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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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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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review 2018-01-29 21:19
Dominion (The Molly Stout Adventures #1) by Shane Arbuthnott
Dominion - Shane Arbuthnott

This is such a wonderful story! I'm pleased as punch that requesting the second book in this series for review, and then finding out that I needed to read Dominion first, put this on my radar. You all know how much I love a good Middle Grade book! Dominion is wonderful. Molly Stout is wonderful. So please pardon me while I gush a bit.

In this reader's opinion, the best part about Dominion is Molly herself. Although there's a lot of other parts that are definitely worth gushing about, Molly reigns supreme as the reason this book is so easy to love. I adored Molly's passion, empathy, and the fact that she had just enough reckless bravery to really make things fun. Better still, there's so much growth that happens in this book. From learning that preconceived notions aren't always healthy, to learning that it's okay to love someone and not forgive them, there are messages in this book that I found so important for this age group. Molly's family isn't perfect, her life isn't easy, but she shows how strength and perseverance are what change things for the better.

As for the setting itself, I think the technology of Dominion is truly what sets it apart from a lot of the other MG Fantasy that I've read. Instead of being Steampunk, I'd pin this book more as "Spiritpunk". Molly's world is one that floats in the clouds and sees spirits as fuel. Which, as I mentioned above, allows for this grey area that Arbuthnott really uses as part of Molly's awakening. I could close my eyes and picture massive ships floating in the clouds. To say that it was easy to get caught up in this book is an understatement.

My only issue, and it's a small one, was that there were some loose ends upon finishing. The ending felt a bit like it was rushing to tie as many things up as possible, while setting the stage for a cliffhanger. I know that there's another book on the horizon though, and so I'm willing to be patient! I'm more than happy to follow Molly, no matter where she might go.

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review 2018-01-29 21:01
"Explosive Eighteen - Stephanie Plum #18" by Janet Evanovich
Explosive Eighteen - Janet Evanovich

As I listened to "Explosive Eighteen" I found myself torn between laughing at Stephanie's antics and groaning at the strain of having to suspend disbelief so hard it hurt.

 

I had fun. How can you listen to Lorelei King read this all-you-can-eat buffet of chaos and disaster and not have fun? But I was also a little frustrated.

 

I decided to vent my frustration by writing an open letter to Stephanie Plum. I hope it gets my point across. I certainly made me feel better for having written it. Here it is::

Dear Stephanie Plum,

 

I've just read your adventures in "Explosive Eighteen", which was a hoot, but which left me needing to say a few things to you as a friend. I mean, I know we've never met, but if we had met and we were friends, these are the things I'd wanna say.

 

Firstly: grow up already. You started out as a Bounty Hunter in 1994. You were young, broke and incompetent, regularly crashed vehicles or blew them up and spent your time being wooed and or rescued by two hot men. It was all very cute and we loved you for it. By "Explosive Eighteen" you've been on the job for seventeen years and you're still broke and incompetent, but you're not so young anymore. What was once cute is starting to look like arrested development. I'm just saying.

 

And the Team Ranger and Team Morrelli thing is getting old faster than you are. Choose one already. And we all know it's not going to be Ranger so either put a ring on Morelli or move on.

 

Also, have you noticed how violent you've become? In this book alone you take on three different sets of armed men, one quite crazed and carrying a very big knife and a semi-automatic and another carrying a frikkin rocket launcher and you kick em, slice em, shock em and shoot em. Even for a girl from the Burg, that's extreme. So how come you still can't cuff an unarmed skip?

 

While you're thinking about that, I got one more thing I gotta know.

 

What's the secret with your hamster? I've never known a hamster live more than three years yet seventeen years later, yours is still living in the Campbells soup can on a diet of pop-tart crumbs. Now I'm a positive person, so I'd like to believe that you've found some exlixir of eternal hamster youth but that don't seem likely, so I gotta ask, when you leave your hamster at your mom's, are you sure you're always getting the same hamster back? I mean, you gotta wonder, don't ya?.

 

If you want to hear Lorelei King's perfect narration of "Explosive Eighteen", click on the SoundCloud link below.

 

[soundcloud url="https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/343011652" 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 2018-01-28 16:22
“Lost For Words” by Stephanie Butland
Lost for Words - Stephanie Butland

"Lost For Words" is my first "recommend to anyone who reads" novel of 2018. Set mostly in the Lost For Words bookshop in York, this novel follows Loveday Cardew as she decides whether and how to move beyond surviving in the refuge she has built for herself in the bookshop and start living a richer life, shaped by hope rather than fear.

 

I liked Loveday. She is comfortable in her own skin. She is a loner, not just because she has poor social skills but because she doesn't like most people. Most of the time, she prefers spending time, hunting, shelving, selling and reading books than she does talking to people and she has no problem with that.

 

Yet Loveday is not entirely who she wants to be. She has a secret that she hugs to herself that keeps a little more distance between her and the world than she would like to have. She knows that keeping the secret secret prevents her from being herself. She fears that sharing the secret will destroy the small safe space she lives in.

 

This is a novel about trust: how hard it is to win, how easy it is to lose, how necessary it is for happiness. Loveday has three men in her life: the larger than life owner of the bookshop who rescued her and offered her safe haven, the unpleasant and perhaps unbalanced ex-boyfriend who won't accept the ex designation and the young man, full-time magician and part-time poet, who she has just met. Her interactions with them, with the books in the bookshop and with her own past create the landscape through which Loveday is trying to find her way to a better future.

 

"Lost For Words" deals with abuse, male violence, mental illness, guilt and the possibility of hope while staying down to earth and credible. Loveday is someone I can easily imagine meeting. Someone hard to get to know but worth the effort.

 

One of the things I liked most about the book was the way Performance Poetry was used as a vehicle for the characters to find out more about themselves and each other. The delivery was unpretentious and natural, powered by a love of words and a NEED to speak. The poems were worth listening to as more than a means of moving the plot along.

 

The plot often has the tension and pace of a thriller rather than a romance or a piece of gentle introspection on the impact of life choices on identity. There are violence and hate at life-threatening levels. There are dark secrets and broken minds. There is also a deep understanding of the power of kindness.

 

I think this is a first-class book. I would have expected it to get the same kind of profile as "Midnight At The Bright Ideas Bookstore".  Sadly, the publishers don't seem to have done well by this book. They've given it a cover that suggests some kind of Jenny Colgan meets cosy mystery hybrid that doesn't reflect the character of the novel at all. They've released it under two titles:"Lost For Words" and "The Lost For Words Bookshop".

 

I suppose I should look on the bright side: they did publish a remarkable book, even if they don't seem to understand what's remarkable about it. I recommend the audiobook version, superbly narrated by Imogen Church.

 

You can sample her performance on the SoundCloud link below.

[soundcloud url="https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/310880978" 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" /]

 

I've now bought Stephanie Butland's earlier book, "Letters To My Husband" an epistalatory novel that I have high hopes of.

Here's what the publisher says:

letters_to_my_husband-395x600Dear Mike, I can’t believe that it’s true. You wouldn’t do this to me. You promised.

Elizabeth knows that her husband is kind and good and that he loves her unconditionally. She knows she hasn’t been herself lately but that, even so, they are happy.

But Elizabeth’s world is turned upside down when Mike dies in a tragic drowning accident. Suddenly everything Elizabeth knows about her husband is thrown into doubt. Why would he sacrifice his own life, knowing he’d never see his wife again? And what exactly was he doing at the lake that night?

Elizabeth knows that writing to Mike won’t bring him back, but she needs to talk to him now more than ever . . .

How much can you ever know about the people you love?

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