Annihilation – Jeff VanderMeer

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An instant classic, Annihilation is a masterpiece of suspense.

We find ourselves in a world that could be ours, except for the mysterious Area X – a place uninhabited and alien – which our protagonist has been sent into on a surveying expedition. She and three other women – a psychologist, a surveyor and an anthropologist, none of whom’s names we learn – venture into a place that oozes paranoia and The Uncanny.

Strange creatures with human eyes, creatures that can write in our language, and towers that are living beings reside in this area, but it’s not that alone which captured my interest.

This novel feels like a classic 19th Century adventure novel. It’s written by our protagonist as an account for future explorers, and she tries as much as possible to detach her emotions, detach her personal story, and log her observations. This casts echoes of novels like Robinson Crusoe or Treasure Island, but retains its complete originality and a compelling story.

It’s very short, making the events that happen all the more intense, and allowing for this concise narrative style. It’s also part of a trilogy in which all the books are being published this year. The second has just been released, and the third will be coming in September. Due to this, very few questions have been answered, which makes me all the more eager to immerse myself once again in the eerie world of Area X.

Green Girl – Kate Zambreno

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Green Girl by Kate Zambreno is mesmerising.

This is the way I wish I could write – the way I wish I could see things and capture so perfectly the hopeless emptiness of life. Now, I’m a happy person, but sometimes you can’t help but be struck by profound moments of smallness and worthlessness and insignificance, and Zambreno articulates these moments like only Sylvia Plath has done before.

Her writing style is flexible, the words writhing around each other in a seething anger that ripples off the pages. They reflect each other, and her focus on how they sound creates lilting prose that feels tangible, and that should be spoken aloud for the full effect. It’s partly a stream of consciousness, and is set out on the page in blocked paragraphs that make you think of stanzas of poems rather than the fluid prose of a novel.

It is the story of Ruth, an American in London, an Other, who flits listlessly through the minutes and hours of her life as if she is a balloon tethered to the ground by a string, tugging to be set free. She works in a large department store called Horrids, trapped by a postmodern despondency in the face of all the mindless consumerism that she serves. She lives in a hostel, then a grubby, tiny flat, with an Australian friend who performs her life like a Great Actress from old movies, terrified of the horror and plainness of reality.

There is no “end”, because life has no end – not in the way novels would have it. Ruth simply fades into the distance, lost in the hubbub of the high street, consumed by a swarm of shopper-clones.

Will Grayson, Will Grayson – John Green and David Levithan

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I’ve had mixed feelings towards both of these writers so far – you might have seen my adoring review of The Fault in Our Stars and my rather scornful review of Looking for Alaska. However for some reason something changed when John Green and David Levithan collaborated on one book.

Although not reaching the emotional pitch of TFiOS, Will Grayson, Will Grayson was a thoughtful novel about identity and mistakes told through the eyes of two teenage boys called Will Grayson.

Each writer took one of the Wills, and this really encouraged unique voices and storytelling structures, which made for a fascinating read that frequently made me laugh out loud (which, when on the tube, is not great). One Will (Green’s) is slightly awkward and tends to be the supporting character in his own life; the other (Levithan’s) copes with depression and at first only has one person he really cares about – someone he met online.

Their storylines interweave in ways you don’t always expect and are refreshingly realistic. I felt that in a lot of Green’s books a character is idolised and it was good for that not to happen here. Relationships don’t work out the way you expect them to, and the book ends before we find out what happens in the relationship between Levithan’s Will and a boy called Tiny Cooper. It provokes a sense that all we can do is try to fix things, and that it doesn’t matter whether you succeed but the fact you tried shows a great deal about yourself and what matters to you.

Astonish Me – Maggie Shipstead

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How do you capture physical movement with language? I once did an art project on painting movement, and it was virtually impossible.

Maggie Shipstead, despite not being a dancer, turns her language into ballet. I have never read something that so precisely replicates how it feels to pirouette, arabesque or even to stretch at the barre. As you read, you feel as though you are on stage dancing with the characters; feel the sweat trickle down your spine, the satisfied ache of your muscles, the control of your body as you count the steps into your final, miraculous leap, gliding through the air and “wrapping the tension of the audience around you”.

Astonish Me is simply majestic. It reads like a ballet, with short, intense scenes, deviations into little pas de deux of the past, and characters who dedicate their lives to dance.

Joan, the focal character, has never been brilliant. She is simply good. The pain of this – the fact that every day she sees how much she lacks – is something I know well, and I therefore loved her as a character. When she becomes pregnant she leaves her ballet company for a nice, safe man who will dedicate his life to her. They have a son, and soon enough she realises that this boy is a rare talent, a prodigy, and she raises him to dance as she never could.

Shipstead’s language is like ballet: precise and technical, yet seemingly effortless, darting before you, alluding to the most complex feelings and emotions, but letting you work them out for yourself. I would change nothing about it.

The Bees – Laline Paull

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Triumphant.

This novel is dripping with sumptuous description, buzzing with believable characters, tense, thoughtful, wonderful, and all set inside a beehive. The protagonist is a bee, which may make you raise a quizzical eyebrow, but trust me. It works.

Flora 717, born a sanitation worker, is the lowest member of a strict totalitarian hierarchy that doesn’t allow for social mobility and uses the ever-present, haunting mantra, “Accept, Obey and Serve”. These bees are governed by the Sage Priestesses – essentially the “government” – but they all worship their Queen, who has become a kind of mystical deity. The society is so exquisitely formed that somehow you forget that all the characters are “just” bees, and instead become sucked into an almost dystopian civilisation.

Flora shouldn’t be noticed, yet somehow she proves herself to be an excellent Forager (a bee who goes out of the hive to search for nectar), and manages to rise up the ranks of society. She questions the authority of the formidable Sage Priestesses and the brutality of the law-enforcing bees, therefore making the novel not one just about  bees, but one that can be compared to the likes of The Handmaid’s Tale or Watership Down.

This is Laline Paull’s debut novel, and it has shot up to seize the top spot in my list of favourite dystopian narratives. I can’t wait to see what she does next, and I implore you to read it!

The Girl Who Came Home – Hazel Gaynor

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If you appreciate well-structured, well-plotted, subtle books, then do yourself a favour and give this one a miss. I’m sorry, but this was ludicrously predictable, had a very mediocre writing style and little originality.

This novel is about a survivor of the Titanic, telling the story of her journey and then seventy years later when she tells her great-granddaughter. To be fair, the story of Maggie’s journey from Ireland on the Titanic wasn’t as bad as the later story, and had a much more interesting cast of characters and POVs. However I did have quite a few problems with the way it was written – especially when we saw extracts of Maggie’s diary, which seemed so heavy-handed and lacked any original voice.

The later storyline, mainly told from the POV of Maggie’s great-granddaughter Grace, was sickly sweet and full of clichés. Worse, Grace was far too perfect a character, who left College and her boyfriend when her father died to, uncomplainingly, look after her mother for two years. Her relationship with Maggie was far too mature for a 19-year-old girl, and I just wasn’t convinced by her. The other fact that her boyfriend waited two whole years for her to be ready to be with him again was far too convenient.

I know this has been one huge great rant, but I just needed to vent about this! Remind me not to bother with commercial historical fiction because it never seems to work for me! Give me Hilary Mantel any day.

Birthmarked – Caragh O’Brien

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What do I see? Another Young Adult dystopian novel? Another one lost in the hubbub of similar trilogies that won’t be noticed over the noise of The Hunger Games? Yeah, pretty much. Although to be fair I did enjoy this book because it was different enough from Hunger Games, Divergent, The Maze Runner and The End Games to keep me reading. It had echoes of The Handmaid’s Tale and felt a bit more like a fantasy novel rather than a dystopian one.

Set in a world struck by natural disaster, a group of humans shut themselves away in a city behind a wall called the Enclave and developed ways to survive in the Barren New World. Of course, a load of humans stuck in one place for generations is going to get slightly inbred, so they start taking babies from the people who are left living outside the wall. Gaia is a young midwife who must hand over the first three children she delivers every month, and she accepts this – until the guards behind the wall arrest her parents for unknown reasons. Gaia must venture into the Enclave to save them, and adventure, heartbreak, humour and romance ensues.

The novel, in my opinion, was much better than the two later Divergent books, yet even though it ended on a cliffhanger it hasn’t made me want to read the next in the series. That’s largely because I feel like it’s too predictable. Maybe I’ve read too many of similar subjects to this, but I’m starting to find a lot of Young Adult books very easy to guess what’s going to happen, so unless I feel really invested in the characters or find the world utterly absorbing, there doesn’t seem any point in keeping going.

I liked the characters in this novel, I liked the writing style and I don’t have anything to complain about in particular. I just think it needed to have something to stand out over the vast array of similar novels, and at this rate it’s going to sink into anonymity.