Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Thriller (page 1 of 4)

Under The Skin – Michel Faber

It feels strange that Under The Skin was published more than two decades ago (original pub. date: 2000), perhaps because the premise is so futuristic. It was Michel Faber’s debut novel, and while I don’t remember it making a huge splash at the time, it seems to be having a bit of a resurgence of late. If you’re looking for a sci-fi(ish) read for spooky season, this one’s the money!

Under The Skin - Michel Faber - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Get Under The Skin here.
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My edition of Under The Skin includes an introduction by David Mitchell. He hints at, but doesn’t outright spoil, the big twists of the plot. That’s a great kindness to the reader who reads the introduction first (that’s me!), but unfortunately it means he can’t say much other than “this book is really good, read it to find out why”. I can’t promise the same kindness in this review, so consider yourself warned: Under The Skin spoilers abound…

The story is set on the east coast of northern Scotland. I mention it first, because even though it’s not the focus of the novel, the setting is really beautifully written. Faber manages to bring the cold coast of Scotland to life on the page.

He feeds you the facts of the story gradually. At first, the protagonist – Isserley – seems like a regular woman… albeit, one who gets her kicks having sex with male hitchhikers.

Then, she starts to seem like she might enjoy it a bit too much. Is she a sex addict?

Or maybe she’s murdering them.

Or maybe she’s luring them to a farm so that someone else can murder them.

Wait, what the hell is going on here? (You get the idea.)

Slowly – oh, so slowly – Isserley is revealed to be an extraterrestrial, driving up and down the A9 and picking up lonely himbo hitchhikers for her interplanetary bosses. The “farm” on which she lives is a processing facility. Yes, Under The Skin takes a dramatic Tender Is The Flesh turn, just past half-way through. The aliens are hungry, and Earth is their farm. Gah!

Isserley has been surgically ‘mutilated’, as she puts it, to lure these men to their deaths. She’s been given a magnificent set of breasts (of course), and her spine altered so that she can walk on two legs. In their natural form, she and her comrades are more canine in nature, walking on all fours with a tail for balance, and covered in fur. They consider themselves to be the ‘human beings’, and the people of Earth (which they call vodsels) mere animals.

If you speak passable Dutch, the use of the name vodsel is a spoiler in and of itself, actually – it means “food”. The steaks from the fattened and mutilated vodsels are called voddissin, an expensive delicacy on Isserley’s home planet.

Isserley’s rigorous professionalism and conscientiousness take a hit when she is sexually assaulted by one of the hitchhikers she picks up. And so begins Under The Skin‘s denouement. She becomes disillusioned with her job, especially once she demands to see the processing of the vodsel she captures, and meets a rich boy from her home planet who advocates vehemently for ‘vegetarianism’ (or the alien equivalent, anyhow).

She decides to quit her job, but avoid returning to her home planet (where she faces a life of wretched poverty and deprivation). She wants to stay on Earth, a comparatively bountiful planet with beauty and water and food and all the other things that make life worth living. Faber has one last surprise in store for Under The Skin readers: Isserley’s escape is short-lived. She gets into a car accident with one last hitchhiker, and is forced to self-destruct her vehicle (which will surely kill her in the process) in order to escape detection by the Earth authorities. It sounds gruesome and sad, but it’s actually a surprisingly beautiful ending to a strange and eerie book.

So, as you can see, Faber touches on a lot in Under The Skin. Sexism, factory farming, animal rights, classism, sexual violence, sexual identity, humanity, empathy… It’s bound to make you desperately uncomfortable at times, and maybe second-guess your choice of steak for dinner.

I’ll leave it to the more committed genre readers to comment on its chops as a sci-fi story, but I certainly found myself transported by it. Faber used a lot of the stock-standard sci-fi tropes to make an interesting – if obvious – philosophical point. The first half is creepy as all heck, the second half is like opening a front-facing camera on humanity. I’d say, all told, Under The Skin‘s resurgence is well deserved and well-timed.

P.S. If you’re wondering how it compares to the 2013 movie of the same name starring Scarlett Johansson, apparently it doesn’t. I haven’t seen it, but the reviews would suggest that the director played fast and loose with the idea of ‘adaptation’.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Under The Skin:

  • “It could have had a really decent sci fi ending with warships off the coast, jets flying over, the SAS breaking in, but no. None of that. Just wound up in two pages, and The End.” – Elwood
  • “Just seems like a big chunk was missing from this story. I thought that maybe there was a big message behind the story like a vegan wrote it lol. I dunno it just didn’t appeal to me if thats what Faber was trying to do or even if he wasn’t.” – Erica Paulk
  • “The story unfolds with all the subtlety of a Mike Tyson innuendo and left me laughing out loud at the author’s fustian vegan agenda. It is the kind of novel that leaves you feeling embarrassed for its writer. Enjoy.” – Mark Tristan
  • “Gross and disgusting are really the 2 adjectives that come first to mind. Are we supposed to become vegetarian after reading this? Or is the author suggesting a way to deal with the unemployed?” – Pam Well

Lakewood – Megan Giddings

Here’s yet another book I discovered thanks to The To Read List Podcast: Lakewood, the debut body horror novel by Megan Giddings. If a mix of The Handmaid’s Tale and The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks (with Get Out and Black Mirror vibes) appeals to you, you’re going to want to give this one a go.

Lakewood - Megan Giddings - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Get Lakewood here.
(Save me from having to sell my body for medical experiments by using an affiliate link on this page – I’ll earn a small commission.)

Lakewood begins with Lena Johnson, a Black millennial woman, mourning the passing of her beloved grandmother and staring into a financial abyss. Lena’s mother is unwell with a series of mysterious symptoms that come and go, and medical treatment in the U.S. is… well, we all know what it is. Plus, amongst Lena’s grandmother’s belongings are a stack of bills that are way past due. Lena is forced to drop out of college, and seek any opportunity to make money – fast.

The answer to Lena’s problems comes in the form of a letter from Lakewood, Michigan. That’s the location of a research program testing new drugs and therapies. They invite Lena to become one of their test subjects, a position that comes with medical insurance for her whole family, free housing, and a generous stipend. Of course, it also means a loss of privacy, great personal risk, and the penalties of a terrifying NDA at stake… but if it saves her mother and gets her family out of debt, it’s worth it, right?

An invitation to participate in a series of research studies about mind, memory, personality, and perception. The Lakewood Project.

Lakewood (page 11)

A job offer that seems too good to be true! Are your spidey senses tingling yet? They should be. Lakewood is about to get fucked up.

It turns out these experiments aren’t anything that would hold up to any kind of ethics review panel. This isn’t filling out a Myers-Briggs or rating the taste of a new coating on a baby aspirin. They give Lena eye-drops that turn her brown irises blue. They feed her with cream capsules that are supposed to replace food and leave her starving. They make her take medication that could be a cure for dementia, but loosens her grip on reality.

All of this is told from a close third-person perspective in the first half of Lakewood. The second half switches to an epistolary style, telling the remainder of the story through a series of letters that Lena writes to her best friend Tanya, describing what is being done to her. The switch to the first-person account makes the whole thing more chilling.

Actually, Lakewood is scary on two different levels. First, there’s the all-too-real commentary on how science has abused and exploited Black bodies. Giddings draws openly on the Tuskegee studies and other such real-life examples. She uses what happens to Lena as a diorama of the trauma underpinning distrust of medicine in minority communities. It’s not subtle, but it doesn’t have to be.

But Giddings – in a masterstroke – manages to scare us another way, as well.

See, the horror isn’t just what’s being done to Lena’s body. The truly fucked-up bit is what they do to her mind. She quickly realises that she can no longer trust her own memories, and she can no longer be sure what is “experiment” and what is “reality”. Did she really spend a night at a bar being told that her newly blue eyes were beautiful, or was that part of the experiment? What about the woman in the bathroom who told her that “Toni Morrison would be ashamed”? Was an observer gauging her reaction to that?

At first, Lakewood feels like a novel grounded in our own reality as readers. But as the experiments go on, and become more surreal, we’re drawn into a speculative world almost without realising. We lose track of what is real and what is not – much the same way as the main character does. In that way, our experience reading Lakewood mirrors Lena’s living it.

So, what I’m saying is that Giddings is very, very clever. The fact that she developed this complex premise right out the gate, for her debut novel, is very, very, impressive. There were a few unanswered questions (like, who was funding these studies?) and the prose didn’t always shine, but on the whole, an amazing effort. I think Giddings is going to have a writing career to watch.

Want to read more? Check out my review of The Women Could Fly, also by Megan Giddings, here.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Lakewood:

  • “if they came out with a part two i don’t think I’d read it…maybe I would to see if it finally goes somewhere.” – April Edwards
  • “All I can say is read it if you want…..I wish I hadn’t.” – Kindle Customer
  • “End of the day, I’m just glad a Black woman got a book published.” – Cam’s Corner
  • “Sometimes books try to be deep by not going very deep, skipping over the surface of the story and letting the reader create subtext. I’m not the best reader for this. I’m not that deep.” – Kindle Customer

Dear Child – Romy Hausmann

I sought out Dear Child by Romy Hausmann after I heard it described on The To Read Podcast as Room meets Gone Girl. Indeed, that’s the description used in its blurb, as well. If you thought Emma Donoghue’s story about a child born in captivity was as sick and twisted as it gets, Dear Child will sweep your legs out from under you. This edition was translated from the original German by Jamie Bulloch.

Dear Child - Romy Hausmann - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Get Dear Child here.
(And if you, dear reader, use an affiliate link on this page to make a purchase, I’ll earn a small commission.)

Dear Child starts around Room’s mid-point: a woman and child escape a life of captivity, and shocked hospital workers try to piece together their story. It’s alternately narrated by Hannah (the child), Lena (the mother), and Matthias (Lena’s father, who has been searching for his missing daughter for 13 years).

Lena is immediately hospitalised, floating in and out of consciousness, as she was hit by a car in their bid for freedom. That leaves Hannah, who claims to be 13 years old (though her diminutive appearance and childlike mannerisms would cast doubt on that), to explain their circumstances. Unlike Lena, Hannah doesn’t seem glad to have “escaped”; quite the contrary, she seems eager to return “home”.

“Home”, in Dear Child, is a windowless shack in the woods. The windows are covered by insulation panels, the air is pumped in through a “recirculator” that occasionally stops working, every door and every cabinet is locked. Lena, Hannah, and another child Jonathan, live as a “family” according to the strict rules set by their cruel patriarch. Their lives are scheduled to the minute: bathroom visits, study time, meals, sleep, all highly regimented under threat of sadistic violence.

So, why doesn’t Hannah seem particularly traumatised? Why is she so eager to return? And why is she insisting that her “mother” is Lena when Matthias, Lena’s father, insists that woman is not his daughter?

Of course, I can’t reveal any more on that front without spoiling Dear Child for you, but if you think that’s enough of a mystery to build a full and complete plot, Hausmann will one-up you yet again. “Lena” continues to be tormented: by mysterious letters in her mailbox, by unwanted visitors to her door, by her unstable memories of killing her captor, by her slavish devotion to his schedule even after she is “free”.

The narrators and perspectives in Dear Child shift quickly – sometimes too quickly, but it’s an effective way of building suspense and keeping you reading, regardless. I read the whole thing in one night; I couldn’t bring myself to go to bed without getting to the bottom of what was going on. It’s compelling and scary and definitely as twisted as promised (I wouldn’t want to see Hausmann’s search history).

There were a few clunky moments, though. On occasion, the translation didn’t quite scan – though it was difficult to tell whether that was the fault of the translator, or part of Hausmann’s characterisation of Hannah, a particularly strange girl. I’m also not quite sure I bought Hausmann’s explanation of Hannah’s claims that “Lena” took her on trips outside the cabin all the time (to Paris, and to garden parties). And, finally, I didn’t love the supposed “Asperger’s” diagnosis; the way in which it was delivered, and the character about whom it was delivered, when it’s already such an outdated label… it just gave me the ick.

But those hang-ups weren’t enough to stop me charging through Dear Child. It was a gripping, chilling read (and a quick one!) to devour on a dark, stormy night. If you’re in the mood for a charged thriller and you can cope with all the triggers (cruelty, violence against women and children, etc.), this is a good one to try.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Dear Child:

  • “I found I kept mixing up the characters in this confusing novel but as I did not care what happened to any of them it did not really matter.” – Joy
  • “I love it when my housework suffers because of a good read.” – robin teets

The Cry – Helen Fitzgerald

I was truly blown away by the TV series The Cry when I caught it by chance on the ABC a few years ago. I didn’t actually realise it was adapted from a book until I came across a copy! So, even though the ending is “spoiled” for me (I couldn’t forget it if I tried, it’s brilliantly plotted), I was still eager to read The Cry and see how it unfolds on the page.

The Cry - Helen Fitzgerald - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Buy The Cry here.
(And my tears will turn to smiles if you use an affiliate link on this page to make a purchase, I’ll get a tiny cut of the cart!)

From the blurb: “When a baby goes missing on a lonely roadside in Australia, it sets off a police investigation that will become a media sensation and dinner-table talk across the world. Lies, rumours and guilt snowball, causing the parents, Joanna and Alistair, to slowly turn against each other.”

Naturally, the premise of The Cry evokes Madeline McCann, for the tender age of the child and the worldwide scrutiny of the parents in the case, but also Azaria Chamberlain for its Australian setting. It’s a modern take on the missing child, told in the style of Liane Moriarty and Gillian Flynn (if you’re fans of their books, you definitely want to pick this one up).

The family at the heart of the story – Joanna, Alistair, and baby boy Noah – are embarking on a long-haul flight from Glasgow to Melbourne when The Cry begins. Joanna is a first-time mother, and the former mistress of British Labour spin-doctor Alistair. The nine-week-old child cries the entire flight, so Joanna is understandably stressed (to say the least) while Alistair remains remarkably calm and actually manages to get some refreshing sleep (typical). Joanna is relieved that when they reach Melbourne, now that the ordeal of the flight is over and Noah is finally asleep.

Of course, the ordeal is only beginning. Baby Noah goes missing, taken from his car seat while Joanna and Alistair were picking up a couple of items from a grocery store.

All of this is told from a close third-person perspective in Part 1, but it shifts in Part 2 to alternating first-person perspectives (more on that in a minute). The timeline of The Cry also shifts back and forth, from events in a courtroom where a trial is taking place back to the events around The Incident, before it settles into a roughly chronological rhythm.

The blurb doesn’t exactly advertise what I’m going to say next, so I’m not sure if it constitutes a “spoiler” – so, heads-up etc. if that would bother you.

The first-person accounts are those of Joanna, and Alistair’s ex-wife, Alexandra. The Cry actually offers a lot more insight into Alexandra’s perspective than I recall being in the TV series. She’s a natural suspect in Noah’s disappearance, if only for the fact that the reason for Joanna and Alistair’s trip to Melbourne is to fight a custody battle for a child from his first marriage. In the book, we can see more about her role in what’s unfolded and her conflicted feelings.

What’s great, though, is that The Cry isn’t a “woman v. woman” thriller. Even though there’s not much love lost between Alexandra and Joanna, Fitzgerald doesn’t pit them against each other in the sympathy stakes.

Both are harangued by the press and the public in the wake of Noah’s disappearance – though Joanna, obviously, more so. It feels sadly realistic and believable, the way that Joanna is picked apart. She’s too distraught, she’s not distraught enough, she shouldn’t smile, she should cry, what’s she wearing, why did she behave this way… It’s a public stoning we’ve seen play out all too many times.

The Cry isn’t a police procedural, so you won’t find any hard-drinking detectives declaring they’re “too old for this” or they “won’t rest until they find Noah”. In fact, the police are increasingly baffled by Noah’s disappearance (and they do a piss poor job of communicating with the parents and the public, to boot).

The ending didn’t punch quite as hard in the book as it did on-screen, but I put that down to Jenna Coleman’s incredible performance as Joanna and Glendyn Ivin’s masterful direction, rather than any fault in Fitzgerald’s writing. The Cry still has a brilliant twist (or two), no matter which way you experience it.

It’s a dark, psychological thriller with a gripping moral dilemma, perfect for anyone who enjoys a story about good people doing bad things. I really want to emphasise that The Cry isn’t just for thriller readers; anyone who likes ethical grey areas and/or the complexity of modern families will rip through it. Clearly, there’s some triggering content (child/infant loss, mental illness), but if you can cope with that, it’s definitely worth a read.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Cry:

  • “This was an interesting and puzzling story. I enjoyed the writing style of the author and the basis of the plot. What I didn’t like was the character of the mother…whiny, weak, and worn. Often, I put down books written about women who are ‘man crazy’ and lose their own souls just to have a guy pay attention to them. Plus, why did this baby cry ALL THE TIME? Take it to a Dr.” – onecarolinagal
  • “If you’ve not lived with a psychopath then you might not appreciate this book.” – Lovinavidadaluz

Misery – Stephen King

Can you imagine a writer so twisted that they write a best-selling book about a writer who is kidnapped, abused, and forced to write a novel by an axe-wielding villain? Such an idea could only come from the mind of the King of Horror, Stephen King! Misery is his 1987 psychological horror novel with that exact premise.

Misery - Stephen King - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Buy Misery here.
(And you’ll turn my misery to joy if you use an affiliate link on this page to make a purchase, because I’ll earn a small commission!)

The main character, Paul Sheldon, is a 42-year-old author. He has recently published the final installment of his best-selling Victorian romance series, much to his relief; finally, he’ll be able to focus on his more Serious Literary(TM) novels. Unfortunately, Paul also likes a drink, a bit too much. He gets plastered to celebrate his success and winds up totalling his car. He’s pulled from the wreck by Annie Wilkes.

Ah, yes, Annie Wilkes – even if you’ve never read Misery or seen the movie adaptation, you’ve probably heard her name in hushed whispers as one of the most horrifying villains in fiction. She’s a former nurse with a healthy home-stash of medication “samples”, and she’s a big fan of Paul’s romance novels. She’s also very, very unhappy about his decision to kill off his protagonist in the final book.

So, here we have a severely-injured writer, “fortuitously” discovered by his number-one fan who’d do anything to have him continue writing. What’s a girl like Annie Wilkes to do… but take him hostage in her guest room, set his broken legs, get him hooked on painkillers, and plonk a typewriter down in front of him? That’s right, she forces him to write the story she feels Misery (the character for whom King’s novel gets its title) deserves.

When King first had the idea for the story of Misery, he envisaged a 30,000 word manuscript that he would call The Annie Wilkes Edition. In that parallel-universe version, Paul finishes the story Annie forces him to write, and Annie kills him, in order to bind that special, final book in his skin. Ultimately, though, he decided to go with a much longer version (four times as long) and a different ending (which I won’t spoil completely here, but…). When asked why the change, he said:

… it would have made a pretty good story (not such a good novel, however; no one likes to root for a guy over the course of three hundred pages only to discover that between chapters sixteen and seventeen the pig ate him), but that wasn’t the way things eventually went. Paul Sheldon turned out to be a good deal more resourceful than I initially thought.

Stephen King (on Misery)

Misery moves a lot faster than the other Stephen King novel I’ve read (Under The Dome), but that’s not surprising really, given that it’s a third of the length and only has two central characters. Unfortunately, despite having a narrower focus, King really doesn’t flesh out his characters as fully as you’d hope. Maybe I’m jaded from reading too many more recent and more intricate thrillers, but everything in Misery just seemed a bit two-dimensional. Annie Wilkes had no depth, no complexity – she was like a cut-out of a “psychopath”. Paul Sheldon was a mess of convenient realisations and insights; by way of example, he kept having dreams that would point him in the right direction or “reveal” how he truly felt. The “shocking twists” were just small bumps in the road, overcome by Paul thinking really hard about them for a bit. It’s paint-by-numbers intro-to-Psychology “show, don’t tell” stuff, and I honestly expected more from King.

Maybe he was blinded by how deeply personal and autobiographical Misery was for him. It’s not just the emphasis he puts on the importance of dreams (he has said, IRL, that the character of Annie Wilkes came from a dream of his own). King’s personal struggles, and the at-times destructive passion he feels for books and writing, feel encoded into Misery‘s DNA. Firstly, you can see the way King sees his books (and himself, come to that) hinted at in the way he describes his main character:

He was Paul Sheldon, who wrote novels of two kinds, good ones and best-sellers.

Misery (Page 7)

But the larger, overwhelming metaphor is that of addiction. Misery is like King’s come-to-Jesus moment about his own addiction(s) manifest. Paul Sheldon becomes addicted to the painkillers that Annie Wilkes forces him to take, and his days come to revolve around her dispensing his medication, more than food, water, or his bedpan; even when he contemplates escape, he wonders and worries about cutting off his supply. So, you’ve got a murderous captor holding the writer hostage, getting him high and forcing him to do things he doesn’t want to do, until he almost loses himself completely – honestly, if Misery isn’t handed out at AA meetings, it should be. To his credit, King doesn’t deny the connection.

I wrote [Misery] when I was having such a tough time with dope. I knew what I was writing about. There was never any question. Annie was my drug problem, and she was my number-one fan. God, she never wanted to leave.

Stephen King (On Misery)

He stops short, however, of admitting that Paul is some kind of cathartic Mary Sue; he concedes that “certain parts of him are [me]”, but qualifies that “I think you will find that, if you continue to write fiction, every character you create is partly you”.

(Maybe he spoke too soon. In a strange twist of life imitating art, King himself was in a serious car crash similar to his character Paul Sheldon’s, in 1999. Luckily, no one took him hostage and forced him to write anything afterwards… as far as we know.)

After publication, Misery won the inaugural Bram Stoker Award for Novel, and critical reception was generally positive, despite disgruntled voices from fans who resented King for steering away from his prior fiction’s supernatural/fantasy elements. Personally, I preferred the realism of Misery, but it still fell a bit short for me in other ways (see above). I might check out the movie adaptation at some point, just to see if the story translates better to the screen (though if they do any cheesy dream sequences, I may actually vomit). All told, Misery is a middle-of-the-road horror novel, made more interesting for its parallels to King’s personal life.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Misery:

  • “I bought it as a present for myself and wasn’t disappointed. Reading Misery on New Year’s Eve was relaxing, soothing, and good. It was like my mind had a vacation on its own.” – Sofia Petrovna
  • “The book was really good I like misery” – bina shrestha
  • “I couldn’t even feel for Paul much. He seemed wimpy. After his legs healed from his accident, he could have escaped, but didn’t.

    King also had too many coincidences in his storyline. It’s enough to make your eyes roll.

    Instead of taking the axe to Paul’s leg, King should have did it to the book instead. This would have saved me the “misery” of reading it!” – MJ
  • “True misery is reading this novel. By the time he’d written this, King had succumbed to the “my every word is golden” delusion, so the thing is much larger than it needed to be. After reading this because I promised a friend I’d do it (oh, what we do for pretty women)I decided that even 180 pages would’ve been too long. The conclusion is unsatisfactory because some of the cast of characters survive.” – James K. Burk
  • “By the time I was halfway through I wanted one of them to die. It didn’t matter which one it was.” – Pharoah 12
  • “I order “misery” by Stephen King and received a diet book. Granted, both are thrillers but I was really looking forward to stimulating my imagination and I really don’t like losing weight” – enobong essien
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