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.

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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.

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MIRACLE AND OTHER CHRISTMAS STORIES by Connie Willis

Readers who remember my Halloween-themed posts from past Octobers know that I love to match my reading to the season. As much as I love Halloween, I love Christmas even more, but for whatever reason, I’ve always had more trouble finding Christmas books than Halloween books. I think it’s a matter of the genres I’ve traditionally steered toward: while ghost stories and fantastical horrors have been part of my reading life since I was a child, the types of stories one typically associates with Christmas have not really been something I’ve explored (I’ve only recently begun reading romance, for example, a genre that is FILLED with Christmas stories).

Another part of my problem, I think, has been striking the right balance to match my own feelings about Christmas. I love Christmas fervently and without irony. I’ve always believed in its example, seeing it as the apogee of the year that can and should encourage the best from all of us. And also, of course, I love the aesthetic of Christmas, the carols and the decorations and some of the best episodes of my favorite television shows (you’ve seen the stop-motion Christmas episode of Community, right?). And yet, like many people, I think the point of Christmas, a season that celebrates compassion and charity, needs restating often, especially once we’ve become so bogged down in to-do lists and credit card charges that we start snapping at strangers on the street. “It’s Christmas, everyone’s miserable” is a fairly bleak but accepted assumption sometimes.

But I do still love it, and yet, despite this (and my burgeoning love of the romance genre), I don’t tend to go for overly sentimental writing; on the other end of the spectrum, though, I don’t want too much cynical, “real-world” darkness infused in my Christmas stories, not when I can’t bring myself to roll my eyes at it yet. In terms of finding something to read, it leaves one a bit stuck.

That’s why I was so excited when I learned about Connie Willis’s collection Miracle and Other Christmas Stories. Willis is a science fiction writer, and she has given Christmas a unique genre treatment in this completely charming book. I knew that I was in good hands as soon as I read her opening essay, in which she speaks to her own love of Christmas and what it means to her. (She also thinks Miracle on 34th Street is better than It’s A Wonderful Life, and agrees with me that the Muppets put out one of the most faithful adaptations of A Christmas Carol. It’s so nice finding a kindred spirit in an author!) Willis approaches the holiday with the perfect balance of sentiment and sharpness, and the resulting collection provides almost a prism of new ways to think about the season, with many different angles given to both genre and Christmas staples.

I was expecting most of the stories to have a strong science fiction bend, but actually, the stories represent a variety of speculative genre subcategories. Some of the stories are more genre-specific–including, as I recall, one horror story and one mystery–while others are Christmas stories with hints of fantastical elements. This could have been a risky move, because it means while there is something for everyone, there is likely also something that isn’t as much of someone’s cup of tea in there. (For me, that came in the form of the more straightforward mystery, the genre that remains my least-explored; if you love mystery stories and have suggestions for me, leave them in the comments!). However, I think the diversity of these stories pays off. It makes the collection fresh and engaging all the way through, and even though I liked some of the stories more than others, it was nice to not have an entire collection of the same thing. Not to mention that Willis’s skill makes each of the stories enjoyable–even the ones I worried I would struggle to get through on the first page had me turning them eagerly before long.

This breadth carries over into the kinds of Christmases depicted in the stories, as well, which was also something I really liked. A couple of the stories work with the religious origins of the holiday, featuring biblical mythology in really inventive ways (that readers of any amount of religiosity could enjoy). Other stories take a more contemporary approach, often drawing from the pop-culture staples that have become their own part of the modern Christmas mythos. One story even took on the classic archetypes from Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, managing to carry over the themes and characters of a tale that is pretty much acknowledged to be the best Christmas story in the western canon and, consequentially, pretty much done to death. And yet, this story ended up being my favorite for its originality, as well as its perfect balance of earnest sweetness and honest reflection of the way we treat each other, especially around the holidays.

As broad as the collection is, the stories do have some common threads. They all have a good sense of humor, as well as a rich grounding in literary and folkloric tradition. They are also bubbling over with Christmas atmosphere. All of these things combined made this the perfect collection to kick off a month of holiday reads. And good news: the book has just been re-released this year as an updated collection called A Lot Like Christmas, with new stories added to these originals. It would make a great gift for anyone who loves Christmas, but is looking for something a little different than the traditional Hallmark-channel fare (no shade intended–the world can and should have both!). It’s hard to imagine I’ll find a new Christmas read to top this one, but luckily for me, Willis provided a reading list at the end of her book, so I know I have a trustworthy place to start.

TEN WAYS TO BE ADORED WHEN LANDING A LORD by Sarah MacLean

Despite writing an entire post about the fact that there should be no shame in enjoying romance novels, I’ve still been hesitant to blog about the books that I’ve been reading the most in the last couple of months (internalized misogyny runs deep, y’all). But I started this blog to share the books I’ve been reading, and if you’ve been experiencing a similar period of significant life changes that’s been making you anxious, maybe these are exactly the kinds of books you need, too. I have been devouring Sarah MacLean’s oeuvre, and I wanted to tell you about my favorite so far.

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The heroine of Ten Ways to Be Adored When Landing a Lord is Isabel (because the female-protagonists of romance novels are called heroines–isn’t that fantastic?). Her father, a reckless gambler who’s been absent for most of Isabel’s life, has just died, leaving Isabel and her younger brother, a future duke, penniless and even more alone than they were when he was alive. But Isabel has always been resourceful; in fact, her home has become a refuge for many other women, as well. Some of them have escaped abusive marriages, cruel families, or even their own mistakes, and have found community and purpose in Isabel’s manor, dubbed the Minerva House. But with Isabel’s sudden impoverishment, she’s not sure if she can take care of everyone anymore–until Nicholas, a London aristocrat known for his knowledge of antiquities, comes into town. Isabel’s most precious possessions are her collection of marbles, but the residents of the Minerva House are more important to her, and she enlists Nicholas’s help in appraising the last things of value she owns in order to sell them. What she doesn’t expect is that Nicholas has come to her town for another purpose, one that might jeopardize Minerva House–and what Nicholas doesn’t expect is, well, Isabel.

I think what makes this book my favorite of MacLean’s novels is Isabel. She is headstrong, stubborn, and proud of her ability to solve her own problems. But she is also constantly afraid of disappointing those around her, taking on the burden of caring for everyone until it becomes her own hamartia. Her character feels real and familiar to me, making it all the more rewarding to watch her overcome her obstacles. This book also has an interesting reversal of a common trope. Usually in mainstream romantic stories, it is the man who is scared of vulnerability, too guarded to express his feelings and ask for what he wants. In this book, the reverse is true. Nicholas is a really sweet hero, and a nice change of pace from the kind of tortured anti-hero we’ve come to expect in our dramas. He’s open about his feelings, and trusting with his heart–it’s Isabel who is stubbornly resistant to what’s in front of her. In a genre of satisfying happily-ever-afters, this one had me cheering on the most.

Luckily for me, Sarah MacLean just released a new book, but once I’m finished with that, I will have read all of her romance novels. But here’s the best thing about discovering a genre: I have so much catching up to do, so many characters, settings, sub-genres, and happy endings left to explore. Expect to see romance reviews become a regular part of this blog; I’m excited to find (and share with you) more of the smart, feminist, charming, fun books this genre has to offer.

BAD GIRLS THROUGHOUT HISTORY by Ann Shen

If I imagine my book tastes as a pie chart, “badass historical women” would be a pretty big slice (a fact that probably won’t come as a surprise to many regular readers). From the time I was a child devouring the Royal Diaries series to the undergraduate thesis I wrote on Joan of Arc, I have always been captivated by the women who have made their mark on our cultural landscape, often by defying norms and expectations placed upon them. So when I heard about this book, I knew it would be something I would like, and I was right. Bad Girls Throughout History: 100 Remarkable Women Who Changed the World by Ann Shen provides great introductions to some of history’s most notable rule-breakers, but of course, the fantastic illustrations that accompany the essays make the book a complete delight to look at, and the combination of these elements made for a perfect way to pass an afternoon on a porch.

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Bad Girls Throughout History takes the reader, well, throughout history, spanning centuries and cultures to highlight 100 women who, in myriad ways, left an impact on their society that resounds into our own. Shen is upfront in her introduction to the book that her list is certainly not exhaustive, but I found it to be an interesting variety. Some of the women were pioneers of science and exploration; others were groundbreaking artists. Still others were fearsome pirates and ruthless outlaws. Shen has not created a list of perfect role models, and the women found within these pages would not fit seamlessly into a Disney Princess lineup. I liked that the book included figures a little too intense for me to have learned about in school; I even read about some women that I had never heard about before. The list sometimes skews a little heavily towards entertainers, but I didn’t think this was a problem. The choices were always interesting and surprising with each turn of the page, and I really enjoyed getting a glimpse into the lives of women that I’m now excited to learn even more about (luckily, Shen included a detailed bibliography in the back of the book to encourage exactly that).

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I’d be lying if I didn’t say that the first thing that grabbed my attention about this book was the beautiful illustrations, and they are definitely as much of a draw as the essays. Shen’s art style is distinctive and pleasing, and this is a perfect book to flip through and linger over. It’s both comforting and a little sobering to thumb through the pages, to see how far we’ve come and how far we have yet to go. It didn’t make me want to become a pirate, but it did make me want to work to defy expectations in my own life.

Off-Syllabus Is Back! (Hopefully!)

Hello! If you are still reading this, THANK YOU for your endless patience. Life has been a whirlwind in the last few months. I’ve had a lot of changes in my career, some exciting and time-consuming projects, and a big move (well, a not-so-big move, but moving always feels so laborious). As such, my dearth of free reading time was devoted to the romance novels that were keeping the anxiety at bay–and I had already posted about that.

I have been thinking, also, about what this blog means to me now. When I first started it, it was a way to cope with post-college life. That may sound silly to any reader who didn’t enjoy having to spend their time annotating medieval texts and writing papers (understandable), but I had a really hard time adjusting to life outside of the classroom. I started this blog as a way to encourage myself to find the joy in being free from assignments and expectations, and in the two-ish years that I’ve been posting here, I’ve certainly done that. I’ve read genres that I had never taken seriously enough before. I’ve troubled my own understanding of the way books are categorized, and the value of those categories. I’ve rediscovered the compulsion to hide a book under the covers and keep turning the pages long into the night. And the best part is, in all of this time, I was still learning. I’ve been learning so much. I see it in the way I’m thinking about books–I even see it in my own creative writing. Don’t get me wrong: I still think there is so much value in the English classroom, and I still miss it, all the time. The wisdom from my professors and fellow classmates was invaluable. But the act of reading to learn can take so many different shapes, and will hopefully be a lifelong pursuit for me. And, I imagine if you’ve been enjoying these (admittedly, sometimes sporadic) posts, that’s true for you too.

So, I’m keeping the name Adventures Off-Syllabus, but it isn’t just about getting away from the prescribed texts of the classroom. Rather, it’s about bringing the classroom into my–and your–daily life, and shaping it to match what we need and what we can give. I would love for this blog space to become its own kind of community, and I encourage you to post comments or recommendations. I think Adventures Off-Syllabus has always really been about building my own syllabus, and I’m sure your reading life offers just as much. I certainly believe that reading diligently, thoughtfully, and with eyes focused both into the self and out towards the world, is as important now as it has ever been. So, this is all to say thank you for reading this post, and this blog. I hope it has brought meaningful books into your life, and I aim to keep doing that. Let’s keep learning and growing, and raising our hands when we have questions, and debating when we disagree. Let’s always be students and teachers. Let’s allow books to give us everything they can, and then, let’s bring what they teach us into the world. Thanks for being on this adventure with me.

(Sorry for getting super cheese-y at the end there.)

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.

People of all parties, ages, races, and backgrounds are scared and upset. I know because I’ve been to meetings with them. This not a matter of differing parties or losing teams. People who are not usually on my political team–like the Columbus Dispatch and Governor John Kasich–also recognized the clear danger of a Trump presidency. I don’t know what to do, and I spent a lot of today desperately trying to think of tangible things we can do. This is what I’ve got so far; I welcome any and all ideas.

1. Make your voice heard

Donate to or volunteer forĀ organizations that are going to be doing the essential work in the coming four years. Speak up and intervene if you see someone being harassed. Attend rallies and protests. Stand up against racism. Volunteer in your community. Make sure everyone you know is registered and ready to vote in the midterms (if Congress is going to help Trump enact policies that are a threat to fellow Americans, we can take Congress away from him in two years), and canvas/phone bank when that time comes. In the meantime, be an active presence in your representatives’ inboxes.

2. Be ethical consumers

It will be so important to do everything we can to bolster diversity. Search for directories of black-owned or immigrant-owned businesses in your city to support, or patronize restaurants and bars that are specifically LGBT-friendly. Buy new books by writers of color. Buy movie tickets for films with diverse casts (Moana is still coming out this month). Buy official merchandise from the feminist, LGBT-positive kid’s show you love. I know not everyone will be able to do these things all the time, but every little bit will help.

5. Save the Earth

Try to donate to organizations that are going to keep fighting (you can find some in the link from the first bullet point), but also keep doing the little things. Cut down on your beef intake as much as you can–it’s a simple thing that will make a big impact. Keep recycling and turning off lights behind you. Read the books.

6. Keep making art

Now more than ever, stories matter. Truth matters. Community matters.

QUEEN OF THE TEARLING by Erika Johansen

“Fantasy” was one of my earliest favorite genres–as a kid, I devoured books by writers like Tamora Pierce, Gail Carson Levine, and Cornelia Funke. As my reading life progressed, though, I fell away a bit from the genre. When I first read thisĀ interview between one of my favorite writers, Roxane Gay, and Erika Johansen about Johansen’s Tearling trilogy, I figured I had found the series that could bring me back to the fantasy heroines of my youth while also creating a story that was as dark and complex as my adult reading habits have grown to gravitate towards. Queen of the Tearling certainly has a sharper edge than the young adult fantasy I used to (and still) adore, but it still reminded me of the feeling of staying up too late, furiously flipping pages under the covers, and it was so good to slip back into this genre.

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Queen of the Tearling opens on the day that Kelsea, the heir to the Tear throne, has come of age and is awaiting her new Queen’s Guard to escort her from the comfort of the country home she’s been hiding in to the dangers of her new life as Queen. Kelsea already has a lot of enemies; her uncle has been sitting on the throne since her mother died, and he won’t be eager to give up his power so easily. And of course, there is the uneasy peace between the Tear region and the neighboring kingdom of Mortesme, which invaded and devastated the Tear until Kelsea’s mother brokered peace years ago. Kelsea has been educated and trained for this moment her whole life, but she still worries that she won’t be able to live up to her mother’s legacy…or even stay alive long enough to make a difference. As her journey commences, though, she discovers that the kingdom she now rules over is still struggling more than she could have imagined, and it becomes clear to Kelsea that she has hard decisions to make. The changes ahead involve enormous risk, and Kelsea must decide what kind of Queen she’s going to be–and figure out how to keep herself and her people safe from the dangerous consequences they must endure.

Like most fantasy books, a big part of the appeal of The Queen of the Tearling is the richly imagined setting. Even though an emphasis on world-building is something Johansen has in common with other writers in the genre, she has created a fantasy universe that’s unlike any I’ve ever encountered. There are no dragons or trolls, but magic does seem to play an important role in the universe, tying itself strongly not only to the emotions of the characters, but to their ethical code, as well. The setting also has some clear analogs to our own history, and this is partly because of the most interesting element of it–Johansen implies that even though this world is restricted to the sorts of technology, clothing, and gender norms we often find in typical fantasy books (which exist in a generic, Medieval-inspired “long ago”), the universe of her story actually takes place many years after the collapse of our own society. References to “ancient” stories, countries, and governments that are taken from our own modern world provide a really textured version of a fantasy setting, giving this universe an undercurrent of mystery and foreboding. It’s such an interesting idea, and one that I hope is further developed as the trilogy continues.

Even without this aspect of the setting, The Queen of the Tearling uses the fantasy genre to ask some intense questions. Kelsea’s choices strike at an ongoing moral dilemma, as relevant to us as it is to her. I don’t want to give too much away, but the more Kelsea learns about what is expected of her as a ruler, the more she sees the give-and-take of the choices her mother made–and that now, she must make–to maintain peace and order. What kinds of freedom are we willing to give up for security? What (or whom) will we sacrifice for peace? Is it better to risk the devastation of war than to allow evil to happen in our home, under our watch? These are difficult questions, and Johansen maneuvers them with unflinching intelligence. In Kelsea, she has created an endlessly compelling protagonist, one who is forced to trust her instincts, follow her own moral code, and then to deal with the devastating, dangerous consequences that come with her actions. It seems a much more realistic portrait of what it would really mean to be a ruler, a job that (let’s all remind ourselves) requires so much thoughtfulness, instinct, compromise, and, yes, risk of complete, abject failure. I would certainly want someone like Kelsea–intelligent, curious, moral, willing to learn as much as she can and make difficult choices–at the helm with so much at stake.

The Queen of the Tearling is the first book in a series, and I haven’t invested in a series in a long time. I was relieved that this book ended with enough closure to feel complete, but left plenty of mysteries and questions yet to be answered. It has certainly hooked me–I plan on picking up the second book immediately. If you, like me, haven’t read much “grown up” fantasy yet, this novel has the perfect balance of imagination and gravitas that I was hoping for, and I can’t wait to continue with Kelsea on the long, hard road ahead.