Thursday, July 24, 2014

Fives and Twenty-Fives by Michael Pitre

Main characters:  Marines Pete Donovan and Lester Pleasant, and Iraqui interpreter Dodge
Location: New Orleans and Iraq
Time period:  2006
Genre:  Adult Fiction, War Fiction

Fives and Twenty-Fives follows three men who were brought together by the war in Iraq, focusing not just on their time of service, but afterwards as they struggle to fit back in to civilian life.

Lieutenant Pete Donovan was a college man from Alabama before the war.  As a lieutenant, he seemed easy-going and content to allow his sergeants to handle the day to day running of his command.  Their role was road repair, which sounds a bit boring--filling potholes out in the brutal desert heat--but each pothole could, and often did, hide a bomb or trigger an ambush.  Pete has been awarded a bronze star for heroism, but he is uncomfortable with the label "hero" or even "sir."

Lester "Doc" Pleasant was from Cajun country in Louisiana before joining the Marines and becoming a corpsman, the first to administer aid in case any in his squad are wounded or injury.  He is deeply affected when he is prevented from running out to help a marine that badly wounded in an ambush.  The Lieutenant tells him that the man is already dead, but Doc is convinced that he saw him roll over.  Soon Doc is heading down a spiral of drug abuse which leads to him being discharged from the Marines.

Dodge is the Iraqui interpreter.  Dodge is, obviously, not his real name, which the military hides to protect him and his family from reprisals.  What Dodge does not tell anyone is that his father and his brother are much more likely to be the ones performing reprisals.  He wants to run from Iraq, from his family, and head to Syria, or Jordan, or anywhere there isn't war and he can resume his studies.  After his time with the Marines, he makes his way to Tunisia where he becomes a witness to the birth of the Arab Spring.

The author is a former Marine captain who served in Iraq and there is a strong feeling of authenticity through the book.  While reading it, I was reminded of the great World War II novels of Jim Jones, like From Here to Eternity and The Thin Red Line, or of movies like The Best Years of Their Lives and The Big Red One.  The emphasis is not on the battles but on the men and their relationships.  The structure of the novel--using current events to frame flashbacks--keeps propelling the story forward.  You keep getting hints that something big happened and you have to keep turning the pages to discover what that was.  (I was reading while waiting for a doctor's appointment and actually resented being called in because I wanted to keep reading.)

There is a well-crafted section where Pete is in a group of other officers and trying to have a serious conversation with one person while another man in the background is telling a story.  The way Pitre writes this section lets you clearly follow both conversations.  It's the sort of scene that would be so easy to do in a movie or TV but is very difficult in writing.

Pitre says in his forward that one of the things he wanted to do in this book was to show the suffering of the Iraqui people.  I think one of the saddest sections was where Dodge was talking about how he didn't have friends.  If you have friends, you have people.  And if you have people then there is a weapon that can be used against you.  So he denies himself from forming relations.  But though this is what he might say and what he might believe, he can't help getting entangled with others.

I very much enjoyed this book and would recommend it highly to everyone, even if you don't think you like stories about war.

I received this book as an e-ARC from NetGalley.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

The Bitter Trade by Piers Alexander

Main character: 17-year-old Calumny Spinks
Location: London, England
Time period:  Late 1600's
Genre: Historical Fiction

"I was born to a raging Frenchy slugabed mother, sired by a sulking silk-weaver with a battered box of secrets under his floorboards. From her I got my flaming hair, so red that the scabfaced villagers of Salstead spoke of the evil's seed, spitting in the dust for salvation when I walked past. From my father came my sharp tongue, the quick wits to talk above my station, and the shoulders to take the blows that followed."

Everything is stacked against young Calumny Spinks--despised and rejected by the villagers of Salstead for having a foreign mother, seemingly rejected even by his father, Peter, who refuses to enter Calumny's name in the guild book so that he can be apprenticed and possibly make something of his life. Peter refuses to even tell Calumny why. He's almost 17, and already his life is almost over.

Then calamity strikes, and Calumny's mother is killed by the villagers who accuse her of witchcraft. Though it is the last thing he wants to do, Peter takes Calumny to London and finds a home with others in the silk-weaver's guild. London opens a whole world up to Calumny and he soon finds himself in over his head.

This time period, well after the English Civil War and the Restoration of the Monarchy, and after the Great Fire of London, is one that I'm not all that familiar with, and I did have to periodically check Wikipedia to get my bearings. Peter was a fighter in Cromwell's army during the Civil War and his secret--one that makes him fear for his own life and for Calumny's--dates from that time. The strife between the Catholics and the Protestants is still high almost a century after Henry VIII brought the Reformation to England, with power between the two groups shifting back and forth. Peter is a staunch anti-Papist, as are many of the guild members, and chafes under the rule of a Catholic king. Religion is not the only reason to oppose the king--there are also reasons of commerce and trade. Since Calumny cannot be apprenticed as a weaver, he becomes entangled with people trying to build a coffee trade, and who therefore are seeking to overthrow King James in favor of William of Orange.

All of this scheming and politicking is complicated when read in a history book, but seen narrowly through the eyes of Calumny (who is, by the way, a very lusty young man) it flows in a way that makes sense. Everything is new to him, and he is not one to examine the morality of what he is told to do. All he wants is to become a man of position, to be called "Mister" or "Master," and so he does what he's told and adds a bit of scheming of his own.

With a vividly depicted backdrop that manages to encompass the beauty and the ugliness of its time period, I would recommend The Bitter Trade to fans of unromanticized, unsanitized historical fiction.

I read this book as an e-ARC from NetGalley.

Monday, July 14, 2014

The Kiss of Deception by Mary E. Pearson

Main character: 17-year-old Lia, First Daughter of the house of Morrighan
Location: Morrighan and neighboring lands
Time period: Fantasy Middle Ages
Genre: YA Fiction, Fantasy

Lia is being prepared for her wedding--a wedding she does not want to a man she has never met or even seen. The arranged marriage between her and the Prince of Dalbeck will bring peace to their two countries, but Lia sees the relationship between her parents, whose own marriage was an arranged, political one, and she knows that she could not bear that.  So, with the help of her maid, Pauline, she escapes the palace and, disguised as a commoner, heads to a town far enough away that no one will recognize her.  There she cheerfully gets a job as a  barmaid and for the first time in her life feels free.

Not too long after her arrival, two young men come into the inn where Lia is working.  What we, readers, know that Lia does not is that one of them is the jilted prince of Dalbeck, come to retireve the princess to restore his country's honor.  The other is an assassin from Venda, tasked with killing the princess to destroy any chance of peace between Morrighan and Dalbeck.  But even we do not know which one is which.

This is a very cleverly written novel with a trio of likeable characters at its core--yes, even the assassin.  In many ways, it reminded me of The False Prince trilogy by Jennifer Nieman. Though Lia has a power--a type of foresight--there is not a lot of magic in this fantasy (though that may change in the upcoming books), and there is a similar theme of young people being used as playing pieces in a political game.

The Kiss of Deception also has its share of romance, as Lia finds herself attracted to both men, and they certainly seem to be competing for her attention. The inevitable revelation of all the hidden identities is almost a disappointment, but it does shift the tone of the book from a pastoral interlude to an action cliffhanger (this is the first of a series, after all.)  I quite enjoyed this book and look forward to reading the future volumes.

I read The Kiss of Deception as an e-ARC from NetGalley.