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)

Review: Nemesis Games (Paperback)

nemesis_gamesI’ve been taking my reading seriously lately in an attempt to make good my Goodreads Reading Challenge; after a bit of a break, I’ve returned to the Expanse series which I have been enjoying all year with the fifth instalment, Nemesis Games.

I’d previously found the fourth book, Cibola Burn somewhat underwhelming. A bit too “low-fi” and insular, considering the Expanse universe is so huge. Nemesis Games was a welcome true to form – a thrilling and out-of-this-world story that upped the ante even more than previous books have done, but without breaking the sense of feasibility and just-out-of-reachness that the richly-made Expanse has made its hallmark.

Nemesis Games almost, for me, felt a bit like Cibola Burn – a little slow, insular and unaware of the universe around it. It begins with the crew of the Rocinante splitting for the first time ever while the ship is undergoing a major overhaul (which, to be fair, going by the hijinks, it was really overdue). While this, perhaps, breaks up the group dynamic that the crew had it also gave a chance to pause and give each crewmember – Holden, Naomi, Amos and Alex a chance to show their backstories a little more.

Of course, I was extremely silly to fall into the trap of thinking: they’ll be back on the Roci in no time to start the proper adventure as the proverbial quickly hits the fan and, about a third in, the book motors into gear. The simple “chores” that each crewmember embark upon end up taking decidedly unexpected and ominous twists.

I feel it was a welcome change of pace to break up the characters from a homogenous group and expand their personalities, backstories and pasts they’d left behind to gallivant across the Solar System. It was an interesting but not laboured way to explore the backstories of these characters. They’re not all angels and it underpins to a degree how they came to be on the Canterbury in the initial book. I thought it a lot more gripping and narratively-deft to finally see what these characters had told us about in previous books to differing degees of detail. And, naturally, these “loyalty missions”, as players of Mass Effect 2 might recognise, do quickly go awry and the plot proper begins to motor ahead.

There’s a real sense of pace and urgency in the latter half of Nemesis Games as events take hold and begin to reach their conclusion and, for the first time I think seriously, the main cast come into jeopardy. Each crewmember seemed more fragile when isolated and unable to communicate. There’s tension, too, which kept me up as it’s a real pageturner. Obviously, the events taking place across the universe are taking a profound and unexpected turn and, for the first time, too, shaking up the established status quo (which, ominously, had seemed stable as the book began).

Nemesis Games is deftly put together, and presents an interesting fusion for the series. I’d almost say this book is two-thirds grand space opera to one-third post-apocalyptic nightmare which is an interesting contrast to say the least; both of these aspects are well-realised but it’s the nacent post-apoc scenes that grabbed me. They’re surprisingly well done and the authors should definitely look at continuing the thread that the events of Nemesis Games present. It’s hard to be less vague without major spoilers which I am biting my fingers to avoid typing!

Nemesis Games was, then, a thoroughly enjoyable, intelligent return to form for The Expanse following the somewhat-disappointing Cibola Burn. It also feels like we’re over the hump for the series (nine novels are planned, of which Nemesis Games is the fifth); there’s a seismic shift in the status quo we’ve come to expect from the first four books that’s looking toward how things are changing. Things aren’t going to be the same again.

I’ve seen Nemesis Games described as The Expanse’s Empire Strikes Back. I’m not a massive Star Wars fan but Empire is my favourite. The stakes here are up in the stratosphere and I can’t wait to see how high they really go. Again, a stellar and surprising return to form for The Expanse

Buy Nemesis Games on Amazon UK

Review: Christine (Paperback)

christineIt’s pretty impossible to have not heard of Stephen King but alas, so far his work had not quite touched my shores until a generous work colleague lent me Christine and I took the plunge. I’d seen the 1983 movie adaptation a while back as a teenager and enjoyed it at the time, and considering that I’ve been making a conscious effort this year to read, read, read, figured it was about time to get acquainted with King’s work.

Fair to say, I found Christine a pretty compelling read, gripping and ominous – I read the whole 600-page book in about a week. For me this is pretty darn quick!

I found Christine to be a pretty moody and atmospheric book, building up the sense of the supernatural and ominous in a linear but rewarding way. There’s a definite sense of decay and dread that begins to malign the characters we’re introduced to – essentially, a load of regular people of anonymous American suburbia – and it’s a malign influence that the characters feel they have to keep contained. How can they say that a restored 20-year-old car is possessed? So the mystery and happenings of the book seem confined to the knowledge of the handful of characters, which amplifies it.

I was also impressed that the supernatural elements were peeled away slowly, kept subtle and just under the surface until the climax of the book; generally, supernatural happenings don’t excite me but with this and my reading of a lot of James Herbert’s work, I feel I’m beginning to appreciate this kind of horror a lot more. This is horror disguised around a sense of normality that slowly emerges, and I didn’t disapprove of the execution.

In terms of characters, each of the main characters in Christine goes through a literal and figurative journey and at the end of the book they’re left scarred and materially changed by the events of the book. More interestingly, Christine manages to add characterisation to an inanimate object – the 1958 Plymouth Fury itself. The car becomes a vehicle for a character we, the reader, meet only briefly to begin with but learn more about as the story progresses. I did feel a sense of pity for the car being used for such nefarious ends as it was in the book. In the end, I appreciated even why King chose the 1958 Plymouth Fury as the car to inhabit with the evil spirit – the final line of the book describing “his unending fury” dovetailing well into both the car, and the persona behind it and the events of the book.

Finally, I was impressed, too, with King’s prose. It was unchallenging but also gripping, and I definitely ended each chapter wanting to read on. Unchallenging prose is difficult to achieve, but also allows for a quicker sense of immersion, which is what I feel King achieved here. The plot was quite pacy and moved quickly – each chapter added something – a further degeneration of events and characters – to the mix to build up to the climax of the book. For the most part, King writes well enough that the book is a convincing “retelling” of the story from the eye of Dennis, one of the protagonists, several years after the fact.

Wrapping things up, I found Christine was indeed a gripping and strong tale of automotive supernatural goings on at the heartlands of America. It was creepy, moody and compelling to read; it has aged well, too, as the events are as vivid now as they would’ve been in 1983. I am definitely pleased to have read it, enjoyed it a great deal and am going to be raiding the Stephen King back catalogue with no delay!

Buy Christine on Amazon UK