Annihilation, by Jeff VanderMeer. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 208 pp. $13
When I page (scroll) through the catalogs looking for books I’d like to review in upcoming blog posts or book reviews, different things catch my eye that attract me to one book, or one author, over another.
In the case of Annihilation, I recalled the summer I graduated high school, when I read one of Jeff VanderMeer’s previous books: BookLife: Strategies and Survival Tips for the 21st-Century Writer. I was 18, and it was a nonfiction book about how to be successful in this business we call writing, and I was hooked.
Let’s be frank: Annihilation is no BookLife. I requested this book because I enjoyed the first so much, but I continued past the first page because this book is just as good, if for different reasons.
There are very few characters in this book, and even fewer that have names. The protagonist, unnamed and undescribed aside from “the biologist,” whose perspective we follow through the story. We’re told all four members of this expedition, the biologist, the anthropologist, the surveyor and the psychologist, are all women.
The women are going into Area X, an extremely mysterious section that seems to affect everyone that explores it in different ways. The biologist is on the twelfth expedition; her husband was on the eleventh. Everyone from the eleventh expedition abandoned the mission and made their way back home. He came home earlier than expected and an entirely different person.
Now, the twelfth expedition seems to have effects of its own, and no one knows quite what’s going on.
For as vague as the story is, it’s quite captivating. Annihilation is the first in a trilogy to be published throughout the year (Authority will be released in June, and Acceptance in September) and it’s purpose is, essentially, to introduce us readers to Area X and to the experience reading this trilogy will undoubtedly be. It’s different, but it’s interesting and oddly compelling.
Bristol House, by Beverly Swerling. Plume, 398 pp. $16
A friend of mine and I were talking a while back about the value of books in “books help me experience things so I don’t have to go out and actually do it” situations. Bristol House, by Beverly Swerling is one of these situations. Traveling to London for research would be fabulous. Living in a house that’s haunted by an old Carthusian monk would completely freak me out.
And yet, Annie Kendall remains at Bristol House. The back bedroom, the room she had been planning on turning into her office, is haunted. Every once in a while she gets the feeling that the spirit of the Carthusian monk–who still inhabits the place–is sending her signs. She doesn’t know what they mean, but she knows they’re important. Annie was sent to London by the Shalom Foundation to learn more about the Jew of Holburn. Soon after arriving she is led to Geoffrey Harris, a television personality with research of his own, and she realizes he may be able to help her find what she’s looking for. The more she digs, however, the more she uncovers mysteries surrounding the Shalom Foundation and its administration.
Bristol House was a little slow at first. There’s a lot of history here–from present-day Judaism to the sixteenth century with a stop in World War II–everything ties together in ways you wouldn’t even imagine, but it takes a while to get there. That being said, once the book falls into a rhythm–about 1/3 of the way through–it doesn’t stop. The last half of the book is intense enough to make up for the tedious exposition in the first half.
I like stories that have a foundation in the real world. The tunnels that run underneath Holburn–which make an appearance in the book–were used in World War II. Little bits about the monks are also drawn from history.
I don’t know how I feel about the inclusion of the parts from Dom Justin and Giacomo the Lombard. They certainly helped with the understanding of the whole of the story, but I’m sure that same understanding could have been relayed in different ways. They didn’t take away from the story too much–not looking back at least–but they did dampen the building intensity of the Annie and Geoff story. (This may be why the first half of the book went a little slower for me.)
Swerling is also the author of Juffie Kane, Mollie Pride, City of Promise, City of God, City of Glory, Shadowbrook, and City of Dreams.
Bristol House is available in paperback.
Vortex, by Julie Cross. Thomas Dunne: 373 pp. $9.99
Let me start by saying this: If you haven’t read Tempest, Book 1 in Julie Cross’ Tempest trilogy, you’re going to be very confused. I got about ten pages into this book before I went to the library and checked out the previous installment in the series.
To tell you the truth, I liked Vortex better than Tempest. But I think one of the reasons Vortex was better is because of Tempest. The first book did a really good job of introducing the characters and overall plot, that the second book could really get into the story without having to cover the expositional ground. In Vortex, we already knew who Jackson was and what he could do. This story then could be spent on developing his character even further.
I really liked how Vortex picked up where Tempest left off. It was a seamless connection, especially for someone going right from one book to the other. I also liked the emotion that Cross included in this book. I’ve read a handful of science fiction titles in the past, but I get the feeling with much of sci-fi that the goal is to convince the reader that the concept of the book could actually exist. Everything else be damned, you will believe in the story. What Cross did, which I think was brilliant, was approach it from the characters. Yes, there is unusual technology and story-elements. But if readers can’t latch onto something they already know to be true, it’s hard to take that next step in believing something else.
Cross makes us believe in the love between Jackson and Holly, and in the friendship between the members of the Tempest training group. I loved the relationships in this novel, and because I can believe in those, it’s not hard to believe in Jackson’s ability to time-travel. It seems like the logical next step to the story.
If I did have one critique, it’s this: There’s a lot going on here. While it’s easy enough to believe in the time traveling going on in the book, it’s a little harder to understand that nitty gritty details involved. That, combined with all of the twists and turns, can be a little overwhelming at times. It makes for great reading, but sometimes it all happens so fast you don’t quite know what just happened until it’s all finished.
Vortex is in paperback now, and Cross’s third installment, Firestorm, is coming out pretty soon.
The House on the Cliff, by Charlotte Williams. Bourbon Street Books, 338 pp. $14.99
Over the past year, I’ve become increasingly interested in thrillers and mysteries, especially stand-along thrillers that aren’t tied to a specific character. So when I came across Charlotte William’s The House on the Cliff, I absolutely wanted to read it.
Jessica Mayhew is a psychotherapist whose life, and practice, are turned on end when actor Gwyndion Morgan seeks her help for his fear of buttons. He’s about to start a new job, but it’s a period piece and he’s afraid his performance will be overshadowed by his hesitation with his costume.
As Jessica begins to help Gwyndion, though, she becomes sucked into the Morgan family drama. Gwyndion’s father is an incredibly successful director, though he’s equally known for his womanizing. Despite the scandals she unearths as she digs deeper into Gwyndion’s psyche, she wants to help him.
I loved how Charlotte Williams incorporated the setting into The House on the Cliff. The house, as the title suggests, belongs to Gwyndion’s family. There’s an eerie quality that comes from setting a mystery on such a pastoral landscape, and I think that works well in this novel.
I also loved the way Williams breaks down everything, psychologically, in Jessica’s mind. The story is told through her perspective, and so I would expect her to evaluate everything in the way she does. It’s helpful to the reader because it offers another element to the story, and it’s also helpful to Jessica because it allows her character to develop as the story progresses.
My one critique, however, is that I felt The House on the Cliff stayed “on the surface.” I think Williams could have done a lot more with the Morgan family drama, and I think she could have used the house more as a focal point in the story. It is, after all, the title of the book. The mystery would have been a great as a vehicle for a dissection of this family whose greatest blessing–the success both Gwyndion and his father have achieved–is also its greatest curse.
With that in mind, however, I think Williams’ novel is quite strong, especially for a debut. The House on the Cliff is a great option for book clubs, and can be approached from several angles to generate really interesting discussion.