Genre: Horror

Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi

Posted May 14, 2018 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Horror, Literary Fiction / 4 Comments

Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed SaadawiTitle: Frankenstein in Baghdad (Goodreads)
Author: Ahmed Saadawi
Translator: Jonathan Wright
Published: Oneworld Publications, 2018
Pages: 272
Genres: Literary Fiction, Horror
My Copy: Paperback

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Shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize 2018

There has been a lot of buzz around Frankenstein in Baghdad, even before being spotlighted on the Man Booker International Prize longlist and now shortlist. Ahmed Saadawi’s novel is an intense portrayal of Iraqi life in post invasion Baghdad. The violence never stopped after the American invasion and junk dealer Hadi collects body parts lying on the streets and patchworks them together. However when a wandering spirit of a guard who was a victim of a car-bomb explosion finds the corpse, he is quick to possess it, giving birth to a monster known as Whatsitsname, who sets out to seek vengeance for all the victims that make up this monster.

Two hundred years ago Mary Shelley published Frankenstein and Ahmed Saadawi’s nod to this classic serves as celebration of the genre Shelley has created. I am often sceptical about a remake or reimagining of a classic, especially when that book is so close to my heart. However I was drawn to Frankenstein in Baghdad, but that might be my love for books in translation. There are elements of this novel that almost mirror Frankenstein but with a more modern spin. Take for example the opening chapter, rather than Captain Robert Walton writing to his sister to setup the story, we have an activity report from the Tracking and Pursuit department. Letter writing is a dying art form but a military report perfectly modernised the novel’s setup.

The war on Iraq is a topic that is often talked about in western society. A war that President George W Bush claimed was successful in the Mission Accomplished speech held on the USS Abraham Lincoln in 2003. Yet it was not until the end of 2011 when all U.S. troops were officially withdrawn. I say ‘officially withdrawn’ but the U.S. have still had troops in Iraq, most notably the American-led intervention of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant in 2014 and Operation Conquest in Mosul in 2016. The war on Iraq lead to the Iraqi Civil War which led to America’s involvement again in what they call the war on terror. I do not know much about the conflicts in Iraq apart from the information shared on the news.

I cannot expect the news to portray an unbiased account of everything happening in Iraq so it was nice to learn a little more with Frankenstein in Baghdad. While this is a surreal and fantastical novel, the book did confirm what I have always suspected. That war and violence do not lead to peace. Everything I knew about the war on Iraq had always made it out to be that America is spreading democracy and peace to the Middle East. However all the evidence points to a creation of a new monster, one that wreaks havoc on Baghdad, one that used the power vacuum and hatred to gain a foothold. Not Whatsitsname, but the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), which is also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Frankenstein in Baghdad transforms from a novel of pure horror based on the actual horrors faced every day. However this novel is not as depressing as you might expect. Ahmed Saadawi has managed to convey so much of the world he lives in without scaring the reader away. Frankenstein in Baghdad reads more like a black comedy, a satire of the current state of the Middle East. Taking the themes found in Frankenstein of the way society turned a creature into a monster and turning it back onto the world showing us all the monster that has been created.

While this may not be a direct connection, it is a connection I found in the novel. While Whatsitsname is possessed by righteous fury, going about slaughtering those who have turned Baghdad into a slaughterhouse, this might work for the real life Frankenstein. Although we could argue that they are bound by the same motivation. I will leave any political opinions up to the reader to interpret. This is a stunning novel that I have spent a lot of time thinking about. There is something about Ahmed Saadawi’s story that makes this a must read. Whether his attentions were to compare Frankenstein with that of ISIS is entirely up to the reader. Novels are always subjective, this is the connections I made. I am left with anger towards the U.S. treatment of Iraq and I never had a high opinion in the first place. Without getting too political I want to leave you with one question to think about, should any country force their own values on a culture that is vastly different from their own?

This review was originally published in the literary journal The Literati

Things We Lost in the Fire by Mariana Enríquez

Posted March 5, 2018 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Horror, Short Stories / 2 Comments

Things We Lost in the Fire by Mariana EnríquezTitle: Things We Lost in the Fire (Goodreads)
Author: Mariana Enríquez
Translator: Megan McDowell
Published: Portobello Books, 2017
Pages: 202
Genres: Horror, Short Stories
My Copy: Paperback

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It seems that 2017 was my year of reading books from Argentina. From the classic The Invention of Morel by Adolfo Bioy Casares to the beautiful reflection into libraries in Alberto Manguel’s essay collection The Library at Night. In more recent releases there was Savage Theories by Pola Oloixarac and of course the much hyped Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin. These four books would have been enough to satisfy any reader, but there was one that stood out far more than these, and that was Things We Lost in the Fire by Mariana Enríquez. Translated by Megan McDowell, this collection introduced the English world to a great example of Argentine Gothic; however, this could easily fall into the horror genre.

What made this collection stand out is the way Mariana Enríquez was able to explore issues within Argentina without addressing the history directly. The beauty of using literature instead of journalism was the ability to offer social criticism and personal opinions in a stylised and entertaining way. Here we can read about the gruesome realities that many people live in Buenos Aires. Starting from the opening story “The Dirty Kid” which explores the fear a woman faces living alone in the slums. Not to mention the poverty, drug abuse, gang-related killings and even satanic rituals that surround her every day.  In the translation notes by Megan McDowell she states that “Mariana Enríquez’s stories, Argentina’s particular history combines with an aesthetic many have tied to the gothic horror tradition of the English speaking world”. There are many of the tropes found in the horror genre including abandoned houses, supernatural elements, and body dismemberment or mutilation. However, it is not these, but the everyday situations that often terrify the reader.

For me, “The Inn” appears of one of the unsung heroes within the collection, it combines a real issue with a bizarre story. This story explores adolescent antics as the girls begin to explore their own sexuality. However, there is the lurking terror of the looming presence of the Alfredo Stroessner soldiers. Enríquez was able to explore the horror of unexpected terror in the time of the Paraguayan dictator. Hinting at the constant state of terror and the clandestine torture centres without mentioning them directly.

Mariana Enríquez has an amazing ability to explore so many issues without mentioning them. I am confident with a better understanding of Argentinian history, Things We Lost in the Fire is a completely different book. Exploring many themes from poverty to the corruption facing the country, but the biggest focus is the treatment of woman. You cannot really talk about this short story collection without spending time talking about the title story “Things We Lost in the Fire”, which explores the idea of women taking control of their own beauty in a rather unique way. The story leaves Silvina in the position to either betray her mother and the Burning Women movement or physically mutilating her own body.

This is the final story in the collection that not only sums up the underlying themes throughout the book but it also leaves you with this feeling that women must often be subjected to a choice where all choices are harmful, leaving her to pick the lesser of two evils. This story is the title story for a reason, if you only read one of the stories make sure it “Things We Lost in the Fire”. However, I do recommend the entire collection. It is a socio-political masterpiece, exploring the horrors and struggles of Argentina and women around the world. If you only read one short story collection in your life, make it Things We Lost in the Fire by Mariana Enríquez.

This review was originally published in the literary journal The Literati

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

Posted December 16, 2015 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Classic, Horror / 0 Comments

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley JacksonTitle: We Have Always Lived in the Castle (Goodreads)
Author: Shirley Jackson
Narrator: Bernadette Dunne
Published: Penguin, 1962
Pages: 146
Genres: Horror, Classic
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The Blackwood sisters, Constance and Merricat (Mary Katherine) try to live an idyllic life with their uncle Julian in their big New England house. The villagers surrounding them hate them and often chant hurtful words. The Blackwood family were once much bigger, but one meal changed it all. Arsenic in the sugar served with dessert killed the rest of the family, Constance never had sugar, Merricat was sent to her room before supper and Julian only had a little sugar and is now a shell of his former self. Despite the fact that Constance was arrested and then acquitted of this crime, the rumours still run wild and the Blackwoods live their life in seclusion, that is until Charles arrived and tried to steal the family fortune.

While We Have Always Lived in the Castle is the first Shirley Jackson I have read, it was in fact her final novel. I went into this book knowing nothing about the story and I found it the perfect way to experience the novel. An American gothic that is in part a haunted house story, in part a mystery, and as Jackson’s biographer Judy Opphenheimer calls it a “paean to agoraphobia”. A psychological story that explores the effects of rumours and public opinion, all told from the perspective of eighteen year old Merricat, who is an unreliable narrator.

There is a real mystery about the Blackwoods, but I was more interested in the effects the villagers had on the family. I know the isolation is a reflection of the author’s own agoraphobia and nervous conditions but I took it more as a look into social issues, essentially the effects of rumours and speculation. I cannot help but compare the book with Frankenstein. This is the beauty of fiction and the way people all have different perspectives on the same piece of literature.

I found both Constance and Merricat to be wonderful characters, they are both strong and at times unlikeable, while being mysterious and complex. Merricat has to be one of the best narrators found in literature; I never could fully understand her and she often surprised me. She is likeable but I could never trust her completely. She was an enigma and as the novel progressed and secrets revealed, I really appreciated the way Shirley Jackson crafted these characters.

There is a fine balance between the morbid and the whimsical to be found in We Have Always Lived in the Castle; it is poetic and haunting. Discovering Shirley Jackson came at the perfect time, I read this book during Halloween and I eagerly await next year to read another one of her novels. I know I could read Jackson at other times, but I do think her writing suited Halloween perfectly. I know The House of Haunting Hill is recommended, but I would love to know which of her other books should take priority.

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving

Posted December 14, 2015 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Classic, Horror / 0 Comments

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington IrvingTitle: The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (Goodreads)
Author: Washington Irving
Published: Tor, 1820
Pages: 96
Genres: Classic, Horror
My Copy: Audiobook

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Most people know the story of Sleepy Hollow, we have probably seen a movie or the TV show. But how accurate are these adaptations to the book? The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is probably Washington Irving’s best known short story. Appearing in his collection The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent along with the story that is often a companion to Sleepy Hollow, Rip Van Winkle. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow tells the story of Ichabod Crane in the Dutch settlement of Tarry Town and his encounters with the Headless Horseman.

There are many pop culture references to the Headless Horseman as well as adaptations. I remember Tim Burton directing a movie adaptation starting Johnny Depp and Christina Ricci and of course the more recent TV show. Although I cannot think of one reference or adaptation that seemed to get the story right. For starters, the TV show likes to portray Ichabod Crane as a gentleman (although a turncoat) but I got a very different experience in Washington Irving’s short story. I found Ichabod Crane to be a greedy character that wanted everything; from riches to notoriety.

The story is told as an investigation into the supernatural, trying to unlock the legend of the Headless Horseman. This worked really well, Washington Irving had a great ability in creating an atmosphere. As a reader I felt like I could picture everything he was writing and it really helped set the tension. Irving wrote beautiful words and combining this with the atmosphere, I felt myself fully immersed in the settlement of Tarry Town.

Having said that, the plot did not really go anywhere and it felt like it was over before it really got started. I think this story could have done with more pages, allowing to build the plot and characters in greater detail. There are some interesting themes of wealth, nature and truth but for the most part I felt it was lacking. I like the way Washington Irving wrote and I am glad that I finally know the story of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow now, even if it was just an average tale.

The Devil’s Detective by Simon Kurt Unsworth

Posted December 5, 2015 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Crime, Horror / 0 Comments

The Devil’s Detective by Simon Kurt UnsworthTitle: The Devil's Detective (Goodreads)
Author: Simon Kurt Unsworth
Published: Del Rey, 2015
Pages: 368
Genres: Horror
My Copy: Library Book

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Thomas Fool is one of the Devil’s Detectives, known as Information Men, his job is to keep order in Hell. When a badly bruised and unidentifiable body is discovered, Fool is given the case. The problem is, this is Hell and everyone is guilty of something. How can he investigate a murder where everything around him screams death? Who will come forward as a witness when everyone has something to hide?

I have been thinking a lot about writing better reviews and I feel like Simon Kurt Unsworth has made that job a whole lot easier with The Devil’s Detective. Before reading this book I had most of the themes worked out in my head. So let us start with the basic; a mystery novel is typically a quest narrative. We have the detective that is the hero of the story, setting out to solve a mystery. We know what the mystery is from the back of the novel but then again there always is something more going on.

If you think of the detective as the hero, it is easy to think a white knight on a journey to bring justice to the world. Although can this really be a morality tale? This is set in hell and if we go by the depiction of hell found in the Bible or Dante’s Inferno, it is one of hopelessness and despair. Assuming Unsworth is going to try to keep to the traditional narrative structures and also keep the Christian theology we can illuminate some core character traits.

There will be no true justice, Thomas Fool will not be a savour figure; he might solve the crime but they are still in Hell. Justice in Hell, seems unlikely. Now the idea of the detective being called an Information Man, leads me to think he will have knowledge of what goes on in Hell, but can he change anything? Considering the location this is unlikely, I do believe he will never effect the social balance, there will be no change and no real justice. If you do not believe me, consider his name, Fool.

I went into The Devil’s Detective with these preconceived thoughts, and turns out I was correct in thinking this way. I did not expect anything special, this novel was a light read; blending horror with a typical mystery plot. I wish I could say I enjoyed the book but I did not, there were no surprises and nothing stood out. I do think the theology was a little off and Unsworth’s depiction of Hell really needed work. If you want to read something set in Hell, I recommend Inferno; it has some of the best descriptions of what Hell might be like. Obviously we cannot be sure but it really does capture the despair and pain they we often associate with Hell.

In the Miso Soup by Ryū Murakami

Posted October 4, 2015 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Horror / 2 Comments

In the Miso Soup by Ryū MurakamiTitle: In the Miso Soup (Goodreads)
Author: Ryū Murakami
Translator: Ralph McCarthy
Published: Kodansha International, 1997
Pages: 180
Genres: Horror
My Copy: Library Book

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Kenji is a tour guide of the night, normally taking Americans to the sex clubs within Tokyo. Frank, an overweight business man that appears to have only one thing on his mind wishes to take advantage of Kenji’s knowledge of the sex industry, hires him to guide him for three days. However Frank’s strange behaviour begins to make Kenji suspicious and he quickly suspects that his client is in fact the serial killer currently terrorising Tokyo. In the Miso Soup is a fast paced, philosophical piece of translated fiction by the Murakami that does not often get talked about, Ryū Murakami.

Translated by Ralph McCarthy, this Japanese novel is a short punchy novel that really explores culture clash in a really interesting way. The attitudes towards sex between the Japanese and Americans are what really stands out to me while reading In the Miso Soup. The whole novel plays around with the cultural differences in an interesting way, exploring attitudes, personalities and even philosophical views. I enjoyed Ryū Murakami’s approach to these themes within In the Miso Soup, I think it was a unique take on East meets West, and I do not think I have seen the approach before.

One thing I like about Japanese fiction is the writing style, it is almost like a slow burn but novels like this still manage to build tension. I have read a few Japanese novels that explore really dark themes in this way; Revenge by Yōko Ogawa comes to mind. Be aware when reading In the Miso Soup, Ryū Murakami does not hold back and it can get descriptive in its depictions of sex and violence.

I really enjoyed reading Ryū Murakami’s In the Miso Soup and am eager to read more of his novels; in particular Coin Locker Babies and Audition. I am fascinated by the philosophical and psychological look into the darker side of humanity that seems to be a common theme within Japanese literature. Other novelists I am interested in checking out include Natsuo Kirino, Banana Yoshimoto and Kenzaburō Ōe. This does not include the authors I have already read, like Haruki Murakami, Yōko Ogawa and now Ryū Murakami. In the Miso Soup is a short novel but it packs a huge punch, not for the faint hearted but well worth reading. I have also done a video review of this book, if you are interested in checking that out.

Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist

Posted August 23, 2015 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Horror / 10 Comments

Let the Right One In by John Ajvide LindqvistTitle: Let the Right One In (Goodreads)
Author: John Ajvide Lindqvist
Translator: Ebba Segerberg
Published: Quercus, 2009
Pages: 519
Genres: Horror
My Copy: eBook

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Twelve-year-old boy, Oskar is having a hard time with life. While he has a loving mother, his alcoholic father is very absent in his life. At school, Oskar is the constantly being bullied. One day he meets Eli, and a friendship is formed between the two. However Eli is not a normal girl and it is quickly revealed that she is in fact a vampire. Let the Right One In by Swedish writer John Ajvide Lindqvist is a horror novel unlike any other that I have read before.

While Let the Right One In is a gothic horror that explores the unusual relationship between a 12-year-old boy and a vampire, for me this novel was something completely different. I found this to be a book that explores the darker side of humanity; looking at issue of alcoholism, divorce, bullying, abuse, self-mutilation, murder and paedophilia. Think of it more of an existential look at life and the horrors of the world around us.

I do not want to go into too much detail about what to expect when reading this novel. I just enjoyed the way it looked at the way we handle the horrors of the world from the view point of a struggling boy trying to cope with his situation. The relationship between Oskar and Eli is complicated, and unusual. This allows John Ajvide Lindqvist to explore so many interesting issues and push the reader to contemplate more of the world around them.

Most people would be familiar with the plot of this novel by the movie adaptation done in 2008, which was then horribly remade again by Hollywood in 2010 under the name Let Me In. I saw the Swedish version many years ago and felt it to be a brilliant movie but I have not re-watched it since reading the novel. I did however watch the American addition and it made me very angry. I feel like Hollywood is too afraid to deal with the dark side of humanity if it involves a twelve year old boy. Also America has a terrible habit of trying to remake movies that are already brilliant, I understand some people do not want to read subtitles but they do it to movies that are already in English as well. Soon there will also be a TV show based on this novel, which is set to air on A&E later this year.

I am so glad to have read Let the Right One In; I had a great time exploring the world. This is an extremely dark novel and this will not be everyone. I am curious to see what the TV show will be like but I will not be holding my breath. If you are willing to explore the dark side of humanity you will find Let the Right One In to be a compelling and thought provoking novel.

Acceptance by Jeff VanderMeer

Posted February 22, 2015 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Horror, Science Fiction / 4 Comments

Acceptance by Jeff VanderMeerTitle: Acceptance (Goodreads)
Author: Jeff VanderMeer
Series: Southern Reach Trilogy #3
Published: Fourth Estate, 2014
Pages: 341
Genres: Horror, Science Fiction
My Copy: Library Book

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Acceptance is the final instalment of the Southern Reach trilogy. It is winter in Area X and a new team is about to embark on a new expedition. The plan is to press deeper into the area and explore unexplored terrain. Will they finally find out the secrets behind Area X? What will Southern Reach do? And what is with this lighthouse?

Yet once again I am stuck trying to work out just what to say about this book, much like the other two novels in the series. I really don’t know what I can say without giving spoilers but I also have committed myself to write some kind of review with everything I read. Area X is a mysterious ecosystem; it is an environment that is untouched or corrupted by humans and yet Southern Reach is determined to discover the secrets behind this mystery.

Within Annihilation the readers are introduced to Area X and we are allowed to explore this new world, but there were so many questions being raised without many answers given. I loved this about Annihilation; I was thrilled by everything in this novel and I knew I had to read the series to find out the answers. Authority explored the mystery behind the governing organisation Southern Reach; while I didn’t enjoy the book as much I was interested in find out more about bureaucracy.

After both Annihilation and Authority, there were still a lot of questions to be answered and Acceptance felt more like a novel to tie everything up. There is a new expedition and there is still some excitement to be found in the final instalment, but for me it was a letdown. I got my answers, but I wasn’t satisfied and in the end I just felt like everything wrapped up too neatly.

The Southern Reach trilogy is a thrilling science fiction series that plays with ideas of environment and bureaucracy. The world that Jeff VanderMeer has created is immersive and wonderfully crafted. These books are short and don’t take long to read. While I had my issues here, I am still glad to have worked my way through this trilogy and am interested in trying to more of Jeff VanderMeer’s novels.

Authority by Jeff VanderMeer

Posted December 19, 2014 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Horror, Science Fiction / 4 Comments

Authority by Jeff VanderMeerTitle: Authority (Goodreads)
Author: Jeff VanderMeer
Series: Southern Reach Trilogy #2
Published: Fourth Estate, 2014
Pages: 341
Genres: Horror, Science Fiction
My Copy: Library Book

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For thirty years, the clandestine government agency simply known as the Southern Reach have been sending expeditions into an isolated area known as Area X. Twelve expeditions have been sent to this unspoilt stretch of the US coastline but they are no closer to unlocking the mysteries of Area X. John Rodriguez, or as he is better known, Control is the newly appointed head of Southern Reach and he is determined to sort out this agency from all its disarray.

While Annihilation focused on Area X and served as an exhibition into nature, Authority is more about the bureaucratic nightmare of a secretive government organisation. The story follows Control, who serves as more of an outsider trying to make sense of everything that is going on within the Southern Reach. While this novel focuses on the organisation rather than Area X, readers can still expect to experience the same building of tension and terror found in Annihilation.

Even though it is a different cast of characters, I am very mindful of giving spoilers to the series so I will be a little vague and won’t be able to say everything I would like to say. Having said that, I tend to view Authority as a novel that parallels Annihilation in many ways. This makes me believe that the effects of Area X is not just a physical anomaly but also psychological. Yet again the reader is left with more questions than answers; What is going on here?

While I don’t think Authority was nearly as exciting as Annihilation. I am still very curious how this series will end with the last book Acceptance. I do have the last book from the library and I will probably read it sometime in January; I just need to know the answers. These books are a fun departure from the types of books I normally read but I do hate how vague I have to be in the reviews. Go out and read them; that is pretty much all I can really say.

Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer

Posted December 9, 2014 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Horror, Science Fiction / 5 Comments

Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeerTitle: Annihilation (Goodreads)
Author: Jeff VanderMeer
Series: Southern Reach Trilogy #1
Published: FSG Originals, 2014
Pages: 195
Genres: Horror, Science Fiction
My Copy: Paperback

Buy: AmazonBook DepositoryKindle (or visit your local Indie bookstore)

A section of America has been cut off from the rest of the continent; this has been dubbed Area X. While no one has been too sure what caused Area X to be cut off, a clandestine government agency called the Southern Reach keeps sending expeditions to this new ecosystem, to study the last vestiges of an untouched environment. Eleven expeditions have gone to this abandoned and unspoilt stretch of US coastline, eleven catastrophic failures. Four women known only by their disciplines: surveyor, anthropologist, psychologist and biologist are preparing for the twelfth expedition; will they find the answers to explain Area X, this enigmatic and frightening ecosystem?

Annihilation is the first book in the much talked about Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer; a short 200 page novel that packs a huge punch. The reader is thrown into this world and soon finds themselves with many questions; however the answers will only lead to more questions and so you will find yourself in a spiral of tension and excitement. Think Cormac McCarthy meets James Smythe; you have this thrilling and complex novel that sees four women and their impending doom.

I am hesitant in talking about this book too much because everything is shrouded in mystery and deception. I don’t want to give too much away but I can say that Annihilation, on the surface, is a thrilling science-fiction novel. However as you dive deeper into the plot you will soon discover that this is full metafictional and psychoanalytical allegory that leads to a whole new type of exploration for those interested in critical reading. This is so annoying because I want to talk about this book but I don’t want to give anything away.

I have had similar issues reviewing The Explorer by James Smythe, I want to say so much more about this book but I want people to discover it for themselves. I am desperate to read Authority, followed by Acceptance but I know that reviewing them is going to be even more difficult (much like The Echo). Do yourself a favour, go out and pick up a copy of Annihilation if you haven’t done so already, but trust me when I say you will need the other two books in the Southern Reach Trilogy.