"Gold" Gets Silver: Olympic Reviews of Recent Fiction

Takoma Park Library

"Gold" Gets Silver: Olympic Reviews of Recent Fiction

Book cover of Swamplandia!Just in case you can’t get enough Olympic coverage, I’ve decided to award medals to the fiction books I’ve read over the past month. 

Coming in with the Bronze is Swamplandia! By Karen Russell.  I really want to like this book—and I must tell you that I haven’t quite finished it yet—but I’m still finding it slow going. This was one of three books nominated this year for the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction (no award was given.)

Swamplandia! tells the story of the Bigtree family. They own an alligator-wrestling theme park on a tiny island off the Florida coast, but when the mother dies of cancer, the tourist money dries up. The oldest son, Kiwi, goes to the mainland to try to earn some money at a menial job at a rival theme park. Their father, the Chief, also disappears to the mainland, leaving the two girls, Ossie and Ava, to fend for themselves. Ossie spends her days communing with ghosts via an old book she’s found, and Ava, the youngest, has to rescue her sister from following a ghost to the Underworld.

While this is a unique and interesting premise, I’m finding it hard to care about some of the characters (Ava and Kiwi are unquestionably the best), and the narrative pace seems uneven. I think the magical swamp atmosphere is just a little too weird for me, although I’m usually into ghosts. I do appreciate the realistic and hilarious descriptions of the theme park staffers that Kiwi encounters—and the possibility of a red alligator.

Book cover for GoldI was very excited to begin reading Chris Cleave’s newest book, Gold. This novel, which follows the careers of two British Olympian cyclists, was released just before the start of the London Olympics.  I figured I would give this book a gold medal, but in the end, it only won silver. I’m afraid it’s because his previous book, Little Bee, was so wonderful that nothing could compare to it (though I know I shouldn’t compare them). I felt disappointed that the plot of Gold didn’t have the same level of humor. Another problem was that one of the Olympians, Kate, wasn’t a likeable character; that unlikeableness was central to the plot, but still, I just wanted her to change, and it took her a frustratingly long time to do so. Some of the plot points seemed rather predictable, while in his other book I felt like this was never an issue. While it was a fast and enjoyable read to get me ready to watch the real Olympics, it’s just not a book that’s going to stay with me for a long time.

Book cover for Age of MiraclesI’m giving my gold medal to a book that’s already received a lot of hype, and for good reason. Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker—her debut novel—kept me entertained and invested in the characters from beginning to end. I actually listened to it on audiobook to avoid the waiting list for the book version, and I think the reader, Emily Janice Card, did an excellent job with her voices, inflection and pacing. The book follows 12-year-old Julia through the trials of normal middle school life in California—fighting parents, first crushes and frenemies. The twist is that the world may be ending. The earth is rotating more slowly, messing with gravity, and making the length of a day grow far beyond 24 hours. The juxtaposition of the slowly catastrophic unknown and the very normal goings-on of life kept me hooked. The writing is excellent; Julia's narrative throughout is incredibly poignant and nostalgic, longing for the way things were, in the face of constant changes. Though I found the ending a little rushed, and certainly sad, it left the door open for me to imagine a satisfactory ending for the characters.

— by Heather Petsche, Adult Librarian