Exit West

exitwestby Mohsin Hamid
First sentence: “In a city swollen by refugees but still mostly at peace, or at least not yet openly at war, a young man met a young woman in a classroom and did not speak to her.”
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Review copy floating around the office and got passed in my direction.
Content: There are a half dozen or so f-bombs, and some sort-of sex. It’s in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

This one has got the entire staff of the bookstore all a twitter. Seriously. They LOVED it. It’s SO good. You HAVE to read it. So, when they threw it my direction, I decided to give it a try.

It’s nominally the story of a couple, Saeed and Nadia, who meet in a country that’s on the brink of a civil war. It vaguely feels middle eastern, but I don’t know if that’s because that’s me projecting, or if it’s what the author intended, but it’s what I saw. Their relationship is a fitful one at the start, but as the insurgents and rebels move into their city, their relationship picks up speed. And when Saeed’s mother is killed, they decide to leave together, to find any way out.

But it’s not really about the plot or the characters with this one. No, this is about the words. And they are gorgeous. It’s a slim novel, which shows that no word is wasted. And it feels that way, too. Every word is important, every line leads somewhere else. It is something to sink oneself into, enjoying the words on the page.

I’m usually a plot and character person, so it’s different for me to give myself over to something that’s so wholly, well, not. I enjoyed this one. Hamid gave faces and stories to refugees, to people who are fleeing their home and trying to find a new place and the way that changes a person.

It makes it worth reading.

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Traitor to the Throne

traitortothethroneby Alwyn Hamilton
First sentence: “Once, in the desert kingdom of Miraji, there was a young prince who wanted his father’s throne.”
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Others in the series: Rebel of the Sands
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s some almost off screen sexytimes and a lot of violence. It’ll be in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

It’s been a bit since Amani has joined the Rebel Prince to try and claim the throne from his father, the Sultan. Things aren’t going so great for them; they’ve had several setbacks and it’s starting to seem hopeless. Then Amani is kidnapped by her aunt and sold to the Sultan. Suddenly, it looks like things might be turning around for the rebellion.

Of course, it’s not as easy as it seems: the Sultan is crafty and conniving, and Amani finds herself more than under his control; she’s stuck in the haram trying to find a way out. And all she can hope is that she comes out on the winning side.

It took me a bit to get back into the world, to remember what I really liked about Rebel of the Sands, but once I got going, I found I couldn’t put this one down.  I loved Amani’s fierce style, her problem-solving, and the way she was able to make plans, even under the direst of circumstances. There wasn’t as much of her and Jin, and he was more in the background of this book, but I did enjoy the moments when he did show up.

Mostly what this book was about was the politics of leadership: what makes a good ruler, how firm or fierce one should be, and the reasons subjects do or don’t follow one. I found that part fascinating.

I am definitely committed to the story line, and curious about where Amani and her rebel friends will go next.

City of Saints & Thieves

cityofsaintsby Natalie C. Anderson
First sentence: “If you’re going to be a thief, the first thing you need to know is that you don’t exist.”
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Review copy picked up for me by co-workers at Winter Institute.
Content: There’s a handful of minor swear words and some disturbing illusions to rape. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

Tina has one goal: take down her mother’s former employer, Mr. Greyhill who happens to be the owner of a large mining corporation. And, as Tina believes, her mother’s murderer. It’s a goal she’s been working on for the past 5 years, since she left the Greyhill’s compound in the wake of her mother’s murder. She’s trained to be a thief, and her plan is simple: get in, have her tech friend BoyBoy hack Greyhill’s accounts and drain them, and then kill her mother’s murderer.

Things don’t go according to the plan, however. Greyhill’s son, Michael, is home from school (he wasn’t supposed to be), and catches the uncatchable Tina. And from there, Tina’s plan spirals out of control. As she begins to question everything she’s believed up to this point, she finds her past, her mother’s story, and yes, ultimately, justice.

I really liked this thriller, and thought that Anderson did an admirable job tackling the issues that East Africa faces. From milita terrorism, to kidnapping, to mining issues, to gangs: it was all there. Anderson didn’t sugar coat anything; even the “good guys” were complex and did questionable things.  It’s a complex place, Kenya, and Anderson, even though she’s not east African, did an admirable job reflecting that.

There was a bit of a twist at the end, too, which I didn’t quite see coming (should have, though), and I loved that Tina, for the most part, handled things on her own, but also was able to make decisions that stayed true to her character.

An excellent debut novel.

Lone Survivor

lonesurvivorby Marcus Luttrell with Patrick Robinson
First sentence: “Would this ever become easier?”
Content: It’s a non-fiction military book so there is a lot of harsh situations and swearing. It’s in the biography section of the bookstore.

No, this is not my usual reading. But I figured I’d branch out and give something that’s completely outside of my comfort zone a try. And I was willing to read this story of a Navy SEAL and their mission to capture and kill Osama bin Laden. I’d like to think I went in with an open mind, willing to hear Luttrell’s story, to listen to the justifications for war, and to try and understand what makes someone become a Navy SEAL.

And at the beginning I was mostly okay with it. I was fascinated and impressed with his recounting of his training, of the hardships he had to endure. But, the longer I read this the more one thing bugged me: this book didn’t have an editor. And it was driving. me. nuts.

“Didn’t have an editor” is an assumption. I’m sure someone went through for spelling and punctuation. But what was missing was a cohesiveness, a tightness to the story. Luttrell would repeat himself time and time again. He’d go off on a pages-long rant on the “liberal media” (two words I’m tired of hearing together; what they really mean is corporate east-coast based media, and that includes Fox News). He would quote someone and then have a paragraph explaining how this wasn’t accurate but you get the gist. In short: the publishing company did Luttrell a disservice for not giving him a good editor and making him tighten up his writing: Luttrell sounded much less intelligent than I am guessing he is. No, he’s not a writer. I get that. That’s why publishing houses hire ghost writers (and if this is Robinson’s doing, then he’s not a very good ghost writer): to make the “celebrity” story more cohesive.  It just got to a point where I couldn’t stand the circular writing, the opinionizing, and the plain bad editing.

Which is sad, because I think Luttrell’s story is a valuable one. I just wish I could have gotten through the book.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk

billylynnby Ben Fountain
First sentence: “The men of Bravo are not cold.”
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Content: Oh, the swearing! Lots and lots and lots. It’s in the adult fiction section at the bookstore.

This one is going to be tricky to sum up. It takes place over several hours, during a Thanksgiving day Dallas Cowboys football game in 2004. But, it’s more than that. It’s the story of the Bravo team in the Army who are on a Victory Tour after a battle in Al-Ansakar, in which one of their members was killed. It’s the story of Billy, a 19-year-old who enlisted after he was arrested for smashing out the windows of his sister’s awful boyfriend. (It was either the Army or jail.) It’s the story of Billy’s relationship to his family, and the people who are concerned about him going back to the war. It’s the story of a post 9/11 America, of the people who were so patriotic and so gung-ho about the war and the conflict between their vision of the war and the reality that Bravo experiences.

I’m not entirely sure how accurate it is in portraying a military experience, but I found it fascinating. I enjoyed getting to know Billy and the Bravos (I especially liked their sergeant, Dime.) and learning Billy’s backstory (his father was especially awful). I was fascinated by the contradiction between military life and civilian life; those of us not in the military really do take things for granted, and no amount of  patriotic “I support the troops” will change that. I don’t know if Fountain’s objective was to make that division clear, but that’s what came through to me. That all the things we, as civilians, usually do to call ourselves patriotic (flying the flags, saying we support the troops, etc.) pales in comparison to what those who actually join the military do. They’re the ones who put their lives on the line, every day. And flying the flag and saying we love the USA is nothing in comparison.

It got me thinking, anyway, which is a hallmark of a good book.

Monsters of Men

monstersofmenby Patrick Ness
First sentence: “‘War,’ says Mayor Prentiss, his eyes glinting.”
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Others in the series: The Knife of Never Letting Go, The Ask and the Answer
Content: It’s a violent book — it’s a violent series — and no one is safe. It’s also emotionally difficult. That, and mild swearing, puts it in the Teen (grades 9+) section of the bookstore, but I’d give it to an interested 6th grader.

This is a big, difficult book to get through. Not because of the length (though it is nearly 600 pages), but because of the emotional content of this. I’m incredibly glad I’ve had a book group to read this one with because otherwise it would have been much too difficult to handle.

I don’t want to spoil the book, so let’s just say that everything culminates in this one, and that characters you thought you knew you find out you don’t. That nothing is safe, and that (especially this) war is an awful thing and unless someone takes the higher road, there will be no end to it.

The thing that has surprised me most about this series is how relevant it still is. The best thing speculative fiction does is explore the issues in the world, and this one takes war, terrorism, and power head on. It’s brilliant in its portrayal of colonization, of the way people grab and hold on to power, and the sacrifices it takes to make it all just stop.

I’m usually disappointed with endings, but this one fit the series. Harsh and brutal, and yet hopeful, it didn’t make me cry, but I definitely respected what Ness did.

A very, very good series overall.

The Winner’s Kiss

by Marie Rutkoskiwinnerskiss
First sentence: “He told himself a story.”
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Others in the series: The Winner’s Curse, The Winner’s Crime
Content: There’s some sexytimes, but it’s tastefully off screen. Mostly. I am toying with moving this to the Teen section (grades 9+). (I hate doing that, especially since the other two are really pretty firmly in my 6-8th grade range. But, I also don’t want one in the Teen section and the other two in the YA section, so I may just move them all, or keep this one in YA. Frustrating.)

Spoilers for the first two, obviously.  Also: I still hate these covers with a passion. I mean, they’re pretty and all, but they’re NOT the books.

Kestrel has been arrested as a traitor to her country and shipped off to a work camp in the frozen tundra. Arin is still reeling from betrayal, when Kestrel rejected him and is throwing himself into his alliance with the Dacrans, determined to beat Valoria out of his country once and for all. He’s still in love with Kestrel, but she doesn’t seem to return his affections.

Both are determined to make the best of their situation. Both are determined to exact vengeance upon the leaders of Valoria, which includes Kestrel’s father. Neither are prepared for the directions that goal will lead them.

I don’t want to give more away from the plot (though if you’re smart, you can make some assumptions from the content…), but I’ll say this. It’s a good ending. I liked how Rutkoski wrapped things up, giving the story a complete finish, while not giving us every single little detail about the future. I love how she gave both Arin and Kestrel moments to shine, moments to grow, moments to be complex and do the unexpected. I liked that there was palpable tension, not necessarily between people but in situations. I found myself biting my nails, hoping things worked out okay. I loved how no one was black or white, and that even the bad guys were complex and interesting.

I’m definitely sad that this series is ending. It was definitely a good story.