3 Capsule Reviews

A few capsule reviews of works I’ve read recently.

Annihilation by Jeff Vendermeer: The master of mycology, the aficionado of fungus, the wallah of weird is back with Part One of his new trilogy. Vandermeer is not the King of Weird. That title rests firmly with China Mieville. Vandermeer is talented, though, and adeptly creates a creepy, unsettling world.

Our first-person narrator, the biologist (known, like her teammates, only by her occupation) is part of a team of four sent into Area X, a sector of strangeness that is part of the Southern Reaches. They have been told that they are the twelfth expedition into Area X. The biologist is an unlikeable character and an unreliable narrator, but we soon discover that no one in the book is reliable. The training the biologist received for the expedition was riddled with lies; the memories of the team members may be been changed without their knowing by a member of the group. The biologist is intrigued, or captivated, by a “tower” in the ground (others call it a “tunnel,”) and a lighthouse. These two structures are connected thematically, and maybe in other ways as well.

Vandermeer limns a beautiful landscape of the uncanny, and this slim self-contained work left me a growing sense of weirdness and dread. I immediately ordered Authority, the second book, which is already out.

Available Dark by Elizabeth Hand. Speaking of weird, nobody writes gorgeous strangeness quite like Hand. Available Dark, it turns out, is a sequel to an earlier crime novel called Generation Lost, with the same main character.

Cass Neary is a drug-dependent alcoholic, a nihilistic punker who made a splash with a morbid photography book thirty years ago. Now she ekes out a living with the occasional commission, and help from her father. A mysterious Finnish financier contacts her, wanting her to authenticate some snuff photos. He will pay her well, and fly her to Helsinki. Cass goes, and finds herself enmeshed in murders, sorcery, black metal rock music and old loves. Helsinki is barely a chapter in the book, but Iceland takes center stage.

“Punk” is not a subculture that ages well, and Cass is not a sympathetic character, but Hand’s descriptions of Iceland shows familiarity and love for the country, from the barren lava fields to the steaming hot springs to the glaciers. Iceland fell hard during the 2008 world recession, and Hand depicts that with unsentimental accuracy. The book is filled with omens, symbols, blood, beauty and creepy magic.

The Word Exchange by Alena Graedon. What I liked: The opening line, one of the best I’ve read in a couple of years; the conceit of formatting the book like a dictionary; Graedon’s refreshing, startling prose; underground New York; the exquisite building in Oxford; the idea of “word flu.” Graedon hatches an interesting plot from our everyday world, incorporating accelerated obsolescence, consumer culture, the internets, smart phones and academics.

What I didn’t like: While the plot basically works, I thought the theme was a little shallow. What I really didn’t like, though, was the passivity and lack of agency of the female main character, Anana. She is a first-person past-tense narrator trapped in a plot that requires her to either be the passive receptor of others’ transmitted wisdom, or, worse, to behave stupidly in order for the plot to work. The best she ever achieves is cluelessness. This is a disappointment.

So why read it? Simply for Graedon’s cleverness in depicting the aphasia that is a symptom of the “word flu,” a disease that attacks the speech centers of the brain. Graedon demonstrates how dependent we are on context and it is surprising how very few actual words we need, in order to interpret meaning.

I’d recommend any one, or all, of these three books for a summer read. Enjoy.

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