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April 17, 2021

Females Featured in Two New Books for Fans of Historical Fiction

by Donna Huber

Women in History

March saw so many great books being released that you may still be trying to get to them all. I know I am. I recently finished two that Susan had reviewed last month and if you haven't read these two books yet you need to move them to the top of your TBR pile. To help me catch up I listened to the audiobooks that I was able to get from my digital library but I also received free ARCs. The audiobooks were well done and the stories easy to follow so if you are trying to squeeze in more reading time these would be great listens.

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Surviving Savannah by Patti Callahan

Surviving Savannah
March 2021; Berkley; 978-1984803757
audio, ebook, print (432 pages); southern fiction
Last summer, I read Callahan's Becoming Mrs. Lewis (read my review). So while southern fiction isn't a genre I typically enjoy, I loved Callahan's writing and knew I had to read her new book or I would be missing out (which was pretty much confirmed in Susan's review).

Surviving Savannah is a dual timeline story. This has become a pretty common trope in historical fiction and one that I enjoy most of the time. I liked Everly Winthrop right off. She is the protagonist of the present-day timeline. I love when the present-day timeline is about researching the historical timeline. In this book, Everly is a historian who takes on curating a museum exhibit of the steamship Pulaski which sunk off the coast of North Carolina in 1838. Often referred to now as the "Titanic of the South", a number of prominent Savannah families had set sailed on the ship to escape the heat and humidity and spend the season in the cooler climes of Baltimore. However, a horrific accident caused a massive explosion and entire families (generations of families) were lost.

I live in Georgia, I've never visited Savannah and I've never heard of the Pulaski. As someone who loves history, I was really interested in learning about this event. The historical timeline is told through two females - Augusta Longstreet and Lilly Forsyth. Augusta made me think of Scarlett from Gone with the Wind. Their story starts in the Savannah port as they are preparing to board the steamship. It is interesting to note what they packed - their good silver and china. I got the impression they spent "the season" in the north every year. So I wondered if they owned a house there and did it not have appropriate silver and china? Was this a comment of their wealth or was it just not wise to keep the good stuff in a house that sat empty several months a year? Also, their slaves did not travel with them (outside of a nursemaid). Presumably, it was so that the slaves wouldn't have the opportunity to escape in "abolitionist territory". But I again I wondered what they did for servants. That is out of the scope of this story, but I will have to find one that deals with these issues (any suggestions?).

Back to Surviving Savannah, I enjoyed Augusta's and Lilly's chapters more than I did Everly's. Oh, I loved when she was digging into the history and seeing the finds from the ship salvage, but there was another side plot thread in her story that I just didn't care about. This is where the story took on a more southern fiction vibe and veered from the historical fiction focus. So it is purely a matter of reading preferences that had me disliking it.

I did like how Callahan wove the history into present day. 

Having no knowledge of the Pulaski, I didn't know that the historical characters were fictionalized until I read the Author's Note at the end. Longstreet and Forsyth could (and were) typical family names of the period. I'm not totally clear why she created the fictional characters except the historical record of the time is not very complete (Savannah has seen a number of tragedies - Civil War, fire, earthquake - in which records could be lost or destroyed). It was pointed out in the story that the manifest itself wasn't complete - women often were not named. It also allowed her to tell a few different people's experiences without having to have a huge cast of characters. I thought the story was more powerful by just having it told by Augusta and Lilly.

Surviving Savannah was a fascinating story and one I truly enjoyed. It made me want to dig more into the history of Savannah. So if you love reading about little-known historical events or stories of women who have long been overlooked in the historical record, then you should pick up this book.

Buy Surviving Savannah at Amazon

The Rose Code by Kate Quinn

The Rose Code
March 2021; William Morrow; 978-0063059412
audio, ebook, print (656 pages); historical fiction
I listened to Quinn's The Alice Network last spring and absolutely loved it. So I was excited about reading her new book (Susan got to it before me and gave it a glowing review). It is probably one of the longest books that I have read in a while - more than 650 pages. I enjoyed it, but I think it could have been a bit shorter.

There have been a few stories about the intelligent activities at Bletchley Place during WWII. You may have seen the 2014 movie starring Benedict Cumberbatch, The Imitation Game, or the television series The Bletchley Circle. While I've only seen a few episodes of The Bletchley Circle, I found myself thinking of that show several times while reading The Rose Code.

It felt kind of ironic that I was reading this book when Prince Philip died. He has a number of scenes in the story as he is dating one of the women who works at Bletchley Place. 

This isn't really a dual timeline story. Instead, it is more of a story told in flashbacks. The "present" time is 1947 - Prince Philip and Princess Elizabeth are just a couple of weeks away from marrying when the story begins. Then it flashes back to 1940 when the main characters of Osla and Mab are recruited to work in the highly secret branch of the British military at Bletchley Place. The German code machine called the Engima has been broken and at this country estate, the country's brightest (and yes, many were women) spent their days intercepting and translating the messages unbeknownst to the enemy.

In the WWII chapters, the reader gets immersed in the day-to-day operations and lives of Bletchley Place. We feel the frustrations of the women who are being entrusted with the world's most guarded secrets, who have taken only high-skilled jobs (breaking the code, running the machines that run the code, translating the code into English from German and Italian), but are constantly being told they are "silly debs" by their male superiors. At least their male counterparts are more accepting and recognize that these women are brilliant. 

I should probably point out that The Rose Code is not your typical WWII story. The fighting is very much on the periphery. Yes, there are some bombings and mentions of Navy skirmishes. But Bletchley Place is far removed from the war front. So if you are thinking a war story isn't your thing, you should still consider this book for your next read. These men and women are having book club meetings - I love they call themselves the Mad Hatters.

 In the 1947 chapters, we see their lives after the war. But there are secrets from the war that is overshadowing those lives. When Osla and Mab receive an encrypted letter from their billet mate, they must return to a time they can share with no one else - not even their families and confront what ended their friendship. Was there really a traitor in the most guarded place on earth or is it just the imaginings of a person who cracked under the pressure?

I really liked all the characters (who are real-life people). I enjoyed the story. I even enjoyed the details, though I feel like maybe there were too many. I felt pretty fatigued by the end of reading this book. While the ending was satisfying, I didn't feel WOW! THAT WAS GREAT! Instead, I felt more like good, it's over.  Am I glad I read it? Yes. It makes me want to read the memoirs and biographies written by/about the women featured in the book. 

I read a lot of WWII fiction, and I'm really loving all the books focusing on the role of women during this period. If you also like stories highlighting the often-overlooked stories of women in history, then I recommend adding this book to your reading list.

Buy The Rose Code at Amazon

Donna Huber is an avid reader and natural encourager. She is the founder of Girl Who Reads and the author of how-to marketing book Secrets to a Successful Blog Tour

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