ANNIHILATION by Jeff VanderMeer

With the box office this past year as any indication, we’ve had a good run of stories helmed by women protagonists, and I’m already excited to see what the next year in films will bring. One of the movies I’m most excited to see is Annihilation, a new science-fiction thriller starring some of my favorite actors, with a trailer that seemed intriguingly eerie, wondrous, and unsettling. I’ve been meaning to read the book that inspired it, Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation, for a long time. It was recommended to me not just as a delightfully strange, impossible-to-categorize work of speculative fiction (so, my jam), but as a book that put women at its center in an interesting and unexpected way. With the movie trailer finally baring down on me, I figured it was finally time to read this long-backlisted work. The cover was beautiful, the book small and slim. I figured I was in for a good afternoon of creature-feature adventure, and came in to the story ready to turn the pages. Don’t make the same mistake I did: this book is deceptively slim, but the story inside is so dense that it’s almost difficult to read too much in one sitting. Not only that, but I encountered something I wasn’t expecting as I read it, home alone, late one night: this book is TERRIFYING.


Annihilation is about a team of four scientists–a biologist, an anthropologist, a surveyor, and a psychologist–that have been sent on an expedition into a mysterious piece of wilderness known as Area X. They are not the first expedition to explore the area; for a variety of mysterious and disquieting reasons, no one has been able to return with any answers about this place. The book details what the four members of this new team find as they venture into the landscape, and what they learn about themselves while inside.

Any more plot would be giving too much away–then again, I’m not even sure that I could tell you what I found within the pages of this account. The story envelops you like a nightmare, moving you through its imagery and mystery in a fluid and completely immersive haze. My experience was not so much that of learning about Area X, or about what happened to the people inside of it, but rather inhabiting Area X, with all of the sweaty-palms, adrenaline terror that came with it. I’ve come out the other side, but truth be told, I don’t know that I could really sum up what happened to me while I was in there–that’s part of what makes this book SO GOOD.

And when I tell you that there were moments of sweaty-palms, adrenaline terror, I am not saying that lightly. The horror in this book is subtle, until it isn’t. Then it’s chasing you at the edges of the wilderness, breathing down your neck. The scares come in a variety, too: body horror, creature horror, things that make strange noises in the dark. The book draws both on haunting imagery and the less tangible sense of uncanny that permeates the plot. The horror wouldn’t be nearly as effective without the sprawling beauty of VanderMeer’s prose. The moments that are scariest are also some of the haziest, the surreal, nightmare-esque quality at its most heightened; as a reader, you are grounded in such moments by the vividness of the writing, the way it creates a world around you clearly and sharply, even when it’s a world you don’t understand. It was an impressive feat, and I’m curious to see how it will translate to the big screen.

If gorgeous writing and nightmare fuel isn’t enough for you, let me assure you that Annihilation is even bigger than that. Layered within the lush strangeness of Area X is a really interesting exploration of humanity–how it relates to both nature and itself, and the way that both of those questions could evolve and change. In many ways, the narrator’s exploration becomes as much a study of herself as the landscape, of trying to understand the ecosystems within us, and the ones we build for ourselves into adulthood, and the ones we forge with strangers in a strange place. The book even has some moments that would fit into a traditional literary fiction novel: deep, moving reflections on the interior of someone’s life. There really was so much to unpack in this dense little novel; I’m almost not sure how to wrap my head around it.

So, there’s a movie coming out, along with two more novels in the series that I have left to read. I guess that means that much like those first expeditions, I haven’t really come out of Area X yet, either. Given how much time I’ve spent thinking about this book after I put it down, I’m not sure when I will.


SNOW FALLING by Jane Gloriana Villanueva

As regular readers of this blog have gathered by now, a lot of the storytelling I’ve gravitated toward since leaving college syllabi behind has been new, uncharted, unexpected. The shows I’ve been watching are no exception, and one of my absolute favorites has become the CW’s Jane the Virgin, a show that has guided me through yet another new genre: the telenovela. Jane the Virgin navigates a tricky balance, and in doing so accomplishes one of my favorite things to encounter in fiction when done deftly and intelligently. It manages to be an earnest and sincere telenovela itself, while also being about telenovelas, educating the viewers and at times mocking with gentle adoration and self-awareness toward the conventions of this genre. It populates a labyrinthine and often outrageous plot with characters so warm and lovable you can’t help but gasp along with the overzealous narrator, who, like the audience, really just wants a happy ending for his beloved cast. But alas, as he often reminds and warns us, the dramatic twists of a telenovela do not promise happy endings for everyone.

For those that have not seen an episode of the show, it centers on Jane Gloriana Villanueva, an aspiring writer living with her mother and grandmother in Miami whose life is thrown into chaos when she becomes accidentally artificially inseminated with the child of her boss, the owner of a luxury hotel. That may sound like an overwhelmingly plot-y premise for someone new to the genre, but I promise, the depth of character development (and the helpful notes from the narrator) keeps you moving through the story with ease. But be warned: while at times one of the laugh-out-loud funniest shows I’ve ever watched, it has also been one of the most emotional. These highs and lows never feel unearned or simple, and experiencing them is really worth your time. Having said that, the rest of this review will contain spoilers for the show, so in short: watch the show, then read this book.

Those of you still with me were probably as heartbroken as I was when the fate that, to be fair, the narrator has spent seasons preparing us for, was finally realized: Michael and Jane did not get to have their happy ending. You all, I was NOT OKAY. So much so that I almost wasn’t sure I could continue with the show. I was sure that while I admired the ambitious storytelling choice, the show couldn’t retain the sense of joy that gives it its beating heart after such a tragic turn. And yes, the show is different for Michael’s absence, and the grief that Jane felt for his loss cannot and has not been ignored. But the joy and love, and even humor, that has always held me to this show has definitely remained, in a storytelling feat that, frankly, amazes me. Nevertheless, when I found out that Snow Falling, the book that Jane writes to work through her grief and give herself and Michael the happy ending they deserved–the book that ultimately becomes her first published novel–was something I could really buy and read, I was ecstatic. I needed the catharsis of that happy ending, too.

By the look of the book, you would think it’s the real deal, with Jane being listed as the author complete with bio and photo (and with completely wonderful in-universe blurbs from her thesis advisor, writing mentors, and of course, gregarious and garrulous father). The book is actually published by Adams Media, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, and ghost-written by actual romance author Caridad Piñeiro (who also gets an adorably cheeky blurb on the cover). The plot itself is basically a pared down version of the show, but set in Miami during the 1900s. It was nice to get to experience the story in this way; the more spare story, as well as the inner narration for each character that books allow more easily than television, kept the plot points from being redundant. The tighter focus on the three main characters of this particular part of the broader Jane the Virgin plot was refreshing, but the cameos of the other characters were also fun and introduced with the right balance. The historical setting is a nice touch, as well, although I wouldn’t have minded it playing a bigger role.

Piñeiro deserves a lot of credit for capturing the spirit and voice of the show and adapting it to her medium. The book both feels like the show and reads like a romance novel, mostly. My one complaint is one I share with Slate’s Marissa Martinelli: the book has occasional inserts from the narrator speaking directly to the reader in an imitation of the narrator on the show. While the narrator is one of my favorite elements of the show, and I can understand why Piñeiro/the publisher/the network/whomever wanted to feature this characteristic, I found it a bit distracting here. For one thing, it’s IMPOSSIBLE not to hear the voice of the narrator from the show, but as I kept reminding myself, this is supposed to be Jane telling the story, so every time the narrator popped in, I ended up doing this mental gymnastic move trying to make myself hear Jane’s voice instead. I think another reason it was distracting is that, well, all books have narrators that speak directly to the reader, whether it’s a character of the story doing it in first person or, like the narrator of the show, an omniscient third-person voice. This book is written in third person, too, making the extra pop-ins from the narrator who is already speaking to us throughout the whole reading experience feel a little strange. But it’s not a big deal, and the only reason I’m even talking about it this much is because it’s nerdy fun to compare and contrast conventional modes of storytelling.

My complaint aside, this book was lovely company, and an interesting way to spend time with characters in a universe I already love. I am also excited that it happened at all, and would encourage any other cross-medium explorations like this. It’s hard for me to know how Snow Falling holds up as a romance novel independent of the show, and it’s also hard for me to know if a fan of the show who doesn’t enjoy romance novels would get much out of it. There might be a disconnect there, and I can understand why it’s getting mixed reviews. But at the end of the day, I was sold on this book when I opened the first pages to find a dedication to Michael, a fictional character over whom I am still heartbroken. Now, like Jane, I can always return to the happy ending I wanted for these characters, and like Jane, I find a lot of value in the happy endings that live within the pages of romance novels, helping us to find and appreciate the messier and more complicated joy that exists in our lives.