The Enigma Game by Elizabeth Wein, set mostly in Scotland during World War II, is a prequel to Code Name Verity. The main characters are Louisa Adair, a half-English/half-Jamaican teenaged girl; an elderly German immigrant woman who adopts the name Jane Warner; Ellen McEwen, a young woman who works as a volunteer driver for the airfield and hides that her family are Travelers; and a young pilot named Jamie Beaufort-Stuart, brother to one of the Code Name Verity narrators, who also makes an appearance in this book. As you might guess from the title, an Enigma machine is a large part of the page-turning thriller plot; I also got a lot of excellent specific detail on what it was like to serve on a particular kind of bomber plane, on particular sorts of missions. The whole story has an air of melancholy, as you might expect from a book about young men doing such dangerous work; there’s also a thematic tie, through the coins they left behind at the local pub, to all the young men who never came back from World War One. Plus there’s Louisa’s grief at losing both parents before the story begins, and the sadness of knowing Jane’s exceptional life is nearing its end.
A Deadly Education: A Novel (The Scholomance Book 1) by Naomi Novik is a commentary on the Magical School genre, aimed at a YA audience. First person narrator Galadriel, or El, is trying to survive her third of four years at the Scholomance, a dangerous and often deadly school for wizard children, who are trapped inside for four years with only other students and magical creatures intent on devouring their magic. The magical culture is hierarchical, with the powerful living in enclaves where they have more protection from dangerous mals, and everyone else either at high risk or subjugating themselves to the enclaves (for instance, as janitors) in the hope of gaining the same protection for themselves or their children. El’s affinity, or particular magical skill, is for languages and spells, but leans heavily towards destructive magic, which she must constantly fight against in order to keep from, essentially, turning into Darth Vader. She’s outcast from wizards who can detect this tendency. As you might guess, it’s a noirish story, not usually my preference. Eventually, El does make a few friends, and the ending is somewhat upbeat, with a sudden twist that presumably sets up the next book. Prior to reading, I had heard that a racially offensive paragraph about dreadlocks was removed from the book by the white author, who apologized for what she had written. For that reason, I was more conscious of how people of various races and national origins were presented in the story. The secondary characters originate from all over the world, many from rich and powerful enclaves, but the presentation of these characters did not include much cultural or linguistic detail. The first-person narrator El has no interest in the cultural concerns of her fellow students, which makes some sense for the character, but I wished for more depth here, perhaps a sense of things going on that the narrator was missing. “Enclaver” supersedes other affinities in this magical world, which led to classism being the primary issue addressed thematically.
Chaos on CatNet by Naomi Kritzer is a sequel to Catfishing on CatNet. I highly recommend this YA series. Set in near-future Minneapolis-St. Paul, there’s a lot of lovely local detail and hopeful possibilities for the future, such as a police force with a much higher percentage of social services, a rebuilt bookstore that was recently destroyed (in real life) by fire, and a plaza in memory of George Floyd. Queer and polyamorous characters are presented positively, as complex individuals. New point of view character Nell has been raised in a Christian apocalyptic cult, but after her mother’s disappearance is adjusting to living with her father, her stepmother, and their respective girlfriends, while worrying about the girlfriend she left behind. She is new to the same high school where Steph, protagonist of the previous book and friend of the AI Cheshire Cat, has also just begun; the juxtaposition of their lives is integral to uncovering the existence of a second AI, its creator, and their plans for chaos.
The Henchmen of Zenda by K.J. Charles revisits Anthony Hope’s The Prisoner of Zenda through the sardonic eyes of mercenary Jasper Detchard, who narrates the True Events and ends up romantically involved with Rupert of Hentzau, though I’m not sure he ever admits to the romantic angle. Lots of swordfighting, good roles for two female characters, and a happy ending.
Faithless in Death by J.D. Robb is fifty-second in the Eve Dallas near future science fiction/mystery series, and I think this installment has come the closest of any of them to addressing current events. Content warnings for racism, misogyny, domestic violence, sex trafficking, and anti-gay therapy in the context of a religious cult run like a mega-dollar business by a charismatic self-involved man and his children. Justice is achieved in the end, but there’s a lot of nastiness that’s uncovered first.
Return of the Thief by Megan Whalen Turner had the feel of an grand finale to the entire series, complete with epic, overwhelming battles, tragedy and betrayal and redemption, and the feeling that All is Lost until All Isn’t Lost. I read it on a day off, and was thus able to immerse in the familiar world made unfamiliar with a new first-person narrator, Pheris Erondites.
It Takes Two to Tumble: Seducing the Sedgwicks by Cat Sebastian is a goodhearted, sweet romance between Philip Dacre, a widowed British naval captain, and the vicar of the small English village, Benedict Sedgwick. I think the time setting is the Regency, but am not sure. The plot owes a bit to The Sound of Music in that Captain Dacre’s three children have run wild since his wife’s death, while he was away at sea. The vicar ends up semi-looking after them; having grown up with a negligent poet for a father, he prizes order but also understands the children. Initial dislike leads to, surprise!, desire and love. At some point previously, I read the second book in this series, A Gentleman Never Keeps Score, and belatedly recognized some of the characters.
My Broken Language: A Memoir by Quiara Alegría Hudes feels like music while still being prose. Her themes are contrapuntal, even before she reaches the point in her narrative about her musical training. Hudes is a Pulitzer-winning playwright, and the co-author of the musical “In the Heights.” She grew up in Philadelphia in the 1980s and 1990s, when I first encountered the city, so much was familiar to me. Just as much was unfamiliar, as she is “Philly Rican” and experienced North Philly and West Philly while I was still beginning to learn Center City. The memoir brings together subjects from her experiences being mixed race and mixed culture to the meaning of family. She draws exquisite portraits of her family members. She explores cultural touchstones from Lucumí to salsa, and juxtaposes her upbringing with the mostly-white world of her undergraduate studies at Yale and her graduate studies at Brown. Highly recommended.
Art from the First World War by Richard Slocombe mainly made me want to see the actual paintings reproduced within, as I am sure I was missing many details. I had seen an exhibit of World War One art at the Smithsonian in 2018, but this book had some artists I had not seen before. It was a pleasant afternoon’s reading and viewing.
Life Happens by Cdelphiki is a very long Batfamily story, positing that Tim Drake (Red Robin) and Damian Wayne are thrown into a universe where all superheroes are comic book characters. Teenaged Tim uses his hacking skills to establish himself as ten year old Damian’s guardian, making a life for them while hoping for rescue. Time is flowing differently in the two universes, and the story got pretty intense at times. I found it gripping.
Escargots by Nary is a very satisfying little mystery solved by Rose Vitrac January, a character from the Benjamin January mystery series by Barbara Hambly. The story was written for Yuletide 2014.
stay inside til somebody finds us by napricot, a Steve Rogers/Sam Wilson romance, deserves special mention because it’s set during a pandemic lockdown, in an alternate version of the MCU and of our world. Sam is Steve’s upstairs neighbor in D.C., and while Bucky and Natasha are away, Steve falls into conversation with him as they both spend time on their balconies. Meanwhile, Bucky and Natasha are trying out a range of pandemic hobbies while trapped in a safehouse, somewhere in Europe.
Silver and Red by BurningTea is a sweet Leverage story set during the Christmas season. Eliot is protecting Peggy Milbank from a potential threat, while Hardison and Parker wonder how they can show Eliot how much he means to them. Peggy’s outside pov is fun.
Four Cups of Wine by borealowl is a Good Omens story in which Aziraphale makes friends with a Jewish book collector, which leads to Aziraphale and Crowley joining her family for various Jewish holidays and becoming part of her family and arguing about theology in satisfying ways.