Monday, March 11, 2013

Countdown to Jihad, by Jeff Westmont

Disclosure: I received a free copy of Countdown to Jihad courtesy of the author, via GoodReads First Reads.

This CIA vs. terrorist thriller contains a real gem of an action story. The problem is, the plot doesn't truly get off the blocks until about one-third of the way into the book. Readers who hang on this far, however, are in for a wild ride, as CIA agent David and his allies pursue a dangerous bomber in a wild chase through the final pages.

David is an intriguingly complex character, whose history and family background complicate his work and lend him compassion for his enemies. His relationship with Iranian agent Parissa is sweet, if somewhat predictable. What is unpredictable is the plot-twist at the end, which perhaps could have been better set up.

Fans of traditional spy thrillers such as John leCarre's Smiley novels, who enjoy character development and don't mind slowly emerging backstory, will enjoy the similarly-themed Countdown to Jihad.

Friday, March 8, 2013

War Brothers, by Sharon E. McKay

Disclosure: I received a free copy of War Brothers: The Graphic Novel by Sharon E. McKay via GoodReads First Reads, courtesy of Annick Press.

The graphic novel War Brothers tackles the difficult subject of child soldiers in Uganda's rebel army under Kony Joseph. This is a tasteful, sensitive portrayal through the eyes of a fictional boy who is captured by soldiers no older than himself and thrown headlong into the horrors of warfare that ravage his home country.

Some of the images and events in the book are disturbing, but they are taken from real-life events, and serve to bring an important message to teen readers: boys such as those in the book have in fact been forced into fighting, lost their lives, or suffered PTSD and social ostrazation if they are lucky enough to survive. The themes of friendship, bravery, faith, and family bring hope glimmering to the surface, just as lighter images appear toward the end of the book, symbolizing possibilities of a better future for the children who survived.

War Brothers is not overly wordy, instead allowing Daniel LaFrance's skillfully drawn images show the emotions of the characters far clearer than dialogue possibly could. Raw fear and pain in the faces of the young boys draw the reader in as one of this band of brothers, making it impossible not to empathize with their ordeal.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

The Gilded Fan, by Christina Courtenay

Disclosure: I received a free copy of The Gilded Fan by Christina Courtenay via GoodReads First Reads, courtesy of ChocLit Limited.

The heroine of The Gilded Fan, Midori, is an appealing character: bold but modest, proud but dutiful. She is both admirable and sympathetic. Unlike so many ladies in romantic historical fiction, she is a true lady, and it is understandable why the hero, Captain Nico, finds her so attractive.

Courtenay fills her entire narrative with cultural and historical detail that makes the dual settings of the shogun's Japan and Puritan England jump off the page in vivid color. The themes of honor, faith, and the importance of family are intertwined with an entrancing tale of romance and adventure, which is populated with unique and colorful characters. Despite the quirky improbability of the connections in Nico's and Midori's family past, their story as a whole rings true, and the ending leaves the reader wanting to read more about their life together.

Monday, March 4, 2013

What's a Dog For? by John Homans

Disclosure: I received a free copy of What's a Dog For? The Surprising History, Science, Philosophy, and Politics of Man's Best Friend by John Homans via GoodReads First Reads, courtesy of Penguin Press.

What's a Dog For? is a blend of a touching story about the author's love for his own rescued dog, a Lab mix named Stella, a history of dogs as pets, a lengthy speculation on intelligence and empathy in dogs and other companion animals, and a discussion of the ethics of animal rescue. As it might sound, this mashup of subject matter and attempt to mix personal tales with a somewhat subjective history of dog ownership fails to create a truly cohesive narrative that would satisfy either fans of cute animal stories or those interested in a more factual account of dog and human relationships through time. Despite this, and the owner's obvious personal bias against the purebred "dog fancy," this book will appeal to many dog lovers who can't get enough true-life pet stories and will doubtlessly lap it up.