Starclimber by Kenneth Oppel

starclimberMatt Cruse is out of his element, in more ways than one.  Whether he’s trying to gain traction in the grueling astralnaut training program that will determine the crew of the first vehicle into outer space, or attending posh garden parties to meet his sweetheart Kate’s parents and society friends, Matt can’t quite seem to fit in.  And then comes the part of the story where he is very literally out of his element, as Matt goes off on another one of his wild adventures.  But the ship in this adventure is a little bit different – it’s an elevator to the stars.

Airborn and Skybreaker, the first two books in Oppel’s series, have at their heart Matt’s passion for flying, and his skill and heroism when he is in the air.  Removing Matt from the airships he loves so much and knows so well takes something away from the final book in the series.  I missed the intense joy that Matt feels when he is flying – it is such a defining part of his character that he doesn’t seem quite whole when he is out of the air.  Matt is still a wonderful character, and his determination, resourcefulness, and desire to be good are still here in full force, but I couldn’t help feeling there was something missing.

By bringing Matt and Kate back to their home town, Oppel injects some unease into their usually sweet relationship. Tensions that have been quietly simmering during the first two books make their way to the surface, especially in regards to Matt’s concerns about the class and economic differences that separate them.  Kate is still vivacious and charming – and self-involved to an extreme.  It is easy to see why Matt loves her, and also why he sometimes becomes so frustrated with her in this book.  The many twists and turns of their relationship make the end of the series that much more emotionally satisfying.

Did this book reach the heights of Airborn and Skybreaker?  I felt that it did not quite get there – but those were exceptional books.  Starclimber still kept me awake until two in the morning on a work night – and I was more than willing to concede those hours of sleep for the conclusion of this exciting series.

Starclimber on the web.

Kenneth Oppel on the web.

Alex and the Ironic Gentleman by Adrienne Kress

alex-and-the-ironic-gentlemanAlex and the Ironic Gentleman is not about a little boy named Alex.  Nor is it about a gentleman who uses irony.  It is about Alex Morningside – who is a girl, thank you very much – and her quest to rescue her sixth grade teacher from some very nasty pirates.  Along the way, Alex has one surreal adventure after the next –  from a mysterious train ride where one person disappears after every meal, to a chaotic movie set where Alex must cajole the  star giant octopus into acting his part, to a massive and wonderful hotel with no guests.

Alex is a delightful heroine.  She’s always an active participant – this is a girl who knows how to make things happen, instead of waiting for things to happen to her.  And her complete indifference when people assume she is a boy is refreshing.  As the narrator puts it, “it wasn’t that she wanted to be a boy or anything, it was simply that she didn’t see much difference in being treated as a girl or boy. Because, after all, everyone is just people.”

Adrienne Kress has a way with words.  Her delightfully droll asides can only be described as Lemony Snicket-esque.  And like in Mr. Snicket’s books, the narrator of Alex and the Ironic Gentleman is directly addressing the reader with witty wordplay and little bits of additional information.  It’s a narrative device that is charming in the beginning of the story, and really serves to draw the reader in.  I was delighted to find that as the tone got a little bit grating, the author backed off.  When the action really gets going, the narrative asides and bits of backstory come further apart and get out of the way of the story.

This is a book with a funny sense of time and place – while it reads like a historical adventure novel, little bits of the modern world find their way into the text.  The laptops and automated refrigerators felt like an anomaly in the world of the story.  But in this strange book, throwing the reader for a loop is the norm – as the little old ladies of the innocent-seeming Daughters of the Founding Fathers’ Preservation Society will attest.

For readers who can’t get enough of Alex’s adventures, the next book in the series, Timothy and the Dragon’s Gate, was recently released.

Alex and the Ironic Gentleman on the web.

Adrienne Kress on the web.

Adrienne Kress’ blog.

Theodosia and the Staff of Osiris by R.L. LaFevers

theodosia-and-the-staff-of-osirisTheodosia Throckmorton is in even more trouble than usual.  And as readers of her first adventure, Theodosia and the Serpents of Chaos, know, trouble is one of the many things that find Theodosia on a regular basis.  Among the other things that seem to find their way to Theo: ancient Egyptian curses, power-hungry madmen seeking to control the world, mummies that walk the Earth, and the most terrifying thing of all: Theodosia’s Grandmother.

During her previous adventures, Theodosia was introduced to the nefarious Serpents of Chaos, an organization that seeks to engulf the world in chaos and violence.  And when Theodosia accidentally reactivates the Staff of Osiris, an ancient Egyptian object with mysterious power over the dead, the Serpents of Chaos want in on the action.  It will take all of Theo’s considerable ingenuity and spunk to stop their evil plan – but first she’ll have to get away from the many governesses hired by her grandmother.

The second book in the Theodosia Throckmorton series delivers with nonstop action, good history, sly humor, and a delightfully precocious protaganist.  A few characters from the first book are not who they seem – and is Theodosia’s grandmother actually showing signs of – gasp – humanity?

These books aren’t just a load of fun – they’re also beautifully made with great attention to detail.  The cover art is striking, and the spine is designed to look like an old leatherbound book.  The old-book look is continued with the thick stock of the paper, slightly old-fashioned typeface, and an uneven deckle edge.  Finally, if you peek underneath the jacket you’ll find an old map of London where a curious reader can follow Theodosia’s adventures.

This is a great choice for Percy Jackson readers who are chomping at the bit waiting for the final book, or for anyone who likes their heroes smart and sassy.  I’ll be looking forward to more from Theodosia.

R.L. LaFevers on the web

R.L. LaFevers’ blog

Theodosia and the Staff of Osiris on the web

The Explosionist by Jenny Davidson

explosionist

Let’s make this very clear from the start: I LOVE alternate histories.  So if you say to me, “Check it out – this is a detailed look at how the world might have changed if Napoleon had defeated Wellington at Waterloo,” I will be on page 15 before you’ve finished your sentence.  And if you follow that up with “And it’s got this awesome plot with political intrigue and ghosts and murder,” I will have run off with your book in my hand.  (I’ll give it back after I’ve finished.  Maybe.)

The Explosionist delivers a rip-roaring story, with all of the above elements in spades.  Sophie is a schoolgirl in Scotland, which has fully split from England since Napoleon’s victory and is now part of the Hanseatic League.  It is a turbulent time in Sophie’s Scotland, with terrorist bombings on the rise, and the country seems to be slowly gearing up for war with Europe.  In Sophie’s own life, she is not only negotiating the everyday trials of being a teenager – her roommates’ constant teasing about Sophie’s crush on her science teacher, for instance – but she has also been drawn into investigation of a dangerous plot.  While looking for further information from a medium who delivered a strange message to Sophie during one of her Great-aunt’s seances, Sophie and Mikael stumble onto a murder.  Not knowing who they can trust, the two friends conduct their own investigation.  What they find has implications for the entire world, and puts Sophie in immediate danger.

Davidson’s world-building is extraordinarily well done.  It is clear that the history, science, and culture of The Explosionist has been given serious thought, and the world that has been created is both interesting and plausible.  The implications of a single change in history ripple through all aspects of the story, from the current political situation to the worldview of teenage girls in Scotland.  I was especially curious about two choices that Davidson made, one of which is integral to the story and one of which was mentioned only in passing.

Multiple times in the story, Davidson alludes to great cultural and scientific achievements such as “the theology of Count Tolstoy, the novels of Richard Wagner, the verse of Albert Einstein, or the operas of James Joyce” (page 62).  There were just enough of these asides to be distracting, and to make me feel like Davidson was trying to make some point beyond showcasing the subtle differences between this world and ours.  Whether her point was that genius will come forward in whatever form is cultivated, or that great achievements like “the Wittenberg Uncertainty Principle” would eventually come to light even without their original creators, I’m not sure.  Perhaps this is something that Davidson will address in a sequel.

Much more central to the plot is the genuine spiritualism that is found in Sophie’s world.  The spiritualists in the world of The Explosionist have much in common with the spiritualist movement that was popular in certain American and European social circles in the late 1800s and early 1900s, where societies of wealthy women would gather for seances and other communications with the spirit world.  There is one major difference – in Davidson’s book, spiritualism is not only widely believed, but is genuine and commonplace, to the point where it can be difficult to tune a radio without interference from spirit voices.  In fact, the mysterious plot that Sophie and Mikael investigate cannot be unraveled without significant guidance from spirits, or without Sophie’s unwanted talents as a spirit medium.  It is not clear whether this advance in spirit communication also stems somehow from Wellington’s defeat at Waterloo, or whether this is a difference that has always existed in the world of The Explosionist.

Davidson created not only a complete world for her novel, but also a web of well-rounded and complex characters.  With one key exception, even characters who are doing wrong believe that they are acting for the good of the country.  Sophie’s Great-Aunt Tabitha is especially compelling.  Her own faith in the IRYLNS program, a training program for perfect secretaries that she created and still champions, is thrown up against her increasing desire to keep Sophie out of the program.  Ultimately, we see a woman who truly believes that people would be better off without any emotions thrown for a loop by her love for her ward.  The choices made by Great-aunt Tabitha are the most chilling part of the novel.

While I did not see anything on the author’s website, it sure feels like there will be a sequel coming.  I hope to enjoy Sophie’s further adventures, and to learn more about Jenny Davidson’s imaginative version of history.

Edited to add:  The author has shared some thoughts on the spiritualism in the book over on her blog, in response to a review by the wonderful Jo Walton.

Jenny Davidson on the web

The Explosionist on the web

The Star of Kazan, by Eva Ibbotson

starofkazanA good old fashioned fairy-tale featuring a kind-hearted orphan girl, the pair of gentle Swiss cooks who find and raise her, a trio of nutty professors, and a returning mother who may not be what she seems. Annika spends her days exploring Vienna with her friends, learning to cook exquisite dishes, and dreaming of her long-lost mother. Since she was abandoned in the Alps as a baby, Annika has imagined every possible scenario for her mother’s return. When it finally happens, she is overjoyed to find that her mother is a beautiful and rich landowner who has been desperately searching for her lost child. The only disappointment is that she must leave her dear friends, adopted family, and beloved city to join her mother in an unfamiliar, far-off home. When they arrive, some things about the new home strike Annika as very strange, but her devotion to her new mother make her ignore any misgivings. The reader will share the sense of unease, and will cheer for Annika and the mysteriously stable-boy as they uncover the mystery of what Annika’s mother is really after.

The good people of this story are dedicated and hard-working, and Annika is no exception. She is unable to understand her family’s desire to avoid hard work at all costs, and she shines when she has a difficult task to accomplish. Even when the action is taking place in her mother’s decrepit manor house in the north, Annika’s love for Vienna is central to the story, and the city is lovingly recreated in period detail and contrasted with the stark landscape of Annika’s new home. However, the story really picks up once Annika has uncovered the plot that’s at work and begins plotting her escape. While she unwinds the threads of her mother’s plan, Annika fights her way back to her home and her real family.

Airborn, by Kenneth Oppel

Airborn

Matt Cruse lives a life he loves, sailing through the air as a cabin boy on the Airship Aurora and hoping to one day captain a great Airship. When Kate, a headstrong and very rich young passenger, confides in him that she is searching for an undiscovered race of flying creatures that were discovered by her uncle shortly before his death, Matt is swept up in her search. It is only when a pirate attack leaves the Aurora stranded on an island that they finally find what they are looking for.

Oppel’s novel is a richly detailed, rollicking adventure set in a Victorian fantasy world. Matt’s narration is fresh and lively, and his passion for flying gives the novel a joyful feel. With exploration, flight, romance, piracy, adventure, shipwrecks, a realistically drawn fantasy world, a rich plot, and compelling characters, there is a lot to love about this book. While the plot is fun and adventurous, it is Matt’s quietly competent passion and Kate’s strong will and curiosity that carry the novel. The quick pace of the plot and Matt’s enthusiastic narration make Airborn’s 500 pages fly by. I look forward to reading the sequel.

Finding Lubchenko, by Michael Simmons

lubchenko.jpg

When Evan’s millionaire dad is suddenly arrested for murder, and Evan learns that the evidence that could acquit his father is hidden in his best friend’s garage, he is left with a dilemma. Leave his father to rot in jail, or admit that he has been stealing office equipment from his dad’s company and selling it on eBay? Complicating things is Evan’s stormy relationship with his father, a penny-pinching disciplinarian. Eventually, Evan lights on a kind of solution – using the evidence on the stolen laptop to start his own investigation. With his dad’s credit card and his two best friends in tow, Evan flies off to Paris and finds himself in the middle of international intrigue, danger, mystery, and a possible bioterrorism plot.

While the book’s plot is fast-paced and fun, the true delight in reading Finding Lubchenko is Evan’s narrative voice. Yes, Evan is a sarcastic, whiny, self-involved narrator, but he is also uproariously funny. Refreshingly, Evan does not grow up a whole lot of the course of the novel. In keeping with the rest of Simmons’ funny, irreverent book, there is no tearful reunion with his father, and Evan is still the same aggravating teenager at the book’s end.