Review: “Annihilation,” Jeff Vandermeer

Pros: Lovecraftian horror and madness for modern readers
Cons: Clinical tone might put off some readers
Rating: 5 out of 5

Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation (Book One of The Southern Reach Trilogy) is a treasure trove of Lovecraftian horror and madness, written for modern-day readers. It’s written as the journal of the Biologist, a member of the twelfth expedition into “Area X”. This is an isolated beach and the land around it, cut off from civilization by a mysterious border. The Southern Reach is the governmental agency tasked with figuring out what Area X is, and they haven’t had much luck. Some expedition members go mad and kill each other. Some expeditions go mad and kill themselves. Others mysteriously appear at their homes after being gone for months, seem distant and empty, and then die of cancer months later. Advanced technology seems to degrade quickly when it works at all, so the expeditions take only simple machines with them. Each expedition uses different protocols, trying to figure out what might make a difference at the heart of the enigma. Expedition twelve is all-female, and the members’ individual identities are stripped away, leaving them knowing each other only by their job titles. The Psychologist, who leads the expedition, has put each person through rigorous questioning and mental preparation, but it’s entirely unknown whether this will help at all.

The Biologist’s tone is somewhat clinical, which might put off some readers. I found it worked to reinforce the strangeness of the setting and events. It takes very little time for the unusual, maddening effects of Area X to put in an appearance, so you don’t have to wait for long. There’s a lighthouse that seems significant, and a strange tunnel with bizarre writing lining its walls:

“… There shall be in the planting in the shadows a grace and a mercy that shall bloom dark flowers, and their teeth shall devour and sustain and herald the passing of an age …”

The tone of Annihilation is very internal, so it’s hard to see how this is set to become a movie next year. Most of what happens is nested within the experiences of the Biologist, and her take on it is integral to what happens and how.

That’s how the madness of the world tries to colonize you: from the outside in, forcing you to live in its reality.

There are strange creatures that inhabit Area X, and accounts of past expeditions may not have been entirely correct in how they were portrayed to the characters during their training. Despite the odd advanced decay of everything left behind to find, there are some secrets that haven’t been lost to madness and decomposition.

I absolutely loved Annihilation. It’s a fantastic exploration of the madness present in both internal and external landscape, and it’s a Lovecraftian horror built to appeal to modern readers.

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Review: “Archangel’s Heart,” Nalini Singh

Pros: Vivid and fascinating
Cons:
Rating: 5 out of 5

Nalini Singh’s Archangel’s Heart (A Guild Hunter Novel)–Book 9–continues the over-arching plot of the series rather than tackling a new romantic pairing. I like the fact that the series has enough plot going on to be able to do this. And the fact that Elena and Raphael’s romance has been consummated in no way prevents them from acting as excellent main characters with plenty of ongoing chemistry. Not all erotic romance series can boast the same. The ongoing plot and worldbuilding are complex enough that you should make sure you’ve read the series so far, but you don’t have to worry about being lost if it’s been a few months since you read book 8. (Hell, I ended up reading the two novels out of order and I’m keeping up pretty well.) In this volume Lijuan’s territory is starting to go to Hell in her absence. Vampiric bloodlust is cropping up, resulting in entire wiped-out villages of people. An unaligned group of isolated angels called the Luminata calls the Cadre of archangels and Ancients together to decide whether it’s time to divide Lijuan’s territory between the remaining Cadre members, and if so, how. (This is apparently pretty much the only function of the Luminata in the outside world–otherwise they seek individual enlightenment.) However, it doesn’t take long for Elena to realize that something weird is up with their leader, Gian, and it might be connected to her own mysterious family background.

We get to see all of the Cadre (except Lijuan) in one place, and it’s fairly fascinating. There’s plenty of angelic politicking going on. The big problem, of course, is that no one really knows how ‘alive’ Lijuan might or might not be, or whether she’s going into Sleep, or simply regaining her power from being torn apart by Raphael before she shows her face again. She displayed such immense power during the war that no one wants to risk pissing her off by entering her territory, yet without archangelic oversight the vampires will continue to fall into bloodlust. There’s little to indicate the best course of action.

Elena’s family plot becomes quite interesting. The Lumia (the home of the Luminati) is in Morocco, where Elena’s grandmother came from. Elena visits a nearby village only to find it strangely free of vampires and angels, and the mortals terrified of angels. No one wants to talk to her about anything, but it’s obvious that some of them find her strange coloration, with her white hair, familiar. She wants to ask Gian about the mystery, but can’t shake the feeling that he’s lying to her and could be dangerous. In fact, he’s hardly the only member of the brotherhood who raises her hackles.

As usual Nalini Singh’s work is vivid, lush, and enticing. The characters have depth and chemistry, including friendships and more tenuous ties, not just the romantic. The landscapes are vividly drawn and enjoyable, while the plot intrigues and captures the imagination.

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Review: “Archangel’s Enigma,” Nalini Singh

Pros: Wild characters, plenty of plot progression, lush landscape
Cons:
Rating: 5 out of 5

Archangel’s Enigma (A Guild Hunter Novel)–Book 8–delves into the enigma that is Naasir, one of archangel Raphael’s seven closest friends and colleagues. Most people believe him to be some odd sort of vampire, but those who know him best realize he’s something more. Most of them don’t know just how unusual he really is, a half-wild creature with animalistic instincts. He’s about six hundred years old and having seen some of his friends take mates now wants one of his own. But he knows he needs another wild creature who can take him on his own terms. Unfortunately, he’ll have to delay his hunt while he accompanies a young angelic scholar on a vitally important mission (she couldn’t possibly be his mate, because she’s taken a vow of celibacy, and no mate of his would have ever done something so silly). Lijuan, the Archangel of Death, is believed to be looking for the Sleeping place of the Ancient Alexander so she can slay him while he’s vulnerable. Andromeda, who has studied Alexander extensively, is believed to be the best hope of finding this place. It’s Naasir’s job to protect her while they both try to find it. Unfortunately, Lijuan is one step ahead of them–she has Andi kidnapped before their journey even begins.

Naasir and Andromeda may occupy the main plotline, but we still get to peek in on our old friends and the overarching plotline. Lijuan’s ongoing devolution is bloodily explored, as is Illium’s too-soon possible ascension to archangel status. There’s a legendary Grimoire to be found, and a blood vow Andi’s parents made on her behalf to be overcome. Soon she’s to go to her grandfather Charisemnon’s court and serve there for 500 years. He’s an evil, horrifying power who enjoys torture and death. If she doesn’t participate, she’ll become a victim herself. And she can’t possible let him find out about her growing feelings for Naasir, so she’ll be torn away from her maybe-mate for those 500 years.

Both Naasir and Andi are great characters. Each has unexpected layers to them. Naasir has learned to wear a skin of civility when needed, but wants a mate who can match and accept his inner wildness. Andi is a devoted scholar, but she also loves to wield a blade and does so with far more skill than Naasir could expect. Her own wild inner nature may well be a match to his own.

The landscapes they travel are lush and vivid. We get to explore from the skies of New York to the angelic Refuge, Africa, and beyond. As always with Singh’s writing it’s easy to visualize the setting and the people. Also, while much of the Guild Hunter series follows the standard erotic romance series trope in which each book covers a new pair of characters within the same setting, Singh’s books build on a great ongoing plot as well as a web of friendships and relationships between all of the characters. It helps to keep things interesting, building the new while remaining grounded in the old.

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Review: “Archangel’s Shadows,” Nalini Singh

Pros: Beautiful story
Cons: A bit of a sexual conundrum
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Archangel’s Shadows (A Guild Hunter Novel, Book 7) delves into the erotically charged, headstrong relationship between Guild Hunter Ashwini and vampire Janvier. They’ve been alternately flirting with and hating each other for several years now, and while Janvier is certain she’s the one for him, she believes she carries a secret that means they can never be together. For the moment, however, they’re stuck with each other. Mysterious bodies have started showing up–first animals, now a human, as dessicated husks of their former selves. Meanwhile, a new drug targeted at rich vampires with nothing better to do threatens to destabilize the precious post-war peace of New York. Ash and Janvier are tasked with solving the first of these problems, and find themselves inevitably bumping up against the second. They need to take care of things quickly, before any of the other archangels see them as weak and easy to conquer.

As usual, Singh brings a beautiful world to life. Make sure you’re already familiar with it, because there’s a lot going on. Fans of the series will finally get to see these two together, while also keeping up with Elena and Raphael as Raphael’s enormously powerful, and alien, mother comes to visit. We get to find out more about the mysterious Legion. I particularly like the characters of Ash and Janvier; they’re both snarky, strong, and deadly. They work very well together despite their differences. They make natural partners which is fun to watch, and their chemistry is outstanding.

There’s just one problem. In the wake of the recent #metoo campaign, I find myself much more aware of instances of sexual harassment, pressure, and so on, in which one party doesn’t respect the other’s boundaries. And the truth is, Janvier pressures Ashwini in all sorts of ways that for most people would be totally unacceptable. It works for me in this book, because the characters have so much past history, ongoing flirtation on both sides, and deeper caring for each other:

…when they’d spoken so many times, trusted one another so deeply.

It also makes a huge difference to me that when the ultimate seduction occurs, she’s the one who instigates it. As much as he pushes her boundaries, he also in a strange way respects them. I also understand that some readers will want the fantasy of having to be pushed past their own boundaries.

That said, it’s a fine line, and I’m sure there will be readers on both sides of it. You know your own tolerances, so take this into account when you decide whether you want to read this book or not.

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Review: “Archangel’s Viper,” Nalini Singh

Pros: Interesting plot and characters
Cons: A little too much sniping
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Nalini Singh’s Archangel’s Viper (A Guild Hunter Novel) is not a good place to jump into the series; make sure you’ve read other Guild Hunter books first. It’s best to have some background on both of these characters and their unique places in the ongoing plots. That said, Singh includes enough detail that even if it’s been a little while since you’ve read other books you should be able to make your way through this one without a problem.

In the latest installment of the Guild Hunter books (book 10) we get to finally find out more about Venom, a rather unique vampire, and Holly, who is maybe/sorta a vampire and unique in her own right. No one really knows what she is right now so they’re protecting her while keeping a wary eye on her. And with good reason–there’s something powerful and maddening growing inside of her and she doesn’t know how to control it yet. When someone tries to kidnap Holly and the characters learn there’s a $5 million bounty on her, it becomes much more urgent that they find out what’s going on with her.

Romance books in which the leads snipe at each other constantly as they fall in love are not my favorite kind. Partly I find it harder to buy into. Partly the tone just grates on me. Maybe, having been through a recent divorce myself, I just get depressed when I see the negative aspects of relationships right now. That said, Nalini Singh is one of the few authors who can pull it off without tuning me out.

I have to reiterate that Singh’s depiction of a world filled with vampires and angels is quite unique. It isn’t just our world with a little twist–the power structures and people’s lives have some serious differences from the world we’re used to. Angels and vamps aren’t something that just showed up; they’ve been around forever. Angels create vampires to serve them, and angels can go quite power-mad. The Guild Hunters exist to keep vampires in check, although the recent close alliance between New York’s archangel and its Guild chapter is new. It’s a unique ecosystem that I love to explore. I missed a couple of books before this one and I’ll have to go back and catch up, because I’ve loved this series since the very beginning.

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Short Take: “The Unremembered Girl,” Eliza Maxwell

Pros: Raw, beautiful, vivid
Cons: Depressing & painful
Rating: 5 out of 5

Eliza Maxwell’s The Unremembered Girl sees a poor rural family take in a mysterious ‘stray’ who knows herself simply as ‘Girl’. She’s given the name Eve, and she and Henry develop an obsessive bond. She’s indelibly broken, however, and no matter what Henry does to help her, things just go further and further downhill. To further confound things, strange noises can be heard coming from a shack in the swamp that should be deserted. Henry isn’t sure what’s going on, but it can’t be good–and he can’t shake the feeling that it has something to do with Eve.

A warning: this book is incredibly painful and depressing, with a feeling of doom that pervades much of the narrative. Make sure you’re up to reading it. That said, it’s also fiercely beautiful. The visuals are vivid and intense, and the characters come to life on the page. There’s plenty of danger woven in, especially as things get intense toward the end. You’ll find interesting plot twists and surprising consequences. It’s dark enough that I’m not sure I’m happy I read it exactly, but it is an incredibly well-written book.

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Review: “The Scattered and the Dead Box Set,” L.T. Vargus

Pros: Moves beyond the post-apocalyptic basics
Cons: A bit, well, scattered
Rating: 4 out of 5

The Scattered and the Dead Series: The First Four Books, by L.T. Vargus, gives us a plague-stricken world thrown into the dark ages by a nuclear response to the fast-moving biological threat. The population has been vastly depleted, and even years afterward civilization is in tatters. The narrative follows a variety of characters across a spectrum of time periods before and after the nuclear strike. It’s a bit confusing to go back and forth like that all over the place, but I think ultimately it works.

Sometimes there’s a bit of sameness to the character voices; several of the characters are unusually aware of their own physicality and physical actions/reactions. It’s a bit weird. The characters have some nice depth, though, and sometimes surprise the reader. Current post-apocalyptic fiction still often focuses so intensely on the basics–survivalism, largely–that it’s nice to find a book that develops the depth of plot and character necessary in fiction in general. Most sub-genres follow this pattern, starting out as sketches and basics and then gradually developing into fully-fledged fiction with all of the necessary elements for a good story. Unlike some of the recent books I’ve read, Vargus’s The Scattered and the Dead makes that transition.

I like some of the details. There’s a prepper whose preparations come to naught because he gets hit by the plague, and given the odds, that should happen more often than not. It’s been a bit weird to read post-apocalyptic after post-apocalyptic in which both the prepper and all of his family members mysteriously turn out to be immune; after a while it beggars belief. Another nice detail: there may be some serious perverts in here, but at least it doesn’t depict every male as a rampant rapist and every female as a would-be victim.

Vargus’s work is a bit rough around the edges, but I like the story and characters. If you like the genre it’s worth giving this series a read.

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Short Take: “The Halcyon Fairy Book,” T. Kingfisher

Pros: hilarious, fascinating look at fairy tales
Cons:
Rating: 5 out of 5

T. Kingfisher’s The Halcyon Fairy Book mostly consists of reprintings of a handful of fairy tales together with Kingfisher’s biting, humorous, insightful commentary on the same. Fairy tales are known for taking bizarre left turns and leaps of logic, not to mention having ridiculous plots and characters. Kingfisher both appreciates them for what they are and skewers them at the same time. She clearly pokes fun from a place of love, and it shows. I’d gotten so used to the weird facts of fairy tales that I’m not sure I really approach them critically any more, and it’s nice to be reminded of how to apply modern thought to fairy tales without losing an appreciation for them.

Kingfisher also includes a few of her own fairy tales, and they’re wonderful. She clearly puts to use some of her insight in order to create tales that retain that fairy tale feel yet incorporate insights that give them new and fascinating ground to cover. In particular I love her characters, human and not. They possess a great deal more depth and sense than typical fairy tale characters while remaining magical and weird.

I love all of Kingfisher’s work so far and highly recommend reading whatever you can get your hands on!

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Review: “Secrets in Death,” J.D. Robb/Nora Roberts

Pros: Until the ending, it’s up to Robb’s usual quality and style
Cons: Went from too many suspects to just one with a real leap of logic
Rating: 3 out of 5

Secrets in Death: An Eve Dallas Novel (In Death, Book 45), by J.D. Robb (Nora Roberts), is not my favorite installment in the series. There’s just nothing to differentiate it much from the rest. I suppose it’s inevitable that this will happen when you get up to book 45(!) in a series, but I love this series so much that I’m still disappointed.

Eve never liked Larinda Mars, a gossip reporter who’d do anything to get a juicy story. But when Mars gets killed in the back room of a trendy bar, Eve will have to do everything she can to track down the culprit. On the way she’ll find out that Mars didn’t just care about secrets for the sake of her job–she cared about them for many reasons. She hoarded them like some people hoard objects, and she used them to blackmail people. Everyone hated Mars, leaving Eve with more than a city-load of suspects.

My biggest complaint with Secrets in Death is that when Eve finds herself with little room left in the book and many suspects remaining, her method of finding the killer involves a rather large leap of logic. It’s a leap that kind of made sense, but it didn’t make sense for her to be as certain of it as she was. So the ending felt both sudden and anti-climactic to me.

My favorite part of this one is the concept of a person who hoards not just objects, but also information. It’s a fantastic concept that I wish Robb could have done even more with.

As usual, you’ll find plenty of fun with Eve, Peabody, a handful of regulars, posh places, things, and events, sharp dialogue, and smokin’ hot action between Eve and Roarke.

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Food: Jazzing up my soup

Last Saturday I went to a mushroom festival in Pennsylvania. It was fantastic! Full of delicious treats and inexpensive and unusual varieties of mushrooms. I brought three pounds of ‘shrooms home and turned 1 lb into bisque, as well as 2 lb into Duxelles*.

When you’re one person having one bowl of soup for dinner, mushroom bisque lasts all week. I don’t know about you, but I need to jazz it up here and there so it doesn’t taste the same every night.

1. I had a bottle of marinated goat cheese balls that I got from a farmer’s market. It added more olive oil than I might have liked, but the sharpness of the goat cheese is divine!

2. If you have Duxelles* on hand, thaw one and use it to garnish your bowl of soup. Just mound it right in the middle. It’ll add some butter, but also a nice garnish of cooked-down mushrooms, which adds texture.

3. Drizzle a little bit of olive oil on your soup, especially if you have some that’s infused with herbs, spice, or garlic.

4. Drizzle a little bit of vinegar on your soup.

5. Chop some roasted peppers and mound into the middle. Other vegetables might work as well, such as marinated artichoke hearts.

6. Chop and cook down bacon; drain on towels and sprinkle that bacon on top of your soup! Pancetta is another option, or sausage.

7. Shred or crumble a good cheese on top. Something sharp or smoky would probably go very well with a mushroom bisque.

Obviously, most of these suggestions will work well for other soups as well.

*Duxelles are what you get when you cook down chopped mushrooms with butter and garlic (I know it’s supposed to be shallots, but I prefer garlic) until dry, then freeze in ice cube trays and empty the frozen cubes into freezer bags. They’re supposed to last for up to three months that way and can be used for all sorts of things.

P.S.: If you want to try that wonderful mushroom bisque, it’s from “Thanksgiving Table” (Review)

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