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Mini Reviews — Returning Overdue Books

I’ve been renewing a growing stack of library books that I couldn’t seem to get around to reviewing, so here’s a catch-up, catch-all post of mini reviews.

What do these books have in common? Blue or bluish covers, that’s about it…

The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker (Random House, 2012)
A first novel by an author who grew up in California and now lives in New York, The Age of Miracles starts with the idea that the earth’s rotation begins to slow – for no apparent reason and with no method of reversal – when Julia, the narrator of the story, was in sixth grade. As California residents, Julia and her family and neighbors were used to the idea of earthquakes, but this gradual, – unnoticed at first – progressive, global change in the length of days and nights, was something entirely new and could have a frightening ripple effect on all aspects of animal, plant, and human life on earth. Meanwhile, life goes on for Julia and her middle school peers – dealing with their own perilous social environment, internal and external changes in their bodies, and their inevitable progress into adulthood – while the whole world changes around them. A book club selection that sparked a lot of discussion. Click here to read what the group thought.

City of Dark Magic by Magnus Flyte (Penguin, 2012)
I kept thinking while reading City of Dark Magic that seemed like it was written by a woman,  so I wasn’t surprised to find out later that “Magnus Flyte” is the pen name for two women who wrote the book together. Set in Prague, the story is peopled with unusual characters who say cryptic things to Sarah, a rational, Beethoven-worshipping, neuromusicologist grad student from South Boston. Pollina – Sarah’s blind, 11-year-old music student prodigy – tells Sarah before she leaves Boston that “Prague is a place where the fabric of time is thin,” and Sarah’s hot, Italian scientist male roommate Alessandro (who doesn’t play much of a role after the beginning, but whose words she remembers later) warns her there is magic in the city she’s heading off to. (“Dark magic. Prague is a threshold.”) I thought I would love this book, but, although romance, paranormal, time-travel, and suspense elements were all there, the character development wasn’t; it seemed ready to be made into a movie. (Also, there are some fairly graphic sex scenes in unusual locales throughout, which would all play well onscreen.) I might have loved this book in my late teens or twenties before I became so jaded! Along with its sequel, City of Lost Dreams, this entertaining romp has gotten plenty of rave reviews, so don’t let me talk you out of giving it a try, if it sounds like fun to you.

The Glass Ocean by Lori Baker (Penguin, 2013)
This beautifully written, poetic novel is constructed like one of the delicate ocean creatures made of glass that the author says inspired the story. Built up out of the 18-year-old Carlotta Dell’oro’s memories and imaginings – the narrative becomes so lifelike and so surreal, the narrator has to keep reminding readers that it has been crafted by her. Carlotta’s story is set in Victorian England, a time of scientific exploration and obsessive specimen collecting. Her upbringing is so haphazard and neglected, she has to keep reminding her parents that she exists. The Glass Ocean made a great book club book because there was so much to argue about discuss – the author’s writing style, her narrator’s perspective, numerous ambiguities in the text, and a rich variety of story threads and metaphors to follow and sort out. Much of the book is interior – memories and obsessive thoughts going round and round the same topics – and not much happens in a straightforward way. Unlike City of Dark Magic, this is a novel to read for the writing and the imagery, not for the story or entertainment value. Recommended for readers looking for challenging literary fiction, not historical fiction about a Victorian girl on an ocean voyage, as the cover might mislead you into thinking this is.

Until I Say Good-Bye: My Year of Living with Joy by Susan Spencer-Wendel with Bret Witter (HarperCollins, 2013)
Written for her three children and husband by a successful, 44-year-old journalist after finally being diagnosed with ALS – Lou Gehrig’s disease – a neuromuscular disorder that would leave her just one more year of rapidly declining health and mobility in which to make her brief remaining time with her family a memorable and productive one. Adopted as an infant, the author meets her biological mother for the first time and travels from Florida to Greece to meet the extended family on her biological father’s side that she never knew. She also takes each of her children – a 14-year-old daughter and two sons, 9 and 11 – on special trips to places of their choosing, trying to pack as many experiences in as possible while also keeping family life relatively “normal.” The author tapped out most of the book on an iPhone, as her abilities to speak clearly or type on a laptop rapidly got worse. This poignant memoir of a year before dying comes across, understandably, as patched together in haste, but makes a good companion read to other books about mindfulness and joy such as The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin, or maybe with other books about facing death such as The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch or The End of Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe (which I haven’t read yet.)

Wild Indigo by Sandi Ault (Berkley, 2006)
First in a series of mysteries set in New Mexico featuring a female Bureau of Land Management agent, Jamaica Wild, with her pet wolf Mountain. Action-packed and steeped in Native American mysticism and ritual, this book will appeal to readers who like mysteries with Southwestern settings like Tony Hillerman’s Navajo mysteries (Leaphorn and Chee) or Aimee and David Thurlo’s Ellah Clah series. (See this great list at the Lucius Beebe Memorial Library in Wakefield for more.) To read about what one of our library book clubs thought about Wild Indigo, click here.


12 thoughts on “Mini Reviews — Returning Overdue Books”

  1. I want to read City of Dark Magic but keep seeing less than swoony reviews — so am probably not going to rush to read it. I was disappointed by The Age of Miracles, but I had heard soooooo much hype ahead of reading, there was no way it could live up to my expectations.

    1. I often read books so long after the hype has died down that I don’t get disappointed! But that may have been what happened to me with City of Dark Magic; I was expecting something a little deeper and darker, more along the lines of The Golem and the Jinni than Daughter of Smoke and Bone.

  2. Until I Say Goodbye sounds interesting. Especially interested in Wild Indigo because it is a mystery. Will have to be on the lookout for books by that author. And I liked the link to the Beebe Library list of mysteries with Southwestern settings. Not an area I have read much about.

    1. Yes, that was a great Southwestern mystery list and they have a lot of other lists, too. I’m trying to create more book lists or at least post some of the many that I’ve put together over the years!

    1. Thanks for visiting the book club blog and commenting there, too! Until I Say Goodbye was sad in many places, of course, but she describes a lot of happy memories too.

  3. This looks a good set of books. I want to read The Age of Miracles for the science and society aspects, what made me wait though is a review or two that said it concentrates mostly on school life and the like. I know those are only a few opinions so I’ll still try it; maybe it’s better to have lower expectations?

    1. I would describe it as more of a coming of age story than science fiction. The author doesn’t go into the science behind what is happening much at all. There’s definitely a lot about how it affects human society, though!

  4. Thanks for these reviews. Of the five books, I’ve read The Glass Ocean (the author grew up in Massachusetts, by the way) — which was one of my favorite books of 2013. I agree with you — this is a lyrical book, immersed in 19th century visual art and natural history, but it is firstly a book of stunning literary quality, and secondly a book of profound human emotion. I hope your readers try it. all best, Erica

    1. I did know that about Lori Baker, who now lives in Providence, Rhode Island, not too far from where I live in Mass. In the longer review I had planned to write but never did, I definitely would have mentioned it! 😉 I liked The Glass Ocean a lot while reading it, and it was wonderfully discussable, too.

Would love to have you comment!