Category Archives: America

The Ninth Metal by Benjamin Percy

Hodder & Stoughton | 2021 10 June) | 290p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Ninth Metal by Benjamin PercyThe mining town of Northfall, Minnesota, was already dying before the night it was hit by a devastating shower of meteorites. On the same night, a young boy’s life is changed forever by the murder of his parents, a deed that is overshadowed by the discovery that the meteorites contain an unknown metal, the Ninth, which is more precious than gold and more useful than any known element. Now the world is coming to Northfall. Anyone can become a millionaire but the biggest money is for those who own land. Northfall has become a new Wild West and at the heart of it stands one family, the Frontiers.

Benjamin Percy is such a good writer of speculative fiction and The Ninth Metal has it all – science fiction, horror, apocalypse and disaster, crime, all set within the world of what feels like a modern Western as Northfall becomes the focus of a frenzied Gold Rush (strictly speaking, an Omnimental Rush). The novel is populated by big characters, especially the enigmatic John Frontier and his utterly horrifying sister Talia, but there are other memorable people here, too, both monstrous and innocent, all transformed in the five years since the meteorites hit. Some are little more than gangsters in a violent battle to control land while others have become a cult with the strange metal their object of veneration. There is a lot of life in this town. There is chaos, mystery and more than a little fear. For one boy and the scientist who looks after him, there is terror.

The Ninth Metal is the first novel in a new series, The Comet Cycle. As a result, we don’t get all of the answers but it does have a satisfactory and tantalising end. It left me wanting more without feeling that I’d been left on the edge of a cliff. It tells a great story, packed into about 300 pages. It moves between the present, the night of the fire from the sky, and the following few years. It’s a very fast read. There wasn’t as much science fiction as I would have liked but I suspect that there is more of that to come in book 2 and so I can’t wait to read that.

I thought that there was very much a Stephen King-y feel to the novel, and that is a good thing – a small town at the centre of something horrific, powerful and apocalyptic, even religious, and where salvation may also be found. It’s a novel about good and evil in a dying town cut off from the rest of the world. There’s a sense that people may leave but they will always return. It works on small and epic scales as we realise that what is happening to Northfall could have apocalyptic consequences for everyone. We don’t yet know the nature of what is happening and what it all means but we really want to know!

The Ninth Metal is a fabulous book. I was thoroughly gripped and I cannot wait for book 2.

Win by Harlan Coben

Century | 2021 (18 March) | 384p | Review copy and Bought copy | Buy the book | Listen to the book

Win by Harlan CobenWindsor Horne Lockwood III is a man of privilege, a billionaire proud of his emotional stillness, his cold separation from people, except perhaps his friend Myron and maybe his biological daughter. He is the man who, when called, answers the phone with the simple command ‘Articulate’. But when a suitcase containing items stolen from his family years before is found next to the body of a murdered man, Win is mildly ruffled, or at least interested. These items had disappeared on the night twenty years ago that his uncle was murdered and his cousin, Patricia, was kidnapped, stolen away to be raped and tortured at the Hut of Horrors. And then there’s the identity of the murdered man to contend with – Ry Strauss, a hoarder and a recluse, believed to have been a member of a terrorist group in the 1970s, the Jane Street Six. The FBI believes there must be a link with the Hut of Horrors, with Win’s family. It seems only logical that Win should investigate.

Win is, I’m embarrassed to admit, the first Harlen Coben thriller I’ve read but many will know that Win is the sidekick of Coben’s popular detective Myron Bolitar and now he has a novel of his own. This makes Win a great starting point for new readers like me. Myron gets his mentions but this is most definitely Win’s book and it provides such a good entry into this world of Harlan Coben’s thrillers.

Win is quite a character and my feelings towards him are mixed. He’s undoubtedly arrogant, defying anyone to like him, and he has some extremely annoying and obnoxious habits, but the fact that others do seem drawn to him, to want to work for him quite apart from any financial gain, adds to his charisma. But what clinched it for me is Win’s increasing bewilderment surrounding his feelings for his ‘biological daughter’. I found myself liking him, perhaps not a huge amount, but certainly enough to be fascinated by him. He’s undoubtedly unusual and that made a refreshing change.

The big appeal of Win, though, is its extraordinary and fabulous plot. This is a great story with so many layers to it. It’s intricate, it’s involving, it’s terrifying and it is extremely gripping. It’s a puzzle that Win must dispassionately solve but it’s also a dark storm. I love that mix of neatness and chaos. It is brilliantly done by Harlan Coban and, on reading this, I could completely understand why so many people are hooked on his thrillers. I did find myself getting a little lost on occasion but I was happily swept away by it and loved how it all came together.

I listened to the audiobook, which is brilliantly read by Steven Weber. The novel is narrated by Win, which makes it a perfect fit for the audio format when told as well as Steven Weber tells it. He gives Win a voice that fits so well. I was engrossed. Despite the darkness of some of the content, this book is a lot of fun to listen to.

I’m really intrigued now to read earlier novels, to meet Myron for myself and to understand more about his relationship with Win and to find out more about Win himself. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone quite like him in a book before.

We Begin at the End by Chris Whitaker

Zaffre | 2020 (2 April – ebook: 26 March) | 464p | Review copy | Buy the book

We Begin At the End by Chris Whitaker

Thirty years ago, Vincent King, aged just 15 years old, killed Sissy Radley. He has now served his time. His oldest friend Walk, the Chief of Police, collects Vincent from jail and drives him home to Cape Haven, in California. Cape Haven is a neglected, unfortunately placed and unhappy town, never forgetful of the murder, and now it is thrown into turmoil by the return of its killer. Sissy’s sister Star is a traumatised, damaged woman. Her 13-year-old daughter Duchess looks after her and cares for her little brother Robin who is 6 years old. Duchess is an odd child, disliked and even feared. She hides behind a Wild West persona she has created as a shield. She has her eye on Dickie Darke, a man who wants to transform the town, and who Duchess knows is responsible for much of the evil in Cape Haven. Vincent King means little to Duchess, but he means so much to everyone else. The community is upheaved, its fragile heart pierced and darkness descends. Walk must help Duchess and Robin to escape before they are consumed.

I’m going to make a bold claim here. I don’t think there’s an author out there whose books can move me as profoundly as Chris Whitaker’s books can. His novels defy genre and expectations. The author’s insight into character and place is tremendous and can often be devastating. We Begin at the End is his third novel and another stand alone read. It builds on Tall Oaks and All the Wicked Girls, both outstanding. Again, we’re taken to small town America and once more we’re introduced to characters, especially children, who melt the reader’s heart while also punching us in the gut. You read one of these books and you’ll be reeling from it afterwards.

Ostensibly, We Begin at the End is a crime thriller but it’s much, much more than that. It is a novel about damaged people living in a town, so inappropriately named, that seems to deserve no better. It’s Walk who tries to hold it together but it’s under assault and Walk is not the man he once was. Part of the novel is also set in a rural community in Montana, which is such a contrast to Cape Haven but still presents such challenges. What links the two is Duchess and Duchess dominates the novel. She is so beautifully created, as is her little brother, and the relationship between the two of them is exquisitely drawn. So too is the relationship between Duchess and her grandfather Hal. Such is the impact of some of the characters in this novel that they almost take on allegorical powers.

We Begin at the End is a journey towards a salvation that may not be possible. It’s a journey assaulted by loss, murder, revenge, cruelty, hatred, fear and love. It’s not always dark, there is gentle humour. There are also big stories as we learn about the people of Cape Haven, including Vincent King. That means that the novel is as intriguing and engrossing as it is emotionally involving. The sense of place is fabulous. Its locations feel real and influential.

Chris Whitaker is a fine author, one of the very finest, and he should be on everyone’s reading list. He proves this yet again with We Begin at the End which is a masterpiece. This is how characters should be written. The author is a genius in creating loveable, damaged, vulnerable human beings, both child and adult. This means the reader is extremely emotionally invested in his stories. It does mean that there will probably be tears. This is a painfully sad novel at times but watching how the characters, especially Duchess, deal with this is mesmerising. Please read it. You won’t regret it. With no doubt at all this is a contender for my top book of 2020. And now, more than ever, we need books like this.

Other reviews
Tall Oaks
All the Wicked Girls

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid

Washington Square Press | 2017 (this edn 2018) | 389p | Bought copy | Buy the book

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins ReidMonique Grant is a struggling magazine reporter in search of the Big Break. One day it comes to her in the most unlikely of forms. Reclusive Hollywood legend Evelyn Hugo is approaching the end of her life and now, aged almost 80, wants her story to be told for the first time and, for reasons Monique can’t fathom, she wants Monique to write it. And so, for day after day, Monique listens to this extraordinary woman tell the story of her life, a life known most of all for her seven husbands. But, as Evelyn reveals the truth about each of her marriages in turn, she also reveals the truth about her greatest love, a forbidden love, and her ambition that threatened to destroy it. Secret after secret are revealed until at last Monique knows everything.

I have heard so much recently about The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo that it felt serendipitous when I shortly afterwards came across a copy by accident in a local bookshop. I’m so glad I did. Taylor Jenkins Reid has created a woman in Evelyn Hugo that I suspect will be very difficult to forget. Evelyn dominates this book, from her difficult youth and early flowering as a beauty (best known for her impressive chest!) to her emergence as a starlet, a siren and, finally, a successful, admired Hollywood icon, albeit one who is always looked down upon for her divorce rate. It’s an incredible story and we’re told it in sections which cover each of her seven husbands by turn. And what a bunch they are. This novel overflows with larger than life personalities and it all builds up to an addictive portrayal of Hollywood between the 1950s and 1980s.

I really enjoyed Taylor Jenkins Reid’s style. The novel includes snippets from gossip columns and it all builds up to demonstrate so effectively how difficult and unfair life was for a woman wanting to become a successful actress, what she must compromise to achieve it. Evelyn is ruthlessly ambitious and yet she remains likeable, especially as she becomes more self-aware, but some of the decisions she makes might make you want to hold your head in your hands and groan. I hung on to every word.

This is also a love story, beautiful at times, and love doesn’t prove easy for Evelyn Hugo and I did pity her while also wanting to shout at her. There are some gorgeously tender scenes in this book and I laughed and cried several times. Evelyn is most definitely the star which does mean that Monique’s story is underwhelming by comparison but the majority of our time is spent enjoying Evelyn’s company, being shocked by her at times while at other times loving her as so many people did through her life. Evelyn’s struggle, though, is to determine which of them love Evelyn Hugo, the screen goddess, and which love Evelyn for herself. The two do not always go together. It’s a wonderful character portrayal. And that glamour! How I loved the glamour. This wonderful book drips in jewels, gorgeous gowns, lipsticks, red carpets and kisses. Fabulous.

The Last Widow by Karin Slaughter

HarperCollins | 2019 (13 June) | 448p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Last Widow by Karin SlaughterMichelle Pivey is out shopping with her daughter when a van comes to a stop right next to the young girl. As she’d been taught to do, the girl runs for her life. But the man doesn’t go after her. It’s Michelle he wants. A month later, Will Trent, an agent with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, is having lunch with his girlfriend, medical examiner Sara Linton, and her family when the peace is shattered by the explosions of bombs.

Will and Trent run towards the sirens, stumbling across a road accident, with men injured, others acting suspiciously. Sara is grabbed. Sara’s family is desperate. Will feels both guilt and rage. He will do whatever he can to recover Sara but to do that he must go undercover. He will come up against a radical group, who live hidden away in the Appalachian mountains, plotting the end. Michelle Pivey, it seems is a scientist with the highest clearance at the Centre for Disease Control. The clock is ticking.

The Last Widow is the ninth novel in Karin Slaughter’s Will Trent series. Although I’ve read some of the author’s excellent stand alone books, this is the first Trent novel I’ve read. And so I read it as another stand alone mystery and there was no problem with that at all. The character of Will, and his situation, is so skilfully and thoroughly brought to life that it didn’t matter at all that I’d missed his past life up until now. There is one case from Will’s past, though, that is still on his mind as the court date draws nearer.

I was immersed in The Last Widow from the thrilling opening couple of chapters. The pace then does slow for a short while and that’s largely because the novel alternates chapters between the viewpoints of Will and Sara. While they’re together at the start of the book we’re given chapters which present the same events twice. But once Sara has been snatched and Will goes after her the two perspectives separate and follow their own paths at an exhilarating rate.

So for half of the time we’re with Will going undercover with all of the tension and anxiety you’d expect, whereas the other half follows Sara’s experiences in this extraordinary and lethal environment where one false word could lead to her death. Sara is now living on eggshells. Any moment it could all blow up. Will’s demons, however, are on the inside.

There are sinister undertones as Sara and Will learn more about the man in charge of the men who snatched her. This does lead us into dark territory and the reader is soon very concerned for the innocent. This is superb storytelling. Characters are not just black and white. Evil can hide. It isn’t easily overcome.

The Last Widow is a very good book indeed. It is thoroughly exciting and engrossing, as well as disturbing and shocking, and events are overshadowed by the dread of whatever it is that the kidnapper might be planning in his sinister camp, hidden away from the modern world. The character portraits – of the good and the evil – are excellent. I read The Last Widow in two sittings and most of it in one go. I couldn’t have been more caught up in these lives. Having read Karin Slaughter’s last three novels, I’m well and truly hooked.

Other reviews
The Good Daughter
Pieces of Her

I’m delighted to post my review of this wonderful novel as part of the blog tour. For other stops on the tour, please do take a look at the poster below.

The Rebel Killer by Paul Fraser Collard

Headline | 2018 (26 July) | 421p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Rebel Killer by Paul Fraser CollardThe Rebel Killer picks up exactly where The True Soldier finished, on a battlefield in an America torn apart by civil war. This review assumes that you’ve read The True Soldier and need to know what will happen next to our hero, Jack Lark.

It is 1861 and Jack Lark, fighting for the Union in the American Civil War, has seen his side lose. The battlefield is buried beneath his fallen comrades. Jack and Rose must flee for their lives as the Confederate army consolidates its victory and marches on. But the fates have a habit of turning on Jack Lark and now is no different. Jack encounters Major Lyle and from that moment on Jack has a new enemy and he has a new passion in his life – it is called vengeance and it drives him on with a rage he has not known before. In order to pursue his goal, Jack must once again swap sides and identities. He will fight with the Confederates. But poor luck pursues him. He must depend on others for his survival as his wounds, both physical and mental, increase. His destiny leads him on to one of the bloodiest battles of the American Civil War, the battle of Shiloh.

The Rebel Killer is the seventh novel in a series that has taken us to many of the most significant battle arenas of the mid 19th century – in the Crimea, India, the East, Italy and now to America. Jack Lark is our hero, a man who sheds identities like a coat (military issue) and who can never forget his roots in a gin palace in one of London’s poverty-stricken, crime-wracked rookeries. His drive to survive is extraordinary and he uses war to do it. He has a talent for soldiering that at times, particularly as he gets older, frightens him. Is he a devil?

In this latest adventure, which takes us into the heart of America’s bloody conflict, we see Jack Lark at his most despondent and the result is a book that is the darkest and most violent of the series. There is ice in his veins. He wants to inflict death. He barely cares if he survives. And he kills ruthlessly. Jack is clearly traumatised and in danger of being overcome by wounds and sickness. He is saved more than once, relying on the kindness of others for his life, but he can barely acknowledge their care. It is as if Jack Lark has to be rebuilt. And, as with many of the Jack Lark books, a woman will be needed to help him. Whether he will appreciate her or not, is another matter.

The violence and darkness of The Rebel Killer is a reason why, although I enjoyed it very much, it isn’t my favourite of the series. It is, though, every bit as well written and researched as the others and is such a fast and exhilarating read. It is most certainly grim as Jack continues to follow his bloody path to vengeance. I really felt for him, but I felt for Martha more. As the novel progresses, though, Jack tries to shake off the devil inside him and so there is a sense that he is healing but the journey that he has undergone was so bleak. The violence was a little too much for me at times, I must admit, but then I am very squeamish.

Having said that, in The Rebel Killer, yet again, Paul Fraser Collard shows what a fine writer of military historical fiction he is. The historical detail is very impressive, showing us the full horror of the American Civil War. The weaponry and battle formations are fascinating. We’re also shown something of how complicated it all was – with friend fighting friend, brother fighting brother – and that there was more to it than slavery or union. There is a chaos. The uniforms are similar. People accidentally kill their own side. The fact that Jack can swap sides as an outsider and then kill people he once fought alongside is a shocking indicator of how terrible civil war is and how disturbed Jack is. War is also the perfect situation in which to hide secrets or past lives, as is shown by both Jack and Martha.

There are sections that I really loved, particularly the time that Jack spends recovering in Martha’s house with her father. And also the time when he is cared for by a slave. Jack is vulnerable for much of the book and it’s in those times that we see how war affects those who have such small voices in history – the woman and the slave. I’ve always enjoyed the female characters in this series – there are more of them and in more significant roles than I’m used to in military historical fiction – and Martha is one of my favourites.

The Rebel Killer is one of those adventure novels you don’t want to put down. It is so well written, the prose flows along and it is extremely exciting! I read half of it in one sitting late into the night and then read the other half the next day, devouring it in big satisfying gulps! I’m hoping that in his next adventure, Jack Lark can be a little kinder to himself (and to those around him) and I’m intrigued to know what his next step will be.

Other reviews and features
The Scarlet Thief
The Maharajah’s General
The Devil’s Assassin
The Lone Warrior
The Last Legionnaire
The True Soldier
Guest post: ‘I am a writer with a plan’
Guest post – ‘Commute writing’

Dark Water by Elizabeth Lowry

Riverrun | 2018 (6 September) | 468p | Review copy | Buy the book

Dark Water by Elizabeth LowryIt is 1855 and Hiram Carver, doctor to the insane in Charleston near Boston in Massachusetts, is putting to paper his thoughts concerning ‘the dark water, or submerged aspect of the human mind’, reflecting on those pivotal moments in his life and career when he served as assistant surgeon aboard the Orbis in 1833. In that brutal environment, so far from home and safety, Carver met William Borden, a man loved by everyone and known to all as ‘The Hero of the Providence‘.

The Providence was an unhappy ship, its crew torn apart by mutiny. Borden put a small number, including the captain, aboard a dinghy and he sailed them to land after a terrible journey of several months. This experience has left its mark. Back in Boston some time after his experiences aboard the Orbis, Dr Carver receives a new patient in his asylum – William Borden. Madness has pursued him but Carver is determined to cure him. And the only way he can do that is to make them both understand what happened on the Providence, to go back to the dark water that continues to haunt both Borden and Carver.

Dark Water is a novel I’ll remember for a long time. I love novels about the sea, especially when they’re tinged with the hint of mystery, of the unknown, and this novel swept me off my feet. It is beautifully elegiac, telling a Gothic story that also feels so grounded in 19th-century Boston, before the events of the American Civil War. The sea and the land – namely Boston, Charlestown and the island of Nantucket – play equal parts and they’re both evocatively depicted, although it’s at sea, the sea that laps up against the coast of Massachusetts and is always inescapable, where the true mystery lies.

Above all else this is the story of Hiram Carver, told in his own words. Carver hates the sea, it hates him. He feels most at home in his office in the asylum for the insane observing patients who are most surely at sea, kept apart from their families and loved ones, from reality. These are Carver’s memoirs and in them we find the Hero, the enigmatic William Borden, Carver’s addiction, but there are others equally memorable – Carver’s sister Caro, Borden’s fiancee Ruth, Carver’s boss and mentor at the hospital, Dr Mansfield, and so many others and they all leave their mark, perhaps more than anywhere on the island of Nantucket.

Watching Hiram Carver’s personality change so severely for the worse through the years is compelling and here is the quiet, moody drama of Dark Water. What happened to Barden is a great mystery to Carver but for us it holds fewer surprises. Instead, I was riveted by this most elegant tale of lost human lives, that fragile line between sanity and madness, and the hopelessness of love. It is melancholic and cruel in places but there’s such a beauty to it. Images  and themes are pursued through the novel, especially the act of eating and starving – it’s cleverly done. I also really enjoyed the extracts from the court case that prosecuted the mutineers. It’s such a riveting story.

Dark Water is a relatively lengthy novel and every page of it is a pleasure. It’s extremely hard to put down. Elizabeth Lowry is such a fine writer, she pulls you into the book and there’s no chance of release until the end. There is so much to it. A tale of seafaring disaster, madness, impossible love and loneliness set against the backdrop of 19th-century Boston, Nantucket and the vast blue expanse of the ocean. Irresistible.

Pieces of Her by Karin Slaughter

HarperCollins | 2018 (6 August) | 470p | Review copy and bought copy | Buy the book

Pieces of Her by Karin SlaughterIt is August 2018 and it’s time for 31-year-old Andrea (that’s Andy to you and me, but not to her mother) to make some decisions about her future. It’s time for her to leave the family home once again and stand on her own two feet. At least that’s what her mother Laura thinks. And it’s right in the middle of their discussion about this in a shopping mall restaurant (surely not the right time or place for this debate, Andy thinks), when a young man walks in and shoots dead another mother and daughter standing nearby. The gun is then trained on Laura and Andy. With barely time for hesitation, Laura kills the boy with his own knife. Andy cannot believe her eyes. She looks at her mother and no longer knows who she is.

And this is just the beginning. As events escalate, Andy has no choice but to go undercover, to run for her life while chasing the truth about Laura. In so doing, Andy will not only learn who her mother is, she’ll also learn lessons about herself. If she can stay alive, that is…

Pieces of Her is the latest stand alone thriller by Karin Slaughter. I absolutely loved The Good Daughter and so I have been really keen to read this, snapping up the rather lovely hardback to supplement my review ebook copy. Once more we have a novel that puts a family under scrutiny – the crime or mystery at the heart of the book secondary to its portrayal of a family divided by secrets and shocked into action by sudden violence and trauma. The premise of Pieces of Her is compelling.

The narrative is divided between the present day adventure of Andy’s cat and mouse chase across much of the United States and another story set in 1986. I’m not going to say anything about that but it is in these sections that the truth can be found. I’m not sure that there are any surprises here in what happens but it’s certainly compelling and the pages fly through the fingers. I love books divided in this way.

I really enjoy Karin Slaughter’s writing. Her depictions of these small towns in America, the great distances between them, and the people met along the way, are all done so well. My one issue with the novel was with the character of Andy. I know that she’s trying to find her own voice, to establish her independence, essentially to grow up, but you can see why she annoys one character in particular. She certainly irritated me with her unfinished sentences, her laboured thinking – sometimes it’s as if she has lightbulbs pinging above her head – and her fumbling around. Andy feels very young for her 31 years. I realise that this is all purposefully done, Andy is supposed to be like this, but it does make her a pain to be around. Laura is a much more interesting person to spend time with. She too has her agonising moments of indecision but there’s a good reason for it in her case. I did enjoy the psychology behind Laura’s personality, as opposed to Andy who was just irritating. I also had some issues with a male character who keeps popping up in Andy’s storyline.

Pieces of Her is a substantial novel at over 450 pages but it is such a fast and furious read. I found it very difficult to put down and read huge chunks in one go. I think Karin Slaughter is a fascinating writer. I love her portrayals of (most) people and places, her understanding of both. It all seems very real and it’s engrossing.

Other review
The Good Daughter

The House of Shadows by Kate Williams

Orion | 2018 (26 July) | 425p | Review copy | Buy the book

The House of Shadows by Kate WilliamsThe House of Shadows is the final novel in Kate Williams’ De Witt trilogy, which follows the fortunes of a half-German and half-English family during the early years of the 20th century, through war, loss, love and scandal. As with most trilogies, you really wouldn’t want to start at the end so do read The Storms of War and The Edge of the Fall first. The review below assumes you’ve done that.

It is January 1929 and Celia De Witt and her brother Arthur have left their family country home in England and arrived in New York, a city of riches where fortunes are there for the taking. Celia has plans that could help save her family’s business – a range of convenience foods for a new class of person: independent, busy women. But Celia has more than business on her mind. She has learned that the son she thought was dead is actually alive and well in New York and the man she once loved is also in the city. Finally, Celia has the chance to put things right but there is so much at risk. So much that can go wrong. And then the Wall Street Crash happens.

I do love a good saga, particularly one set during these Downton Abbey years, and The Storms of War was a big favourite of mine in 2014. The Edge of the Fall, in my opinion, suffered because it was missing the great event that dominated the first novel, the First World War. Of course, it’s also missing here but the calamitous repercussions of that war continue to overshadow events in The House of Shadows, especially as the years pass towards World War II. The half-German heritage of the De Witts continues to mar their fortunes while also giving them a fascinating heritage. The main event of this third novel is the Wall Street Crash, which is covered really well here, but Celia is now making her way in the world, making her own choices for her future, and so she remains relatively unaffected by events. But others in her family are not so fortunate.

I have always found Celia a difficult character to warm to. Her treatment of the men who love her makes me grimace while her support for Arthur, one of the most loathsome people I can think of in fiction, is irritating, to say the least. Celia has a great deal of growing up to do but, as she tries to build bridges with her young son, it’s not clear that she’s learned her lessons. The novel’s new generation of children, Lily and Michael, are just as bad as the last one. Lily is given interludes through the novel but these can be quickly passed over.

I really enjoyed the sections set in New York City, particularly the scenes in which we meet the city’s homeless children who live in the streets and move across the city’s roofs. Celia makes a genuine connection with one of them and this relationship is my favourite of the novel. The aftermath of the Crash is also dealt with well. This is such an interesting period of history. The second half of the novel moves through the 1930s, years that present new difficulties and challenges for the De Witt family. Knowing that another war is on the way heightens the tension.

Kate Williams is a fine historian and the novel is full of historical details as we move from America to a Europe preparing for war. I love the sweep of it, the real sense that we’re witnessing history. There’s a dominating romance element to The House of Shadows which isn’t really for me (my fault and not the book’s), but Kate Williams writes delightful prose. It dances along, pausing briefly throughout to provide valued historical insight.

Other reviews
The Storms of War
The Edge of the Fall

The Hunger by Alma Katsu

Bantam Press | 2018 (5 April) | 400p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Hunger by Alma KatsuIt is the summer of 1846 and a wagon train of pioneers, led by George Donner and James Reed, has left it late to cross the Sierra mountains on their way to the promised lands of California. After weeks of crossing hot and dusty prairie, they must make a decision but may well be perilous. They can either take a well-documented and trusted path or they can take the Hastings Cutoff, a route believed to be shorter. Donner makes the decision and it is one that will have devastating consequences for this wagon train of men, women and children – lots of children. The winter of 1846 and 1847 brings hell on earth to the Donner Party.

As the weather closes in and the terrain gets too tough for these heavily laden wagons, tempers fray but that’s the least of their problems. There isn’t enough food to get them through the winter, there are frightening rumours about fierce Indians stalking them from the hills, and then members of the group begin to disappear. Now and again they find what’s left of them. People have different ideas about the best way to survive. It’s clear not all of them will make it. And some of them can hear things from the forest. They know they are being watched.

The Hunger by Alma Katsu is a fine meld of historical fiction and horror. It’s based on a true story that lends itself so well to both (see also my review of October Skies by Alex Scarrow). The Donner Party did indeed get trapped by the weather and mountains and many of them died in circumstances that horrified society – how far did these poor souls go to survive? Alma Katsu delves deeper and she presents a tale as gripping as it is utterly horrifying. This is a novel that made me want to sleep with the lights on.

What makes this novel stand out for me, though, isn’t the horror (although it is delicious), it’s the depiction of the wide range of people that made up this wagon train. Probably close to a hundred in number, we’re made familiar with a fair few of them and for some we’re given tasters of their previous history – we’re given flashbacks of a time when life was normal and this trip to California seemed so exciting and worthwhile. I particularly loved the portraits of the women, most of whom had no say in the decision to travel west and some of them barely knew their husbands. Some women, or girls I should say, married along the way, regardless of their own desires. The wives and daughters are chattels, every bit as much as the cattle they drive across the plains. If any women do make a stand then they are viewed with suspicion as having loose morals, perhaps even witches. Tamsen Donner is presented as one such woman. But there are other girls and women here who also grab our attention – there are so many. I loved reading about them.

It’s the men who have destiny in their hands – or so they believe – and so we also meet some of them. Stanton is arguably our main character, a young man yet to marry due to tragic circumstances. He’s not alone in being haunted by the past. Stanton is torn between fighting to survive by going off alone or staying with the group to protect the women and children. I did like the character of James Reeve especially and some of the finest writing is preserved for his fate. If I have any complaint at all it is perhaps that there are too many characters here to follow. I don’t have the best of memories and so I had to keep flicking through the pages to remember who was who. But this is such a minor point because each of the characters is drawn so well. And then there are the monsters…. You must discover those for yourself.

The Hunger is a beautifully written novel. It conjures up the plains, mountains and forest of this seemingly endless and perilous journey. We experience the heat and then the cold, the effort to remain clean, the hunger and thirst, the dust, the chill. It’s all described so well, and so too are the reactions of the pioneers to their surroundings. They fear it. Everything is an obstacle to where they want to be. And I loved hearing about all of the different reasons for this tremendous journey.

This is, I’m pleased to say as this is a horror novel after all, a frightening story and it’s told so well. It’s rich in historical detail and vivid in its horror. I found The Hunger extremely hard to put down. It’s one of those books where you think that you’ll read just one more chapter but end up reading half the book. The shifting between characters and the movement from the present to the past and back again in flashbacks, as well as the insertion of letters, is done very effectively. This is an accomplished, confident and memorable novel. I read most of it very late at night by low lamplight. I can recommend that.

Other feature
‘History and The Hunger’ – guest post by Alma Katsu, author of The Hunger