*Library Note #7: You don’t have to be a librarian to do this. There’s probably even a link on your library home page to ask for a book to be purchased or interloaned for you.
The Explosionist by Jenny Davidson Edinburgh, late 1930s. The world is on the brink of a second world war. Fifteen-year-old Sophie’s boarding school is shaken by the bombing attacks of rogue explosionists. (It took me most of the book to realize that Sophie herself was not going to become an explosionist. Whew.) In this world, Napoleon won the battle of Waterloo and Europe is divided into quite different countries – Scotland is not part of the United Kingdom but the New Hanseatic League. Spiritualism gained ground at the turn of the century, rather than fading out as it did in ours. You’ll notice that I found the setting fascinating, particularly as the differences between this world and ours are laid out in one place only in the author’s note at the back. But the setting sets off Sophie, a smart and thoughtful girl forced by the impending war to make important decisions about her future now. Very few girls are going to university, with many joining the military and the brightest and most beautiful going to join IRLYNS. IRLYNS (pronounced, irrationally but amusingly, irons) is a top-secret program which trains women to be the driving force to help high-placed men do great things in service to the country. The inequality of this, in a country where women do have high-ranking jobs, is very much an issue for Sophie, much as she wants to serve her country. Her daily life includes trying to hide a crush on her chemistry teacher, cutting gym class to have tea with the professor next door and his housekeeper’s visiting Danish nephew, Mikael, and attending her great-aunt’s regular séance. Then the medium from the séance is murdered, and Sophie starts hearing voices herself. Sophie and Mikael will both have to get over their distrust of spiritualism to solve the mystery, which might be linked to the war, but is definitely putting them at risk. You might not have time to think about the issues that are being raised while you’re racing to see if Sophie and Mikael make it through, but though the setting is historical, the issues are still blazingly relevant. This is a rare and delightful gem.