Book review: The Woman Who Smashed Codes by Jason Fagone

The Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine who Outwitted America’s Enemies by Jason Fagone

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is a fascinating biography of Elizebeth Smith, a woman who, along with her better known husband–William Friedman–was responsible for the creation of the field of cryptology. She pioneered methods of decryption, broke German codes (including Enigma machine codes that the Germans thought were unbreakable), and changed the role of intelligence gathering forever. Needless to say, by both her own choice and society’s preferences, her role in the field of cryptology is relatively obscure. (It didn’t help that J. Edgar Hoover made sure that the FBI received credit for many of her successes.)
The author uses materials from Elizebeth’s own files, newly unclassified materials from World War II, and interviews of her to tell her story. The result is a highly engaging, highly readable story of a formidable woman who took little credit for herself, her pioneering role, and her resounding successes, which played a pivotal role in the Allied victories over Germany.
I highly recommend this for anyone who is interested in cryptology, World War II, and/or the role of women during this period.

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Book review: The Cecilia & Kate Novels by Patricia Wrede and Caroline Stevermer

The Cecilia & Kate Novels: Sorcery & Cecilia by Wrede & Stevermer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Instead of starting a new series, complaining about starting a new series, and not finishing a new series, I decided to read ALL THREE of the books in this series consecutively. (No applause necessary.)
The conceit of this trilogy is that the entire set of books is written as letters between two cousins, Kate and Cecilia. Very clever, very well done. The authors give you a distinct sense of the personalities of both writers, and their letters are written vividly enough that the plot moves engagingly along and secondary characters are also brought to life.
The world-building is also done cleverly through these letters. The books take place in Georgian England so it is a Regency-ish trilogy with magic. I would describe it as if a Georgette Heyer novel married a W.R. Gingell novel and had a baby. My only complaint is that the magic isn’t always well explained and sometimes oddly integrated, which I think stems from having two authors, but this flaw seldom detracts from the charm of the novels.
The trilogy is light and frothy and fun, and a fast read. If you’re looking to take an escapist break from the world, this is definitely worth reading.

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Book review: A Spy in the House by Y.S. Lee

A Spy in the House by Y.S. Lee

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book (the first in a series) is based on a clever premise: what if there was a female detective agency and what kind of women would be part of that effort? And off we go, launched into the story. A young woman, Mary, is headed for the gallows but is rescued by the head of the all female detective agency. Mary is educated, trained, and given her first assignment. Who would suspect a woman, after all?
Whatever the reality is, the book’s premise is a fun one, and it enables the author to write convincingly about Mary’s background and the era, one where the role of women is extremely circumscribed, with few outlets for a strong, smart woman.
I really didn’t want to start yet another series (my TBR pile is yet again out of control), but the first book, at least, is a quick read, as the series is geared towards YA. It is also a fascinating read of the role of women, the historical period, and of Mary herself. I highly recommend it!

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Book review: Sunshine by Robin McKinley

Sunshine by Robin McKinley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I really dislike vampire novels. I find them clichéd and silly (other than Bram Stoker’s Dracula, of course). And, if it weren’t for the fact that Robin McKinley is one of my favorite fantasy writers, I wouldn’t have read this one either.
But I’m glad I did. This book is a bit different than many of the author’s other books. The language of the book is more colloquial than is typical, and her world building is a bit more casual, too. Also, unusually for her, the book is narrated in the first person. But the plot is interesting and original and ambivalent. And, as a baker myself, I like that the main character is also a baker. (She’s evidently also a morning person–we do NOT share that character trait.)
Vampires are a central theme in this book, obviously, but not either good and or evil. And the book is a thoughtful study on what happens when you are confronted with a stereotype that you discover not to be true.
It isn’t perhaps my favorite of the author’s books, but it is perhaps the most thought-provoking of her works so far. I would have given it 3.5 stars but rounded up as she is one of my favorite fantasy authors.

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Christmas 2020

In an act of foolhardiness, we decided to go to Hawaii for Christmas. This was foolhardy for several reasons: first, Hawaii has imposed some stringent covid testing requirements in order to be permitted to come; second, there were no non-stop flights to Honolulu due to the lack of flights, which added another wild card to the equation; and, third, we would have to be masked for the entire set of flights.

We decided to rent a house, feeling that it would be safer, especially for Jim’s mom, who was coming as well. It was a beautiful house in the Portlock area, right on the water, with plenty of space for everyone.

Hawaii’s testing requirements were that you have to have a negative covid test within 72 hours of your departing flight to Hawaii from an approved partner. We ended up taking 2 different tests from 2 different partners. Jim received his negative test on Thursday morning, but the rest of us didn’t receive our test results until late Thursday night (our flight to Honolulu left Friday morning). It was rather stressful. But at least we were all negative!

It was a very different trip to Honolulu than any of our others. We rarely left the house, other than to exercise or go grocery shopping. Jim and I did our traditional 7 mile walk around Diamondhead every morning at oh-dark-thirty. (Hawaii is the only place where I am a morning person, and that’s only because we don’t generally bother to change time zones.) We “rented” surfboards (and it’s in quotes because the surf shop actually just lent the surfboards to us without charge), and Marcus went out surfing every day.

Yinan and I taught everyone how to play mahjong, and we now have mahjong addicts as children. Yay for parenting!

The weather was sunny and 80 degrees every day except for the day we left. Not a bad way to spend Christmas!

view from the house

Christmas in Hawaii

Christmas star

Thanksgiving 2020

As with everything this year, Thanksgiving was a little different than usual. Instead of the usual 20+ guests crowd, we had 11 people total, 9 adults. Everyone had tested negative before they arrived. (The new prerequisite: don’t bring a side dish or flowers—bring a negative test result.)
Cooking Thanksgiving dinner for 11 is barely cooking Thanksgiving dinner at all. It was a surprisingly unstressful experience. We actually ran out of things to do at around 4:00 pm that day.
Our Thanksgiving menu is as follows:

Thanksgiving 2020 menu
Thanksgiving 2020 spread

Whatever the constraints, it is still a holiday that celebrates thankfulness and gratitude. We are indeed fortunate in our lives, and in this year of all years, we feel grateful for our many blessings.

Book review: “Wintering” by Katherine May

Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times by Katherine May

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

We all have times when our preferred action is to crawl into a dark hole and never come out again. Grey skies and cold, dreary weather makes us even more likely to burrow. In “Wintering,” the author offers us solace for our desire to burrow deeply and the reassurance that we will at some point want to return to daylight. It is a perfect book for these times.
The author reaches her nadir at a time when she and her husband both have health problems and her son is having difficulty coping at school. In learning to deal with these issues, the author explores how different cultures cope with physical darkness, wondering if there is a metaphor between physical darkness and metaphorical darkness. She embarks on an interesting journey, full of cultural exploration, contemplation, and coping mechanisms.
In the end, the reassurance the author offers is that such dark times are a normal part of life and a cyclical journey. Eventually, you emerge from your hole and discover that the sun still shines and joy still abounds in the world. In times like this, it is worth being reminded of this truth and in beautifully rendered prose at that.

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19th Birthday Disneyworld Trip

Because Marcus (wisely) decided to take a gap year instead of attending college in the fall, we decided that his birthday needed celebrating and what better place to celebrate someone’s birthday than at Disneyworld?
Disney felt very safe with hand sanitizer and hand-washing stations everywhere, socially distanced lines, and everyone masked. (And when someone—usually an adult—wasn’t masked, a cast member was always quick to remind them.)
There were some constraints (no park hopping and no Fastpasses) and not everything was open, but we rode all of the rides we wanted to ride and then some. We even managed to get on The Rise of the Resistance our first day there. And, of course, a Darth Maul lightsaber was a must have as a birthday gift. Marcus even discovered the perfect Magic Band for himself—it’s a Stitch in Hawaii band, combining two of his favorite things.
Disney, even under the constraints it was operating under, is still the happiest place on earth.

Graduation Celebration – Pandemic Style

We had a high school senior last year, and graduation in June happened virtually, as it did for so many others. The school did its best by having the high school administrative team personally deliver our son’s diploma and by putting on a lovely virtual graduation. But we were determined to have some kind of celebration for him in August.
We decided, of course, that the best place to celebrate such an accomplishment was at the Inn at Little Washington. We had 21 people at 3 different tables, with families generally sitting with each other. Marcus selected the menu, so it included his favorite dishes at the Inn. (This was consistently pointed out by Jim, who noted that not all of his favorites were on the menu.) The event was beautifully done (it was the Inn, after all), and the food was amazing. Jim gave a lovely toast, Rem (his best friend) gave an amazing speech, and Jade actually gave a lovely off-the-cuff speech as well. Marcus, not surprisingly, rose to the occasion and gave a wonderful, heartfelt speech, mentioning everyone there by name and explaining why he was grateful to them. It was all pretty perfect, under the circumstances. And while it wasn’t necessarily the party we would have had for him if we could, being Marcus, it was more than enough.

Book review: A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah Maas

A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J. Maas

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have never read anything by Sarah Maas before, but this book looked interesting and so I thought I’d give it a try. I am so glad I did! The book is best described as a romance tucked inside a fantasy novel. The world-building is convincing and interesting (there are a few new nouns for different types of creatures, but it is very manageable). The writing is confident and sure-handed. The author ran a bit of a risk with this book (will romance readers find it too much of a fantasy novel? will fantasy readers find it too much of a romance?), but the book is lengthy enough to satisfy both types of readers. (Unless you like short books, that is.)
The main character is in serious need of a good therapist, and while I’m a bit unenamored with angsty novels, it was never enough to discourage me from reading the book. The pace is excellently done, and the atmosphere the author creates is intense, and all of these factors combine to result in a well-written book that is a really fun and excellent read. (The only downside is that if you’re hooked, there are 2 more (lengthy) books in the trilogy and a 4th book that is a related spin-off.) 🙂
It will be worth it.

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