Jenny Davidson‘s first YA novel, The Explosionist, takes place in an alternate version of Edinburgh in 1938. Sophie’s world diverges from our own when Napoleon wins at Waterloo in 1815, though there are other discrepancies that cannot be traced back to that battle–most importantly, the paranormal element of this book. Spiritualism is alive and well in this world, and actually real and sometimes state-sponsored. It’s quite possible to speak to the dead here, though not everyone can do it, and there are certainly plenty of frauds and skeptics.

Sophie is a fifteen-year-old schoolgirl who lives with her Great-aunt Tabitha in Edinburgh. Oh, how to explain this book! All of the political intrigue (to which Sophie is privy–often by eavesdropping–because of her great-aunt’s high status) and the ways in which this world differs from our own would take pages to explain properly (which is why you’re lucky there’s a lengthy novel about it). Suffice to say, Sophie and her friend Mikael soon find themselves involved in various mysteries and plots on which the fate of Scotland and the rest of the world hangs. Seances, explosions, terrorist groups, murder, politics, and various other things are involved. This world (like our own in 1938, though for different reasons) is on the brink of a war that will shape the coming years, a war that could be avoidable.

Like I said, this is a difficult book to explain, but not difficult to finish–I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough! There’s suspense and intrigue and mystery and adventure and even a bit of romance. I was caught up in it all from the beginning, and now I absolutely cannot wait for a sequel–which is too bad for me, as this book isn’t even out until July, so there’ll be quite some time before any continuation of the adventures of Sophie and Mikael. I admire the way Jenny Davidson ended this in just the right place–readers are anxious to find out what happens next, and there’s no doubt that, barring exceptional circumstances, there will be a sequel, but there’s still a decent enough ending place so that the book actually ends rather than just stopping the way some series books do.

The Explosionist is an amazing book! Jenny Davidson is such a talented writer, able to make more than 450 pages absolutely fly by. The complicated twists and turns of the plot are never overwhelmingly confusing, but just enough to keep your brain busy. I quite enjoyed all of the characters, who were refreshingly real and human. This is an unputdownable, read-it-in-one-sitting kind of book, a remarkable feat for one so long. And remarkable really does describe this novel! I was so impressed and completely in awe of Jenny Davidson’s skill the whole time I was reading it. And when I finished, my first thought was of course a desire for more! Seriously, read this book. If you have any way of doing so, get ahold of a copy now, and if not, well, you’ll just have to wait for July.

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Chasing Ray is hosting a One Shot World Tour for Canada, and I’ve decided to post about one of my favorite Canadian writers for the occasion!

Carol Matas is from Winnipeg, Manitoba, and she is the fantastic author of a lot of books! I first discovered her through her World War II fiction when I was, hmm, must have been about nine? I’m not entirely sure. The first book I read was Greater Than Angels, and after that I read all of her WWII fiction I could find (I’m still looking for a couple of the more obscure titles–The Garden in particular– and the newer ones). I also loved Of Two Minds and More Minds, written with Perry Nodelman, but have not yet read the second two books in that series. I’ve not read any of her other historical or contemporary fiction, either, which, from her website, looks like I’ve got a lot of catching up to do!

Doing this post makes me want to re-read a lot of her books! Seriously, I loved them, the WWII books in particular. There’s the adventure, the history, the exoticism of a time and place I was unfamiliar with, just everything. And, of course, the tragedy of the Holocaust. I read these when I was a little obsessed with tragedy. I think I found her books first before September 11, 2001, but read most of them right after that time, because after that, my reaction was to read about all sorts of tragedy and watch the news all the time. I’m not really sure why, and it probably wasn’t the most mentally healthy thing to do, but, hey, at least I learned some history and compassion.

If you haven’t read any of Carol Matas’s books, you really should do so. I don’t know if I’d adore them so much if I were to start reading them now, but when I discovered them, I thought they were absolutely amazing, and she’s still one of my favorite authors.

Thank you, Carol Matas for teaching me about history, and for writing wonderful books!

I wanted to absolutely adore A Curse As Dark As Gold. After all, I’ve heard a lot of great things from people whose opinions I trust (Miss Erin and Sookie at Over My Head, for example). So maybe I had unreasonably high expectations opening this book, and I’m afraid I wasn’t quite as taken with it as they were, though I did really enjoy it, and any disappointment is probably my own fault for having unreasonably high expectations. I will certainly look forward to future work from Elizabeth C. Bunce, and highly recommend this debut novel!

That said, A Curse As Dark As Gold is an enchanting fairy tale retelling of Rumpelstiltskin.  In it, Charlotte Miller’s father has just died, leaving her in charge of Stirwaters, the mill that’s been in her family for generations. Though their cloth is lovely and they work hard, Stirwaters has always had a run of bad luck. No son has lived to adulthood, so the mill has passed from Miller to Miller, but in a rather haphazard way–from uncle to nephew to cousin to brother, etc. Charlotte and her younger sister, though, are the last of the family, and they’re determined to hold on to the mill.

Of course, that won’t be as easy as it sounds. Charlotte has to keep the mill from being seized by debt collectors, and being female at this time makes things particularly difficult. And that bad luck? There have always been whispers of a curse on Stirwaters. Charlotte’s not the superstitious type, but now she’s starting to believe it might be true…

So what desperate measures will Charlotte take to save Stirwaters? She’s not sure how far she’ll go, until Jack Spinner shows up with promises to be her salvation. But what will be the cost, in the end, and is she willing to pay it?

Elizabeth C. Bunce’s debut novel is a well-told and well-written story, populated by interesting characters. Its setting is a slightly fictionalized time in English history, and, well, I’m a sucker for all things English, past and present, and I really enjoyed the setting. The story starts out a little slow for my taste, but certainly picks up by the end (the last hundred or so pages, I couldn’t put it down and read all through Spanish class). A Curse As Dark As Gold is an intelligent, original, and interesting new take on an old fairy tale, and a marvelous debut novel.

Also check out Erin’s wonderful interview with the author.

Song of the Sparrow is Lisa Ann Sandell’s take on Arthurian legend, narrated by Elaine of Ascolat, or The Lady of Shalott. Since she was a small child, Elaine has been the only woman living in a military camp with hundreds of men. When her mother died, her father took Elaine and her brothers to Arthur’s camp, where she regularly mingles with people who are now the stuff of legends (people whose existence is debated–the Author’s Note at the end talks about this)–Arthur, Lancelot, Merlin, Gwynivere. To the men, Elaine is a friend, a healer, a seamstress, a child–many things, but never the woman she wishes to be in the eyes of one man in particular, her friend, Lancelot.

Elaine ceases to be the only woman in the camp when Gwynivere comes to be Arthur’s bride, and changes the group dynamic. Though she is at first pleased to have another woman around, Gwynivere immediately shows cruelty and dislike for Elaine. All of that changes again, however, when the two are thrown together in a situation where many fates hang in the balance–not only their own, but that of all of Britain.

Song of the Sparrow is an enchanting verse novel that absolutely took my breath away.  Lisa Ann Sandell’s beautifully written sophomore novel is a truly worthy addition to the long list of diverse books based on the same legends. I was reminded a bit of Lisa Klein’s brilliant Ophelia, especially when Sandell talked in her Author’s Note about how women are not traditionally portrayed as strong characters in Arthurian legend. Both Klein and Sandell show well-known female characters in new ways, and both of their books are simply amazing. My comparing Song of the Sparrow to Ophelia is very high praise–I count Klein’s book as an all-time favorite.

Sandell does very well telling the story in verse. Her poetry is lovely, and she really makes it work for the story she is telling as well. I don’t think it would have worked half as well in prose, or, at least, it would have been a very different book. Sometimes verse novels are novels with odd line breaks, but this is not the case here. Song of the Sparrow is lyrical and poetic and beautiful. Elaine’s voice is distinctive and she is the perfect narrator for this story, a figure who is not usually the center of Arthurian stories, and not one traditionally shown the way Sandell portrays her.

Sandell is an engaging storyteller who really manages to make her characters come to life on the page.  These legendary figures are real people (but are still distinctly the well-known figures of the legends), with real relationships and personalities. Song of the Sparrow is a brilliant novel, a breathtaking, epic story told on a personal level.