I couldn't resist the first few pages of this novel, in which a woman called Beth takes delivery of a massive piece of technology that's only ever refI couldn't resist the first few pages of this novel, in which a woman called Beth takes delivery of a massive piece of technology that's only ever referred to as 'the Machine'. At first, we don't understand what Beth is doing with the Machine; the answer is something we must slowly piece together. In an uncanny echo of a book I finished just a couple of days before starting this one (Adam Sternbergh's The Blinds), the Machine can extract a person's memories, obliterating their ability to recall a particular event or experience, even a person. Vic, Beth's husband, was a soldier who experienced PTSD on his return from war. The Machine promised to cure him, but instead it left him little more than a shell. For some time, it is equally unclear whether Vic is actually alive or dead, but one fact emerges: Beth is planning to use her illegally-obtained, now-outlawed Machine to 'bring him back' in some form.
The story has an unremitting dark, bleak flavour. Beth lives on a run-down estate where the heat is constantly oppressive and feral children hurl virulent abuse at strangers. Her life alone, her life with Vic, time spent with her clingy friend Laura: all are terribly depressing. This is a horrifyingly dull vision of the future in which advances in technology have brought only misery; constant discomfort is the new normal. If I'd had any idea how dreary and dispiriting The Machine would turn out to be, I might have left it alone; it was certainly not the most inspiring thing to read while bed-bound with flu! Despite all that, I doubt this will be the last experience I have with James Smythe's work. The edition I read ended with a tantalising extract from his 2012 novel The Testimony, and I couldn't help but be intrigued all over again.
Durrant's breakout novel, Lie With Me, was about an outsider inveigling himself into the lives of a group of wealthy friends; Take Me In is almost itsDurrant's breakout novel, Lie With Me, was about an outsider inveigling himself into the lives of a group of wealthy friends; Take Me In is almost its inverse, studying a privileged family whose lifestyle starts to come apart at the seams when they let a stranger in and find they can't shake him off.
On a family holiday, Tessa and Marcus take their eyes off three-year-old Josh for a few minutes and he almost drowns. He's rescued by Dave, a stranger who happens to be on the beach with his own family at the same time. Tessa and Marcus's guilt leads them to spend the rest of the day with this man and to keep in touch with him afterwards, though both feel vaguely wary of him. Wariness escalates to outright terror as Dave's behaviour grows increasingly bizarre and he appears to start stalking the family. As we progress through the stories told in parallel by husband and wife, it becomes clear they both have plenty of reasons to feel guilty besides momentary neglect of Josh. That's only compounded by the class guilt that defines their interactions with Dave – a combination of embarrassment at being associated with him and fear of his unpredictability.
Take Me In is most interesting when it explores class dynamics and most thrilling when it hints that Dave is truly a malevolent trickster with inscrutable motives, an agent of chaotic evil. It's impossible for these two things to be reconciled, however, which of course means that the culprit must ultimately prove to be someone else, someone closer to home and outwardly more benign. I wasn't surprised by this 'twist', but somehow I did find it disappointing anyway. (Which just about sums up my experience with the majority of psychological thrillers.) (view spoiler)[For me, the scene in which Tessa calls Maureen was the dramatic highlight of the plot. It was all downhill from there. In the end, Dave is simply a symbol of the ways in which Tessa and Marcus are letting each other (and Josh) down – which is fine, but not what I wanted this story to do. (hide spoiler)]
I received an advance review copy of Take Me In from the publisher through NetGalley.
In The Hunger, Alma Katsu takes a real historical event – the dreadful fate of the Donner Party – and reimagines it as a horror story. (Of course, youIn The Hunger, Alma Katsu takes a real historical event – the dreadful fate of the Donner Party – and reimagines it as a horror story. (Of course, you could say it's already a horror story, but in this case it's the supernatural kind.) We follow a large cast of characters as they head out on a journey from Missouri to California in 1846. They're beset by bad luck from the start, and their inept 'leaders' repeatedly ignore warnings to avoid the treacherous route ahead. When a boy goes missing and his body is later found bizarrely mutilated, it's just the beginning of a series of horrifying developments that will ultimately claim the lives of many of the party.
There are lots of people in this story – the majority of them based on real historical figures. We spend the most time with Charles Stanton, a single man seeking to escape a fraught past; Mary Graves, who falls in love with him; James Reed, another man with secrets he'll do anything to keep; Tamsen Donner, unfaithful wife to George; and Tamsen's 13-year-old stepdaughter Elitha, who hears the voices of the dead. I was a little resistant, at first, to the idea of reading lots of backstory and everyday detail about all these people, but there's more than enough charm and colour to make them intriguing. I actually found the pacing to be the most troublesome thing about the story. In the final third, lots of things happen very quickly, and the potential tension and terror of these climactic events are lost in a confused, fast-moving narrative.
Going by the cover and blurb, I assumed the bulk of the story would take place in the frozen mountains – I was hoping for something supremely evocative and chilling, akin to Michelle Paver's Dark Matter. In fact, most of The Hunger sees the group crossing barren desert, and Katsu's main focus is fleshing out the (human) characters. This is great if you're looking for a character-driven historical saga, or want to learn more about the lives of American pioneers in the mid-19th century; not so much if you're in it for the atmosphere and creepy scenes. The end result is a historical novel with an element of supernatural horror in which the latter is largely incidental.
I received an advance review copy of The Hunger from the publisher through NetGalley.
Though it's also published as a large hardback with an embossed cover and uses the same page format as The Secret History of Twin Peaks, The Final DosThough it's also published as a large hardback with an embossed cover and uses the same page format as The Secret History of Twin Peaks, The Final Dossier abandons its predecessor's scrapbook approach and is simply presented as a series of brief reports on various individuals, families and locations within and around Twin Peaks. (The only illustration consists of a few photographs of said locations.) Ostensibly, the dossier is Tammy Preston's investigation of how the town and its inhabitants have fared in the years since the conclusion of the Laura Palmer case, written for Gordon Cole. For those who've watched The Return, it therefore serves as a way to fill in the gaps between the old series and the new – particularly regarding characters whose roles in the latter were minimal. As another Goodreads review points out, it's arguably best described as fanservice.
Reading this straight after The Secret History of Twin Peaks did it no favours, I must say. At around 150 pages, it's padded to the extreme with plenty of blank pages (bookending each of the 'reports'), and it took me no more than a couple of hours to read the entire thing. Altogether it feels quite rushed – there are a few very obvious typos, and anachronisms like mentions of trigger warnings and a hipster craft brewery in an autopsy report that's supposed to be from 1989. There's also an elaborate explanation of an apparent mistake in The Secret History of Twin Peaks, and it definitely feels like retconning, not a story that existed all along. (Maybe there'll be another volume that'll tell us Albert had jumped through a portal to the mid-2010s before writing that autopsy report.)
Really, this is more of a 2.5 rounded up. It's an incredibly easy and quick read (of course, that may not necessarily be seen as an advantage if you've shelled out full price for an impressive-looking hardback); entertaining enough; ultimately inessential. There's a very fun Trump reference, and an intriguing twist that sheds new light on the ending of The Return, but frankly I could have got that information from the Twin Peaks Wikia.