Cover Image: Hummingbird Salamander

Hummingbird Salamander

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Member Reviews

Hummingbird Salamander was a unique book. It's very different from the other Vandermeer's books, it's a thriller and not exactly a sci-fi book. I think what I liked the most about it is the message. It was scary and true. We could see a lot of cynical remarks and I really connected with that.

I had a hard time understanding the main character, since she was pretty distant from her emotions due to past trauma. But I found it so refreshing to read a book with a plus-size character in which her size is not the plot. I appreciated the representation.

Vandermeer being one of my favorite authors the expectations were really really high and not quite reached with this novel. While I loved the immersive writing and found the universe and the mystery absolutely fascinating, I also couldn't connect with the main character and why she did what she did. What motivated her. There's definitely some trigger or madness that happened but I didn't quite get it and it left me less invested in her then I would have liked.

I do recommend this book, but for fans of Vandermeer be aware that this is totally different from his usuals.
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If you have previously read anything by Jeff VanderMeer before you know to expect “Hummingbird Salamander” to be weird, challenging, imaginative, unique, surprising, and perhaps mind-twisting. He always has a message to convey and in this book the message is about the environment, climate change, and the struggles of humans trying to exist on a rapidly changing planet as it becomes more and more inhospitable. Hummingbird Salamander takes place in the Western United States. There are glimpses that a terrible apocalypse has occurred, but the direct cause isn’t made clear. The sky is a creepy grey/green, many social systems seem to have broken down, and it all feels very ominous. Through this landscape on the edge of ruin enters our protagonist, who calls herself Jane but admits this isn’t her real name. Jane has a job, a husband and daughter, a home, and seems to be doing quite well for herself. But when she receives an envelope with a key to a storage unit containing a taxidermy endangered hummingbird, she leaves her entire life behind to follow a series of bizarre and rather tenuous clues leading to a taxidermy salamander. She discovers that the creator of this mysterious treasure hunt is/was Silvina, an ecological warrior and possibly an eco-terrorist. I was never really sure why Jane would toss her whole life for a questionable link to a possibly dead pseudo-messiah, but I suppose it is part of the cult mentality to encourage obsession at the exclusion of real life.

Jane’s sole focus on Silvina’s trail leads her on a series of adventures that are at times surreal, brutally violent, and mostly just strange. Her leaps of logic in finding the next clue at every turn like a giant, older Nancy Drew were almost unbelievable prescient. I was willing to overlook this since the whole thing was just so bizarre, I could readily believe that the normal laws of logic didn’t apply. Her motivations are incomprehensible. I may not have understood Jane or related to her, but I did end up cheering for her to succeed in her mission and to just survive the extremely dangerous path she had chosen. The ending was not what I was expecting but it did fit with the rest of Jane’s story. I wanted more explanation, more closure, and just more of a solid conclusion but I’m not at all shocked that this did not happen. There is no handholding in this book, and it is no surprise that the ending wasn’t tied up in a neat little bow. I am satisfied by the conclusion and it really could not have come together in any other way. Uncomfortable and mystifying right to the end!

Thank you to Penguin Random House Canada and McClelland & Stewart for providing an Electronic Advance Reader Copy via NetGalley for review.
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Hummingbird Salamander by Jeff VanderMeer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Interestingly enough, Vandermeer also writes a smart mystery. He's not just a Weird writer. Borne, Annihilation, even his early shroomy novels were heady and imaginative and always able to make us question, question, question.

This more traditional mystery, haunted by ecoterrorism, low-grade security personnel work, and family life that slowly crumbles away in the pollution of a life caught by claustrophobia, paranoia, shares some of the best features of his earlier work while remaining grounded in the real world.

This one is a traditional mystery. But the perception within the novel is quite lush, imaginative, and rather stomach-turning. I got the sense of huge conspiracies, being totally out of one's depth, and the start weird terror of being so... OBSESSED with a stuffed hummingbird and a stuffed salamander.

Honestly?

I liked everything up until a certain point where running was the only option. After that, I was a bit disappointed even when things turned and turned again later on. The disconnect was real. I didn't WANT to feel disconnected. But then, by that point, everything had crumbled. On purpose, mind you, but I felt just as lost. Confused. Despairing.

Good that the writer could convey that without wallowing in it, but it killed the pace of the story.

So, in the end, I'm only giving it 3.5 out of 5, but it WAS quite interesting and shocking.
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'Vandermeer is a best-selling American author, perhaps best known for his Southern Reach trilogy (Annihilation, Authority, and Acceptance).  He has been referred to as “the weird Thoreau” by the New Yorker magazine, as his books have a strong environmental message.  This new release is no different and can be thought of as a eco-thriller.  The story is narrated by Jane, who is a security consultant.  One day she receives a mysterious envelope from a woman who is known to be an ecoterrorist. It contains a key to a storage unit.  There she finds a rare hummingbird that has been preserved by a taxidermist.  She quickly becomes obsessed with following the clues, searching for the salamander referred to in the note and trying to figure out what Silvana expects of her. The search ends up putting both her and her family in danger, but Jane cannot let it go.  The story is sometimes difficult to follow and the character of Jane is not always likable, but the novel is still riveting and very thought provoking.  It is a good recommendation for readers who are okay with books that are a little different.
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Thank you, NetGalley and Penguin Random House Canada, for this thought-provoking, fascinating book. This ARC came without the ability to Send to Kindle. As a result, It took longer than usual to read on my iPad, but I stayed with it until its ending. This was an eco-thriller that was gripping, confusing, complex and sometimes contradictory. It is about mankinds' failure to protect the environment while the world is spiralling towards its doom. Themes include obsession, danger, and mystery.

 The main character calls herself 'Jane.' She is an imposing large woman with a husband and daughter. She works as a security analyst. Her hobbies are wrestling and bodybuilding. She can be mean and vicious. One day, she is handed a key for a storage unit from a woman she has never met and has recently died in a traffic accident. She finds she has been left a taxidermied hummingbird and a cryptic note mentioning a salamander. The note is signed by Silvina.

 The narrative is mostly through Jane's stream of consciousness. She dwells on her childhood, which she recalls as abusive and unpleasant. The one bright spot was her beloved brother before he drowned. How reliable are her memories? She feels she is becoming paranoid. This is partly true, but there are actually people following her and wishing her harm. She becomes obsessed with following Silvina's clues but does not understand their purpose or urgency.

 Through diligent research, she learns that the hummingbird was endangered and is probably now extinct. She is determined to find the salamander mentioned in the note. She finds that Silvina was the daughter of a billionaire Argentine industrialist, drug lord and animal trafficker. She was regarded as an environmental activist turned eco-terrorist. 

  The hummingbird is stolen from Jane's gym locker. She soon learns that she is under surveillance and being followed. She has put her family, workmates, and acquaintances in jeopardy. She has no idea why Silvina contacted her but is determined to learn what her aim was. She is on the run alone from wildlife traffickers, Silvina's family, and eco-terrorists. She hopes to retrace some of the unknown woman's path through wilderness areas to solve the mystery.  Before receiving the hummingbird, she met a man in a bar who called himself Jack and was thinking of engaging in a one-night stand with him. They flirted, and he disappeared. Now she is receiving odd text messages from someone called Hellbender. She believes this is Jack. Is he a federal agent and protector, or are his goals malicious?

  Jane accumulates an arsenal of weapons during her search for answers. She is shot several times, captured, and escapes by jumping off a balcony. She finally has seen the taxidermied salamander before a captor sets on fire. This is another highly endangered animal, probably now extinct. She has lost her family, job, workmates, and acquaintances due to her behaviour and putting their lives in danger. She has painful injuries to her leg and shoulder. 

 We are never told the time frame of the story. There are references to pandemics, some people wearing masks to filter out contaminants in the air, fires, polluted water, and extinction of animal life, with escalating climate change. Later there are mentions of anarchy, the collapse of democratic institutions, refugees fleeing northward to Canada, and curfews. Disinformation and conspiracies abound.  A new pandemic has killed her husband, her father and his second wife.  It has a grim, claustrophobic atmosphere. There is a glimmer of hope at the end, but the conclusion is left open-ended.

 This was a compelling, fantastic story that could become all too real. The book's cover is gorgeous!
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While I really enjoyed Annihilation, I have come to realize that Jeff Vandermeer's writing/stories just aren't for me after struggling to finish the last two Southern Reach novels along with this one.

The first thing is they are very confusing. The Southern Reach trilogy manages to come together in the end and make sense of the overarching story, but Hummingbird Salamander never makes that happen by the time the novel comes to a close. I was left with so many unanswered questions, and left wondering what the point of the whole journey was. The events in this book carry almost no emotional impact because everything is so confusing. I spent most of the book trying to figure out why I should care about Silvina; about the pages and pages and pages spent detailing Jane's seemingly irrelevant backstory; about the continuous bashing the reader over the head with the messages of environmentalism and the surveillance state that Vandermeer is trying to convey; about whatever it is that Jane is trying to accomplish; about who all these random people are and why they're trying to kill each other. I think this is made worse by the author's proclivity to use stream of consciousness style narration in his writing. While I don't mind this technique, I don't think the way Vandermeer uses it works for me as a reader.

I also am left wanting so much more from the authors characters. I have no issue with unlikeable characters in the novels I read, but you have to give me some ability to relate with or to care about them. This was severely lacking for me in this novel. The main character is a terrible person who falls quite flat on the page, that I never found myself caring about where their story would take them. This is partly because she keeps making bad decisions, and even knows and tells the reader they know they are making bad decisions.

If you are a fan of Vandermeer's work and enjoy his writing then you will probably enjoy this one. Just be warned that Hummingbird Salamander has an ending that may leave the reader feeling incomplete. If that doesn't bother you, then by all means, venture down this confusing rabbit hole.

Final rating 2.5
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Thank you for giving me the chance to preview the new Jeff Vandermeer.  The cover is stunning.
The book started well, and was as mysterious, intriguing and captivating as the author's earlier works - I am a huge fan of the Southern Reach trilogy and enjoyed deconstructing how the author's writing style could change so dramatically to mirror the writing styles of Lovecraft, Kafka and others.

That was pre-Covid. For now, I will have to leave this book for a gentler time. Hummingbird Salamander creates such a vivid undercurrent of tension and dread, that for my own wellbeing I will not be continuing. Speaks to how well he has honed his craft. I will heartily recommend this title to those with stronger constitutions than my own!
And will come back one day.

For now, in addition to crowded spaces with menacing potentially not fully masked individuals, I will now be avoiding storage units for the foreseeable future. And watching the skies for hummingbirds (if I can only find the feeder I know is around here somewhere).
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