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Alternating between narrative chapters following his protagonist, and “historical documents” about the time period, he masterfully tells the story of how a terrorist is made.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 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: Station Eleven

St11

Station Eleven
by Emily St. John Mandel
Dystopia/Post Apocalypse
333 pages
Published 2014

This was marketed as a dystopia, but it’s really more post-Apocalypse fiction. There’s a fine line between the two – and sometimes things can straddle it – but I wouldn’t call this a dystopia. So I’m a little disappointed there. Otherwise, it was good. I’m left not really sure how I should feel about it, though. I prefer books that make me feel a certain way – romances make me happy, non-fiction usually makes me feel smarter, like I’ve learned something, graphic novels make me nostalgic. I’m even okay with books like The Fault in Our Stars, or The Crown’s Game, that left me a weeping mess. Station Eleven just left me with an “…o-kay?” Like, what am I supposed to do with this? Unlike most dystopias, I don’t feel like it was a social commentary because it’s post-apocalyptic. (In this case, a virus swept through and killed about 99% of Earth’s population.) But at the same time, because it details events both before and after the apocalypse, I feel like it was trying to be?

The book focuses on how Arthur Leander, a famous actor, touches lives both before and after the apocalypse. It’s a little ironic that it focuses so much on him since he died before it happened. Well. As it started to happen, really, but of a heart attack, not the virus. It rotates between a few different perspectives, but the one used most often is that of Kirsten, who was a child actor in Arthur’s last performance. She survives the apocalypse and ends up traveling with “The Traveling Symphony,” a band of actors and musicians who travel between far-flung settlements around the Great Lakes. The name refers to a comic book drawn by Arthur’s first wife. There’s a dozen little coincidences in the book, leading to people who knew Arthur meeting or almost meeting, but affecting each others’ lives. There are also flashbacks showing Arthur’s life before the apocalypse, and how those people knew him.

I don’t know. It didn’t jump around as much as Oryx and Crake did, it was much easier to follow, but it just left me – meh? It wasn’t a bad book, but I don’t think I’d recommend it. I know other people have given it glowing reviews, so I might just be the odd person out.

A large part of the book takes place in Toronto and British Columbia, and the author is Canadian, so this book is my #3 for the Read Canadian Challenge!

#1 – An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth
#2 – The Red Winter trilogy

From the cover of Station Eleven:

An audacious, darkly glittering novel set in the eerie days of civilization’s collapse, Station Eleven tells the spellbinding story of a Hollywood star, his would-be savior, and a nomadic group of actors roaming the scattered outposts of the Great Lakes region, risking everything for art and humanity.

One snowy night Arthur Leander, a famous actor, has a heart attack onstage during a production of King Lear. Jeevan Chaudhary, a paparazzo-turned-EMT, is in the audience and leaps to his aid. A child actress named Kirsten Raymonde watches in horror as Jeevan performs CPR, pumping Arthur’s chest as the curtain drops, but Arthur is dead. That same night, as Jeevan walks home from the theater, a terrible flu begins to spread. Hospitals are flooded, and Jeevan and his brother barricade themselves inside an apartment, watching out the window as cars clog the highways, gunshots ring out, and life disintegrates around them. 

Fifteen years later, Kirsten is an actress with the Traveling Symphony. Together, this small troupe moves between the settlements of an altered world, performing Shakespeare and music for scattered communities of survivors. Written on their caravan, and tattooed on Kirsten’s arm, is a line from Star Trek: “Because survival is insufficient.” But when they arrive in St. Deborah by the Water, they encounter a violent prophet who digs graves for anyone who dares to leave.

Spanning decades, moving back and forth in time, and vividly depicting life before and after the pandemic, this suspenseful, elegiac novel is rife with beauty. As Arthur falls in and out of love, as Jeevan watches the newscasters say their final good-byes, and as Kirsten finds herself caught in the crosshairs of the prophet, we see the strange twists of fate that connect them all. A novel of art, memory, and ambition, Station Eleven tells a story about the relationships that sustain us, the ephemeral nature of fame, and the beauty of the world as we know it.

#junebookbugs – June 27 – Set In The Southern Hemisphere

So these are the first two books in a YA series set in Australia. (The first two are on Kindle Unlimited right now!) The series is apparently very popular in Australia, but I’d never heard of it until an internet friend told me I should read them. They’re about Australia getting invaded – by who is purposefully left vague – while these kids are out on a camping trip in the bush. So they come home to find their town empty, and have to puzzle together what happened and decide what they’re going to do. They’re pretty good. I didn’t finish the series because I had a falling out with the internet friend, and attached bad outside feelings to the books, unfortunately. But I always found it interesting how books can be wildly popular in one place, and completely unheard of in another.

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The #junebookbugs Index Post is here.

Book Review: The Giver

thegiver

The Giver
by Lois Lowry
225 pages
Dystopian Fiction
Published 1993

So, I know The Giver has been out for a long time, and I know they made a movie, but somehow I’d never read or watched it. But on the recommendation of a friend, I finally have. What a strange little book! It definitely belongs in the same realm as Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451, 1984, and The Handmaid’s Tale – which are among my favorite books – but the ending was tremendously unsatisfying. It’s the first book in a quartet, though, so I’m hoping the other three, which I have requested from the library, will tie up the loose ends. It definitely feels like it’s only the first installment of a story.

The dystopian society in this book has effectively banished most feelings. But to get rid of hate and war and prejudice, they also had to banish the memories and feelings of individuality and difference. With everyone and everything the same, they’re mostly incapable of feeling true love or happiness. So they all live in peace – but it’s a complacent, uncaring peace. It’s not peace because of love, it’s peace because of the absence of passionate feelings. Whether this is good or not, well, that’s up to the reader to decide for themselves. The actions of the main character, who aims to disrupt that peace, could be seen as good or bad.

I’m not actually sure how I feel about this book. I will probably have a better opinion once I read the next three – Gathering Blue (2000), Messenger (2004), and Son (2012).

From the back cover:

“I have great honor,” The Giver said. “So will you. But you will find that that is not the same as power.”

Life in the community where Jonas lives is idyllic. Designated birthmothers produce newchildren, who are assigned to appropriate family units: one male, one female, to each. Citizens are assigned their partners and their jobs. No one thinks to ask questions. Everyone obeys. The community is a precisely choreographed world without conflict, inequality, divorce, unemployment, injustice….or choice. 

Everyone is the same.

Except Jonas.

At the Ceremony of Twelve, the community’s twelve-year-olds eagerly accept their predetermined Life Assignments. But Jonas is chosen for something special. He begins instruction in his life’s work with a mysterious old man known only as The Giver. Gradually Jonas learns that power lies in feelings. But when his own power is put to the test – when he must try to save someone he loves – he may not be ready. Is it too soon? Or too late?