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.

Advertisements

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)

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!

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