Thursday 2 January 2014

American Warrior - A Review

 I got a Kindle for Christmas, which is quite a technological advance for me - I don't even have a smart phone.

I'm quite pleased with it. It's neat, light and works really well. The whole WI-FI thing, whereby I purchase an ebook from Amazon on my computer, and it downloads it direct to the Kindle, bypassing the computer completely, amazes me.

But I'm easily pleased.

Anyway, I love being able to carry a bunch of books with me wherever I go now, like, say, to a hospital waiting room. Or on a Christmas visit to the in-laws (I'm not the most sociable of people). But what I really like is having portable access to a massive range of self-published, Indie e-books. And there was one book in particular that I had my eye on, and which I was determined to make the first book I read on the Kindle. In fact, it was what swayed me into getting a Kindle in the first place.

I first saw it a month or so ago as a tiny ad on Kboards. It had one of the worst covers I had ever seen on a book, it was billed as $0.99 and it was called American Warrior. It looked awful, and I thought, 'How bad could this be?' So I clicked on the ad link.

Now I'm sure that, somewhere on the net, there's a whole list of dos and don'ts in marketing that says that I, the consumer, really shouldn't have been drawn to clicking that link in the first place. I mean, I really shouldn't have wanted to click that link. Not according to the experts.

Which is why I don't have a career in marketing. I'd suck at it. But I digress.

So anyway, I clicked the link, got past the terrible cover (which has now been changed to something a lot less crappy - no, really, the last cover guy looked like he was made of wax. And was melting), got intrigued by the blurb and was taken with the sample of writing inside.

And I saw immediately that this was not a book to be judged by its cover. Or its cheap price.

The novel charts the journey of Paul Brett, a kid living on the wrong side of the tracks in rural 50's America. Surviving the predations of both his abusive father and the gangs that prowl the migrant camp where he lives, Paul embarks on a life-changing odyssey that takes him from the underside of America, through the underside of the war in Vietnam, and into military prison, itself the underside of the US military. It's a harrowing journey that's packed with some of the most authentic scenes you'll ever find in a work of fiction.

The first thing that struck me about this book was its literary writing style:
Draeger had warned him about such complications, to never go looking for them, because they would seek him out, regardless. And a girl like Sarah Perez had complications written all over her. Even the way she lifted her head up from the microscope and looked at him when it was his turn was complicated. So he ignores her, though it takes all his will power to keep from reaching over and touching her hair as it spreads out before him like a dark red flood, covering everything in its path.
This is not some clumsily written self-published novel hastily typed by some unwitting amateur who has no clue about the art of writing. This is serious, thoughtful prose.

It's not entirely perfect, of course. Literary, artistic prose is hard to write, and there are odd moments when the writing goes a bit opaque, like the author is trying too hard. There's also a couple of occasions when more clarity and less poetry was required, like the passages where it's not clear who is talking or acting.

But in a big project like this, there's bound to be a couple of slip ups. And at least the typo count is reassuringly low. 98% perfect, which is better than a lot of trade published books these days. It's not an exceptionally long book - it's about 300 pages long - but its scope is massive, or so it feels when you're immersed in it. I mean, the sheer detail of life in a slum, of army training, of martial arts, and of war, is impressive. On one occasion the detail did stray over the line into tedium, but I was never tempted to skip parts. There's a documentary quality to the settings, like it's a memoir, and there's clearly a lot that comes from the author's own experiences. But there's also a lot that doesn't. It is a novel, and a lot of research has gone into it. You can feel it. Or rather, you can't.

I mean, sometimes you know that an author has done a ton of research, because as a reader you're being whacked over the head with it, like they want to show you how clever they are or they have to insert it all in a really obvious way, no matter how clumsy it looks. Well, this book isn't like that. I know, as a writer myself, that this author has done a lot of research. But as a reader all I get is the sheer immersion into a scene or a setting, like I've been there before, even though it is as far from my own experiences or anything I've read as I can get. And the characters feel real too, and they appear and disappear throughout the narrative in a more realistic fashion than is normal for fiction. Meet one on a page and you really don't know whether you're going to meet them again or just hear about their rumoured demise/exit/promotion from a second-hand source. In fact, I half expect to read about them again in the local news one day.

Paul's journey is a gritty odyssey, with a fair bit of heart ache to endure, but it's not a miserabilist tale by any means. It's just too damned interesting for that. Paul starts his journey as just another dirt poor kid, but the journey he's on is very much a spiritual one, and you can't help but be moved by his hope, as much as his pain. And in fact, the biggest pain for me was in reaching the end, because I didn't actually want it to end. I wanted a postscript, with all the loose ends tied up. I wanted to follow Paul through the rest of his life. That's how much emotional investment I had in this book.

Which is my way of saying, I really liked this book, and I recommend that you read it. It certainly has a place in the top five of my all time favourite novels. In fact, I'd love to see a movie made about it. I can already picture it as a cross between Forrest Gump, Platoon, Shawshank Redemption and the Thin Red Line. And if you think that's an unlikely mash-up, trust me when I say it works.

I give this book five stars out of five, and if you're interested in taking a look, just click the picture above to be taken to its Amazon site.

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