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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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Happy New Year, friends. I hope your holidays were wonderful. Mine involved our usual Texas tour: lots of family time, Tex-Mex food and twinkliness. (Then a quiet New Year’s weekend to recover.)

Here are the books I read in the second half of December – mostly on our vacation:

Ghosts of Greenglass House, Kate Milford
Milo Pine is looking forward to a quiet Christmas with his parents. But for the second year in a row, that’s not happening: the titular hotel where they live is invaded by a pair of thieves and a mysterious group of carolers (the Waits). I enjoyed this sequel to Greenglass House, though the magic got a little muddled at times.

You Bring the Distant Near, Mitali Perkins
Spanning four decades (1970s to present day), this YA novel unfolds the saga of the Das family as they move between India and the U.S., through the voices of five women. A great story of sisterhood and the push and pull between tradition, family and making your own way. I read it in one sitting on a flight.

A Casualty of War, Charles Todd
The Great War is nearly over, but for nurse Bess Crawford, there’s still much to be done for the soldiers in her care. The plight of one such soldier, a Captain Travis, sends Bess and her friend Simon Brandon to Suffolk to investigate his family history. I’ve enjoyed this series, but the previous few books have stalled a bit. This one, however, was excellent.

Christmas at Little Beach Street Bakery, Jenny Colgan
As Christmas approaches, baker Polly Waterford is struggling: she’s exhausted at work, ambivalent about her boyfriend’s marriage proposal and worried about her pregnant best friend. I like Colgan’s cheery chick lit; this one wasn’t my favorite, but I enjoyed seeing these characters again.

The Dark is Rising, Susan Cooper
I’d never read this fantasy novel, but picked it up when Robert Macfarlane (whose nonfiction I adore) announced a readalong on Twitter. I loved the story: full of beautiful lines, ancient magic and bravery, as 11-year-old Will Stanton discovers he’s part of a mysterious circle that must hold back the Dark. It’s set at midwinter/Christmastime, which felt so apt. Now I want to read the rest of the series.

Leopard at the Door, Jennifer McVeigh
I grabbed this at the (rather uninspiring) DFW airport bookstore, and spent my flight home wholly absorbed in it. Rachel Fullsmith returns home to Kenya after six miserable years in an English boarding school. Her widowed father has taken up with a cold, manipulative woman, and there is increasing unrest among the Kenyan laborers. Vivid images, gorgeous writing and a heart-wrenching story of those caught up in the Mau Mau uprising. (I also enjoyed McVeigh’s debut, The Fever Tree.)

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

What are you reading in this brand-new year?

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It’s been quite a month around here – which has meant, among other things, less reading than usual. But the books are still helping keep me sane, so here’s the latest roundup:

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, J.K. Rowling, Jack Thorne and Jack Tiffany
I am a longtime, avid Harry Potter fan, and I had mixed feelings about this new story/script, before and after reading it. Fun to spend more time in Rowling’s world, and the characters are (mostly) still beautifully themselves. But it lacked the depth and power of the original seven books. I’m still glad I read it.

Precious and Grace, Alexander McCall Smith
I enjoy McCall Smith’s gentle mystery series about Precious Ramotswe, who runs the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency in Gaborone, Botswana. I am less fond of her assistant, Grace Makutsi, but the dynamic between the two women is always interesting. This one wasn’t really a mystery, more a gentle reflection on life and forgiveness, but it was charming. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Oct. 11).

A Gentleman in Moscow, Amor Towles
Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov is placed under house arrest in Moscow’s Metropol Hotel and sets about building a life for himself within the hotel’s walls. A witty, philosophical, engaging story – Rostov is charming and so is his supporting cast. I especially loved the hotel’s chef, Émile, and maitre d’, Andrey. (I also relished Towles’ debut, Rules of Civility.)

To Capture What We Cannot Keep, Beatrice Colin
Widowed and penniless, Caitriona Wallace takes a job as a companion to two young people heading to Paris in 1887. There, all three of them become entangled with Émile Nouguier, an engineer working with Gustave Eiffel to build his tower. Beautiful descriptions, though I found every single character (except Eiffel himself) frustratingly passive. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Nov. 29).

The Shattered Tree, Charles Todd
This eighth entry in Todd’s Bess Crawford series finds Bess (battlefield nurse and amateur sleuth) tracking down a mysterious soldier in October 1918. These books are somber but well written, and I like Bess (though she does insist on thinking she’s invincible). A solid historical mystery.

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

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red books flowers

I’ve been diving into allll the books this month – several of them on vacation (of which more soon). Here’s the latest roundup:

When in French: Love in a Second Language, Lauren Collins
North Carolina native Lauren Collins never expected to fall in love with a Frenchman. But when she found herself married to Olivier and living in Geneva, she decided to get serious about learning French. Her memoir muses on the difficulties of language and culture clashes, American monolingualism and the blending of two families. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Sept. 13).

Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood, Marjane Satrapi
Satrapi’s graphic novel tells the story of her childhood in Iran during and after the Islamic Revolution and the Iran-Iraq war. Powerful, often irreverent, sometimes funny. I reread this one for the RTFEBC (though it is definitely for older kids/teens).

The One-in-a-Million Boy, Monica Wood
This novel is the first pick for Modern Mrs. Darcy’s online Summer Reading Club. It follows the friendship between an 11-year-old boy and Miss Ona Vitkus, age 104 (he’s recording her life story on tape). Funny, poignant and sweet without being saccharine. So many wonderful lines.

The Darkness Knows, Cheryl Honigford
Vivian Witchell is an aspiring radio actress in 1930s Chicago. She’s just landed a plum new role when one of her colleagues is murdered – and Vivian is threatened. With the help of a handsome private eye, Vivian is determined to catch the killer. A fun period mystery; I loved the radio details. Vivian is spunky (if a little bullheaded) and engaging. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Aug. 2).

At the Edge of Summer, Jessica Brockmole
In the summer of 1911, orphaned Clare Ross arrives at a quiet French chateau. She forges a deep friendship with Luc, the house’s son, but they are separated by life and war. Years later, they meet again in Paris and must try to bridge the gaps of time and grief. A subtle, lovely story of art, love and human connection, beautifully told.

The Unexpected Everything, Morgan Matson
Andie Walker always has a plan. She’s all set for a summer program at Johns Hopkins when a political scandal (her dad’s a congressman) puts her back at square one. Suddenly, Andie finds herself working as a dog walker and spending hours with a very cute boy. It’s idyllic, until a series of secrets threatens to ruin everything. I love Matson’s smart, sensitive, fun YA novels, and this one is great. Especially fun for writers, as Anne said.

Arsenic for Tea, Robin Stevens
Hazel Wong and Daisy Wells are at Daisy’s home, Fallingford, for the school holidays. When an unlikable houseguest is poisoned at afternoon tea, the girls take on the case. A really fun second mystery featuring these characters – so very English. (I have the UK edition; link is to the U.S. edition, called Poison is Not Polite.)

The Invitation, Lucy Foley
A glamorous party in Rome. A chance encounter. English journalist Hal never expects to see the mysterious Stella again. But a year later, they meet on a yacht, both of them loosely tied to a movie cast sailing to Cannes for the premiere of a new film. A gorgeous, bittersweet novel of loss and redemption, alternating between the Spanish Civil War and 1950s Italy. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Aug. 2).

Summer at Little Beach Street Bakery, Jenny Colgan
Polly Waterford has a lovely little bakery, a doting boyfriend, a pet puffin and a quirky home in an old lighthouse. But when her landlady dies and her boyfriend has to go back to the U.S. for work, her carefully constructed life begins to unravel. A sweet (though often really sad) novel about baking, second chances and fighting to hold onto the good.

The Nest, Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney
The Plumb siblings are arguing about money again. Years ago, their father set up a modest trust fund (“The Nest”), and they were all counting on it until Leo, the eldest, got himself into trouble and their mother used The Nest to bail him out. Now, they all may have to reimagine their financial futures and rethink their relationships to one another. A smart, satirical but warmhearted novel of family and finances. (The second pick for the MMD Summer Reading Club.)

Lois Lane: Double Down, Gwenda Bond
Lois Lane, girl reporter, finally has friends and a place to belong: the Scoop, teen arm of the Daily Planet. Her second adventure involves following her nose to a big story involving the mayor’s office, her best friend’s sister and some seriously weird mind control. Lois is snarky but compassionate (think Veronica Mars) and her supporting cast is great. So fun.

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

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April has brought the craziest weather so far: six inches of snow, torrential rain, mild sunshine. Here’s what I have been reading:

Last Ride to Graceland, Kim Wright
Blues musician Cory Beth Ainsworth has always known her mama spent a year as a backup singer for Elvis – but she’s never known the details. After her mother dies, Cory stumbles upon a vintage Stutz Blackhawk in her stepfather’s shed: a car that belonged to the King himself. Fueled by a need to know more about her own history, Cory takes to the road, driving the Blackhawk from South Carolina to Memphis. A sweet road-trip story, though Cory is seriously flaky. To review for Shelf Awareness (out May 24).

Belong to Me, Marisa de los Santos
During a serious reading slump, I picked up this book and fell head over heels (again) into this luminous, funny, utterly genuine story about a few families whose lives become intertwined. I adore Cornelia, who also narrates Love Walked In, and I love how her world gets bigger and richer in this book. I am amazed at de los Santos’ deep compassion for her characters, even prickly Piper (Cornelia’s neighbor).

West Wind, Mary Oliver
I need a Mary Oliver fix every once in a while (especially during National Poetry Month). This collection of poems and prose poems is luminous and lovely. Some favorites: “Fox,” “It is midnight, or almost,” and the last poem, “Have You Ever Tried to Enter the Long Black Branches.”

Audacity Jones to the Rescue, Kirby Larson
Audacity Jones is whisked away from Miss Maisie’s Home for Wayward Girls as part of a top-secret mission involving President Taft – but neither the mission nor its consequences are what she expects. A fun, fast-paced middle-grade novel with a spunky, clever heroine. (I love her name!)

The Song of Hartgrove Hall, Natasha Solomons
After World War II, the Fox-Talbot estate in Dorset (Hartgrove Hall) is falling apart, and the family’s three sons work to try and save it. Harry, the youngest, is a gifted composer and avid folk-song collector, but he’s also in love with his brother’s girlfriend. Solomons’ writing is gorgeous – she evokes both music and the English countryside so well – though the love triangle didn’t feel quite believable to me. (I loved her earlier novel The House at Tyneford.)

The Saturdays, Elizabeth Enright
The four Melendy children – Mona, Rush, Randy and Oliver – live with their father in a comfortable, shabby brownstone in 1940s New York City. They decide to pool their allowances so they can have adventures on Saturdays, and do they ever! I love this book – the writing is simple and lovely and the characters are so much fun. First in a series.

Under a Painted Sky, Stacey Lee
After Samantha Young loses her father and her home, she finds herself fleeing town in the company of a runaway slave, Annamae. The two girls disguise themselves as boys and strike out for the Oregon Trail, hoping to outrun their problems and chase their dreams to California. A smart, vivid YA novel with two brave heroines and some really fun supporting characters (human and animal). Reminded me a bit of Walk on Earth a Stranger.

A Front Page Affair, Radha Vatsal
Capability “Kitty” Weeks has ambitions of being a journalist, but she’s stuck writing for the Ladies’ Page of the New York Sentinel. But when a man is murdered at a society picnic on her beat, Kitty finds herself drawn into a twisty conspiracy. This one had a slow start but picked up later on. Kitty is a likable heroine and the setting (1915 NYC) will appeal to lovers of historical mystery. To review for Shelf Awareness (out May 3).

The Enchanted April, Elizabeth von Arnim
Four Englishwomen, unacquainted and all variously miserable for their own reasons, rent a charming Italian villa for the month of April. A winsome comedy of manners with plenty of wit and many amusing misunderstandings. (Also: gorgeous descriptions.) Utterly delightful. Recommended by my pen pal Jaclyn.

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

What are you reading?

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Winter is the perfect time to hunker down with lots of books. As the snow swirls outside, here’s what I have been reading:

Journey to Munich, Jacqueline Winspear
After a stint working as a nurse in a remote Spanish village, investigator Maisie Dobbs returns to England. But the Secret Service taps her for a sensitive mission: retrieving an engineer imprisoned by the Nazis. I adore Maisie and her supporting cast, and found the setting (Germany in 1938) fascinating. To review for Shelf Awareness (out March 29).

The Shepherd’s Crown, Terry Pratchett
Pratchett’s final novel follows Tiffany Aching as she continues to serve as the witch for her home district, amid multiple challenges. I like Tiffany and her fellow witches, though the plot (and the magic) wandered a bit.

All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation, Rebecca Traister
There are more single women in the U.S. than ever before; they are gaining in power, but they still face numerous challenges. Traister explores the history of single womanhood, how single women have agitated for social change, and how far we still have to go. Keenly observed, well-researched and whip-smart. To review for Shelf Awareness (out March 1).

Move Your Blooming Corpse, D.E. Ireland
Eliza Doolittle and Henry Higgins are off to Ascot – where they find themselves in the thick of another mystery. I liked watching them try to solve multiple murders, though I guessed the killer before they did. Fun, but not as good as its predecessor.

Walk on Earth a Stranger, Rae Carson
Leah “Lee” Westfall has a secret: she can sense the presence of gold. When her parents are murdered, Lee runs away from her greedy uncle, disguising herself as a boy and joining a wagon train headed for California. A sweeping historical YA novel full of vividly drawn characters (with a hint of magical realism). I loved Lee, her best friend Jefferson and many of their compatriots on the trail. This is the first in a trilogy and I can’t wait to see what happens next.

Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church, Rachel Held Evans
I’m a longtime reader of Rachel’s blog and I liked her first two books, Faith Unraveled and A Year of Biblical Womanhood. But this book is far and away her best yet. An account of Rachel’s complicated relationship with church, told through the lens of seven sacraments, it is sensitively and beautifully written (though the last sections felt rushed). I found myself nodding my head often, saying, “Me too.”

The Trouble with Destiny, Lauren Morrill
Drum major Liza Sanders knows her band has to win a performing arts competition on their spring break cruise or they’ll get the ax due to budget cuts. But once they board the Destiny, everything goes wrong: power outages, flaring tempers, misunderstandings galore. I found the romantic storyline predictable, but Morrill hits all the right notes of the band nerd experience. Fun.

Fall of Poppies: Stories of Love and the Great War, various
The Armistice came on Nov. 11, 1918 – but it didn’t end the war for everyone. Nine authors explore the hope and grief of the war and its end through an anthology of short stories. A bit uneven, but a compelling (and heartbreaking) mosaic of the experiences shared by soldiers, nurses and those who loved them. To review for Shelf Awareness (out March 1).

Brooklyn, Colm Toibin
This quiet novel follows Eilis Lacey, who emigrates from her small Irish town to Brooklyn in the 1950s. She works in a department store, takes bookkeeping classes and even falls in love. But when she is unexpectedly called home, she must choose between her old and new lives. Lovely and well drawn.

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

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