The Mind-bending Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle

The 7.5 Deaths of Evelyn HardcastleTucked amidst the charming shops lining Northville’s downtown Main Street, sits My Little Paris Cafe & Bookstore. I’ve been out of the literary loop for a bit, so I decided to drop in and check out the space that formerly housed The Next Chapter. A toasty tour of the shop led me to a display of the store’s January Community Book Club pick, The 7½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton. There’s been quite a bit of conversation surrounding Turton’s unique novel, so I thought it a solid club selection. Quotes of dazzling, triumphant, mind-blowing twisty– and this look up – pure-silk Möbius strip of a story, cover the back jacket and urge the reader to jump in and enjoy the ride. Since I never leave an indie without buying a book, Evelyn Hardcastle made the cut for my latest review.

What I want to tell you is that I loved the book. Unfortunately, I only just liked it. Turton’s work has been called bewildering and complex, and in that I can agree. While reading different reviews regarding this book, I noticed that the descriptors in one mimicked those of another, as if no one really knows what to say about The Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle. It’s that kind of book. Is it genius? Chaos? One thing that most do seem to agree on (including me), is that it’s totally original and worth the reading experience.

Main character Aidan Bishop has eight days and eight witnesses in which to work with to solve a murder, name a killer, and escape the sinister Estate of Blackheath. Each day repeats (think Groundhog Day), with Bishop inhabiting the bodies of each witness and compiling clues garnered from his time spent in each person. At times the character switch is utterly confusing, but Turton is exceptional at character portrayal and giving the reader a full-feel of what it is like to take on the physical, mental and emotional characteristics of another human being. Here’s a brief glimpse of Aidan’s time in the obese form of Lord Ravencourt:

     We walk slowly, but my mind is fixed on the ponderousness of this body I’m dragging forward. It’s as though some fiend has remade the house overnight, stretching the rooms and thickening the air. Wading into the sudden brightness of the entrance hall, I’m surprised to discover how steep the staircase now appears… It would take a pulley, two strong men, and a day’s pay to hoist me into Bell’s room.

Each character is seen from the inside-out through Aidan’s eyes as he slowly absorbs the perspective of the character in which he resides. Trippy? Yes. Confusing? Quite, but for those who persevere it does work itself out in the end.

The setting is a wealth of intrigue. Based on the “old chap” language and the decaying country mansion, perception dictates the timeframe to be around the 1920’s. Sprawling grounds, murky lake, looming graveyard, hidden webby rooms, and flickering gas lamps shadowed throughout the surrounding forest, all combine to provide an undertone of serious creep throughout the story. Recurring characters such as the skin-prickling Plague doctor and the ominous footman are integral to the story, and up the clever factor as clues click and slide into place.

Overall, this thriller is stacked a bit too high for me. Turton is apparently a fan of time travel, Agatha Christie mysteries, and video games, all of which take me beyond the bounds of my reading comfort zone. No plot spoilers here, but I need to add that the ending didn’t work for me – it was just too far out of my grasp. This doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t recommend The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle.

Turton’s writing is crisp and engaging, reminding me a bit of Amor Towles’ Rules of Civility. In the back of the book Turton reveals just how important the connectedness and precision of the events and characters in the book had to be for his concept to hold. The intricacy of the plot is a head-spinner. Therefore, if you are strong in the logic department and enjoy a good puzzle, then give it a go. If you tend to drift a bit while you read and prefer linear fiction, this isn’t the one for you.

My Little Paris Cafe & Bookstore

I haven’t covered our local independent bookstores in a while, but it is refreshing to know that they are alive and well in the Detroit metro area. My Little Paris Café & Bookstore’s Community Book Club meets the fourth Tuesday of the month. The next title is Curtis Sittenfeld’s, You Think It, I’ll Say It and will meet on February 26, 2019 from 6:00-7:00. Don’t forget to buy your book from an indie!

*Support your local bookstores, libraries, and universities. It matters.

Why a Title Changes – The 7 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle

– Post by Megan Shaffer

Natalie Taylor Brings ‘Signs of Life’ to Birmingham Biggby Coffee

Signs of Life: A MemoirWhat do you do if you’re 24 years old, five months pregnant, and your husband suddenly – tragically – dies? If you’re Natalie Taylor, you write one honestly good book. Yes, we all know that shelves sag with overdone memoirs of tainted childhoods, deeds done wrong, and ruined lives, but Taylor defies the dark and opts to soar instead with this tight uplifter, Signs of Life.

Natalie’s husband Josh Taylor died on Father’s Day of 2007. He was 27 years old, married to the woman he loved, and happily awaiting the birth of their first child. Who would have thought that a quick blow to the back of his head while Carveboarding would put an end to his own life just as the one he created was beginning to bloom?

Signs of Life is the narrative compilation of Natalie Taylor’s journal entries that span the year following her husband’s death, yet Taylor’s pragmatic approach toward handling her grief is precisely what lands Signs of Life in its own little camp of the genre. Though Taylor’s voice cuts with pure pain and candor, she unwittingly softens the blow with her straight-forward sincerity and unwavering humor.

“When I decide to do something, I want it done quickly. I do not dilly-dally. When Dr. G. told me that grief takes time, I wanted to say, ‘But what about for the smart kids?’ I took Advanced Placement Calculus in high school. Let’s talk Advanced Placement Grief. But one of the first things I realize about this stupid emotion is that AP Grief does not exist. Time goes by, weeks pass, a month passes, my belly grows, my hair grows, but when I wake up in the morning it feels exactly the same. Grief goes at its own speed.”

As Taylor begins to piece together the brokenness of her life, the fog of her grief lifts just enough to reveal a bit more of both herself and the world around her. Through Josh’s death, Taylor is inadvertently exposed to life outside of the insulated bubble in which she grew up. Instead of self-absorption with her own sorrows, Taylor finds in herself an unexpected wellspring of compassion and understanding for all walks of life.

Taylor is a high school English teacher, and she structures Signs of Life around the books she teaches and those that pass through her hands the year after Josh’s death. Seeking solace through literature, Taylor looks to some heavy hitters for help. Alice Walker, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Ralph Waldo Emerson are but a few of the many authors who step up to hold Taylor’s grieving hand.

Also balanced by the support of some killer friends and family, Taylor puts you on a nickname basis with Ads, Matthews, Moo and more, but it’s never overdone. Taylor’s memoir is incredibly fresh and breathes life and hilarity into the not-so-funny-at-all realm of death, darkness and grief. While Signs of Life is based on Josh Taylor’s terribly sad and untimely death, one can’t miss the budding evolution of a determined woman, a beautiful baby boy, and the incredible ongoing power of life.

*Support your local bookstores, libraries, and universities. It matters.

– Post by Megan Shaffer

The Ambiguous ‘Charms’ of Mitchell Zuckoff’s ‘Lost in Shangri-La’

Cover ImageAs a reader I often find myself wondering about little tangential topics, quirks, or details that cushion a story. As my eyes move over one page my thoughts might still be caught a few paragraphs back, roaming around with questions that itch for a little more info. What was that war all about? Does this tiny country really exist? How did the author manage to survive?

Charms candy was that little itch for me in Lost in Shangri-La. 

It seems that Tootsie Roll Industries would have little to do with Mitchell Zuckoff’s Lost in Shangri-La. However, Tootsie Roll Industries is the owner of Charms Candy; the very candy that provided the Gremlin Special’s crash survivors with enough sustenance to survive in the jungle.

“Breakfast was water and more Charms, still their only food on the third day after the crash,” writes Zuckoff. “They separated the candies by color, eating the red ones until they tired of them, moving on to yellow, and so on.”*

Due to the hardiness of Charms Candy under a variety of conditions, the candy became a standard part of American soldiers’ military issue around the time of World War II. The individually wrapped candy squares, made from sugar and corn syrup, came in an assortment of fruit flavors and were a staple of soldier rations.

The treat meant to sustain military forces, however, has taken on a more ominous tone in recent years. The Curse of Charms Candy is of unknown origin, but superstition claims that if a soldier eats, or even keeps the candy in their possession it brings bad luck.

In the article US Marines Ditch Their Unlucky Charms, one sergeant says, “Chew on a lemon Charm and you’re heading for a vehicle breakdown. Suck on a lime and it rains. Raspberry – for the highly superstitious – means death.”

Journalist Ashley Gilbertson of the New York Times found the same beliefs among forces in Afghanistan. “Never eat the Charms, the troops say; they’re unlucky. It’s just a superstition, of course – I’ve never met a soldier who could tell me why they were unlucky – but the G.I.’s take it seriously. I sometimes think that if I ever got separated from my unit in the field, I’d just follow a trail of discarded unopened Assorted Charms to find them again.”

You can link over to BookBrowse.com where you will my full review of Mitchell Zuckoff’s Lost in Shangri-La as well as thousands of reviews and intriguing sidebars.

* Taken from Mitchell Zuckoff’s Lost in Shangri-La: A True Story of Survival, Adventure, and the Most Incredibly Rescue Mission of World War II

-Support your local bookstores, libraries, and universities. It matters.

Post by Megan Shaffer


Fallada Lives on in ‘Every Man Dies Alone’

Cover ImageAfter finishing Hans Fallada’s Every Man Dies Alone, I needed some time to sit and really think about the book. In itself, the story is extremely powerful, but the fact that Fallada lived, breathed and navigated the ruthless currents of Nazi Germany brings a frightening credibility to the tension of this novel.

Otto Quangel is considered a simple man by all those around him. He quietly heads to the factory each morning, efficiently runs his lines, and methodically returns to his gray flat in the same manner. His wife Anna awaits, laying low and fretting in spades for the safety of his daily return.

Otto and Anna have lost their Germany. They are quiet people by nature, but speak sparingly due to the invisible eyes that are always watching. Neighbors are turning. People are hiding. Death and corruption are everywhere. Nazi rule has spread, and with it the trepidation and horror of rumored camps and prisons.

The strength of Every Man Dies Alone, however, lies not so much in the depiction of the torturous treatment and silencing at the hands of the Nazis, but rather in Fallada’s shrewd ability to convey the thrill of fear, and the enormity of risk, as the Quangel’s conspire to take a stand.

If you could muster the courage, how would you stand up to such a staunch and brutal regime? Would you mobilize a coup or a riot? Or would it be something more covert like an underground press or subversive leafleting? What if you were just an everyday man who could hide behind an everyday routine like Otto – would you take any action at all?

I would be cheating you of a magnificent read if I provided any plot spoilers. You should know that Every Man Dies Alone is based on the brave, true story of a couple who decided to resist, and in so doing, showed that the smallest of actions often provide incredible, unintended results. Through the deft skills of Hans Fallada, their small story resounds decades later.

Of Note: Hans Fallada (nee Rudolph Ditzen) wrote Every Man Dies Alone in a feverish twenty-four days, soon after the end of World War II and his release from a Nazi insane asylum. He did not live to see its publication.* Informative sections of Fallada and his life among the Nazi system is provided in the Melville House Publishing paperback version.

– Support your local bookstores, libraries, and universities. It matters.

– Post by Megan Shaffer

*taken from book jacket

Ann Patchett’s ‘State of Wonder’ Certain to Leave You Wondering

Cover ImageWe’ve come to expect big things from bestselling author Ann Patchett. As winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award and the Orange Prize for her international beauty Bel Canto back in 2002, Patchett unwittingly raised her literary bar and cleared the way for a large and loyal fan base.

Highlighted by the success of Bel Canto, Patchett has amassed a reliable readership and now publishes to eager, outstretched hands. With five praised novels to her name and one currently situated on several prominent reading lists, Patchett has been slow to disappoint. In her latest novel State of Wonder, however, Patchett just might find devotees a touch disenchanted.

Patchett’s State of Wonder boldly tackles the snarled, cacophonous wilds of the Amazonian jungle. Yet for all of the novel’s shimmering flora, pulsating hues, masticating insects, shrieking monkeys and tribal ululations, why are we left hearing only crickets?

State of Wonder starts out strong despite its floppy premise. The introduction of key characters and plot lines instantly hook and anticipation builds at the first hint of scandal. Like the exhilarating, paced ascent of a roller coaster readying for the ride, readers sense big thrills to come. Alas, as the setting switches from the midwest to Brazil, State of Wonder peters out at the perch and clambers down into a disjointed tale of outlandish proportion.

“It’s not that I don’t have any idea; it’s that I sometimes have too many ideas,” shared Patchett in a recent Tin House interview, and this is no doubt the troubling case in State of Wonder. Bioethics, biracialism, corporate greed and cultural integrity are but a few of the many story threads that still remain slack at the conclusion of Patchett’s work.

Despite the medicinal treasures that potentially abound in the Amazonian underbrush, Patchett overplays the topic in State of Wonder and takes it a bit too far. “Science came in for the first time with Run,” Patchett tells Tin House, “and then it just kind of blew up into something a lot bigger in State of Wonder… .”

Well put. An author can only take their audience so far before they run the risk of losing them in their own imaginative flight. By the time Patchett has Marina eating bark off the trees and the Lakashi tribe swabbing their private parts for the sake of modern science, it’s fairly safe to say that Patchett has left her readers staring into space.

That said, Patchett does have a gift for beautiful prose and her depth of character and relationship are at times palpable. In addition, the lush, layered descriptions of the Amazon and its foreboding tributaries are striking. In all fairness, State of Wonder offers significant literary style if not grace.

It’s possible that I might be in my own camp on this one, though it wouldn’t be the first time. State of Wonder  was just released on June 7th and is steadily climbing the charts and garnering written raves. Not only does State of Wonder grace the current cover of BookPage, but it’s also a June 2011 Indie Next List selection and was recently featured on The Diane Rehm Show. If you’ve read State of Wonder, NLR would love to know what you think.

*Support your local bookstores, libraries and universities. It matters.

– Post by Megan Shaffer

Related Links

New York Times book review

‘A Red Herring Without Mustard’ is Oh So Delicious!

Cover ImageAlan Bradley is back at it and his readers couldn’t be more pleased. Flavia de Luce is saucier than ever in A Red Herring Without Mustard, Bradley’s third and latest installment of the Flavia de Luce mystery series.

Bradley’s de Luce books are a bit like a literary Christmas; they come once a year, are full of mystery, and guarantee a wink and a smile when they’re over. If you haven’t yet caught Flavia or Bradley’s clever style in The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie or The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag (the first and second books in the series), I strongly suggest backing up to the beginning for maximum enjoyment.

Flavia is a wonder to behold. Not only does she fearlessly make her way through the creepiest of spine-tingling situations, but she also knows how to fire it up in her chemical laboratory. It’s in Flavia’s beloved lab that sass turns to spark as she calmly sifts through the bizarre clues she’s collected along the way to solving the latest mystery in England’s Bishop’s Lacey.

A Red Herring Without Mustard is no exception to Bradley’s shrewd yet perky series, and easily falls in with Flavia’s past footsteps of messy murder and mischief. Once again, the cheeky eleven-year-old super sleuth has found herself a fresh body (dead, of course) on the old Buckshaw estate and aims to get to the bottom of things.

“I have no fear of the dead,” quips Flavia. “Indeed, in my own limited experience I have found them to produce in me a feeling that is quite the opposite of fear. A dead body is much more fascinating than a live one, and I have learned that most corpses tell better stories.”

And a good story it is. Though from a comparative standpoint Herring fizzled a touch for me at the end, its ramped-up eerie factor brought about a fine balance making A Red Herring Without Mustard a delicious read.

For those of you who are already hooked on the series, Bradley’s next Flavia de Luce novel is titled I Am Half-Sick of Shadows, and will be released in the United States on November 1, 2011. Yes, just in time for Christmas.

*Support your local bookstores, libraries, and universities. It matters.

-Post by Megan Shaffer

Related Links

NLR’s review of The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag

– Review of Red Herring from National Post

Natalie Taylor Soars in ‘Signs of Life’

Cover ImageWhat do you do if you’re 24 years old, five months pregnant, and your husband suddenly – tragically – dies? If you’re Natalie Taylor you write one honestly good book. Yes, we all know that shelves sag with overdone memoirs of tainted childhoods, deeds done wrong, and ruined lives, but Taylor defies the dark and opts to soar instead with this tight uplifter, Signs of Life.

Natalie’s husband Josh Taylor died on Father’s Day of 2007. He was 27 years old, married to the woman he loved, and happily awaiting the birth of their first child. Who would have thought that a quick blow to the back of his head while Carveboarding would put an end to his own life just as the one he created was beginning to bloom?

Signs of Life is the narrative compilation of Natalie Taylor’s journal entries that span the year following her husband’s death, yet Taylor’s pragmatic approach toward handling her grief is precisely what lands Signs of Life in its own little camp of the genre. Though Taylor’s voice cuts with pure pain and candor, she unwittingly softens the blow with her straight-forward sincerity and unwavering humor.

“When I decide to do something, I want it done quickly. I do not dilly-dally. When Dr. G. told me that grief takes time, I wanted to say, ‘But what about for the smart kids?’ I took Advanced Placement Calculus in high school. Let’s talk Advanced Placement Grief. But one of the first things I realize about this stupid emotion is that AP Grief does not exist. Time goes by, weeks pass, a month passes, my belly grows, my hair grows, but when I wake up in the morning it feels exactly the same. Grief goes at its own speed.”*

As Taylor begins to piece together the brokenness of her life, the fog of her grief lifts just enough to reveal a bit more of both herself and the world around her. Through Josh’s death, Taylor is inadvertently exposed to life outside of the insulated bubble in which she grew up. Instead of self-absorption with her own sorrows, however, Taylor finds in herself an unexpected wellspring of compassion and understanding for all walks of life.

Taylor is a high school English teacher and she structures Signs of Life around the books she teaches and those that pass through her hands the year after Josh’s death. Seeking solace through literature, Taylor looks to some heavy hitters for help. Alice Walker, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Ralph Waldo Emerson are but a few of the many authors who step up to hold Taylor’s grieving hand.

Also balanced by the support of some killer friends and family, Taylor puts you on a nickname basis with Ads, Matthews, Moo and more, but it’s never overdone. Taylor’s memoir is incredibly fresh and breathes life and hilarity into the not-so-funny-at-all topics of death, darkness and grief. While Signs of Life is based on Josh Taylor’s terribly sad and untimely death, one can’t miss the budding evolution of a determined woman, a beautiful baby boy, and the incredible ongoing power of life.

-Support your local bookstores, libraries, and universities. It matters.

Post by Megan Shaffer

*Passage taken from review copy of Signs of Life

Sink Your Teeth into Gabrielle Hamilton’s ‘Blood, Bones & Butter’

Cover ImageReader beware – chef Gabrielle Hamilton’s memoir Blood, Bones & Butter is smoking hot! Serving it up raw and gritty, Hamilton is absolutely fearless as she slices through the chapters of her life. From her idyllic childhood as a girl in rural Pennsylvania to the tough, renegade chef presently rocking NYC’s East Village, Hamilton cranks it from page one with her edgy literary style.

The “blood” of Hamilton’s title is literal and tightly establishes Gabrielle’s ties to both her parents and her four older siblings who together “ran in a pack – like wild dogs.” As a child Hamilton was captivated by her artistic parents and drank them in in great, awe-filled gulps. “My parents seemed incredibly special and outrageously handsome to me then. I could not have boasted of them more or said my name, first and last together, more proudly, to show how it directly linked me to them. I loved that our mother was French… that she had been a ballet dancer at the Met in New York City when she married my father.”

Hamilton tenderly takes her time to lay the family foundation that will both form young Gabrielle as a child and shatter Hamilton as an adult. She warmly observed and absorbed the eclectic cooking style of her mother, and from her father “…learned how to create beauty where none exists, how to be generous beyond our means, how to change a small corner of the world just by making a little dinner for a few friends.”

Through the simple joy of childhood memories Hamilton solidifies the family bond, and no event makes a deeper impression on young Gabrielle than that of her father’s legendary annual  lamb-roast. It is this magical “feast” for hundreds of friends from “as far away as the townhouses of New York City” where Hamilton’s recognition of family and culinary senses become inextricably bound.

When Hamilton’s parents suddenly split up, Gabrielle is left alone amidst the busted bones of her now broken family. Cash-strapped and only thirteen, she begins to work it the only way she knows how. Finding her way to the familiar, Hamilton begins to grind it out kitchen after kitchen working her fingers to the bone from New York to Ann Arbor through Europe, and back again. Ultimately, the all-nighters, crusty floors, endless prepping and the sordid yet seductive world of food serve to sharpen Hamilton’s artistic skills and caustic wit.

Blood, Bones & Butter is not just for foodies. Though you will find seasoned passages on “ceviche and Israeli couscous and mushroom duxelle and robbiola cheese” among others to relish, they merely serve to strengthen and fortify Hamilton’s solid story threads. Be warned however, that Hamilton’s style is not for the faint of heart and she makes no apologies for who she is. Her smacking, straight-up honesty is highly acidic and a bit hard to take at times, but eventually Hamilton settles into herself “like butter on toast.”

I could toss up the cooking metaphors all day long, but in the end chef Hamilton writes like a rock star. Every page holds a killer quote and Hamilton’s hard-core intensity is intoxicating. Blood, Bones & Butter has serious moxie driven by the love and language of all things culinary, and its promise of family, friendship, and food is sure to please.

*Support your local bookstores, libraries, and universities. It matters.

-Post by Megan Shaffer

**The edited version of this review can be seen at BookBrowse.com.

Author Allison Leotta Brings it all Back to Birmingham

Author Allison Leotta returned to her old stomping grounds earlier this week to collect an Honor Alum Award, talk about her new book, and shed some professional light on the topic of sex crimes and domestic violence to high school seniors.

Leotta was presented with the Honor Alum Award last week, which is given to a Groves High School graduate who has made significant contributions to society or their career areas.

Why Leotta? Well, Leotta is a federal sex crimes prosecutor in Washington, D.C. and the author of the debut legal thriller Law of Attraction. Leotta graduated from Groves High School in 1991 and went on to receive her bachelor’s degree at MSU’s James Madison College, and her law degree from Harvard University. Certainly qualified.

Leotta’s experience and expertise in areas of domestic violence and sex crimes allowed her to seriously contribute to the college-bound conversation. Addressing the senior class Leotta jokingly said, “This is your chance to talk to a prosecutor before you’ve been accused of a crime.”

Though laughter ensued, the subject of sex crimes on campus is no laughing matter to Leotta. She gave caution as she easily called up several cases with the same scenario: girl meets boy(s), all get drunk, girl has sex with boy(s), girl sobers-up, girl presses charges. All lives ruined.

Silence. Direct hit.Cover Image

Sober moment and important public service message aside, Leotta kept her young audience up to speed on her fast-paced legal thriller, Law of Attraction, and her current projects including her surprisingly successful blog and her deal with Simon & Schuster. Leotta is queued up to write two sequels to Law of Attraction. The next installment is titled Discretion and will be released sometime next year.

As for her blog? Leotta said she is getting over 20,000 hits a month, and I must admit the concept is very cool. Leotta is a crime show watcher, and her blog dissects episodes and cross-checks them for believability. Would this really happen? Is this how things would move forward in a court of law? Are these the charges that would actually be brought up? According to Leotta, The Good Wife (CBS) leads the pack in accuracy.

Leotta now lives in the D.C. area but just can’t shake the midwest. Michigan has a cameo in Law of Attraction and the novel’s heroine holds serious midwestern influences. “Although her family is very different than my own, I wanted her to have the spirit that so many Michiganders have,” said Leotta. “She is warm, friendly, hard-working, and generous.”

So, what now? Leotta is currently promoting her book and actively working on her sequels. When I asked her if she would consider writing over prosecuting in the future, she really couldn’t say. “I love being a prosecutor. So I’ll try to keep doing both. I’m in the process of dreaming up my heroine’s next few adventures. It has been a crazy, fun, busy, wonderful time!”

*Support your local bookstores, libraries, and universities. It matters.

-Post by Night Light Revue