book review: the alice network

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Instructions:

Write the locations of German gunnery emplacements on your petticoat. Record the transportation details of a high-ranking official and weave the paper in your hairpins. Get a job as a waitress and hide that you understand all three languages so you can listen in on the high-ranking patrons at your restaurant.

The Alice Network is historical fiction based in truth. This fast read with lots of girl power traces the contributions of a mostly female spy network aiding the Allies in WW1, particularly in Lille, France, during the German occupation.

Disclaimer: The women in the story are clearly expected to do the literal “whatever it takes” to get information, so there is a significant amount of trading sex for information. Not a G-rated read, but I don’t think there’s a war story that is?

This book flips chronologically between the early years of WW1 with a young female spy recruit named Eve (just joining the Alice Network) and a young woman named Charlie just AFTER WW2 who is trying to find a lost family member with the help of a much-older Eve. There is a lot of contrast drawn between Britain pre- and post-wars as well as France then vs. now — this just points to how much life has changed for Eve. The older version of this decorated spy has severely deformed hands, while the younger version does not. As the reader, much of the story centers around learning what happened to Eve, particularly why she refuses to accept her many commendations/awards from her home country.

A real historical figure, Louise de Bettignies, known as “the queen of spies” makes several appearances in the book. According to the note at the end of the novel, there’s a story of Louise getting through German checkpoints by sharing the same set of official papers with other women. Children were sent on a game of tag and as the various women (on each side of the border crossing) tried to stop their antics, the children passed the papers from one to the other. History tells us that Louise was finally arrested with another woman at one of these game-of-tag crossing attempts. While Louise died in an enemy prison, the other woman was released, deemed to be just a passer-by. Author Kate Quinn has decided to fictionalize this account by crafting a story where the other woman (Eve) is an active participant who continued the work after Louise was arrested. Honestly, with the shady history of espionage, I kind of like imagining that maybe the Germans only caught one of them!

Highlights: Learning that many of the discoveries made by the women in the book were, in fact, really discovered by female spies. The invasion of Verdun, as an example, was reported months before even though the intelligence higher-ups disregarded the warning. Also, “the queen of spies” is credited with saving the lives of more than 1,000 British soldiers. She was posthumously awarded the Cross of the Legion of Honor, the Croix de guerre, the British Military Medal, and made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire.

#girlpower



             

book review: the dog stars

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When I was writing my first novel, my husband commented that I never took breaks from writing. Now, here I am, in between wrapping (the second draft of) my third novel and…well, whatever’s next—and I’m back to never taking breaks. From reading! I’m flying through books, and it’s entirely refreshing.

The Dog Stars by Peter Heller was another recommendation from whatshouldireadnext.com.

Before we get into the review, I need to be clear that this book takes place in a violent, post-apocalyptic world and contains strong language. A lot. Like a lot, a lot. A lot. A lot. Also a significant amount of violence (including sexual violence). So huge disclaimer that this is not a leave-this-book-around-for-your-ten-year-old-to-pick-up kind of read.

That being said, I don’t mind post-apocalyptic reads (see Station Eleven) as long as they aren’t hopeless. I don’t enjoy hopeless books. The world can be almost as dreary, awful, and despicable as you want to make it as long as it offers me a fragment of hope (even if the heroes die). Although, (spoiler) the dog dies.

The Dog Stars opens nine years after a devastating flu wipes out most of the population and leaves most of the survivors with a blood disorder. The story is told first person (and, I might add with distractingly limited punctuation) and often out of order as “Hig” (the storyteller) goes about his daily life. It was difficult for me to get into the story as they are no quotation marks or dialogue tags (he said, I said) — but I’m glad I persevered. It was a really captivating read. A fascinating, well-articulated, creatively built world.

Hig is a widower, but everyone else has also lost everyone in the flu, so his grief feels… universal? Undeserved? He’s a pilot living with the exact friend you need in the post-apocalypse world: the guy who owns every kind of firearm and explosive known to man. No, actually, Hig is the better friend because they hole up at an airport, and he’s a pilot. Together, they form a “safety perimeter” of Hig’s flight plan and Bangley’s sniper rifle (and mortars) and live nine years killing anyone who enters their circle.

Oddly enough, Hig is also an angel of mercy to other survivors, delivering vegetables he grows, fixing solar panels. He has two very different but three-dimensional sides of his character. He relies on Bangley and appreciates how many times the total nut-job has saved his life, but he greatly resents the way killing is a way of life. He just wants to fish and misses his job as a writer for an outdoor magazine. He’s very much the everyman, the way I think Harrison Ford movies can make you believe his character is just the regular desk jockey who is suddenly over his head and has to adopt this entirely other way of existing.

Following the death of Hig’s best friend (his dog Jasper), he decides there’s got to be more than this and flies off, past his point of no return where he knows his avgas can’t get him “home.” He’s off to search for…something more, but he doesn’t know what.

The world is violent, and like I mentioned above, there is a lot of swearing. So much swearing. (But I felt it was authentic.) Hig is an interesting protagonist because he’s desperate to help people, and does when he can, but he’s also a killer who lets his dog eat the bodies of trespassers. It’s an interesting balance of shock and compassion and desperation and everything else.

Best scene in the book: Hig and another character see their own reflections in a mirror for the first time in nine years. Reading it, I wondered if I’d recognize myself, even under normal circumstances, let alone in a hostile environment that had stripped away so much of my humanity. Interesting thought as he stares, wondering who the angry, homeless old man is. Channels a little C.S. Lewis in Out of the Silent Planet when Ransom is confused by the figure of another human after living among the Sorns for so long.



             

book review: little fires everywhere

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This book was so emotional for me. It explores relationships between mothers and children, particularly asking the big question: What makes a mother?  Biology? More?

The writing in this book is riveting. Beautiful, particularly since one of the characters is a mixed media artist, and I feel like I always had a very clear picture of what she was creating.

Race is a huge theme in this book.  The author makes her own opinions vividly clear--there are no redeeming qualities in the older white characters who 'try' but always miss the mark when it comes to understanding. I get the feeling that the author believes she is presenting a hopeful view of the future by allowing the white youth to be more understanding, but it makes me sad to think that she looks at me as a lost cause. 

(I need to confess that I'm a white foster parent, so I know my opinions are going to be shaped by my own personal experience.  I don't know how to say too much about the book without some spoilers, so... fair warning. Limited spoilers ahead.)

There's definitely a huge push in this story to support the birth parent who "just made one bad decision." The book presents an extremely false narrative I've often heard pushed in TV and movies that sensationalize the DHS workers who are desperate to keep kids away from their birth parents. That. Doesn't. Happen. Even most parents who have physically assaulted their children are given supervised visitation. The entire system is set up to reunify families-of-origin, NOT to create new families through adoption. But I read on and allowed her to sensationalize this for the sake of the story, even though it presents a hugely false narrative of how the system functions.

The book's biggest failing is the HUGE HUGE HUGE straw man she writes as the foster/potential adoptive mom in this book. Almost pathetic. The author sets herself up with the most ridiculous softball. I mean, if you're going to write what is supposed to be a compelling 'which mother is better', let's not have the foster mom say things like "I guess I never noticed we had only white baby dolls" or pull out an old racist, 50's-era 'heirloom' children's book as her only reading material that featured faces that match the child's. Frown. Author, you could have at least let her try. Not all foster parents are clueless white people who would say their honest idea of cultural exposure is Chinese take-out. Absurd and you lose points for taking it way too easy on yourself. You could have actually made the battle worth watching.

The saddest scene in this book for me is the conversation between two characters immediately after one of them has elected to have an abortion. The line is, "Would you have been ready to be a good mother? The kind of mother you'd have wanted to be? The kind of mother a child deserves?" The heart-wrenching selfishness of this line chills me to my core, especially because the author clearly intends it to be empowering and cleansing. 

She continues, "You'll always be sad about this. But it doesn't mean you made the wrong choice. It's just something you have to carry." The selection of the word 'carry'... shivers

The best scene in this book is when the foster/would-be-adoptive mother was on the stand in Family Court. The author intersperses the lawyer's questions with flashing memories of caring for the child. You watch the foster mom become more and more unhinged, realizing that four nights of no sleep when baby had a fever isn't enough for the legal system to view her as the mom. With each question, she recalls something else sacrificial she has done for this child (while her birth mother was entirely absent) while she recognizes that it won't be enough to change their perspective. Her mind is filled with thoughts that seemed so clear: I'm the only mother this child has ever known... But it isn't enough, and the author makes it clear that she believes biology trumps anything else and that any mistake can be forgiven for a 'real' family member. 

Bottom Line: Riveting story and truly compelling characters, but sensationalizes the reality of the system and lobs a softball straw-man to make a statement.



             

book review: the first fifteen lives of harry august

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This book was suggested to me by the great underbelly of the internet, What should I read next? Not a bad recommendation following Station Eleven. Literary qualities in a science fiction novel, nice for a change.

Concept: "Kalachakra" or "ouroboran" live the same life over and over. Groundhog day for a lifetime. But apparently not all of the members of this so-called Cronus Club live the same life... someone is making history speed up. Why are mobile phones in everyone's hands in 1973? Who is changing history and how? And why?

[ominous dun dun dun....]

I give this book four stars. It so easily could have been five, but I can't in good conscience say I entirely loved a book in which I had to skim several large portions to stay awake. Frankly, a few of the lives of Harry August are quite boring, like when he decides to be a philosophy professor... sorry, author, I'm not gonna read that entire lecture. Snooze.  

However, despite a couple unfortunate boring sections, the story here is awesome. Harry is always born in 1919 and lives through the same historical events each life (until things start to move too fast). Once Harry realizes that he can remember everything from the last time through (and, bonus, he is a mnemonic, a rare even among ouroborans whose recall is 100% perfect), he can learn to read and write every language on the planet. He can win bets on horse races. He can regularly save the lives of a few so-called "linears" that he knows in advance will be abused or murdered. He can become a surgeon, a soldier in WW2, a spy, a physicist, a philosopher... Under the guidance of the Cronus Clubs in every major city worldwide, Harry learns everything there is to learn (except golf, because "I like to tell myself I could have been a good golfer, if only I'd given a damn, but perhaps the simple truth is that there are some skills which experience cannot buy.") but faces an enemy who has discovered how to permanently kill the kalachakra--friends he's known for hundreds and years and dozens of lives who are not reborn.

Harry's personal conflicts are many. His relationship with his father always changes. Many opportunities to "make it right" (and no great success) shed light onto the truth that relationships will always require effort from both sides. His various marriages and friendships all show different aspects of his characters as he ages and matures (when 900 years you reach...). Interesting to hear from a character who has to decide if a dangerous spy mission is worth it because facing death means having to face potty training again.

Bottom line: lots and lots of intrigue. Super fun alternative history. Some very fascinating twists and a GREAT "I open at the close" ending.

NOTE: Philosophically, this book is extremely atheist, and I am a Christian. But for the purpose of reading fiction, I am fine with accepting the worldview of the author to enjoy an interesting and unique story.



             

language immersion: give folder to parins

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My son has just begun his third year of a Spanish language immersion program. We are hugely blessed that the public school district in which we reside offers this and that he was selected (literally, his name pulled out of a brown paper bag) to be one of the students who attends. 

The worst part of this program is his spelling. He used to be ahead of grade-level with spelling, and now... disaster. Spellings in English make no sense, while almost everything in Spanish is spelled phonetically.  My favorite quote on the matter:

English lurks in dark alleys, beats up other languages, and rifles through their pockets for spare vocabulary.

A friend of mine teaches at a local college and asked for our thoughts on the pro's and con's of the program.

Here are our (unedited) responses.

From my son:

Because you can learn another language and speak with people that speak a different language. It’s fun. You can make new friends that speak Spanish because you can talk with them. It helps you think. It’s cool to learn another language. If you get teased for knowing another language, it isn’t that you’re weird. You can tell the other person they are wrong.

Learn from a teacher who is really good at speaking Spanish and a teacher that was born learning Spanish. You have to listen very, very carefully and study a lot. Speak the language you are learning a lot. You can make poems or songs to have a fun way to memorize your words. During the summer, you should read a lot of Spanish books so you can practice for the harder grade that’s ahead of you.

From me:

My son’s participation in Spanish Immersion has made him more aware of the possibility that he might be able to understand things. Receptive language skills in Spanish, for example, caused him to ask me to pause the radio on scan on a Spanish station and make several attempts to tell the rest of us what they were saying. I think he’s less likely to immediately tune something out without first making at least an attempt to listen closely.

Expressively, he speaks Spanish comfortably to his level in the classroom but only makes attempts to speak Spanish in the community when prompted. For example, if his bi-lingual teachers at the YMCA speak to him in Spanish, he pauses and responds in Spanish, but when he first enters, he continues speaking English as he was with me. He has a very good ear for pronunciation, speaking with very little American accent, so it’s been interesting to me to hear him transition from English to Spanish. In the very early weeks of his first year, I was testing him on color vocab red (rojo), green (verde), and then I switched and said azul and he responded blue, but pronounced it with a "Spanish intonation" and not his normal English-speaking voice. He thought it was hilarious, and I really enjoyed seeing this tangible example of how his brain was learning to transition between the two languages.

Oral reading has always been a great strength of his, but I do think that being forced to read words he doesn’t and wouldn’t understand at all in Spanish has made him more willing to ‘gloss over’ words in English rather than make an attempt to sound them out and understand them. For example, if he sees ‘creatividad’, he might read it too quickly and miss a syllable—something like ‘creatvidad’—but maybe that doesn’t matter because he didn’t know what ‘creatividad’ meant anyway. However, I think he’s unfortunately more likely to do this in English. Instead of pausing to see if it’s a word he knows or can decode (like turning ‘peculiar’—a word he would know—into a made-up like ‘pec-lee-er’), he is more likely to just say nonsense and finish the sentence without understanding the new word.

If I had a "biggest complaint" (which I don't because we were very specifically warned about this before joining the program), written expression is definitely the biggest area of regression I’ve seen. His spelling and phonics in English were well ahead of his age level and now everything is spelled like a complete disaster. (Or... truth be told, English spelling is the disaster and his spelling make phonetic sense!)