The Alice network by Kate Quinn

The American Charlie St Clair travels with her mother to Europe to get an abortion. During a stopover in England, she has second thoughts and boards a train to London to look for Eve Gardiner. Her French cousin Rose disappeared during WWII and Eve Gardiner’s name pops up. Eve has her own reasons for joining Charlie’s search when the name of Réné appears in the case. This Réné exploited a restaurant with the same name as another establishment where Eve worked as a spy during that other Great War.

Kate Quinn is an author who has been recommended to me for so long that it was finally time to read her. The Alice Network is perhaps her best-known book. It tells the story of a spy network during WWI that was hugely successful and mostly consisted of women. Quinn explains in her epilogue what did and didn’t really happen and I found it amazing that so many details of this novel were real.

Besides Eve’s perspective during WOI, there’s also that of Charlie a few years after WWII. She’s looking for her cousin Rose who fought against the occupying forces somewhere in France but disappeared. And then you have the Scot Finn who also served in this war and who’s in Eve’s employment.

There are two wars with certain parallels, though I preferred the ‘historical’ perspective of Eve. However, for some reason I found it hard to really relate with Eve or Charlie. But the story kept me interested. I only had some problems with the pregnancy storyline. I understand why it’s included. But it felt a bit artificial.

Quinn writes well, but I wasn’t blown away yet. It’s definitely a war novel with an original and interesting angle. And I love it enough to read more of her books. I might be looking for ‘The rose code’ or one of her earlier novels about Ancient Rome or The Borgias.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Have you read anything from Quinn? Or do you recommend any other novel about spies during WWI?

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My brilliant friend by Elena Ferrante

Lila and Elena grow up as best friends in a poor neighbourhood of Naples. They both do well at school, but Lila’s parents don’t want her to go to the conservatory. And so at 12, Lila has to help out in her father’s cobbler’s shop, while Elena learns Latin and Greek at school. The girls estrange a bit, especially when they start hanging out with boys.

This series by the unknown Italian author (we don’t even know if it’s a she or he) Elena Ferrante is fairly hyped and even made into a series. I was expecting a story about two girls and their bond with a fair amount of drama in it. But the latter turned out to be a wrong assumption on my part. This is more of a literary story that gently moves on and explores the relationship between the two girls in much detail. No big events or drama.

The story is set in Naples during the 1950s and the first book is about their childhood and adolescent years. This is the time when girls going to school is still seen as a waste of time. And life in Elena and Lila’s neighbourhood is hard.

We get to know the whole neighbourhood and that involves quite a lot of names and at times I didn’t remember who was who. It also didn’t seem that important either because one boy was rather interchangeable for another as far as I was concerned. Lila and Elena are total opposites. It’s Elena, the one who does get to go to school, who tells the story and has a kind of fascination with Lila’s personality. She is ‘her brilliant friend’. But maybe, it’s just the other way around…

The book didn’t touch me emotionally and the slow pace made me look forward to the end when things picked up a bit more pace. The book has an open ending, but I don’t think I’ll read the next part. The story didn’t hold on to me enough for that. Ferrante writes well and builds beautiful sentences, typically for an Italian author. But this genre is just not for me.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr

In Cloud Cuckoo Land, we follow five young teenagers who are all outcasts to society. In the 15th century, Anna and Omeir are each on opposite sides at the siege of Constantinople. Zeno and Seymour meet during an attack on an American library in our time. And Constance is alone in a spaceship in the not so distant future. They all seek solace in the book ‘Cloud cuckoo land’ that tells the story of Aethon who is on a magical journey to a city in the clouds.

Doerr is a great writer. ‘All the light we cannot’ see proved this and Cloud cuckoo land doesn’t disappoint in that regard. This book is divided according to the chapters of the fictional story ‘Cloud cuckoo land’ that dates from the 1st century and in between we follow five youngsters in three different ‘timelines’. It’s an ambitious book in which you have to get used to each perspective and the story unfolds very slowly. Doerr devotes pages and pages to beautiful descriptions. This takes the pace out of some of chapters, but I didn’t mind. I loved the character development and the detail of some of the protagonists backstory’s.

I only had some trouble with the perspectives of both Seymour and Omeir. I just couldn’t get the hang of it. Nor with Zeno at first, but as I got to know him, my sympathy grew. Constance’s futuristic perspective turned out to be my favourite, against my expectations.

There are many themes in the book. Loneliness, autism, homosexuality, climate change…. But the biggest story is the one about the power of books and stories. How we can find solace in them in times of peril.

I had hoped that things would fall into place even more at the end. But actually, this was a really clever piece of storytelling, which asks some effort from the reader to understand it all. But the reward is a story full of hope and love for books.

This is book 4/20 for 20 books of summer.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Have you read anything by Doerr?

The people’s princess by Flora Harding

Lady Diana has just got engaged to Charles and moves to Buckingham Palace to prepare for their wedding. But Diana is lonely in the big palace. She comes across a portrait of an earlier princess of Wales, Charlotte. When she gets her hands on her secret diary, she soon discovers Charlotte’s life and passions might be more familiar to Diana than she thought.

I was very hesitant to read this book because Diana is hard to call history and we all have memories of her. But Harding created such a beautiful image of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip (I read it when both were still alive) in ‘Before the crown‘ that I decided to give ‘The people’s princess‘ a start.

Diana feels very human in this story. It takes place in the weeks before her famous wedding in St Paul’s Cathedral. You feel her struggling with the distant Charles, the unreadable queen, the press and her eating disorder. One day, she gets hold of the diary of another princess of Wales, beloved by the people. And so we read the story of Charlotte in the 19th century.

Charlotte was the only child of George IV and thus heir to the throne. Her parents were unhappily married and lived apart. Charlotte was trapped in golden cage yearning for passion with only her loyal staff for company. Her only chance at freedom was to get married but she didn’t agree with the proposed match of her parents. Yearning for love and freedom, Charlotte tells her story in her diary.

The fact that the author chose to tell Charlotte’s story via a diary didn’t feel credible in my opinion. Many scenes weren’t written in diary form, so it felt a bit artificial done to weave Diana’s chapters with Charlotte’s. But ignoring the diary part, the story of Charlotte herself is interesting and well portrayed. The parallels between the two princesses are nicely highlighted in this novel.

But it doesn’t cut deep enough and sometimes felt inauthentic. Harding does write smoothly but the book unfortunately did not get under my skin. Of her two novels, I preferred ‘Before the crown’.

Thanks to Netgalley and the publisher for a copy of this book in exchange for my honest opinion.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Are you familiar with Charlotte’s story?

The Romanov empress by C.W. Gortner

Dagmar, who goes by the nickname ‘Minnie’, unexpectedly becomes princess of Denmark when her father inherits the crown from his uncle. Her elder sister Alix soon engages herself to the heir to the British throne, ‘Bertie’, the eldest son of Victoria. After Minnie rejects a marriage with another of Victoria’s sons, she catches the eye of Nicholas of Russia, the future Tsar. Nixa and Minnie are madly in love, until Nixa dies unexpectedly before their marriage. Minnie eventually marries his younger brother Alexander, ‘Sasha’. She takes on the orthodox name of Maria Feodorovna and leaves everything behind to build a new life in Russia as future Tsarina.

This is a fantastic book! It covers the last 60 years of the Romanovs’ reign through the eyes of Dagmar of Denmark, better known as Maria Feodorovna. Maria was the daughter-in-law of Alexander II, who was murdered by rebels, Tsarina of Alexander III and mother of Nicholas II, the last Tsar.

Maria, or Minnie, is a strong woman with a real-life personality who comes of age during this novel. As a young girl, she arrives in Russia in a big family. She tries to find her own place and genuinely loves her new country. She also tries to support the men around her, without trying to take over the power.

This is one of those books where the family tree up front really comes in handy. You also get a good but complex view of the relationships between the various European royal families. There are so many people with the same name that nicknames are needed :).

You can feel the unrest in Russia growing. From the hunger of the peasants, the disastrous war with Japan, the rise of the Nihilists and later the Bolsheviks to Tsarina Alexandra and her Rasputin. I found Minnie’s relationship with her sister-in-law the German ‘Miechen’ in particular very fascinating. Miechen is a confident and proud woman and she challenges Minnie to bring out that side in herself more.

Then there is her daughter-in-law Alexandra, whom she distrusts from the very beginning. Alexandra and Nicholas aren’t the rulers that the Russian Empire needs in times of War. But they are deeply in love with one another. Minnie struggles with that, as she senses that Alexandra will be their undoing. This is also the first book I have read where Alexandra and Nicholas are not just presented as victims, but as two people who stood at the wrong side of history.

Minnie is also concerned with the fate of the people and a true advocate of democracy, something she is not thanked for within her family. She volunteers for the Red Cross and a number of other charities.

And yet the revolution cannot be averted. It remains strange to read about these events. A century later, we still don’t know exactly what happened to the Tsar and his family, or to some other Romanovs who did not survive 1918. Fortunately, we do learn a lot about the fate of the survivors in the historical note.

Gortner is a fantastic author. And this is without a doubt one of his best books. I wish there were more historical fiction books about the Russian Empire.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Have you read anything good about the Russian Revolution before? What’s your favourite C.W. Gortner?

Where the crawdads sing by Delia Owens

Kya Clark lives with her family on the edge of the swamp until her mother, her siblings and finally her father leave her behind. Nature becomes her only comfort and she tries to make a living by selling mussels to ‘Jumpin’, one of the few people that try to help her. She quickly becomes known as ‘the swamp girl’ in the village. But when two different boys show an interest in Kya and a few years later one of them is found dead – murdered? – Kya is suspect number one.

This is really one of those books that I would never have chosen myself based on the back cover. But it is fairly hyped and so I gave it a chance. This is a fine novel about a girl with a hard life who still tries to see the beauty in it. And the wilderness is maybe an even greater protagonist than Kya herself.

Where the crawdads sing‘ is also a bit of a murder mystery with a courtroom drama attached to it. Chase Andrews, the most popular guy of the village is found dead at the bottom of a fire tower. It’s not clear if he has fallen or if he was pushed. But the police suspects the latter and only one name pops up as a potential suspect: Kya.

Overall, this is a solid novel. I can understand why so many people love it. It’s an emotional story about a girl trying to make sense of the world while fighting against prejudices. I saw certain plot lines coming, but I didn’t care. You empathize with Kya’s story and feel her pain and happiness.

But I am not that excited about this book as others seem to be. This is just a fine novel. It doesn’t always have to be literature. But I did notice that this was Owens’ debut fiction novel in her writing. However, I enjoyed it enough, just a pity about the more predictable ending.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Have you read this popular book yet?

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

Humbert Humbert travels to America to teach French poetry. He falls in love with the 12-year-old daughter of his landlady, Dolores Haze. He calls her his ‘Lolita’. To be closer to her, he marries the mother. But when she learns the truth she gets run over by a car. Humbert now takes his stepdaughter on a roadtrip through America during which they become intimate.

Lolita is this kind of classic everyone has heard about. “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul.” It’s probably one of the most famous opening lines ever written. The topic is taboo. A sexual relationship between an adult man and a teenage girl. It’s so wrong. Lots of classics are said to be about topics that were sensitive at the time they were published. But this is still sensitive today. It leaves you with a wry feeling and a sour taste in your mouth.

The story opens with ‘Humbert Humbert’ writing his story from prison awaiting trial. He wants to explain his actions to the public. Humbert is an unreliable narrator and this makes for a disturbing story. He takes us back to his childhood love for a young girl of his age and his sexual desire for her that was never consummated. Ever since, he has a longing for young girls, around 12-13 year old. He calls them ‘nymphets’.

So when one day he meets dark haired (no idea why there are always blondes on the cover of this book 🤷‍♀️) Dolores, who is 12 but quite outspoken for her age, he is lost. He constantly seeks for ways to be with her. And day by day, she also warms towards him.

The writing is poetic. Nabokov creates beautiful sentences. His metaphors and images are vivid and full of detail. But this also means it’s a difficult and at times tiring book to read. The pace is slow, every sentence is a story in itself. I must admit that I began skipping parts near the end of the book. It did appreciate the writing, it’s a work of art. But it was all a bit too much.

This is rightly considered a classic. Especially as Nabokov wrote this originally in English instead of Russian. But I’ve read it now once, and for me that’s enough.

This is book 8/50 for the classics club.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Have you read Lolita yet? What did you think?

The collector’s daughter by Gill Paul

Lady Evelyn Herbert is the daughter of the earl of Carnarvon who finances Howard Carter’s expedition to find the tomb of Tutankhamun in Egypt. Eve who wants to become a lady archeologist herself can’t believe her eyes when she’s one of the first people to enter the burial chamber. But after the unique discovery, things start to go wrong with the people she loves and there’s talk of an ancient curse. Decades later, Eve is struggling with the aftermath of another stroke when Ana Mansour starts asking questions about missing artefacts from the tomb. Only Eve can still tell the tale, or will she take her secrets with her to the grave?

Gill Paul is an author I’ve meant to read a long time ago. She often writes a two perspective novel with one the characters being from royal blood. Her newest novel ‘The collector’s daughter‘ is different in that regard. There’s only one female perspective, although we meet her at two certain points in her life, and she has noble but no royal ancestors.

The discovery of Tutankhamun has always fascinated me so I did know who Evelyn Herbert was. The book opens with Eve waking up in the hospital after a stroke with her loyal husband Brograve Beauchamp besides her. We learn that Eve has had a car accident some time ago since when she suffers from strokes that sometimes take away her speech, but also parts of her memories. This time she does recall the distant past as if it was yesterday and her mind takes her back to the 1920’s in Egypt and the balls in Engeland where she met Brograve after WOI.

Highclere castle, the real Downton Abbey, also features in the story. We meet Eve’s complex family from the earl who dotes on his daughter, her lively but spendthrift mother Almina and her brother Porchy, the future earl of Carnarvon.

I did enjoy this novel, but it’s a light read. There’s a heavy focus on Eve’s health and her revalidation, leaving not enough space in my opinion for the historical perspective. I loved traveling back to Egypt, but the storyline became a bit shallow at times. I didn’t like Eve referring to her father as ‘Pups’ all the time. I also didn’t think the character of Ana really contributed to the story. We never get to know her or her motives. The focus is on Eve and her relationship with Brograve. And there’s talk of a curse to spice things up.

Paul has written an extensive historical note. A lot of research has gone into this book with utter respect for the real people behind the characters. As it’s a book about 20th century people with living descendants, I can really appreciate that.

I’ll certainly pick up one of Paul’s earlier books now, and I want to read more historicals novels about Egypt (any recommendations?). But I don’t know if this will be a story I still remember in, let’s say, two years from now.

Thanks to Netgalley and the publisher for a copy of this book in return for my honest opinion.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Have you read anything by Gill Paul? Any recommendations on the history of (ancient) Egypt?

The animals of Lockwood manor by Jane Healey

When WOII is luring around the corner, the Natural History Museum of London is looking elsewhere to store their precious collection of mammals. Hettie Cartwright is made director—as all men are going to war—of the new museum at Lockwood manor, an old country home with more than 99 rooms. Her reception by the lord of the manor is hostile. The only friend she can turn to is Lucy, the lord daughter’s. Lucy’s mother and grandmother have just died in a car accident and Lucy herself suffers from nightmares about a woman dressed in white and a blue room. When animals are starting to disappear or are changing places, Hettie wonders if this really is a haunted house after all.

Hettie has grown up in an unloved family and has always devoted most of her time to her work. However, as a woman she has little prospect to get promoted. But when all the men are called to war, this is her chance to prove herself as the responsible of the mammal collection. When soon after her arrival at Lockwood manor (the name being an allusion to Emily’s Brönte’s narrator in Wuthering Heights) animals start to disappear, she wants to preserve the animals and her promotion no matter what. She becomes obsessed. This sets her at hostile ground with Lord Lockwood and the servants of the manor.

The only person that seems to be friendly towards her is Lucy. But she’s a complicated character. Suffering from a sensitive nerving system and bad dreams, Lucy is afraid to leave her home and doesn’t dare to stand up to her father.

The animals of Lockwood manor is Jane Healey’s first novel and is set in the tradition of the great gothic classics such as Rebecca and Jane Eyre. All the gothic elements are there: a haunted house, a ghost story, family secrets, a young and inexperienced main character and a fire. However, I don’t think of this book as a merely gothic story. There’s also a heavy romance plot line.

The book has an original setting. The mammals and the home feature as real characters in the book. And while the story is set during WOII, the war is never really a part of the plot. Only just looming in the background. Chapters are alternating between Hettie and Lucy. With Lucy’s part being in diary form. I did enjoy Hettie’s perspective the most. I could relate to her and her fear and doubts felt real.

There’s a heavy sapphic romance in the book, which was a bit cliche done. I’ve recently read a range of books with the same theme (The crimson ribbon, The mercies, The testimony of Alys Twist…) and the plot felt a bit forced at times. I wanted to read more about the mystery that was hiding within the manor.

Jane Healey’s writing was ok. I had some trouble with the pace. Some chapters felt really slow, while the ending was quite sudden in its revealings. I’m ok with the ending, I had guessed some part of it, but it gives an explanation to most things that happened.

Overall, I did enjoy the animals at Lockwood manor and I’ll happily try one of Healey’s future works. The sound of ‘The Ophelia girls‘, which will be published this summer, already appeals to me.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Have you read this one? Any gothic recommendations?

Lady Chatterley’s lover by D.H. Lawrence

Middleclass woman Connie Read marries Clifford Chatterley of the Wragby estate, who got paralysed during WOI and is now bound to a wheelchair. This also means he isn’t able to give Connie any children of his own. The monotonous life at Wragby starts to bore Connie. When she meets her husband’s gamekeeper, the troubled Oliver Mellors, she loathes him at first. But in time, she visits him more and more in the woods and the two of them start an affair.

This is the winning novel of my first classics club spin. I added this book to the list because I saw the excellent BBC movie with Richard Madden and Holiday Grainger a few years ago. I didn’t remember anything from the plot so I was curious to start reading Lady Chatterley’s lover, expecting a romance novel with a lot of sex and drama.

But this didn’t turn out as expected. It’s written during the interwar period and has that typical early 20th century atmosphere. There were a lot of philosophical discussions that I wasn’t prepared for. About themes as social class, communism, women’s rights, industrialization… And that’s why I felt the story dragged on at times.

This book has a lot of sex, but compared to 21st century standards (I mean, we have 50 shades) it isn’t big deal. I can assume that in the 1920’s this was not done and the book has been banned in a lot of countries. But I also believe this was the cause because the book is about an affair between two people of a different social class. A respectable lady who mingles with a gamekeeper, who is far below her status… It would have caused quite a scandal in real life.

I didn’t feel the romance. Connie hates Mellors at first and slowly they grow towards each other, but I couldn’t understand why. The first times they have sex, it’s all about the sex and Connie is even thinking about other things while having intercourse. Her feelings towards Oliver change suddenly, but it’s never explained why. Mellors is a character that I couldn’t relate with. He speaks a certain dialect that I couldn’t understand (I read this book in English so that made these parts unreadable to me). I didn’t root for them, but I couldn’t also stand Clifford, who has little thought and affection for his wife.

The second part of the book got better (more action and dialogue, less philosophical themes), but all together I believe this story is better suited for a 2-hour movie than a 6-hour book.

This is book 5/50 for the classics club.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

Have you read anything by D.H. Lawrence?