Atmospheric Adult Fiction and the Bygone Video Store: Universal Harvester

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universal harvester

Ah, the good old video store!  Blockbuster, Video2000, Civic Video, VideoEzy: for the most part they’ve all gone the way of the dinosaurs – not, thankfully, in the fiery chaos of destruction by meteorite, but nevertheless faded from consciousness, if not from the lazy person’s keyring.

Universal Harvester by John Darnielle, who I first encountered through Wolf in White Van  back in 2014, is the atmospheric, creepy and mildly discomfiting story of a selection of video tapes upon which some unwanted footage has been foisted.  We received our copy from Scribe Publications for review and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Jeremy works at the counter of Video Hut in Nevada, Iowa. It’s the 1990s, pre-DVD, and the work is predictable and familiar; he likes his boss, and it gets him out of the house.

But when a local schoolteacher comes in to return her copy of Targets, she has an odd complaint: ‘There’s something on it,’ she says. Two days later, another customer brings back She’s All That and complains that something is wrong: ‘There’s another movie on this tape.’

Curious, Jeremy takes a look. And what he sees on the videos is so strange and disturbing that it propels him out of his comfortable routine and into a search for the tapes’ creator. As the once-peaceful fields and barns of the Iowa landscape begin to seem sinister and threatening, Jeremy must come to terms with a truth that is as devastatingly sad as it is shocking.

If you haven’t read any of Darnielle’s work before, you won’t be familiar with his strange, detached narrative style.  A lot of the work of piecing together the story is left to the reader, and it can take a few chapters (or half the book) before one can feel settled in the story.  Even then, everything’s a bit touch and go as you never know where Darnielle will spin the yarn next.

There was something strangely attractive about the creepiness of the blurb that had me requesting this one.  If you are old enough to remember a time before internet, Netflix and 24 hour movie channels and the like, you will be able to appreciate the utter spookiness of finding weird, confusing, disturbing footage taped onto a video from a rental store.  I mean, someone had to first tape the footage, then borrow the video from the shop, then tape the footage onto the borrowed tape, then return it, all the while knowing that someone else was going to get one hell of a fright after borrowing out a tape for a Saturday night romcom.  It’s quite a violation if you think about it for too long!

The story unfolds slowly, with the mystery of the tapes eking out in dribs and drabs as more tapes come to light and Jeremy’s boss starts to get far too involved in the whole business.  Darnielle has done a brilliant job of heightening the suspense throughout, as particular characters start to behave in unexpected ways and its not clear how certain events and behaviours are linked – or if they are linked at all.  The structure of the book requires the reader to jump back and forth in time: initially we are introduced to Jeremy, the video store and the discovery of the errant tapes, before flicking back to the past and an instructive piece of plotting that fills in some of the gaps for one key character, and finally jumping forward to the present and a new set of characters who provide the denouement and tie up loose ends.

The final part of the story sees a new family moving in to the farmhouse in which the mysterious footage was apparently shot.  This family are the key to winding up the mystery and making the path straight for the reader.  It was a relief to have all the loose ends tied up in a completely unexpected way, and the ending really puts a new spin on the events that went before.

Once again, I don’t necessarily think that Darnielle’s style of writing is going to appeal to every reader, but I did find this book more accessible and less confusing than Wolf in White Van.  There seemed to be more clues and contextual pieces of information from the author in this one early on, that at least had me invested in Jeremy, his father and what might befall them throughout the story, so that I was committed to getting to the end even when things weren’t as clear as they might be.

I would give this one a go if you are a fan of stories that give you a shiver up your spine, but don’t follow the usual path and tropes seen in most creepy stories.

Until next time,

Bruce

Mean Girls, Kidnap and the One Left Behind: The Fall of Lisa Bellow…

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lisa bellow

Whoooot whooot whooot!

That’s the “intriguing read ahead” alarm, in case you didn’t recognise it.  Today’s book is adult fiction novel The Fall of Lisa Bellow by Susan Perabo.  We received a copy of this one from Simon & Schuster Australia for review and even though I didn’t know what to expect going into it, I know I wasn’t expecting such an absorbing, fascinating and subversive look at the inner workings of various minds….

On that tantalising little nugget, here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

When a middle school girl is abducted in broad daylight, a fellow student and witness to the crime copes with the tragedy in an unforgettable way.

What happens to the girl left behind?

A masked man with a gun enters a sandwich shop in broad daylight, and Meredith Oliver suddenly finds herself ordered to the filthy floor, where she cowers face to face with her nemesis, Lisa Bellow, the most popular girl in her eighth grade class. The minutes tick inexorably by, and Meredith lurches between comforting the sobbing Lisa and imagining her own impending death. Then the man orders Lisa Bellow to stand and come with him, leaving Meredith the girl left behind.

After Lisa’s abduction, Meredith spends most days in her room. As the community stages vigils and searches, Claire, Meredith’s mother, is torn between relief that her daughter is alive, and helplessness over her inability to protect or even comfort her child. Her daughter is here, but not.

So, what’s the social protocol if a tragedy befalls someone you don’t particularly like?  Is there an acceptable level of schadenfreude that can be bandied about or do you have to pretend that you really care deeply about the other person (who would never have given one single toss about you)?

What if you are the mother of the girl who isn’t kidnapped?  Surely there must be some concession to such a mother, an allowance of a certain amount of public joy that her child was spared, despite the unnamed terrors that may (or may not…but probably are) being committed upon the kidnapped child.

These are some of the questions that are explored in The Fall of Lisa Bellow, as viewpoints switch between Meredith (the un-kidnapped child) and her mother, Claire, in the aftermath of the Deli Barn robbery in which Meredith’s classmate (and locker neighbour) is kidnapped.  Lisa Bellow is one of the cool kids, a mean girl. Meredith is not.  Meredith is simultaneously unsurprised by the fact that the kidnapper would choose Lisa to abduct – skinny, blond-haired, beautifully shod Lisa – instead of plain, awkward Meredith, and drawn to the gap that Lisa has left in the hierarchy of middle school social totems.

Claire, Meredith’s mother, is unashamedly glorying in the fact that her daughter was spared the horrors of kidnap (and no doubt rape and murder) that has been visited upon the Bellow girl, but only on the inside.  She learnt long ago that sharing her more vengeful thoughts relating to those who would harm her children, even with the man she married, is not necessarily a path to peaceful relationships.  Since her son and Meredith’s older brother Evan was visited with a tragedy of his own, Claire has sensed the bonds between her and her children weakening, and her place in the family unit becoming more vague and nebulous.

This is not a book in which the focus is on the hunt for the kidnapper and a swift and action-packed resolution for Lisa.  This book is about ramifications.  The ripple effect that occurs when one person is removed from a social context slowly spreads to encompass all those to whom they were once connected, even in the smallest of ways.  The voice that the author has used here, both for Meredith and Claire, perfectly suited the complex emotional state that the two are working through.  There is plenty of dark humour, with a spotlight on those socially inappropriate thoughts we all have about revenge and people we deem nasty or lauded for absolutely nothing getting their comeuppance.  The jerky and somewhat detached narrative style perfectly suits the level of weirdness that one might expect to experience on having to slot back in to normal life immediately after a majorly traumatic event – especially one that is ongoing and unresolved.

Lest you think that this is a dreary, serious book, allow me to say that I thoroughly appreciated the characters of Evan and Mark (Meredith’s brother and father respectively).  Evan is so utterly likable that his presence is like a stabiliser for the craziness of the outside world….until it’s not.  Mark is a concrete helper, in that he will provide any kind of help necessary, as long as it involves a concrete object – picking up some tater tots from the store, providing new shoes on request – but is less helpful when it comes to spotting and managing emotional states on the verge of collapse.  These two characters provided a neat foil for the darker thoughts of Meredith and Claire and overall the author has done a stellar job of creating an authentic-feeling family in semi-crisis.

**On a side note, can I just say that I was ridiculously overjoyed when reading about the battling animals that Evan and Meredith played with as children (and sometimes still use) because…..I OWN THE EXACT SAME BATTLING ANIMALS!!!!! The ones in the book are surely based on the Papo range of mythical creatures.  I checked, and the Lion does indeed carry a sword in one hand and an axe in the other (although where Meredith and Evan’s Lion is missing a tail, ours is missing part of the axe – not due to biting though).  My favourite is the Rhino.  He guards Mad Martha’s yarn stash.  Just saying.**

I don’t normally enjoy “character relationship” books as much as I did this one, but there were so many aspects of the story that resonated with me on some level that I can do naught but tag this as a Top Book of 2017 pick!

top-book-of-2017-pick-button

Until next time,

Bruce

Retro Reading: Books about Puberty…..

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Yes, it’s that time again – time to link arms with a trusted confidante (ie: me) and take a stroll down memory lane. BYO mosquito repellent and hayfever medication.

Recently I have been contemplating that most treacherous of life events – puberty.  A younger colleague of mine has just begun on this road to adult gargoyle-hood and is most vexed at the appearance of mould where there was no mould before.  It was while I was advising him of the necessity of a meticulous morning-and-evening cleansing routine to keep this problem in check, that I decided I should re-read some classics related to this special time for young gargoyles and fleshlings alike.

To that end I selected two that I remembered well (or at least I thought I did…): the perennial favourite Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume and Pig City by Louis Sachar.

are you there godIt may come as a surprise to those of you who have read Are You There God?…., but on re-reading I had absolutely no recollection of any of the content pertaining to Margaret’s investigations into different religions. None, whatsoever.  How could this be? I wondered – clearly, this was an important part of the main character’s growth and development throughout the plot.  It’s even mentioned in the title, for goodness sake.

It was about this time that I began to suspect that on my initial reading, drawn by content arguably more interesting to a young buck undergoing certain important life changes, that I may have skipped the bits about religion and flicked through to the advice about increasing one’s bust…..Yes, dear reader, I believe that I may have been guilty of skipping large chunks of the story in order to get to the spicy bits! Surely, though, this small infraction can be forgiven – as creatures of stone, gargoyles have a vested interest in busts (of the artistic, sculptural variety) and advice as to how to make a bigger one could be just the ticket for a gargoyle without a lower half to take a step up in the world, so to speak.

In re-reading Pig City, you will be pleased to know I did not uncover any nasty surprises about content I had forgotten, for this book was certainly on high rotation in my reading list at that time.  Strangely though, I had forgotten all about the book itself until I recently overheard something that jogged my memory and I felt an immediate need to search it out.

pig city

The story follows the sixth-grade school year of Laura Sibbie and friends as they grope their way up, down and across the social ladder through the creation of various clubs.  The initiations and subsequent fall-out of these friendships make up the bulk of the story, and very entertaining it is too.  This is a much milder take on the beginnings of adolescence than that presented in Judy Blume’s work – the characters still have the charm and innocence that Blume’s more wordly girls do not.

Having had its first outing in 1987 though, I wonder how much the events in Pig City mirror the experiences of today’s children in grade six and seven.  I can’t help but feel that the squabbles depicted here would nowadays be more likely to occur in a younger age group than the technology-savvy, know-all-about-it pre-teens of the post-noughties.

I must say, having re-dipped the toe into books about this life event, I feel I must seek out more as the embarrassing predicaments in which the characters find themselves are really quite fun to read about.

Any suggestions from fellow bloggers about classic “growing up” reads to tackle?

Until next time,

Bruce

Haiku Review: Pigeon English….

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Afternoon all, Mad Martha with you again! Now Pigeon English by Stephan Kelman has been waiting on the shelf for quite a long while now, ever since I saw it in a second hand bookshop after having briefly read a review a month or two prior and remembering that it sounded like something I might possibly be interested in reading if I could find the time or motivation.  I can now happily report that I have picked it off the pile and finished it, and am all the better for it.

Pigeon English relates the thoughts of Harri, an eleven year old boy who has recently migrated from Ghana to London with his mother and older sister.  The story opens with Harri reflecting on the recent stabbing death of a boy in his neighbourhood, and continues on through a six-period during which Harri spends time investigating the boy’s murder, learning about girls, the social pecking order and certain English turns of phrase, and generally growing up.  The pigeon of the title refers to a bird that alights on the balcony of Harri’s apartment one day, beginning a (slightly one-sided) companionship that develops during the second half of the book.

This book really surprised me.  I was expecting a run-of-the-mill puberty story with the slight point of difference of a migrant’s perspective, but Kelman has really created a likeable character in Harri and has given him a charming, cheeky and endearing voice.  Another great strength of this book is the issues with which it deals (specifically, the culture of violence, bravado and peer-pressure that exists in some sections of youthful society).  The ending of this book came as a major shock, although admittedly the clues are clearly stated earlier in the story should the reader wish to take note.

But to cut a long story into seventeen syllables, here is my haiku review of Pigeon English:

pigeon english

A boy and a bird

present in living colour,

learning love and loss

I thoroughly recommend this book although I feel I must warn you that while the protagonist is quite young, the language use and some of the content suggest that this is a read for slightly older children (middle to late teens). 

Until next time,

Mad Martha

Are you Prepared for the Jam-pocalypse?: What’s in a Name Reading Challenge…

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Obstacle 2 in the What’s in a Name Reading Challenge: Jam by Yahtzee Croshaw…

This is the first title I’ve attempted from my Non-Christie-Listie, as well as the first title from Category 2 (something you might find in the kitchen) and I am happy to report that it has been successfully (and cheerfully) vanquished.

JamThis is Croshaw’s second novel, after Mogworld, and it certainly displays the same swift and silly plotting and characterisation.  Jam follows the story of Travis, a young man who wakes up one morning to discover that his city (incidentally, the one in which I also reside!) has been invaded by flesh-eating jam.  So begins a rollicking romp around Brisbane (Australia, not Texas) involving a cheeky tarantula, plenty of ironic ironicisms and plastic bag fashions a-plenty.

This Novel’s Point of Difference:

Um. I’d say it’s probably the jampocalypse aspect.

Pros:

  • One of Croshaw’s great strengths is silliness-in-appropriate-quantities and this book is jam-packed (pun-intended).with the same. There’s a lot of humour and laugh out loud lines in this book – it’s really one for when you need a bit of a chuckle or aren’t in the mood for anything too heavy in the thinking department.
  • It’s set in Bris-vegas….I quite enjoyed seeing the cityscape on the front cover and being able to recognise the Gotham City Building (I don’t know it’s actual name…since it was built everybody I know has only ever referred to it as the Gotham City Building)
  • It’s a fantastically welcome change from Zombie-related apocalypses (apocalypsi??), and scary, bring-us-all-down dystopian thrillers.

Cons:

  • It’s silly.  Now I realise I just put this in Pros, but I’ve read a lot of reviews (from people who are familiar with Croshaw’s work, weirdly) that panned this book because some of the events depicted were too silly to be credible.  I found this a bit odd, considering the whole premise is based on apocalypse by carnivorous strawberry preserve.  But I suppose, if you are after strictly believable scenarios, this is not the book you’re looking for.
  • I found it hard to recognise my own city in parts of this work….Croshaw faithfully recreates Brisbane landmarks and general layouts, except in the naming of two buildings in which most of the action takes place.  So the Myer Centre becomes the Briar Centre, and the Hitachi building becomes the Hibatsu building….but other landmarks, such as the Wintergarden and plenty of streets are given their proper names….as a local, I found this irritating as it got in the way of me picturing the action as it was occuring in places I know very well.
  • Croshaw uses plenty of American dialect words despite mostly Australian characters in an Australian setting – for example” ice pops” (we call ’em ice blocks here), “community college” (TAFE), “janitor” (cleaning staff), “middle school” (we only have primary and high), “wastepaper baskets” (bins)….I found this quite SPECTACULARLY annoying.

Teaser Text:

He sighed. “There isn’t much we can do without electricity, but my team has been researching alternatives.  One of my engineers proposed a system of fans powered by dogs in giant hamster wheels, but the major issue there is our limited dog inventory.  We’ll keep looking into it”.  p199

Although I have listed three cons, in honesty, if you are not a Brisbanite, it is unlikely you will even notice the specific local references (or lack thereof) that irritated me so.  If you’ve never tried Croshaw’s work before and you are open-minded, enjoy a bit of silly humour and particularly if you are aged 20 – 40 and interested in gaming, you should probably give it a go.

Oh, and here’s a link to some pictures of the Gotham City Building for your viewing pleasure:

http://www.flickriver.com/photos/tags/statelawbuilding/interesting/

Until next time,

Bruce

Read it if……: Dear Everybody

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Evenin’ all! It’s that time again – those few moments that you devote to discovering a new reading opportunity. Today’s offering is Dear Everybody by Michael Kimball, which is a complicated but quick read that tracks a fictional series of letters written by the main character, Jonathan Bender, to seemingly everybody in his life (including his old high school….no, not the students, the actual building) just prior to his suicide.  So not really a beach or holiday read, but certainly one that delivers in the high-emotions department.

I nearly didn’t pick this one up because while reading the blurb for one of the author’s other books, I came across the bizarre line “possibly the saddest book ever written”……I’m not quite sure who the publishers thought would be excited enough by that line to purchase the book (“Oh I can’t wait to get this home and start vicariously experiencing agonising despair!!”), but enticing as the suggestion was, I thought I’d begin my relationship with Kimball in a less dramatic, though still fairly sombre, reading experience.

dear everybody

It’s clear from the introduction by the main character’s brother (he who has compiled the letters and other documents into the form presented to the reader) that Jonathan always experienced life a little differently from the common herd.   However, the nature of his mental illness or personality issue is never made explicit.  I think this helps the overall reading experience because the reader isn’t restricted to thinking of Jonathan in terms of a label.  But in short…..

READ IT IF:…..

* you are looking for something with a bit of depth and substance

* you enjoy books in letter-format

* you are prepared to experience a bit of sadness, empathy or reflection on negative experiences

Once again, I feel the need to put up a bit of a flag to warn the unwary, so…..

DON’T READ IT IF:

* you are in a state of great emotional imbalance

* you have any kind of issue with reading about suicide or its aftermath

* you are looking for something light, fluffy, and preferably containing jolly conversations between charming spinsters who knit woollen coats for teacup poodles

I can’t pretend that I enjoyed this one – I don’t feel it’s the kind of book that one should enjoy….but it was definitely worth picking up.  I’m not sure whether I want to progress to Kimball’s other tome – that saddest one ever written – but I’d love to hear opinions of any other readers who have read Kimball’s work and how they found it.

Until next time,

Bruce