Book Review: Annihilation and Authority by Jeff VanderMeer

Ok, I’ll admit it. I originally requested these based solely on the covers (what a gorgeous rabbit-based design!) and a cursory glance at the blurb, “sounds vaguely sci-fi, I’ll give it a go”. I couldn’t have predicted how much I’d end up enjoying them; so much in fact that it’s taken me a while to attempt a review of Annihilation because I simply didn’t know how to put it into words. I still don’t, but if I don’t have a go at it now I’m not sure I’ll ever manage.

Annihilation *****

Annihilation

The central character, known only as the Biologist, has volunteered for an expedition into Area X: a stretch of coastline cut off from the rest of civilization for reasons that are unclear at the beginning of the novel. The book follows her trek into the increasingly strange landscape beyond the ‘border’, and the things she encounters there.

It’s been compared to Lovecraft for obvious reasons: it takes the form of an account written by a character who is trying to make sense of something unearthly. The writer is afflicted by a creeping dread, a haziness to reality and a sense of monstrous things just outside their field of vision. But rather than just pressing all the usual ‘atmospheric horror’ buttons, VanderMeer couples it with a haunting beauty captured in the immersive and almost poetic descriptions of the landscape from the biologist’s perspective, and this is where the book really stands out. It’s a short book but not an easy read and I found that quite refreshing. It doesn’t feel the need to conform to a predictable narrative. I’m sure that’ll throw some people, but it’s worth the extra effort for the richness you’ll get out of it. Area X has certainly stayed with me several months after finishing the book, and I’m not sure it’ll leave me even after Acceptance is published in September…

You can download a preview of Annihilation Here at Waterstones.

 

Authority ****

Authority

I’ve just finished reading Jeff Vandermeer’s Authority.

The first thing that struck me was the contrast to Annihilation, and to be honest it threw me a bit and it took a while for my brain to get back up to speed. The first in the trilogy had seemed to me a beautifully formed piece all on its own and I loved the way it had immersed me in the landscape of Area X through that strikingly vivid and surreal description. I suppose I’d been eager to leap straight back into that world, so at first the second book seemed almost drab and tedious in comparison.

 I’d empathised with the environment and the biologist in book one, her observations on the landscape and balance between objective analysis and delighted immersion. In the second book the environment is the (relative) normality of Southern Reach, the organisation and hierarchy. Part of me wonders if a reader who had worked in a similar obscure governmental environment or office would connect to Authority the same way I did to Annihilation.

But as I read on it occurred to me that the books are not all that dissimilar. If Annihilation shone with the living, gleaming terroir of Area X, then Authority sets down the opposing terroir of Southern Reach: the dysfunctional resistance so bogged down in reports and dusty files, internal intrigue and bureaucracy that you can’t help but question whether it achieves anything useful. But, as in Annihilation, the descriptions lay down a fertile mulch of information, glimpses and hints, secrets revealed just enough to leave you hungry for more. There’s an almost purposefully mundane office-y feel to many passages interspersed with a strangeness that keeps you on edge as though Area X is seeping in around the edges of the pages. Despite my slow start, by the last third of the book I was hooked and sailing through the pages, relishing the challenge of it. September and Acceptance seem much too far away!

 Authority is available from Waterstones Here.

Advertisements

Baking

I had a day off and a birthday to bake for, so I treated myself to a copy of the Clandestine Cake Club Cookbook.  I love the idea behind the book: groups of strangers would meet in secret locations across the UK to bake on a theme, eat, and talk about cake.  The website is well worth a look: clandestinecakeclub.co.uk though unfortunately there don’t seem to be any in my part of East Anglia.

The book is rather lovely too.  I was initially attracted by the fact that the recipes didn’t look too complicated or require huge amounts of ingredients, and yet the resulting cakes all looked delicious.  I’m a sucker for cookery books with gorgeous photos.  In fact, I would have had great trouble choosing which recipe to try if the recipient hadn’t been someone who dislikes chocolate!  I decided to go for the Dorset Apple Cake:

Dorset Apple Cake

It was delicious (especially still just warm, with a dollop of cream) and went down a treat!  My cake tin wasn’t quite the right size, so I opted to make a mini version to use up the excess and perform the very important task of test cake.  I totally had to eat most of it before deciding that it had definitely passed.  You can’t be too careful…

As well as wanting to make every single cake in the Clandestine Cake Club Book, I discovered another good reason to bake more often.  Our house is cold enough that the butter was tough (and I wasn’t organised enough to get up early to leave it in a warm place), so my arms were pretty tired by the time the mix resembled anything like ‘light and fluffy’.  A workout that results in cake?  Don’t mind if I do.

The Cooking Workout

(also for the Design Every Day Project, which I’m just about keeping up with…)

YOLO, LIS and IAGSAYWITMIOTSYAGFIOTSNASAH

I haven’t updated for a while, not because I have nothing to say, but because I’ve been swinging between those two unbloggable states of “sorry blog, I’m out tonight” and “sorry blog, I was out last night, and the night before that, and now my brain can’t quite put a whole sentence together in one go”.  I’ve been burning ahead with my determination to keep busy and do as much as I can, keeping to my adopted mottos of ‘life is short’, ‘you only live once’ (now irritatingly abbreviated around the interwebs to YOLO, which is impossible to say without sounding gormless), and ‘in any given situation, ask yourself which is the more interesting option: to say “yes” and go for it, or to say “no” and stay at home’.  Ok, so that last one is a bit clunky, but I’m working on it.  Life is more interesting when you say ‘yes’.  As Joshua Foer puts it in his recent book on memory, Moonwalking with Einstein:

Monotony collapses time; novelty unfolds it.  You can exercise daily and eat healthily and live a long life, while experiencing a short one.  If you spend your life sitting in a cubicle and passing papers, one day is bound to blend unmemorably into the next – and disappear.  That’s why it’s important to change routines regularly, and take vacations to exotic locales, and to have as many new experiences as possible that can serve to anchor our memories.  Creating new memories stretches psychological time, and lengthens our perception of our lives.

Unfortunately the adverse effect of being constantly busy is that I’m finding little time to blog about my activities and set them all down in writing in preparation for that distant future when I look back and wonder what on earth I did with my 20s.  If a full life is a psychologically lengthier life, what happens when you have a terrible memory and start to forget all the things you’ve done?  I already rely on my paper diary to tell me what I’m doing from day to day; neglecting to record an upcoming event enters it into a mental lottery as to whether I’ll recall it at the appropriate time.  Does it follow that if I don’t record what I’ve been up to, all those experiences might suffer the same fate?  Probably not, but certainly the memories of events will grow hazier and lack the clarity that an immediate recording would preserve.  If it ever gets to the point where I have to look back through my diary for the clue that will trigger the memories of what I’ve done just to answer the question “how was your weekend?” then I think I should start worrying.

So, I should blog more?  Take photos (more) obsessively?  Carry around a little recorder to make verbal notes on my life as I go?  Or perhaps relying on my diary has led my brain to believe it doesn’t have to remember my schedule.  The work has been reliably outsourced, so why bother?  Maybe I should start from the other direction and work on improving my memory instead.  I’m only part way through Moonwalking with Einstein, but it’s a fascinating read; exploring the art of remembering and the current scientific research into how our brains store information.  It follows the initially average-memoried author on his quest to become a memory champion: one of those remarkable chaps who can memorize the order of several decks of cards in minutes and other similar seemingly pointless but undeniably impressive feats, and his occasional outings to go bother various experts on the subject (I now know all I ever want to know about chicken sexing, thank you Mr Foer).  He details the classic memory palace method, how associations and imagery can be used, and many other techniques that I often think I should try to get the hang of and use in real life.  My job doesn’t call for much in the way of remembering things, and there’s always the paper-notes-stuffed-into-pocket method (up until core memory failure leads them to stay in those pockets through the washing machine, at any rate).  I’m starting to feel as though my underexercised brain will soon begin trickling out of my ears to the tune of “would you like a bag for that?”.  Of course, learning a whole new way of encoding experiences to make them more memorable is bound to take time – maybe hours of practice a week – and right now spare time is something I’m a little short on.  So if you see me sitting on the bus repeating random strings of numbers to myself, don’t call the men in white coats just yet: it’s the only time of day when I have a guaranteed half an hour to read, think and mutter to myself.  If I start doing it to your face, you have my permission to take remedial action.

Mockingjay Review

I’ve signed up for Goodreads, and attached a widget to the bottom of my blog here. I’m not promising to keep it updated, especially as I tend to go through phases of reading loads, followed by a month or so of nothing. Still, as I work in a bookshop, I have decided to make my opinions slightly more public than I’m used to!

my read shelf:
Queenhare's book recommendations, liked quotes, book clubs, book trivia, book lists (read shelf)

Read on for my thoughts on Mockingjay, the third Hunger games book, which I loved, despite a few flaws.

Read More »