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Posts Tagged ‘espionage’

Somehow, it’s 2020 – and I’m still catching up from Christmas break. Here’s my last list of reads for 2019:

Red Letter Days, Sarah-Jane Stratford
When the House Un-American Activities Committee begins blacklisting writers, Phoebe Adler flees to London after receiving a subpoena. There, she begins working for Hannah Wolfson, a fellow exiled American who’s creating a new hit show. But both women are in more danger than they realize. A well-plotted historical novel with great characters – I wanted to meet Phoebe, Hannah and all their friends for a cocktail. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Feb. 25).

The Second Chance Club: Hardship and Hope After Prison, Jason Hardy
Hardy spent four years working as a parole officer in New Orleans. This book gives an insider’s account of the probation and parole (P&P) system, which aims to keep offenders from relapsing into addiction, going back to jail or prison, or hurting themselves or other people. Hardy wrestles with the lack of resources, the staggering problems facing most of his offenders, and his own privilege. A thoughtful, timely, compelling account. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Feb. 18).

Ayesha at Last, Uzma Jalaluddin
This fun Pride and Prejudice retelling, set in Toronto’s Indian Muslim community, came recommended by Anne and others. I loved Ayesha, the Elizabeth Bennet character, and her supporting cast, especially her Shakespeare-quoting grandfather. Witty, entertaining and sweet, with some fresh twists on the classic story.

I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness, Austin Channing Brown
Brown is well known for her work on race relations, and her memoir shares her experience with race and faith, and poses some tough questions. Well-written, hard-hitting and powerful; I’ll be processing this one for a while.

The Queen Con, Meghan Scott Molin
MG Martin, comic-book writer and costume designer extraordinaire, gets drawn into a second mystery involving a local superhero vigilante. But this time several of her friends, including drag queen Lawrence, may be in danger. The plot gets a bit convoluted, but this series is full of nerddom and great characters.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, J.K. Rowling
Harry’s third year at Hogwarts starts (and in some ways ends) with Sirius Black, a notorious wizard who has escaped Azkaban, the wizard prison. This book is one of my favorites in the series – especially the last bit, where everything (thanks in large part to Lupin and Hermione) blows wide open. So much fun.

Life Undercover: Coming of Age in the CIA, Amaryllis Fox
I blew through Fox’s memoir on my plane ride home. She gives a clear, thoughtful account of her career in the CIA, and the ways an undercover life prevented her from building a true marriage or family. Fascinating and thought-provoking – parts of it read like a spy thriller.

25 Days ‘Til Christmas, Poppy Alexander
This was an impulse buy at Trident, and it was the perfect sweet, witty, British Christmas read. Widowed mum Kate is struggling to make Christmas merry for herself and her young son, Jack, while facing harassment at work. Daniel, grieving his sister’s death, is also struggling. I loved the ways their stories intertwined, as well as Daniel’s efforts to support a group of local businesses.

Blind Search, Paula Munier
Mercy Carr, former military police officer, and her retired bomb-sniffing dog Elvis are back on the case. This time, it’s multiple murder in the Vermont woods, with an autistic boy as the only witness. The writing is a bit labored, but I like Mercy and the other characters, including game warden Troy Warner.

Most links (not affiliate links) are to my favorite local bookstore, Brookline Booksmith.

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fire-on-high-book

I feel like I blinked and it’s mid-August. I’m still settling into my new apartment and all the life changes (thank you for the kind comments on my recent post about that). Here’s what I have been reading, when my overstuffed brain will allow:

Where the Light Enters, Sara Donati
Donati’s sequel to The Gilded Hour (which I haven’t read) picks up the lives of her characters, notably two female physicians (who are cousins) in 1880s New York. Sophie is grieving the death of her husband, trying to decide whether to resume practicing obstetrics, and planning to establish a scholarship for young women of color to study medicine. Anna is struggling with various personal and professional challenges. Both of them are called in by Anna’s cop husband, Jack, to consult on a tricky case of multiple murders of pregnant women. A sweeping, complicated, engaging novel set largely in my favorite tangle of streets in the West Village. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Sept. 10).

American Spy, Lauren Wilkinson
I grabbed this at the library after reading a review in the Shelf. Marie Mitchell is a frustrated FBI agent in 1980s NYC who is tapped for a mission involving Thomas Sankara, the president of Burkina Faso. A young, intelligent black woman, she’s perfect for the role, but she feels uneasy about it, especially since one of her handlers has a connection to her deceased sister. An ambitious spy thriller and family drama – Marie is a great character – but the ending was far too abrupt.

With the Fire on High, Elizabeth Acevedo
A high school senior and gifted chef, Emoni Santiago has a lot to juggle, including caring for her young daughter and helping out her abuela. When she gets the chance to take a cooking class, it might catapult her dreams forward–but she’s keenly aware of her obligations. A vivid, thoughtful, sweet, funny, engaging YA novel about a teen mom who’s much more than that. So good.

The Shadow King, Maaza Mengiste
Ethiopia, 1935: the country is bracing for an Italian invasion, and Hirut, a young servant girl, is caught up in her masters’ plans to raise an army. She becomes a warrior and a guard, and her path crosses with an Italian Jewish photographer who isn’t sure he wants to be a soldier. Powerful, complicated and dark; I didn’t know about this piece of history and it’s a brutal one. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Sept. 10).

Most links (not affiliate links) are to my favorite local bookstore, Brookline Booksmith.

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spirit of 76 bookstore interior

We’re halfway through August already (!) and I’m trying to hang on – and diving into all the books, naturally. Here’s what I’ve been reading:

Let the Whole Thundering World Come Home, Natalie Goldberg
I heard Natalie read from this, her newest memoir, last month in Lenox, Mass. She was a delight, and this book about her journey with cancer contains both great pain and moments of joy. Short, lyrical chapters trace Natalie’s diagnosis, treatment and wrestling with her own mortality, all while her partner was also fighting cancer. I carried it in my bag for weeks, reading it slowly. It’s heartbreaking, sometimes lovely, fiercely honest all the way through.

Island of the Mad, Laurie R. King
When a college friend of Mary Russell’s asks Mary to locate her missing aunt, Russell and Holmes find themselves wandering Venice, which (in 1925) is brimming with both carefree aristocrats and grim Blackshirts. I love Russell’s narrative voice – so smart and insightful. The case and the elaborate parties (and Cole Porter!) are extremely diverting.

Invisible: The Forgotten Story of the Black Woman Lawyer Who Took Down America’s Most Powerful Mobster, Stephen L. Carter
Few people know that a black female lawyer – Eunice Hunton Carter – was part of the team that took down NYC mobster Lucky Luciano in the 1930s. Stephen Carter – her grandson – sets out to tell her remarkable story. A deeply researched, insightful biography of an extraordinary woman. (I also enjoyed Carter’s novel The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln a few years back.) To review for Shelf Awareness (out Oct. 9).

Tango Lessons, Meghan Flaherty
Flaherty first fell in love with tango as a teenager visiting Argentina, but it took her years to try it for herself. She chronicles her journey into New York’s tango scene, and the ways tango has challenged her ideas about dance, desire, taking risks and many other things. Well written and engaging, if occasionally too self-conscious.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Betty Smith
I picked up this old favorite and fell instantly back in love with Francie Nolan’s story of growing up in Brooklyn in the early 20th century. Francie is smart, thoughtful, keenly observant – so many of her insights still ring true. I also love her fiercely hardworking mother, Katie, and her generous aunt, Sissy. This is a story of deep poverty and struggle, but it’s also about fighting to make your way in the world, being proud of where you came from, and the joys and disappointments of love (romantic and otherwise). So good.

Forever and a Day, Anthony Horowitz
Marseilles, 1950: The original 007 has been killed by three bullets, and the British intelligence service has sent a new man – James Bond – to find out who killed him and why. This prequel gives Bond an intriguing first assignment, complete with a mysterious woman (of course) and associates who may or may not be what they seem. Well done, though the ending fell a bit flat. I’ve never read the original Ian Fleming novels, but now I want to. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Nov. 6).

The Valley at the Centre of the World, Malachy Tallack
To most people, Shetland is the end of the world – but to its residents, it’s the titular center. Tallack’s novel follows the intertwined lives of a few people living in the titular valley. Beautiful and quiet. Possibly to review for Shelf Awareness (out Nov. 6).

Most links (not affiliate links) are to my favorite local bookstore, Brookline Booksmith.

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the long run book snow menzies-pike

I know we’re more than halfway through the year, but I still thought it would be worthwhile (and fun!) to share the best books I’ve read so far this year. Technically I’d read 102 books by the end of June, so here are the real standouts from the first half of 2018:

Most Eloquent, Relatable Memoir of Running and Grit: The Long Run by Catriona Menzies-Pike. I think of lines from this witty, beautiful book regularly while I’m running.

Candid, Witty Essays on Marriage: Wedding Toasts I’ll Never Give by Ada Calhoun. Honest and funny and so real – perfect for reading after a decade of marriage.

Most Compelling Mysteries with a Side of Faith: Julia Spencer-Fleming’s brilliant series featuring Clare Fergusson and Russ Van Alstyne. I cannot shut up about these books: the mystery plots are solid, but the characters and their complex relationships are on another level.

Best Twisty Tale of Badass Female Spies: The Alice Network by Kate Quinn. Just so good.

Most Blazing, Gorgeous Novel of Love and Heartbreak: Love and Ruin by Paula McLain. I did not think I could read another Hemingway novel, but Martha Gellhorn’s narrative voice grabbed me and wouldn’t let go.

Most Vivid and Heartrending Refugee Story: The Map of Salt and Stars by Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar. (I liked Exit West too, but this dual narrative with its two scrappy female protagonists stole my heart.)

Best Reread: A Wrinkle in Time, which I picked up after seeing the new film. I liked the movie, but L’Engle’s classic has more depth and heart and grit – and oh, I love Meg Murry.

Best Travel Memoir That’s About So Much More: Lands of Lost Borders, Kate Harris’ luminous, gritty memoir of spending nearly a year cycling along the Silk Road.

Most Perfect Gothic Novel to Read in Spain: The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón. Twisty, atmospheric, witty, packed with great characters and surprise moments.

Your turn: what are the best books you’ve read so far this year?

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alice network book chai red

It’s no secret I love a good spy story – especially if it features a badass female protagonist. This column originally appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers.

Spies are paradoxically famous for flying under the radar. Both their livelihood and their success depend on remaining undetected. For women, their gender often provides an additional layer of disguise: many men overlook women or doubt them to be capable of a spy’s cunning and deceit. (They’re wrong.)

Kate Quinn’s 2017 novel The Alice Network brings to life the work of female spies in occupied France during World War I. The titular network revolves around whip-smart Alice Dubois (an alias, of course), who smuggles information up the Allied ranks via hairpins, skirt seams and her web of crackerjack female agents. Though Quinn’s protagonist Eve Gardiner is fictional, “Alice” and her compatriots really existed, and the novel is a fitting homage to their courage.

Spanish seamstress Sira Quiroga finds herself swept up and then abandoned by a charming man in Maria Duenas’s powerful novel The Time in Between. Stranded in Morocco, Sira hones her sewing skills and becomes a successful couturier whose designs eventually catch the eye of Nazi diplomats’ wives. As war swirls on the Continent, first in Spain and then everywhere, Sira passes coded information through her elegant gowns, stitching herself into the complex worlds of high fashion and espionage.

Mrs. Virgil (Emily) Pollifax is used to being underestimated: as a retired widow, she’s also downright bored. Presenting herself at CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., she argues her way into a position as an undercover agent, launching an unorthodox career that has her crisscrossing continents throughout the Cold War (though her neighbors never know it). Dorothy Gilman’s series, which spans 14 novels, lives up to the name of its first book, The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax, in delightful fashion.

In fiction as in real life, female spies are often underrated–but their stories are reliably fascinating.

Who are your favorite lady spies – real or fictional?

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alice network book chai red

I’m back from a trip out west to see some dear friends, and (no surprise) I did a lot of airplane reading. Here’s the latest roundup:

Love of Country: A Hebridean Journey, Madeleine Bunting
I found this one at the Book House in Summertown, Oxford, last fall. It took me weeks: it’s a bit dense in places, but fascinating. Bunting explores the Outer Hebrides off the northwestern coast of Scotland and delves into their complicated histories. Less memoir-y than I wanted, though she does muse on the ideas of home, remoteness and living on the (literal) edge.

To Darkness and to Death, Julia Spencer-Fleming
During a single November day in Millers Kill, N.Y., events unfold that will change multiple lives. A young woman goes missing, a corporate land deal inches toward completion, a few men see their future plans crumbling (for varied reasons). Spencer-Fleming’s fourth mystery charts the complicated web of people affected by these events, including her protagonists, Rev. Clare Fergusson and police chief Russ Van Alstyne. So layered and so good.

The Hate U Give, Angie Thomas
This YA novel needs no introduction from me: it’s been all over the bestseller lists, and for good reason. Starr Carter, a young black woman, is the only witness to her childhood best friend’s murder at the hands of a white police officer. Starr is already navigating two worlds as a student at a mostly white prep school, but Khalil’s murder smashes her two worlds together. Stunning, heartbreaking, powerful. I was gripped and saddened by the main plot, but I also loved Thomas’ depiction of Starr’s tight-knit, complicated family.

The Alice Network, Kate Quinn
In 1915, a young Englishwoman named Evelyn Gardiner is recruited to spy for the titular network in German-occupied France. In 1947, Charlie St. Clair finds herself pregnant, adrift and searching desperately for news of her French cousin Rose, who disappeared in World War II. Quinn expertly ties Charlie’s and Eve’s stories together, with a propulsive plot, some truly fantastic supporting characters and a ruthless villain. I devoured this on a plane ride (and a passing flight attendant exclaimed, “It’s so good!”). Highly recommended.

All Mortal Flesh, Julia Spencer-Fleming
Clare Fergusson and Russ Van Alstyne are still struggling to navigate their relationship. When Russ’ recently estranged wife is found murdered in her kitchen, events spin wildly out of control. This mystery packed in so much pain and surprise – not just for Russ and Clare but for many of the supporting cast, who are fully realized characters in their own right. Broke my heart, but it was the best yet in this series.

A Desperate Fortune, Susanna Kearsley
I picked up this fascinating novel after loving Kearsley’s The Winter Sea. Sara Thomas, an amateur codebreaker, travels to France to decipher a young woman’s diary from the 1730s. Kearsley weaves Sara’s story together with that of the diary’s author, Mary Dundas, who finds herself mixed up with the Jacobites. I loved both narratives, but especially enjoyed watching Mary adapt to her rapidly changing circumstances and step into her own bravery.

Brave Enough, Cheryl Strayed
My mom gave me this little book of Strayed’s quotes for Christmas, and I’ve been dipping into it. I’m a bit ambivalent about her work, but there is some pithy, no-nonsense wisdom here.

Links (not affiliate links) are to my favorite local bookstore, Brookline Booksmith.

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strand books nyc exterior

We’re only nine days into November, but I’ve already read some cracking good books this month. (Hooray!) Here’s the latest roundup:

The Lake House, Kate Morton
In 1933, toddler Theo Edevane disappears from his family’s isolated country estate in Cornwall. His body is never found. Seventy years later, London detective Sadie Sparrow, reeling from a professional crisis, comes to the area on holiday and decides to reopen the cold case. Morton’s latest is full of lush descriptions, family secrets and hidden passions. A richly layered plot – I devoured it.

The Case of the Left-Handed Lady, Nancy Springer
Springer’s second Enola Holmes mystery finds her protagonist living alone in London, dodging her brother Sherlock, helping the poor, and trying to solve a few cases. When a peer’s daughter goes missing, Enola investigates, with surprising results. Another fun middle-grade mystery.

The Stargazer’s Sister, Carrie Brown
The 18th-century astronomer William Herschel was justly famous for his pioneering work with telescopes and discovery of several celestial bodies. But his sister and longtime assistant, Caroline, was herself an accomplished astronomer. In this lyrical novelization of Caroline’s story, Brown explores the limits, sacrifices and rewards of love and dedication. Absolutely beautiful. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Jan. 19).

Black Ship, Carola Dunn
Daisy Dalrymple Fletcher and her family have moved into a new house near Hampstead Heath. But when a dead body turns up in the garden, Daisy and Alec get mixed up in another investigation. An engaging plot, combining the tricky business of British liquor sales during U.S. Prohibition with the delicate matter of interrogating one’s brand-new neighbors.

The Hours Count, Jillian Cantor
Before Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed for espionage, they were simply a Jewish family living in New York. Cantor tells their story through a fictional neighbor, Millie Stein, who is struggling with her own troubled son and unhappy marriage, and is drawn into the Rosenbergs’ lives. Beautifully written and heartbreaking. I also loved Cantor’s previous novel, Margot.

Death on the Cherwell, Mavis Doriel Hay
The unpopular bursar of Persephone College, Oxford, is found dead in her canoe. Four spirited undergraduate ladies investigate. Oxford + mysteries + plucky heroines = my literary catnip. Well written and so much fun. Found at the Mysterious Bookshop in NYC.

Eat The City: A Tale of the Fishers, Foragers, Butchers, Farmers, Poultry Minders, Sugar Refiners, Cane Cutters, Beekeepers, Winemakers, and Brewers Who Built New York, Robin Shulman
New York City is known as a concrete jungle, but it has supported robust production of various food products – vegetables, meat, beer and wine – over the years. Shulman explores the city’s history through its food producers, past and present. Meticulously researched and fascinating. Found at the Strand on my solo trip to NYC.

The Way to Stay in Destiny, Augusta Scattergood
When Theo Thomas ends up in Destiny, Florida, with his taciturn uncle, he doesn’t plan on staying. But a baseball-crazy girl and a dance-studio piano might just save his summer – and help him find a new home. A sweet middle-grade novel about family, music and finding home. I also loved Scattergood’s previous novel, Glory Be.

Most links (not affiliate links) are to my favorite local bookstore, Brookline Booksmith.

I’ll be linking up with Anne at Modern Mrs. Darcy.

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