Wednesday, March 27, 2013

THE AGE OF MIRACLES by Karen Thompson Walker

And you thought global warming was bad.  What if the earth's rotation rate started to decelerate, and we're not talking about a few seconds a day.  In this imagining, the days are lengthening at such an alarming rate that, within a year, a day has doubled in length.  The population quickly splits into two factions:  those who want to remain on the old 24-hour clock and those who want to match their sleep/waking patterns to the darkness/daylight.  However, the latter group starts to dwindle when they can no longer maintain sleep or wakefulness for 24 hours straight.  The impact on agriculture is devastating, and our 12-year-old narrator notes the occasion on which she eats her last piece of pineapple and her last grape.  Coupled with increased radiation from the sun and a sickness known as slowing syndrome, the outlook for humankind is pretty bleak.  Fallout shelters built in the 1960s are being provisioned for a different kind of apocalypse, and greenhouses are sprouting up everywhere.  This isn't a science fiction novel; it's more a coming-of-age novel in an unreal, but not necessarily impossible, setting.  People become more impulsive rather than reflective as things progressively worsen, and, seen through the eyes of a young girl, the situation seems a little less terrifying somehow.  Teetering on the brink of adulthood while most of the existing adults are having meltdowns is almost as scary as adapting to a planet that is losing its viability.  Almost.   I think I'll go enjoy another chunk of pineapple while I still can.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013


I like a smattering of creative history thrown into a thriller, especially if the thriller is a little weak in the suspense department.  In this case, the author proposes that Christopher Columbus was a Jew looking to establish a colony for those seeking to escape the Spanish Inquisition.  The premise of this novel is that he and/or his Hebrew translator brought some valuable Jewish artifacts into Jamaica, thinking that the New World was actually Asia, a part of the world known to give asylum to Jews.  Our protagonist is Tom Sagan, a discredited journalist who has nothing to live for, until he witnesses a video feed in which his estranged daughter Alle has been taken hostage.  We quickly learn that the video is a hoax in which Alle has played an active role, at the bequest of Zacharias Simon, who wants Alle's grandfather exhumed.  Tom discovers an envelope that has been buried with his father, which contains a letter and a key.  Thus Tom becomes involved in a dangerous treasure hunt that takes place in Vienna, Prague, Cuba, and finally Jamaica.  Simon is interested in more than just the artifacts; he is sort of a terrorist with a more far-reaching agenda that involves Israel.  I didn't understand his motive or his plan, but that didn't really matter.  Tom plays the Indiana Jones character, and Simon is his nemesis.  Somewhere in-between is Bene Rowe, a wealthy Jamaican, whose loyalties were still unknown to me at the end of the book, but I think he is sort of a good bad guy—someone who doesn't blink at eliminating his opposition.  If your standards are low for this sort of novel, maybe you won't be too disappointed.  I just wish that I could have been kinder to a local (St. Augustine) author.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

FREEDOMLAND by Richard Price

Brenda Martin, a white woman, walks into a hospital ER, bleeding and distraught.  She reports that a black man hijacked her car.  Then in her conversation with detective Lorenzo Council, she finally manages to whisper that her 4-year-old son Cody was asleep in the back seat.  Her story sounds very fishy to Lorenzo, and the sketch artist allows that, once again, the perp looks just like him.  Lorenzo makes every effort to get Brenda to open up.  Even though she seems constantly on the brink of making some sort of confession, he finally leaves her in the hands of Jesse, a female reporter, and Karen, the head of a group of volunteers who have made it their mission to find missing children.  Meanwhile, mostly-black Dempsey, NJ, where the crime allegedly took place, is having none of it.  Racial tension starts to rise when an all-out search effort gets underway, as the government housing residents counter that the police never go to such extremes to locate missing black children.  Lorenzo knows that they have a point but feels helpless to stop the powder keg from exploding.  I found this book to be a better-than-average mystery-thriller, with complicated characters in a very tense but all-too-believable situation.  The downside of this book is that it's rather long, and several sections, including the Karen-led search party canvassing, could benefit from some compression.  Brenda Martin is the character around which everything and everybody revolve, and I couldn't quite get a handle on why Lorenzo and Jesse were both so sympathetic to her.  She seemed a bit deranged to me.  Maybe they were both just doing their jobs, in which case, they were both exceptionally skilled in gaining Brenda's trust, but neither was quite psychologically savvy enough to quite break through.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

THE SNOW CHILD by Eowyn Ivey

Mabel and her husband Jack are homesteading in Alaska in the early 1900s, at Mabel's urging.  Although they are now in their 50s and possibly not up to the task of farming in such an inhospitable climate, Mabel is still grieving for her stillborn child and felt that the change would do them good.  As the novel opens, though, Mabel is venturing out onto the thinning ice, expecting it to split open so that she will be swallowed up in the frigid water.  She survives her trek, though, and then persuades Jack to help her build a snowman, or snow-girl, in this case, complete with scarf and mittens.  By morning, the snowman has melted, but the scarf and mittens have been pilfered by a mysterious sprite-like child named Faina, who apparently lives a hunting-and-gathering existence in the bitter cold.  Mabel and Jack virtually adopt Faina, although their cabin is too warm and cozy for her to ever feel comfortable enough to spend the night.  Despite Mabel's desire to live a quiet and isolated life, she finds herself becoming friends with Esther (my favorite character), the no-nonsense matriarch of a family homesteading nearby.  Esther and her husband and sons, along with Faina, rescue the despairing Mabel and Jack, with advice, physical labor, and emotional support.  I had to admire the author's ability to evoke the beauty of such a vast and unforgiving landscape, but I found the storyline to be extremely predictable.  Sometimes I don't even mind that in a book, but here I found myself checking off each expected event on my mental checklist.  It doesn't help that Faina's story mirrors a tale from Mabel's childhood, which Mabel narrates for us, foretelling Faina's destiny.  My real problem with this story, though, is that, while it's clear that Faina lives and breathes, the author dangles the possibility that Mabel conjured her from a snowman.  That's all well and good as the theme for a holiday song, but I couldn't quite accept it as serious literature.