BOOK REVIEW | Universal Harvester by John Darnielle

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3/5 stars

Release Date: February 7, 2017

*I received a digital advanced reader copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

From the publisher:
Life in a small town takes a dark turn when mysterious footage begins appearing on VHS cassettes at the local Video Hut

Jeremy works at the counter of Video Hut in Nevada, Iowa. It’s a small town—the first “a” in the name is pronounced ay—smack in the center of the state. This is the late 1990s, pre-DVD, and the Hollywood Video in Ames poses an existential threat to Video Hut. But there are regular customers, a predictable rush in the late afternoon. It’s good enough for Jeremy: It’s a job; it’s quiet and regular; he gets to watch movies; he likes the owner, Sarah Jane; it gets him out of the house, where he and his dad try to avoid missing Mom, who died six years ago in a car wreck.

But when Stephanie Parsons, a local schoolteacher, comes in to return her copy of Targets, starring Boris Karloff—an old movie, one Jeremy himself had ordered for the store—she has an odd complaint: “There’s something on it,” she says, but doesn’t elaborate. Two days later, Lindsey Redinius brings back She’s All That, a new release, and complains that there’s something wrong with it: “There’s another movie on this tape.”

So Jeremy takes a look. And indeed, in the middle of the movie the screen blink dark for a moment and She’s All That is replaced by a black-and-white scene, shot in a barn, with only the faint sounds of someone breathing. Four minutes later, She’s All That is back. But there is something profoundly disturbing about that scene; Jeremy’s compelled to watch it three or four times. The scenes recorded onto Targets are similar, undoubtedly created by the same hand. Creepy. And the barn looks a lot like a barn just outside of town.

Jeremy doesn’t want to be curious. In truth, it freaks him out, deeply. This has gone far enough, maybe too far already. But Stephanie is pushing, and once Sarah Jane takes a look and becomes obsessed, there’s no more ignoring the disturbing scenes on the videos. And all of a sudden, what had once been the placid, regular old Iowa fields and farmhouses now feels haunted and threatening, imbued with loss and instability and profound foreboding. For Jeremy, and all those around him, life will never be the same . . .

My thoughts:
This is an incredibly difficult book to review – I went into Universal Harvester expecting something along the lines of mystery/thriller/horror based on the synopsis, but what I got was a beautifully written work about family life and loss in Nevada, Iowa. There is a mysterious element to this story, but I would not call this a mystery.

Jeremy works at the local Video Hut, and is content with his life right now. He has no major responsibilities and a comfortable job that he knows well. One day a customer returns a video, stating that there is something else on the tape. He plans to watch the video soon, but after a second customer brings another video in with the same complaint he decides he better check them out right away. The scenes, spliced into the regular movie, are poorly filmed in black and white and look like something created by a film student. Jeremy shows these videos to Sarah, the store’s owner, and she recognizes the farmhouse where the scenes were filmed.

Sarah heads out to confirm that she has the right location, and quickly becomes infatuated with Lisa, the woman who lives there now. Before long, Sarah has moved in with Lisa, leaving Jeremy to wonder what’s going on.

This book is narrated from multiple perspectives: Jeremy and his father, Lisa’s childhood family, and a family who also discovers the videos towards the end of the book. The atmosphere is unsettling – something strange is going on, and I kept waiting for the pieces to fall into place. The pieces, rather, slowly roll towards the general direction of a resolution. I don’t need a story to be perfectly wrapped up, or to have a cut and dry arch, but I do need to feel satisfied with the journey. Darnielle’s writing is great and I felt compelled to finish the book, but I was left with a dissatisfaction that could have been easily fulfilled.

 

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BOOK REVIEW | You Too Can Have A Body Like Mine by Alexandra Kleeman

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3/5 stars

From the publisher:
A woman known only by the letter A lives in an unnamed American city with her roommate, B, and boyfriend, C, who wants her to join him on a reality show called That’s My Partner! A eats (or doesn’t) the right things, watches endless amounts of television, often just for the commercials—particularly the recurring cartoon escapades of Kandy Kat, the mascot for an entirely chemical dessert—and models herself on a standard of beauty that only exists in such advertising. She fixates on the fifteen minutes of fame a news-celebrity named Michael has earned after buying up his local Wally Supermarket’s entire, and increasingly ample, supply of veal.

Meanwhile B is attempting to make herself a twin of A, who hungers for something to give meaning to her life, something aside from C’s pornography addiction, and becomes indoctrinated by a new religion spread throughout a web of corporate franchises, which moves her closer to the decoys that populate her television world, but no closer to her true nature.

My thoughts:
What occurred to me then…was that living wasn’t a matter of right or wrong or ethics or self-expression. There was no better way to live, or worse. It was all terrible, and you had to do it constantly.

Bleak? Maybe. Relatable? Definitely.

Alexandra Keleeman’s satire is a bold statement on modern life. She tackles consumerism, conformity, and the importance of the individual in an over-marketed world.

The premise is tricky to describe, but here’s my best shot. Our central character, A, has a roommate named B and a boyfriend named C. A eats popsicles and oranges, and is infatuated with Kandy Kakes – an artificial treat that she lusts after while obsessively watching their colourful commercials. A notices strange behaviour from her neighbours, that B is starting to assume physical similarities to herself, and C suddenly disappears. What follows is an examination of the self, or lack of self, in an overly consumptive society.

I enjoyed taking a peek into Keleeman’s world as this book is full of provocative and insightful moments. I’m the same age as the author, and can relate to her take on the obsessions endured by women today. This is a a bizarre, dystopian satire and will not appeal to everyone’s tastes. If you’re a fan of postmodern literature, this is definitely one to read.

BOOK REVIEW | The Girls by Emma Cline

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3/5 stars

From the publisher:
Northern California, during the violent end of the 1960s. At the start of summer, a lonely and thoughtful teenager, Evie Boyd, sees a group of girls in the park, and is immediately caught by their freedom, their careless dress, their dangerous aura of abandon. Soon, Evie is in thrall to Suzanne, a mesmerizing older girl, and is drawn into the circle of a soon-to-be infamous cult and the man who is its charismatic leader. Hidden in the hills, their sprawling ranch is eerie and run down, but to Evie, it is exotic, thrilling, charged—a place where she feels desperate to be accepted. As she spends more time away from her mother and the rhythms of her daily life, and as her obsession with Suzanne intensifies, Evie does not realize she is coming closer and closer to unthinkable violence.

My thoughts:
The Girls was a quick and enjoyable read, but I didn’t love it. I really wanted to dig into more of the actual cult dynamic! That said, the book is called “The Girls”, and that’s more or less what you get – a book about girls and the way they relate to one another during important formative years. I don’t need any redeeming qualities in a character to like them, but Evie sort of fell flat for me too. This is a strong debut and I look forward to seeing what Cline comes up with next.