Julie’s Book Club: Code Name Verity

Code Name Verity

Code Name Verity

Code Name Verity was on the shelf of recommended reads at my most-frequented library, so I picked it up thinking that I don’t read enough YA. The novel tells the story of two girls and their unlikely bond forged in wartime England during World War II. Maddie is a woman pilot. “Queenie,” as her best friend is called, has a much more mysterious job.

The book begins in diary-like entries penned by Queenie, describing their friendship up to the night Maddie delivered her to occupied France and her plane went down. Queenie, the reader learns, is being held and tortured in France and these are in fact passages she’s writing for the head interrogator as a way to avoid further torture. She’s “selling her soul,” she writes, by giving the Nazis bits of wireless code and information on airfields. She’s also buying herself time.

Author Elizabeth Wein does great things with perspective and information here. What Queenie, a non-pilot, knows about planes, for example, is limited. But she is imaginative in her descriptions, and her tandem flights with Maddie are some of the loveliest sequences in the book. The further Queenie gets into her tale of friendship and survival, the higher the stakes, as it becomes apparent that she soon will be shipped to a camp for experimentation and execution.

I read the last 200 or so pages of this book in a rush, because I had to find out how it ended. It unfolds brilliantly, with carefully plotted reveals (especially as Queenie doles out information to her captors bit by bit), and the friendship shared by Queenie and Maddie is sweet enough to make you weep. (There may have been a few tears shed by the time I closed the book.) I don’t pick up a lot of historical fiction, but in this case the setting of wartime England, with high suspicions, rationed food, and women’s work often seen as secondary, was multifaceted and vibrant. Wein really makes history come alive in this book (despite making up several town names, locations, and details of the characters’ work), and the illusion of reality was strong all along. I suspected nothing. A pilot herself, all of the flying sequences Wein described were written dreamily–coming out of the pages, one can tell the author is passionate about being in the sky.

I highly recommend Code Name Verity, and I think the reading experience will make me eager to try other historical fiction novels.

Julie’s Book Club: The Ward

The Ward

I first heard about The Ward while the book was still being edited. Its author, Jordana Frankel, gave a talk at her alma mater about plotting a YA novel. She read from the first chapter and laid out a timeline. I knew I wanted to get my hands on the finished book.

Ward cover

The Ward is a dystopian novel, set in a waterlogged future New York City plagued by an infectious, cancer-like disease called the Blight. Its protagonist, Ren, is a 16-year-old who’s grown up fast. Orphaned like many children in the Ward, she has relied on resourcefulness and quick-thinking to stay alive and care for her younger sister, Aven, who is dying slowly from the Blight. Ren races a mobile and works secretly for the government in order to pay for medicine. While searching for fresh water, she makes a surprising discovery with effects that could change the future for everyone in the Ward.

This book is fast-paced, and the setting is full of perils. It also offers a backdrop for exciting underwater chase scenes, or claustrophobic explorations of the city beneath the water. I didn’t always love Ren, but I appreciated her intense affection for Aven and the way she spoke her mind, including the way her open sexual interest in certain male characters was narrated. There is a lot packed into this 465-page book, apparently the first in a two-part series. It delivers action, romance, and suspense (there’s even some gore, and a few scenes that feel right out of a horror story).

At times, the events of the novel were moving so quickly (or the actions in a scene), that I had difficulty picturing them as I read. I was a little disappointed that with such an evocative setting, Frankel didn’t play around more, either with the mobile racing or the creepy, abandoned sectors of the Ward. Occasionally, I felt that unimportant events got too much stage time while other scenes could have lasted longer. Nevertheless, I think Frankel’s unique setting and premise set this YA novel apart from other dystopian futures. And Ren takes control of her fate while piloting a mobile at breakneck speed, being intimidated by police and government figures, and navigating the plague-ridden wings of the hospital and the Ward. Although there are moments where her emotional immaturity shines through (she is, after all, a teenaged girl), she makes some pretty tough decisions and makes them with aplomb.

Jordana Frankel will read from her work on March 11 in Towson, MD. The event is free and open to the public. For details, go here.

Julie’s Book Club: The Ocean at the End of the Lane

The Ocean at the End of the Lanegaiman ocean

I’ve been a fan of Neil Gaiman’s work since I started reading The Sandman graphic novels in my teens. I’ve read most of his novels and short story collections, and when The Ocean at the End of the Lane came out last year, I knew I’d get my hands on it sooner or later.

This is a quiet book that wraps around you and pulls you under softly, slowly, with barely a splash. It opens with the unnamed protagonist avoiding the wake of a funeral. He drives down a country road past the plot that once belonged to his parents, onward to a farm that stirs in him memories of an extraordinary and terrifying event from his childhood.

Gaiman has used the triple goddess, Hekate, the fates, the three furies, etc., time and again in The Sandman, as well as in other works. In this novel, they become the closest thing to friends that the narrator has for a brief period after his seventh birthday. Lettie Hempstock, the youngest of the three, becomes his savior when he unleashes something bad into the world after witnessing the suicide of his parents’ tenant.

The gravity with which the story is told, and the concrete details of the protagonist’s childhood, lend it the feel of being completely factual. I think every adult reader could pick this book up and leave it with a sense of dread surrounding events of their own childhood. Because terrible things do happen to children, and then the world moves on, and those things leave their mark on us.

There was a passage I searched for in the book, after finishing it, that I couldn’t seem to find, so perhaps it was an observation I made while reading instead. Whichever the case, one of the saddest feelings this book left me with was that everyone is a little bit broken, but our adult world doesn’t treat people gently to compensate for that.

This is definitely a book that sits with you and invades some of your private thoughts. It’s not a feel-good read. It might leave your life a little sadder, but hopefully a little more contemplative.

Julie’s Book Club: Hild

Hild by Nicola GriffithHild cover

Hild was my Christmas gift to myself. (Ok, not my only gift to myself, but perhaps the best one.) I’d like to say I finished it in a rush after two sleepless nights, but travel over the holidays and the return to work means I’m still trucking through it. However, I didn’t want to wait to gush about it until next month, so here goes:

I feel like Nicola Griffith’s novel is set in one of the most finely crafted fantasy worlds I’ve ever encountered. The characters, even those who are only at the edges of the scenes, are drawn with great depth. The imagery of the costuming is stunning. The action, from bloody skirmishes on a riverbank to the killing of a piglet in a marketplace, is created on the page as vividly as it would appear on a video screen. But Hild isn’t a fantasy. It’s set in seventh-century Britain, amidst the growth of Christianity and the annexation of kingdoms by Edwin of Northumbria.

Hild, the king’s youngest niece, is growing up in a world filled with uncertainty and political intrigue. As she learns her way around the court, the child, prophesied to be “the light of the world,” makes herself indispensable to the king as his seer. Hild is not a typical child, nor is she a typical woman for the period, and as she learns more about the players and kingdoms at stake, she is more deeply drawn into the plots that determine the course of Edwin’s conquests. She must stay constantly alert to protect herself and her loved ones, to remain in the king’s good graces, and to follow her wyrd.

As I mentioned, I’m entranced by this book. The scenes of daily life, like tapestry weaving and jewelry making, set it solidly in its time, and the conversations and characters make the seventh century feel raw and real. A tremendous amount of research must have gone into this novel, as well as a tremendous amount of imagination. Little is known about St. Hilda of Whitby, upon whom Hild is based, but Griffith nevertheless gives us her life from the age of three in immersive detail.

Get Hild here (or at your local bookstore)!

Julie’s Book Club: 12 for the New Year

I’m cheating a little this time and instead of reviewing a book (the book I ordered has not found its way to me yet…) I am going to look ahead at 12 books I hope to read in the New Year:

1)      Hild: A Novel by Nicola Griffith

This historical novel is about Hild, the niece of the King of Britain who grows into a powerful figure–and eventually is sainted Hilda of Whitby. I’ve loved Griffith’s fluid prose since I happened upon her novel Slow River years ago. I can’t wait to see what she does in a historical setting–7th Century Britain.

2)      Embassytown by China Miéville

A friend suggested I read Miéville for his immersive worlds. I chose this book, about the human colonist Avice Benner Cho, who returns to Embassytown after years of adventuring in deep space. Homecoming stories interest me, and especially those that touch upon the possibilities of great shifts in space and time between one’s leaving and one’s return.

3)      The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

This is on my Christmas list. I started reading The Sandman comics in high school, and I’ve been hooked on Gaiman since. This novel, about a businessman who returns home and delves into childhood memories best left undisturbed, promises to be dark and dreamlike. I can’t wait to see how the three Fate-like women, who live in the house at the end of the lane, are drawn and what their roles are.

4)      The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater

Water horses. A girl named Puck. Horse races. Fate. Even if not for Jen’s endorsement of Stiefvater, I’d probably still pluck this book off the shelf.

5)      The Ward by Jordana Frankel

This is Frankel’s YA debut, a dystopian novel about New York after floods, plagues, high-stakes hover racing, and friendship. I got to meet Frankel and hear about the book while it was still being edited, and I want to know how it ends!

6)      Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood

This novel has been sitting on my shelf for far too long. (Anyone else have that curse where they buy books and don’t read them, but borrow them and finish them in a day?) I loved and was disturbed by The Handmaid’s Tale, The Blind Assassin, and The Year of the Flood, so I don’t know what I’m waiting for. 2014, perhaps?

7)      Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell: A Novel by Susanna Clarke

This is another of those books that has been recommended time and again. Like The Prestige, it is about two magicians, and it works in slow reveals. I’ll want to be taking notes on suspense and plot the entire time, if I can keep that up through 1,000-plus pages.

8)      Zig-Zag Wanderer by Madison Smartt Bell

Bell’s limited edition short story collection will be distributed for free (with the request that readers make a donation to a worthy cause), and I hope to catch him reading at The Ivy bookshop in Baltimore next week. The stories, set in the U.S., Haiti, and other places, are mostly named after songs (REM’s “Fall on Me” is among them) and some include musical elements themselves. Bell’s work often goes to dark and strange places–count me in.

9)      The Replacement by Brenna Yovanoff

Because Anne said so.

10)  The Harry Potter audiobooks

This might be wishful thinking, but one of these days I’d like to listen to all of the audiobooks, as performed by Jim Dale.

11)  The Bondwoman’s Narrative: A Novel by Hannah Crafts

Written in the 1850s, this may be the first novel penned by a female African American slave. Crafts, a mulatto, writes about the autobiographical experiences of “passing” and making her way to freedom. Her unpublished manuscript was discovered in 2001 by Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr.

12)  Looking for Alaska by John Green

After thoroughly enjoying Will Grayson, Will Grayson and tearing up at The Fault in Our Stars, I’m ready for another John Green novel. His YA protagonists are strongly voiced, and their struggles are both uniquely their own and universal. He draws the high school out crowd in a completely new way, and the lessons they learn are just as applicable to adults picking up these books.

So, that’s my list. Is there anything you would recommend? Have any thoughts about something I’ve added? Leave them in the comments!

Julie’s Cimmerian Tales Book Club: Kelly Link


This month, I want to focus not on a specific book, but on an author: Kelly Link. I was introduced to Link’s writing in college. The first short story I read by her was “The Hortlak,” which includes a convenience store love triangle, zombies, shelter dogs, and printed pajamas. It’s in her second collection, Magic for Beginners. You can read it here. (Or, you can read her entire first collection, Stranger Things Happen, which is in the Creative Commons!)

Link’s stories include elements of the fantastical or weird. Some are set in contemporary suburbia with subtle twists, others in worlds that suggest high fantasy. I’m working my way through Pretty Monsters, a YA collection that won the Locus Award in 2009. Among the stories in the book are one about a boy who digs up the wrong dead girl, another about kids with magical tendencies who serve wizards in towers built on a marsh, and a third about twin sisters who decide that being Dead is the best way to go through life.

“Quirky” is too light a word to describe Link–some of her stories are downright eerie or morbid. There are unsettling elements, hordes of rabbits that gather in a family’s backyard, or hordes of green Susans who make Susan beer all day. For all their outlandishness, Link nevertheless maintains in her stories a strong sense of these not-worlds, maintaining their reality. Little details help, like the earwig that still sends Christmas cards to Fox in the titular story of Magic for Beginners. The illustrations that accompany the stories are an added bonus. (These are by Shelley Jackson and Shaun Tan, respectively.)

If you enjoy off-the-wall stories that are literary and fantastical at the same time, I recommend checking out Kelly Link’s work. Seeking inspiration? Visit her Story Monster page, which will randomly generate a prompt for you to develop a “monstrous, three-sentence story.” (I got: Once upon a time, “Billy” went to “Japan” and decided to toss around his “apple”!–I dare you to come up with a good story in the comments.) Want her to read your work and possibly publish it? Link and her husband, Gavin Grant, own Small Beer Press and run the small press zine, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet. And if you’re in the Baltimore area, you can see her this weekend at FaerieCon East–you might even run into me! There are a slew of other great authors who will be at the Con, as well.

Julie’s Cimmerian Tales Book Club: Lavinia

Ursula K. Le Guin’s Lavinia

When I visited the library at the college where I work, I didn’t expect to find Ursula Le Guin in the slim young adult section. Nevertheless, I picked up Lavinia, which claimed from the jacket to tell the story of the woman who would become Aeneas’ wife in the Aeneid.

Described in only one or two lines of Virgil’s epic poem, Lavinia is fully drawn by Le Guin as a king’s daughter who understands that her fate is greater than her personal desires. The story is told by Lavinia, who reads as both an insightful teenager and an all-knowing wise woman. (The story is told more or less in medias res, so the Lavinia who addresses the reader in some scenes knows her future and the fate that will befall her husband, and in others counts the days that remain to them.)

The first half of the book was the most captivating to me, and also the half before Aeneas really appears. Lavinia recounts her strained relationship with her mother, her freedom that gives her full reign of the copses of ancient Italy, and her visits to an oracle by a sulphur spring. It is at this oracle that she learns she must marry a foreigner despite her mother’s insistence that she wed the suitor Turnus. Lavinia also meets a projection of Virgil himself, and learns through their conversations that she will live on in men’s memory through his writings.

Lavinia is self-aware, but subtle. I’ve always loved Le Guin’s prose, and the lush descriptions of the Latin countryside (and the tamed deer that was a pet of Lavinia’s friend) made me want to be able to roam the woods as freely as Lavinia did. I find in Le Guin’s style a perfect blend of spareness and evocation. She’s a master of putting just enough words on the page to fill in a story without telling too much.