Reading Review Wreckage

Throughout the Winter break, my Inbox has been flooded with emails wishing me seasonal greetings, reflecting on the year/decade ending, or plotting the future.

Feeling inundated and overwhelmed, do I dare add to the navel gazing – oops, discussion?

I need to scratch one large itch, so apologies.

My year in books was frustrating, after I started 2019 with great determination. I committed to reading 35 books for the Goodreads Challenge – not as many as some years – and 16-25 mystery/suspense/thriller/crime for the Cloak & Dagger Challenge.

But I failed both Challenges.

For the 2019 Goodreads Challenge, I only read 28 out of my intended 35 books. Only 14 of these were ‘crime’- three more than 2018, but not enough to make me more than an ‘Amateur Sleuth’.

I had a mid-year reading/review crisis. I was unable to keep up with my reviews, so stopped reading. That didn’t resolve the review problem and instead created a reading backlog/logjam. At least seven books are screaming for reviews, not counting ones from previous years.

I have other excuses/alibis.

My Kindle Fire frustrates me. When I switch the power on, it takes ages to load – often re-organising its files – dissuading me from reading. Paperbacks win on that score – and others. Yes, I can store so many more with the Kindle. But that means more books unread. I wanted to delete some books – samples etc – but that’s near impossible on my model.

Audible: simpler as I don’t need to turn pages or struggle with my failing eyes, and I get swept into other worlds by great narrators. Is that why two of my five star reads were five stars – The Alice Network and The Pearl Thief? However, the downside is my tendency to fall asleep, not because of the book, but because of my fatigue.

MS fatigue is one of the side-effects of my chronic illness. I fear MS and old age are more than excuses.

Let’s put excuses aside and be positive. I’m setting my sights lower in 2020.

For the Goodreads Challenge, I’ve decided that 30 books in 2020 is a realistic target. I already seem to be ‘currently reading’ eight books: three with Audible, one on Kindle, three paperbacks and one hardback. Doesn’t that look like a good start for the year?

Deceptive fog, I fear. Two of those are research books that I dip in and out of. One is a factual grind which will never get finished. The Kindle read is proving disappointing so slow. And one of the Audible books is proving a hard listen.

Does another reading-review wreckage loom? Not if I persevere.

I’m veering back to old-fashioned paper books – there are plenty on my desk to read. I will persist with Audible as my eyes will welcome that – if I can evade the fatigue.

As for the Cloak & Dagger Challenge, I have eleven of my 2019 ‘crime’ reads remaining – plus, my TBR list has a few more from the genre. Another Amateur Sleuth?

My book of 2019? A five-star read that was magical. A story that resonated with me – wolves, Russia, revolution, adventure, and the wolves. Plus, prose that was masterful. An encounter with middle-grade reading with unexpected but amazing results.

The Wolf Wilder

by Katherine Rundell

The Alice Network – a review

It’s frustrating as I’m still behind with my book reviews as my reading continues to be faster than my writing. However, I’m ahead in my 2019 Goodreads Challenge– 21 books now read from my target of 35.

As for reviews, this follows my review of The Huntress – my belated introduction to the brilliant Kate Quinn. I still have six more outstanding reviews as I finished reading another novel as I wrote that last review.

Oh well, I’m further behind reading emails so can’t panic – yet. So, onto the review.

The Alice Network

By Kate Quinn 

Narrated by: Saskia Maarleveld 

In an enthralling new historical novel from national bestselling author Kate Quinn, two women – a female spy recruited to the real-life Alice Network in France during World War I and an unconventional American socialite searching for her cousin in 1947 – are brought together in a mesmerizing story of courage and redemption. 

1947. In the chaotic aftermath of World War II, American college girl Charlie St. Clair is pregnant, unmarried, and on the verge of being thrown out of her very proper family. She’s also nursing a desperate hope that her beloved cousin Rose, who disappeared in Nazi-occupied France during the war, might still be alive. So when Charlie’s parents banish her to Europe to have her “little problem” taken care of, Charlie breaks free and heads to London, determined to find out what happened to the cousin she loves like a sister.

1915. A year into the Great War, Eve Gardiner burns to join the fight against the Germans and unexpectedly gets her chance when she’s recruited to work as a spy. Sent into enemy-occupied France, 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 launches them both on a mission to find the truth … no matter where it leads.

Review 5 stars

I bought the Audible version of ‘The Alice Network’ after reading Kate Quinn’s ‘The Huntress’ so knew I had to read more by this talented writer.

I was not disappointed. We weren’t…

My wife and I listened transfixed, not wanting to pause the excellent narration or the flow of crafted words. Kate Quinn at her best and deserving many more stars.

From the tantalising opening in 1947 with pregnant, unmarried, American college girl Charlie St. Clair remembering her beloved cousin Rose, we were pulled into this intricately crafted tale that spans two World Wars. Rose disappeared in Nazi-occupied France during WWII, but the key might be Eve Gardiner, who is haunted by the betrayal that ultimately tore apart the Alice Network of secret agents, thirty years earlier during WWI.

Eve was sent into enemy-occupied France and was trained by the mesmerizing Lili, the “Queen of Spies,” who uses the pseudonym of Alice Dubois – hence the network’s name. Her story and her memories of that period are woven into the ongoing story once Eve and Rose meet – well, a clash of opposites…experiences versus youthful recklessness. A clash that needs to be resolved.

After the betrayal during WWI, Eve escaped into drink, but in1947, Charlie persuades her – mentioning a significant name, René Bordelon – to embark on a mission to find the truth … no matter where it leads. During that journey, we gradually discover more about Charlie’s relationship with Rose, and more about Eve as she recounts her traumatic career as a spy.

Two other characters play vital roles in that ‘present day’ story: Finn Kilgore, the Scotsman and ex-soldier who looks after Eve. The second character proves to be his Lagonda LG6 in which he drives Eve around and then in which he takes Eve and Charlie on their mission of discovery. Finn obsesses about the car, nurses it through its mechanical problems – but he is a mechanic and more. Plus, he is the second Scotsman in Eve’s life – the first, Captain Cameron recruited her as a secret agent.

How Eve’s relationship with Cameron is resolved parallels Charlie’s involvement with Finn. One of many parallels and contrasts between the two women that weave through the book. Not least René Bordelon, the antagonist that ties together all the evils of both wars – even if he attempts to justify himself.

René is as complex as the other main characters. Cultured or at least coveting the trappings he acquires or desires. His favourite poet – he quotes him obsessively – Baudelaire adds a clever twist in what Lili calls her spies. A phrase echoed by Eve.

“Fleurs du mal,” Eve heard herself saying, and shivered.

“What?”

“Baudelaire. We are not flowers to be plucked and shielded, Captain. We are flowers who flourish in evil.”

Lili is another complex character and Eve’s mentor, friend and confidante. Lili, whose real name is revealed as Louise de Bettignies, was an actual person as was her Alice Network. This true-life story is skilfully told from Eve’s point of view and impacts on the unfolding novel, changing lives over time.

On first meeting Eve – through Charlie’s eyes – she doesn’t appear to be anything like the young determined woman who becomes a spy in 1915. In other novels, I would suspect not – and there have been great examples of switched identities. But not here. Kate Quinn shows how and why the young Eve became the embittered drunk – and yet there are plenty of glimmers of the young Eve under the surface.

Thus, I understood her brief appearance in ‘The Huntress’ – although I hadn’t known who she was.

 “She used to do something unbelievably vague in British intelligence, and people like that are rather good at observing things.”

However, I will say no more about such meetings. There are so many tragic twists as the tale unfolds and I won’t spoil them. Just believe me when I say this story is brilliant – great writing and excellent narration.

Narrated by Saskia Maarleveld, this Audible version was an engaging listen. Saskia is able to make every character distinctive – helped by the first-class writing. She brings emotion and pacing to her narration that earns her five stars. Now we’ve finished listening to ‘The Alice Network’, we will listen to the author’s excellent ‘The Huntress’ as they share the same superb narrator.

Five-star recommend doesn’t do ‘The Alice Network’ justice. So, I’m handing the last few sentences to a talented author whose research is meticulous.

“Clearly, women in active fighting zones unsettled their contemporaries, but they still left a legacy behind. Girls of the ’30s and ’40s joined the SOE to train as spies against the Nazis because they had been inspired by books and stories about women like Louise de Bettignies—and they weren’t inspired by her feminine graces. They were inspired by her courage, her toughness, and her unflinching drive, just as I imagined Charlie being inspired by Eve’s. Such women were fleurs du mal indeed—with steel, with endurance, and with flair, they thrived in evil and inspired others in doing so.”


― Kate Quinn talking about The Alice Network

Story – five stars

Setting/World-building – five stars

Characters – five stars

Authenticity – five stars

Structure – five stars

Narration – five stars

Editing – five stars

And if you are interested to read more about The Alice Network: https://www.readinggroupguides.com/reviews/the-alice-network

AND

https://www.bookcompanion.com/the_alice_network_links2.html

And for the real Louise de Bettignies: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Louise_de_Bettignies