The Rose Code by Kate Quinn

I loved this! I’ve never read Kate Quinn before, although she has been recommended to me several times, so I’m pleased that my first experience of her work has been such a good one. The Rose Code wasn’t a perfect book, but the few flaws that I noted were quickly outweighed by the gripping plot, strong characters and interesting historical setting.

The story takes place in and around Bletchley Park, the English country house which became the home of Britain’s World War II codebreakers, and follows three of the young women who work there. Two of them, Osla Kendall and Mab Churt, meet on the train in 1940 as they travel to Bletchley Park, unsure as to what their new jobs will involve but determined to do their best to help the war effort. Osla, a beautiful, wealthy young socialite, is desperate to prove that she is more than just a ‘silly debutante’; the outspoken and fiercely independent Mab is a working class girl from the East End of London who, having escaped from a life of poverty, wants to make a better future for herself. At Bletchley Park, both will find the opportunities they need to change their lives – and so does a third young woman, Beth Finch. Beth has grown up under the thumb of her domineering mother and looks set to remain a spinster all her life, but when Osla and Mab notice her special gift for crosswords and puzzles, they encourage her to overcome her shyness and join them at Bletchley.

Although most of the novel is set during the war years, we occasionally jump forward in time to 1947. On the eve of the royal wedding between Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip, two of the three Bletchley Park women have received a summons for help from the third, who has been confined to an asylum. However, the friendship between the three of them broke down before the war ended and the two women who are free aren’t sure if they really want to help the one who is imprisoned. What happened to destroy their friendship? Was there really a traitor within Bletchley Park? And will the mysterious Rose Code ever be solved?

The Rose Code is a long novel, but was quicker to read than I’d expected because I became so engrossed in the stories of Osla, Mab and Beth. Their work at Bletchley Park is fascinating to read about, particularly Beth’s as a cryptanalyst, working with the legendary Dilly Knox. Although it all sounds very complicated – and I’m pleased the Allies didn’t have to rely on me to break the Enigma codes – Kate Quinn does a good job of explaining how the various machines were used and what the different decryption methods involved. She also explores the psychological impact of carrying out such highly confidential work; all of the codebreakers sign up to the Official Secrets Act and are banned from discussing their work with friends and family or even with people from different departments within Bletchley Park itself. This raises the interesting question of whether it’s ever acceptable to break your oath of secrecy – and if not, what sort of strain will that put on your relationships with other people?

Several real historical figures appear in The Rose Code. I have already mentioned Dilly Knox, but we also briefly meet Alan Turing, Winston Churchill…and Prince Philip, who is romantically involved with Osla before his marriage to Princess Elizabeth (the future Queen). This isn’t as far-fetched as it might seem, as Kate Quinn apparently based the character of Osla Kendall on the real life Osla Benning, who really was a Canadian debutante who worked at Bletchley Park and was Prince Philip’s girlfriend – but I don’t personally feel comfortable reading fictional portrayals of people who are still alive and this whole storyline felt unnecessary to me. I couldn’t imagine the real Philip saying some of the things he says in the book either; in fact, although I did appreciate the author’s attempts to use the slang of the time, the language in general didn’t always feel quite right to me – and there are a few annoying references to England when it should be Britain.

Still, even the Philip storyline didn’t stop me from enjoying this book because the rest of it was so interesting and compelling. There was even one scene that made me cry and I think that’s always a sign that the author has done something right! I’m sure I will be reading more books by Kate Quinn.

Thanks to HarperCollins UK for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley

Book 13/50 read for the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

Mini-reviews: Ashes; A Net for Small Fishes; The Lost Diary of Venice

Although I usually devote an entire post on my blog to every book I read, sometimes I find that I have very little to say. That’s not always necessarily a reflection on the quality of the book or how much I enjoyed it, but more an inability to put into words my thoughts about a particular book and an awareness that if I don’t just write something soon I will never get round to reviewing it at all! Three of my recent reads fall into that category, so here are a few paragraphs about each of them:

The first is Ashes by Christopher de Vinck, a novel set in Belgium during World War II. Simone Lyon, the daughter of a major general in the Belgian army, meets Hava Daniels while volunteering with the Red Cross in 1939 and despite their different backgrounds – Hava’s family are Jews from Poland – the two become close friends. In those innocent days at the beginning of the war, the girls believe their country will remain safe and neutral, untouched by the horrors starting to sweep across the rest of Europe. Less than a year later, Brussels is under German occupation and Hava and Simone become caught up in everything they’d hoped to avoid.

I found this a moving portrayal of friendship and loyalty, although I struggled to believe that Simone and Hava were really supposed to be eighteen years old as they felt a lot younger than that to me – in fact, I thought the whole story and the way in which it was written felt more like YA fiction than adult. Not a problem, but not what I’d expected! It was interesting to read about the Holocaust from a Belgian perspective and the quotes from politicians, news articles and Nazi propaganda which begin every chapter help to put everything into historical context, but the story was not quite as harrowing as books on this topic usually are. Maybe that was due to the pacing, as a lot more time is spent on building up Hava and Simone’s friendship than on describing the events that follow the Nazi invasion. Overall, this was a worthwhile read, but just didn’t have the sort of depth I prefer in a novel.

A Net for Small Fishes by Lucy Jago is set much earlier, in Jacobean England, and tells the story of the real life Thomas Overbury Scandal from the perspective of Anne Turner, one of the people involved in the crime. Anne, the wife of a London physician, is also a businesswoman in her own right, holding the patent for yellow starch for collars and ruffs. Early in the novel, she becomes dresser and companion to Frances Howard, the young Countess of Essex – and when Frances falls in love with Robert Carr, the king’s favourite, it is Anne to whom she turns for help. Frances wants to marry Robert, but his friend Sir Thomas Overbury stands in their way; if only she and Anne could somehow get rid of him!

I think I would probably have enjoyed this book more if I hadn’t already read several other versions of the Overbury story, most recently EC Fremantle’s The Poison Bed and Rafael Sabatini’s The Minion. Being familiar with the story in advance took away the suspense and what was left wasn’t really enough to hold my attention. The choice of Anne as narrator, while interesting from the point of view of showing us how an ordinary citizen of the time might have viewed royalty and courtiers, took us further from the action, often leaving a sense that all the excitement was happening elsewhere. I also found Anne’s habit of referring to Frances as ‘Frankie’ very irritating as I didn’t think that name was in common use in the early 17th century. This book just wasn’t for me, but most of the other reviews I’ve seen are much more positive than mine! I do like the title, which is a reference to ‘small fishes’ being caught in the net of justice while the larger fish swim away.

The Lost Diary of Venice by Margaux DeRoux is a dual timeline novel; the present day narrative follows Rose, an expert in book restoration from Connecticut, and the historical one is set in Renaissance Italy. The connection between the two comes when William, an artist, brings a 16th century manuscript into Rose’s bookshop. Rose quickly discovers that the document is a palimpsest, where one set of words has been written over another which has been scraped away. On the surface it is a treatise on art by the great Italian painter Giovanni Lomazzo, but it’s the hidden diary entries and sketches underneath that really intrigue Rose and William.

It’s often the case that when a novel is set in two time periods, I like one much more than the other; with this novel, however, I didn’t find either of them very compelling. The book is well written, with some beautiful descriptions of Venice in the historical sections, but I didn’t feel any emotional connection to any of the characters. Rose’s relationship with the married William didn’t interest me and I was unmoved by Giovanni’s romance with the courtesan Chiara too (although I did have some sympathy for Giovanni as he discovered that he was losing his sight, a terrible thing for an artist to have to come to terms with). I also loved the glimpses we are given of the political situation in Venice at that time, the conflict between the Venetians and the Ottoman Empire, and the events taking place in Cyprus ahead of the Battle of Lepanto. I wished more time had been spent on all of this, as every time I started to become gripped by what was happening, the chapter ended and we switched back to the modern day story. This is not a book I can say I particularly enjoyed, but I’m pleased I was at least able to learn something from it.

Have you read any of these? If so, let me know what you thought.

Book 10, 11 and 12/50 read for the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

The Paris Library by Janet Skeslien Charles

One aspect of the Second World War that we don’t usually hear much about is the role of books and libraries, so I was immediately drawn to this new novel by Janet Skeslien Charles which tells the story of the American Library in Paris and the people who worked there during the Nazi occupation.

One of the novel’s two main narrators, twenty-year-old Odile, starts working at the library in 1939 at the beginning of the war. With her love of reading and obsession with learning the Dewey Decimal System, it’s Odile’s dream job and she quickly settles in, getting to know the other librarians and the people who come in to borrow books. Her happiness doesn’t last long, however, because soon the Germans cross the Maginot Line and enter Paris. With her twin brother Rémy fighting in the French army, these are difficult and worrying times for Odile, but her priority remains keeping the American Library and its collections safe from the Nazis and ensuring that those less fortunate can continue to find comfort in books.

Our second narrator is Lily, an unhappy twelve-year-old girl growing up in Froid, Montana in the 1980s. She has become intrigued by the reclusive elderly woman who lives next door and when she decides to interview her for a school project, we discover that the woman is Odile. As she gets to know Odile better and uncovers the sequence of events that brought her from Paris to Montana, Lily learns some important lessons that help her to deal with some of the problems in her own life.

There were many things to like about The Paris Library, yet I didn’t really enjoy the book as much as I’d been hoping to. The wartime story was fascinating, but I couldn’t help feeling that the 1980s one was unnecessary; dual timeline novels are very common these days and obviously a lot of people like them, but I often find that one of the two threads is a distraction from the other and adds very little to the novel as a whole. In this case, I felt that Lily’s could have been left out entirely without having much effect on the overall plot. Also, with Lily being such a young narrator, her story revolves around school, her relationships with boys and her best friend, and coming to terms with her widowed father marrying again; it makes the novel feel like YA fiction – which is fine, of course, but not what I was expecting.

I did find all the information on the American Library in Paris very interesting, especially when I discovered that some of the characters in those sections of the book were people who really existed, such as the library director, Dorothy Reeder, who refused to abandon the library when the war began and led the other librarians in a Resistance against the Nazis. I love the fact that the library managed to continue operating throughout the war, in one way or another, with the librarians providing reading material to soldiers and ensuring that books were delivered to Jewish members who were no longer able to visit the library in person.

The Paris Library is worth reading for the wartime storyline, the history and the many references to books I’ve read or would like to read, but if Janet Skeslien Charles had just concentrated on Odile’s story she would have had more space to develop the characters and relationships and I think that would have made it a stronger, more emotional novel.

Thanks to John Murray Press for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

Book 5/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

The Tuscan Contessa by Dinah Jefferies

This is the first of Dinah Jefferies’ novels not to be set in Asia. After being whisked off by her previous six books to Sri Lanka, Myanmar, French Indochina and other fascinating settings, it was a surprise to find that her latest one takes place in Italy. I do love reading about Italy, though, and this setting – Rome and Tuscany during World War II – was just as interesting as the others.

The Contessa of the title is Sofia de’ Corsi, who lives with her husband Lorenzo in their Tuscan villa in the Val d’Orcia. Lorenzo works for the Ministry of Agriculture but Sofia knows very little about what his work actually involves, other than that it takes him away from home for long periods of time. The war is in its final years – the story begins in November 1943 – yet life in Italy is becoming more dangerous and more complicated than ever. Much of the country is still under German martial law and although the Allies are advancing and driving the German army back, their progress is very slow. Not only do Italians have the Nazis to worry about, however, but they are also fighting each other, with anti-Fascist partisans locked in civil war with supporters of Mussolini and his Fascist forces.

When James, a British radio engineer, is found wounded near Sofia’s home she offers to give him shelter, but knowing that Lorenzo would be worried for her safety, she decides to keep his presence a secret from her husband. Meanwhile, Maxine, an Italian-American spy, has arrived from Rome to stay with Sofia, having been given the job of gathering information about the Germans to pass on to the resistance and the Allies. But with the Nazi officers stationed in the village beginning to grow suspicious about Sofia’s household, the two women and their loved ones could be in danger.

I have to confess that before I read The Tuscan Contessa I knew very little about Italy during the war, so I was pleased to find that a timeline is included at the front of the book, outlining the key events from the Italian perspective. This helped me to understand what had been happening in the months prior to the beginning of the novel and how there were so many different groups all working with or against each other: the German occupiers, Mussolini’s Blackshirts, the Partisans and communists, Allied soldiers and SOE spies. It’s not surprising that Sofia and her friends are never quite sure who can and cannot be trusted and who might be about to betray them. One thing I really liked about the novel is the way Jefferies shows that there are good and bad people on all sides of any conflict and that both friends and enemies can be found where they are least expected.

Although there are plenty of male characters, all with significant roles to play in the novel, the focus is mainly on the women and the decisions they have to make to keep themselves and their families safe. I liked Sofia but the other characters felt less well drawn and I even found myself confusing some of them with each other. I didn’t feel that I ever truly got to know and understand Maxine, which was a shame because her storyline should have been the most exciting and compelling, as her work took her into some very dangerous situations. It seemed that the characters sometimes took second place to the history unfolding around them, which made the story less emotionally gripping than it could have been.

This is not one of my favourite Dinah Jefferies novels, but I’m still glad I read it even if just for the knowledge I’ve gained of 1940s Italy!

Thanks to Penguin for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

V2 by Robert Harris

Robert Harris is one of my favourite authors, but I was slightly disappointed by last year’s The Second Sleep. The setting was atmospheric and the concept was fascinating but, like a lot of people, I thought the ending was abrupt and confusing. I’m pleased to say that I found his latest book, V2, much more enjoyable and the perfect distraction from the depressing national and world news and from the pressures of returning to work earlier this month after a long period on furlough.

V2 is set during World War II and follows the stories of two people on different sides of the conflict. Dr Rudi Graf is a German engineer who has played an important part in the development of the V2 rocket. Although his intention was originally to build rockets that could fly to the moon, the technology is now being used by Nazi Germany to carry out attacks on Allied cities, something Graf isn’t entirely comfortable with.

In London, meanwhile, Kay Caton-Walsh, a young officer in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, narrowly avoids being killed in one of these attacks when a V2 hits the building in which she is staying with her married lover. With her affair in danger of being exposed, Kay jumps at the opportunity to go to Belgium with a group of other WAAF officers on a mission to locate the V2 launch site and prevent the weapons from being used in any more strikes.

The whole novel takes place during just five days in November 1944, with Graf’s narrative alternating with Kay’s until eventually their stories begin to come together. I found both of them equally interesting to read about, but I was particularly impressed with the way Harris makes Graf such a sympathetic character, despite the fact that he is at least partly responsible for the death and destruction caused by the V2. His gradual disillusionment with his work is plain to see and he ends up being confronted with some moral dilemmas as a result. Kay’s work is rather different – she is trying to save lives rather than destroy them – but she also finds herself facing some difficult decisions when she begins to question who can and cannot be trusted.

The thriller element of the novel is very well done, with the tension rising chapter by chapter as each rocket is launched and Kay and her fellow WAAF officers race against the clock to stop them. The women are equipped with logarithm tables, slide rules and an ability to make quick and accurate calculations, but still feel under an immense amount of pressure, knowing that lives depend on their mathematical skills. The story does get quite technical at times, but don’t worry if you’re not a scientist or mathematician – the plot is easy enough to follow even if you don’t fully understand every aspect of Kay’s or Graf’s work.

The novel is equally successful as a portrayal of life in various parts of wartime Europe, from Mechelen in Belgium where Kay is stationed, newly liberated from the Germans but still feeling the effects, to the forests of the Occupied Netherlands where Graf and his team are launching the V2 rockets. Although the V2 is an imprecise and expensive weapon and ultimately seen as a waste of German resources, it is still capable of causing enormous destruction and loss of life. It is in the sections of the book set in London that we see the evidence of this, such as when 168 people are killed in one strike on a branch of Woolworths, which is packed with shoppers who have heard that a new consignment of saucepans has just been delivered.

V2 has not become an absolute favourite Harris novel – I don’t think it really compares with An Officer and a Spy or the Cicero trilogy – but I still thoroughly enjoyed it. I have had Munich, an earlier book by Harris, on my TBR for a few years, so I’m hoping to find time to read that one soon too.

Thanks to Random House UK for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

Historical Musings #62: World War II

Welcome to my (almost) monthly post on all things historical fiction.

This month, I have taken inspiration from one of my current reads, V2 by Robert Harris. I won’t say too much about that book here, as I will be reviewing it later in the week, but it’s set during the Second World War and follows the stories of a German engineer launching V2 rockets at London and a British WAAF officer on a mission to stop him. Unless something happens in the final few chapters to change my opinion entirely, it’s going to be a very positive review. I’m finding it fascinating as it looks at several aspects of the war I haven’t read about before – and that has made me think about some of the other novels I’ve read set during the war and the many different ways in which authors decide to approach the subject and the different things on which they choose to focus.

For those of us interested in reading about the roles of women in the war, for example, Kay in The Night Watch by Sarah Waters drives an ambulance, Constance in Lucinda Riley’s The Light Behind the Window is an SOE spy working in Occupied France, and in Carolyn Kirby’s When We Fall, Vee flies planes for the Air Transport Auxiliary and Ewa carries out secret missions for the Polish Resistance. On a more light-hearted note, Emmy in Dear Mrs Bird by AJ Pearce answers letters for the problem page in a women’s weekly magazine!

Some books concentrate on one single event or episode, such as The Report by Jessica Francis Kane, about the bombing of the Bethnal Green tube station, or The Conductor by Sarah Quigley and The Bronze Horseman by Paullina Simons (read before I started blogging), about the Siege of Leningrad, while others, like The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer, which follows the story of three Hungarian Jewish brothers, cover the whole span of the war.

Although most of the books I’ve read have been concerned mainly with the war in Europe, I have also read some set in America (The Postmistress by Sarah Blake and Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford) and North Africa (Jasmine Nights by Julia Gregson and Tapestry of War by Jane MacKenzie).

The Holocaust and the challenges faced by Jews during the war tend to feature strongly in wartime fiction. Far to Go by Alison Pick looks at the role of the Kindertransport and Love and Treasure by Ayelet Waldman focuses on the Hungarian Gold Train. There’s also Jakob’s Colours by Lindsay Hawdon, which is not about the Jewish Holocaust but the Gypsy Holocaust, which made an interesting change. And Japanese internment camps feature in Isabel Allende’s The Japanese Lover and Ghostwritten by Isabel Wolff.

There are plenty of historical mysteries which have the war as a setting too: Full Dark House by Christopher Fowler, the first book in the Bryant and May series, deals with a murder in a London theatre during the Blitz, and Death in Bordeaux by Allan Massie is the first in a quartet of mystery novels set in Occupied France.

The books I have mentioned here are all historical fiction, published many years after the war ended. Of course, there are also lots of wonderful contemporary novels written during or just after the war, but that would be a topic for another post, I think!

Have you read any of the books above or would you be interested in reading them? Are there any others you would recommend? Which aspects of the war do you find most interesting to read about?

When We Fall by Carolyn Kirby

Carolyn Kirby’s new novel, set during World War II, was published in May to coincide with the 75th anniversary of VE day; unfortunately, I was in the middle of a lockdown-induced reading slump at that time, but I added the book to my 20 Books of Summer list to ensure that I would still read it sooner rather than later.

When We Fall, set in 1943, follows the stories of two women leading very different lives but both playing their part in the war effort. First, we are introduced to Valerie – Vee – Katchatourian, a British pilot whose job is to fly planes between airfields for the Air Transport Auxiliary. Forced to make an emergency landing due to fog one day, Vee encounters a Polish airman, Flight Sergeant Stefan Bergel of 302 Squadron. It’s only a brief meeting, but Stefan makes a big impression on Vee and she finds that she is unable to forget about him.

Meanwhile, in the city of Poznań in occupied Poland, Ewa Hartman is helping her father to run his guest house. At the same time as offering hospitality to German officers, Ewa is carrying out undercover work for the AK (the Polish resistance) – a dangerous thing to do, which becomes even more dangerous when she begins to attract the attention of a high-ranking German guest, SS-Obersturmführer Heinrich Beck. Ewa becomes close to Beck, but in her heart she remains loyal to her former lover, Stefan Bergel, whom she has not seen since he became a prisoner of the Soviet army a few years earlier.

Stefan provides the link between Ewa and Vee, but who is he really and where do his true allegiances lie? He is a complex and enigmatic character whose motives and loyalties are never clear, even to the reader who sees both sides of the story, unlike Ewa and Vee who see only their own. This, along with Ewa’s support for the resistance and the dangers of Vee’s work as a pilot, keeps the novel filled with tension and suspense until the end as there is no guarantee that any or all of our characters are going to survive the war.

The novel switches between the two storylines, although Vee’s almost disappears for a while in the middle of the book while most of the action is taking place in Poland. I liked both characters and both settings, but Ewa’s story was the most compelling, I thought. In all of my reading about the war, I don’t seem to have come across many books that describe life in occupied Poland, so I found it very interesting to read about the challenges Ewa faced on a daily basis. With the Nazi occupiers in the process of renaming streets and towns to make them sound more ‘German’ – Poznan becomes Posen, for example – Ewa must learn to respond to the German form of her own name (Eva), to avoid lapsing into her native language, and to come to terms with the local synagogue being converted into a swimming pool.

Names are also important for Vee, who was born in England but whose Armenian surname makes her the subject of prejudice and suspicion, as well as the prejudice she already experiences as a female aviator – even though the ATA was notable for paying women the same as men, Vee senses that she is not always considered an equal. Although I’m not really interested in aviation, Vee’s enthusiasm for her work as a pilot and for the different types of planes she is asked to fly comes across strongly.

Finally, I should mention the Katyn Massacre, a wartime atrocity which marked its 80th anniversary this year and casts its shadow over the lives of the characters in this book. I won’t say too much about it but will leave you to find out how it affects Stefan, Ewa and Vee if you decide to read When We Fall – which I do recommend, as it’s such an interesting and moving novel, very different from Carolyn Kirby’s previous book, The Conviction of Cora Burns, which I also enjoyed!

Thanks to No Exit Press for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

This is book 4/20 of my 20 Books of Summer. I am actually doing better with this than it seems – I have also read another four books from the list and just need to finish writing my reviews!