American War by Omar El Akkad

Hello my lovelies!

I’ve been pretty busy over the last little bit, so this is going to be a quick one, but this book was too good for me to not write anything about it.

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while you know I went through a bit of a thing with literary post-apocalyptic fiction (I’m just going to call post-apocalyptic PA from this point forward, because I think that might actually be the longest genre descriptor of them all) not too long ago. It seemed like something I should like, the world building of PA mixed with the language use and more nuanced, restrained look at humanity that usually comes along with a literary novel (I know, I know, that was really pretentious. I’m King Snoots of Doucheville and I’ll make no apologies for it!). But I had two in a row, Gold Fame Citrus and California, both of them critically acclaimed and well-beloved, that just didn’t do it for me. At the time I thought that maybe it was the literary aspect of it, the toning down of the intensity of some other PA fiction that I’ve read, that might be the problem. I like bonkers fiction, out there and unbelievable stuff set in a world that I myself couldn’t have come up with. Maybe these novels just lost something by trying too hard to remain grounded and realistic.

After reading American War though, I’m pretty sure that’s not the case. It’s incredibly realistic, sometimes unsettingly so, with characters that feel like actual people, put into situations that you could easily see arising out of the current political climate. But here the realism doesn’t blunt the edges of the drama or tension, it enhances it. Because these situations and characters felt so legit (I have no idea what the refugee experience is like, but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that there are people out in the world right now going through exactly the things that these people go through) I got really invested in them. I didn’t always like them, I rarely ever agreed with them, but I felt like I understood them. I sympathized with their points of view and genuinely cared about whether they lived or died.

Speaking of which! Sort of spoiler alert? I know I just told you that it’s really easy to get invested in these people, but…try your best not to, okay? Because no matter who you get behind in this book, they are probably not going to make it. I mean, the book opens by telling you that most of the population of the country was killed by a bloody war, followed by a terrible plague, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise, but I figured I would warn you anyways. 

This book was soooooo brutal you gals. And super, duper fucking sad. And harsh. And bleak. It takes an honest and realistic view of war and what it costs, and it doesn’t stint on body count or emotional trauma. Everybody pays, again and again and again, often until they have nothing left. As rewarding as this book is, it can also be pretty hard to read at some points.

Hmmm…I feel like the last part of this review is coming across as me trying to convince you not to read this, but that wasn’t my intention. This book is good as hell and (if you’ve got the stomach for it) you should definitely check it out.

Recommended for people who’ve got thick skin when it comes to watching characters you like being tortured, physically and emotionally, pretty much to death, those of you who are into scarily realistic and dark visions of what could happen to the US over the next fifty years or so, and anybody that’s been having trouble with literary PA fiction up until this point and thought that maybe the problem was with them and not the books, but actually it’s not you at all. Because you’re great.

VBR

 

Ps. As a sidenote I know this novel doesn’t reaaaaally fit into PA. It’s sort of halfway in between Dystopian and PA, but I didn’t want to type out “sort of Dystopian, sort of PA literary fiction” that many times, so I didn’t.

 

The Wolf Road by Beth Lewis

Where to start with this one?

I almost didn’t write this review. In name and subject matter it’s a lot like the last one: tough female protagonist moving through a harsh environment, surviving on her wits and her skills, and a western-ish tone and setting (although in this one it’s a wintery, post apocalyptic northern BC). There are differences, stark ones, but they were close enough together that I was concerned this would be a little boring for ya’ll.

However! Despite how much I love the two or three people that read this, I write this for me, not for you. So, boring or not, here we go.

This book could have been so good! I won’t go too much into the setup, but it’s a pretty great idea for a story. I love the idea of a character being raised and trained by the antagonist, using the skills she learns to best him later on. I also really liked the frontiers-y, northern BC setting and the characters she used to populate it (mostly).

Even with all that going for it (and maybe in part because of it’s potential), this book was such a fucking drag. I was really pushing myself to get through it by the end, reading not for the enjoyment of it, but for it to be over so I could move on to something else. My problems with it are many, but I’ll list them from least important to most.

The first is the patois that the book is written in. Even though the story took place in Northern B.C., the narrator and main character had a weird, faux American South accent. While it was fine most of the time, sometimes it was so janky and off sounding that it took me right out of it. I learned later on that Beth Lewis is actually British, which makes a lot of sense, because it sounds like somebody that’s only experienced American South accents through TV trying to write one (I have a lot of family from the American South, so maybe I’m a little more sensitive than most). I know this is a really strange thing to make a point of, but I’ve been running into it a lot lately and it just…bothers me. It seems like such an unnecessary complication, one more thing that, if not done right, can pull your reader out of the story. If you can’t nail that accent down, just leave it. Also, just as a side note to anybody British reading this, people from northern BC sound more like people from Minnesota than Texas or Kentucky, but I guess that’s neither here nor there.

Okay, that was a lot of writing on accents, so I’m gonna whip through these next two points.

The next is the psychological stuff. Wolf Road uses a story trope, the suppression of important memories due to trauma, that I have a really hard time buying into. I don’t think it’s ever very believable, and it always just comes across as a cheap way to build suspense. Here’s an idea, maybe make the protagonist of the book fully aware of what it is that she’s done in the past (how can you mistake a boy for a deer? I mean…what?) and arc back from a monster into a human being. Have her struggle with her natural inclination towards selfishness and violence. Give her something she’s never had before, love and community, and see how it changes her. Which kind of seems like what the author was trying to do, but instead of making her protagonist accountable and aware, Lewis tried to protect her from being blamed by the reader with a bunch of really dodgy mental loopholes (she doesn’t remember, she didn’t know what she was doing, she shielded herself from the horror of her actions by pretending that the young boy she murdered was actually a deer or something). Blegh.

The next is editing. This book could have used a cut and a half. There was a tonnnnnn of passages of her struggling with moral quandaries, her trying to figure who it was that was following her (hint: it’s the Trapper. Of course it’s the Trapper. It’s so bloody obvious that it’s the Trapper that it’s almost insulting to the main characters intelligence that she can’t seem to make up her mind about it), her arguing with herself that the Trapper and Kreager Hallet are different people, over and over again. I felt like I read her rehashing those same things at least a dozen times throughout the book. That’s probably an over-exaggeration, but the fact that I remember it that way is not a good sign.

The last thing, the thing that really irked me about this book, is the framing device at the start. WHAT WERE YOU THINKING?! The story starts in media res, sort of. But, whereas most in media res starts put you in the final conflict and then cut away before the resolution, this one has the ENTIRE END OF THE CONFLICT THAT IS MEANT TO SUSTAIN THE BOOK IN IT. It shows her defeating Kreager. And not only that, it shows her leaving him for the other person that’s hunting her throughout the book, tying all her problems up in a neat little bow. It completely deflates any potential tension in the story’s conflicts. I know she’s going to make it through all the scrapes that she gets into, and not only that, but I know she’s going to make it through them relatively unscathed, because at the end she’s fit and strong and talented enough to overcome everything. It’s…infuriating. Maybe it would work better if the writing to get us there was more engaging (I’ve always said that having a story *spoiled* shouldn’t really matter), but the author seemed to lean pretty heavily on the tension created by the various cat and mouse games being played throughout the book (the protagonist and the Trapper, Lyon and the Trapper, Lyon and the protagonist), but we already know how they all play out, so who cares? It’s like watching a trailer for a movie that’s just the last five minutes of the film. And just…why? If she had taken out those first five pages, just started the story at the start of the story, this book would’ve worked so much better. It was such an odd, baffling choice.

Okay, I should really wrap this rant, thinly disguised as a review, up. I know I’ve been really harsh on this book, and it’s not bad bad. I think I’m just giving this author shit for doing things that have continually bugged me in books in the past, so she’s bearing a bit more of the brunt of this than she probably deserves.

Whew! That was a lot of negativity all at once. I promise the next one will be about a book that I like. Take care of yourselves my lovelies and don’t, just don’t, put the end of your novel at the start of it.

Okay? Okay.

VBR

Gold Fame Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins

Hello beautifuls!
It looks like it’s that time again, but before I give you the detes on this book I’m going to warn you, this was…not a good one. If you’re looking for a fun review of a book or thing that I loved, I’m afraid you’re going to have to go elsewhere. Don’t fret, it’s not all bad. Unfortunately, it’s also very rarely good.
Okay, let’s start with the positive stuff.
First off, the writing. Claire Vaye Watkins is a good writer, sometimes even a beautiful one. The world is well drawn and believable, the characters seem like real people, the situations that they get themselves into aren’t cliched or caused by bad writing. They all flow from the characters themselves. All these are good things!
Unfortunately, they don’t help to make up for the flaws, and sometimes they even add to them. Let’s start with the characters themselves. They were definitely well fleshed out, complicated, real people (most of them anyways. Some of the side characters were a little one dimensional *cough* weird cult sex priestesses *cough cough*). They were also total dickheads. An unlikable character is not in and of itself a bad thing. It can actually be a great thing in the right hands. But everybody in this story was just such an absolute piece of shit. There was nobody to like, nobody to stand behind. And that’s fine. That’s a choice that you can make. I just find it difficult to invest in a story when I don’t care what happens to anybody involved.
My second issue with the book is the plotting, more specifically the pacing. Maybe it just seemed like this because I wasn’t having fun spending time with the protagonists, if you can call them that, but there seemed to be long stretches where next to nothing happens. There was a lot of rehashing of internal conflicts, lots of empty, open spaces. There was a great idea in here, a good, hard diamond of a story at its centre, I just felt like there was a lot of extra padding around it as well. Too much.
My reaction to this book actually really reminded me of California by Edan Lepucki. I liked and connected with the characters of that novel slightly more, but felt the same level of disconnect and disinterest towards the story. Maybe I just don’t like slow moving, dystopic/post-apocalyptic novels set in California? It sounds like something that I would love. That’s why I bought these books, that’s why my hopes were so high, which in itself might be the problem to begin with. Who knows.
I’m not sure if this has been a very helpful review, but it’s all I’ve got for ya on this one. I’d say give it a try. There’s definitely some stuff in here to latch onto, even if it wasn’t really for me.
Okay, that’s all for now.

VBR

California By Edan Lepucki

Folks, I hate to say it, but this one was a big, lukewarm shrug for me. My first draft of this review was just a blank page with a *sigh* at the bottom of it. It really took me by surprise too. There was a lot of good buzz around this book around it’s release date and I was actually pretty excited for it, but I just found it kind of slow and dreary and boring.

I want you all to know, right off the bat, that this novel isn’t exactly bad (despite the kicking I’m about to give it). There’s some stuff that I really liked: the depiction of a long-term relationship in an odd setting felt really authentic to me, the two people in that relationship were well-fleshed out and, mostly, consistent, and the writing was competent and unobtrusive.

But honestly folks? I just could not give a shit about it, the whole time I was reading it. It’s one of the sleepiest, least engaging dystopian novels that I’ve ever read. As an example, and this is absolutely true, I was reading it last night and I think I was fifteen pages from the end, and instead of pushing through I just put it down and went to sleep. It’s not that I thought I’d figured out the end, it’s that I didn’t care at all what the end would be. There was no tension, no interest, no fear for our protagonists. Even though the danger to them was real, it was never acute enough for me to actually be worried for them. They always seemed somewhat insulated from threats, removed from them by a degree or two, and most of the things that the novel appeared to be leveraging for tension just felt flat and empty to me. Not to mention that there was no resolution to the conflict at all (which may have been intentional and in life there is no resolution and blah blah blah). No real questions were answered, no loose ends tied up, no problems solved. They end the novel (spoilers I guess?) the same way they started it, the same way that they spent most of it: isolated, but in a different sort of way, and relatively safe.

This is a hard one for me to decide on, recommendation-wise. I know it’s supposed to be a blend of dystopian and literary, and if you’re anything like me that probably sounds delightful, but I don’t think it succeeds at either enough to be worth the read. I feel kind of shitty for writing that, I’ve never written anything that rivals, or comes even close to rivalling, this novel, but I can’t help the way I feel about it. So I guess I’m giving this novel a very soft, somewhat embarrassed, entirely un-hateful pass. It wasn’t offensive, and she’s a skilled writer with a bright future ahead of her, but there just wasn’t enough there, there.

Alright, that’s probably enough equivocations for one evening.

Pleasant dreams my lovelies,

VBR

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