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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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mostly books interior abingdon uk bookshop

October began with a much-needed break: a trip across the pond to Oxford, my heart’s home, to see friends and dive into bookshops and drink so much tea. I bought half a dozen books there, of course. Here’s what I have been reading, on my long plane rides and since then:

The Austen Escape, Katherine Reay
Engineer Mary Davies is in a slump at work when her childhood best friend Isabel talks her into joining an Austen-themed country house party in England. Once there, Mary thinks they might actually enjoy themselves, until Isabel has a sudden memory lapse and believes the costume party is real. I like Reay’s sweet lit-nerd novels, though the mental health plotline here felt like a stretch. (NB: I’m married to a therapist.) I did enjoy seeing Mary come into her own. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Nov. 7).

The Troutbeck Testimony, Rebecca Tope
Persimmon “Simmy” Brown is celebrating her one-year anniversary of moving to the Lake District and opening a flower shop. But a series of disturbing events, including the body of a dead dog and the murder of a local man, mar her joy and draw her into a tangled investigation. Fourth in a series I hadn’t previously read; I liked Simmy, but found some of the other characters a bit annoying. Still an engaging airplane read. Found at the Oxfam bookshop on Turl Street, in Oxford.

High Tide, Veronica Henry
I loved Henry’s novel How to Find Love in a Bookshop and picked this one up at the Oxfam shop in Summertown, Oxford. It’s a charming story of several people who find themselves in the Cornwall village of Pennfleet, just as summer is turning to autumn. Love and soul-searching and dramatic life changes lie ahead, and I loved each character’s arc – they all felt satisfying, and the tone is so engaging. Light and lovely. (I enjoy a dose of British chick lit once in a while.)

The War I Finally Won, Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
Bradley’s sequel to The War That Saved My Life (which I adored) picks up with Ada Smith and her brother, Jamie, living in the Kentish countryside with their guardian, Susan. As World War II heats up, Ada and her family find themselves hosting Ruth, a German Jewish refugee. Ada’s struggle to accept Ruth, to trust that Susan will care for her and Jamie, and to reckon with her own losses and fears (war-related and otherwise) broke my heart and mended it again. She is so brave, and this is such a great story. Found at Mostly Books in Abingdon (pictured above) on my trip.

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

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windfall book tea airport

The first half of June has flown by – helped along by a visit to my hometown in West Texas, which meant (among other things) lots of airplane/airport reading. Here’s my latest bookish roundup:

The Lost Girl of Astor Street, Stephanie Morrill
Piper Sail is worried about her best friend Lydia, who’s been having seizures. But when Lydia disappears from their wealthy Chicago neighborhood, Piper’s worry ratchets up a few notches. Determined to find her friend, Piper embarks on an amateur investigation, with the reluctant help of a handsome young Italian detective. Think Veronica Mars meets the 1920s. Piper is an appealing heroine – though she can be frustratingly naive – and this was a fun YA mystery.

The Diplomat’s Daughter, Karin Tanabe
Twenty-one-year-old Emi Kato has spent her life moving around the globe with her Japanese diplomat parents. But after Pearl Harbor is bombed, Emi and her mother end up in an interment camp in south Texas, where Emi meets a German-American boy, Christian Lange. Meanwhile, Emi’s first love, Leo Hartmann, has escaped his home city of Vienna for Japanese-occupied Shanghai. A fascinating, vivid story of World War II from a new angle, with three engaging protagonists. I read it on a long plane ride. To review for Shelf Awareness (out July 11).

Windfall, Jennifer E. Smith
Alice doesn’t believe in luck. But when she buys her best friend Teddy a lottery ticket for his 18th birthday, he wins $140 million – and things get complicated, fast. As Teddy, Alice and her cousin Leo navigate the aftermath of the win, they’re also dealing with first love, old and new griefs, college decisions and high school politics. I love Smith’s YA novels and this one is so good: heartfelt, funny, wise.

Murder in Mayfair, D.M. Quincy
On his way to London from Bath, Atlas Catesby finds himself at a country inn where a local woman is being sold and humiliated by her brutish husband. He rescues her, but the woman, Lilliana (and her situation) are more complex than he first thought. When Lilliana’s husband is murdered, both she and Atlas become suspects, and he must work to clear both their names. A solid British mystery set in the Regency period, with an engaging cast of characters. To review for Shelf Awareness (out July 11).

Lois Lane: Triple Threat, Gwenda Bond
Lois Lane, to her own surprise, is loving her life in Metropolis: decent grades, a few good friends, a dream after-school job at the Daily Scoop. But when teenagers with mysterious powers start terrorizing the city, Lois and her colleagues investigate – right as Lois’ mysterious Internet crush, SmallvilleGuy, heads to Metropolis IRL. A smart, snarky, really fun addition to this YA series.

The Bookshop at Water’s End, Patti Callahan Henry
Bonny Blankenship has worked hard to build her career as a respected ER doctor. But after a mistake results in a patient’s death, Bonny flees to her childhood summer home in Watersend, S.C., with her college-age daughter, Piper. Bonny’s best friend, Lainey, and her children join them, and all three women must reckon with the past (including the night Lainey’s mom disappeared, long ago) and decide how they want to shape their futures. An appealing, easy-reading novel with depth and warmth. To review for Shelf Awareness (out July 11).

Wolf Hollow, Lauren Wolk
Annabelle McBride is content with her quiet life in the Pennsylvania hills, despite the rumblings of a far-off world war. But when a new girl comes to school and starts bullying her classmates and an eccentric but kind WWI vet named Toby, Annabelle is faced with some difficult choices. This was heavy and haunting but so well done, and I loved Annabelle and her family. I also adored Wolk’s latest novel, Beyond the Bright Sea.

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

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bank square books mystic ct window

I’m not quite sure how it’s June already – though the last half of May is always a bit of a blur (because Commencement). In any case, here are the books that have been getting me through:

Hallelujah Anyway: Rediscovering Mercy, Anne Lamott
Mercy, Lamott says, might be the key to navigating this broken world: extending it to others and especially to ourselves. I love Lamott’s wry, honest writing: this slim book of essays on mercy is a little uneven, but full of wisdom and so timely.

Gem & Dixie, Sara Zarr
Sisters Gem and Dixie True have always been a team: Gem takes care of Dixie when both their parents fail to step up. But as the girls reach high school and their absent dad reappears, Gem has to rethink her old strategies for survival. A heartbreaking portrait of addiction, neglect and the fierce, complicated bonds of sisterhood. I love Zarr’s YA novels, and this one was worthwhile, though not my favorite.

Beyond the Bright Sea, Lauren Wolk
Since she washed up on a tiny island as an infant, Crow has lived happily with Osh, the man who took her in. But now Crow is twelve and she has questions Osh can’t answer: about where she came from and why she was sent away. A gorgeous, wise, lovely middle-grade novel about family and belonging. It broke my heart and then healed it. Found at the Savoy Bookshop in Westerly, R.I.

Wild Things: The Joy of Reading Children’s Literature as an Adult, Bruce Handy
Cultural critic and children’s lit lover Handy revisits the classics of American kidlit: Goodnight Moon, Little House on the Prairie, The Cat in the Hat, Where the Wild Things Are. He delves into the cultural forces that shape children’s lit and captures the essence of so many beloved childhood classics, plus he’s witty and articulate. I especially loved the chapters on Ramona Quimby and the Chronicles of Narnia. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Aug. 15).

Goodnight from London, Jennifer Robson
Ruby Sutton, American journalist, is seconded to a London magazine as the Blitz heats up in 1940. She quickly finds a home in London: friends, colleagues and even the possibility of love. I love Robson’s historical novels and this one was excellent, though the ending felt a bit abrupt. Ruby and her fellow survivors are wonderfully human and brave.

The Essential Emily Dickinson, Emily Dickinson
I picked up this collection at the wonderful Three Lives & Co. in NYC this winter. I love Emily D., and this collection includes lots of old favorites and many poems I’d never read before. (Plus it’s pocket-size and beautiful.)

Sourdough, Robin Sloan
Lois Clary spends her days writing code for robots and her nights passed out on the couch – until she inherits a sourdough starter from two mysterious brothers who own a local restaurant. Before long, Lois has become a baker – but the power of the sourdough, and the strange politics of the Bay Area foodie community, take her on a ride she didn’t expect. Quirky and geeky and so much fun (like Sloan’s wonderful debut, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore). To review for Shelf Awareness (out Sept. 5).

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

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maisie dobbs in this grave hour book

It’s May. (How did that happen?) The April showers continue, but they are producing both May flowers (tulips!) and good books. Here’s the latest roundup:

The Last of August, Brittany Cavallaro
Cavallaro’s second YA novel follows Charlotte Holmes and Jamie Watson (descendants of that Holmes and Watson) to Sussex, then to Berlin and Prague, on the trail of an art forgery ring and Charlotte’s missing uncle. I love Jamie’s narration: he is keenly observant and deeply kind (a Watson to his core). This plot was a lot of fun, though the ending didn’t quite work for me. I loved the first book featuring these two, A Study in Charlotte, and will definitely read the third.

How to Fall in Love with Anyone: A Memoir in Essays, Mandy Len Catron
Long before Catron wrote a Modern Love essay that went viral, she was thinking about – and doing research on – love. This book includes Catron’s own love story, but it’s not just a boy-meets-girl romance. She shares her parents’ and grandparents’ love stories, examines her own decade-long relationship that eventually soured, and considers a lot of the cultural baggage surrounding love. Insightful and honest and so good. To review for Shelf Awareness (out June 27).

In This Grave Hour, Jacqueline Winspear
September 1939: England and Europe are bracing for another war, and as usual, Maisie Dobbs is in the thick of it. She’s investigating the deaths of several Belgian refugees from the last war, while helping her father and stepmother care for evacuee children, and watching out for her employees. I love Maisie and this was a stellar entry in Winspear’s series – plus a lot of great setup for (I hope) the next few books.

The Shark Club, Ann Kidd Taylor
When Maeve Donnelly was 12, she was bitten by a blacktip shark and kissed by the boy she loved. Eighteen years later, Maeve is a marine biologist with a deep love for sharks. When she returns to her hometown, her past and present (plus an illegal shark-finning operation) collide in powerful ways. A smart, well-written, absorbing novel of love, regret and moving forward. I also loved the memoir Taylor co-wrote with her mother, Sue Monk Kidd, Traveling with Pomegranates. To review for Shelf Awareness (out June 6).

A Shimmer of Something: Lean Stories of Spiritual Substance, Brian Doyle
Doyle’s rambling prose poems stop me in my tracks – that is, they force me to pay attention, with his constant insistence that “there are no tiny things.” This collection (like all his work) is wonderful: wry, insightful, observant, compassionate.

Jane of Lantern Hill, L.M. Montgomery
Jane – wise, practical Jane – is one of my more recent faves among Montgomery’s heroines. This book has comforted me every spring for several years now. Love love love.

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

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textbook akr book sky

Thanks to three glorious days in Florida last week (see above), my reading list has been long lately. (I read four and a half books on vacation!) Here’s the latest roundup:

How the Light Gets In: And Other Headlong Epiphanies, Brian Doyle
I love Brian Doyle’s wise, warm, witty voice and these prose poems – rambling, insightful, observant, funny – are just about perfection. I savored this, dipping into it a few poems at a time over several weeks. Full of wonder, grace and laughter. Found at the Strand.

Starry Night, Isabel Gillies
When 15-year-old Wren goes to a fancy benefit at the Met (where her dad works) wearing her mother’s vintage red Oscar de la Renta dress, and meets a fascinating boy, everything changes. But love, even first love, isn’t always smooth. A bittersweet YA romance; Wren is a little spoiled, but she learns some hard lessons (and says some wise things) about art and love. Found at Greenlight in Brooklyn.

The Jane Austen Project, Kathleen Flynn
“What kind of maniac travels in time?” For Rachel Katzman, the answer is: a devoted Jane Austen fan who’s keen to retrieve a lost manuscript and perhaps unravel the mystery surrounding Jane’s death. Rachel and her colleague, Liam, travel back to 1815 and make friends with Jane and her family – but, of course, nothing goes quite as planned. A fun mix of time travel, love and catnip for Austen fans, though the ending was quite abrupt. To review for Shelf Awareness (out May 2).

The Romantics, Leah Konen
Gael Brennan is a class-A certified Romantic – so it hits him particularly hard when he catches his girlfriend kissing his best friend (right after his parents have separated). But Love – the sly, witty narrator of this YA novel – has lots of plans for Gael and his nearest and dearest. An absolutely delightful look at love in all its forms. The narration is so clever and fun. My favorite line: “Real love makes you better than you ever knew you could be.”

Textbook Amy Krouse Rosenthal, Amy Krouse Rosenthal
I loved Rosenthal’s previous memoir, Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life. This one is organized topically: Pre-Assessment, Language Arts, Social Studies, Science, etc. Rosenthal’s writing is quirky and luminous – she holds a mirror up to the beautiful pieces of everyday life. Her Modern Love essay recently went viral, right before she passed away – and before Nina recommended this book at Great New Books. The timing, as well as the whimsy and gentle gravity of the memoir itself, make it even more worth reading.

Summerlost, Ally Condie
Since the car crash that killed her dad and brother, Cedar Lee has felt lost in her grief. But when she, her mom and other brother return to her mom’s hometown for the summer, Cedar makes a new friend, and begins edging back toward feeling whole again. A funny, sweet, gorgeous middle-grade novel of friendship, summer theatre festivals and learning to dream again. I loved it.

The Secrets of Wishtide, Kate Saunders
Mrs. Laetitia Rodd, a clergyman’s widow in 1850s England, uses her entirely correct social position as excellent cover for solving mysteries. Her narrative voice is wonderful – wry and keen-eyed – and the mystery was satisfyingly tangled. Her supporting cast – including her lawyer brother and plainspoken landlady – is also highly enjoyable. First in a planned series, and I’d gladly read the others.

The Lost Letter, Jillian Cantor
As Katie Nelson faces the dissolution of her marriage and her father’s increasing memory problems, she finds an intriguing item in his stamp collection: an unsent letter with an unusual German stamp from World War II. With the help of a stamp dealer, Katie digs into the stamp’s history and uncovers a connection to her own past. I like Cantor’s thoughtful, compelling historical novels and this dual-narrative one was satisfying. To review for Shelf Awareness (out June 13).

Mary Russell’s War, Laurie R. King
I love King’s series of novels about Sherlock Holmes and Mary Russell, and enjoyed this collection of short stories featuring same. Russell’s narrative voice is always a delight, and appearances by Mrs. Hudson, Dr. Watson and others are pure fun.

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

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