Review: American War by Omar El Akkad

4 of 5 stars
Published 2017

This debut novel will keep you thinking long after you turn that last page. Set at the end of the 21st century, America is in the depths of a second Civil War fought over fossil fuel that the North wanted outlawed and the Southern section refused to give up.  The map of the country as it’s known today looks very different as most of the coastal areas are under water. Extreme weather still takes its toll on the country.  There are unmanned but armed drones that dot the skies, raining explosives down.  There are soldiers that come, night or day.  At the end of the war, there was then a terrible plague that swept the country. War is hell. We know all this at the start of the book. The rest of the book fills in the blanks, told by the nephew of the protagonist as he looks back on his own life and the woman that influenced him and saved his life.

Sounds grim. It’s gonna get grimmer. Sarat is a child at the beginning of the book. She and her mother, brother and twin sister are taken to a refugee camp when her father is killed. From here, we get an insight as to what life is like for ordinary people during wartime. As Sarat gets older, we see the effects of living to survive has on her and her family. Sarat is recruited to the Southern (Red) manifesto, having continually lost people she loves. It takes a toll on a child and she is easily turned into a hard core revel who takes on the North faction (Blue) as she is instructed. If this were an action movie, it would involve high leg kicking, num chucks and lots of explosions but it is more underhanded and nefarious than that. We watch Sarat through her life, her determination, her obsession, her willpower and her single minded beliefs. Her fate is inevitable.

The book is very well written but while not a pleasant read, it’s a very good one just the same. It’s bleak but it’s also somewhat believable that the near-ish future could come to that point so it has that touch of reality to it. There are a number of topics that were not brought into the story but that probably would have made the book too long and would distract the reader from what the author wanted to say, a warning that within 50 years, this could be the way it is, or similar.

This is one of the books shortlisted for the Canada Reads competition at the end of March.


Review: All Our Wrong Todays – Elan Mastai

2017: 99
4 of 5 stars
Published 2017

Most books about time travel follow the same rules. If you change something in the past, the future is rewritten. Sometimes for the better but usually for the worse. Tom Barren lives in 2016 where technology is king, there is no war, cars fly and life is good overall. Tom gets caught up in a time travel accident and the new 2016 is good for him personally though everyone thinks he’s John Barren, even if the tech is more like the world we know. So should he go back and change it back to where it should be and risk losing everything or if he tries, how much worse can it be?

The author does a good job of building the worlds in the timelines. You also start wondering, is there a timeline crossover or is one reality a delusion of another one? Are there more timelines?   As things change will past mistakes be corrected or will they be worse?

I had a little trouble with the ending, seemed to be rather more sophisticated than it had to be but it was still very good.

Science Fiction and Fantasy week

While perusing Goodreads, I noticed they have a blog post calling this week the Science Fiction and Fantasy week where they’re focusing on books of those genres, also called “Speculative Fiction”. Oh, why not! I like Scifi and Fantasy though, probably, I’d lean more towards Fantasy. It’s not my genre of choice but I do like it now and then. These types of stories might be traced back to the great Jules Verne. There were probably speculative fiction books before him but he made it popular.

Science Fiction tends to be more focused on science and technology, what’s possible now and what may be possible in the future where Fantasy focuses on even more imaginative characters and plots. Dystopian fiction generally tells tales of the world after a major catastrophe,a pandemic, a political takeover, an Apocalypse, “the end of the world as we know it” and describes the survivors’ stories. Margaret Atwood generally considers her books to be speculative fiction, saying “Science fiction has monsters and spaceships; speculative fiction could really happen.”

Very often, writers of all of these genres tend to tell their stories over a series of books…3, 5, 10, 20 books all about the same world or same set of characters. That’s becoming popular in other genres now, as well, particularly in series about crime fighters or generational epics. One author in particular that comes to mind is Sir Terry Pratchett and his Discworld series. There are over 40, the last one published after he passed away in 2015.

Canadian authors aren’t the first ones you’d think of when you consider Science Fiction/Fantasy but there are a few. Guy Gavriel Kay, William Gibson, Emily St. John Mandell (her dystopian novel, Station Eleven, did very well, with nominations and wins for a number of awards), Cory Doctorow, Madeline Ashby (born in L.A. but living in Toronto),  and Robert J. Sawyer.

The big name in Canadian Literature, of course, is Margaret Atwood who has written several speculative (dystopian) fiction novels, best known for The Handmaid’s Tale. But she’s also got a trilogy called MaddAddam (Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood, MaddAddam) which is very much worth reading. The disaster in that set is a pandemic virus. There’s a list of Canadian authors here on Wikipedia and there’s SF for lots of information on Canadian writers in these and similar genres (horror, paranormal, etc.)

Although it’s not my primary “go to” genre, I do like it. It’s a hugely popular genre but there are far too many authors to list them all here.  I’ll mention a few I’ve enjoyed over the years in addition to Atwood.

I think my first exposure to Sci. Fi. was Robert A. Heinlen. I read a few of his early novels though I don’t really remember much of the stories now. I also picked up a couple of classics by Issac Asimov back in the day, mainly the Robot ones.

I think I would have to point to Anne McCaffrey for my all time favourite fantasy author because I’ve read quite a few of her books, both her science fiction ones and her fantasy ones, especially the Pern planet series that have dragons. Dragons! They are all “good” dragons, too. I haven’t read many of the recent ones co-written with her son in the few years before she died. (Here’s a great list of the reading order of the Pern series, an excellent and quite handy website that puts book series in order)

Neil Stephenson is another author that I’ve liked. His huge, chunky books tend to be more of a variety of types but he has written some science fiction which I’ve liked including, recently, Seveneves. In other fantasy novels, I’ve enjoyed a few by Neil Gaiman and some of Stephen King’s novels probably fall under the “fantasy” moniker though his books tend more to the horror than not. I never got on well with Tolkein, I will admit. I have read the Game of Thrones books by George R. R. Martin and while I liked the stories, I do find him a bit long winded for my taste. I do have good intentions of reading Guy Gavriel Kay. The descriptions of his books sound very good.

My husband really enjoys Terry Pratchett’s books. I’ve read the Hogfather but that’s as far as I got. I’ve read a couple by Naomi Novik and quite liked those as well. She does a series of what is a mash up of historical fiction and fantasy, the “Temeraire” books. They have dragons, too!

YA (Young Adult) books in these genres are a bit hit and miss for me. I joined the crowd and read the Hunger Games and the Divergent trilogies and liked them quite a bit and  once I finally decided to read the Harry Potter novels, I discovered that I really enjoyed them a lot.

Then there’s Steampunk. I’m not sure where that fits in but I like to think it leans closer to the Fantasy realm. I like some of that as well.

I must also put in a plug for a book by a good friend of mine,  Gatekeeper by John Beresford, a UK author. I really enjoyed this book which has elements of both science fiction and fantasy,  and I believe it’s still available on Kindle.

Are you a fan of Science Fiction, Fantasy or Dystopian novels? Have you got any recommendations?


Review: Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

2017: 28
3.5 of 5 stars
Published October 1953

Fahrenheit 451 was published in the early 1950s during the early days of the Cold War and the McCarthy era where potential Communists were targeted. Bradbury took a look at the present and foresaw a future where society was oppressed and locked down. Even in the 1950s there were book burning threats and censorship which hasn’t really gone away, with books being banned from schools and libraries even today.

At the time, he thought the rise of mass media was minimizing interest in reading and today, that’s even more relevant when people spend so much time watching movies and television, streaming video, and communicating in short sentences, brief video clips and photos of their everyday lives.

This is the story, set in the future (post-1960, remember, it was written in the early 1950s) of Guy Montag. He lives with his wife. He burns books for a living because books are now illegal. Firemen of the future will not prevent fires since houses and buildings are fireproofed, instead, they start them, seeking out places where people have hidden illegal books. Guy’s wife is detached and absorbed into the world of media, blasted out from flat screened walls in the living rooms of their house. He meets a young neighbour whose interests are old fashioned and who is shunned by her fellow students. Oddly enough, she disappears and Montag later finds out she was hit by a car and killed. I’m not sure if it’s hinted that there was a sinister reason behind this or not.

The turning point for him is the day where a woman refuses to leave her home when the firemen are trying to burn the house filled with books. She lights the fire herself and commits suicide. That affects Montag deeply. We discover he is not happy and  has been curious about books, wondering if there might be something in them that could make a difference to his life. He has been pilfering them from the fires and hiding them. We then find out from his boss how books came to be illegal: People began to lose interest with the onset of various types of new media, and little by little, the attention span of the general public shortened, books became abridged more and more until they were next to irrelevant. The government cashed in on the apathy towards books and began burning them, leading to new laws making them illegal altogether.

He connects with a former university professor who attempts to help him but when he impulsively reveals his books to his wife and her friends, they report him. He has to burn his own house but things get out of control and he ends up a fugitive. There are people living “off the grid” that help him. People who still believe in books. The final message of the book is surrounded in the legend of the phoenix, a creature that is destroyed in flames and is reborn over and over. Perhaps mankind can learn from their mistakes rather than self destructing repeatedly. The destruction at the end of the book might lead to a new rising and a lesson learned the next time around. We can only hope.

While censorship doesn’t seem to be prevalent these days, I feel sometimes it’s just under the surface. There are still governments in the world that are oppressive and some that seem like they could go either way if left to their own devices. People are so involved in the online world, social media and the like. Books are still popular but not as much as they were. Travel bans, rules, restrictions are all becoming more and more common. Newspapers are selling less as people turn to television and the internet for headlines. What Bradbury saw from the perspective of the 1950s doesn’t seem all that different to what could happen now. The fears he had are still relevant. We may not turn into a society that burns books or kills people for thought crimes (1984), but if we’re not careful, things might not be so very different in another generation or three.