Book Review: Area X (The Southern Reach Trilogy) by Jeff VanderMeer

Area X: The Southern Reach Trilogy (Southern Reach, #1-3)Area X: The Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Being a big fan of VanderMeer’s Borne, I was ready for my journey into Area X, as willing and sharp for the voyage as The Biologist herself. “Yes!” I said, inside my brain, “Rain down 600 pages of Jeff VanderMeer weirdness upon me!” And lo, I was not disappointed.

There’s a large dose of many wonderful things in this trilogy. Stunning and bizarre natural imagery. Deliciously disturbing ideas on psychological and spiritual levels. Characters that subvert archetype. Experimental prose. Endings that deliver satisfaction but still keep their secrets to a degree. Science fiction that feels truly new.

In terms of the overall story shape, I felt like Annihilation hurtled me forward, while Authority was overlong and tedious, with certain bright moments. The closing with Acceptance accelerated again. Ultimately, narrative time spent in the world of Area X itself was the most exciting in comparison to the bits about the crumbling government agency Southern Reach, which ultimately was difficult to really care about. Area X, though, was a delightful playground for the imagination–part fantasy, part horror. The kind of place that horrifies you, but still kinda makes you want to go there anyway.

The story as a whole makes interesting philosophical statements. What makes us human? What does the earth need humans for? What if the earth consumed us as resources rather than the other way around? What would happen to us if time, biology, and sentience lost the rules that we assume will always govern them? Is the loss of sanity in an insane environment a burden or a boon? VanderMeer contemplates these questions nice and up-close, with myriad thoughts, smells, and superb images. Time well spent.

Note: I did read this trilogy as a single installment, since my volume is three-in-one, but my individual ratings for each title are as such:

Annihilation 5/5
Authority 3/5
Acceptance 4/5

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Book Review: To Be Honest by Maggie Ann Martin

To Be HonestTo Be Honest by Maggie Ann Martin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

To Be Honest is a charming, of-the-moment young adult read. Martin creates a narrative voice around her main character, Savannah, that is realistic and lovably imperfect. It is refreshing to find a teenage heroine who is body positive and romantically confident in her larger figure. Savannah very much owns her own story. Just seeing the cover–with that big, gorgeous girl on the front–is going to mean so much to so many readers who have been waiting forever for a fictional leading lady to identify with. Her body, while such an important aspect of the book from a representation perspective, really isn’t the main focus–we see her struggle through relationships, form her identity, and cope with family tension and dysfunction. I was cheering Savannah on the whole time. As is typical in YA, there are definitely moments where characters or aspects of plot are oversimplified, but the romantic tension and family toxicity feels real and will please young readers. Candy-sweet in a good way.

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Book Review: Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

Lincoln in the BardoLincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Lincoln in the Bardo is simply a brilliant work of art. George Saunders takes the historical truth of President Lincoln’s grief over his dead son, and imagines it into a bizarre and stunning meditation on the unseen tension between the living and the dead. The story’s mouthpiece is not one, but rather a cacophony of restless ghosts–a structural risk that pays off admirably for Saunders, creating something as weird and gorgeous as it is indelible. The novel romps, slinks, and keens through the liminal space of haunting, exploring the uncertainties of identity that characterize our uneasy relationship with mortality. This book is remarkable.

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Book Review: Lab Girl by Hope Jahren

Lab GirlLab Girl by Hope Jahren
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In looking at the cover of Hope Jahren’s Lab Girl and reading the back blurb, one might expect to learn a lot about plants and how one woman grew her scientific career around them. And it does deliver on those fronts. But it’s also about much, much more. This memoir is about families who refuse to express pain, about the stigmas surrounding mental illness and poverty, about the funding crisis for scientific research in this country, about motherhood, and about how gender impacts the trajectory of a career. Above all, in the unforgettable portrayal of Jahren’s decades-long friendship with her lab partner, it is one of the most touching stories of platonic love between a man and a woman that I’ve ever read. Anyone who reads this book will be richer for it. And yes, you’ll also learn things about plants along the way.

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Book Review: The Chrysalids by John Wyndham

The ChrysalidsThe Chrysalids by John Wyndham
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

John Wyndham’s science fiction parable The Chrysalids remains resonant, despite its 1955 publication date. It’s a quick and somewhat simple read, told from a child’s point of view. The novel’s strength comes from its thorough, unrelenting confrontation with intolerance, seen from the view of an indoctrinated innocent. David knows that if anyone ever finds out his own secret, he and others like him will be branded less than human and hunted down. He also knows that it will only be so long before that inevitably happens. Yet, he still struggles to accept that mutation and difference may not be evil after all. Religious zealotry is a powerful force. What’s the difference between deformity and evolution? Where is the line between mercy and murder? Powerful questions fuel this powerful little book.

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Book Review: I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara

I'll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman's Obsessive Search for the Golden State KillerI’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer by Michelle McNamara
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Michelle McNamara’s posthumously published true crime account takes us deep into the noxious labyrinth of one man’s unthinkable evildoings, and her own insatiable desire to hold him accountable for them. McNamara presents the sickening details about the Golden State Killer’s chilling reign of terror over central California in the 1970s and 1980s, but does so without being exploitative of the victims–rather, her tone prioritizes telling the truth: These things happened, and this man is responsible. Beyond the chilling facts of the GSK’s crimes, though, the truly fascinating part of this narrative is Michelle’s own unflagging, compulsive drive to use technology, wade through long-dormant paper trails, and unite citizen and police investigators to bring him into the light. Her dedication to solving this case was remarkable, and though she died before she could see him fall, she played a key role in helping unite and inform the people who did. Rest in peace, Michelle–They got him.

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Book Review: The Old-Fashioned by Robert Simonson

The Old-Fashioned: The Story of the World's First Classic Cocktail, with Recipes and LoreThe Old-Fashioned: The Story of the World’s First Classic Cocktail, with Recipes and Lore by Robert Simonson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a neat little book about the history of the old-fashioned, which–as you’ll find if you read it–is far more contentious than one might assume! Small vignettes about notorious bartenders, responses to Prohibition, and the various reputations surrounding various versions of the drink reflect Simonson’s copious research as well as his knack for retelling it. My favorite aspect of the book, being a lifelong Wisconsinite myself, was the appearance of our state in the story of this shapeshifting cocktail. (Spoiler: Wisconsin is one of few places in which the preferred recipe of the old-fashioned has remained unchanged and popular through time… since the early 1900s!) There are also over 40 recipes for variations on the old-fashioned at the end of the book. The photographs throughout the book may be the actual star of this book, though–they are deliciously atmospheric and quite lovely.

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Book Review: Mosquitoland by David Arnold

MosquitolandMosquitoland by David Arnold
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Mosquitoland is one of the most solid, playful, surprising young adult novels I’ve read in a long time. David Arnold creates a Holden Caulfield for the 2010’s in the capricious Mim Malone, a narrator whose voice reminded me acutely of my own high school journals. As Mim rides a Greyhound Bus nearly a thousand miles north, she encounters oddball characters and situations that help her piece together her view of the world, and–allowing for the wholly unbelievable mostly because I’ve ridden a Greyhound bus and know what it’s like AND because romance deserves a shot–this book pretty close to perfect. This is such a new, refreshing story and will make you laugh and cheer for Mim Malone, who defines herself as “not okay,” but ends up being so much more.

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Book Review: History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund

History of WolvesHistory of Wolves by Emily Fridlund
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund is an atmospheric, consuming thriller. The narrator’s perspective, mostly staying at age 14, also hovers down to childhood and sweeps back up to 20- and then 30-something, all while focusing on patterns that resonate with the crucial summer of her adolescence. Fridlund gives us a narrator that we believe but don’t trust, who sometimes seems as feral and predatory as the wolves that captivate her. At the same time, she also remains fragile and sympathetic as we watch her try to understand loneliness, desire, and jealousy within her wild but limited world. History of Wolves traverses uncomfortable psychological territory while staying tender, and tugs with a mature force of suspense that made me tear through the book in a few days. Dark need pulls the reader into this shadowy, disconcerting debut novel like a rip current.

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Book Review: You & a Bike & a Road by Eleanor Davis

You & a Bike & a RoadYou & a Bike & a Road by Eleanor Davis
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The fantastic graphic novel You & a Bike & a Road by Eleanor Davis is part travel journal, part sports memoir, part social criticism, and all parts wonder. The piece is comprised of the full collection of Davis’ of-the-moment impressions of the American landscape, road, and people she encounters as she pursues an epic solo bike tour from Tuscon, AZ to Athens, GA. The raw quality of the pencil-drawn images add to their beauty–it reminds us that Davis was creating these drawings as her muscles were throbbing, when she was laughing or crying about her monumental physical goal, in tents and hotels and McDonald’s. This piece is an important one about why we challenge our own limits, both physical and emotional, and what we do when we know we’ve exceeded them. It’s also a sensitive and telling portrait of the southern border of the United States as represented by its people, policing, and passageways. Highly recommended, especially for endurance athletes (and those who love them).

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