Review of The Adventures of Amina Al-Sirafi, by Shannon Chakraborty

The Adventures of Amina Al-Sirafi

by Shannon Chakraborty
read by Lameece Issaq and Amin El Gamal

HarperAudio, 2023. 17 hours.
Review written 2/4/24 from a library eaudiobook.
Starred Review

Oh, I enjoyed this book so much! First, I have to say that it was refreshing to read a book written for adults where the protagonist is fully an adult. Amina Al-Sirafi is a retired pirate captain, but now she lives in a remote location with her mother and her 10-year-old daughter.

But then a rich old lady tracks Amina down and blackmails her into finding the lady’s granddaughter who was kidnapped by a Frank (the Muslim world’s name for Christians in medieval times). Amina suspects it wasn’t exactly a kidnapping, but when she learns the teenage girl is the daughter of her former crewman who died in bad circumstances, Amina feels she should take the job for his sake.

This means rounding up her ship and her crew. And that alone requires swashbuckling adventure, as the man she left her ship with has gotten into a bit of trouble. When Amina realizes magical forces are involved, she tries to back out of the deal, but her daughter’s very life is at stake from the blackmailing schemer.

The rest of the book includes dramatic adventures on the Indian Ocean, with both natural and supernatural dangers. You can see from the cover this includes a sea monster. There are dark magical forces at work, and it turns out that Amina needs to save not only the girl but the world as well. On her team, she has a wonderfully varied crew, each with prodigious skills, and her latest husband even shows up with his own set of magical talents.

Recently a couple of my friends started reading Fourth Wing, and both told me it felt like a Young Adult novel. Both times I answered that they must not have gotten to the sex part yet. With that book, the sexy parts felt like the main reason it was marketed as a book for adults. So I appreciated that in this book, the adventurer herself is a middle-aged (well, maybe 40s) mom. Yes, there’s some mind-blowing sex, but she respects her faith and only has married sex — and she closes the door on the reader when it happens, leaving the details to our imaginations.

The book is steeped in history I’d known nothing about, told from the perspective of a faithful Muslim with a checkered past. The adventures get bigger and more magical as the story goes on. Great fun.

sachakraborty.com

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Review of The Notorious Scarlett and Browne, by Jonathan Stroud, read by Sophie Aldred

The Notorious Scarlett and Browne

by Jonathan Stroud
read by Sophie Aldred

Listening Library, 2023. 12 hours, 17 minutes.
Review written May 24, 2023, from a library eaudiobook.
Starred Review

This is the second book about outlaws Scarlett McLain and Albert Browne, set in a future England after the Cataclysm, when people are huddled into towns for safety against animals that have evolved in dangerous ways and zombie-like once-human “tainted” cannibals.

The book reminds me of the author’s wonderful Lockwood & Co. series. As in the earlier series, you’ve got a feisty and capable girl teaming up with a boy to do daring exploits. They’re of indeterminate age – somewhere in their teens, but living on their own and using their wits to get by.

In this case, Scarlett is using Albert’s mind-reading abilities to help them rob banks — and now they’re taking on the antiquities in the Faith Houses. But in this book, both their pasts catch up with them. For Scarlett, the Brothers of the Hand catch up with her and use some powerful leverage to get her to do one more dangerous job for them. In Albert’s case, a Faith House Operative with powers like Albert’s own comes after them. Albert’s going to have to learn to control and use his powers to be able to get past him.

This book is billed for kids, but let me warn you that there are heavy topics. We learn more about Scarlett’s back story, and there are some horrific things. And when she went to a Faith House for help, they turned a crowd against her. Oh, and there’s plenty of shooting, killing, dumping rocks on people, and letting loose the tainted to eat people. But no sex! So maybe that’s why it’s considered a children’s book?

And there’s lots and lots of tension, too. There are several deadlines in the course of this book — and they’re literally deadlines, when if not met, someone’s going to die. And every time, a solution comes at the very last minute. This warning is to lean toward giving it to older kids — you should have an idea what your kids can handle — but I for one love the series so much.

Of course, Sophie Aldred’s English accent adds to my enjoyment, and the voices she uses for Scarlett and Albert are perfect. I love these characters and hope for a five-book series, like Lockwood & Co. so I can spend much more time with them. Enjoy two kids getting out of horribly tight situations with cleverness and skill. Enjoy Albert’s irrepressible looks on the bright side along with Scarlett’s sarcastic retorts and amazing skill with a gun. In this book, they gain notoriety indeed, and it ends with a definite direction for future books. Hooray! May they come soon.

jonathanstroud.com
listeninglibrary.com

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Review of The Outlaws Scarlett and Browne, by Jonathan Stroud

The Outlaws Scarlett and Browne

by Jonathan Stroud
read by Sophie Aldred

Listening Library, 2021. 12 hours, 19 minutes.
Review written February 26, 2023, from a library eaudiobook.
Starred Review

Hooray! Jonathan Stroud has a new series out about teens doing exploits in a world not quite like our own. I was already a devoted fan of his Lockwood & Co. series, which is now a Netflix series and gaining new fans. (Hooray!) This one has much the same feel, the same cleverness and banter between the characters and is wonderful in every way. I’m kind of glad I didn’t get this first book read as soon as it came out, because now I only need to wait a couple months for the next one.

Scarlett McCain lives in Britain in the far distant future, after the Cataclysm and the Great Dying. Britain is now a set of islands with fortified towns and a wilderness in between. There’s a lagoon where London used to be.

The book begins as Scarlett pulls off a bank robbery. She needs the money to pay back some folks who will kill her if she fails. Everything goes smoothly, but in the wilderness she comes across a bus that has met with a horrific accident, and all the passengers were eaten by wild beasts. She stops to see if they left any valuables, planning to leave before dark.

In the bus, she hears a sound coming from the toilet. Sure enough, a boy comes out. He’d locked himself in while the others were being eaten. His name’s Albert Browne and he’s naive and awkward, and Scarlett doesn’t quite have the heart to leave him to try to make it to a town on his own. So she takes him into her care, planning to get him to the nearest town.

The next day, though, they get chased by men with dogs and guns. Scarlett’s never known anyone to be so persistent after a bank robbery. But just before she escapes by jumping into a river (after pushing Albert in), one of the gunmen laughs and asks why she thinks they’re chasing after her. Turns out there’s much more to Albert than meets the eye.

The book is full of more exploits. And danger. Albert has heard that the Free Isles — which lie in the London Lagoon — will take anyone, despite blemishes or oddities. But it’s not easy to get there, and they’re still being chased.

Fair warning: The book is full of violence and gore. Another terror is the zombie-like “tainted” who eat human flesh. The animals are all more fearsome than in our day, too. One of the terrors of the Thames is the river otters that can devour the unwary. Scarlett does some killing, but it does feel warranted.

Also in that future day, instead of individual religions, there are Faith Houses that offer all religions humans have ever observed. And they are wary of the evolution that has happened to the animals and have strict rules against any blemishes or deviations in people in order to live in the towns. I’m never thrilled to read a book where the villains are powerful religious people, because that’s not how religion should be. However, then I had to reflect that in the Gospels themselves, the villains are powerful religious people. Scarlett and Browne are being tracked by the most powerful people of their society, and the reader is rooting for them.

Sophie Aldred does a wonderful job reading this one. I always love an English accent, but on top of that, she puts so much personality into Albert’s voice. We hear his naivete and his earnestness, his wonder at the wider world and just how annoying he must be to Scarlett. Though I’m tempted to preorder the next book, I think I’m going to check out another audiobook instead. This is just wonderful.

jonathanstroud.com

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Review of The Catch Me If You Can, by Jessica Nabongo

The Catch Me If You Can

One Woman’s Journey to Every Country in the World

by Jessica Nabongo

National Geographic, 2022. 413 pages.
Review written February 11, 2023, from a library book.
Starred Review

This book is awesome!

Jessica Nabongo has traveled to all 195 United Nations-recognized countries in the world. In this book, she takes us along on that journey, complete with stunning photographs. She tells us about the people she met and the experiences she enjoyed.

Jessica is the first Black woman to officially achieve this milestone. I love her attitude of putting aside fear and looking for the good in every place in the world.

And oh my goodness, her outfits! She shows up in many of the pictures, wearing stunning outfits reflecting the location. The photography alone in this book makes it amazing, but combined with her stories, I was fascinated from start to finish.

My plan was to read about one country per day. Well, that was taking a long time, so I upped it to two or three countries per day. And yes, I renewed the book several times. But the dose of adventure and delight became a nice part of my routine.

Jessica’s Introduction is inspiring. Here are two of the lessons she learned:

I have visited the world’s 195 countries and 10 territories. Through these travels I learned two key lessons: First, most people are good. My journey was made possible by the kindness of strangers — some who opened their homes to me and others who donated money to help me reach the finish line. I do not know when we started to assume the worst in each other, but if you consider yourself to be a good person, why would you assume that a stranger is a bad one? I always assume the best of people because that is what I received nine times out of 10 in every corner of the world. The few bad experiences will never outweigh the good.

The second lesson I learned is that we are more similar than we are different. In the end, neither race, gender, social class, religion, sexual orientation, body type, education level, nor nationality make you better than the next person. The French philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin said, “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings having a human experience.” Once you fully accept that, you realize how much our differences simply do not matter.

I love her goal for the reader:

The intention of this book is not to convince you to travel to every country in the world, though it might. That was my dream. My intention is to show everyone — not just Black women and men, but all women and men — that your dreams are valid. Your dreams are achievable.

Let me encourage you to travel the world with Jessica Nabongo!

thecatchmeifyoucan.com
natgeo.com

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Review of Lintang and the Pirate Queen, by Tamara Moss

Lintang and the Pirate Queen

by Tamara Moss

Clarion Books (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), 2019. 360 pages.
Review written October 15, 2019, from an advance reader copy

Lintang lives on the Twin Islands, not part of the United Republic, and she’s known as a storyteller and a troublemaker. Lintang wants nothing more than to see the world.

When the Pirate Queen comes to their island, she needs an islander on board to get past the giant mythie Nyssamdra, the island’s guardian. Lintang is thrilled when she gets chosen.

But when she discovers a stowaway, her best friend Bayani, she has to decide if she will risk the Pirate Queen’s trust and tell her about the stowaway or be loyal to her friend. To make matters worse, Bayani won’t tell her why he wants to get to the island of Zaiben so badly.

The fantasy world of this story is inhabited by “mythies,” and most chapters are preceded by an entry from The Mythie Guidebook — and then that particular mythie shows up in the chapter. It begins with a tiny pixie – known for mischief – and continues through giant and fearsome creatures such as dragons and sirens.

The existence of sirens is the reason that most ships are crewed by women – who aren’t affected by the call of the siren. I do love that this book included a transgender man – who was in fact affected by the siren, though some thought he wouldn’t be.

It turns out that Bayani knows a secret about mythies that changes everyone’s perspective on them and can shake up the world. But will anyone believe him?

This is a fun fantasy adventure story about an impulsive girl seeing the world, learning to think before she acts, and loyally helping her friends.

I do have a few little issues about the way the fantasy world works, but I doubt that those issues will bother most readers.

Not everything is neatly wrapped up in this book, so I suspect and hope there will be more to come.

tamaramoss.com.au
hmhbooks.com

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Review of The Mad Wolf’s Daughter, by Diane Magras

The Mad Wolf’s Daughter

by Diane Magras

Kathy Dawson Books (Penguin), 2018. 280 pages.
Starred Review
Review written April 7, 2018, from a book sent by the publisher
2018 Sonderbooks Stand-out:
#2 Historical Children’s Fiction

As this book begins, Drest tries to warn her brother and her father that she sees boats coming to their lair, but they’re convinced she’s dreaming. They know different when attackers burst upon them.

Her father, the war band leader, gets her to flee and hide. But she sees him and all her brothers taken away. She is determined to save them – even if it means reviving the knight who got thrown down a cliff by one of the other knights.

This is a wonderful historical fiction novel – set in medieval Scotland about a young girl who’s small but fierce and resourceful. Her brothers have trained her well. But she only has six days to get to the castle to save her family, and her journey is not uneventful.

You come to love Drest’s fierce, fighting spirit, which is tempered by compassion for those who need help.

Here’s where Drest approaches the knight at the base of the cliff:

Tears sprang to Drest’s eyes. “Your toad-witted people took my da and my brothers. And I didn’t throw you down here; one of your own men did.”

The young knight’s voice quivered. “What a filthy lie. Those are my most faithful men.”

His despair gave Drest courage. She crept closer. “Maybe some of them, but not the one who was up on the cliff with you. I watched him fight and push you down here.” The mist was thickening around them. Drest looked back to find the trail. “Do you know where they’ve taken my da?”

The young knight’s eyes widened. “To Faintree Castle. Do you even know who we are?”

“Nay,” said Drest, “why should I?”

“Everything in this part of the lowlands – including this headland – belongs to Faintree Castle.”

“Is that the truth? Strange. I’ve always known that my da owned this headland and all the lowlands.”

That’s only the beginning of Drest’s surprising adventures.

Fair warning is that while this book finishes at a good stopping-place, not everything is resolved, so I trust there will be more adventures to come. But this book has enough to make this lass become a legend.

dianemagras.com
penguin.com/middle-grade

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Review of West, by Edith Pattou

West

by Edith Pattou

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018. 514 pages.
Starred Review
Review written October 13, 2018, from a book sent by the publisher.
2018 Sonderbooks Stand-out: #1 Speculative Teen Fiction

I was so excited when I found out West was coming out! I still remember, approximately 15 years ago when I was working at Sembach Library and a shipment of new books came in that included East, by Edith Pattou and The Goose Girl, by Shannon Hale – two fairy tale retellings that ended up being my two favorite books of the year. I ordered my own personal copy of both of them, I liked them both so much. The Goose Girl has become the start of an entire series since then, but this is the very first follow-up to East.

Since this is my Newbery committee year, I didn’t get to reread East before reading West as I would have liked to do. But I remembered the basics, from the fairy tale “East of the Sun, West of the Moon.” Rose went off with a white bear to save her family, but used a candle to try to see his face and then had to travel east of the sun, west of the moon. In the end, she had to defeat the Troll Queen in order to save him. They were supposed to live happily ever after.

But in this book, we learn that the Troll Queen is not dead. And she’s ready to get revenge, not only on Rose and Charles, but on the entire human race.

Like the fairy tale it all began with, this book is something of a saga. Rose and Charles now have a baby boy and an adopted daughter. As the book begins, Rose was visiting her family in Trondheim while Charles was performing as a court musician in Stockholm. But word comes that there has been a shipwreck of the ship Charles was taking home. There’s something off about the report.

In this book, it’s very much a case of one thing leading to another. Rose ends up taking a journey every bit as taxing as the one that took her east of the sun, west of the moon. Again her quest requires ingenuity, perseverance, and resourcefulness.

But it also requires help from others. Once she finds Charles (that’s the first difficult part), he helps. But so do her brother Neddy and her friend Sib, and so does Estelle, the little girl they adopted, who is kidnapped by the Troll Queen along with their son and watches over him. It turns out she also needs help from the Fates themselves.

The journey takes Rose in every direction on the compass in her quest to save her beloved husband, then her son, and even all humankind.

The Troll Queen is a formidable opponent and frightening in her power and her hatred. But Rose has something stronger in the power of love.

This is another gripping adventure saga with all the resonance of a fairy tale.

edithpattou.com
hmhco.com

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Review of Railhead, by Philip Reeve

Railhead

by Philip Reeve

Switch Press (Capstone), 2016. 333 pages.
Starred Review

Here’s brilliant and original world-building in a distant future science fiction novel.

When it begins, it almost sounds like your typical book about a street thief:

Listen . . .

He was running down Harmony when he heard it. Faint at first, but growing clearer, rising above the noises of the streets. Out in the dark, beyond the city, a siren voice was calling, lonely as the song of whales. It was the sound he had been waiting for. The Interstellar Express was thundering down the line from Golden Junction, and singing as it came.

He had an excuse to hurry now. He was not running away from a crime anymore, just running to catch a train. Just Zen Starling, a thin brown kid racing down Harmony Street with trouble in his eyes and stolen jewelry in the pocket of his coat, dancing his way through the random gaps that opened and closed in the crowds. The lines of lanterns strung between the old glass buildings lit his face as he looked back, looked back, checking for the drone that was hunting him.

In this distant future, humans live all over the universe. They travel between star systems on train lines that go through K-gates. The trains are sentient, their AI having developed so far. In fact, the gods of that time, the Guardians, started out as Artificial Intelligence long ago on earth.

Zen starts as a street thief, but a powerful man named Raven, hundreds of years old, wants Zen to steal something for him. He tells Zen that he’s actually a member of the Noon family — the Imperial family. His mission is to go on the Noon train and steal a small object. Raven sends a Motorik named Nova along with Zen to get through firewalls and tell him what to do through Zen’s headset.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that Zen stealing this thing will change the fate of the galaxy.

Not all the characters in this book are human, but they’re all recognizable personalities. When I finished, I was amazed at how the world, as wild as it seems, had absorbed my interest without pulling me out by implausibilities. It’s easy to extrapolate to this world from today’s technology. Everyone has access to the Datasea made from the interlinked internets of all the inhabited worlds. The various AI technology can access this swiftly.

I liked some of the names of the intelligent locomotives. They choose their names “from the deep archives of the Datasea.” There are some bizarre names like Gentlemen Take Polaroids and some more traditional like Damask Rose.

This could well be Book One of a series. But it may also be a stand-alone. While there is much room for further adventures in this well-developed world, the adventure comes to a satisfying conclusion. I would love to read more.

Zen’s sister calls him a railhead, and he guesses she’s right:

He didn’t make these journeys up and down the line simply to steal things, he made them because he loved the changing views, the roaring blackness of the tunnels, and the flicker of the gates. And best of all he loved the trains, the great locomotives, each one different, some stern, some friendly, but all driven by the same deep joy that he felt at riding the rails.

This book shows that deep joy, along with galaxy-shaking adventure. You’ll meet creatures that make you rethink sentience. (Uncle Bugs is just plain creepy!)

Sentient trains that travel the galaxy. It’s a wildly imaginative scenario — and Philip Reeve pulls it off.

switchpress.com

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Review of Thick as Thieves audiobook, by Megan Whalen Turner, performed by Steve West

Thick as Thieves

by Megan Whalen Turner
performed by Steve West

HarperAudio, 2017. 8.75 hours on 7 discs.
Starred Review

This is now the third time I’ve read Thick as Thieves, and I don’t get tired of it. As with all of Megan Whalen Turner’s books, I discovered a few more nuances each time.

But the audiobook version has the advantage of being read by my new narrator-crush, Steve West, discovered when he read Strange the Dreamer. I could (and do) listen to his voice for hours. He delineates the characters well with different voices. Although the audio version doesn’t have a map, I didn’t feel like it was dragging as I listened to his narration – it made each episode that much more interesting.

And there’s probably not much more I need to say. This is the fifth book in one of my very favorite series. It’s got adventure and danger and characters you root for. And has an outstanding narrator as well. I do recommend reading the books in order, beginning with The Thief, but let me say that they also make outstanding family listening.

harperaudio.com

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Review of The Antlered Ship, by Dashka Slater, illustrated by The Fan Brothers

The Antlered Ship

by Dashka Slater
illustrated by The Fan Brothers

Beach Lane Books, 2017. 44 pages.
Starred Review

Here’s a picture book adventure story featuring animals. I expected trite, corny, or hokey. What I found was charming and marvelous.

The book begins by introducing us to a fox who asks philosophical questions:

The day the antlered ship arrived, Marco wondered about the wide world.

He had so many questions.
Why do some songs make you happy and others make you sad?
Why don’t trees ever talk?
How deep does the sun go when it sinks into the sea?

But when he posed these questions to the other foxes, they grew silent.
“What does that have to do with chicken stew?” they asked.

Marco goes to the harbor to see the ship and learns that the crew of deer onboard are lost. They hope to hire better sailors. Marco signs on, in hopes of finding other foxes who know the answers to his questions. A flock of pigeons, led by Victor, signs on, hoping to have adventures. The original deer crew, led by the captain Sylvia, are looking for an island with tall, sweet grass and short, sweet trees.

But first, they find adventures. The crew gets discouraged by the difficulties they face. This is my favorite page:

“We should have stayed in the woods,” Sylvia said. “Deer aren’t supposed to go to sea.”
“We should have stayed in the park,” added Victor. “Pigeons aren’t supposed to do hard labor.”
Marco eyed the deer and the pigeons. “Foxes aren’t supposed to be vegetarian,” he said. “Still, we must do the best we can.”

No, Marco doesn’t eat the crew. He makes a warm and reviving stew of vegetables and revives his friends to continue their quest.

Marco continues to pour forth philosophical questions throughout the book. Things like: “Do islands like being alone? Do waves look more like horses or swans?” But the question for which he finds the best answers is “What’s the best way to find a friend you can talk to?”

And though the others’ initial quests are satisfied, the friends decide that they want to travel on….

The beautiful illustrations by Terry Fan and Eric Fan add just the right touch to give the animals’ efforts seriousness. At the same time, their naïve ideas are child-sized. Children will delight to share the adventure.

dashkaslater.com
thefanbrothers.com
simonandschuster.com/kids

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