Omens by Kelley Armstrong: The Female Protagonist We Deserve

August 13, 2014 § Leave a comment

Cover art for Omens

Cover art for Omens

Olivia Taylor-Jones has lived a life of privilege. Adopted into a wealthy family as a small child, she spends her time volunteering at a women’s shelter. She’s engaged to a promising young man with senatorial aspirations, and she has the freedom to attend as many charity dinners as her societal obligations should require.
When the news breaks that the Olivia is the long-lost daughter of renowned serial killers, her world is shaken. Her biological mother all but disowns her and her fiancée is primarily concerned about how this bad press might affect his political career. Hounded by the media, she takes cover in the small town of Cainsville.
Olivia’s biological mother, Pamela, reaches out to her from jail. She swears to her daughter that she didn’t commit the murders she’s been convicted of, and implores Olivia to investigate the crimes for herself.
In need of some legal expertise, Olivia teams up with a local lawyer, Gabriel Walsh. As she delves deeper into her biological parents’ past, she unearths more than a couple of sinister secrets. But with crucial information on the line, she has no choice but to push on with her research – no matter the cost.

 Never having read any of Kelley Armstrong’s books before, I didn’t know what to expect when I picked up Omens. I probably wouldn’t have looked at it twice if my bookseller hadn’t told me it was about “a small country town where everything is not as it seems”. So I took a chance, and I bought it. At first, I was pleasantly surprised with how much I liked the book’s premise. Then I found myself looking for opportunities to sneak a few extra pages in. And then, at about the halfway point, I could barely put Omens down.

Kelley Armstrong is well known for her paranormal romance series, Otherworld. From what I understand, this series is fairly popular, so one can imagine that divergence from her most successful genre would have been a risky endeavor. In some ways, I suppose, this reflects the shift Charlaine Harris made when she published Midnight Crossing. Although I liked the new Harris offering, Armstrong has definitely made the transition much more seamlessly. Where Charlaine Harris was unable to fully release the vampire trope that catapulted her into the mainstream, Armstrong begins Omens with a clean slate. No vampires, no werewolves, no obvious supernatural entities. But there is a kind of psychic energy in the air in Cainsville, and the elders of the small town seem to be able to tap into it.

One crow sorrow, two crows mirth...

One crow sorrow, two crows mirth…

 Omens is written in first person, from the perspective of Olivia Taylor-Jones – also known as Eden Larsen. It is frightfully tempting to bring out all the cliché adjectives to describe her: strong, smart, determined, beautiful…but that would trivialize how brilliant she is. 

Olivia is not strong – she is fierce. She finds out her parents are serial killers, leading to her wealthy biological mother disowning her. On top of that, her fiancée is less than supportive, and the media are having a field day. Now, if this happened to me, I’d dissolve into a quivering mess of anxiety and hole up in my bedroom until it passed. Not so, Olivia. Fighting her way through the press, she flings her engagement ring at her undeserving fiancée, withdraws a small amount of cash from her sizeable trust fund and hits the road. The transition from a life of luxury and privilege to borderline poverty does not faze Olivia. Bracing herself against new challenges, she finds a job, works her butt off, and establishes a new life in Cainsville.
She is not just smart – she is shrewd and tenacious. Faced with the challenge of proving her parents’ innocence, she enlists notoriously aggressive lawyer, Gabriel. Without her former wealth behind her, Olivia relies on her intellect and astute observation skills to negotiate for Gabriel’s service. And once he’s on board, Olivia refuses to play the role of coddled client. Instead, she forces Gabriel to lower his fees by stepping up as his assistant. And she kills it in the legal research department, of course.
To wrap up my rhapsody on Olivia – she has a degree in Victorian literature, has no interest in being a senator’s wife, and can read meaning in the “omens” littered throughout her life. What else do you want in a protagonist?
Oh, and just a note on romance – there is none. Given that this is the first book in a series, there’s definitely room for it to be developed, but for now, readers will enjoy getting to know Olivia (and, perhaps, Gabriel…).

Welcome to Cainsville.

Welcome to Cainsville.

Omens is the kind of unassuming book that you might ordinarily pass by. It sort of doesn’t fit the exact parameters of either crime or fantasy, but rather straddles the two. The unfortunate truth is that because it takes a little from columns A and B, readers of both genres might bypass it. However, I could. Not. Put. It. Down. So if you’re willing to try something a bit different, and you’re somewhat fascinated with small-town stories and/or murder, you might like to pick up Omens next time you visit your local bookseller. Take heed, though you might want to cancel your plans for the next few days…

Like the sound of Omens? You might also enjoy Midnight Crossing by Charlaine Harris. Check out my review!

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Sycamore Row: It’s As Good As I Wanted It To Be

July 27, 2014 § 1 Comment

Cover art for Sycamore Row

Cover art for Sycamore Row

Three years after his success in the infamous Hailey trial, Jake Brigance’s clientele are nearly non-existent. He’s still recuperating from the Klan attacks on his now destroyed home, and he’s barely scraping by financially. Although the Clanton community respects Jake for the stand he took for Carl-Lee, the town is still divided by deep-seated racism.
Dying of lung cancer, wealthy lumberyard magnate Seth Hubbard hangs himself from a tree on Sycamore Row. The day after Hubbard’s suicide, Jake receives a handwritten letter from the deceased man. The letter contains very specific instructions for Jake: Hubbard has written a new will, one that abolishes all of his previous wills, and he wants Jake to defend it in court.

Previously, Seth Hubbard’s substantial estate had been left to his two greedy children. The new holographic will, however, stipulates that 90% of his fortune goes to his black housekeeper, Lettie Lang.

Eager for the work, Jake takes on the responsibility of defending the will. Unsurprisingly, the former beneficiaries of the Hubbard estate contest the new stipulations, arguing that Lettie exerted undue influence over their dying father. Lettie herself is less happy about her potential inheritance than she is confused about why she’s been chosen as its heir.
Did Seth have a reason to leave his money to his housekeeper? Or did he do it just to antagonize the children who abandoned him in his illness? Did his children deserve to be publicly shamed by the insinuation that they are nothing but selfish money-hounds? Where is the long-lost brother to whom Seth has left five percent of his estate? And why did he disappear in the first place?
With an unprecedented fortune on the line, Clanton is once again catapulted into a racial conflict. The trial looms closer, and the significance of Seth Hubbard’s decision becomes apparent – but unless Jake and his legal team can uncover his reasoning, their case seems doomed.

***

Sycamore Row is the sequel to A Time to Kill, which is one of my very favourite novels, but I didn’t rush out and buy Sycamore Row when it was released. The premise didn’t exactly grab me. ATTK is about a murder trial – how could a will contest possibly be as exciting?

Well, it’s not. There’s not as much on the line as there was in the Hailey case of ATTK, and somehow, it doesn’t matter as much. But I enjoyed Sycamore Row as much as ATTK, although for different reasons.
While A Time to Kill is dark and suspenseful, Sycamore Row is more focused on characterization. For fans of ATTK, it’s interesting to see how Jake and his family have coped with the aftermath of the Hailey trial. Because the plot of A Time to Kill is so absorbing, it’s easy to forget how great Grisham’s characterization can be. Rufus Buckley, made famous by Kevin Spacey in the ATTK film (in something of a pre-Underwood performance, if you ask me), shows up again in a rather different capacity than when we last saw him. Lucien Wilbanks, still a drunk, is determined to re-sit the bar exam and practice law again, inspired by the intrigue of the Carl-Lee Hailey case. And Harry Rex, vile as ever, is still the greatest legal mind in the area.

Rufus Buckley, you evil SOB.

Rufus Buckley, you evil SOB.

I particularly liked Portia, Lettie Lang’s daughter, who returns to Clanton from deployment in the army. Determined to help her mother win the money that could change her life, Portia takes a position on Jake’s team as a paralegal. Polished, articulate and a formidable academic, Portia is something of an outcast in her family. But her dedication to her mother and her determination to ensure a fair verdict is both moving and inspiring. Even better is her relationship with Jake – Portia has no qualms about giving her boss her honest opinion, even to the point of argument, but Jake respects her all the more for it. Unlike in ATTK, though, where Jake and Roark came close to having an affair, Jake and Portia’s relationship is wholly platonic, and I loved seeing it unfold.

A sequel twenty-five years in the making, Sycamore Row is a worthy successor to Grisham’s wonderful breakout novel. Although the plot doesn’t move as quickly as ATTK, Sycamore Row does still have some twists up its sleeve. It also takes an insightful look at the way that wealth and its transfer can affect people, both as individuals and a community at large. Regular readers and my real-life friends will know that I never really recuperated from the season finale of True Detective. Something about that show…I can’t even really explain it. It’s like a part of me got stuck in the South with Rust and Woody, searching for the King in Yellow. Ever since the end of TD, I’ve been drawn to books set in the South. So I enjoyed Sycamore Row for the chance to return to the South, to the troubled town of Clanton, amongst characters I was happy to see again. Recommended!

Gratuitous Jake Brigance, because he's lovely

Gratuitous Jake Brigance, because he’s lovely

The 5 Things I Want You To Know about Daughter of Smoke and Bone

May 10, 2014 § 3 Comments

This is the best cover available for the book.

This is the best cover available for the book.

I started this book once before, and only made it about fifty pages in. For some reason, it just didn’t strike me as anything special. The protagonist was odd, and I couldn’t relate to her.  I found the setting alienating, and couldn’t get a clear picture of the “otherworldly” element. In all honesty, I just didn’t get it, and I didn’t believe the hype (haa). Next!

When I attempted Daughter of Smoke and Bone for a second time, I breathed a sigh of relief. Thank goodness I’d tried again. If I hadn’t, I would never have had the opportunity to immerse myself in one of the most interesting fantasy worlds I’ve ever come across.

Karou is an art student at a specialist college in Prague. She has a reputation for oddness: her blue hair seems to grow out of her head that way, and her drawings of mythological characters seem to have a life of their own. Strange things seem to happen around Karou, but when her friends ask her about it, she simply deflects their questions with a wry smile and a vague response.

Unlike her best friend Zuzanna, Karou has no family in Prague. In fact, she doesn’t seem to have family anywhere on Earth. Nobody seems to know how she ended up in a tiny artist’s college in Prague, or even why she can speak fluent Czech. Karou, it seems, is a mystery.

You can't read this book and not want to go to this city.

You can’t read this book and not want to go to this city.

Unbeknownst to her classmates, Karou has access to numerous portals to another realm. When she steps through one of these scattered doorways, Karou comes face to face with chimaera – hybrid beasts that wouldn’t be out of place in Pan’s Labyrinth. A gorgon-esque woman with the body of a snake and the torso of a human and a huge beast with the head of a ram and the legs of a lion greet her when she crosses the threshold from the human realm into Elsewhere – these are Issa and Brimstone, Karou’s surrogate parents.
Although her chimaera family is even more caring than the average human parents, they have never truly revealed to Karou how she came to be in their care. Brimstone, a merchant who specializes in the trade of teeth, sends Karou all over the globe in search of his unusual produce. Despite this, however, she has no idea what he actually uses the teeth for. With no context for her life, and an endless stream of questions about her very existence, Karou lives with a perpetual feeing of emptiness.

I’m not going to tell you any more about the plot of the novel. Not really knowing much about the book meant that it had every capacity to shock and surprise me – which it did, in spades. Instead, I’m going to tell you the top five things I want you to know about Daughter of Smoke and Bone:

1. It is not – repeat, NOT – another YA paranormal romance. While there is a romantic element, it quickly becomes apparent that the focal relationship is only a catalyst for a much more interesting concept: war. And once the war arrives, the romance (quite rightfully) dissipates.

2. While we’re talking about things that this book is not, let me just say that it is not another urban fantasy. In fact, by the time you get to the second book, you’ve almost entirely left the human world, so there’s nothing urban about it. I think it would therefore be fair to class Days of Blood and Starlight as hard fantasy. And, you’ll be pleased to hear, there’s not a vampire in sight.

Lovely fan art - artist unknown (please comment if you know who made this so I can credit them)

Lovely fan art – artist unknown (please comment if you know who made this so I can credit them)

3. In a quietly unassuming way, all of the female characters in the novel are heroic. Karou herself is a beacon of strength, particularly in the face of borderline depression, but even the peripheral women are awesome. Zuzanna, Karou’s best friend, is brilliantly drawn and aggressively fierce, and it’s worth reading this book for her character alone.

Side note: Zuzanna and her boyfriend Mike bring a much-needed light-heartedness to the story, as well as a certain romantic element which is not dependent on a “will they or won’t they” dynamic. Mik and Zuzanna have their own mini-novella, Night of Cake and Puppets, which is adorable and funny, just like they are.

4. I don’t really believe that this is a YA novel. The plot is more complex than most other YA books I’ve read, and the themes and concepts it addresses feel more like adult fiction. While I unashamedly adore YA fiction, I do feel as though Daughter of Smoke and Bone is a more fulfilling read because of its maturity.

Ugh. Just, ugh. This is such a poor representation of the book.

Ugh. Just, ugh. This is such a poor representation of the book.

5.  Please, please don’t judge this brilliant book on this very poor cover art. Daughter of Smoke and Bone is so much more than this silly cover. It’s not about masquerades and balls (although there are some in there) and boys and pretty magic. It’s about war, identity, cultural heritage and friendship. It is a dark, moody novel, and it deserves so much more than this vapid design that gives it no edge over all the cut-copy paranormal YA on the shelves currently.

 

So there you have it. I hope I’ve convinced you to read it, because you really should.

 

Two post-scripts:
1. Apologies for the lack of reviews of late – I’ve recently begun studying a Master of Information and Library Management, and I’m still getting the hang of balancing work, study, blogging and reading!

2. Pulp Fiction is MOVING. If you’re in Brisbane, go check out their 20% off sale to grab a bargain before they move to their new premises (which are very close by – details will be posted soon on their Facebook).

In case you missed it, there's a sale on.

In case you missed it, there’s a sale on.

Charlaine Harris’s MIDNIGHT CROSSROAD: An Advance Review

April 12, 2014 § 1 Comment

midnight-crossroad_612x924The first in a new trilogy, Midnight Crossing is the first book Charlaine Harris will publish after the conclusion of the Southern Vampire Mysteries (sometimes known as the Sookie Stackhouse series, or more recently, the True Blood books). As an author, I can only imagine how difficult it must be to publish a new book after the completion of your best-known series. It must be even more daunting to face a fandom that was, by and large, unhappy with the way you ended that series. Such is the dilemma Charlaine Harris faces, with the release of Midnight Crossroad.
I was lucky enough to receive a highly anticipated ARC of Midnight Crossroad from Pulp Fiction Booksellers. I loved this book, and I am interested to see how fans of the Sookie Stackhouse series are going to respond to Harris’ new direction.

Midnight is a middle-of-the-road town in Texas, consisting of a diner, a church, a New-Age store, a gas station, a nail salon-and-antique store, and a pawnshop. The town is populated almost entirely by the proprietors of those businesses, and the very occasional passer-by.
Manfred, a sometime genuine and oftentimes fraudulent psychic, moves to Midnight in the hope of starting afresh. He quickly becomes accustomed to the insular community, and learns that the Midnighters don’t take kindly to personal questions. Secrets aside, however, the Midnight residents happily take Manfred into their fold, and he finds himself establishing a home in the unusual town.

When one of his neighbors suggests a “welcome to Midnight” picnic in Manfred’s honor, the whole town treks out to a picturesque mountain spot. The social occasion is brought to a screeching halt when one of Midnight’s citizens stumbles upon a dead body – unmistakably that of Aubrey Hamilton, former girlfriend of the pawnshop owner, Bobo.

The confirmation that Aubrey was murdered, and not just a runaway, throws Midnight society into disarray. Knowing that the killer had to have been one of their own, the Midnighters become suspicious and frightened.

The usually conservative members of the community find themselves having to disclose more and more about their pasts and their unusual abilities in order to avoid being targeted as Aubrey’s murderer. Before long, Midnight is embroiled in a conspiracy involving bikers, white supremacists and a mysterious legend that may or may not have a basis in reality.

deadtotheworldMidnight Crossroad is most definitely not the SVM. For one thing, it’s far more serious than the Sookie Stackhouse books. In the SVM series, Sookie’s sassy narration could lighten even the gravest predicaments (pun intended – sorry…). In Midnight Crossroad, Harris employs a third-person omniscient narrator, with multiple points of view – quite a change from her usual MO. Instead of forming a comfortable relationship with a single, familiar narrator as we did with Sookie, readers will instead find themselves immersed in the community of Midnight. It’s quite an eerie effect, especially as we begin to unravel the truth of Aubrey’s murder.
While the Sookie Stackhouse books were arguably focused on romance, Midnight only gives it a periphery acknowledgement. Manfred finds himself drawn to one of Midnight’s most mysterious citizens, and Fiji, the town witch, is trying to suppress her feelings for Bobo, but it’s only a small part of a much more interesting narrative.
Most fascinating to me, however, was the fact that any reference to the supernatural was extremely casual. Fiji is a witch, but the full extent of her abilities is left largely unexplored. Manfred comes from a family of genuine psychic ability, but we’re not really given any insight into whether he’s just carrying on the tradition, or if he’s got a true gift. Lemuel is a vampire, but he’s not one of Bill or Eric’s brethren. He seems to subsist on energy, rather than blood – although he did mention that “the synthetic stuff” just doesn’t cut it for him, a reference Sookie’s fans will appreciate.
I knew very little about Midnight Crossroad when I started it, but I did expect that it would be another addition to Harris’ canon of supernatural or paranormal works. It’s actually quite difficult to define, now that I’ve finished it, because the references to the supernatural elements of the town are so minimal that it could almost be classed as magical realism. Overall, it gives the impression that there is much more to the town of Midnight than this first book has divulged.

You might find a street such as this in Midnight.

You might find a street such as this in Midnight.

I loved Midnight Crossroads. I missed my bus stop on not one, but two separate bus trips because I was so engrossed in it. With a few small alterations, this book could have been “twee” or overly kitschy, but Harris confidently walks the line between intriguing darkness and heartening community. Midnight Crossroads was an excellent follow-up to True Detective, as it carried on the Southern Gothic theme, but also served as a reintroduction to genre fiction (I had been suffering a bit of genre burnout beforehand). I recommend it not only to Sookie’s fans, but to anyone who is fed up with traditional urban fantasy. If you aren’t quite ready to let go of the eerie South yet, pick up your copy of Midnight Crossroad on release day.

Midnight Crossroad is released in America on May 1, and in Australia on May 6. Please order your copy from Pulp Fiction Booksellers – you can add them on Facebook here.

I received a reviewer’s proof copy of Midnight Crossroads in exchange for providing my honest feedback to Pulp Fiction Booksellers. The copy I read was not the final edit, and may be subject to publisher’s editing prior to its publication. Thanks again Beau, Iain and Ron for providing me with this excellent book.

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Nnedi Okorafor’s WHO FEARS DEATH: A Review

March 9, 2014 § Leave a comment

Please note: The article contains discussion of the author’s treatment of rape and female circumcision in the context of a book review. 

Cover art for WHO FEARS DEATH

Cover art for WHO FEARS DEATH

Oneyesonwu was born of rape. A Nuru man, who wanted to impregnate her with a light-skinned baby, raped her mother. Instead of reviling her child as a lifelong reminder of her brutal assault, Onye’s mother speaks her truest wish – for her child to become a sorceress.
Forever labelled as Ewu, the product of rape, Onyesonwu becomes resilient to the prejudice she faces every day. As she grows up, she discovers that her strength also manifests in supernatural abilities. Her mother’s wish has come true – Onye is Eshu, a sorceress.
As a child, Onyesonwu meets another Ewu – a boy named Mwita, who is also a gifted healer. It soon becomes apparent that Onye and Mwita are destined to belong to one another.
Even though she knows her mother and her beloved stepfather love her, Onye feels responsible for the shame they have faced throughout her life, as the parents of a Nuru-Okeke Ewu. When she turns eleven, Onye makes the irreversible decision to go through with the Eleventh Rite, which she knows will bring her family honour and respect. In undertaking this enormous procedure, she is bonded to the three girls of her Eleventh Rite group – Diti, Luyu and Binta, her friends for life.
Despite the abuse she suffers on a daily basis, Onye lives a happy life. She longs to develop her magical abilities, and seeks an apprenticeship under a teacher who might be able to facilitate her learning. Although Aro, the teacher of magic, rejects her at first, Onye’s need for tutelage becomes great when it becomes apparent that her biological father intends to find and kill her.

Nnedi Okorafor was inspired to write Who Fears Death by a Washington Post article entitled “We Want to Make a Light Baby”. This distressing article brings to light the horrifying experiences of dark-skinned Sudanese women who are raped by Arabic men who hope to impregnate them. The victims believe that the rapes are a “systemic campaign to humiliate the women, their husbands and fathers, and to weaken tribal ethnic lines.”
This unimaginable concept forms the basis for Onyesonwu’s story. Fuelled by her rage against the man who raped her mother, Onye is motivated to overcome the societal expectation that she is fated to become nothing more than a violent criminal.

Artist's interpretation of the post-apocalyptic African desert

Artist’s interpretation of the post-apocalyptic African desert

But Who Fears Death is more than a revenge story. In a place where outrage could have dominated, love is ever-present. Okorafor tenderly explores the nature of love in all its forms – romantic, cultural, platonic, familial and sexual. In fact, sexuality is a major focus of the book. It is linked throughout to Onye’s decision to undergo the Eleventh Rite when she comes of age. The Eleventh Rite is, as you might have guessed, is Onye’s circumcision.
I know that other reviewers have been disturbed by the circumcision scene, but have liked the rest of the book – I don’t really understand how they can separate the one scene from the remainder of the book. Onye’s decision to undergo the Rite is integral to the narrative of Who Fears Death. She, Binta, Diti and Luyu spend the rest of their lives together trying to cope with the decision that they made as children. Their circumcision not only affects their relationships with one another, but deeply shapes the way in which they relate to the opposite sex. Each of the four girls comes to bitterly regret the decision they made at age eleven, but they also respect the ritual and its cultural significance. Their struggle to overcome the expectations of the Okeke culture in order to do the right thing for themselves as individuals makes for an emotionally difficult read, but Okorafor handles this with poise and sensitivity.

Who Fears Death will not disappoint fans of traditional fantasy. There is a prophecy, a Chosen One, a wise old elder who begrudgingly passes his magical skills on to the younger generation, a young magic user whose powers are not wholly within her control, and a quest for revenge that has the potential to destroy our hero. There’s a Scooby Gang of sorts, hellbent on following our hero to the very end, and a love to transcend the ages.

The post-apocalyptic African setting brings us to a new world, where traditional culture has merged with the harsh necessities of life in the post-nuclear desert. And our hero is, in fact, a heroine – Onye is the indisputable centre of this novel. Her life force and her magic are the centre of the storm that she wends throughout the Okeke and Nuru societies. Onye is brave, irrational, frustrating, loving and beloved. She’s unforgettably powerful, in every sense, and she’s stronger than I can summarise in any text less than the length of the novel itself. Onyesonwu – Who Fears Death? Not she.

Incidentally, Nnedi Okorafor sent me this pic on Twitter to show me what Onye would like like.

Incidentally, Nnedi Okorafor sent me this pic on Twitter to show me what Onye would like like.

I can’t recommend Who Fears Death to everyone. It comes with a trigger warning for rape and FGM, even if it is exceptionally well handled. It’s a very emotional read, and although there’s a lot of love to the story, there isn’t as much happiness as traditional fantasy readers may expect. But it is as moving as it is original, and I’m pretty certain that it’s one of the best fantasy novels I’ve ever read.

As ever, I implore my Brisbane-based readers to make the trip to Central Station to pay Pulp Fiction a visit to grab a copy of Who Fears Death. Add Pulp on Facebook here, and check out their Twitter here. Also, I have Twitter too! Check out The Novelettes on Twitter here.

Jeff VanderMeer’s ANNIHILATION: Addictive New Weird!

February 19, 2014 § 1 Comment

Cover art for ANNIHILATION

Cover art for ANNIHILATION

In Annihilation, we follow journey of the twelfth expedition into the mysterious Area X. All the members of the previous parties have met strange and unexplained fates – some returned home a shell of their former selves; others died of ravaging illnesses and many were never seen again.

The twelfth expedition party consists of a psychologist, a biologist, and anthropologist, a surveryor and a linguist. The biologist, emotionally disconnected and highly analytical, tells us the story from the pages of her observational journal.

Soon after establishing their base camp, the team comes across an enormous tunnel descending into the earth. Inside this tunnel, the biologist finds evidence that a sentient being is scrawling erudite messages over the walls. Upon closer inspection, the biologist finds that the messages are written in living fungi.
As she leans in to take a sample, the fungi release a stream of spores into the air. After she accidentally inhales one, the biologist begins to monitor herself for any signs of illness or behavioural change. The first effect that she notices, however, is a sudden immunity to the hypnotic instruction that the psychologist is still administering to the surveyor, the anthropologist and the linguist.

Alternate cover art for ANNIHILATION

Alternate cover art for ANNIHILATION

Why is the psychologist hypnotising the team? What is her agenda? What is the Southern Reach, and who are they? What do they expect the team to find in Area X that the eleven expeditions before did not? Who, or what, is writing on the walls of the tunnel, and where did it come from? Now that she can see through the psychologist’s façade of natural leadership, the biologist knows that the unknown landscape of Area X is not the only danger she will face on this expedition.

Annihilation is written in epistolary format – that is, as a journal. The biologist, whose name we never learn, consciously refrains from connecting with her fellow explorers in an emotional context in favour of immersing herself in her environment. Much like Dr Caldwell from The Girl with All the Gifts, the biologist is wholly focused on her work. As she recounts events from her life before entering Area X, we begin to see that she has always been this way – almost frightening in her coldness. When her self-preservation instincts kick in, though, she’s downright terrifying.

Annihilation features minimal characterisation, and what we do see is only through the eyes of the nameless biologist. Because she is utterly uninterested in engaging with her fellow explorers, she gives us very little idea of what her companions are actually like. We get the general idea that the psychologist is up to something, that the anthropologist can’t hack it in Area X, and that the surveyor is driven mad, but we spend most of the narrative inside the biologist’s head. As you might be able to guess, this makes for an uncomfortable and somewhat alienating read.
The biologist elaborates on her own past through ruminations on her marriage. A solitary person, the biologist found that she was at constant odds with her outgoing, social husband. As she delves deeper into Area X, she descends into a sort of madness, whereby she ends up pulling her marriage apart.

ANNIHILATION 1

  Annihilation clearly takes its cues from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, but there are other influences at work here too. The landscape of Area X is a living thing, and it becomes the biologist’s adversary, partner, lover and self.  And let me just clarify, when I say the landscape is alive, I literally mean that it is made of living, breathing tissue. I found this fascinating and quite disturbing, and the glimpses that I got of it were just not enough. As I’m sure you can predict, Vandermeer has taken a leaf out of the Necronomicon here – Annihilation has a distinctly Lovecraftian vibe. I really wouldn’t be surprised if the mysterious being scrawling strange messages inside the Tunnel is a Great Old One, to be honest.

Cover art for AUTHORITY, to be released in May 2014.

Cover art for AUTHORITY, to be released in May 2014.

I burned through Annihilation in twenty four hours. I was addicted to the suspense, and the ever-present sense of foreboding that was only heightened by the cliff-hanger ending. Thankfully, Annihilation is the first in the Southern Reach Trilogy, to be followed by Authority and Acceptance in May and September respectively (side note – how great is it that they’re all coming out in one year?). If you’re a fan of horror, suspense, dystopian SF, New Weird or anything vaguely Lovecraftian, I highly recommend you grab your copy ASAP!

I received a proof copy of Annihilation in exchange for an honest review. Thanks, Pulp Fiction!

If you’re in Brisbane, buy your copy of Annihilation from Pulp Fiction. Add them on Facebook here, and follow their Twitter here – shoot them a message and they’ll sort you out.

Speaking of which, I have a Twitter also!

 

The Opposite of Life by Narelle Harris: The Right Book at the Right Time.

January 27, 2014 § 2 Comments

PULP PRESSTwenty-three year old Lissa doesn’t go out much – she prefers to stay at home with a glass of wine and a poetry anthology – but when her boyfriend dumps her, her best friend insists on taking her out to help take her mind off things. Out on the town in Melbourne, Lissa has a great time and even strikes up a potential romance with one of Evie’s friends. And then people start dying.
In the nightclubs in Melbourne, bodies are turning up, drained of their blood and abandoned in bathroom stalls. Every time it happens, Lissa seems to be near, so she decides to find out exactly what’s going one. Surely, it can’t be vampires?

I picked up this book out of general interest, because it was printed by Pulp Fiction Press. Regular readers will know that Pulp Fiction is my favourite bookstore. I trust the staff’s genre-specific knowledge and never hesitate to pick up their recommendations, so I was curious to read a book that they deemed worthy of publishing! Despite trusting Pulp, I was a little bit surprised to find that I genuinely loved this book! I gave up on vampire fiction long ago, but I think Ms Harris has restored my faith in the genre.

THE OPPOSITE OF LIFE gets off to a rocky start. It took me time to warm to the characters and to get a feel for its ‘voice’, but the second half passed by in a blur. I felt as though I was being kept company by Lissa, with whom I felt a certain undeniable sense of kinship (book-obsessed, questionable fashion sense, something of a loner – should I sue the author for copyright of my personality?).
This book is dark in an unexpected way. We’re used to vampire books having dangerous men, seductive women, exposure to erotic pain, etc. But this book was quite different. Through Lissa, Harris uses vampirism as a means to tackle the reality of death and its permanent, cumulative effect.
Lissa has endured significant loss by the tender age of twenty-three. Her parents’ marriage broke down when her younger sister died of a brain tumour. Unable to cope with the stress of a dysfunctional family life, Lissa’s younger brother Paul overdosed and died, leaving Lissa and her older sister Kate to cope with the remnants of their family. Hardened against personal tragedy, Lissa simply shuts down when something stressful appears on the horizon – a trait I found all too relatable.

Very much not your typical vampire novel.

Very much not your typical vampire novel.

When Lissa’s acquaintances start dying, she responds to the murders with an aggressive righteousness befitting one who has lost too much in her life already. Interestingly, the vampires in this book are genuinely quite repulsive – they are murderers, and their ‘life’ holds no seductive intrigue. While they are immortal, the vampires have sacrificed living brain function, meaning that they no longer have the capacity to learn new skills or to respond to stimuli in an emotional context. Upon being introduced to the world of Melbourne’s archaic vampires, Lissa finds herself drawn to a life where she would no longer be able to feel emotional pain.  Harris presents us with an interesting take on the emotional and psychological effects of joining the undead. What kind of effect would a choice like this have on your psyche?
Ultimately, Lissa determines that it’s better to feel pain and loss than to numb it out. This struck quite a personal chord for me, as I’ve been struggling with something similar myself of late.

Lissa is an excellent protagonist. She’s realistically flawed, but after dealing with vampiric murders AND a stressful family situation, she undergoes a genuine change, and it’s heart-warming for all the right reasons.
The male lead Gary, isn’t all that big of a focal character. Gary’s a vampire with a hilariously mundane name. His social skills leave a lot to be desired, and he generates more awkward silences than he fills. Gary is invested in finding out who’s killing Melbourne clubbers, and he reluctantly allows Lissa to tag along for the ride. Depsite this, Gary’s presence in the narrative doesn’t take over Lissa’s own agenda. He’s a means to an end – an access card to the vampire world. He’s not even really a romantic interest, though there’s potential for him to become one. This is enormously refreshing, particularly in a vampire novel!

Melbourne is an excellent setting!

Melbourne is an excellent setting!

Also? Lissa is a librarian. Her descriptions of working in a library really struck a chord for me, and I began applying for courses to become a qualified librarian myself!

I could make an argument that this book is feminist, but I’d rather not have to defend such a strong statement to those who will inevitably equate vampire fiction with anti-feminism. Rather, let me just say that THE OPPOSITE OF LIFE about a pretty awesome girl who faces some pretty awful situations head-on. THE OPPOSITE OF LIFE doesn’t shy away from the ugliness of stress and anxiety this makes it a highly relatable book. For me, this may have been a matter of the right book at the right time, but I feel entirely confident in telling you all to pay Pulp Fiction a visit to collect your copy. If you’re in Brisbane, or coming anytime soon, you can find Pulp Fiction in Central Station (look for the purple and yellow sign). Alternatively, if you’re an international reader, you can buy THE OPPOSITE OF LIFE for your ereader here at Amazon.

Thank you to Pulp Fiction for providing me with a copy of The Opposite of Life.

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