The Big One: Earthquakes in Fiction

Image of hills and scrub, with wooden sign that says "San Andreas Fault" used under CC BY-SA 2.0 license under Creative Commons
“San Andreas Fault” by Ben+Sam, used under Creative Commons CC BY-SA 2.0

It has been a quarter century since the Northridge earthquake struck at 4:30 am on January 17, 1994. It has been 30 years since the Loma Prieta quake hit Northern California in 1989, and the Sylmar quake hit nearly 50 years ago. Surely California is expecting more rocking and rolling, and we all (hopefully) know how to be prepared for a large-magnitude quake when it happens. If you’re looking for info on how to be prepared, Pasadena’s own KPCC has a brand new podcast, The Big One: Your Survival Guide, which “take[s] you on a journey to understand what the catastrophic earthquake will mean for Los Angeles, the U.S., and the world. This is what you need to know to survive.” Give it a listen. Meanwhile, earthquakes figure in plenty of fiction. Consider checking out one of these titles, and reading it from the safety of your for-know stable armchair.

Happy Reading!

book cover image of Ear To the GroundEar To the Ground by Paul Kolsby and David L. Ulin

Seismologist Charlie Richter, grandson of the inventor of the Richter scale, knows earthquakes, and has a method for predicting them. Arriving in Los Angeles to begin work at the Center for Earthquake Studies, a mysterious agency that seems more Hollywood than science, Charlie settles into his new life. His only distraction from work is Grace, an assistant to a powerful producer, and her deadbeat scriptwriter boyfriend Ian.

It’s only a matter of time before Charlie sees the “Big One” looming on the horizon. When Charlie alerts his boss at the Center, he is the one that’s in for a shock: this is exactly what the Center was hoping for.

With the news leaked, everyone’s suddenly looking to produce the next disaster blockbuster. One of the few scripts Ian actually wrote, Ear to the Ground, happens to be about an earthquake disaster, and soon it’s plucked from obscurity and given the fast track. But with a little bit of luck, Charlie may just foil everybody’s plans. He just needs explosives, a helicopter, a little more time.

By award-winning writer and Los Angeles Times book critic David Ulin, Ear to the Ground is a rollicking visit back to the 1990s.


book cover image of Outrun the MoonOutrun the Moon by Stacey Lee [Young Adult Fiction]

Lee (Under a Painted Sky) creates another strong Chinese-American protagonist, 15-year-old Mercy Wong, in a novel set in 1906 San Francisco, where extreme discrimination against the city’s Chinese population flourishes. Mercy’s father runs a laundry, her mother is a fortune-teller, and six-year-old brother Jack is her treasure, but Mercy dreams of becoming a successful businesswoman. Characterized by her “bossy cheeks,” she bribes her way into an elite girls’ boarding school, where she poses as a wealthy heiress. Just as she is found out, the historic earthquake hits. In its aftermath, the story becomes a somewhat predictable survival tale as the schoolgirls overcome differences to work together to feed the homeless population camped out in Golden Gate Park. Suspense over the fate of Mercy’s father and romantic interest helps hold readers’ attention, but the girls’ adventures and achievements in building a community out of the diverse park residents are not as compelling as the interplay between Mercy’s life in Chinatown and at St. Clare’s School for Girls, which makes for an original exploration of a time and place not often depicted in historical fiction.


book cover image of Madness In MiniatureMadness In Miniature by Margaret Grace

Summer in the Northern California town of Lincoln Point has already been disturbed by the imminent grand opening of crafting superstore SuperKrafts, before being shaken by an earthquake and by the murder of SuperKrafts executive Craig Palmer III. Gerry has inside knowledge of the case thanks to her nephew, LPPD detective Skip, and her position as community liaison to SuperKrafts. With help from Maddie, her 11-year-old granddaughter, Gerry looks into such suspects as local ceramics store owner Bebe Mellon and local-made-good Catherine Duncan, a SuperKrafts representative. Grace also explores developments in Gerry’s family, including an upcoming wedding and a tween-age crisis for Maddie.


book cover image of Sisterland

Sisterland by Curtis Sittenfeld

Delicious insights into sisterhood and motherhood are peppered throughout Sittenfeld’s novel about identical twins with ESP. The story, though, isn’t as convincing as the twins, who are rendered so vividly that readers would be able to pick them out of a crowd. Kate, a stay-at-home mom in St. Louis, Mo., is embarrassed by her sister Violet, who ekes out a living as a psychic. After a minor earthquake in the area in September 2009, Violet’s guiding spirit warns her that a major quake is imminent. When Kate has a premonition that it will occur on October 16, she allows Violet to share the date with the public if she doesn’t reveal its source. Kate tells the story in chapters that alternate between timelines, one beginning with the September quake and one beginning when the twins are born. As a narrator, Kate is introspective and mostly honest, but the backstory is weighed down with unnecessary details and crucial questions remain unasked. As the clock ticks toward October 16, Violet attracts widespread media attention and Kate pleads with her husband not to leave her and the twins at home to attend a conference in Colorado. Sittenfeld (American Wife) offers no fresh perspective on ESP or living with giftedness but delivers a rich and intimate tale of imperfect, well-meaning, ordinary people struggling to define themselves and protect the people they love.


book cover image of The Renegades

The Renegades by Tom Young

Young’s experience as a pilot in several war zones informs every line of his riveting third novel featuring Air Force Lt. Col. Michael Parson (after 2011’s Silent Enemy). Now an adviser to a helicopter unit in Afghanistan, Parson requests that his interpreter friend, Sgt. Maj. Sophia Gold, be deployed back to Afghanistan to help with relief efforts after a major earthquake. Just as Parson and his team are about to lift off with a number of injured Afghans, members of a terrorist group called the Black Crescent shoot up their helicopter; soon after, they kidnap a 10-year-old boy from a nearby village. Parson and Gold get on the trail of the Crescent leader, Chaaku (the Pashto word for knife), and in a last deadly battle bring a measure of justice to their corner of the war. Young’s precise, evocative prose brings a far-off war into sharp-edge focus while honoring the heroic servicemen and women who fight against extraordinary odds.


book cover image of The Incense GameIncense Game: A Novel of Feudal Japan by Laura Joh Rowland

A natural disaster serves as the focal point for Rowland’s stellar 16th whodunit set in feudal Japan (after 2011’s The Ronin’s Mistress). In 1703, an earthquake devastates the city of Edo, claiming thousands of lives and causing major structural damage. Recovery efforts yield the bodies of two sisters and another woman, who perished playing the incense game, in which participants “burned incense samples, smelled the smoke, and attempted to guess what type they were.” Evidence that the incense was poisoned leads Lord Hosokawa, the powerful father of the two sisters, to blackmail Sano Ichiro, chamberlain to the shogun, into finding his daughters’ killer. Should Sano fail to do so, Hosokawa will ally himself with the nobles looking to topple the shogun, taking advantage of the rampant weaknesses of the regime, which the earthquake exacerbated. Once again, Rowland sets the bar high for her hero, who must navigate treacherous political shoals as well as deduce the killer’s identity.


book cover image of SubductionSubduction by Todd Shimoda

In Shimoda’s eerie thriller (after Oh! A Mystery of Mono No Aware), a young Japanese doctor, Endo, is banished to Marui-jima, “a dust mote of an island,” after he takes the blame for a patient’s death. Although the government ordered the island’s evacuation after a decade-long “earthquake swarm,” its elderly inhabitants refuse to leave their home. On Marui-jima, Endo meets Aki, a seismologist who left his family in Tokyo to study the island’s earthquakes and subduction zones, and Mari, a beautiful documentary filmmaker “dealing with demons.” From Mari and Aki, Endo uncovers Marui-jima’s past: a history of resentment between the local fishermen and the wealthy Furuta who bought them out to form his powerful fleet, an illicit “exchange” between Furuta and a fisherman’s wife, and two deaths that remain unexplained 40 years later. As Endo and Mari grow closer, she shares with him the islanders’ stories—as well as Aki’s and her own. Shimoda skillfully weaves these tales into the narrative, revealing how past events “continue to affect the island, like aftershocks.” Earthquakes are an apt metaphor for the social disruptions on the island, and Shimoda links modern earthquake science, ancient Japanese myths on the origin of earthquakes, and an unforgettable cast of characters to create a suspenseful, richly illustrated novel.


book cover image of Amazing GraceAmazing Grace by Danielle Steel

Steel checks in with a Bay Area earthquake that shakes up the lives of three beautiful, talented yet somehow unfulfilled women. Sarah Sloane, 30-something wife of Seth, a wildly successful hedge fund entrepreneur, and mother of two, has planned to perfection a high-ticket charity auction. The only thing she hasn’t counted on is the biggest seismic event to hit San Francisco since 1906 and the aftershocks it will cause in her marriage. Meanwhile, hot Grammy-winning 19-year-old singer Melanie Free, flown in to perform at the benefit, likewise finds her life overturned: following an on-stage triumph, Melanie throws away her platform shoes to assist disaster victims, admitting—much to the annoyance of her pushy stage mother and her TV actor boyfriend—that she always wanted to be a nurse. Sarah and Melanie face change with support from the 40-ish Sister Maggie Kent, a California nun whose good deeds draw the interest of recovering alcoholic and former AP photojournalist Everett Carson, who captures her in pictures. As marriage, faith and vows of chastity are tested, there’s nothing complicated to spoil the romance. Steel delivers a sparkly story with an uplifting spiritual twist.


book cover image of Things That Happened Before the Earthquake

Things That Happened Before the Earthquake by Chiara Barzini

Barzini’s moving and provocative coming-of-age novel follows a character charging headlong into the chaos of adolescence. Uprooted from her home in Rome by parents with stars and dollar signs in their eyes, Eugenia is forced to forge a new life for herself in Van Nuys, Calif. They arrive destination shortly after the 1992 L.A. riots; the city and Eugenia’s psyche are fragile and unsettled. After her only friend is killed in a gang-related incident, Eugenia becomes transfixed by a mysterious girl named Deva and the allure of Topanga Canyon. Feeling overlooked by her movie-making family, she reaches out for acceptance through experimentation with sex and drugs, crushing and rebuilding her identity as the days pass by. While Eugenia has normal teenage issues, her maturity and the collision of cultures and personalities she encounters make this novel richer and darker than a typical teen-angst story.











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