Monday, March 11, 2013

From the Bookshelf: The Age of Miracles

Perhaps titling my book review series From the Bookshelf is misleading since about half of the books I read are in iBook form now, this one included.  Either way, I always wish that more blogs in the great blogosphere talked about books on occasion, so here is my humble attempt to start the conversation.

I just finished The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker, a science fiction novel more literary than the average sci-fi paperback.  In the novel, a mysterious force is causing the Earth's rotation to slow and days to lengthen, creating increasingly dire consequences.  Animals begin to die, plants wither away, and people begin to suffer from a mysterious sickness.  The narrator is a woman in her twenties named Julia, who looks back on the time when the "slowing" began, when she was 11 years old.  The world is teetering on the edge of a catastrophe, of which she is very much aware, but she is also preoccupied with the usual catastrophes of being a preteen in middle school.  She experiences her first real crush, loses her best friend, and fears her parents may be splitting up, all the while having to adjust to living on "clock time" while the real days grow ever longer.

[Spoilers from here on out!]

The personal urgency of Julia's childhood crises counteracts perfectly with the anxiety, excitement, and fear created by the slowing.  Julia often wonders if people begin to act more boldly once they fear the end of the world is near, and she too begins to act with more urgency.  Every betrayal and disappointment she suffers is made all the more poignant by the fact that she may not get a second chance at having a best friend, sharing a first kiss with a new crush, or even see her friends and family again. 

My main issue with the book is that I found it to be largely predictable.  Not the actual premise or the scientific aspects; the research that obviously went into the book paid off, because the premise seemed totally plausible and the consequences of the slowing seemed reasonable.  The mundane events of Julia's life, however, were not elevated much in importance or weight by the slowing.  I suppose that may have been the author's point, that the human experience is common, no matter what the circumstances.  But I, for one, found the scientific questions of the story more intriguing and pressing than Julia's preteen woes.  I often found my attention drifting away from Julia's thoughts towards the unsolved mystery of the slowing.  I wish that we could see more of the causes of the slowing rather than just the effects.  My most recent creative writing professor was fond of saying, "if you use a sci fi setting, there better be a reason for it.  The story should not be able to happen in a normal world."  And that is exactly how I feel about this novel.  Julia even makes a point of saying that her life would mostly have unfolded the same way without the slowing, it just complicates matters.  It is interesting that most of the characters attempt to carry on, so to speak, and live normal lives despite the slowing, but ultimately this is the book's biggest weakness.  Why not use such an interesting premise to radically change the way the characters live and interact?  In the end this book was merely a sci-fi bildungsroman.

And on a slightly morbid note, I was surprised that Julia never once considered suicide or even simply wondered what the point was in continuing, when it seemed obvious that the world would eventually cease to exist or become uninhabitable.

All of that being said, I really enjoyed reading The Age of Miracles (I even procrastinated on studying for midterms so that I could finish it).  Julia's voice is engaging and relatable, and I came to care about the characters and their relationships.

l'd give it a 3.5 out of 5.  If you're looking for an easy read, or some science fiction that doesn't go on for a thousand pages, I would recommend this book!  If you check it out, let me know your thoughts.

Up next:  whatever I get at Half Price Books tomorrow (coupon week, whoosh!).  Or Karen Russell's new short story collection, Vampires in the Lemon Grove.  Speaking of Karen Russell, the iBook version of The Age of Miracles comes with a conversation between Russell and Thompson Walker that I found very enjoyable.  I'm sure the print version has it too.

If y'all have any book recommendations for a review, let me know!

Completely unrelated:  My boyfriend is staying with us for spring break, and we just got that board game Settlers of Catan and played it tonight, and oh man.  It's fun!  Unfortunately Josh has a leg up on my family since he's played it before with his family.  He did a far better job of teaching us the rules than the rule book it came with, let me tell you.

Happy spring break!

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