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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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Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s History-Making Race Around the World, Matthew Goodman
On Nov. 14, 1889, two young female journalists left New York City, headed in different directions. Nellie Bly (traveling east) and Elizabeth Bisland (traveling west) swung from train to ship to boat in their mad dash to circle the globe in under 80 days. Goodman captures the frenetic pace of their race, the dizzying array of countries they saw, the vagaries of shipboard life and the way the contest fired the public imagination. A fascinating glimpse of the Victorian era and a great real-life adventure tale. (Jaclyn read it at the same time and also loved it.)

I’ll Be Seeing You, Suzanne Hayes and Loretta Nyhan
In 1943, two soldiers’ wives strike up a pen-pal correspondence spanning the miles from Iowa to Massachusetts. Rita Vincenzo, middle-aged and sensible, and Glory Whitehall, young and impulsive, are unlikely friends – but their letters help them weather the storms raging both abroad and at home. Beautifully written, evocative and sometimes heartbreaking – with occasional flashes of joy. Lovely.

The Secrets of Mary Bowser, Lois Leveen
Born into slavery in Richmond, Va., Mary Bowser is freed by her owner and sent to Philadelphia to be educated. When war breaks out, she returns to her native city to pose as a slave and spy for the Union – even working as a maid for Jefferson Davis. An absorbing historical read, based on the real life of its brave heroine.

Stormbreaker, Anthony Horowitz
Alex Rider, age 14, is left alone in the world after his uncle Ian’s death – and he quickly discovers Ian’s life wasn’t what it seemed. Ian was a spy for MI6, and his bosses recruit Alex to help with a dangerous mission. Fast-paced, stuffed almost too full of shiny gadgets and death-defying moments, but fun. First in the nine-book Alex Rider series.

The Supremes at Earl’s All-You-Can-Eat, Edward Kelsey Moore
Odette, Clarice and Barbara Jean have been friends most of their lives, gathering every Sunday at the titular restaurant for gossip and good food. As they all face personal battles (illness, losing loved ones, a spouse’s infidelity) in middle age, they reflect on the long story of their friendship and how it has shaped their lives. A compelling story that swings from heartbreaking to hilarious, full of warm, wonderful characters (including the ghost of Eleanor Roosevelt!). I loved it.

Spy School, Stuart Gibbs
Ben Ripley, age 12, is a math whiz – but he’s shocked when he’s recruited for the CIA’s top-secret spy training school. Once he arrives, though, Ben realizes there’s something fishy going on. He joins forces with Erica, the school’s top student, to try and figure it out. Fast-paced and funny, though not as richly developed as Ally Carter’s Gallagher Girls series.

Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh
Anne convinced me to pick up this classic, set partly in my beloved Oxford. It’s the story of Charles Ryder and his entanglement with the Flyte family: charming Sebastian, beautiful Julia, quirky Cordelia, stodgy Brideshead. It’s also a portrait of a disappearing England, and encompasses several love stories and musings on faith. Gorgeously written, though also deeply sad.

Start Here: Read Your Way Into 25 Amazing Authors, ed. Jeff O’Neal & Rebecca Joines Schinsky
I backed this book on Kickstarter last summer. The book nerds at Book Riot have collected lots of advice about “reading your way into” 25 authors (see subtitle), ranging across many genres. Fun to dip into (the sections are short), utterly practical and (in typical fashion) quite opinionated.

This post contains IndieBound affiliate links.

What are you reading?

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Cross My Heart and Hope to Spy, Ally Carter
After reading the first book in the Gallagher Girls series, I wanted more – this is such a fun concept (a boarding school that’s really a training ground for female spies!). The characters – narrator Cammie, her headmistress/spy mother, her spy-in-training best friends and their highly trained faculty members – are great, and the action is fast-paced and often quite funny. (And you can tell the author loves creating every detail of this world.)

Don’t Judge a Girl by Her Cover, Ally Carter
Gallagher Girl book #3 is a little darker and a lot more intense – though it still is a really fun story of how to navigate being both a spy and a teenage girl. (Neither role, as Cammie often points out, is easy.) The cliffhanger at the end left me scrambling for the fourth book (fortunately I’d bought the whole series at once).

Only the Good Spy Young, Ally Carter
Book four and our characters – well, some of them – are being pursued by an ancient, international terrorist organization – and nobody’s sure whom to trust. The writing gets better, the characters get deeper, the questions get bigger. (Now, of course, I have to wait until March, when book #5 comes out, to find out what happens.)

The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern
I had a wonderful time at the pre-release party for this book – so I was eager to dive into it. And it did not disappoint. A complex, multilayered story of a very unusual circus, a challenge between two magicians (who inconveniently fall in love, which of course complicates everything), and a boy named Bailey who loves the circus at first sight. So many fascinating characters, gorgeous descriptions and twisting plot points. Truly fantastic.

My Year with Eleanor, Noelle Hancock
I liked the premise of this book – a young woman, laid off from her job, takes her inspiration from Eleanor Roosevelt and decides to spend a year confronting her fears. But a lot of her activities seemed like stunts (shark cage diving?) and she spent a lot of time whining about her own issues rather than taking the initiative to make them better. I eventually got bored and put it down.

The Best American Travel Writing 2011, ed. Sloane Crosley
An odd but compelling mix of travel essays – most of them about places I’d never choose to go (Kurdistan, South Beach in Miami, Russian Tel Aviv, Saudi Arabia, a commune in Copenhagen). Not always pleasant, but fascinating – and there are some beautiful moments amid all the cynicism and guns. To review for the Shelf.

The Improper Life of Bezellia Grove, Susan Gregg Gilmore
A story of racism, forbidden love and family issues in 1960s Nashville. Our heroine, though pleasant, is naive and self-absorbed – she never stops to consider the effect her actions will have on other people. And the ending felt like the author had simply run out of things to say. The Help and Saving CeeCee Honeycutt touch on this same territory, and do it better.

Emily of Deep Valley, Maud Hart Lovelace
I’ve loved Betsy Ray for a long time, but only met Emily Webster last fall. She struggles with loneliness, despair and boredom when her classmates go off to college – but, in delightful fashion, she learns to “muster her wits” – founding a Browning Club, teaching English to Syrian immigrants, taking piano and dancing lessons, and even falling in love. Wonderful, and a good reminder to muster my own wits when life feels a little blah.

The Story of Charlotte’s Web, Michael Sims
I love E.B. White’s writing, but had never read a biography of him – and this one proved fascinating. Packed with detail about his family life, his years in New York, his work at the New Yorker and his relationship with his wife, and his enduring love of farm animals. Wonderfully written and so well done – it also sent me scrambling to the library and the bookshop for White’s essays and letters.

The Last Letter From Your Lover, Jojo Moyes
A tale of star-crossed lovers, jumbled memories and (honestly) the most atrocious timing possible – frustrating at times, but compelling. Two parallel love stories, which each involve an affair between a married person and his/her single lover. Oddly, I felt more compassion for the 1960s married woman with the awful husband (Jennifer) than I did for the modern-day single woman dating a married man (Ellie). Perhaps I felt like Ellie had more options, or that her married man was a jerk (he was)? I don’t know. Anyway, this is still a well-written, powerful story about love and choices and second chances.

Eating Mud Crabs in Kandahar: Stories of Food during Wartime by the World’s Leading Correspondents, ed. Matt McAllester
A collection of travel essays set in the war zones of our time: Israel/Palestine, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Haiti, Bosnia. These writers are used to bribes and gunshots, to long days and sleepless nights, to poverty everywhere they look. But they have wonderfully vivid memories of meals shared with refugees, with soldiers, with friends made in unlikely places, even (in one case) with captors. The last essay, set in Bethlehem, brought me to tears. To review for the Shelf.

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Carney’s House Party, Maud Hart Lovelace
This is a perfect summer book – who wouldn’t want to spend a summer in Deep Valley, going to parties and drives and dances with the Crowd? Carney is so appealing – honest and frank and funny and kind, and so many other beloved characters from the Betsy-Tacy books make appearances. I was quite envious of the nights spent on the sleeping porch and, as always, the beautiful dresses.

Heaven to Betsy, Maud Hart Lovelace
Finishing Carney’s story sent me scrambling back to the bookcase for the tales of Betsy’s high school years. I love Betsy’s laughter, her zest for life, her wide circle of friends, her flights of fancy. I also love that she’s such a real character – as insecure as most high school girls, though she’s funny and pretty and kind. Such a fun beginning to their years in high school.

Betsy in Spite of Herself, Maud Hart Lovelace
Betsy starts to learn the meaning of “To thine own self be true” – while dealing with a cranky English teacher, a jealous boyfriend, and the usual round of Crowd parties and Sunday night lunches. I love her Christmas visit to Tib in Milwaukee, and her gradual realization that she can’t be dramatic, mysterious Betsye – she’s just plain Betsy, and everyone loves her better for it.

Betsy Was a Junior, Maud Hart Lovelace
This book makes me squirm a little, because of the obsession with sororities (and the way it takes Betsy and her friends a long time to figure out that they aren’t a good idea). But there are some great moments here – barn dances, high school pranks, the Junior-Senior Banquet, and high jinks with Tib (who is finally back in Deep Valley). The ending is bittersweet, but I do love Betsy’s quiet reflections on growing up.

Betsy and Joe, Maud Hart Lovelace
Betsy has a brilliant senior year – though it has its share of trials and romantic trouble. But she settles down to work, at writing, at the piano and at school, and still enjoys the usual excitements of parties, dances and fun with the Crowd. I love the way her relationship with Joe develops here – slowly but steadily, with some grand moments – and the book finishes with a flourish amid the glories of Commencement.

Season to Taste: How I Lost My Sense of Smell and Found My Way, Molly Birnbaum
Birnbaum was on her way to becoming a chef when she was injured in a car accident and lost her sense of smell – and thus most of her sense of taste. This is a beautifully written memoir of loss and recovery, packed with fascinating information about smell. Birnbaum’s writing is clear and evocative (and I love that every chapter is named after a pair of scents). Lovely, and so hopeful (she can smell almost everything again).

Betsy and the Great World, Maud Hart Lovelace
I love Betsy’s adventures in Europe – though this time I was more anxious than usual for her to get back to Joe. But she meets so many fascinating people, and spends time wandering and soaking it in and writing – just as I did during my year in Oxford. She visits places I’ve been (London and Paris) and spends time in places I’ve yet to see (Munich, Oberammergau, Venice). And this time, I noticed and delighted in her brief pre-trip stop in Boston.

Betsy’s Wedding, Maud Hart Lovelace
Betsy’s back in Minneapolis – and newlywed life offers just as many (though different) adventures as traveling in Europe. I love all the sweet stories of home, and the dedication she and Joe show to their writing, and all the familiar characters who people Betsy’s life again. I found myself wanting to linger here after I’d read the final scene.

Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: My Year of Magical Reading, Nina Sankovitch
I love books about reading, but this one had a poignant twist: the author decided to spend a year reading (and reviewing) a book a day, to help her find some peace after her sister’s death. She weaves in the story of her family’s history, as well as thoughtful, wise meditations on family, grief, love and why we read. (Bonus: a long list of great books to check out.)

Sesame Street: 40 Years – A Celebration of Life on the Street, Louise Gikow
I grew up watching Big Bird, Grover, Cookie Monster and the gang – so I loved this coffee-table book, packed with information about the history of Sesame Street, and full of great photos. I learned so much about the people behind Sesame, the educational aims of the program, its worldwide reach – so much I didn’t know. (And, of course, I spent some time with all my favorite monsters.) Fabulous.

Gift from the Sea, Anne Morrow Lindbergh
I first read this a few years ago, and picked it back up after seeing it mentioned on Lindsey’s blog. Written in the fifties, its meditations on silence, solitude, relationships and family life are still strikingly relevant today. (I’m sure this will be even truer for me after I have kids.) So thoughtful and wise and lovely.

A Caribbean Mystery, Agatha Christie
Miss Marple travels to the West Indies – and, of course, ends up catching a killer while she’s there. I’m continually amazed at Christie’s gift for confounding readers until the very end, when it all comes clear. And I love how the characters in every book are astonished by Miss Marple’s sleuthing skills. Nicely done.

What Happened on Fox Street, Tricia Springstubb
Mo Wren loves living on Fox Street – it may be a little scruffy, but it’s her home. And she’s not at all thrilled when a big development company threatens to destroy the street and force the tenants to move out. A simple story with enjoyable characters, and some beautifully written passages. I’m planning to read the sequel, out next month.

I’d Tell You I Love You, But Then I’d Have to Kill You, Ally Carter
I read about this young adult series on Rachelle’s blog, and was curious to try them out. A top-secret boarding school that trains teenage girls to be spies? Such a fun concept – and the writing is pretty good. I enjoyed following the adventures of Cammie (the Chameleon) and her spy-girl pals. I’ll be reading the rest of the series when I need something light and fun.

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