Book Review: American War

americanwarAmerican War
by Omar El Akkad
Alternate Future Dystopia
333 pages
Published 2017

By now you probably know there are a few things I tend to enjoy in novels. Dystopias, Fantasies, Debut Novels, and Diversity tend to peak my interest, and American War is a dystopian debut novel by an Egyptian-Canadian author.

And it’s FANTASTIC.

El Akkad did an absolutely amazing job of weaving together the North/South rivalry of the US, climate change, the changing nature of energy generation, and US wars in the middle east to write an all-too-plausible novel about the US, seventy years from now.

Alternating between narrative chapters following his protagonist, and “historical documents” about the time period, he masterfully tells the story of how a terrorist is made. Because that’s what Sarat, his protagonist, is. Let’s make no bones about that. She is a terrorist. But she is a terrorist whose reasoning makes sense to us. Perhaps because the territories and the peoples are familiar to us, perhaps because we see how she grew up and what drove her to it – but the end result is a terrorist act on an unheard-of scale.

I’d like to think this book would make people look at refugees and terrorists in a new light – with more understanding and compassion and maybe with ideas to help actually combat the attitudes and circumstances that lead to terrorist acts. But I doubt it. I doubt this will change any minds that don’t already understand the underlying reasons.

My only quibble with this book is while he manages to weave together so many other issues facing our country right now, he doesn’t really wrap in racism. And I have a hard time believing our country is past racism 70 years from now.

I was very pleasantly surprised to find the protagonist is a bisexual, gender non-conforming woman of color. How awesome is that? And her bisexuality isn’t mentioned, it’s shown, her one on-screen sex scene (and it’s only barely on-screen) being with a woman. (She’s also attracted to a man in the book.)

The author was born in Egypt, grew up in Qatar, and lived in Canada, earning at least one award for his investigative reporting while working at The Globe and Mail. He’s one of the Canadian Broadcasting Company’s 17 writers to watch this year, and I see why. American War is definitely one of my favorite books of 2017.

From the cover of American War:

In this fiercely audacious debut novel, Omar El Akkad takes us into a near future in which a politically polarized America descends into a second Civil War – and amid warfare, a family fights to survive.

Sarat Chestnut, born in Louisiana, is only six when the war breaks out in 2074. But even she knows that oil is outlawed, her home state is half underwater, and the unmanned drones that fill the sky are not there to protect her. A stubborn, undaunted, and thick-skinned tomboy, she is soon pulled into the heart of secessionist country when the war reaches Louisiana and her family is forced into Camp Patience, a sprawling tent city for refugees. There she is befriended by a mysterious man who opens her eyes to the injustices around her and under whose tutelage she is transformed into a deadly instrument of revenge.

Narrated by the one person privy to Sarat’s secret life, American War is a hauntingly told story of the immeasurable ruin of war – in a nation, a community, a family, an individual. It’s a novel that considers what might happen if the United States were to turn its most devastating policies and weapons upon itself.

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Book Review: The Last Neanderthal

neanderthalThe Last Neanderthal
Claire Cameron
Historical/Literary Fiction
272 pages
Published 2017

Maybe I need to stop trying to read the more literary types of fiction. I’m always left with this vague mixture of “what the hell did I just read?” and “why did I just read that?” Like – I don’t know what I’m supposed to have gotten out of this book. It’s another Canadian author, it’s apparently an International Bestseller and one of the most highly anticipated Canadian books of 2017 – but it just wasn’t that good.

The book covers two parallel storylines – the last neanderthal girl struggling to survive, and the archaeologist, 40,000 years later, uncovering her bones in a cave with those of a modern human. The first storyline, of the neanderthal girl, requires a complete suspension of disbelief. We just don’t know enough about neanderthals or how they lived to make a story of it. It’s complete fabrication, presented as a plausible reconstruction. And the second set of bones is never remotely explained. I agree with several other reviewers – the book feels like it’s missing its second half!

I’m really disappointed in this book. All the lists made it seem like this book was spectacular, from a proven author, and that it would explore the “ultimate question of what it means to be truly ‘human.'” But I’m just left wondering what point was supposed to be made. The book did NOT live up to its description. The Neanderthals had more character depth than the modern day people did, and I find the assumption that this was the last Neanderthal to be weird. Almost nothing of the Neanderthal’s story is verified by the modern-day dig. Maybe if they’d mentioned some weirdness like “these bones were dated later than any other bones we’ve found” or SOMETHING.

Don’t bother with this book. I kind of wish I’d spent my time on something better.

From the cover of The Last Neanderthal:

Forty thousand years in the past, the last family of Neanderthals roams the earth. After a crushingly hard season, their numbers are low, but Girl, the oldest daughter, is just coming of age and her family is determined to travel to the annual meeting place and find her a mate. Before long, though, the unforgiving landscape takes its toll and Girl is left alone to care for Runt, a foundling, even as she sets out to discover what remains of her kind. With the dangers of winter quickly approaching, Girl realizes she has one chance to save her people, even if it means sacrificing part of herself. 

In the modern day, archaeologist Rosamund Gale works well into her pregnancy, racing to excavate newly found Neanderthal artifacts before her baby comes. Linked across the ages by the shared experience of birth and early motherhood, both stories examine the often taboo corners of women’s lives.

Drawing on the latest science to explore a misunderstood people, acclaimed author Claire Cameron has penned a haunting, suspenseful, and profoundly moving novel that asks us to consider what it means to be human.

 

This is Book #5 for my Read Canadian Challenge.

#1 – An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth
#2 – The Red Winter Trilogy
#3 – Station Eleven
#4 – The Courier

Series Review: The Changeling Chronicles

Faerie1Faerie Blood
Faerie Magic
Faerie Realm
Faerie Wrath
Faerie Curse
Faerie Hunt
Faerie War
Emma L. Adams
Urban Fantasy
Around 400 pages each
Published 2016-17

Oh my. This is a seven-book series, only available on Kindle, as far as I can tell, and they’re very good. (The whole series is free via Kindle Unlimited.) There were a few grammatical hiccups in the first book, and one or two spelling errors in the series, but overall, very well done writing. (Although calling them piskies instead of pixies was annoying after a while.)

So this series centers on Ivy Lane, a girl who was taken to faerie at age 13 when the faeries invaded our world and wrecked it. Seriously wrecked it. Supernaturals were faerie2revealed, whole swaths of cities destroyed, large numbers of people killed. I do mean wrecked. She spends 3 years in faerie, as the slave of an evil Sidhe, before escaping and making it back to Earth, where she finds that ten years have passed.

Like most urban fantasy series, each book sees Ivy fighting a world-ending threat. One slight difference here is that the world-ending threat in each one isn’t exactly different. As the series goes on, we discover the plot behind the initial invasion, how it was fought off, and how it ties into the current threat.

I wish Ivy’s best friend, Isabel, had been fleshed out more – even some of Ivy’s enemies and other side characters got more personality and character development that Ivy’s supposed best friend did, and that bugged me a bit. But the world-building and magic is pretty fascinating, and the romance is sweet. I was also pleased to see a couple of nods to non-traditional relationships, though I wish they’d not been in the same book, been a bit more explicit, and been more spread out in the series. (A faerie talking about her girlfriend, and a two lady mages who were….a bit more concerned about each other’s safety that most people expected.)

For all the tropes I’ve mentioned, though, I REALLY REALLY liked this series. She’s written a few other books in the same world – Earth wrecked by faerie invasion – a trilogy about a dragon shifter, and one book (so far) about a half-Sidhe girl. I’ll probably faerie 3read those next, after I get through some of the library books on my stack. (…I may have been hiding from the nonfiction by burying my face in urban fantasy – oops.) If you’re looking for a fun, light-hearted romp through Faerie to distract you from the real world, this is a great way to do it.

From the cover of Faerie Blood:

I’m Ivy Lane, and if I never see another faerie again, it’ll be too soon.

Twenty years after the faeries came and destroyed the world as we knew it, I use my specialist skills to keep rogue faeries in line and ensure humans and their magically gifted neighbours can coexist (relatively) peacefully.

Nobody knows those skills came from the darkest corner of Faerie itself.

When a human child disappears, replaced with a faerie changeling, I have to choose between taking the safe road or exposing my own history with the faeries to the seductively dangerous head of the Mage Lords. He’s the exact kind of distraction I don’t need, but it’s work with him or lose my chance to save the victims. It’ll take all my skills to catch the kidnappers and stop Faerie’s dark denizens overrunning the city — but if the faerie lords find out about the magic I stole last time I went into their realm, running won’t save me this time…

Book Review: Alice

aliceAlice
by Christina Henry
Fairy Tale Retelling
291 pages
Published 2015

I was a little wary going into this one – Alice in Wonderland is a difficult tale to reshape. You need enough crazy that it IS Alice, but not enough that it veers into “what is going on here anymore I can’t follow this.” This book did it wonderfully. It’s a dark re-telling – it begins in an asylum, that Alice and Hatcher (The stand-in for the Mad Hatter) break out of. Hatcher’s a murderer, and Alice is no wilting flower herself. Together they fight their way through a neglected, abandoned city run by gangs, to recover the one weapon that can vanquish the Jabberwocky.

It’s a dark book – rape is rampant throughout a city without law, though it’s never graphically described, at least. The weak are chattel to be used, sold, and killed by the strong. But Alice has been weak, and refuses to be weak again. She’s a bit of an avenging angel, descending on the oppressors and freeing anyone she can.

Both Alice and Hatcher have incomplete memories – their trauma both from the city and the asylum fracturing and hiding their pasts. They recover some of those memories throughout the story, and Henry has handled it perfectly, revealing to both them and us key parts of plotline when it’s needed, in a very natural way.

The romance plotline is unconventional, but also very believable, given what the two experience together. Though it’s also a love that I’m not sure can survive outside of their circumstances. After the book, when they (I assume) settle down in peace and quiet – I don’t know that their romance will persevere. They’re traumatized and broken and cling together to hide some of the sharp edges – or cling together in such a way that those sharp edges face out to protect them from the gangs in the city. When they no longer need to kill to survive, what happens?

I’m glad to find there’s a sequel, as they do still have an uncompleted task when the book ends. I’m also intrigued to read Henry’s other series, Black Wings.

Final verdict: I loved it. But it’s dark, so be prepared for that.

From the cover of Alice:

In a warren of crumbling buildings and desperate people called the Old City stands a hospital with cinder-block walls that echo the screams of the poor souls inside.

In the hospital, there is a woman. Her hair, once blond, hangs in tangles down her back. She doesn’t remember why she’s in such a terrible place – just a tea party long ago, and long ears and blood….

Then, one night, a fire at the hospital gives the woman a chance to escape. She tumbles out of the hole that imprisoned her, leaving her free to uncover the truth about what happened to her all those years ago.

Only something else has escaped with her. Something dark. Something powerful.

And to find the truth, she will have to track this beast to the very heart of the Old City, where the Rabbit waits for his Alice.

Book Review: The Courier

courierThe Courier
Gerald Brandt
Dystopia/Sci-fi
297 pages
Published 2016

Oh this was good. This was rocketing sci-fi action reminiscient of Shadowrun – the corporations control everything, and everything is taped, tracked, and monitored. Cities have merged into giant, sprawling, multi-level megaliths, where only the top level is open to the sky, and the lower you get, the more squalor people live in. (And the lower the ceiling gets, too. Level one is a somewhat claustrophobic 5 stories high, and then a ceiling.)

Trigger warning for the book:

The main character has flashbacks of being sexually abused as a young teen, and they are fairly detailed. Perhaps too detailed – but they do give good motivation for why she fights so hard to avoid becoming a victim again. (There’s also a constant threat of injury, death, and torture, if she gets caught.) The sexual abuse wasn’t even hinted at by anything else I’ve read, so I wanted to make sure I pointed it out.

That aside, and even that is handled fairly well, it just took me by surprise – The Courier is pretty great writing. It’s the first of three books, currently – I don’t know if it’s a trilogy, or if there are more planned. The author is also Canadian and lives in Winnipeg, making this the fourth book for my Read Canadian Challenge! The Courier was actually on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s list of the 10 Canadian Science Fiction Books You Should Read.

I like that the main character evolved through the book – from a gruff courier who thought she was doing pretty well, but not really thinking beyond the end of the day and a shower, back slightly to running and licking her wounds while wondering why the world hates her, to “No, fuck this, and fuck these people, I WILL FIGHT YOU.” It was all a very believable reaction to some extraordinary events. There’s an excerpt in the back of the book for the second book, and the third book comes out in November. I will definitely be trying to get my hands on those. Unfortunately, my library only has the second book as an audio book. I’ll have to check the Enoch Pratt catalog.

From the cover of The Courier:

Kris Ballard is a motorcycle courier. A nobody. Level 2 trash in a multileve city that stretches from San Francisco to the Mexican border – a land where corporations make all the rules. A runaway since the age of fourteen, Kris struggles to make a life for herself, barely scraping by, working hard to survive without anyone’s help.

But a late day delivery changes everything when she walks in on the murder of one of her clients. Now she’s stuck with a mysterious package that everyone wants. It looks like the corporations want Kris gone, and are willing to go to almost any length to make it happen.

Hunted, scared, and alone, she retreats to the only place she knows she can hide: the Level 1 streets. Fleeing from people who seem to know her every move, Kris is almost out of options when she’s rescued by Miller – a member of an underground resistance group – only to be pulled deeper into a world she doesn’t understand.

Together Kris and Miller barely manage to stay one step ahead of the corporate killers, but it’s only a matter of time until Miller’s resources and their luck run out…

 

This is #4 for my Read Canadian Challenge!

#1 – An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth
#2 – The Red Winter Trilogy
#3 – Station Eleven

Book Review: Girls Made of Snow and Glass

girlsGirls Made of Snow and Glass
Melissa Bashardoust
Fairy-tale Retelling
372 pages
Published 2017

WOW! I received an ARC of this book through Goodreads and got to read it before the release date (September 5th! Today! GO GET IT!) and I was SO excited to read it. It did not disappoint! This is her debut novel, and the story is absolutely fantastic. It’s billed as a “fantasy feminist fairy tale” and I think it lives up to that pretty well. There are no princes in this story. There are a couple of men – the King, the Queen’s father, and the Huntsman, but they are not who the story is about. The story really is about the Queen/stepmother and her stepdaughter, the Princess.

It’s hard to talk to much about the plot without giving things away, but I was pleasantly surprised to see a GLBT relationship, and one that was treated pretty matter-of-factly. It’s really lovely to see someone take a medieval-ish fantasy setting and make GLBT relationships a perfectly normal thing. Too often medieval fantasy comes with a big dose of bigotry because “that’s the way things were!” ignoring that this IS YOUR FANTASY WORLD WITH MAGIC IN IT so why on earth can’t things be different?!

There was definitely a bit of stilted dialogue, and early plot events were a little cliche, but it’s her debut novel and I’ll forgive that for how outstanding everything else about the book was. It flips back and forth between the Princess’s viewpoint and the Queen’s, and early in the book it also flips between current events (the Princess’s viewpoint) and many years ago (the Queen’s viewpoint, before she became Queen and stepmother to the Princess). It was a little jarring the first time, before I realized it had also jumped backward in time, but after that it was smooth.

All things considered, I love this book. I think it’s probably one of my favorite books of 2017. I am SO happy I own a physical copy of the book! I’ve been getting most of my books from the library recently, so it’s pretty awesome to own a copy of a book I enjoyed so much. I highly recommend this one.

From the cover of Girls Made of Snow and Glass:

At sixteen, Mina’s mother is dead, her magician father is vicious, and her silent heart has never beat with love for anyone. Her heart has never beat at all, in fact, but she’d always thought that normal – she never guessed that her father had cut out her heart and replaced it with one of glass. When she moves to Winterspring Castle and sees its king for the first time, Mina forms a plan: Win the King’s heart, become queen, and finally know love.

Fifteen-year-old Lynet looks just like her late mother, and one day she discovers why: A magician created her out of snow in the dead queen’s image, at her father’s order. But despite being the dead queen made flesh, Lynet would rather be like her fierce stepmother, Mina. She gets her wish when her father makes Lynet queen of the southern territories, displacing Mina. Now Mina is starting to look at Lynet with something like hatred, and Lynet must decide what to do – and who to be – to win back the only mother she’s ever known.