Review: Spoils by Brian Van Reet

9781910702970I have read a lot of novels set during the Iraq War and this one is pretty special. Brian Van Reet, another alumni of the the seminal collection Fire & Forget, has written a novel of the Iraq War told from both sides; from a US soldier’s perspective and a jihadist insurgent drawn to Iraq from Afghanistan. In doing so he has written a part thriller in the vein of I Am Pilgrim, but also a part dissection of the last 16 years of conflict worthy of comparison with the other great novels of this war, Redeployment and The Yellow Birds.

Nineteen year old Specialist Cassandra Wigheard has been in Iraq for only five weeks but it is everything she ever wanted. In five weeks her unit has gone from invading force to occupying force but the war is about to make another dramatic and dynamic shift. We then follow Abu Al-Hool, an Egyptian who became a jihadist fighting the Russian invasion of Afghanistan. He has waged jihad across the world, including Chechnya, and following the 9/11 attacks is preparing for a new war in Afghanistan against America. After America also invades Iraq his brotherhood decide to relocate their operations to this new field of war and under new leadership they are planning a new kind of Jihad as they begin an insurgency in Iraq.

These two characters literally intersect each other at a checkpoint and a firefight  sees Cassandra and her crew taken prisoner. The race is now on to recover Cassandra and her crew but they can’t be found. The battle for the hearts and minds of the local population is quickly crushed as every door possible is knocked down in the frantic hunt for the missing soldiers. Meanwhile Cassandra is held captive by a group which has waged terror for over twenty years and is about to take their brand of terror to a level that hasn’t been seen before.

But not everyone is on the same page, on both sides. Brian Van Reet expertly puts you in the shoes of soldier and jihadist alike. Showing their motivations and reluctance, their frailty and their unmitigated determination to follow their chosen paths through. In doing so he has written a novel that is impossible to put down and will have you reexamining your thoughts on the war. Which is of course what all great war novels should do.

Buy the book here…

Review: Youngblood by Matt Gallagher

9781501105746I have had this book on my radar for a while despite the book not being published until February next year. Matt Gallagher was one of the editors and contributors to an impressive collection of war stories, Fire And Forget, which featured a number of top writers including David Abrams and National Book Award winner Phil Klay. At the time of reading it I knew each writer in that collection was somebody worth looking out for and I have yet to be proven wrong. So the moment I heard Matt Gallagher had a forthcoming novel I was on the lookout for it.

The United States has been at war for over a decade. And like previous conflicts out of the tragedy and horror there has been some incredible books written and published. Kevin Powers’ The Yellow Birds and Phil Klay’s Redeployment have been outstanding achievements in fiction and will be classics for generations to come. Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, David Abrams’ Fobbit and Michael Pitre’s Fives And Twenty-Fives have each added to this list of powerful, satirical and insightful works of literature examining war in the 21st century. And now there is Matt Gallagher’s Youngblood to add to this list.

Youngblood is very different from the above mentioned novels mainly because it is about a very different Iraq War. The narrator of the book is Lieutenant Jack Porter, who is leading a platoon of men in the last stages of the war. America is nearing the end of its involvement in Iraq with the new Iraqi Army being trained to takeover. Porter’s war is mainly dealing with the internal power struggles of the town surrounding his outpost, paying off local men and appeasing those whose lives have been affected by the ongoing violence in their country. It is his job to keep a lid on the fragile peace that has been eked out by those who have come before him, including his older brother.

Porter’s war is as dreary as the hot desert weather until he is assigned Sergeant Chambers, a veteran of a different time in Iraq who brings a new attitude to Jack’s platoon. He also brings with him his past reputation in the town they are stationed. Jack is determined to be rid of his new Sergeant and begins his own investigation into Chambers and his past in their area of operations. A past that swirls with rumours of civilian killings and an AWOL American soldier. A past that threatens to reignite the violence and reprisals that had appeared to be almost over.

Porter is determined to do one good thing in the war while at the same time making sure he can get all his men home and at times he is not sure he can do either. Porter must grapple with the complexities of a war that has not been clear for a very long time. Which is made less clear by the coming of an arbitrary end point that is meaningless to those who are involved and those who are caught in the middle.

Matt Gallagher expertly weaves together an intricate mystery and a tragic love story with the everlasting contradictions and hypocrisy of modern warfare. Compelling and insightful this is another great work of fiction about the Iraq War.

Buy the book here…

Review – Fives and Twenty-Fives by Michael Pitre

9781408854457 (1)A remarkable piece of fiction following proudly in the footsteps of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime WalkThe Yellow Birds and Redeployment. Wars never truly end for everyone involved and this is the territory Michael Pitre explores in his impressive debut novel.

On the eve on the Arab Spring in Tunisia three men are grappling with their futures now that their war has supposedly finished. Each is scarred and tainted by what they have witnessed and the decisions they have made. They are changed men returning to a changing world not sure if they achieved what they were fighting for. And if they possibly did whether it was worth the price.

Lieutenant Pete Donovan led a Marine platoon in charge of repairing potholes outside of Baghdad. What sounds like an innocuous responsibility is in fact extremely dangerous work as every pothole Donovan’s platoon must repair contains an IED. Every time.

The novel is told in flashbacks. Donovan has resigned his commission as an officer in the Marine Corps and is studying for his MBA in New Orleans. He is removed and detached from his class mates as well as the men and women with whom he served.

Lester ‘Doc’ Pleasant was the corpsman in Donovan’s platoon. His war ended with a dishonourable discharge. All the doors that Donovan’s service opened for him are closed for Lester who became isolated and detached from the rest of the platoon well before their deployment finished.

The third man is known only as Dodge. He was the platoon’s Iraqi-born interpreter. Through Dodge we see what the war means for Iraqis. The damage it has caused not just physically on the towns, cities and countryside but that damage it has caused to families, friendships and individuals.

Dodge’s story is the most powerful and insightful of the novel. While the lives of Donovan’s platoon are directly in his hands, Dodge’s own life and the people around him are a day-to-day juggling act where loyalties are won and lost, tested and betrayed.

Each man must try to make sense of the senseless violence they have lived and breathed and work out if they can possibly resurrect a new life from the aftermath.

War is never one-sided. It is all-encompassing and personally harrowing. Pitre has captured this aspect of war with compassion, complexity and clarity. It maybe a cliche to say that this is an important book about war that we should all read but it is only a cliche because it is true. We can’t understand a war until we have seen all its sides and Michael Pitre’s powerful debut novel is the first to explorer the pain and destruction wreaked on both sides of this long and different war.

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Review – Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting by Kevin Power

9781444780819When I received a copy of Kevin Powers’ collection of poetry I was quite apprehensive. I definitely wanted to read the collection as The Yellow Birds was beyond amazing. It still resonates very strongly with me everytime I think about it and Powers’ poetry background really comes through in his writing. But I wasn’t sure whether or not I was going to have the same feelings and get the intensity from his poems, and if I did, I wasn’t confident in being able to review or talk about the poetry collection in the same way I am comfortable in doing so with prose.

Kevin Powers first poetry collection is divided into four parts. The first part I definitely enjoyed the most which helped me greatly. The first two parts of the collection deal mainly with his experience as a soldier in Iraq and for the most part are quite short and sharp. The title piece is amazing but the other poems are all powerful in their own different ways. Part two is made of up of slightly longer pieces and begin to move away from the war, although not completely. Improvised Explosive Device that ends part two is probably the most emotionally charged piece in the book and my favourite line ends After Leaving McGuire Veterans Hospital for the Last Time:

You came home
with nothing, and you still
have most of it left.

The rest of the collection varies in form and subject and my lack of poetry experience, understanding and confidence began to disadvantage me.

There is no doubt Kevin Powers is an extraordinary talented writer. War brings out the best and worst in humanity and Powers writing is able to funnel that into beautiful words and devastating emotions. The war poets of World War One were the only ones who could truly convey the horrors of the trenches to those who were not there. Since then other forms of words and pictures have taken over showing those at home what happens during war. However there are more sides to war than the battles and there are more casualties of war than those who are physically wounded or killed. To be able to convey these many sides in a succinct form with strong emotional intensity is rare a precious gift indeed.

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Review – Redeployment by Phil Klay

9780857864239What an amazing book! This is a firm candidate for my book of the year already and it is beyond doubt the best collection of short stories I have ever read. I literally could not put this book down but at the same time wanted each story to last as long as possible. I went into total procrastination mode today before reading the final story because I was not prepared for this book to end but resistance was futile.

I first read the title story of this collection in last year’s Fire & Forget. It was one of the standout pieces in a standout collection. I knew at the time reading Fire & Forget that the contributors in the collection were destined for big things. And Phil Klay not only reaffirms that but announces himself in a massive way with his first book.

I have blogged a couple of times here that short stories are not usually my thing. Often there is a story I wish there was more of or a story that leaves me unsatisfied. But absolutely every story in Redeployment was spot on. This was writing as close to perfection as I have ever read and I want to read the book again right now.

I am a big reader of war fiction. They are stories I am drawn to, that seem to resonate with me more than any other fiction. What I loved about Phil Klay’s collection was that each story resonated in a different way. One of the unique aspects to Klay’s collection are the different points of view he conveys in his stories. It is impossible for me to highlight one story and I don’t wish to go through each story one by one because that would spoil the magnificent reading experience.

Klay covers stories about soldiers in action and soldiers coming home. Soldiers wounded in action and soldiers haunted by the fact they saw little or no action. We read about a Marine chaplain, a Marine in Mortuary Affairs, a Foreign Affairs officer sent to Iraq to help rebuild. And through all these stories Klay shows the war in all its messy permutations and consequences, the good and the bad, the humanity and the inhumanity. He even explores the art of telling these stories and the different ways stories can be used and told, hidden and untold.

Every story packs an emotional intensity not only rare in short stories but rare in longer fiction too. Imagine the emotional wallop of The Yellow Birds with the frank and brutal insight of Matterhorn distilled into a short story and you get close to the impact each of these stories makes on their own. Put together as a collection and you have something very special that will be read (and should be read) by many long into the future.

Buy the book here…

Thank You For Your Service

Thank You For Your ServiceThere are few books’ releases I’ve so urgently anticipated as David Finkel’s Thank You For Your Service, so I am eternally grateful to Scribe for recently sending me a review copy. And I knew Finkel had penned another Pulitzer award-worthy masterpiece right from the first paragraph:

You could see it in his nervous eyes. You could see it in his shaking hands. You could see it in the three prescription bottles in his room: one to steady his galloping heart rate, one to reduce his anxiety, one to minimize his nightmares. You could see it in the screensaver on his laptop—a nuclear fireball and the words F*CK IRAQ—and in the private journal he had been keeping since he arrived.

After some diary entries, it continues:

So he was finished. Down to his final hours, he was packed, weaponless, under escort, and waiting for the helicopter that would take him away to a wife who had just told him on the phone: ‘I’m scared of what you might do.’ ‘You know I’d never hurt you,’ he’d said, and he’d hung up, wandered around the FOB, gotten a haircut, and come back to his room, where he now said, ‘But what if she’s right? What if I snap someday?’

‘Snapping’ is what each of the former soldiers Finkel follows in Thank You For Your Service have done, each in their own way. Stressed beyond imaginable or reasonable capacity, they’ve returned from Iraq with enduring injuries and scars, many of which aren’t immediately visible.

We first met these soldiers during their deployment in Iraq, with Finkel charting their experiences with an incisiveness that cemented The Good Soldiers as one of the books I regularly recommend (I blogged about it at the time). Now, these soldiers have returned home.

Finkel tells us studies estimate between 20 and 30 per cent of solders return with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a mental-health disorder onset by terror or traumatic brain injury (TBI), with TBI being ‘the signature wound of the war’. TBIs occur when a brain is rattled so violently in its skull, by the likes of explosions caused by roadside bombs. Their symptoms include personality changes, memory problems, depression, anxiety, nightmares, and suicidal thoughts. Brain injuries are the kinds of injuries from which you don’t exactly ever recover.

‘Every war has its after-war’, Finkel writes. America is entering that after-war now, with an epidemic of PTSD- and TBI-troubled soldiers unable to function in civilian life. The dysfunction is also spreading throughout their subsequently struggling families and communities. We’re talking some 500,000 mentally wounded former soldiers across service in Iraq and Afghanistan. Were it plotted on a map and all the dots illuminated at once to give some sense of the scale, Finkel writes, ‘the sight would be of a country glowing from coast to coast’.

Another way to comprehend, he says, is to imagine each person one at a time. And so he conveys intimate, no-holds-barred, wrenching portrayals of some former soldiers and their partners struggling with the wicked problem of this after-war.

The Good SoldiersOne of the greatest issues is that these former soldiers aren’t visibly injured. They feel stigmatised and weak for suffering from PTSD and at times envy those who’ve lost limbs or worse. But Finkel comprehensively shows they are as much—if not more—damaged than those with battle wounds to show.

The cocktail of drugs listed for some soldiers caused me to suck air audibly through my teeth. I wondered: How can anyone feasibly be taking such a mix and still be alive? Perhaps that’s the point: they’re not alive, at least not in the sense of anything beyond respiration and a consistent heartbeat.

Finkel does an outstanding job of portraying the struggles of the wives and girlfriends—those whose partners didn’t come home from the war as well as those whose did, but who weren’t (who couldn’t possibly be) the same men. He empathically shows the minutiae of their existence, the desire to love and support their damaged partners but the need to pay bills, look after children, and find work that at times crowd out sympathy.

These soldiers see roadside bombs everywhere. One can still taste the blood of the injured soldier he carried down three flights of stairs on his back, whose blood dripped down his head and into his mouth. The same soldier falls asleep when he’s supposed to be giving his exhausted wife a break and drops his newborn son. Another soldier’s TBI-induced thinking is so muddled he can’t work out how to buy apology flowers for his girlfriend. There’s also the guilt. ‘None of this sh*t would have happened if you were there,’ one soldier tells another, whose shift switch saw another go in his place who subsequently died.

The book’s title comes from the empty words oft spoken to former soldiers in awkward moments. Of which there are many. We know no one wins at war; that it begets only more badness and violence. But Finkel’s storytelling conveys that in a manner that’s at once evocative and relatable. And in a magnificent range that charts PTSD-induced rage to relentless to crippling bureaucracy—soldiers have to get enormous numbers of box-ticking signatures to get anywhere when what they really need is expedited help—to weariness. Senior army officials now have a monthly conference call to try to work out how to stem the epidemic of suicides. The answer, they and we seem to know, is we probably can’t.

Thank You For Your Service is also occasionally macabrely funny. One counsellor runs through the rules of the cognitive behavioural therapy session, which include that everyone needs to listen, one person only can speak at a time. He adds an implored addendum: ‘Also, don’t fart.’

A soldier who still has the bullet-punctured helmet he was wearing when he was shot in the head now uses it for a Halloween candy bowl. Another, so crippled by his physical injuries he could only reach—and try to bite through—his wrists when he was feeling suicidal, offers awkward moment-disarming advice: ‘Don’t ever try to bite your wrist. That sh*t hurts.’

Which is to say that although Thank You For Your Service is stomach-twistingly difficult to read, in many ways it’s not. It’s exquisitely rendered and a compelling examination of the war fallout the world is going to have to face. What I want to know is what Finkel will follow up this follow-up book with? And more importantly, how soon will we be able to get our hands on it?