It is often the small and mundane disasters that bring the distant problems of a larger world into focus. A recent novel that very subtly deals with this modern anxiety about environmental and social collapse is Karen Thompson Walker’s debut novel, The Age of Miracles.
Thompson deftly addresses both large and small scale disasters by pairing the transition from childhood to adulthood with a global environmental crisis. In the world of Thompson’s novel, eleven-year old Julia and her family wake one morning in southern California to discover, along with the rest of the world, that the earth’s rotation has begun to slow. This lengthening slowly increases, increasing the length of day and night, and bringing with it fears of ecological disaster, social strife and the end of the world. What better way to illustrate the turbulence of adolescence than a major global catastrophe?
This unstable world with its ever changing sense of time is a perfect backdrop for the little disasters in Julia’s life. In the up-and-down world of junior high, Julia’s relationships crumble, new ones form, and she becomes aware of loneliness and cruelty, as well as the redemptive powers of love and friendship. But in this world turned on its head, day and night have also become unstuck, disrupting the old rhythms of life. The strangeness of adolescence is mirrored in the uncanny changes of a world no longer predictable.
Walker’s novel is beautiful. Written in a soft-spoken first person point of view, her simple, direct language captures fear and anxiety for the future discovered in the little disasters in life, the small things we take as signs for the disasters to come. Which is worse? she seems to ask the reader, the end of a relationship, of society as we know it, of the world, or the worry that precedes it, starting from the first awareness of a problem?
Walker balances the greater conflict of her novel with more mundane tragedies, from the lies loved ones tell, to a nighttime snowfall, to a dead blue jay on the porch. By weighing these lighter tragedies against the more fantastic elements of the story, the reader feels the impact of these impossible events, and feels the changing of the world through the affect it has upon the characters.
Reviewed by Nathan
Portions of this review have been published or will be published in the Provo Orem Word.
Years ago, I read We Need to Talk about Kevin, by this author and was stunned. I didn't recommend it to others, because I found it difficult to do so. It is reminiscent of Columbine. Shriver's latest novel was sparked by her having had a friend who was diagnosed with mesothelioma. The friend's husband came to Shriver after the woman's death to show her bills from their 2 million dollars of medical expenses in the course of her treatment. In this novel, Shriver follows a woman and her husband as they face this diagnosis, laying bare their dwindling bank account, their fights with their insurance company, the desire to "make someone pay" for her getting the disease, the fickleness of friends and family who promise help but disappear when the going gets rough, and the desire to keep hope in spite of horrific circumstances. Someone told me she saw exactly where "Kevin" was headed. I suppose you could say the same about this novel, but I found it very true to its core subject matter. There are some stock characters, some preaching, and some incredulities, but much of it is "spot on," and I came to care about this couple. What constitutes a good life? A good death?By Evelyn
Post-Apocalyptic Utah: A Look at Brian Evenson’s Immobility (Evenson)
Brian Evenson's latest novel, Immobility, is a fascinating study in community, explored in the ruins of an apocalyptic Utah county. The novel opens decades after an unspecified disaster called the Kollaps, when progatonist Josef Horkai awakens from storage with little trace of memory. He's paralyzed from the waist down and told by technicians and the cryptic Rasmus that due to an incurable disease he was put in storage decades before to prolong his life until a cure could be found. However, a dire situation requires his immediate attention. Horkai is a "fixer," one who fixes problems for "the Hive." A group living in ancient vaults in a distant canyon has stolen a tube that contains a seed or grain that the Hive desperately needs.
And so Horkai begins a strange journey, carried by a pair of “mules,” or men who are trained to carry burdens, across a radioactive wasteland. He scans the barren mountainside, looking for a large, block letter, but can’t remember why. They pass the ruins of an X-shaped building near a toppled bronze statue. They follow a crude map toward the “point of the mountain” and the mysterious vaults hidden in a canyon.
While the setting is specific to Utah county, it takes a local eye to see that the author is referring to an actual location. The familiar sights of my hometown, seen through Evenson’s apocalyptic imagination, thrilled me. In fact, it was Evenson’s ties to Utah and Mormonism that originally drew me to his work, and have kept me coming back for more. He’s had a rough relationship with BYU and the LDS church, but I've never read an author who writes from a place so close to my own, and though my faith is no longer his, I appreciate Evenson’s often objective view of Utah and Mormon culture. His language reflects the speech patterns and dialect of Utah and Mormons, which is always satisfying to see in a work of literature.
Evenson's style is sparse and contained, mirroring the blasted landscape in a way reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy's The Road. And like McCarthy, Evenson creates in Immobility meaningful, sympathetic characters plunged into horrifying scenarios. His protagonists, and Horkai is no exception, are ethical men, acting according to their own sense of morals in spite of what is done to them and what they are forced to do by those who hold power.
Immobility is more than a thrilling post-apocalyptic romp through Utah county. Evenson is a thinker, and the conflict of the novel raises existential questions about discipleship, ethics, identity and otherness as well as community membership. At what point, he asks, do the needs of the community outweigh the needs of the individual? While it’s hard to ignore Evenson’s turbulent relationship with Brigham Young University and the LDS Church in light of these questions and the novel’s conflict, Evenson elucidates these issues in a way universal to humanity; it's Utah alright, but it could be anywhere. His questions about community can be applied to any organization, Mormonism and other organized religions, as well as political groups and governments.
If you haven't read any of Brian Evenson's books, I highly recommend them, but they’re not for everyone. Evenson's work is dark, violent, sardonic and critical of formal religion, which he portrays as highly hypocritical and detrimental to the individual. However, Evenson is one of America’s finest contemporary writers. He tells visceral, taut stories which are thought-provoking and eerily beautiful, calling to mind the best of Camus, Poe, Borges and Kafka.
And who knows? You might even pick up some valuable post-apocalyptic survival tips.
Reviewed by Nathan Robison
Sister by Rosamund Lupton (Lupton)
Sister tells the story of Beatrice Hemming, who receives a phone call during a Sunday lunch party at her apartment in New York, telling her that her sister Tess is missing. Since Tess is sort of flighty—artistic and mercurial and prone to adventures—Beatrice is initially more annoyed than alarmed, but she still rushes to London to help her mother find her sister. Except there will be no rescuing Tess, who was eight months pregnant with a child fathered by her married art tutor; her baby was stillborn and she has, apparently, committed suicide in her grief.
Except Beatrice knows her sister would never do that. Mostly she is certain because she knows her sister; part of that knowledge is that they both watched their brother die from cystic fibrosis when they were kids. Beatrice knows that that experience taught Tess that life was too valuable to waste. Unfortunately, Beatrice's knowledge about her sister is not enough to convince the detectives, who find reasons to explain away the evidence she uncovers.
This is a murder mystery that reads more like a gothic thriller. Creepy, intriguing, and puzzling, the story raises hackles and inspires chills. But even better than the spine tingles and the how-will-this-turn-out anxiety, Sisters is a beautifully written novel; it just happens to be about a murder. Beatrice, as the oldest sister, takes on a burden of guilt for her Tess’s death, especially as she sees how her shortcomings and mistakes unfolded to create an opportunity for the murder. The mystery is intriguing; the reader discovers truths and details only as Beatrice does, and the ending? Well, the ending is comes as a thing both unanticipated and perfectly foreshadowed in the story.
The novel is written as a letter from Beatrice to Tess, a technique that allows Beatrice to tell the story of uncovering the murderer while simultaneously writing about Tess's death and its effect on her. “Was the feeling that all is right with the world, my world,” Beatrice wonders at Tess's funeral, “because you were its foundations, formed in childhood and with me grown into adulthood?” How does a person go on as the only sister left? How do past experiences influence the present? How do we make sense of violence—or can we ever? Sister reminds us that answers are almost not the point; instead, the point is to live what Tess called the “sacrament of the present moment”—to take nothing for granted and to live without fear, as if flying.
Reviewed by Amy Sorensen
The Leopard by Jo Nesbo (Nesbo)
Norwegian Jo Nesbo has been hailed for writing detective thrillers in the vein of Stieg Larsson and Henning Mankell. Nesbo's The leopard is currently on best-seller lists and receiving wide acclaim. Be forewarned. If you recoiled from Larsson's The girl with the dragon tattoo (original title: Men who hate women), due to violence, Nesbo's The leopard is not for you.
The Leopard is the sixth in Nesbo's series featuring Harry Hole and is set in Norway. While the enigmatic detective tortured by inner demons may be mystery cliche, Nesbo's writing is anything but. As someone who has read widely in the genre over the years and has become jaded by much that is published, I was fascinated by Nesbo's plotting. There were plenty of surprises, without heavy foreshadowing. I had not read the novels preceding this one, and did not feel lost at all.
Hole has been called back to Norway from Hong Kong, where he has retreated after what he has declared will be his last case. His nemesis the Snowman, a serial killer, has caused his lover to go into permanent hiding, and his life is spiraling downward. In Norway, two deaths of two women have led police to believe there is another serial murderer at work. Once faced with the evidence of the gruesome crimes, Hole is determined to find the killer. The trail takes him to the mountains of Norway as well as to Africa. A savvy policewoman turns his head, but he does not lose his heart.
Reviewed by Evelyn Schmidt
1Q84 by Haruki Murakami (Murakami)
It's 1984 in Tokyo. Aomame is stuck in traffic, and she is late for an appointment. She abandons her taxi, walks past idling cars, and descends an emergency stairwell, not realizing at first that her atypical act has initiated a shift in the world. She begins to notice differences in this new world, there is a second moon for one, but there is little she can do about it. She renames the world 1Q84; the Q is for question mark in a “world that bears a question.”
Meanwhile, Tengo’s editor asks him to ghostwrite a novel for Fuka-eri, a troubled dyslexic girl with a story called Air Chrysalis about a girl raised in a cult controlled by sinister little people. He agrees against his better judgment, and as he becomes immersed in Fuka-eri’s narrative, he begins to notice disconcerting parallels between the novel and the world around him. It seems to him that recently the world has become a place where Air Chrysalis could actually happen. He, too, notices there is a second moon in the sky.
1Q84 alternates chapters between Aomame and Tengo, and it soon becomes apparent that this new world is drawing the pair together. In fact, at 1Q84’s core, nestled amongst vigilante killings, surreal situations, and Orwellian machinations, is a powerful romance.
The strength of 1Q84 lies in its characters, every one evocative. Tengo, like many of Murakami’s protagonists, is isolated and introspective. Aomame, somewhat idealized, is a determined woman who is uncompromising in her drive for justice. Other characters, major and minor, elucidate motives and clarify the nature of this oddly transformed world.
While in many ways, 1Q84 is milder than some of Murakami’s works, both in levels of surrealism and in content, some readers may still find the novel too graphic. A must-read for Murakami fans, 1Q84 is not a necessarily a bad initiation for readers unfamiliar with the works of this cult favorite, but weighing in at over 900 pages, the novel contains an astonishing amount of detail and more repetition than is necessary. Initiates may prefer to start with a leaner work such as Norwegian Wood or The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, but by no means should they pass up a chance to read this master of the craft.
Reviewed by Mindy Hale
Check out some more staff favorites from 2011:
The Night Stranger
The End of Everything
Please Look After Mom
The Lover's Dictionary
The Night Circus
After the Golden Age
The Marriage Plot
Only Time Will Tell
I Think I Love You
Bin Laden's Bald Spot
We the Animals
The Tragedy of Arthur
The End of Everything by Megan Abbott (Call #: <M> Abbott)
Megan Abbott always manages to create a story that is edgy, complex, delicate, and quite profound. The result, for me, is a book that stays in my mind for several days afterward. A good thing. The End of Everything marks a shift for Abbott, who many consider to be the reigning Queen of hard-hitting Femme Noir and who is securely established on my list of favorite authors of genre fiction. The shift comes because this book isn’t a clear-cut genre book. There is suspense and tragedy and mystery for sure, but it’s really a simple coming of age story about a couple of thirteen year-old girls – best friends. Although, there’s really nothing simple about coming of age. Or thirteen year-olds. Or girls.
Anyway, the story involves thirteen year-old Lizzie and the sudden disappearance of her best friend, Evie. It is then up to Lizzie to comprehend the tragedy and obsessively uncover and realize clues and events that help the mystery unfold. Throw in a potentially volatile dynamic between Lizzie and Evie's father and sister, Dusty, and it starts to get really interesting. In fact, Dusty might be the most interesting character in the book. Dusty, Dusty, Dusty...
Abbott’s intense style creates a sense of desperation that doesn’t feel too different from swimming upstream. But it’s the delicate treatment of characters dealing with troubling subjects, the subtlety, and the ambiguous description of perceived events that create a surprisingly remarkable vision of adolescence that left me both, paradoxically, restless and content.
I thought it was good, but it’s definitely not recommended for everyone.
Reviewed by Mike Smith
Amy finds herself caught in a dangerous power struggle between the ship's leader, Eldest, and his understudy, Elder. Furthermore, it appears that whoever unplugged her seems to have it out for other cryogenically frozen passengers on board--including Amy's parents, whom she will be older than when the ship finally lands. If...it finally lands.
It is YA, but for thematic reasons I would recommend it to older teens and adults. Though not graphic, there are definitely some disturbing situations in the novel.
Reviewed by Erin Mumford
I Think I Love You by Allison Pearson (Pearson)
In 1974, Petra and her friend Sharon have two worries: keeping on the good side of their tenuous friendship with queen-bee Gillian and obsessing over David Cassidy. Head-over-heels in groupiefandomness, the girls spend hours assembling magazine pictures and posters of David Cassidy, kissing said posters, reading Tiger Beat (which Sharon's aunt gets her from America) and The Essential David Cassidy Magazine (which comes to their small town in Wales via its London publishing office), and perfectly completing the David Cassidy contest quiz that is certain to get them a trip to meet David Cassidy himself.
Petra should be practicing her cello more often, since she's going to be performing for Princess Margaret soon, but instead she panders to Gillian and dreams about conversations with David.
“I never revealed my favorite song to the other girls,” she explains. “If I told them, then they could copy my idea. . . he was going to be so impressed I hadn't chosen one of his obvious hits, wasn't he? ‘Gee, that's amazing, Petra. You dig “I am a Clown”? Wow. No one else ever noticed that song and it means so much to me.’”
Their obsession falls apart after the disastrous White City concert (where dozens of girls were injured from crushing onto the gates, and one girl died), but twenty-five years later Petra discovers something hidden in her mother’s closet: the letter from The Essential David Cassidy Magazine informing her that she had, indeed, won the contest and a trip to meet her dream musician. Much hilarity, growth, and change results from her decision to track down her prize.
The powerful thing about Pearson’s novel is how it redeems Petra (Sharon, too) from the more humiliating aspects of musical puppy love as it reveals its mysterious inner workings as “the great engine of life, revving up back then.” That being obsessed with a musician as a teenager is sort of a practice for future, real relationship redeems us all, in fact, from our own embarrassing (yet never forgotten) dream relationships.
State of Wonder by Ann Patchett (Call #: Patchett)
State of Wonder revolves around the character of Dr. Marina Singh, who performs research for a pharmaceutical company in the Midwest. The company is partnered with Dr. Annick Swenson, who is doing field research on a mysterious drug in a remote area of the Amazon, but she is providing the company with little feedback as to her progress. When one of Marina's colleagues is sent to find Dr. Swenson, he dies in the jungle. Marina is then sent to accomplish what her colleague could not. She is to go to Dr. Swenson's research site, determine what progress is being made on drug development, and report back to her boss. She also wants to provide her colleague's wife some information that will be a balm to her grief.
Reviewed by Evelyn Schmidt
How to be an American Housewife : a novel / Margaret Dilloway (Dilloway)
Please look after Mom : a novel / Sin, Kyung-suk
Reviewed by Evelyn B. Schmidt
The Radleys by Matt Haig (Haig)
Not all vampires sparkle and abstain. And according to Matt Haig’s novel, not all of them should. Dr. Peter Radley and his wife Helen are leading what appears to be an average middle class existence—they’ve left London to a quiet neighborhood where they’re raising their teenage son and daughter and inviting the neighbors over for dinner every once in a while. What the neighbors don’t know, and Radleys are desperately trying to keep from their kids, is the fact that they are closeted vampires. Following the instructions laid out in The Abstainer’s Handbook (parts of which pepper the narrative) Peter and Helen are living a humdrum existence without blood and clearly heading for a quiet crisis as a result. The crisis comes in an unexpected form. Clara, who has taken a typically adolescent approach to her eating, has decided to go vegan, leading to an uncontrollable blood lust that emerges when a boy attacks her at a party. Peter and Helen have a great deal of explaining to do, not to mention the cover up, and when Peter draws his hard-living, blood-gorging brother into the mix to lend a hand, things go from bad to worse for this family. Is there any hope for these unconventional vampires?
Haig’s novel is a clever spin on the familiar family drama. Blood lust is not nearly as dangerous to this family as dishonesty, disloyalty, and hidden regrets. Definitely a good alternative for the vampire loving crowd that have outgrown Twilight and its ilk.Reviewed by Marilee Clark
The P.I./cop with a tortured past, difficult love-life, and trusty sidekick is fairly standard in the mystery genre, and many mystery authors are known for evoking a sense of place, but none does it better than James Lee Burke in his Dave Robicheaux series.
Burke's The Glass Rainbow is his latest gem. Dave, a cop in New Iberia, Louisiana, is faced with the possibility of a serial murderer when several girls are found dead in a neighboring parish. When no one else seems to care, Dave and buddy Clete Purcell go digging, and are not afraid to confront the local scion who is dating Dave's adopted daughter.
Classic mayhem ensues as the forces of good and evil collide. Burke's descriptions of Louisiana bayou country are always worth the read. He truly "gets" the South, and the ways in which social classes and race relations are still affected by the events of the past. And Dave can always be trusted be loyal to family and Cletus to the end.
Reviewed by Evelyn Schmidt
The Reapers are the Angels / Bell, Alden (Bell)
I wouldn't necessarily call myself a zombie fan. I've watched a few zombie movies at my husband's request, but that's about it. So how strange is it that I have a zombie novel on the top of my favorite-new-books list? Strange enough, but this is an awesome novel. The Reapers are the Angels isn't about the zombie apocalypse, but the post-apocalypse. Twenty five years, in fact, since the dead began to walk the world in all their gory, violent hunger. Since Temple was born into this infected world, the zombies are just part of her existence, and perhaps it's that fact—she doesn't remember any pre-zombie life—that makes her the character she is.
In that sense, the novel isn’t really about zombies at all. It’s about not wandering through our lives, driven by hungers we don’t understand, bumping against wonders we have grown blind to. It’s about living, and how, in a ruined world, one might accomplish that. The gory hunger of the zombies serves as a balance, letting the reader see what is still miraculous.
Reviewed by Amy Sorensen
Inherent Vice / Pynchon, Thomas (Pynchon)
Pynchon’s latest follows a hippie P.I. who goes by the name of “Doc” and has a penchant for toking up before working gigs along the shores of Southern California. When his ex-girlfriend, Shasta, pays him a surprise visit asking for a look into her Big Shot boyfriend Mickey Wolfmann, Doc’s groovy life takes a plunge down the proverbial rabbit hole.
Hooked on a drug-fueled sprawl into shady real estate ventures, missing saxophone players, hooky stewardii, mind-blowing murders, and a surf-rock band that may have become zombies, Inherent Vice is a pulpy homage to sixties beach bum stoner pop culture, with brilliant satire, campy and outlandish characters, and enough metaphors and references to knock you bleary-eyed silly.
Which, of course, means that I thoroughly enjoyed it. It also means that I'll be humming Dick Dale and the Ventures for the next three weeks...Reviewed by Mike Smith