The Southern Reach are an organisation in charge of investigating the mysterious Area X, a dangerous and strange wilderness off-limits to the public. The first volume follows The Biologist, part of a four-woman team sent on the twelfth expedition into Area X to discover its secrets. As the series unfolds, you start to discover why the previous expeditions ended badly.
VanderMeer has a chilling writing style, particularly in the first book, which feels tense throughout. The second book - focusing on Control, newly instated at the Southern Reach - dragged a little at times, but the scary moments (when they happened) arrived like a punch in the gut.
What's great about this series is the world that VanderMeer has extensively built. The detail is incredible. He also manages to invent creatures and landmarks that are so unreal and out of this world that they feel genuinely creepy in their other-ness.
I've never read anything quite like it.
I'm not really a sci-fi girl but this series has convinced me there's more to the genre than spaceships and intergalactic politics!
One day last year, despite having a stack of books waiting to be read, I checked a load out of the library when I took Jellybean there. Why? Because they looked nice. I'm weak willed.
They had loads of copies of Hold Your Own, and having banged on for ages about wanting to get into poetry (having been put off by the way it was taught at school), I decided to check it out. What I found in this book totally changed my mind.
The collection kicks off with the story of Tiresias, a blind prophet of Apollo who is famous for being transformed into a woman after separating a pair of mating snakes by smacking them with a stick (yes, that is the actual story. Tempest's telling of the story is really good so I won't ruin the ending for you. You'll have to read it yourself). Then the collection is split into sections, following Tiresias's journey from child, to man, to woman, to blind prophet. What results is a deep, personal collection of poems that I kept re-reading in the vain hope I might be able to memorise bits of it. Tempest covers social issues, youth culture, and consumerism amongst other topics, in a slim but packed book, and deals with each subject with compassion and raw honesty.
She has made me discover poetry with fresh eyes - and the power of being able to express so much in few words. It really is an art form. This year I'm going to buy my own copy and highlight the absolute heck out of it.
Out of Sorts sounds like it could be an attack on certain denominations or beliefs within the church. It isn't. Instead, it is a deeply personal and moving account of a changing and evolving faith. It wades into the deep waters of theological differences between Christians without fear - and explores it with both sensitivity and honesty.
Bessey writes about the process of maturing in your faith, and how difficult it can be. Having been through this process myself in the past few years, this book helped me to understand it. Bessey's own account of her journey in faith is tender, and beautifully honest. It helped me to realise the importance - the necessity - of 'working out my own faith with fear and trembling', and that to consider theology isn't just the job of pastors and preachers, but for everybody to consider and invest time into.
If I was going to recommend any book for an expectant mother, I'd recommend this one. Emily Oster, economics professor from the University of Chicago, fell pregnant, and rather than concentrating on sleeping and trying not to be sick (as I do whilst pregnant), she went into research mode. Focusing on the studies about pregnancy and alcohol, caffeine, eating rare meat, etc, the book breaks down each study and analyzes their findings. Oster comes to her own conclusions - and allows pregnant women to make their own conclusions, too. Very level headed and informative, and it made me feel better about drinking coffee in the mornings!
This sneaks onto the list as the last book I finished in 2016. I love the Hurrah for Gin blog and was so excited to get the book for Christmas. Katie Kirby's book of stick man cartoons and thoughts about parenthood manages to be both hilarious and touching. The last chapter made me cry a little bit. The rest made me laugh out loud.
Ever wondered why toys and books and games are so rigidly gendered blue for boys, pink for girls? So did the writer of this book. Orenstein found herself lost in a world of pink and glitter when her daughter, Daisy, was born. She goes on to investigate the impact this gender stereotyping has on girls - and how to avoid falling for it. I've wanted this book for a long time, and it's my favourite kind of non-fiction: interesting, impactful and very readable.
I went on a Jon Ronson reading spree this year, starting with the brilliant So You've Been Publicly Shamed. Ronson explores what happens to those who make mistakes on social media and have their lives turned upside down for it. It made me think twice about joining in with online witch hunts - and still makes me think before I post.
Funny and down to earth and kind of horrifying at the same time - this should be required reading for anyone who uses social media.
I finally finished the rich, layered masterpiece that is S. This year. Written by Doug Dorst and conceptualised by J.J Abrams, S is a story within a story. Not so much a book, more of an experience. Check out my review here.
Speaking of ... Chris managed to find me not one, but two books with more than just one story this year. House of Leaves is the story of a man who discovers, in the apartment of a recently deceased blind man, an elaborate manuscript - an in depth analysis of a documentary about a family living in a mysterious house. The only thing is, the documentary itself doesn't exist.
House of Leaves tells the story of the mysterious Navidson house, the story of the old man who wrote it, and the story of the man who is trying to unravel it all ... and is starting to become dangerously obsessed with it all.
House of Leaves genuinely creeped me out (I had to stop reading it at night. The last book that did that to me was The Shining). When I finished it, I discovered a whole world of secrets and theories and puzzles waiting to be unlocked, mostly through the community on the author's official forum. This book could take over your life!
I just - I can't explain it. You have to read it to really get it. I found myself looking at the forum and then grabbing my copy of the book, rifling through it, and gasping in revelation. Either that or furrowing my brow and dropping everything else to try and work it out.
Bessey again, and I read this one with tears in my eyes. I'm planning on reading it again this year. Bessey explores scripture and discusses women's roles, and ponders how certain verses of the Bible have been used to silence and oppress women for thousands of years. She gets to the root of what I believe is God's heart for women - and uncovers how damaging and limiting the Christian obsession with gender can be. All with her patient, grace filled, but passionate manner. Highly recommended if you're a Christian (not just a Christian woman!)
Another Christian book, but with such practical application that I think it would be good reading for anyone with a busy life. The Fringe Hours presents a way of finding the margins of your life - the small gaps and empty spaces - and suggests filling them with things that you are passionate about. A brilliant read for a creative-but-exhausted person.
So last year I said I'd read more graphic novels. I only got round to reading one in the end. Maybe this year?!
Becoming Unbecoming is the beautiful (true) story of Una, an artist going through her teenage years in Yorkshire at the same time that the Yorkshire Ripper was active. Una explores her own experiences with sexual abuse and slut-shaming, and the damage that we do to girls by sweeping it under the carpet. Very powerful, and at times painful, it's not a light read, but a beautiful and important one. The art style is stunning and conveyed her message in a way that impacted me long after I finished it.
That's it for my best reads of 2016 ... now to work on 2017! What were your favourite books from the past year? Let me know!
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