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REVIEW: Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

Dear Ms. Wein,

I had not heard of your book before one of our posters mentioned it in glowing terms. In a way that managed to catch my attention yet not sound like fawning praise, she described it and urged people to try it. I bought it but then set it aside as I had just finished reading another book featuring Nazis and felt I could use a break. I knew ahead of time that not everything is as it seems but I deliberately didn’t read any other reviews or details about the plot. This turned out to be a wise decision as the full impact of the book could hit me as I read it. And hit me it did.

I won’t attempt a run down on the plot so as not to inadvertently give anything away. Instead I’ll just steal this from Amazon:

“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 and failure and her desperate hope to make it home. But will trading her secrets be enough to save her from the enemy?”

code name verity elizabeth weinIn your (love the “chapter” headers used in the book) Author’s Debriefing, you mention that it pains you to admit that [Verity] and Maddie never existed but are only products of your imagination. I hate it too because these are two unforgettable characters. They’re so real. They’re multi-dimensional, richly textured and so damn real. If I’m pressed to mention a flaw it would be that Maddie’s speech doesn’t sound very Manchestarian (is that the right adjective?). But beyond that and a few small niggles about the mission and some people in Ormaie…..honestly, I couldn’t come up with much more. Maybe tomorrow after I’ve come down from the emotional rush of the book but not right now.

This is a book that merits keeping on with it. At first I wasn’t too sure about a book of one character narrating the whole story and that character seemingly a weak one at that. After all, she’s the protagonist. She’s supposed to be invulnerable to anything the Gestapo throws at her, right? She’s also not even narrating in first person but rather writing about herself in third person in broken intervals mixed with a few instances of what was going on in between her treasonous confessions. Could this really be sustained for the entire book and did I want to stick it out? I needn’t have worried because pretty soon I was as caught up in what she’d write next as the Germans appeared to be. I was also deathly afraid for her even as I was in awe of her sang froid and black humor. It was like watching someone literally laugh in the face of death then spit in its eye.

Knowing a character is in the hands of the Gestapo who want information from her and is also close enough to an interrogation room to hear how they attempt to get details from other prisoners pretty much puts the kibosh on this being a feel good book. Still I’d only rate it about a 6.5 on the squeam-o-meter. I think you made the right choice in that most of what happened is mentioned obliquely in past tense or merely hinted at thus leaving the reader free to mentally fill in the blanks – or not – as wanted. There’s no way to get around the fact that torture occurs in the story, to Verity as well as to others, but the way you handle it is enough for the reality to be understood without making it too much for readers to stomach.

I wavered back and forth, trying to guess how the book would end. Was there actually a chance for Verity to make it out alive? Perhaps she deliberately got herself caught in order to get inside the prison? Maybe she had a plan up her sleeve that would be every bit as resourceful as she’d shown herself to be throughout the story. After all, surviving for 6 weeks in a Gestapo prison was no mean feat. The resolution of her imprisonment didn’t completely take me by surprise. But it still hit me like a hammer. I felt drained and disbelieving and yet totally understanding of the way it comes about and the why behind it. As with another character, it would also have filled me with a white hot hatred and need for revenge. Which is neatly accomplished by seeing that Verity’s original mission is carried out.

“Code Name Verity” is unlike any book I’ve ever read before. A good book is one I enjoy as I’m reading it. A great book is one that will stick with me and, in ways, haunt me. This is a great book. A-

~Jayne

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Another long time reader who read romance novels in her teens, then took a long break before started back again about 15 years ago. She enjoys historical romance/fiction best, likes contemporaries, action- adventure and mysteries, will read suspense if there's no TSTL characters and is currently reading very few paranormals.

24 Comments

  1. FD
    Aug 30, 2012 @ 07:33:43

    The word you want is ‘Mancunian’. :-) Sounds like an interesting book and it hadn’t been on my radar at all before.

  2. Jayne
    Aug 30, 2012 @ 07:38:20

    @FD: Ah, thanks. I knew I probably wouldn’t guess that correctly!

  3. Catherine
    Aug 30, 2012 @ 07:56:38

    I finished this a few days ago, and it didn’t read as quickly as most YA does for me. It’s worth sticking with it, though!

    I’ll add that the bibliography at the end is impressive — no shortage of additional reading materials for us WWII women’s history buffs.

  4. Jayne
    Aug 30, 2012 @ 08:03:06

    @Catherine: I haven’t had a chance to dive into and explore them but I noted the books referenced, too.

  5. Peggy P
    Aug 30, 2012 @ 08:24:16

    Oh, this does sound good and it is an audiobook with two narrators, I’m downloading as I type … will start listening today.

  6. Darlene Marshall
    Aug 30, 2012 @ 09:57:37

    I’m not ashamed to say I was sobbing out loud at the end of this novel, and was glad I wasn’t out in public. One of the best novels I’ve read in years, YA or adult, in any genre.

  7. Kay Sisk
    Aug 30, 2012 @ 10:29:20

    My romance book club picked this as a read earlier this summer. Can only add words of agreement to the positive comments. It was good to read a YA novel written not only about WWII, which is most definitely history to the intended audience, but about the women who served, especially in roles not considered traditional for them during times of war.

  8. Barb in Maryland
    Aug 30, 2012 @ 10:48:24

    I’m with Darlene. Really great book and tissues necessary. I read it through twice; once for the story and second time to see how the author laid in all the clues. And sobbed both times.
    I am not sure I can read it again. At least not for a good long while. But it is one of the few books I’ve read this year that has really stuck with me.

  9. Darlynne
    Aug 30, 2012 @ 11:13:38

    I’m so glad you liked this book. The story and characters have stayed with me all these months. My thanks to the Book Smugglers for bringing it to my/our attention.

  10. Christine Rimmer
    Aug 30, 2012 @ 13:16:40

    Wow. Okay. Buying it now. Thanks, Jayne!

  11. Stephanie Scott
    Aug 30, 2012 @ 15:23:17

    I agree with it being a tough read at first. I struggled with it, but kept going. I borrowed the book from the library and I’d like to buy it and re-read it. The characters definitely leave a lasting impact, and this is a rare book that actually shocked me by a plot turn I didn’t expect. I mean, I just figured things would kind of work out, even though we’re dealing with Nazis. This is a really intense book that requires your attention and effort, but like you said, it’s worth it. Not a quick read, but a worthwhile one.

    And the notes from the author at the end! She loves history so much and it really shows.

  12. SaraO@TheLibrarianReads
    Aug 30, 2012 @ 17:03:10

    Loving this review. I’m about to borrow it from my bookish best friend. Very excited for the read.

  13. Jayne
    Aug 30, 2012 @ 18:28:47

    @Darlene Marshall: The debriefing once the group gets back to England was intense – even as I was laughing at the spymaster guy’s comment about how his middle vision going now, too.

    @Barb in Maryland: I know I’d like to reread it again to see everything laid out but it will be a while before I feel up to it.

  14. Estara
    Aug 30, 2012 @ 19:11:47

    Yay!!!!!!!!!! CNV conquers even DearAuthor ^^. I have a personal vested interest in the book and am happy whenever it’s mentioned.

    There’s a Mancunian girl on GoodReads who was happy enough with the accent, but admittedly E. Wein lives in Perth, Scotland these days and is American by birth.

    And while this is her first recent historical fiction novel, I want to say that all E. Wein’s previous books – historical alternate fiction ranging from Arthur’s court to the ancient Ethiopian empire in the 6th century – have their protagonists put through the emotional wringer. It’s a feature.

  15. BRNZ
    Aug 31, 2012 @ 01:17:20

    This is the second review of this from a review source that I trust that gives a great review of this book, added to my Kindle wish list!

    Even better my local library has it!

  16. Jayne
    Aug 31, 2012 @ 06:34:29

    @Estara: Perhaps I should have phrased it that there didn’t seem to be a difference in the voices between the two proagonists.

    Oh, more emotional wringing? Hmmm, I think I need to wait a bit before being twisted like a piece of licorice again. ;)

  17. Estara
    Aug 31, 2012 @ 11:32:11

    @Jayne: I can understand that ^^ – I pace my reads of these books, too.

  18. dri
    Sep 03, 2012 @ 00:45:32

    Wow, this sounds amazing.

    I’m going to add it to my Goodreads TBR list for the time when I’m ready for such a journey. Wow.

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  20. bronerz
    Jan 11, 2013 @ 13:12:48

    *SPOILER ALERT* This review contains spoilers, so if you haven’t read the book don’t read this review. I apologise in advance if this is quite a long review, as I have a lot to say about Code Name Verity!
    I had mixed feelings about this book, to say the least. It took me a very, very long time to get into ‘Part 1: Verity’. I never really felt like picking it up and reading on, and there were times when I thought about giving up on it completely – the only reason I didn’t was because I knew I had to finish it for a book club!
    The reason I found it so difficult to get into was because I couldn’t follow what was going on very easily, and all the abbreviations and often rambling style of writing just confused me. I found it difficult to understand why Julie (aka Queenie/Scottie/Verity) was so determined to bargain for extra time so that she could finish her story when it would just prolong her suffering, and why the Germans were so keen for her to write it, because as far as I could tell it contained very little information on the British War Effort that would actually be of any use to them. In general I was frustrated by how difficult it was to follow why certain things were happening, such as the interview with Georgia Penn, or even why Maddie and Julie spent a whole day trying to cycle to a café in the rain.
    However, having said all that, once Julie’s story began to draw to a close, I felt that the pace picked up a bit. I was really rooting for her when she had to watch Marie being executed, and when she was finishing the story of her journey to France with Maddie, as you could sense the tension building because you knew that Julie’s time was almost up. When her last sentence was cut off and you discover, through a cryptic note from a superior Nazi officer, that she is going to be sent to an experimentation centre, I was desperate to find out what happened to her.
    One of the things I loved about ‘Part 2: Kittyhawk’ was that right from the first sentence you can tell that it is Maddie who is narrating it, purely from what Julie had told us about her in Part 1. Consequently, you also find out pretty quickly that Maddie is still alive, having survived the plane ‘crash’ and that it is Julie who is now in mortal peril.
    It is at this point that everything clicks into place: all the hints, clues and references dropped by Julie earlier on, everything that had confused me, suddenly makes perfect sense. It all falls into place in a wonderfully clever, complicated and satisfying way, and I found myself flicking back to compare Julie’s account of a certain event with Maddie’s. The true intentions of Georgia Penn and the reason for her interview with Julie; the reason why Julie was so determined to finish her story, and why she wrote it the way she did; the true roles of von Linden and Anna Engel, and even Thibaut the guard; where the bar of American soap came from and why it was there; even the reason why a few random sentences in Julie’s story were underlined in bold, something which I had puzzled over earlier. It was very satisfying getting your head around it and putting all the clues together, as everything Julie had written seemed to have some sort of importance or double meaning.
    The action sequences in the latter half of the book are utterly gripping and, as had been the case throughout, there were some gorgeous, vivid descriptions of landscapes (and skyscapes, of course) which were a joy to read, and much later referenced again to powerful effect.
    And the ending … oh, the ending! I won’t spoil it for anyone who hasn’t got there yet, but for some time after I read the saddest part, I actually had a huge, aching lump in my throat and tears streaming down my cheeks. This earned Code Name Verity an honorary place on my (very short) List Of Books That Have Made Me Cry (the other is Out of the Ashes by Michael Morpurgo). Unfortunately I read that bit right before I went to bed, so of course I had trouble sleeping that night! (At least it wasn’t while I was at school, or some other embarrassing public place to be caught crying over a book.)
    For us, the world of wartime Britain (and France) is an utterly alien existence, where nowhere is truly safe and all normal values, dreams, perceptions, morals and rhythms of daily life are just thrown out the window. But what makes this book relatable, and therefore so powerful, is that it is first and foremost a story about friendship, not war. It is a story about two friends caught up in the madness of an awful war, like two bubbles being sucked towards the plughole in a draining bath, fighting against all the odds and throwing caution to the winds to hold on to each other, and ultimately to save one another from the gaping ‘plughole’ abyss. I think this is what makes it so moving: the ordinariness, thrust into a world of danger, pain and death.
    It does make one wonder what you would have done had you found yourself in that situation, if you had been caught in the scenarios that Maddie and Julie were thrown into. What makes this hit home even harder is that you know that this war really did took place, that things like that really did happen, that what happened to any one of the characters in the book could so easily have happened to us had we lived seventy years earlier. It is something that is impossible for us to comprehend, but this book gives a vivid flavour of what it may have been like in the Britain of 1943. I must add that the depth of historical and technical detail in this book is so perfect that it is very hard to believe that the manuscript is not a copy of a real, authentic document written by real people, when it was actually written by Elizabeth Wein in the 21st Century. She must have done an awful lot of research!
    Overall, Code Name Verity is a book that is clever, funny, bewildering, tragic and thought-provoking all at once. I know now that all the time I spent struggling on with it were truly worth it, and I am so glad that I saw it through to the end.

  21. Jayne
    Jan 14, 2013 @ 09:08:47

    @bronerz: You’ve just done a great review yourself! How did it read to you as an Englishwoman?

  22. library
    Apr 22, 2013 @ 08:58:22

    I knew this was over my comfort zone to begin with. But I wanted to give it a try as it does sound like a good story – and it is, it was just too much for me. Too much piloting and plane details I didn’t get. Too many war specifics that I didn’t completely understand. I can easily see that if you can get into it it would be a fantastic novel, though. The narration is wonderful and the reason I kept reading so long. So don’t dismiss it on my account.

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    Aug 07, 2013 @ 08:01:04

    […] to keep reading was rewarded in full. I’d actually say the structure reminds me vaguely of Code Name Verity, in which the second half is the payoff to the first but you need to read the first half in order […]

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