Book Review: The Alice Network by Kate Quinn

There have been quite a few novels telling the story of World War II female British agents dropped into France, and their resistance fighter counterparts, and they often make good reading. It was a time for women getting to do some gutsy jobs, involving danger and cunning – not the usual ‘keep the home fires burning’ roles they were often accustomed to. But what about the earlier war? Kate Quinn puts us in the picture with one particular network run by Alice Dubois (real name Louise de Bettignies) in German occupied France during the First World War.

Although The Alice Network is partly written through the eyes of a fictitious character – Evelyn Gardiner, a British spy (code name Marguerite Le Francois) – Dubois and her network of spies are also incorporated into the story. We first meet Eve years later as an ageing drunk with deformed hands, a bad temper and a tendency to wave her Luger around, firing off a round when startled.

It’s an evening in 1947 when nineteen-year-old New Yorker, Charlie St. Clair, hammers on Eve’s door demanding to be let in. It’s pouring with rain, and Charlie has escaped her mother during a visit to Europe for a completely different purpose. Charlie is determined to track down a long lost French cousin, Rose, angry that no one has found out what happened to Rose in the recent war. Without a death certificate or witness statement, she still hopes Rose is alive. Eve, working at a bureau that helped locate refugees, had corresponded with Charlie’s father about Rose giving no reason for hope.

That’s not the only problem for Charlie – she’s three month’s pregnant and was supposed to be going to a clinic for an abortion. But Charlie needs to track down Rose before it’s too late and take control of her own life. Eve is set to turn Charlie out into the street, but a new lead sparks her curiosity. Before long they form an unlikely alliance, heading to France with Eve’s Scottish hired help, Finn Kilgore, in his ageing Lagonda. Finn also has his own war story, which eventually emerges, but the narrative is mostly Eve’s and Charlie’s, flipping between WWI and 1947 to fill us in on the story of the Alice Network, and Charlie’s journey of discovery.

This is a nicely paced novel. The story of Eve’s war is a grim one, unfolding to reveal how women spies picked up gems of information about troop movements and planned attacks. Eve, with her stutter, looks naive and youthful, but as a waitress in the only decent restaurant in Lille, is an ideal spy with her ease in both French and German. There’s lots of tension here and the sudden switches to Charlie’s story give a bit of light relief. Although her’s is a sad story too, there’s a bit more fun in the way the three travellers interact and develop a grudging respect for each other. Things simmer between them until the past finally catches up with the present and everything comes to a dramatic finish.

I enjoyed the novel immensely as an escapist read, but was also really interested to learn more about the spy-ring run by Alice Dubois and the fate of those who were captured. Remembering that this is a time before women had the vote in Britain, it’s remarkable how these female agents were allowed to take on dangerous missions behind enemy lines. The execution of Edith Cavell, a nurse shot for aiding the escape of Allied soldiers, is a stark reminder that this wasn’t a game.

The characters of our three main players are both interesting and engaging, and the cliff-hanger chapter endings keep you racing through the story. It’s not surprising this novel has been extremely popular and well-recommended, and many will be eager to read Quinn’s new book: The Rose Code. The Alice Network is a four out of five read from me.

Book Review: The Lost Girls of Paris by Pam Jenoff

I read the audio version of The Lost Girls of Paris, having first been intrigued by the book when it came out. Perhaps I was a little reluctant to read about female agents dropped into France during the war, as I knew many fell straight into enemy hands only to be tortured and killed. The title of the book offers no consolation but trialling the first few minutes of the audiobook, I found I was immediately hooked.

It’s New York in 1946, and Grace Healey is on her way to work after a tumble in the sack with an old friend of her late husband. She’d bumped into Mark on the street, had too much to drink, etc. etc. and now she feels a little ashamed of herself. She feels scruffy in yesterday’s clothes and is running late. Near Grand Central Station, she comes across the aftermath of an accident – a woman hit by a car and killed, a sobering moment for sure. Determined to clean herself up in the station bathroom, Grace discovers an abandoned suitcase and takes a peek inside to look for the owner’s identity. There are no obvious clues, but tucked within is a packet of photographs showing women in uniform.

The sight of the photos does something to Grace and before she knows it, she’s stuffed them into her handbag before hurrying off to work. Planning to return them later, events conspire against her. Grace learns the photos belonged to the dead woman, Eleanor Trigg, a former British secret service officer in charge of women agents sent to France. She becomes determined to find out what Trigg was doing in New York and the significance of the photos. Slowly, the story of the women agents who lost their lives in the build-up towards D-Day unfolds.

The novel is told partly from Grace’s point of view, with her developing and bumpy relationship with Mark as a back story. We also have the narrative voice of Eleanor Trigg herself, a former Polish refugee, with indispensable skills at the conference table at SOE headquarters. When male agents keep getting captured in France, Eleanor points out that they are too easily spotted in a country where nearly all the younger men have been sent to camps as either POWs or for work. She suggests sending women. The idea seems shocking at first, but before long, Eleanor finds herself in charge of their recruitment and supervision.

The third narrator is Marie, noticed on a train reading Baudelaire in the original French and offered an interview. Marie is just scraping by, trying to maintain payments on her London home, her husband having decamped for South America and leaving her with a young daughter, now in the care of an aunt. It’s hard to imagine why Marie would be a good agent, apart from the faultless French, as she’s always asking questions and struggles with the training. Only her rapport with Josie, a former street kid with plenty of nous and well-honed survival skills, keeps Marie going. We follow Marie through her first missions in France as a radio operator, her friendships with fellow agents, particularly the gruff young man in charge of operations.

The story keeps you on the edge of your seat, with the Allied invasion looming, the liberation of France can’t be far away. But this only adds to the risks Marie and co must take, sabotaging the enemy’s potential to fight back and that will mean reprisals. Meanwhile, Grace struggles to learn more about Eleanor and the women agents who failed to return after the war. No one knows what happened to them, they just disappeared.

I enjoyed the characters of Marie, Eleanor and especially Grace, who is still coming to terms with being a war widow, but is determined to forge an independent life for herself in New York, rather than relying on her comfortably off parents. There are some interesting minor characters – I particularly enjoyed Grace’s boss, an overworked solicitor advocating for recently arrived immigrants. The writing however was a little overwrought at times when I felt the events of the story often spoke for themselves. This was a little disappointing as this is such a story worth telling. Still, the narration of the audiobook made it all whizz by and the ending was reasonably satisfying. A three out of five read from me.

Book Review: The Inheritance of Solomon Farthing by Mary Paulson-Ellis

This is a very smart, quirky novel spanning two time periods, from the recent past and flipping back to tell a story from the final days of the First World War. Godfrey Farthing is a captain of a small group of men who stumble upon an abandoned farmhouse with cabbages stored in the larder, chickens in the yard. As November 1918 dawns, rumour has it that an armistice will soon be signed – all Godfrey has to do is keep his men safe until then. Godfrey grieves all the young boys who have died when he sent them over the top, especially young Beach – surely there can’t be any point in more fighting.

If only his raw, straight out of training second-in-command, Lieutenant Svenson, wasn’t so eager to get some action before it’s too late. He’s two things Godfrey wished he wasn’t: a keen gambler and a man who loves his Webley revolver. The men, sequestered in the barn, pass the time with trivial games of chance, betting with odd trifles: a spool of thread, a sixpence, a wishbone, a piece of ribbon. Against Godfrey’s orders, Svenson insists on joining the men, but his manner is teasing, creating edginess and discord. When a young soldier (they are mostly still in their teens) arrives with the orders Godfrey dreads, personality clashes and secrecy threaten to destabilise Godfrey’s plans with tragic results.

Woven in with this story is that of Godfrey’s grandson, Solomon Farthing, who, in Edinburgh decades later, is trying to work his way out of a run of bad luck. He owes a local criminal boss a load of money he doesn’t have, and to make matters worse he’s been caught breaking into a house for an oddly innocent reason. A police officer who owes Solomon a favour gets him off, but there’s a catch. He must track down the family of one recently departed elderly gent, Thomas Methven who has no obvious next of kin. Thomas had 50,000 pounds in used notes sewn into his burial suit, a tidy sum with the kind of commission that might see Solomon through his tight patch.

Solomon is an heir hunter, and with four days to come up with an answer, the story takes him on a roller-coaster through the past, connecting dots and in particular the odd objects left behind, some of which have their origins in his grandfather’s pawn shop – another trip down memory lane. It’s a problematic case in many ways, and Solomon will have to face down rival heir hunters and his own demons, charging about the country-side in his aunt’s borrowed mini, acquiring a dog and the help of a miscreant boy along the way.

Solomon’s character reminds me a bit of someone from a Restoration comedy – he is such an unlikely hero. But somehow he makes connections that others don’t and it all harks back to those days just before the Armistice, on an abandoned farm in France. The fragments come together that explain the fifty thousand pounds, but also the story of Solomon himself – his parentage, his life with his grandfather at the Edinburgh pawn shop, his love and loss. The war story that is the basis of all that follows is a tense counterpoint to the more madcap story of Solomon’s search, because we all know that many soldiers died in those final days of the war and there are sure to be losses. But who?

The Inheritance of Solomon Farthing takes some interesting turns and produces an unexpected ending and resolution. It is such an original story with a cast of memorable and odd-ball characters – that Restoration comedy thing again, maybe. The writing is crisp with a smartly sardonic undertone that makes it a pleasure to read. Overall it might read like two distinctly different stories woven into one and not everyone will agree that this works successfully. However, I found that the Solomon story made for pleasantly light relief from the war story, with its sense of impending tragedy. I enjoyed the book a lot and will definitely read more by Mary Paulson-Ellis. A four out of five read from me.

Book Review: The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides

There’s nothing like a good psychological thriller to while away a wet weekend. The Silent Patient ticks all the boxes, combining a troubled narrator who in this case is a psychotherapist, an even more troubled patient and the mystery surrounding the death of her husband.

Theo Faber has recently taken a post at The Grove, a care facility for troubled minds and is particularly interested in one patient. Alicia is a former artist of some note who has remained unable to talk since supposedly murdering her husband, the famous photographer Gabriel Berenson. The media have made a lot of their story which has done heaps to push up the value of Gabriel’s work.

If Theo can persuade Alicia to speak about the night her husband died, Alicia may begin to heal. But because of her suicide attempts, Alicia is highly medicated at The Grove, doesn’t interact with other staff or patients, nor does she respond to any kind of therapy. The story is told mostly through the voice of Theo, himself a survivor of a terrible childhood and for whom psychotherapy has changed his life. He is convinced he can help Alicia and manages to persuade his boss, the avuncular Dr Diomedes and Christian, Alicia’s surly psychologist, to reduce her meds and let him try.

As well as tensions at The Grove, which is under threat of closure, not to mention volatile patients who do violent things, Theo gets into trouble by breaking rules. He interviews Alicia’s friends and relatives – the brother-in-law solicitor, Max, who has a bit of a temper; Alicia’s cousin Paul who still lives in the ramshackle house they grew up in with his monstrous mother; and Alicia’s old friend and art curator, Jean-Felix, who like pretty much everyone else is holding something back. Michaelides also allows Alicia’s own voice to tell the story through a hidden diary, which throws up some interesting questions. Then there’s Alicia’s symbolic and dramatic art. Her last picture is titled Alcestis after the Ancient Greek story popularised by Euripides about another wife driven to silence by love.

We have all the ingredients for a suspenseful and nuanced thriller, drawing you in through the thoughts of the therapist/patient combo of Theo and Alicia. In the background there are dangers lurking and a sense of impending doom. But it wouldn’t be a good thriller without a few interesting plot twists and Michaelides is a master at this. Already known for his work as a screenwriter, this is his first novel and it would be easy to see the book as a movie. But I also really enjoyed the writing and am happy to learn he’s sticking with fiction for now and has a new book on the horizon. For me the pages whizzed by as I raced to find out what really happened to Alicia and Gabriel. A four out of five read from me.

Book Review: Circe by Madeline Miller

I’ve had this novel on my bookcase for ages, and I wonder if I delayed picking it up because of my intense emotional response to Miller’s earlier work: Song of Achilles. Was I afraid Circe would similarly reduce me to a quivering wreck? Well, Circe is another tale drawn from Homer, describing the antics of the gods of Ancient Greece, their whims and jealousies, their interactions with mortals, including heroes such as Jason and Odysseus.

As it happens I needn’t have worried as this is such a rollicking story, taking the reader through all the old legends, beginning from when the Titans lost their rule over the world to the Olympian gods under Zeus. I remember learning a lot of the stories at school, so Circe was a welcome refresher.

Circe is the daughter of Helios, one of the few remaining Titans, the sun god who rides his chariot across the sky each day. Like many of the gods, he’s vain and petulant, put out that the daughter he has sired with a water nymph is so unappealing. When Circe learns to cast spells, driven by love for a mortal, her dark magic ignites the fury of Zeus and she is banished to the island of Aiaia forever.

Circe is an interesting character with her sympathy for mortals, their daily struggles to survive, their pain and desperation to please the gods who taunt them. She is also a reluctant goddess, scorned by her family and left so much to her own devices that she discovers witchcraft. This comes in handy when she needs to defend herself against pirates who seek to ravish or rob her, turning them into pigs – including the crew of Odysseus, before she meets the great man himself, seeking shelter to mend his ship before returning home to Ithaca.

Odysseus delays his return to spend time with Circe, telling her about the Trojan War, and other adventures. But Circe has her own stories – her visit to her sister on Crete and the birth of the Minotaur; the story of Daedalus, who befriends her, and his son Icharus; of Jason and Medea. There’s the six-headed monster Scylla, created out of Circe’s own jealousy, who snatches sailors from their ships. The winged messenger of the gods, Hermes, drops in full of gossip, while Athena, goddess of war, will offer Circe a terrible choice.

We follow Circe’s story from her birth – deities grow up fast in many ways but their lives are as long as eternity. It will take Circe almost as long to acquire the wisdom to find a way to be the person she is meant to be. In the meantime she develops her craft, becoming a brave and determined problem solver, figuring out how to get around some tricky situations. This makes the book very hard to put down and you have the constant impression that like the twelve labours of Hercules, there’s always a new challenge just around the corner.

Circe is a terrific read, and as I finished the book I was reminded of the other reason I may have put off opening it – that it may be a while before Madeline Miller gives us another novel inspired by tales from the ancient world. I hope she’s got something up her sleeve as she’s such a good storyteller. Circe gets a five out of five from me.

Book Review: The Turn of the Key by Ruth Ware

Psychological thrillers aren’t my favourite genre but I do make time to read anything that comes along by Ruth Ware. She is such a master of atmospheric settings and unreliable narrators. In The Turn of the Key, the story is told in letters from Rowan Caine, a young woman in prison for murdering a child in her care. So potentially, this is about as unreliable as you can get.

Rowan is writing to a top barrister, hoping he will review her case and secure her release. She swears she is innocent. The best way to explain why she’s innocent is to tell him everything as it happened. The story begins with Rowan answering an ad for a live-in nanny for a family in a remote part of Scotland. Sandra and Bill are high-flying architects, their home, Heatherbrae, a modernised Victorian manor with electronics that run everything from the temperature in your shower to the fridge telling you when to buy more milk.

The couple have seen nanny after nanny abandon their four gorgeous girls. Perhaps it’s the remoteness of the house, far from the bright lights. Then again, the children can be a handful (wee Petra is a typical two-year-old, Maddie sullen and scheming, Ellen highly strung and Rhiannon a rebellious teen), but someone as experienced in childcare as Rowan should manage just fine. Is it the controlling and creepy Happy app, that allows Sandra and Bill to tune in to what’s going on at home wherever they are? Or is it something about the house?

The title of the book will soon have you thinking of the Henry James ghost story, The Turn of the Screw, where again we have a nanny killing a child. And there’s definitely something weird and supernatural going on here. Tragedy has struck Heatherbrae before – the ghost of a former owner, the one who planted the walled and locked poison garden, is said to haunt the house. Ware has everything set up for a tense and chilling read.

With the bulk of the story from Rowan’s point of view, we follow her difficulties, first with the children and the spiteful housekeeper – thank goodness she makes a friend in Jack, the hunky handyman – and then with eerie happenings at night. Surely the house can’t really be haunted, can it? Or worse, does it have a mind of its own. It starts to seem a little bit like The Twilight Zone.

Rowan is determined to get to the bottom of things. She’s not a quitter like those other nannies. And like the good-hearted person she is, she develops a fondness for her charges, even stroppy Rhiannon. But there are secrets here as well as creepy happenings and a few terrific twists before we turn the last page.

Ruth Ware has been dubbed ‘the queen of just-one-more-chapter’, and the title is never more fitting than with this novel. I dare you to pick it up and try to put it aside, even if you think you don’t really like psychological thrillers. The Turn of the Key shows Ware at the top of her game. (If you like this one, try The Woman in Cabin 10 which is another doozy.) This one gets a solid four out five from me.

Ripping Reads: Smoke and Ashes by Abir Mukherjee

9781911215158I love it when I discover a new series at its very beginning and enjoy it so much I read each book that follows as soon as it comes out. So it is with Abir Mukherjee’s mysteries set in Calcutta in the early 1920s. Featuring ex-pat British policeman, Capt. Sam Wyndham, the author throws you right into Calcutta during the British Raj era. Wyndham is still recovering (or not!) from his time in the trenches of WW1, and the loss of his much-loved wife during the flu epidemic,  self-medicating with opium. It’s just as well he’s so smart, energetic and won’t let the rules get in the way of his investigations or he’d never catch the perpetrators.

In Smoke and Ashes, Wyndam investigates a brutal killing which he discovers quite by chance when he has to make a hasty retreat from an evening visit to an opium den. Continue reading “Ripping Reads: Smoke and Ashes by Abir Mukherjee”