Archives for posts with tag: alternative history

Rebel MechanicsI found today’s title while searching for reading material for an upcoming book club gathering.  Book clubs offer an excuse to read for fun and so much more.  They are a great way to explore new reading territory and to add titles to your “To Be Read” stack.  Lists of suggested titles for book clubs are fantastic resources and easily found online or with the help of a librarian.

Rebel Mechanics: All is Fair in Love and Revolution by Shanna Swendson was a serendipitous find for me.  It has been a fun trip into alternative history, a fiction type which has been around for a long time but hasn’t shown up on my reading list that often.  Collins English Dictionary defines alternative history as “a genre of fiction in which the author speculates on how the course of history might have been altered if a particular historical event had had a different outcome”.  Many times alternative (or alternate) histories use a military history starting point—What if the Axis had won World War II?  What if the British had won the American Revolution?—and build the story around that.  Some alternative histories use pivotal historical events not tied to warfare as their foundations—What if Lincoln had not been assassinated?  What if the dinosaurs had not died out?

In Rebel Mechanics, Swendson imagines a different beginning to the U.S.; the back of the book jacket says it best, “What if British magic kept the American Revolution from ever occurring?”  The story takes place in 1888 New York City, a bustling metropolis where society is divided along class, economic, and magical lines as it is everywhere in the British colonies.  The British landed gentry possess magical powers and use them for economic prosperity and technological advancement which are denied everyone else.  Yet, revolution is afoot!  Masked bandits operate Robin Hood-style, stealing secret information and ill-gotten gains from the government in support of an underground resistance.  The resistance, known as the Rebel Mechanics, develops steam-powered technology to provide an alternative to magical oppression and to highlight the injustices of the gentry (dubbed magisters).

Enter Verity Newton, a seventeen-year-old daughter of a college professor embarking on a new life in the big city.  After an adventure-filled start to her tale (Train robbery!  Wild bus ride!  Police chase!), she is hired as a governess in one of the most powerful magister families in the colonies.  As she navigates the rarified world of the nobility and gets to know her charges, Verity makes friends with a lively group of non-magisters including Lizzie the firebrand and handsome science student Alec.  All is not as it seems, though.  Why do her new-found friends seem to turn up at just the right place and time?  Is her employer, entomologist Lord Henry Lyndon, really tracking beetles when he leaves the house?  Why does he return bruised and bloodied?  What goes on beneath the streets of New York?  Secrets abound!  Intrigue and danger lurk around the corner!

Shanna Swendson packs a lot into her book.  Rebel Mechanics is a treasure chest of action, adventure, espionage, magic, romance, politics, self-discovery, betrayal, science, class commentary, and steampunk atmosphere—and that’s the first half.  It’s a rollicking ride through Verity’s expanding world and the city’s expanding consciousness.  Swendson creates believable, interesting characters and places them in equally interesting situations.  She shows us New York from Verity’s point of view, and it’s easy to get caught up in the character’s feelings and interior monologue.  The author drives the plot with plenty of action yet includes enough reflection to develop her characters.  She sets the steampunk scene with descriptions of 1880s technology, sights, and sounds.  Sometimes I found myself wanting a bit more polish on the story—there’s a lot packed into it and in a handful of places she could have done a little bit more with what she had instead of squeezing in more.  All in all, Rebel Mechanics is a fun, light book—perfect for a study break or holiday binge reading.  Give this one to middle schoolers and high schoolers interested in steampunk settings, adventure stories, or gentle reads with chaste romance.

I can’t wait to chat about Rebel Mechanics at the next Teen Book Club gathering—Thursday, December 7, from 6:00-7:00 pm at the library.  Participants read a title of their choice based on the month’s theme; at the meeting, the group chats about their books then picks a theme for the next month.  Teens are welcome to bring a brown bag supper, if they like; the library supplies beverage and dessert.  This month we’re reading alternative history and serving hot chocolate with holiday treats.  Teen Book Club is free, open to grades 6-12; no registration necessary.  Questions about Teen Book Club or other library services for teens?  Call me at the library’s Teen Department, (417) 623-7953, extension 1027.  Happy reading!

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epiphanyTattoos most often have a personal meaning for their recipients. Hours of thought and planning are invested before needle takes to skin. But, in the world of THE EPIPHANY MACHINE by DAVID BURR GERRARD, those who receive tattoos from the mystical machine have only one choice: whether or not to stick their arm into the jaw of the beast-like device.

For me, The Epiphany Machine is not an easy book to write a review of. Mostly, the book follows Venter Lowood from high school through college. His parents were among the first of those to use the mysterious epiphany machine. The tattoo his mother received seemingly foretold her abandoning her family. And Venter’s father’s tattoo may have contributed to his lackluster parenting. Naturally, Venter has been told to avoid the machine. We can all imagine what happens next.

One of the first rules of using the epiphany machine is: “The epiphany machine will not discover anything about you that you do not, in some way, already know.” Venter’s tattoo reads DEPENDENT ON THE OPINION OF OTHERS. While this doesn’t surprise him, he alternates, for the rest of his life, between trying to defy and follow his tattoo’s words. And this is maybe the most frustrating thing about him. I spend a fair amount of time thinking of Holden Caulfield, one of my least favorite literary characters. I have to give David Burr Gerrard credit for writing a character that evoked an emotional response, even if it was frustration.

So, what is the epiphany machine? Who created it? How does it work? What powers the machine? No one knows. But the machine’s owner, Adam Lyons, begins operating it in his New York City apartment in the 1960s. The tattoos are brief and seem to reveal a truth about each person. These truths are somewhat uncomfortable, but at the same time, offer enlightenment. Before long, even John Lennon shows up at Lyons’ apartment, puts his arm into the machine, and receives a mystical tattoo. Generations use the machine with no major incident. After 9/11, the machine takes on a more sinister connotation.

Venter’s best friend, Ismail, is Muslim and has a tattoo that reads WANTS TO BLOW THINGS UP. Unfortunately, one of the pilots who hijacked a plane on 9/11 had the same tattoo. Soon, Venter comes back to his dorm to discover government agents want information. Stuck with an impossible choice — and DEPENDENT ON THE OPINION OF OTHERS — Venter turns his friend. From there, Venter’s life bounces from one bad decision to the next.

The Epiphany Machine is, at its core, a book about choices and how we deal with them. Should we use the machine or not? Once the tattoo is there, how much weight should you give it? Should you work to change yourself, or is there some core part of our personality that cannot be changed? Though Gerrard can’t answer those questions, he does set up a story that invites readers to explore them on our own.