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text 2018-02-24 00:35
"Anything is Possible" Reading progress update: I've read 6%. - wonderful stuff
Anything Is Possible - Elizabeth Strout

I'm barely thirty minutes into the eight and a half hour audiobook and the standard of the writing is outstanding. Elizabeth Strout's prose is effortlessly accessible while still engaging me in the nuances of an old man's perceptions and opinions, building his worldview with such deft strokes that I can't even see how's she doing it,

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review 2018-02-12 15:29
"American War" by Omar El Akkad - highly recommended.
American War - Omar El Akkad

I believe the thing that sets Omar El Akkad's "American War" apart is not his ability to build a powerful and compelling view of a 2075 America, damaged by global warming and collapsing into a civil war, prompted by the South's refusal to stop using fossil fuels, it is his creation of Sara T Chestnut - who calls herself Sarat. Sarat is a bright, curious young girl from Louisianna who is broken and finally destroyed by a war she had no part in making and a need for revenge that she cannot let go of.

 

Sarat is neither hero nor saint. She is strong, brave, bright and fierce. She has also been fundamentally ruined by the war she has lived through. What she does is literally atrocious. Why she does it is completely understandable.

 

It is this ability to help me understand Sarat without turning her into an object or either worship or contempt, that makes "American War" a great novel.

 

In the opening chapter of "American War" the narrator tells us that:

 

"This isn't a story about war, it's about ruin."

In this war of the MAG (Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia) against the North, everything and everyone is ultimately ruined. America becomes a place of violence and vengeance. A place where you or either "Us" or the enemy. A place filled with the desperate poverty of refugee camps, the truculent aggression of militias, merciless oppression by the government and self-interested interference by foreign powers who covertly fuel the conflict with weapons and subversion while publicly offering humanitarian aid. There are assassinations, massacres, torture and bone-deep hatreds.

 

Yet there is nothing here that I cannot look around and see today in the Middle East or the Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp or Turkey or in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. Omar El Akkad is a journalist who has covered many wars and revolutions. He has not had to make up the things that come with war, What he has had to do is to help us see them with fresh eyes, to put ourselves in the shoes of the losing side, the oppressed, the refugees, the ones who have seen everyone they love and everything they care about destroyed by an enemy so powerful that victory is unimaginable and the only possibilities are survival or revenge.

 

"American War" is not a book that preaches through soundbites. The pace is slow, You feel the years passing and experience hope being slowly extinguished and being replaced by shame and anger and an insatiable need for revenge.  The book avoids being a series of platitudinous abstractions by focusing on Sarat's slow transformation from a bright, curious child, into fierce fighter and then to a woman broken and in constant pain.

 

Sarat doesn't theorise about war. Perhaps, as the product of it, she is too close to it to be able to see it as anything other than how the world is.

 

The theorising is left to an outsider, Karina, who keeps house for the Chesnuts at one point. She is the one who understands that, diverse as people are when there is peace, they all become the same in war. She believes that:

“The misery of war represents the world’s only truly universal language.”

and that:

"The universal slogan of war, she'd learned, was simple: if it had been you, you'd have done no different."

Karina also sees Sarat differently:

"Unkike everyone else, she didn't admire Miss Sarat or hold her in some revered esteem. The girl was still a child. At seventeen she was still less than half Karina's age.  She knew from experience that there existed no soldier as efficient, as coldly unburdened by fear, as a child broken early."

The only other commentator on what truly drives the conflict Sarat is engulfed by is made by her childhood friend, who, trying to explain why she thinks a certain action is right, says:

"In this part of the world right and wrong ain't about who  wins or who kills who. In this part of the world, right and wrong ain't even about right and wrong. It's about what you do for your own".

This is a statement you could hear all over the world, Treating others differently than your own seems to be a basic human response. When war comes, this response is the oxygen feeding the fire.

 

This novel reminded me that, if I want to understand acts or war or terrorism, I should always remember the "before" that led that person to that event. I don't have to condone them, but I'll never understand them if I stay ignorant of the "before".

 

"American War" is a grim book but an honest one. It is heartbreaking without being in the least bit exploitative. It's wonderfully well-written and brilliantly narrated by Dion Graham.  Click on the SoundCloud link below to hear a sample:

 

https://soundcloud.com/pan-macmillan/american-wart-by-omar-el-akkad

 

og_image_nprbooksClick on the npr books logo to hear Lulu Garcia-Navarro interview Omar El Akkad on how "American War" explores the universality of revenge. In it, Omar El Akkad talks about Sarat and says:

"No. I don't think you're supposed to have sympathy for her. My only hope is that you understand why she did it. I think one of the things that's been lost in this incredibly polarized world we live in is the idea that it's possible to understand without taking somebody's side. So my only hope is that when you get to the end of the book, you're not on her side, you don't support her, you're not willing to apologize for her — but you understand how she got to the place where she is."

 

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text 2018-02-12 08:28
Reading progress update: I've read 7%. - one chapter in and already happy
Frost Burned - Patricia Briggs,Lorelei King

After deciding to DNF "Need To Know", which I'd been looking forward to enough to pre-order, I needed something to remind me how much fun reading can be.

 

It's mid-February. The sky is pregnant with grey snow that turns to rain when I drop 200m down the hill to the lakeside. The noon-time temperature is just above freezing. I have proposals to write in my deliberately small and dark office. 

 

So, before I start my day, I decided to spend some time with Mercy Thompson over in Washington State. It's Thanksgiving there, so the weather's no better but within a single chapter, I've been transported from here to somewhere where all I have to do is relax and admire how skillfully Patricia Briggs re-immerses me into Mercy's world through the mundane activity of Black Friday shopping and then blows everything apart, leaving me keen to know what happens next.

 

Better yet, I was able to get this book in the audible version (books 2-6 aren't available as audiobooks in Switzerland) so I can let Lorelei King lay the whole thing out for me as I walk beneath slowly brightening sky to get a café creme and a couple of croissants for breakfast.

 

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text 2018-02-11 12:28
"Need To Know" by Karen Cleveland - DNF - abandoned at 20% mark
Need to Know: A Novel - Karen Cleveland

The hype that brought me to this book was mostly accurate. It is fascinating to read a novel about a CIA analyst, written by someone who was a CIA analyst for a decade. The premise - what would you do if your work to uncover suspected Russian sleeper cells in the US identified your huaband of seven years and father to your four children as a suspect. I suspect that, as the book unfolds, there will be a complex hiw-do-I-get-out-of-this? plot.

 

Unfortunately, this book is not for me. The pace is slow. The emotions are too wholesome. The characters are vamilla. I expected more anger and more scepticism. There's  too much motherhood and apple pie here for me to enjpy myself.

 

After two hours of a nine hour book, I've decided that I don't Need To Know.

 

Try the audiobook sample on the SoundCloud link below and see if this book is for you.

[soundcloud url="https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/348643610" params="color=#ff5500&auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false&show_teaser=true&visual=true" width="100%" height="300" iframe="true" /]

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review 2018-02-08 23:21
“A Study In Charlotte – Charlotte Holmes #1” by Brittany Cavallaro
A Study in Charlotte - Brittany Cavallaro

This is a Young Adult story that reboots the Holmes and Watson story with the great great grandchildren of the original Holmes and Watson: Charlotte Holmes and James (don’t call me Jamie) Watson. They find themselves at the same Vermont boarding school. Watson is an American, raised in London for most of his life and Holmes is a Brit exiled to America for bad behaviour.

 

It’s a clever idea. The changes in age, gender, country and century prevent Charlotte from being Holmes in a dress and change the dynamic between Holmes and Watson in complex ways.

 

Although this is a light read, it’s not a soft one. We have drugs and rape and cold-blooded murder. Charlotte is a hard person to like. She’s bright and fierce but so aberrant in her behaviour that she comes off as somewhere between abused child and irredeemable narcissist. Watson is a little brighter than his predecessor but has a problem with anger and a habit of using violence as a problem-solving technique.

 

The plot reloves around murders that are clearly based on Holmes stories and for which Watson and Holmes are being framed. This provides solid links to the Holmes brand while requiring a modern reinterpretation.

 

The supporting characters, especially the grown-ups, are paper thin. The school set-up is improbable. The denouement is not entirely convincing.

 

It’s a fun romp, with flashes of originality, nuggets of insider humour and an unabashed exploitation of the Holmes brand.

 

I enjoyed myself but I don’t hear the rest of the series calling to me.

I started with the audiobook version but abandoned it in favour of the Kindle version after only half-an-hour. The book has two narrators, Graham Halstead for Jamie Watson and Julia Whelan for Charlotte Holmes. Graham Halstead opened and I never managed to get past his performance. Most of it is fine but his attempts at English accents are not distracting. Not Dick Van Dyke awful but not good enough to match the right accent to the right class.

 

Of all the wonderful narrators out there wouldn’t it have been possible to find Americans who do English accents as well as Paltrow or Anderson or perhaps take the radical step of using narrators who are actually English?

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