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Ah, my poor little neglected blog, how badly I've treated you! Apologies for the extended absence.

I have several very brief book reviews:

When We Were Bad - Charlotte Mendelson. The son of a feted female rabbi running off with the wife of another rabbi moments before his wedding marks the first in a series of cracks that open up in an apparently perfect family. This is close to being a perfect book. Seriously, if you have access to this one, read it. It's brilliant. Five stars

One Foot Wrong - Sofie Laguna. Hester's reclusive religious parents have their own ideas about how their daughter should be brought up. A fascinating, fresh take on a horrifying subject. Four stars.

Stuffed and Starved - Raj Patel. Clever and very well-written, as well as being packed full of information about the problem with the way today's food society operates and ideas as to what we can do about it. Patel's a great writer, and this book made me an instant fan. Five stars.

Burnt Shadows - Kamila Shamsie. An very apposite one in the current climate, this book examines cultural conflicts and their links and roots from Nagasaki to 911, wrapping around this a narrative that is moving and hopeful in the face of despair. Four and a half stars.

The Wilderness - Samantha Harvey. A beautifully written, convincing imagining of a man's descent (or flight?) into alzheimers. Four stars.

With that out of the way, I want to concentrate on two excellent young adult books I've read recently, which go together very nicely because they're both based on alternate histories. Jenny Davidson's The Explosionist is set in 1930s Edinburgh, but history diverges from our own in 1815 when Napoleon defeats Wellington's army at the Battle of Waterloo. Leviathan, by Scott Westerfeld, is set in a world in which Darwin's discoveries led him to DNA, and thence to the creation of new species that are used by humans very much in the way that we use machines in our world.

Both books offer fascinating insights into the twists and turns of what-ifs. Sophie's Edinburgh is a sharply anti-feminist place in which women are encouraged to undergo training at the sinister IRILYNS, which turns out perfect secretaries to help men further the needs of the country. Spiritualism has a (somewhat suspect) place in intellectual society. And much of the UK has fallen to "Europe", leaving Scotland as the last bastion of freedom before Scandinavia and the New Hanseatic League.

In Leviathan, Westerfeld pits the mechanical genius of the Austro-Hungarian Empire against Darwinist Britain, but keeps the basic backdrop of the summer of 1914, during which our own Europe toppled into war. (Also, I gather that Leviathan is a steampunk novel, but since I've never read any steampunk, I failed to notice that. *g*)

The protagonists are teenagers adrift in a world of adult politics. Sophie is a misfit at school and isolated at home; she also has an unwanted aptitude as a spiritual medium. In Leviathan, orphaned Alek has to flee his home and learn on his feet, while Deryn, learning her trade in the air service, must make sure no one figures out that she's a girl. All of them have somewhat suspect mentor figures who may or may not have their best interests at heart.

I don't want to give too much away, but both books were hugely enjoyable, and I'm pleased to see that sequels are in the works. I also want to mention what a beautifully produced book Leviathan is, full of gorgeous artwork by Keith Thompson. It really added to my reading experience.

For more information, see the authors' blogs: Light Reading (Jenny Davidson) and Scott Westerfeld (the latter appears to be down, but it should be back up soon, since I'm pretty sure that's the url I was using earlier today).

This got me thinking: are there any other alternate histories that people can recommend? One I loved as a teenager is Joan Aiken's The Wolves of Willoughby Chase and sequels, but there must be loads more that I've missed out on.
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June 2014

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