Code Name Verity

Rating: .5
Author: Elizabeth E. Wein
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pub date: Feb. 2012 (read Dec. 2018)

I have mixed feelings about Code Name Verity. I’ve heard so many great things about this book and I really expected to love it, but I was really surprised when I actually started reading it.

This book is SLOW. I don’t mind slow books and I often really like slow burn dramas, but I’m not sure this worked for me and I’m surprised that it worked for so many other people. I’m kind of wondering if there’s something wrong with me or if people are just rating this so high based on emotional response to the ending of the book versus the book as a whole.

Code Name Verity tells the story of two friends during World War 2. Maddie is a pilot and got her license before the war started. At the start of the war she is forced off to the sidelines in favour of male pilots and works as a radio operator, where she meets her best friend. I don’t want to name her friend because she takes several names throughout the course of the novel and I don’t want to give away any spoilers. But the book opens with Maddie’s friend having been caught by the Germans in France as an English spy. She is imprisoned by the Germans and tortured for information. She agrees to pass information to them and starts writing her account of the war and her exposure to the British air forces.

I think it’s best to go into this book blind. All you really need to know is that this is a story about two friends and the lesser known roles that some women played in world war 2. The author initially set out to write a story about female pilots in WW2, because she is a pilot herself, and it developed into this book.

I have to give the author props, the book is clever. We view the story from two points of view, with the second half of the book essentially giving us an entirely new viewpoint on the first half. I really liked the narrator in that she was funny and clever even while being interrogated by the Nazi’s. Her personality really shines through, as does her love for her friend. What I liked most about this book was definitely the friendship and the way Wein played around with perspective. From the start of the book it seems like this is ultimately going to be a story about Maddie. Maddie is the focus of the intel that our narrator provides to the Nazi’s and they are particularly interested in Maddie because she is a pilot. But in the second half of the book it becomes very obvious that the story is not just about Maddie. It is about both friends and how each woman is the hero of the other’s story. They both made considerable contributions to the war effort and neither is more important than the other. It’s ultimately a story about friendship and I did think Wein created a very authentic and beautiful friendship.

So I can definitely understand why people love this book, I’m just surprised it has been as widely and well received as it has been. It is well loved among the YA community and I can’t help but wonder if that might have something to do with it’s success. I’ve never seen this one on the historical fiction circuit. I’ve only ever seen this book on the YA circuit and I really don’t want to be a snob about it, but as someone who’s read a lot of historical fiction, I kind of wonder if maybe this was many reader’s first, or only, foray into the genre. It was a very educational book and I definitely appreciate that it exists, but I just can’t get beyond the fact that for about 70% of this book, I was bored. I was interested in the interrogation and prison aspect because when we talk about WW2, we tend to get the camp perspective and this was definitely different than that. But most of the book was about aviation and after a while, it just got really boring and repetitive.

I am struggling to write this review because objectively, I do believe this is an important novel and it did make me think a lot, but it just never captivated me. And you know what, that’s okay. It’s obviously a beloved book to many people and it offers a perspective of WW2 that I haven’t seen before. The ending is heartbreaking. I knew this was going to be a sad book, so I was well prepared, but the ending definitely caught me off guard. Overall, I enjoyed the second half of the book better than the first. I understand now why the first half of the book was written the way it was, but I still think it was a bit overdone. I did love the ending though. I thought it was just the perfect amount of trauma – it was heartbreaking, but meaningful and not done for the sake of emotionally manipulating your readers.

So overall I think I will give this a 3.5 stars. I doubt I’ll be picking this book again, but overall, it was memorable and I don’t regret having read it. It just read a little bit more like history than historical fiction.

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The Alice Network

 

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐ 
Author: Kate Quinn
Genres: Historical Fiction
Read: Oct. 2017 on audiobook

 

I listened to The Alice Network on audiobook, so I’ve slowly been making my way through this one for ages. It’s a historical tale set in France in both 1916 and 1947 and tells two stories simultaneously. In 1916, Evelyn Gardner was a British spy who operated in the french town of Lille, posing as a waitress and collecting information the German officers would spill over their meal. In 1947, Charlie St. Clair is searching for her cousin Rose who disappeared during the war. It turns out that Rose and Eve had a shared connection in that they both spied and worked under the same man in 2 different wars and Charlie pairs up with Eve to try and find her cousin.

I really liked Eve’s story. She was a part of the Alice Network, which was a real network of female spies in WWI, lead by Louise de Bettignies, alias Alice Dubois, or as she’s known to Eve, Lily. Louise was a real person and I found Eve’s story of spying on the German officers and how she would pass information fascinating. I don’t know how much of Lily’s character was fabricated, but hopefully not very much because she was an inspiring woman with her eternal optimism, humour, and spirit.

I didn’t love Charlie’s story. She was pretty annoying at the beginning of the novel (although I did feel for her and her predicament) and I found her story much slower moving. It only got interesting during the end and while I understand why Quinn decided to run their stories parallel, I felt that Charlie added very little to the story for most of the novel. I was disappointed at the end of each of Eve’s chapters when I knew I had to read a whole chapter about Charlie and I felt that little happened in her chapters to advance the plot. They went from town to town aimlessly and her story didn’t become engaging until the point when Eve started telling Charlie her story and they starting syncing up as Eve revealed more and more information to Charlie about her experience during WWI.

Definitely an interesting read though. I’ve read a lot of WWII books set in France so sometimes I get a bit fatigued with the “next big WWII book”, but I’ve read substantially less on WWI, which was another reason why I liked Eve’s story. That said, this was a well written book and I did enjoy it!

Beneath a Scarlet Sky


Rating:
 .5
Author: Mark T. Sullivan
Genres: Historical Fiction
Read: July 2017 on audiobook

Ugh, this book.

This is a challenge to rate because it really is a fascinating story that deserves to be told, but oh my god, the writing was brutal. I really wish this story could have been told by someone like Markus Zusak, Anthony Doerr, Kristen Hannah, or literally anyone who knows how to better write emotions and dialogue.

Beneath a Scarlet Sky is the fictional telling of Pino Lella’s true story. Lella is an 17 year old Italian from Milan who comes of age at the height of World War II. His parents send him out of Milan and he ends up guiding jews and other people looking to escape Italy through the snowy alps to neutral Switzerland. He does this until just before his 18th birthday, when his parents call him back to Milan and force him to enlist with the Germans to avoid being drafted to what would likely be sure death with the Italian Army. This is a huge source of shame for Pino and when he finds himself assigned to be the driver for German General Hans Leyers, he seizes the chance to redeem himself by turning spy for the Allies. Oh, and along the way he falls in love with this girl Ana.

This was an incredible true story, but the writing failed on so many levels for me. Disclaimer, this was my first audiobook, so it’s possible that maybe audiobooks are just not the right format for me, but I really think it’s the writing. First of all, the dialogue was awful – it didn’t feel at all natural. Secondly, it was not dynamic. I know this book is based on a true story, but it’s still supposed to be fiction. As an author you can take some liberties on a true story, to infuse emotion into the story and make it more palatable to your readers. Historical fiction writers do this all the time.

I think Sullivan should have just written a biography because this novel was way too precise. I felt like I was reading a boring chronology of Pino’s life. “Pino did this, and then he went here, and then he saw this, etc…” It was way too long and Sullivan tried to make every single event seem so intense, he spent so much time detailing each alpine crossing and everywhere Pino went as a driver. It was weird how precise he was with everything, even down to the specific distances Pino hiked and specific time he did something. I didn’t need to know how many metres Pino traversed for every part of his mountain crossings and I didn’t need to know where exactly he took General Leyers at 2, 4, and 6pm.

Sullivan conducted extensive interviews with Pino Lella and I felt like he didn’t give enough voice to the character and tried to stay too close to Lella’s story. Pino’s narrative felt like that of an 80 year old man recounting what happened to him during the war rather than that of a 17 year old actually living these experiences. This experience happened to Pino 70 years ago and I’m sure it was hard for him to articulate his emotions about it, which is where I had the biggest issue with Sullivan’s writing.

Sullivan didn’t know how to emote. Pino felt like the most basic character ever. He’s constantly talking about how he “feels”, but it had no depth for me. I think Sullivan should have taken a bit more liberty with the story to better connect with or imagine what Pino really would have felt. This book was an example of telling your audience instead of showing them. Sullivan obviously admires Pino (as do I), but it got in the way of his writing because Pino didn’t really have many flaws. I feel like Sullivan didn’t imagine what it would really have been like for Pino to enlist with the Nazis and the struggle he would have faced being shunned by his brother and best friend. Sure he was “sad” or “angry”, but his emotions were so basic and lacked depth.

This went for all the characters. Most upsetting for me was Ana. She had no personality whatsoever and her relationship with Pino was so romanticized. I mean, Pino was 18 at the time, so I could believe his fawning over her, but ugh, there were way too many descriptions of Pino being intoxicated by her “female scent”. Bletch. Seriously, what did Pino like about her besides her beauty? We never learn anything of substance about her except a quick flashback to her father’s tragic death.

But enough about the writing, on to the story: it was so heartbreaking! Pino was a busy teenager during the war and made a truly incredible contribution to the war. The synopsis gives no indication about the time Pino spent in the alps guiding refugees across the border, which I found even more fascinating than his spy work under General Leyers. It’s wild how many historical events he bore witness to and I really liked learning about Italy’s occupation. I’ve read a lot of WWII fiction about the camps and what it was like during the war in England, France, Germany, Poland, Russia, and even Hungary, but I’ve never read any WWII fiction about Italy.

The ending and epilogue were some of the most meaningful parts of the book for me. I don’t want to spoil it for anyone, but there was one death (it’s war, there’s obviously going to be deaths) at the end of the story that was actually one of the most horrifying things I could ever imagine and I was extremely disturbed reading it. Honestly, everything about the end of the war in Italy was disturbing: the civil war in Milan, the revenge killings, the desecration of Mussolini’s body in the square. Death is so unpredictable and it was one thing that Sullivan did a good job of demonstrating towards the end of the book. 

Sullivan’s depiction of the aftermath of the war in Italy was also meaningful because it really showcased the hardships the people of Milan had experienced and their anger at the Nazis and the fascists. It’s a frightening look at the depravity of humans and how even after suffering so much, we can still want to see others suffer. Can revenge actually soothe your soul after bearing witness to so much pain? Pino was so detached emotionally at the end of the novel that I thought this was the one scene where Sullivan actually showed us his pain instead of just telling us about it. Pino was numb inside, so Sullivan stopped narrating his internal emotions and we were able to discern them from his actions rather than being told how he felt.

After finishing this book, I’m not surprised that Pino kept his experiences to himself. I don’t think him a coward, but I understand now why he thought himself one. He was shamed and shunned by a lot of people when he joined the Nazis and when he becomes a spy, he’s frustrated by not being able to share it with his family or Carletto and hates for them to think of him as a traitor Nazi. But to an extent, he was. He did join the Nazi party and it was only by fate that he ended up as a driver to Hans Leyers. I’m glad he was able to rebel under the Nazi regime and secretly fight against the Nazis, but the story could easily have gone another way if he had had no opportunity to fight for the Allies and ultimately, the winners.

But in a time of war we can’t know how things will turn out. Pino was young and not equipped for the situations he was put in. It’s impossible to predict how we will act and react in extreme situations and how the bounds of right and wrong can become blurred and confused by the people and events around you. I can see how Pino would be haunted by his experiences for the rest of his life and how war can really change the trajectory of your entire life and character.

I am very glad that Mark Sullivan has created a record of Pino’s life so that history will remember him, but don’t expect a well-written book.