Book Review: The 7 ½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle

As always, this is a spoiler-free review. Enjoy!

I’ve been having a hard time reading lately.

I’m not alone—the time and attention that careful reading requires are difficult to muster up when your emotional energy is being tugged at from all sides, as is wont to happen during a time of national and international crisis.

I’ve made slow progress through a few books and abandoned others (don’t hate me for not getting into Where The Crawdads Sing!) but the first book in some time to really capture my energy was this one, The 7 ½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle (published as The 7 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle outside of the USA) by Stuart Turton. I read it in about two days, mostly in long sessions curled up in a chair, taking it in as quickly as I could while still giving each scene thorough attention.

The premise is intriguing: in order to solve a murder at Blackheath manor, our protagonist Aiden Bishop relives the day of the crime over and over, each day in a new body, for eight days. If he discovers the name of the murderer, he will be freed from this cycle. Should he fail, his memories are wiped and he begins the cycle anew.

As a fan of Black Mirror, Agatha Christie novels, and of course the movie Groundhog Day, a synopsis of the book was enough to pull me in, but the writing kept me compelled. As our amnesiac narrator struggles to figure out who he is and what his task is, the narrative becomes expansive. A large cast of characters each prove to have fascinating secrets of their own, and as the plot thickens and time begins to run out, the urgency I felt as a reader increased.

I was able to guess a few of the plot twists before their reveals, which was sometimes satisfying and sometimes disappointing. Still, the book had many surprises, most of which were paced evenly and foreshadowed enough that I never felt too jarred by them. However, the final tenth of the book or so did feel like a bit of a letdown. A fascinating, elaborate puzzle had been set up and just as the finale was beginning to take shape in my mind, some reveals were inserted too abruptly for my taste.

I felt like the story demanded some degree more understanding of the machinations behind the time loop at Blackheath, and what the world outside of Blackheath looked like. I’m not one to complain about a well-wrought open ending, and far be it from me to insist that every detail be spelled out for me, but because of the time and energy that went into establishing the first four hundred pages of the book, the payoff to the murder’s solution felt a little hollow. The stakes changed scale drastically in the final chapters, leaving the original story feeling almost entirely disconnected from its ending. Too many of the final reveals felt as though they were inserted solely for shock factor. A truly satisfying mystery should feel inevitable in retrospect, but the chaos that made the majority of the book so interesting could not be mitigated in such a short span and also allow for the introduction of new themes.

My one other complaint is that the same final section of the story that began to expand upon the outer world did so with a heavy-handed moral message. I believe that stories should reflect the worlds in which they are created, and that morals often emerge naturally from the best stories. This one, however, did not feel as though it developed over the course of the story, as it hinged on information revealed at a late stage. The actual lessons which I perceived developing from the text—that perspective drastically shifts how we think about those around us, that money is often a corrupting influence, that trusting others and sticking to our morals when they are challenged is the true test of character—immediately receded beneath a different sort of statement about justice and forgiveness (which I won’t say more about at risk of spoiling the book).

Despite these flaws, I still gave this book 4 stars on Goodreads, as the majority of its plot and text were cleverly crafted, posing big universal questions and having immense fun with its vague historical setting, characters, and social mores. I definitely credit this book with getting me out of a quarantine-induced reading slump, and I hope that whatever I read next is even half as engaging.

Book Review: On Representation in Literature: All the Crooked Saints by Maggie Stiefvater

As always, this review is spoiler-free. Enjoy!

A few notes: This post was written originally in 2018, but since then I’ve revamped this blog. That being said, I think this post holds up, so on its first anniversary I thought I’d re-share it, and use it as a vehicle to relaunch my very occasional book reviews. Below is the original text, with a few updates (indicated in bold).

This post was inspired by a very thoughtful Goodreads review of Maggie Stiefvater’s All the Crooked Saints, and the comment I made in response to it. Before I begin, I feel the need to express a disclaimer: I do not speak for all minorities, nor even all Latinx people. What follows is my own opinion, but one that I have seen widely expressed throughout minority conversations about diversity and representation in literature.

With that out of the way, let’s begin!

The question of what types of writers can write what types of characters is nothing new. Throughout history, white writers have written characters of all races and ethnicities, sometimes well, but very often, very poorly. The effects of blackface minstrelsy and stock characters like “Sambo” and “Aunt Jemima” still have a major impact on how African Americans are portrayed in present-day media. Whitewashing in Hollywood films erases roles for Asian actors, who make up only 1% of Hollywood’s leading roles. Muslim men are often portrayed as terrorists, and Muslim women as victims who must be saved from the “oppression” of the hijab. I could go on and on for hours about the countless movies, TV shows, and books that portray Latinx characters as maids, drug dealers, or sexy, spicy, feisty Latin lovers. With all of this, it’s easy to understand how some people believe writers should stick to writing about characters of their own racial/ethnic background.

*Addendum from 2019: A lot of the negative reviews I’ve seen about this book are from readers who didn’t seem to connect with the characters, as though their Latinidad is by its very nature ostracizing to non-Latinx characters. This is a phenomenon that happens frequently with books about minorities of all varieties, and I find it deeply frustrating. Just because something is outside of your personal experience doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy reading it or connect to the characters. I don’t know about you, but my lack of dragon-riding experience didn’t keep me away from A Game of Thrones, so the fact these characters speak a little Spanish shouldn’t scare you off.

But this is not a solution to the problem in the slightest. If white writers, who still hold the majority of writing posts in America and whose path to publication has fewer hurdles, write only white characters, then the vast majority of characters in literature will remain white. Representation is crucial for people of color, especially for children, who should see positive examples of people of their racial or ethnic background in the media they consume. So this presents the conundrum: how do writers depict someone from a different cultural background sensitively?

There are a myriad of answers from a number of different sources. Some people recommend sensitivity readers. Some immerse themselves in the culture they’re depicting. Some believe that characters of different ethnicities should be treated no differently, that the color of their skin or the second language they speak should be incidental, background information with no more importance attributed to it than eye color or favorite song. Personally, I believe a mix of all three is important. A non-Latinx writer may never capture the full nuance of my day-to-day Latinx life, but it isn’t, quite frankly, that different from non-Latinx life most of the time. Sure, I have abuelos who I love, and a tin of Vicks VapoRub and a bottle of Superior70 Alcoholado to heal my ailments, and I like my food with lots of Adobo and garlic. But my daily thoughts are not about my Latinidad. I go to school and struggle with that. I have complex relationships with my friends of all backgrounds. I worry about what I wear, and I read great books, and I watch too much Netflix. All in all, I’m normal, and that’s what writers should remember.

Now, to connect this all back to All the Crooked Saints. The Soria family of Bicho Raro is nuanced, delicate, real. Not once do the central female characters appear to be “spicy chicas” oozing sexual energy, or saintlike virgins whose faith is the most important thing in the world to her. Not once are the male characters reduced to “cholos” or drug dealers, men who rely on their machismo to secure their otherwise undifferentiated identities. Instead, the family is a collection of oddball individuals, whose problems stem from human flaws. And while some reviewers have pointed out the potential stereotyping of the radio name Diablo Diablo, I think it is justified by its explanation in the story: that triple repetition of the devil’s name summons him, and that double repitition is just close enough to be cool and just far enough to be safe. To those questioning why Stiefvater would write about Latinx characters, I want to make clear that choosing to make the main characters of this story Latinx is especially important considering the roots of magical realism in Latin American life, from Gabriel Garcia Marquez to Isabel Allende to Jorge Luis Borges and more. Stiefvater acknowledges the long literary tradition she is writing in in a respectful manner, and has clearly done her research in the use of Spanish and the realities of life for a Latinx family in the 1960s.

The same care should apply to all portrayals of minorities in literature, whether that be racial/ethnic minorities, neurodiverse individuals, LGBTQ+ characters, or women. Research must be done. Drafts must be read and revised. Characters should be treated with respect. But don’t you dare tell me that male authors can’t write female characters, or that straight authors can’t write LGBTQ+ characters, or that neurotypical authors can’t write neurodiverse characters. That’s a sort of literary segregation that will get us nowhere.

*Addendum from 2019: I also feel like this is an important moment to remind folks that Latinidad isn’t monolithic. Latinx people come in all races, are of all faiths, inhabit all countries. Some of us use a lot of Spanish. Some of us know none. Some of us like spicy food, but many of our cuisines aren’t hot at all. We are millions of people from dozens of countries, and taking that into account is crucial. Sometimes we live up to certain stereotypes and oftentimes we don’t. No work is necessarily flawed because a few stereotypical boxes are checked, so long as the complete humanity of the characters is guaranteed. And I’ve never seen Stiefvater fail to capture the humanity of her characters, regardless of background.

Book Review: The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories by Ken Liu

As always, this review is spoiler-free. Enjoy!

Sometimes, I read a book that provokes such wonder in me I don’t know whether to put it down and marvel at the changed world around me or to keep it pressed tight to my face and never let it go. The dilemma between a desire to process thoughtfully and a burning hunger to consume more is overwhelming.

But eventually I finish the book, one way or another, and find myself in a strange haze afterwards, trying to reconcile the real world around me and the much realer world I’ve just left. Everything seems distant, and shiny. And then it all sharpens. The knowledge crystalizes. My worldview has changed.

The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories by Ken Liu is one such book. Shifting between science fiction and fantasy, traditional and wholly innovative, Liu focuses in on human concerns even as he leaps through space and time and species lines. I read The Paper Menagerie in a week last summer and it’s been turning over in my mind ever since. This week, after finishing another read, I decided to revisit Menagerie, this time as an audiobook.

Some books are thin. Not in size necessarily, but in content, in complexity. They may dazzle and astound at first, but become thin upon the closer scrutiny that comes with rereading. Menagerie is not thin. It instead unfolds, revealing ever more layers, striking the same chords and new ones. From its first tale, “The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species,” which chronicles the reading practices of alien races of Liu’s invention, to its last novella, “The Man Who Ended History,” which zooms in on a future Earth and on the very real atrocities of our past, Liu manages to gather nostalgia, loss, shame, and love together in his fists, ball them up so as to make them indistinguishable, and release them, now commingled, into the world. His characters make sacrifices and make mistakes, explore the American frontier and the final frontier, but they are always reaching out to one another, always searching for connection. They are raw and complex and intricately human, distinct and compelling, and within the many worlds he casts they come to life, some timid and some bold, all more than what they seem at first.

It is for this reason that I found The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories so difficult to put down the first time, and for this reason I revisited it again. It makes me feel the sort of connectedness that I only ever find through fiction. This book broadened my understanding of what short stories could do, and helped me to realize there’s more worth reading than just novels.

I can’t give this book five stars. That’s too simplistic. It’s worth a galaxy.