Weekend Shorts: Book Club Re-Reads

I don’t re-read books terribly often, but when I do, it’s for book club. This year is probably going to be seeing more than its fair share of re-reads as I’ve been tasked with putting the book list together for my in-person book club, which means several very popular or much-requested books but also some books I know we can talk a lot about — the re-reads!

Of course, re-reading a book doesn’t always turn out the way you think it will…

Code Name Verity, by Elizabeth Wein
Code Name VerityOh, man. I picked this book for my book club for several reasons, including that it’s short-ish and we were short on time, I remember loving the heck out of it, and it had been a while since we read a WWII book. It seemed like a winner.

What I didn’t remember from my first reading is the fact that the first half is slow as molasses in winter. It’s slow, it’s kinda boring, there doesn’t seem to be any reason for what’s happening, the narrator’s kinda weird… it’s bad. About half of the people who showed up for book club hadn’t made it past this part, and they were like, we are here to determine what you were smoking when you chose this book. The other half had finished it, with the redirect and the new narrator and the Actual Plot, and while they didn’t all love it they at least understood what I was going for!

True story, even I only just finished the first half before going to book club, so it was kind of hard to convince everyone else they should finish. But finish I did, and yes, again, the second half was much better, though I didn’t find myself shedding a single tear at the end of it where a few years ago I was ugly crying in public. I’m not sure if this is a function of reading it soooooo slowwwwly this time, or the conversation with people who didn’t like it right in the middle of my re-read, or just the fact that I knew what terrible things were going to happen. But it was just… an ending.

Recommendation: Absolutely yes you should read this. Maybe don’t read it twice.

Lock In, by John Scalzi
Lock InLet’s be honest, and TOTALLY SPOILERIFFIC IF YOU HAVEN’T READ THE BOOK. I mostly wanted my book club to read this to see how many of them thought Chris Shane was a lady. I had Shane in my head as, like, robot first, dude second; my husband totally thought she was a badass chick. There weren’t a lot of book clubbers at this meeting because apparently sci-fi-based procedural crime stories are not my club’s jam, but of the handful who were there it was a mostly dude-Chris consensus, and in fact a sizable white-Chris minority who had missed the “angry black guy with a shotgun” line about Chris’s father.

I had actually tried very hard to get myself into chick-Chris mode, going so far as to use my free Audible trial to obtain the audio version of this book narrated by Amber Benson (you can also get one narrated by Wil Wheaton). It was a very weird experience. Sometimes my initial read of the book, and Benson’s not-super-feminine voice, kept me thinking Shane was a dude. After a while at each listen, I could get into chick mode, but only if I imagined that Amber Benson was Eliza Dushku instead. I would totally watch this movie with Dushku (or her voice, whatever) as the lead, by the way. And with Joss Whedon somewhere at the helm. Hollywood, make this happen!

Outside of all that, though, the book was just as weird and twisty as it was the first time, enough that I couldn’t exactly remember what was going to happen and all the big reveals were still pretty much intact. My book club was not a big fan of all the intrigue and subterfuge, which of course I loved, but they all agreed it was at least interesting.

Recommendation: Totally pick up the audio book in whichever narrator you didn’t expect the first time. It’s weird and fun.

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Black Dove, White Raven, by Elizabeth Wein

Black Dove, White RavenSo continues my love affair with Elizabeth Wein. If she could just write YA fiction about every historical event, ever, I would know SO MUCH world history. I managed to learn new things about World War II in her first two books, but this book absolutely astounded me with all the history I didn’t even know I didn’t know.

See, it turns out that there were not one, but two wars between Ethiopia and Italy, one at the end of the 19th century and one right before the start of World War II. In fact, the second Italo-Ethiopian war may have helped give Hitler the confidence to go invade all the places, because it showed that the League of Nations was really bad at its job. Italy didn’t even bother pretending to play nice, bringing in planes to fight against spear-carriers and dropping mustard gas in spite of a little thing called the Geneva Convention.

Against this backdrop we have the story of Emilia and Teo, the respective children of White Raven and Black Dove, an interracial female barnstorming duo. Emilia’s dad is Italian, Teo’s dad was Ethiopian, and they and their parents lived together in the US until Teo’s mother died in a plane accident. Teo’s mother had wanted everyone to move to Ethiopia, where Teo and Emilia could play together without all the wonderful US racism, so when that option presents itself, Emilia’s mother moves everyone over. Then the war starts, slowly but surely, and things go very wrong.

The novel is written sort of end-first, opening with a letter from Emilia to Haile Selassie begging for a passport for Teo after these very wrong things have happened. Then, through essays and “flight logs” and diary entries we get the full story.

In that story lies all the learning stuff. There’s lots of history, of course, but also quite a bit of sociology. There’s talk about religion and spirituality and their role in each character’s life, and there’s also a look into the prejudices of society. It’s absolutely fascinating to look at racism and sexism and classism in both the US and Ethiopia at this time and see how they intersect. And then of course there’s flying and action and adventure and it’s all so exciting!

I do have to admit that the diary conceit only just barely holds this novel together, as I found myself constantly thinking, “Wait, why is she showing all of this stuff to the emperor? How does she think this particular story is going to get Teo a passport? How is she remembering all this heavy dialogue with such accuracy?” I like the immediacy and intimacy of the diary conceit, and I think Wein does great things with it, but it definitely needed a better frame story.

But, whatever, I loved the heck out of this book and I found myself between breaks thinking, “I hope everyone’s okay! I hope no one dies! Someone’s going to die, but I hope it’s not anyone I’ve grown fond of!” My coworker did not quite understand my concern, but I’m sure some of you do! I cannot wait to see what Wein’s got up her sleeve next.

Recommendation: For fans of Wein’s other work (Code Name Verity I love you!) and also history and planes and excitement.

Rating: 9/10

Rose Under Fire, by Elizabeth Wein

Rose Under Fireomg, Rose Under Fire. omg, omg.

So I read this amazing book last year called Code Name Verity that could probably have literally knocked my socks off had I been wearing socks while reading it. It was fascinating and horrifying and tricksy and I loved it to pieces and right after I read it this quasi-sequel came out and I was like, oh, I’m totally going to read that. And finally, I did.

Part 1 of the book is pretty decent, with more awesome lady pilots being awesome and piloting, and our diary-writing hero this time is an American ferry pilot in the RAF called Rose Justice, which, fine, whatever, it lends itself to some good wordplay, I guess. Anyway, the war is reaching its peak in 1944 and there’s lots of flying to do, and Rose gets some good flights due to nepotism and finds herself in Paris, which she thinks is pretty sweet. She writes some seemingly innocuous words while there — “I hope I don’t forget [this journal] tomorrow morning” — and then my lunch break ends and I go back to work, looking forward to more flying adventures.

And then I get back to the book later and Rose has gone MIA! Nooooo! There are letters between her friend and her family and clearly things have gone horribly wrong! And then the diary picks up again, six months later, and Rose is writing about her ghastly stay in Ravensbrück.

And, okay, truth time, I almost stopped reading this book right there, because I’ve read a lot of World War II/Holocaust literature and I know from concentration camps, right? I loved Verity in part because there were no horrible death camps and I got to learn something new. So I was like, really, Elizabeth Wein, you can’t do better than that?

But of course she proved me wrong, again, perpetually. I certainly learned something new here, something that I fervently wish weren’t true: that there was a whole transport of Polish women who had bones removed and infections purposefully injected into them so that the Nazi doctors could simulate war injuries and figure out how to fix them. Spoiler: there wasn’t much fixing going on.

These so-called Rabbits and their plight are a big part of the story, but of course the real story is about Rose and her friendships with the other women in the camp, whether they were Rabbits or Russians or even Germans. Wein does a great job of making everyone fairly sympathetic; everyone just wants to survive, and the lengths they go to to do so are more of those new things I learned that I wish I couldn’t have.

In addition to writing her diary, it turns out that Rose is a pretty decent poet, so there are little poems sprinkled throughout the diary text. I’m not much for poetry, so I wasn’t thrilled about them at the beginning, but the ones written as part of the concentration camp section of the book are surprisingly gut-wrenching. One in particular, called “Lisette Waits”, had me tearing up even before things got really bad for everyone.

It’s a depressing book, for sure, but nearly as amazingly so as Code Name Verity. If you have plans to read Verity, definitely do that before reading Rose or you will be super spoiled. If you don’t have plans to read Verity, I do not know what is wrong with you.

Recommendation: Read Code Name Verity. Read this when you need another dose of Elizabeth Wein goodness.

Rating: 9/10

Code Name Verity, by Elizabeth Wein

Code Name VerityThis is one of those books that I haven’t heard much about (well, relatively speaking), but everything I’ve heard has been along the lines of, “OMG CODE NAME VERITY OMG OMG.” I was, obviously, intrigued, and so I had it checked out of the library shortly after my library obtained a copy of it, but then it had to go back due to massive holds list and I forgot about it in favor of many other books. When I saw it somewhere on the internet again recently, though, I knew it was time to embrace the awesome.

So when I started reading the book and it was kind of boring and confusing, I was quite disappointed. The book starts with the sentence, “I AM A COWARD,” (yes, in all caps) and our narrator goes on to talk about how she got captured by the Nazis for looking the wrong way down the street in France (seeing as she’s British), and how she has exchanged some useful information for some clothing and this convenient supply of ink and paper on which she is to write down all the other useful information she can think of. Yay?

Then she gets distracted from writing about planes and airfields and writes instead about her BFF Maddie and how said BFF met her, Queenie, and how Maddie worked her way into flying planes and being a part of the war effort and really being kind of a badass pilot and friend. Oh, and also how Maddie did not survive dropping Queenie off in France and how Queenie feels incredibly guilty about this fact. And I was like, okay, this is pretty interesting, I like that this story is about ladies doing awesome things and feeling feelings that have naught to do with boys and so clearly that is why everyone loves this book.

But then the story started coming to a close right there in the middle of all those pages, and I was like, well, what’s going to happen next, then?

And SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS ahead if you’re the type who wants to be surprised by a story, and I have to admit that I adored being surprised by this story.

What happens next is that Queenie’s story ends with her being dragged away from her paper and ink and Maddie’s story begins with the fact that she is totally not dead in France and continues to poke very interesting holes in Queenie’s story. It also starts basically right where Queenie’s does, so it becomes a sort of race against time — will Maddie rescue Queenie from the Germans in time or will she herself be captured or what the heck is going to happen why won’t these pages turn faster!

Ahem. And whatever you guess is going to happen to our two narrators, you are going to be wrong, because this book is tricksy and conniving and also just absolutely mean and left me unexpectedly crying into my limeade in the café area of Publix. You should probably read the last part of this book in the privacy of your own home, with some tissues available, is what I am saying.

In summation: omg, Code Name Verity. omg, omg.

Recommendation: For fans of badass ladies and those who are more prepared than I was for a good cry.

Rating: 10/10