Book Review: The Hunger by Alma Katsu


Author: Alma Katsu
Title: The Hunger
Narrator: Kirsten Potter
Publication Info: Penguin Audio (2018)
Summary/Review:

This historical novel retells the journey of the Reed-Donner Party in 1846, but adds a supernatural element.  So in addition to a series of mishaps and a poor decision to use a dangerous cutoff in attempt to shorten their journey, the party of pioneers also have to deal with supernatural elements.  I found the characterization of the people in the novel was well-done, and the author created a good illustration of how the people in this moving community interacted.  But the horror of the real Reed-Donner party with people dying of disease and starvation, with others resorting to cannibalism to survive is horrible enough. The story is not improved by the supernatural horror.

Recommended books:

Rating: **

Book Review: The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker


Author: Karen Thompson Walker
Title: The Age of Miracles
Narrator: Emily Janice Card
Publication Info: Random House Audio (2012)
Summary/Review:

This novel offers a speculative account of the crisis that occurs when the rotation of the Earth slows, lengthening the periods of daylight and nighttime.  This incident is referred to by the characters in the book as The Slowing, and it has the effect of causing birds to die off, an increase of solar radiation, a complete inability to grow traditional crops, and even causing some people to contract an illness.

While the premise is fantastical, the way the fictional American society responds to the crisis is realistic.  The US government determines that the country will continue to follow the 24-hour clock regardless of what time the sun is shining or not.  Some people rebel against this, insisting on living on “real time,” even going so far as forming their own separatist communities.

The narrator/protagonist of the novel is a junior high school girl from suburban San Diego named Julia.  From her perspective we see the dissolution of the social order among her family, friends, and school.  Any attempts to deal with the normal struggles of adolescence are overshadowed by the crisis that prevents any sense of predictability in the world. Julia narrates from an uncertain future while the narrative focuses on the first few months of the slowing as Julia faces changing friendships and an emerging relationship with a long-time crush.

This novel is dark and emotional and all too real to be reading at this time.

Recommended books:

  • The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta

Rating: ***

Book Review: All Our Wrong Todays by Elan Mastai


Author: Elan Mastai
Title: All Our Wrong Todays
Narrator: Elan Mastai
Publication Info: Penguin Audio (2017)
Summary/Review:

All Our Wrong Todays takes the idea of the dystopian alternate universe and it turns it on its head.  In this novel, OUR universe is the dystopia where the narrator/protagonist Tom Barren ends up after a time travel experiment goes wrong.  In his world, the invention of a machine that provides unlimited clean energy in 1965 has lead to five decades of remarkable technological advancement, peace, and prosperity.

The great twist in this book is that Barren (known as John Barren in our world) is actually much better off in our timeline.  A loser in his world, he’s a successful architect in ours. His father is an aloof genius in his world, but a loving dad in ours.  His mother is dead in his timeline but alive in ours. He even has a younger sister who he’s very close to in our timeline.

Tom is faced with the struggle of knowing that he is responsible for changing history to our timeline with pollution, inequality, and war, and inadvertently making billions of lives nonexistent, but also wanting to cling what he’s gained in our world, especially the love of a woman named Penny.  Be warned that Tom is kind of a terrible person, and an unsympathetic character, but stick with it as his self-awareness is a strength.

This is an enjoyable and creative novel, and honestly I couldn’t stop listening to it once I started the audiobook.

Favorite Passages:

“The problem with knowing people too well is that their words stop meaning anything and their silences start meaning everything.”

Recommended books:

Rating: ****

Book Review: Rise of the Rocket Girls by Nathalia Holt


AuthorNathalia Holt
Title: Rise of the Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelled Us, from Missiles to the Moon to Mars
Narrator: Erin Bennett
Publication Info: Hachette Audio (2016)
Summary/Review:

This book tells the story of several women who worked at the Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) in Pasedena, California in the 40s, 50s, 60s, and 70s.  Their work was instrumental in creating missiles for military use and rockets that lifted their payloads into space.  They were particularly key in working on Ranger and Surveyor missions to the Moon that prepared the way for Apollo, the Mariner missions to Venus, Mars, and Mercury, and the Voyager program missions to Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. Holt interviewed several women who worked at the JPL to get their perspectives on this age of discovery.

Many of the women got their start as “computers,” who were JPL employees who performed mathematical computations (a usage of the term that’s been made familiar by the book and movie Hidden Figures).  Working as a computer provided an opportunity for women who studied mathematics to use their skills.  While it was a support position to the (predominantly male) engineers, the position was highly-regarded within JPL and well paid.  The group of women working together, with women supervisors, also felt that they had a close-knit family at JPL.  Not everything was positive as the group of women felt that they had to look out for one another at office parties when men were on the prowl. Woman employees were also fired when they got pregnant.

Holt does a great job of telling these women’s stories from their roles in furthering interplanetary exploration to their everyday lives of marriages, raising children, and even oddities like a JPL beauty contest. As Holt notes, it was the progressive hiring practices at JPL that made it possible to have enough women to even to something as seemingly outdated as a beauty contest.

Recommended books:

Rating: ****

Book Review: 11/22/63 by Stephen King


Author: Stephen King
Cover of the book 11/22/63.Title: 11/22/63
Narrator: Craig Wasson
Publication Info: Simon & Schuster Audio (2011)
Summary/Review:

Stephen King’s time travel adventure focuses on Jake Epping, a recently divorced high school English teacher in Maine, who is drawn into a plan to prevent the assassination of John F. Kennedy. His friend Al, owner and cook at a greasy spoon diner, discovered a “rabbit hole” to 1958 and has been using it to try to prevent Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, but he comes down with a fatal cancer and is unable to complete the mission.  So he returns to 2011 and recruits Jake to take over.  Al’s hope is that if Kennedy lives that it will have the knock-on effect of preventing the escalation of the War in Vietnam.

Jake decides that to test the effects of changing history, he will rescue the family of high school janitor and his G.E.D. student, Harry Dunning. On Halloween 1958, Harry’s alcoholic father murdered his mother and siblings and left him with permanent brain damage and a limp. A good portion of the early part of the book takes place in Maine in 1958 as Jake adjusts to living in the past and trying to prevent the Dunning murders.

Later, Jake moves on to Texas and settles in the fictional Dallas suburb of Jodie. With years to go before the Kennedy assassination (or even Lee Harvey Oswald’s return to the United States from the Soviet Union), Jake becomes a substitute high school teacher and director of the school’s theater productions.  He meets and falls in love with the school’s new librarian, Sadie Dunhill and becomes a beloved member of the town community.

I really enjoy the parts in Maine and Jodie as it focuses on the small details of everyday life in the past and Jake’s efforts to fit in.  King does not glamorize the past but demonstrates its strengths and weaknesses.  On Jake’s visit, for instance, he observes that the past smells terrible (because of the mills in Maine) but tastes great (real root beer at a diner).  The mundanity of everyday life becomes a fascinating world to explore for the person from the future. King also builds tension with examples of the “obdurate past” throwing up obstacles to Jake’s efforts to change it and the many coincidences which Jake refers to as “the past harmonizes.”

Unfortunately, when Jake finally focuses on the Kennedy assassination, the narrative becomes less interesting to me.  Especially dreadful are the seemingly endless passages of Jake listening to Oswald’s everyday conversations through an audio surveillance.  King runs up against the challenge that faces all writers of time travel fiction: you can change major events in history in fiction, but they remain the same in real life. And so they have to find some way to justify leaving the past unchanged.

Back to the Future seems to be the only time travel story to ever consider that changing the past would make the future better.  King rather obviously makes the future where Kennedy survives a (ridiculously) worse place.  This is an unsatisfying payoff after a lengthy book.  It’s still worth reading though, as again, at least the first two thirds of the book are very engagingly written.  And the characters of Jake, Sadies, Harry, and others are sympathetic enough that my interest in seeing how they turn out carried me through the final act.  I also highly recommend Craig Wasson’s audiobook narration because he is able to perform believable accents for both Mainers and Texans.

Recommended books:

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: The Shining by Stephen King


Author: Stephen King
TitleThe Shining
Narrator: Campbell Scott
Publication Info: Random House Audio (2012) [originally published in 1977]
Other books read by the same author:

  • The Bachman Books
  • “The Body”
  • The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger
  • Pet Sematary
  • The Eyes of the Dragon
  • Skeleton Crew
  • The Dark Tower II: The Drawing of the Three
  • Misery
  • The Dark Half
  • Four Past Midnight
  • The Dark Tower III: The Waste Lands
  • The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon
  • Faithful
  • “Guns”

Summary/Review:

Having finally gotten around to watching the movie, The Shining, last fall, and finding it didn’t live up to the reputation, I really wanted to read the book it’s based on.  After all, Stephen King dislikes Stanley Kubric’s adaptation of his book, so perhaps I’d like the book better.  I’ll have to say that as an adaptation, the movie doesn’t stray too far from the source material.  There are obviously a lot of details that the movie leaves out, as is vital in filmmaking, and Kubric did the same thing he did with 2001, where he makes ambiguous some things that are explicit in the book.

What movies cannot do well is to express the interiority of the characters, and this is an aspect of the book I liked the best.  King is especially good at getting into the minds of Danny and Jack, but doesn’t do it as much with Halloran and Wendy.

Jack is more of a normal person at the beginning of the book – an alcoholic with anger issues, yes – but not the half-crazed character that Jack Nicholson plays.  Wendy is less of a dishrag and much more resourceful, and she even uses Danny’s shining abilities to help plan their escape.  Danny is the best part of the book as King does a great job of portraying a child dealing with things that someone much older would struggle to handle.  The book works well as straight-up horror but also symbolic of the destructive power of toxic masculinity.

Rating: ***

Book Review: Star Wars: The Weapon of the Jedi by Jason Fry


Author: Jason Fry
Title: Star Wars: The Weapon of the Jedi: A Luke Skywalker Adventure
Narrator: Jonathan Davis
Publication Info: Listening Library (2015)
Previously Read by the Same Author: The Last Jedi
Summary/Review:

Set after the destruction of the first Death Star but before Luke Skywalker began training with Yoda, this novel tells the story of the first time Luke used a light saber to fight an opponent. Amusingly, it’s told as a reminiscence of C-3PO sharing a lesser known story of the famous Skywalker.  It’s a simple plot, but Fry does a lot with Luke’s character, exploring him at this very vulnerable period when he has only a slight grasp on using the force and needs to figure things out on his own.

Recommended books:

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Ask Again, Yes by Mary Beth Keane


Author: Mary Beth Keane
Title: Ask Again, Yes
Narrator: Molly Pope
Publication Info: Simon & Schuster Audio (2019)
Summary/Review:

This novel begins in 1973 when recent Irish immigrant Francis Gleeson falls into becoming a cop and meets Brian Stanhope, an American-born child of  Irish immigrants, at the police academy.  They are paired on there first beat in the Bronx for a few summer weeks, and share their dreams, although they don’t become particularly close.  Francis marries a Polish-Italian woman named Lena and they settle down in a quiet (fictional) suburban town north of New York called Gillam.  Shortly afterwards, Brian and his newlywed Irish immigrant wife Anne move into the neighboring house.

Lena makes every effort to reach out to Anne as a neighbor, but Anne is at first reserved, and then outright antagonistic.  Lena gives birth to three daughters in quick succession.  After a couple of miscarriages, Anne gives birth to a son, Peter.  Despite, the coldness between the two families, Peter and the Gleeson’s youngest daughter Kate become best friends.  And then in 1991, when the kids are on the verge of graduating middle school, they share that have romantic feelings for one another.  On the same of night, an act of violence permanently changes the lives of both families.

The bulk of the novel follows that night in 1991 up to the present day focusing on the lives of all six of these characters as they struggle with their past.  Kate and Peter reunite in college and eventually marry, to the disappointment and befuddlement of their parents.  I found the childhood lovers still devoted to one another as adults hard to swallow, and this book also has a number of the coincidences that only occur in literature.  Setting that aside though, the book is an excellent character study that examines generational trauma that contributes to depression, alcoholism, infidelity, and mental illness.  It also is a story of compassion, where the characters learn to recognize that people are not their worst actions.

 

Recommended books: Saints for All Occasions by J. Courtney Sullivan, Charming Billy by Alice McDermott, and Payback by Thomas Kelly
Rating: ****

Book Review: The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson


Author: Steven Johnson
Title: The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic–And How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World
Narrator: Alan Sklar
Previously Read by the Same Author:

Publication Info: [United States] : Tantor Media, Inc., 2006
Summary/Review:

This book explores the ideas of urbanism, epidemiology, and social networks through the lens of the 1854 Broad Street cholera outbreak in the Soho district of London.  Dr. John Snow, with the help of Reverend Henry Whitehead, created a map of where people infected with cholera lived and drew their water to trace the infection to a water pump on Broad Street.  That Snow and Whitehead knew the neighborhood and its people well proved advantageous in creating the connections needed to document the spread of disease. Snow also had to fight an uphill battle against the prevailing scientific belief that diseases like cholera were spread through the air, known as the miasma theory.

Johnson details how the evolutionary response to putrefaction and vile odors made such beliefs plausible, but practices such as “cleaning up” the city by deliberately washing waste into the water inadvertently caused infections to increase.  Johnson also depicts the urban environment as a unique battleground for humans and microorganisms.  All in all this is a fascinating account of an historic account, with broader implications for how we live today and into the future.

Recommended books:

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: You’re On An Airplane by Parker Posey


Author: Parker Posey
Title: You’re On An Airplane: a self-mythologizing memoir
Narrator: Parker Posey
Publication Info: Penguin Audio, 2018
Summary/Review:

Parker Posey, once known as the “queen of independent movies,” has starred in many movies that I enjoy.  Party Girl, for one,  played a not insubstantial part in my choice of career.  In this unconventional memoir, Posey addresses the reader directly as if one is sitting next to her on an airplane (and in the audiobook, this comes complete with the sound effects of the airplane taking off and a flight attendant serving drinks). After the first chapter, this affectation of writing in second person only pops up from time to time, but nevertheless, this is a stream-of-conscious memoir.  Posey tells stories of her Catholic, Southern gothic childhood in a family of “characters” and her experiences on the sets of various films, including her work with directors like Richard Linklater and Christopher Guest.  She also writes extensively about working with Woody Allen (and humorously impersonates his voice). While many actors have justified working with Allen, and its understandable that an independent actor would want to work with a notably independent director, I found it deeply unsettling that Posey doesn’t even address that Allen is an accused child rapist.  In other chapters, Posey goes into deep detail about her yoga practice, her work with ceramics, and her dog. It’s clear that this book is meant to show that Posey is as quirky and funny as her movie characters, but sometimes its hard to tell if the self-absorption in these chapter is parody or for real.

Favorite Passages:

It’s an industry (an art, hopefully) full of orphans left to create their own worlds with one another. I don’t feel glamorous, I feel like a possum—the animal born clinging to its mother’s tail, that grows up by falling off it, and probably too soon. Acting is the possum’s defense.

Recommended booksYou’re Never Weird on the Internet (almost) by Felicia Day, Scrappy Little Nobody by Anna Kendrick,  and Wishful Drinking by Carrie Fisher

Rating: **