Jeff Vandermeer – Annihilation

The Vandermeers (Jeff and Ann) are a name that everybody in SF knows. So far, I’ve only come in contact with the anthologies they edited. There are many of those and all of them fantastic. Assuming that someone who chooses other writers’ stories so well, must be at least a decent writer himself, I bought a couple of Jeff Vandermeer’s books. However, it wasn’t until now that I finally picked one up. The reason: I am shallow and totally love the covers for the Southern Reach trilogy. There you have it.

annihilationANNIHILATION
by Jeff Vandermeer

Published by: FSG Originals, February 2014
Ebook: 208 pages
Series: Southern Reach Trilogy #1
My rating: 7,5/10

First sentence: 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 the reeds and wind-gnarled trees of the marsh flats.

Area X has been cut off from the rest of the continent for decades. Nature has reclaimed the last vestiges of human civilization. The first expedition returned with reports of a pristine, Edenic landscape; all the members of the second expedition committed suicide; the third expedition died in a hail of gunfire as its members turned on one another; the members of the eleventh expedition returned as shadows of their former selves, and within months of their return, all had died of aggressive cancer.
This is the twelfth expedition.
Their group is made up of four women: an anthropologist; a surveyor; a psychologist, the de facto leader; and our narrator, a biologist. Their mission is to map the terrain and collect specimens; to record all their observations, scientific and otherwise, of their surroundings and of one another; and, above all, to avoid being contaminated by Area X itself.
They arrive expecting the unexpected, and Area X delivers—they discover a massive topographic anomaly and life forms that surpass understanding—but it’s the surprises that came across the border with them, and the secrets the expedition members are keeping from one another, that change everything.

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A biologist, an anthropologist, a psychologist, and a surveyor make up expedition 12 into Area X. What sounds like the beginning of an elaborate joke is really a wonderfully creepy story with riddles upon riddles. If you like your stories resolved and your questions fully answered, then this is probably not for you. This is a book for people who enjoy not knowing or at least not knowing all they’d like to know to understand the puzzle. Area X is just there, we don’t know why or since when. We aren’t told what the expeditions are for – but the professions of the group members lead me to believe that the reasons are scientific in nature. Study this strange place and the creatures that inhabit it.

None of the four protagonists are ever named, they are simply known by their profession, which lends the already eerie narration another layer of distance. The first person narrator, the biologist, gives little personal information but manages to paint a picture of the surroundings without turning to clunky language. With the discovery of a “tower” that leads down into the earth rather than up at into the sky, the group start examining strange writing on the wall that seems to be composed of living matter. With this begins a journey into Area X as well as into the psyche of the biologist – who I’m sure is one of the more brilliant unreliable narrators out there. This would be a very different book, had it been told by any of the other expedition members.

AnnihilationAnimation_2Area X may be the real star of this book but its characters do come to life slowly. Despite narrating, the biologist’s personality is a mystery for the most time. It becomes clearer and clearer with little flashbacks into her childhood and her obsession with an uncared-for swimming pool-turned-frog-paradise. But it is the handful of memories of her husband and the time before the expedition that show different aspects of her and make her feel like a real, vivid person. I’d hazard anyone can relate to being passionate about something. I’m passionate about books, the biologist is and always has been passionate about life and how it works. She spent hours watching the frogs and fish and dragonflies living in and around her swimming pool as a child, I spent all my pocket money on fantasy books. It’s easy to identify with her in that respect, even though our passions may be widely different.
But showing aspects of her personality that don’t make her likable is the real sign of a three-dimensional character. The biologist is highly introvert and the crass opposite of her sociable husband. The way she thinks about him in general distanced her from me again. I could never think about my husband as clinically and scientifically as she does – passion is something she only has for her work.

The other characters get varying degrees of the same treatment, but this being a first person narrative, part of the enjoyment of this book is that, most of the time, we just don’t know who these people really are. The psychologist obviously exerts some power over the others – the group entered Area X under her hypnosis – and in a potentially hostile environment, being with a person like that would make me more than a little bit queasy.

The idea and plot reminded me, at first, very much of the Strugatsky brothers’ Roadside Picnic, which starts on a similar premise. An area once visited by aliens that now holds all sorts of shenanigans, messing with physics and time, enough to give you nightmares. Area X isn’t exactly the same and neither is the plot. But if you like the one, you’ll probably like the other. But what makes Area X so intriguing is that we are left in the dark about pretty much all of it. How did it come to be? Was there a natural disaster? A human-made one? Did aliens come visit and leave their space junk and/or extraterrestrial fauna? Why did the previous 11 expeditions all end the way they did? It’s a mystery within mysteries and, trust me, it is enormous fun trying to figure even one of the out.

That said, part of the fun is hoping for a nice payoff at the end. There were several moments that made me gasp and sent my brain into crazy-speculation-mode, but the big bang I was hoping for didn’t arrive. Then again, I have high hopes for the second and third novel in the trilogy to shed some light on all the weirdness and I’m quite alright spinning my own theories until they come out later this year.

MY RATING: 7,5/10  –  Very good!

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The Southern Reach Trilogy

  • Annihilation
  • Authority
  • Acceptance

 

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Chuck Wendig – Blackbirds

I am such a sucker for beautiful covers. So I really wanted to like this book, because it looks soooo pretty. But – and this is a painful experience every time – a beautiful cover does not make a good book. Neither, it seems, does one good idea if it is badly executed… or not at all.

BLACKBIRDS
by Chuck Wendig

published: 24 April 2012 by Angry Robot
ePub ISBN: 9780857662316
pages: 264
cover: Joey Hi-Fi
copy: epub via NetGalley
series: Miriam Black #1

my rating: 2/10

first sentence: Car lights strobe through busted motel blinds.

The blurb:
Miriam Black knows when you will die.
Still in her early twenties, she’s foreseen hundreds of car crashes, heart attacks, strokes, suicides, and slow deaths by cancer. But when Miriam hitches a ride with truck driver Louis Darling and shakes his hand, she sees that in thirty days Louis will be gruesomely murdered while he calls her name. Miriam has given up trying to save people; that only makes their deaths happen. But Louis will die because he met her, and she will be the next victim. No matter what she does she can’t save Louis. But if she wants to stay alive, she’ll have to try.

A premise such as this may not be entirely new but it is a good idea with lots of potential. It all depends on what the author makes of it. In this case, Chuck Wendig may have given his protagonist a special gift (or curse) but other than her having this gift, it has no relevance to anything in the story. This is your basic, and sadly quite cliché-ridden, crime thriller. Except I wasn’t very thrilled. Miriam knows how people are going to die and makes a living out of picking ones that will bite it soon and stealing whatever they have in their wallet. One day, she meets Ashley, a self-proclaimed con-artist who would like to team up. Meanwhile, evil people hunt for them.

As exaggerated as that summary might sound, that’s really all there is to it. And again: I desperately wanted to like this book. Here’s why I didn’t:

The characters
Miriam is a badass tough girl with a filthy mouth and neither conflict nor motivation. Her constant swearing and cussing (something I generally like in books) feels so extremely forced but neither serves the purpose of shocking the audience nor does it help make the scenes stronger. It gets annoying pretty fast, especially when Miriam makes up expressions that contain as many “fucks”, “shits” and “cunts” as humanly possible. Using bad language does not make a character strong – actions do. And Miriam is painfully direction-less.

Ashley calls himself a con-artist with his biggest “scam” being the theft of an object whose owner didn’t look for a moment. And some petty thievery. Wow! Big con-artistry going on there. He is as unlikable as Miriam, even though he at least has one goal that drives him somewhere.

The bad guys are such tropes it hurts to talk about them. So I just won’t.

The language
This being my first book by Chuck Wendig (and I’m sure you’ve guessed by now it’s going to be the last) I thought it might be his debut. But a quick check over at his website shows me that not only has he published a couple of books already but also some  non-fiction about helping people to become better writers. Sure, style is a matter of taste, but to me this was just pure irony.

Because there are flaws in the writing that even I (as a non-English native speaker) learned in school to avoid. There are many examples all over this book but I’ll just give you a taste from a “sex scene”.

Her mouth on his mouth, her tongue is a snake in the grass, a worm in the apple.

The short, cut-off sentences are probably meant to drive the pace, to make it more thrilling. It is readable and it won’t take you long to get through the book. If you manage to keep up some interest in what happens. Because most of the time, nothing does. And even if something does – stuff happeneing is still not plot! This book reads very much like the author is trying so very hard to be gritty and dark. For me that led to overanalysing what I think he might have been trying to achieve, instead of doing what I should – enjoying the read.
Oh, and the third person present tense didn’t help either. Just didn’t work for me. I felt like I was supposed to be inside Miriam’s head, but I wasn’t. The handful of first person chapters made a real difference and got to me way more than the rest.

And then, almost every scene is set up in exactly the same way. A description of the surroundings in jerky sentences:

Motel room. Floral print bedspread. Gold-rimmed mirror with the old showbiz-style lights marking its perimeter. A painting of a magnolia tree on the wall.

Which leads us to my last point – the plot
What little there is of it is inconsistent and plain boring. I don’t care about the characters so why should I care what happens to them. None of them have any real conflict to deal with nor any real goals to pursue (Ashley wants to be rich, and that’s not enough to keep me reading). And the worst thing is – why would this story need a paranormal element when it has no meaning whatsoever to the plot, the characters and their behaviour or, in fact, the story-line.

As horrible as this sounds, it wasn’t all bad. What’s really interesting are the Interludes, the chapters that jump in time to a place where Miriam is interviewed by a man named Paul. She talks about her ability (or curse), how she got it, how she tried to fight it and how it changed who she is – that’s what I was hoping for when I first read the blurb. These chapters are also better written. Miriam still curses like a sailor but it feels less exaggerated, she seems more like a person.

The same goes for chapters told out of other characters’ point of view. I caught glimpses of good writing there and found those passages eternally more readable than the rest of the book. I nerver truly warmed to the style but I do believe Chuck Wendig can write and simply chooses this partiular way of telling his story. It’s just really not my cup of tea – but read a sample chapter and see if you like it. I guess you either love it or hate it.

A story like this is always a great opportunity to explore certain themes. Fate vs. free will, accepting the future (or the past for that matter), how a person’s character changes when hit with an ability like this, a morbid look into other people’s futures, at how theirs lives end. Unfortunately, Chuck Wendig leaves pretty much all of these unexplored. Yes, Miriam turns into a fucked-up mess of a creature because of this gift and yes, she did try once to prevent a death she pre-witnessed. But that’s it. No other relevance to the story, no deep thoughts – or even shallow ones – just a big fat void.

I feel guilty for writing such a negative review on a book the publisher was nice enough to give to me (though, thankfully, I am not completely alone). And I do think that people who read more thrillers and spy stories than me and like their protagonists dark and negative may find something in it. For me, this simply wasn’t it.

THE GOOD: Interesting idea, Wendig doesn’t hold back on the cuss-words, easy and quick read.
THE BAD: Characters without personality, unoriginal gangster-hunting-other-gangster story, writing style you’ll either hate or love.
THE VERDICT: A good idea wasted on inconsistent characters, wrapped in a predictable story, ridden with clichés…

RATING: 2/10

Sebastian Fitzek – Der Augenjäger

Der lang erwartete Nachfolger von Der Augensammler ist da! Obwohl beide Roman in sich geschlossen sind und einzeln gelesen werden können, baut Der Augenjäger auf seinem Vorgänger auf und verrät daher auch so ziemlich alle Geheimnisse und Plot-Twists. Wer also den ersten Teil nicht kennt (und diesen noch mit Spannung lesen will), sollte mit diesem Buch – und dem Lesen dieser Rezension – noch warten. Um den Autor zu zitieren: Ich habe Sie gewarnt…


Originaltitel: Der Augenjäger
Erschienen: 2011
Seiten: 432
Erschienen bei: Droemer Knaur

Meine Bewertung: 7,5/10

Erster Satz: Erschütternde Wende im Fall des Augensammlers – Kinder befreit. Täter gesteht. Aber das Morden geht weiter.

Seit den letzten Geschehnissen in Der Augensammler ist noch nicht viel Zeit vergangen. Das ist auch gut so, denn es lässt Alex Zorbach hoffen, seinen vermissten Sohn noch lebendig vorzufinden. Alina Goriev wird in der Zwischenzeit von der Polizei gebeten, ihre sonderbare Gabe erneut einzusetzen und einen in U-Haft sitzenden Psychopaten zu massieren. Denn durch den Körperkontakt hat sie eine Art Vision von der Zukunft und kann so der Polizei helfen, Beweise für die schrecklichen Taten dieses Arztes zu finden. Ein Augenspezialist, der seinen Opfern die Lider entfernt um sie dann grauenvoll in einem Spiegelraum zu vergewaltigen…

Sebastian Fitzek lässt seine Leser nicht lange warten. Bereits auf den ersten paar Seiten erwartet er uns mit einem Schocker der Sonderklasse, nur um dann in jedem weiteren Kapitel noch einen drauf zu legen. Während manche seiner Bücher eine gewisse Anlaufphase haben, beginnt hier die Spannung sofort und lässt bis zum Ende nicht mehr nach.
Einzig störend daran ist, dass (vor allem in der zweiten Hälfte des Romans) die aus abwechselnden Perspektiven erzählten Kapitel jedes Mal mit schlimmen Cliffhangern enden. Das tut der Spannung eher Abbruch – schließlich wird man jedes Mal, wenn man mit weit aufgerissenen Augen neue Informationen erhält, aus dem Geschehen gerissen, nur um dann zur anderen Hauptperson zu wechseln (die selbst am Ende des letzten Kapitels ganz tief in der Scheiße steckte).

Oft wirft man Fitzek (und vielen anderen Thriller-Autoren) ja einen simplen Stil vor. Es stimmt, er verwendet kurze, einfache Sätze. Seine Charaktere sprechen nicht besonders hochgestochen und die Kapitel sind kurz und knackig. Aber genau das erzeugt für mich Spannung. Man liest – zack! zack! – was mit den Charakteren passiert und wenn sich die Handlung überschlägt, bin ich dankbar, mich nicht erst durch absatzlange Beschreibungen der Tapete quälen zu müssen.
Negativ ist mir stilistisch nur Nicolas Sprache aufgefallen. Sie ist ein Teenager und redet, wie ihr der Mund gewachsen ist. Allerdings wirkte sie auf mich überzeichnet. Sie flucht für meinen Geschmack etwas zu künstlich und redet auch sonst nicht wie ein verängstigtes Mädchen.

Die Charaktere, die aus Band 1 bekannt sind, werden nicht allzu detailliert eingeführt. Sebastian Fitzek erinnert uns an die wichtigsten Dinge, ohne den Lesefluss zu stören. Die meisten Charaktere – Protagonisten eingeschlossen – bleiben sehr flach. Einzig Alina mochte ich gerne und ihre Perspektive las sich faszinierend (vielleicht auch wegen ihrer Blindheit).

Das Ende konnte imch noch richtig schockieren (Ich lese nicht viele Thriller) und obwohl ich immer noch über die Glaubwürdigkeit der Auflösung nachgrüble, hat die Idee ein unangenehmes, düsteres Gefühl in meiner Magengrube zurückgelassen. Überzeugend war auch die Charakterentwicklung ganz zum Schluss des Buches und wie Fitzek es geschafft hat, den Roman rund abzuschließen und doch noch genug Raum für einen Folgeband zu lassen.

PRO: Extrem spannend. Buch nur aufschlagen, wenn in den nächsten Stunden noch nichts anderes geplant ist!
CON: Etwas unglaubwürdige Auflösung, flache Charaktere, sprachliche Schwächen.
FAZIT: Das perfekte Buch für ein paar spannende Stunden auf der Couch. Von Marcel Reich-Ranicki wird es wohl nicht besprochen werden. 😉

BEWERTUNG: 7,5/10