The Southern Reach Trilogy: by Jeff Vandermeer

The Southern Reach Trilogy, as a whole, constitutes a bewildering and disturbing leap into a reality-adjacent realm. While characters and setting carry over from book to book, each individual contribution to the overall trilogy is a unique genre exercise.

The first book, Annihilation, is a tale of exploration, self-discovery and the singular appeal of terra incognita that has always pulled humans, both physically and in our imaginations, to venture into mysterious spaces. Truly, it is a metaphor of being a book reader, who will relentlessly plunge into the new worlds constructed between the covers of books. The protagonist of Annihilation, the Biologist, is a fitting avatar for the reader’s own desire to meander and investigate throughout Area X, as she is infinitely curious, incredibly perspicacious and indelibly analytical. She wants to know just as much as the reader does, to resolve the grand mysteries of Area X.

Book two in the trilogy, Authority, details the bureaucratic idiosyncrasies of the Southern Reach, the shadowy US government agency that oversees the expeditions into Area X. It is a spy novel, as new protagonist Control is appointed the acting Director of the agency and is then tasked with discovering the agency’s shady history and deepest secrets.

Book three again changes gears. Acceptance is more of a pure thriller, using flashbacks to complete the story told throughout the trilogy. Like any good writer, Vandermeer refuses to provide all the answers and even the solutions revealed here themselves pose new questions.

Vandermeer has moved on, so the confounding Area X will never be completely explicated, but exploring its oddness will be fun for as long as the Southern Reach Trilogy is around. – Ryne Clos

Gas Stop: by David Freund

Americans’ fascination with the automobile has resulted in a predictable amount of coffee-table books dedicated to vintage cars. But whither the gas station? This four-volume set in a handsome slip-cover that mimics a fuel gauge design gathers more than 500 images that photographer David Freund made of gas stations from 1978 to 1981. Although it looks at just one seemingly ordinary piece of the American puzzle, the project addresses its varieties and similarities at a time when road trips were more varied in their possible amenities than the monotonous sea of big chains that dominate the 21st century highway.

But it’s not just a book of quirky roadside attractions. This democratic book is just as full of utilitarian designs that went no further than bare, minimal poles and pumps that dotted the barren landscape with a geometric simplicity that, in the context of these photos, look like electric oases. Freund lends a compositional elegance to quotidian locations, pulling together elements that, on their own, would be the height of banality. The book is more than a catalogue of industrial variations like Bernd and Hilla Becher’s studies of water tanks, and it’s not exactly a study of humanity like August Sander’s portraits of the German people. But Gas Stop is just as essential, a record of a time when design idiosyncrasy was more common, when a cross-country trip, even at its most mundane, still had the promise of aesthetic surprise around every corner. – Pat Padua

For the Sake of Heaviness: The History of Metal Blade Records: by Brian Slagel and Mark Eglinton

If you know metal, then you know Metal Blade Records. Founded in 1982 by Brian Slagel, Metal Blade has grown into the most important record label in heavy metal. With help from Mark Eglinton, who’s authored or co-authored books on Pantera, Behemoth and James Hetfield of Metallica, Slagel plays both metal fan-boy and label CEO as he matter-of-factly details how Metal Blade came to be a defining name in the genre (“I can’t play an instrument, but I did know what sounded good. That’s how I ended up producing the first Slayer record”).

Delightful and insightful interviews with members of current and former acts including Joey Vera of Armored Saint and Fates Warning, Chris Barnes of Cannibal Corpse and Six Feet Under and Johan Hagg of Amon Amarth pair well with Slagel’s unabashed enthusiasm for heavy metal. But what’s most surprising is that for a label known for some of the most extreme music on Earth, its founder is an aw-shucks kind of guy who’s still hungry for new bands even after three and a half decades. Even if you’re completely averse to metal, For the Sake of Heaviness is worth checking out as a fun success story of how a metalhead from California built an industry icon from his mom’s garage. – Steve Lampiris

The North Water: by Ian McGuire

The past is a filthy place, one of murderous men who care not for the value of human life. That is if you believe The North Water, Ian McGuire’s novel about a whaling voyage gone awry. His vision of the 19th century is a bleak one; it’s a world where men exist on a day-to-day basis, surviving as if the future is limited, at best. In his vividly descriptive prose, writing crafted with the same precision as an ornate jewelry box, McGuire finds a way for the stench and awfulness of his milieu to leap from the page to create a horrifying experience for all the senses.

The North Water draws its parts from a long literary tradition, as elements of Conrad and Melville inform McGuire’s storytelling. While the novel’s plot is fairly straightforward, McGuire’s immaculate writing elevates its simple story to high art. He also digs deep into classic themes, exploring the notions of evil and its existence.

The North Water may be grisly, but McGuire peppers the novel with enough mystery to grip the reader. Salvation is impossible in such a brutal world, but McGuire finds a way for deliverance to filter through the darkness. A riveting maelstrom of a novel, The North Water shows a master writer at work. It is a book that not only demonstrates research and a vital understanding of the past, but a fecund imagination that strains against the confines of historical fiction and propels the genre to a new peak. – David Harris

Dreaming the Beatles: by Rob Sheffield

In the wake of Mark Lewisohn’s exhaustive The Beatles: All These Years, Volume One—Tune In, just the first in a series of forthcoming volumes, it has seemed impossible to write anything else about the Fab Four. Rob Sheffield, then, has done the impossible with Dreaming the Beatles, which doesn’t try to compete at the level of research, but instead dives deep into the subjective and offers a compelling, engaging account of, in short, why the Beatles still matter.

Few people are as good as Sheffield at describing, in vivid terms, what it feels like to care about music, what it means for music to matter. Full of personal recollection mixed in with cultural criticism, dealt out with a very light touch, the book tackles specific songs (“Dear Prudence,” “Tomorrow Never Knows,” “Strawberry Fields Forever,” and “Helter Skelter,” among others), the famed Beatles vs. Stones querelle, their cultural impact over the decades, how different generations rejected or adopted the band and its legacy and much more.

There is also fantastic material about the post-Beatles years and each of the Fab’s solo pursuits. Of course, many of these things have been covered before, but never in a way that unifies the band’s years together and the band’s years apart to show how relevant the latter are to the former, and how much one can understand of their time together from their time apart.

Finally, some of the chapters—“Paul is a Concept by Which We Measure Our Pain” and “When George Sang ‘In My Life’ (1974),” in particular—are destined to be anthologized as all-time great works of rock criticism.

The book itself is a good model for its subject—I feel like saying that it’s almost embarrassing how much I enjoyed it. Almost as embarrassing as how much I love the Beatles. – Dylan Montanari

Manhattan Beach: by Jennifer Egan

Jennifer Egan’s latest, Manhattan Beach, has been described as a noir thriller, and that’s halfway true. Yes, it borrows heavily from gangland stories and takes place mostly at night, but it also liberally weaves in elements from workplace procedurals, seafaring adventure tales and soapy melodramas. Joining her trio of protagonists—the whip-smart Anna Kerrigan, her union racketeer father Eddie and the sympathetic gangster Dexter Styles—is the roiling, wine-dark sea. The ocean is a non-human character in Egan’s rich cast, omnipresent and looming. The zigzagging connections between these four lay the foundation for a tale of tragedy, redemption and something close to triumph.

The bulk of Manhattan Beach unfolds during World War II and is largely set in Brooklyn’s Navy Yard. Egan toggles between disparate tones and styles with a singular authorial voice. The result is both an engrossing yarn and stunning literary achievement. Unlike the disjointed narrative of her Pulitzer-winning breakout A Visit from the Goon Squad, all the action occurs on the page, with each chapter building methodically on the last with a forward thrust that reaches a climax so inevitable and satisfying that only on reflection do you realize it’s a bit too pat.

As Anna traverses New York City docks, Manhattan’s rollicking nightlife and the everyday impediments of adulthood, she emerges a feminist hero, not only a Rosie the Riveter-type icon, but a woman rendered in three dimensions. Like her counterparts in Goon Squad, she’s forced to reckon with time’s passage and the secrets exposed along the way. Egan’s prose mimics Anna’s evolution: what was straightforward and practical becomes intricate and lyrical. And so Manhattan Beach is, from multiple vantages, a humble journey, but elevated. Simplicity spirals into complication, often leading to discovery. In Egan’s capable hands, an extraordinary jewel is unearthed from all-too-familiar ground. – Peter Tabakis

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