Online Reading Challenge – April Wrap-Up

Challengers! How was your month? Did you read one of the books from our April Book Flight?

The main title this month was The Alice Network by Kate Quinn.  I loved this book. I read it several years ago shortly after it was published and quickly became completely immersed in the historic setting and the work of these brave women.

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.

Before reading this I was unaware of the extent of the spy network whose work was instrumental in fighting World War I, and I had no idea that so many women sacrificed so much working behind enemy lines. There really was an “Alice Network” made up of women who worked in France, gathering information and passing it along to the Allies. This work was incredibly dangerous since they often had to pose as neutral and even supportive of the Germans, usually in close contact, posing as waitresses, store clerks and secretaries and sometimes becoming their lovers, all to gather information.

Although the scenes set during World War I were by far the most riveting, I also enjoyed the post-World War II storyline. The parallels between the wars, especially the brutality and suffering, were eerily similar. And again, it brought to light a true story from the Second Wrold War that I had never heard, that of the lost village of Oradour-sur-Glane in France.

What did you think about the women that worked as spies from any of our Book Flight books? Were you, like me, astonished by their sheer courage, their ability to overcome the fear of torture and death to complete a mission and to stay cool under pressure? What do you think motivated them – was it loyalty to a family member or loved one, or was it patriotism for a country? And what about their enemies, were they simply pure evil, or were they more complex?

Be sure to share your thoughts on this month’s Book Flight in the comments below!

 

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

This gem of a book is a compelling combination of hope and tragedy, of sacrifice and friendship, of loyalty and brilliant  intelligence and of trust and love in Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein.

Maddie is a working class girl who dreams of becoming a pilot. “Verity” is  casually wealthy and carefree. Despite their very different backgrounds, they become fast friends, creating  an unbreakable bond that strengthens and deepens as they train to be spies in World War II.

In 1943 the two women are to sent to war-torn France on a spy mission. However, their plane crashes behind enemy lines; “Verity” is captured by the Gestapo while the Maddie is left for dead. The French Resistance is able to help Maddie and she begins searching, against all hope, for “Verity”.

Meanwhile, “Verity” is being tortured by the Nazi’s for information. After horrible pain and suffering, she agrees to write out her confession which she promises will provide information on the Allies and their plans. This is where the book opens, with “Verity’s” confession except that she is taking her time, writing in detail about her friendship with Maddie and other stories unrelated to the war, with just enough information sprinkled throughout that the Germans allow her to continue.

This book is often heartbreaking, but it also has a lot of humor and even joy. The friendship gives both women, even when they’re apart, great strength and perseverance. And the ending holds a brilliant twist. Highly recommended.

If you are joining us for the 2022 Online Reading Challenge, this title works perfectly with our April theme of women spies, intelligence work and sacrifice.

Online Reading Challenge – April

Welcome Readers!

It’s time for a new Online Reading Challenge assignment! Our theme is female spies, intelligence work and sacrifice. There are some brilliant books to explore this month, covering spycraft from World War I through the Cold War. I highly recommend The Alice Network and Code Name Verity, two of my favorite books, and I also recommend Our Woman in Moscow.

This month’s main title is The Alice Network by Kate Quinn. In 1915, Eve Gardiner burns to join the fight against the Germans and unexpectedly gets her chance to serve when she’s recruited to work as a spy for the English. Sent into enemy-occupied France during The Great War, she’s trained by the mesmerizing Lili, the “Queen of Spies”, who manages a vast network of secret agents, right under the enemy’s nose. Thirty years later, haunted by the betrayal that ultimately tore apart the Alice Network, Eve spends her days drunk and secluded in her crumbling London house until a young American barges in uttering a name Eve hasn’t heard in decades, and launching them both on a mission to find the truth … no matter where it leads.

This title is also available as an e-book and an e-audiobook.

Alternate titles include: Code Girls: the untold story of the American women code breakers of World War II by Liza Mundy. This documents the contributions of more than ten thousand American women who served as codebreakers during World War II, detailing how their efforts shortened the war, saved countless lives, and enabled their subsequent careers.

Our Woman in Moscow by Beatriz Williams. Autumn, 1948: Iris Digby, her American diplomat husband Sasha, and their two children vanish from London. Were they eliminated by the Soviet intelligence service? Or have the Digbys defected to Moscow with a trove of the West’s most vital secrets? Four years later Ruth Macallister receives a postcard from Iris, the twin sister she hasn’t seen since their catastrophic parting in Rome in the summer of 1940. Now Ruth is on her way to Moscow, posing as the wife of counterintelligence agent Sumner Fox in a precarious plot to extract the Digbys from behind the Iron Curtain.

This title is also available in Large Print and as an e-book.

American Spy by Lauren Wilkinson. It’s 1986, the heart of the Cold War, and Marie Mitchell is an intelligence officer with the FBI. She’s brilliant, but she’s also a young black woman working in an old boys’ club. Her career has stalled out, so when she’s given the opportunity to join a shadowy task force aimed at undermining Thomas Sankara, the charismatic revolutionary president of Burkina Faso whose Communist ideology has made him a target for American intervention, she says yes. In the year that follows, Marie will observe Sankara, seduce him, and ultimately have a hand in the coup that will bring him down. But doing so will change everything she believes about what it means to be a spy, a lover, a sister, and a good American.

This title is also available as an e-audiobook.

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein. In 1943, a British fighter plane crashes in Nazi-occupied France and the survivor tells a tale of friendship, war, espionage, and great courage as she relates what she must to survive while keeping secret all that she can.

This title is also available as a Book on CD and as an e-book.

Check for these titles and more featured in displays at each of the Davenport Library buildings!

The Diamond Eye by Kate Quinn

I really hesitated to post this review. I read this book several months ago, before it was published, with a Reader’s Advance copy. As a fan of Kate Quinn I couldn’t wait to read it and, typical of Quinn’s other titles, I couldn’t put it down. Since then, the world has changed dramatically and, while this book takes place in 1941 during World War II, the locations and circumstances are eerily, heartbreakingly similar to the current situation in Ukraine. Please read with caution.

All Mila Pavlichenko wants to do with her life is study, work as an archivist and raise her son. Unfortunately, history intervenes and she is forced into a role she never wanted when Germany invades her homeland in World War II in The Diamond Eye by Kate Quinn.

While war had been simmering for months, Germany’s invasion into the Soviet Union is sudden and brutal. Mila’s careful and ordered life is thrown into chaos and she volunteers for the army almost immediately. Having been part of a shooting club while in school, she already knows how to shoot. Her sharp eye and steady hand soon advance her to sniper and she is soon recognized as one of the best. Mila is tough, determined and nearly fearless making daring forays into enemy territory to hit the enemy at it’s weakest points.

Her job is also incredibly dangerous. More than once Mila is shot as the Germans learn how to locate and eliminate the snipers that harass their troops. The Germans refer to her as Lady Death, a lethal hunter of Nazis. She also suffers the loss of fellow soldiers, many of whom she has relied on to watch her back and provide back-up. Yet the war grinds on, bloody and unforgiving.

When Mila records her three hundredth kill she is declared a national heroine and the Soviet government pulls her from the battlefields and sends her on a goodwill tour of America. Still suffering from serious wounds and devastated by loss, Mila is leery of and isolated from the glittering world of Washington, DC, so shockingly different from the battlefields. She strikes up an unexpected friendship with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt – who seems to understand that Mila is worn down by grief behind the facade of the perfect Soviet soldier – and is then thrust into a deadly duel with another sniper.

As with Kate Quinn’s other titles (The Alice Network, The Huntress and The Rose Code), The Diamond Eye is based on a true story about an incredibly strong-willed woman who sets aside her own personal comfort to defend and protect. It is sharp and fast-moving and frequently devastating, a reflection of the sacrifice shown in the book.

The reason I had so many doubts about posting the review is that it takes place in Ukraine (although Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union during World War II) and much of the action takes place in Kyiv and Odessa. It is different governments and different enemies, but here is Ukraine in 2022, fighting again for their homeland and suffering devastating losses. It is difficult to read now, but it is also a reminder of how history repeats itself and how freedom and democracy are never a sure thing, but must be defended always.

 

The Librarian of Saint-Malo by Mario Escobar

Mario Escobar’s latest novel The Librarian of Saint-Malo tells the story of a French librarian’s stand against the German occupation as they descend upon the small coastal village of Saint-Malo. While World War II novels are plentiful, the timeline covered as well as the perspectives shown during this particular title were refreshing and set this novel apart.

Jocelyn is determined. Having just married her high school sweetheart Antoine in August 1939, Jocelyn wishes to begin their married life in bliss. But soon after they are married, Antoine is drafted to fight against Germany, leaving Jocelyn behind in the village of Saint-Malo to manage the tiny library there. World War II brings destruction to their doors, while Jocelyn works to bring comfort and encouragement to those residents who can escape to the library to check out books.

Wanting to do more, Jocelyn begins writing secret letters to a famous author who lives in Paris. Having someone smuggle those letters to him is a great risk, but Jocelyn is desperate that her story, as well as that of Saint-Malo, lives on in the face of the war’s destruction. When France falls and Nazis start to occupy Saint-Malo, Jocelyn wants to do more. With the city now a fortress, the devastation only worsens.

Across the country, Nazis begin to destroy libraries. Armed with lists of unsuitable books, Nazis burn books and even steal the priceless and more rare books. Jocelyn refuses to let her library be destroyed, so despite the risk to herself, she manages to hide the books the Nazis seek to destroy. While terror reigns around her, Jocelyn waits for news from Antoine, who is now a prisoner in a German camp.

The more Jocelyn writes, the more readers see that all she wants is to protect people and her beloved books. This novel tells the story of those who were willing to sacrifice anything to save the people they loved, as well as the true history of their lives.

The Last Bookshop in London by Madeline Martin

“Books are what have brought us together. A love of the stories within, the adventures they take us on, their glorious distraction in a time of strife.”

Published just this past April, The Last Bookshop in London by Madeline Martin is a historical fiction novel set during World War II, offering a candid glimpse into life in London during the Blitz. While I have read several excellent novels in this time period before (as I’m sure you have, too!) , I don’t recall one exclusively focusing on the Blitz in London, so this title was a unique perspective I had not yet afforded!

After losing her mother and essentially being disowned by her uncle in a rural town in England, Grace and her best friend, Viv, journey to London to live with her mother’s best friend. While both women had long dreamed of coming to London, neither expected it to happen forcibly, let alone on the brink of a second great war. While Viv quickly finds a job at the glamorous Harrods, Grace is offered a position at a local bookshop which, as someone who didn’t read, was a less-than-ideal assignment. With the intention of working just six months to gain a letter of recommendation to find a better position, Grace begins working in a disheveled, dusty, and dingy bookstore with a seemingly irritable owner who barely tolerates her presence.

As rumblings of the war draw closer to home, however, Grace slowly finds herself becoming more and more committed and interested in her work at the bookshop. This is in no small part due to George Anderson, a particularly attractive and frequent patron who shares his authentic love of reading with Grace before leaving to serve as a Royal Air Force (RAF) pilot. Although initially doubtful about the impact reading would have on her own life, Grace becomes enraptured with The Count of Monte Cristo (one of George’s recommendations) and quickly becomes a voracious reader herself. With her newly found love of reading, Grace naturally begins to develop special relationships with several patrons, as well as with the owner himself, as she works to make the bookshop as accessible as possible. Not long after this, though, London itself becomes suspended in the throes of war, putting everything Grace loves at risk.

All in all, this is a wonderful story about someone who comes to learn the value of reading and eventually helps others in the community not only survive, but thrive in the stories of others during the unbearably difficult circumstances of wartime; it is truly an ode to the power of literature, and there were many lovely and moving quotes that warmed my heart as a librarian. I also really appreciated reading about a female protagonist who not only immerses herself, but thrives in a wartime position typically reserved for men; on top of working at the bookshop, Grace volunteers as an Air Raid Protection (ARP) warden to help those impacted by the daily bombings that would occur overnight. Lastly, I reveled in the obvious research Martin did on the Blitz to portray a captivating account of life in London during this time in history.

While there were some moments toward the conclusion that seemed to tie up a little too conveniently, I would still highly recommend this novel to anyone looking to dip their toes in a new perspective on WWII or just for a new historical fiction read in general! I would also like to note that, while Martin is a well-known historical romance author, this novel was not primarily focused on romantic themes or aspects.

 

Radar Girls by Sara Atkinson

Here is a World War II story with a slightly different point-of-view – that of the women who monitored the radar stations in Hawaii in Sara Atkinson’s Radar Girls.

The Japanese attack Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 shattered the quiet, isolated world of Hawaii in a few, terrifying minutes. Battleships lay in ruins, hundreds were dead and the fears of an imminent second attack were very real. Suddenly, the United States was at war and Hawaii was on the leading edge.

Daisy Wilder and her mother live in a ramshackle house on the beach near Pearl Harbor. The attack turns their lives upside down – her mother leaves for the mainland while Daisy stays behind so that she can join the WARDS, the Woman’s Air Raid Defense System who become known as the Radar Girls.

Daisy, along with dozens of other women recruited into the WARDS, help guide pilots onto blacked out air-strips and track unidentified aircraft across the Pacific. The job requires a lot of skills in mathematics and mapping, as well as the ability to stay calm under pressure, to work quickly in difficult conditions and to work long hours. The women that join the WARDS are a diverse group from many different backgrounds, but despite differences, they come together to form an unbreakable bond.

Against the background of the work the women are doing, there are several other stories – a romance between Daisy and the son of a wealthy rancher which seems doomed from the start, the search for a lost horse, the fear and concern those left on the island have for the men that are fighting. There is a lot of tension and buildup for the battle of Midway, one of the most dangerous and important naval battles of the war.

I really enjoyed the setting of this book, especially the descriptions of Hawaii and it’s people and culture. You can almost see the ocean and feel the breeze on the beach. I also appreciated learning more about another lesser known aspect of the war effort that was actually a key component to eventual victory.

The Paris Library by Janet Skeslien Charles

“Books and ideas are like blood; they need to circulate, and they keep us alive.”

One of my absolute favorite genres to read is historical fiction, but this particular book hits the jackpot because it is also about libraries and the amazing people who work in them! Just published in February, The Paris Library, by Janet Skeslien Charles, weaves together two primary narratives spanning across time and place to create a beautiful and haunting story about the strength of friendship, family, and libraries in the face of betrayal, loss, and war.

This story begins in 1939 France with the narrative of Odile Souchet, a fresh graduate of library school who interviews for a librarianship position at the American Library in Paris (ALP). She quickly finds herself at home in the stacks and among several new friends, including fellow librarians, devoted library subscribers, a volunteer who quickly becomes her best friend, and a police officer who becomes her beloved beau. Before long, however, Odile loses a part of herself as her twin brother, Remy, goes off to war and everything she loves, including the library, is endangered.

The second central narrative takes place in 1980s Montana through the eyes of a young teenager named Lily. After the death of her mother and her father’s eventual remarriage, Lily finds herself both lost and trapped in a small rural town she desperately wishes to escape. She eventually finds a sense of liberation in the friendship she develops with her elderly neighbor, who teaches her French, shares her love of literature and books, and essentially becomes a second mother during some of her darkest moments. Before long, Lily becomes curious about her neighbor’s past, as all she (and the rest of the town) knows is her status as a widowed war bride who left her entire life behind in Paris to come to Montana with her husband after the war. Despite the difference in age and background, these two characters have more in common than meets the eye and share a kinship of love and understanding that truly stands the test of time.

Overall, this novel is a heart-wrenching and tragic, albeit beautiful, story filled with memorable characters who are tested by unimaginable hardships. I reveled in the development of several characters, especially since I felt I was able to connect with their complex and flawed personas. While you learn the fate of many of these individuals, I definitely found myself wanting more information on others! I also really enjoyed Charles’s writing style – in addition to writing beautifully, it is obvious how much research she did in the creation of this book by the way she is able to truly whisk you away to another time and place as you read.

While I definitely loved the fictional aspects of this novel, I was delighted to learn that several librarians in the story, along with their remarkable and heroic actions, were based on real individuals. Despite the dangers and risks war posed to both the people and resources of the library, the ALP stayed open to subscribers, maintained a service in which they delivered around 100,000 books to soldiers fighting overseas, and risked their own lives to deliver books to Jewish subscribers who had been barred from entering the library. Charles first learned about this incredible history upon becoming the programs manager at the ALP and, feeling wholly inspired, decided to delve deeper into the history by writing this book. The result? An ode to the truly incredible and impactful roles libraries will always have in our society.

All in all, I highly, highly recommend this book to anyone who loves libraries and books, remarkable character development, and experiencing the strength and resiliency of the human race, especially through relationships formed with others.

The Rose Code by Kate Quinn

It is fair to say that the top-secret work done at Bletchley Park during World War II shortened the war by as much as two years and may have saved millions of lives. The extent of the achievements of the code breaking that was done there was mostly unknown until the mid-1970s. The Rose Code by Kate Quinn takes us beyond the guarded gates and brings this amazing wartime work out into the open.

The Rose Code begins in 1940 as England prepares for war. Osla, a beautiful socialite who wants to prove there is more to her than a glamorous exterior and Mab, a young woman who has pulled herself up from abject poverty, meet on the train to Bletchley Park on their first day of work. Despite their differences, they become close friends and roommates. Both start working menial tasks, but Osla’s perfect German has her promoted to translating decoded messages. Mab becomes an expert at working the automatic decoding machines which is both physically demanding and intricate work. The friends soon recruit their landlady’s daughter Beth, who is able to understand and translate intricate puzzles. All three flourish in their new jobs.

Even as the women succeed in their work, their personal lives are complicated by the war and the secrets they must keep. Osla is dating Prince Philip (yes, that Prince Philip, the future Duke of Edinburgh) who is serving in the Mediterranean; she knows of the important naval battle his ship will be involved in before he does. (Quinn based Osla on Margaret Osla Henniker-Major who did indeed date Prince Philip during World War II and worked at Bletchley Park). Mab is searching for a “suitable” husband, but falls in love instead and Beth must overcome her crippling shyness and stand up to her mother, all against the backdrop of the war.

The novel jumps between the war years and 1947 when Beth has been falsely accused of a terrible crime and is in grave danger. Her friends from Bletchley Park look past their differences and unite again to work together to try and solve one more secret. As time runs out and the Bletchley Park colleagues encounter multiple obstacles, will they be able to right a terrible wrong?

I’m a big fan of Kate Quinn; her earlier novels The Alice Network and The Huntress are a couple of my all-time favorite books. She ties major events to lesser known historical figures and brings them to life, adding great depth to the repercussions of war and conflict, of the lasting legacies and past bravery. The Rose Code is no different, with fascinating details of the vital work that went on at Bletchley Park, the women (who mostly went unacknowledged) that made so much of the code breaking possible and the great tension of the last few chapters when a new danger threatens, made for another can’t-put-down novel.

Our Darkest Night by Jennifer Robson

Focusing on a part of World War II that is less explored, Jennifer Robson transports us to Italy under German occupation in Our Darkest Night.

Antonina has lived in Venice her whole life; her family have been residents for several generations. Her father is a renowned and well-respected doctor, with people from all over Europe and from all walks of life seeking him out. But none of this matters after the Nazi occupation of Italy. By 1943, daily life for the Jews of Venice has become nearly unbearable and increasingly dangerous.

As the danger looms, Antonina’s father refuses to leave his invalid wife, but insists that Antonina escape, posing as the wife of a man she’s never met, Nico, a former seminary student. Nico takes her to his family farm in the countryside, several days travel from  Venice, in the hopes that she will be safe hiding with a Christian family in a remote location.

Antonina (now known as Nina) finds her new life grueling and lonely, and she misses and fears for her parents desperately.  But even as she finds a place in her new family and falls in love with Nico, the German threat is not far away. Can she and Nico survive the horrors that are to come?

This is a quick read with characters that you will care about. The relentless cruelty of the Nazi’s can be difficult to read, but the strength of the Italian people will give you hope. For more books about Italy during the German occupation in World War II, be sure to check out A Thread of Grace by Mary Doria Russell and Blame the Dead by Ed Ruggero.