AMERICAN WAR by Omar El Akkad

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American War

By Omar El Akkad
Knopf — April 2017
ISBN 9780451493583 — 352 Pages — Hardcover


My latest review for Skiffy and Fanty is on Omar El Akkad’s debut novel, American War. Check out the complete review on the site, here.
My condensed review:
“A powerful & dark literary character study on the atrocities that war can breed in an individual, but fails in its speculative foundations and in its relevance to America.”

THE DEAD LANDS, by Benjamin Percy

22875435The Dead Lands
By Benjamin Percy
Grand Central Publishing – 14th April 2015
ISBN 9781455528240 – 416 Pages – Hardcover
Source: Goodreads


 It’s been awhile since I’ve read something that I’ve enjoyed one moment, became frustrated and annoyed with the next, returned to enjoying, and alternated back and forth until the closing pages. What it comes down to is that I found I could stomach and enjoy The Dead Lands when I shut off my brain and simply let the thrill of a the post-apocalyptic adventure carry me. If I tried to analyze it as anything more, from themes to the language of the text, I felt like abandoning it.
Percy’s novel has two types of inspiration. One, according to the author’s remarks is his rekindled appreciation of fantasy and long held appreciation of Stephen King’s work, particularly those apocalyptic and those featuring a ‘contained’ society (e.g. Under the Dome or Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption). The other inspiration is from history, the exploration west of the Mississippi led by Lewis and Clark, and guided by Sacagawea, following the Louisiana Purchase.
The historical aspects of the novel are nothing more than loose inspiration, the novel is set after all in a post-apocalyptic former USA, starting in the walled city of St. Louis, which has managed to survive by shutting itself off from the wastelands, the dead lands, surrounding. Kept relatively shielded from the viral and nuclear breakouts that brought an end to the civilization we know, the surviving community of St. Louis has kept going through the careful management of its past mayors and leaders, and the hope that one day they will discover news of a United States still around to rejoin and continue rebuilding.
But Thomas Lancer, the new mayor of St. Louis seems more concerned with maintaining his power and keeping the community insular through fear. When a strange rider named Gawea arrives outside the city walls with news of lush lands and other pockets of civilization to the West, Thomas acts to suppress rather than investigate the possibilities this holds for the city.
Circumstances lead Thomas’ childhood friend, Lewis Meriwether to join with Mina Clark and a group of discontents to escape the ‘sanctuary’ of the city and discover what world and possibilities exist beyond. A passionate woman battling alcohol addiction, Mina Clark yearns for adventure and discovery, the complete opposite to Lewis’ personality, but she is kept grounded by love and devotion for her brother. A quiet tinkerer and intellectual, Lewis has spent his life in St. Louis as an outcast, content to spend his time in the halls of the museum and books of the past age rather than pursuing the political career and position that his father held prior to Thomas taking over. Lewis’ odd nature has begun to evolve into signs of supernatural abilities, and Gawea’s role as messenger includes an invitation for Lewis to join the leader of the Pacific community to learn about this next evolutionary step for humanity that he, Lewis, and Gawea each manifest.
The major players of history are thus present here: Meriwether Lewis, William Clark, Thomas Jefferson, and Sakagawea. Their fictional counterparts follow a similar trek towards the Pacific. But similarities end here. Thomas Lancer shares a name and political power with historic Jefferson, but Lancer here tries to keep any exploration from happening, rather than commissioning it. The mayor is painted more like Caligula, corrupt, cruel, and deviant. Initially I was troubled by Percy giving Lancer a young male lover, the seemingly only homosexual relationship of the novel shown as an aspect of his uncontrolled desires. This somewhat was lessened by implying later in the novel that another homosexual attraction existed between characters that shone more positively.
But the pure ‘evilness’ of the villains of The Dead Lands weakened any serious nature to the novel, rendering it more like pulp. Thomas Lancer’s right-hand-man, the town sheriff is sadistic and disturbed, abusing his power, collecting hair from female victims that he uses to decorate a collection of mannequins kept in his hideaway. The leader of the Pacific community is likewise portrayed as rather brutal, singular in vision, and thus none of the villains here are particularly relatable.
Gawea is seen as an other by the community of St. Louis, but unlike the historic Sacagawea there is no particular unique cultural heritage that she displays to give any diversity to the cast of characters. She is given a backstory, but very little unique to herself beyond being a tool for the plot. As an outcast who is largely self-selected, Lewis is also hard to identify with as one of the main protagonists. His distance from other characters likewise keeps him rather distant from the reader. Brief moments are spent as he struggles with his newfound magical abilities, but little of substance is established. The most interesting character is probably Clark, though it is not her complimentary/clashing relationship with Lewis that shines, but rather the one with her brother. The added element of romantic interest between Clark’s brother and Gawea could have been used to really develop this trio of characters, but unfortunately the plot doesn’t go this way.
Aside from a few surprises of character demises, the plot goes predictably as the group journeys westward. The ultimate arrival and showdown with the community is lackluster, devoid of weight, making the journey and what will follow in the novel’s sequel of greater import. There is a lot of build up for a simple conclusion. To prevent the novel from following the cliched fantasy journey route, Percy alternates the western journey of Meriwether and Clark’s team with a continued plot of events occurring back in St. Louis as Lancer tries to maintain control and Meriwether’s assistant and friend at the museum starts to work with a young man in pushing the city towards greater freedom and overthrowing the mayor’s ruthless control. This mixture of settings is a good thing for the novel, and though also proceeding predictably, it greatly helped the flow of the novel and helped it maintain its quality of simple entertainment, with protagonists it was easy to love and root for against the evil mayor and his sheriff.
Rather than science fiction, The Dead Lands is closer to fantasy, so don’t equate the future setting with scientific accuracy. The flu strain that played a role in the apocalypse is called H3L1 (Hell, get it?), but in reality the H and N of influenza stand for particular proteins. There is no ‘L’. The biological basis for the evolution and mutations seen in the wilds of post-nuclear America are also just absurd, playing into this novel being more like B movie entertainment than anything serious.
Finally, I really didn’t take to Percy’s style of writing. To a degree I can’t really pin down what the issue is for me, but partially I recognized that it came from his frequent uses of nouns as verbs, and similar twists of grammar that sounded odd or confused meaning. Though there is much that just didn’t sit well with me while reading this I have to admit that the adventure of the plot did make me keep reading and it became enjoyable in that way that pulp or a B movie can, so flawed that it’s mildly fun.

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced reading copy of this from Grand Central Publishing via the Goodreads’ First-Reads Giveaway Program in exchange for an honest review.

GOODHOUSE, by Peyton Marshall

20613821Goodhouse
By Peyton Marshall
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux – 30th September 2014
ISBN 9780374165628 – 336 Pages – Hardcover
Source: Goodreads


Though having some positive qualities to it, Marshall’s debut novel of dystopia, Goodhouse, also has it’s fair share of serious problems. Set in the near-future United States, genetic sequencing and supposed correlation between certain genetic markers and disruptive, violent behavior (deviancy from acceptable societal citizenship) lands young boys into a mandatory state-run reform school. Rather than being a place of actual growth and reform, these institutions, or Good Houses, are no more than prisons, maintaining the young boys in a wild mini-society where they are threatened by fellow ‘students’, exploited by the scientists and administrators who run the program, and targeted by a radical religious group that wants to eliminate the threat their deviancy represents.
Readers are introduced to this horrific world through the eyes of a young ward who finds himself increasingly at the mercy of the system and its punishments despite his best efforts to actually reform from the person he is condemned for being. Yet he soon sees that he is perhaps no different than anyone else. This protagonist, named James Goodhouse (an assigned institutional name to replace the real name and past of which he remains unaware), is a fascinating character. As a subject of lies, deceit, and experimental treatments, James is also an unreliable narrator, making many of the events in Goodhouse difficult to discern between real or imagined.
I liked this uncertain, and at times confusing, aspect of the novel, and Marshall’s writing, the language, is evocative with a dreamlike richness in spots that lends to this strange setting and the fragile state of James’ mind. Yet, while details of the plot, what was really occurring to James could be interestingly unclear, open to interpretation, the overall trajectory of the plot was basically predictable from the set up.
While on temporary release from the Goodhouse facility for a work program out in general society, James encounters a young girl who is drawn to James and the danger, deviancy that he represents. Her pursuit of him is a cause for much of James’ getting in trouble with the program, but is also the impetus for his discovering the darker truths behind the scenes. Unfortunately this relationship doesn’t end up feeling more than a plot device and as one of the few females in the novel, this girl is rather one-dimensional, seemingly just eager for a good romp with a ‘bad boy’.
The male focus of Goodhouse is generally problematic, though there aren’t any particularly likable characters in the novel at all, and none really complex beyond James. But the male focus oddly extends to the entire set up of the novel, that these genetic markers for deviancy can only be determined for men. The idea that complex behavior could be so readily mapped is kind of absurd in itself, but for it to be specific to sex chromosomes is just ridiculous. Although the entire screwed up, corrupt nature of the Goodhouse system is hard to imagine existing, the fact that these kinds of places have existed and gotten by (forming a historical basis for this novel) shows that sometimes reality is sometimes harder to bite than fiction.
The presence of the religious zealots as a secondary theme, but driving force of the plot, in Goodhouse is the other aspect where I feel the novel disappoints. The group is shown mostly as either a frenzied mob or through individuals that seem twisted and insane. They really are extreme zealots. But in so rendering they don’t seem particularly human and it instead feeds into limited, dismissive views of any similar groups in real life.
Despite not working for me on the whole, readers interested in the themes raised in the novel may find it worthwhile and Marshall’s talent at writing in general is a strength arguing for keeping an eye out for what he writes next.

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced reading copy of this from Farrar, Straus, and Giroux via Goodreads’ First-Reads Giveaway Program in exchange for an honest review.

In the Shadows of the Mosquito Constellation, by Jennifer Ellis

In the Shadows of the Mosquito Constellation,
by Jennifer Ellis
Publisher: Moonbird Press
ISBN: 0992153824
480 pages, eBook
Published: 26th April 2014
Source: Personal purchase

 There is nothing like being completely surprised at enjoying a book so much – not because you expected to dislike it – but because it was simply unknown and full of possibility, and you know that finding gold is rare indeed.
I can’t recall how, but soon after starting this site I came across Jennifer Ellis’ writing blog and became intrigued by what she had to say as an author, and by the description of her novel In the Shadows of the Mosquito Constellation. Though I didn’t win it through a Goodreads give-away, it proved enticing enough for me to purchase an e-copy, which turned out to be a great decision. I hope that more interested readers will discover this author and her fine post-apocalyptic novel.
In the Shadows of the Mosquito Constellation is set on a fragile communal farm, a cooperative precipitously balanced between opposing camps of personality and goals as they struggle to maintain an island of civilization in a world rent asunder by economic and social collapse. Central to the community is Natalie and her husband Richard. Founded with family and friends in a move toward self-reliance during the start of the world’s collapse, the farm represents a new and defining beginning for Natalie. However, for Richard, a rising Vancouver politician, the farm is just Natalie’s pet project that by fortune became a safe haven to temporarily hold over until government regains control in the city and the good old days can return.
As friction in their marriage builds through Natalie’s increasing independence clashing with Richard’s personality of stubborn control and dismissal, Natalie finds herself drawn to the comfort found in the opposite personality of Richard’s twin Daniel. Faced with threats both from outside their isolated community and from betrayals and secrets within, Natalie and the other members of the community struggle to maintain a pocket of order, peace, and justice in the surrounding post-apocalyptic nightmare reality.
The plot of In the Shadows of the Mosquito Constellation may seem rather familiar. A tight-knit post-apocalyptic community struggling to keep civilization in the chaos that surrounds. A cast of characters with disparate motivations and conflicting personalities bringing crises intentional and unintentional to the balanced status quo. A female protagonist showing independence who becomes stifled by her domineering husband and who is emotionally turned upside down by her attraction to another man. Yet, despite their familiarity, Ellis masterfully weaves these elements into a riveting story filled with characters that seem honest and real. In other words, she takes familiar story ingredients and uses them in precisely the right fashion and proportion to make a literary meal that satisfies.
The characters are mostly very well-rounded, both primary and secondary. While a few display a bit too-exaggerated villainy, this is an exception. For the most part the people in this novel are a combination of good and bad attributes, sympathetic and unsympathetic motivations. Natalie is a fine example of a woman displaying great strength, yet also signs that she is capable of so much more if she could just work past weaknesses. Daniel, in another example, shows qualities of heroism and seems at first glance to be the kind of perfect gentleman that a woman would swoon over. Yet Daniel’s apparent perfection for Natalie is shown to be illusory, with Daniel containing weaknesses that make him fail to live to his potential. Meanwhile, Richard who is shown in many instances to be a horrible person and spouse, is also realized as having important strengths and assets which in some ways make him fit perfectly in relationship with Natalie.
The triangle between these three characters and there imperfect relationships that nonetheless manage to balance one another is much akin to the overall balance in community member individuals in forming the farm society as a whole. How should a society work? If democratic, how should that work? How do we exist as both individuals and balanced communally. These are the matters at the heart of the novel, and Ellis does a fantastic job at posing all of these issues in an entertaining read.
Another strength I found in Ellis’ writing with In the Shadows of the Mosquito Constellation is her sense of pacing and scope. The novel includes portions both in the farm community and contains excursions into the outside world, there are periods of calm and of action, of emotional reflection and serious dialogue, and each is handled fluidly. Despite my only mentioning Natalie, Richard, and Daniel here, there are several other characters, including some other point-of-view characters, giving a range of experiences that are beyond the scope of my comments here, but each were as well-handled as the main characters.
A final point I wanted to make concerns the romantic aspects of the novel. I am not one for romance stories, particularly when they become saccharine or depressing (either a bit too perfect or too ill-fated). There are many women writers out there who make a living writing books for a primarily female audience. They do what they do well I assume, just as there are male writers that write things targeted for male readership. I don’t know the demographics of Ellis’ readership (intended or achieved) but In the Shadows of the Mosquito Constellation is definitely not something that should only appeal to or be read by women. The romantic aspects to the story are importantly vital, and brilliantly rendered by the novel’s close.
Just as the characters of In the Shadows of the Mosquito Constellation struggle to maintain a balance between individual freedom and group responsibility, openness and safety, etc so too does a writer need to find a balance between the familiar and the alienating, action and still moments, entertainment and relevance, and so on. Ellis’ ability at balance is really impressive, and I’m looking forward to reading more of her work – and would even love more stories in this universe. Most other readers that are willing to give her work a try should feel similarly.
Five Stars out of Five

 

Shovel Ready, by Adam Sternbergh

Shovel Ready, by Adam Sternbergh
Publisher: Crown Publishing
ISBN: 0385348991
256 pages, hardcover
Published 14th January 2014
Source: Blogging for Books
(Crown Publishing Group)

I had wanted to review this novel closer to its initial release, but my reading queue was just too full at the time and the opportunity unfortunately had passed. I was happy then to learn about Crown Publishing Group’s Blogging for Books program and request this for my inaugural selection. The plot description seemed like something that would be right up my alley, a genre mashup between the gritty, hard-boiled, noir thrillers you might expect to find in the Hard Case Crime lineup and a dystopian, post-apocalyptic sci-fi setting. Count me in for the fun.

And I wasn’t disappointed. I cracked this open not long after it arrived and finished it within a couple of sittings over the course of the day. If I were able I probably would have just torn through it in one, and would have had just as much fun savoring it. During the opening section of the novel I wondered why it had the sci-fi setting to it, the story could have just as easily existed in a present reality. Thankfully my worry dissipated as the novel continued and the science fiction element became integrated seamlessly into the plot beyond the post apocalyptic setting.

Shovel Ready is set in a near future New York City that has been decimated by a terrorist dirty bomb detonated in Time Square. This event, in conjunction with smaller coordinated bombings and follow-ups has a greater psychological and economic effect on the city in aftermath than the actual physical destruction it causes. New York becomes fragmented between a wealthy upper-class able to hire security and care in high-rise apartments, permitting their retreat into virtual reality utopias, and a lower class seeking to survive in the lawless rubble below. If they choose to stay.

As in Delaney’s Dhalgren, the New York City of Sternbergh’s Shovel Ready is an isolated zone of chaotic culture, an apocalyptic blip within an America that otherwise may be completely ‘normal’. The people who have chosen to stay in New York have nothing else, are committed to its condition and either the opportunities or curses it provides. The novel thus fits into a fascinating area of apocalyptic literature where the disaster and subsequent conditions are relatively localized.

Within this environment is the protagonist and narrator of the novel, Spademan, a former city garbage collector who lost his wife in the initial dirty bomb-related attacks, and who now survives as being a dispassionate hitman operating under a strict professional code. Despite wanting to keep a professional distance from his clients and targets, Spademan finds that his latest client is a powerfully famous religious leader (cultish one may say) involved with providing the hopeless ‘heaven on Earth’ through virtual reality tech. More problematic, the target given to Spademan turns out to be his client’s own rebellious daughter, and she may not fit into Spademan’s code.

Spademan is a fantastic character, worthy to fill the pages of any pulp or ‘serious/literary’ crime novel. Sternbergh does a fabulous job introducing the reader to the flawed and vulnerable character, establishing the rules of his hitman profession, and slowly divulging the details of his past that have led him to his current employment.

Mixed into the great hard-boiled protagonist creation Sternbergh includes many noir hallmarks, from shady thugs, double-crosses, big bad crime leader villains, and a femme fatale. Spademan’s initial target, who becomes an asset he desires to protect fits the femme fatale mold generally well. On a surface level she seems painted the weak female needing a strong male figure (a rather awful misogyny of course on its own), but in reality she is in greater control, and more capable, than one may think, and from the start Spademan learns that she can pack a deadly bite.

In some way these noir aspects of Shovel Ready make it familiar and expected. This could have led it being a decent, slightly above-average hard crime story. The setting and the use of the virtual reality technology as an integral element to the plot make this rise above to something even better. While becoming relevant to the plot, the technology is also used as commentary for class division in this post-apocalyptic New York. While this ‘have vs have not’ kind of message is nothing new or handled rather superficially here, it is refreshing to see it in the kind of entertaining quick read here that could easily still be an enjoyable novel without its inclusion.

By putting the sci-fi aspect in with a dash of blatant social commentary, Sternbergh manages to give a little weight to Shovel Ready without stifling the pure entertaining joys of the thriller. This is a mashup that will certainly appeal to almost all crime/hitman-type story lovers and as a mashup to certain speculative fiction fans. Though I probably shouldn’t encourage more series out there, Spademan and his gritty environment could easily expand into further works, and I’d pick up one of them without hesitation. On the other hand, this makes me curious to see how far Sternbergh’s talents extend.

Four and a Half Stars out of Five

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this from Crown Publishing via their Blogging for Books program in exchange for an honest review.

More info from the publisher

Author bio from the publisher

The Word Exchange, by Alena Graedon

The Word Exchange, by Alena Graedon
Publisher: Doubleday
ASIN: B00FUZQY7I
384 pages, Kindle Edition
Published April 2014
Source: NetGalley

Literary novels can get away with lacking an exciting plot when they are filled with profound insights or inspiring artistic language that like poetry conveys complex emotions and relationships. Genre novels can get away with the opposite, being completely plot-driven, large-scale, ‘simple’ entertainment, even if formulaic. I become most impressed by the authors, or specific works, that are able to pull off the best of both worlds. That kind of mashup is a risky endeavor though, for sometimes it can come out where neither side really comes out well in the product, and that unfortunately is the case overall with “The Word Exchange”.

The premise of the novel is wonderful, and lovers of books, languages, and the power of words will appreciate at the very least the foundations of the novel. The early chapters are dominated more by the literary side of the equation. While the writing is good throughout the novel, it is probably best here Although it verges on gimmicky with the advanced vocabulary-laden prose, that doesn’t feel like a major fault until it gives way to being replaced by fake words for the remainder of the novel. The trick gets old fast, making the advanced real words sometimes overlap in one’s mind as an elemental tool with the fake ones to come. Graedon writes well, but only rarely does it seem profound or elegant. Rather than words being carefully chosen to fit the flow and of the sentence, they are instead chosen to fit the style, or theme moreso, of the novel’s plot. An early chapter from the point of view of secondary character Bart is the most vocabulary-heavy, but it is also this chapter out of the whole novel that contains the deepest musings on the theme of language, delving into philosophy and other intellectually stimulating backgrounds. But for the literary richness of character relationships, nothing is quite achieved.

Instead, the novel seems to delve further and further into being genre, a combination of a mystery (what happened to Ana’s father) and a near-future techno-thriller. OK, so can the novel at least just then be simply enjoyed as genre entertainment? Sadly, the novel doesn’t quite get this right either, though again it does have some things in its favor. The technology of the ‘Memes’ work wonderfully and believably within the novel, a horror that is easily imaginable. The increasing reliance and emotional dependence on mobile connected technology is highly disturbing, much as it was to Ellul who I happen to be reading now too. But, rather than focusing just on these Memes and the technologies direct effects, Graedon creates this incomprehensible scenario where the technology is somehow exerting effects as a biological virus. How exactly this occurs is explained eventually in the novel, yet even then did not make particular logical, biological sense. Handled in other science fiction outlets, here this idea of a language or word virus, simply doesn’t work as believable science fiction.

That could be okay, I am fine with suspended disbelief even in SF. Yet even still, the actual entertainment of the story line and the reader’s engagement with it, sort of plods along. A good third of the novel could be taken out and with some edits to make the deletion seamless, I don’t think the story would be any worse, but in fact better. The plot drags along as the protagonist Ana slowly comes to realize what is going on and where her father may be (and as she proceeds to ignore every bit of advice/warning given to her, thereby prolonging the moment of realizations). The outbreak of the ‘virus’ similarly limps along until sudden chaos erupts in the final portion of the novel.

Filled with lots of wonderful pieces (I loved the retro feel of the Luddite-type society and the use of the pneumatic message tubes), the sum total of “The Word Exchange” somehow fails. In a way the whole of the novel is somehow symbolic of many of the sentences found within it (due to the word virus): phrases of lucidity but lots of meaningless contrafibulations interspersed throughout the crotix that end up making the message of the yozil fail to manifest or grok. Never quite reaching impressive literary feats, but also failing to be more than the average genre novel, the whole feels unremarkable. However, this isn’t a terrible book either. If you are really enticed by books, language, etc, and the description speaks to you, this could be well worth your time. But if you are picky and want something special, this may not be it. Ultimately if you do give it a read, trust your impressions after the first few chapters.

Two-and-a-Half Stars out of Five