Wednesday, May 31, 2017

AMERICAN WAR by Omar El Akkad

( I received an advance copy of this book from the publisher)

This one was tough. I am usually a big fan of speculative/dystopian fiction but it has gotten harder for me to enjoy this type of novel in the current geopolitical climate. Books like AMERICAN WAR offer a more plausible glimpse of the future than ever before.

AMERICAN WAR is told primarily in flashbacks and follows one family's experience during the Second American Civil War in the mid- to late 21st Century. The Chestnut family lives in what is left of Louisiana. Rising waters have covered large portions of the United States coastlines and the country is fractured between what is left of the traditional U.S. (The Blue) and the rebels Southern states (the Red). Sarat Chestnut's family falls in the Purple area. Sarat lives with her parents, her older brother, and her twin sister in a modified shipping container and barely get by. Their lives are changed forever when Sarat's father is killed by a rebel suicide bomber while attempting to get a work permit to move his family north. This death sets into motion a chain of events that will eventually have repercussions for the entire nation.

I found this book entirely plausible. Much of the conflict between the southern and northern states seemed to center around fossil fuels. After they are outlawed in the North, the South continues to use them and flout the authority of the North in a resistance reminiscent of the states' rights battle over slavery. In the ensuing war, the nation is left fractured with the rebel states continuing to resist and live under their own governance. South Carolina has been wiped out by an ineradicable disease set off by the federal government. Suicide bombers and terrorists are a facet of everyday life and bomb-dropping drones that can no longer be controlled randomly kill innocent people. It is the stuff of nightmares.

I don't want to give too much away but much of the book focuses on how circumstances can change us and the course of our lives. While it doesn't justify or excuse radical action, it offers a plausible explanation about how one individual can go from innocent to murderer. The characters are interesting and the story is heartbreaking. El Akkad offers very little in the way of hope or comfort.

BOTTOM LINE: Recommended. This wasn't pleasure reading but it was fascinating and thought-provoking. As we watch events unfold in the book, it is difficult not to draw parallels with some of what is happening around us today. We can only hope for a happier ending than El Akkad gives us.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017


(I received an advance copy of this book from the publisher.)

When I was a child, I dreamed of adventure in far-off places. I think this was mostly fueled by the subscription to NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC that my grandfather bought me along with "Indiana Jones." The idea of exploring new places and cultures became so ingrained in me that I eventually went on to get an advanced degree in Anthropology. Oddly enough, I never discovered a new culture or rare artifact. Most of my travel has been done in museums. But I still dream of adventure and discovery.

THE EXPLORERS immediately appealed to my inner child--the one who still dreams of being a part of a secret society of explorers who travel the world.  The book whimsically begins with a pig in a tiny hat. How can one not be drawn in by that? 12-year-old Sebastian is a well-behaved, responsible young man studying math and science at a special school. His no-nonsense background does not prepare him for a run-in with a little pig wearing a hat. After changing his regular route from school one day, Sebastian and his friend encounter an unfamiliar alley with an unfamiliar door. The door has a plaque beside it that reads: The Explorers Society. After the initial encounter, Sebastian can't stop thinking about the mysterious door and returns to the alley where he runs into the little pig with a hat. This encounter provides with him an introduction into the mysterious Explorers Society where he begins a kind of internship/indentured servitude.

Sebastian discovers all sorts of fascinating things in the Society while attending to his various chores. After being encouraged by Society members to "do something inappropriate," Sebastian discovers a hidden wooden box in a wall containing information about ANOTHER mysterious group of explorers called the Filipendulous Five. When Sebastian attempts to learn more about this group of adventurers, his efforts are firmly rebuffed. Just when he is about to give up, he runs into a girl named Evie who has been thrown out of the Society after attempting to find help. Evie is an orphan. Until recently, she ate dinner once a week with a bland couple named the Andersons. At the last dinner, the evening took an unexpected turn when some sinister men forced their way into the home of the Andersons and attacked them and burned the house. Evie managed to escape with instructions directing her to find help at The Explorers Society. As it turns out, Evie is the granddaughter of one of the Filipendulous Five. Evie and Sebastian decide to find out what happened to the Filipendulous Five, to uncover the intentions of the sinister men, and to try and discover the whereabouts of Evie's missing grandfather.

The book is filled with interesting and eccentric characters and the two children are lovely. While there is quite a bit of adventure-style peril, it is on a par with a "Spy Kids" type movie and not age inappropriate. The book also contains a great deal of humor which tempers the suspense. The book ends on a cliffhanger leaving readers anxiously awaiting the next installment. All in all, it's a great choice for kids looking for an exciting read and would be a great choice for Summer reading.

BOTTOM LINE: Recommended. This book kept me entertained as an adult. The main characters were likeable and I enjoyed the quirky details in the story along with the perfect amount of peril and adventure. Looking forward to the next book!