Monthly Archives: October 2018

The Book Whisperer Trips Through a Time-Loop

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The Book Whisperer will not give away any secrets about The 7 ½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton. As a result, this review will be brief. Kirkus calls Turton’s “debut a brainy, action-filled sendup of the classic mystery.” Until now, Turton has been a freelance travel writer.

The 7 ½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle  has received much acclaim, which undoubtedly drew me to read the book: one of Stylist Magazine’s 20 Must-Read Books of 2018, one of Harper’s Bazaar’s 10 Must-Read Books of 2018, and one of Marie Claire, Australia’s 10 Books You Absolutely Have to Read in 2018.

Readers must first understand The Rules of Blackheath, the country estate where The 7 ½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle takes place:

Evelyn Hardcastle will be murdered at 11:00 p.m.
There are eight days, and eight witnesses for you [the narrator] to inhabit.
We will only let you escape once you tell us the name of the killer.
Understood? Then let’s begin….

The story set up is much like an Agatha Christie mystery. Blackheath, a country estate, is the location for the story and a large number of characters have arrived for a weekend party. The reason for the party is macabre: the anniversary of the death of Thomas Hardcastle, who died as a child by the lake. The home belonged then to the Hardcastles. Now, the obese, food-obsessed Lord Ravencourt owns the estate.

The picture below is from the Guardian; it looks like the kind of place that could be Blackheath.

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The unnamed narrator turns out to be Aiden Bishop, or at least that is what readers are led to believe at first. Is he really? Or is anything as it seems?

Bishop soon learns his fate from the Plague Doctor, a figure dressed in a black cloak and masque. Doctor Plague tells Bishop he has eight tries to solve the murder of Evelyn Hardcastle. If Bishop cannot solve the murder, he will remain in limbo and be destined to repeat the Groundhog-like cycle. To add to the story, Bishop wakes up in a different body each day, but he remembers the previous day and can amass clues from each day and the perspective of the different people he embodies in order to solve the murder.

To complicate matters, Bishop, a good-hearted person, wishes to save Evelyn Hardcastle, not simply solve the mystery of who murders her. Like any good Christie novel, the characters are varied. For example, Bishop first finds himself in Sebastian Bell’s body. Through searching Bell’s belongings, Bishop learns Bell is a drug dealer. Not only that, but another guest Dr. Dickie Acker, please call him Dickie, supplies Bell with the drugs.

Then we have Millicent Derby and her sleazy son Jonathan who are hangers-on in society. Of course, the lovely Evelyn Hardcastle, her brother Michael, and her parents, Helena and Peter, are members of the party. Evelyn’s maid Madeline Aubert, whom Evelyn has brought with her from Paris, is another member of the party, an important person to remember. There are other characters as well including members of the staff of such a large house.

In the beginning, Aiden is completely unaware of who he is and where he is. Only when the Plague Doctor visits him does Aiden begin to comprehend his situation. Unless he can solve, not stop, Evelyn’s murder, he will never return to his own body and own self. At the moment, Aiden does not know who he is, but he begins to piece together clues about the murderer as well as his own life.

The days will repeat with Evelyn being murdered every night. Turton adds another burden to Aiden’s body-changing forms. He inhabits the young, fit body of the hateful Jonathan Derby, but he also finds himself trapped in the obese Lord Ravencourt’s body so that he can hardly move from one spot to another without having to sit down.

Critics have called Turton’s story inventive, and it truly is that. It embodies elements of time-travel, repeating the same day over and over. In order to keep spoilers out of the review, The Book Whisperer will simply say, read the book.

A year or so ago, I read a YA book titled Every Day by David Levithan. In that, the narrator wakes up in a different body each day, occasionally remains in a body for a few days. The body could be male or female. In that story, the narrator falls in love when he is in a male teen’s body and wishes he could stop the continual change and become his own person. It, too, is an inventive story.

On another note, in England, Turton’s book is The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle while in the US, the title is The 7 ½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle. Terena Bell addresses this dilemma in “A Book by any Other Name: Why Does the US Change so Many Titles?” The complete article is available here: https://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2018/sep/13/us-uk-book-titles-changed.

According to Bell, “hordes of books have had their titles changed in America. Disproportionately, they are mysteries.” With The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, “apparently, American’s die more frequently,” thus the change to The 7 ½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle. Us publisher Sourcebooks joked, “Our editorial team decided to supersize it” by changing the name to The 7 ½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle.

 

The Book Whisperer Reviews French Exit

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After reading about French Exit by Patrick DeWitt, I requested the book from the library. French Exit has received many positive reviews and DeWitt’s last book The Sisters Brothers, a hat tip to the classic American Western, was a success and is being made into a movie. I expected to find a book that would engage me. Wrong!

Frances Price and her adult son Malcolm are such thoroughly despicable and unlikable characters that I had a hard time reading the story even though I will admit to enjoying some of the grim humor.

Frances, always a beauty, is a wealthy socialite, widowed some years ago when her husband Frank suffers a massive heart attack. In fact, the coroner “who performed the autopsy said he’s never seen so powerful a heart attack in his long years at practice.” Frances finds Frank dead; instead of calling paramedics or anyone else, she leaves New York for a planned skiing trip, so Frank lies dead for days before being discovered.

As a child, Malcolm receives little attention from his parents. Shipped off to boarding school, Malcolm feels he hardly knows his parents. Upon Frank’s death, Frances shows up at Malcolm’s school and asks him if he wants to leave the academy and go home with her. Malcolm is twelve and unpopular at school, so he agrees to go with his mother. For the first time, Frances shows Malcolm attention.

Malcolm tells his fiancée Susan that “my parents were extreme. Not a word on my birthday. Not a card.” Once back in the New York apartment with Frances, Malcolm studies with Ms. Mackey, a tutor every day for two years. Although Frances and Malcolm live in the same apartment, Frances is still largely absent from Malcolm’s life, so Malcolm thinks he is falling in love with Ms. Mackey.

When Frances realizes Malcolm’s obsession, she dismisses Ms. Mackey. Then she requires Malcolm to go to museums and libraries every day, five hours a day, five days a week, to complete his education on his own. Malcolm keeps to this schedule for four years. Once when Malcolm asks Frances to go with him to the museums, she replies, “What if they decide I’m a sculpture, and won’t let me come home?” On rare occasions, Frances would go with Malcolm, so those times stand out in his mind.

Readers can probably guess what happens next. Mr. Baker, Frances’ financial advisor, keeps sending Frances messages that she must come in for a meeting. Finally, Frances deigns to go to Mr. Baker’s office. Mr. Baker tells her that she is broke, everything is gone. Oddly, Frances asks, “What’s all gone?” Mr. Baker assures her that she has no money and that her property will be seized and auctioned off to pay debts.

When Frances asks Mr. Baker then “what are we meant to live off once the bank has moved against us?” Mr. Baker reminds Frances that he has warned her repeatedly, starting as long as seven years ago, that she must economize. Frances replies, “My plan was to die before the money ran out. But I kept and keep not dying and here I am.”

Frances does own quite valuable old book, art and jewelry collections, so Mr. Baker arranges for Ralph Rudy to liquidate the collections.

While Mr. Rudy sells off the valuables, Frances and Malcolm stay in separate suites at the Four Seasons, ordering lavish room service meals and rarely seeing one another. Remember, the pair has no money, yet the mother and son continue blissfully as if they do have money. In fact, when all their credit cards are declined, they skip out on the bill by loading their luggage into a town car and heading for a ship that is set to sail to France.

Frances has a longtime good friend, her only true friend, who offers Frances the use of an apartment free of rent in Paris. Frances asks Mr. Baker to take the money Mr. Rudy collects from the sale of her items and turn it into euros for their trip to France.

A complication arises in that Frances does have an elderly cat she calls Little Frank, named after her husband. At first, it appears that Frances and Malcolm will abandon the pampered cat on the streets of New York, but the cat does go with them to the Four Seasons and finally to France. Frances does show some kindness in that she manages to hide the cat and get it aboard the ship and even into France, a bit of absurdity, in truth.

What does Frances plan once she and Malcolm arrive in Paris? They have a limited amount of money, only what Mr. Rudy managed to get from the sale of the collections. They can live rent free, but they have to buy food, two people who are accustomed to servants preparing meals and cleaning up afterwards.

Readers, would you be surprised to discover that Frank shows up in Paris? Wait, he has been dead since Malcolm was twelve, so how does that happen? Obviously, other complications arise. Exit Paris continues to take readers down surprising paths.

 

 

The Book Whisperer Suffers a Disappointment

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A River of Stars by Vanessa Hua has received a great deal of attention. Celeste Ng, whose Little Fires Everywhere I admire and reviewed, praised Hua’s debut novel as “utterly absorbing… a marvel of a first novel.” I wish I could agree.

Perhaps Chelsea Leu who writes for Wired, has a more realistic view of A River of Stars. Leu writes: “By the end, the story’s various threads resolve in a decidedly upbeat celebration of the ingenuity of Chinese immigrants and, by extension, all who come to the States with everything to gain. But its fairy-tale tidiness is also oddly disappointing.”

I agree with Leu’s assessment. Scarlett works in a factory in Hong Kong; she enters into an affair with her boss, Boss Yeung, and becomes pregnant. When Yeung insists upon an ultrasound, the pair discovers the baby is a boy which prompts Yeung to be overly solicitous of Scarlett and her health. Yeung has three daughters and desperately wants a son.

Yeung sends Scarlett to Los Angeles to a place called Perfume Bay, a home run by Mama Fang for pregnant Chinese women so their babies can be born in the US and have immediate US citizenship. In time, readers learn that Uncle Lo, Boss Yeung’s longtime friend is Perfume Bay’s financial backer.

At Perfume Bay, Mama Fang has taken away the ladies’ passports and cell phones, keeping the women as prisoners, but also keeping them safe, according to her. Scarlett as a mistress and not a wife feels the other women look down upon her, so she stays away from them, never becoming friendly with anyone else. Daisy, a pregnant teen, has been sent to Perfume Bay by her wealthy parents because they are embarrassed by her pregnancy. She fears they will either raise her son as their own or give him up for adoption. She cannot communicate with the baby’s father, so she tries to run away, but each time Mama Fang catches her.

In a moment of crisis when one of the women goes into labor, Scarlett drives the beat up old white van to the hospital while Mama Fang comforts the mother-to-be. At the hospital, Scarlett decides to take the van and run away from Mama Fang and Perfume Bay. Mama Fang has persuaded Scarlett to give up her baby to Boss Yeung in exchange for several thousand dollars. Now, Scarlett sees a chance to keep her baby which, as it turns out, is a girl, not the son Boss Yeung so desperately wants.

When Scarlett returns to the van leaving Mama Fang in the hospital, Daisy tumbles out of the back of the van. Scarlett takes Daisy back to Perfume Bay and plans to leave her there, taking the van and disappearing. Daisy, however, has other plans. She insists that Scarlett must take her along. Then Daisy shows Scarlett the fistful of passports she managed to steal before she jumped into the back of the van. Daisy is also Taiwanese and is an American citizen, so that factor could be useful in the future.

Reluctantly, Scarlett agrees to take Daisy with her. Scarlett has little practice in driving, so she makes some mistakes, but she manages to get the van onto the highway and heads to San Francisco where she thinks she and Daisy can hide among other Chinese people. Remember that both Scarlett and Daisy are eight months pregnant, so the pregnancy adds to their dilemma.

A series of misadventures befall the two young women, but they do arrive in San Francisco and find a place to stash the van. They have the money Mama Fang gave Scarlett, but that money will not last long once they rent a place to live and purchase food.

The young women must find a place to live, food to eat, and keep themselves safe from discovery because Scarlett is certain that Boss Yeung will pour his many resources into locating her so he can take her baby away once it arrives; Boss Yeung still thinks the child will be a boy. At this point, the story becomes somewhat more problematic and unbelievable. Scarlett and Daisy must rely on the kindness of strangers to find a suitable place to live while they await the births of their babies.

They do meet people who help them, but they live on the edge, guarding every penny so that it goes as far as possible. They rent a tiny room with a communal bathroom and kitchen. People do help one another; however, the story moves quickly into Scarlett discovering a way to make money by cooking and selling Chinese sliders, hanbaobao, which do become quite popular.

I did learn from Chelsea Leu’s article that A River of Stars, the title, comes from Chinese legend about a weaver girl and a cowherd, separated by the Milky Way. They can meet only once a year after a flock of magpies forms a bridge between them.

The last part of the story simply ends too neatly to suit me.

 

The Book Whisperer Reviews an Advance Copy of A Thousand Dances

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I received an advance PDF copy of A Thousand Dances by Sara Holliday. My review is not influenced by the receipt of the free copy.

Sara Holliday offers readers more information about her work at this site: https://sarahollidaybooks.com/2018/03/18/coming-fall-2018-a-thousand-dances/. Here is another link of interest: https://spinnery.sarahollidaybooks.com/2018/10/08/lets-have-a-party/.

A Thousand Dances takes readers on a tour of 1963 music with a group of teenagers, friends and foes. The teens are all music fans and quite knowledgeable about the music of the day. Narrator Nicky Spinnery, the sexton’s son, is particularly keen on the latest music. His father, the Brig, who survived being a Far East Prisoner of War and lost a leg as well, is quite a singer himself. Nicky complains about his father constantly breaking into song, but he secretly enjoys his father’s singing; he simply would not let his father know that.

Nicky and his friends Eddie, Roy, Suzy, and Luce frequent the Cherrystone, a local nightclub, where all the latest music is played. The friends love discussing who is the best singer and who is “derivative.”  They argue about the merits of the groups, the songs, and individual singers. All is well until one evening, the friends discover the body of a young, unidentified man in the bathroom at Cherrystone. His throat has been cut.

Immediately, Nicky calls the police and everyone awaits the arrival of the detectives. No one knows the young man and he has no identification on him, not even a label in his clothing. On the spot, the police rule the death a suicide. Everyone must remain at the club to be questioned by the police.

The teens are troubled by the death, of course, even though they do not know the dead boy. Luce’s father is a constable, so they can keep up with the investigation through him. Of course, Nicky’s group must have a foil: Denys Brown, formerly Dennis. Denys is “the local Face…. The Lambretta Trendsetter.”

Clearly, someone must know something about the boy’s death. The police soon discover the young man has not committed suicide. Nicky and Luce try to find out who he is and why he turns up at Cherrystone. They continue with their love of music, but an incident late one night at Cherrystone creates a disturbance and gets Nicky barred from the nightclub.

Readers also learn more about Nicky’s homelife. Nicky’s mother has left the home and is living with another man. At first, she took Nicky with her, but he quickly returns to his father’s home to live with him. He sees his mother occasionally. Nicky and Luce live next door to one another in apartments. They share their love of music and their desire to find out about the dead young man.

Read A Thousand Dances to find a recreation of the 1960s music scene in Britain. The singers and songs will be familiar including a “chance encounter [that] might lead to drinks with Mick and Keith.”

At the end, readers discover a fan club needs a hand. Nicky has no idea whose fan club until he sees NEMS on the top of a letter. He says, “Every music fan knew NEMS stood for North End Music Stores. The North End, that is, of Liverpool.” Nicky would be working on the Beatles’ fan club. What’s not to like about that?

 

 

 

 

The Book Whisperer Reviews Sourdough, a Novel

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I read Robin Sloan’s Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore a few years ago. Recently, I discovered Sloan’s latest novel, Sourdough, published in 2017. Sourdough has received praise from NPR book reviewers, the San Francisco Chronicle, and Southern Living.

The narrator is Lois Clary who leaves Michigan a year after college to take a job as a software engineer earning an enormous salary at General Dexterity, a San Francisco robotics company. At first, Lois is happy working at General Dexterity. Then the work begins to press upon her. She lives alone in a tiny apartment and knows no one outside of her co-workers. Her hours are long, and some nights she sleeps on a couch at work, waking disheveled the next morning and not much rested.

In addition to the long hours, the stress of the job causes Lois to have stomach aches and other stress-related ailments. One evening upon arriving home late, she finds on the front door of her apartment building a flyer advertising Clement Street Soup and Sourdough. The flyer along with the phone number for delivery lists the menus as spicy soup or spicy sandwich or a combo (double spicy), all vegetarian.

On a whim, Lois calls and orders the combo (double spicy), despite her trepidations about her uneasy stomach. Brothers Boereg and Chaiman run the Clement Street Soup and Sourdough; Boereg is the chef and Chaiman is the delivery man. After eating her first combo (double spicy), Lois becomes hooked on the food and finds it calms her stomach rather than upsetting it. The sourdough bread is exceptionally good.

Consider that Lois, like many of her fellow workers, has been eating Slurry, a meal replacement. Peter, the chief of Lois’s group drinks Slurry exclusively, seven days a week, three times a day. Is that what Lois is sinking to, a drinking her meals as a substitute to real food? Is there a parallel to her life as well, exhausting work and nothing else?

Suddenly, Lois is thrown into a new world because Boereg and Chaiman must leave the country and Chaiman thrusts the precious sourdough starter into Lois’s hands, asking her to be its keeper. Boereg gives her instructions on feeding the starter to keep it alive. Never having been a cook much less a baker, Lois first buys a copy of The Soul of Sourdough by Everett Broom. Then following the Broom’s instructions, Lois purchases all the implements she will need to make bread: a digital scale, a bench knife, a bread blade, and a baking stone.

In her first attempt, Lois makes a credible loaf of bread; it has a strange face in its crust. This first attempt turns into more and more attempts as Lois learns better how to work with the sourdough and keep the starter alive. When she takes some bread to work, her co-workers clamor for more, especially Kate, the chef at General Dexterity.

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After that first attempt, Lois continues reading about the best way to bake sourdough bread. Her reading prompts her to build a crude outdoor brick oven in order to bake the bread properly.

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Kate even suggests that Lois try for a spot at a farmers’ market so she could sell her bread there. Lois has to try out for a spot at the market; she does not make the cut, however. At the tryout, Lily Belasco tastes Lois’s bread and likes it, but she says nothing at the time. Later, she encounters Lois and asks her to join a market she is building, one that must have three things: fancy coffee, weird honey, and sourdough bread. Lois would be a natural then in this new market. This new market is a secret place that aims to infuse food with technology. What harm can come of joining that community???

Lois continues working at General Dexterity, growing more and more dissatisfied with the job, the long hours, and the stressful conditions. Her work with the sourdough gives her more and more meaning in her life as she learns how to create better bread. Sloan adds a bit of the surreal in making the sourdough starter a character, one that sings and grows.

In short chapters between Lois’s adventures, readers get continuing glimpses of Beoreg and Chaiman as they tell about the sourdough starter, their culture, and their music, the Mazg.

Readers will become entranced with Lois and her work with the living, breathing, singing, sourdough starter. A warning is necessary, though. If readers think Sourdough is a typical worker leaves high-stress job and finds joy in baking sourdough bread, they would be making a mistake. Sourdough provides readers with much more than that scenario.

Robin Sloan maintains a Web site at this link: https://www.robinsloan.com/.

On the Web site, readers will find an eclectic list of other links to items such as Sloan’s proposal for a new book, information about both Sourdough and Mr. Penunbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, and olive oil which Sloan and his wife make. In addition, Sloan provides occasional stories he has written and others by friends.

 

 

The Book Whisperer Reviews Three Things About Elsie

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Words I would use in describing Three Things About Elsie by Joanna Cannon include funny, sad, absorbing, mysterious, and ultimately unsettling. Readers quickly learn that 84-year-old Florence Claybourne’s long-time best friend is Elsie. Their shared memories bind them together. Florence tells readers “there are three things you should know about Elsie, and the first thing is that she’s my best friend.” Later, we learn that Elsie “always knows what to say to make me feel better.” To discover the third thing about Elsie, readers must read the book.

The story opens and closes with Florence having fallen in her apartment. In between the opening and closing, we learn about a mystery, about losses, and about pleasures past. Florence is saucy and speaks her mind. She often does not wish to join in the activities in the common area. She prefers to spend her time with Elsie and also with Jack, another resident.

Florence and Elsie live in apartments at a care facility for the elderly, Cherry Tree. Miss Ambrose is the administrator; she has put Florence on probation. Upon learning she is on probation, Florence immediately asks, “Probation? What crime did I commit?” Florence fears Miss Ambrose wishes to transfer Florence to Greenbank, a place where “the aroma was rather like a doctor’s surgery or how you would imagine an operating theater to smell.” Florence says, “I stared into each room, and a parcel of life stared back.”

Florence is observant; she describes a pigeon that keeps returning to Cherry Tree. Florence disagrees with Miss Ambrose who says “[pigeons are] all the same, but that’s only because she doesn’t look properly. The shades of their wings, the songs they sing. Each one is quite different.”

When the woman in #16 dies, Florence watches the staff clear her apartment quickly for a new resident. The new resident is Gabriel Price, but Florence recognizes him as Robby Butler, an abusive man who died in 1953. Does this sighting mean Florence is suffering from delusions or has Robby Butler returned as Gabriel Price? Florence must tell Elsie who also knew Robby because he dated Elsie’s sister Beryl.

Florence and Elsie know that Robby ran over Beryl and killed her, but the accident was listed as a hit and run and no one was ever charged. Soon after the accident, Butler drowned, so Florence and Elsie thought that was the end of the problem.

Now, Ronnie/Gabriel is living at Cherry Tree. Florence feels threatened, especially when strange things begin happening in her apartment when she is out. Her elephant statue should always sit on the mantel facing the window, but she repeatedly finds it turned away from the window. Another time, she buys a single cake for tea; then the cleaning maid finds a dozen cakes in the cupboard. Who is trying to frighten Florence and make her think she is losing her mind?

Elsie keeps Florence grounded, reminding her to think before she acts. Florence works hard to recall memories and put the story together. Jack also helps. He persuades his son to take him, Florence, and Elsie to talk to people from their past about Ronnie Butler in an effort to piece the story together. The three also persuade Miss Ambrose to take a group of people from Cherry Tree on an outing to the sea. Their motive is not a holiday, but another sleuthing mission to discover what they can about Gabriel Price.

Cannon captures the plight of the elderly in Three Things About Elsie. While on the holiday to the sea, the group has a dance at the hotel. Florence thinks to herself, “Because sometimes, you need to sing and dance. Even if you are eighty. Even if your bones push into your flesh, and the slightest breeze could steal you away.”

Cannon, a psychiatrist understands people and that understanding shows in her writing. In The Trouble With Goats and Sheep, Cannon focuses on two ten-year-old girls who think if they can find God that their neighbor Mrs. Creasy will return to the avenue safely. In Three Things About Elsie, Cannon turns to the elderly who try hard to retain memories as they age.

Cannon write with authority and clarity. Three Things About Elsie is full of humor, but the darkness of aging, of losing one’s identity, remains an unsettling part of the story.

In researching Joanna Cannon’s life and work, I discovered Cannon left school at fifteen. She worked in a bar, kennel, and pizza place. Then in her thirties, she returned to school and completed her degree in psychiatry. She has been particularly interested in people on the “fringes of society.”

Cannon’s Web site features her blog and other information about Cannon and her work: https://joannacannon.com/.

Listen to a reading of Cannon’s short story “Captivating” at this link: https://youtu.be/sa2FCjxwesA.