Review: American War by Omar El Akkad

american war.pngIf I’d read American War two years ago, I probably would have thought, “well, that was a terrifying but, thankfully, fantastical and needlessly pessimistic vision of the future.” Then I would have thought about rainbows and cupcakes and those other kinds of things we could afford to occupy ourselves with in 2015.

Reading American War in the current political climate (as well as the more literal one) is, however, a completely different experience. In 2017, as hurricanes ravage the USA, the Arctic melts and global society seems to be becoming ever more divided, Omar El Akkad’s vision of the future actually begins to look horrifyingly likely.

In 2074, civil war rages in the USA, with Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia having seceded from the rest of the nation over a government order to end the use of fossil fuels. South Carolina is a walled-off, almost-zombie-like state. Florida is underwater. Mexico has annexed much of the western half of the USA. Sarat is only 6 when war breaks out, but soon finds herself at the centre of the action, when her father is killed and the remaining members of the family are forced into a refugee camp, where their fate is sealed as Sarat is radicalised in the fight against the north.

I sometimes wonder what it says about me that so many of my favourite books (The Handmaid’s Tale, Borne and Station Eleven, to name three) tell of destroyed nations and apocalyptic futures. At times when I immerse myself too deeply in real-life events, particularly in recent weeks when North Korea has been dominating the news cycles, I become really quite anxious, keeping myself awake worrying about what the future holds. Previously, I perhaps would have been able to dismiss American War as unrealistic, but it seems frankly ridiculous to do so now. It’s a brilliant, brilliant book, with an astonishing level of detail in its depiction of how the world came to this imagined point, but it’s a truly terrifying vision if you allow yourself to believe in its plausibility.

Sometimes in books that cover imagined political events, I find that the background isn’t explained in enough detail, with writers perhaps fearing boring the reader with too much dry detail. In American War, Omar El Akkad offers a masterclass in how to do this in a comprehensive but completely compelling way. The details offered a believable, with everything backed up and linked so coherently it’s actually frightening. Characters aren’t lost or neglected in all this political depth and action, however, with Sarat and her family forming a compelling centre to the plot.

I can’t recommend American War enough; it’s a thrilling and audacious read, entirely compelling and never dry or hard work despite its serious and often horrendous subject matter. It’s one of the best books I’ve read this year and will stay with me for a long time.

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Review: We Shall Not All Sleep by Estep Nagy

we shall not all sleep.pngThe Premise: (borrowed from NetGalley) It’s 1964. The Hillsingers and the Quicks have shared the small Maine island of Seven for generations. But though technically family–Jim Hillsinger and Billy Quick married Park Avenue sisters Lila and Hannah Blackwell–they do not mix. Now, on the anniversary of Hannah’s death, Lila feels grief pulling her toward Billy. And Jim, a spy recently ousted from the CIA on suspicion of treason, decides to carry out the threat his wife has explicitly forbidden: to banish their youngest son, the twelve-year-old Catta, to the neighboring island of Baffin for twenty-four hours in an attempt to make a man out of him.

With their elders preoccupied, the Hillsinger and Quick children run wild, playing violent games led by Catta’s sadistic older brother James. The island manager Cyrus and the servants tend to the families while preparing for the Migration, a yearly farming ritual that means one thing to their employers, and something very different to them.

Thoughts: I love a family saga, which is why I was interested in reading We Shall Not All Sleep. The idea of two interconnected families and a secluded island made me anticipate a kind of grown-up We Were Liars, and there are certainly aspects of the story which do recall that book; the gradually unravelling secrets and revelations make the latter part of We Shall Not All Sleep far more engaging than its opening chapters, which I struggled to get into.

There’s plenty that’s intriguing about Nagy’s novel. The island itself is interesting; it’s almost as if normal social rules don’t apply on Seven, with children left to their own devices in their own house, and adults only interfering in the lives of their offspring to dump them on spooky islands. I remain confused about why this happened, to be honest.

I became particularly engaged in the story when the flashbacks began to reveal what happened to Billy Quick’s wife; the addition of a Communist witch-hunt in the background added intrigue and impetus to the story and I found myself most interested when the author took me back to the past. The way in which all this ends up influencing the present is clever too, and the whole atmosphere of the novel is made creepier and more effective once this background story is fleshed out.

The problems the characters experience in We Shall Not All Sleep are often the result of their immense privilege, which did make me roll my eyes occasionally, but the occasional appearances of the servants (yes, there are servants. These people are like Jay Gatsby but less self-aware) created a voice of reason with which I could identify. The close juxtaposition of such contrasting characters and world-views definitely adds to the claustrophobic tension of the novel.

In Conclusion: while not a perfect novel, there’s certainly enough secrecy, intrigue and drama in We Shall Not All Sleep to keep even the hardest-to-please reader interested. There were aspects I would have liked to see more of (i.e. more Communism, please), but, overall, it’s a well-balanced book and one that holds the reader’s attention.

YA Review: Moonrise by Sarah Crossan

moonriseThe Premise: Joe hasn’t seen his brother for ten years, and it’s for the most brutal of reasons. Ed is on death row. But now Ed’s execution date has been set, and this might be the last summer they have together.

Thoughts: Sarah Crossan has a proven record of writing things that break my heart a little bit. I can’t walk past the bookshelf where Apple and Rain sits without having a little sniffle and please don’t ever make me talk about One unless you’re prepared to watch me rock gently and weep for several hours. Moonrise fits firmly into this tearjerker category, with the story of Joe’s struggle to process his brother’s fate creating plenty of pathos.

As with One and Crossan’s other verse novel, We Come Apart, the nature of the poetry in Moonrise only amplifies the emotive aspects of the story, particularly when Joe dwells on his ambivalent feelings towards Ed and the catastrophic effects of his arrest on the family as a whole. Just seventeen as his brother faces the lethal injection, Joe has had the kind of fictional life that might seem overly tragedy-filled, but which is dealt with in such a nuanced way here that the reader can only sympathise.

I’m always interested in YA novels that deal with difficult or political issues, and Moonrise does both; through Ed’s situation, Crossan questions the morality and logic of the death penalty as well as detailing some of the legal processes involved, with various appeals and reflections on Ed’s initial arrest and court case.  Joe’s family is just getting by financially, and so Crossan adds another layer of topical plotting here, subtly conveying the idea that, the poorer you are, the less likely you are to be able to pursue justice.

In Conclusion: I thought Moonrise was really pretty stunning. It hit me in all the right places emotionally, it’s realistic despite its often dreamy verse, and it’s a story that’s compelling, relevant and not often explored in YA. What impresses me with Crossan’s writing is that she’s able to upset and challenge her reader without her books being depressing or mawkish. Moonrise is no exception, and it’s a book I absolutely recommend.

YA Review: Daughter of the Burning City by Amanda Foody

daughter of the burning city.pngThe Premise: (from NetGalley) Even among the many unusual members of the travelling circus that has always been her home sixteen-yea-old Sorina stands apart as the only illusion-worker born in hundreds of years. This rare talent allows her to create illusions that others can see, feel and touch, with personalities all of their own. Her creations are her family, and together they make up the cast of the Festival’s Freak Show. But no matter how lifelike they may seem, her illusions are still just that—illusions, and not truly real. Or so she always believed…until one of them is murdered. Now she must unravel the horrifying truth before all her loved ones disappear.

Thoughts: aren’t circuses having a right moment? I feel like every other book I read right now is about a circus. Maybe this is because I really like reading books about the circus: who knows?

The set-up of Daughter of the Burning City is exquisite; the descriptions of Gomorrah (the travelling circus) drew me into the story straightaway and I loved everything about it. There are obvious parallels to be drawn with The Night Circus, which I don’t see as a bad thing; I am more than happy to keep reading books about creepy, mysterious circuses where people get murdered. I mean, the murders don’t thrill me, but you know. There’s so much that’s really creepy about this book; Sorina, for example, has no eyes. Somehow she can still see (I remain unsure about how that works) and there’s another illusion-worker/assassin person who literally has no heart. I am not sure of the science behind any of this but I am here for the weirdness. There’s a political edge to proceedings too, with conflicts between powerful people going on deep in the background that add to the overall tension of the plot.

So the setting is wonderful, in a reasonably disturbing way. Also incredibly mind-blowing is the family that Sorina has invented using her illusions; although I don’t think we see enough of all of these characters, it’s a fascinating concept and one that’s really imaginatively realised. It also lends itself to some wild developments and twists which I liked too, and which added to the general sense of shock and awe created by Foody’s writing. Sorina’s relationships with the other members of Gomorrah are enthralling too; her adopted father, the proprietor of the circus, is a particularly interesting figure.

The murder plot did, I will admit, confuse me a bit, but I am optimistic that this is the point. The denouement seems to be a complete shock, but, thinking back on it, I think it was hinted at throughout, so the plotting is clever too. I will also admit to being slightly bemused by the introduction of a character who appeared to be asexual, an orientation which turned out to be a little more fluid, and I’m not an expert so I will just say that this made me confused. I’m fine with it.

In Conclusion: a really impressive, richly immersive YA fantasy novel, with lots of fresh elements added to what I’m calling a trend because I have read three YA books set in circuses this year so it must be a thing. The fantasy elements are superbly realised and Daughter of the Burning City has provided me with one more fictional setting I really, really wish I could actually go to.