Review : The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker

It’s becoming increasingly difficult to shop my book shelves . I was hoping to get to some of the classics on my shelves during the lockdown . But they only seem to intimidate me more nowadays . On normal days , I would have skipped past them without much thought and would have proceeded to place an order with Amazon or atleast initiated the borrowing process with the library . Now , I am rummaging through the same stacks trying to find something less intimidating , cursing myself for not having the foresight to have a stash of suspense fiction which is my go-to genre any time . Despite all the relaxations in Lockdown 5 . 0 , I am finding that Amazon is not delivering any “non – essentials ” in my area and going to the bookstore does not seem to be a good idea .

The current read was sitting on the shelves from God knows when . It is when I was skimming over Chapter – 1 , that I read these lines :

At the beginning , people stood on street corners and shouted about the end of the world . Counselors came to talk to us at school . I remember watching Mr.Valencia next door fill up his garage with stacks of canned food and bottled water , as if preparing , it now seems to me , for a disaster much more minor .

The grocery stores were soon empty , the shelves sucked clean like chicken bones

These days as standing in street corners may not be very practical , we are having several YouTube videos about The Last Days which are making rounds in the Whatsapp groups . I don ‘ t have to comment on the stock piling or the panic shopping – we witnessed it during the lockdown and it will probably continue for some more time . These lines no longer read like a dystopian world which I could not relate to . This perfectly captured the ” new normal ” . . . And that ‘ s why the reason for picking up this inimitable debut by Karen Thompson Walker . . .

** Review starts here for people who don ‘ t have time for my rants and my book buying woes **

One Saturday morning , the narrator Julia and her family , along with the entire world wake up to find that a phenomenon termed as the ” slowing ” had occurred . With time , the real impact of the slowing finally becomes evident – the days and the nights continue to grow longer , accumulating extra seconds , minutes and eventually hours with each passing day ; the trees and plants are dying away quickly and artificial lawns are the only option for people to have some greenery around them ; the gravity is affected ; the sleep patterns are affected ; animals are the first to take the hit in this chaotic ecosystem – flocks of birds are dropping dead from the sky , the whales are beaching themselves and eventually dying across the world . A eleven year old must navigate this terrifying new world while dealing with the tension in her parents ‘ marriage , dealing with breakup with old friends and forming new friendships , discovering what teenage might bring with it from the experiences of those around her and finally having her brush with something close to a heart break . . .

My thoughts about the book

What I loved about this book was that Karen has packed a lot into the narrative while exploring the catastrophic effects of the slowing down of the rotation of the earth in Julia ‘ s world – the avian deaths and change in avian behavior , how people devised new routines to cope up with the 24+ hours days , how people differed in their views regarding the shift and how there came to be two coping mechanisms , the vanishing of green acres at an alarming rate , how the almanacs became useless with each passing day because eclipses surprised people by not occurring at the pre – calculated times , the sharp spike in the sales of sleeping pills , blackout curtains , sleep masks and several other stuff which became the new age ” essentials ” and even alcohol and cigarettes . . .

This is not just a chronicling of a few lives and a few loves during this strange phenomenon but also the new and unusual experiences in the coming of age story of a young girl growing up in highly uncertain time . The idea of having Julia as a pre – teen during the start of the ” slowing ” and to have an older Julia reminisce about her growing up experiences during the start of the slowing down offers the benefit of the keen memories of a young person who can have organized thought process and also discern things put beautifully into words along with her own insightful ideas by the adult Julia . . . There is only one ambiguity which I could point out in the narrative . It is about Julia ‘ s age ( although I am not sure if I might have missed something here –

I was twenty three when plans for the Explorer were announced [ . . . ]

I do try to move forward as much as possible . I ‘ ve decided to try to become a doctor , though some of the Universities . No one knows what the world will be like by the time I finish school .

If she is 23 + ( inferring from the first statement ) , then she says in the second that no one knows what the future will look like by the time she finishes school . . . It would be great if someone could clarify this . . .

Julia ‘ s narration liberally peppered with her insightful musings on the past is a treat to read and encourages the reader also to think about certain issues she covers in the course of the narrative . Her anecdotes about everyday family life and how things slowly changed until the normal routine was no longer recognized as normal and how everyday things ( like the well -maintained lawns or eating pineapples or even bananas ) disappeared or became a memory from a time which was only a myth now are all very relatable to the current situation we find ourselves in and reinforces one learning from this time strongly – not to take the little things in life for granted . . .

Karen ‘ s take on the effects of the fictional accelerated slowing of Earth ‘ s rotation are very believable and terrifying . While reading about the catastrophic effects on Earth and its inhabitants , I could not help seeing the similarities between some of the effects detailed in the book (although thankfully not as grim as it turned out in the book and sometimes even having a positive environmental impact ) to the ” new normal routine ” in the wake of the COVID – 19 pandemic – the spike in the sales of hand sanitizers , cleaning products , vitamin pills ( especially Vitamin D now that we are wary of stepping outside our homes ) , immunity boosters , the face masks ( which have found a place in the new list of essentials ) , the wildlife taking a stroll through the roads in towns and villages not that we are all cooped up in our homes , the headlines shouting that the air pollution has dipped by a huge margin and how the air quality has improved a lot . . .

An interesting excerpt from the book –

” By the end of November , our days had stretched to forty hours

Those were the days of extremes . The sun blazed longer each time it came around , baking our street until it was too hot to cross barefoot . Earthworms sizzled on patios . Daisies wilted in their beds .

The periods of darkness , when they came , were just as sluggish as the daylight . The air turned cold during twenty hours of night , like the water at the bottom of a lake . All over California , grapes froze on the vine , orange groves withered in the dark , the flesh of avocados turned black from the frosts .

Dozens of experimental biospheres were commissioned for the cultivation of essential crops and the seeds of a thousand fragile species were rushed to a seed bank in Norway .

There are several such beautiful passages which must be read as part of the story and not as standalone quotes . This one is highly recommended from me . . .

Rating : 4 . 5 / 5

If you have already read the book , let me know in the comments section about your thoughts on the book  . . . Until the next review then . .

Review : Little Secrets by Jennifer Hillier

Little Secrets

Jennifer Hillier’s latest release Little Secrets seemed to be a favorite with the majority of the bloggers who reviewed it . So , when I saw it on Audible , I decided to go for it  . This is my first Hillier read . A quick summary of the plot before going for my thoughts about the book .

Plot Summary :

Marin had the perfect  life  – she is a successful entrepreneur who owns a chain of upscale salons and is married to a successful entrepreneur . Three days before Christmas , her four year old son Sebastian is taken by a stranger dressed in a Santa suit when they were both doing the last minute Christmas shopping .  A year later , her life is a far cry from the ‘ perfect ‘ life she had before Sebastian went missing  – She and her husband rarely speak . She had attempted suicide once during the initial days when the nightmare had just begun and is undergoing therapy ( although it does not seem to be helping much . Alcohol seems to be doing a much better job than all the support group sessions and the therapy sessions ) . The only thing which kept her going is her hope that one day Sebastian might be found . Now , the PI whom she had hired to keep working on Sebastian ‘ s case after the FBI search went cold has stumbled upon her husband ‘ s affair with a much younger woman .

Kenzie Li  , an  art grad student working part – time as a barista is one of those millennials who think that her life in Instagram posts should emulate a luxury life even if her real life is actually a far cry from the glamorous pics she posts on Instagram . . . That ‘ s why she has had a string of rich , married men as boyfriends – they could help her with the bills ; exotic vacations and expensive gifts were also some of the perks she could expect from these men . Marin ‘ s husband Derek is her latest catch . There is only one cause for concern – she is falling for him , although it was never part of the plan  . . .

Marin is already upto the neck in one of the worst nightmares for any parent . She is not about to lose her husband also now . She is ready to do whatever it takes to save her marriage and all the family she is left with . . .

My thoughts on the book :

The missing child premise is not a wholly new premise in crime fiction . The missing child , the long – grieving mother and her dependence on alcohol & drugs , the father who is ( almost ) finished with grieving and wants to have a fresh start and the resulting distance between the parents threatening their marriage  – all these plot points which are the staples for this premise are there in Hillier ‘ s latest release .

The novel ‘s plot line of finding out how Marin would deal with this stranger who is a threat to her marriage when she is already dealing with the trauma of a  missing child is a promising one . But Hillier ‘ s writing left me wanting more . I was expecting more in – depth characterization (if not some detailed psychological profiling ) of the protagonist and her immediate friends and family .  Instead , the story reads like a pretty decent screenplay for a suspense movie where the dialogues made me wonder if I had not read these lines before .  While the story is well paced and kept me engaged , I felt that it could have been told better . . . However , there were some secondary characters – like Frances ( from the support group ) , whom I felt exuded more genuineness of characterization than even Marin – Kenzie duo who had nothing remotely memorable or original about them . I could easily forget them with all the other crime fiction protagonists I am going to read this year . Marin has the proverbial fury of the scorned woman – only she is keen on punishing her husband ‘ s mistress instead of the husband . Kenzie knows how to play it with the gullible men who fell head – over – heels ” in love ” with her like all every other mistress . Like any other mistress , she also seems to be finally falling for a man who was initially supposed to be yet another fling . Yes , she is beautiful ( Marin thinks so and feels somewhat insecure about her own middle – aged self  like any other wife would do with a mistress . ) . Both Marin & Kenzie are cut -out – of – the – template characters – the woman who had been cheated by the husband &  the other woman with just enough to keep them from becoming downright out – of -the – template characters . . .

There are very few authors who have the knack of feeding the nitty – gritty of the police procedural to the readers without the reader being aware of it or not making it sound like Criminology 101 for Dummies . . . Unfortunately this was another sore point for me with the book  when the author decided to spell out even the smallest thing to the readers .

There were some times when I felt that the character ‘ s actions were determined to align with the goal of having the big reveal . * Spoilers ahead * – The protagonist discovers that someone has been in her house when she was not there . Even if she makes a good guess of who the intruder might be , would it not be only natural that she should report it to the police or atleast let her family know that somebody know the pass-code to the family home ? Even if she is not keen on kicking up a ruckus , wouldn’t she atleast change the pass-code ? There were several such minor details which were overlooked to facilitate the FINAL BIG REVEAL . . . Unsurprisingly , all these loop-holes left me unimpressed with the story – telling even more . . .

A quick side note :

The missing child premise  brought to mind two other books which had dealt with it superbly . Jane Casey ‘ s debut , THE MISSING , traced the fracturing of the family when the tween son  goes missing and the subsequent descent of his mother into alcoholism who keeps the boy ‘ s room like a shrine ,  waiting and wanting only to know what happened to her son . While , the final reveal left me somewhat underwhelmed , it has excellent psychological profiling of the missing child ‘ s younger sister and  mother . .

Another is The Queen of Suspense ‘ s Daddy ‘ s Little Girl which had similar themes like THE MISSING . It dealt with the revisiting of the murder of a teenager by her younger sister ( who is an investigative journalist now ) when the convicted killer is up for parole  so that she could put the man whom she believes to be the killer behind bars once and for all  . While Mary H . Clark is not into too – much psychological profiling , she still gives her characters  enough traits & quirks to give the reader a good picture about their character  and tells one hell of a great story . . .

I would definitely recommend the above mentioned books over Little Secrets any day . . .

Rating : 3 . 5 / 5

If you have already read the book , let me know in the comments section about your thoughts on the book  . . . Until the next review then . .

Review : Arthur & George by Julian Barnes


Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize for Fiction 2005

Plot Summary :

While Arthur ( Sir Arthur Conan Doyle ) does not need any introduction , George will definitely need one . George Edalji ( pronounced Ay-dl-ji ) , an English solicitor  was the son of the Vicar of  Great Wyrley , Shapurji Edalji . Shapurji was a Parsi convert from India who married a woman of Scottish descent and the niece of a brother clergyman . Wikipedia says that the appointment to the position of  Vicar at St . Mark ‘ s  ( Great Wyrley ) was a wedding present from Mrs . Edalji ‘ s uncle .

When the Edaljis begin to receive vicious anonymous letters , the family puts it down to racial prejudice . They appeal to the police , to no less than the Chief Constable , but to their dismay he appears to suspect George of being the letters’ author . Then someone starts slashing horses and livestock  . Again George becomes a key suspect for the GW police force who seem to set their eyes no farther than the Vicarage and its inhabitants , primarily George who has acquired some Boo Radley-esque reputation among the members of the local police force , thanks to the Chief Constable ‘ s wariness about his Parsi antecedents .   After a particularly gruesome slashing of a pit – pony , he is arrested and , on the flimsiest evidence , sent to trial , found guilty and sentenced to seven years’ hard labour . However , he was  released after serving  three years . . .

Arthur is mourning his first wife ( having been in love for the past ten years with the woman who was to become his second ) when he gets to know about the Edjali case from an ‘obscure newspaper article ‘ which was a statement of the case . Atleast that ‘ s what , he would say in his autobiography . Actually , George wrote to him a covering letter enclosing all the relevant newspaper articles including the one Arthur referred to in his autobiography .  Incensed at this obvious miscarriage of justice , Arthur steps into the shoes of his creation , Sherlock Holmes and clears George ‘ s name and even gives the name of the man who could be a better candidate as a suspect for livestock maiming and also writing the vicious , sometimes even blasphemous letters  . . .

My thoughts on the book :

Julian Barnes does a fantastic job of delving into the psyche of his central characters , considering the fact that both of them were REAL men . . . Another reason why this might be almost a feat is that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is one of the most famous men in his times – while it might easier to research about this man , the same can ‘ t be said of portraying this man ‘ s psyche convincingly . The author needs to bring the REAL Sir Arthur on the paper and not some man who looked like Sir Arthur and sounded too much like his famous detective which would have been the case with any less competent author . It would have been only too tempting and an easy work to endow the creator of a fictional character with some of the characteristics of his creation itself  because , readers are only too used to equating the creator itself as the primary inspiration for the character .

When it comes to George Edalji , I suspect that the author might as well have been on his own , considering that all that came from this case was infamy . They don ‘ t report the character profiles  of  the  defendants in a case , you know  . . . Post Sir Arthur clearing George ‘ s name , after making a lot of noise , the young solicitor was happy to return to his practice and was not interested in grabbing the opportunities like addressing meetings , writing to the newspapers or give interviews which his new found fame afforded . . .

The detailed research is evident from the writing which subtly hints at the aspects of Doyle ‘ s life which do not concern the primary narrative threads like Doyle working on the Edalji case or his ‘ love story ‘ with his to – be – second – wife . I  feel that the implication is that the second Lady Conan Doyle was somewhat pretentious and very keen to ingratiate herself with the family members closest to her would – be husband  prior to their marriage  . My guess was proved correct when I read several articles how she was the fairy-tale stepmother who would not have Sir Arthur allow even the most simple requests from his daughter Mary Conan Doyle ( from his first marriage . . ) . Perhaps , his fight for justice for several others like George , might help the public impression of  a champion of justice but it does little to assuage the feeling that his conduct towards the children of his first marriage was not very honorable .

While several others in Sir Arthur ‘ s closest circle could discern that Miss Leckie was not the angel as Sir Arthur made her out to be after some time , the man ‘ in love ‘  could not discern even the slightest hint of it , even after eight years of clandestine courtship . This extract is about the feelings of Alfred H. Wood  – a friend , private secretary and business manager  to Sir Arthur . . .

He thought it might take him a while to adjust himself to Miss Leckie – though he doubted she would still be using her maiden name by the end of the next twelvemonth . He would serve the second Lady Conan Doyle as assiduously as he had served the first one ; though with less immediate wholeheartedness . He was not sure how much he liked Jean Leckie . This was , he knew quite unimportant . You did not , as a schoolmaster , have to like the headmaster ‘s wife . And he would never be required to give his opinion . But over the eight or nine years she had been coming to Undershaw , he had often caught himself wondering if there was not something a little false about her . At a certain moment  she had become aware of his importance in the daily running of Sir Arthur ‘ s life ; whereupon she had made a point a point of being agreeable to him . More than agreeable . A hand had been placed upon his arm , and she had even in imitation of Sir Arthur , called him Woodie . He thought this  intimacy she had failed to earn . Even Mrs Doyle – as he always thought of her – would not call him that .

[ . . . ] it seemed to Wood that sports played you a lot straighter than most women .

Talking about failing to spot the obvious ( atleast a man in love might be excused ) , one thing which intrigued and somewhat impressed me about George Edalji is the fact he did not play the racial – prejudice card . He could have very well done so if he had wished it . There were , in fact ,  a few who were biased against the Edalji family ( unsurprisingly ) , which Sir Doyle and the others fighting for George could discern easily but George himself continuously denied it . In this day and age when people are quick to take offense and quite often , interpret any random incident as having ” hurt their sentiments greatly ” ( I don ‘ t want to deflect into politics and the new norm of what can be or cannot be deemed as offensive . . .  ) , George Edalji is and will be a rarity I guess .

Here is George ‘ s  argument on why racial bias was not a factor in his case  :

” I was brought up as an English man . I went to school , I studied the law, I did my articles , I became a solicitor . Did anyone try to hold me back from this progress ? On the contrary . My schoolmasters encouraged me , my partners at Sangster , Vickery & Speight took notice of me , my father ‘ s congregation uttered words of praise when I qualified . No clients refused my advice at Newhall Street on the grounds of my origin . “

[ . . . ] There have been as I said , occasional slights . There were teasings and jokes . I am not so naive as to be unaware that some people look at me differently . I am a lawyer , Sir Arthur . What evidence do I have that anyone has acted against me because of race prejudice ? Sergeant Upton used to try and frighten me , but no doubt he frightened other boys as well .  ” 

Sir Doyle ‘ s affair raised an interesting question for me to ponder about – Why is that a man needs a dutiful and obedient wife who shadows him during the early years when he is working towards realizing his dreams and climbing the social ladder and when he finally achieved everything he had dreamed for , he starts to look for ‘ intelligence ‘ in his partner and wants her to walk along his side ( when the wife was always walking a step behind him in all these years of their marriage . . . ) There have been umpteen fictional affairs where a successful man falls for another much younger woman  because the lady can hold a conversation ‘ intellectually ‘. Duh!!

I specially loved the narrative style of showing  how the formative years and the lives of both the men had been in stark contrast by switching the chapters between the two men – Arthur grows up with the ambition of providing adequately for this family when he is grown – up having been a witness to the family ‘ s genteel poverty from an early age . George seemingly does not have any high ambitions but is happy to do the job he loves .  Arthur , from an early age , is groomed to be the ” man of the house ” ; George , on the other hand  does not have the responsibility to look out for his family ‘s finances . If there is any expectation from George , it is to have a decent career ; Arthur  is not happy in the marriage when his wife becomes terminally ill and begins an affair with a much younger woman . George ” aspires to that situation ” in his 30 s but comfortably settles down as a bachelor because ” he has seen too much in his practice ” . . .

Final thoughts :

This was one of the best reads of the year for me and is highly recommended from me . There were a few characters like Horace Edalji about whom I wanted to know how they turned out in detail but I understand that this book is about When Arthur Met George ( or should it be the other way round ? ) . I might pick up more of Julian Barnes ‘ work . . Also , the questions which the book raised , the introduction to this milestone case and the wonderful writing easily make this book stand out from all the other reads this year .

Here is one of my favourite passages from the book  which I MUST quote:

” He [ George ] would have sent them [ his parents ] on a dismal journey of self questioning . Today , we know George and we know him innocent . But perhaps in three months : we think we know George and we believe him innocent . And then in a year : we realize we did not know George , yet we still think him innocent . Who could blame anyone for this declension ? “

Rating : 4 / 5

If you have already read the book , let me know in the comments section about your thoughts on the book  . . . Until the next review then . .

Articles you might want to have a look at –

Adultery, my dear Watson: Writer betrayed his dying wife with younger lover

Revealed: the cruelty of Conan Doyle to his eldest daughter

Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia