American War by Omar El Akkad

What would happen if America were to turn its most devastating policies and deadly weapons upon itself?

4/5 stars.
ebook, 320 pages.
Read from February 27, 2018 to March 6, 2018.

When I first started reading this novel, the fourth out of the five books for me off the Canada Reads 2018 shortlist, I let out a sigh of exasperation realizing it was yet another dystopian story which, is not generally my favourite genre. The reason being is that most of them are YA and have little literary quality. Granted, this is not true for all books in the genre, you just take a look at some of the stellar stories by Margaret Atwood.  This book while not quite what I would call Atwood quality is still one of the better adult dystopian stories I have read.

Set in the future, the world is in an environmental crisis in which many coastlines and cities have been swallowed up by the rising tides. America is under siege as it’s second civil war takes root. The South is unwilling to give up the fossil fuels that drive their economy and are tired of being pushed around and ignored by the Northern part of the country. The tension between the two sides erupts with violent consequences as this battle is one that will last a lifetime, especially for one family. Martina and Benjamin Chestnut and their three children Simon, Dana and Sarat live in Louisiana. The girls are fraternal twins but could not be more different. They are only six years old when the war begins. While not quite in the South, Martina decides to take her family to a refugee camp called Camp Patience after Benjamin dies and as bombs start to rain down near their home. It was a decision that she would come to regret. The refugee camp is no holiday and no place to raise children but they manage to get by for the next few years as a bloody battle rages on outside the camps barriers. The story follows Sarat, a feisty and brave young girl who ends up being influenced by the Rebels in the South and an influential man with certain resources and connections. Sarat begins learning skills to help her become a pawn in the game of war.

An unspeakable tragedy hits Camp Patience. The event is a turning point in which Sarat’s persona hardens as well as her need for revenge against the people who have done her and her family wrong. Sarat spends her whole life fighting and suffering. It is all she knows. How deep will one betrayal afflict her and how will her choices affect the future outcome of her family as well as the whole country?

When I first started reading this novel I was trying to pinpoint exactly what purpose Sarat’s story is serving. Is it that regardless of circumstances people are allowed to fight for their beliefs? Or is it about suffering or revenge? Then it hit me. Every single war strategy used in this book is one that America has used as tactics in war: drone strikes, refugee camps, terror cells, being provided with weapons by foreign governments, illegal detention facilities, torture etc. This book brings America’s wars home and shows the gritty and not-so-politically correct tactics that are sometimes employed during war times.  This book is meant to open your eyes to the realities of war and show that it is never as black and white as it seems, or how the media portrays it or how your liberal friend feels about it. War is suffering and nobody wins.

The ending of this tragedy only gets more tragic. I wished for nothing more than for Sarat to continue being the same person. But, well, I can’t stay more without spoiling it!  The author does an impeccable job of painting the pages in the blood of war and allowing the reader to feel apart of the plot as you follow the entire Chestnut family.

The emotional depth was a big win for me in this book but I also felt bogged down with a tangle of details, shifting perspectives and time changes. This clunky approach was a big let down as I felt like this story had the potential to be something extraordinary.  I still really enjoyed the unique story and the exceptional characters but the execution was missing that organizational spark.

The author’s career as a journalist sheds some light on how he can write about war so vividly.  He is an award-winning journalist who has travelled the globe and has covered some of the biggest news stories on wars in our recent history.

At this point, as I have now read four out of the five shortlisted 2018 Canada Reads novels and I would say that this novel best meets the criteria of ‘one book to open your eyes”. With jaw-dropping moments of emotion to shocking realities of violence that are taking place in our world right now, you come to see Sarat a real and flawed person. A person that makes terrifying decisions that, within the acts of war, are neither right nor wrong but rather her justification to end her own suffering.

The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline

My first of five books from the Canada Reads 2018.

3/5 stars.
ebook,  184 pages.
Read from February 5, 2018 to February 11, 2018.

I’ll admit, I picked this book to read first because it was the shortest and it is the one I was the least excited about reading. YA books, while they can be enjoyable, often don’t satisfy any sort of intellectual need that I expect out books sometimes, especially ones that are in competition.

It is the future and we have out-worked ourselves and over-stretched our planet to the point of desolation. Instead of coming up with real solutions to combat the problem we have ended up working harder with the same old resources. We have worked so hard that we no longer dream. Like a plague, dreamlessness spreads itself across the globe and like having lost part of their soul, people are starting to go mad and are willing to do anything to regain back the ability to escape and to dream. There is one group of people who have somehow managed to not lose their ability to dream, the Native Americans, and with the spread of the epidemic, they are now being hunted for the dreams that live within the marrow of their bones.

“From where we were now, running, looking at reality from this one point in time, it seemed as though the world had suddenly gone mad. Poisoning your own drinking water, changing the air so much the earth shook and melted and crumbled, harvesting a race for medicine. How? How could this happen? Were they that much different from us? Would we be like them if we’d had a choice? Were they like us enough to let us live?”

Struggling to keep their culture and language alive while they are slowing be picked off by Recruiters for their marrow, small groups of natives are living out in the bush and having to move as much as possible to stay alive. You follow the story of fifteen-year-old Frenchie who has been separated from his family and has since joined up with another smaller group of Natives just trying to stay alive.

If the premise sounds a bit far off, like dreams in bone marrow, it is because it is and it was my major fault with this book. Sometimes dystopian premises can go a bit too far. However, this novel pays so much tribute to the Native American tradition of oral story-telling creating some amazing chapters and sequences in the writing style. The story is also a set reminder and reflection of what we have done to the Native Americans in our past and current history. There are many natives alive today that know all too well the horrors of the residential school systems in which they were forced into, robbing them of their culture and sometimes of their dignity which is exactly what is occurring this book.

The characters are easily relatable and you’re quick to like them, especially after hearing them recount their own stories. The author also does a good job in creating some very effective emotional and tragic scenes. It also wouldn’t be a YA novel without some romance which, wasn’t as bad as I was expecting. There were a few angsty-awkward romance moments but overall fairly believable, especially for teens.

The story ends with a satisfying but partial resolution making it look like this book is going to be the first in a series, another thing I hate about YA novels, but at least it wasn’t a cliffhanger ending.

So does this book meet the Canada Reads 2018 criteria? Does it open your eyes? Yes, in a metaphorical sense. It takes the issues facing Native Americans today in Canada and puts it a more somewhat palatable form. The connections that the author draws between the fictional world that Frenchie lives in and the world that real Natives live in are comparable and important, as are the environmental reflections, but will this book stand up to another with a more poignant story that is not dystopian? Personally, I can’t see it happening but I guess we will see what the other books bring to the table and how the debates are presented.

 

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

Ishiguro does have a way of delicately discussing intense matters and the twist, which is nearly science fiction, brings up all sorts of moral questions.

A delicate dystopian novel.

3/5 stars.
Hardcover, 288 pages.
Read from July 13 to 19, 2016.

This novel has been nominated for a few awards and is frequently on lists as one of the books that we should read before we die. Ishiguro has won other awards with some of his other works and is often praised for his simple style of writing on complicated scenarios and his ability to merge literary fiction with a dystopian setting. As of lover of anything to do with reading lists, I was anxious to add this book to pile.

Kathy, Ruth and Tommy are students at an exclusive and secluded boarding school in England called Hailsham but not everything is as it appears. The students are told that they are special but are never really told why, but whispers from the teachers and rumours from the students start to unfold the horrifying truth about the real reason these students are attending the school. Kathy recalls how the the three of them grew up in Hailsham and has mixed feelings of fondness as she comes to terms with the fate that the three of them, and all the other students at Hailsham share. As an adult, Ruth and Tommy enter Kathy’s life again and the three of them try to make up for the time that they are quickly losing.

It is difficult to summarize the plot without giving away the novel but Ishiguro slowly builds the plot through Kathy so that as a reader you are not sure what is truly going with these students until halfway through the novel. The twist is nearly that of science fiction and brings up all sorts of moral questions. Ishiguro does have a way of delicately discussing intense matters. However, I do feel that that was the major fault of this novel. This book is simple, too simple in my opinion, for the moral content it is discussing. I felt like I was reading a young adult novel, not an nominated piece of literary fiction.

I wanted more than what Ishiguro offered me. That isn’t to say that I didn’t enjoy the novel, but there were aspects of it that I found petty. For example, it wasn’t until the last half of the novel that I came to like the characters in the book. Ruth is not a good friend and I was constantly waiting for the day when Kathy would get some sense and end things with her and as a result I did not like Kathy until later in the novel. Tommy I always sympathized with however. My questions are why didn’t the students run away when they had a chance? Once they were older and knew what was coming, why didn’t they run for it? I can’t imagine that they all managed to accept their fates without question, especially once they had a taste for the real world. Were they too afraid of finding their doubles? Was it part of their re-wired genetics to never question their own purpose? I never got those answers but perhaps that is what makes this novel so haunting.

However, the setting of this book is beautifully done. The tiny details of the how the school functioned, the teachers who had moral issues with the information students were given about their special situation, Kathy dancing and singing with a pillow, and of course once they became carers were what I felt were the pinnacles in this book and were the foundation to the subtle and emotional contexts that the reader connects with. It was these aspects that sat with me long after I finished the novel. So needless to say, Ishiguro still accomplished his job with me as a reader.

This story asks moral questions in regards to medicine and cloning and the moral risks that come in regards to curing illnesses. How do we make moral decisions in medicine on our abilities to play with genetics and creation? How do we make the means worth the ends and does something/someone have to suffer as a result? The ultimate question being, just because we can, does it mean we should?  I imagine because of the questions that this book asks that it has become a timeless piece of fiction.

Overall, Ishiguro has made me curious and I am very interested in reading more by him. I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoys sci-fi plots without spaceships and for those looking for something outside the standard dystopian.