Archive for the ‘Alternate History’ Category

Review of A Shadow Bright and Burning, by Jessica Cluess, read by Fiona Hardingham

Monday, October 15th, 2018

A Shadow Bright and Burning

by Jessica Cluess

read by Fiona Hardingham

Listening Library, 2016. 12 hours, 49 minutes on 10 compact discs.

This is alternate history Victorian England, read with impeccable English accents, reflecting class differences in the accents (even though I wouldn’t know the difference if I hadn’t heard it.)

Henrietta Howel has always hidden her ability to set things on fire and burst into flame without burning. So when a sorcerer comes to the school where she grew up and now teaches, she works hard to keep from flaming out. It turns out the sorcerer is looking for a girl with power over flame not to execute her as a witch, but to fulfill a prophecy about a woman from sorcerer stock who will save the country.

When the Ancients attack that night — seven great horrific spirits from another dimension who have been attacking England for years — Henrietta’s powers are revealed. But she is brought back to London to train as a sorcerer. She discovers a different world than the one where she grew up.

Henrietta’s one requirement is that she must bring Rook with her — a boy who is “Unclean,” marked by scars from an attack by one of the Ancients, Korazoth. Rook and Henrietta have always looked after each other. The sorcerer is willing to take him on as a stable boy — anything to get Henrietta to train with the sorcerers.

She’s up against a lot in London. She’s out of her depth with society. And she’s training in a house full of boys. She must master her powers in order to be commended by Queen Victoria and become an official sorcerer. And then she meets someone who says he knew her father. And she has grave doubts as to whether she really is the prophesied one. But if she isn’t, she’ll lose everything.

There are layers within layers in this book, but it never gets too complex to follow. I am delighted that there is more to come — the back of the book says it’s Book One of The Kingdom on Fire. The author develops a complicated world here with sorcerers, magicians, and witches — and powerful beings besieging England who destroy humankind and take people as their familiars. And in the middle of all that, you’ve got Victorian England trying to keep women in their place and a girl trying to figure out what that place is for her.

This book is imaginative, suspenseful, and gripping. The narrator’s voice and delightful British accent ensured that my commute was enchanting as long as I was listening to this book.

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Source: This review is based on a library audiobook from Fairfax County Public Library.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of The Empty Grave, by Jonathan Stroud, read by Emily Bevan

Saturday, September 15th, 2018

The Empty Grave

by Jonathan Stroud
read by Emily Bevan

Listening Library, 2017. 12 hours, 41 minutes on 10 compact discs.
Starred Review

Ah! Another chance to enjoy the fifth and final book in the Lockwood & Co. series! Yes, listening to the book on CD is even more fun than reading it yourself.

Of course the reader’s accent helps you get into the mood of this alternate-reality London. And hearing it read slows you down so you can savor the story. (The books are hard to put down, but sometimes I had to simply turn off the car, shut off the CD, and go to work.)

I still say that these books make outstanding family listening – once your children are old enough to handle some seriously spooky events as well as people seriously trying to murder our heroes besides the incidental life-or-death danger they face routinely.

For the plot, I refer you to my review of the written book. I’m here to say that the audiobooks make them even more enjoyable – though it’s hard to believe that’s even possible, because they’re so good in the first place.

I have liked my approach to the whole series – devour each book as quickly as possible as soon as it comes out. Then, when I can get my hands on the audiobook, enjoy it again, savoring it a bit more slowly and catching some details I didn’t notice the first time.

(And that reminds me! I noticed a tiny, tiny flaw while I was listening! At the end, there’s a rapier fight between Lucy and the powerful woman who’s been running London. Well, the woman kicks off her heels when she starts fighting – but we’d already been told there were shards of glass all over the floor. If she had done that – then as the two move around the room fighting, she would have cut her feet and given Lucy a big advantage. But that’s the very first quibble I’ve found in these books.)

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Source: This review is based on a library book from Fairfax County Public Library.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of The Creeping Shadow audiobook, by Jonathan Stroud, read by Emily Bevan

Saturday, August 25th, 2018

The Creeping Shadow

Lockwood & Co., Book Four

by Jonathan Stroud
read by Emily Bevan

Listening Library, 2016. 12 hours, 58 minutes on 11 compact discs.
Starred Review
Review written in 2016

I do so love the Lockwood & Co. books! Listening to them in audio form is an even greater treat. It’s a wonderful excuse to hear the story again, this time with accents. I’d forgotten how very thrilling this story is – there’s not a disc that isn’t full of tension, and in several places, Lucy is barely escaping with her life.

As I said with the print version of the book, you definitely need to read these in order, and this is book four. If you’ve come this far, you won’t need any urging from me to read on.

The scenario is an alternate reality England where “visitors” – ghosts of various types – are walking among the living – and trying to kill them. Only children can see them, so children work in agencies to deal with ghosts for people, to find the source of trouble and neutralize it. Lockwood & Co. is the smallest such agency, and it’s run by the teens themselves.

In this book, Lucy and the folks of Lockwood & Co. are up against powerful human forces as well, and they seem to be getting more information about the source of the Problem itself.

I’ve said that these are good for family listening, and the back of the audiobook case recommends it for ages 8 to 12. But I was reminded when listening that this is scary stuff! There’s a particularly frightening ghost of a cannibal giant in this book – and several places Lucy has living humans trying to kill her.

I know, most kids can probably handle it. But I probably wouldn’t recommend it for kids younger than eight. I can say confidently, though, that this is family listening that will have adults wanting more as eagerly as the children. I’m still annoyed about the world-shaking revelation at the end of this book (as at the end of each book) – I wish the next book were already published! But rereading the book by listening was a nice way to tide me over while I’m waiting.

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Source: This review is based on a library audiobook from Fairfax County Public Library.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of Wolf by Wolf, by Ryan Graudin

Wednesday, July 18th, 2018

Wolf by Wolf

by Ryan Graudin

Little, Brown and Company, 2016. 379 pages.
Review written in 2016.

Wolf by Wolf is an alternate history novel about a world where Germany won World War II. On top of that, our heroine is a Jewish girl who was experimented on by Nazi scientists — who gave her the ability to shapeshift her face.

With the ability, she was able to escape the concentration camp. Now, in 1956, she is the key to a plot to assassinate Hitler.

Now, my fundamental problem with the novel is I just couldn’t bring myself to believe that any sequence of injections could make a person able to change their bone structure. Yael can adjust her height and add freckles to her arms — but she can’t get rid of her prison camp tattoo. Even if I could accept that, she can also change her already-grown hair to be a different color or be thicker. I don’t quite see how that can work.

However, the story is so gripping and so dramatic, I was able to forgive it for its unlikely premise. I’ll grant you, it was sobering to read about Hitler’s Europe as the 2016 election happened.

The plot is a complicated one. Because Hitler has survived too many assassination attempts, he now never appears in public, except twice a year — at the start and end of the great motorcycle race, the Axis Tour, where motorcyclists rode from Germania (Berlin) to Tokyo, the capital of the Japanese empire. Last year, a girl, Adele Wolfe, had disguised herself as her brother and won the race. Hitler had danced with her.

Now Yael is going to take Adele’s identity, win the race, and assassinate Hitler in front of the world when he dances with her at the victory celebration. This will be a signal for her allies in the Resistance to move and topple the Third Reich.

But the race is long and grueling. Adele’s brother has entered the race to try to stop her. — He wants to save her life. Then there are the two other previous race victors who also want to be the first to win the Axis Tour a second time. Life and death are on the line. On top of that, Yael must navigate relationships blind.

And she must get to the Victory Ball. She must win.

But to do that, she needs to survive.

It took me awhile to warm up to this story. As I said, I had a hard time with the premise. I thought the writing seemed a little overdramatic. But as I read, I have to admit that a girl in that situation would feel the weight of everything depending on her. The situation is inherently dramatic.

Little by little, we learn her history. Yael has gotten a tattoo of five wolves to cover her prison tattoo. Each wolf represents one person she has lost. She is doing this for them.

Once upon a different time, there was a girl who lived in a kingdom of death. Wolves howled up her arm. A whole pack of them — made of tattoo ink and pain, memory and loss. It was the only thing about her that ever stayed the same.

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Source: This review is based on a library book from Fairfax County Public Library.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Audiobook Review of My Lady Jane, by Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, and Jodi Meadows, performed by Katherine Kellgren

Saturday, June 16th, 2018

My Lady Jane

by Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, and Jodi Meadows
performed by Katherine Kellgren

HarperAudio, 2016. 13.75 hours on 11 discs.
Starred Review

I’ve already reviewed this book in print form, but oh, Katherine Kellgren’s performance makes it so much fun!

We’ve got alternate history England, featuring Lady Jane Grey, who was queen for nine days. In this version, many people have the magic power to turn into an animal. In the course of things, Jane finds out she is one, which is how she escapes losing her head.

The story is funny and clever and twists history just enough to be terribly fun. And Katherine Kellgren’s brilliant vocal abilities are perfect to bring out all the humor in the situations.

By now, I’ve become Katherine Kellgren’s fan. In a story set in England that was already outstanding in an over-the-top humorous sort of way, her performance puts it even more over the top. Now when I recommend this book, I’m going to suggest listening.

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Source: This review is based on a library book from Fairfax County Public Library.

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Review of Blood Rose Rebellion, by Rosalyn Eves

Wednesday, June 6th, 2018

Blood Rose Rebellion

by Rosalyn Eves

Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers (Penguin Random House), 2017. 407 pages.

I’m getting used to alternate histories with magic, but this was an alternate history of something I didn’t know much about in the real world – the Hungarian revolution in 1848.

Anna Arden doesn’t mean to break other people’s spells. But sometimes, especially when her emotions get stirred up, this happens spectacularly, and people get hurt. After she ruins her sister’s debut, she’s sent off with her grandmother to stay in Hungary for awhile at her grandmother’s childhood home.

But various people find out about Anna’s unusual abilities. Would she be able to break the Binding spell – the one that confines magic to the nobility, the Luminate class? And what are the motives of the people who want to use her in this way? But at the same time, what would be the cost? Would this break the power of the Circle, so that common people can have access to magic? But what will the Circle do to stop her?

Anna’s confused as to what she should do. Meanwhile, there’s a handsome Romani young man whom Anna would like to teach her Romani magic. Maybe if she can’t do Luminate magic, maybe she could do Romani magic, which is so different.

Romance and adventure, magic and danger – all put into the context of the actual history of the Hungarian rebellion from the Hapsburgs.

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Source: This review is based on a library book from Fairfax County Public Library.

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Review of La Belle Sauvage, The Book of Dust, Volume One, by Philip Pullman

Wednesday, January 17th, 2018

La Belle Sauvage

The Book of Dust, Volume One

by Philip Pullman

Alfred A. Knopf, 2017. 451 pages.

It’s no secret that Philip Pullman is a magnificent writer. His rich use of language, his astonishingly detailed, imaginative worlds are all marks of a master craftsman. So, yes, I was impressed by how well-written this book was.

But did I enjoy it? Not so much.

This surprised me. I enjoyed The Golden Compass and The Subtle Knife. (Not enough to want to read them again, but I did enjoy them.) In this book, I liked the character of Malcolm tremendously – but not really anyone else.

This book is a prequel to His Dark Materials. Lyra, who is a young girl in those books, is now a baby – and a baby with a prophecy about her, a baby who needs protection. In the majority of the book, Malcolm is trying to rescue baby Lyra from danger in his canoe, named La Belle Sauvage, riding over floodwaters, pursued by one of the most horrific villains imaginable.

You don’t have to read the first trilogy to enjoy this, since it is a prequel. (Knowing Lyra must make it does help make things a little less scary.) Maybe if I had reread the original trilogy I would have been ready for what seemed like out-of-place fantastical elements, including an encounter with faeries and traveling through some sort of mystical kingdom. I know it’s an alternate universe, but I had forgotten that they’re not really going with a scientific explanation of alternate universes, since the one Lyra’s in has lots of magic.

And I know – it’s magic – it’s an alternate universe – but this time the explanation of “Dust” as an “elementary particle” of a “Rusakov field” responsible for consciousness – seemed rather silly. That’s not really how elementary particles work. This Dust is also what makes the alethiometer magically answer questions. And that, too, seems a bit silly reading it afresh. If the author just called it “magic” and didn’t try to make it sound scientific, it would work better. (Ah! That’s the problem! When I read The Golden Compass, I just thought it was dealing with a world where magic existed, and I hadn’t read any pseudo-scientific explanation.)

All that aside, there’s a fair amount of coincidence. How does the monstrous villain keep following Malcolm? Now, to be fair, that particular coincidence simply makes the book all the more intensely frightening. But when the good guy happens upon Malcolm later, that seems a little more remarkable.

I liked that Malcolm wondered how baby Lyra’s daemon could know the shapes of various animals to take on that it hadn’t yet seen. I imagine someone complained about that in the first book, so now it’s something remarkable about Lyra’s daemon rather than an oversight by the author.

And I do love the daemons – an animal expression of a person’s soul that lives outside their body. Children’s daemons can change form at will, but adults’ daemons have a set form. An interesting thing is that no two people in the book have the same form for their daemons.

I never do like it when the Church is villainous, though I knew to expect it from the first trilogy. In this book, there’s an extra sinister effort to get children to turn in their parents to the forces of evil run by the Church.

All that said, La Belle Sauvage is an absorbing read. Philip Pullman’s world-building is full of intricate details and extremely atmospheric. You can see this by how the book begins:

Three miles up the river Thames from the center of Oxford, some distance from where the great colleges of Jordan, Gabriel, Balliol, and two dozen others contended for mastery in the boat races, out where the city was only a collection of towers and spires in the distance over the misty levels of Port Meadow, there stood the Priory of Godstow, where the gentle nuns went about their holy business; and on the opposite bank from the priory there was an inn called the Trout.

The inn was an old stone-built rambling, comfortable sort of place. There was a terrace above the river, where peacocks (one called Norman and the other called Barry) stalked among the drinkers, helping themselves to snacks without the slightest hesitation and occasionally lifting their heads to utter ferocious and meaningless screams. There was a saloon bar where the gentry, if college scholars count as gentry, took their ale and smoked their pipes; there was a public bar where watermen and farm laborers sat by the fire or played darts, or stood at the bar gossiping, or arguing, or simply getting quietly drunk; there was a kitchen where the landlord’s wife cooked a great joint every day, with a complicated arrangement of wheels and chains turning a spit over an open fire, and there was a potboy called Malcolm Polstead.

Malcolm was the landlord’s son, an only child. He was eleven years old, with an inquisitive, kindly disposition, a stocky build, and ginger hair. He went to Ulvercote Elementary School a mile away, and he had friends enough, but he was happiest on his own, playing with his daemon, Asta, in their canoe, on which Malcolm had painted the name LA BELLE SAUVAGE.

Those that have read His Dark Materials will almost certainly want to read this. If you haven’t yet – you might prefer to start with that one since you can read all three books in succession and won’t be stymied by those annoying words that end this book: “To be continued . . .”

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Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of York: The Shadow Cipher, by Laura Ruby

Friday, September 29th, 2017

York, Book One

The Shadow Cipher

by Laura Ruby

Walden Pond Press (HarperCollins), 2017. 476 pages.

The Shadow Cipher is set in modern-day New York – but in an alternate universe. This world has very different technology than our own, including genetically engineered pets and therapy animals. But the biggest differences came from innovations built into New York City by the brilliant Morningstarr twins in the 1800s.

The Morningstarr twins also supposedly left a cipher in the city – that leads to a treasure. Tess and Theo Biedermann, who are named after the Morningstarrs, live in one of the original buildings constructed by the Morningstarrs.

When an evil real estate developer – named Darnell Slant – buys their building and they have to get out in 30 days, Tess and Theo are horrified. At the same time, they come upon an original letter written by Tess Morningstarr. It seems to be a new clue – leading to a whole new chain of clues. Working with Jaime, another kid who’s getting evicted from the building, the three of them plan to find the treasure to save the day.

This book has a good puzzle story and adventure yarn. It’s not like the reader can solve the clues themselves, but it’s fun to read about the kids going from one clue to another.

Now, could a cipher really stay intact for more than a hundred years? They try to get around this amazing coincidence by commenting on them and saying that it seems like the Cipher is solving them. That wasn’t quite good enough for me – but I’m a more-skeptical-than-average reader.

There was one incident that pulled me out of the book. At one point, Tess was so upset from being evicted, she had trouble sleeping.

She’d tried her favorite guided meditation video for an hour. She’d organized her underwear drawer by color. She’d tried counting backward from one million. When the sun rose that morning, she was on number 937,582.

I’m sorry – I don’t buy it! 937,582 is more than 60,000 less than a million. If Tess were able to count one number per second (which would be incredibly fast for such big numbers), it would take her more than 16 hours to get to such a relatively low number!

Now – I posted my complaint on Facebook in general terms. One of my friends speculated that Tess may be an android. And you know what? Even after finishing the book, that is a possible explanation. In fact, as the book goes on, Tess gets an uncomfortable feeling that many of the machines made by the Morningstarrs are alive! Perhaps Tess herself is a machine made by the Morningstarrs, and this is our first clue.

All the same, I have my doubts. I think it was probably a mistake rather than a cleverly planted clue to Tess’s real identity.

But the book is fun. And full of surprises. The story doesn’t finish, in fact the book ends on the threshold of further adventures. So this is part of a series you’ll certainly want to read in order.

The science in the book seems iffy to me – but any time machines seem to come alive, I’ll have some trouble with it. Also the coincidences. In general, the book is more like fantasy. But I didn’t mind it too much while I was reading it. You’ve got an imaginative alternate world, an intriguing puzzle, and a fun story of three children on an adventure trying to solve the puzzle and save their home.

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Source: This review is based on a library book from Fairfax County Public Library.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of Arabella and the Battle of Venus

Friday, September 22nd, 2017

Arabella and the Battle of Venus

by David D. Levine

Tor (Tom Doherty Associates), 2017. 416 pages.
Starred Review

It took me a long time to get around to reading Arabella of Mars, which meant I could immediately pick up the sequel, for more adventurous fun. A blurb on the back cover calls this “Regency space opera,” and that’s about right. We’ve got an alternate history where sailing ships fly between the planets during the Napoleonic Wars.

In this book, Arabella is still on Mars, but her fiancé has traveled to Venus – and there was captured by the French. He sends Arabella a letter telling her not to worry about him, but of course Arabella comes up with a scheme to try to save him. She hires a privateer to fly her to Venus. Her brother permits this plan as long as she brings along a chaperone, Lady Corey.

This second book isn’t mostly about adventures between the planets, as the first was (though they definitely have some). Instead, the privateer’s ship – and everyone on board – also gets captured by the French and held on Venus. But there’s something big afoot in the shipyard where some of the prisoners are laboring. Now there’s more to do than simply plan a mass escape.

Arabella’s character is so much fun! She’s resourceful and smart. And not slow to act. I was surprised how much I came to enjoy Lady Corey, too.

The science of this interplanetary travel and “interplanetary atmosphere” is iffy, but seems to be consistent with itself. I still roll my eyes a bit at the automata magically gaining personality and coming up with results the programmer doesn’t understand. It can even hear Arabella speak without having ears!

But it’s all in good fun. This is an adventure yarn with a memorable heroine who tries to rescue the man she loves and faces danger, capture, and even dinner with Napoleon.

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Source: This review is based on a library book from Fairfax County Public Library.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of The Empty Grave, by Jonathan Stroud

Saturday, September 16th, 2017

The Empty Grave

Lockwood & Co. Book Five

by Jonathan Stroud

Disney Hyperion, 2017. 437 pages.
Starred Review

I finished The Empty Grave today, and with it the entire Lockwood & Co. series – and Yes! The series ends well. I can now officially say that from start to finish, this is one of the best children’s book series ever. These books make good family reading, since adults will enjoy them every bit as much. Children need to be old enough to be able to not be afraid of all the murderous ghosts (and murderous people). If your child doesn’t mind some severe spookiness, I highly recommend this series.

This series deals with an alternate reality England where there’s a “Problem” with ghosts roaming the countryside and haunting buildings and places where they died. These aren’t friendly ghosts – if they touch you, you’ll die. And only children can see them. Lucy, Lockwood, George, and Holly still have their independent agency for dealing with ghosts – but powerful forces are ready to put them out of business – or perhaps simply kill them.

In this final installment, all the threads come together. Can the smallest agency in London expose what’s at the root of the Problem? Or will they be silenced? We’re told at the beginning of this book that Lucy survives. But will any of her friends survive with her?

I really mustn’t say any more about the plot. Yes, this is a series you should read from the beginning – It’s brilliantly crafted, with important pieces revealed at just the right time. In this book, it all comes together in a satisfying, and very suspenseful, way.

Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimaeus series is brilliant – but Lockwood & Co. goes far beyond it. You come to care about all the characters deeply (even George!) and to understand the complex situation and all that’s at stake. This series is magnificent! Read it!

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Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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