Unforgettable Children’s Books

With so many memorable children’s books flooding our bookshelves, it’s easy to allow one title to melt imperceptibly into the next. This collection of stories however possesses qualities that make them virtually unforgettable. Embrace these haunting experiences that will linger with you long after the final page.

Parvana: A Graphic Novel by Deborah Ellis

This graphic novel rendition of Ellis’ acclaimed novel, The Breadwinner (US name of Parvana), moved me to tears. Emotionally charged and visually gratifying, this graphic novel ignites a need to know more and venture further.

I have not read The Breadwinner yet but was so enamoured by this portrayal of Parvana’s story that I am now compelled to do so. There is a movie rendition too although I may not have to see it. This sombre tale about a girl who disguises herself as a boy to make a living in the stricken city of Kabul to support her family and reconnect with her imprisoned father is so convincingly expressed through Elllis’ stirring narrative and dramatic artwork (from which this version was adapted) that it leaves nothing wanting apart from a desire for Parvana’s salvation.

The muted colour palette of dusty browns and ominous greys belie the hope that blossoms below the veneer of fear and repression. Orange flowers (the colour of hope) appear in many of the frames featuring Parvana and most strikingly, on the last page where they are seen springing from the crust of the desert. Parvana’s vibrant red blouse, the one she has never worn, representing hope and love, and a desire to be free of fear, is the catalyst for change.

Dramatic, poignant and inexplicably beautiful, like Afghanistan’s people, this story is itself complete and will appeal to many even those (children) who are unaware of the historic atrocities leading up to Parvana’s story. Especially useful for those resistant to learning about history and reading full scale novels.

Allen & Unwin Children’s Books January 2018

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Mind Provoking Prose – MG and YA Reads for the Venturesome

If the prospect of bored minds and restless spirits daunts you, consider these literary excursions for your middle grade and YA readers. Not only are they mind provoking and incisive, they offer experiences for the venturesome reader to revere and ruminate over long after they’ve read the last page.

How to Bee by Bren MacDibble

This is a brave story set in Australia in the not-too-distant future with global implications. Peony lives with her sister and aging grandfather on a fruit farm. Her chief aspiration is to be a Bee – the bravest, most nimble of farm workers who flit from tree to tree pollinating flowers by hand. If this concept sounds slightly askew, it’ll be one you are thoroughly comfortable with by the time you’ve experienced MacDibble’s palpably natural, narrative. Could this be the end of the world as we know it or, as I’d rather believe, just another notable chapter in the history of humans being humans – badly.

Whatever your take on climate change and the way we treat the planet, How to Bee, never wallows in despair or hindsight and neither does Peony who positively radiates tenacity, kindness and sass so loudly, her voice really will be resounding long after you read the last page. When  Peony is taken from her home by a mother who aspires for more than just the meagre country existence the rest of her family and friends endure, her brassy drive and cast-iron determination draw her right back to the home she loves, like a bee to its hive. But not before she spreads a little hope and good sense in the big scary city.

This story will make you grin, cheer, cry just a bit and want to fly with Peony as she Bees. It’s about being true to yourself, to those who love you, about living your dreams wildly and the profound power of friendship. It could also quite possibly change your whole outlook of and appreciation for fruit. More highly recommended than an apple a day for middle grade readers from eight upwards.

Allen and Unwin April 2017

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Unbelievably Good – Strange but True Mid-Grade Reads

Tweens and teens love dipping into the world of fantasy. The more quirky the premise, the more unbelievable the outcomes, the better. These middle grade novels serve up a mind-bending mixture of almost too-whacky-to-believe storylines showcasing time travel, ghosts and gigantic invisible felines. Strange but delightfully, true.

Frankie Fish and the Sonic Suitcase by Peter Helliar and Lesley Vamos

A forever morphing, triple paced collision of Doctor Who meets Top Gear is one way of describing Pete Helliar’s first foray into writing for kids. His enthusiastic use of wacky, over the top metaphors is a touch extravagant at times but oh, do they provoke some face-wrinkling chuckles.

Francis (aka Frankie) Fish’s race against time back into time has all the hallmarks of a mega time travelling adventure with one difference; he is making the journey in desperation to preserve the existence of the Fish family line of which he may or may not still be a part of (it all depends on the battery!). And he’s doing it with his very grumpy, slightly geriatric, grandfather.

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Review: The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley is such a heartwarming WWII story! My cold dead heart warmed like a whole 3 degrees and that is amazing. I loved the visual writing and the copious amounts of scones (!!!) and the adorable protagonist, Ada. British books are always delightfully pleasant. And I do see why this book has won the Newberry award! It’s so beautifully written (if very slowly paced) and definitely a classic to get middle-grade children into reading about the second World War.

9780803740815What’s It About?

Nine-year-old Ada has never left her one-room apartment. Her mother is too humiliated by Ada s twisted foot to let her outside. So when her little brother Jamie is shipped out of London to escape the war, Ada doesn t waste a minute she sneaks out to join him. So begins a new adventure of Ada, and for Susan Smith, the woman who is forced to take the two kids in. As Ada teaches herself to ride a pony, learns to read, and watches for German spies, she begins to trust Susan and Susan begins to love Ada and Jamie. But in the end, will their bond be enough to hold them together through wartime? Or will Ada and her brother fall back into the cruel hands of their mother? This masterful work of historical fiction is equal parts adventure and a moving tale of family and identity a classic in the making.

It’s an child evacuation story, featuring Ada and her little brother Jamie. They’ve been horribly abused by their mother because Ada is crippled. Her mother finds her repulsive and disgusting and is so cruel to her. Be prepared for some horrible scenes where the mother locks her in cupboards and cuffs her and denies her any happiness. I think the representation of PTSD was spot on. The repercussions of being unwanted your whole life? Ada was forever flinching away and kindness towards her was often met with meltdowns because she had been so unloved her whole life.

Ada also has a clubbed foot. I’ve never read that before! She spent the first 9 years of her life crawling in the dirt because her mother was so disgusted with her disabilitity. Ada’s bravery and strenght are totally to be admired. And it’s understandable that this drove her to a lot of bitterness and anger. This could’ve made her into an unlikeable character who is hard to read about…but it did not! I 100% loved and rooted for Ada.

Ada and Jamie are sent to live with Miss Smith in the English countryside. It reminded me a bit of Good Night Mister Tom and also The Chronicles of Narnia! I loved Miss Susan Smith. She was really snappy and kept claiming she was “not nice”…but the wonderful things she did for those children! It was so heartwarming. I love how she taught them manners and cleanliness and stood up for them when they got into trouble. And also fed them copiously. What a wonderful women. Her growing love for the children was just my favourite thing.

The children also have plenty of adventures in the countryside. There’s horse riding and spies to catch and school to attend. And lots of scones and tea, luv, because this is a British book.

All in all: it was a delightful WWII story with a totally winning protagonist. If you haven’t read much WWII stories, then this is a good one to start with! It’s definitely suitable for ages 9+ I’d imagine. There is parental abuse at the beginning, but it’s not graphic. There’s also death, but this is history. (Plus that is also not graphically described or anything.) Thanks for warming my old soul, little delightful book.

[purchase here]

Review: The Good Lieutenant by Whitney Terrell

9781509837441Whitney Terrell delivers one of the most original war novels in recent years and the most moving war novel I’ve read since Kevin Power’s The Yellow Birds.

In many ways this novel is a classic war story. A platoon that comes together during training, forges a bond, only for it to all fall apart under the pressures of war and combat. However it is the way in which Whitney Terrell tells this story that changes your perceptions and reinvents this war story by flipping everything on its head.

Firstly the good lieutenant of the title is a woman, making it the first war novel I know of with a female protagonist. Terrell doesn’t play the female lead as a novelty, instead he uses Lieutenant Emma Fowler to flesh out different aspects of war, combat, the military and being a leader in the most extreme, as well as the most banal, of situations. Terrell uses Fowler to explore what it means to be a good leader; the pressures, the expectations, the politics, and how no matter how good your intentions a good result is often unobtainable or just a matter of perception.

Secondly Terrell tells the entire story backwards. Rather than building the bonds of a platoon and then ripping those bonds apart Terrell begins with the bonds in tatters and goes backwards to show how those bonds were built and where the strengths, and weaknesses, in those bonds were forged and reinforced.

The novel opens with an operation going wrong, badly wrong. Lieutenant Fowler is leading a mission to recover the body of a member of her platoon who went missing on a previous operation days before. An Iraqi civilian has been killed and her platoon subsequently ripped to pieces in an ambush. Terrell then jumps back to show what happened to Fowler’s missing platoon member and then back again to detail the events that lead up to him going missing. The story continues going backwards showing all the elements, relationships, choices and uncertainties that lead, in one way or another, to the catastrophe at the opening of the novel. By the end of the novel the tragedy of its beginning is even more apparent than if the story was told in the traditional chronology. What has been lost more painful and how it has been lost more devastating.

This is another outstanding piece of fiction to join the canon of outstanding writing that has emerged from the tragedies of war over the last 15 years.

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War and the CBCA 2016 Shortlisted Picture Books

War is a recurring theme in the 2016 CBCA shortlisted books and dominates the picture book category.

RideRide Ricardo Ride by Phil Cummings, illustrated by Shane Devries (Omnibus Books, Scholastic Australia) has an Italian war setting, where the soldiers are portrayed as menacing shadows. It particularly looks at the relationship between Ricardo and his father, who work together on Ricardo’s bike  (a major symbol in the book).

The illustrations include panels superimposed over larger digital paintings and strategic cropping of heads, and it looks to be influenced by the artwork of John Brack.

Suri’s Wall by Lucy Estela, illustrated by Matt Ottley (Penguin Random House) has the inevitable sorry pairing of war and refugees.Suri wall

Suri is treated with suspicion by the other children who live with her behind the wall because she is tall. But her height enables her to look over the wall to see the devastation beyond. However, she tells them tales of very different settings inspired by imagination and beauty. Themes include occupation, difference, imagination, resilience, compassion and hope. Books with similar issues and themes are The Cat at the Wall by Deborah Ellis, The Wall by William Sutcliffe and The Kites are Flying by Michael Morpurgo.

FlightFlight by Nadia Wheatley, illustrated by Armin Greder (Windy Hollow Books) has already been shortlisted for the NSW Premier’s Literary awards – the Patricia Wrightson prize. It begins with a small family fleeing into the desert to escape persecution, which parallels the Biblical story of Mary, Joseph and Jesus fleeing to Egypt. It shows how “an ancient story becomes a fable for our times”. The merging of the Biblical story with a contemporary refugee tale has been more than seven years in the making with prominent author Nadia Wheatley (My Place, Papunya) writing many drafts.

And the BandAnd the Band Played Waltzing Matilda by Bruce Whatley & Eric Bogle (Allen & Unwin) is a confronting anti war cry. It is a ballad as a protest song – and is not for young readers. It’s about Gallipoli, although written in response to the Vietnam War. It is structured around the Eric Bogle song, as well as Waltzing Matilda.

The illustrations could be compared with Whatley’s illustrations for Jackie French’s The Beach they Called Gallipoli (digitally manipulated photos & pen in watercolour and acrylic collages). Here the illustrations feature searing line drawings, allusive blood splotches and are dominated by the narrator soldier’s direct gaze.

stepOne Step at a Time by Jane Jolly (who wrote Tea and Sugar Christmas), illustrated by Sally Heinrich (Midnight Sun Publishing), explores the repercussions of land mines in Burma. The illustrations are reproductions of hand coloured lino prints. Panelling (panel strips) and movement lines are used effectively across the cover and elsewhere. Repeated motifs of elephants and other symbols make decorative borders but the underlying issue in this book is not pretty.

My Dead BunnyMy Dead Bunny by Sigi Cohen, illustrated by James Foley (Walker Books) is not a war story in the conventional sense, although it is raising heated views. It is a zombie rabbit tale, told with over the top humour and rhyming couplets: “I poked at Bradley with a stick – his fur was muddy, damp and thick, and in his final resting place, the worms had tried to eat his face”. The illustrations are in digital comic style using a predominately black and white colour scheme with sparing touches of lime and orange.

Review: Anatomy of a Soldier by Harry Parker

9780571325825 (1)I have read a lot of war fiction, especially the new wave that has been coming through in the last few years about Iraq and Afghanistan. It is a genre that, when done well, is visceral, shocking and gives you insight into experiences that are almost unimaginable. But it is also a genre that can easily slip into cliche, lessening its impact. Harry Parker takes a unique and unusual approach to his novel about war and in doing so sheds the burden of any cliche and gives the reader a whole new perspective of both sides of modern war and its repercussions.

Tom Barnes is a captain in the British Army in an unnamed Middle Eastern country.  It is his job to lead a platoon on patrols and liaise with the local population as they deal with insurgents whose aim is to throw the foreign army out of their country. We follow Barnes as he tries to navigate through this world of IEDs and reprisals, where the mission and its outcomes are never clear. We also follow two local boys as one is drawn more and more into the insurgency and the two different paths they take which can’t help but intersect again. We also follow Barnes after he is wounded and his long and exhausting rehabilitation process to not only deal with his injuries but the civilian world he has returned to.

What sets this novel apart is the perspective Parker chooses to tell the story from. The novel is told from the point of view of 45 different objects. From a pair of army boots to a child’s bicycle, a bag of fertilizer to an IV drip. Parker uses these different objects to tell his three stories from every different angle and experience. This could easily go wrong or not last the length of a novel but Parker pulls it off partly due to how he structures the novel.

The story is not told in chronological order. Barnes’ story is mixed together. We start with him being wounded and move on to his recovery but this is mixed together with the beginning of his journey into war. The two boys’ story is also set on a different chronological line that is interwoven with Barnes’ timeline at different points in the novel. This may all sound like it gets confusing, which for a novel about war is not necessarily a bad thing, but Parker keeps everything together through the different perspectives. One of the devices he uses for this is to refer to Captain Tom Barnes only as his serial number, BA5799, before he is wounded. This has the added affect of making Barnes seem like just another instrument of war just like his boots, weapon, dog tags and helmet. After he is wounded, he is no longer a piece of army equipment and must become a person again.

Harry Parker has etched his name alongside the likes of Kevin Powers and Phil Klay in showing us the consequences of recent wars that don’t seem able to ever end. A powerful novel that not only gives you a new perspective on war but multiple perspectives.

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.

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Review: Where My Heart Used to Beat by Sebastian Faulks

9780091936846Sebastian Faulks’ new novel is quite simply superb. Tackling themes he has explored before Faulks delivers an original novel that is haunting, beautiful and profound that will resonate all the way through you.

Dr Robert Hendricks is a veteran of the Second World War who lost his father in the First. These two wars have not only shaped his life but also his thinking as a psychiatrist. He is contacted by an aging French doctor, who served with his Father in the First World War, as a possible literary executor of his estate. Hendricks travels to an island of the south of France to meet with the man who also has information about his father whom he never met. A meeting which finds Robert delving into his own memories of war as he confronts his father’s experience of his.

Faulks’ writing as always is sublime. The scenes of Robert’s war recollections in Tunisia and Anzio are some of the best war writing since Birdsong and his explorations of the human mind and what we call madness reminiscent of Human Traces. The heart of the story is about the madness of the 20th Century and how our memories are shaped in order to survive what we experience. And how love, loss, madness and grief are each inextricably entwined and influence our lives.

Heartfelt and heartbreaking, insightful and inventive this is Sebastian Faulks at his best.

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Review: Girl At War by Sara Nović

9781408706558This book has been compared to two of my favourite novels of recent years; The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht and A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra, so I had to read it straight away.

Firstly the comparison is completely justified while at the same time telling a completely different kind of story to those two wonderful books. The book opens in 1991 in Zagreb. A city that was once part of Yugoslavia which is about to become the capital of Croatia as civil war erupts. Ana Jurić is ten years-old and the story is told through her eyes as the collapse of communism soon turns to a confusing and violent war.

Ana is like any ten year-old. She wants to play with her best friend Luka and the effects of the war are more intriguing than dangerous. The sandbags and other equipment are new areas to explore and play and the constant air raids are exciting. But when Ana’s baby sister gets sick the effects of the war and the new borders it has created become all too apparent. Ana has to grow up fast. Faster than she wants. Faster than anyone should have to.

Sara Nović’s writing is incredible and she completely shattered me a quarter of the way into the book. She also structures her story perfectly jumping backward and forward from the war in 1991 to ten years later and its lasting aftereffects. This is a coming-of-age story which happens far too early. It is about how history defines us and haunts us. It is about trying to make sense of an unexplainable conflict and how in war innocence is so easily lost.

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Top 10 War Novels: A Response

You might have seen the great post by Jon Page entitled My Top 10 War Novels. Like most people I was entertained and added more books to my ever growing ‘to be read’ list. I was also thinking about all the great war novels that were missed; in fact I made a mental list of my favourite war novels and we share no books in common. The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers just missed my top 10 but that was the closest common book I found. What I enjoy about war novels is exploring the human connection, the struggle with the horrors of war and its aftermath. So I thought as a response to Jon Page’s post here are some great war novels that were missed.

10. Dog Soldiers by Robert Stone dog soldiers

This cult novel seems to capture a unique mood of Americans during the Vietnam War. This book deals with some different themes, not just the war and its effect on America, but it takes a look at counter culture, drug trafficking and the corruptibility of authority.

the narrow road to the deep north9. Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan

I feel an Australian perspective is needed on the list and Flanagan offered a great option last year. This book focuses on not just the cruelty of war and its after effects but the impossibility of love, especially when so damaged.

8. Painter of Silence by Georgina Harding painter of silence

This novel looks at Post World War II Romania under the brutal Stalinist regime. This looks at the devastation war had on Romania, providing not only hopelessness and despair but also great beauty. This is a novel that feels like a piece of art and yet it still managed to capture the mental and physical burdens of the characters living in this post-war town.

Maus7. Maus by Art Spiegelman 

This graphic novel tells the story of a Jewish family living and surviving in Hitler’s Europe. This offers a unique perspective of a type of story that has been told time and time again. Maus is also the only graphic novel to win a Pulitzer Prize.

People of Forever are not Afraid6. People of Forever are not Afraid by Shani Boianjiu 

This is the story of three normal Israeli girls who go from passing notes in school, talking about boys to turning eighteen and being conscripted into the army. For the most, this book is about a perpetual state of war.  The conflict between Israel and Lebanon still puts them into real danger, it is here we explore the idea of self-discovery when they are thrown into such an extreme situation.

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk5. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain 

This entire book really showed the disconnection between the military and civil life in the modern day. American wants revenge for 9/11 but they are not willing to sacrifice some like a Thanksgiving football game for it. This is a powerful book in the same vain as Catch 22 and Slaughterhouse-Five.

Constellation of Vital Phenomena4. Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra 

Chechnya is in a fragile state due to the dissolution of the Soviet Union (1991) followed by the Chechen-Ingush ASSR split (1992). This novel takes place during the second Chechen War. This is a beautiful novel of human connection and the struggles found in an abused country. This was one of the best novels of 2013 (for me anyway).

catch 223. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller 

This satirical masterpiece is a novel I’ll never forget; it was surprisingly funny but also remained insightful. This novel talks about the mental suffering caused from war but also the absurdity that can be found in bureaucratic operation and reasoning.

war and peace2. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy 

This Russian classic depicts the French invasion of Russia in 1812. True to Tolstoy form, War and Peace also looks at classes and the impact of the Napoleonic invasion on the Tsarist society. One of the things I love about Tolstoy’s writing is the way he looks at a situation as a whole; he had a unique ability to capture the lives of everyone involved in one war.

slaughterhouse-five1. Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

This story just has so many layers to try to explain, but it makes for an interesting read. Billy keeps randomly traveling to the Past, Future and a planet called Tralfamadore; this may seem weird but this classic really captures the effects of war on its survivors and the mental scaring it causes.

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.

Buy the book here…

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…

Review – The Free by Willy Vlautin

9780571300297I have always meant to read Willy Vlautin. My old sales rep practically begged me for years to read him (I still have two books in my to read pile). One of my favourite authors, George Pelecanos, ranks him as one of his favourite writers (which should have been enough for me). But what finally got to me read Willy Vlautin was the Ann Patchett quote (alongs side a Pelecanos) quote on the front of his new novel, because quite frankly Ann Patchett has done me no wrong lately.

This is not a war novel but it does deal with the aftereffects of war. It is not a political novel but it does look at health care in America. It is a novel about the wounded. Those wounded by what life throws at them and what they do with those wounds. It is a dazzling original novel, profound and full of hope. And it will stay with you long after you finish reading it.

The Free reminded me of two things. The first was one of the best books I’ve read about war, Going After Cacciato by Tim O’Brien. O’Brien is best known for his Vietnam War novel The Things They CarriedGoing After Cacciato was very different. It was experimental, it played with the boundaries of reality and went to that place inside a soldier’s head where he tries to hide from the horrors of war. Willy Vlautin takes this even further with the character of Leroy Kervin.

Leroy is a wounded veteran of Iraq. He has suffered a horrific brain injury and has spent years in a home for the disabled, barely functional. As the book opens Leroy has a moment of clarity and tries to take his own life. We then follow Leroy as he dips in and out of consciousness and into the dream world he creates to escape to somewhere better, to come to terms to what has happened to him.

Around these dreams we meet the people around Leroy; his mother who sits by his bedside reading science fiction novels to him, his girlfriend Jeanette who is also a huge part of Leroy’s dreamscape. Leroy’s dream world reminded me a lot of George Saunders’ short stories. Influenced by the books Leroy used to read, and now listens to, his dreams take on a slight science fiction bend. But as hard as Leroy tries he can’t out run his own consciousness and he wounds and memories creep into his dreams.

We also follow Pauline, the nurse who cares for Leroy in the hospital and Freddy, the caretaker at the home who found Leroy. These are the other wounded, the ones who soldier on. Who bare the brunt of a hard and uncompromising world. Freddy is drowning in debt trying to pay off a huge hospital bill. He works two jobs and as a consequence his wife and kids have left him. Pauline looks after her mentally ill father while at the same time trying to care for her patients at the hospital. But both Pauline and Leroy find hope in their lives and this drives them toward something better.

Willy Vlautin is an amazing writer who I should have read long before now and I can’t wait to get stuck into his previous books I have sitting in my pile.

Buy the book here…

Conveys the immensity and horror of a truly total world war

9780753828243

Review – The Second World War by Antony Beevor

There have been so many books written about the Second World War, as whole and it its parts. For a war that finished almost 70 years ago there is not a lot of new material to be found or analysis to give. Andrew Roberts did it in The Storm of War and Antony Beevor has managed to do it in his books on specific battles of the war (CreteStalingradBerlin and D-Day). So I was very interested see how Beevor wrote about the whole war and what new material and perspectives he brought. I was also looking forward to Beevor’s perspectives on the Pacific War.

When I first became interested in the Second World War Stalingrad was one of the first books I discovered and read. The things I have really loved about all his books, and in particular Stalingrad, have been how he has taken a single battle and shown all its contexts. Beevor has written about an entire war before, The Spanish Civil War (twice in fact) but the scale of the Second World War is immense to say the least. There was no way an 800+ page book was going to cover the whole war in the detail we’ve come to expect from Antony Beevor so there was always going to be parts of the war either not covered or expanded upon as much as some readers would like. For example Kokoda doesn’t even rate a mention and the Papua New Guinea Campaign only gets a paragraph. But while Kokoda and Papua New Guinea are important to Australia’s context of the Second World War it is not as important to the whole war’s context.

However Beevor does heavily favour the European theatre, in particular the Eastern Front, which is understandable because that is where he has done most of his research and it is also where most the death and destruction occurred in the Second Wold War. But he also looks at the Allies in the west which he has only looked at previously with D-Day and Crete. You can almost see a new book by Beevor on the Desert War and I am pretty sure he has said the The Battle of the Bulge is his next book. He covers both in depth but also gives you the impression he could have expanded greatly upon both these battles.

While I felt that the Pacific War didn’t get the coverage I wanted he does cover China during the war in great detail. Previously I had only read about China in the context of the Japanese invasion pre-1939 but Beevor covers China all the way through the war which I found fascinating.

I also found the political manoeuvrings of Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin immensely intriguing. Long before the tide started to turn in the war these three were already trying to out fox one another to get what they wanted post-War. Both Churchill and Roosevelt thought they had Stalin’s measure but he played them both off against each other both subtlety and crudely.

Writing about the whole of The Second World War is an ambitious task for any writer or historian. Beevor uses all of his skill to convey the immensity and horror of a truly total world war. Beevor fans will be well satisified and I think this is a great book for those who haven’t read him before to cut their teeth. And judging from the research that has gone into this book I can see at least three new books coming down the line.

Buy the book here…

Book Review – A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

“Life: a constellation of vital phenomena—organization, irritability, movement, growth, reproduction, adaptation.” – definition of life in a Russian medical dictionary

9781781090060If you ever doubted the power of fiction then this is the novel to reaffirm your belief. If you already know how powerful fiction can be, prepared to be blown away. In the tradition of The Kite Runner, Anthony Marra tells a story of love and war, horror and humour, the absurd and the profound that will make you laugh out loud and feel grief in the pit of your stomach.

One of the things (apart from the fantastic storytelling) that made The Kite Runner such a huge success was that it opened readers in The West’s eyes to a country that we had all ignored for decades but in the wake of 9/11 now had to confront. Khaled Hosseini gave us a story of a father and son, forced to flee their country after it was invaded and what it was like to return home decades later after the Taliban had taken control. He followed this up with A Thousand Splendid Suns which gave us the story of an Afghan woman who didn’t leave and we live through the horrors of life under the Taliban. Anthony Marra does something equally as powerful with the wars in Chechnya between 1994 and 2004. And after recent events in Boston this already powerful and poignant story takes on much more meaning and significance

Like Afghanistan my knowledge of Chechnya was sorely lacking. I was completely ignorant. I knew there had been a brutal war for independence from Russia there in the 1990s. I knew that there had been terrorist attacks in Russia by Chechen militants.I didn’t know there had been two separate wars, I thought it had been one long war. I did know Chechens were largely Muslim and that Russia had used the same rhetoric the US had to invade Iraq and Afghanistan to justify increasing their military campaign. But this was just stuff I’d gleaned from snippets on television news and short snippets in newspapers. I had no real understanding, no comprehension, no humanity. This novel changes all that.

The novel centres on a small Chechen village and four of its residents as well as a doctor at a nearby hospital. They have all lost something in the wars. They are all clinging to something else. A piece of hope, real and imagined. They are all trying to find a way to survive. They are not innocent but nor are they guilty. They are just trying to live a life cruelly interrupted by bombs, mortars and landmines. Where friends, colleagues, family members can simply disappear overnight. As you learn more about each character the depth of the tragedy of war is exposed; piece by piece, brick by brick, scar by scar.

I was completely immersed in this novel and its characters and literally balled my eyes out at the end. Anthony Marra’s novel does more than just put a human face on a human tragedy, he puts the tragedy inside you. You fell the pain and misery deep inside your bones but also the underlying power humanity. It’s uncrushable joy and hope and determination.

I never thought I could read a book that could surpass the absurdity of war captured by David Benioff’s City Of Thieves. Or the power of story and family captured by Téa Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife. Or the humanity captured by Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner. But that is exactly what A Constellation of Vital Phenomena does. This is a book I will never forget.

Buy the book here…

Mid-month round up – the war edition.

It’s the middle of October and my bookself doth overfloweth with far too many excellent recent releases which all seem to tie back into conflict. If you are looking for a non-fiction read this month, here’s are some recommendations; from a war-correspondent looking for work-life-romance balance in Kabul, to a woman who mobilised a nation for peace, to John Birmingham deciding to be very unpleasant to most of the planet. Enjoy.

The surreal one – The Taliban Shuffle by Kim Barker

If you’ve ever wondered what war reporters do to wind down in the evening and who the hell they find to date, this is the book for you. Kim Barker started  as a new war reporter in Afghanistan in 2003, when the war there was a side story to Iraq and her pieces were constantly side-lined by other bigger, better, more glamorous wars. While she learnt over the next few years (very slowly, and occasionally through hilarious errors) to navigate Afghan culture and a world often without electricity the stories grew from a forgotten war to what would become the front line of the so-called war on terror.

While she was learning the ropes, Kim dined with warlords and war reporters, managed to self-sabotage every romantic interest she met, dealt with an amorous Pakistani former prime minister, and got far too tangled up in the complicated and neurotic love lives of other ex-pats. As the conflict gradually escalates, Kim chronicles the reality of a job that involves dealing with danger and deprivation on a daily basis and how you gradually became acclimatised and maybe even addicted to a life on the edge of conflict.

If you are looking for an in-depth political analysis of events in Afghanistan and Pakistan, this is not the book you are looking for. But if you’re interested in how war correspondents and peace-keepers work and, more importantly, live and love in a war-torn land, Taliban Shuffle is a fascinating, funny and often surreal look at the reality of life as interloper in a growing war zone.

The uplifting one – Mighty Be Their Powers by Leymah Gbowee.

This is not a traditional war story. It is about an army of women in white standing up when no one else would—unafraid, because the worst things imaginable had already happened to us…. You have not heard it before, because it is an African woman’s story, and our stories are rarely told.”

Leymah Gbowee wanted to be a doctor but when civil war erupted in Liberia, the conflict tore apart her life and dreams. Years of  fighting destroyed her country and claimed the lives of relatives and friends. Gbowee survived the civil wars but became a young mother, trapped in an abusive relationship, without the resources to free or even sometimes feed herself.

Mighty Be Their Powers tells how she changed her own destiny and the destiny of her nation. An impoverished mother of 4, she trained as a trauma counsellor, working among girls and women raped by militiamen and those militiamen themselves. In 2003 she mobilised women from across Liberia’s highly-polarised ethnic and religious divides into a peaceful protest calling for an end to Liberia’s brutal 14-year civil war. Her book, Mighty Be Our Powers: How Sisterhood, Prayer, and Sex Changed a Nation at War is both the story of those protests, which led to Gbowee being awarded a Nobel Peace laureate, and of her own struggles with the price that her activism demanded of her personal life and her family.

The not quite non-fiction one  –  Without Warning by John Birmingham

So my last recommendation is not non-fiction but an alternate history that blends reality with sci-fi to pretty much put the entire world in peril. John Birmingham is not, by his own admission, a very nice man when it comes to the world he builds for his characters or what happens to them once they are there.

“I do terrible things to characters. I try my best to build them up, give them lovable quirks, amusing back stories, make it so you just want to be their friends and know you’ll miss them when the last page is read. Then I shoot them in the throat, or crash the plane into the ground at 1000kmh, or break up their marriages, or … well, I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but yeah.”

His most recent series opens in 2003, just before the Gulf War starts, with the disappearance of almost everyone in the USA.  Birmingham was inspired to write it after hearing someone say the world would be a better place if the United States disappeared, and – while you can make up your own mind on that one – this page-turner presents a vivid and terrifying picture of one way events could unfold in the USA simply ceased to be.

War—What Is It Good For?

Emergency Sex and Other Desperate MeasuresWhile I’m rarely able to pick a ‘favourite’ book, nor even do more than draw a blank when I’m asked to recommend something, one of my hands-down favourites and one that I regularly buy as a gift for friends or thrust upon them as a loaner is Emergency Sex (and Other Desperate Measures). Written by three United Nations (UN) workers—lawyer Kenneth Cain, social worker Heidi Postlewait, and almost-Aussie New Zealand-born doctor Andrew Thomson—it gives a warts-and-all insight not only into war but the international organisation tasked with managing its fallout.

The three were stationed in the likes of Bosnia, Haiti, Rwanda, and Somalia, the latter of which included them being there during the awfulness of Black Hawk Down. The revelations aren’t pretty and offer some fairly despairing examples of why the UN is referred to as a ‘toothless tiger’, but the book’s strangely inspiring too. In fact, despite cataloguing its flaws, the authors still work at the UN and still work to improve the world we live in. I’ve never more wanted to join the UN than I did after reading the book and apparently am not alone in my thinking.

I’m not going to dish details of the origins of the ‘emergency sex’ of the title—I recommend you read it to find out for yourself—but I will say that while it might be the gimmick that attracts you, there’s much more to the book than that. UN officials as high up as Kofi Annan tried to prevent the book from being published, but it was such in-text statements as the fact that if blue-helmeted UN officials turn up in your village purporting to be there to help you, you should run that were much more thought-provoking.

An Imperfect OfferingKeen to know more and to fill the post-good-book reading void after finishing Emergency Sex, I stumbled across Medecins Sans Frontieres president James Orbinski’s An Imperfect Offering: Dispatches from the Medical Frontline. Orbinski has spent years working in some pretty harrowing hotspots, but for me the most compelling aspect of the book was his account of his time spent in Rwanda. As one of the few foreigners who stayed in the country and who witnessed first-hand the atrocities of the genocide, which the world (including the UN) effectively watched unfold without intervening, his stories are harrowing and haunting.

By demonstrating the human cost of war, both books resoundingly show that war is much messier and less effective than the obfuscating ‘shock and awe’ and ‘smart bomb’ jargon would have us believe. They also demonstrate the triumph of the human spirit against the odds and give some very human insight into (for those of us who’ve grown up in safe environments) a very foreign experience. And while I’ve re-read and will continue to return to both books, the question I’m now faced with is, now that I’m again facing the good-book reading void, which insight-into-war book(s) should I read next?