Southern Reach #2: Authority by Jeff VanderMeer

Read: 17 March, 2018

Now out of Area X, the mysterious focus is shifted to the Southern Reach organisation. But while Area X was surreal and freaky, many of the issues at Southern Reach are human – such as inconsistent funding, personal loyalties and resentments, and the backroom politicking of faraway superiors. And while I’ve enjoyed books like that, it just didn’t fit the Lovecraftian tone set by Annihilation.

The other issue I had with the book is that it’s just so looong. Throughout almost the entire thing, the main character just circles the same set of questions without finding answers (or, even, more questions). So while the writing style is good, and the atmosphere is creepy, and characters are interesting, there simply isn’t enough there to sustain interest for that long. Annihilation worked, in part, because it was short. I feel like longer works, if they’re going to keep audiences engaged, need to either provide the occasional dog bone of an answers, or at the very least swap out old questions for fresh ones every so often.

And that, I think, is what my complaint boils down to. I think this would have been a much stronger entry for the series at 3/4 (or even half) the length.

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Southern Reach #1: Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer

Read: 5 March, 2018

My spouse started reading this before I did. When he was about halfway through, I asked him how it was going. He replied: “I feel like there’s this guy, right? And he’s got a shovel and this big pile of mystery, and he’s just shovelling the mystery onto me and trying to bury me alive.”

Having now read the book for myself, I have to say that’s fairly accurate.

This book is what you get if Tarkovsky’s Stalker and the collected works of H.P. Lovecraft had a baby together. A mysterious baby.

There’s the Zone (here called ‘Area X’), that all appears mundane enough except for this feeling of unease and an absence of people. And then there are people – people known only by their function – who are exploring the Zone. So that’s the Stalker part. Then there’s the hidden creatures of unspeakable horror that cannot be described, plus the increasing inability to sort reality from hallucination/hypnotic suggestion/insanity/dream, and that’s the Lovecraft part.

The writing style is emotionally distant and clinical, which fits with the narrator’s character. Still, it’s very compelling. While there isn’t much action, the feeling of unease and suspense is well-maintained, and the book is short enough not to overstay its welcome.

I’m not sure how this story will work drawn out into a trilogy, and I’m even less sure that the mysteries can be solved in a satisfying way (as my spouse put it: “I’m worried this is going to be like Lost all over again”), so I’m a little wary of continuing on. But I did enjoy this one. And I also enjoyed that things decidedly are not wrapped up by the end, which has given the spouse and I plenty to talk about as we spin our own theories for what is really going on.

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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

Read: 5 December, 2016

Immortal Life is a fantastic book about the HeLa cell line – immortal cells that kick started many fields of modern medical science.

But the story goes beyond the clinical, exploring the life of Henrietta herself, her husband, her children, her many descendants. Much of the story focuses on Deborah, Henrietta’s youngest daughter, and her search to learn about the mother she couldn’t remember.

It’s a heartbreakingly human tale of horrific medical abuse, crushing poverty, child abuse, Old Timey medical research ethics. It personalizes what have for so long been thought of as nothing more than a collection of cells in a test tube.

The issues raised about ethical medical research are important ones, and Skloot gives us few easy answers. But they are things that we all should know about and consider.

Even more important is the history of medical abuses towards black patients and those with mental illnesses. So much of the modern medical science we depend on today was developed through horrific experimentation on vulnerable populations. For that alone, this book should be required reading for all teens.

I was aware of most of the issues brought up in the book, but getting to know Deborah and the Lacks family made it all so much more viscerally real.

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The Greatest Show on Earth by Richard Dawkins

Read: 10 October, 2009

The Greatest Show on Earth is a fantastic introduction to the theory of evolution. Although marketed towards adults, I think it’s really more appropriate for a tween/early teen level, to provide a solid foundation in evolution.

The book is written in Dawkins’ approachable language, and he explains difficult concepts in a very simple and easy to understand way. Illustrations are well chosen and well used to emphasise his points.

The only real downside is that the preface dwells a bit too long on the Creationism issue. While terribly satisfying for the True Believer, it would be a turn off for someone neutral or leaning towards Creationism and interested in learning more. It’s a shame, although perhaps no more damaging that having the name Richard Dawkins printed on the cover.

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