27 February 2012

The Age of Miracles, by Karen Thompson Walker

This might be just the book for readers who are convinced they won't enjoy science fiction or dystopian fiction. A Young Adult book scheduled for release in June of 2012 (available for pre-order now), The Age of Miracles is an absorbing and studied glimpse into the world of an adolescent as she struggles to grow up while the earth is slowly coming to an end. The earthquake which caused the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia was so massive that it actually quickened the earth's rotation and our days were shortened by a fraction of a second. This true event sparked the idea for Karen Thompson Walker's beautiful fiction debut, The Age of Miracles, only she chose to slow the earth's rotation down, which became a much more eerie approach to the end of the world.

The California suburbs are just like any other: the day begins and ends, children go to school, parents go to work. But on one day, eleven-year-old Julia is settling down to breakfast with her family after a sleepover with her best friend when national news releases a breaking announcement. The earth, which has reliably spun on its axis since the beginning of time, is now slowing down. And slowing down fast. Before just a few weeks have gone by, an extra hour and a half have been added to a total day, increasing it from 24 hours to more than 25. And it continues to slow. At one point, 50 hours comprise one total day.

Everything changes. Animals suffer and crops begin to die after too many hours under the hot sun. Solar storms begin and some people are more physically affected by the slowing than others. Even Julia's own family begins to suffer personal changes that are heartbreaking for her. It's a frightening time and society begins to separate between "real timers," those who now choose to live their life by the daylight, and "clock timers" the rest of society who live on the standard twenty-four hour clock no matter how many hours are newly added each day. And adults continue to go to work while their children go to school to maintain a routine way of life at the most unsure period in human existence.

I was surprised by this story, and thrilled that I enjoyed it as much as I hoped I would when I read the synopsis. The layered story lines in this quiet novel were mesmerizing, beautifully depicting the changes for both Julia and the earth, all while she tries to find her own place in it all after losing her best friend, dealing with bullies at school, loneliness, and falling in love. The world is changing each day, but life still has to go on. The greater issue of the world ending lurks menacingly, but Julia's coming-of-age takes the front seat and is heartfelt and sad.

It was a beautiful and captivating read, thoroughly genuine in its description of each event in Julia's life and the world as the evolution of society's decay occurs, from order to confusion. The hints at ultimate chaos were unsettling and while I'm no expert on what might happen should the earth's axis ever slow down, each event made complete sense, never once nudging me to jump on the internet to look something up. Everything seemed to snugly fit, and the writing was fluid, effortless in each painful coming-of-age moment amidst eventual chaos.

Karen Thompson Walker's debut novel is a quiet story, about a young girl coming of age at the end of the world. Frightening, thoughtful, and genuine, Karen Thompson Walker's debut novel portends of much, much more to come from this new author.

Not surprisingly, The Age of Miracles has been optioned for the big screen by River Road Entertainment.

Others said:
If I've missed your review, let me know so I can add it here.

Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Release Date: 6/21/2012 (available for pre-order now)
Pages: 288

FTC Disclosure: I received an advanced uncorrected proof from Random House through Netgalley.

About the Author
Karen Thompson Walker is a graduate of UCLA and the Columbia MFA program and a recipient of the 2011 Sirenland Fellowship as well as a Bomb magazine fiction prize. A former editor at Simon & Schuster, she wrote The Age of Miracles in the mornings before work. Born and raised in San Diego, she now lives in Brooklyn with her husband. The Age of Miracles is her first book.

This is my third selection for the Science Fiction Experience, hosted by Carl at Stainless Steel Droppings. All reviews from Experience participants can be found here.


22 February 2012

The Lathe of Heaven, by Ursula K. Le Guin

I cannot believe I waited this long in my life to dive into "real" science fiction. What have I been waiting for? Did I think it was all weird names, odd planets, and "too smart for me" subjects? Yep, sure did. With that stereotype in my head, I have only occasionally read science fiction that was recommended by the non-science fiction reader. Consequently, I ended up missing out on authors like Ursula Le Guin, and I wish I had tried more of this genre when I was younger.

I picked up this Le Guin novella because it was mentioned in Jo Walton's Among Others which I recently enjoyed. (Others might be familiar with Ursula Le Guin because she was also mentioned frequently in the book and movie The Jane Austen Book Club.) Among Others has been defined by several reviewers as a love letter to science fiction, particularly from the 1970s, and while I enjoyed the story, I felt a bit left out with all of the books referenced. I committed to myself that I would read a few that Morwenna, the main character from the story, loved. I wanted to truly understand why there were such die-hard fans of science fiction.

The Lathe of Heaven did not disappoint and was a perfect book for a new science fiction reader like me. Yes, it did incorporate a few odd things here and there that I wasn't used to, but I expected it and actually rejoiced in it. I wanted to be challenged by my reading and I got it with this.

George Orr is a man who is afraid to sleep. He does everything he can to avoid it, but the human body can only go so long without sleep before finally succumbing to it. And with that, he dreams. The dreams are sometimes unimportant and inconsequential, meaning nothing to him when he awakens. Other times, though, the times that drive his fear, George Orr dreams of a change in the world, a shift in his own life. Upon awakening, he finds that what he has dreamed of has now actually happened and changed the world in some way.

For an ethical person, this is tough for George to deal with. He has the very power to adjust not just the future, but the past as well, and this also means that what he dreams of could remove or add actual people in the world. Knowing that people suddenly disappear out of existence, and their own family and friends don't even remember them, tortures George. Even the insignificant changes upset him, so he does everything he can to not dream.

After an overdose of medication that is supposed to stop him from dreaming, George Orr is required to go to therapy. His doctor, William Faber, appears congenial enough and willing to believe George's story, no matter how outlandish his fear may sound. If Dr. Faber had any doubts, it's completely squashed when Dr. Faber realizes that a picture painted behind his desk on the wall, now becomes a completely different image after he puts George into a dream-state sleep in his office and gives him general ideas to dream of. Normally, others can't feel a shift in their current existence, even if there are dramatic changes, but because Dr. Faber is monitoring George in this first session, he is able to acknowledge to himself that what George stated is true: George's dreams do change things. He doesn't admit to George that he fully believes, but instead begins a calculated therapeutic process of putting George to sleep in each session and giving him ideas of what to dream of next. But the torture then continues for George. After all, can you imagine what it would be like to have realities constantly change in the world, but only you know what's changed, who might no longer exist? What a terrible, awful burden.

Although Dr. Faber isn't setting out for personal gain, ultimately the ethical question remains, and the path taken to rid the world of certain horrible elements can be debated. Would a world without hate truly be perfect? If everyone were the same, would it make life easier? With these discussions, along with race, justice, eugenics, and the act of "playing God," The Lathe of Heaven is a divine science fiction classic novella that made me ponder these questions and much more.

So it's with this book that I learned that science fiction isn't only strange names, oddly-created creatures who can speak, or subjects that might be a bit above my abilities to understand. I instead found that science fiction does a doggone good job of questioning society, and gives an opportunity to the reader to truly evaluate what current-day controversies might be like in the future. It was a refreshing perspective, and I reveled in the fact that this book was written in 1971. Pretty cool thinking at the time, if you ask me.

And yes. I'll be reading much more science fiction and will ultimately not steer myself away from this section in the bookstore ever again.

Book club choice? Maybe, but you have to really have an open group to select something like this. It certainly would give a lot to bicker about, I think. It's a novella, so with less than 200 pages to read, why not pick this up and try it yourself?

A passage to remember:
Orr was not a fast reasoner. In fact, he was not a reasoner. He arrived at ideas the slow way, never skating over the clear, hard ice of logic, nor soaring on the slipstreams of imagination, but slogging, plodding along on the heavy ground of existence. He did not see connections, which is said to be the hallmark of intellect. He felt connections - like a plumber. He was not really a stupid man, but he did not use his brains half as much as he might have done, or half as fast. It was not until he had got off the subway at Ross Island Bridge West, and had walked up the hill several blocks and taken the elevator eighteen floors to his one-room 8 1/2 x 11 flat in the twenty-story independent-income stell-and sleazy-concrete Corbett Condominium (Budget Living in Style Down Town!), and had put a soybean loaf slice in the infrabake, and had taken a beer out of the wallfridge, and had stood some while at his window - he paid double for an outside room - looking up at the West Hills of Portcland crammed with huge glittering towers, heavy with lights and life, that he thought at last: Why didn't Dr. Haber tell me that he knows I dream effectively?
Others said:
If I've missed your review, let me know so I can add it here.

Publisher: EOS (an imprint of HarperCollins (my copy)
Release Date: First published 1971
Pages: 175

FTC Disclaimer: I checked this book out of my local Virginia Beach Public Library.

About the Author
As of 2011, Ursula K. Le Guin has published twenty-one novels, eleven volumes of short stories, four collections of essays, twelve books for children, six volumes of poetry and four of translation, and has received many awards: Hugo, Nebula, National Book Award, PEN-Malamud, etc. Her recent publications include the novel Lavinia, an essay collection, Cheek by Jowl, and The Wild Girls. Forthcoming in 2012, Finding My Elegy, New and Selected Poems. She lives in Portland, Oregon.
Visit the author:
This is my second selection for the Science Fiction Experience, hosted by Carl at Stainless Steel Droppings. All reviews from Experience participants can be found here.


20 February 2012

The Flight of Gemma Hardy, by Margot Livesey

It is the early 1960s and Gemma Hardy has already lost her parents, when she lived in Iceland as a toddler, and now her beloved uncle, who moved her to live with him and his family in Scotland. Upon his death, Gemma's horrid aunt decides to send her to a boarding school, Claypoole, and it is there that Gemma spends the next seven years of her life as a student and "working girl." In order to maintain her studies, room and board, Gemma is at the mercy of the school. She sweeps, mops, preps the kitchen food, feeds the animals and more. Needless to say, it's a challenge to be treated equally, although she is one of the brightest pupils. With a daily fear of being bullied by other working girls, Gemma's only source of happiness comes in her love of birds, studying and reading, and her only friend, Miriam.

When the doors of Claypoole abruptly close before Gemma sits for university exams, she is hired as a nanny to Mr. Sinclair's niece, Nell, a ragged, wild child who has never had formal instruction or true guidance. The arrangement brings Gemma and Mr. Sinclair close and a romance develops, but it's not until a disappointing fall out occurs, separating her from Mr. Sinclair, that Gemma's adventure on learning who she truly is begins.

Traveling from Yew House to Claypoole, to Blackbird Hall in the Orkneys, to Iceland, The Flight of Gemma Hardy is a unique retelling of Jane Eyre, and was an extremely satisfying read.

This updated retelling of Bronte's Jane Eyre worked so well for me. It's been years since I read Jane Eyre (so long it would feel like a completely new book if I revisited it), and I considered if that's why I enjoyed this book so very much. Normally, a retelling of a classic brings constant comparisons, but the story and writing were thoroughly satisfying and absorbing. Although The Flight of Gemma Hardy followed the basic map of Jane's life (orphan, boarding school, mean aunt, being a nanny/governess), it was loosely connected so it never quite felt as though you could predict what would happen next. Several areas creatively twisted differently from the classic tale, keeping it fresh and unique. With Gemma traveling from Orkney to be a nanny, stumbling through small towns to develop new friends in the Scottish countryside, and even to Iceland, Gemma's feisty personality continues to persevere even throughout each event of bad luck and sadness. Setting this in the 1960s in Scotland was a brilliant choice: it maintained the feeling of a different time, while combining a romantic and Gothic feel of different lands, seas, and hillsides. Beautifully descriptive, Livesey successfully retells the timeless classic, updating it with a vintage flair.

I spent a delightfully rainy Sunday reading this chunkster of a book and loved it. While it may follow a similar path of Jane Eyre, it easily is its own story and those who haven't read Jane Eyre may appreciate it even more.

Others said (if you aren't on the TLC tour and I've missed your review, let me know so I can add here):

Publisher: Harper Collins
Publication Date: 1/24/2012
Pages: 447
Do you want my copy of the advanced reader's edition? The first reader who comments with their email address will receive confirmation from me, and then will receive the book in the mail within three weeks.
About the Author
Margot Livesey grew up in a boys' private school in the Scottish Highlands where her father taught and her mother, Eva, was the school nurse. After taking a B.A. in English and philosophy at the University of York in England she spent most of her twenties working in shops and restaurants and learning to write. Her first book, a collection of stories called Learning by Heart, was published by Penguin Canada in 1986. Since then Margot has published six novels: Homework, Criminals, The Missing World, Eva Moves the Furniture, Banishing Verona and The House on Fortune Street. Her seventh novel, The Flight of Gemma Hardy, will be released in February 2012.

Margot is currently a distinguished writer in residence at Emerson College. She lives with her husband, a painter, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and goes back to London and Scotland whenever she can.

Visit the author:
Many thanks to TLC Book Tours for including me in this tour which goes through the first week of March 2012. To read all of the reviews at each tour stop, click here.


12 February 2012

Before I Go To Sleep, by S.J. Watson

Christine has woken up and doesn't recognize her surroundings, the man sleeping next to her in bed, or the older and wrinkled face peering back at her in the bathroom mirror. The pictures around her show the same woman in the reflection, but Christine doesn't understand how she can look as though she's in her forties when she should be in her twenties.

Upon learning from her husband, Ben, that every morning starts out like this, Christine is devastated. She is halfway through her life but can't remember anything past her late twenties. An accident destroyed her memory and while she can remember everything throughout the day, going to sleep reboots her and she starts all over again the next morning. She wakes each day unable to recognize her husband, her house, or what happened to her mother and other family members and friends. Every morning starts out in this same way.

When she receives a phone call from a doctor, she learns that it's a call she gets from him each morning. He's directed her to a journal she's been keeping for the past few weeks, and it becomes her daily reminder and re-education on how she now lives her life. It's a ritual each day she has to re-learn, so the events her journal describes are emotions and moments she has to go through and experience as though new, again and again. When she reads her unsettling advice to keep the journal secret from her own husband, the frightening possibilities pile on. Religiously documenting each day's events forces her to question if its simply paranoia or if she truly is in danger. Christine's psychological thriller begins its emotional ride.

I was surprised by this book. Immediately, I was pulled in, hooked with each page I turned, and ultimately found it to be a satisfying suspense novel. Not knowing who to trust or what to believe, Christine's horrible nightmare of the same daily education of the loss of her life is heartbreaking. I was comfortable with its repetition since I was anticipating it, but I can't imagine listening to the audio book version. (A search through my trusty Google Reader confirmed that with Heather's and Sandy's thoughts, so I would maintain my recommendation that reading versus listening to it would be the best choice.) I understood and expected that each day's start would be the same, but the author was able to skip a little bit of each morning from the prior entry so it didn't feel tiresome for the reader, which can be challenging when dealing with a Groundhog Day flow. This disturbing and frightening novel kept me on the edge of my seat and all I could imagine was the horror of not knowing where you were every day when you woke up, or not recognizing your own husband sleeping in bed next to you, or wondering why you look like you're in your forties when you feel you haven't even reached thirty yet. Nightmare.

While I felt it was a bit too neat and tidy with its conclusion, it successfully kept my attention and I couldn't put it down. I'm not surprised to hear that this has been optioned for a film with Ridley Scott's production company; I think it would make an excellent film and may translate even better into that medium. I'm looking forward to it.

Others said:

Publisher: Harper Perennial
Release Date: 2/7/2012 (paperback)
Pages: 358

About the Author
S.J. Watson was born in the Midlands, lives in London and worked in the NHS for a number of years. In 2009, Watson was accepted into the first Faber Academy "Writing a Novel" course, a program that covers all aspects of the novel-writing process. Before I Go To Sleep is the result.

Before I Go To Sleep has become a phenomenal international success, sold in 42 territories around the world. It is a New York Times and Sunday Times bestseller, and won both the Crime Writers' Association Award for Best Debut Novel and the Galaxy National Book Award for Crime Thriller of the Year. Before I Go To Sleep has also been acquired for a film by Ridley Scott's production company, Scott Free, with Rowan Joffe to direct.

Follow the author:

Many thanks to TLC Book Tours for including me in this tour which goes through the first week of March 2012. To read all of the reviews at each tour stop, click here.


06 February 2012

Among Others, by Jo Walton

In my attempt to grow more outside of my comfort zone, I downloaded Among Others by Jo Walton for some science fiction and fantasy reading. It's not normally genres I read, but the few times I have, it's been fairly enjoyable. I guess for me it's an acquired taste, like coffee or wine. I have to regularly try it so I can get more used to it and eventually love it.

Outstanding bloggers recommended this book (full list below). With those strong supporters, combined with an appealing synopsis of the story that includes fairies, magic, the 1970s, Wales, England, boarding schools, and science fiction, all captured in journal entries, I knew it was something I needed to read. It was a bumpy road at first, but I'm glad I read it.

It is a science fiction reader's dream to read Among Others, but it's a reminder that reading does much more for you than just while away the time. This unique coming-of-age tale may incorporate fantasy elements, but it's also about the angst of teen life, the confusion of new friends and first loves, the grief of the loss of family and the awkward steps of meeting new relatives for the first time. Most importantly, it's about finding meaning in your own life by reading books.

It's 1979 and Morwenna Phelps is fifteen-years-old. Just one year before, she and her twin sister played with the fairies that hovered around the ruins of Welsh castles near her home. When their mother began to use more and more dark magic that became a danger, they knew it was their responsibility to fight back. Morwenna ends up losing her twin, and suffering a painful limp for the rest of her life.

A year later, Morwenna has run away from her mother and taken in by her once-absent father and his three sisters. Shipped off to boarding school, her coming-of-age tale is told through journal entries which capture six months of her life, relaying the interactions with new friends at school and her new family at home, and the steady ache of loss without her sister. Although magic is an important piece, it's actually quite subtle in the overall story. It must be remembered that Morwenna is an avid journal writer, so the six months we get to read is only a snippet of her life in which fairies and magic are the norm. The more "real" parts for the reader that are easiest to comprehend are the very rough spots of pain that Morwenna feels as she struggles to find a sense of balance in her new life. She is every bit a teenager who has all of the normal challenges being a teenager can bring, but she also has an added responsibility of dealing with magic and fairies in a world that doesn't believe. To have a mother who is the very source of evil, naturally draws a heavier burden for her.

Morwenna's escape from it all is reading. She voraciously reads dozens of books a week and falls in love with the "interlibrary loan" which allows her to order books from other libraries. Her stash of reading is never empty, and though she occasionally reads historical fiction, it is science fiction that captures her heart. It is the one connection she has with her father, who is also a passionate reader of the genre.

All readers will enjoy elements of Among Others, but science fiction lovers will especially adore this book. Everything Morwenna reads is discussed in full detail, comparing one book to another, etc. Since I am new to the world of science fiction, this initial part was quite a hurdle for me, and at times, I considered putting the book down because I wasn't grasping the references that a true science fiction fan would immediately get. After a while, though, the journal entries became much more fluid, quietly relaying significant events in Morwenna's life, and while I still felt as though there was a disjointed feel to the story (which is sometimes how it feels when it's in a true journal format), I felt much more comfortable with it. Once I got into the rhythm of the story, I couldn't put it down and found that I was jotting down notes on science fiction books that were important to Morwenna (which is why I picked up Ursula le Guin's The Lathe of Heaven and read it in a day, review coming soon.)

I ended up liking Among Others, and liking it a whole heck of a lot. It's impossible for me to say I loved it only because I haven't read the sci-fi books referenced, and for me, it seemed important to the story to understand the books that she loved, and the characters and themes referenced. This story more than likely has multiple layers of meaning that could be debated in the same science fiction book club Morwenna ends up joining at her library, but most of them unfortunately passed me by. There is much more to this story, but I feel I only scratched the surface of its meaning since I haven't read any of the books Morwenna writes about. When a book or character is referenced, if there isn't any explanation attached to it, it's sort of like an inside joke, or something that makes you feel left out. (Reminder to me yet again, this is a journal!)

So here's the success of this book for me: What it effectively did do is motivate me to read science fiction from the 1970s. It seems like this is one of the peak periods when sci-fi became even more popular. Because of that, I did head to the library this weekend and picked up Ursula le Guin's The Lathe of Heaven...and I read it in one day. Granted, it is a short book at less than 200 pages, but it's not often that I read a book that quickly. The review is coming this week and I can proudly state I loved it! More science fiction for me!

Read this if you like science fiction and fantasy books, or if you like stories about boarding schools and magic (even though it's much more than that!). If you are new to science fiction, push through the first entries; you'll eventually get to the rhythm and flow of the story and will find it comfortable, quiet, and a pleasant read. If anything, it will definitely make you a bit more curious about the science fiction section in the bookstore/library. It did for me and I am ecstatic that there is a new genre for me that I never thought to do anything more with than dip my toe into it. I can't wait!

Others said:
Beauty is a Sleeping Cat
Devourer of Books
Entomology of a Bookworm
The Guilded Earlobe (audio review)
Jenny's Books
Leeswammes' Blog
Rhapsody In Books
Stainless Steel Droppings
Things Mean A Lot
The Written World

Publisher: Tor Books
Release Date: 1/18/2011
Pages: 304

About the Author
Image credit
Jo Walton was born in Aberdare, Wales and is a Welsh-Canadian fantasy and science fiction writer and poet. She won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer in 2011 and the World Fantasy award for her novel Tooth and Claw in 2004. Her novel Ha'penny was a co-winner of the 2008 Prometheus Award. Lifelode won the 2010 Mythopoeic Award.

Follow the author:

This is my first selection for the Science Fiction Experience hosted by Carl at Stainless Steel Droppings. All reviews from participants can be found here.


02 February 2012

A Walk About Town: Somewhere in Southwestern Virginia

A Walk About Town is a weekly feature hosted here at Coffee and a Book Chick. You do not need to have a book blog to join; any blogger can participate. Write about a spot in your town, or in another city you've visited, include the button for A Walk About Town, and add your link in the Linky below so we can visit your post. I post on Thursdays, but you can post any day of that week. Just make sure to add your link to the most recent week's post here at Coffee and a Book Chick. If you're on Twitter, use the hashtag #AWalkAboutTown.
After reading the incredible story Baker Towers by Jennifer Haigh, it seemed fitting to be in the mountains of Virginia. Granted, the book took place in the mountains of Pennsylvania, but I was daydreaming about history, and trying to envision what the area looked like seventy years ago.

As you may know, I've been traveling for work quite a bit. I was in Dallas last week, and this Monday I had a meeting four hours west of Virginia Beach in the Salem/Roanoke area in Southwestern Virginia. (Which of course meant listening to an audio book...)

I know, I know. Never take pictures while you're driving, and especially when you're driving in the mountains. About twelve years ago, I drove the Blue Ridge Mountain Parkway at night, and let me tell you that the little metal guardrail is not a reassuring sight when eighteen-wheelers are blowing past you and you're at a few thousand feet elevation.  White-knuckle driving that night. I gripped that steering wheel so hard that my back, neck and shoulders felt like I did an intense upper body workout the next day. Thankfully for this trip, the area of Virginia I was traveling through was not as frightening, but was beautiful. I can only imagine what it will look like in the next couple of months for the springtime and I can't wait to return.

I wish I had taken more pictures. Next time, I promise. I'll stop at the designated scenic view spot. I missed the road to pull off for it this time, and I was not going to cut anyone off. I mean, it is the mountains.