Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein; narrated by Morven Christie and Lucy Gaskell

My Rating:1 Star2 Star3 Star4 Star

Oct. 11, 1943 A British spy plane crashes in Nazi-occupied France. Its pilot and passenger are best friends. One of the girls has a shot at survival. The other has lost the game before it's barely begun. When "Verity" is arrested by the Gestapo, she's sure she doesn't stand a chance. As a secret agent captured in enemy territory, she's living a spy's worst nightmare. Her Nazi interrogators give her a simple choice: reveal her mission or face a grisly execution. They'll get the truth out of her. But it won't be what they expect. As she intricately weaves her confession, Verity uncovers her past, how she became friends with the pilot Maddie, and why she left Maddie in the wrecked fuselage of their plane. On each new scrap of paper, Verity battles for her life, confronting her views on courage, failure, and her desperate hope to make it home. But will trading her secrets be enough to save her from a merciless and ruthless enemy? Harrowing and beautifully written, Code Name Verity is the story of an unforgettable friendship forged in the face of the ultimate evil. From GoodReads

I’d only heard good things about Code Name Verity but I was completely blown away by just how quickly and how deeply this book sucked me in. I was consumed with thoughts about this book throughout the day and the highlight was always the drive to and from work. Beyond being merely completely enthralled by the characters and the narration, I was transported into a different era and inspired by the real life men and women whose experiences helped inspire this novel.

Verity, a German and French speaking Scot who spies for the English, has been captured by the Gestapo. Tortured and interrogated by the enemy, Verity has promised a written confession which morphs into a moving tale of how she and her best friend Maddie met, became involved in the war effort and how Verity ultimately ended up in the hands of the Nazis.

Verity, her code name, is one of the greatest characters I have ever met. She is strong willed, determined and defiant in the face of great peril, courageous, funny, considerate, self-sacrificing in the best possible way, but above all she is human. It is her humanity that makes her the amazing character she is; so easy to love and identify with. Verity knows what happens to spies caught by the Nazis, and not just because they tell her exactly what they plan to do with her when they have extracted what they need.

Labelled a traitor and collaborator by her fellow inmates, Verity promises classified information in exchange for two weeks of peace from interrogation and torture. I really admired Elizabeth Wein for putting me in Veritys shoes. It could be easy for someone to condemn Verity for giving away secrets to the enemy, as her inmates do, yet when we are forced to witness Verity and her experiences, we must imagine what we would do in her situation. Forced to barter back the most essential items of clothing – her underwear, her warm jumper, her dress – in exchange for wireless code I can’t imagine that anyone could condemn her. Knowing that her execution is imminent, Verity allows men to touch her in exchange for paper and ink so that she can tell her story before she is executed.

Yet despite the cigarette burns, the beatings, the starvation, carbolic acid, the freezing and unsanitary holding cell, the sleep deprivation and the witnessed torture and beheadings of others, Verity keeps her twisted humour, remains defiant and as rebellious as she can get away with. She fights the guards, emotionally and psychologically disarms the interrogator and creates small difficulties for them. Yet it is her moments of weakness that blew me away. The moments where she breaks down in tears, acknowledges her fate and admits to her fear and feelings of desperation and hopelessness.

“I am no longer afraid of getting old. Indeed I can't believe I ever said anything so stupid. So childish. So offensive and arrogant.
But mainly, so very, very stupid. I desperately want to grow old.”

All of this is conveyed through Veritys written confession which is more of a chronology of her friendship with Maddie and so beautifully undermines her own part in this tale. It is this story that shows what a true master of craftsmanship Elizabeth Wein is. We study World War Two in strategic battles and the evil of the Nazis and lives lost. My own study of the war feels woefully inadequate – I didn’t know how the war ended until months after I “studied” it at school and I had no idea of the extent to which the Japanese were involved and the atrocities committed against the Chinese until later still. The atrocities committed against the Jews I researched myself after I left school, but the experiences of individuals was largely ignored. Elizabeth Wein has painted a picture almost completely unknown to me: the role of those on the home front and the women who not only filled the roles vacated by soldiers on the front lines but fulfilled unique roles in fighting the enemy. I was amazed by how much detail there was to learn and I think Wein for everything she taught me and everything she showed me I wanted to explore further.

Maddie and Verity have the kind of best-friendship that everyone should wish to have for themselves. Their bonds are tested by danger, hardship and distance and made all the stronger for it. Despite being in the midst of a war, they still experience the everyday joys and adventures of any friendship and I was so happy for the both of them to have found each other. Verity as a human being never shine brighter than when she downplays her own role in the story to highlight the qualities of her best friend. I felt incredibly lucky to have even a small window into the lives of two such extraordinary people.

The novel, while not especially graphic in its violence, brought a great deal of emotional pain and there were certainly parts of it that left me feeling absolutely devastated. Hearing Verity chant over and over “I have told the truth. I have told the truth. I have told the truth” will haunt me for some time and Part One of this story certainly doesn’t hold any punches.

Perhaps because Part One was so powerful, I found it hard for Part Two to inspire as much feeling in me. In some ways, I feel that Part One would have held more power had the novel ended there, but at the same time I am grateful to Part Two. In Part Two, we switch from Verity to Maddie and the story takes on an entirely new direction. While I loved seeing just how clever and cunning Verity really is and to see Maddie expand her role in the war effort, Maddie was never as vibrant and alive as she is when described by Verity.

By the end of the novel I felt so completely the loss of these wonderful characters, knowing that I would not see them again and be further enriched by their story. They felt so tangible to me it was difficult to remember they weren’t real and I thank Elizabeth Wein for the great gift she has given us.

“And this, even more wonderful and mysterious, is also true: when I read it, when I read what Julie's written, she is instantly alive again, whole and undamaged. With her words in my mind while I'm reading, she is as real as I am. Gloriously daft, drop-dead charming, full of bookish nonsense and foul language, brave and generous. She's right here. Afraid and exhausted, alone, but fighting. Flying in silver moonlight in a plane that can't be landed, stuck in the climb—alive, alive, ALIVE.”

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Quote of the Week (87) Best Friends

“It's like being in love, discovering your best friend.”
Elizabeth Wein
Code Name Verity

Friday, 17 October 2014

In My Library Bag (October the Second)

Okay, so here's the thing. I have a problem. I see STUFF and I want it. So  I am currently overloaded with things that are equal parts super and terrible and I will love them all. ALL. So once a month is not always enough to celebrate all the things I have stolen from the borrowing public because I want it first and I want it all. And I'm not even an only child....



So yes, I have succumbed to the peer pressure of both The Fault in Our Stars AND Cross Stitch but I came to my senses and sent the latter back already. 

I'm tentatively excited for It Felt Like a Kiss by Sarra Manning because I absolutely loved and wanted to make lots of sex and babies with You Don't Have to Say You Love Me by two of her others were terrible, but I WANT to be excited which counts for something. 

I am very excited for The Christmas Party by Carole Matthews because it's getting close to the glorious time of year when I dream of a snowy Christmas and escape into the lives of the lucky bastards that DO get such experiences. 

I wish you all the safety and happiness that should accompany the second half of October. 

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell; narrated by Clare Wille

My Rating:1 Star2 Star3 Starhalf Star

When her father leaves the Church in a crisis of conscience, Margaret Hale is uprooted from her comfortable home in Hampshire to move with her family to the north of England. Initially repulsed by the ugliness of her new surroundings in the industrial town of Milton, Margaret becomes aware of the poverty and suffering of the local mill workers and develops a passionate sense of social justice. This is intensified by her tempestuous relationship with the mill-owner and self-made man, John Thornton, as their fierce opposition over his treatment of his employees masks a deeper attraction. In North and South, Elizabeth Gaskell skillfully fuses individual feeling with social concern, and in Margaret Hale creates one of the most original heroines of Victorian literature. From GoodReads.

I’m really glad I decided to take another chance on North and South. I had read the novel for school and didn’t care for it at all and the study of 19th century economics was really not a thrill. It was the mini-series with Richard Armitage that changed my mind about the story overall, though I was convinced that even thoughts of Richard Armitage couldn’t change the novel. But when Belle’s Bookshelf listened to the audio and really enjoyed it I decided to give it another go.

The first time I had to read this, it took me an entire school term and in the end I had to rush through so much of the book to finish in time for the exam that I didn’t realize I’d finished the novel until I turned the page and found the footnotes. The audio brought the book alive in a way that I really appreciated and the narrator brought feeling and passion into the story that reading it myself could not.

I felt more keenly for Margaret, a young woman who is raised by relatives instead of her parents so that she can become a lady of status and culture. Upon the marriage of her companion/cousin Margaret then returns home to the parents that she has seen only sparingly to discover that all is not well between them and that her father, without consultation, has decided to move the family to the Industrial North, far away from anything that they have known before.

The growth of Margaret throughout the story is spectacular. She is largely a victim of her education in that to her, people in Trade are beneath her – as is the natural order of the world – and Milton is a dirty, smoky place full of hustle and bustle. Yet throughout the many clashes and entanglements with mill owner Mr Thornton and the working family of Mr Higgins, Margaret comes to appreciate the purpose and determination of all who reside in Milton and it sparks the purpose and determination of Margaret herself.

The biggest part of this novel, bigger than the romance it inspires, is the Industrial Revolution and the changes it brings to society. No longer is England divided into the wealthy and those that work for them, the land owners and the ones that work it, the men who go to sea to make their fortunes and come back for a wife and an estate. Instead, growing rapidly, is a class of self-made men that run the mills and the machinery and the labourers that strive for a better life. Growing are the Unions and their quests for equal pay, safe working conditions and fairness. It is the exploration of the world of masters and workers that is Gaskells great strength in the novel.

It is the Industrial world that gives Margaret a greater purpose in life than waiting for a husband, a contrast shown through Margaret and her wealthy cousin Edith in London. It is this that makes Margaret such a great heroine, though much less well known and remembered than an Austen heroine. My original study for the novel was of the place of the individual within society and Gaskell takes many characters from different socio-economic backgrounds and recreates so vividly the England in which she lived and challenges our understanding of them.

Margaret is a character of great determination and will, a strong belief in right and wrong and she is tested many, many times. It is these tests that make her into an even greater character: a character that can change and grow, can see fault and correct it, can see injustice and fight against it and most importantly can identify and reconcile two conflicting parties. While I cannot say that Margaret and I would be friends, she is definitely worthy of admiration and respect.

North and South is told in 3rd person and while I prefer it usually anyway, it greatly enhances this novel. It gives the reader the opportunity to understand Mr Thornton entirely separately from Margaret’s view of him, and to love him for his own character rather than just because Margaret does. Mr Thornton must also experience a great deal of change to be worthy and while he starts out a very honourable man and master, he becomes an even greater one. His troubles are real: familial shame, the responsibility of the mill and the livelihood of everyone who depends on it, the threat of bankruptcy and bridging the gap in understanding between the masters and the workers. He is the kind of boss you would work hard for out of respect and loyalty and a boss that listens and shows respect to his workers. This also makes him a great marriage prospect for the same reasons.

This novel is certainly not your typical romance. While there is a Happily Ever After, it is not the gushing, swoony, swept off your feet romance. Yet in some ways it is greater than that. It is a romance based on mutual understanding and respect and of a drive and determination for the future and all its possibilities in a way that most romances are not. It has a richly developed cast of characters and settings which form such pivotal roles in the novel they become characters in their own right. Clare Wille narrates with passion and enthusiasm and brings a unique voice and personality to each character.

Sunday, 12 October 2014

Quote of the Week (86) I have no words...

“He is my first olive: let me make a face while I swallow it.” 
Elizabeth Gaskell
North and South

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

The List by Joanna Bolouri

My Rating:1 Star2 Star

Phoebe Henderson may be single but she sure doesn't feel fabulous. It's been a year since she found her boyfriend Alex in bed with another woman, and multiple cases of wine and extensive relationship analysis with best friend Lucy have done nothing to help. Faced with a new year but no new love, Phoebe concocts a different kind of resolution.

The List: ten things she's always wanted to do in bed but has never had the chance (or the courage!) to try. A bucket list for between the sheets. One year of pleasure, no strings attached. Simple, right?

Factor in meddlesome colleagues, friends with benefits, getting frisky al fresco and maybe, possibly, true love and Phoebe's got her work cut out for her. From GoodReads

“You’ve created a list which most women only fantasize about and you’re actually doing it. You might not be a princess but you’re an inspiration.”

Phoebe Henderson’s life is a bit of a mess. A year ago, she discovered her boyfriend Alex had been cheating on her, she hates her job and another year has passed her by. Determined that this time things will be different, this New Years Phoebe makes The List. This isn’t the ordinary New Year resolution though, there’s no weight loss, quitting smoking, smiling more ambitions that no one follows through, and this list is going to be a sexual awakening.

Phoebe recruits best friend Oliver to help her complete her tasks; the usual outdoor sex, threesomes, anal sex and light bondage. But things become a bit complicated when it comes time to balance the demands of the list, Phoebe’s desire to date and Oliver’s many hook-ups. Will these two be able to keep their great friendship of many years, or will it all be destroyed in the process of completing the list.

I wasn’t educated enough or groomed enough or impressive enough. I just wasn’t enough. I wasted four years on someone who was completely underwhelmed to be with me.

Phoebe is an absolute mess of a character. She has a terrible sense of self and almost no self-esteem, she binge drinks regularly, she’s in a job that she hates and pays very little attention to. She pines after the boyfriend that belittled her, commented on her weight, demeaned her job and friends and ultimately had an affair for several months. She allows herself to get blackmailed into a sexual relationship with her boss, to get conned into getting back with her cheating ex and destroys the relationship with the only male in her life that treats her decently.

A lack of self and self-esteem should inspire sympathy and tenderness, but I found it near on impossible to identify with Phoebe. She came across as a very self-centred character – partly because she IS, but also because of the way in which the book was written. The story is told in a diary format, yet instead of structured recounts it is much more stream of consciousness and suffers for it. The diary is all about Phoebe, which is a natural course for diaries, but they don’t normally get published as the only way to get to know someone, so the Phoebe we see is not one that cares about the events and welfare of her friends, or spends much time thinking about anything other than how woeful her own life is and the success of her sexual quest.

It was also perhaps the most submissive thing I’ve ever done. I could hardly move and the whole experience was overwhelming. I’m so glad that I picked someone I knew wouldn’t abuse the obvious amount of power it gave him and who understood it wasn’t an area you just take a run at. Oliver was gentle, made sure I was happy with everything, and was extremely vocal about how ‘fucking hot’ he found the whole thing. As did I.

The sexual quest itself is an interesting concept. I am all for anyone, male or female, who wants to have more say over their sexual experiences. All my respect to Phoebe for having the courage to take chances, put herself out there and take charge of her own sexuality. I was genuinely surprised given Phoebe’s lack of self-worth that she would decide to undertake such a challenge that requires her to be very open with strangers as well has her closest friends. Yet at the end of her challenges, Phoebe is only marginally more comfortable being who she is and is still worryingly lacking a sense of self identity. I often got the impression that she was unable to enjoy spending time on her own, and was not comfortable being single – something that I think is important for anyone to be. She’d rather take back someone who treated her terribly than be single, would rather continue to date duds from the internet dating pool than enjoy a meal alone and it is always the evenings on her own when she resorts to wallowing in the loss of Alex and stooping to her lowest points. I had assumed that at the closure of her experiments she would be much more self-content, especially when several of her challenges were solo activities.

I also found it quite interesting that in spite of the very personal subject matter, the description of her sexual exploits was completely devoid of feeling. I’m not asking her to feel love and wedding bells for everyone she sleeps with, but most of the time I couldn’t even believe that she was enjoying herself. The lack of feeling also has one other very important consequence.

“We’ve been friends for a long time, Phoebe. Don’t you dare ask me why I care. Just be really careful I don’t stop.”

It is made clear from very early on that best friend Oliver has perhaps entertained dreams of being more than best friends for a very long time. Phoebe’s general obliviousness and single-mindedness in ticking off her challenges means that she has absolutely no idea what all her friends exchange knowing smiles about (without ever thinking to clue her in, mind you). At first I did feel quite sorry for the poor bastard – he’s been pining after her sixteen years. Yet Oliver continues to date and sleep with other women, then gets mad at Phoebe for not knowing that sex between them meant something to him and that all this was really a declaration of love. By the time these two finally come to their senses, their relationship felt only slightly healthier than the one in Silver Linings Playbook - and those two had massive problems.

"You went out of your way to date pretty much every man in Glasgow when I was right in front of you, spending all that time with you, sleeping with you, and you never once considered me. That says a lot about both of us."

When I picked up this book I had anticipated that it would be a contemporary romance and it definitely did not play out like I had expected. Prior to 50 Shades of Terrible, this book probably could have been deemed revolutionary and in the 90’s would have been up there with Sex and City in terms of empowering female sexuality, but these days such sexual encounters are far more commonplace. While it’s great to see a female lead going for what she wants, it’s hardly taboo. Perhaps to be truly revolutionary, the main character would have to decide she was happier being alone or happier to wait for someone she felt was truly the right fit before declaring the HEA.

Sunday, 5 October 2014

Quote of the Week (85) Important Qualities

Shut up. I’m a catch. I can play Backgammon and I have 100% positive feedback on eBay. These are important qualities. 
Joanna Bolouri
The List
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