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.”

INK AND BONE, by Rachel Caine

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Ink and Bone
(The Great Library #1)
By Rachel Caine
NAL – 7th July 2015
ISBN 9780451472397 – 368 Pages – Hardcover
Source: Ace Roc Stars Street Team


Imagine if the Royal Library of Alexandria had not been destroyed in flames.
My latest review is now up at Skiffy & Fanty on Ink and Bone, the first book in Rachel Caine’s new series: The Great Library. Read the review here!

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this from the publisher as part of the Ace Roc Stars Street Team in exchange for an honest review.

ETTA AND OTTO AND RUSSELL AND JAMES, by Emma Hooper

21412221Etta and Otto and Russell and James
By Emma Hooper
Simon & Schuster – 20th January 2015
ISBN 9781476755670 – 320 Pages – Hardcover
Source: NetGalley


 At 82 years old Etta gets up one morning, packs some supplies, and heads out on a walking trek to fulfill her unfulfilled dream of seeing the sea, thousands of kilometers away from the Saskatchewan home she shares with her husband Otto. As Etta makes her gradual journey step by step, Otto remains at home reminiscing over the past that he has shared with Etta and their neighbor and long-time friend Russell.
Starting off toward her goal solitary, with no fanfare, Etta begins meeting people who have heard of her walk and lend her some support and companionship as she passes through towns. In the empty Canadian wilderness between she becomes joined by James, a talking coyote. Meanwhile the reader discovers through the reflections of Otto’s and Russell’s past that love and passion exists both between Etta and Otto, and between her and Russell. Amid the tides of war and the expectations of society Etta, Otto, and Russell experience difficulties and tenderness alike.
There is a lot to appreciate in this gentle literary novel. The elderly are not frequently featured or explored in novels in any serious way, and in film/TV they are mostly used for jokes. Having protagonists who are elderly – and one who is female and actively doing something amazing that even the young would be hesitant to attempt – is refreshing. The three human characters of the novel, both at their present old age and in the recollections of their younger years are well fleshed out, and really interesting, beautiful.
Etta and Otto and Russell and James is also marked by a distinct lack of conflict. Despite the love triangle featured here, there is nothing disastrous that comes about. The hardships, the longing and the guilt over having given into some of these are viewed in the novel through the long stretch of decades that have passed. In their old age the characters have become much more wise, patient, and forgiving to themselves. Having characters that are largely at peace, non-resentful, and appreciative of the life they have gotten to live even with its notes of sourness makes the novel feel similar, slow and optimistically contemplative despite that sadness over missed opportunities, unfulfilled desires.
It is Etta’s journey in the present – an attempt to satiate one desire that still remains possible – that creates some of the largest tension, in the worry of whether she will be able to make such an arduous journey without her health failing, physically or mentally. The appearance of James, a talking coyote companion injects the ‘magical realism’ into the novel. If merely a construct of Etta’s mind, is it something beneficial akin to a spirit guide, or a sign of danger? The line between real and fantasy blurs more as the novel reaches its conclusion, leaving an ending that can be interpreted in unique ways depending on the reader.
For readers who don’t mind the oddity and openness this novel contains or a lack of action, Etta and Otto and Russell and James is a meditative, emotionally complex novel that invites reflection and discussion. Even accepting the type of novel this is, I’m most uncertain how vital James is as a character, but rereading it with everything in mind with the coyote as an aspect of Etta’s mind may reveal more here than a first read was able to pick out. A good length for a book club, the novel would certainly be an ideal consideration for one.

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced reading copy of this from Simon & Schuster via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Of Bone and Thunder, by Chris Evans

Of Bone and Thunder, by Chris Evans
Publisher: Gallery Books
ISBN: 1451679319
496 pages, hardcover
Published: 14th October 2014
Source: NetGalley

 Sometimes getting behind on reviews can have its benefits. For example, I’ve gotten to think about this novel for longer after finishing it than I expected. When about halfway through Chris Evans’ Of Bone and Thunder I was still finding it hard to get into, appreciate, or particularly enjoy. Upon finishing it I had a hard time figuring out what of substance I could even say about it.
Upon reflection I realized that my failure to be drawn into the novel stemmed largely from it just not being what I thought it would be, of being the novel I probably unreasonably wanted it to be. Perhaps you’ve read a book with the same mindset and results? Once accepting the novel for what it actually intends to be I find a deeper appreciation for it, and Evans’ “daring” to try something a little different. Though I’ve grown to appreciate several aspects of the novel, some problems still remain in my mind.
Unreasonable reader expectations began with the novel’s marketing description as “Apocalypse Now meets Lord of the Rings”. I’m always wary of such comparisons to authors or works, so this wasn’t a strong expectation for me at least. But it may be for other readers. Of Bone and Thunder is a fantasy novel with allegorical themes recalling the Vietnam War. So those titles only serve as overused proxies for highly recognized associations with ‘Vietnam’ and ‘Fantasy’. Evans’ novel has little to nothing in common with the plots or styles of Coppola’s film (or Conrad’s Heart of Darkness) or Tolkien’s trilogy.
Of Bone and Thunder keeps sharp focus on a handful of characters who are soldiers waging war in the land of Luitox for a distant kingdom (The Kingdom). Their enigmatic enemy are the Slyts, a reclusive jungle-inhabiting people skilled at guerilla-style tactics. Beyond the conventional warfare of the common soldiers, the conflict hinges on the power of – and intelligence gathered by thaums (as in thaumaturge) on each side. Balancing their handicap of unfamiliar territory and foe, the Kingdom also has the advantage of flight, in the form of lethal, but volatile, dragons.
One thing Evans does very effectively is include a cast of characters who span the class spectrum of the Kingdom’s military: thaum, commander, dragon-tender, common soldier, covert op, etc. For most of the novel these characters are largely skewed to the male gender – as it would be if it were actually the Vietnam War, but gradually some female characters enter the novel, and thankfully in ways that don’t just involve romantic interest for the men – though that over-worn path is still traveled.
With a focus on individuals of the Kingdom, the novel captures a sense of their psychology and trauma, fighting what seems an almost pointless campaign against an enemy barely known for a distant ruling class that is barely familiar itself. These parallels to Vietnam are blatant, and rather familiar.
And here is where I really wanted Of Bone and Thunder to be something else. Glimpses of the Slyts kept making me want to see and know more about them – their reality and point of view on this war – and see less of the American proxies of the Kingdom. At first it seemed unclear if the Slyts really existed as the propaganda and rumors of the Kingdom said, or if they were even remotely threatening. Written truly different from the recognizably human members of the Kingdom, the Slyt society seemed less a direct version of the Vietnamese and therefore has great potential for deeper, unique development in what is a fantasy novel. But a novel from the point of view of the Slyts are not what this is.
Ultimately how much  a reader may enjoy Of Bone and Thunder may come down to whether it is read as a developed fantasy that recalls aspects of the Vietnam war, versus a novel of the Vietnam War where some elements are swapped out with some fantastic entity, like dragons. For me, some parts of the novel recalled the pulp style writing that science fiction magazines have consciously tried to avoid, like a scene from a Western where guns are simply replaced with lasers, cowboy is replaced with spaceman, etc.
I finished Of Bone and Thunder somewhat perplexed over why it was ever written as a fantasy, and not just as a mainstream novel of the Vietnam War. I was left with the thought that perhaps it’s because the themes and elements of the war are already well-tread. The fantasy aspect and exploration of using dragons or mage-combat in warfare is the draw for this. As long as you enter into the novel with a better sense of what to expect in terms of the story’s focus and find that intriguing – or simply enjoy well-written dialogue and characters in a fantasy setting such as this – the novel is one to check out.

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced electronic reading copy of this from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Last Stories and Other Stories, by William T. Vollmann

Last Stories and Other Stories,
by William T. Vollmann
Publisher: Viking
ASIN: B00G3L0ZV4
692 pages, eBook
Published 10th July 2014
Source: NetGalley

Contents:
I –
“Escape” (Sarajevo)
“Listening for the Shells” (Sarajevo)
“Leader” (Mostar)
II – 
“The Treasure of Jovo Cirtovich” (Trieste)
“The Madonna’s Forehead” (Trieste)
“Cat Goddess” (Trieste)
“The Trench Ghost” (Redipuglia, Tungesnes)
III –
“The Faithful Wife” (Bohemia and Trieste)
“Doroteja” (Bohemia)
“The Judge’s Promise” (Bohemia)
IV –
“June Eighteenth” (Trieste and Queretaro)
“The Cemetery of the World” (Veracruz)
“Two Kings in Zinogava” (Veracruz)
V –
“The White-Armed Lady” (Stavanger)
“Where Your Treasure Is” (Stavanger, Lillehammer)
“The Memory Stone” (Stavanger)
“The Narrow Passage” (Stavanger)
“The Queen’s Grave” (Klepp)
“Star of Norway” (Lillehammer)
VI – 
“The Forgetful Ghost (Tokyo)
“The Ghost of Rainy Mountain” (Nikko)
“The Camera Ghost” (Tokyo)
“The Cherry Tree Ghost” (Kyoto, Nikko)
“Paper Ghosts” (Tokyo)
VII –
“Defiance Too Late” (Unknown)
“Widow’s Weeds” (Kauai, Paris)
“The Banquet of Death” (Buenos Aires)
“The Grave-House” (Unknown)
(Unknown)
(Toronto)
“When We Were Seventeen” (USA)
“The Answer” (Unknown)
“Goodbye” (Kamakura)

 If this Halloween you are looking for a new and unique type of ghost story, and if literary fiction akin to a dry red wine is your treat of choice, then Vollmann’s gigantic new collection Last Stories and Other Stories may be just the thing for you.
Each of the seven parts of this collection is made up of multiple, connected stories. Varying in setting and time, the parts are linked together both in style and theme. From the war-ravaged years in the former Yugoslavia, to the romantically haunting mountains of Japan, to the memories of a dying man, Vollmann’s stories are preoccupied with all aspects of death. Drawing on regional legend, many of these stories contain elements of fantasy and horror, but in each case to service the literary meditation on the passing of people and things, not simply for the advancement of some plot. Sometimes the ghosts are literal, sometimes they appear more figuratively. Throughout, they are rendered with some delightfully beautiful prose.
Vollmann’s collection stands as a comprehensive and meticulous literary study on “Last Stories”. The stories here confront death at the moment of its personal arrival or its expected visitation on a beloved one, in the last gasps of a people or in an existence that is only defined in memory. Though written with very similar style and voice, the variety of international and historical setting allows the reader to glimpse the human understanding of death through the lens of multiple traditions and myth.
The downside to Last Stories and Other Stories is just how comprehensive it is: it’s density and its girth. At close to 700 pages, this collection could easily contain multiple single collections. In fact, each part could stand on its own. The first parts are the most grounded in realism, and given the book’s description of being about ‘ghost stories’ I was surprised to find this a huge stretch of interpretation until hundreds of pages in when that element finally arose as one aspect of the collection’s theme. Echoing the size of the book, many of the stories are particularly long, and Vollmann’s style of storytelling tends toward the rambling. The language may be beautiful throughout, but it is still rambling.
I personally found Last Stories and Other Stories most effective in small doses, rather than in reading cover-to-cover. These tales are filled with particularly insightful and lush reflections on the grave. But there is only so much of the rich text that I could handle before it simply became daunting in its scope and frustrating in its pace.
If you are a fan of highbrow literary fiction, and particularly if you would like a slight dose of the supernatural or grim for the season, then this is a quite brilliant collection that should be checked out. I’ll return to it again just for the sake of studying its language, but only in small doses at a time. You may wish to approach it similarly.

Disclaimer: I received a free electronic reading copy of this from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, by Anthony Marra

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, by Anthony Marra
Publisher: Hogarth Books
ASIN: B00A5MS0Z0
402 pages, ebook
Published 1st January 2013
Sources: Blogging for Books & Edelweiss

 Somehow, this notably well-reviewed novel slipped under my radar even past its release. Only upon perusing the Blogging for Books offerings did I discover it, and I am glad I chose to give it a try. If you haven’t heard about A Constellation of Vital Phenomena yet, or if it has been sitting on your to-read or consideration list, I’d recommend getting a copy ASAP. Then clear some nights for engrossed reading.
For those not familiar with the plot of Anthony Marra’s award-winning novel, it is set in the war-ravaged region of Chechnya and traces the intersecting experiences of a small cast of characters as they struggle for life, a combination of survival and purpose.
When Russian soldiers come for her father, eight-year-old Havaa flees into the surrounding Chechen woods, where her father’s friend Akhmed rescues her and takes her to hide at the nearly deserted hospital. There, the sole doctor left in this war-torn wasteland is Sonja, a European-trained physician who has returned through a sense of responsibility both to home and to a sister that has gone missing. Reluctantly, Sonja agrees to help care for Havaa, and – in testament to dire conditions – accepts the inept medical help of Akhmed, who has failed out of medical school and yearns more for artistic expressions.
Thrown together in awful circumstances, these characters share a stubborn commitment to hope for individuals and a future that fights against the despair surrounding them. With recollections of the past years of the Chechen conflict, and the constant threat that present friends may turn on them for personal gain with the Russians, these characters discover their lives intertwined, past, present and future.
The novel’s title comes from a definition for life given by a medical text/dictionary in the novel. The term is remarkably difficult to biologically define in one sentence. Typically, biologists will talk of characteristics of life, rather than settling on a strict definition. But the one here given title is particularly resonant in capturing the essential sum of those characteristics of life. They form an interlocking constellation of phenomena, individual traits that put together form a picture unique and new with a story. Similarly like stars each of the characters in Marra’s novel interact together to form a constellation in this historical space of humanity.
Metaphorically one could speak of a certain balance between the stars in forming a constellation. Similarly, Marra’s novel succeeds so well because of the careful balance he is able to strike in its construction. The shifts in time from chapter to chapter (or even within chapters) is managed without any sense of rupture or confusion. Each of the characters is an interesting balance of strengths and weaknesses and even the villains are shown with traits of sympathy and compassion.
(The novel does appropriately stay focused on the Chechens. The Russians in the novels are an outside force of the plot and setting more so than characters, and the villains, heroes, or mixtures in the story are each Chechen here.)
The emotional weight of A Constellation of Vital Phenomena could quickly take it into a story that feels utterly bleak. Marra nicely finds balance here as well, with the character’s vital hopes and perseverance working to counter the negative, and the young Havaa in particular offers a bright ray of humor and compassion that symbolizes a certain hope for the lives of a future generation.
The events of the novel’s ‘present-day’ plot consist of a mere five days, but A Constellation of Vital Phenomena takes these points to form a picture over decades of conflict, personal and spiritual. The novel will pass similarly fast while reading, but its power and humanity will echo with the reader far longer.
Five Stars out of Five

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

Fierce Patriot: The Tangled Lives of William Tecumseh Sherman, by Robert L. O’Connell

Fierce Patriot: The Tangled Lives of William Tecumseh Sherman, by Robert L. O’Connell
Publisher: Random House
ISBN: 1400069726
432 pages, hardcover
Expected Publication: 1st July 2014
Source: Goodreads First-Reads

I used to know a fair amount about the Civil War and Sherman, but not having read much about it in years, many things had slipped my mind. Having lived in St. Louis for a good time and knowing Sherman’s connection to the city I was interested in giving this biography a read. Overall it is a fascinating and very approachable volume, never getting bogged down in too many details and presenting the history and personalities in an engaging style. While not skimping on details and analysis, O’Connell effectively avoids academic tones, relating a good deal in almost conversational fashion. The writing makes it clear that he is really interested in this story and the character of Sherman.

The downside to the book, however, is its organization. O’Connell in the introduction makes the point of needing to separate the various aspects of Sherman’s complex character or personality and behaviors, which at times he feels could become seemingly incongruous or too scattered to follow as one coherent chronological line. This results in the book being divided into three sections: 1) a military perspective (campaigns and his relations with the military hierarchy), 2) another military perspective (his relations with the troops under him), and 3) his personal life. O’Connell’s previous work, which has focused on military and weapons makes the focus of this wartime hero understandable. But, a large amount of the introduction points out the important contributions that Sherman made after the war, which have often gone ignored, particularly in realizing or enabling the “Manifest Destiny” of the previous political years prior to the war’s outbreak.

Sadly, very little text is spent on this period. The bulk of the book is taken up just with the first part. The second part is really a continuation or a rehash of things already covered, but provides a slightly more detailed perspective of Sherman as viewed by his troops. In this way the two chapters of that second part feel more like a biography of the soldiers rather than Sherman. Additionally, much of the private life of Sherman in the final part (again only a couple of chapters) still gets discussed (just more fleetingly or generally) in the earlier sections. The entire end of the book thereby feels like a slightly more specific discussion of things already mentioned, leaving them feel tacked on and superfluous, too separated from the whole.

Despite my issue with the breakup of the organization, this volume would be a fine addition to the library or reading list of those interested in the Civil War and the people involved. O’Connell summarizes other historical accounts of Sherman’s life well within the entirety of his text, often analyzing conflicting views or offering up his own unique take on interpretation of events or beliefs that the historian can only speculate upon with the evidence we have. In all O’Connell seems well-reasoned and informed and he offers copious notes to original sources for those who wish to delve deeper.

Four Stars out of Five