Code Name Verity
by Elizabeth Wein
2012 • 451 pages • Hyperion Books
So… remember when Code Name Verity was making the rounds four years ago? Yeah, I finally got around to it last week. My lead time and my list of books to read grows longer every day, cats and kittens, but, you know, I’m a busy lady. I do busy lady things and sometimes I do them for four years before picking up a book. No big deal.
Except it kind of feels like a big deal, which is why I’m mentioning it.Code Name Verity is exactly the kind of young adult book that haunted me when I worked at the bookstore, because it came so highly recommended. World War II! Lady spies! An emphasis on female friendship being as life-altering and important as any romance! What wasn’t there to like? So I tenderly shelved it and its sister volume, Rose Under Fire, and then moved across the country and promptly forgot about it entirely until a spin through my reading list brought it back to my attention.
Letting a book percolate in your subconscious that long can be risky. Letting any media percolate in your subconscious that long can be risky. It often results in something like that heart-stopping moment I experienced, putting Velvet Goldmine into my laptop at college, wondering if it could possibly live up to the decade of furtive hype I’d spent on it?
It did, obviously, as I’ve managed to stuff in a reference to Velvet Goldmine in a review of a young adult novel set during World War II. Code Name Verity, despite having a shorter time to percolate in the old noggin… not so much.
Dear Committee Members
by Julie Schumacher
2014 • 192 pages • Doubleday
When we talk about well-rounded female characters, we often talk about allowing female characters to be unlikable. (Hell, we also talk about allowing female characters to look like actual human type women, which is such a broad category that it’s really amazing how often the mark is missed.) Even when female characters express unlikable traits (which, let’s be honest, are often considerable desirable or at least neutral traits in male characters), they’re often punished for it, by both the narrative and the audience. As much as I’ve been enjoying How Did This Get Made, their episode on A View to a Kill features the whole crew comparing Grace Jones’ superhumanly strong May Day to a shaved horse. It’s why Amy in Gone Girl is such polarizing; she may be, in a certain slant of light, a misogynist’s hysterical nightmare, but she gets to be selfish, hateful, cruel, violent, and dispassionate in a way few female characters are. (And the crowning glory: she gets away with it.)
But there is a B side to that argument, much shorter than the much more important single: why do we allow male characters to be unlikable? Specifically, why am I so often asked to sympathize with, idealize, or otherwise just plain tolerate male characters whose behavior is self-indulgent, passively cruel, and generally awful without any redeeming characteristics? I am fine with unlikable male characters in the abstract. I am, after all, quite an active fan of James Bond, the last three films of which franchise have been entirely about an already unstable man being built into a horrifically amoral monster. (And it’s so, so great.) Unlikable characters, as we’ve established, can be riveting and revelatory. What I’m taking issue with is when I am presented with unlikable male characters and told, by both the text and paratext, that I should like him.
The Royal Diaries: Elizabeth I: Red Rose of the House of Tudor
by Kathryn Lasky
1999 • 240 pages • Scholastic Press
When I’m cherry-picking nostalgia bombs with other bookish people my age, Scholastic Press’ Dear America inevitably comes up when you’re talking book series of the late nineties and early aughts. (I literally just had this conversation last week, while visiting a college friend in Texas.) First published between 1996 and 2004, the series featured diaries written from the perspectives of young women at critical moments in American history. It was so popular that it’s not only been recently relaunched (as of 2010, with both new titles in the series and just reissues of the original), but spun off three other series. My Name is America was Dear America’s staff counterpart, while My America was aimed at younger children. But The Royal Diaries, which took the formula and reapplied it to young royal women throughout human history, was, in my young eyes, clearly superior.
Where’d You Go Bernadette by Maria Semple
Y’all know me—I rarely seek out brand new books by authors I’ve never heard of, especially anywhere near the time they’ve been released. But Melissa’s review of Where’d You Go Bernadette over at The Feminist Texan [Reads] made me reconsider, as did its inclusion on Book Riot’s Best Books of 2012 list. My temporal gap between publication and reading is usually a function of accessibility; I once had a hold on The Time Traveler’s Wife come in, six months after I placed it. Perfectly reasonable, given my place in line (somewhere in the hundreds?), but my appetite is easily distracted. But I had no such problem here, raiding the new bookshelf of my public library at home and then blazing through it in a day.
World War Z by Max Brooks
I’m terrified of zombies. I’m so terrified of zombies, in fact, that my subconscious can no longer muster any enthusiasm for the walking dead; my last zombie nightmare involved me staring out into a supermarket parking lot at the undead, reasoning that I could “totally make it” to my car. It kept me from watching Shaun of the Dead and reading World War Z when it came out in high school—I remember opening it to a bit about dogs dying horribly, and immediately shutting it. But I’ve been craving a bit of horror recently, to my utmost surprise, and Windows 95 Tips hasn’t updated in a month. At least World War Z ended more or less happily, right? (Wrong.)
The Princess Diaries by Meg Cabot
read by Anne Hathaway
The Princess Diaries movie came out when I was ten, and I remember watching it. It was one of those live-action Disney movies that peppered my childhood, since grasping the concept of network television would take another five years. I liked it, as it involved Julie Andrews, San Francisco (I spent a lot of my single-digit years a few towns down), and Anne Hathaway, who, although I did not know it, was probably a factor in my thing for tall dark femmes. (In researching this post, I just learned that Liv Tyler was up for the role of Mia. My allegiances! They are being tested!) In any case, I did have and read the first one or two books in the series, but they didn’t make much of an impact, which made it a perfect candidate for an audiobook for me.
Affinity by Sarah Waters
During my trip to Ireland, I bought a copy of Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger, her 1950s gothic novel. I’ve been meaning to get around to that (and the rest of my small Irish haul) ever since I set foot back in America, but I felt like I couldn’t until I finished her “Victorian Women in Love” trilogy (there’s a snappier title out there, surely?)—I’d already read and loved Fingersmith, recommended heartily during 2010 in the book blogging community, and I’d loved Tipping the Velvet, so as my work load for this semester increased, Affinity seemed like a pretty sure bet.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
The Prestige by Christopher Priest
Ah, The Prestige. I remember watching Christopher Nolan’s film adaptation of this novel with my mother, who couldn’t take the ending—she likes her villains punished, my mother. I myself enjoyed the thoughtful plot, the fantastic acting, and the costuming. It’s often about the costuming with me. Obviously, it was after watching the film that I discovered it was originally a novel, but for years I thought that the novel was endlessly complicated and that Nolan had pulled out one story thread among many to adapt to film. Imagine my surprise—and delight—to discover that that’s absolutely not the case.
Evelina by Frances Burney
I’m not normally one for the unimaginative author theory—you know, the idea that results in movies like Shakespeare in Love, which posits that Shakepeare only came up with Twelfth Night because it happened to him—but my class has been particularly taken with the parallels between Frances Burney’s life and the narrative presented in Evelina. Burney had a very close relationship with her father, struggled against ideas of female writing as improper (as evidenced by the alternating shame and confidence she presents in the introduction to the novel), and, hearteningly, ultimately married a Frenchman and supported him and their children by her own pen. (Why, yes, I’m definitely going to read a biography of Burney.) But enough about the author—what about the novel?