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review 2016-10-27 18:35
Review: Underground Airlines
Underground Airlines - Ben H. Winters

What if the American Civil War had never occurred? What if one early assassination united a nation before it had a chance to be torn apart? What if slavery was still practiced in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Carolina? This is the premise of Underground Airlines. It's a great premise that elicits plenty of thought, but the execution leaves something to be desired.

Underground Airlines is a thriller: politics, cops, chase scenes, double crosses—tension in general. I'm not a big fan of this style, but I was certainly willing to give it a go because I thought the plot was intriguing. Ben H. Winters nails the mood: late night meetings in the city, the sound of cars swooshing through rainwater in the distance, faces covered in shadow—it was impossible not to see much of the novel as scenes from a movie. Underground Airlines is a thriller with a great concept, but in the end it's still a thriller; a book for fans of Grisham, Coben, Baldacci, or—hell, I don't know what I'm talking about, I've never read any of those authors. As far as I know, they write nothing like this.

My main complaint about Underground Airlines comes in the way of alternate history. In this novel, historical and political events have changed. Because the Civil War was not fought, laws were put in effect to appease Southern interests. Texas claims sovereignty and tensions between it and the States are high. Much of the world, especially Europe, has placed sanctions on the United States for its continued acceptance of people as property. Only in the last four years has Japan lifted its embargo. And yet, aside from these political differences, one would not notice a difference between the alternate history of Underground Airlines and our own: towering metropolises, luxury cars, smartphones with all the best apps. Michael Jackson was still the king of pop. Rockwell still painted a picture of little black girl in Arkansas. To Kill a Mockingbird was a sensation, with a slightly altered plot. Rap music, Ralph Ellison, James Brown, baggy pants, Martin Luther King, Jr., Zora Neale Hurston, the list goes on. I am willing to accept that some of these things might have come about in one way or another despite the existence of slavery; I cannot fathom how so little has changed, particularly given how much slavery must have had an effect on these people and American culture. And that's where the story, despite its imaginative plot, shows it lacks much imagination at all. This is an opportunity to paint the world drastically different, to show how the United States could have been a backwards nation with little culture, secluded from the outside world that moves with swiftness into the future. Instead we have our same world, with that trivial issue of slavery nagging us. It's much like our own world, I guess. Slavery does still exist in some forms, even in the US. Yet, for many, its either unknown or a nuisance. It's something that might appear on the news, or might show up in a documentary as we flip through the television channels, stopping only for the briefest moment before we realize this isn't an adaptation of a Grisham novel. And maybe that's part of what's going on in Underground Airlines. Maybe life does go on while slavery rages. But really? “Northerners” playing Michael Jackson on their Samsung phone while driving around Indianapolis in their Nissan? That's just unimaginative.

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text 2016-08-02 06:14
Bacall Associates - Vietnam Airlines Recognised as Leading Global

Prized certification marks key developmental milestone for flag carrier after transformative year


12 July 2016 – National flag carrier Vietnam Airlines www.vietnamairlines.com has been certified as a 4-Star Airline by the international air transport rating organisation Skytrax ranking it alongside some of the world’s most reputable airlines, including British Airways, Emirates and Lufthansa. Vietnam Airlines new President and Chief Executive Officer, Mr. Duong Tri Thanh, accepted the official certification during the World Airline Awards event at Farnborough International Airshow 2016.


Awarded after comprehensive Skytrax evaluation across all customer-facing product and service factors both onboard flights and at airports served by Vietnam Airlines, the prestigious 4-Star Airline certification is recognition for the significant recent improvements that Vietnam Airlines has made to the quality of its product and service standards, as part of its strategic plan to establish itself as the leading carrier for the region.


Last year Vietnam Airlines underwent a dramatic transformation, launching its new corporate identity and beginning a major fleet-wide upgrade to replace its entire fleet of wide body aircraft – significantly enhancing its product offering. 2015 saw Vietnam Airlines become the first airline to operate the new Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner nonstop between Southeast Asia and Europe, and the first Asian airline to operate both Boeing and Airbus’ modern next-generation aircraft at the same time. A total of 19 Boeing 787s and 14 Airbus A350-900 XWBs will be delivered to Vietnam Airlines by early 2019.


At the same time, Vietnam Airlines implemented a programmed to upgrade service levels to international 4-Star Airline standards – spearheaded by Vietnam Airlines’ new President and CEO Mr. Thanh in his previous role as Executive Vice President. Commenting on the news, Mr. Thanh said “I am honored to accept this highly prestigious accolade on behalf of Vietnam Airlines. This fantastic achievement is testament to the hard work of all of Vietnam Airlines’ dedicated employees, and an important indicator of the excellent progress we are making towards our goal of becoming one of the best-regarded airlines in Asia-Pacific.”


Mr. Edward Plaisted, CEO of Skytrax said “This 4-Star Airline rating is an excellent achievement for Vietnam Airlines and the result of their hard work across a range of product and service areas. Introducing two brand new aircraft types into the fleet in such a short space of time is a difficult task, but the reward for Vietnam Airlines is a fabulous new product in their core long haul market. We acknowledge the considerable change and improvement they have achieved, with a new service concept rolled out in Business Class and an overhaul of cabin staff training procedures – all of which will further strengthen Vietnam Airlines position as a major Asian airline.”


Vietnam Airlines offers the UK’s only nonstop flights to Vietnam, operating daily services from Heathrow Terminal 4 to Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City. Flights are carefully scheduled to offer convenient overnight journeys in both directions, and excellent onward connections via its comprehensive network of over 40 destinations in Asia, including 16 within Vietnam 5 in Indochina and the rest in other countries.


Return fares from Heathrow to Ho Chi Minh City currently start from £396 per person, inclusive of taxes. For further information and reservations visit www.vietnamairlines.com or speak to a travel agent.

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review 2016-06-30 21:20
Some nightmares look and feel too close to reality for comfort.
Underground Airlines - Ben H. Winters

Thanks to Net Galley and to Cornerstone Digital for providing me a free copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review.

When I read the premise of this novel, a United States where the Civil War hadn’t taken place and slavery was alive and well in modern times, I was intrigued. As part of my American Literature course I did read historical and literary texts related to the Civil War and later to the Civil Rights Movement, and I found the thought of what modern-day America might have looked like if things have gone differently both fascinating and horrifying.

The book is classed under alternative history, a subgenre that allows authors to imagine scenarios that might make readers shiver, or just reflect on how far (or otherwise) civilisation has come.

The world in Underground Airlines is on the one side very similar to the world we know (at least the bits we’re shown), and even the historical figures of importance are mentioned, although in some cases with a slightly alternative fate or role (like Lincoln’s earlier demise, and Michael Jackson’s different set of problems). Despite the genre, the book is not very heavy on history and does not hammer readers with deep analysis (there are subtle references to themes like the Mockingbird syndrome) and considering the nature of the subject it even manages to avoid heavy pulling at emotional heartstrings.

The story is told in the first person by Victor or… well, whomever he is. The main character is an African-American free man, but not really. He escaped from a slaughter house where he had been born and was supposed to spend all his life. They found his hiding place and forcefully recruited him to become an official agent who would find escapees and return them back to one of the 4 states where slavery is still legal, thanks to the 18th Amendment to the constitution. At first, Víctor made me think of The Confidence Man by Herman Melville, whereby seemingly different characters tell different stories, although perhaps they are all one and the same master of disguise. But then I thought (and saw a comment that also made that reference) about the film Blade Runner, at least if we think about the first version of the film with Deckard’s narration. Victor is somebody who tries hard not to remember anything about his past (although memories, or more accurately flashbacks, intrude every so often) or to feel anything. He has become so adept at adopting other identities that when at some point Martha —a young mother he meets early in the novel and ends up embroiled in the whole intrigue — wants to know his real name, he’s no longer sure. He also reminded me of Deckard with regards to the doubt in many people’s minds as to his real identity. Is he a human being or a replicant? Victor insist (to himself) that he does what he has to do, that he does not care about the ongoing slavery and his own safety is his only concern, that he does not believe anybody can do anything or any of his acts can change matters, but…

What seemed to be a pretty streamlined occupation for Victor starts to get complicated when he is assigned a case where he soon realises something is not what it seems. The file is not complete, the phrasing is off, and the people he meets along the way seem to be hiding something, although he doesn’t quite realise how much. Agents and double agents, twists and turns, betrayals, and a visit to the Deep South are on the cards for the man whose only goal is to not make ripples and keep to the plan.

The book is written in a style that seems to fit in with the fictional character, although for me, somehow, the picture was as fractured as the man itself. Although I have a weakness for unreliable narrators, and Victor is indeed one of them, I found it difficult to connect with him, perhaps because he was himself disconnected and avoided looking at his emotions, and I am not sure he ever became a fully-fledged character for me.

The idea behind the story is good although I wondered if people really keen on historical fiction would find there is enough detail or would like to know more than the brief tasters and snippets that are hinted at throughout the novel. Personally, the novel made me reflect on the nature of world politics and economy, as in what is considered the developed world we seem to be happy to wear or consume products manufactured in near-slavery conditions with little concern for where they come from or only paying lip service to such issues. The specific reflections on race and racism will perhaps be more shocking to readers not very familiar with the topic or who have not read novels or classic texts by authors and figures who’ve written more extensively on it.

I liked the ending, although I wasn’t a hundred per cent sure how well it fitted in with the rest (but I won’t comment in detail to avoid spoilers). The issue at the heart of the investigation that costs many people dearly was to my mind less surprising than it was built up to be (the big whatsit kind of scenario) although in truth I’m not sure what I was expecting.

In sum this is a novel that paints a scary but somewhat familiar alternative version of history in the US (an uncanny version if one wants) and makes us think about issues of race, loyalty, identity, family and global economy. It can be a good introduction to the genre of alternative fiction and has enough intrigue for the readers in search of a good story.

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