The Diamond Eye by Kate Quinn

Lyudmila Pavlichenko only wanted to protect her son when she went to retrieve him from the shooting gallery, where his usually absent father had brought him. He was only 5 years old, and the foolish boor was trying to impress him with the use of a gun, no less. Well, if that is what made a “good” father, then she would be both a good mother and a good father to her son. In addition to attending her graduate studies, working to earn money, and caring for her son, she also got herself certified as a sharpshooter. Little did she know how useful that would become, how it would equip her for the battles that were to ensue on her home turf during the second World War, and how it would change the course of her life forever.

Though this novel is fictionalized, it is based very closely on the memoir and historical accounts of the life of this true heroine, Lyudmila Pavlichenko (or “Mila”, to her closer friends). While women in Europe and America were only utilized in medical or administrative capacities until very recently in the military, they were occasionally utilized as front line fighters by the Russian military much earlier on. And although these women still faced harassment and were not generally treated as equals, there were a few, such as Mila, who were actually acknowledged for their contributions, which were extraordinary. In her case, she earned her moniker of “Lady Death” as a sniper, with an official head count of 309 Germans killed during the war (and probably more, in reality).

Quinn has become another of my favorite authors, uplifting strong women in history and bringing them into our consciousness. We can now appreciate, for example, how Lyudmila Pavlichenko not only contributed so bravely toward the fight against fascism with her rifle, but she also did so with her honesty and charm. Brought to America in a student delegation to help convince the US to open a second front in Europe to support the war against the Germans, she formed a personal friendship with both Eleanor and President Roosevelt. And though she shied away from the spotlight, she did not shirk her duties when it came to speaking up for gaining support for her fellow military fighters who were out in the field trying to protect what she felt were forces against evil.

I will say, while Quinn’s other novels truly grabbed me from the first page, this one took a bit of time for me to become fully absorbed. There was perhaps a bit more detail about the ammunition, war strategies, and the layout of the stakeouts than I might’ve needed personally (my eyes may have glazed over just a bit). But the suspense definitely built quickly enough, and there were a twists and surprises that caught me off guard, for sure. By the middle I was hooked and by the last few chapters, I was 100% riveted and could not put the book down until I finished it – including the author’s notes!

Quinn’s deeply researched novels consistently highlight how hard it has been for women to be acknowledged for even the most stunning achievements. She does this while keeping us engaged, entertained, and always wanting more.

I say it again – this is the very best way to learn history! And why I loved this book.

The Alice Network by Kate Quinn

The dust has barely settled and wounds have certainly not yet healed from the second world war when Charlotte finds herself dragged by her mother across the Atlantic on the way to take care of her “Little Problem” in a clinic in Switzerland. While her mother is determined to erase this “stain” on Charlotte’s reputation, Charlotte has a very different mission in mind. While here in Europe, she sees an opportunity to uncover the whereabouts of her beloved cousin Rose, who has been missing and presumed dead since returning to France just before the German occupation. With the name and address of Eve Gardiner which she has scribbled on a small piece of paper, she unlocks an adventure that leads her to discovering much more than just what happened to Rose. She discovers a network of brave women who risked their lives for their countries and she uncovers her own inner strength as well.

The Alice Network is another suspenseful novel by the author of the Rose Code (see my prior entry), which will similarly have you on the edge of your seat as you turn each page. There is a great deal of historical fact woven into the fiction here, as Quinn celebrates the unsung female heroes of the first and second world wars.  We learn of the undercover spies that wore skirts and makeup instead of slacks and blazers. They were often ignored because they were “just women,” which sometimes enabled them to sneak through borders undetected, but sometimes led to them being ignored even when they carried valuable information that might have saved hundreds of lives. 

The writing here is crisp, acerbic and intricately plotted. We float back and forth between Charlotte’s pursuit in 1947 and Eve’s back story (WW I). The characters are, each of them, hardened and broken, wounded in one way or another by war. When we meet Eve, for example, she is in a drunken rage, threatening Charlotte with a Luger in her face and trying to send her away.  She is emotionally and physically crippled by her experience in her war.  We see so starkly how women were affected by our wars – whether working under cover, nursing, or being on the front lines in other ways – and their wounds are obviously just as deep. 

I highly recommend this novel – it is historical fiction at its best. 

The Rose Code by Kate Quinn

Osla and Mab come from very different backgrounds, but suddenly find themselves on a train headed toward the same, mysterious destination. What with the war on, who knew what they’d be brought in to do to fight the Nazis, who seem to be speedily and frighteningly making their way toward London.  What awaits them is a challenge beyond their imaginations, and an opportunity to prove that they can do more than be “witless debs.”  What also awaits them is a profound friendship that brings its own challenges and heartbreaks as well.

This is an amazing yarn of historical fiction that will keep you on the edge of your seat from the very first page to the last. Do not be daunted by its length, because it will glide by in a heartbeat and you’ll only wish it had lasted even longer (although you will be happy that it didn’t because you’ll finally get some sleep!). The writing is brilliant, with the story structured by flipping back and forth from during the war to just after the war, creating a knot of suspense that keeps getting tighter and tighter throughout. The characters are strong and vulnerable and we come to love them, even when they are imperfect and rash. And even if some of the final scenes are a bit implausible, we believe them anyway, because the drama is right there where we want it – no, need it – to be.

And we learn quite a bit about how the war was actually won against Hitler and his army. It wasn’t necessarily just about sheer force, but rather intelligence, breaking code. Somewhere in a small town outside London, on a compound where secrecy was maintained above all else, codebreakers – often women – were employed around the clock to break the codes the Germans were using to communicate their war plans to each other.  In addition, this base was utilized to enable false messages to be sent back, to mislead the enemy.  Apparently, this was done by those sworn to secrecy on threat of treason to the crown. 

This is another MUST READ – you won’t regret it, I promise!