Review: Elizabeth Wein – Code Name Verity

I feel quite useless writing a review about this book. It has garnered nothing but praise and features on so many best-of-the-year lists I can’t remember seeing one without it. And honestly, all I can do here is agree with the rest of the world. This is a superb book!

code name verity otherCODE NAME VERITY
by Elizabeth Wein

Published by: Egmont Press, 2012
ISBN: 1405258217
Paperback: 452 pages
Standalone

My rating: 8/10

First sentence: I am a coward.

I have two weeks. You’ll shoot me at the end no matter what I do.
That’s what you do to enemy agents. It’s what we do to enemy agents. But I look at all the dark and twisted roads ahead and cooperation is the easy way out. Possibly the only way out for a girl caught red-handed doing dirty work like mine — and I will do anything, anything, to avoid SS-Hauptsturmführer von Linden interrogating me again.
He has said that I can have as much paper as I need. All I have to do is cough up everything I can remember about the British War Effort. And I’m going to. But the story of how I came to be here starts with my friend Maddie. She is the pilot who flew me into France — an Allied Invasion of Two.
We are a sensational team.

divider

This is another one of those books that have been very much hyped – not so much through marketing efforts by the publisher, blog tours, givaways, and such things. But through glowing reviews all over the place. Naturally, I was suspicious at first. But some of the blogs that I read and count among my most trusted Recommenders of Great Books have agreed with the overall praise. It was settled, I was reading this thing.

Being a story set during World War II, there is bound to be some tragedy. Lives are destroyed, people are killed, lovers ripped apart and children taken away. But we focus on a smaller world. In the first part of two, “Verity” confesses how she came to be where she is – being interrogated by the Gestapo and coughing up any facts she can remember about the war. The story she tells is more personal, though. She doesn’t just list places, give away radio code, and sing out names of spies. She tells us how she met her best friend in the world – Maddie.

code name verityIt is hard not to get drawn into the story right away. “Verity” manages to tell her story in a gripping way and despite her terrifying situation, infuse it with a sense of humor that made me love her very quickly. The girls’ first meeting was simply brilliant but I do have one small point of critique. I didn’t quite feel their bond after that initial meeting. They simply don’t spend enough time together or at least we don’t get to see it. And that really put a damper on the entire story for me. Because if that friendship doesn’t feel as strong to me as it obviously does to these two women, then whatever happens won’t touch me as much.

Despite this little misgiving (and it is just a wee little one) I enjoyed this book immensely. When I read a novel about WWII, there are certain things I expect, certain events we all knew happened – but if you can show me something new, and be it a tiny little detail, then I’m already intrigued again. I remember my classmates in school always whining when we talked about WWII because it felt like we always talked about it in a never-ending regurgitation of the past. I believe that there are stories that should be told over and over, and that within the big picture, there is a nearly infinite number of smaller stories that deserve to be told as well. Now this may be fiction – and the author says so in her Debriefing – but there were women pilots and there were a few women spies. I had no idea! This was definitely a story worth being told.

The mix of languages was totally up my alley. Seeing as the three languages used are all ones I speak to some degree, I was thrilled that the narrator sometimes switched back and forth between them. Don’t worry, most of the time, she translates them to English. But this sentence here could have come from my own language-befuddled brain (plus, the French subjunctive is used correctly which made the Grammar Freak in giddy with glee):

quotes greyI shook this treacherous woman’s hand and said coolly, en français pour que l’Hauptsturmführer who doesn’t speak English puisse nous comprendre, “I’m afraid I can’t tell you my name.”

Apart from the great story and the character of “Verity” (she was easily my favorite), this book offered a few things that felt like little gems, put in especially to make me happy. Being somewhat of a Peter Pan nut, I loved the parallels and use of lines and names from the original story. Mrs. Darling, who leaves the windows open, in case her children fly home unexpectedly – what a wonderful image for the mother of a pilot.  There are plenty more but I won’t spoil.

I am expecting this book to win all sorts of awards and they are most deserved. In the end, it wasn’t as much of a hit as I had expected after the rave reviews. The friendship didn’t really feel that close to me until the end. There was admiration between these girls, certainly, but the love of a best friend did not come across through the pages. Still, a very highly recommended read that shows a different perspective on a story we all think we know already.

divider

THE GOOD: Great writing, wonderful characters, very suspenseful until you know what is going on.
THE BAD: I didn’t feel the friendship as much as I think I should have. The first half of the book was much better than the second.
BONUS: Mixed languages.
THE VERDICT: A highly recommended book that can be read by people of all ages.

RATING: 8/10  Excellent

Review: Catherynne M. Valente – Deathless

People have warned me of this book’s heartbreaking ending. Well, it was heartbreaking from beginning to end and I’m afraid this will be one of my less coherent, more gushing reviews. If my girly outbursts of excitement and love for this story make you interested enough to pick up the book, then my work here is done.

deathlessDEATHLESS
by Catherynne M. Valente

Published by: Tor, 2011
ISBN: 0765326302
Hardcover: 352 pages

My rating: 9,5/10

First sentence: Woodsmoke hung heavy and golden on the short wheat, the earth bristling like an old, bald woman.

Koschei the Deathless is to Russian folklore what devils or wicked witches are to European culture: a menacing, evil figure; the villain of countless stories which have been passed on through story and text for generations. But Koschei has never before been seen through the eyes of Catherynne Valente, whose modernized and transformed take on the legend brings the action to modern times, spanning many of the great developments of Russian history in the twentieth century.

Deathless, however, is no dry, historical tome: it lights up like fire as the young Marya Morevna transforms from a clever child of the revolution, to Koschei’s beautiful bride, to his eventual undoing. Along the way there are Stalinist house elves, magical quests, secrecy and bureaucracy, and games of lust and power. All told, Deathless is a collision of magical history and actual history, of revolution and mythology, of love and death, which will bring Russian myth back to life in a stunning new incarnation.

divider

Catherynne M. Valente was born in a lake, grew up in fairyland, and brought home from there an enchanted quill with which she pens her stories. Or so I’ve decided, at least. After having enjoyed her books for children more than I ever thought possible, I took a peek into her work for adults. What a journey this has been. Initially, I wanted to go slow, knowing how this author’s words want to be savored and enjoyed, melting on your tongue. But as I read and read, I couldn’t ever find a good place to stop. With barely the absolutely necessary stops (bathroom, food) I raced through this magical tale and I still can’t find the words to describe its wonder.

Marya Morevna sits by the window and sees a bird falling from a tree, turning into a handsome man who whisks away her oldest sister. This happens twice more with her other sisters, only Marya is left birdless. However, one day Koschei shows up on her doorstep, demanding to take away the girl in the window, and Marya follows him into his world of vodyanoy (didn’t I just meet those in Perdido Street Station?) and rusalkas, firebirds and Baba Yaga.

deathless alternateThis is the part where one half of my brain demands to write in ALL CAPS and simply shout at you how awesome and brilliant and astoundingly beautiful this story is. Madame Lebedeva and, oh Zemelhyed who moved the earth and water, and how heartbreaking is Koschei? The mythology is so intertwined with the real world and the real threats in Soviet Russia, I found myself wondering whether I’m one foot in Russia and one foot in Koschei’s land, or simply somewhere in between, without straight borders.

It broke my heart. Over and over. While at first, I noticed (and delighted in) a certain Pan’s Labyrinth like quality about the story, it soon drew me in deeper and did exactly what a good story is supposed to do. Made me feel ALL THE THINGS!

[…] because it’s boring to keep telling stories where people just get born and grow up and get married and die. So they add strange things in, to make it more interesting when a person is born, more satisfying when they get married, sadder when they die.

Cat Valente spirited me away into a land where dreams live on knuckles and deaths can be hidden away. Instead of gushing on about her prose – and in case you don’t know yet: it’s sheer perfection – here are some quotes to illustrate just how firm a grip on her craft this woman has.

And so Olga went gracefully to the estates of Lieutenant Gratch, and wrote prettily worded letters to her sisters, in which her verbs built castles and her datives sprung up like well-tended roses.

I met so many strange creatures in these pages, horses that talk, the Tsar of Death, Baba Yaga (did I mention how awesome she is?), and let’s not forget some Stalinist house goblins.

“Marya Morevna! Don’t you know anything? Girls must be very, very careful to care only for ribbons and magazines and wedding rings. They must sweep their hearts clean of anything but kisses and theater and dancing. They must never read Pushkin; they must never say clever things; they must never have sly eyes or wear their hair loose and wander around barefoot, or they will draw his attention!”

The further along I got in this book, the more I felt like I was within a dream. Its magic swept me completely off my feet and if my memory will not fail me completely until the end of it, I will now go on record and declare this one of my favorite reads of the year. That’s how fantastic this book was. It is one of the best books I have ever read. Period. I’m sure it can take on whatever I tackle in 2013.

Did everything that had magic have teeth?

But of course, war doesn’t only rage in Leningrad. The magic world is fighting a war all of its own and Koschei and Marya are right in the middle of it. Sometimes, the symbolism made me weep, sometimes the characters’ actions. I had not expected to grow to love Koschei as much as I did. There were a few key scenes that honestly brought tears to my eyes, not necessarily because sad things happen (although many do, don’t let me deceive you) but simply because Cat Valente has worked us up to such powerful moments where emotion just bursts out of the pages. If it was neither the characters nor the story nor the symbols strewn about this tale, it was the sheer beauty of her writing and the way certain sentences hit home so hard.

You will always fall in love, and it will always be like having your throat cut, just that fast.

Already I look back at this story with yearning and a sense of wonder only Catherynne Valente can pour into paper, packed between two covers.

“I am no one; I am nothing. I am a blank paper on which you and your magic wrote a girl.”

THE GOOD: OMG this is so beautiful, it tore out my heart and made me jealous, why can’t I write like that, how fantastic is this woman’s brain, seriously? I love everything about this.
THE BAD: Seriously?
THE VERDICT: I don’t feel qualified to sum up my feelings about this book in one sentence. Just go read it.

RATING: 9,5/10  Almost perfect – leaning towards a 10

Just like Genevieve Valentine’s Mechanique, I will re-read this soon and if it holds up, this will be turned into a 10/10.

dividerRelated articles