Tag Archives: America

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.

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

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

This week, G.P. Putnam’s Sons publishes the US edition of The Hunger by Alma Katsu. While I’m looking forward to posting a review of the novel for its publication in the UK in early April, I’m delighted to join in the celebrations for the American publication with a guest post by Alma Katsu on the historical background and inspiration for this remarkable and terrifying tale of the Donner Party, based on a true story.

But first a bit of what the novel is about:

Evil is invisible, and it is everywhere.

Tamsen Donner must be a witch. That is the only way to explain the series of misfortunes that have plagued the wagon train known as the Donner Party. Depleted rations, bitter quarrels, and the mysterious death of a little boy have driven the pioneers to the brink of madness. They cannot escape the feeling that someone–or something–is stalking them. Whether it was a curse from the beautiful Tamsen, the choice to follow a disastrous experimental route West, or just plain bad luck–the 90 men, women, and children of the Donner Party are at the brink of one of the deadliest and most disastrous western adventures in American history.

While the ill-fated group struggles to survive in the treacherous mountain conditions–searing heat that turns the sand into bubbling stew; snows that freeze the oxen where they stand–evil begins to grow around them, and within them. As members of the party begin to disappear, they must ask themselves “What if there is something waiting in the mountains? Something disturbing and diseased…and very hungry?”

‘History and The Hunger‘ by Alma Katsu

I love writing historical fiction. Marrying fact and fiction makes for something especially pleasing to read, I think, something that melds the familiar and comforting to the spicy and unknown.

There’s a challenge there, though. It’s difficult to know how familiar your readers are with the historical event in question. You don’t want to bore readers by telling them what they already know, but you don’t want to assume too much and risk frustrating the reader.

When I first started working on THE HUNGER, I wasn’t sure how much was generally known about the Donner Party. These are the basic facts: two families, the Donners and the Reeds, set out from Springfield, Illinois on April 15, 1846, heading to Independence, Missouri, the “jumping off” point for the trip west. They travel with a much larger party until the split in the trail known as the “parting of the ways” where the Donners and Reeds opt to take the new Hastings Cut-off that promises to shave 300 miles off the trip. They have no way of knowing that the cut-off is little more than a notion in the mind of Lansford Hastings, or that Hastings is a bit of a charlatan, trying to lure settlers to California in order to wrestle the territory away from Mexico.

The Donner Party decides to try their luck. They would not have made this choice if they knew there are over a thousand inhospitable miles ahead. They know the mountain passes will close off once the snow starts, and snow comes early at the higher elevations.

Which is how they come to find themselves stranded on the wrong side of the mountain pass when the snow starts falling and refuses to stop. They try to make it up to the pass but are immobilized. Snow is piled over their heads, over the roofs of their makeshift cabins. They have almost no supplies. Only a few head of livestock survived the punishing trip. There will be no escape until the spring thaw but no one knows when that will be.

There were 90 pioneers at Truckee Lake and Alder Creek when the snow started falling; only 50 will survive.

But there’s a bigger historical context that I tried to capture in The Hunger. In many ways, the story of those pioneers is the story of America. The Donner Party’s story is one of immigrants, of people looking for a better life. But it’s also the story of America’s restless expansionist spirit, the country’s willingness to leave homes and kin, uproot themselves, load their possessions into a wagon, and head into the unknown. Americans had been migrating to the west since the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, but travel to California was not yet at the epic levels of the Gold Rush and the West was largely uncharted territory. Today, we can only marvel at their confidence, traveling under these conditions with babies and children, the elderly and the sick. They let nothing stop them: some were in poor health, others traveled without wagon or oxen. Some had nothing more than a mule, a few even expected to make the two thousand-mile journey completely on foot.

Americans made the perilous journey because they believed in Manifest Destiny, the idea that Americans were an exceptional people who were ordained by God to occupy the territory clear to the Pacific Ocean. By settling the West, Americans felt they were fulfilling a long-promised destiny. But it’s not as though this territory was free for the taking. That’s the darker side of America’s expansionist aspirations. Texas’ war for independence emboldened some Americans to think that California, too, could be prized away from Mexico. This was the real reason Lansford Hastings zealously promoted his cut-off: to lure more American settlers to the Mexican-owned territory and, eventually, force America to defend the interests of its citizens. And the darkness doesn’t stop there: trails cut through the middle of Indian Territory. You can’t discuss the Westward Migration without looking at the devastating effect it had on the Native American tribes residing in the Indian Territory. And lastly, it’s also the story of religious freedom. Mormons were starting to look West to build a community after violence had driven them out of Missouri and Illinois.

The Hunger is meant to be a cautionary tale. There are reasons nearly half the wagon party died, lessons we shouldn’t ignore. Some aspects were outside their control—the horrendous weather that winter, for one—but the group let themselves be divided by pettiness and class differences. They let themselves be fooled by businessmen who valued personal profit over human lives. They selected the wrong man to be their leader and refused to listen to the people among them who knew better. They paid for their hubris, yes, but you only need to look around to realize that things haven’t changed that much today, 170 years later.

And this is the true lesson of the Donner Party.

US edition by G.P. Putnam’s Sons (published 6 March)
UK edition by Bantam Press (published 5 April)

Alma Katsu: Before she started writing novels, Alma Katsu was both a music journalist and an analyst for the likes of CIA and RAND. She has pounded the halls of the Pentagon, been in the West Wing of the White House, and interviewed rock stars. Her novels—The Taker, The Reckoning, and The Descent (which, oddly enough, have nothing to do with music or national security)—have been published in more than a dozen languages.

Cradle by James Jackson

Zaffre | 2017 (2 November) | c.350p | Review copy | Buy the book

Cradle by James JacksonIt is 1608 and England’s first colony in the Americas is dying a little more every day. Jamestown in Virginia might be named after James I but the king has no interest in it thriving – quite the contrary. Both James and Philip, the King of Spain, view Jamestown as a threat to their hard-won peace. It’s in the interests of both that it should fail and they each have agents willing to travel all of those miles to ensure its calamitous failure. But King James’s son Henry has other plans. He is determined that Jamestown should survive, that the power of England and the influence of Protestantism should spread and prosper to the New World. What Henry needs is a man on the ground to ensure Jamestown’s continued existence – he sends Christian Hardy, a spy so lethal and dangerous that not even King James and his spymaster Robert Cecil, Hardy’s employer, can bare him to live another day.

We were first introduced to Christian Hardy in Treason, a novel that told the tale of the Gunpowder Plot and the efforts of Hardy to prevent it and of Realm, the monstrous and demonic Spanish spy, to bring it about. Both Hardy and Realm return in Cradle, their enmity as livid as ever, and they carry their blood feud to Jamestown and the Americas.

But while Hardy and Realm continue their fight, Jamestown is faced by other threats – most especially the local warring tribes of native Americans. But there is also disease and famine to face, as well as loneliness and despair. It’s all very grim indeed and, at times, it is very bloody and gruesome.

The story of Cradle has a habit of jumping forward, giving it a rather disjointed feel (for instance, a man is languishing in prison and in the next chapter he’s been restored to his liberty). This is supported by its constant movement between the settlement and the surrounding native American villages. I found the style hard to settle down into but my main issue with the novel is with its incessant violence and conflict. I realise that this is the purpose of the novel but we jump from one conflict to another, one death to another, while characters are given little time to develop. Which is a pity because I think, given the chance, I would rather like Christian Hardy.

There’s something too despicable about Realm, though, and this horror is backed up by the gruesome cruelty of the tribes. In some chapters we’re given a positive image of the local people, particularly through their women, but this is counteracted by the portrayal of predominantly cruel behaviour. I didn’t enjoy this. Some of them are turned into caricature baddies. Not that the men in Jamestown are much better. It’s all a bit unpleasant. Which is a shame, because the setting of the novel is wonderfully described. I love the frontier feel of the novel, the dangerous isolation of the settlement and the vulnerability of its inhabitants. There is almost a siege-feel to much of the novel, which can be very exciting to read.

It’s possible that I have issues with Cradle because its focus is more on violence and conflict than on character and history. It didn’t feel sufficiently set in its time for me. However, it’s certainly exciting and tense and so, if you like an action-packed historical thriller then this might well be for you.

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Treason

All the Wicked Girls by Chris Whitaker

Zaffre | 2017 (24 August) | 448p | Review copy | Buy the book

All the Wicked Girls by Chris WhitakerThe small town of Grace in Alabama is in trouble. Isolated in many ways from the surrounding world, it is now even separated by its weather. A wall of cloud and looming storm hangs around and over this town. Several of its inhabitants drive out each day beyond the wall, just so that they can feel the warmth and brightness of sun on their skin and faces, and be reminded what normal is like.

Summer and Raine Ryan are sisters and their names reveal how different these teenage girls are from one another. Summer, though, the one who is easy to know and like, is missing and the disappearance reminds the town and its sheriff, Chief Black, of the case of the missing Briar girls. Presumed murdered, these girls continue to haunt the town. They are its curse and surely the worst thing that could happen to Grace is that the murderer has returned to continue his work. Everyone wants Summer found alive, especially her sister Raine and Raine’s friends Noah and Purv.

Beyond this, I’ll say no more about the plot because All the Wicked Girls is quite simply a work of genius. And that’s no exaggeration. Its story is astonishing and complex and it is driven as much by heart as it is by puzzles and surprises. Tall Oaks, Chris Whitaker’s previous novel, is one of my favourite novels of recent years but, incredible as it seems, All the Wicked Girls leaves it behind.

The central mystery is brilliantly told from a range of perspectives, including Summer’s own, and it moves back and forth through the weeks leading up to Summer’s disappearance. We hear from several of the people who influenced Summer’s life and were so deeply affected by this wonderful girl. We’re soon aware that not everything is as it seems but how we learn this, and what we learn, is beautifully told.

Chris Whitaker writes superbly. As with Tall Oaks, I marvel at how this British author captures the mood and sound of an American small town. It’s not overdone. It feels completely natural and each of these characters has his or her own distinctive voice.

But what drives All the Wicked Girls beyond its wonderful plot and its fantastically atmospheric sense of place, is its people. In Tall Oaks I fell for Manny (like everyone else!) but in All the Wicked Girls we have Noah and Purv and it’s fair to say that I can think of no other characters in recent years that I have fallen for quite as hard as this. Their individual personalities and their friendship come alive in an astonishing way, and this is as due to Chris Whitaker’s stunning and often understated use of language as it is his empathy for young people. This is clever writing. We hear a phrase and it’s only later that we learn the full significance of its meaning and it hits us like a fist. I loved Summer and Raine too (how could I not?) but Purv and Noah made me laugh and cry time after time. Just thinking about Noah, his courage, wisdom, kindness and deep heart, makes me want to weep.

This is a novel that takes us into some very dark places. The melancholy of Grace goes far deeper than the storm that hovers over it. It is disturbing at times, there is no doubt of that, but it is also filled with a humanity despite its subject and I was held spellbound. There are so many reasons to read All the Wicked Girls but if I had to give you just one – well, two reasons – it would be to read it for Noah and Purv. I don’t think I’ll ever forget them.

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Tall Oaks

The Silent Corner by Dean Koontz

HarperCollins | 2017 (29 June) | 464p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Silent Corner by Dean KoontzJane Hawk used to be a well-respected FBI agent and investigator. She also had a happy marriage to Nick, a full colonel in the army at only 32 years old, with whom she had Travis, a happy 5-year-old child who is already a vision of his father. But then Nick killed himself, completely unexpectedly, during the course of an ordinary, peaceful evening. His note ‘I very much need to be dead’ left far more questions than answers and so, reeling from guilt and confusion, Jane sets out to find out what it was that drove her husband to a death he greeted with open arms.

Jane discovers that the suicide rate among successful and seemingly happy and high-achieving individuals is on the increase and those who did leave notes, and not many did, left notes even stranger than Nick’s. As Jane investigates the connection between these men and women and their deaths, she discovers a conspiracy that strikes at the very heart of the American establishment and she uncovers something remarkable and utterly deadly. Jane is a hunted woman. Those she seeks will stop at nothing to destroy her and her young son. And there is nothing they can’t do. It will take all of Jane’s ingenuity and experience as a gifted FBI agent to conceal her trail while seeking out the truth. Every day she plans as if it will be her last.

In The Silent Corner, Dean Koontz introduces us to a new series of thrillers, this time featuring Jane Hawk. While this means that not all of our questions about Jane herself are answered in this opening novel, we are still presented with a standalone investigation and cat and mouse hunt that obsesses Jane through these pages. There is no let up in the tension at all as Jane removes herself from all distractions, including her beloved son, to pursue her husband’s killer. This is a chilling portrait of grief. She can’t allow herself to stop and think. Instead she unties the knots, one at a time, of Nick’s sad and tragic loss.

Jane’s grief has altered her. She would be the first to admit it. And we see its effects in her treatment of those she encounters along her journey. She doesn’t want to kill or hurt but she will if she has to and when she does have to she has not regrets. The scenes in which she confronts those involved in the conspiracy are powerfully painted and disturbing, but the most disturbing moments are those when we see something of what these people have done with their wealth and influence.

The Silent Corner is a tense and action-packed conspiracy thriller. It is also cold, its language clever and unusual, stark but also elegant at times. I found Jane extremely difficult to warm to but I don’t think we’re expected to care for her beyond our compassion for someone suffering such a loss. There are moments when she lets slip her guard and it’s those moments which I enjoyed the most, when she draws people to her by revealing her true nature. Dougal Trahern, a man we meet later on, has a similar way about him and his portrayal is drawn with great poignancy and care. And so our feelings are challenged through this novel. Its premise promises cold killing and science but in reality we are presented with people who are suffering greatly and will make the ultimate sacrifice to save their fellow men and women. There is a strong sense of service and loyalty in The Silent Corner.

My only issue with The Silent Corner would be that at times its language feels a little over the top and this distracts from Jane’s character and the plot. It makes the novel feel overlong on occasions. Nevertheless, this is a minor point and, on the whole, I found myself immersed in The Silent Corner, willing Jane on while always fearing the worst. I’m interested to see how the series will develop as Jane moves away from this defining opening case.

The Last Act of Hattie Hoffman by Mindy Mejia

Quercus | 2017 | 352p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Last Act of Hattie Hoffman by Mindy MejiaPine Valley, a small rural community in Minnesota, will not be the same without Hattie Hoffman. The 18-year-old girl, beautiful and playful, is the centre of attention both in and out of school. With ambitions of heading off to New York City to follow her dream to be an actress, Hattie has landed the role of Lady Macbeth in the school play. All eyes will be on Hattie Hoffman. But on opening night, Hattie is stabbed to death in a derelict barn on the edge of town. Close family friend Sheriff Del Goodman is given the terrible task of unravelling the tragedy, of hunting down the murderer of a girl he loved as a daughter. This is a community where everybody knows everyone. One of them, though, is keeping the biggest secret of all. Del will not rest until he uncovers it.

The Last Act of Hattie Hoffman might begin with Hattie’s murder but this vibrant young woman remains at the heart of the book thanks to its enticing structure. Mindy Mejia presents us with three narratives, belonging to Hattie herself, Del Goodman, and the school’s English teacher and play director, Peter Lund. We also move backwards and forwards through time, focusing on the weeks and days that led to Hattie’s death. Each of the narratives introduces us to the people of the town, often from different perspectives, building up layers of relationships, bits of which are revealed at different times. This gives extra depth to quite a few of the novel’s characters while building up the layers of Hattie’s personality. Hanging over it all is foreboding – we know just how this will end for Hattie.

Hattie’s character is key to the novel. And it most certainly isn’t straightforward. All she wants to do is be an actress, and it’s worth bearing this in mind as she plays one person off against another, time after time. She is an intriguing person, and so too are Del and Peter, but I did find her impossible to like. In fact, I think the only character in the novel that I actively did like was the sheriff, Del Goodman. I enjoyed his sections of the novel most of all.

I was engrossed by The Last Act of Hattie Hoffman but, as the novel went on, I realised that it might not give me all I expected from it. I’m used to twists and surprises in a novel such as this. This isn’t a fault of this book at all but it did mean that I was rather unexcited by the way in which the story developed, while still being caught up by its structure and mood.

The writing is of a high quality and that did keep my attention, as did its atmosphere. The rural location is very well painted indeed. I could picture Pine Valley perfectly from the descriptions. There are few places that people can meet in this town and we move between them, always being reminded that we’re seeing the same people. It makes you understand why Hattie had her dreams of escape. Pine Valley was far too small a town for Hattie Hoffman.

Tall Oaks by Chris Whitaker

Twenty7 | 2016 | 360p | Bought copy | Buy the book

Tall Oaks by Chris WhitakerTall Oaks used to be such a quiet small American town, unknown to strangers. But then, one terrible day, three-year-old Harry Monroe was stolen from his bed and the country’s media came to call. Three months have passed and Harry is still missing. Harry’s mother Jess is traumatised. Every time she closes her eyes she sees the clown masked-face of the man who stole him. Although the reporters have moved on to the next big story, the detective in charge of the case, Jeff, can’t stop caring, desperate to give the boy back to his distraught mother.

But life has to continue and Tall Oaks is full of busy lives. Teenager Manny sees himself at the centre of much of it and is setting about proving it in his own inimitable style, while trying to ignore the fact that his mother has begun dating again. Jerry is a photographer in the making, a trapped spirit, but his life is tied down to his domineering, awful mother. And moving around them is a circle of family and friends, all interacting, all with their own cares, all finding laughs where they can, and all with their secrets.

At this point I have to say that Tall Oaks is a fantastic novel and all the more brilliant when you consider that it’s Chris Whitaker’s debut. I believe he lives in England and yet he has created a portrait of an American small town that doesn’t just feel real but is also absolutely enchanting – a wonderful blend of the authentic and the strange. Whitaker also blends its mood. This is a story that is at times desperately sad and shockingly tragic but there is also a warm humour that runs through it. Its wit sparkles, especially in the dialogue and in its creation of Manny. If you have to have one reason why you need to read this novel it’s Manny. He might be out to shock but a heart that huge cannot be hidden.

Tall Oaks is another of those novels that is promoted for its shocking twists and, yet again, this does this wonderful book a disservice. There’s a crime in it – the abduction of little Harry – but this is just one part of the story. There are so many other elements to it and it is driven as much by character as it is plot, if not more so. There are some powerful surprises, hardly surprising in a community so private, and one or two stunned me. They felt to me as if they were my reward for growing to care so much for these people. This is what happens when you get to know somebody.

Chris Whitaker is a marvellous, witty writer. His prose feels light and real, flowing naturally, and his gift for characterisation is just wonderful. The character of Manny is a masterpiece. He is complicated for all kinds of reasons that are explored with an astonishingly delicate touch. He is a pure delight to know and how he made me laugh! But there’s more to this novel than Manny. It gives and gives. Tall Oaks also begins with one of the most disturbing opening chapters I’ve read and it continues with writing that made me want to cry and laugh.

I’ve got to say it again – this is a debut novel. Extraordinary. Whatever will be next? But Chris Whitaker is a new author whose future books I will be sure to snap up at the earliest opportunity.