Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth WeinCode Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein
Narrator: Lucy Gaskell, Morven Christie
Published by Bolinda Publishing Pty Ltd. on 6/6/12
Genres: Historical Fiction, Young Adult
four-half-stars

Story: B+
Narration: A-/B+

Quick Review:

This was a very good book with clever plot building and strong writing. The way the story is constructed slowly ratchets the tension tighter and tighter until it snaps with a convulsive shock. The point of view is divided between two characters who are equally interesting and two audiobook narrators who bring their respective characters to vibrant life.

The Plot:

In the normal course of things, Maddie and Queenie would never have even met, let alone become friends. In World War II era Britain, however, things are far from normal. With so many men off fighting in the war the shortage of manpower at home opens doors for women in the workplace. Maddie had just obtained her civilian pilot’s license when the war started and after working as a radio operator, she was able to join the WAAF (Women’s Auxiliary Air Force) and help ferry planes across Britain. As a well educated young woman fluent in German and French, Queenie ends up working as a Special Operations Flight Officer. When a plane carrying the two young women crashes in occupied France, one is captured by the Gestapo and one makes it to safety. The story is split into not-quite-half as each gets a chance to tell part of the story, starting with Queenie telling us Maddie’s story as her own situation is slowly revealed.

My Thoughts:

I’m struggling to figure out how to talk about this book because there was one big issue that bothered me and had my inner critic jumping up and down trying to point it out. My inner reader, however, whipped out some Ninja moves and cold-cocked my inner critic who went down for the count so my inner critic is going have her say and then I’m sending her to her room so I can talk about how very good this audiobook was. My main issue with the story was that the major plot conceit – that these two women would have the time and ability to write such detailed accounts with what seemed to me to be an unrealistic degree of omniscience – was difficult for me to buy into. Fortunately, that thought was rapidly drowned out by the story itself which captivated me.

This is one of those audiobooks that I keep wanting to talk about in ways that aren’t necessarily about the text of the story, which unfolds in such an interesting way that I’d hate to spoil any part of it. I want to be able to convince you that this was a really good audiobook by telling you I finished it in one day and spent hours at a time listening because I just couldn’t make myself take out my earphones. That I would just nod and smile when someone spoke to me, pretending I could actually hear a word they said as I walked away. That I stayed up hours past my normal bed time (hey, it was a work night!) and, yes, the book made me cry. Have I convinced you? Let me try another tack.

The story structure is interesting, not just because it is written as what are essentially diary entries but also because we start out with Queenie, held prisoner by the Gestapo, telling Maddie’s story. When she reaches the point in the story where they meet and she’s talking about herself, it’s almost always in the third person. While this initially struck me as odd, that sense of distance made me uneasy about what Queenie wasn’t telling the reader about her current situation. As she details Maddie’s time transporting planes, the various airports she flies into, and the military officers and civilians fighting the war from British soil, we get a well-developed sense of both the time-period and the friendship growing between these two complex characters.

Interspersed with Queenie’s recounting of Maddie’s history are slowly revealed bits and pieces of the treatment Queenie is receiving under the direction of Hauptsturmführer von Linden, a character who begins to take on an unexpected depth. When the narrative switches over to Maddie’s diary the transition is smooth and my normal reluctance to switch character view point never materialized. Maddie’s story starts with the plane crash and details more current events. She finds safety with French resistance members and while she waits for a rescue flight back to England that is a long time in coming, she learns of Queenie’s capture. I was anxious for these two characters’ stories to merge again and as events started to gain momentum and everything began to unravel and the truth at the heart of the story was revealed, I was riveted.

The Narration:

The narration was very good. Morven Christie provided Queenie’s part of the story and I initially thought she was underplaying the emotion but as the story progressed it became clear how very well that delivery matched Queenie’s personality. At the point at which that seeming composure faltered, I was also forcibly reminded why audiobooks are such an effective method of transporting the listener into the story: less than a second of a shaky indrawn breath just prior to a single short sentence being spoken and my anxiety over where the story was going was tripled. In addition to using her native Scottish accent for Queenie, Ms. Christie seemed to effortlessly flow between English, German (accent and actual German), French (accent and actual French), and American – including actually singing parts of two different songs, one in German and one a Robert Burns song. The character voices were excellent, the impression of moment-to-moment scene discovery was fully realized and, after my initial opinion of the emotional content was revised, I was wrecked by the delivery of dramatic scenes.

Lucy Gaskell takes over as Maddie at a bit over half-way through. In some respects, this was the weaker of the two narrations – French and German accents weren’t believable in dialogue and sometimes Maddie sounded happier than I thought she should given what was going on – but much like the story completely overwhelmed my objection to the narrative-via-diary plot conceit, the character and personality of Maddie were so very vivid in Ms. Gaskell’s voice that I was never less than convinced she was Maddie. In addition, the range of emotions Maddie goes through were very effectively delivered. Overall, I was very pleased with the dual narration.

four-half-stars

Pirate King by Laurie R. King

Pirate King by Laurie R. KingPirate King by Laurie R. King
Narrator: Jenny Sterlin
Series: Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes #11
Published by Recorded Books on 9/6/11
Genres: Historical Fiction, Mystery

Story: C
Narration: A-

The eleventh outing in the Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes series finds Russell all but fleeing her home to take on an investigation for Scotland Yard after learning that her brother-in-law, Mycroft Holmes, is coming to visit. After events in the previous book, Russell and Mycroft are at odds and a stint investigating the strange (and illegal) events that seem to accompany every Fflytte Pictures film shoot will take her out of his path.

Acting as a producer’s assistant, Russell begins the thankless job of shepherding cast and crew on a journey from England to Portugal and finally to Morocco. Fflytte Films is engaged in making a film called Pirate King. Pirate King (the film) is the story of a film crew who is making a film (also named Pirate King) about the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta The Pirates of Penzance. As they film their “picture within a picture”, the fictional film crew becomes involved with real-life Barbary pirates. The book, of course, adds another layer in that it is itself a story about film crew who becomes entangled with pirates after hiring them to act the part of film pirates (in the film that is about a film crew making a movie about The Pirates of Penzance).

Did I like the book? It was well-written and modestly entertaining but it didn’t capture my attention and interest in the way that all the previous books in this series have. It generally takes at least one of three things to make a novel successful for me: an emotionally engaging character-driven story, a tense or exciting action driven plot, or a complex and layered story-line. In Pirate King I found the characters of Russell and Holmes to have hit a static point in their development and, in fact, Holmes was absent for at least half the book so much of the amusing interaction between them was absent as well. I found very little action or true mystery to draw me in and when the story peaked in terms of plot reveals, I found myself feeling let-down at the simplicity of it. In terms of layering and complexity, if there was any, I apparently needed to be hit over the head with it because other than the plot-within-a-plot-within-a-plot theme, I missed it. I kept watching layers of the story being peeled away, waiting for a truly unique character or mystery to be revealed or a situation to occur that required Russell and Holmes to apply their unique skill-set, only to end up with nothing left at the end other than a vague sense of dissatisfaction. I think if it was a stand-alone, I would probably rate it a better book but it suffers significantly when compared to others in the series.

The first book in this series, The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, was one of two audiobooks that started my obsession with the medium and with this latest release, Jenny Sterlin continues to deliver an outstanding performance. In that most wonderful of audiobook magic, she has come to simply be the voices of Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes in my head. The cadence and inflection she gives Russell aptly portrays her intellectual and forthright personality and Holmes’ more relaxed intonations and his tendency to draw out certain words when annoyed encapsulates the jaded and no-need-to-tell-me-I-know-everything-already persona King has fleshed out. I admire Ms. Sterlin’s ability to differentiate between male and female characters with relatively subtle voice shifts and she smoothly navigates between various accents and dialects.

Overall, excellent narration failed to make what I consider the weakest book in the series more than just a relatively pleasant listen.