Kevin Patterson. News from the Red Desert. Toronto: Random House Canada, 2016.
I don't think I've ever cried before at the end of a book; that's how unsettling this novel is ... plucked from recent bestseller lists. The characters are fictional but the setting in Afghanistan 2001-2007 is all too real. Patterson clearly drew on his own experiences with the Canadian army overseas in Taliban areas. The Red Desert is what surrounds the Kandahar Air Field (KAF), base of first-world operations in that country. Military acronyms litter the story and dialogue but only heighten the immediacy. In succinct strokes, Patterson leads us through the lens of main characters herein. News journalist Deirdre O'Malley is embedded with Special Forces (SF), a secretive near-cult in separate jurisdiction from what one man calls "the industrial army," yet both are stationed at the same place. Thus the base commanding general and the SF general are not always in synch.
Everyone does agree that a cafe run by Pakistani native Rami and civilian employees is a great addition for relaxation of the soldiers. Rami's enthusiasm initiates a chess tournament and a movie night. Meanwhile Deirdre, witnessing SF in action, struggles to reconcile in her own mind the morality of war, the ethics of what she writes, and the two generals' conflicting attitudes. The accidental release of "war porn" onto the Internet causes furious reaction in Washington's highest levels and in the press. Then an unexpected, horrendous event happens and what follows is even more shocking and brutal. It's a devastating read, but we should give thanks to Patterson for the education about a complex mess, a situation undoubtedly duplicated today, now, in how many military occupations around the world. Don't miss this dose of reality!
The pilots, headshorn and enormous in their green flight suits, stood around the entrance together and laughed like great braying camels and enjoyed being themselves, so muscular and so erect. (49)
It's the evil truth about wars: they're not all bad for everyone. (68)
Being poor is one thing when you're just looking after yourself. It is much worse when someone needs your help. (173-4)
Deirdre's newspaper boss:
"ABC and NBC and the Guardian and Le Monde have all received huge leaks about the fighting there. Do you know anything about this?"
"No. What are the leaks about, exactly?"
"From what we hear, footage of helicopters gunning down civilians, footage of drone collaterals, incredible stuff. No-one's published anything yet, but the talk is deafening. Have you pissed someone off? Why are we excluded?"
"I've pissed a million people off, Kenwood. But it doesn't sound like this could be a sanctioned leak. No-one I deal with would have done this."
"But someone still did it. Find out who."
"There will be a lot of people trying to do just that, I think. Most of them with sidearms." (84)
The case for Special Forces:
"It costs a million dollars per soldier per year to put them either here or in Iraq. Twenty billion dollars for an infantry division, with all its bottle washers and mechanics and clerks. Per year. And when regular army gets here it puts up wire and stays behind it mostly, except to go out from time to time and try to find the IEDs the locals planted the night before―by driving over them. No-one speaks the local languages. What they know really well is how to fight World War II over again. And if there were a Wehrmacht or a Red Army out there wanting to fight us, that would be fine. But our problems aren't like that anymore. There isn't a front line. Or if there is, it's the wire around the FOBs."
"So the whole army should be SF?"
"Should be multilingual and exceptionally fit and mobile and smart. And organized in much smaller independent units. Able to move and sustain itself anywhere." (146-7)
Call the walking blood bank:
But by the time they had come in and were giving blood, Matheson was in worse trouble than ever, the urine in his catheter bag was claret, the secretions coming from his endotracheal tube were pink and frothy, his oxygen requirements were climbing and still, and again, the acidosis was severe. The anaesthetist had heard he had seven kids. (215)
Passing the army buck:
For blame was in the air now, seeking out the people to whom it would attach itself. It moved like a black cloud, coiling around first one subject, then the next, tasting them with a view to feasting. Blame would be attached to whoever the joker in Ramstein was who couldn't send the movies that had been ordered. It would attach to the unfortunate Jordanian platoon commander who had brashly taken his men to see that movie. ... It could attach to Major Horner for facilitating the film club. ... But it would especially attach to General Jackson. He was the ranking commander in Afghanistan, and he had been on the base when it happened. (262)
Karin Slaughter. The Kept Woman. USA: HarperCollins, 2016.
Slaughter is so popular it was a long wait from TPL. Will Trent and his colleagues from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation are puzzling over an ex-cop's death in the soon-to-be-renovated warehouse of a consortium of high-profile basketball players. His car was torched and the blood everywhere is not his. Enter Will's nemesis: Angie Polaski, the wife who won't go away. Her gun was at the scene but that's not how the man died. Thus continues the entanglement between Angie and Will and Sara, his new love. Who just happens to be the Atlanta police medical examiner. Will's tiresome emotional immaturity is an ongoing issue to the extent one wonders why he is so appealing to Sara.
Sports entrepreneurs, abusive athletes, abused women, abandoned children, some bizarre relationships, all play a dark part. There's a very clever time shift about half way through; no question the novel is impeccably constructed. Typically, Slaughter's pace never slackens although the convoluted plot seems to exhaust itself ultimately, racing from one tangent to another. Can we really believe Angie's sociopathic malice is capable of love? Or that Dr. Sara wrote such insipid emails to her sister? Too much solitary exposition as characters review their own histories, always withholding from each other. And the sin: an author who repetitively writes "off of" distracts and annoys me. But that's me. Slaughter is hot.
She was the closest thing he'd ever had as a mother, if you were constantly afraid your mother would smother you in your sleep. (93)
They walked all the time, even in the summer heat, like cars had never been invented. (320)
There was always a boy waiting for her, expecting something from her, pining for her, hating her. (344)
A taste of retirees:
Faith said, "I knocked on some of the neighbours' doors. Doesn't seem like anybody is home today."
"It's busier on the weekends." Violet tried to push a key into the lock. "No-one really retires anymore. They've all got part-time jobs. Some of the luckier ones volunteer. Come four o'clock, you'll find most of us down at the clubhouse for cocktail hour."
Faith would pass out if she had a drink at four in the afternoon. She asked the woman, "Did you know Dale Harding?"
"I knew him well enough." Violet didn't seem happy about it. "He was a pain in my posterior, let me tell you."
Faith rolled her hand, letting the woman know she should do just that. (97-8)
Sara stalls her feelings:
There was no way to fix this. She couldn't stitch together their relationship like she could stitch together his leg. Talking around the problem was only delaying the inevitable. And yet she didn't have it in her to confront him. She was frozen in place, terrified of what might come if they really talked about what happened, what was coming next. Sara couldn't guess the future. There was just a blank expanse of unknown. All she could do was stand in the darkened office listening to the blood rushing through her ears. She counted to fifty, then one hundred, and then she made herself move. (193)
Martin Cruz Smith. The Girl from Venice. USA: Simon & Schuster, 2016.
What a beautiful book! A stand-alone from the author better known for his novels set in modern Russia with detective Arkady Renko, one of my everlasting heroes. Cenzo and Giulia meet during the last gasp of the Second World War in Italy. He is a fisherman in the marshes of the Venice Lagoon; she is a Jew hiding from the Germans. Finding a safe place for her becomes urgent. Meanwhile Cenzo's suave movie-star brother Giorgio is a favourite within Mussolini's ill-fated puppet government. When Cenzo loses track of Giulia, he skillfully slips his way to find her between remnants of the German army, local fascist diehards, and desperate communist partisans. They all want something from him and his encounters are not without humour.
Cenzo is an instinctive philosopher, a man of the best nature with one flaw. He hates brother Giorgio although they are forced to work together at one point. Each of them, and every character in the book, is revealed as only Cruz Smith can do in spare words. The crusty old boys in Nido's bar, the strutting young Son of the She-Wolf, the ambivalent Colonel Steiner, the lusty Celestina, the bravado of the Argentinian consul's wife ... and so many more. In the grim surroundings of war, a delicate love story is set against the timeless life of a fishing village. Cruz Smith does it again ― thoroughly absorbing with the lightest touch. It's great cause for celebration that Parkinson's has not diminished nor defeated him.
Enrico and Salvatore Albano were so creased and browned by the sun that they could have been tree stumps. (21-2)
Her father sounded like the kind of man who never made a mistake until he did. (64)
For all their running, they were back where they had started, in the devil's vest pocket. (256)
In general, the furniture had the sort of earnest, oppressive quality that drove men to their boats. (257)
He knew as soon as he heard footsteps on the stairs. They were highly polished footsteps, Cenzo thought. Giorgio Vianello was a man constructed of expensive parts: an English suit, a French pomade, a signet ring that suggested a noble family, white teeth, and an Errol Flynn mustache. He had not so much lost his Pellestrina accent as traded it for one more vague and elegant. People compared him to Clark Gable. In fact, he was not much of an actor, but he was a hero and he usually played a version of himself: a submarine commander, a fighter pilot, a wounded officer in love with a beautiful nurse. Prince Charming, as Giulia had said.
"What are you doing here?" Cenzo asked.
"Visiting my family," Giorgio said.
"Now that you've visited, you can go."
Sofia Vianello put four glasses and a bottle of wine on the table. "Sit, sit. Giorgio brought this good wine. It's not every day I see both living sons." (54)
Dancing for fish:
Cenzo leapt and came down hard on his heels, kicking and gouging the sand until a shrimp with a green shell and red swimmers appeared in the hole he dug. Cenzo skipped and danced like a Cossack, capering to the beat of his feet while at the same time he ordered Giulia to fill the box. The SS officer aimed his pistol first at Cenzo, then at Giulia, and finally laughed at these crazy Italians, these crazy Italians who danced with their fish and even offered to share their catch with the soldiers, who said, "Nein, Nein," holstered their pistols, and, shaking their heads, climbed back onto their gunboat, which backed out and motored toward other fishing boats. They hadn't been after the Fatima; they were weary men drinking the dregs of war and ready to shoot anything that caught their eye. (67)
Instructions for a novice:
"Things you should know: A clean boat never makes money. A red moon makes the blood boil. Never fish the same ground two days in a row. At the market, cover your old fish with yiour fresh. A real fisherman doesn't need boots. Fish jump tp breathe. The captain of a fishing boat sleeps at the stern, the crew at the bow. Fishermen know how to wash dishes with sand. The best soup is at the bottom of the pot. When you're rowing, watch out for mines. Good luck will kiss you in bad weather."
"What about women in boats?"
"Definitely bad luck. Unless they're naked. That's good luck." (70-71)
Not what she seems:
Maria went into the reception room and came back with a passport. "The only problem is that I'm out of the passport business, In fact, I'm out of papers of identification altogether except for this one. Someone else's photograph is pasted in and she's not exactly Snow White." The picture was of a woman in her thirties who looked shrunken by grief, with gray hair and dark half-moons under her eyes.
"Can you do it?" Giulia asked.
"Can I turn a woman into a girl? It's easier to turn a fiddle into a priceless violin than to take the years off a woman's face. We'll see if I can perform a miracle." (227)