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

‘Paris in the Present Tense’ is a Stunner

Paris in the Present TenseAvid readers know that when time for leisure reading is limited, solid book choice is crucial. Imagine then how pleased I was to have selected Paris in the Present Tense from the shelves of my local public library. I’m drawn to books about Paris, though many end up being too weak or sappy to push through. I can assure you, however, that this is certainly not the case with author Mark Helprin’s latest work.

Paris in the Present Tense revolves around Jules Lacour, a seventy-four-year-old cellist who has seen much in his lifetime. War, love, and loss have left Lacour with a pragmatic view of his remaining years, yet determined to provide his daughter and her family with choices of freedom that he never had. Paris is their home, but as acts of racial violence escalate Jules is sharply reminded of his war-torn childhood and the carnage left in the wake of the Nazi occupation. Jules’ perceived responsibility to right the wrongs of racial hatred lead him to a moment of violence that changes the trajectory of his quiet, disciplined life in ways unimagined.

Paris in the Present Tense is a deep and beautifully written novel. Whether it was author Mark Helprin’s intention or not, the movement of this story is propelled by the character of Lacour’s cello itself. Jules’ music plays an almost mystifying role in Paris in the Present Tense, and gently carries the story through to its final crescendo. The harmonies and dissonance of Lacour’s relationships – work, love, family, and life – seem to lift from the pages, creating a mystical presence that permeates each passage regardless of setting.

And then there’s Paris. Helprin must have an intimate relationship with this magnificent city because he is able to lay it down so well. Jules takes us with him as he daily navigates the Sorbonne, the Seine, les petits cafés, and his routes through the city’s majestic gardens. “In spring the trees of Paris bloom so lightly they seem to float on the breeze,” Lacour regards. “In summer, its deep green gardens often shade into black and an orange sun revolves in the air like a crucible risen from a foundry. In winter, white silence in the long, treed allées and not a breath of wind. And in the fall bright colors and deep blue sky roll in on cool north winds.”

I loved this book. All of it. Paris in the Present Tense has a lot to offer, but as a recommendation I do feel it demands a certain age of its reader. Jules’ reflections on the passage of time and his unyielding – if not bizarre – ambitions to preserve his remaining family show a desperation that perhaps only a parent (or survivor) might understand. The book is truly beautiful, but some passages might strain the less patient reader. Where some might savor Jules’ deep thoughts on the various stages of life and love, others might get muddled down in his challenging, thicker thoughts. That said, this book definitely worked for me. I’m new to Helprin’s literary style and it hit the right note. While some passages took extra effort (and a dictionary), there is a quick, underlying pulse that keeps you engaged to the very last page.

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

Other Strong Parisian Reads – remember to buy from your local independent:

The Paris Wife by Paula McLain

Paris by Edward Rutherfurd

Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky

The Greater Journey by David Mccullough

A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway

A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle – French series if you’re looking for something lighter

 

 

Dolan’s Back with ‘The Man in the Crooked Hat’

The Man in the Crooked Hat

Bestselling Ann Arbor author Harry Dolan is at it again with his latest mystery, The Man in the Crooked Hat (Putnam, $27). Dolan’s fourth book follows Bad Things Happen, Very Bad Men, and The Last Dead Girl, all of which quickly found themselves on must-read lists. Mr. Dolan has been called “a new master mystery writer” (Forbes), and has made quite a name for himself in lit circles and on national media outlets. Though Mr. Dolan originally hails from New York, we’re screaming Pure Michigan!  for yet another great writer who represents.

I have yet to dig into The Man in the Crooked Hat, but I have re-posted my review of Dolan’s Bad Things Happen (2011) for your enjoyment below. If you are looking to buy, please consider the independent Nicola’s Books in Ann Arbor.

Bad Things HappenIt’s true that bad things happen, but are we supposed to enjoy them so much when they do? In Harry Dolan’s Bad Things Happen, half the fun is waiting out the next “bad thing” (of which there are plenty) while the other is enjoying the ride.

Bad Things Happen is…well…sexy. From the alluring, yet solitary main character David Loogan right down to the seductive college vibe of Ann Arbor itself, Mr. Dolan hooks you up with a delicious murder that fills you with a sweet, edgy unease. As his sultry characters glide in and out of focus, you are left wondering beyond wonder, who in the world can you trust?

After David Loogan becomes inadvertently involved with the mystery magazine Gray Streets, his quiet low-key life somehow slips into a sea of complicated suspicion. However, Mr. Loogan’s appeal lies in his subtle, easy dialogue and blithe manner towards all things homicidal. As Loogan makes his way through the maze of Gray Street personalities in hopes of solving his friend’s murder, he encounters one Elizabeth Waishkey. Elizabeth is a cop who is also intent on solving the murder, but is saddled with the snag of distancing herself from the ambiguous Loogan, who is a promising prime suspect with each turn of the page.

As Waishkey works on Loogan, and Loogan works on his own, this shadowy tale is spun on pure Ann Arbor background, bringing about a well-deserved nod for this progressive midwestern pocket. Matched in sophisticated tones, Ann Arbor provides the perfect setting for Dolan’s sleek, hard-boiled fiction.

“Ann Arbor has the street life of a much larger city. When the weather is fair, and sometimes when it’s not, the sidewalks along State Street and Liberty and Main bustle with people:  hip, arty, confident people who walk to theaters and shops, bookstores and coffeehouses, who gather at sidewalk tables that spill out of restaurants.

David Loogan found them fascinating. He thought it must be the university that produced them. The university made the city more prosperous and young and good-looking. It gathered all these people to itself and then it sent them out into the city where they ate fine meals, and attended plays, and greeted one another on the street with hugs and cheery shouts and back-slapping.”

Bad Things Happen brings in the sharp, classic styles of other noir lit authors such as Raymond Chandler, whom is mentioned more than once in the book. Even if you are not a seasoned mystery reader, Harry Dolan’s seductive style easily translates. Mr. Dolan’s work is fun, and mentally unspools itself in close-up, pan-back fashion. Like a smooth, smoky Hollywood flick, Bad Things Happen definitely has movie rights potential, but for now I highly suggest kicking back and enjoying it just the way it is.

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

-Post by Megan Shaffer

Nicola’s Books Stacks Stellar Appearances This Week

Dust to DustNicola’s Books in Ann Arbor has plenty on tap for local readers this week.

On Tuesday evening, actor and author Benjamin Busch will be appearing at Nicola’s Books for a discussion and signing of his memoir, Dust to Dust. Busch, who currently lives in Reed City, Michigan, was born in Manhattan and grew up in upstate New York. He is an actor, photographer, film director, and a United States Marine Corps Infantry Officer who served two tours of combat duty in Iraq. In addition, he has appeared in the HBO series The Wire, Homicide, The West Wing, and Generation Kill.

Acting aside, Busch’s memoir is a heavy, thoughtful read that utilizes the elemental (water, metal stone, blood, etc) as device for examining the brevity of our existence.

Dust to Dust will hit stores this Tuesday, which happily coincides with Busch’s appearance at Nicola’s. The discussion and signing will take place on March 20, 2012 at 7:00 pm. For more on Benjamin and Dust to Dust, try this recent piece in the Detroit Free Press.

The Boiling Season: A Novel

Also appearing this week at Nicola’s Books is author and debut novelist Christopher Hebert. Hebert is a graduate of Antioch College and earned his MFA in creative writing from the University of Michigan, and was awarded its prestigious Hopwood Award for Fiction. Currently, he teachers at the University of Tennessee and lives in Knoxville with his wife and son.

The Boiling Season, Hebert’s debut novel, is a stunner thus far (I’m halfway through), and I’m quite shocked Hebert isn’t getting more airtime for this richly detailed and beautifully written work.

Hebert’s discussion and signing of The Boiling Season will take place Thursday, March 22, 2012 at 7:00 pm. For more with Christopher Hebert you can link to this Metro Pulse interview.

Nicola’s Books is located in the Westgate Shopping Center at 2513 Jackson Avenue in Ann Arbor. As always, events are subject to change so please call first before heading out the door (734.662.0600).

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

– Post by Megan Shaffer

Essays and Credits and Recs, Oh My! Korelitz Spins Tale Around Secrets of ‘Admission’

AdmissionThe complex process of college admissions is a high-pressured business that few of us will ever see from the inside. With big money on the line and parents pushing their kids to the brink of insanity, applying to college has become a game of high emotional and monetary stakes. Suffice it to say, the days of easy-flow transition from high school to college are definitely a thing of the past.

There are some 37,000 secondary schools in the United States, yet those who attend  posh prep schools up the ante and level of admissions play by deploying an annual mass of glowing curricula vitae to America’s finest universities. Not only do these high caliber students put the squeeze on the competition, but they also turn up the heat for admission officers as they attempt to bring only the best and brightest to their respective campuses.

Author Jean Hanff Korelitz provides a glimpse into the chaotic, mystifying world of university admissions in her engaging novel Admission. Korelitz has firsthand experience with the process of Princeton University admissions where she was a part-time reader for their Office of Admission during the 2006 and 2007 seasons. Intimate with student essays, credentials, and recommendations, Korelitz fuels her story with the angst and crush of desperate 18 year olds determined to make a difference.

Main character Portia Nathan, also an admissions officer for Princeton University, takes us inside the big machine of Ivy student acceptance and decline. Hand picking from thousands of applicants across the globe leaves Portia emotionally drained as the future lives of the finest students teeter on the brink of her decision. The “ordinarily qualified, the usually brilliant, and the expectedly talented” are all relative when moving through the towering stacks of mega potential.

The drama surrounding Portia’s personal life is a bit predictable and overdone, but the characters are vidid and certainly entertain. Admission exposes the shocking world of inflated ego, poor parent behavior, privilege, entitlement, and the lengths that people will go to access the ivory tower.

Not everyone was as entertained by Admission as I was, particularly this high school senior who reviewed Korelitz’s “silly novel” for The New York Times. Regardless, should you live in an area of privilege and affluence and think your child is a shoo-in for the ivy league, Admission is a must read and will definitely leave you thinking again.

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

-Post by Megan Shaffer

Ayad Akhtar’s ‘American Dervish’ – Muslim from the Midwest

American DervishAyad Akhtar’s anticipated debut novel, American Dervish, hit shelves this past Monday. Though I reviewed it for the upcoming issue at Bookbrowse.com, I will share that it is a solid, accessible work that both delights and disturbs.

Akhtar is an American-born, first-generation Pakistani-American from Milwaukee. As such, there’s an authenticity to his work that offers readers an open, innocent approach to Islam, and allows an inside look at Muslim life in America prior to 9/11.

It will come as no surprise to readers of Dervish that Akhtar is a screenwriter. Entertaining yet provoking, Dervish is a page-flipper that will leave those in the movie industry fighting for film rights.

Ayad Akhtar on American Dervish

Review Links (Beware of possible spoilers)

NPR – Growing Up Muslim and Midwestern in ’Dervish’

New York Times – Stumbling Through an American Muslim Maze

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

-Post by Megan Shaffer

Julian Barnes’ “The Sense of an Ending” Exacts Emotional Price Worth Paying

Cover ImageAuthor Julian Barnes is no stranger to award-winning works. His past literary distinctions include the Somerset Maugham Award, The E.M. Forster Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize among others. Now Barnes must make room on the shelf for his latest honor: the much-coveted Booker Prize for Fiction.

Barnes has been a contender for the “posh bingo” prize before with his titles Arthur and George (2005), England, England (1998) and Flaubert’s Parrot (1984), but it is his 2011 release, The Sense of an Ending, that has made the fourth time a charm.

The Sense of an Ending is quick yet complex and holds that deep, dark-paneled feel of a classic. Barnes manipulates the lens of time through the eyes of middle-aged Tony Webster as he picks through the shifting shards of his memory. A contemplation on singular existence, The Sense of an Ending is a beautiful depiction of age, regret, friendship and the fluctuant perspective of life.

To read or not to read?

The Sense of an Ending is a gorgeous work, but it is troubling. The highbrow, jovial banter of adolescent dialogue early in the book painfully gives way to thoughts and realities of adult self-inquisition and consideration of a life well led.

The Sense of an Ending demands a certain reader-boldness willing to identify with Tony as he looks back with surprise on the shadowed actions of his life and the ease with which we slip into human complacency. That said, The Sense of an Ending is an exquisite page-turner – not for the faint of heart and not to be missed.

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

– Post by Megan Shaffer

 Related Links

PBS: A Conversation with Julian Barnes

Guardian: Booker Prize 2011: Julian Barnes Triumphs at Last

-New York Times (potential spoilers) Julian Barnes and the Emotions of Englishmen

Childress Turns Up Southern Heat and Humor in “Georgia Bottoms”

Cover ImageLooking for scandal and a splash of sass? Then you must meet Ms. Georgia Bottoms of Six Points, Alabama. Mark Childress, author of One Mississippi and Crazy in Alabama, turns up that sultry southern heat in his latest novel featuring one larger-than-life heroine in one tiny, mixed-up town.

Having fallen a touch on hard times, Georgia Bottoms has turned to the business of “entertaining” gentlemen to keep up appearances and hold her rather unorthodox family together. Scheduling an elaborate six-night rotation with the high and mighty men of Six Points, Ms. Bottoms is a sexual whirlwind with a straighten-your-skirts practicality.

Childress does a fantastic job of playing up the eccentricities of the southern women he loves so much. Georgia is a laugh-riot as she attempts to keep her hair coiffed and her outrageous secrets in check.

“For some reason I really enjoy exploring southern women; they are the most fascinating creatures on earth,” shared Childress on NPR’s Weekend Edition. “Southern women are different than everybody else… and I love to explore that mind.”

Smart and downright hilarious, Georgia Bottoms is a great call for a quick, witty read. If you’re feeling a bit stressed or overwhelmed, slip off your heels, paint your toes, pour yourself a chilled glass of lemonade and head on down to Six Points.

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

– Post by Megan Shaffer

Bohjalian Shoots to Thrill With ‘The Night Strangers’

Cover ImageYes, it’s October, and inevitably with it’s arrival comes the dark urban legends and tales that tingle our spines and goose-up our flesh. Publishers find readers more receptive to the bizarre, and therefore seize the month to release their edgier titles.

I’m not one for the horror genre, so I must say that Chris Bohjalian caught me completely off guard with his latest release, The Night Strangers. I’ve read enough of Bohjalian’s titles to know that when I pick one off the shelf I’m guaranteed a couple hundred pages of laid-back drama that easily entertain.

The Night Strangers, however, is a deviation from typical Chris Bohjalian book fare. Tagged as a psychological thriller, The Night Strangers calls on the supernatural to assist in the graphic retelling of pilot Chip Linton’s crash and his post-traumatic spiral into madness.

According to Bohjalian’s site, The Night Strangers “is a ghost story inspired by a door in his basement and Sully Sullenberger’s successful ditching of an Airbus in the Hudson.” The aforementioned door – and other eerie setting points – are well mapped in Night Strangers and are essential to the story’s creepy-factor. And Sullenberger? He haunts only in his competence and skill as a pilot who was able to stick an incredible landing.

Initially I had a hard time getting into the book. Picking around for strong literary passages and historical depth left me wanting, but I realized, that’s not what this story is about. Rather, it’s a let-yourself-go ghost story written to gun the imagination and scare the hell out of you.

And it does.

I’m a bit of a chicken, but I think The Night Strangers will spook even the hard-core. Once you buy into the exceedingly “super” aspect of Bohjalian’s “supernatural” plot line, you’ll find this book – spurting blood, spirits, and all – a hide-your-eyes, movie theater kind of read.

Chris Bohjalian is the author of fourteen books, most of which take place in his beloved Vermont. While he’s an enthusiastic storyteller, Bohjalian won’t rock your world from a profound literary standpoint. However, if you’re looking for escapism with sound characters and a well-laced storyline, he’s a sure bet. As for The Night Strangers? Toss it on your list for a rainy-day, but you might not want to read it at home all alone…

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

-Post by Megan Shaffer

Related Links

– Review: Miami Herald review of The Night Strangers

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