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review 2019-05-30 15:42
“The Girl In Green” by Derek B. Miller: Highly Recommended.
The Girl in Green - Derek B. Miller

"The Girl In Green" is one of those books that I want to tell everyone else I know to read but which is difficult either to summarise or categorise, so I'll start with why I like it so much.

 

I love Derek Miller's ability to bring to bear his deep knowledge of the lives of the soldiers, NGOs and civilians who struggle within Middle East war zones, while creating credibly imperfect characters whose worldviews barely overlap and tieing them together in a story arc that stretches decades, embraces difficult moral challenges, recognises that there are no easy answers and yet never slides into voyeurism or despair. He even manages to pepper the story with the kind of grim humour that offers a way of not losing your sanity when you recognise the cruelties you are powerless to change or stop.

Derek Miller leads us through this bleak landscape in the company of a British journalist, Thomas Benton, a US Army private, Arwood Hobbes and a Swedish Aid Worker, Märta Ström. The story starts in Kuwait in 1991, shortly after the end of Desert Storm. Benton and Hobbes find themselves in the middle of a slaughter from which they attempt, unsuccessfully, to rescue a young girl in a green dress who they've only just met. The brutality of what they see and their own powerless scars both of them deeply enough to reshape their lives.

They don't meet again until 2013 when a video showing a girl in green in another desert war drives Hobbes to entice Benton back to a war zone for one last time on what may or may not be a Quixotic mission to rescue a girl they both saw die twenty-two years earlier.

The story that follows is tense and surprising, filled with a diverse set of characters are larger than life and yet, in their circumstances, quite believable. It has many memorable scenes that I mentally gave titles like "The bit with the frozen Chickens", "The bit with the boy in the minefield", "The bit with that grinning bastard with a gun". If there was nothing more to "The Girl In Green" than that, it would be well worth reading as a slightly quirky, indy-thriller with a slightly off-beat sense of humour, yet the book offers much more than that.

 

For me, the main pleasure of "The Girl In Green" came not from its plot but from the truths it told and the worldviews of the people it presented. The gap of twenty-two years is important. It's enough time for people to change, for their memories to haunt them, for their dreams to die and yet, after all that time, there is still a desert war, this time in Syria, with foreign soldiers, journalists and aid workers following their own agendas and trying and inevitably failing, to understand the people waging the war or falling victim to it.

Benton has spent his life reporting wars without ever being able to make them or himself understood back home. Hobbes has made the full transition from ignorant grunt to commercial contractor. Ström is now more experienced, more senior but less hopeful than before about her ability even to limit the damage being done.

 

I liked the way the book acknowledged and demonstrated the cultural differences between the various foreigners involving themselves in desert wars: American, British, Swedish and French, with each of them absorbing and responding to the foreign war in their own way. This was a pleasant change for Hollywood's unrelenting mono-culturalism.

I came away knowing how little we who sit in safety, watching the world through social media and newsfeeds, understand of the reality of the wars being fought in the Middle East. We are fed context-light, often fact-free, ideology-led stories that explain our involvement and our impact with all the depth, accuracy and independence of thought of an infomercial for selling exercise equipment to the obese.

 

"The Girl Green" shows the damage we do and the damage that is done to us in a very human way. It pulls no punches but it pushes no ideology other than a commitment to honesty. It left me feeling that there are no right answers here but there are many wrong ones and that we are as likely to support them as oppose them.

 

I strongly recommend this book to you if you want to be entertained and given the opportunity to think outside your normal patterns.

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review 2018-04-10 17:56
"American By Day" by Derek B. Miller - highly recommended.
American By Day - Derek B. Miller

"American By Day" would make a wonderful movie. It's entertaining, original and accessible. Like most wonderful movies it's underpinned by a serious intent to take a fresh look at difficult issues and a refusal simply to rearrange clichés into new patterns like turning a kaleidoscope.

 

"American By Day" is as easy and as amusing to read as a Carl Hiaasen novel but where Hiaasen is satisfied with using the eccentric to highlight the absurd, Derek Miller uses rational thought to challenge us to leave our pre-conceptions behind.

 

Set in 2008, the year of Obama's election, the book follows Chief Inspector Sigrid Ødegård, the Oslo police detective from Miller's wonderful "Norwegian By Night", to America in search of her missing brother.

 

At the end of "Norwegian By Night", Sigrid shot and killed a man who was running towards her, armed with a kitchen knife. At the beginning of "American By Day", Sigrid is officially cleared of any wrong-doing. This troubles her. She cannot let go of the idea that her assumptions and choices resulted in a young man's death. She wonders what assumptions and what choices would have to change in order for the young man not to die.

 

She returns to her father's farm to think about this. When her father tries to comfort her by saying he knows her well enough to know:

"...You wouldn’t have shot a man unless you thought it was necessary.” 

she replies

"“Maybe I shouldn’t have thought it necessary. That’s the part the police department is ignoring.”

With these questions fresh in her mind, Sigrid finds herself dispatched to Upstate New York to search for her brother who has gone missing. She arrives to find herself in the middle of an investigation into the death by fenestration of her brother's girlfriend. Her brother is the main suspect.

 

As Sigrid tries to use a mix of rational analysis and deep cunning to prevent her brother being killed by the police searching for him, we are lead through an exploration of American policing and the why so many encounters between the police and black men end up with the black men dead.

 

It would be easy for a book dealing with these topics to become a list of competing dog-whistle positions in which no-one listens or learns. Derek Miller avoids this by doing three things: letting me look at America through the lens of a strong, intelligent Norwegian woman who is coming to terms with what she wants from life and what she's able to have; by creating a wonderful local Sheriff who is a truly original free-thinking, bible-quoting, cowboy boot wearing man who wants to make things better and who acts as a foil for Sigrid's point of view and by using humour to keep the whole thing human, without humour the reality of life is inaccessible.

 

Through the discussion between Sigrid, the Sheriff and one of his Deputies, we are invited to see differently, to think differently and to act differently. It is argued that, if the results feel wrong yet the individual steps to that result feel right, then we are missing sometihng. Perhaps we are failing to see sometihng because we are blinded by our assumptions. Perhaps we are choosing not to see something because seeing it would force us to do something even if it's only admitting our own powerlessness or lack of courage.

 

Miller prevents this from being an abstract philosophical debate by keeping the questions and the consequences personal and immediate and by a careful and effective use of humour.to make the people in the story more human and to strip away the reader's ability to hide behind ideas so that we don't have to think about what we don't want to have to see.

 

Humour at its best helps us step back and see things differently, deflating pomposity, acknowledging the absurd and ruefully accepting our shared imperfections. Humour at it worst drives us towards hate, disparagement and a reinforcement of belief in the face of inconvenient facts.  Both types of humour tell us a great deal about who we are and how we really relate to each other.

 

"American By Day" works as a standalone novel. It's funny, has an interesting mystery at its heart and deals with issues that are at the centre of American identity without being simplistic or pompous.

 

The language in "American By Day" is also a delight, in a quiet, unostentatious way. As I read the ebook, I found myself constantly stopping to highlight descriptions that snagged my attention like fragments of brightly coloured glass in the sunlight. Here's an example commenting on the library Sigrid's father built in his home when his wife died:

"After Astrid died he filled the void of words unspoken with the new silence of books unread."

Here's a how Sigrid thinks of the lone travellers she sees eating in a 24hour Diner in the early hours of the morning:

"They hunch over food that is making them sicker and older but tastes familiar and comforting and reminds them of happier times when they were not here."

Here's how Sigrid describes the impact of her mother's death on her five -year-old-self:

"The absence of her mother created a strangeness to the world, as if the palette of the sky had inexplicably shifted and the mind never became fully accepting of that new condition."

I strongly recommend this book to anyone who wants a new light on old problems or who enjoys a well-written, funny, sometimes outrageous, mystery.

 

 

21105862_1578125688916298_4945537257378433438_n.jpg

 

Go to the link below for an interview with Derek Miller if you'd like to know more about him and how he writes.

 

 

https://themillions.com/2018/04/derek-b-miller-interview.html

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review 2016-12-09 18:07
The Girl in Green, by Derek B. Miller
The Girl in Green - Derek B. Miller

Like divine revelation, quests aren’t usually something we see in this day and age. That sort of thing belongs to Arthur’s knights or poor old Don Quixote. At least, that’s what I would have thought before I read Derek B. Miller’s The Girl in Green. The novel follows the serio-comic adventures of Arwood Hobbes, as seen by Times journalist Thomas Benton...

 

Read the rest of my review at A Bookish Type. I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration.

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review 2015-04-09 23:03
"Norwegian By Night" by Derek B. Miller - one of the most moving pieces of fiction I've read in a long time.
Norwegian by Night - Derek B. Miller

I was suckered into buying Norwegian By Night.  I'd never heard of it or of Derek B. Miller but it was a Daily Deal on Audible, the blurb was interesting and the reader sounded good so I went for it, thinking that I'd picked up a slightly quirky American twist on Nordic Noir.

 

What I'd actually bought was something very rare, an accessible, enjoyable, realistic novel that navigates its way through the difficult waters of grief, memory, guilt, dementia, loss and personal bravery, while still providing a page turning plot that made laugh, cry and hope very much that everyone would be alright, although I knew they probably wouldn't.

 

For the first few chapters, I agreed with the NYT review quoted on the cover of the book, that Norwegian By Night "has the brains of a literary novel in the body of a thriller." After a while, I put that idea aside and realised that Norwegian By Night was really an insight into the mind, memories and dreams of an eighty-three year old man, Sheldon Horowitz, using what's left of his life to come to grips with his past while trying to do the right thing in the present.

 

The language of the book so perfectly captures emotions and thoughts and world views that I kept wanting to stop and write phrases down. The ideas are complex and uncompromising. The characters don't have back-stories, they have lives that they themselves have a constantly shifting understanding of, and which have created the person who is about to take the next choice in who they will become. Their choices are shaped by who they are: a Jew, a policewoman,  a mother, a soldier, a patriot, a father.

 

Sheldon Horowitz, the watchmaker whose mind slides backwards and forwards in time, is one of the most memorable people I've met in a book for a very long time. I enjoyed the beauty of the slow unfolding of his identity through snatches of memory, vivid dreams, and conversations with ghosts from his past who he knows aren't really there. This  associative rather than linear process, with memory hooked to topics, not strung like pegs on the clothes line of time, is closer to my personal experience of remembering and mourning. I also enjoyed Sheldon's tenacious, well-argued refusal to be diagnosed as having dementia and his view that spending the end of your life focusing on making sense of your past is the only sane use of old-age.

 

Sheldon is driven by the need to act and to to bear witness.  He places importance on the remembrance of sin, his own and other people's. He seems to be looking not for forgiveness or even atonement but for the ability to accept wrongs done and choices made.

 

After returning from Korea, Sheldon became briefly famous when he published a book of photographs of people in Europe that he had provoked into anger. At first this seemed to have been a frivolous, even jolly, thing  to have done. Then I realised that he had a more serious intent: he had wanted to see what would move the people who had allowed the extermination of the Jews to be angry enough to act. It felt to me as if Norwegian By Night was like hat camera being pushed in my face, especially around the issues on refugees and the violence in the Serbia and the former Yugoslavia. I live in Switzerland, which has a large population of Kosovars and was one of the first countries to recognize Kosovo as a nation but assimilating the refugees from that background of extreme violence is not easy. It felt to me that Derek Miller was challenging me about my (lack of) response on these issues. It was as if, Sheldon was saying to me: "What is WRONG with you people? You know these histories. You know these people. Yet you do nothing. Don't you see what your silence does? Don't you care?" Sheldon/Miller is inviting all of us to bear witness.

 

So how come this book won the 2013 CWA John Creasey Dagger (for the best crime novel by a first-time author of any nationality first published in the UK in English during the Judging Period)? Well, Norwegian By Night meets all the criteria for a crime novel: there are murders, and criminals and a police investigation. Also, judges like Maxim Jakubowski recognise good fiction when they see it.

 

Yet Norwegian By Night is a novel that uses a genre rather than a genre novel. This book has a simple focus - save the boy from the people who killed his mother. It moves forward towards a safe haven in a short timeframe. It has an unambiguous objective that requires ingenuity, bravery, kindness and sacrifice. The genre provides a solid framework around which Miller can unravel the yarn on Sheldon's life, in the same way that a well-known tune provides a framework for a jazz musician to improvise from.

 

Genre novels work because they tug at a hunger for a particular type of reading experience and satisfy it. The good ones go beyond satisfying the expectations the reader turned up with and add new ones, creating new hungers in the process. The best ones, like Norwegian By Night, do all of that and then make you consider  what your own hunger of this genre tells you about you and the world you live and the gaps between what you have and what you want.

 

Too often, mainstream literature is neutralized by a readership that is driven less by a hunger for something as by a smug complacency at being able to recognize a novel as "delightfully clever and wonderfully insightful". This complacency makes it safe to float strange ideas in literary novels: few people will read them and an even smaller proportion of them are willing or able to engage with the novel outside a formal framework for literary criticism.

 

Genre gives the author a well understood structure to hang their ideas on. Shakespeare doesn't have a set of "literary" plays. He has "Game of Thrones" style historical struggles "Let us sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the death of Kings". He has tragedies where people lose all they have and all they might have been in a moment's insanity "My way of life has fallen into the sear, the yellow leaf, and that which should accompany old age... I cannot look to have." Comedies that make us laugh but still slip ideas into our minds like a blade between the ribs  "Is it possible he should know what he is, and be that he is?".

 

In my view, Norwegian By Night is a mainstream book in the same way that Macbeth is a mainstream play. All of the people Norwegian By Night, especially the Sheldon Horowitz, have the choices they have to make today framed by who they have been, the guilt that they carry, the hopes they have lost. All of them have the option to choose to get closer to who they want to be by the choices that they take next.

 

If you'd like to know more about Derek Miller and his difficulties in getting this novel published -  "Love the writing, Darling, but how do we sell it?" - take a look at this INTERVIEW.  

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review 2015-04-06 00:00
Norwegian by Night
Norwegian by Night - Derek B. Miller I was suckered into buying Norwegian By Night. I'd never heard of it or of Derek B. Miller but it was a Daily Deal on Audible, the blurb was interesting and the reader sounded good so I went for it, thinking that I'd picked up a slightly quirky American twist on Nordic Noir.

What I'd actually bought was something very rare, an accessible, enjoyable, realistic novel that navigates its way through the difficult waters of grief, memory, guilt, dementia, loss and personal bravery, while still providing a page turning plot that made laugh, cry and hope very much that everyone would be alright, although I knew they probably wouldn't.

For the first few chapters, I agreed with the NYT review quoted on the cover of the book, that Norwegian By Night "has the brains of a literary novel in the body of a thriller." After a while, I put that idea aside and realised that Norwegian By Night was really an insight into the mind, memories and dreams of an eighty-three year old man, Sheldon Horowitz, using what's left of his life to come to grips with his past while trying to do the right thing in the present.

The language of the book so perfectly captures emotions and thoughts and world views that I kept wanting to stop and write phrases down. The ideas are complex and uncompromising. The characters don't have back-stories, they have lives that they themselves have a constantly shifting understanding of, and which have created the person who is about to take the next choice in who they will become. Their choices are shaped by who they are: a Jew, a policewoman, a mother, a soldier, a patriot, a father.

Sheldon Horowitz, the watchmaker whose mind slides backwards and forwards in time, is one of the most memorable people I've met in a book for a very long time. I enjoyed the beauty of the slow unfolding of his identity through snatches of memory, vivid dreams, and conversations with ghosts from his past who he knows aren't really there. This associative rather than linear process, with memory hooked to topics, not strung like pegs on the clothes line of time, is closer to my personal experience of remembering and mourning.

I also enjoyed Sheldon's tenacious, well-argued refusal to be diagnosed as having dementia and his view that spending the end of your life focusing on making sense of your past is the only sane use of old-age. Sheldon is driven by the need to act and to to bear witness. He places importance on the remembrance of sin, his own and other people's. He seems to be looking not for forgiveness or even atonement but for the ability to accept wrongs done and choices made.

After returning from Korea, Sheldon became briefly famous when he published a book of photographs of people in Europe that he had provoked into anger. At first this seemed to have been a frivolous, even j0lly, thing to have done. Then I realised that he had a more serious intent: he had wanted to see what would move the people who had allowed the extermination of the Jews to be angry enough to act. It felt to me as if Norwegian By Night was like hat camera being pushed in my face, especially around the issues on refugees and the violence in the Serbia and the former Yugoslavia. I live in Switzerland, which has a large population of Kosovars and was one of the first countries to recognize Kosovo as a nation but assimilating the refugees from that background of extreme violence is not easy. It felt to me that Derek Miller was challenging me about my (lack of) response on these issues. It was as if, Sheldon was saying to me: "What is WRONG with you people? You know these histories. You know these people. Yet you do nothing. Don't you see what your silence does? Don't you care?" Sheldon/Miller is inviting all of us to bear witness.

So how come this book won the 2013 CWA John Creasey Dagger (for the best crime novel by a first-time author of any nationality first published in the UK in English during the Judging Period)? Well, Norwegian By Night meets all the criteria for a crime novel: there are murders, and criminals and a police investigation. Also, judges like Maxim Jakubowski recognise good fiction when they see it.

Yet Norwegian By Night is a novel that uses a genre rather than a genre novel. This book has a simple focus - save the boy from the people who killed his mother. It moves forward towards a safe haven in a short timeframe. It has an unambiguous objective that requires ingenuity, bravery, kindness and sacrifice. The genre provides a solid framework around which Miller can unravel the yarn on Sheldon's life, in the same way that a well-known tune provides a framework for a jazz musician to improvise from.

Genre novels work because they tug at a hunger for a particular type of reading experience and satisfy it. The good ones go beyond satisfying the expectations the reader turned up with and add new ones, creating new hungers in the process. The best ones, like Norwegian By Night, do all of that and then make you consider what your own hunger of this genre tells you about you and the world you live and the gaps between what you have and what you want. Too often, mainstream literature is neutralized by a readership that is driven less by a hunger for something as by a smug complacency at being able to recognize a novel as "delightfully clever and wonderfully insightful". This complacency makes it safe to float strange ideas in literary novels: few people will read them and an even smaller proportion of them are willing or able to engage with the novel outside a formal framework for literary criticism. Genre gives the author a well understood structure to hang their ideas on.

Shakespeare doesn't have a set of "literary" plays. He has "Game of Thrones" style historical struggles "Let us sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the death of Kings". He has tragedies where people lose all they have and all they might have been in a moment's insanity "My way of life has fallen into the sear, the yellow leaf, and that which should accompany old age... I cannot look to have." Comedies that make us laugh but still slip ideas into our minds like a blade between the ribs "Is it possible he should know what he is, and be that he is?".

In my view, Norwegian By Night is a mainstream book in the same way that Macbeth is a mainstream play. All of the people Norwegian By Night, especially the Sheldon Horowitz, have the choices they have to make today framed by who they have been, the guilt that they carry, the hopes they have lost. All of them have the option to choose to get closer to who they want to be by the choices that they take next. If you'd like to know more about Derek Miller and his difficulties in getting this novel published - "Love the writing, Darling, but how do we sell it?" - take a look at this INTERVIEW.
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