The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton

This is the second book I have read recently with “seven” in the title, the other being the Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo which I enjoyed very much. Turton’s book, which was originally entitled The Seven and a Half Deaths etc (now that’s an eye-grabber) is a very different proposition. Essentially a murder mystery, it is also so much more. It’s also an existential exploration of what it means to be human – different kinds – and the ways in which we suffer for our sins, seek redemption, and/or must face the consequences of our actions. The setting is a decaying manor house, Blackheath, in the English countryside. The period appears to be the 1920s or something akin to that. A a group of guests have gathered to celebrate or be part of a memorial of a gruesome death that occurred many years earlier, and which has affected the Hardcastle family ever since. When one of the guests, a man we think is called Aiden (reading the book will explain why we only “think”), learns that the hosts’ daughter, Evelyn, is to be murdered that night and he has to uncover the identity of the culprit or else remain trapped in the manor house, reliving the same day over forever, you wonder what on earth is going on.

As each new day dawns, Aiden is thrust into a different body, viewing the world and the other guests from that perspective – a servant, a privileged gentleman, an artist, a con man, a doctor etc etc. Awareness of his previous day’s existence should work to help him solve the crime that doesn’t appear to be one, but it is just making things more convoluted and difficult to resolve. Add to that a brutal mystery man determined to murder anyone who comes close to solving the murder and a guy wondering around with a plague mask on whispering instructions and the entire house party takes on a surreal and sinister mood. Forming alliances and making enemies, Aiden is thrust into a body he thought he’d finished with, only to relive sections of the previous days, making matters worse. But time is ticking and Aiden will do anything to escape this hell…

While I really appreciate the idea behind this plot and the writing (which was really lovely in parts and excellent throughout), I also reached a point I too would do anything to escape this hell. I found the story hard to get into and, when I did, I didn’t care enough about the characters as I would have liked. They were all shallow, unpleasant, oft-times confusing and the purpose behind this never-ending Groundhog style day, but from alternate perspectives, became exasperating.

It wasn’t until near the end that the concept behind Blackheath and what it represents is revealed. Like the rest of the book, it’s clever (though some might not think so), but I was more relieved to be finished than gratified. That said, many have raved about this book, which is sort of an Agatha Christie on steroids. I did enjoy it very much at times, and can really appreciate the plotting and effort involved, but I think Evelyn could have died a fewer deaths

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I’ll Keep You Safe by Peter May

I have been a huge fan of Peter May’s Lewis books. Evocative, laden with a sense of place and time, they are simply wonderful reads. I was so excited to discover another of his set in the Outer Hebrides. I snapped up I’ll Keep You Safe as soon as I became aware it was available, finished the book I’d been reading and snuggled down to lose myself in the magnificent story May weaves.

Though a “Hebridean” book, this one commences in Paris with a harried married couple, Niamh and Ruairidh, owners of the successful Ranish Tweed Company, finishing a business trip in Paris. When tragedy strikes, and Nimah must return home alone, both a grieving widow and prime suspect in a brutal murder, little does she know she’s also a potential victim.

Reflecting on her life with Ruairidh, and her feelings for him and how they altered and grew over the years, the story of their courtship, their families, the troubles that both beset them and tore apart the communities in which they matured surface. Woven through the investigation and the reaction of the island community to the Paris tragedy, the past and present beautifully offset one another and set a sombre, mysterious and yet warm tone.

In the meantime, Lieutenant Sylvie Braque, a single mother, leaves Paris to pursue the investigation, carrying her own personal demons and reflections. Trying to rise above them, she begins to understand that though it’s evident Niamh loved her husband, there were those who didn’t – professionally and personally. And it seems their drive for revenge hasn’t yet been satisfied…

  1. Apart from one storyline to do with Sylvie, who is a professional woman, I really enjoyed the first seven-eighths of the book. What stuck in my craw was the notion that a woman, in this instance a divorcee, must be so torn about being a mother and working, she must consider choosing between them. It doesn’t help that Sylvie’s ex is a prick that stirs the embers of guilt every time he speaks to her… but really? Is that all? It is such a tired premise. There are so many compromises that can be made – personal and professional – to ensure a woman can contribute to society as a worker and mother and at the same time. Yes, she will always carry guilt, but this constant self-doubting of Sylvie was on the one hand likely real, but on the other, a bit over the top for such a strong and dedicated woman. It didn’t always ring true. Nevertheless, I liked her and her presence in the tale until she did a really stupid thing towards the end…

And it’s the end I have the most difficulty with, but not because of Sylvie. After being carried by the story, loving the setting, the remembering of Niamh and the way the narrative segued back and forth and using different PoVs, I am not sure what happened in the last few chapters. It’s as if May thought, gee, I had better wind this up now and, instead of resolving it in a way that was in keeping with the rest of the tale, rushed through to a WTF ending. For me, it was barely believable – ridiculous even. I rolled my eyes, stared at the pages, remained incredulous and cross after finishing and wondered how such a good, strong story could be ruined. I am all for suspending disbelief, but this was way more than that. I was forced to throw it out the window. The motivation of the perpetrator, the unlikely sequence of events and appearances, even the actions of a character earlier were all just crazy in terms of a solid, consistent story. The fact it was brought to a close in a few pages didn’t help either, particularly in light of one narrative strand which definitely needed more explication than, “I thought it better not to tell you” or thereabouts.

After thinking I would give this book another five stars, despite my feelings about Sylvie, the last eight of the book barely deserves a one.

I feel so disappointed that I can’t give this book more and I am curious how others felt about the ending too. May never usually lets his readers down but I feel after building this one up, he dropped me off a narrative cliff into a raging sea. I drowned.

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Dark Skies, DCI Ryan #& LJ Ross

This is the last instalment in the DCI Ryan series currently available (at the end we’re told to expect the next oImage result for Dark Skies L J Rossne early 2018). In this novel, DCI Ryan investigates the case of a body at the bottom of a reservoir. Found by a tourist doing a diving course, its discovery is timed with arrival of Ryan’s wife, Anna, and a mini-bus-load of her masters’ students engaged in a history study of the region. Since the body has been there at least 30 years and this appears to be a cold case, Ryan reassures Anna it’s OK to continue with her history trip. Only, when more bodies start turning up, both Ryan and Anna come to deeply regret their initial decision she remain.

To make matters worse, Ryan’s new boss who is also an old, unstable and manipulative flame, is making her presence felt, driving wedges in both friendships and professional practice. Not only does Ryan have an unhinged killer to deal with, but a woman scorned and Shakespeare warned us what they are like.

The book is tightly plotted and paced and hard to put down and I did really enjoy it. However, I am a little concerned that once again, there’s a rotten cop in the shop determined to bring Ryan and what he’s built down, and though The Hacker has gone, it’s like a carbon copy of him has been resurrected. More caricature than believable, I am very interested to see if he will be fleshed out and become the threat Ross clearly intends. Likewise, with Ryan’s boss, whose motives and actions seem so transparent, it’s ridiculous he and his friends appear to be the only ones to see it!

Still, it’s testimony to Ross’ prose and how much you come to care for the main characters that you simply have to have resolution and keep turning the pages. The repetitions could also be regarded as clever narrative devices, and I will reserve judgment to see where these two antagonists take the tale.

The descriptions of the area the crimes occur in are delightful and there’s no doubt, landscape becomes as much a character in this book. I would have liked to have more character to the villains and less reliance on repetition, but that’s just me. I like shades of grey instead of black and white, clear cut “goodies” and “baddies.” But I do enjoy this series and hope it’s not long before the next book appears.

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The Chosen by Kristina Ohlsson

25925079Still on my Nordic Noir bend, a friend recommended this author, Kristina Ohlsson, to me and, after searching through her titles (and being impressed by the sterling reviews her work is receiving), I chose The Chosen. Just a few pages in, I was caught up in both the story and the quality of the writing. As the tale progressed, I found it more and more difficult to tear myself away, and I quickly understood that Ohlsson more than deserves those great reviews.

The Chosen opens on a freezing winter’s day, just a snowstorm wraps itself around the city of Stockholm. It’s early afternoon and children are preparing to head home when a pre-school teacher is shot and killed in front of parents and students at Jewish school. Before the police can even begin to understand the tragedy and cope with the fallout, two boys from the school go missing.

As the body count begins to mount and the clues don’t, there are nonetheless commonalities between the kidnappings and the deaths: the mysterious Paper Boy, who is both an urban myth told to frighten wayward Jewish children as well as the alter ego of a sadistic killer, and then there’s Israel.

Involving other agencies, harkening back to the past as well as to other countries and times, the lead investigators, Fredrika Bergman and Alex Recht and their team have to use all available resources to uncover the truth and expose the killer before one of their own gets hurt.

Drawing on mythology and superstition and using flashbacks and prolepsis (that involve a violin – a potent signifier), the book keeps you guessing as to the outcome until the end. The interesting thing is, the reader is privy to the identity of the killer before the police, but it’s who the final victims are that keep you on the edge of your seat and feeling torn as you know catastrophe is about to unfold and there is no such thing as the lesser of two evils…

A clever, gripping book that explores families – personal and professional, communities, faith, loyalty, revenge, patriotism, choices, loss and consequences.

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While Beauty Slept by Elizabeth Blackwell

This sumptuous, beautifully written and conceived novel is fundamentally a retelling of the fairytale, Sleeping Beauty – only it’s so much more as well. Forget what you think you know of the Disneyfied myth of the beautiful princess who, cursed at birth is rescued from certain death by an errant (fairy) godmother only to fall asleep when her finger is pricked by a spindle on her sixteenth birthday before she’s rescued by true love’s kiss decades later. This version, told by an elite servant, Elise, in the castle in which Princess Rose (also called Beauty) is born and raised, places the kernel of this story (the lovely but tragic princess) in a much larger context.

18079665Told as a story within a story, the frame narrative introduces us to the elderly Elise, who listening to her grand-daughter recount the tale of Sleeping beauty, finds herself flung back into her own past and a story she’s kept locked away for decades. Compelled to tell her granddaughter the truth behind the legend and her role within it, Elise’s tale begins…

Commencing when Elise is a child, the reader follows the hardship, loss, dedication, hard work and some good fortune this bastard child from a poor farm experiences, all of which lead to her becoming lady-in-waiting to the queen of a small kingdom that could be anywhere in Europe around the time of the Renaissance.

The castle in which Elise works is filled with personalities and internal politics. Despite her efforts to remain remote and simply do her duty, she becomes caught up and draws positive and negative attention. From the vengeful but loving king, to the deeply sad queen whose desperation to have a child leads her to make poor choices, Elise finds herself front and centre of an unfolding personal and greater drama of desire, ambition, need, love and fear. Overseeing all of this is the king’s Aunt Millicent, a cruel, controlling woman whose greatest ambition, to rule the land, was thwarted a long time ago and which she’s never come to terms with. There’s also her sister, the love-lorn and quite fey Flora, who remains in a tower built especially for the two sisters when they were young.

Then there’s the other servants and various confidantes, knights, diplomats etc who either barely tolerate Elise or embrace her for the qualities they recognise in the fine woman she’s becoming.

Amidst war, revenge, sickness, love, lust, great joy and heartache, Elise’s story and that of the rulers of this land and the child finally born to them unfolds. Ever with an eye to detail, Blackwell constructs the castle and its surrounds, as well as the people who populate the building and lands so simply yet poetically and realistically they’re brought to life – and all through the eyes of Elise, one of the strongest and most loyal of the queen’s subjects, but who has her own secrets to bear.

A friend recommended this book to me and I do love a good fairytale retelling. This book exceeded my already high expectations by being so original in its approach and, indeed, what it does with a well-known and beloved narrative. Gone is the hocus-pocus to be replaced by an eerie sensibility, a place and time where chthonic magic, wild and untamed exists but is wielded with dangerous consequences. Replacing wands and wings with will and determination, the novel overturns not only the fairytale, but stereotypes and clichés to present a marvellous story about strong women, loving women, weak and wicked women and the men who either support or suborn them – often for their own purposes.

A wonderful novel that I found difficult to put down and which is still resonating days after I completed it.

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