Book Review: Voyage of Mercy by Stephen Puleo


Author: Stephen Puleo
Title: Voyage of mercy : the USS Jamestown, the Irish famine, and the Remarkable Story of America’s First Humanitarian Mission 
Narrator: Sean Patrick Hopkins
Publication Info: New York : Macmillan Audio, 2020.
Books I’ve Previously Read by the Same Author:

Summary/Review:

Voyage of Mercy is a history of a United States mission to deliver food to the starving people of Ireland during the Great Hunger.  Approved by Congress, the military ship U.S.S. Jamestown sailed from Boston to Queenstown (Cobh) to deliver the good in the spring of 1847.  A naval ship was chosen to the unavailability of merchant vessels and the U.S.S. Constitution was even considered for the journey.

According to Puleo, the Jamestown mission was the first example of foreign aid and serves as a model of international disaster relief efforts.  The book focuses on two key characters.  Robert Bennet Forbes, an experienced merchant ship captain from the Boston area (born in Jamaica Plain and buried in Forest Hills cemetery, and I coincidentally passed his former home-become-museum in Milton on the day I finished this book), captained the Jamestown and was recognized for his good character and generosity.  Father Theobald Matthew of County Cork, a noted temperance leader, organized the relief operations on the Irish side.

The book is good but if it has flaws it is Puleo’s tendency to be  about the goodness of the people behind the relief effort.  Nevertheless, despite the success of the mission it did face challenges that later international relief efforts also suffered from. Distribution of the food stuffs was controversial as to whether it should be retained in County Cork or throughout Ireland. There was also the issue of the limits of charitable contributions to address deep, structural problems, in this case the colonial exploitation of Ireland by the United Kingdom.  I couldn’t help seeing parallels in the indifference and cruelty of the British government’s response to the potato famine to the current day response of the Republican Party to the Covid Pandemic in the United States.

This is a good and well-researched history, although I feel that Puleo stretched it out where a shorter book may have been sufficient.  Also, while I don’t know where my Sullivan family ancestors originated, it is a common name in County Cork, so I could very well owe my existence to mission of the U.S.S. Jamestown.

Recommended books:

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow


Author: Alix E. Harrow
Title: The Ten Thousand Doors of January
Narrator: January LaVoy
Publication Info: Hachette Book Group, 2019 

Summary/Review:

Set in the early 20th century, this story is told by the young January Scaller.  Her mother is presumed dead and her father works for the New England Archaeological Society (an old boys club type of place) traveling the world to collect new items for their collections.  January escapes into books and then later discovers doorways that lead her into new universes (it’s all a rather obvious metaphor of books as portals).

Through the doorways and support from some friends (and a large dog named Bad) after her father is also assumed to be dead she is able to learn the sinister secret of the New England Archaeological Society and her guardian Mr. Locke (what a metaphorical name in a book about doors!).  She also uncovers her family history and her place in the world, or more accurately her place in the multiverse.  The book is an interesting enough concept, and I certainly wanted to read to the end to find out what happened, but it didn’t really grab me either.

Recommended books:

Rating: ***

Book Review Maeve in America by Maeve Higgins


Author: Maeve Higgins
Title: Maeve in America
Narrator: Maeve Higgins
Publication Info: Penguin Audio, 2018
Summary/Review:

I’m familiar with Irish-born comedian and writer Maeve Higgins from her podcast series Maeve in America where she interviewed fellow immigrants to the United States about their experiences.  I expected this book with the same title expanded upon the podcast, but in fact the book is a collection of personal essays on various topics.

Immigration is covered with Higgins reflecting on her own immigration experience contrasted with Annie Moore, the first immigrant processed at Ellis Island in 1892 (both Higgins and Moore came from the same place, Cobh in County Cork).  Higgins also writes about the experience of making the podcast when her producer wanted more humor and celebrities, not something she could provide when visiting the fortified US border on Mexico and talking with immigrants struggling in their lives in the country.

Higgins also writes about experiences swimming with dolphins, working with the comedy scene in Iraq, reflections on her body image and preference for the single life, and the way her family uses humor.  Higgins is an insightful, reflective, and yes, funny, writer and I enjoyed hearing her essays.

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone


Author: Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone
Title: This is How You Lose the Time War
Narrator: Cynthia Farrell and Emily Woo Zeller
Publication Info: [New York] : Simon & Schuster Audio, [2019]

Summary/Review:

This novella features letters exchanged by a pair of agents – Red and Blue – on opposite sides of a war where they each travel through time to manipulate events in a way to harm the opposing side.  The initially snarky and boastful letters soften over time as Red and Blue realize they are falling in love.  The novel relies on poetic language and experimental writing styles (the authors wrote their sections of the book in response to one another much like the characters).  Call me a philistine, but for all that creativity, I still found the book to be rather boring.

Rating: **

Book Review: Oona Out of Order by Margarita Montimore


Author: Margarita Montimore
Title: Oona Out of Order
Narrator: Brittany Pressley
Publication Info: New York : Macmillan Audio, 2020.
Summary/Review:

On the last day of 1982, Oona Lockhart is ready to celebrate at the stroke of midnight the new year and her 19th birthday. Instead she finds herself in her 51-year-old body in 2015, the first time jump in her life in which she will live each year of her life out of order.  Only her mother and personal assistant/friend Kenzie know her secret.

Oona has the advantage of never having to worry about money thanks to being able to know the best investments and sports bets to make.  But she’s faced with the challenge of having to maintain and create relationships with little knowledge of what happened the year before, and coming of age in a body that can be vastly different ages.

I like the conceit of the book and how Oona faces the challenges of living her life.  She’s never able to figure out how this is happening to her, nor is she able to change the future even when she knows what is going to happen.  There’s a twist in the story that I only thought possible just before it was revealed, but you might figure it out earlier. I believe the narrative covers only 7 years spread out over 4 decades. I think it would’ve been interesting if more of Oona’s years were included in the novel.  It would make the book longer, but I found it to be a page-turner so I’d probably keep reading.

Recommended books:

Rating: ***1/2

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