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Review: THE WORLD THAT WE KNEW by Alice Hoffman

Review:  THE WORLD THAT WE KNEW by Alice HoffmanThe World That We Knew by Alice Hoffman
Also by this author: Faithful
five-stars
Published by Simon & Schuster on September 24, 2019
Genres: Historical Fiction, Fantasy
Pages: 384
Source: Netgalley
Amazon | Barnes & Noble | The Book Depository
Goodreads

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for free from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE WORLD THAT WE KNEW Review

 

I’m very hit or miss when it comes to books that feature magical realism.  The one author whose books are an exception to that is Alice Hoffman.  When I saw that she had a new novel coming out, I immediately requested it, especially once I saw that it was set during WWII.  I know WWII fiction has dominated the historical fiction market for a while now and that it seems like every possible story has already been told, but I was also sure that Hoffman would bring something new to the table.  And I’m happy to say she did not disappoint.

With The World That We Knew, Hoffman delivers a powerful story of love, sacrifice, and survival.  It begins in Berlin in 1941, where a Jewish woman named Hanni Kohn is faced with an impossible decision. She knows it’s time to get her family out of Germany before it’s too late, but she also knows that her elderly mother is too sick to travel and will refuse to leave her home anyway.  Hanni make the heart wrenching decision to stay with her mother but to send her own daughter, 12-year-old Lea, away so that she has a chance to escape from the Nazis and survive.  Hoffman does a beautiful job painting a portrait of a mother who is willing to do absolutely everything she can for her family, even if it means sacrificing herself.  Hanni’s love comes through loud and clear in every sentence as she desperately seeks someone who can help get Lea out of Germany.

The story takes a magical turn when Hanni is directed to a rabbi who can help her.  It isn’t the rabbi who eventually helps, however. It’s his daughter, Ettie.  Ettie has watched her father at work for years and she knows how to create a mystical Jewish creature called a golem.  A golem is a creature made out of clay whose sole purpose is to do whatever its creator asks it to do.  In this case, Ettie asks the golem, who she and Hanni name Ava, to serve as a protector for Lea and to do everything in its power to ensure she does not fall victim to the Nazis.  The rest of the story revolves around Lea, Ava, and Ettie whose lives become intertwined as they each strive for survival in wartime Germany and then France.

I don’t want to say anything else about the plot because I think each of their journeys is best experienced spoiler-free, but I will say that the story explores many powerful themes that resonated with me.  It explores love in many different forms, including the love between a mother and child, the love between sisters, and even first love, which somehow still manages to blossom even in the middle of a war zone.  Hoffman also explores sacrifice, resistance, and the strength and resilience that it takes to survive in such a dark time.  With her inclusion of the golem and even Azrael, the Angel of Death, The World That We Knew almost reads like a fairy tale or fable and it’s that element that raises Hoffman’s version of historical fiction to a level all on its own.

Alice Hoffman is one of my favorite authors not just because her writing is gorgeous, but also because she uses magical realism in a way that is truly captivating.  I don’t know how she manages to do it so consistently and effectively, but the magic she infuses into her stories always ends up seeming so convincing and authentic that it leaves me with a feeling that perhaps there is a little magic in the world after all.

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS:

In 1941, during humanity’s darkest hour, three unforgettable young women must act with courage and love to survive, from the New York Times bestselling author of The Dovekeepers and The Marriage of Opposites Alice Hoffman.

In Berlin, at the time when the world changed, Hanni Kohn knows she must send her twelve-year-old daughter away to save her from the Nazi regime. She finds her way to a renowned rabbi, but it’s his daughter, Ettie, who offers hope of salvation when she creates a mystical Jewish creature, a rare and unusual golem, who is sworn to protect Lea. Once Ava is brought to life, she and Lea and Ettie become eternally entwined, their paths fated to cross, their fortunes linked.

Lea and Ava travel from Paris, where Lea meets her soulmate, to a convent in western France known for its silver roses; from a school in a mountaintop village where three thousand Jews were saved. Meanwhile, Ettie is in hiding, waiting to become the fighter she’s destined to be.

What does it mean to lose your mother? How much can one person sacrifice for love? In a world where evil can be found at every turn, we meet remarkable characters that take us on a stunning journey of loss and resistance, the fantastical and the mortal, in a place where all roads lead past the Angel of Death and love is never ending.

five-stars

About Alice Hoffman

alice hoffman

Alice Hoffman was born in New York City on March 16, 1952 and grew up on Long Island. After graduating from high school in 1969, she attended Adelphi University, from which she received a BA, and then received a Mirrellees Fellowship to the Stanford University Creative Writing Center, which she attended in 1973 and 74, receiving an MA in creative writing. She currently lives in Boston.

Hoffman’s first novel, Property Of, was written at the age of twenty-one, while she was studying at Stanford, and published shortly thereafter by Farrar Straus and Giroux. She credits her mentor, professor and writer Albert J. Guerard, and his wife, the writer Maclin Bocock Guerard, for helping her to publish her first short story in the magazine Fiction. Editor Ted Solotaroff then contacted her to ask if she had a novel, at which point she quickly began to write what was to become Property Of, a section of which was published in Mr. Solotaroff’s magazine, American Review.

Since that remarkable beginning, Alice Hoffman has become one of our most distinguished novelists. She has published a total of twenty-three novels, three books of short fiction, and eight books for children and young adults. Her novel, Here on Earth, an Oprah Book Club choice, was a modern reworking of some of the themes of Emily Bronte’s masterpiece Wuthering Heights. Practical Magic was made into a Warner film starring Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman. Her novel, At Risk, which concerns a family dealing with AIDS, can be found on the reading lists of many universities, colleges and secondary schools. Hoffman’s advance from Local Girls, a collection of inter-related fictions about love and loss on Long Island, was donated to help create the Hoffman Breast Center at Mt. Auburn Hospital in Cambridge, MA. Blackbird House is a book of stories centering around an old farm on Cape Cod. Hoffman’s recent books include Aquamarine and Indigo, novels for pre-teens, and The New York Times bestsellers The River King, Blue Diary, The Probable Future, and The Ice Queen. Green Angel, a post-apocalyptic fairy tale about loss and love, was published by Scholastic and The Foretelling, a book about an Amazon girl in the Bronze Age, was published by Little Brown. In 2007 Little Brown published the teen novel Incantation, a story about hidden Jews during the Spanish Inquisition, which Publishers Weekly has chosen as one of the best books of the year. Her most recent novels include The Third Angel,The Story Sisters, the teen novel, Green Witch, a sequel to her popular post-apocalyptic fairy tale, Green Angel. The Red Garden, published in 2011, is a collection of linked fictions about a small town in Massachusetts where a garden holds the secrets of many lives.

Hoffman’s work has been published in more than twenty translations and more than one hundred foreign editions. Her novels have received mention as notable books of the year by The New York Times, Entertainment Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, Library Journal, and People Magazine. She has also worked as a screenwriter and is the author of the original screenplay “Independence Day,” a film starring Kathleen Quinlan and Diane Wiest. Her teen novel Aquamarine was made into a film starring Emma Roberts. Her short fiction and non-fiction have appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe Magazine, Kenyon Review, The Los Angeles Times, Architectural Digest, Harvard Review, Ploughshares and other magazines.

Toni Morrison calls The Dovekeepers “.. a major contribution to twenty-first century literature” for the past five years. The story of the survivors of Masada is considered by many to be Hoffman’s masterpiece. The New York Times bestselling novel is slated for 2015 miniseries, produced by Roma Downey and Mark Burnett, starring Cote de Pablo of NCIS fame.

The Museum of Extraordinary Things was released in 2014 and was an immediate bestseller, The New York Times Book Review noting, “A lavish tale about strange yet sympathetic people, haunted by the past and living in bizarre circumstances… Imaginative…”

Nightbird, a Middle Reader, was released in March of 2015. In August of this year, The Marriage Opposites, Alice’s latest novel, was an immediate New York Times bestseller. “Hoffman is the prolific Boston-based magical realist, whose stories fittingly play to the notion that love—both romantic and platonic—represents a mystical meeting of perfectly paired souls,” said Vogue magazine. Click here to read more reviews for The Marriage of Opposites.

Early Review: THE WARTIME SISTERS

Early Review:  THE WARTIME SISTERSThe Wartime Sisters by Lynda Cohen Loigman
four-stars
Published by St. Martin's Press on January 22, 2019
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pages: 304
Source: Netgalley
Amazon
Goodreads

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for free from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

 

THE WARTIME SISTERS REVIEW

Set against the backdrop of World War II, Lynda Cohen Loigman’s The Wartime Sisters is an emotionally charged story about two sisters who have a very complicated relationship filled with resentment and secrets.  Older sister Ruth is the smart one, brilliant even, but somehow ends up always taking a back seat to her younger sister, Millie, who with her auburn curls and bright blue eyes, is the apple of everyone’s eye.  Ruth loves her sister but can’t wait to move out and be on her own and out of the shadows.  She eventually marries a young man who is an officer in the Army and moves to Springfield, Massachusetts. Ruth is enjoying her new life immensely until she gets word that Millie’s own husband, a soldier, has been killed, and Millie has nowhere to go, especially since Millie and Ruth’s parents are since deceased. Reluctantly, Ruth extends the offer to Millie to come and live with her at the armory in Springfield.

Their first meeting after so many years is filled with tension and awkwardness, and it feels as though it’s only a matter of time before Ruth finds herself in Millie’s shadow all over again.  The tension continues to mount when it becomes clear that each sister is keeping something from the other.  Will their relationship be able to withstand the strain when someone from their past unexpectedly reemerges threatening to spill their secrets and shatter their lives?

The Wartime Sisters is very much a character driven story, and as such, I was glad that I found both sisters to be characters that I was sympathetic to.  It was easy to feel sympathetic towards Ruth because she spent so much of her life living in the shadow of her beautiful sister.  Nothing Ruth ever did could compete with how everyone was so obsessed with Millie’s extraordinary good looks.  Boys who came calling for Ruth found themselves attracted to Millie instead.  In many ways, the girls’ mother was responsible for much of the ensuing resentment between Ruth and Millie.  For example, when she was deciding who to give the good family heirloom jewelry to, in her mind, Millie, even though she was the youngest, was the obvious choice because of course she would marry into a rich family and have ample opportunities to wear and show off such jewelry.  How can you not feel bad for Ruth when her own mother acts like that?

On the flip side though, it’s equally easy to feel sympathetic toward Millie.  She’s a delightful girl and a devoted younger sister, and she can’t help how she looks or how people react to how she looks.  She’s in a lose-lose situation because she’s constantly incurring Ruth’s wrath over these things she can’t control.  And even though everyone around her treats her like she’s the golden child because of her looks, Millie feels that she can never measure up to Ruth because Ruth is just so smart and ambitious.  Millie feels inadequate compared to her sister.   I actually felt horrible for both sisters because they should have been there for each other, not driven apart by all of these unimportant things.

If you’ve been following my reviews for a while, you know I love stories that feature dual timelines. The Wartime Sisters is split between two locations and two timelines.  One is set in the 1930’s in Brooklyn, New York where the two sisters grew up together, while the other is set in early 1940’s in Springfield, Massachusetts at the armory where both sisters end up living and working.

I really liked this use of the dual timelines to show the origins of the resentment between the sisters and how those origins have continued to shape their lives and their interactions with one another over the years.  When Millie first arrives at the armory in 1942, for example, Ruth realizes that because she has been avoiding her sister as much as possible over the years, she barely knows her own nephew, Millie’s young son, Michael.  The author also very effectively uses the dual timeline to gradually reveal to the readers the secrets that both Millie and Ruth are hiding from one another.

While the dual timelines are an effective way to shed light on the lives of both sisters and how they’ve gotten to where they are, the author also presents the story in alternating viewpoints from each sister so that we are constantly getting both sides of the story and are allowed to make up our minds about each sister.  I liked this presentation because I think if we had only gotten the perspective of one of the sisters, rather than both, it would have been easy to find one of them less sympathetic.  The way the author chooses to present the story makes it easy to understand where each sister is coming from.

A final aspect of The Wartime Sisters I enjoyed was having the story actually set in the United States.  I’ve read a lot of historical fiction in my day and I can count on one hand the number of WWII stories I’ve come across that focus on what WWII looked like from the U.S.  I liked seeing it from this perspective and focusing a bit on the key roles that American women played in the war effort.  Millie’s perspective offered so much insight into this as her job in the armory was to build trigger mechanisms as part of the rifle assembly line.  Through Millie and her colleagues, we got to see firsthand the long hours and hard work women put in to get rifles into the hands of our soldiers.

Most of the time it felt like the historical aspect of the book took a backseat to the two sisters and their estranged relationship.  I still thoroughly enjoyed the story but a little more balance between the history/war and the more personal drama would have made this a 5 star read for me.

If you’re looking for a poignant, emotionally engaging read about family and the complicated relationships they can have, and the dangers of keeping secrets, I would highly recommend The Wartime Sisters.  The storyline is compelling, the characters are well drawn, and the historical setting is well researched.  I think fans of historical fiction and/or domestic dramas would find this read to their liking.

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS:

Two estranged sisters, raised in Brooklyn and each burdened with her own shocking secret, are reunited at the Springfield Armory in the early days of WWII. While one sister lives in relative ease on the bucolic Armory campus as an officer’s wife, the other arrives as a war widow and takes a position in the Armory factories as a “soldier of production.” Resentment festers between the two, and secrets are shattered when a mysterious figure from the past reemerges in their lives.

four-stars

About Lynda Cohen Loigman

Lynda Cohen Loigman grew up in Longmeadow, Massachusetts. She received a B.A. in English and American Literature from Harvard College and a law degree from Columbia Law School. Lynda practiced trusts and estates law in New York City for eight years before moving out of the city to raise her two children with her husband. She wrote The Two-Family House while she was a student of the Writing Institute at Sarah Lawrence College. The Two-Family House was chosen by Goodreads as a best book of the month for March, 2016, and was a nominee for the Goodreads 2016 Choice Awards in Historical Fiction. Lynda’s second novel, The Wartime Sisters, will be published on January 22, 2019.

Review: THE ROOM ON RUE AMELIE

Review:  THE ROOM ON RUE AMELIEThe Room on Rue Amélie by Kristin Harmel
three-half-stars
Published by Gallery Books on March 27th 2018
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pages: 400
Source: Netgalley
Amazon
Goodreads

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for free from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

MY REVIEW:

Kristin Harmel’s The Room on Rue Amelie takes place in Nazi-occupied Paris in WWII and follows the lives of three people whose lives unexpectedly cross paths during the course of the war:  Ruby Benoit, an American woman living in Paris, Charlotte Dacher, a Jewish teen who lives next door to Ruby, and Thomas Clark, a British RAF pilot who is flying missions over France.

As the novel opens, Ruby meets and marries the man of her dreams, Marcel, a handsome Frenchman.  She and Marcel move to Paris and Ruby dreams of walking hand in hand in the most romantic city in the world.  Her dreams are soon shattered, however, as the Nazis invade France and everything changes, including Marcel, who becomes secretive and who also disappears for days at a time, only to come back and refuse to tell Ruby where he has been or what he is up to.  The tension and the secrecy begin to take a toll on their marriage.  When Marcel is unexpectedly killed, Ruby discovers what he has been so secretive about.  Her discovery is life-changing…

Next door to Ruby and Marcel live Charlotte Dacher and her family, who are Jewish.  They have been hearing rumors about what the Nazis are doing to Jews throughout Eastern Europe.  Sure enough, as soon as the Nazis enter Paris, they begin imposing restrictions on the Jewish people, forcing them out of work and also requiring them to sew yellow stars on all of their clothing.  Soon after, Charlotte and her family realize that all of the rumors they’ve been hearing about Hitler and the Nazis are true, as mass deportations begin and their lives are torn apart.

Thomas Clark is a British Royal Air Force Pilot.  He has joined the RAF because he wants to protect England from Hitler and the Nazis but when his mother is killed in the Blitz, Thomas begins to doubt that anything he is doing is making a difference and questions whether it’s worth it to keep fighting.  That is, until he meets Ruby and Charlotte.  The unexpected connection he makes with them reignites his will to fight and he’s more motivated than ever to defeat the Nazis.

The Room on Rue Amelie is a riveting story about resistance, courage, and defiance in the face of seemingly impossible odds, and it’s also a moving story about love, fate, family, and the sacrifices we’re willing to make for those we love.

I was drawn to The Room on Rue Amelie primarily because the synopsis indicates it would be a great read for fans of Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale and Martha Hall Kelly’s The Lilac Girls and in many respects, I was not disappointed with the comparison.

My favorite part of The Room on Rue Amelie was its focus on all of the regular citizens of Paris and surrounding areas and the subtle and not-so-subtle ways that they defied Hitler and the Nazis.  The spirit of those people were what really made the book for me, especially those who worked on the “Escape Line” that is featured prominently throughout the novel.  The purpose of the Escape Line was to locate downed Allied pilots before the Nazis could get them and then provide them safe passage over the mountains and into Spain where they could then be sent back to rejoin their units and continue the fight against Hitler.  In many ways the Escape Line reminded me of the Underground Railroad with its many stops at different safe houses along the way and I just found it so inspiring that so many citizens were willing to risk their lives to work as part of the Resistance.

In addition to that, I also really loved the characters of Ruby and Charlotte.  They are fiercely, independent women who want to do their part to fight Hitler in any way they can, even though all of the men they encounter want to push them aside and tell them it’s too dangerous and that it’s man’s work.  I was especially drawn to Charlotte since, as a Jew, she was taking even more of a risk than Ruby was by putting herself out there.  I also loved how close Ruby and Charlotte became as the novel progressed.  They go from being mere neighbors to practically being like sisters, and their bond is wonderful to watch, especially since it contrasted so much with all of the tumult and danger that surrounded them.

The way Harmel structured the novel also appealed to me.  It’s told in alternating chapters from the viewpoints of Ruby, Charlotte, and Thomas so it allows us to watch the war progress from three very different perspectives, which I thought really gave the story a lot of depth.

As much I enjoyed the story overall, I still had a few issues with it. The first is that it was more focused on romance than I expected it to be based on the comparisons in the synopsis to The Nightingale and The Lilac Girls, which don’t really rely on romance at all.  There were a few times while I was reading when it felt like the events of WWII served merely as a backdrop to Ruby and Thomas’s thoughts about each other.  Along similar lines, I was disappointed in the character development of Thomas.  At first I enjoyed following the story from his perspective as he joined the British Royal Air Force, hoping to do his part to defeat the Nazis.  It was interesting following along through his training and as he began to fly missions in the war.  I thought Harmel did a wonderful job of showing all the conflicting emotions Thomas was feeling while in the sky shooting down other men, and then especially after his mother is killed during the Blitz, when he begins to doubt that his efforts are even making a difference in the war.

 But then he just fell sort of flat for me.  Once he meets Ruby, it seems like she’s all he ever thinks about.  He only thinks about the events of the war in terms of how they can get him back to her.  If he gets shot down again, it’s a way back to her.  If he doesn’t go back and fight this time, he can stay with her, etc.  It was a little disappointing how one-track minded he became, especially since it was insta-love between he and Ruby in the first place, which was my final issue with the story.  I guess I just don’t believe in love at first sight because I was not at all sold on the idea that such an all-consuming romance could convincingly take place between two people who interacted for only a few days before parting company.

Even though I had a few issues with The Room on Rue Amelie, I’m still glad I read it because I very much enjoyed reading about the pockets of resistance throughout France and how big of an impact that they had on the war.  Based on its focus on the relationship between Thomas and Ruby, however, I’m not sure I was really the ideal audience for this book. I think fans of romance would easily find this a 4 or 5 star book.

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS:

For fans of Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale and Martha Hall Kelly’s Lilac Girls, this powerful novel of fate, resistance, and family—by the international bestselling author of The Sweetness of Forgetting and When We Meet Again—tells the tale of an American woman, a British RAF pilot, and a young Jewish teenager whose lives intersect in occupied Paris during the tumultuous days of World War II.

When newlywed Ruby Henderson Benoit arrives in Paris in 1939 with her French husband Marcel, she imagines strolling arm in arm along the grand boulevards, awash in the golden afternoon light. But war is looming on the horizon, and as France falls to the Nazis, her marriage begins to splinter, too.

Charlotte Dacher is eleven when the Germans roll into the French capital, their sinister swastika flags snapping in the breeze. After the Jewish restrictions take effect and Jews are ordered to wear the yellow star, Charlotte can’t imagine things getting much worse. But then the mass deportations begin, and her life is ripped forever apart.

Thomas Clarke joins the British Royal Air Force to protect his country, but when his beloved mother dies in a German bombing during the waning days of the Blitz, he wonders if he’s really making a difference. Then he finds himself in Paris, in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, and he discovers a new reason to keep fighting—and an unexpected road home.

When fate brings them together, Ruby, Charlotte, and Thomas must summon the courage to defy the Nazis—and to open their own broken hearts—as they fight to survive. Rich with historical drama and emotional depth, this is an unforgettable story that will stay with you long after the final page is turned.

 

three-half-stars

About Kristin Harmel

Kristin Harmel is an international bestselling novelist whose books have been translated into numerous languages and are sold all over the world. A former reporter for People magazine, Kristin has also freelanced for many other publications, including American Baby, Men’s Health, Glamour, Woman’s Day, Travel + Leisure, and more.

Her latest novels — The Sweetness of Forgetting, The Life Intended, How to Save a Life, and When We Meet Again — are out now from Gallery Books/Simon & Schuster. Her latest, The Room on Rue Amélie, a tale of three lives that collide in Paris during World War II, is due out in March 2018 from Gallery Books/Simon & Schuster.

Kristin grew up in Peabody, Mass.; Worthington, Ohio; and St. Petersburg, Fla., and she graduated with a degree in journalism (with a minor in Spanish) from the University of Florida. After spending time living in Paris, she now lives in Orlando, Fla., with her husband and young son.

Book Review: The Alice Network by Kate Quinn

Book Review:  The Alice Network by Kate QuinnThe Alice Network by Kate Quinn
four-half-stars
Published by William Morrow Paperbacks on June 6th 2017
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pages: 503
Source: Library
Amazon
Goodreads

MY REVIEW:

I love historical fiction that is set during WWI and WWII, so Kate Quinn’s The Alice Network was the best of both worlds for me as it has a dual time line, one of which takes place during WWI while the second takes place a couple of years after WWII.  What an incredible read this was! And the fact that the story is based on an actual real life women’s spy network that was active in France during WWI?  Amazing!  How did I not even know there was such a thing?

The Alice Network follows the story of two women, Charlie St. Clair and Eve Gardiner, and what happens when their lives unexpectedly cross paths.

Nineteen year old Charlie St. Clair is pregnant and unmarried.  The year is 1947, so as you can imagine, Charlie’s parents have deemed her situation a “problem” and so are shipping her off to a clinic in Switzerland so that it can be taken care of low-key so as not to ruin Charlie’s reputation at home.  Charlie makes the trip with her mom, and when they have a layover in England, Charlie runs away because she is on a mission of her own:  to find out what happened to her cousin Rose who had been living in Nazi-occupied France and disappeared during WWII.  Her family has presumed she is dead, but Charlie is convinced that she is still out there somewhere.  She only has one lead at this point, an address in London and a name, Evelyn Gardiner.  She has no idea who Evelyn Gardiner is or how she can possibly help her find Rose, but she is determined to follow this lead wherever it takes her.

Enter Evelyn, or Eve as she is known, Gardiner.  I’m not sure what Charlie expected when she first knocks on Eve’s door, but a snarky, stuttering, gun-toting drunk with horribly disfigured hands was probably not it.  At first Eve barely even listens to Charlie’s story about her cousin Rose and has no interest at all in helping her. That is, until Charlie mentions Le Lethe, which was the name of the restaurant where Rose was working at just prior to her disappearance, and Monsieur Rene, the owner of the restaurant.  As soon as Eve hears those names, her whole attitude abruptly shifts and she decides to help Charlie.

As Eve sets out to help Charlie, we are also taken on a second journey, this time back to 1915, where we follow Eve and see how she has ended up the way she is when Charlie meets her in 1947.  In 1915, Eve is working as an administrative assistant at a law firm in England, but she desperately wants to do something more important. Specifically, she wants to join the action in WWI fighting against the Germans.  She unexpectedly gets her chance when a visitor to the law firm, notes that Eve has qualities that would ideally suit her to working as a spy.  Namely, she appears to remain calm, cool, and collected no matter what is going on around her, and she is able to lie with a straight face.  Those qualities, coupled with a horrible stutter that make others assume she’s a bit dim-witted and therefore underestimate her.  Because of these qualities, the visitor recruits her to become a part of The Alice Network, an all-female spy network that was operating in France, right under the German’s noses.  Eve is eager to join and so we follow her through her spy training, to her primary assignment in enemy-occupied France during the war and all of the dangers it ensues, all the way through to why the names Le Leche and Monsieur Rene struck such a chord with her so many years later when Charlie St. Clair mentions them.   Eve’s journey is equal parts riveting and horrifying, and 100% life-changing.

I love when a dual timeline narrative is handled well and author Kate Quinn does a marvelous job presenting both Charlie and Eve’s stories in The Alice Network.  The chapters alternate between the 1915 and the 1947 timelines so Eve’s backstory is presented a little at a time as is Charlie’s mission to find out what happened to her beloved cousin.  Both stories are so compelling that I found myself easily pulled along, particularly because I really wanted to know what happened to turn Eve from spy extraordinaire to a bitter, disfigured woman with a major drinking problem.   I also wanted to see how exactly Eve was supposed to be the key to helping Charlie find Rose, not to mention I really wanted to know if Rose was still alive, and if so, why has she gone two years without trying to contact her family.

I also think that part of the reason the dual timeline works so well in this story is the active presence of Eve in both timelines.  She is such a fascinating and complex character, both in her younger days where she so desperately wanted to fight against the Germans and as we see her in 1947, where she is ready to take her Luger and blow the head off of anyone who so much as looks at her funny.  I adored Eve’s bigger-than-life personality and the way it just fills the pages of this story.  She made me laugh, she made me cry, and she had me scared to death for her at so many points throughout the story.

Charlie is very likeble as well, but in a different way, since we only see her at age 19.  What I liked about Charlie was her spunk and her determination, as well as her absolute devotion to her cousin, who was more like a sister to her.  Charlie’s youthful enthusiasm, combined with Eve’s fierce snark, makes them a pretty formidable team as they journey together to find Rose.

Kate Quinn also does a brilliant job of depicting the settings, both in 1915 with enemy-occupied France and then 1947, with both the French countryside and with London.  The sights and sounds felt authentic, and Quinn’s attention to detail is spot on.  As I read and followed these women, I felt myself transported to each time period and location.

I wouldn’t really call it a dislike, but I do have to admit that I found Eve’s storyline to be a lot more compelling than Charlie’s.  I loved both characters and was invested in both storylines, but Eve’s journey and the life-threatening danger she faced every moment while working as a spy was just absolutely riveting. Charlie’s story just fell a bit short in comparison.

If you’re looking for a well written, riveting read, I’d highly recommend checking out The Alice Network.  It’s sure to be a favorite for fans of historical fiction, but I think anyone who enjoys reading about strong and complex female characters would love this read as well.  Since this was a fictionalized account of the actual Alice Network, I find myself now wanting to go out and learn more about it since I had never heard of it during any of my history courses in school.

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS

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.

1915.  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.

1948. 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.

four-half-stars

About Kate Quinn

Kate Quinn is a native of southern California. She attended Boston University, where she earned a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in Classical Voice. A lifelong history buff, she has written four novels in the Empress of Rome Saga, and two books in the Italian Renaissance, before turning to the 20th century with “The Alice Network.” All have been translated into multiple languages.

Kate and her husband now live in San Diego with two black dogs named Caesar and Calpurnia, and her interests include opera, action movies, cooking, and the Boston Red Sox.

ARC Review: The Girl from Venice

ARC Review:  The Girl from VeniceThe Girl from Venice by Martin Cruz Smith
four-stars
Published by Simon & Schuster on October 18th 2016
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pages: 320
Source: Netgalley
Amazon
Goodreads

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for free from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Goodreads Synopsis:  The highly anticipated new standalone novel from Martin Cruz Smith, whom The Washington Post has declared “that uncommon phenomenon: a popular and well-regarded crime novelist who is also a writer of real distinction,” The Girl from Venice is a suspenseful World War II love story set against the beauty, mystery, and danger of occupied Venice.

Venice, 1945. The war may be waning, but the city known as La Serenissima is still occupied and the people of Italy fear the power of the Third Reich. One night, under a canopy of stars, a fisherman named Cenzo comes across a young woman’s body floating in the lagoon and soon discovers that she is still alive and in trouble.

Born to a wealthy Jewish family, Giulia is on the run from the SS. Cenzo chooses to protect Giulia rather than hand her over to the Nazis. This act of kindness leads them into the world of Partisans, random executions, the arts of forgery and high explosives, Mussolini’s broken promises, the black market and gold, and, everywhere, the enigmatic maze of the Venice Lagoon.

The Girl from Venice is a thriller, a mystery, and a retelling of Italian history that will take your breath away. Most of all it is a love story.

My Review: 

I had no idea of what to expect when I first started reading Martin Cruz Smith’s The Girl from Venice.  That gorgeous blue cover with the silhouette of a girl standing on the bow of a boat caught my eye as I was scanning the Netgalley site for upcoming releases.  When I read the title and saw that the book was set in Venice during World War II, I was immediately intrigued, being a big fan of historical fiction and having also just visited this beautiful Italian city last summer.

Highlights for me:

I became engrossed in the story right away because Smith does a fantastic job of transporting his readers back to Italy during the final days of WWII. He perfectly captures the dangerous and tense atmosphere of a Venice that is still occupied by the Nazis and where no one feels they can trust anyone else.  There’s also a sense in the air that the end of the war is approaching and with it a Nazi loss, and yet there are still pockets of Nazis desperately fighting on and rounding up all Italian Jews.

Into this treacherous environment, Smith introduces two characters that I fell in love with right away. The first, Cenzo Vianello, is a fisherman born and raised in Venice.  He is a good man with a simple plan – to just keep his head down and survive until this awful war is over.  The second character, Giulia Silber, is an Italian teenager who, up until the time of the war, had lived a privileged life. The war has changed all of that though because Giulia is Jewish and thus a target for the desperate Nazis that are still stationed in Venice.  Cenzo and Giulia cross paths when the Nazis round up the rest of Giulia’s family from their hiding place.  Giulia’s father shoves her in a laundry chute and she is able to escape and is swimming to find help in the lagoon where Cenzo fishes when he comes across her.   Cenzo is immediately taken with Giulia and so vows to protect her from the Nazis and get her to safety, and thus his simple plan for surviving the war takes an unexpected turn into dangerous waters (pardon the nautical pun).  I love a story where I have an underdog I can cheer on and how can you not cheer on a fisherman trying to protect a young Jewish woman from the Nazis?

I especially loved Cenzo in the sense that he’s like an onion, many layered. The more we get to know him, the more layers are peeled away and the more complex his life becomes.  As Giulia gets him to open up about himself, we learn that he is not just a fisherman, but also a painter, and then we also learn that he has been betrayed by his older brother, a movie star who had an affair with Cenzo’s wife.  On top of that, Cenzo’s mother now expects Cenzo to marry the widow of his younger brother, who was killed in the war, but Cenzo does not love the widow and so is doing everything he can to put off this undesirable marriage.  After learning all of the misfortune in Cenzo’s life and that his brother has basically made him a laughingstock, I felt all the more sympathetic toward Cenzo.

What I loved about Giulia is her resourcefulness.  She has a bit of an attitude with Cenzo at the beginning, until she determines she can trust him, but once she realizes he is worthy of her trust, she is game to do whatever she needs to do in order to escape from the Nazis – even if it means hacking off her hair, dressing like a boy, and learning to be a fisherman’s apprentice.  She’s feisty and spirited, and again, like Cenzo, just a completely sympathetic character. Because both characters are so sympathetic, one of my favorite aspects of the novel was watching their friendship grow as they worked to secure Giulia safe passage away from the Nazis.

As much as I loved their growing friendship, I do have to say that I wasn’t completely sold on the idea of Cenzo and Giulia as a romantic couple.  The shift from friendship to romantic partners happened rather abruptly and I guess I just missed it, but I was a little ‘Wait, what?! Where did that come from?’ when it happened.

Characters aside, I also loved the fast pace of the story and all of its many twists and turns.  When Cenzo decides he’s going to help Giulia but then the plan somehow gets betrayed and Giulia disappears, Cenzo is determined to find her no matter what.  This quest takes him out of his league and deep into the political underbelly of the war.  We are transported away from the almost romantic lagoons of Venice to the treacherous Salo, which houses Mussolini, Communist partisans, Nazis, collaborators, resistance – basically a who’s who of everyone you could possibly want to stay away from if you’re a fisherman whose goal is to keep your head down and survive the war.

This section of the novel is just filled with suspense. People are constantly approaching Cenzo, trying to make deals with him, telling him they can help him find Giulia, and he just has no idea who he can trust, if anyone.  No one is who they seem to be, and loyalties are so divided that even if someone seems to be on your side one day, the next they may not be if they think they can get a better deal from the other side.  Even though this is technically historical fiction, The Girl from Venice really takes on the tone of a thriller as Cenzo maneuvers his way through all of the political landmines that surround him while he’s searching for clues about Giulia in Salo. These chapters were very exciting, and I blew through the last half of the book in just a few hours.

Anything I didn’t like?

Aside from not being completely sold on the romantic chemistry between Cenzo and Giulia, I did have a moment’s pause early on as we were learning about Cenzo’s life as a fisherman.  When the narration turned to descriptions of fishing, I had a few painful Moby Dick flashbacks to whole chapters devoted to boring and superfluous descriptions of whaling. Thankfully, however, Martin Cruz Smith smoothly weaves in his descriptions of life as a fisherman so that they flowed organically with the rest of the story.  I felt like I learned a little something about fishing in Venice without being deluged with dry, unnecessary facts so major hat’s off to Smith there.

Who would I recommend this book to?

I think I would definitely recommend it to anyone who is a fan of historical fiction, especially from the WWII era.  I know there are some who complain that it has been too trendy a subject for books, but I think this books’ focus on Italy and Mussolini give it a unique and fresh perspective.

I would probably also recommend it to anyone who loves a good thriller so this one has so much suspense and so many mysterious and deceptive characters.  It’s a story that will keep you guessing until the end as to who is trustworthy and who isn’t.

Thanks so much to Netgalley, Simon and Schuster, and Martin Cruz Smith for the opportunity to read and review The Girl from Venice.

 

Rating:  4 stars

four-stars

About Martin Cruz Smith

Martin Cruz Smith (born Martin William Smith), American novelist, received his BA in Creative Writing from the University of Pennsylvania in 1964. He worked as a journalist from 1965 to 1969 before turning his hand to fiction. His first mystery (Gypsy in Amber – 1971) features NY gypsy art dealer Roman Grey and was nominated for an Edgar Award. Nightwing was his breakthrough novel and was made into a movie.

Smith is best known for his series of novels featuring Russian investigator Arkady Renko. Gorky Park, published in 1981, was the first of these and was called “thriller of the ’80s” by Time Magazine. It became a bestseller and won the Gold Dagger Award from the British Crime Writers’ Association. Renko has also appeared in Polar Star, Red Square,Havana Bay, Wolves Eat Dogs, Stalin’s Ghost, and Three Stations.

In the 1970s, Smith wrote The Inquisitor Series under the pseudonym Simon Quinnand penned two Slocum adult action westerns as Jake Logan. He also wrote theNick Carter: Killmaster series under the alias Nick Carter with Mike Avallone and others.

Martin Cruz Smith now lives in San Rafael, California with his wife and three children.