“Acceptance” by Jeff VanderMeer (2014)

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acceptance“Just out of reach, just beyond you: the rush and froth of the surf, the sharp smell of the sea, the crisscrossing shape of the gulls, their sudden, jarring cries.”

Sometimes reading a book feels like a duty, especially when it’s not a terribly good book. (Oh, have I revealed where I’m going with this one already? Whoops.) Acceptance is the third in the Southern Reach trilogy after Annihilation and Authority, so I was indeed only reading it to complete the series. As one may expect, this post will therefore be laced with spoilers, and since I don’t do “Read More” tags on here, they are about to begin.

The third book in the series follows three separate stories. The first is dealing with the lighthouse keeper, Saul Evans, from before the forgotten coast had become Area X had he was working to keep the lighthouse operative and tend the grounds. He has started a secret relationship with another villager, Charlie, and it is this and the visits from precocious pre-teen Gloria that keep him going. He is less impressed by the continual visits of Henry and Suzanne of the “Science & Seance Brigade” who seem to be conducting experiments inside his lighthouse, but he’s not sure of their nature.

The second story follows Control and Ghost Bird, the main characters of the second book. Ghost Bird is the clone of the biologist, one of the expedition members of the first book, and Control is the former head of Southern Reach, the organisation responsible for working out the secrets of Area X. They have crossed back over into mysterious area, and are now heading for Failure Island, across the bay, where a second lighthouse stands broken and unused, but they think there may be the answers they’re looking for over there, but the closer they get to answers, the closer they get to danger, too.

The third story is that of the Director, also of Southern Reach. Her story is that of her life, spanning her childhood and her enrollment into Southern Reach, and the issues with her colleagues there. She grew up in what is now Area X and is determined to go back again. Her story, like Saul’s, mostly takes place before the events of the first book, as she plots with her assistant director Grace to get in.

With a gap of seven and a half months between the second and third book in the trilogy, and fifty-odd books in between, it’s fair to assume that some of the details have been lost in my mind, and even after reading a synopsis of the last book, I found it difficult to connect the two again. It’s a complicated tapestry of stories and lies and characters who both are and are not who they say they are. It feels open-ended, with many questions still left unanswered. Maybe it does answer them but my brain had switched off and I didn’t notice. Who knows? But I know some definitely remain unclear.

It’s not the fault of the book – it’s entirely on me. The writing is atmospheric, creepy and oftentimes beautiful, but I find myself uninterested in most of the characters, and the plot gets away from me too fast, mostly because I’ve failed to remember where we were. But I think even if I had known with crystal clear precision, it wouldn’t have helped. Books need to grab you, and while this one does, it feels more like a hostage situation than being dragged off on a friendly fictional adventure. There’s much about loneliness in the book, and an appreciation for the natural world and things we can’t understand. Humans are shown as curious again, perhaps our most valuable trait, but the novel as a whole lacked something.

I’m not altogether sorry to be leaving Area X. Something magical happened here, I’m sure, but I can’t for the life of me express what it was.

“Authority” by Jeff VanderMeer (2014)


authority“In Control’s dreams it is early morning, the sky deep blue with just a twinge of light.”

Earlier this year I read Jeff VanderMeer’s very strange Annihilation. I enjoyed it, while at the same time not having a bloody clue what was going on. I said that the time that I would get around to the sequels, and a few weeks later I was browsing through the second-hand bookshops of Charing Cross Road when I found both the second and third book in good nick for a good price. I snatched them up, and here we are.

It goes without saying that if you plan on reading this series, this is not the beginning and so this review will be laced with spoilers from the off. Read on at your peril.

It’s a few months since the events of the first book and while we left the women stuck in Area X with apparently no hope of escape or idea what they were doing, three of them have suddenly turned up in the outside world again, all with amnesia and no evidence at all that they ever passed through the border, it’s up to the people at Southern Reach headquarters to work out what happened.

But changes have been afoot there, too. With the director missing, a new man has taken over, known to his colleagues as Control, and he’s been charged with solving the mysteries of Area X. Unfortunately, the notes left by the old director are a mess, and no one seems altogether willing (or sane enough) to help him decode them. He quickly comes to blows with the assistant director, Grace, and he also soon reveals to the reader that not only is he trying to solve the mysteries, he’s also reporting back all his findings to another agency.

The deeper down the rabbit hole that Control goes, the more confused everything becomes, and just when he thinks he might be on to something, something happens at Southern Reach that puts everyone back to square one…

There seems, at first, little overlap between this book and the first. There’s new characters, it’s set slightly further into the future and we’re learning about the situation from the other side of the border, hence the title. But then we meet the biologist and see Control interviewing her, trying to get her to remember, but there’s a suggestion that she does remember, she just doesn’t want to share.

Although slightly less creepy than the first book, there’s still a definite thread of unease running through the novel as the character’s all seem to be running to their own agenda. It’s also quite terrifying to note that the people sending expeditions into Area X know even less than they let on, sending in people after filling their heads with half-truths and hypnosis. The fact that no one really knows what’s going on adds to the insanity of the novel, further emphasised by the characters themselves all seeming to go insane to some degree. The biologist also makes for an interesting character again, but I admit that I’d forgotten some details about her from the first book. By the end, most of them were back.

I’ll have to finish the trilogy, but once more, I can’t even begin to imagine where this one is going. Let’s hope we finally get some answers in the last book.

And on that note, that’s it! Ninety-five books down in 2015 and the count begins again tomorrow. My top ten of the year will be up sometime in the next week, but until then, I wish you all the best for 2016! Here we go!

“Annihilation” by Jeff VanderMeer (2014)




“The tower, which was not supposed to be there, plunges into the earth in a place just before the black pine forest begins to give way to swamp and then reeds and wind-gnarled trees of the marsh flats.”

Every now and again, you find a book that makes you think, “What the hell?” It could be because it’s so good or clever. Perhaps it stirs up those feelings because you can’t believe it ever got published. And then there are those books that make you think that simply because they’re on another scale of weirdness, confusion and sheer insanity. This brings me to Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation, the first of the Southern Reach trilogy.

The story opens with four women entering the quarantined Area X as members of the twelfth expedition. The last eleven have … not gone so well. One ended with everyone committing suicide, another with the survivors all dying of cancer not long after their return. We aren’t given any names, but the four explorers are known by their titles: the psychologist, the surveyor, the anthropologist and, our narrator, the biologist. They make notes in their journals about what they find in Area X, and have been instructed to explore the landscape with particular emphasis given in their training to a lighthouse on a nearby shore.

But there is more than just a lighthouse here. There’s a tunnel for one thing, although the biologist is insistent that it is a tower, despite none of it being above ground. There’s something loud and angry living in the reeds, and there are suspicions that, within hours of the expedition starting, the biologist has been compromised, and not everything they were told during their training is strictly true. For a start, this tunnel (or tower) isn’t on any of their maps, and inside it are words written in a type of living fungus. The four women must try to work out what exactly happened to Area X and the people who have come here before them … if they survive that long.

I’ve been struggling throughout this book to work out what the best word to sum it up is and it’s only upon finishing that I’ve got it: “creepy”. It’s not billed as a horror, but the whole thing is driven by suspense and an urge to turn the page in the hopes that one of the endless questions will soon be answered. Few of them are, so if you’re the sort of reader who likes to understand things, keep away from this book. It is the first in a trilogy though, so perhaps answers are coming, but I somehow doubt it. Paragraphs are long and descriptive, both of the wilderness of Area X and of the feelings that the biologist is wrestling with. We find out a little about her life before signing up for the expedition, but not much. Still, what we know of her is far in excess of what we know of the other three women.

There is very little dialogue in the book; the women are not friends and do not seem to like to talk about their private lives. Maybe this is why they were chosen, or maybe they are under instructions not to. Can they even be sure they’ve all been given the same instructions before setting out? The book contains an endless stream of unanswered questions, and every time you think you’re about to get an answer, you may find another six or seven questions come along with it.

I’ll probably return to Area X for the sequels, Authority and Acceptance because I did enjoy it a lot, but before reading a brief synopsis of the next book, I would have had no idea where this was going, as it ends with a very definite finish. Like I say, if you don’t like being left hanging, then don’t read this, but if you like something that just feels a little bit too strange for comfort, dive in.