Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘women’

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?

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

bloodline book christmas tree star wars

The first half of December is always a contradiction in terms: the routine of daily life marches on, laced with twinkly festivity and all the holiday prep. As ever, the reading helps keep me (relatively) sane.

Here’s the latest book roundup:

And the Rest is History, Jodi Taylor
I love Taylor’s series about the wacky, tea-loving time-traveling historians of St. Mary’s Institute in England. This eighth book is full of heartbreak: Max, the narrator/heroine, her husband Leon and their colleagues are in for it, several times. But it’s also witty, fast-paced and entertaining, like the whole series. Smart, fun escapist reading.

Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process, ed. Joe Fassler
I savored this collection of essays by 46 writers, riffing on lines or passages that have shaped their creative lives. Thoughtful, honest, nourishing perspectives as varied as their authors. Recommended by Lindsey, who especially loved Elizabeth Gilbert’s essay (so did I). Other favorites: Claire Messud, Azar Nafisi, Angela Flournoy, Sherman Alexie.

Fifty Million Rising: The New Generation of Working Women Transforming the Muslim World, Saadia Zahidi
Muslim women are going to work in greater numbers than ever, and they are revolutionizing their homes, families and societies. Zahidi delves into the cultural, social and economic patterns that are shifting across the Muslim world. Packed with statistics, but I really enjoyed the stories of women (many, but not all, millennials) who are blazing a path for themselves. (Serendipity: Zahidi is an alumna of my workplace.) To review for Shelf Awareness (out Jan. 30).

Star Wars: Bloodline, Claudia Gray
I enjoyed Gray’s new novel about the teenage Princess Leia learning to be a badass. I loved this novel, set before The Force Awakens, even more. It features Leia as a senator in the New Republic: she’s a little jaded, but brave and committed as ever, and hungry for a bit of adventure – which she gets in spades. I relished both the new characters and the appearances by familiar faces (Han Solo and C-3PO).

The Red Garden, Alice Hoffman
Hoffman’s stories weave magic seamlessly into the everyday (or simply point out what’s already there). This collection follows the town of Blackwell, Mass., and the intertwined lives of its families over three centuries. It’s a little uneven, but still enchanting.

Party Girls Die in Pearls, Plum Sykes
Ursula Flowerbutton has high hopes for her first week as a student at Oxford – but they don’t include the murder of a posh classmate. However, Ursula (a budding journalist) and her new American friend Nancy are on the case. A smart, fun, frothy, totally ’80s romp through Oxford. Perfect weekend reading.

H is for Hawk, Helen Macdonald
A longtime obsession with birds of prey led Macdonald to acquire a goshawk named Mabel, around the time her father died. She struggles mightily with grief and emptiness while learning to fly her hawk. Luminous, heartbreaking and strange: full of sorrow and magic. I didn’t care much for the exploration of T.H. White’s journey with goshawks, but loved Macdonald’s own story. Bought last year at bookbook in Greenwich Village. Recommended by my friend Jess at Great New Books.

Reading People: How Seeing the World Through the Lens of Personality Changes Everything, Anne Bogel
Anne is a longtime blogging friend of mine; we finally met in person last fall in NYC. She’s also a whip-smart personality geek, and her first book explores various personality frameworks. The big takeaway: know thyself – and be willing to question your own assumptions. Thoughtful and informative. (Anne sent me an ARC – it came out in September.)

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

What are you reading?

Read Full Post »

after the war is over book coverOver a year ago, I read and reviewed Somewhere in France, Jennifer Robson’s debut novel, for Shelf Awareness. This fall, I did the same for her wonderful second novel, After the War is Over.

The book follows Oxford graduate Charlotte Brown as she resumes her career after World War I, working at a relief agency in Liverpool.

Struggling to find justice for those she helps, Charlotte begins writing impassioned letters to the local newspaper and lands a columnist gig. Meanwhile, she must face her own complicated feelings about the man she has loved for years.

Jen graciously agreed to answer a few questions about the book – and about Oxford, where she and I have both spent time. (The city appears briefly in After the War is Over.) And she’s giving away a signed copy of the book to one lucky reader.

Leave a comment below to enter, and I’ll pick a winner at random later this week.

Can you talk about the genesis of After the War is Over? (Readers of Somewhere in France will recognize Charlotte as a dear friend of Lilly, the main character of that book.)

When I first wrote Somewhere in France, I thought of it as a stand-alone book, but as I worked on later drafts, and the character of Charlotte became clearer, I knew she deserved a book of her own. I included a few details of her backstory, such as her childhood in Somerset and her studies at Oxford, but left myself enough room that I wouldn’t feel too hampered later on when it came time to write her book.

How did you decide what work Charlotte would be doing – i.e. helping the poor and those devastated by the war?

It’s only a small detail in Somewhere in France, but at one point Edward and Lilly talk about Charlotte and what she did after leaving work as Lilly’s governess. I made a spur-of-the-moment decision to send her to Liverpool and put her to work for Eleanor Rathbone, an actual Liverpool politician and social activist. I’m so glad I did, for Miss Rathbone is a personal hero of mine for her pioneering work as a feminist and social activist. As well, Charlotte’s devotion to her, and determination to live up to her mentor’s high standards, became one of the central themes of After the War is Over.

Have you been to the places described in the book – Liverpool, the seaside at Blackpool, etc.? (The chapter on Charlotte’s day out in Blackpool with her girlfriends is particularly vivid.)

I have, although admittedly it has been a few years since my most recent visit. I hope I’ve given my readers a sense of Liverpool and what a fascinating city it is. I did my best to inject points of local color so that people who have visited will recognize a few of the landmarks – I have fond memories of visiting the Phil (the ornate pub where Charlotte and John Ellis have dinner) more than twenty years ago, and was happy to discover, while researching its history, that it has scarcely changed in the past hundred years!

Blackpool is an especially interesting place. Of course its heyday was the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but it’s still a very popular destination in spite of competition from overseas holidays and other British resorts. I wasn’t brave enough to swim in the ocean when I visited – even in the summer the water is pretty cold – but I did walk along the seaside and eat some of their local “Blackpool rock” candy. I wasn’t able to overcome my fear of heights, unlike Charlotte, and so didn’t go to the top of the Tower!

I know you’ve spent some time in Oxford – can you talk a bit about your time there?

I lived in Oxford from 1992-95, when I was working on my doctorate in history. I was a student of Saint Antony’s College, which didn’t actually exist when Charlotte was there – it was founded in the 1950s – but my thesis supervisor was at Merton College, and I walked past Somerville every time I went to the Bodleian Library. In fact, Charlotte’s walk through town, when she leaves a note for Edward at Merton, is the exact same route I would take when I went to see my supervisor. I should add that the porters at Merton are perfectly friendly and helpful, despite my portrayal of their very grumpy forebear in my book!

How did you decide to weave Oxford into this book?

When I set out to write After the War is Over, I desperately wanted to begin the book in Oxford in 1907, when Charlotte and Edward are both students there. My editor convinced me, however, that the narrative had to begin no earlier than 1919, which is the point at which Somewhere in France ends. Of course she was right – she’s always right! – but I got around that stricture by weaving a few flashbacks into the action. Naturally one of them had to be set in Oxford, since I’d already done the research for that portion of the book!

Charlotte faces many struggles, personal and professional, in After the War is Over – what would you say is her central or most important challenge?

I think the central struggle for Charlotte is her need to believe that she is worthy. If you’ve already read the book, you’ll know why – I don’t want to give anything away – so I’ll simply say that she feels compelled to be the best possible person she can be and to spend her life in the pursuit of goodness, and while these are laudable aims, they do have the effect of making her quite miserable and lonely at times. Compounding all of this is the very real poverty, privation and misery that surround her at work, and you can see how her search for happiness is a very difficult one at times.

And finally – any plans for your next book that you can share?

I can – happily! Book Three (we’re still trying to decide on a title) is set mainly in Paris in 1924 and early 1925. Its heroine is Lady Helena, Edward’s former fiancée, who has come to France for a year to study art. While she is there she moves on the fringe of the circle we know of now as the Lost Generation – the great writers, poets, musicians, artists and dancers who flocked to Paris after the war – and she becomes friends with many of them. As for a romantic interest? You’ll be happy to know he’s an American, a newspaperman, and (like Helena) a bit of a lost soul. Assuming I manage to turn in my first draft on time, it will be hitting the shelves in early January 2016.

Thanks, Jen!

Leave a comment below (with your email address) to enter the giveaway. I’ll pick a winner later this week.

Read Full Post »

cover-somewhere-in-franceBack in November, I read and reviewed Somewhere in France, Jennifer Robson’s debut novel, for Shelf Awareness.

As a fan of historical fiction with an interest in World War I stories, I was captivated by the story of Lady Elizabeth Neville-Ashford, who longs to make a difference in the world, but is constrained by her place in British society.

When war breaks out in Europe, Lilly defies her parents and joins the ranks of WAAC drivers, eventually getting posted to France where her sweetheart, a Scottish surgeon, is working at a field hospital. Their love story twists and turns along with the war, and Lilly does a lot of growing up out there on the front lines.

Jennifer graciously agreed to do a Q&A for my readers, and with the return of Downton Abbey here in the States, the timing is perfect.

My questions and Jen’s responses are below. Enjoy!

Can you talk a bit about the inspiration for Somewhere in France?

When I was a teenager, my mother gave me a copy of Testament of Youth, Vera Brittain’s classic memoir of the Great War. At the beginning of the book, Vera isn’t much older than I was then, yet she was thrust into a world of war, death and paralyzing loss when she was still so young.

I remember thinking that I would love to read the story of other women like Vera. They didn’t fight in the front lines, but they made tremendous sacrifices all the same, and their work was absolutely vital to the war effort.

How did you become interested in the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps and the experience of women ambulance drivers?

It began when I was researching the book. I had decided that I didn’t want Lilly to become a nurse—I couldn’t conceive of a believable way for her to acquire the necessary education and training—so I started looking at the other women’s services, and the WAAC, with its wide range of occupations for members, as well as a predominantly working- and middle-class membership, was ideal.

I did find it quite difficult to unearth information on the corps and its members, however, as most official papers relating to the WAAC were destroyed in the Blitz. If anyone out there is looking for a suitable topic for a doctoral thesis on the history of the Great War, a general history of the WAAC is badly needed!

I was particularly fascinated by the ambulance drivers in the WAAC; their work was difficult, dirty and frequently dangerous, often in terrible conditions, and the suffering of their passengers must have been very distressing to witness. I suppose I could have been kinder to Lilly, and let her work as a clerk well behind the lines, but that wouldn’t have been nearly as fun to write about!

Do you have a favorite period detail or incident you’ve come across in your research?

I think it was the original forms that applicants to the WAAC filled out when applying to the corps. Those few that survive are preserved at the National Archives in the UK (here’s an example that can be viewed online).

When I looked at those forms, filled out by each applicant in her own handwriting, I felt the hundred years between us slip away: here were young women, most of whom had never been away from home, and they were volunteering to leave everything and everyone they knew in order to do their duty. I was, and continue to be, deeply humbled by their courage.

What do you find most fascinating about the World War I era?

I think it’s the way it straddles a period that feels distant yet also very familiar. The people who fought and lived through the war were Victorian by birth and by outlook, with attitudes and beliefs that can often appear somewhat foreign to modern sensibilities.

Yet until quite recently Great War veterans were alive and among us and able to share their memories. I had the honor of meeting a number of them over the years, and when I spoke to them the war didn’t seem remote at all—it might as well have happened yesterday.

Have you visited any of the places in England and France depicted in your novel?

I’ve visited all of them, with the exception of Cumberland Hall in the Lake District, as it’s entirely a product of my imagination. While I was a guide at the Canadian National War Memorial at Vimy Ridge, which is not far from the area of the Western Front depicted in Somewhere in France, I visited some of the battlefields in northern France and Belgium; most moving of all was Beaumont-Hamel, where the Newfoundland Regiment was decimated on the first day of the Battle of the Somme.

I’ve also visited Paris and London many times over the years and hope to take my children for a visit there soon.

Can you tell us a bit about the follow-up novel you’re working on, about Lilly’s fearless friend Charlotte?

It begins in the spring of 1919, after Charlotte’s return to Liverpool. She resumes her position as an assistant to Eleanor Rathbone, a real-life figure who was a city councillor and one of the best-known suffragists and supporters for the working poor in Britain in that era.

We follow Charlotte as she makes new friends at the boarding house where she lives, works tirelessly to improve the lives of Liverpool’s working poor, and attempts to save an old friend from the demons that are consuming him as a result of his wartime experiences.

Jen has offered to give away a signed copy of Somewhere in France to one of my readers, so leave a comment below for a chance to win! And you can learn more about Jen and Somewhere in France at her website.

Read Full Post »

stone soup books interior camden maine

Drama High: The Incredible True Story of a Brilliant Teacher, a Struggling Town, and the Magic of Theater, Michael Sokolove
Touted as the ideal suburb when it was built, Levittown, Pa., is today a depressing, dead-end place. But in its high school theater program, generations of students have come alive under the direction of Lou Volpe, theater teacher extraordinaire. The author, a former student of Volpe’s, returns to his hometown to observe Volpe in action and watch his students develop several challenging, powerful shows. Fascinating and fun; took me back to my years watching all my best friends perform in high school plays. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Sept. 26).

Howards End is on the Landing: A Year of Reading from Home, Susan Hill
While searching for an elusive book on her shelves, novelist Susan Hill encountered dozens of books she’d never read or wanted to reread. This collection of bookish, quirky, opinionated essays is a wonderful, often nostalgic tour through her shelves and her reading life. Catnip for fellow bookworms like me – so much fun.

Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, Sheryl Sandberg
Sandberg’s memoir-cum-business-book needs no introduction from me. I found it chock full of great stories from working women (Sandberg and others) who have struggled to balance career, family, and the ever-present guilt that comes from even attempting the balancing act in the first place. Sandberg freely admits her own privileged status, but I found many of her insights applicable to a broad range of women and workplace levels. A quick read, but deeply thought-provoking.

Songs of Willow Frost, Jamie Ford
In Depression-era Seattle, William Eng lives at the Sacred Heart orphanage with other children whose parents are dead or unable to care for them. While attending a movie (a rare treat), he sees a Chinese actress who looks like the mother he remembers. Is Willow Frost, the actress, really Liu Song, William’s mother? He embarks on a quest to find out. Shifting between the 1920s and the 1930s, Ford’s narrative exposes the often difficult lives of Chinese people in the Northwest at that time. Heartbreaking but ultimately hopeful – though the ending felt a bit abrupt to me.

This post contains IndieBound affiliate links.

What are you reading?

Read Full Post »

the purse mystique

I need some feedback, guys. Bethany (my roommate) and I had a really hilarious idea for an article yesterday. While reminiscing about our grandmothers and how they taught us to put on lipstick when we were little (solely a girl thing, I know), we started talking about women’s purses and the mystique associated with them. I know Jeremiah used to get his wrist slapped for reaching into his mom’s purse as a kid – it was sacred space. What about the rest of you men? Are women’s purses sacrosanct? Did your mom/grandmother/sister/wife/daughter ever make a big deal about you rummaging through her purse? I need to see if this is a widespread phenomenon, and well, you guys are pretty diverse. 😉 Ladies, feel free to leave feedback as well. Do you get on to your husband/son/boyfriend/guy friends for violating your purse space? I’m trying to get some thoughts so this whole thing can gel. I may even quote you if you are particularly witty or clever. 🙂 So please, comment away! Please please!

By the way, ANOTHER ARTICLE of mine ran in a Relevant e-newsletter yesterday. I’ll either post it on the blog or…figure out something clever. Cheers!

Read Full Post »