Genre fiction round-up, June 2018

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I’ve wanted to read Cass Hunter’s The After Wife ever since I heard its premise. Rachel is working on a secret AI project when she unexpectedly dies, leaving behind her grieving husband Aidan and daughter Chloe. However, Rachel anticipated the possibility of her early demise and, in a cross between Humans and the Black Mirror episode ‘Be Right Back’, has left her family a robot, iRachel, that contains her memories and looks exactly like her. Rachel’s plans extend to practicalities: she writes a code into the robot that forces Aidan and Chloe to keep it in their house while they get used to it, and downloads various letters and messages to them that the robot can access at key moments. However, as iRachel learns more about human life, she begins to take on a life of her own.

While Hunter’s writing is very simple – characters and their relationships tend to be rose-tinted sketches, especially the central relationship between Rachel and Aidan – there is something undeniably moving about The After Wife. Much of the plot development is predictable, especially iRachel’s gradual education, but this leaves space for some nice interactions between the characters who are still alive. I liked the way that Chloe was written, the positive representation of her female friendships, and the way she was allowed to be a full, autonomous person rather than a stereotypical teenager. The juxtaposition of the declining faculties of Aidan’s mother, who is suffering from dementia, with iRachel’s perfect memory, is nothing new in this kind of speculative fiction, but it’s done sweetly, with a genuine rapport building up between the grandmother and the robot. And iRachel’s final decision is somewhat unexpected, adding a slight twist to an otherwise straightforward narrative.

I received a free copy of this novel from the publisher for review.

 

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Phoebe Locke’s debut psychological thriller, The Tall Man, moves between three timelines. First, we’re introduced to a group of young girls in the 1980s, who are sharing stories about the mysterious Tall Man, who ‘takes daughters’ but can also ‘make you special’. Second, we read about Miles and Sadie, who are expecting their first child in 1999. But shortly after her daughter Amber’s birth, Sadie disappears, fearful that otherwise the Tall Man will follow her. This thread picks up in 2016, when Sadie returns to reunite with Amber and Miles. Finally, we meet Amber in 2018, when she’s become notorious after her involvement in a murder case. Straight off, it’s obvious that The Tall Man is trying to handle a bit too much at once. While I didn’t find the multiple timelines confusing as such, I found it difficult to remember what the central mysteries of the book were, and what was motivating the characters in each timeline.

Locke handles the Tall Man himself adeptly for most of the novel, capturing the eeriness of the stories that children tell among themselves. But – and I’m finding this increasingly often with this kind of novel – I felt she should have given the supernatural element of the novel a bit more space. In the final chapters, the novel pretty much falls back on a familiar psychological thriller ending, and I felt this was a wasted opportunity. I understand that Locke probably didn’t want to dive too deeply into speculative fiction, but this book lacked the kind of otherworldly hint that Tana French (for example) handles so well in her crime novels In The Woods and The Secret Place.

The Tall Man also suffers from pacing problems, in that it sags in the middle then tries to wrap up its multiple threads far too quickly at the end. I ended up feeling quite confused about what exactly had happened, and there seemed to be a lot of loose ends. I’m happy with endings that leave us with unanswered questions, but there seemed to be far too many here – most notably concerning the Tall Man, the most interesting part of the novel for me. The Tall Man definitely shows promise, and takes a rather different tack from many psychological thrillers, which is refreshing. It’s an original and gently creepy read that’s ultimately let down by its poor structure.

I received a free copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 14th June.

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I very much enjoyed Sabine Durrant’s last three psychological thrillers, Under Your Skin, Remember Me This Way and Lie With Me, so I was really looking forward to reading Take Me In, and it didn’t disappoint. In fact, I think it’s her best yet. Marcus and Tessa are on holiday with their toddler son, Josh. When they briefly take their eyes off him, he stumbles into the sea and is rescued by a tattooed stranger, Dave Jepsom. Marcus struggles with the belief that he ought to have saved his own son, while Tessa has to live with the guilt of knowing that at the time Josh almost drowned, she was on the phone to a man she’s having an affair with. When the couple return to England, they try to put the incident behind them, but both start seeing Dave everywhere. What does he want from them and will they ever be able to escape him?

Durrant’s writing puts her work a notch above most psychological thrillers, and Take Me In is particularly clever in its use of dual perspectives. As Marcus and Tessa take turns to narrate the story, we realise how many small misunderstandings and miscommunications are leaving them out of step with each other, and how they both unreliably relate their interactions with the rest of the world. My only problem with the dual narration is that the characters’ voices sounded too similar – so I would occasionally become confused about whose point of view we were in – but this didn’t really impair my enjoyment of the novel. Durrant is also not afraid to leave questions unanswered, which, to my mind, deepened the personalities of her characters. We know, for example, that Tessa had a hard time growing up, but we never find out the full story – which makes her feel more like a real person. Some readers may struggle with this open-endedness, especially when it comes to the novel’s conclusion, but for me, not knowing everything made Take Me In much more memorable. I liked being left to think about the deliberate loose ends.

Take Me In is a smart, gripping thriller that’s definitely up there with other recent hits such as Erin Kelly’s He Said/She Said.

I received a free copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 28th June.

5 thoughts on “Genre fiction round-up, June 2018

  1. Oooh. Sabine Durrant’s name keeps popping up – I’m thinking she’s one to try. Shame about the ending of The Tall Man. French’s hints of the supernatural are masterfully ambiguous – I had to properly think to remember how they manifest in The Secret Place. (And then I started thinking about mass delusions, and how often teenage girls are said to be suffering from them, which led me to The Crucible. Maybe there’s a paper in it.)

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    • I’d definitely recommend Durrant! The Secret Place reminds me so strongly of early adolescence, when I half-believed in things like Ouija boards and hauntings. French captures it so well.

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  2. Take Me In sounds like a good candidate for an audio book, especially if the actor does voices or they hire 2 actors to play the 2 perspectives, which is what happened with Behind Her Eyes by Sarah Pinborough.

    The After Wife reminds me of an NPR story I heard recently. A man knew his father was dying, so he had the father record memories on machine. After the father died, the man put the memories into a program that “thinks,” so it uses bits of the recording to answer questions asked of it. Super creepy AI stuff. The man stopped using it because it was too weird to hear his dead father talking to him like they were having a conversation.

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  3. Pingback: March Superlatives | Laura Tisdall

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