Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer
FSG Originals • $13 • ISBN 9780374104092
published on February 4, 2014
A psychologist, surveyor, biologist and anthropologist go into the woods . . . well, not the woods, exactly. The premise of Jeff VanderMeer's Annihilation—the first in his Southern Reach trilogy, all due out this year—is oh-so-intriguing. The aforementioned quartet make up the 12th expedition into a place called Area X, the site of a former environmental disaster that's oddly teeming with lushness and wildlife. The fates of the members of the first 11 expeditions—murder, suicide, cancer—will send a shiver up your spine, and the mounting sense of foreboding in the first couple of chapters is outweighed only (though greatly) by an overwhelming curiosity to find out how this expeditions unfolds . . . or unravels. The imprint chosen for Annihilation—FSG Originals—couldn't be more perfect for this intense, unpredictable, clever thriller. Here's an excerpt from the beginning of the book:
There were four of us: a biologist, an anthropologist, a surveyor, and a psychologist. I was the biologist. All of us were women this time, chosen as part of the complex set of variables that governed sending the expeditions. The psychologist, who was older than the rest of us, served as the expedition's leader. She had put us all under hypnosis to cross the border, to make sure we remained calm. It took five days of hard hiking after crossing the border to reach the coast.
Our mission was simple: to continue the government's investigation into the mysteries of Area X, slowly working our way out from base camp.
The expedition could last days, months, or even years, depending on various stimuli and conditions. We had supplies with us for four months, and another two years' worth of supplies had already been stored at the base camp. We had also been assured that it was safe to live off the land if necessary. All of our food stuffs were smoked or canned or in packets. Our most outlandish equipment consisted of a measuring device that had been issued to each of us, which hung from a strap on our belts: a small rectangle of black metal with a glass-covered hole in the middle. If the hole glowed red, we had thirty minutes to remove ourselves to "a safe place." We were not told what the device measured or why we should be afraid should it glow red. After the first few hours, I had grown so used to it that I hadn't looked at it again. We had been forbidden watches and compasses.
What do you think? Will you be checking out Annihilation? What are you reading this week?
I recently came across this vintage 1930s library poster on the Library of Congress site proclaiming March as a month to read books “you’ve always meant to read.” It was the perfect prompt to reassess my ever-growing TBR list and focus on some of the books that have been lingering on there for a while.
While I’m not reaching as far back chronologically as the examples on the poster (Dickens! Eliot! Clemens!), here are three books that I’ve decided to move to the top of my stack this month:
I feel like I’m the last person on the entire planet who hasn’t read Beautiful Ruins, which has been collecting dust on my bookshelf for a year. The 1960s, behind-the-scenes peeks into the wacky film industry, a crazy love story? Yes, please! Plus, a little armchair travel to the Italian coast and sunny California sounds like the perfect way to pass the last couple of weeks of winter.
I love historical fiction, particularly relating to the Tudors. The real-life goings-on within the court of Henry VIII couldn’t have been more intriguing had they been scripted by the likes of George R.R. Martin. Corruption, ego, excess, scheming, and a Man Booker Prize—sounds like Wolf Hall has the perfect ingredients for a thrilling read that I’m looking forward to diving into.
As a huge fan of both Pride and Prejudice and “Downton Abbey,” it’s practically a crime—or a head-scratcher at the very least—that I haven’t read Longbourn yet. This critically praised re-imagining of the Austen classic—told from the perspective of the Bennett household servants—landed on our Best Books of 2013 list, and I’m hoping that reading it will take some of the sting out of the recent end of Downton’s fourth season.
But what about you, readers? Is there a book that’s been lingering on your TBR list that you might move up to the top this month? If so, we want to know what it is—share in the comments below!
A Girl Walks into a Bar: Your Fantasy, Your Rules by Helena S. Paige
Morrow • $14.99 • ISBN 9780062291974
published February 4, 2014
I had a Pavlovian response when I first saw this book. Like so many other kids growing up (way) back in the '80s, I regularly devoured "Choose Your Own Adventure" books, so holding one written for grown-up women about an adventurous single gal's night on the town . . . well, it sure sounded like a lot of fun to me! Author Helena S. Paige (actually a pseudonym for three writers: Helen Moffett, Sarah Lotz and Paige Nick) opens the book with you getting ready to meet a friend at a bar—your first choice will be what kind of undies you'll put on (which reminded me of the "absolutely enormous" knickers scene from Bridget Jones's Diary). Which of the four options you choose will set you on your way to an unforgettable adventure.
The book is described by the publisher as a "choose-your-own-erotic-destiny novel." There are indeed erotic parts, but they're balanced with plenty of fun and humor. Fans of Maya Banks, Sylvia Day and the Fifty Shades series will most enjoy this one—particularly if they gather with friends and a bottle of wine, and read it aloud.
Here's a scene to draw you into the adventure:
A taxi pulls up in front of you, interrupting your thoughts, and the driver gets out and leans over the roof of the car.
"Finally! That must have been the world's longest five minutes!" you say to him, hands on your hips.
He looks at a piece of paper he's holding, his face confused. "Mr. Cornetto?" he aske.
"No!" you snap. "I called you almost half an hour ago. Your guy said you'd be five minutes!"
"I'm afraid this taxi is for a Mr. Cornetto."
"I think you must mean me," says a voice from behind. You whirl around, ready to confront whoever is trying to steal your taxi, and you're taken aback when you see the sexy salt-and-pepper guy who rescued you from Chest Wig earlier. Mr. Intense. The guy who smells like a blend of cedar and leather. The one who could give George Clooney a run for his money. Miles, was it?
"Oh, it's you," you say. Then redden with embarrassment. At this rate, you're going to slay him with your wit.
"Is everything all right?" he asks, looking from you to the taxi driver.
"Everything's fine. I was just waiting for a taxi, but this isn't it."
"Well, there's no reason it couldn't be," he says. "Why don't we share it?"
"No, I wouldn't want to impose—it's fine, really. He offered me a ride, too," you say, indicating the bodyguard on the corner, who's having some kind of altercation with whoever's on the phone. "And anyway, you already helped me out once tonight."
"Are you sure? Your friend looks like he's got his hands full."
He's so attractive that you struggle not to stare. Dropping your head, you notice you're still clutching the "Immaculata" invitation. Your thoughts buzz as you try to decide what to do next.
• If you go to the art exhibition, go to page 52.
• If you share a taxi with the George Clooney look-alike, go to page 105.
• If you take a ride home in the sports car with the bodyguard, go to page 162.
What are you reading this Valentine's Day week?
Quesadillas: A Novel by Juan Pablo Villalobos
FSG Originals • $14 • ISBN 9780374533953
On sale February 11, 2014
In Juan Pablo Villalobos' highly hilarious second novel, Quesadillas, the 38-year-old narrator recounts being a teenager growing up in the 1980s in the small Mexican town of Lagos de Moreno. Orestes (“Oreo") is one of seven children—all named after infamous Greeks—born to a high school civics teacher with anger management issues and his homemaker wife, who seems to spend most of her time making quesadillas for her large family and trying to calm her husband down. Money is tight; political upheaval is in the air; and rumors of alien abductions swirl. All of this adds up to a wildly funny farce that's also surprisingly moving.
Here's the opening of the book, which features one of the most memorable first sentences I've ever read. F-bombs (authentic—not the condensed ones below) abound, but they're there to make a point (swiftly and deftly illustrating the character of the narrator's father)—and even the narrator is apologetic for it.
“Go and f— your f—ing mother, you bastard, f— off!”
I know this isn't an appropriate way to begin, but the story of me and my family is full of insults. If I'm really going to report everything that happened, I'm going to have to write down a whole load of mother-related insults. I swear there's no other way to do it, because the story unfolded in the place where I was born and grew up, Lagos de Moreno, in Los Altos, Jalisco, a region that, to add insult to injury, is located in Mexico. Allow me to point out a few things about my town, for those of you who have not been there: there are more cows than people, more charro horsemen than horses, more priests than cows, and the people like to believe in the existence of ghosts, miracles, spaceships, saints and so forth.
“Bastards! They're sons of bitches! They must think we're f—ing stupid!”
The one shouting was my father, a professional insulter. He practised at all hours, but his most intense session, the one he seemed to have spent the day in training for, took place from nine to ten, dinnertime. And when the news was on. The nightly routine was an explosive mixture: quesadillas on the table and politicians on the TV.
“F—ing robbers! Corrupt bastards!”
Can you believe that my father was a high-school teacher?
With a mouth like that?
With a mouth like that.
What do you think, readers? Will you be checking out Quesadillas? What are you reading this week?
Careless People: Murder, Mayhem, and the Invention of The Great Gatsby
by Sarah Churchwell
Penguin Press • $29.95 • ISBN 9781594204746
On sale January 23, 2014
Some people may be tired of reading about F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby and the 1920s . . . but I'm not one of them. My feet are firmly planted in the can't-get-enough camp when it comes to my favorite novel of all time. Which is why, this week, I'm reading Sarah Churchwell's new book, Careless People: Murder, Mayhem, and the Invention of The Great Gatsby.
In it, Churchwell focuses on one particular year in the life of Fitzgerald: 1922, the very year in which The Great Gatsby would be set (and, many say, the pivotal year that ushered in modernism). In 1922, Fitzgerald was just 26 and a rising literary star. He and Zelda settled right in the midst of a bustling New York City (and on Long Island), partying it up with the literati and everyone else snubbing their noses at Prohibition. As Churchwell points out, Fitzgerald was also doing a little first-hand research for a new book idea.
In her meticulous research, Churchwell combed through Fitzgerald's Princeton archives, through old newspaper articles, and other historical records, resulting in this fascinating account of a brilliant writer, a vibrant city and a tiny slice of American history and culture. While reading, you can almost imagine how the wheels must have turned in Fitzgerald's head.
In this excerpt, Churchwell describes the familiar landscape that Scott and Zelda (accompanied by none other than John Dos Passos) drove through while on a car trip from Manhattan to Long Island, where they were hunting for a house to rent:
About halfway between New York and Great Neck, just beneath Flushing Bay, stood the towering Corona Dumps, vast mountains of fuel ash that New York had been heaping on swampland beyond the city limits since 1895, in a landfill created by the construction of the Long Island Rail Road. By the time the ash dumps were leveled in the late 1930s (and eventually recycled to form the Long Island Expressway), the mounds of ash were nearly a hundred feet tall in places; the highest peak was locally given the ironic name Mount Corona. . . . By 1922, desolate, towering mountains of ashes and dust stretched four miles long and over a mile across, alongside the road that linked the glamor of Manhattan to the Gold Coast. In the distance could be seen the steel frames of new apartment buildings braced against the sky to the west. Refuse stretched in all directions, with goats wandering through and old women searching among the litter for some redeemable object.
What are you reading this week?
The Winter People by Jennifer McMahon
Doubleday • $25.95 • ISBN 9780385538497 • on sale February 11, 2014
Could there be a more apropos time to read Jennifer McMahon's chilling new novel, The Winter People, than while a "polar vortex" funnels arctic air across much of the country? One thing's for sure—this is a super-creepy book. Like, sleep-with-the-lights-on, close-the-closet-door scary, with plenty of hair-raising moments that will linger in your thoughts long after reading them.
Haunting in more ways than one, The Winter People is primarily set in West Hall, a remote small town in Vermont. The story alternates between the diary of Sara Harrison Shea, who was brutally murdered back in 1908 shortly after the heartbreaking death of her young daughter, and a present-day mystery revolving around the disappearance of Alice—who happens to live in the old Shea farmhouse. Alice's daughters, Ruthie and Fawn, go in search of their mother and end up making some horrifying discoveries about the past and themselves. Add in some unexpected twists, and you've got a genuine page-turner.
Here's the opening entry from Sara's diary, to lure you in:
January 29, 1908
The first time I saw a sleeper, I was nine years old. It was the spring before Papa sent Auntie away—before we lost my brother, Jacob. My sister, Constance, had married the fall before and moved to Graniteville.
I was up exploring in the woods, near the Devil's Hand, where Papa had forbidden us to play. The trees were leafing out, making a lush green canopy overhead. The sun had warmed the soil, giving the damp woods a rich, loamy smell. Here and there beneath the beech, sugar maple, and birch trees were spring flowers: trilliums, trout lilies, and my favorite, jack-in-the-pulpit, a funny little flower with a secret: if you lifted the striped hood, you'll find the preacher underneath. Auntie had shown me this, and taught me that you could dig up the tubers and cook them like turnips. I had just found one and was pulling back the hood, looking for the tiny figure underneath, when I heard footsteps, slow and steady, moving my way. Heavy feet dragging through the dry leaves, stumbling on roots. I wanted to run, but froze with panic, having squatted down low behind a rock just as a figure moved into the clearing.
I recognized her at once—Hester Jameson.
She'd died two weeks before from typhoid fever. I had attended her funeral with Papa and Jacob, seen her laid to rest in the cemetery behind the church up by Cranberry Meadow. Everyone from school was there, all in Sunday best.
Look for our review of The Winter People—our Top Pick in fiction for February!—in next month's issue of BookPage.
What do you think, readers? Will you be adding this to your TBR list? What are you reading this week?
Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh
Touchstone • $17.99 • ISBN 9781451666175
Published October 29, 2013
If you're familiar with Allie Brosh's wildly popular blog, Hyperbole and a Half, then you're no doubt jumping for joy that she's just published a book based on it. If all of this is new to you, trust me—by the third page in, you will be simply in love with the odd little being depicted on the book's cover. Trust me. That odd—crudely drawn yet o-so-expressive—little being represents Brosh in this amusing (often laugh-out-loud), honest and touching collection of illustrated essays about her life, from her childhood antics to living with dogs to her struggle with chronic depression as an adult—and lots of moments in between.
Already a New York Times bestseller, Hyperbole and a Half brims with warmth and sincerity, even—perhaps most—when Brosh is at her most self-deprecating. Crack it open, and you will crack a smile; you most definitely will laugh; and you'll no doubt look forward to more adventures with that odd little being.
What do you think, readers? Will you be reading this book? What are you reading this week?
I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai
Little, Brown • $26 • ISBN 9780316322409
Published October 8, 2013
On Tuesday, October 9, 2012, 15-year-old Pakistani Malala Yousafzai was on her way home after school when she was shot in the head at point-blank range. This was no random act of violence. Her hometown of Mingora, in the Swat Valley, had recently come under the control of the Taliban, who are known to vigorously oppose the education of girls. Malala—whose parents had always encouraged her education, her father even founding her school—did not shy away from publicly speaking out about her belief in the right of all girls to go to school. Doing so made her a target, leading to that fateful October afternoon.
Defying all odds and expectations, Malala survived the shooting, making a full recovery and more determined than ever to fight for the right of girls around the world to be educated. I Am Malala is her story—a story that is simply incredible, simply unforgettable, simply inspiring. Here are her eloquent and powerful opening words:
I come from a country that was created at midnight. When I almost died it was just after midday.
One year ago I left my home for school and never returned. I was shot by a Taliban bullet and was flown out of Pakistan unconscious. Some people say I will never return home, but I believe firmly in my heart that I will. To be torn from the country that you love is not something to wish on anyone.
Now, every morning when I open my eyes, I long to see my old room full of my things my clothes all over the floor, and my school prizes on the shelves. Instead I am in a country which is five hours behind my beloved homeland Pakistan and my home in the Swat Valley. But my country is centuries behind this one. Here there is every convenience you can imagine. Water running from every tap, hot or cold as you wish; lights at the flick of a switch, day and night, no need for oil lamps; ovens to cook on that don't need anyone to go and fetch gas cylinders from the bazaar. Here everything is so modern one can even find food ready cooked in packets.
When I stand in front of my window and look out, I see tall buildings, long roads full of vehicles moving in orderly lines, neat green hedges and lawns, and tidy pavements to walk on. I close my eyes and for a moment I am back in my valley—the high snow-topped mountains, green waving fields and fresh blue rivers—and my heart smiles when it looks at the people of Swat. My mind transports me back to my school and there I am reunited with my friends and teachers. I meet my best friend Moniba and we sit together, talking and joking as if I had never left.
Then I remember I am in Birmingham, England.
Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving New York
Edited by Sari Botton
Seal Press • $16 • ISBN 9781580054942
Published October 8, 2013
The love affair between writers and New York City goes way back. Taking its title from a 1967 Joan Didion essay, Goodbye to All That features musings by a stellar list of 28 women writers sharing their own experiences of NYC—discussing the initial allure, eventual disillusionment (for some) and everything in between.
Ann Hood writes about the magnetic pull she felt toward the city from an early age and how when she finally arrived "it felt as if all my cells settled into place . . . and I became exactly who I was supposed to be." Emma Straub writes about growing up in NYC, "my jungle gym and playmate all at once." And Cheryl Strayed shares how she eventually realized that "much as I loved it, I wasn't truly in love."
Reading these brief, intimate essays feels like you're chatting—commiserating, in my case, since I inhabited NYC for six years—with a friend over coffee. Here's an excerpt from Ann Hood's essay, "Manhattan, Always Out of Reach":
My first apartment was at 228 Sullivan Street, in a former convent painted pink, its Caribbean exterior a sharp contrast to all the grimy black around it. The day I moved in, I boldly left my 300-square-foot studio and walked the maze of Greenwich Village. The guy from 47F was going to show up that night, so the entire day stretched out before me without obligation or purpose. I wandered into Three Lives Bookstore to browse, into Café Reggio for a cappuccino, into the Third Street Bazaar and the Grand Union and every tiny store that sold earrings or posters or fruit or magazines. At some point on that journey, it felt as if all my cells settled into place, as if my body had shifted, rearranged itself, and I became exactly who I was supposed to be.
I will never leave here, I thought that June afternoon. That thought repeated itself almost daily as my first summer moved along. It was a very hot summer, relentlessly so. I would go to the Grand Union supermarket on Bleeker Street and stand in the frozen food section to cool off, or I would ride the Staten Island ferry for a nickel round-trip and stand at the front each way to catch a breeze thick with East River stench. On the Fourth of July, I joined the throngs on the closed FDR Drive to watch fireworks. I will never leave here, I thought as the neon colors exploded over the river.
What do you think, readers? Will you be checking out Goodbye to All That? What are you reading this week?
The Secret Lives of Married Women by Elissa Wald
Hard Case Crime • $9.95 • ISBN 9781781162620
published October 8, 2013
Based on its risqué retro (though evidently commissioned just for this book) cover art, I originally picked up the galley for Elissa Wald's The Secret Lives of Married Women thinking it was a contender for our romance/erotica coverage. Then I noticed blurbs from the likes of Pat Conroy and Junot Díaz praising Wald's works on the back cover, and I knew it wasn't going to be just another iteration of Fifty Shades of Grey. And indeed it's not!
The book is divided into two sections, each a voyeuristic peek into the lives (and psyches, really) of 36-year-old identical twin sisters. First up is Lana, who's just moved into a new house outside of Portland, Oregon, with her husband and infant daughter. Unfortunately, the contractor working on the neighbor's house is creeping her out in a major way. The second part of the book shifts to Lillian, a NYC attorney who's juggling a fascinating high-profile case (the details of which are revealed in a manner bound to keep you turning the pages) and a marriage that's awfully close to completely falling apart.
Though Lana and Lillian are identical, their voices are decidedly distinct. Both of their stories are told in first person, though from the perspective of some date in the future, which gives the book the air of a confessional, and there is way less sex than the cover implies. Wald's prose is powerful, in a spare, understated way. Factor in her impressive storytelling prowess, and the result is a book that's extremely difficult to put down once you've started. (I read it in two sittings.) Here's the opening to lure you in:
Before that summer, the summer of fear—
It makes me cringe to know that I sound like a tabloid wife. I can't talk about what happened, even to myself, in a way that seems real. The words that come to me sound like something I've read in line at the supermarket.
Before the summer of the stalker, the summer I looked at my husband and saw a stranger, I was drinking in a bar with Rae and having a conversation about intimacy. It was a conversation I'd had many times before, with any number of thirty-something women who were worried about their chances of marrying in time to have children. Rae was thirty-six, the same age as me. She was our realtor, and it seemed she was also becoming a friend.
I had married just two years before, and now had a one-year-old daughter. (I was also a few weeks into my second pregnancy, but didn't know it yet.) As a result, my part in this time-worn dialogue had shifted from sharing the despair to dispensing counsel. Usually these women had spent their time—as I had, myself, until very recently—investing in a series of untenable characters, men whose inability to commit was as clear as the color of their eyes.
What do you think? Will you be checking out The Secret Lives of Married Women? What are you reading this week?