Online Reading Challenge – Wrap-Up

Hello Fellow Readers!

How did your “spy reading” go this month? Did you read something that kept your interest during this difficult and confusing time?

I read Code Name Helene by Ariel Lawhon, a fictionalized account about a real person. Well, I meant to read this book this month, but, sadly, it didn’t happen. I blame the pandemic as I found myself constantly distracted. They claim that Shakespeare wrote King Lear while in isolation during the Black Plague, but he didn’t have 24/7 news or social media to block out! Here’s to hoping my reading mojo comes back soon!

I did get started on Code Name Helene and it certainly has potential. So here’s a quick overview of what it’s about and my initial impressions.

Nancy Wake left Australia in the 1930s as a young woman, seeking adventure. She traveled throughout Europe as a journalist and socialite, making contacts with the wealthy and the powerful. She was free-spirited, independent and stubborn, walking into danger without hesitation. As the Nazi’s gain power in Germany, she struggles to raise the alarm but finds that many people, such as her editor, don’t want to hear what she is telling them. Unable to stand aside and do nothing, Nancy becomes a spy for the Allies. Known for her signature red lipstick, ferocious wit and her fearlessness, Nancy eventually becomes one of the most powerful leaders of the French Resistance, frequently putting herself and her loved ones in danger.

The story jumps across timelines, from the late 1930s to the end of World War II and from the point-of-view of several characters. I often enjoy this style of storytelling, feeling that it gives a more complete view of what happened and the results and consequences. However, I was having more trouble keeping track of characters, locations and dates with this book – perhaps it was my pandemic-induced distraction, but I found it hard to really fall into the world of this novel.

Nevertheless, Code Name Helene has great potential as a superior spy novel with it’s brave heroine set during one of the pivotal periods of history.

Now it’s your turn. What did you read this month? Tell us in the comments!

Online Reading Challenge – Mid Month Check-in

Hello Readers!

How is your reading going so far this month? It’s a crazy time so you wouldn’t be blamed if your usual reading habits have veered off course. Maybe a movie or documentary would appeal to you? Here are some to look for that center on spies, real and imagined.

Since access to the library and our collections is still limited, let’s started with a couple of free online services that we offer! First up is Acorn TV which is a treasure trove of British and foreign television series and films. Here you’ll find the documentary David Janson’s Secret Service that examines the real-life versions of some of Ian Fleming’s most iconic characters – “M”, “Q” and James Bond himself. Another documentary available on Acorn TV is The Spy Who Went Into the Cold  about the devastating betrayal of top MI-6 official Kim Philby and his defection to the USSR in 1963.

A service just added to the Library’s digital content line-up is IndieFlix  an eclectic mix of independent shorts, documentaries and feature films. You’ll find lots of classics including the brilliant Notorious staring Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman about a woman asked to spy on a group of Nazi’s living in South America. Or check out British Intelligence starring Boris Karloff about German spies placed in the home of a high-ranking British official during World War I.

At this time the Library is planning on reopening the drive-up window at Fairmount beginning on May 18. There will be strict guidelines to follow to protect both patrons and staff, but you should be able to start picking up reserves again. Fill your “spy” section of the Online Reading Club with a James Bond film like Skyfall or something humorous like The Kingsmen or The Spy Who Dumped Me. If you’re in the mood for bingeing a television series, try Turn: Washington’s Spies about spies during the Revolutionary War or The Americans about Russian double agents living in the United States.

Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan on DVD

CIA analyst Jack Ryan sits behind a desk, working on a computer. He is not, he repeats, not a field agent. But when he uncovers a terrorist’s plan for a massive attack on the United States and her allies, he is pushed into action and sent on a dangerous mission to end the threat in season one of Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan.

The story is somewhat familiar: Suliman, a high ranking tribal leader in the Middle East has gathered a group of followers and is planning a massive strike on the West. Working as an analyst, Jack discovers a pattern of suspicious bank transactions that lead him to believe Suliman is planning something devastating. Despite the fact that he isn’t a field agent, Jack’s boss sends him to the Middle East to investigate and stop whatever the terrorist has planned.

Based on Tom Clancy’s books about Jack Ryan, this television series delivers with lots of action, intrigue, secrets and close-calls. John Krasinski as Jack Ryan is likable and relate-able, the every man (although one with considerable gun skills) that is pushed into impossible situations but manages to stay-the-course and come out in one piece. Ryan’s background is hinted out, but never fully explained, we simply know that he served in the Special Forces in the Middle East and was badly injured in battle.

A mature, fast-paced exploration of very complex issues.

The Lost Girls of Paris by Pam Jenoff

Some sacrifices are never known. Lives are saved, missions completed because of anonymous acts of courage. The deeds slip into forgotten history, yet the bravery and the actions may have made all the difference.

1946. New York City. Grace Healey is rushing to work, when a car accident snarls traffic and forces her to make a detour through Grand Central Station. There she finds a small, abandoned suitcase wedged under a bench. Inside the suitcase she finds a dozen photos of ordinary young women, each of whom stare into the camera with determination. Grace is intrigued and begins searching for the missing owner and, she hopes, the mystery of the photographs.

Soon Grace is pulled into a story of intrigue and secrecy as she learns about the owner of the suitcase, a woman named Eleanor Trigg who lead a network of women acting as secret agents in Occupied Europe. Their assignments ranged from couriers to radio operators in aid of the resistance in the weeks leading up to D-Day and the invasion of France. Twelve women – the young women in the photographs – never returned, their fate a mystery.

Based on true events, The Lost Girls of Paris crackles with tension. The women are resourceful and brave, but face many obstacles and difficulties. Their contribution to the war effort is mostly forgotten now, but brought vividly to life again here. Author Pam Jenoff focuses on a few key members of the unit, creating a story that is intimate and real. It is an incredible story of friendship, bravery and betrayal and the strength to carry on.

This story of World War II was new to me, but it hasn’t been forgotten. A new non-fiction book about these brave women has just been published:  The D-Day Girls: the Spies Who Armed the Resistance, Sabotaged the Nazis and Helped Win World War II by Sarah Rose which you can find at the Davenport Library.

The Alice Network by Kate Quinn

This is a book about two wars, of the price paid both by those who died and those who survived, of sisterhood and loyalty and immeasurable bravery. The Alice Network by Kate Quinn alternates between the two World Wars. The similarities are chilling with threads that tie the two together in more ways than one.

1915. Eve Gardiner is one of thousands of file clerks in London, unremarkable in appearance, quiet and demure, but because of her upbringing she speaks flawless French and German. She is bored and feels useless so when a Captain from British Intelligence recruits her to be a spy, she leaps at the chance. After a few short weeks of training, she is sent to Lille in occupied France and takes on the role of a shy, simple waitress in a restaurant that caters to German generals. The information she gleans from their overheard conversations is passed on to her contact, the “Queen of the Spies” Louise de Bettignies who becomes a bright and shining light for Eve in a dark and dangerous world. The work is exhilarating and treacherous, even more so when the owner of the restaurant takes an interest in her. One misstep and all will be lost.

1947. Charlotte (Charlie) St. Clair is young, unmarried and pregnant. Her wealthy parents send her to Switzerland to have her “Little Problem” taken care of and to preserve her (and their) reputation. Charlie is heartbroken over the recent suicide of her brother (a soldier who came home from the war but never left it) and the complete lack of information of what happened to her beloved French cousin Rose who she is convinced is still alive. In London, Charlie slips away from her Mother and contacts the one person she thinks might be able to help her – one Evelyn Gardiner. Evelyn’s hands are horribly disfigured and she is bitter and angry (the first thing she does to Charlie is to pull out a Luger and threaten to kill her) but eventually she agrees to go to France with Charlie see if they can find Rose. Accompanied by Evelyn’s driver Finn, they make their way to a France that is still torn and broken by the war. The horrors of World War II are very much still evident, but the shadows cast by World War I are still present too.

The book alternates between these two story lines, chapter by chapter. The connecting threads between the stories is gradually revealed, leading to an explosive final confrontation. It is one of those books that’s difficult to put down when you’re reading it and nearly impossible to forget about when you’re finished. I certainly found this to be true.

There are a lot of books about the World Wars, especially WWII, but The Alice Network manages to take a closer look at two lesser known subjects – the women who spied for the Allies during World War I, and the aftermath of the war in the countryside of postwar France. What really adds weight to the book though, is that many of the people and heart-stopping incidents depicted are true – there really was a network of female spies in German occupied countries during WWI and it really was called the Alice Network and was led by Louise de Bettignies, one of the most accomplished and successful spies the Allies had. Most of the things that happen in the book – the secrets the women uncovered, the danger and brutal punishments they suffered – actually happened. And in Charlie’s timeline, there is one episode that she comes across that is absolutely true (and absolutely chilling) but probably little-known outside of France. Evelyn and Charlie are fictional, but what they see and feel and experience are very real. Don’t miss the author’s notes at the end for more about these nearly forgotten heroines. And don’t miss this book.

 

 

 

The Winter Fortress by Neal Bascomb

winter fortressFrom the internationally acclaimed, best-selling author of Hunting Eichmann and The Perfect Mile , an epic adventure and spy story about the greatest act of sabotage in all of World War II.

It’s 1942 and the Nazis are racing to be the first to build a weapon unlike any known before. They have the physicists, they have the uranium, and now all their plans depend on amassing a single ingredient: heavy water, which is produced in Norway’s Vemork, the lone plant in all the world that makes this rare substance. Under threat of death, Vemork’s engineers push production into overdrive. For the Allies, the plant must be destroyed. But how would they reach the castle fortress set on a precipitous gorge in one of the coldest, most inhospitable places on Earth?

Based on a trove of top secret documents and never-before-seen diaries and letters of the saboteurs, The Winter Fortress is an arresting chronicle of a brilliant scientist, a band of spies on skis, perilous survival in the wild, sacrifice for one’s country, Gestapo manhunts, soul-crushing setbacks, and a last-minute operation that would end any chance Hitler could obtain the atomic bomb – and alter the course of the war. (description from publisher)

A Cool and Lonely Courage by Susan Ottaway

cool and loney courageA Cool and Lonely Courage is an incredible true story of British special agents Eileen and Jacqueline Nearne, sisters who risked everything to fight for freedom during the Second World War.

When elderly recluse Eileen Nearne died, few suspected that the quiet little old lady was a decorated WWII war hero. Volunteering to serve for British intelligence at age 21, Eileen was posted to Nazi-occupied France to send encoded messages of crucial importance for the Allies, until her capture by the Gestapo. Eileen was not the only agent in her family—her sister Jacqueline was a courier for the French resistance. While Jacqueline narrowly avoided arrest, Eileen was tortured by the Nazis, then sent to the infamous Ravensbrück women’s concentration camp. Astonishingly, this resourceful young woman eventually escaped her captors and found her way to the advancing American army.

In this amazing true story of triumph and tragedy, Susan Ottaway unveils the secret lives of two sisters who sacrificed themselves to defend their country. (description from publisher)

Etiquette & Espionage by Gail Carriger

EEOnce I devoured Gail Carriger’s excellent Parasol Protectorate series, I was delighted to see that Etiquette & Espionage represents her return to the same steampunk universe of  Soulless et al. It is also a first foray for Carriger into the field of YA. This is a true YA title – it’s perfect for, and I’d recommend it heartily to, almost any teenager/YA reader. It takes place at school; the main character is 14; the gore/sex/four-letter-words are tame or nonexistent. There’s a lot of emphasis on self-discovery, resourcefulness, learning, and intelligence, as well as bravery and friendship. The only element of a typical teen novel missing? ROMANCE!

In Carriger’s adult series, romance and sex were a huge driving force behind both the plot and the characters’ motivations. Without ever being crass or gratuitous, those books are about the way adults fall in love and stay in love – emotionally and physically. But in Etiquette & Espionage, the much, much younger teenage characters are motivated by entirely different things. Sophronia, the main character, is a “covert recruit” at a floating school for future spies; here, she’ll be trained to curtsy perfectly, measure poisons precisely, and wield sewing scissors to deadly ends. Sophronia is interested in boys, and she knows about feminine charms and how she might need to deploy them in her career as a spy, but her motivation is never reduced to the moronic, unimportant whine of “I want a boyfriend!! Why doesn’t a boy love me?!” – a fixture of many other YA titles. As the series goes on and Sophronia grows up, I fully expect Ms. Carriger to allow her to expand her romantic interests in a way that is intelligent and logical for her age, but in the meantime I’m thrilled to read a novel about the teenage experience outside of the desperate “need” for a boyfriend. Etiquette & Espionage is refreshing, exciting, and leaves the door open for a bevy of sequels that will be even better now that the groundwork has been laid.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

If you cared to, you could do a total immersion TTSS  (Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy) experience using library materials.

Prompted by the recent movie starring Gary Oldman as George Smiley, I went back to the BBC version on DVD, in which Alec Guinness plays the recently retired spy. At the same time, I listened to the BBC radio play as an audiobook. Like the funhouse mirror world of espionage, each iteration was faithful to the original source material of the book in some aspects, and each one  edited parts of the narrative, as well as completely changing essential  plot points.

For example, the catalyst for the investigation of a mole in the 1980 miniseries is a night time chase in the dark woods, while the 2011 movie accomplishes the same end with a shootout in an outdoor cafe.

The TV  version is more thorough and straightforward in its storytelling, while the movie, is, of course, abridged and cinematic. Because it is more elliptical, it is helpful to have read or listened to a more unedited version.

I won’t spoil the ending; suffice it to say, the recent movie rivals The Godfather in it’s elegiac yet violent ending.

DVDs for April

April 3

We Bought a Zoo – Matt Damon, Thomas Hadden Church

When his teenage son gets into trouble, Benjamin Mee gives up a lucrative newspaper job to move his family to the most unlikely of places: a zoo! With help from an eclectic staff, and with many misadventures along the way, Benjamin embarks on a fresh beginning to restore the dilapidated zoo to its former glory, while uniting his family. PG

War Horse – Emily Watson, David Thewlis

Set against a sweeping canvas of rural England and Europe during the First World War, this movie begins with the remarkable friendship between a horse named Joey and a young man called Albert, who tames and trains him. When they are forcefully parted, the film follows the extraordinary journey of the horse as he moves through the war, changing and inspiring the lives of all those he meets; British cavalry, German soldiers, and a French farmer and his granddaughter. PG 13

April 10

Happy Feet Two – Eljah Wood, Robin Williams

Mumble, the Master of Tap, has a problem because his tiny son, Erik, is choreo-phobic. Reluctant to dance, Erik runs away and encounters the Mighty Sven, a penguin who can fly! Mumble has no hope of competing with this charismatic new role model. But things get worse when the world is shaken by powerful forces. Erik learns of his father’s ‘guts and grit’ as Mumble brings together the penguin nations and all manner of fabulous creatures. PG

Iron Lady – Meryl Streep

A surprising and intimate portrait of Margaret Thatcher, the first and only female Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. One of the 20th century’s most famous and influential women, Thatcher came from nowhere to smash through barriers of gender and class to be heard in a male-dominated world. PG 13

April 17

Mission Impossible – Ghost Protocol – Tom Cruise, Jeremy Renner

Blamed for the terrorist bombing of the Kremlin, IMF operative Ethan Hunt is disavowed along with the rest of the agency when the president initiates ‘Ghost Protocol.’ Left without any resources or backup, Ethan must find a way to clear his agency’s name and prevent another attack. To complicate matters further, Ethan is forced to embark on his mission with a team of fellow IMF fugitives whose personal motives he does not fully know. PG 13

April 24

Contraband – Mark Wahlberg, Lukas Haas

Chris Farraday long ago abandoned his life of crime, but after his brother-in-law, Andy, botches a drug deal for his ruthless boss, Tim Briggs, Chris is forced back into doing what he does best, running contraband, to settle Andy’s debt. Chris is a legendary smuggler and quickly assembles a crew with the help of his best friend, Sebastian, to head to Panama and return with millions in counterfeit bills. Things quickly fall apart with only hours to reach the cash. R

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close – Tom Hanks, Thomas Horn

Oskar is convinced that his father, who died in the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, has left a message for him hidden in the city. Feeling disconnected from his grieving mother and driven by an active mind that refuses to believe in things that can’t be observed, Oskar begins searching New York City for the lock that fits a mysterious key he found in his father’s closet. His journey through the five boroughs takes him beyond his loss to a greater understanding of the world around him. PG 13