Lots of books: set on ocean liners, Asheville, WWI, and dystopias

Murder in Rat Alley by Mark de Castrique. 3/5
This is a solid mystery/thriller about two PIs, the local police department, the FBI, and very old secrets. While at first I though the author was pushing the Asheville names and places a little hard (in full disclosure, I grew up there), this eased off a bit as the action got underway. The characters aren’t terribly well developed, and the banter between Nakayla and romantic and PI partner Sam is often of the put-down kind, which I loathe, but most of the book is well-written and very cleverly conceived. I’ll be recommending the series to Asheville friends and family, as well as others who know the area well.

Can I Tell You About Dyscalculia? by Judy Hornigold. 1/5
I have dyscalculia, and I was hoping in this book to find a good resource–the kind I could have used when I was young. But it’s not to be. The definition of dyscalculia provided here is very limited, and doesn’t encompass the many forms of this neurodiverse condition. The advice is repetitive, and the recommendations for tools that help aren’t necessarily things young readers–or parents–might know about (“tens frames”?) I was also disappointed by the tone and by the overall leanings and activities of the book, which are to teach dyscalculic kids to find ways of working around their disability and to present as normate.

The Deep by Alma Katsu. 3/5
A nice little thriller about a woman who isn’t sure of who she is, imposter syndrome among the upper class, the Titanic, and the Britannic. A young woman flees home and takes a job as a stewardess on the Titanic, where she’s plagued by memories that don’t seem to be hers and demanding first-class passengers who believe in the occult. She survives, and takes a position as a nurse on the Britannic, where she encounters a man she knew from her earlier work. There are indeed supernatural forces afoot, and author Alma Katsu does a good job of keeping them concealed until the very end of the novel. A good blend of the historic, the what-if, and the outright fantastical, but a few plot holes do nag after the end.

The Green Years by Karen Wolff. 1/5
The story of a boy’s journey to manhood following the First World War, this novel isn’t terrible, but it’s boring. The characters are uniformly flat, and none of them seem capable of making decisions or thinking with any depth about the world, their lives, or anything else. None of them are very appealing, either, in part because they’re such stereotypes, and none are interesting or inspiring enough to make the reader to want to know what happens to them or what they do. The various events recounted don’t really constitute a plot, and none of them are particularly interesting or revealing or treated in unique ways.

A Cold Trail by Robert Dugoni. 1/5
Things I don’t want to read in any genre: Overly long sentences with too much detail in them; fat-shaming; sexism; ageism; stereotyping; dialect; rushing characterization; poorly organized paragraphs. This book has them all.

The Hole in the Moon and Other Tales by Margaret St. Clair by Margaret St. Clair. 4/5
I love these stories of the fantastic by Margaret St. Clair and wish they’d been more widely available sooner. Her writing is sharp and concise, and her stories are excellent forays into SFF, including the more human elements of the genre. The collection is marred only by a terrible and stiff introduction by Ramsey Campbell, who seems intent on telling readers that “male writers did it first” in regard to everything St. Clair wrote. So skip the intro and jump right into the stories.

Reverie by Ryan La Sala. 2/5
Set in the present, this novel follows a high school student finds that he’s missing large pieces of his memory. Trying to figure out exactly what happened to him, he discovers that he and others at his school can control rogue “reveries,” or fantastical situations and dreams that slip into the real world. Pitted against a world-hopping con artist and magician, the kids have to figure out how to end the reveries and save people from disappearing into them forever. The idea isn’t bad, but the writing isn’t clear and there are all sorts of unnecessary plot elements and distracting asides and such. It needs a developmental edit and a revision.

Beyond The Moon by Catherine Taylor. 4/5
I’m not usually a huge fan of time travel novels, but this one–in which a woman living in 2017 travels to 1917 and takes on the life of a woman killed in an automobile accident–avoids most of the predictable pitfalls of the genre. Louisa, in her 20s and mourning the recent death of her only family, is sectioned under British law and forced into an institution by the police. When she begins to explore the building, she finds her self slipping in time to the First World War, when it was used for wounded soldiers. She and a soldier fall in love, but she cannot be seen or heard by anyone else in the time period. After brutal treatment at the hands of the modern caretakers, however, she enters the past and makes her way in the world there, eventually uniting with her beloved in an exciting escape through time. A nicely written fantasy romance with good period detail and a total lack of fuss about paradoxes and so on. Give in to the fantasy, and enjoy.

Stories I Can’t Show My Mother by Ann Tinkham. 3/5
This collection is posited as erotic short stories, but the stories are more about abuses of hierarchy, power, and consent. They aren’t stories I couldn’t show my mother–they’re perfect as examples for case studies for gender studies classes, discussing power in relationships, #metoo, and other important issues.

Bridge 108 by Anne Charnock. 4/5
This is a great YA book about child trafficking and immigration. Told through various viewpoints, including those of the child immigrant who is trafficked for manual labor, those who profit from his work, those who seek to stop trafficking, and others, the novel is set in a dystopian England where the poor are shuttered into enclaves, where cheap labor is used for all sorts of industry and business. After escaping from one abusive and exploitative situation, the primary protagonist seeks out other work and news of his mother, but ultimately–and heartbreakingly–returns back to his original place of life and work, reasoning it is better that the other options available to him. I recommend this for classrooms (grades 5 and up, maybe?), library book clubs and youth reading groups, and for kids and parents/guardians/family to read together.

Listen to the Wind by Susanne Dunlap. 3/5
This novel, the beginning of a series, traces the lives and traumas of two childhood friends who are unexpectedly separated and equally unexpectedly reunited, and those around them, including genial friars, evil monks, a rapist, his horrible mother, a loyal servant, and more. Set in the thirteenth century, the book is well-researched if somewhat purple in its prose. The plot is fine, although it is a bit cliched: a peasant girl disguises herself as a boy, then participates in a bed-trick, swapping places with her noble patron. The noble patron also disguises herself as a man in order to escape an arranged marriage and to be with her true love. A fine historical romance, just don’t expect complex characters or a lot of reason behind many of their actions.

Family of Origin by CJ Hauser. 2/5
I was looking forward to reading this because I’d enjoyed other work by the author, but I was disappointed. While the writing is solid and the concept of family is explored in depth here, I found the characters to be lacking depth and humanity. The supposed surprises and shocking events of the past are neither, and the characters’ many irrational ideas and actions came across as silly and foolish. The in medias res structure of the book–where there are flashbacks going increasingly far back from the book’s present–felt messy and over done. One or two major flashbacks, sure, but by the end of the book, the farthest-away flashbacks felt irrelevant and impeded the flow of the narrative.

The Ghost Collector by Allison Mills. 4/5
A good novel for elementary school readers. Like all of the women and girls in her Cree family, Shelly can catch ghosts in her hair. She and her grandmother do this for a living , with her grandmother leading and Shelly apprenticing. Together they catch the ghosts of people, pets, and even insects and send them on to whatever comes next. But when Shelly’s mom dies unexpectedly, her ghost doesn’t show up, and Shelly becomes anxious, scouring the graveyard and asking ghosts everywhere if they’ve seen her. The relationships between Shelly and her grandmother and the ghosts are full of honest emotion and well written for the target audience, and I liked the #ownvoices factor in the author’s use of Cree beliefs and customs..

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