Bookshelf: Explore Female English Spies in Two Historical Fiction Novels

Historical fiction books set in World War I and World War II seem to be coming out at a record pace in the last few years, leaving us with an abundance of great reading, brilliant characters and epic battles and struggles. Two of the most recent and popular novels are eerily similar on paper yet completely different — “The Alice Network” by Kate Quinn and “Transcription” by Kate Atkinson.

They both feature female spies, love interests, London, World Wars I and II, stories in two timelines and danger around every foggy corner. Yet, they tackle the subject with different writing styles and content.

“The Alice Network” (William Morrow Paperbacks) gained popularity in July 2017 when it was featured as part of Reece Witherspoon’s online book club (one of the new tastemakers of fiction). When Witherspoon selects a book now, it harkens back to the glory days of Oprah’s book club choices. The book is still extremely popular if library holds and request for the book are used as a measuring stick.

“The Alice Network” follows a recently pregnant Charlie, who is being escorted by her mother to Europe to solve her “problem.” Charlie has her own motives. She desperately wants to find her missing friend, Rose, who disappeared during the German occupation of France. Charlie quickly escapes the clutches of her mother to follow the one lead she has, an ex-English spy with a troubled past. The emotional chapters that follow mix fiction and reality (The Alice Network of spies was very real and very effective) as well as a love story with a handsome ex-con from Scotland. Quinn ties her novel up with a neat bow of love and peace after a bloody climax.

“Transcription,” (Little, Brown and Company) released in late 2018, shares similar locations and characters. Juliet is recruited into MI5 as a spy and spends her time listening to conversation of the “Neighbors,” as they discuss English war secrets and how they can best share them with the Germans.

The world of spies, code-words, and double and triple agents and actors fills and overflows in this mysterious novel. While “The Alice Network” is tied up neatly with a happy ending, “Transcription” ends with confusion and twists. There aren’t many answers here, nothing satisfactory, and yet that feeling fits the intense writing style of this novel. People are rarely what they seem and intentions are never straight forward.

This vein of history is rich. Take a dive into the world of female spies by picking-up a copy of either book for an unusual read.

— Graham Fox is a community librarian at the Redmond Library. Contact him at

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