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 | I’m Traveling Alone by Samuel Bjork

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5/5 stars

From the publisher:
A six-year-old girl is found in the Norwegian countryside, hanging lifeless from a tree with a jump rope around her neck. She is dressed in strange doll’s clothes. Around her neck is an airline tag that says “I’m traveling alone.”

A special homicide unit in Oslo re-opens with veteran police investigator Holger Munch at the helm. Holger’s first step is to persuade the brilliant but haunted investigator Mia Krüger to come back to the squad–she’s been living on an isolated island, overcome by memories of her past. When Mia views a photograph of the crime scene and spots the number “1” carved into the dead girl’s fingernail, she knows this is only the beginning. She’ll soon discover that six years earlier, an infant girl was abducted from a nearby maternity ward. The baby was never found. Could this new killer have something to do with the missing child, or with the reclusive Christian sect hidden in the nearby woods?

Mia returns to duty to track down a revenge-driven and ruthlessly intelligent killer. But when Munch’s own six-year-old granddaughter goes missing, Mia realizes that the killer’s sinister game is personal, and I’m Traveling Alone races to an explosive–and shocking–conclusion.

My thoughts:
I’m happy to report that my first read of 2017 was a good one – a really good one. Samuel Bjork is a Norweigan author, and his North American debut I’m Traveling Alone pulled me right in.

After a disturbing crime is committed, detective Holger Munch is leading the case on a new homicide unit. It doesn’t take long for him to realize that he needs his old partner, Mia Kruger, to help him piece this together. Mia, extremely depressed and haunted by the tragic death of her twin sister, has isolated herself on an island, intent on suicide. When Holger shows up unannounced, she is less than pleased – she had a plan and he’s messing with it. Known for her brilliant mind, Mia can’t keep herself from hypothesizing about the details of the crime and before long the wheels are in motion and she is heading back to the police force with Holger – for one final case.

This book is intricately plotted with well-drawn characters that the reader can become invested in. I can’t wait to read about Holger and Mia again – they make for an awesome team and I really enjoyed that there was zero romantic involvement between the two. Just two strong, though flawed, characters working together to beat the clock and get the job done. There were no major twists or turns, rather a layered work that slowly unfolded to reveal the each piece of the puzzle. Bjork kept the tension high and I flew through this one pretty quickly!

There was a little to be desired at the end – I wasn’t totally thrilled with how the last two chapters played out. That said, I absolutely loved this book and can’t wait for the follow up! The second installment in the Holger Munch and Mia Kruger series, The Owl Always Hunts at Night,  is set for North American release in June 2017.

BOOK REVIEW | The Wonder by Emma Donoghue

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4.5/5 stars

From the publisher:
In the latest masterpiece by Emma Donoghue, bestselling author of Room, an English nurse brought to a small Irish village to observe what appears to be a miracle-a girl said to have survived without food for months-soon finds herself fighting to save the child’s life.

Tourists flock to the cabin of eleven-year-old Anna O’Donnell, who believes herself to be living off manna from heaven, and a journalist is sent to cover the sensation. Lib Wright, a veteran of Florence Nightingale’s Crimean campaign, is hired to keep watch over the girl.

Written with all the propulsive tension that made Room a huge bestseller, THE WONDER works beautifully on many levels–a tale of two strangers who transform each other’s lives, a powerful psychological thriller, and a story of love pitted against evil.

My thoughts:
How could the child bear not just the hunger, but the boredom? The rest of humankind used meals to divide the day, Lib realized – as reward, as entertainment, the chiming of an inner clock.

This book is fantastic! Admittedly, I went into this with fairly low expectations, but it blew those out of the water. It’s atmospheric and slow burning, mysterious and infuriating.

The year is 1859, shortly after the Crimean war and Lib, an English nurse, is called to Ireland to take watch over a young girl named Anna who claims she no longer needs food to live. In a time of religious fervor, the people of the town believe that Anna is a living wonder, chosen by God. Lib is convinced that Anna is playing an elaborate prank on everyone, sneaking food on the sly, and watches her every move closely in an attempt to figure out how she’s doing it. Anna’s explanation is that for the last four months, she has lived on manna from heaven – this confounds Lib, who is determined to understand what the girl means. No one can sustain themselves for this long without some nourishment, this she knows to be true.

The story unfolds slowly, leading up to startling confessions and disturbing realizations. Lib knows she must take immediate, drastic action to save Anna, who has deteriorated physically.

The Wonder asks the reader to consider questions about religious conviction, loyalty, and parenthood. It will keep you flipping the pages as you race to discover the truth.

BOOK REVIEW | A House Without Windows by Nadia Hashimi

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4/5 stars

From the publisher:
For two decades, Zeba was a loving wife, a patient mother, and a peaceful villager. But her quiet life is shattered when her husband, Kamal, is found brutally murdered with a hatchet in the courtyard of their home. Nearly catatonic with shock, Zeba is unable to account for her whereabouts at the time of his death. Her children swear their mother could not have committed such a heinous act. Kamal’s family is sure she did, and demands justice. Barely escaping a vengeful mob, Zeba is arrested and jailed.

Awaiting trial, she meets a group of women whose own misfortunes have led them to these bleak cells: eighteen-year-old Nafisa, imprisoned to protect her from an “honor killing”; twenty-five-year-old Latifa, a teen runaway who stays because it is safe shelter; twenty-year-old Mezghan, pregnant and unmarried, waiting for a court order to force her lover’s hand. Is Zeba a cold-blooded killer, these young women wonder, or has she been imprisoned, like them, for breaking some social rule? For these women, the prison is both a haven and a punishment; removed from the harsh and unforgiving world outside, they form a lively and indelible sisterhood.

Into this closed world comes Yusuf, Zeba’s Afghan-born, American-raised lawyer whose commitment to human rights and desire to help his homeland have brought him back. With the fate this seemingly ordinary housewife in his hands, Yusuf discovers that, like the Afghanistan itself, his client may not be at all what he imagines.

My thoughts:
The results of the American election have shaken me deeply left me questioning the world I thought we lived in. I’m a proud Canadian, but have relatives living in the States. I’ve been in a particularly bad reading slump while struggling to come terms with recent events, and am just starting to get back on track. It seems apt, though not planned, that the first read I finished post-election is by a woman with Afghan roots, about modern day women living in Afghanistan.

I think most wives imagine their husbands dying – either out of dread or anticipation. It’s an inevitability. Why not guess at why or how it might happen?

This was my first book by Nadia Hashimi, but it certainly won’t be my last. Her prose is rich and vivid as she explores injustices endured by modern day Afghan women. Zeba, the matriarch of this story, is discovered at the scene of a crime with blood on her hands as her slain husband lays close by. Accusations of her guilt begin to fly as Zeba maintains her silence, unwilling to discuss what happened. She is arrested and sent to jail, where she develops unexpected bonds with the other female prisoners.

Hashimi tackles deeply troubling issues through Zeba’s cell mates as we hear their stories and discover what brought them to the prison. These women are all essentially criminals of morality, jailed for acting in ways that society believes women should not. What is a woman’s place in Afghanistan? What is her value?

A woman was only as good as the drops that fell on her wedding night, the ounces she bled with the turns of the moon, and the small river that she shed giving her husband children.

There are so many layers and so much depth to this story. I also realize that there is a lot of grey area that goes unexplored here as well. This story is not a universal experience for Afghan women, but it is the story Hashimi wanted to tell. At the root, however, this is a murder mystery. Who killed Zeba’s husband? More importantly, why? Hashimi does not disappoint as she reveals the heartbreaking and infuriating events that led to his death and delivers, unexpectedly for stories of this nature, a deeply satisfying ending. I know I will be thinking about this book for a while.

BOOK REVIEW| Revival by Stephen King

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5/5 stars

From the publisher:
A dark and electrifying novel about addiction, fanaticism, and what might exist on the other side of life.

In a small New England town, over half a century ago, a shadow falls over a small boy playing with his toy soldiers. Jamie Morton looks up to see a striking man, the new minister. Charles Jacobs, along with his beautiful wife, will transform the local church. The men and boys are all a bit in love with Mrs. Jacobs; the women and girls feel the same about Reverend Jacobs—including Jamie’s mother and beloved sister, Claire. With Jamie, the Reverend shares a deeper bond based on a secret obsession. When tragedy strikes the Jacobs family, this charismatic preacher curses God, mocks all religious belief, and is banished from the shocked town.

Jamie has demons of his own. Wed to his guitar from the age of thirteen, he plays in bands across the country, living the nomadic lifestyle of bar-band rock and roll while fleeing from his family’s horrific loss. In his mid-thirties—addicted to heroin, stranded, desperate—Jamie meets Charles Jacobs again, with profound consequences for both men. Their bond becomes a pact beyond even the Devil’s devising, and Jamie discovers that revival has many meanings.

This rich and disturbing novel spans five decades on its way to the most terrifying conclusion Stephen King has ever written.

My thoughts:
This book is the definition of a page turner! I blasted through it and loved every second.

We follow Jamie from age 6 into his early 60’s, enduring his highs and incredibly dark lows along side him. All the while Pastor Jacobs, a constant in Jamie’s life, his fifth business, decends deeper and deeper into his obsessions.

King is notorious for taking a bold stance on controversial topics, and this book is a poignant statement on organized relgion and how it can be used to exploit hopeful believers.

Religion is the theological equivalent of a quick-burn insurance scam, where you pay your premium year after year, and then, when you need the benefits you paid for so – pardon the pun – so religiously, you discover the company that took your money does not, in fact, exist.

King is an absolute master of suspense – the final chapters were so intense as we wait to discover Pastor Jacobs has planned. I could feel my heart beating in my chest as I raced through pages into the startling conclusion.

There was a little missing for me in regards to character development. I’m not sure why, but I didn’t fully connect with Jamie. I really enjoyed following him through his life, but somehow I wasn’t completely wrapped up in his story.

Revival was pure, creepy fun – I look forward to re-reading this one again!