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?
Last week, BookPage Associate Editor Joelle announced March as the month to read books “you’ve always meant to read" and moved three books to the top of her TBR stack. (Read all about it here.) This week, it's my turn.
So, no more excuses. *Raises right hand.* By the name of Gutenberg, I swear I will no longer put off reading these books:
Hope: A Tragedy
By Shalom Auslander
I had a hunch that once I'd read Auslander's debut, he'd instantly become one of my new favorites. Our reviewer promised "echoes of Kurt Vonnegut, Philip Roth and even Franz Kafka," and Auslander hooked me with his riotous book trailer series, The Attic Calls, in which he calls up his friends and asks if they will hide him during any future Holocausts. And, of course, there's the plot itself: A Jewish man in Stockton, New York, finds Anne Frank hiding in his attic. I finally picked it up last week and found it to be everything I'd hoped it would be.
Men We Reaped
By Jesmyn Ward
Last summer, I finally dug into Ward's debut novel, the National Book Award-winning Salvage the Bones (2011), and fell madly in love. (There's nothing like a graphic pit bull birthing scene to make for great summer reading . . . in my opinion, at least.) And like all great loves, it took a while for me to recover after it was over. The time has come to let Ward break my heart again, and it sounds like last year's memoir will be even tougher, as she probes the "why" of the deaths of five young men in her life.
By Sarah Blake
My mom gave me this book almost three years ago, and it's about time I was a good daughter and actually read it. (Oops.) I'm looking forward to being transported back to 1940s, on the eve of America's entrance into World War II, through the stories of three very different women. It sounds tender and poignant, but more importantly, I got completely sucked into Blake's poems about Kanye West last week, so now I definitely have to read her novel, even if I doubt Kanye will make an appearance.
Hey, readers: Join in! This month, move a book to the top of your TBR pile, and tell us all about it in the comments.
Saint Monkey by Jacinda Townsend
Norton • $24.95 • ISBN 9780393080049
On sale February 24
Jacinda Townsend's debut novel, Saint Monkey, follows best friends Audrey Martin and Caroline Wallace through their most formative years in the segregated Appalachian culture of Eastern Kentucky. Family tragedy and a deep well of grief initially tie the two girls together, and both dream of life beyond their tiny, oppressive town. Audrey is picked up by a talent scout for her gifts in jazz piano and joins the house band at Harlem's Apollo theatre at the age of 17, but Caroline finds it much harder to sever her ties to Mt. Sterling, and a bitter divide is cut between them as they struggle for a place in the world.
Read an excerpt from the first chapter below:
Since my daddy died, Grandpap has begun to see me as a dry leaf in freefall, a wasted petal about to be crunched under a man's foot. He wants me to forget all the boys of Montgomery County and take studies in typing, to let go the idea of marrying a town sweetheart and become, instead, a woman of the city in a store-bought dress and nylons, with my own bedboard and bankbook. I'm supposed to fly and dream about all that, sitting here in this swing. He painted it white, whiter even than the side of this house, whose thin coat is peeling to expose the aged black wood underneath. He painted the wood slats of this swing so white that when you stare at them for a time, they seem blue. Swing high, and the porch ceiling creaks where he riveted the screws: the grown people who walk by warn me. "Hey gal, it ain't a playground swing," they say. For them, for their limitations, I stop pumping my legs, and the creaking stops. But when they've faded down the walk, I fly high again.
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!
House of Glass by Sophie Littlefield
MIRA • $14.95 • ISBN 9780778314783
Published on February 25, 2014
Jen Glass lives with her husband and two children in a beautiful home in a suburb of Minneapolis. From the outside, the family couldn't look better. But on the inside, things are falling apart: Jen and her husband, Ted, are barely speaking; their teen daughter is sullen and distant and their young son has developmental delays. Just when Jen thinks things can't get any worse, they do. One night, two men break into the Glass home, but the routine robbery becomes something much worse when the family is held hostage in their own basement. Jen and Ted must overcome their differences in order to make sure their family survives the days to come.
Jen put her hand on the brass knob. Later, she would remember this detail, the warmth of the old brass to her touch, the way she had to tug to clear the slight jam.
Standing in the hallway was her beautiful daughter, her face exquisitely frozen, her lips parted and her long-lashed eyes wide with terror.
On her left, a man Jen had never seen before held Teddy in his arms, her little boy flailing ineffectively against his grip.
On her right, a man who looked unnervingly like Orlando Bloom pressed a gun to Livvy's head.
What are you reading this week?
The Moon Sisters by Therese Walsh
Crown • $25 • ISBN 9780307461605
On sale March 4, 2014
In her second novel, Therese Walsh explores the tumultuous, yet fiercely loyal bond between two young sisters, Jazz and Olivia Moon. After their mother dies of an apparent suicide, Olivia, whose synesthesia causes her to see sounds and taste sights, is determined to chase their mother's dream of seeing a fabled ghost light in the bogs of West Virginia. A resentful Jazz is cajoled into helping Olivia reach her destination, but there's plenty of trouble along the way. When their borrowed vintage bus breaks down, Olivia tries to shake Jazz loose and acts on her first impulse—she hops a train and forges a fragile alliance with some fellow travelers.
Readers who love a good road trip story will want to check this one out, and Walsh taps into a family's grieving process with sincerity. Here's the opening of the first chapter, told from Jazz's perspective:
My sister began staring at the sun after our mother died, because she swore it smelled like her. For me, it would always be the scent of oven gas, since that’s how Mama went—fumes pouring out, her breathing them in. Like Sylvia Plath, my father said, because Mama was a tortured writer, too.
Olivia’s actions were just as purposeful. Burned her retinas out over a period of months, made it so she couldn’t drive or even read. Well, she could’ve, if she’d used the glasses the doctor gave her—those big things that look like telescopes on her face—but she wouldn’t. So no reading. No driving. Instead, she lived with her head always tilted to the side, with an oil smudge in the center of everything she might want to see.
My sister’s reality had always been bizarre, though, with her ability to taste words and see sounds and smell a person on the sun. So when she decided to toss our dead mother’s ashes into a suitcase and go off to the setting of our dead mother’s story to find a ghost light, I wasn’t all that surprised. She’d never been the poster child for sense.
Will you check out The Moon Sisters? What are you reading this week?
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?
Kids These Days by Drew Perry
Algonquin • $14.95 • ISBN 9781616201715
Published January 14
Like many parents these days, Walter and Alice wanted to pick the perfect moment to have their first child. They'd be homeowners, established in their careers, ready to pay for private schools and SAT tutors. But instead, Alice's first pregnancy is ushered in just as Walter is ushered out of his job and the couple is forced to turn to Alice's family for help. They move 500 miles south to Florida, into the condo of Alice's deceased aunt and into the crazy world of her somewhat shady brother, Mid, who offers Walter a job. A series of comical capers follow, set against a zany Florida backdrop that should appeal to fans of Carl Hiaasen or Tim Dorsey.
"We have to bring them something," Alice said. We were riding up A1A [on the way to Alice's brother's house], the only real road on the island. She had the shoulder part of the seat belt hooked behind her, convinced that if we rear-ended an ice-cream truck, the baby would be safer without it.
"Flowers? Or a plant?"
We came up on a guy selling shrimp out of a cooler by the side of the road. The sign hanging off his tent said FRESH, LOCAL. I put the blinker on.
"No," she said. "Please, no."
"Because we can't show up with something we have to cook. Or peel. Also, you'd eat shrimp you bought from some random stranger?"
"I think that's how it goes every time I eat shrimp."
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?