The Alice Network – Kate Quinn
A friend gave me this book awhile back, but I left it in my bookshelf for months before finally cracking it open. When I did, S told me she had read it on one of our vacations and loved it. We don’t read a lot of the same books, so I was both excited and nervous about taking it on. What if I hated it?

That wasn’t a problem; this was a terrific novel.

It tells the story of two remarkable women whose lives come together. The first is Eve Gardiner, a British woman recruited to serve a spy in France during World War I. She earns a job waiting at a restaurant that serves German soldiers, becomes the lover of the owner, and passes on incredibly important intelligence through The Alice Network of female spies. She is eventually found out, though, and pays a horrible price.

The second woman is Charlie St. Clair, a young American traveling to Switzerland with her mother in 1948 to get an abortion. When they land in England, she flees her mother and tracks down Gardiner, who she believes can help her find her French cousin who disappeared during World War II.

Quinn flips back-and-forth between 1915 and 1948, and we slowly learn about Gardiner’s time spying and her trip through France with St. Clair and her Scottish driver. Both women are unique for their times: outspoken, take-no-shit, boundary-destroying chicks who fight for what they want. I loved them both and see why S liked them, and the book, so much.

God Spare the Girls – Kelsey McKinney
Once again, a first-time novelist has blown me away.

McKinney’s debut novel is focused on Caroline Nolan, a recent high school grad in North Texas who is the daughter of an evangelical pastor who is famous for his teen abstinence program. And Caroline goes and loses her virginity in the opening pages of the book. The horror!

That’s not the biggest family crisis, though. Turns out her dad has been cheating on her mom, who just found out about it. Which, as you might imagine, causes a bit of a scandal, although one the church leadership seems eager to get through quickly.

However Caroline and her older sister, who is about to get married, can’t get over it as easily. They spend several weeks in isolation on a ranch property their deceased grandmother left them. There, they get into deep discussions on what their faith means in light of their father’s failures. Whether they can forgive him. What Caroline having sex means. They hash out issues they’ve had for years. It’s a wonderful exploration of sisterhood and all the baggage that comes along with that. They become closer than they’ve ever been, and then one well-intentioned but poorly thought out act by Caroline ruins that.

McKinney fills the book with characters that would be easy to turn into caricatures. But she avoids those traps by focusing on Caroline and her sister, and making them rich, complex women who make unexpected decisions because of unexpected reasons.

The Spy and the Traitor – Ben Macintyre
Next another remarkable story, this one true. This is an accounting of the life go Oleg Gordievsky, one of the highest ranking KGB agents who ever spied for the West. Disillusioned with the closed nature of the Soviet Union, he was first recruited by the British while working in Denmark in the 1970s. Eventually he transferred to London and was on the verge of being named the Soviet equivalent of Chief of Station before he was outed by CIA agent Aldrich Ames, who was selling information to the Soviets.

This discovery set off a pretty amazing escape by Gordievsky from Moscow to the Finnish border before British agents slipped him out to freedom. Following his defection in the 1985, he gave the West unprecedented insight into how the KGB functions.

A pretty cool insight into what makes people share information about their home country with their enemy.

Americana: Dispatches from the New Frontier – Hampton Sides
This was marketed as a travelogue, so I thought it would tell the tale of Sides, who wrote the excellent Hellhound on His Trail that I read earlier this year, traveling through the US and discovering something interesting about us as Americans.

Which it kind of was. I guess I didn’t read the description close enough, though, and didn’t realize this wasn’t based on a single trip, but rather a collection of his magazine writing from a roughly 25-year period. Because of that, I worked through it slowly, in small chunks, since spring break.

He profiles all kinds of interesting people, places, and events. Getting through the first 350 pages or so is worth it when you get to his post–9/11 pieces. One is an absolutely brutal look at several people who were in the World Trade Center buildings on the day of the attacks. I had to stop reading and take a walk around the house in a few spots to give myself a mental breather. Another is about a Marine lieutenant who was the first American killed in action during the invasion of Iraq, and it is equally brutal. But both pieces are also wonderfully researched and written.