The Rose Code

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Kate Quinn
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pub. Date: Mar. 2021 (read Jan. 2022)

The Rose Code was my book club pick for January. I read The Alice Network a few years ago and only half liked it, so I wasn’t super excited to pick this one up, especially given it was 650 pages, but I ended up quite liking it, despite some flaws.

One of the key things I didn’t like about The Alice Network was the modern day storyline – there is no modern day story in The Rose Code and I think this helped with my enjoyment of it. So many historical fiction novels seem to follow the formulaic approach of splitting the story between two timelines and while The Rose code does this to an extent, there’s no present day narrative, which I rarely find adds much to the novel. Instead, The Rose Code focuses most of the narrative during the war, while occasionally jumping forward a few years.

The narrative focuses on 3 female codebreakers working at Bletchley Park. The setting was somewhat familiar to me having watched The Imitation Game, but I felt this provided a much more nuanced approach. Osla and Mab are mysteriously called to Bletchley Park for a job interview and meet on the train. They billet together in the local village where they meet their landlady’s daughter, Beth. It’s never explicitly stated, but the reader can assume Beth lies somewhere on the spectrum and while she doesn’t pick up on a lot of social cues, she is great with puzzles and ends up working at Bletchley Park as well.

This book covers a lot of history. Bletchley Park is credited as being extremely important to the war effort, with hundreds of individuals spread across the campus working on different parts of codebreaking and translation. This is done for the sake of privacy so that no single individual comes to possess too much information. Osla is a wealthy socialite who speaks 3 languages and is in a secret relationship with Prince Philip, who she meets at the start of the war. Mab doesn’t run in the same circles as Osla, but is trying to elevate her position by searching for a wealthy husband. And Beth is just trying to get out from under the shadow of her abusive, god-fearing mother.

Without getting into spoilers, I found the author’s note to be very illuminating. Osla Kendall is based on a real person, Osla Benning (with obvious liberties taken), who was actually Prince Philip’s wartime girlfriend. Mab is completely fictionalized and Beth is an amalgamation of two real female codebreakers. But upon reading the author’s note, I would say that the majority of Quinn’s characters are the amalgamation of a subset of real people. She does a great job at taking as many real aspects from history as she can and incorporating them into her fictional story. I especially liked her inclusion of the mental hospital in this book and think she could have written an entire book just on this topic.

Last year I read Kate Moore’s book, The Woman They Could Not Silence, which is about how many women would often be locked up in mental institutions, not because they were mentally ill, but as a way to oppress or silence them, often at the hands of their husbands, brothers, or fathers. It’s a fascinating subject in itself – had I not read Kate Moore’s book, I might have thought Quinn was including the hospital for dramatic effect, but actually I had no trouble believing this frustrating narrative and I think she did a really good job a capturing the sexism and injustice of it all.

I liked that each of the characters came from a different socio-economic backgrounds – it really gave a good scope of the war and struggles faced. I really liked Mab and thought the inclusion of her love story really well done. Each of the women had their own struggles and challenges, but they were all fully realized characters with a lot of character development.

So what didn’t I like about this book? There were really just 2 things. The first is that the book is far too long. Quinn goes REALLY in depth about codebreaking, and while it is interesting, I didn’t have a lot of context for it and I don’t think she really explained rodding and the bombe machines in a way that I could meaningfully understand how they worked. I found the narrative got a bit repetitive over time and I’m not exaggerating when I say I think she could have cut out at least 200 pages. It felt like there was a lot more filler than there needed to be.

The second thing I didn’t really like was the inclusion of Prince Philip’s relationship with Osla. This is set as the foundation of the entire story, with Quinn counting down the days to the royal wedding while we get flashbacks to the war. I think a lot of people are fascinated to learn that Philip has a wartime girlfriend, but I felt more along the lines of, why wouldn’t he? At the end of the day, the royal wedding and Osla’s relationship don’t actually have that much bearing on the story and I thought it was odd to center the entire narrative around it. For me, the codebreakers were the focal point of the story and I found the royal wedding to be distracting and tangential. I felt like Quinn discovered all these historical figures and just tried to cram as many as she could into one story without thinking critically about whether they belonged there. Or maybe she just thought a story with a byline about Prince Philip would sell, in which case, she’s not wrong because people lap up stories about the royal family.

Overall I just found the story took awhile to get going. I was glued to the page for the entire last third of the book, but it’s a bit of work to get there and I felt weary about it given the length of the book. Shorten this baby a bit and I think it would be even more inviting and accessible to readers. I do appreciate what Quinn has done in telling this story about Bletchley Park though. For a long time Bletchley Park was a hidden part of England’s history, and it’s exciting that the general public now gets the chance to learn about it. So 4 stars from me, which is still a great rating, despite its shortcomings.

The Lost Apothecary

Rating: ⭐⭐.5
Author: Sarah Penner
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pub. Date: Mar. 2021 (read May 2021)

Sadly, this was one of my most disappointing reads so far this year. Not that it was a particularly bad book or anything, I just thought the plot held so much promise and it was one of most anticipated books. So when it didn’t live up to my expectations, it was definitely disappointing. 

The Lost Apothecary is set in the late 1700’s and tells the story of an apothecary, Nella, who dispenses both remedies and poisons to her solely female clientele. The goal of her apothecary has always been to help women, but after the death of her mother, Nella decides to branch out to offer women a different kind of help, that of murder. Her one rule is that her poisons are never to be used against women, only against men. 

At the same time, we have a modern day story of Caroline Parcewell, a young housewife who has just discovered an upsetting secret about her husband and decides to travel to London on their 10 year anniversary, alone. While there, she discovers about the existence of the old apothecary and sets out to learn more about it.

The plot sounds intriguing right? So why didn’t I like it? Honestly… I didn’t see the point. I thought I was going to get a nuanced story about women in tight places who seek help to improve their difficult situations. I wanted a morally ambiguous story about women and sisterhood, but instead I got a lightweight drama about a blackmail scenario that I struggled to believe wouldn’t have already happened to Nella at some point during her career as a dispenser of poisons.

There is one interesting story in the beginning when we are introduced to Eliza, but after that, I felt the author didn’t do anything new or interesting with the plot. I struggled to relate with any of the characters because I don’t think any of them were given the depth they deserved. We’re given a surface level story about Nella that I think is intended to be shocking and sad, but Penner never manages to quite connect you with her characters in a meaningful way. It’s a debut novel and she falls into the classic trap of “show don’t tell”.

I feel like I make this complaint about a lot of books, yet authors keep making the same mistake. Penner had a great idea for the book, but the execution and character development just weren’t enough to really give this story wings. It’s a great idea, but I don’t really know what Penner was trying to say, what was the point? I felt like I was getting so many conflicting messages. One of Nella’s key motivations is that she wants to keep her register alive to give voices to women instead of silencing them, but if that puts the women at risk of DEATH, then that is the strongest way of ensuring you do actually silence them. Then Caroline further silences women by keeping what she discovers about Eliza at the end a secret as well. The messages were contradictory and it really made me question what point the author was trying to make.

So let’s talk about Caroline. Why do so many historical fiction books insist on having the modern day timeline. No one cares about it! People are almost always more interested in the historical timeline as learning about the past is generally what inspires someone to pick up historical fiction in the first place, so why do so many books have modern day timelines. I was initially intrigued with how the apothecary was going to link to Caroline, but it ended up just being a fluke and I thought the scenario of events that occurred in her timeline were so outlandish and unlikely that it was hard to take her story seriously at all. 

Anyways, at the end of the day, it wasn’t a totally bad book, but it also wasn’t a great book. I’m somewhere between 2.5 and 3 stars. I read it with my book club and we were all disappointed, so despite the intriguing-sounding plot, I wouldn’t recommend this one.    

A Murderous Relation

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Deanna Raybourn
Genres: Mystery, Historical Fiction
Pub. Date: Mar. 2020 (read Apr. 2021)

I’ve been having so much fun reading a Veronica Speedwell book each month. This was book number 5. I don’t think I liked it quite as much as book 4, but a solid follow-up for sure! Since we’re so far into the series, I’m not going to bother blurbing this one and it will contain SPOILERS, so if you’re thinking of reading this series, check out my review of the first book, A Curious Beginning, instead.
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I really liked A Dangerous Collaboration because we finally got some movement on the Veronica/Stoker front, which continues (slowly of course) into A Murderous Relation. I think it’s a wise choice on Raybourn’s behalf because romantic relationships are so much of what makes a series like this compelling and if you plan to continue on with the series for an extended period of time, you need to keep the drama! 

So I liked that there was progress in this book. As usual, Veronica and Stoker are up to some wild antics when they infiltrate a sex club to steal a diamond. Raybourn always has the most devilishly intriguing and risqué plots, but it’s part of what makes the series so fun. I liked that this book had a lot of action in it. Some of the other books are a bit slow to get started, but I didn’t find that to be the case with this one. The only thing that I didn’t like was that it was more or less a repeat of the plot of the first book. Obviously there are some changes and I really liked Eddy’s character, but overall a little disappointing not to see the author come up with something different. 

Again, I guess that’s one of the challenges with so long of a series. I did kind of feel like book 5 would actually make a good ending point for the series. We get really good closure at the end of this book and I wonder how much further Raybourn will really be able to take this series and still have it be meaningful. I really respect authors when they know the right time to walk away from a series.

So I haven’t decided if I will read the next book or not. There’s only 1 more that’s been released and since it’s only available in hardback (my collection is all paperback), I was thinking I might wait a year and read it once it’s released in paperback, if I still feel like continuing the series. Part of me definitely wants to continue because the characters are so much fun, but I also feel really satisfied with how far I’ve made it in the series, so I guess we’ll have to wait and see!

A Curious Beginning

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐.5
Author: Deanna Raybourn
Genres: Historical fiction, Mystery
Pub. Date: Sep. 2015 (read Jan. 2021)
Series: Veronica Speedwell #1

Okay I need to write my review for this because I’m already halfway through the sequel and I don’t want to get the two books mixed up!

I found this book for cheap on book outlet a few years ago and bought the first two books in the series. They’ve sat on my shelf ever since and I never felt inspired enough to pick them up, even though I’d heard good things about them. However, after reading Nice Try, Jane Sinner for the second time, I really wanted to continue the humour, so I poked around my shelves for something funny to read and landed on these.

I’m so glad I finally did because I had SO much reading this book! A Curious Beginning is the first book in a series that currently has 5 books published with a 6th coming out later this year. I’m not sure I’ll read them all, but if they’re all as smart and funny as this one you definitely can’t go wrong!

It’s 1887 and 25 year old Veronica Speedwell’s aunt has just passed away. Veronica was adopted as a foundling by her two aunts and raised all over England. Though she grew up in the 1800’s and was expected to develop important feminine skills like painting, needlework, and the pianoforte, she instead has cultivated her skills as a lepidopterist and travels the world in search of rare specimens of butterfly to sell to her wealthy clients under the assumed male moniker of V. Speedwell. With the death of her only remaining guardian, she sees this as the perfect time to break with her old life and seek adventure elsewhere. However, when her cottage is burglarized during her Aunt’s funeral, she is catapulted on an entirely different adventure.

What makes this book a winner is Raybourn’s effortless blending of genres and the witty dialogue and humour she infuses into the story. Veronica refuses to conform to society’s ideal of a lady and sees no reason why she should be excluded from the fun. When she is thrown together with the enigmatic Stoker, total adventure and hilarity ensue.

This book really has a little bit of everything. It’s historical, it has a mystery, it has romantic elements, and it will make you laugh out loud. From the start, it appears to be a heavily plot driven novel, but as the mystery unravels, we learn much about Veronica and her past. Stoker is still a character very much shrouded in mystery, but I’m optimistic his past will slowly be revealed to us throughout the subsequent novels.

Stoker and Veronica compliment each other well and I loved reading about them and got caught up in their banter. I wouldn’t say they have the most character development over the course of the novel, but they definitely have chemistry. The book is full of tropes, but somehow it all just works. I think it’s because the novel never takes itself too seriously. I could see the potential for Veronica to become a bit of a caricature in the future if the author doesn’t reign in her character, but as a series debut, I thought everything about this worked. My only minor criticism was that things seems to resolve themselves a little too easily and neatly at the end of the novel.

But all in all, I had great fun reading this and immediately jumped right into the sequel! 4.5 stars, definitely recommend!

Jane Eyre

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐.5
Author: Charlotte Bronte
Genres: Fiction, Classics
Pub. Date: 1847 (read Mar. 2021)

This was a re-read for me. I first read Jane Eyre about 10 years ago and I didn’t love it – I think I gave it 3 stars – but I remember expecting to really like it because it’s a lot of people’s favourite classic, and then just not being into it at all.

I’ve had a lot of success with classics lately. I finished reading all of Jane Austen’s books over Christmas and was a huge fan, and I read Wuthering Heights a few years ago and absolutely LOVED it! So I thought it might be time to re-visit Jane Eyre and see if I would finally jump on the bandwagon.

I can’t talk about the book without revealing spoilers, so if you still haven’t read this one – SPOILER ALERT AHEAD.

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Reader, I definitely liked this better the second time around. I really enjoyed the first quarter of the book about Jane’s childhood and the definite highlight of the book for me was when Jane makes the decision to leave Mr. Rochester and basically destitute herself on principal (like come on, she could have still left him and taken a bit of money with her, there’s morality and then there’s just insanity). I had forgotten a lot of the plot points of the book, so after re-reading it… I get it. I understand why this is beloved by so many people. Jane really is a true heroine and so far ahead of her time. Despite a very difficult childhood, she grows into a very well adjusted young woman who is both loving and kind. She is quiet and timid, but she is not meek. She has developed a very acute sense of self and ideals of morality. In short, she is very high in character.

Like the many readers that have come before me, I did admire her for her grit. She has finally found what she most desires in the world, love and a home, and she walks away from all of that so as not to diminish herself or live in a way that she feels is not right. She faces more hardships only to again rise from the ashes of her former life to build a new one for herself. It’s really hard to believe this book is from the 1840’s because it really is filled with so many modern ideals and I admire Charlotte Bronte for penning this in her time!

So why I am not as enamoured with this book as everyone else seems to be? It’s definitely a dense book – I listened to it on audio and there are multiple HOUR LONG monologues by some of the characters. I do think it was a good choice to rely heavily on dialogue for these and even though they were long, they did still hold my attention, but like, good riddance on all the philosophical conversations.

Honestly, what I think it comes down to for me is a bit of the ick factor. Like, I know there are women out there in love with Mr. Rochester and I find it so creepy. He’s so large and old and menacing – I just couldn’t move beyond a 40 year old man preying on a 19 year old girl. I know Jane Austen’s books are filled with age gaps too and I love those, so I shouldn’t judge because it was 1847, but the whole power dynamic and Mr. Rochester’s temper were just too much. Then the fact that he tries to wed Jane while already secretly married and the whole F-ed up idea of shutting someone up in the attic for literal years and THEN JUSTIFYING IT. And the reader is actually expected to empathize with Mr. Rochester’s plight when poor Bertha’s been suffering away up there?! So I think it’s a bit ahead of its time in some ways and other ways definitely right in its time period.

Personally I got more of a kick out of the whole ordeal with St. John. I found this escapade a bit more light hearted and loved Jane using sarcasm against his faith near the end of the novel. I did think the book had a good blend of religion and morality. Sometime classics can be a bit heavy on the religion, which to an extent this was, but I liked that even though Jane did believe in God, I felt that she had developed a strong sense of personal morals outside of religion. St. John started to manipulate his religion at the end to get Jane to marry him because he felt it was ordained by God, but Jane very firmly held her own ground and recognized that thinking something might be good for your ministry doesn’t necessarily mean it will be good for you.

So how to rate this? I’m on the fence because Jane really is a first rate heroine, but I felt so uncomfortable reading about the romance. It’s funny to me that I adore Wuthering Heights, which honestly has zero likeable characters, yet I struggle with Jane Eyre, which has a truly lovable protagonist. I’m probably at a 3.5 stars, but I will round up to 4 stars because the second read through did allow me to recognize the value in this book and I understand now why it has survived the test of time. I’d just take Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy over Jane and Mr. Rochester every day of the week folks! So in conclusion, a worthy classic, but not my favourite.

Side note, why do so many people hate Wuthering Heights? I think it’s like the pinnacle of classic literature and I love everything about it, but so many people really dislike it. Give those unlikable characters a chance readers and see what you can learn from them! Also, the audiobook I read was narrated by Thandie Newton, who did a GREAT job! But she pronounces St. John like SinJin and it was really confusing for me at first.