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 some 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 : Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

Mansfield Park

Plot synopsis from Goodreads :

Adopted into the household of her uncle – by – marriage , Sir Thomas Bertram , Fanny Price grows up a meek outsider among her cousins in the unaccustomed elegance of Mansfield Park . Soon after Sir Thomas absents himself on estate business in Antigua (the family’s investment in slavery and sugar is considered in the Introduction in a new , post-colonial light ) , Mary Crawford and her brother Henry arrive at Mansfield , bringing with them London glamour, and the seductive taste for flirtation and theatre that precipitates a crisis .

My thoughts on the book :

While several reviewers have too often moaned about Fanny Price ‘ s  ‘ inferiority ‘  to the other Austen heroines , I think that they simply do not consider the fact that Fanny ‘ s social standing is very different from the rest . The chief complaint which everybody seems to have is this Fanny is too timid . Do these readers who complain that Fanny is  ‘ a creepmouse ‘ expect her to have Elizabeth Bennet’s vivacity or Emma Woodhouse’s self assuredness while she is residing under her uncle ‘ s roof because her parents cannot afford to raise her ? A poor relation is only above the servants of the great house and has nothing to give herself airs about if you need some enlightening about how the society operated in Jane Austen ‘ s time . Sometimes , it is also upto  the readers to get the expectations right . . .

But these not – so – favorable  reviews actually helped me to get started with the book without much expections about the heroine and helped me to finish it without much regret . This should be the prime takeaway from this review – Have no great expectations and you will get through the book comfortably . Otherwise , you are definitely going to be disappointed . . .

One scathing observation  from a critic quoted by Claire Tomalin in her Austen biography  ( review here ) says that he found Fanny repellent : cold , self – righteous , rigid with prejudice , ‘ the most terrible incarnation we have of a the female prig – pharisee ‘ .

For me , while Fanny is rightly characterized as the creepmouse who is only too happy to sit sit unobserved and  observe the drama around her , the fact that her internal monologues almost always run along  the lines of ‘ Is this right  ? Is this wrong ? ‘ seemed a little absurd and was really exasperating . Considering the characters of her companions at Mansfield Park ( with the exception of Edmund ) , it seems very odd that she should be obsessed with the rights & wrongs like this . I also felt that it was a bit uncharacteristic for Fanny to wax eloquent at times when time and again the reader is reminded  that her education was not on par with the daughters of the house . . . I was able to overlook  her out – of – character , almost – too – poetic raptures  but even I had enough of Fanny ‘ s constant moralizing or her judgemental opinions ( regarding Mary Crawford particularly )  that I fully agree with the critic on every point except for finding her repulsive .  Any reader would recognize the underlying jealousy ( which Fanny stubbornly refuses to acknowledge even to herself  ) in the case of Mary Crawford – Fanny tends to play  up even the slightest hint of a vice in Mary Crawford to Edmund particularly , while she comfortably remains mum on the subject of her cousins ‘ scandalous elopements . . .

Atleast for me , Fanny ‘ s inferiority is in the fact that she does not get or never got  or probably would not get much love from the readers like the other Jane Austen heroines . We are not able to root for her like we did for every other Austen heroine – in fact despite all of Mary Crawford ‘ s ‘ deviousness ‘ as Fanny & Edmund would say , I wanted her to get married to the man whom she loved . But coming to think of it now , it ‘ s a match made in heaven between the two cousins . . .

That ‘ s enough of a rant about Fanny Price I guess . Now , lets talk about her love story .

I am not the first ( or going to be the last  ) reader who has this complaint – Fanny ‘ s love for Edmund is always hinted but the same Edmund who exclaimed ‘ My only sister ‘ on seeing Fanny  ( shortly after Mariah ‘ s elopement ) should fall in love with her some three or so chapters later is very much unlike Jane Austen who gave us Pride & Prejudice , Persuasion , Sense & Sensibility . If Austen had hinted at a budding romance halfway through the novel , I could have easily made peace with this romantic pair . The only problem with this lead pair is that nowhere in the book a keen reader would discern anything romantic in the interactions between the two until the big reveal . It seems that Jane Austen desperately wanted a happy ending for her book . With all other young people married or banished from Mansfield Park , she had no other people to pair up except for these two . .

Another sore point about Mansfield Park  was the writing . There were too many overly long sentences that wrapping my head around those was a trial . It was becoming quite tedious reading about Edmund and Fanny discussing the Crawfords & their merits / vices at length . . . Austen heroines who were more insightful than Fanny ( like Anne Elliot ) did not bore the readers with discussions about the characters of their neighbours . I enjoyed the chapters on Sotherton excursion , Fanny visiting her family and any other family drama very much after plodding through yet another discussion between Fanny & Edmund or even worse , Fanny ‘ s thoughts . .

* Just an idea *

Another thing which struck me after reading about Lady Bertram & Mrs . Price is that Jane Austen prefers having only the silly or sometimes indifferent parent(s) or sometimes guardians ( like Lady Bertram as in Fanny ‘ s case ) around her heroine – If you think about Mrs . & Mr . Bennet , Sir Elliot , Mr . Woodhouse , Mrs . & Mr. Price , you might also begin to see the pattern . If Austen chooses to have both the parents instead of only one ( as in Persuasion & Emma ) , then it means that both have varying levels of idiocy or eccentricity . I wonder why Austen chose to characterize the heroine ‘ s parents as people who could use some of their offspring ‘ s intelligence . . .

Final thoughts

On the whole , Mansfield Park is not going to be one of my Austen favorites . I still  have Northanger Abbey and  Sense & Sensibility  to read and having seen much positive response to  S & S , only  Northanger Abbey will decide the final rankings for Austen novels . I am confident that  in my rankings , no other Austen novel is going to beat Persuasion for the top spot . . .

Rating : 2 . 75 / 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 . . .

P . S : I think that the current situation is the best time to tackle some classics . I don ‘ t think I would have had enough patience with Mansfield Park if I had read it during ” old  normal times ” . Here are  my discussion posts on Wuthering HeightsPart-1 , Part-2 if you want to check it out . . .