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Books We Like

Published 1/9/2015 by Margaret Adam

Books We Like

Want To Read 100 Books This Year? A great delight of working in a library is hearing people say how much they love to read. Better yet, we get to hear which books and authors generate the strongest responses in people, and why. Customers’ comments help expand the range of what we can pass along to others. Even with access to current and wide-ranging bibliographies and book reviews, I still enjoy sharing the experience of reading something someone else has loved. The first of three favorites, below, came to me recommended by my 17-year-old daughter, who told me it was highly recommended by two of her favorite teachers.

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein tops my list because it contains a single moment in the story’s careening plot which is the most heart-stopping, unforgettable snapshot of high drama in any story I’ve ever read. If you think I’m exaggerating, read it and let me know.

Readers who like history, aviation, or espionage would enjoy meeting Julie and Maddie, two smart twenty-something British military volunteers who become best friends during wartime training in 1943. Maddie is a Scottish-born transport pilot whose clandestine flight goes down behind enemy lines. Julie, an ingenious female translator, becomes a spy and heads for occupied France. The unique structure of this 2012 novel starts with Julie’s detailed confession, written while being tortured by Nazi interrogators. Her story unfolds as she writes these sequential flashbacks. Despite admirably bearing pain and humiliation, she gradually breaks down, revealing more and more classified information to her captors. We begin to wonder, though, who is Queenie? Scottie? Eva?

And then, suddenly--what? How can the story end after 200 pages when there are 100 more to go? But it doesn’t end, we know that; it can’t, not just yet. The last third of the book is Madddie’s story, continuing in real time from her point of view. Maddie struggles to avoid capture, remain alive, and find a way back to England. To find out how these women survive and whether they see each other again . . .read the book.

Film rights to Code Name Verity were optioned in 2013. Wein has also penned two more Young Pilot novels with World War II settings. In Rose Under Fire, another air transport pilot is captured and sent to Ravensbrück concentration camp. Black Dove, White Raven features an American-born young man and woman living in Ethiopia and resisting Italian forces. It’s due out March 31st. For more on Elizabeth Wein, click here .

More tragic than Code Name Verity with its wartime conflict is the award-winning nonfiction marvel Nothing To Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea. Author Barbara Demick thoroughly reveals the turmoil of North Korea even during peacetime, in the 1990s and early 2000s. She describes life in the northern industrial city of Chongjin by following the lives of six people over many years. We meet two middle-aged women, two young women, a young man and a boy.

To read Nothing To Envy is to travel a hundred years back in time and then step off the map into a landscape bleak enough to rival dystopian fiction. Neither the government nor the economy function well enough to bring meaningful employment or reliable electricity to the country’s 24 million people, let alone much quality of life. Consequently, these hard-working families grow accustomed to near-constant hardships such as food shortages (or, in the late 90’s, starvation); paranoia; limited education; poor health care; and--worst of all--not having the freedom to express one’s own true thoughts or feelings.

Since this book focuses on individual lives, descriptions of love and friendship are a highlight. Persistent joy amid the oppression surfaces in the courtship between Mi-ran and Jun-sang. Their ongoing relationship helps structure passing time in the book, even if neither of them can tell the other that, as young adults, they want to defect and plan to get out. It’s bittersweet, but they can’t trust even each other with such treasonous desires. What’s worse, every defector worries about the threat of retaliation against loved ones left behind.

Eventually, every one of the six people makes an irreversible decision to leave. For some it takes more than one attempt. The suspenseful escapes make exciting reading.

The stories of the six then continue beyond the borders of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea as Demick follows them into their new lives, full of adjustments, in South Korea and elsewhere.

From the comforts of elsewhere, I admire how hard these people worked just to survive. Knowing how extremely difficult it was to try to teach, as Mi-ran did, or practice medicine, as Dr. Kim did, makes me appreciate anew our schools and hospitals. North Korean schoolchildren are brainwashed to believe that they have “nothing to envy in the world,” yet so much that we take for granted is just that, enviable. Food; water. Heat; health. Mobility; education. Political freedom, religious freedom, economic opportunity. Books. Libraries. Computers.

A third book I like a lot, on a lighter note, is one of the funniest and most-fun-to-read-aloud books ever to win the Newbery Award: Flora and Ulysses: the Illuminated Adventures by Kate DiCamillo, which won a year ago. It asks, “What if a squirrel got sucked up into a super-strong vacuum cleaner, only to be resuscitated as a poetry-writing superhero?” Of its 232 pages, twelve are mostly blank, and another fifty are illustrated as comics which help tell the story while adding, as if it needs it, extra humor.

If it’s been a while since you’ve read a Newbery Award winner, or any children’s book at all, try this one. It’s short and sweet but not too sweet. It may inspire you to host a count-down party for the newest American Library Association Award Winners, announced every year in the bleak midwinter--this year, on February 2, Groundhog Day.

If you’re still reading this column, you’re just the kind of person who might like the challenge I’m taking on here now, from the opening of this article. A few months ago, a student at East Forsyth High School created a winning bookmark design that says, “I Dare You To Read 100 Books This Year.” Would you like to do that? If you’re interested, just start a list--electronic or low-tech--and we’ll let that student know how many readers in her community accept her dare. Bring or send these lists to Walkertown Branch as soon as you hit 100, and I’ll pass them along to her.