Middler Books and More

This blog contains Bruce DuBoff's book reviews, info on other media, and related topics. It is a collaboration between the librarian and both the students of Pennsauken Intermediate School and Phifer Middle School in Pennsauken, NJ, and the general middler book reading community. The books featured here are appropriate for grades 5-8, though not all books reviewed here are appropriate for all of those ages.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Davidson, Jenny. The Explosionist (3 stars out of 4).
Alternate history, also called allohistory, is uncommon in YA literature. Maybe authors do not perceive the YA/middler audience as learned or sophisticated enough to appreciate the subtlety of tweaking historical events, or maybe publishers do not think the genre is attractive enough for today’s overstimulated, desensitized, technology-saturated kids. However, alternate history, a work in which historical events have been altered and the result is analyzed and deconstructed (i.e. the South won the Civil War, Kennedy was not shot, or one of the most widely-used examples, the Nazis won World War II), is a valid and thought-provoking science fiction sub-genre. For example, works like Philip K. Dick’s 1960’s classic The Man In the High Castle, Philip Roth’s more recent The Plot Against America, and even one of Star Trek’s most famous episodes, the Harlan Ellison story “The City on the Edge of Forever,” are fascinating portraits of what America would look like if World War II had happened differently. Although Jenny Davidson’s The Explosionist does not compare with the best works in this field, it is a good retro sci-fi adventure murder mystery with enough action to satisfy most of its target audience.
Sophie Hunter lives in a 1938 that is literally a different world than the one our history books record. Residing in Edinburgh, her Scotland is part of the New Hanseatic League, an alliance of northern countries formed to protect itself against the Federated European States, an alliance of southern European countries. The U.S., not a player in this novel, is separated into the Northern Union of States and the Southern Confederacy. All of this historical topsy-turvy has occurred because in Sophie’s history books, Napoleon defeated Wellington at Waterloo, radically affecting all events after it. Additionally, supernatural power and spiritualist abilities seem to be enhanced in this universe. Living with her Great-aunt Tabitha on the weekends (her parents were killed many years ago in an explosives plant explosion) and attending boarding school during the week, Sophie stumbles upon a conspiracy to start a war with Europe, and she fears that her teachers, her Great-aunt’s acquaintances, and even her Great-aunt herself may be involved. Also, she is having unwelcome encounters with the spirit world that are fraying her nerves. First, a strange woman reminiscent of her dead mother appears in the mirror: “Ghosts were stupid; only foolish people believed in them. If only the woman hadn’t looked so real!” (28). With her friend Mikael, she investigates the murder of a medium who had appeared at Great-aunt Tabitha’s home and made specific references to Sophie in her presentation, then tells a constable about it when Mikael is found in the dead woman’s room: “‘And she said some odd things [during the séance]—I can’t really describe it, but there was something off about the whole business . . . So when Mikael offered to help me find out more about her, it seemed like the perfect solution. Was—was her throat really cut?’” While looking into the murder, Sophie also stumbles upon the secret project Great-aunt Tabitha co-founded, called IRYLNS, a training facility that turns out perfect secretaries and administrative assistants to people of importance, but at a very steep, very secret price: “Sophie felt rather shattered. What if she had to enroll at IRYLNS and become one of those pretty, polished girls? Would it be possible to do that and still be Sophie?” (177). Sophie must find a way, with help from unexpected places, to avoid her inescapable destiny and also try to save her friends, and if necessary, her country, before all of the conspiracies surrounding her come to fruition.
I was not surprised to read on the book jacket that Ms. Davidson is a Professor of Comparative Literature; she manages to creatively reference almost every major discipline in this novel, and names like Joyce, Wittgenstein, Tolstoy, and Adam Smith are tossed around The Explosionist like snowflakes in a blizzard. However, it sometimes seems too much, like Ms. Davidson wants to name-drop everyone she can to show that she has done her homework. Although it is amusing to imagine Einstein as a poet and Sigmund Freud as a self-help radio host, these oddities ultimately detract from a novel that could have been 100 pages shorter. Most middlers do not yet appreciate the lives and accomplishments of many of the ideas referenced here, so the impact of their altered appearance is significantly reduced. Students will probably enjoy the conspiracy elements and action more than the multitude of allusions. Overall, The Explosionist by Jenny Davidson is a good first YA novel that explores some unique historical and societal perspectives, and with a little tightening and a keener focus on the interests of middlers, the sequel (if written) should be a fine read.


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