Book Review – Code Name Verity

134817485 stars. Elizabeth Wein’s Code Name Verity is the story of two friends in World War II. Maddie is a working-class girl who is good with engines and fascinated by airplanes. She befriends Julie, a quick-witted woman from Scottish gentry. As war tears through Britain, Maddie becomes a pilot for the Air Transport Auxiliary, ferrying planes and people to aid the war effort. Julie becomes an agent for the Special Operations Executive. Their lives intersect over and over, until the fateful mission that has Maddie flying her best friend to France. They are shot down, with Julie captured by the Gestapo and Maddie hiding with the French Resistance.

The gripping account is told first through Julie’s written confession for the Gestapo and then Maddie’s anguished narration as she tries to both keep hidden and rescue her best friend. Either perspective is a pageturner on its own. The combination of the two is even more powerful. Wein gives connections between the two stories that add depth, explanation, and resonance to what has already been revealed. I suspect that I’ll need a rereading to pick up on some of the more subtle threads that bind the two women together.

Chief among the literary tools that make Code Name Verity such a thriller is effective use of the unreliable narrator. I’m not sure how much truth there is in Julie’s confession–nor do I want her to be truthful! It’s refreshing to read a book where this device is relevant to the story rather than just being used for its own sake.

Extensive research by the author is obvious in the realistic feeling of the era. War jargon, events, atmosphere, and details contribute to the verisimilitude of the book. The attitudes of the times, especially towards women and the service they provided, reflect in the characters. Maddie’s desire to fly, and willingness to do so in whatever capacity she can, is central to her character; I understand and empathize with her.

Code Name Verity packs quite an emotional punch as well. There are plenty of moments of triumph, heartbreak, terror, and suspense. The relationship between Julie and Maddie is central to the story, and the connection between them was well crafted. Their worry for each other heightens the anguish of their separation and drove the tension of the story.

Code Name Verity is a fantastic book that I’ll read again for sure. Elizabeth Wein has created a well-written, compulsively readable story that thrills and moves.

Book Review – Bomb: The Race to Build–and Steal–the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon

4 stars. Steve Sheinkin’s Bomb: The Race to Build–and Steal–the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon combines science, spycraft, and history into a breakneck-paced volume written for a middle reader level. He presents secret agents, spy gear, and techniques, nuclear physics, world politics, and military tactics in a compulsively readable, richly illustrated volume.

One of the things that impressed me about Bomb is how its clear presentation of complex science and world events never “dumbs down” the subject matter. Explanations are cohesive and easy to understand, factual and at perfect readability for children. Sheinkin also presents the moral dilemmas surrounding nuclear power at an age-appropriate level without being patronizing or preachy.

Bomb is exactly how nonfiction for children should be presented, a book that entertains and enlightens.

Book Review – Hitler’s Warrior: The Life and Wars of SS Colonel Jochen Peiper

Joachim Peiper was a minor but important figure in Nazi Germany: member of the SS Liebstandarte Adolf Hitler (literally, Hitler’s bodyguard), adjutant to SS Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler, and decorated panzer commander. After the collapse of Nazi Germany, he stood trial for the war crime of the murder of American POWs, was sentenced to be hanged, served a dozen years in prison, and was released as popular sentiment turned away from the punishment of war criminals. He moved to rural France, living an idyllic lifestyle. After his identity was publicized, an unknown group of raiders burned his house in 1976, and he was killed in the blaze.

Peiper’s childhood and rise within the SS is an interesting microcosm of the rise of the Nazi party. Flush with prosperity and success, Peiper dedicated his life and career to charismatic Adolf Hitler, while overlooking the evils done in the Führer’s name. The SS was a political organ even moreso than a military unit, and Peiper was extremely adept at maneuvering within its ranks. He certainly enjoyed the perks and advantages of serving under Himmler, and clearly knew the evils of the Holocaust. Parker makes a very solid case that Peiper was completely cognizant of killing squads and the workings of the labor camps. The record is unclear as to why he asked Himmler to be given a combat assignment–patriotism? quest for glory? revulsion at what was being done to the undesirables of the Third Reich?

Descriptions of his family life add to the book, both to give Peiper more dimension and to show how the elite of Nazi Germany lived. Details of his and his wife’s friendship with Himmler’s mistress, Hedwig Potthast, are interesting without devolving to the titillating or gossipy.

The section of the book covering Peiper’s combat career is lucidly written, as Parker describes maneuver and logistics with an eye for detail that provides richness yet never mistakes minutiae for the narrative. Peiper was a decent commander, if perhaps overenthusiastic in his tendency to push forward beyond support or supply line. He was undoubtedly brave and a very good soldier, respected by his men and even US POWs with whom he had contact. Peiper wound up mentally and physically exhausted from his service. Once the war ended and he was captured by the Americans, he was a model prisoner–even to the point that he led his fellow countrymen in the effort to build their own prison camp!

Peiper’s trial is a difficult section to read, yet very thought-provoking. The testimony presented often hinges on very small details, and I found it hard to follow, requiring me to continually refer back to previous pages. That said, it was enlightening as a window into the relationship between victor and vanquished and highlighted that the line between honorable soldier and war criminal is extremely fine. Peiper accepted command responsibility for the murder of the POWs, while denying personal involvement. For me, the evidence was insufficient to confirm or contradict Peiper’s testimony.

His life in prison and after his sentence was commuted first to life and then to time served illustrated the de-Nazification process, post-war Europe, and the Nazis who were re-assimilated into German culture. In 1972, Peiper and his wife moved to Traves, France, seeking a pastoral retirement. Two years later, his identity is publicized by the local Communist party, and he becomes subject to numerous personal attacks. These attacks culminate in a Bastille Day raid on his farm that left his house burned with his body inside.

I enjoyed Parker’s style quite a bit, and respect that he never shies away from either the honorable or the repugnant qualities of Peiper. He neither damns nor celebrates his subject, concerning himself with fact and evidence above judgment. This is a thought-provoking volume that left me pondering the capability for both honor and horror within humans. “Hitler’s Warrior” is a valuable addition to any World War II library.

Advanced review copy kindly provided by NetGalley.