won’t spoil it, but everything about Lilly and Julia’s stories at the end just felt dramatic and overdone. There was no closure for me with this story and the ending felt very forced and not at all organic. I found this book to have a lot of clichés and insufficient justification for why some of the characters acted the way they did. For example, the whole thing with the zealous, religious mother and why she mistreated Lilly. This woman had zero compassion and felt like a caricature. She just was not believable to me as a human being and the “insight” into her character that Wiseman provides at the end was totally insufficient in helping me understand her. Honestly, Merrick was the only character I really thought was believable because I had absolutely no trouble imagining an overbearing, entitled man being a shit to woman to exert his control over them.

The whole animal cruelty storyline felt really cliché and basic too. I was eye-rolling hard at Julia every time she was opposed to something Claude wanted to do with the horses. Yes it is really sad about the nurse mares, but you are running a business and you can’t just adopt every foal put up for auction. But apparently Julia lives in a fantasy world where you can just abandon all manners of money making, become a philanthropist, and still maintain your wealth. For someone who basically lived on the street for 3 years, I found it really hard to believe she wouldn’t care about protecting her income.

Overall, this was an unsatisfying book and I’m glad it’s over.