Biography, Non-Fiction

In Extremis: The Life and Death of War Correspondent Marie Colvin by Lindsey Hilsum

I first came across In Extremis when going through front list (new release) publisher orders and, thanked my lucky stars I have such a good relationship with the rep because when I begged her to send me an advance copy, she happily obliged. And I think it is safe to say, In Extremis is my favorite read of the entire year.

Synopsis

When Marie Colvin was killed in an artillery attack in Homs, Syria, in 2012, at age fifty-six, the world lost a fearless and iconoclastic war correspondent who covered the most significant global calamities of her lifetime. In Extremis, written by her fellow reporter Lindsey Hilsum, is a thrilling investigation into Colvin’s epic life and tragic death based on exclusive access to her intimate diaries from age thirteen to her death, interviews with people from every corner of her life, and impeccable research.

After growing up in a middle-class Catholic family on Long Island, Colvin studied with the legendary journalist John Hersey at Yale, and eventually started working for The Sunday Times of London, where she gained a reputation for bravery and compassion as she told the stories of victims of the major conflicts of our time. She lost sight in one eye while in Sri Lanka covering the civil war, interviewed Gaddafi and Arafat many times, and repeatedly risked her life covering conflicts in Chechnya, East Timor, Kosovo, and the Middle East. Colvin lived her personal life in extremis, too: bold, driven, and complex, she was married twice, took many lovers, drank and smoked, and rejected society’s expectations for women. Despite PTSD, she refused to give up reporting. Like her hero Martha Gellhorn, Colvin was committed to bearing witness to the horrifying truths of war, and to shining a light on the profound suffering of ordinary people caught in the midst of conflict.

Review

I love war correspondents’ memoirs and biographies – It’s What I Do was one of my favorite reads of last year. And, just, oh my goodness. In Extremis dethroned Lynsey from the top of my personal ranking. Granted, I’ve only read two to completion so far (I’m reading Martha Gellhorn’s, the role model for both Lynsey and Marie, right now), but goodness gracious, it will be a long time before I find another book like this. And it caused one of the longest book hangovers I’ve ever had. And, through In Extremis, I had the opportunity to check off a book seller life goal and be the first review for a title on Goodreads and Lindsey Hilsum responded to my review!

My husband, Ben, and I have been together for almost a decade and he could not recall a single instance in that time when I stayed up past midnight to read. I absolutely love to read, but am borderline narcoleptic so I’m not a big night time reader. But for days on end, I stayed up far later than I should have, unable to put down Lindsey Hilsum’s marvelous biography of her friend and fellow journalist, Marie Colvin.

Lindsey Hilsum is, in the humble opinion of someone who has not personally met her, the best person to write Marie Colvin’s biography. A friend, but not an intimate acquaintance, she approaches her subject with the kind and caring hands of someone who felt a deep loss when she died, but removed enough to offer a fairly objective perspective on the life decisions she made that led her to that final, fateful trip to Homs, Syria in 2012. Marie kept extensive journals her entire life and they serve as the basis for the bulk of In Extremis, making it as close to an autobiography as it could possibly be. Sprinkled in are excerpts from Marie’s reporting for London’s Sunday Times, and they offer an even deeper glimpse into what inspired and drove her to seek out war zones and report on the stories of the people who live there.

A few years ago, Ben & I visited the Newseum in Washington D. C. which triggered my current obsession with journalism. I’d always loved writing and have been a news junkie from a very young age (the day does not start until I’ve checked the BBC, CNN and my custom Google newsfeed), but I never appreciated just how important journalists are worldwide until that trip. They are responsible for keeping the world apprised of the goings on in far reaches of the world and at home. And nothing, well, almost nothing, in regards to my country’s current political climate, makes me angrier than the unofficial war on journalism and the president’s constant claims of fake news. As I rally against it, and uninformed fellow Americans, I remind myself of the fact that Marie Colvin had to stand up to people who challenged the authenticity of her reporting and she did so with kindness, grace, and style.

Even though Marie’s personal life may have been a bit of a mess, okay, quite a big mess, she played a crucial role in ensuring that the western world knew exactly what was going on in the war zones of the world, particularly the Middle East. It is easy enough for those of us sitting in our living rooms in the Northeast of the US to ignore the challenges facing not only that area of the world, but also in Europe as they struggle to accommodate record numbers of refugees, and to dehumanize those who are struggling because their struggles don’t affect us directly. But Marie wouldn’t let us. She did everything in her power to bring that suffering, the plights of the people who were displaced from their homes, and the challenges they faced daily, into our collective consciousness.

When reading, and therefore constantly Google-ing Marie Colvin, I came across the production of A Private War, Matthew Heineman’s cinematic depiction of Marie’s life. While the movie is based on the Vanity Fair article published immediately after Marie’s death and not on Lindsey’s biography, the two, given their near simultaneous release dates, will become inexorably tied to each other in future. I was very nervous when I found out that Rosamund Pike is playing Marie – I adored her in Pride & Prejudice, but is she the best choice to play my new hero? After reading articles about production and how much the process of portraying Marie affected her personally, and the fact that a documentary filmmaker is at the helm, I’m far less concerned and a great deal more excited.

Lindsey’s writing is tremendous, Marie’s life equal parts inspiring and cautionary tale, and I truly hope that her story reaches as many people as possible and helps us all recognize that we are all human. We all share this world, and the sufferings of a few are the sufferings of us all.

Rating: 10 out of 10 stars

Edition: Hardcover • $28.00 • 9780374175597 • 400 pages • published November 2018 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux • read September 2018

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In Extremis

Biography, Memoir/Autobiography, Non-Fiction

Jell-O Girls by Allie Rowbottom

I’ve been half-heartedly participating in a book club that used to be mine and has now migrated into someone else’s, but I’ve still had a foot in the door. When a fellow member picked Jell-O Girls for today’s discussion, I was thrilled to finally read nonfiction AND get to talk about it. Downside, my opinion and personal experiences seemed to be in the minority…

Synopsis

In 1899, Allie Rowbottom’s great-great-great-uncle bought the patent to Jell-O from its inventor for $450. The sale would turn out to be one of the most profitable business deals in American history, and the generations that followed enjoyed immense privilege – but they were also haunted by suicides, cancer, alcoholism, and mysterious ailments.

More than one hundred years after that deal was struck, Rowbottom’s mother, Mary, was diagnosed with the same incurable cancer that had claimed her own mother’s life. Determined to combat what she had come to consider the “Jell-O Curse” and her looming mortality, Mary began obsessively researching her family’s past, bent on understanding the origins of her illness and the impact on her life of both Jell-O and the traditional American values the company championed. Before she died in 2015, Mary began to send Rowbottom boxes of her research and notes, in the hope that her daughter might write what she could not. Jell-O Girls is the liberation of that story.

Review

I’ve been in a bit of a book-finishing rut for the past month and a half. All year I’d been flying through books and then, as soon as my grandmother got sick and passed away, I haven’t wanted to touch a book. Until now. Part of getting back to my normal life it seems must include reading (which is very logical given my occupation, I just hadn’t felt like opening a book), and these days, reading means primarily nonfiction. It’s been a year of my near complete lack of interest in fiction and YA (my two staples for the past two decades), so when book club finally veered back to nonfiction, I was thrilled – I hadn’t actually finished a new book club book since, uh, January 2017.

If I were to write a memoir, it would be a lot like Jell-O Girls. The publisher summary doesn’t exactly capture the spirit of the memoir – it sensationalizes it more than needed. Allie Rowbottom faces an interesting inheritance – money from Jell-O which supported her artist mother her entire life, and a “curse” so to speak, which is basically her family trying to find a source of blame for poor genes. I was intrigued when I picked it up, and it held me captivated until I finished it – in 48 hours. And then I went to log it in Goodreads and see what other people thought about it. Oh boy.

I need to start holding off on looking a Goodreads reviews until I’ve finished a book. I adored Jell-O Girls and thought it one of the best books I’ve read so far this year. It seems, however, I am in the minority when it comes to most readers and I think that there are two primary reasons for this. Firstly, the integration of the Jell-O story with that of Allie’s family doesn’t always work particularly well. It’s nice, and a refreshing interlude at times, to see how Jell-O has changed over the years, but it really has very little to do with Allie, her mother Mary, and her grandmother, Midge, our three female protagonists of the memoir. Second, if you’ve never experienced any of the traumatic events and family situations the main characters experienced, it can be easy to discount them as Rich White People Problems, as most people in my book club, and on the interwebs of Goodreads, seemed to do.

Those two things considered, as someone who has been the primary caretaker to a family member slowly dying of cancer, just lost her grandmother, has had to handle the fact that her mother will most likely die of cancer given that she’s already a three-time survivor, whose parents are divorced, whose family has a long history of mental illness, when you’ve struggled with anorexia nervosa and developed OCD tendencies, passed out and not remembered the last time you ate because you couldn’t control anything in your life except what you ate, well. You could say Allie’s Jell-O Girls is the story of me and my mother’s family.

We’re all a little crazy, humanity proves this. And when you’ve experienced very similar situations to Allie and you want to convey just how magnificently she captures the feeling of waiting for hours on end in the surgical waiting room that you struggled for years to find words to describe, you want to share that with people. You want to talk about just how important this book is to you, not just because you think it’s good, but because it let you know that you are far from alone. That other people have experienced the same set of traumas, self-inflicted and otherwise, that you have. That it’s okay to feel like you’re losing your mind and that you are not alone.

Despite working in a bookstore and talking about books for a living and recommending countless books to people over the last few years, I don’t actually have the chance to sit down and talk about books in detail with many people. I get to give people my thirty-second elevator pitch on a book and hope they’ll buy it. And part of the success of the store I work at is that all of the employees have their own genres of interest – Su reads things dark and twisty, Pam reads contemporary women’s and historical fiction, Mary reads commercial nonfiction and fiction, Jennifer is our children’s buyer and can tell you anything and everything about all the picture books on the shelves, Kaz specializes in LGBT literature, PK reads business and history, Hadley reads the little known random books published by small, academic and indie presses, Staci reads just like my mom, thrillers and mysteries from Baldacci to Scottoline, and I read a little bit of everything in between. There’s not a whole lot of overlap. Therefore, enter book club – the perfect opportunity to discuss books with (mostly) like-minded individuals.

I miss picking all the books (I am aware that this is very selfish). I miss it being a way to support the store (I’m now the only one who doesn’t buy the book on Amazon or from B&N). I miss having productive discussions about interesting books. No one likes to feel like they’re under attack or being misunderstood when they choose a book or have a specific feeling about a book. And I love Jell-O Girls. In my 29 years of existence and of the 220 books I’ve read since I started working at the bookstore in 2015, it is one of the best books I’ve ever read. I don’t care if the rest of the world disagrees with me. I will praise it for handling life situations that so many people find difficult to talk about. So please, ignore the plethora of poor ratings on websites. Ratings don’t capture the spirit of the book. If you think reading this book would benefit you, your family, please. Take a look at it.

Rating: 9 out of 10 stars

Edition: Hardcover • $28.00 • 9780316510615 • 388 pages • published July 2018 by Little, Brown and Company • average Goodreads rating 3.2 out of 5 stars • read in October 2018

Allie Rowbottom’s Website

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Jell-O Girls

Fantasy, Fiction, Young Adult

Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo

I just realized I’m reviewing the Leigh Bardugo books I’ve read in the opposite order in which I read them! It you have any interest in reading any of the books in her Grisha-verse, I recommend starting with this one and reading them in the order they were published. As with many authors, Leigh’s writing only gets stronger as she goes and if you start with her later books (i.e. Six of Crows), you will invariably be disappointed by Shadow and Bone. That being said, start with this one, and you’ll love the whole series!

Synopsis

Alina Starkov doesn’t expect much from life. Orphaned by the Border Wars, the one thing she could rely on was her best friend and fellow refugee, Mal. And lately not even that seems certain. Drafted into the army of their war-torn homeland, they’re sent on a dangerous mission into the Fold, a swath of unnatural darkness crawling with monsters who feast on human flesh.

When their convoy is attacked, all seems lost until Alina reveals a dormant power that not even she knew existed. Ripped from everything she knows, she is whisked away to the royal court to be trained as a member of the Grisha, the magical elite led by the mysterious Darkling. He believes she is the answer the people have been waiting for: the one person with the power to destroy the Fold.

Swept up in a world of luxury and illusion, envied as the Darkling’s favorite, Alina struggles to fit into her new life without Mal by her side. But as the threat to the kingdom mounts, Alina uncovers a secret that sets her on a collision course with the most powerful forces in the kingdom. Now only her past can save her… and only she can save the future.

Review

While I dish out book recommendations left, right and center, especially at my job at a bookstore, I’m generally very reluctant to read books others have recommended to me, mostly because I feel like they will always fail to live up to: a, my ridiculously high expectations for books and b, give me unrealistic expectations for them based on how much my friend loved it. That all being said, Shadow and Bone fell only slightly flat – and I probably would not have been so harsh on it if it hadn’t been described as very similar to Throne of Glass, which is my most favorite book ever. I did enjoy Shadow and Bone, however, just not as much as I would have liked, given the hype, and the awesome impression I got of Leigh Bardugo when I saw her play truth or dare with Marissa Meyer (author of the Lunar Chronicles) at BookCon.

Alina, central character of the trilogy, falls into a very stereotypical female archetype: girl pines for childhood friend, girl discovers she has an unknown special power, boy realizes he loves girl, girl saves lives/has some great revelation about good and evil, girl and boy run off together. While it’s not a “The End, Happily Ever After” ending for the first book, the general arc rings true to the story. And even though Alina has a little more backbone than most female fantasy lead characters and has her moments of clarity, unfortunately I’ve got a huge girl crush on Celaena/Aelin and alas, next to her, no other can compare.

Rating: 7 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $10.99 9781250027436 • 358 pages • originally published June 2012, this edition published May 2014 by Square Fish • average Goodreads rating 4.05 out of 5 • read in September 2015

Leigh Bardugo’s Website

Shadow and Bone on Goodreads

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Shadow & Bone (2)

Fantasy, Fiction, Young Adult

Seraphina by Rachel Hartman

There aren’t many books that I can say I jumped on when they were first released in hardcover, but I’m very proud to own a first edition of Seraphina. It is one of my favorite books (I know, I say that a lot), but this one I love specifically to recommend to people. Seraphina, the character, is the perfect character for anyone who feels like the world doesn’t completely “get them,” and I believe all humans fall into the description at one point or another in life.

Synopsis

Four decades of peace have done little to ease the mistrust between humans and dragons in the kingdom of Goredd. Folding themselves into human shape, dragons attend the court as ambassadors and lend their rational, mathematical minds to universities as scholars and teachers. As the treaty’s anniversary draws near, however, tensions are high.

Seraphina Dombegh has reason to fear both sides. An unusually gifted musician, she joins the court just as a member of the royal family is murdered in suspiciously draconian fashion. Seraphina is drawn into the investigation, pairing with the captain of the Queen’s Guard, the dangerously perceptive Prince Lucian Kiggs. While they begin to uncover hints of a sinister plot to destroy the peace, Seraphina struggles to protect her own secret, the secret behind her musical gift – one so terrible that its discovery could mean her very life.

Review

Seraphina is a very interesting character. She reminds me a lot of the characters that I heard about at all the Diverse Books panels I attended during Book Con. As a half-dragon, half-human, she has many difficulties that she must deal with and overcome, as well as secrets society pressures her to hide, something that I’m sure many young women and men can relate to.

I think Rachel Hartman and I could have lots of awesome conversations about music, dragons, and just growing up in general. A lot of what Seraphina must deal with runs true to the challenges of most young people’s lives and the awesome thing about her story is that, even though things go terribly wrong, she has a strong and supportive group of family and friends to back her up and stand by her.

One of the best parts about writing fantasy is that you can write about so many themes that can seem untouchable or insurmountable in realistic fiction. Seraphina’s story would be heartbreaking in the modern world. In the context of Goredd, her home country, she’s not supposed to be able to exist – I can’t imagine reading a story about a child whose very existence is supposedly impossible and if that child did exist, multiple factions would actively try to kill her. It’s so much easier to make dragons the bad guys, it’s plausible and believable, and its what fairy tales have led us to believe for quite some time.

But it’s the humans of Goredd who are much harsher on Seraphina, it is the humans who fear different people and fear change. This is true in the real world as well, but seems much less critical through the lens of a fantasy world. Fantasy is one of the perfect genres for social commentary and anyone who misses it in Seraphina is in denial. Seraphina’s story is a great one and an enjoyable tale of dragons and fantasy as well.

Rating: 8 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $10.99 • 9780375866227 • 528 pages • originally published July 2012, this edition published December 2014 by Ember • average Goodreads rating 3.98 out of 5 • read in June 2015

Rachel Hartman’s Website

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Seraphina

Fantasy, Fiction

The Magicians trilogy by Lev Grossman

Happy Halloween! Since I don’t read a lot of horror, I figured a fantasy series was the next best pick for Halloween.

The Magicians Synopsis

Intellectually precocious high school senior Quentin Coldwater escapes the boredom of his daily life by reading and rereading a series of beloved fantasy novels set in an enchanted land called Fillory. Like everybody else, he assumes that magic isn’t real – until he finds himself unexpectedly admitted to a very secret, very exclusive college of magic in upstate New York.

After stumbling through a Brooklyn alley in winter, Quentin finds himself on the grounds of the idyllic Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy in late summer. There, after passing a gruesomely difficult entrance examination, he begins a thorough and rigorous education in the craft of modern sorcery, while also discovering the joys of college: friendship, love, sex, and alcohol. But something is missing. Even though Quentin learns to cast spells and transform into animals, and gains power he never dreamed of, magic doesn’t bring him the happiness and adventure he thought it would. After graduation, he and his friends embark on an aimless, hedonistic life in Manhattan, struggling with the existential crises that plague pampered and idle young sorcerers. Until they make a stunning discovery that propels them on a remarkable journey, one that promises to finally fulfill Quentin’s yearning. But their journey turns out to be darker and more dangerous than Quentin could have imagined. His childhood dream is a nightmare with a shocking truth at its heart.

Series Review

Oh Quentin. My bloody brilliant Quentin. I both adore and despise you. This might be less of a review and more of a Quentin Coldwater character analysis…

Never have I had such a love-hate relationship with a primary character in a book. I abandoned The Magicians halfway through the first time I started reading it back when I was a 20-year-old junior in college because I hated Quentin. I couldn’t stand him. He embodied everything that I hated about the stereotypical college boys but at the same time, like my dear, beloved, favorite character Alice (she rivals my Hermione love like no other), I was inexplicably drawn to him. I just didn’t want to read about him.

Fast forward five years and I found myself one day just staring at the cover of The Magician’s Land and, surprising longing for Quentin’s world of Brakebills College of Magic. So, continuing on my quest of “reading” the books already on my shelves by listening to the audiobook, I rented The Magicians from the library as I find it best to return to the beginning and not to trust my loathsome memory to remember all the details (and especially why I found Alice so awesome) required to start in the middle of The Magicians half a decade after my initial foray into reading about Quentin and his motley crew.

Is Q still terribly annoying more than 75% of the time? Yes. Does it matter anymore? No. Because I realized that Quentin is simply the mouthpiece for the larger story and by the time The Magician King rolls around, he is not the only point of view character (yay!). Quentin isn’t even the hero of his own story half the time (which leads to his melancholy and delight for me!) and he really messes up – like royally screws things up and skewers his own happiness by trying to be happy. Crazy, I know, but true. But this happens to nearly every twenty-something – invariably we wind up making something we care about worse by trying to make it better, but trying to fix something that isn’t broken to begin with.

The trilogy covers roughly 13 years of Quentin’s life and over that time he grows from a scrawny, gangly asshole at 17 to a semi-distinguished (albeit fired) professor at 30. But what I really love about The Magicians trilogy is that isn’t not just the Quentin show 24/7, but all the other supporting characters, particularly classmate and eventual love interest Alice, are whole. They are complete, and they are independent, and they are certainly not defined by their relationship to Quentin, hero though he insists on being. And if Quentin pisses them off, so be it. They move on with their lives and things aren’t magically righted or fixed just because he eventually finds it in himself to say sorry (even when it’s 7 years later).

Point being, Quentin can suck, a lot. But, and it’s a big but, you don’t have to care about Quentin to enjoy the story, you just must tolerate him and his role that he plays in the big scheme of things. And eventually, he grows on you. You might have to give him 600 pages and hours and hours of your life, but eventually, you’ll be routing for him (and Alice) too.

Series Rating: 7 out of 10 stars

The Magicians Edition: Paperback • $16.00 • 9780452296299 • 402 pages • originally published August 2009, this edition published May 2010 by Plume Books • average Goodreads rating 3.47 • read in June 2015

Lev Grossman’s Website

The Magicians on Goodreads

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Magicians

Graphic Novel, Memoir/Autobiography, Non-Fiction

Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

Persepolis had been on my TBR list for a very long time, probably since I first saw the trailer for the film adaptation (which I still haven’t seen) at an art theater in the town I grew up in. When Emma Watson, one of my personal heroes, decided to make it a selection for her Goodreads’ Book Club, Our Shared Shelf, I decided to make it a pick for my book club, The Modern Readers, as well.

2 - January 2016 - Persepolis

Synopsis

Persepolis is the story of Satrapi’s unforgettable childhood and coming of age within a large and loving family in Tehran during the Islamic Revolution; of the contradictions between private and public life in a country plagued by political upheaval; of her high school years in Vienna facing the trials of adolescence far from her family; of her homecoming – both sweet and terrible; and, finally, of her self-imposed exile from her beloved homeland. It is the chronicle of  girlhood and adolescence at once outrageous and familiar, a young life entwined with the history of her county yet filled with the universal trials and joys of growing up.

Review

Persepolis sheds a great deal of light on a time and place with which most Americans are terribly unfamiliar. Satrapi’s memoir makes the situation more relatable for international audiences through her use of comic strips and content material relating to her childhood and the challenges facing every young girl trying to grow up. Her journey into adulthood is one is equal parts familiar – the desire to listen to music, hang posters in one’s room and have space of their own – and unfamiliar – family members are taken by the revolutionaries, having to live a completely different life with family and in public, and fearing for one’s life on a daily basis.

Overall, the content material was very eye-opening, not just in regards to what life was like in the 1980s in Iran, but also in regards to the role that Iran has played in recent world history both before and after the revolution. We had a very lively discussion at our book club meeting about the difference between a true revolution and a devolution masquerading as a revolution and came to the conclusion that the latter was a more apt description of the situation in Iran described by Satrapi. It is not difficult to understand why both the book and film has become staples of modern world history classes in high school and college alike.

Rating: 8 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $24.95 • 9780375714832 • 341 pages • published October 2007 by Pantheon Books • average Goodreads rating 4.36 out of 5 • read in January 2016

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Persepolis

 

Fantasy, Fiction, Horror

The Vorrh by Brian Catling

Today my husband and I are celebrating the 7th anniversary of our first date so I figured I would review one of his favorite books, that I also read for our book club, The Modern Readers. 

3 - February 2016 - Vorrh

Synopsis

Outside the colonial town of Essenwald lies the Vorrh, a vast – perhaps endless – forest. Sentient and magical, a place of demons and angels, of warriors and priests, the Vorrh bends time and wipes memory. Legend holds that the Garden of Eden still exists at its heart. Now a renegade foreign soldier intends to be the first human to traverse its expanse. Armed with only a bow, he begins his journey. But some fear the consequences of his mission, so a native marksman is chosen to stop him. Around these adversaries swirls a remarkable cast of characters, including a tragically curious young girl and a Cyclops raised by robots, as well as such historical figures as protosurrealist Raymond Roussel and pioneering photographer Edward Muybridge. Fact and fiction blend, the hunter will become the hunted, and everyone’s fate will hang in the balance – in the Vorrh.

Review

Uhhhh, I’m still trying to figure this one out. Since finishing it and discussing it, I’ve sold more copies of this book by saying I hated it than I have sold books I loved to people by telling them how much I loved it. But I didn’t hate it… I think?

There are many stories working in tandem in this book and they are all confusing and befuddling and written in different styles based on the character’s perspective that we are currently viewing the world through. Told in at least four alternating perspectives, The Vorrh is the story first and foremost of the forest from which it gets its name and the people in the town right next to it. It bears similarities in equal parts to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Shelley’s Frankenstein. But it goes beyond that to discuss mental illness and paint pictures in the reader’s minds of things that are just downright unpleasant and, for some, upsetting. You have to have a strong stomach to undertake a serious reading of The Vorrh.

If anyone else has this book figured out, not just enjoyed it, but actually figured out the symbolism and intent, please do enlighten me.

Rating: 6 out 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $16.95 • 9781101873786 • 512 pages published April 2015 by Vintage • average Goodreads rating 3.51 out of 5 • read in February 2016

Brian Catling’s Website

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Vorrh

Fiction, Historical, Young Adult

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

Over the past few years I have read my fair share of novels set during World War II including my absolute favorite Montmaray Journals, the splendid Salt to the Sea, and the “pull-on-your-heartstrings” Letters to the Lost. So when Sarah told me that if I read Code Name Verity it would break my heart like no other book, I was not going to read it. But I reconsidered, and armed with the knowledge of what would happen to each of the two main characters, I dove into the story and fell in love with all of it.

Synopsis

Oct. 11th, 1943-A British spy plane crashes in Nazi-occupied France. Its pilot and passenger are best friends. One of the girls has a chance 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.

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 the enemy?

Review

Laura’s Review

Let me just say I’m a little shocked that this book is stocked in the YA section of bookstores. I’m not sure I would have been able to handle reading this when I was in high school. The book is split into two distinct parts – the first is from “Verity’s” perspective, the second, from her best friend Maddie. “Verity” has been captured by the Gestapo after parachuting into Nazi-occupied France and looking the wrong way before crossing the street. She has been given the opportunity to write down her story and extend her life for as long as it takes to satisfy her Nazi jailers with the information she supplies. However, “Verity” chooses to tell them the story of Maddie, her best friend, and the pilot of the plane from which she parachuted.

“Verity” explains how the young women met, trained together, and became best friends. But as she tells that story, she also details the events and torture that transpire while she is held prisoner. It is a powerful tale, and while fictional, is likely to be the truth for somebody. The second part is Maddie’s story and what she has lived through during the time that “Verity” has been held prisoner. After crash-landing her plane, Maddie spends the next few months trying to escape from France and get back to England. However, when she learns of “Verity’s” fate, she decides her foremost goal is to help her friend. Both women face deadly obstacles, and the heart-breaking, nail-biting conclusion will leave you in a puddle of tears.

Code Name Verity is one of the best books I have ever read. I loved the characters and I experienced just about every emotion possible while reading this book. Personally, I preferred “Verity’s” part of the story more than Maddie’s, but it was all worth reading.

Sarah’s Review

Elizabeth Wein has created a remarkable book – the tale of two girls, “Verity” and Maddie, with “Verity” telling the story of Maddie as the Gestapo interrogates her. The entire book is filled with twists and turns and clever side steps, many of which the reader is remarkably oblivious to until the tone completely shifts in the second half of the book. And to be perfectly honest, this is so well done that I simply do not want to ruin a single surprise by giving an in depth plot review, aside from to say it is superb, the likes of which I have not read for a decent length of time.

“Verity’s” story is written on scraps of paper, anything her interrogators can scrounge up for her, and when she is finished writing, she is to be terminated, regardless of what she puts on paper. She might as well tell the truth and that truth is open to interpretation, but nevertheless true. Instead of telling her story, she tells that of her best friend, Maddie, the pilot of the plane and the one who’s papers she’s carrying when she’s picked up for looking the wrong way when crossing the street. As such, her writing is flowing freely from the top of her head. If “Verity” was any less of a writer, it might not feel so concise. It is punctuated by outbursts she must have felt while writing and the situation she is in always presents itself as real and present danger. When her time limit is up and she asks for more time, you fear turning the page, only to find her story ended abruptly. “Verity” is brilliant and her story told with a deft and extremely capable hand. Don’t be fooled by the YA label, this is a poignant tale, worthy of even the most discerning adult readers.

Rating: 10 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $9.99 • 9781423152880 • 368 pages • first published May 2012, this edition published May 2013 by Disney-Hyperion • average Goodreads rating 4.08 out of 5 • read in June 2016

Elizabeth Wein’s Website

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Code Name Verity (2)

Fantasy, Fiction, Novella, Retelling

Beauty by Sarah Pinborough

I completely fell for the cover of this book and I’m a sucker for dark fantasy adaptations. This book (and series) fit the bill quite well.

Synopsis

Once upon a time… in a kingdom far, far away, a handsome prince sets out to find a lost castle, only to discover a city slumbering under a terrible curse, and a beautiful princess who can only be woken by true love’s kiss.

Review

Beauty is a reimagining of a couple of different classic tales, notably Beauty and the Beast, Little Red Riding Hood, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, and Rumpelstiltskin. It reminds me a great deal of the ABC series, Once Upon a Time in the way that it marries many different tales together into one story. Most of the time, I enjoy such a premise, but as Beauty is more of a novella than a full novel, I found myself thinking there were more characters and stories than Sarah Pinborough really had time to effectively explore.

And that is really the crux of why I didn’t love Beauty as much as I really wanted to, and why it took me far longer than I would have liked to read. Like every good fairy tale, a prince is set off on a quest, in this case to investigate a kingdom that appears to have been swallowed up into a forest. A huntsman is enlisted to help him and along the way they meet Petra (Little Red Riding Hood) and she joins them on the adventure as she senses her destiny lies somewhere on the other side of the densely forested wall. The three make their way into the kingdom and awaken Beauty, a la Sleeping Beauty.

And that’s when things turn decidedly more Grimm. This is not Disney. Beauty is written in the same vein as the original dark and terrible German tales by the brothers Grimm. I liked that things were flipped on their head, but it was far too sudden. I wish there had been fewer characters, fewer fairy tales and more about those that really intrigued me, or that the story had been fleshed out into a full novel and not written as a novella. I finished the book wanted so much more out of it.

Rating: 7 out of 10 stars

Edition: Hardcover • $14.95 • 9781783291144 • 208 pages • published May 2015 by Titan Books • average Goodreads rating 3.6 out of 5 • read in August 2015

Sarah Pinborough’s Website

Beauty on Goodreads

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Beauty

Fantasy, Fiction, Young Adult

The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman

Back in my early D&D playing days (which admittedly was only 2 1/2 years ago), one of my friends named her character Lyra. In the most recent campaign, one of my other friends is playing an armored bear. Needless to say, I had to read the book that inspired both of these fearsome characters, The Golden Compass!

Synopsis

Lyra is rushing to the cold, far North, where witch clans and armored bears rule. North, where the Gobblers take the children they steal – including her friend Roger. North, where her fearsome uncle Asriel is trying to build a bridge to a parallel world.

Can one small girl make a difference in such great and terrible endeavors? This is Lyra: a savage, a schemer, a liar, and as fierce and true a champion as Roger or Asriel could want.

But what Lyra doesn’t know is that to help one of them will be to betray the other…

Review

This is, once again, an audiobook review. For some reason, I have not been able to finish reading a physical book since January! January! I work in a bookstore and I cannot finish a book, ’tis shameful I say. That being said, the audiobook is awesome! I love when the readers are different for each character, as is the case with The Golden Compass, and the author, Philip Pullman, is the narrator, making it all the more special.

Storywise, I think I let myself build up The Golden Compass in my mind to the point that it was never going to live up to my unrealistic expectations. This is a book that I have been told I absolutely must read for the majority of my life – my earliest memory of someone telling me about it was my fifth grade teacher in 1999, three years after it was first published in the US. So I’ve had 18 years to build this book up in my mind. (I also find it incredibly hard to believe that I was in 5th grade 18 years ago… I feel so old!)

Once I was able to get past the fact that it is not perfect, nor is it my new favorite book, I was able to simply enjoy it. Pullman is a masterful storyteller and Lyra is the perfect roguish character. She might be a liar, but she is fiercely loyal to those she loves and cares about and it makes perfect sense why so many of my teachers and friends figured I would really enjoy her story.

The antagonist of the story is not always clear which makes for a compelling story and the pages (or discs) turn and change as fast as an armored bear charging down an enemy. Pullman has a mind for critical thinking and philosophical approaches to fairly adult topics. When viewed through Lyra’s child’s eyes, it makes it much harder to understand why adults can’t seem to figure out how to set the world right. Her innocence makes her the perfect lens through which an adult reader views the problems facing the world today. But, it is not necessary to think so deeply into the philosophy of the story to enjoy it. The Golden Compass is a wonderful adventure, and with Pullman releasing the first book in a new trilogy (a prequel of sorts) in the fall, it is a timely must read!

Rating: 9 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $12.99 • 9780375823459 • 432 pages • originally published in 1995, this edition published September 2002 by Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers • average Goodreads rating 3.93 out of 5 • read in January 2017

Philip Pullman’s Website

The Golden Compass on Goodreads

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Golden Compass