Review: Under the Smokestrewn Sky by A. Deborah Baker

Review: Under the Smokestrewn Sky by A. Deborah BakerUnder the Smokestrewn Sky (The Up-and-Under, #4) by A. Deborah Baker
Narrator: Heath Miller
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss, supplied by publisher via Libro.fm
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, portal fantasy, young adult
Series: Up-and-Under #4
Pages: 195
Length: 4 hours and 48 minutes
Published by Macmillan Audio, Tordotcom on October 17, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

The end of the improbable road.
Since stumbling from their world into the Up-and-Under, Avery and Zib have walked the improbable road across forests, seas, and skies, finding friends in the unlikeliest of places and enemies great in number, as they make their way toward the Impossible City in the hope of finding their way home.
But the final part of their journey is filled with danger and demise. Not everyone will make it through unscathed. Not everyone will make it through alive.
The final part of the enchanting Up and Under quartet reminds us of the value of friendship and the price one sometimes pays for straying from the path. No one’s safety can be guaranteed under the smokestrewn sky.

My Review:

We have come, at last, to the final chapter of Zib and Avery’s journey into and hopefully through the Up-and-Under. It’s a journey that has taken them from their ordinary and mundane homes – even if Zib’s and Avery’s definitions of ordinary and mundane are entirely opposite to one another – and sent them along the Improbable Road on an equally improbable journey through every single one of the elemental kingdoms in the Up-and-Under.

They’ve picked up friends along the way. And, even if they haven’t changed physically along their way, they’ve certainly changed quite a bit on the inside – just as they’ve changed the lands they pass through on the outside.

Even though, as their quest winds closer to its end, this particular part of their journey sees Avery backsliding rather a lot into the boy he was at the beginning. A boy who couldn’t quite wrap his logical and orderly mind around the immutable fact that the Up-and-Under was entirely mutable from beginning to end, that things absolutely did not work there the way they did back home in America. And that the way things did work in the Up-and-Under might not be what HE was used to, but just because things were done differently did not mean things were wrong or ridiculous.

It’s Avery’s bit of stubborn backsliding that pushes the story off the Improbable Road and into their very last set of adventures in the Up-and-Under. Adventures that will have a much bigger impact than any of them imagined when they began.

Because for every great change there are great consequences, and the time has come for someone to pay them. Whether or not anyone wins this last throw of the dice, someone is going to have to lose.

Escape Rating A-: I’ve enjoyed Zib and Avery’s journey through the Up-and-Under, so as a treat for this final entry in the series I decided to try it in audio. I still loved their story, but the audio wasn’t quite as much of a treat as I was hoping it would be.

The voice actor was terrific at differentiating the characters’ voices, but one of those characters is the voice of the narrator who is telling the story to us as the audience. Because of the nature of the series, that its protagonists are predominantly young adults or not quite that old the storyteller character took on an arch tone that arched so very high that it arced all the way over into condescension – which led me to switch to text at the halfway point. I liked the storyteller’s voice a LOT better inside my own head.

However, whether in text or in audio, Under the Smokestrewn Sky is the story that brings the journey through the Up-and-Under to its ending, and it’s a story full of surprises and costs and consequences – as it should be.

No matter the age of the protagonists, this has been the story of an epic fantasy quest that combines bits of Narnia with elements of Wonderland. Zib and Avery have been brought to the Up-and-Under to fix what’s gone wrong there, while for Zib and Avery the quest is to find their way home. It’s not going to end in a big battle between good and evil, because those concepts aren’t exactly the same in the Up-an-Under as they are back home. Instead, it’s a quest to put the out-of-balance back into balance – even if some of what they see looks like evil to Zib and Avery’s – especially Avery’s – eyes.

And, even though Zib and Avery are still children, this has been an adult journey which has to carry adult consequences for someone. A someone who might be either Avery or Zib – even if that doesn’t feel fair. Because part of the lesson Avery has to learn is that fairness doesn’t enter into the big answers to the big questions nearly as often as his life so far has led him to believe that it should.

Readers who started at the beginning of this journey in Over the Woodward Wall will probably not be surprised at how all the big questions that were asked at the beginning of the story get answered at its end. But following Zib’s and Avery’s journey to get there has been fantastic!

Review: Kinauvit?: What’s Your Name? by Norma Dunning

Review: Kinauvit?: What’s Your Name? by Norma DunningKinauvit?: What's Your Name? The Eskimo Disc System and a Daughter's Search for her Grandmother by Norma Dunning
Narrator: Norma Dunning
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss, supplied by publisher via Libro.fm
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Canadian history, history, memoir
Pages: 184
Length: 6 hours and 4 minutes
on August 1, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBetter World Books
Goodreads

From the winner of the 2021 Governor General's Award for literature, a revelatory look into an obscured piece of Canadian history: what was then called the Eskimo Identification Tag System
In 2001, Dr. Norma Dunning applied to the Nunavut Beneficiary program, requesting enrolment to legally solidify her existence as an Inuk woman. But in the process, she was faced with a question she could not answer, tied to a colonial institution retired decades ago: "What was your disc number?"
Still haunted by this question years later, Dunning took it upon herself to reach out to Inuit community members who experienced the Eskimo Identification Tag System first-hand, providing vital perspective and nuance to the scant records available on the subject. Written with incisive detail and passion, Dunning provides readers with a comprehensive look into a bureaucracy sustained by the Canadian government for over thirty years, neglected by history books but with lasting echoes revealed in Dunning's intimate interviews with affected community members. Not one government has taken responsibility or apologized for the E-number system to date -- a symbol of the blatant dehumanizing treatment of the smallest Indigenous population in Canada.
A necessary and timely offering, Kinauvit? provides a critical record and response to a significant piece of Canadian history, collecting years of research, interviews and personal stories from an important voice in Canadian literature.

My Review:

The title of this book is a question, because that’s how this author’s journey began. While it begins as a reclamation of identity, what that attempt leads to is a search for it – or at least, and with full irony as becomes apparent during the telling – a search for a very specific piece of government documentation that was intended, not to confirm but rather to deny the lived essence of an identity it was designed to repress if not, outright, erase.

That search for proof of her mother’s, and as a result her own, Inuit heritage led the author, not just to a multi-year search but also to a second act career in academia, exposing the origins and the abuses – whether committed out of governmental malice or idiocy – of a system that may have been claimed to be a system for identifying the Inuit population, but was truly intended to colonize them, divide them, and ultimately erase the beliefs and practices that made them who they were.

So on the one hand, this is a very personal story. The author had learned only in adulthood that she was, herself, Inuit. It’s a truth that her own mother refused to talk about as long as she lived. But when Dunning decided to apply for enrolment in the Nunavut Beneficiary program, she opened up the proverbial can of worms, discovering long-buried secrets that had overshadowed her mother’s life and the lives of all Inuit of her mother’s generation and the one before it. A history that was as poorly documented as her mother’s life and identity.

It’s a journey that began with a hope, middled with a question that turned into an obsession – even after that hope was answered – and led to the author’s search for a history that was long-denied but that needed to be brought into the light.

Reality Rating C: Kinauvit? is a combination of a personal search for identity with the intricacies of searching in records that were an afterthought for the government that recorded them, administered them and was, at least in theory, supposed to serve the people those records concerned but that the government obviously didn’t understand a whit. But the story of that personal search is mixed, but not terribly well blended, with a scholarly paper about the history of the Canadian government’s treatment and suppression of the Inuit peoples over whom the government believed it held sovereignty.

The two narratives, the author’s personal search and the scholarly paper that resulted from it (her Master’s thesis for the University of Alberta) both have important stories to tell, and either had the possibility of carrying this book. The issue is that the two purposes don’t blend together, but rather march along side-by-side uncomfortably and unharmoniously as they are entirely different in structure and tone to the point where they don’t reinforce each other’s message the way that they should – or was mostly likely intended that they should.

This book contains just the kind of hidden history that cries out to be revealed. But this attempt to wrap the personal journey around the academic paper results in a book that doesn’t quite work for either of its prospective audiences.

I listened to Kinauvit? in audio, which generally works well for me for first-person narratives, which this looked like it would be. Also, sometimes an excellent reader can carry a book over any rough patches in its text, especially for a work with a compelling story or an important topic that I have a strong desire to see revealed. Kinauvit? as an audiobook had both of the latter, a search that was compelling, combined with a deep dive into historical archives which is absolutely my jam, resulting in a true story of government neglect and outright stupidity.

But it is very, very rare that authors turn out to be good readers for their work unless they have some kind of performance experience. In all of the audiobooks I have ever listened to over the past three decades, I can only think of one exception to serve as an exception.

In this particular case, the author recites the book as though she was delivering the academic paper that forms the core of the book. But this publication of the work was not intended to BE an academic paper. The audience for this work would be better served with a narrator who is able to ‘voice’ the book, to use a narrative style imbued with the flow and the cadences of a storyteller.

The dry recitation that I listened to blunted the impact of the personal side of the story while the inclusion of the words “Footnote 1”, “Footnote 2”, etc., when one of the many, many footnotes occurred in the text was jarring to the point that it broke this reader out of the book completely. That the footnotes themselves consisted of the simple reference to the place in the source material from which the quote was drawn added nothing to the narrative but made its origin as a scholarly paper all too apparent.

In the end, this book left me torn. I wanted to love it. I was fascinated by its premise, and remain so. It’s important history and not just Canadian history. The truths that the author uncovered deserve a wider audience and more official recognition than has been achieved to date. But this vehicle for telling those truths doesn’t do them justice, even though justice is exactly what is needed.

Review: Wild Spaces by S.L. Coney

Review: Wild Spaces by S.L. ConeyWild Spaces by S.L. Coney
Narrator: Nick Mondelli
Format: audiobook, ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon, supplied by publisher via Libro.fm
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: coming of age, horror
Pages: 122
Length: 2 hours and 28 minutes
Published by Dreamscape Media, Tordotcom on August 1, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

Robert R. McCammon’s Boy’s Life meets H. P. Lovecraft in Wild Spaces, a foreboding, sensual coming-of-age debut in which the corrosive nature of family secrets and toxic relatives assume eldritch proportions.
An eleven-year-old boy lives an idyllic childhood exploring the remote coastal plains and wetlands of South Carolina alongside his parents and his dog Teach. But when the boy’s eerie and estranged grandfather shows up one day with no warning, cracks begin to form as hidden secrets resurface that his parents refuse to explain.
The longer his grandfather outstays his welcome and the greater the tension between the adults grows, the more the boy feels something within him changing —physically—into something his grandfather welcomes and his mother fears. Something abyssal. Something monstrous.

My Review:

Wild Spaces is the story of one boy’s coming of age. It’s the story of a summer that sharply divides a young man’s life between ‘BEFORE’ and ‘AFTER’. And it’s the story of something straight out of Lovecraft Country oozing its destructive way out of a cave on the coastal plains of South Carolina to wreak havoc on that boy and everyone and everything he holds dear.

On its surface, on the surface of the murky water that hides a monster, this is the story about the summer the boy’s grandfather came and outstayed his welcome. It’s about the summer that destroyed the family’s idyll and particularly the boy’s idyllic childhood.

It’s obvious to everyone, the boy, his parents and even his dog, that there’s something not right about his grandfather and this visit. In this summer of his 12th birthday, the boy is aware enough of his family’s dynamic to see that the advent of his grandfather is destroying them from the inside, fractured peace by broken piece.

The boy trusts his parents to fix things – as adults are supposed to do – as they’ve always done. But they don’t. And he can’t. He can’t even articulate what’s wrong, even though he knows the old man has broken something important within them all.

And then it’s too late.

Escape Rating B: Wild Spaces is a story about creeping dread creeping creepily along until it overwhelms the story, the family at its center, the soul of the boy at its heart and the life of the dog at his.

The dog, Teach, who may be the hero of this story because he’s the only character referred to by name, dies at the end, so take this as a trigger warning. Even more triggery, the first time the boy thinks his dog is dead, he isn’t, which makes the point where the dog really does die just that much more devastating at a point where the entire story has become a howl of devastation.

For a story that isn’t normally in my wheelhouse, I ended up with a whole lot of thoughts about the whole thing – sometimes as I was listening to it with no good way to write stuff down.

The narrator did an excellent job of adding to the creeping creepiness because his reading was in what felt like what would be the boy’s slight drawl of cadence. This was, on the one hand, perfect for the story and for being inside the boy’s head, and on the other, it drove me bonkers because I wanted things to happen faster – which leads to this being one of the few audiobooks where I raised the narration speed a bit.

I wanted things to go faster because it was obvious what was coming. That creeping horror is part of the story, it’s supposed to work that way, but I had reached the point where I was shouting at the adult characters to wake the eff up and stop effing up and get the old man out because it was obvious that he was bent on destroying them. And even worse, that they knew it and weren’t doing anything about it – because family.

The old man didn’t have to become a sea monster – which he does – because he is already a monster in human form and would have been a monster if he hadn’t transformed. It was also super obvious that he was trying to groom his grandson to become a monster just like him. Which could have been true and horror-filled horror with or without the actual transformation.

Which leads me straight to the boy transforming into the monster his heredity has doomed him to be. Which still could have been a metaphor for puberty, and going from last week’s Shark Heart, where a man turns into a Great white shark straight to this book, where a boy in the throes of puberty turns into a monster straight out of the Cthulhu Mythos (don’t all teenagers turn just a bit into monsters as puberty ravages them?) was a segue I just wasn’t expecting.

So if you’re in the mood for a short coming-of-age story that will drive you crazy and scare the crap out of you in a slow creeping kind of way, this might be your jam. I was more than interested enough to finish it – and I’m still thinking about it because damn! – but it’ll be awhile before I pick something like this up again. Not because this wasn’t good as what it was, but because it confirmed for me yet again that it just isn’t my reading wheelhouse.

Review: Thornhedge by T. Kingfisher

Review: Thornhedge by T. KingfisherThornhedge by T. Kingfisher
Narrator: Jennifer Blom
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss, supplied by publisher via Libro.fm
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Dark Fantasy, fairy tales, fantasy, retellings
Pages: 128
Length: 3 hours and 43 minutes
Published by Tor Books on August 15, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.org
Goodreads

From USA Today bestselling author T. Kingfisher, Thornhedge is an original, subversive fairytale about a kind-hearted, toad-shaped heroine, a gentle knight, and a mission gone completely sideways.
There’s a princess trapped in a tower. This isn't her story.
Meet Toadling. On the day of her birth, she was stolen from her family by the fairies, but she grew up safe and loved in the warm waters of faerieland. Once an adult though, the fae ask a favor of Toadling: return to the human world and offer a blessing of protection to a newborn child. Simple, right?
If only.
Centuries later, a knight approaches a towering wall of brambles, where the thorns are as thick as your arm and as sharp as swords. He’s heard there’s a curse here that needs breaking, but it’s a curse Toadling will do anything to uphold…

My Review:

Once upon a time, there was a beautiful princess who was cursed by an evil fairy godmother to prick her finger on a spinning wheel’s spindle and sleep for a century – along with everyone else who inhabits that castle. This isn’t that story. That’s the story that was made from this one, when the truth needed to be spindled in order to make the story fit a more conventional mold.

Because in all the stories, evil is supposed to be ugly and anyone beautiful must be good. Which is what makes it a story, because in truth, evil often wears a very pretty face – all the better to hide the rot within. But that’s not the way the story is supposed to go – so it didn’t.

The truth, or at least this version of the truth – is considerably different – as the truth generally is.

Toadling has watched seasons change and years pass beyond counting, guarding the thornhedge that surrounds the darkling woods that encase the decaying castle where the beautiful princess sleeps a troubled, enchanted sleep. Once upon a time, Toadling was human. Once upon a time, she might have been that princess.

Once upon a time, she made a terrible mistake that put her exactly where she is, standing guard, doing her sometimes human, sometimes toad-like best to perform her self-imposed duty of keeping the princess safe – and keeping everyone else safe from the princess.

Just as Toadling is almost, almost sure that all knowledge of the lost princess and the crumbling tower has slipping out of time and mind of the rest of the world, her sanctuary is invaded in the kindliest and most annoyingly frustrating – at least for Toadling – way possible. The knight Halim has a burning need to solve the mystery. If there’s a princess imprisoned in the crumbling castle, he’ll certainly rescue her – after all, he is a knight – if not either a very good or very successful one. But his primary motivation isn’t the princess, it’s solving the puzzle.

Which, in the end, he does. Just not the way that Toadling feared. Or even worse, hoped.

Escape Rating A: Thornhedge is a fractured fairy tale. In fact, Thornhedge and A Spindle Splintered are fractured versions of the same fairy tale, that of Sleeping Beauty. But they have been fractured along very different fault lines.

It’s because they start with different questions. A Spindle Splintered asked whether there were ways for Sleeping Beauty to escape her destiny, and what would happen if she tried, and then proceeded to play out those variations across the multiverse.

Thornhedge goes back to the beginning of the story and asks a fundamental question about why it was necessary for the princess to be ensconced in that castle so thoroughly in the first place. The answer to that question sets the fairy tale entirely on its head but also makes the story considerably more interesting.

Instead of a ‘fridged’ heroine who gets top billing but does nothing to earn it, we get a lovely story about friendship and duty and guilt and spending a lifetime making up for someone else’s mistakes and cleaning up after someone else’s messes and finally, finally participating in your own rescue.

Because this isn’t really the Sleeping Beauty story at all, but in a totally different way than Sleeping Beauty wasn’t actually Sleeping Beauty’s own story.

Instead it’s a story about friendship and guilt and learning to be – not who you are supposed to be, but who you really are. That the lesson turns out to be just as much for Halim the Knight as it is for Toadling the fairy is just the teeniest, tiny part of what makes Thornhedge such a lovely read.

Or in my case, reread. I read this for a Library Journal review a few months back, and loved it as I do all of T. Kingfisher’s work, but not quite as much as I did Nettle & Bone. Listening to it now brought all the best parts back – particularly the perspective of the princess turned Toadling in her frustration, her longing, and her utterly justified anger at everything that brought her to this pass. Including herself.

The way in which she rescues herself, and Halim, and finally gets the future she wants now and the home she wants later, was beautiful. As is Toadling, even if neither the reader nor Halim notice it at first. Because this is Toadling’s story, and she’s the heroine, and heroines are supposed to be beautiful. So she is, and so is her story.

Review: Days at the Morisaki Bookshop by Satoshi Yagisawa

Review: Days at the Morisaki Bookshop by Satoshi YagisawaDays at the Morisaki Bookshop by Satoshi Yagisawa, Eric Ozawa
Narrator: Catherine Ho
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss, supplied by publisher via Libro.fm
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: books and reading, literary fiction, world literature
Pages: 160
Length: 5 hours
Published by Harper Perennial, HarperAudio on July 4, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.org
Goodreads

Unable to accept being dumped by her colleague, Takako quits her job and moves into the used bookstore owned by her uncle, Satoru, in Jinbocho. Despite her initial lack of interest in novels, Takako is slowly drawn into the world of books as she comes into contact with the unusual customers who frequent the store.

My Review:

Takako has sunk into a slough of despond, depressed beyond imagining after learning that her boyfriend had been engaged to someone else during the entire year of their relationship. As they worked together – along with his fiancee! – Takako has quit her job to get away from the pain, and seems to be intent on leaving the waking world behind.

It’s a bit like the opening of Cassandra in Reverse – without the time travel. Or at least, without Cassandra’s peculiar method of traveling through time.

Takako, with more than a bit of a push from her mother, finds herself being herded in a direction she had no intention of going. But helping her uncle Satoru with his used bookstore – while living rent free above the shop – is at least half a step up from returning home and letting her mother remind her she’s a failure at every turn.

Which is where the story stops resembling Cassandra in Reverse, as the only time travel that Takako is capable of is the kind that happens when you step into the pages of a book and are whisked away, whether to the past, the present, or the future.

As the days slip past, at first slowly – and mostly in sleep – Takako emerges from her blanket-wrapped cocoon and becomes involved with what’s inside her uncle’s store. At first it’s the customers, and then it’s the books and then it’s the whole neighborhood.

The store and the books within it are the saving of Takako. And as her year of taking a vacation from her life saves her, so is she able to save her uncle as well.

Escape Rating A-: This is simply a lovely story. It’s a bit of a combination of Cassandra in Reverse, The Girl Who Reads on the Métro and The Cat Who Saved Books, but it’s considerably more down to earth than any of those antecedents.

This is not a highly dramatic story. After the opening, where Takako learns that her boyfriend is a narcissistic asshat, there are no big scenes until very nearly the end. Rather, the story quietly unspools as we climb into that cocoon with Takako and then watch her gently pull herself out.

The story of those Days at the Morisaki Bookshop is really a story about the way that books cushion us, comfort us and save us. It’s about the joy of discovery and the even greater joy of sharing that discovery. It’s a story that starts out quietly sad and quietly and charmingly goes on its way to becoming quietly happy.

Which made this little book an unexpected comfort read and an equally unexpected comfort listen. I fell into Takako’s life just as she fell into sleep, but the waking up was considerably less traumatic for the reader than it was for the character – who was perfectly embodied by the narrator. I didn’t feel like I was reading a book, I felt like Takako was telling me the story of her year at her uncle’s bookshop and what happened after.

And it was an utterly charming story, extremely well told, every step of her way. It was exactly what I was looking for, and I hope that when you’re looking for a lovely read or listen to let you slip into a world of books, it will be that for you, too.

Review: Cassandra in Reverse by Holly Smale

Review: Cassandra in Reverse by Holly SmaleCassandra in Reverse by Holly Smale
Narrator: Kristin Atherton
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss, supplied by publisher via Libro.fm
Formats available: hardcover, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Chick Lit, time travel romance, women's fiction
Pages: 368
Length: 13 hours and 15 minutes
Published by Harlequin Audio, Harlequin MIRA on June 6, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads


If you had the power to change the past…where would you start?

Cassandra Penelope Dankworth is a creature of habit. She likes what she likes (museums, jumpsuits, her boyfriend, Will) and strongly dislikes what she doesn't (mess, change, her boss drinking out of her mug). Her life runs in a pleasing, predictable order…until now.• She's just been dumped.• She's just been fired.• Her local café has run out of banana muffins.
Then, something truly unexpected happens: Cassie discovers she can go back and change the past. One small rewind at a time, Cassie attempts to fix the life she accidentally obliterated, but soon she'll discover she's trying to fix all the wrong things.

My Review:

The problem with wanting to change things is that things change – including things we had no intention of changing. There’s that thing about the butterfly and its unintended wing flap to consider.

But when Cassandra Dankworth discovers, on her second repeat of the second worst day in her life, that she has the power to change her past, she quickly discovers that for every single thing she attempts to fix, there’s a journey down the road not originally taken that might be even worse than the one she originally took.

As difficult as that is for her to imagine. Because it really, truly was a terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad day. Tinkering with it isn’t going to make things any better. Tinkering with the worst day of her life, the day her parents were both killed in a car accident ten years ago, seems to be out of her reach.

The one thing she can do, the event that the universe seems to be pointing her towards with increasingly sharp, poking fingers, is the day that she met her boyfriend, Will. The boyfriend who began her terrible, horrible, etc. day by breaking up with her.

She can’t save her parents, but she can save her relationship. If she can use her seemingly endless ability to tweak time to fix things. And herself. All she has to do is learn the lessons that the universe seems determined to teach her.

Even if they are not the lessons she wants them to be.

Escape Rating C: I ended up with a whole lot of mixed feelings about Cassandra in Reverse. I flipped back and forth between the audiobook and the text, trying to find a way to make myself comfortable in the story.

Which was probably a mistake on multiple levels, because the way the story begins makes it abundantly clear that Cassandra Dankworth is just not a comfortable person to be with. In audio the listener is bombarded with Cassandra’s rapidly firing mental processes – and it’s impossible not to understand why the people around her find her so “difficult”.

Howsomever, because we’re in her neurodivergent head and her first-person perspective, we are also able to empathize with Cassandra in a way that the people around her most definitely do not.

So we get both sides with both barrels – which does not make either of them a comfortable read.

Which means that it is not a surprise that when Cassandra discovers her limited power to time travel, the thing she truly wants to change – and by that I mean “fix” – is herself. Considering all of the completely negative and utterly damning messages that she has received over her life, and how much she has internalized those messages, she’s convinced that everything that happens to her is her fault because she’s broken. She ends up rewriting and resetting her encounters with pretty much everyone in her life, over and over, in order to learn proper behavior so she can fix herself and be happy like everyone around her.

The hard lesson in this story is that she’s not going to ever be happy like everyone around her because she isn’t like everyone around her. The lesson she needs to absorb is about accepting herself, finding other people who accept her as she is and not as society expects her to be, and make a life that works for her.

It’s a very hard lesson, and one that most of us struggle with for all of our lives. And at the end of Cassandra in Reverse I’m not even sure that Cassandra has figured out that that’s the lesson she was supposed to learn. Although it is possible to interpret the story that she did, and that her journey involves resetting everyone else’s as she passes by.

So I’m torn by this one. It didn’t work well for me, and found the audio to be a particularly rough ride because the drumbeat of how much Cassandra does not fit into the world around her is so very loud and harsh. I felt for her too much to want to experience the way the world treated her from so intimate a perspective.

Your reading mileage may vary.

Review: The Wager: A Tale of Shipwreck, Mutiny and Murder by David Grann

Review: The Wager: A Tale of Shipwreck, Mutiny and Murder by David GrannThe Wager: A Tale of Shipwreck, Mutiny and Murder by David Grann
Narrator: Dion Graham
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss, supplied by publisher via Libro.fm
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: history, nonfiction, true crime
Pages: 352
Length: 8 hours and 28 minutes
Published by Doubleday Books, Random House Audio on May 11, 2023
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From the international bestselling author of KILLERS OF THE FLOWER MOON and THE LOST CITY OF Z, a mesmerising story of shipwreck, mutiny and murder, culminating in a court martial that reveals a shocking truth.   On 28th January 1742, a ramshackle vessel of patched-together wood and cloth washed up on the coast of Brazil. Inside were thirty emaciated men, barely alive, and they had an extraordinary tale to tell. They were survivors of His Majesty’s ship The Wager, a British vessel that had left England in 1740 on a secret mission during an imperial war with Spain. While chasing a Spanish treasure-filled galleon, The Wager was wrecked on a desolate island off the coast of Patagonia. The crew, marooned for months and facing starvation, built the flimsy craft and sailed for more than a hundred days, traversing 2,500 miles of storm-wracked seas. They were greeted as heroes.   Then, six months later, another, even more decrepit, craft landed on the coast of Chile. This boat contained just three castaways and they had a very different story to tell. The thirty sailors who landed in Brazil were not heroes – they were mutineers. The first group responded with counter-charges of their own, of a tyrannical and murderous captain and his henchmen. While stranded on the island the crew had fallen into anarchy, with warring factions fighting for dominion over the barren wilderness. As accusations of treachery and murder flew, the Admiralty convened a court martial to determine who was telling the truth. The stakes were life-and-death—for whomever the court found guilty could hang.  

My Review:

Fiction has to be plausible, while nonfiction just has to be true. The story of HMS Wager – or more properly the story of her doomed voyage, disastrous wreck and the against all odds recovery of even a fraction of her crew – is so far over the top that we might not accept it as fiction – except possibly as sheer horror. That this voyage, and all of the extremes the crew passed through and even survived in the tiniest part, really happened carries the reader forward with them even when the conditions are so harrowing that many will want to turn their eyes away.

But man’s inhumanity to man – even without the type of disastrous conditions the crew of the Wager endured – is an oft told tale and not just of the sea. What carries this over the top is its denouement. Not just that some survived to be rescued, but that of those survivors, only ten men out of the original company of nearly three hundred lived to tell the tale. And they all seemed to tell entirely different tales, each attempting to justify their actions after the ship wrecked off the coast of present-day Chile.

The Wreck of the Wager, the frontispiece from John Byron’s account

The crew of the Wager mutinied after the terrible wreck. The Captain wanted to go forward with their original mission, in spite of having lost, at that point, 2/3rds of his crew, his ship, and quite possibly both his authority and a piece of his mind. One natural leader, the gunner John Bulkley, had a plan for navigating the Straits of Magellan in one of the smaller boats remaining to the castaways. Bulkley had drive, the trust of more of the men, a plan and a clear direction for safety, while Captain Cheap only had waning authority and wrecked trust.

Bulkley and his contingent sailed east. Cheap and his loyalists sailed west. Both returned home, with vastly differing accounts of the terrible events that took place on what the castaways had dubbed ‘Wager Island’. The court martial should have been epic – and it should have decided the truth – or at least a truth – for posterity.

But the jury on precisely what happened on Wager Island, whether the mutiny was justified or was even, technically, a mutiny at all isn’t even out because it never went in. The Admiralty chose not to pursue any of the possible charges against anyone who returned, outside of assigning blame for the wrecking of the Wager herself. Not because there were no charges to answer, but because those answers would have shot cannonballs through the British Navy’s reputation and its justifications for its so-called ‘civilizing’ conquests that do not hold up to the light of day now.

And clearly didn’t then, either, even if the Admiralty refused to acknowledge it.

Reality Rating A: The Wager is a terrible story told terribly, terribly well, made even better by the excellence of the voice narration by Dion Graham. His voice carried me through a story that, while compelling, was so very dark – all the more so for being a true story – that I would have turned aside without him.

There are three parts to The Wager’s epic narrative. It begins with the runup to the expedition that HMS Wager was intended to be a small part of. It reads as doomed from the beginning, an endless delay of money and bureaucracy, intending to be a salvo in a made-up war (the War of Jenkins’ Ear). The mission as a whole ended in a kind of pyrrhic victory, but by then the Wager had long since wrecked.

The heart – and heartbreak – of the story is in the conditions on Wager Island. Conditions that quickly break down into a chaos of failed discipline and desperation that recalls The Lord of the Flies. Not that conditions aboard HMS Wager weren’t desperate before the wreck, but the privation they had already experienced made the starvation, madness and despair while castaways just that much more difficult to bear.

As I listened to Dion Graham’s marvelous voice, the story kept building and building its recital of how truly awful the situation was, to the point where it reminded me of the privations described in Emma Donoghue’s Haven – without nearly as much reference to religion or G-d. By the time they left the island, there was no G-d to be found – no matter how much Bulkley searched for one.

What fascinated me was the rescue – or rescues as it turned out – and just how much the story morphed and changed when exposed to the light of ‘grub street’ journalism. There is very little ‘truth’ to be found by the time the conflicting accounts of the survivors and the even more sensational exaggerations of the press came into play. This is a story that leaves more questions than answers. Humans do not make reliable eyewitnesses – particularly in cases where each has a stake in saving their own skins – or necks.

The Wager isn’t the kind of adventure on the high seas that many of her crew read before they undertook the voyage. It’s an ultimately riveting, desperately tragic, terribly contentious account of a walk – or rather a sail – through the darkest places of men’s hearts and souls. A tale from which it is impossible to turn one’s eyes away, no matter how much one might be tempted to step aside. Which is only fitting, as the crew of HMS Wager could not either.