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The Tortured Poets Department Reading List

It’s been nearly three months since the release of Taylor Swift’s eleventh album, The Tortured Poets Department – and it’s cemented her status as a cultural phenomenon, as well as being a cracking good dark academia-themed listen. With all of the literary allusions and aesthetics scattered throughout the full 31-track anthology, it only makes sense to put together a reading list that matches the album’s vibe. As a die-hard Swiftie and booklover, I could think of no one better than… me! Here’s The Tortured Poets Department Reading List, straight from my desk to yours.

The Tortured Poets Department Reading List - Book List - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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The Secret History by Donna Tartt

The Secret History - Donna Tartt - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

“I keep finding his things in drawers / Crucial evidence I didn’t imagine the whole thing / I’m sure I can pass this test”

Reading The Secret History is basically an entry-level requirement for joining The Tortured Poets Department. It’s an inverted detective mystery, and a campus novel, with a murder and a cult-like friendship group and forbidden love(s) and self-destructive behaviour and secrets and lies and betrayal… all of this is like catnip to Swifties. Read my full review of The Secret History here.

Normal People by Sally Rooney

Normal People - Sally Rooney - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

“Who’s gonna stop us from waltzing back into rekindled flames / if we know the steps anyway?”

I’ve long suspected that Taylor Swift isn’t actually a big reader (when would she have the time, between the record-breaking world-tours and album releases and Easter eggs for her fans and writing music and high-profile relationships with Superbowl-winning footballers? hard to blame her!). But Sally Rooney is one of the few authors that she’s confirmed she reads and loves, and Normal People is so Tortured Poets Department-coded, it’s almost funny. Read my full review of Normal People here.

Supplementary reading: Conversations With Friends

Death In Her Hands by Ottessa Moshfegh

Death In Her Hands - Ottessa Moshfegh - Keeping Up With The Penguins

“She’s the death you chose / you’re in terrible danger”

It was actually hard to narrow down Ottessa Moshfegh’s oeuvre to a single recommendation for The Tortured Poets Department reading list, but finally I settled on Death In Her Hands. I think it’s the most quietly creepy of Moshfegh’s work, and plays into a lot of the themes that Taylor Swift explores on this album (loneliness, resentment, self-loathing, self-deception), only through a murder mystery rather than a tragic love affair.

Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood

Alias Grace - Margaret Atwood - Keeping Up With The Penguins

“I leap from the gallows and I levitate down your street / crash the party like a record scratch as I scream”

Alias Grace really has it all, a tick for every requirement of The Tortured Poets Department reading list. A woman, imprisoned and made a spectacle by well-to-do onlookers. She’s falsely accused (or is she?). She’s endlessly interrogated by well-meaning professionals, but maybe in trying to unearth her innermost secrets, they’re doing more harm than good. It’s Gothic as heck and it’s got a lot to say about gender roles. Read my full review of Alias Grace here.

Luster by Raven Leilani

Luster - Raven Leilani - Keeping Up With The Penguins

“She thought about how he said since she was so wise beyond her years / everything had been above board / she wasn’t sure”

I don’t know if it’s comforting or scary to realise that Taylor Swift, undoubtedly one of the most powerful women in the world, can be manipulated and left devastated by a rogue. The protagonist of Luster definitely doesn’t have the confidence or wherewithal of our department chair, but they share the same experience of throwing themselves head-first into an ill-advised affair with an older man who doesn’t deserve them. Read my full review of Luster here.

Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates

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“You wouldn’t last an hour in the asylum where they raised me”

One of the most interesting aspects of the Taylor Swift Phenomenon, in my view, is that the woman at the heart of it seems to have an unprecedented level of self-awareness about her position and the context in which she’s risen to it. She’s definitely aware of the path paved by earlier It Girls like Marylin Monroe, which is why she would find Blonde, a slightly-fictionalised account of her traumatic life, a particularly resonant read.

Bunny by Mona Awad

Bunny - Mona Awad - Keeping Up With The Penguins

“I changed into goddesses, villains, and fools / changed plans and lovers and outfits and rules”

We like to think of Taylor Swift as the leader of the pack, but it wasn’t always that way – and I think, at her heart, she’s still susceptible to molding herself to fit the demands of others, only to discover there’s a higher price to pay than she could have foreseen. That’s what Bunny is all about, the hidden costs of false pretenses and the rabbit hole of trying to fit in.

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

Burial Rites - Hannah Kent - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

“Come one, come all, it’s happenin’ again / the empathic hunger descends”

Taylor Swift loves unearthing stories of women facing up to opposition or ridicule and standing strong (hard to imagine why), so Burial Rites is definitely her vibe. It’s a fictionalised version of the story of the last woman to be put to death in Iceland. Agnes Magnúsdóttir is met with horror and suspicion when she’s sent to a remote farm to await her execution, but there’s more to her story than her new companions could have imagined.

Convenience Store Women by Sayaka Murata

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“I hate it here so I will go to secret gardens in my mind / people need a key to get to, the only one is mine”

Before The Tortured Poets Department came out, I would’ve said that Sayaka Murata’s fiction was a bit too dark and weird for Taylor Swift – but this album reveals our favourite blonde has a much darker streak than we knew. She’d definitely relate to Convenience Store Woman, the story of a girl who gives up on bending over backwards to make others happy. Read my full review of Convenience Store Woman here.

Supplementary reading: Earthlings

Fleishman Is In Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner

Fleishman Is In Trouble - Taffy Brodesser-Akner - Keeping Up With The Penguins

“I move through the world with the heartbroken / my longings stay unspoken”

Fleishman Is In Trouble belongs on The Tortured Poets Department reading list because, in a lot of ways, it does exactly what Taylor Swift does with music. On its face, it looks like a stock-standard New York divorce novel, a couple with too much money and a lot of fake problems pawning their kids back and forth – but when you look a little closer, you’ll see that this story has a lot more depth than that. Read my full review of Fleishman Is In Trouble here.

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Frankenstein - Mary Shelley - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

“He saw forever so he smashed it up / my boy only breaks his favourite toys”

Putting together this The Tortured Poets Department reading list, I had occasion to wonder: when Taylor Swift reads Frankenstein, do you think she relates more to the doctor or the monster? On one level, surely she’s the doctor, crafting a body of work that takes on power beyond her wildest dreams. On the other, it’s not hard to see her feeling like the monster, a compilation of people’s expectations and projections ‘slowly lurching towards your favourite city’. Read my full review of Frankenstein here.

The Vegetarian by Han Kang

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“They killed Cassandra first ’cause she feared the worst / and tried to tell the town”

A woman acting in a way that makes sense only to her? Taylor Swift can surely relate. Something as innocuous as choosing to eschew meat or write honestly about heartbreak can send the haters into a frenzy, but the protagonist and our blonde megastar do it anyway. The Vegetarian draws on the same well of ‘mad woman’ tropes that Swift likes to visit often, and both offer a window into the ‘mad woman’s’ experience that has historically been missing from the dominant cultural narrative. Read my full review of The Vegetarian here.

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

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“And I’ll tell you one thing, honey / I can take the upper hand and touch your body / flip the script and leave you like a dumb house party”

Whether Taylor Swift read the Gone Girl novel or just watched the movie adaptation, I’m sure she fantasised at least a little about being Amazing Amy (played to perfection on screen by Rosamund Pike). It’s hard to blame her – anyone who’s had her heart broken by a small man who treated her badly can understand the inclination to frame him for murder and ruin his life. Luckily, Taylor Swift channels her brilliance into songwriting rather than crime. Read my full review of Gone Girl here.

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

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“So all you kids can sneak into my house with all the cobwebs / I’m always drunk on my own tears, isn’t that what they all said?”

Look, I highly doubt Taylor Swift has ever had the time or inclination to suffer through Great Expectations – but the Miss Havisham archetype is so load-bearing on her most recent album, it’s an essential inclusion on The Tortured Poets Department reading list. In fact, I actually scribbled a note to myself the first time I listened to Who’s Afraid Of Little Old Me? – ‘this is a Miss Havisham-ass anthem’. Read my full review of Great Expectations here.

Green Dot by Madeleine Gray

Green Dot - Madeleine Gray - Keeping Up With The Penguins

“And my friends all smell like weed or little babies / and this city reeks of driving myself crazy”

Taylor Swift is nothing if not a dyed-in-the-wool millennial, and that’s evident in how she captures the experience of kinda-growing-up-kinda-not in her songwriting. Green Dot is one of the most underrated books on that theme. As the blurb describes it, it’s a “darkly hilarious and deeply felt examination of the joys and indignities of coming into adulthood against the pitfalls of the twenty-first century and the winding, tortuous, and often very funny journey we take in deciding who we are and who we want to be”. Read my full review of Green Dot here.

Her Body And Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado

Her Body And Other Parties - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

“You hung me on your wall / stabbed me with your push pins”

If I got to throw one of those fantasy dinner parties where you could invite anyone you wanted, I’d sit Carmen Maria Machado and Taylor Swift next to each other. Reading Her Body And Other Parties, and listening to The Tortured Poets Department, you just know they’d have a lot of fascinating stuff to talk about, like the torture and treachery of desire, and the keen sting of betrayal – both on a personal level, and on a societal one. Read my full review of Her Body And Other Parties here.

I Want To Die But I Want To Eat Tteokbokki by Baek Sehee

I Want To Die But I Want To Eat Tteokbokki - Baek Sehee - Keeping Up With The Penguins

“They said ‘babe, you gotta fake it ’til you make it’ and I did / lights, camera, bitch smile”

Anyone who’s heard Taylor Swift sing on The Tortured Poets Department about performing her best through a devastating heartbreak will know that she can relate to I Want To Die But I Want To Eat Tteokbokki on a spiritual level. That kind of soul-crushing malaise and melancholy in competition with the desire for dopamine-drenched delights is at the very core of the lived experience of the Dramatic Human.

Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

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“Now I’m runnin’ with my dress unbuttoned / screaming ‘but Daddy, I love him!'”

Wuthering Heights definitely has a special place on the desk of the Chairman of The Tortured Poets Department. It’s the classic tragic love story, with forbidden desire and enduring passion and endless drama and histrionics – plus, the gossiping neighbours and the mad woman in the attic. Every delulu girl has convinced herself at one point or another that she’s Cathy to her situationship’s Heathcliff. Read my full review of Wuthering Heights here.

Milkman by Anna Burns

Milkman - Anna Burns - Keeping Up With The Penguins

“Devils that you know / raise hell worse than a stranger”

Given the strong anti-London sentiment, an Irish book or two must be included on The Tortured Poets Department reading list. Milkman fits the bill, being a story (unofficially) set in Belfast at the height of the troubles, and also matches up thematically. A nameless woman is being stalked, her every move watched by both a man obsessed with her and the onlookers in her everyone-knows-everyone town. Read my full review of Milkman here.

Pizza Girl by Jean Kyoung Frazier

Pizza Girl - Jean Kyoung Frazier - Keeping Up With The Penguins

“I look in people’s windows / transfixed by rose golden glows”

Taylor Swift knows the desire to escape into someone else’s life when your own feels miserable, and also the danger of crossing that line – a slippery slope at the heart of Pizza Girl. The melancholic protagonist of this intense novella would definitely relate to songs like I Look In People’s Windows, if she could pull herself out of her denial-fuelled obsession long enough to listen. Read my full review of Pizza Girl here.

Rabbits For Food by Binnie Kirshenbaum

Rabbits For Food - Binnie Kirshenbaum - Book On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

“I wanna snarl and show you just how disturbed this has made me”

Many of the songs on The Tortured Poets Department allude to asylums and incarceration – but for Bunny, the narrator of Rabbits For Food, it’s not a metaphor. She finds herself in the psych ward of a New York hospital after a mental breakdown at a New Year’s Eve party, wondering whether she’s actually mad or simply living in a world of madness. Read my full review of Rabbits For Food here.

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

Rebecca - Daphne du Maurier - Keeping Up With The Penguins

“Your wife waters flowers / I want to kill her”

Mad women, withholding men, jealousy, fear, desperation – Rebecca is a foundational pillar in the contemporary canon of sad girl books (and, of course, sad girl music). In another life, Taylor Swift and Daphne du Maurier probably would have been great friends; as it stands, the former has written the perfect soundtrack to accompany the work of the latter. Read my full review of Rebecca here.

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

The Bell Jar - Sylvia Plath - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

“Handcuffed to the spell I was under / for just one hour of sunshine”

Name a more tortured poet than Sylvia Plath – it can’t be done! She’s emblematic of the aesthetic, and The Bell Jar encapsulates the darkness of her desperation and the torture of her vain hopes. It’s easy to see how Taylor Swift would relate to the protagonist: beautiful, brilliant, talented, restless, hopeless, and lonely. Thankfully, she seems to be having a happier ending than Plath’s character. Read my full review of The Bell Jar here.

The Seven Husbands Of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid

The Seven Husbands Of Evelyn Hugo - Taylor Jenkins Reid - Keeping Up With The Penguins

“Take the glory, give everything / Promise to be dazzling”

The world is waiting with bated breath for Taylor Swift’s memoir – and I imagine we’ll be waiting a good long time, as she’s got a lot of life and career to go before she’ll have time to reflect. In the meantime, we can read The Seven Husbands Of Evelyn Hugo, a bestseller-slash-BookTok-sensation about a life in the spotlight and the shadows it casts.

Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys

Wide Sargasso Sea - Jean Rhys - Keeping Up With The Penguins

“I’m seeing visions / am I bad or mad or wise?”

One of the reasons Taylor Swift’s music resonates – especially The Tortured Poets Department – is that she gives a voice to the mad woman in the attic. Wide Sargasso Sea does the same thing, affording the trope a depth and complexity she’s never had before. She’s more than a narrative foil, she has her own story and desires and agency. Best of all, she (occasionally) gets her happy ending, or (more often) gets her revenge.

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

Anna Karenina - Leo Tolstoy - Keeping Up With The Penguins

“Without ever touching his skin / how can I be guilty as sin?”

With so much of this album revolving around the idea of forbidden desire, specifically those desires ‘forbidden’ by the rules of ‘polite society’, The Tortured Poets Department reading list has to include at least one classic about adultery. Anna Karenina fits the bill, for both the scandalous affair and its tragic end. Plus, Tolstoy faces endless accusations of wordiness, and there were far too many reviews of TTPD claiming it was ‘too long’, so really, they’re a match made in heaven. Read my full review of Anna Karenina here.

Trust Exercise by Susan Choi

Trust Exercise - Susan Choi - Keeping Up With The Penguins

“We both did the best we could do / underneath the same moon / in different galaxies”

Trust Exercise works for The Tortured Poets Department reading list on several levels. Firstly, it’s keenly felt and deeply insightful. Secondly, it’s full of dangerous yearning and adolescent passion. Thirdly, it turns the story on its head, revealing truths that change how we understand what we thought we knew for sure. It’s a hard one to recommend, but definitely worthwhile.

Uncommon Type by Tom Hanks

Uncommon Type - Tom Hangs - Keeping Up With The Penguins

“You left your typewriter at my apartment / straight from the Tortured Poets Department”

Okay, fine, maybe the only thing really linking The Tortured Poets Department to Uncommon Type is a typewriter motif – but given how many books on this reading list are deep and depressing, I couldn’t help include a more playful and curious option. This collection of short stories by a beloved actor is a pleasant surprise, with a few tales that will truly warm your heart.

Good Material by Dolly Alderton

“Now I’m down bad crying at the gym”

It didn’t take long for the line ‘down bad, crying at the gym’ to enter the popular lexicon as a shorthand for devastating heartbreak – and the protagonist of Good Material is the most down-bad-crying-at-the-gym character you’ll read this year. The story revolves around a break up that drags on and on and on, primarily due to the narrator’s delusion and inability to let a good thing go. He’s a walking, talking disaster, and it’s scarily relatable.

Search History by Amy Taylor

Search History - Amy Taylor - Keeping Up With The Penguins

“My beloved ghost and me / sitting in a tree”

Have you ever found yourself in a scrolling spiral, going deeper and deeper into a love interest’s Instagram feed looking for clues and insights? You just know Taylor Swift has. The protagonist of Search History takes it one step further, becoming obsessed with the lingering online presence of her paramour’s former love. The more she learns, the harder it is to pretend that she’s the Cool Girlfriend who would never compare herself to an ex. Read my full review of Search History here.

The Fancies by Kim Lock

The Fancies - Kim Lock - Keeping Up With The Penguins

“Fresh out the slammer / I know who my first call will be to”

Abigail Fancy is returning to her hometown, head held high, to face down all the whispers and stares. She’s fresh out the slammer (geddit?), and she knows all the onlookers are going to have a lot to say about her, not the least of which are the ones in her own family. It might seem unlikely, but I maintain that Taylor Swift would probably find a lot to relate to in The Fancies, a small-town mystery about deep secrets and lost truths. Read my full review of The Fancies here.

See What I Have Done – Sarah Schmidt

The blurb of See What I Have Done concludes with the tag-line “You know the rhyme. You don’t know the story.” It’s alarmingly accurate, because before I read this fictional retelling of the life and crimes(?) of Lizzie Borden, I knew basically nothing about her beyond the schoolyard chant.

Lizzie Borden took an axe, and gave her mother forty whacks
When she saw what she had done, she gave her father forty-one

See What I Have Done - Sarah Schmidt - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Get See What I Have Done here.
(And you see, what I have done is put affiliate links on this page, so whenever you make a purchase you’re keeping this site running.)

Turns out, there’s a bit more to the story than that. Lizzie Borden’s father and stepmother were indeed hacked to death with an axe in there Massachusetts home, on 4 August 1892. Lizzie was the one to discover her father’s body, calling out to the maid that ‘someone’s killed Father’. After a brief investigation, Lizzie was charged with the murder and put to trial – only to be acquitted, largely because the jury found it hard to fathom that a delicate, feminine little lady could commit such a heinous crime.

So, officially, the murders have never been solved, and they’ve been rich fodder for pop culture ever since. There’s been movies, TV shows, musicals, plays, novels, and of course the skipping rope rhyme. So, Sarah Schmidt ventured onto well-trod ground when she wrote See What I Have Done.

Schmidt’s version of the story is told through the eyes of four narrators: Lizzie; her sister, Emma; her maid, Bridget; and a creepy stranger, Benjamin. Each of them has their own motivation for wanting the senior Bordens dead, each of them has their own secret knowledge about the nature of the crime. Schmidt doesn’t style See What I Have Done as a whodunnit, though, and there’s no neat answer to ‘solve’ the crime by the end. Instead, she gives the reader glimpses into possibilities, what could have happened, and leaves us to drawn our own conclusions about the identity of the murderer. Really, it’s not even her focus – the focus is the Borden family.

In Schmidt’s retelling, the Bordens were all kinds of toxic. The father is prone to fits of violence, the stepmother is narcissistic and cruel, the spinster sisters are desperate to escape but inextricably entangled in each other, and given all that, it’s unsurprising cracks formed in the family unit. The claustrophobia of the Borden house is symbolised in the recurring motif of the pot of mutton stew, bubbling away on the stove for days and making each member of the Borden household sick in turn (presumably a clever nod to the accusation that Lizzie Borden tried and failed to poison her parents before taking to them with an axe).

See What I Have Done is full of rich, sensory descriptions, particularly smells that will have you wrinkling your nose. You’ll lose track of how many times characters vomit, how many times they find flecks of blood, and how often they feel stifled by the heat. It’s highly effective, but hardly a pleasant reading experience. Schmidt’s clear talent for vivid writing almost works against her, in that sense.

As with any book with multiple narrators, there’s one that steals the show – in this case, it’s Lizzie, unreliable and unsettled and dishonest as she might be. She’s childlike in the most chilling way, the kind of immature brat that can’t see past the end of her own nose but you could totally believe would kill her parents in a petulant fit. You’d think that having her narrate the story (in part, at least) would force Schmidt’s hand in revealing her innocence or culpability – not so. With some clever narrative sleight of hand, Lizzie’s guilt remains ambiguous. It’s not even clear whether she knows whether or not she did it.

The strength of Lizzie’s voice meant that there was some unrealised potential, in my opinion, in the perspectives of Bridget and Benjamin. See What I Have Done could have even been a two-parter, with the first volume of the story unfolding between Lizzie and Emma, then revisited with Bridget and Benjamin, giving us more scope to explore their stories. I was also disappointed to see the trial and Lizzie’s acquittal effectively skipped over, retold from a distance in a few short paragraphs towards the end of the novel.

I suppose I can see Schmidt’s reasoning, though – the trial has been well covered in other fictional accounts of this sorry saga, and it would’ve been a distraction from The Point of See What I Have Done. Schmidt isn’t exploring who committed the murders of the senior Bordens, she’s interrogating why they might have happened, and where our sympathies could lie between the main players. It makes for a confounding and uncomfortable read, but one that provides great fodder for a book club discussion.

My favourite Amazon reviews of See What I Have Done:

  • “I disapointingly trudged through it as I read a novel that was basically about nothing much except Lizzie being a ADHD woman-child with a licking fetish.” – paintedrnlady
  • “I don’t know how it’s possible to make Lizzie Borden boring but this was about as exciting as reading a calculus textbook.” – suekitty13
  • “children might need sound effects, but adult readers do not need to be told that the clock went tick, tick. Or something went thump, thump, or rattle, rattle. Amateurish writing. I gave up after a few chapters.” – POV
  • “See What I Have Done is just a rehash of the facts of the time and the murders with Ms Schmidt’s opinions and imagination added to the story.” – Ann Bresnan

He’s A 10 – Jessica Yale

He's A 10 - Jessica Yale - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Buy He’s A 10 here.
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Jessica Yale was a British transplant to the U.S., and started writing a sports romance novel based in an English football club to give herself a taste of home. Sadly, she passed away before she could see the book on shelves, but He’s A 10 is her legacy. The wonderful team at Penguin Books Australia were kind enough to send me a copy for review.

Genie is the head of Player Care at a rapidly expanding football club. It’s her job to make sure the players have everything they need, from housing to a manageable calendar of events. She’s off to a stumble start with the expensive new ‘Number 10’ Tony Garratt. He’s coming in under storm clouds of off-field controversy, and he’s hours late to his first press conference. He’s going to drive her crazy – in more ways than one.

Not being too familiar with English football leagues and the behind-the-scenes admin of a club, it took me a minute to warm up to He’s A 10. Once I fell into the groove, though, it was a delight to read. In addition to the intensely-felt romance, there’s a fun mystery running throughout that really had me hooked: who’s screwing with Genie’s work to make her look bad? Will Tony be able to help her figure it out before she gets fired?

There are only one or two slightly steamy scenes, so this romance is more seasoned than spicy. The ending is also a little rushed and cliched, with a lot of expositional dialogue to bring everything together. Still, He’s A 10 is a lovely read, perfect for fans of Amy Lea with a long commute.

7 Ticking Clock Mystery Books

The easiest way to create a sense of urgency in a mystery book? Put a clock on it! As the deadline draws closer, the reader will be drawn to the edge of their seat, wondering if the mystery will be solved in time. Here are seven of the best ticking clock mystery books.

7 Ticking Clock Mystery Books - Book List - Keeping Up With The Penguins
There’s no ticking clock on the affiliate links on this page: anytime you use one to make a purchase, you’re supporting this site.

The 7 1/2 Deaths Of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton

The 7 1/2 Deaths Of Evelyn Hardcastle - Stuart Turton - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The 7 1/2 Deaths Of Evelyn Hardcastle is a multi-player Black Mirror-esque game of Cluedo, with time travel and body swapping and a ticking clock. We meet the narrator as he’s running through the woods shouting a woman’s name, as he forgets entirely who he is and what he’s doing. He’s doomed to repeat the same day over and over again, each time in the body of a different guest at a mansion party, until he solves the murder of the hostess’s daughter. If he fails, all he has learned will be wiped from his memories, and he’ll start all over again. This complex mystery is full of side plots and rabbit warrens that you can’t help tumbling down.

And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie

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As far as mystery novels go, And Then There Were None demonstrably has a (pardon the pun) killer premise. It’s a locked-room mystery, with a ticking clock. Ten strangers have been lured to an island under false pretenses, and each of them is hiding their own dark secret. A storm whips up that prevents them from leaving, and they’re going to be murdered, one by one – unless they can identify the murderer and stop them before they kill whomever is next. Yes, there are some racist and problematic elements of the time, but Agatha Christie is the Queen of Crime for a reason. Read my full review of And Then There Were None here.

The Chain by Adrian McKinty

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It’s hard to imagine a more chilling beginning to a story than that you’ll find in the opening chapters of The Chain. A woman receives a phone call, advising her that her daughter has been kidnapped while waiting for the school bus. That’s terrifying, of course, but not only does she have to pay a ransom, she must also has to kidnap another person’s child, in order to secure her daughter’s safe return before the clock runs out. The titular ‘chain’ is a series of parents and loved ones held together by their complicity, kidnapping someone in order to secure the return of their own. This is a ticking clock mystery book with a moral dilemma at its heart, and you won’t be able to look away. Read my full review of The Chain here.

The Art Of Death by David Fennell

The Art Of Death - David Fennell - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Picasso once said that “every act of creation is first an act of destruction”, and The Art Of Death takes that idea to its logical extreme. The premise is basically this: what if Banksy was a serial killer, and his artworks were his murder victims? This one checks all the boxes for high-energy procedural thrillers: child abduction, a missing MP, a troublesome journalist, a difficult home life for the lead detective, and (of course) a ticking clock. It’s solid, gripping read, one that steers into the skid of the gruesome and macabre. Read my full review of The Art Of Death here.

Mother May I by Joshilyn Jackson

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Bree is 38 years old, she uses canvas bags, she’s a former board member of several charities, and she’s a doting mother to two teenage daughters and a “surprise” infant son. Her perfect life is shattered when she looks away for just a moment, and her son is taken. The phone rings: “Go home. Tell no one. Do not call the police. Do not call your husband. Be at your house by 5:15pm or he’s gone for good.” The clock is well and truly ticking in Mother May I, and author Joshilyn Jackson hits her stride as an author of compelling suburban thrillers. Read my full review of Mother May I here.

Survive The Night by Riley Sager

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To fully immerse yourself in Survive The Night, you have to take yourself back to a time where it was dangerous to get in a stranger’s car, long before we ordered them to our doorstep via the internet. The year is 1991, and Charlie Jordan needs someone to split the long drive home with her, so she finds a fellow Ohio transplant via her college noticeboard. Charlie’s friend was recently murdered by a man known as the Campus Killer. You can see where this is going, right? The longer Charlie sits in the passenger seat, the more she suspects the man she’s with might be the murderer – all she’s got to do is survive the night, and find a way to prove it.

Angels And Demons by Dan Brown

Angels And Demons - Dan Brown - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I don’t want to hear any Dan Brown slander in the comments. It’s not sophisticated literature, it’s not historically accurate, but his books are really compelling mysteries that will keep you gripped all the way from the airport departure lounge to your destination. Angels And Demons is the first in his Robert Langdon series, where the Harvard symbologist is summoned to help solve the murder of a scientist in a Swiss research facility. It turns out he’s the only one who can save the Vatican from a time bomb ticking away in a mystery location. Your heart will beat in your throat as the clock counts down and Langdon struggles to put the pieces together.

The Seven Deaths Of Evelyn Hardcastle – Stuart Turton

The Seven Deaths Of Evelyn Hardcastle is a time-travel, body-hopping murder mystery – every bit as complicated as it sounds, all the more for the fact that it has more than one title. It was originally published as The Seven Deaths Of Evelyn Hardcastle in most English-speaking territories, but then renamed The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle for U.S. publication (due to its unfortunate similarity to The Seven Husbands Of Evelyn Hugo, coincidentally released around the same time). So, if you’re already confused, you’re not the only one.

The 7 1/2 Deaths Of Evelyn Hardcastle - Stuart Turton - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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The story starts with our narrator running through a forest, forgetting who he is, and immediately witnessing a murder. All that before coffee? A rough start to the day! It turns out this isn’t the first time it’s happened, either. He’s doomed to repeat this day again and again, each time in the body of a different guest in a crumbling mansion, until he solves a murder. His memories are wiped each time, the clock resets, and he has to put all the pieces together before it happens again. His only ally appears to be ‘Anna’, the woman whose name he was shouting in the forest when his memories disappeared.

All the guests, including the ones our narrator will be embodying, have gathered at Blackheath manor for a morbid party of sorts. Each of them were present at a similar party at the same house nineteen years earlier, where one of the Hardcastle children was murdered. History is going to repeat itself, and our narrator (clue-y guy that he is) determines that the two deaths must be related.

Oh, and just to up the stakes even further, our narrator learns – from a creepy guy in a medieval plague doctor mask who’s following him around – that there are two other people ‘competing’ with him to solve the murder, and only the first to do so will be allowed to leave Blackheath. The remaining failed amateur detectives will have to stay trapped in the cycle forever. And there’s another guy (“the footman”) trying to murder them all before they crack the case, anyway.

So, I have a lot of thoughts. The Seven Deaths Of Evelyn Hardcastle, at its bones, is a great concept, but I think Turton was a bit ambitious in the execution. There’s a LOT going on, a lot of secrets and at least three central mysteries, and most of the time the narrator is just as confused and clueless as the reader. In my view, mysteries only really work when you feed the reader enough information to get a foothold – we need that purchase to be truly invested in the outcome. As it stands, Evelyn seems nice enough and all, but it’s hard to get worked up about who murders her when it’s only one of about a thousand questions with no forthcoming answers.

Here are some of the mysteries I noted down as I was wading through The Seven Deaths Of Evelyn Hardcastle:

  • Plague Doctor = who?
  • Footman = who?
  • Anna = who/why?
  • Evelyn’s mother = where?
  • Evelyn’s murderer = who/why/how?
  • Thomas’s murderer = who/why?
  • The narrator = who/why?
  • The whole dang situation = why?

Another mystery – not explicitly mentioned in the plot, but particularly baffling to me – is why are none of the ‘hosts’ women? All the guests that our narrator embodies are men. Was Turton simply afraid of having to describe the lived experience of having breasts, on top of everything else going on in his book? (That said, given how unkindly he described the only fat character in the novel, perhaps it’s a blessing he didn’t try his hand at a different gender.)

In sum, The Seven Deaths Of Evelyn Hardcastle is a multi-player Black Mirror-esque game of Cluedo, with time travel and body swapping and a ticking clock. The Times called it “an astonishingly polished debut”, but conceded that “the plot of this complex, fascinating and bewildering murder-mystery is impossible to summarise” – two points that seem at odds, to me. Turton might have been better off waiting until he’d honed his craft with simpler novels before attempting something so tricky – either that, or simplifying the plot, cutting out the murderous footman and a few other barely-necessary foils, to make it easier for the reader to appreciate his bold concept.

I did think, while reading it, that The Seven Deaths Of Evelyn Hardcastle would work better on screen, where you get the visual cues of faces and settings and more time to tease out the complicated knots in this plot. Netflix did acquire the rights and begin production on a seven-part series back in 2020, but apparently they announced last year that they’re scrapping the project – too bad. I hold out hope that someone else will pick it up, because The Seven Deaths Of Evelyn Hardcastle as a book has been translated into 28 languages and sold over a million copies, so surely the audience is here for it.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Seven Deaths Of Evelyn Hardcastle:

  • “Its as if the author wrote the entire book in chronological order and then threw the manuscript into the air and the editor picked them up in random order and published it in that random order.” – Disappointed Viewer
  • “Terrible. Unbelievable characters doing pointless, ridiculous things.” – Kkat
  • “If I had a “do-over” of my day, it would be to not have acquired and read this book in the first place.” – rotroha
  • “The only mystery about this book was why I was reading it.” – R.H.L.M. Ramsay
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