The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle

-also sold as the Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle.

I really debated reviewing this book here. First, it isn’t YA. Second, it has been out for a while now. Third, it is painful for me to write a realistic review of a book I didn’t like but I did enjoy.

That isn’t quite the contradiction it seems. I have had the experience of enjoying books but not liking them before. Consider Dan Browne, Dean Koontz, Stephen King. With just a few exceptions*, if I start one of these author’s books, I have to finish them. But I am not drawn in by the words or the characters. I am just being a plot junkie. I have to know the ending and how we got there… it is all about the road, baby. But the vehicle, the company, the music – not worth mentioning. And plot is what made me stick it out for 7 1/2 Deaths. PS. I seem to have a pathological needs for this to be the 7 1/2 LIVES of Evelyn Hardcastle. Forgive me if I slip.

This is a convoluted, somewhat magical, story that takes place in a place devoid of modern conveniences. We are told, as fact, that a guest will murder one of the host. And the unraveling of this murder takes place over the course of one 24 hour period, for 8 different narrators who are actually one character.

Certainly lay, people enjoy different things. I did not realize until reading this book how important it was for me to sympathize and empathize with the main characters. In this story, it is impossible to get close to these characters because they aren’t who they really are. And the character you are supposed to know, he morphs so much he doesn’t really have enough substance to love or hate. So his decisions, falling in complete “like” with several of the female characters, seem a bit contrived. He just seems to stick his neck out there fairly readily for a group of people he doesn’t really seem to have a realistic attachment to.

The explanation of how this repeated day occurs is not exactly given short schrif but is so anathema to the setting of the majority of the plot that it definitely kicked me out of the story world rudely. The true revelation of what is going on, why there is this life recycling is not discovered so much as told. And I am pretty sure there is a ‘rule’ about showing not telling in novels. Still up until this scene, I was desperate to visualize the plot (of the 8 character recycling). I searched online for a mind map or a chart or a timeline – but to no avail. I started to make one myself and then I realized I really didn’t care enough to continue.

With that revelation, I consumed the rest of the novel to be able to close the book so to speak on this story. The lack of compelling word artistry, the constant disintegration of the main character, I just ignored it all and read to the end.

If you are a plot junkie, have at it. Bring a paper and pen perhaps. But if you are set on lyrical words, deep world building, or significant character development, I don’t think you will be happy. Honestly, the title was the best part.

*Exceptions for me seem to be time travel related. I think Koontz’s Lightening and King’s 11.23.63 (less so with the ending) were both some of their most original and compelling writing. Everything else seems to be the same story on rewind.

A Danger to Herself and Others by Alyssa Sheinmel

I read a lot of escapist books. I am definitely after that thousand lives they say readers get to live. More if at all possible. But there are characters who I am glad to not be. And Hannah Gold is one of them. I appreciate that she exists in a kind of abstract way but dang – is there anyway to keep her purely theoretical?

Hannah is the center of our story universe in A Danger to Herself and Others. She is our narrator and our point of view. So we learn, bit by bit, what has come before, what brought her to her small institutional cell, almost as she seems to learn it herself. Which means, that for the course of the book, we readers are living the life of a confused, disturbed, enigmatic teenage girl who is confined in an institution for some unknown but unjust reason. We are surrounded by odd personalities that flit in and out of the story, clearly marred by our character goggles.

The link between this novel and the books I usually pick up to read is the puzzle, the unknowing. I don’t often read thrillers or high drama or romance. I have a sense that I know how the story in these will resolve. I like speculative fiction, magical realism, YA, fantasy and sci-fi because the resolution is not just unknown but not guaranteed. Seriously. Who else had to stop reading after Ned Stark bit it? I had to pause because I was so shocked an author would do such a thing. And then I dived in, ravenous.

That is what ended up happening here. What brought me to this story was the complete uncertainty of what had already happened. Our narrator, who should be our omniscient leader in this, is anything but. Being brought into her world is unsettling and disquieting. This is not exactly the escapism I generally crave. But if YOU do, this is a worthwhile read. The story is well written with believable characters. Even a bit too believable for my taste. While I am usually avoid this genre because of my own bias of perceived predictable endings, I realized as I started to read that with such an unreliable and unfocused and un-remembering narrator, I had no idea where we would end up. But I went along for the dangerous ride because I just had to find out. #netgalley @AlyssaSheinmel #ADangertoHerselfandOthers

Romanov by Nadine Brandes

I am a sucker for Anastasia stories, I do admit. When I was a young girl, her remains had not yet been discovered so there was still significant mystery about what happened to her and I sucked up the Anna stories. I was looking forward to this read and it did deliver. Romanov is the tale of magic being stamped out under the Red Revolution of Lenin. Considering all the other policies, I suspect that if magic had existed, Lenin would have considered it anathema to the Soviet way. This is also a love tragedy, the tale of a princess and a pauper and their ill fated affection. There are brutal moments in this story. They aren’t made any easier by the magic that is supposed to exist. But overall the writing was so well done, the world and character building so lovely, that it is worth the tough moments, even for those of us who read to escape. I was left wondering though…. if the royal family were so lovely, why were they so hated? Was the Tsar really the dedicated humanist we read about? I supposed Romanov did it’s job – now I have to go find out. #netgalley #Romanov

TheBoy, the Boat, and the Beast by Samantha Clark

You don’t know from the get-go if this is an allegorical story or a literal one or something else. And I am not spoiling it for you here.  TBTB&TB was a deceptively simple book to read.  While a readers ability level need not be high to enjoy the book, the story does eventually give way to darker and very realistic elements.  This is about a young boy stranded both emotionally, physically, and metaphysically.  Dissecting these issues of loss and abandonment should be tackled with appropriate students.   If you are looking for a short but intense book that can appeal to a wide range of reading skills, this might be the book for you.

All is Fair by Dee Garretson

All is Fair is a well written, intriguing WWI rescue story with a hint of romance. I read the ARC tonight and in just one sitting. I love a good female empowerment book and our heroine in this novel has moxie, brains, and a good sense of humor. While it is possible that some people will sigh about ‘another rescue’ novel (we have had some incredible ones recently), I especially like this novel for upper middle school and lower high school. It has some complexity that will appeal to a slightly older reading set but (spoilers) a resolution that is somewhat fanciful and a tiny bit incredible. Yet in the details, it is often more realistic than any other rescue novel I can think of. The author’s descriptions of the smell of a wrist watch or the hair oil and petrol oil on a scarf really struck me as adding a truly authentic layer. So, if you have someone new to the genre and/or a reader who adores the genre, All is Fair would be an excellent book to put into their hands.

#netgalley @deegarretson

Unmarriageable by Soniah Kamal

We can all agree that it is rare for a reboot to rival the original. But in this world, where #MeToo and #WeNeedDiverseBooks live, I have found you a single novel that can be a gateway drug to fine literature, world literature, and women’s literature.

Unmarriageable is indeed “Pride and Prejudice in Pakistan.” But more importantly, it is the version of Pride and Prejudice modern students NEED to read. While a modern Westerner can intellectually understand the dilemma of Elizabeth Bennet in 19th century Regency Britain, the predicament of her and her sisters is somewhat removed emotionally for us. Women’s lives got better. Women became able to inherit and work and even marry for love. Having this tale play out in modern day Pakistan adds a level of reality and urgency to the story that is hard to experience from the original with our perfect historical hindsight.

Simply put, Unmarriageable has legs because so many of the original norms Austen wrote about are still at work in the world today. We read stories about honor killings, forced and arranged marriages, preference of boys to girls, shooting of girls going to school from all over the globe (not just South Asia). And in this novel, we see the seeds of how small micro-aggressions lay the ground work for macro-aggressions against the disenfranchised.

Because Unmarriageable is able to step just a bit beyond Austen’s exposure of the misogyny of the day, I hope and encourage educators to read it and consider adding it into your ELA curriculum. Unmarriageable not only presents the plight of women, especially “older” unmarried women, but also touches upon the struggles of gay men, interracial couples, unwed pregnant women, plus sized women, and class biases. And while the setting is Pakistan, many of these biases hit disturbingly close to the mark in Western society too. This book will also give educators an opportunity to teach about Partition, colonial occupation, India-Pakistan relations, Islam, the importance of education to women. And it may help some students realize how little they know about this important, populous and critical area of the world.

So…

Dear ELA Teachers Everywhere,

Please put down your copy of Pride and Prejudice. Just stick in that drawer next to you. Now open your computer and place an order for a class set of Unmarriageable by Soniah Kamal (due out January 2019). Your Jane Austen discussions are about to get wild.

#Unmarriageable #NetGalley @Soniah Kamal

Information Literacy – Part Deux

Screenshot 2018-10-31 18.11.08This afternoon I watched a really interesting Webinar on Digital Forensics (via Common Sense Media and EdWeb).  The speaker, from the News Literacy Project, was @PeterD_Adams . He had some great insights and I recommend watching his presentation (free from the above websites).  But in case you want the crib notes, here is my Very Important takeaway.

Peters highly discourages having students create Fake news or Fake Tweets (all easy to do on many many websites or via apps these days).  I wasn’t sure I liked this idea (having created a few myself for teaching purposes.)  Yet, the more he talked, the more I agreed.  In most classes or courses, we don’t ask students to do something incorrectly in order to learn the right way.  (“Please incorrectly solve this equation” or “Please use poor grammar in this essay”).  Rather we accept accidental errors as opportunities to learn but we don’t assign improper tasks.

Peter recommends that we treat the multitude of websites and apps that can create Fakes like pollution – something you notice in order to plan to avoid it in the future.  It makes sense.  EVERYTHING on the Web is there FOREVER. So no matter how you try, you can’t really purge your Fake creation – even if it was created just for sake of a class or as an example.  In some instances, purging a Fake might give you no forum to explain that it was a Fake (think Twitter).  This is especially egregious if your Fake went viral.

No, there are (alas) MANY good opportunities to decry Fakes without us making our own.  Peter recommends not just NewsLit.org but also Checkology, Snopes.com, factcheck,org, Politifact.  All have great examples that can be used while at the same time promoting beneficial, digital citizenship positive sites. This has the added benefit of denying the Fake Creation websites clicks, which in turn denies them revenue.  Because, as Peter pointed out, that is ALL Fakes are – a way to drive revenue (see https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-38168281 or read Peters analysis at https://newslit.org/get-smart/rumor-review-denzel-washington-supports-trump-false/).