Review: Universal Harvester (Paperback)

universal-harvesterI’m fortunate that I live a short distance from my local library so I visit often. My library contains a section called Page One in which recently released popular fiction is located. Accordingly, I saw Universal Harvester in this section, on a display with new science-fiction books and, intrigued by the synopsis and on a bit of a punt, I took it out.

Unfortunately, it was only the synopsis that proved enjoyable or interesting. Universal Harvester is set in the late 1990s in the heartland of America, and features Jeremy Heldt who works at a video store where mysterious recordings begin to be reported on the tapes. Now, this synopsis stood out to me because I recall a fairly memorable and highly-rated episode of Doctor Who. I was intrigued to see what the retro, 90s time period would bring (no internet, no smartphones acting like magic wands to the mystery). The synopsis seemed to promise me a creepy, haunting story that threatens the very lives of the characters.

The book starts out fairly slowly, but the first haunted tape soon comes in. I felt fairly hooked – I wanted to find out what the mystery was. Was it supernatural? Was it the shady scheme of some untoward character?

I didn’t really find out as the book seemed to focus more time exploring the backstories and motivations of the characters than actually solving the mystery. There’s virtually no action (save for a car accident that I’m unsure was connected to the mystery) and instead Universal Harvester spends its time navel-gazing at the foibles and tribulations of its characters. Does Jeremy keep his job at the video store or take a better job with better prospects? Does Jeremy’s dad Steve manage to emerge from the shadows of Jeremy’s deceased mother and fix the relationship between father and son? The question I kept asking myself as these characters kept talking and talking was when are we going to get to the mystery?

The trouble with Universal Harvester is that it sets up a creepy mystery in a fairly convincing location (which I feel aided the mystery. Quiet sleepytown America is gripped by creepy videotape mystery works well) but then decides not to actually give any motion to that mystery but focus on the internal quarrels of the characters. I feel the separate storylines do tie together eventually but by the time this happens I’ve become so bored by the individual storylines I pretty much coasted to the end just wanting to finish. How this book managed to creep its way into the science-fiction section of the library where I found it is anyone’s guess as I simply couldn’t detect any hint of sci-fi there; maybe it was subtle, or maybe my abject boredom by the time the plot manages to reach a simmer at best precluded me from noticing.

I didn’t find myself interested in the very personal, very mundane intricacies of these characters lives – they didn’t feel special; instead, they felt totally ancillary to everything happening around them. There are scenes which seem to serve only to forward these uninteresting, mundane character storylines which ultimately bored me – I wanted to see where this all fitted into the mystery with the video tapes but it didn’t seem forthcoming! This made a 200-page novel feel considerably longer.

It’s unfortunate that Universal Harvester doesn’t quite deliver what its synopsis or setting sells as I feel the terse, sparse prose of the author isn’t bad; I just feel that it’s too directed at character study and fatally fails to move the plot fast enough or with enough intrigue to keep my interest. There’s a definite sense that the prose style matches the atmosphere the author is trying to portray, but this doesn’t alleviate the problems I had with the glacial, distant plot that seemed to be second fiddle to the characters. That’s not to say it won’t appeal to anyone but I prefer significantly pacier storytelling.

Perhaps Universal Harvester was trying to be more “literate” than perhaps it should’ve been, focusing on flawed characters, all at a crossroads, rather than the mystery they find themselves embroiled in. Disappointing, but I’d freely admit that it wasn’t for me.

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Review: The Road (Paperback)

the_roadIf a book irritates me within the first thirty pages, it’s not a great beginning. However – and this is a theme that recurs when discussing The Road – things don’t seem to progress or evolve; they start off as ‘crappy’ and are content to remain there.

“A work of such terrible beauty,” the review quote from  The Times states, “that you will struggle to look away.” We’ll see.

The narrative follows, allegedly, the journey of a father and son along a road. That is the start and finish of the narrative, as far as I understood anyway. We learn pretty much nothing about the characters – they don’t even get names; indeed, the only character that gets named, it is revealed, was lying about it – and we learn nothing about the world either. What is presented is, essentially, a very ‘plain vanilla’ destroyed world, with no hints as to what caused the disaster that befell the countryside. It just exists. Likewise, there’s little propelling the characters on their journey beyond it ‘being cold’

I get the experiment that Cormac McCarthy is attempting here with this book. Stripping down the narrative to revolve around two characters. But it feels so hollow. The characters have no depth to them; we don’t learn much about them, and they seem to exist for the sake of existing. Why is the story focusing on them, specifically? They’re exhibiting a fatal flaw in protagonists in that they are boring. I didn’t care what happened to them.

The prose, too, was squalid. Again, I understand the ‘experiment’ the book attempts – in a post-apocalyptic wasteland with no hope, what do conventions matter? But the lack of structure to this book makes it much harder work to read than it had to be. There are no ‘chapters’; merely blocks of text which read like shopping lists of events that happen and then don’t happen. There’s an abject lack of an atmosphere, and action – clearly these are genre tropes and trappings that Cormac McCarthy is desperate to avoid, for want of his book being described as genre fiction? The prose is so inconsistent and forced – going from utilitarian one moment to lasciviously over-embellished within the same sentence – that it torpedoes any credibility and authenticity that might’ve been there.

What made me angry about The Road was that I could almost taste the author’s thinly-veiled contempt for genre conventions that result in good books because it would interrupt the purity of his experiment in the form. Yes, abandon punctuation and chapter-isation, but have a narrative that either can support itself without those things and avoid writing plodding, dull prose. The Road stands out for me as one of the few books that can portray an earthquake as, essentially, something that happens and is never called back to.

The dialog is easily one of the most annoying and irritating parts of the book. There’s no conventions or punctuation, so even keeping tabs on who is speaking requires effort. But the majority of the conversations between the man and the boy seem to occur as follows:

Boy: I’m scared.

Man: I know. We should go in this house.

Boy: I don’t want to go. I’m cold.

Man: Don’t be scared. We’ll go now.

Boy: Okay.

There is nothing revealed through these snatches of dialog. We learn nothing about the characters, their past, their feelings through the dialog. Of course the boy is scared – he’s a child – and the man tries to reassure him. But the distance in their relationship, and the coolness with which they speak to each other, doesn’t feel like a man and his son. It doesn’t improve, either.

One of the things I learned – and has proved valuable advice – as part of my Creative Writing degree is that characters should undergo, over the course of the story, both a physical journey and a personal journey which changes who they are. In The Road, however, neither of the two characters of the man or the boy seem to undergo any sort of change. They remain as cold and distant to each other toward the end as they do at the beginning, which really made me question whether I should even become involved or engaged in their story. In terms of physical journey, the terse description of the world or situations of The Road made it feel like the characters move from point to point on a map, with the rest of the “world” left as a blank page. It’s not immersive, it’s not even a fully-constructed world (because, I suspect, that would be too genre) and seems artificially imbued with awkwardly-poetic language that just doesn’t sit well; clearly an attempt to move the reader for want of being moving. There’s no substance in The Road to really warrant it.

I contrast the bleak, barren atmosphere of The Road to a similar but infinitely better-executed One by Conrad Williams (which is a really damn fine book) – One and The Road are quite similar narratively but One has much more engaging, flawed characters who seem to change as the story goes on, and it’s tragic but beautiful, and the world is far better realised. The Road would do well to emulate the stark, harrowing environment of One. Yes, One addresses a somewhat similar narrative to The Road – a man’s search across a destroyed landscape for his son; a search which drives him, ultimately, to madness – but does so in such a more effective and gripping way it’s almost comical to put these books together: One is simply so much better written, plotted and executed. I would heartily recommend it over The Road in a heartbeat.

The Road is indeed a bleak, depressing book, full of unrealised potential. However, hollow prose that ditches conventions for the virtue of being experimental above all else, unengaging, flat characters who don’t undergo any kind of journey or give me any real reason to empathise with them and an irritating experimental nature that seems, subconsciously to show a certain disdain for the more accessible genre trappings of post-apocalyptic fiction means that I certainly won’t be picking up another one of Cormac McCarthy’s books again; I’m only glad this came from the library and not with my own money. Road to nowhere.

Buy The Road on Amazon.co.uk (if you’re a zombie)

10 Books to Read in 2017 to Improve My Writing

I’ve recently made a good crack at starting my 2017 Goodreads Challenge, upping my goal from 35 to 40 books. Obviously I intend to enjoy this immensely but it’s a good opportunity to approach some books that I feel would be beneficial in reading, not only because they’re great reads but because I feel they’d be a good influence on my own work, especially with my own novel that I am currently working on, The Thaw.

day_of_the_triffidsThe Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham

I recall watching a recent television adaptation of this book a few years ago and I enjoyed that, so it makes sense to see the original book. While researching this post I was surprised to see how recent The Day of the Triffids is, originating in the 1950s; reading more ‘classics’ is certainly a goal and I feel the setting – a futuristic England beset by killer plants – is both unique enough a premise to still maintain some relevance today. I certainly am looking forward to seeing how a post-apocalyptic Britain envisaged in the 1950s is realised. Plus, by all accounts, it’s just a cracking read!

the_children_of_menChildren of Men by PD James

Another saw-the-film-ages-ago kind of deal; again, I thought the 2006 film was gripping and appropriately desolate and bleak; archetypal post-apocalyptic fare but the film was effective. The premise, too, of the human race being sterile is close to my own plot elements in The Thaw, where children and genetic engineering are brought together in a quite harrowing way, makes this book almost ‘required reading’ considering what I’m working on.

world_war_zWorld War Z by Max Brooks

Again, this seems almost too trite to be true, considering my own work is currently happily residing in the post-apocalyptic genre, but I figured it’s about time to give this book a go, even as I didn’t manage to watch the film version. This is especially true considering, I believe, it’s almost the go-to when ‘zombie fiction’ is thought of. I’d a while ago discounted the zombie subgenre as almost too derivative to be meaningful anymore but I’m re-approaching my stance and, from what I’ve read, World War Z is a worthy bastion of zombie post-apocalyptic fiction.

battle_royaleBattle Royale by Koushun Takami

The Hunger Games wasn’t a bad series, even if the protagonist was a bit too far along the ‘whiny angsty antihero’ path, but one thing that I feel would’ve done the series credit was more violence. This would truly and effectively show the horror that comes from forcing children into a fight to the death. I’ve been recommended Battle Royale a couple of times because it doesn’t shy away from those kinds of visceral depictions so I’m going to finally grab a copy and see what a ‘proper’ Hunger Games is like.


the_standThe Stand
by Stephen King

Getting into King’s work last year was really good, and I definitely want to read his post-apocalyptic epic The Stand; like with the others on this list, I want to see how these different authors portray their settings and how their characters interact with each other and the wider worlds. King’s thrillers have been pretty atmospheric, creepy and gripping so The Stand is an obvious choice to read. I’m a tiny bit intimidated by The Stand’s length but I’ll overcome that!

the_firemanThe Fireman by Joe Hill

Again, a lot like the other post-apoc books on my list, I want to read The Fireman because it’s a pretty well-regarded outing in the genre that’s been on the periphery of my radar for a while. My goal in reading these books is to sample a good flavour of the variety available in the post-apoc genre so I can better see how my own work fits in! Plus, it’s by Stephen King’s son so it’ll be interesting to compare and contrast with King’s work!

on_writingOn Writing by Stephen King

I’ve recently started building a “writer’s library” of books that have advice pertinent to my craft. Again, it’s easy to buy a load of “tip books” but not implement so I’m being picky in which advice books I get. On Writing is cited all the time as a great book in terms of the craft and certainly one I intend to read closely, largely because I’m enjoying discovering King’s work and he writes books that are not-too-dissimilar to my own interests.

a_game_of_thronesA Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin

I’ve put off reading the Game of Thrones books mainly as the TV show is great, and I didn’t want my viewing of the TV show to cloud my interpretation of the books. However, now I feel quite confidently that enough time has passed that I can finally begin the books. I’ve read snippets and I’ve been pleased with how plain-speaking the books seem to be (this overuse of archaic, twee language that is a common pitfall in fantasy is why I couldn’t finish Assassin’s Apprentice). I’ve generally avoided fantasy, mainly as I feel a lot of fantasy is ultimately derivative of The Lord of the Rings which I controversially find unreadable. However, I feel A Game of Thrones would certainly be useful as a case study in excellent worldbuilding, so I look forward to visiting Westeros in literary form very soon!

19841984 by George Orwell

1984 is a book that sits firmly in the “classics you should’ve read ages ago” category for me, and reading it these days seems awfully relevant and topical. Again, I certainly am interested to see quite how Orwell portrays a dystopian society and I’m sure, as well as being highly enjoyable, it’ll be another strain of dystopian fiction for me to take some notes and inspiration from.

duneDune by Frank Herbert

Dune is another one of those “classic books I should’ve read by now” and I intend to finally get to it. Widely regarded as a science-fiction classic that I actually don’t know a great deal about (apart from how highly it’s regarded), I think the only plausible reason I’ve constantly kicked this one to the kerb is it’s length; however, I’m pretty confident that my reading speed has increased enough that it’s not going to consume too much of my time.

If you want to keep an eye on how I’m getting on with my reading then by all means check out my 2017 Goodreads Challenge page!

My Year in Reading – 2016

I was pretty impressed to have accomplished my Goodreads 2016 Reading Challenge, even managing to get a couple of extra books in before the year was through, bringing my total to 37 books. It’s definitely been a stellar year for my reading and this is something I’m proud of; I recall the oft-quoted maxim that a great writer is a great reader.

I decided a while ago that finishing this would be a great opportunity to reflect on some of the books I managed to get through this year, both the good and the bad!

Hall of Shame

twilight

Twilight: I was bemused and concerned to find Twilight on my university reading list and, to be honest, was, I suppose, morbidly intrigued to see if Twilight was quite as bad as it was. I was not disappointed. Bella is an awful, soulless character who is the epitome of a spoiled brat, and worse seems to exist only to live off Edward, who is himself a particularly manipulative, creepy menace. The stomping over the conventions that can make vampires quite chilling and frightening to pursue this romance yarn was the icing on the cake.

50_shades

Fifty Shades of Grey: This was pure morbid curiosity; if it was borne as Twilight fan-fiction, it must be the pits? To be honest, I did think it a tiny bit better than Twilight; some potential character development between both Ana and Christian, though her naivety (and its rapid disappearance) was a somewhat problematic. Again, though, it focuses the story upon the male character and the young, impressionable woman’s focus on him above all else. There’s little point analysing the literary merit of Fifty Shades of Grey as it exists as a means to an end. Oh, and the constant sex got pretty boring!

the_road

The Road: This was a surprise at the end of the year – I was expecting an exquisitely-crafted story of two characters in a post-apocalyptic nightmare. Well, it was certainly a nightmare; the characters were unrelatable and, while they undertake a physical journey, their emotional journey doesn’t even begin – they’re as cold and distant to each other at the end as they were at the start, we the reader learn nothing about them (not even names), we learn very little about the disaster that has befallen the setting, or much about the setting at all. I found the format of the book extremely contrived – no chapters, very little punctuation, which made the scant dialog a chore. What portions there were, presumably to stand in as actual chapters, felt very under-developed, almost like shopping lists, which removed any atmosphere. A poor effort.

ancillary_justice

Ancillary Justice: This didn’t work out for me at all. The concept of a spaceship’s AI inhabiting numerous “ancillaries” and the journey of justice the last remaining one to discover the truth was potentially very interesting, but the cold and mechanical prose didn’t help the story. The protagonist was utterly unlikeable, and the lore impenetrable as the book wore on. The author, like with The Road, decided to experiment with the form and use female pronouns for every character, which was probably very noble but was something I found confusing and didn’t aid with picturing the characters, all of which seemed identical cut-outs, at all. A failed experiment.

Hall of Fame

Jurassic_Park

Jurassic Park: I’d easily put this book as one of my favourites to discover this year. It was approachable but detailed, and intensely thrilling the whole way through. I particularly enjoyed the dusting of plausible, realistic but also forward-looking science that was contained but also left approachable and not at all condescending. I’ve started pillaging the Crichton back catalogue after reading Jurassic Park and I continue to be impressed with his body of work. Jurassic Park was a fine example of Michael Crichton’s crisp, intense and exhilarating prose coupled with a clear affinity and knowledge of the subject matter. I’ve also read The Lost World and Airframe since finishing Jurassic Park and found them to be a continuation of this type of precise but enjoyable techno-thriller.

leviathan-wakes-james-sa-corey

Leviathan Wakes: It would be a bit glib to describe Leviathan Wakes as “Game of Thrones in space” but it does tick all the boxes that GoT does – here we have a compelling and epic drama involving some memorable and distinct characters primarily, but with a rich and detailed universe that doesn’t make itself known for the sake of it; rather it acts as a grounding for the drama. There’s a sense of the colossal scale of the politics and factions within the politics but at the heart of it is the crew of the Rocinante who get into all manner of scrapes that get more and more epic and exciting as the book (and series) progresses. I’m definitely glad I discovered this series and Leviathan Wakes is a strong opener.

The_Rats

The Rats: I recently started reading quite a few of James Herbert’s work, given as I enjoyed The Fog quite a bit last year. His work is definitely enjoyable and lacks the pretention and is humble, which makes it so approachable. The Rats was a truly horrific story, well executed and exciting and, as a sign of its success. Even though it’s over 40 years old, I still found it visceral, gruesome, gripping and pacey, which is a mark of success given how desensitised society has become since it was published in the 1970s. I also read Lair, the follow-up, which continues the story admirably; however, The Rats is definitely a book I enjoyed a ton and I just wish I’d read it sooner!

christine

Christine/Misery: Continuing the thought of “books I wish I’d read before”, I finally gave some Stephen King a go. I suppose I’ve kindof been ignoring King in the search for other, less archetypal writers but I was wrong – King’s books, of which I’ve read two, were gripping and uniquely crafted, but still thrilling and, honestly, scary! There’s some original plots too and I appreciated how atmospheric both the books, Christine and Misery have been, definitely giving a feeling of something not being quite as it seems or right. Look forward to exploring more of King’s work!

Overall I think 2016 was a pretty fantastic year for reading and I certainly don’t regret pouring so much time and effort into it; I definitely feel I’ve gotten something out of it. It’s proved a catalyst to do equally as well, and hopefully better, next year. And I hope, too, that I’ve gained some insight, potentially subconsciously, that I can use to great effect in my own work going forward!