Thursday, March 19, 2015

"The Age of Miracles" by Karen Thompson Walker

I'm a newcomer to audiobooks. I spend a decent amount of time on the road commuting to work though, averaging about 45 minutes each way, so last week, while NPR was having a seemingly endless on-air fundraiser and every other station was playing a Taylor Swift song, I picked up The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker on audiobook. I can say with great certainty that I'm hooked on books-on-tape, my friends.

The Age of Miracles is a good pick to listen to in a car as it follows a young girl and her family during a time when the world around them is changing. And I literally mean changing. Earth's 24-hour days are gradually growing longer as the planet starts to rotate slower and slower. This means that days can have 20 hours of burning sunlight and 20 hours of freezing, dark skies.  There are power outages, food shortages, radioactive light, strange physical ailments and an overall subdued type of panic.  No one, including the scientists, know what is going on and with everything in flux, it's almost impossible to move forward with real life.

There are really two stories occurring simultaneously in The Age of Miracles. Walker's 11-year old main character, Julia, is navigating her way through school, making and losing friends, falling in love with the boy around the corner and dealing with her parents' marriage. At the same time, the world seems ready to implode. The birds start to die, the weather is extreme and unpredictable, and society is losing its morale compass. These two stories didn't always seem like they were happening at the same time; at points, there were details missing that were really needed to make this a full-bodied, complete story.

Walker is a beautiful writer, with lovely sentences and delicate wording. I found myself so drawn into the book as it was being read to me that a few times, I arrived at my destination and barely remembered the drive at all. And there was one particularly anxious instance when, around dusk, I actually expected nighttime not to arrive, until I reminded myself that the world was only changing in the book.  The Age of Miracles transported me, if only temporarily.

I don't normally read books about catastrophes, or disasters, or sci-fi.  Maybe one of the reasons I enjoyed this novel was because the science is soft.  There are no technical terms or scientific explanations as to why these horrible things are happening to the planet. As the reader, I am just supposed to believe and move on.  And for the most part, I did.

Something that I bothered me a bit, although I admit that I may not have picked up on it if I wasn't listening via audiobook, is that Walker repeats several lines over and over.  The one that sticks with  me is "It still amazes me how little we knew back then."  It's for effect, obviously; this is a mantra that Julia is compelled to repeat as she looks back on how this whole disaster started, and as she looks ahead in extremely uncertain times.  My issue is that by the end of the book, adult Julia doesn't seem to know much more than she did when everything started.  What didn't they know back then that they do know by those last pages at the end?

This is a quiet, rather slow-moving novel about a girl trying to make it through a worldwide catastrophe unscathed.  I think most readers will be drawn in by the apocalyptic aspects, but it was Julia's story that really kept me interested in The Age of Miracles.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

We took Anthony's mom to see The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel last Saturday. My mother-in-law is a huge fan of anything British, including but not limited to films, television shows, high tea, and the royal family. And while she was the one who had been looking forward to our outing for weeks, I was the one who was captivated by the story while she fought off sleep next to me in the dark theater.

There's something about these older adults trying to navigate a new stage of life that really got to me. Or maybe it was the accents.  You don't necessarily need to see the first movie in order to fully appreciate this one, but I would recommend that you do. It makes you care about the characters so much more and honestly, Maggie Smith's snark is not to be missed.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Book Review: Reunion by Hannah Pittard

I'll confess that this was the second time I checked out Hannah Pittard's Reunion from the library. The first time, I had to return it before I even had a chance to crack open the cover because someone else requested it (that two week loan period goes by quickly!). This time, I read it in a day and a half so yeah, you can say I liked it. 

Even though Reunion is a quick read, it's not full of levity.  The story takes place during a four-day period when Kate, our protagonist, and her two older siblings meet up in Atlanta to say goodbye to their father, who just committed suicide.  He was a difficult man and all three siblings, as well as many additional half-siblings and ex-wives on the periphery, have damaged or non-existent relationships with him.  His death comes at a time when everyone seems to be in some sort of turmoil and this added pressure causes all involved to reevaluate their own lives.

This book reminded me of why I dream of joining a really cool book club; as soon as I turned the last page, I wanted to call someone and to talk about it so I did the next best thing which is to scroll around online to read what other people thought.  Although the feedback was mostly positive, there were some negative reviews, and as it turns out, many of the things that those readers hated about the book were the things I liked the most. Kate isn't likeable and most of the time, I didn't really identify with her but ultimately, I'm not a reader who wants perfect characters or needs tied-up loose ends. True situations and messy relationships are what keep me interested.

If nothing else, Reunion reminds us that it's difficult to let go of the past, even if it's not really something you want to hold onto. It's hard to admit that sometimes it's easier to lie than to tell the truth, or that you can't always blame other people for your own mistakes. It's inevitable that we all will grow up, but no one ever said it's easy. That's a sentiment that Reunion definitely gets right.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Book Review: The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

Word of mouth is really an amazing thing. If it weren't for the recommendation that I received several times from the same librarian than I never would have checked out Sarah Waters' The Paying Guests and I never would have thoroughly enjoyed (and may I say raced through) this almost 600-page book just to be systematically crushed by the ending. 

Despite my disappointment in those last 100 pages, I really did enjoy The Paying Guests.  Waters' writing is really beautiful and since the story takes place in 1922 England, she obviously did meticulous research to make sure she was accurate to the time. There's a sense of longing in every sentence: first for normalcy (a majority of the young men have been killed in World War I, including the central family's two sons) and then a longing for passion and love mixed in with what seems like the eternal search for acceptance and belonging.  So little seems to happen (almost the entire book takes place in a big, creaky, falling-apart house) but then again, so much also happens.

The premise of the book is simple but intriguing.  When Frances and her mother run out of funds/realize their debts are larger than they believed, they take in boarders, or 'paying guests.'  There's a strange mixing of private and public lives here and class is a major issue too. Frances and her mother are old money and part of the upper class in a London suburb. Lillian and Leonard, the boarders, are of the rising middle class, ambitious twenty-somethings who are relative newlyweds.  When Frances and Lillian start an affair, everything is turned upside-down.

And from there, the story takes an unexpected twist, or at least it was unexpected for me. I don't normally read thrillers but this book was really suspenseful in the best way, and quite passionate without being graphic in the least.  Eventually, these ladies get themselves into a predicament which Waters takes about 250 pages to explain in detail, and then it resolves itself in about two pages. There was so little payoff to this great lead-up.

So, The Paying Guests is enjoyable, but undeniably long. The end just doesn't live up to the rest of the book.