ANNIHILATION by Jeff Vandermeer. Plot: 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; the second expedition ended in mass suicide; the third expedition 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 weeks, all had died of cancer. In Annihilation, the first volume of Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, we join the twelfth expedition. The 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, record all observations of their surroundings and of one another, and, above all, 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. Narrated by Carolyn McCormick.
Bottom Line: Don’t let a few other bad reviews dissuade you. One I read said it “fell flat,” and another “after this, I do not care one single iota about anything this author has written.” Right. Well, it won a Nebula Award for Best Novel, a Shirley Jackson Award, a USA Today Favorite Beach Read, a Salon Best Audiobook of the Year. Then it was praised by Entertainment Weekly, Publishers Weekly, Booklist, and Kirkus Reviews. And it will be a major movie in February 2018, starring Natalie Portman, directed by Alex Garland, who wrote and directed Ex Machina, which made Alicia Vikander a star. The dark side of reviews you see everywhere is that they truly cannot be trusted. I had a bad review for Postmarked for Death that has stood for 20 years by an anonymous reviewer asking people not to buy. It killed the small press book, which got no advertising to begin with. The reviewer, by all indications, never read it. He couldn’t spell. He called me “Mr. Low.” Yet Clive Cussler called it, “a class performance, powerful and accomplished…mystery at its best.” Won an award on audio, narrated by Frank Muller. Endorsed by John Lutz, of Single White Female, the movie. (His next book was also about a serial bomber.) Didn’t matter. Have yet to make any money from it. So I’ve reposted it as an eBook at Amazon, BN.com, and iTunes, along with a new sampler ebook titled “The World’s First Trillionaire.” Satire, obviously. And only $1. There’s a lesson here somewhere, but I have no idea what that might be. (Or I’m not allowed to say, because Howard has a working AI, controls Wall Street, and knows the nuclear codes.)
Next, A LEGACY OF SPIES by John le Carré. Plot: Peter Guillam, staunch colleague and disciple of George Smiley of the British Secret Service, otherwise known as the Circus, is living out his old age on the family farmstead on the south coast of Brittany when a letter from his old Service summons him to London. The reason? His Cold War past has come back to claim him. Intelligence operations that were once the toast of secret London, and involved such characters as Alec Leamas, Jim Prideaux, George Smiley and Peter Guillam himself, are to be scrutinized by a generation with no memory of the Cold War and no patience with its justifications. Interweaving past with present so that each may tell its own intense story, John le Carré spins it into a single plot as ingenious and thrilling as the two predecessors on which it looks back: The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. The story resonates with tension, humor and moral ambivalence, le Carré and his narrator Peter Guillam present the reader with a legacy of unforgettable characters old and new. John le Carré recently appeared on 60 Minutes. The novel is narrated by actor Tom Hollander. Hollander has appeared in the films Pirates of the Caribbean, Mission Impossible Rogue Nation, and About Time. He supports a variety of charitable causes in innovative ways. In 2006 he ran his first race for the Childline Crisis hotline, and in 2007 ran for the Teenage Cancer Trust. He’s also a long-time supporter of the Helen and Douglas House in Oxford, which provides Hospice care for children, and continues to support charitable organizations by contributing readings and other appearances throughout the year. Hollander is a patron of BIFA, the British Independent Film Awards, and has supported the cause of young writers for the British stage. For this reason alone, I recommend it. But mainly because the narrator brings the suspenseful text alive, employing subtle nuance. A pro, don’t you know.
Finally, as a special treat, an interview with Diane Clehane, author of IMAGINING DIANA, also on audio, imagining what would have happened had Princess Diana lived. Clehane has served as a commentator on the British royal family for CNN, Access Hollywood, and CBS News. She has written about celebrities and pop culture for Vanity Fair, Forbes, People, Vogue.com and Adweek.com, and she is a U.S. correspondent for British Heritage. In her weekly “Wednesdays at Michael’s” column, Clehane chronicles the Manhattan media scene. Imagining Diana begins on August 31, 1997 in a Paris hospital. As the world awaits news of Diana’s fate following the paparazzi-fueled crash, Diana awakens from a coma to discover that she has survived the wreckage, but with her famous face—the most photographed in the world— forever changed. Based on actual events, what ensues is an elegant, riveting account of Diana’s storied past and imagined future as an icon, lover, and mother of a future king. On audio the book is introduced by the author, and narrated by Stina Nielsen. Would appeal to anyone who follows the Royals or who admires Diana and wants to imagine a better end for her. The narrator? Nails it.
Jonathan Lowe) There’s much background on Diana, and of course speculation about what her motives were, played out in fiction after her death. Wondering what the biggest guess was, besides the fact that she wanted to live her own life and create an honorable life for her boys amid all the glitz and paparazzi.
Diane Clehane) I have been writing about the British royal family for a long time and did extensive research for the book. As someone who has written about Diana for two decades, I felt very confident about the path I imagined for her had she lived. The biggest mystery was if she would have remarried. What I did in the book is directly related to a relationship she really had with Teddy Forstmann. I believe the greatest happiness Diana would have found later in her life would have come from the relationship she had with her sons — and their wives and children — and her work as a global humanitarian figure.
JL) Did Diana really not want to go to Paris, making it a jealousy play with no intention of a serious relationship with Dodi?
DC) When Diana met Dodi, she had just had a devastating break-up with Hasnat Khan. I believe she was trying to make Hasnat jealous by allowing herself to be photographed on the yacht in Dodi’s arms. That said, she was enjoying herself on that vacation because Dodi was focused solely on her. She found him very attentive, but when the holiday was over she was ready to go back to London. I don’t think their romance would have lasted for a whole host of reasons — the fact that William didn’t care for the Fayed jet-set lifestyle being among them.
JL) The agent in New York looking to exploit Diana. Was there a specific agent in mind, perhaps based on one you encountered in real life? Or is she a total fiction, like Meryl playing a fashion snob in The Devil Wears Prada?
DC) The agent Lois is a composite character based on many people I’ve known in the media, publishing and entertainment fields. I thought it would be fun to make her a larger-than-life presence.
JL) Was Diana ever in love with Charles, and vice-versa, in your opinion? Who cheated first, and why?
DC) Diana was definitely in love with Charles when they married. She was all of 20 years old and very much believed in love and romance. Charles told friends he hoped he could ‘grow to love Diana’ and he did, I believe, in his own way. Unfortunately for Charles and Diana, it was an arranged marriage because he was being pressured to find a suitable (read: aristocratic and virginal) bride. Unfortunately, Charles never really let go of his emotional attachment to Camilla. Later it became an open secret among palace insiders that he had resumed his affair. Ironically, Diana and Charles were starting a new stage of their relationship post-divorce when she was killed. I believe they would have grown closer as friends in later years as they do in my book.