January 28, 2018
Annihiliation Book Cover Annihiliation
The Southern Reach, #1
Jeff VanderMeer
Science Fiction
Blackstone Audio
February 14th, 2014
Carolyn McCormick

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; all the members of the second expedition committed suicide; the third expedition died 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 months of their return, all had died of aggressive cancer.

This is the twelfth expedition.

Their 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 and collect specimens; to record all their observations, scientific and otherwise, of their surroundings and of one another; and, above all, to 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 changes everything.

(via Goodreads)


Annihilation is a book I’ve heard nothing but amazing things about. It’s short, it’s atmospheric, it’s engaging, it’s mysterious– everyone I know who has read it has completely raved about its magic. So when David and I were looking for last minute audiobooks for our road trip home for the holidays this seemed like a great opportunity to share a well-loved book. As you might recall from my last Solving for Tsundoku, I recently had a DNF go quite wrong. Little did I know Annihilation was NOT going to turn out how I expected…

This is how the madness of the world tries to colonize you: from the outside in, forcing you to live in its reality.

I am not going to bother with a synopsis. Read it above if you’re curious because it’s complicated and mysterious and challenging to describe. I certainly couldn’t do it justice. But it is worth knowing that Annihilation is the first novel in a trilogy, and it was nominated for and won a ton of 2014/2015 literary awards, including Nebula Award for Best Novel.

If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times: Don’t listen to audiobooks with bad narrators. Here is where my tale of woe begins and probably where it could have ended. Carolyn McCormick narrates this audiobook. And she is forever on my AVOID list. McCormick’s narration felt like a sprint through all 195 pages. She was reading so quickly that we often had to rewind as we adjusted to her pacing. There was far too much, “Wait, what did she say?” in the first 30 minutes of listening. We noted three separate moments when she mispronounced words (not pronouncing them in a British vs. American way, but just honestly stumbled through the word). And she reads this novel with no inflection what-so-ever. I literally fell asleep listening to her reading because it was so drone-like. And I fell asleep during one of the “scariest” and “most intense” moments. I’m not kidding. Terrible.

So, why did we keep listening? David was intrigued. He wanted to keep going and could forgive the bad narration (though he agreed it was bad).

Some questions will ruin you if you are denied the answer long enough.

Now, let’s talk about these characters. Our troupe is a collection of 6 women. I was thrilled to have an all-female cast! Yet, that bubble was quickly popped. While we might have 6 women, they are wholly troped puppets with no personality. The limited dialogue they do share is horrible. It felt like they were early AI bots reading cue cards in an attempt to affect human interaction. These characters are intentionally given no names, being referred to as ‘the psychologist” and “the surveyor”. This only separated my connection to them even more.

Even worse, as the book progresses, our main-character explores the idea of free-will. Why does that matter? Because she explicitly explains in the beginning that she doesn’t believe in herself as a person. This is an exploration of agency which is incongruous to me. I feel like our protagonists have no meaningful identity. This really put me off of a narrator I would typically love: the unreliable type.

The map had been the first form of misdirection, what is a map but a way of emphasizing some things and making other things invisible? 

The book is dripping atmospheric writing. But the writing is SO atmospheric I couldn’t visualize a single thing. There are no references to the world as we know it, so it’s hard to place the setting. The closest things to our reality I can peg are things like flashlights. I don’t see pictures in my head, so overly descriptive writing tends to bore me. In most cases, I at least understand what the author is trying to share. In this case, I felt like I spent the whole novel unable to understand what was happening; lost, bored, and detached.

This leads me to the hook– or the lack thereofof. The premise of the book seems to be around trying to solve the mystery of Area X. And yet, never once did I care about Area X. There was nothing which piqued my interest. I think I might have been intrigued if VanderMeer had not tried so hard. I like the Lovecraftian concepts of “Is this real? Is this a dream? What am I experiencing?”, but instead, everything fell short. It felt like VanderMeer was flirting with ideas and concepts he didn’t quite have the skill to execute on. There are some great ideas here, but nothing is well-explored or even remotely established.

Perhaps my only real expertise, my only talent, is to endure beyond the endurable.

I feel on the whole this covers my largest concerns with Annihilation, but there are others which I won’t touch upon. I don’t want this to turn into something too nit-picky or mean. There are so many people who have completely fallen in love with VanderMeer’s writing (including Natalie Portman, who is starring in this year’s big-screen adaption), I feel like I’ve missed something. Perhaps I am blinded by a poor audiobook narrator? Perhaps the story just isn’t for me, but the writing could be? Due to the high number of variables around my experience, I am willing to read VanderMeer’s works again. But The Southern Reach series and I are done for good. Sorry, friends.

What do you think?

  • Have you read Annihilation? What do you think of this novel?
  • If you enjoyed this novel, what did I miss?!
  • Do you believe narrators make or break audiobooks? What examples have you seen of this? Do you have narrators you avoid above all else now?
  • What is the last book you read which you finished reading and did not enjoy at all?
  • What do you think, should I try re-reading this book in print?


  • Jamie January 28, 2018 at 11:51 pm

    Oh dear, I picked up the Southern Reach trilogy on sale a while ago but hadn’t gotten around to reading it yet. I’ve considering putting it on my TBR this year since there’s now the movie adaptation coming out. I’m hoping that it’s as good as everyone says it is though some of the things you highlighted sound like things that would bother me too. Also having a boring narrator on an audio book definitely sounds like it’d ruin the experience. I haven’t really listened to too many audio books because I know that this sort of thing would bother me, and I find it easier to read at my own pace.

    Hopefully VanderMeer can be redeemed in the future since his work is so highly praised. Otherwise thanks for the detailed review, it’s nice to get differing perspectives instead of reading nothing but hype or overwhelming praise on books, I feel it gives some balance and saves me from forming high expectations.

    • Jackie B January 31, 2018 at 10:09 am

      One of the missions of my blog is to help people cull books they wouldn’t like to read. I know that I often find overly-hyped books to be disappointing, but never *this* disappointing, for sure. I still strongly recommend you give the first book a try. It’s fairly short (under 200 pages) and SO many people have loved it! I feel like I jsut missed something…

      I *love* audiobooks. I commute quite a bit, and I have a dog who needs a lot of exercise, so I spend more hours with my headphones in than I care to admit. Let me know if you ever need some good audiobook recommendations. I’ve got a strong list growing in my head!

  • Ann Marie January 29, 2018 at 7:51 am

    For some reason this book hadn’t appealed to me. Your review confirms that I’ve made the right decision to skip this one. Excellent honest and thoughtful review.

    • Jackie B January 29, 2018 at 8:17 pm

      Thank you so much, Ann Marie! I love the concept of an atmospheric thriller but… well, it didn’t quite pan out as I had hoped.

  • Hungry Bookworm January 29, 2018 at 9:54 am

    That’s disappointing to hear, because it is on my TBR list and I recently requested it from the library (in anticipation of the movie) – I’m still planning to give it a try… hopefully I like it better. (If not, at least it’s short, right?)

    I wonder if this would be a rare instance where you would like the movie better, since you had such a hard time picturing the scenes/setting; the movie would definitely help there.

    • Jackie B January 31, 2018 at 10:11 am

      I know! I’m disappointed too. It’s so frustrating to find such a well hyped book so disappointing… I hope that when you get around to reading Annihilation that you love it! It’s totally worth a try as it clocks in at under 200 pages. 😀

      You bring up a good point! Perhaps I *do* need to see the film in order to better understand the book. I wonder if that would make things connect more in my head too… We’ll see when the film does come out! Thanks for the recommendation; I’ll definitely have to check that out.

  • Grab the Lapels January 29, 2018 at 8:13 pm

    I swear there is something about Blackstone Audio. Their most used narrators are my least favorite. Case in point: Bernadette Dunn. Last night I borrowed three books from Hoopla because I would get one, listen for a minute, and hate the narrator. They weren’t from Blackstone, though. I ended up choosing Janet Mock’s first book, which she herself narrates. So far, it’s very good!

  • Helen Murdoch January 30, 2018 at 10:49 am

    Oh goodness. 1 star is sad. I would never have finished it 🙂

    • Jackie B January 30, 2018 at 4:50 pm

      I know! I only finished it because I was trapped in a car and the driver wanted to keep going. Afterwards, we discussed: He gave it two stars. O_o

  • Laila@BigReadingLife January 30, 2018 at 5:19 pm

    I DID love this book, but I almost can’t even describe why I loved it. It just hit some really sweet spots for me – creepiness, mystery, descriptive language (which I enjoy,) government conspiracies… and it’s set in the South, which is where I live, which is cool. I agree with lack of characterization, but I don’t think he was trying to give us real characters. I think his emphasis was more on the mystery and the natural (unnatural?) landscape. For a more fully developed character, you gotta read books 2 and 3. But it sounds like you’re not going to, ha ha! I wonder what you would have thought of this if you’d read it in print. But I’m sure you have PLENTY to read without trying to go back and read this again!

  • LizScanlon February 2, 2018 at 4:28 pm

    O, wow! So sorry your expectations were so completely… well.. annihilated! Whilst I read the blurb, I thought- ooh, cool… then saw your rating and the review… well, darn! Do you think you would have enjoyed the story more if it hadn’t have been an audiobook? I simply don’t mix well at all with audiobooks (my attention span or something) so just wondering if perhaps reading it would have been a different case altogether… although I think it’ll be a while before you pick one of the author’s books up any time soon? 🙂

  • Lashaan (Bookidote) February 4, 2018 at 9:26 pm

    Gosh…. This makes me want to avoid audiobooks hahah I don’t listen to them and it is in fear of these kinds of cases that I don’t want to invest in them too, among other reasons. I did enjoy your thoughts on it all a lot though. The “too” atmospheric part was fascinating since it’s the first time I’ve heard someone say that. I definitely plan on trying this out for myself someday, probably before the movie comes out. Absolutely awesome honest review Jackie! 🙂

    • Jackie B February 6, 2018 at 8:49 am

      I know, I know! I don’t want to scare people away from audiobooks, but this is definitely something worth considering. When I select audiobooks, I also always select ones which have won awards or with narrators I love and trust. It’s important for me to speak to the narrator when I review an audiobook to help people find great ones. Because they exist. And they make terrible books sound fun and interesting. I kid you not.

      I look forward to seeing your review! I know so many people who have loved it. And knowing how much you enjoyed Bourne I am extra curious to see your thoughts on Annihilation.

  • Laura Purdy February 28, 2018 at 8:42 pm

    Ahhh, you are always one step ahead of me. I read the trilogy while we were on vacation… and I’d give the first one 4-5 stars, second one 5 stars, last one 4-5 stars. It’s definitely a “not for everyone” book, so I’d be hesitant to recommend it to anyone but I looooooooooooved taking my time with it and reading a chapter at a time and soaking in the way that he was able to create so much suspense and dread with so little concrete imagery. I read the wiki about the movie and it sounds like the plot is significantly altered (everyone has names, I actually loved the sparseness of so little back story on everyone) so we’ll see.

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