Quick Review: THE AFGHANISTAN PAPERS by Craig Whitlock (Simon & Schuster)

WhitlockC-AfghanistanPapersA timely, illuminating, necessary, but strangely limited book

The groundbreaking investigative story of how three successive presidents and their military commanders deceived the public year after year about the longest war in American history…

Unlike the wars in Vietnam and Iraq, the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 had near-unanimous public support. At first, the goals were straightforward and clear: to defeat al-Qaeda and prevent a repeat of 9/11. Yet soon after the United States and its allies removed the Taliban from power, the mission veered off course and US officials lost sight of their original objectives.

Distracted by the war in Iraq, the US military became mired in an unwinnable guerrilla conflict in a country it did not understand. But no president wanted to admit failure, especially in a war that began as a just cause. Instead, the Bush, Obama, and Trump administrations sent more and more troops to Afghanistan and repeatedly said they were making progress, even though they knew there was no realistic prospect for an outright victory.

Just as the Pentagon Papers changed the public’s understanding of Vietnam, The Afghanistan Papers contains startling revelation after revelation from people who played a direct role in the war, from leaders in the White House and the Pentagon to soldiers and aid workers on the front lines. In unvarnished language, they admit that the US government’s strategies were a mess, that the nation-building project was a colossal failure, and that drugs and corruption gained a stranglehold over their allies in the Afghan government. All told, the account is based on interviews with more than 1,000 people who knew that the US government was presenting a distorted, and sometimes entirely fabricated, version of the facts on the ground.

Documents unearthed by The Washington Post reveal that President Bush didn’t know the name of his Afghanistan war commander — and didn’t want to make time to meet with him. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld admitted he had “no visibility into who the bad guys are.” His successor, Robert Gates, said: “We didn’t know jack shit about al-Qaeda.”

The Afghanistan Papers is a shocking account that will supercharge a long overdue reckoning over what went wrong and forever change the way the conflict is remembered.

This must be one of the best-timed books of the year. With President Biden’s recent announcement that the American presence and responsibilities in Afghanistan are over, Whitlock’s book has understandably generated a lot of interest and attention (far more, it seems, than the articles it’s based on received). In the days since the withdrawal, it seems as though every article has quoted Whitlock’s book (well, the introduction, mostly). I decided it was time that I got around to it, too, after leaving it languishing on my TBR for a couple months. It is an interesting and quick read, with plenty of illuminating and damning discoveries. It was also somewhat limited, however. Continue reading

Quick Review: GIANNIS by Mirin Fader (Hachette)

FaderM-GiannisUSHCThe Improbable Rise of an NBA MVP

The story of Giannis Antetokounmpo’s extraordinary rise from poverty in Athens, Greece to super-stardom in America with the Milwaukee Bucks — becoming one of the most transcendent players in history and an NBA champion…

As the face of the NBA’s new world order, Giannis Antetokounmpo has overcome unfathomable obstacles to become a symbol of hope for people all over the world, the personification of the American Dream. But his backstory remains largely untold, and Fader unearths new information about the childhood that shaped “The Greek Freak”—from sleeping side by side with his brothers to selling trinkets on the side of the street with his family to the racism he experienced in Greece. Antetokounmpo grew up in an era when Golden Dawn, Greek’s far-right, anti-immigrant party, patrolled his neighborhood, and his status as an illegal immigrant largely prevented him from playing for Greek’s top clubs, making his rise to the NBA all the more improbable. Fader tells a deeply-human story of how an unknown, skinny, Black-Greek teen, who played in the country’s lowest pro division and was seen as a draft gamble, transformed his body and his game into MVP material.

Has there been a better-timed book, recently? Shortly before this book’s release date, the Milwaukee Bucks, led by Giannis Anetokounmpo, won their second NBA championship — the franchise’s first was in 1971 (a team led by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar). Like many fans of the NBA, I was aware of Giannis and his incredible impact on the court. However, I didn’t know that much about his past or upbringing. In Giannis, Mirin Fader offers readers an engaging, well-written and nuanced portrait of Antetokounmpo’s rise to greatness, and the forces that have shaped him as a player and man. Continue reading

Quick Review: CAN’T KNOCK THE HUSTLE by Matt Sullivan (Dey Street Books)

SullivanM-CantKnockTheHustleUSA behind-the-scenes account of the 2019-2020 NBA season, by way of the notorious Brooklyn Nets and basketball’s renaissance as a cultural force beyond the game.

The Nets were already the most intriguing startup in the NBA: a team of influencers, entrepreneurs and activists, starring the controversial Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. But this dynasty-in-the-making got disrupted by the unforeseen. One tweet launched an international scandal, pitting the team’s Chinese owner and the league’s commissioner against its players and LeBron James. The sudden death of Kobe Bryant, after making his final public appearance in Brooklyn, sent shockwaves through a turbulent season.

Then came the unimaginable. A global pandemic and a new civil-rights movement put basketball’s trend-setting status to the ultimate test, as business and culture followed the lead of the NBA and its empowered stars. No team intersected with the extremes of 2020 quite like the Brooklyn Nets, and Matt Sullivan had a courtside view.

Can’t Knock the Hustle crosses from on the court, where underdogs confront A-listers like Jay-Z and James Harden, to off the court, as players march through the streets of Brooklyn, provoke Donald Trump at the White House, and boycott the NBA’s bubble experiment in Disney World. 

Hundreds of interviews — with Hall-of-Famers, All-Stars, executives, coaches and power-brokers across the world — provide a backdrop of the NBA’s impact on social media, race, politics, health, fashion, fame and fandom, for a portrait of a time when sports brought us back together again, like never before. 

Matt Sullivan’s Can’t Knock the Hustle is, quite possibly, one of the best basketball books available. Counterintuitively, this is in large part because it’s not all about basketball — rather, the Brooklyn Nets and other athletes and personnel who make an appearance, are a lens through which readers see the changing political and social landscape of America. Expertly written, I really enjoyed this. Continue reading

Quick Review: GODBLIGHT by Guy Haley (Black Library)

HaleyG-DI3-GodblightThe long-awaited, final Dark Imperium novel

The paths of Roboute Guilliman and his fallen brother Mortarion bring them inexorably together on Iax. Once a jewel of the Imperium, the garden world is dying as the plans of the Lord of Death to use it as a fulcrum to drag the stellar realm of Ultramar into the warp come to deadly fruition.

While Guilliman attempts to prevent the destruction of his kingdom, Mortarion schemes to bring his brother low with the Godblight, a disease created in the Cauldron of Nurgle itself, made with the power to destroy a son of the Emperor.

Primarchs clash on the ravaged landscapes of Iax. The gods go to war and the wider galaxy balances on a knife-edge of destruction. As something powerful stirs in the sea of souls, only one thing is certain – no matter who wins the last great clash of the Plague War, the repercussions of victory will echo through eternity…

The long-awaited conclusion to the Dark Imperium trilogy. I’ve been looking forward to this novel for quite some time, eager to learn what happens when Guilliman finally confronts his fallen brother Mortarion. Offering a good balance between world-building, character development, and action, this was worth the wait. I really enjoyed this.
Continue reading

Quick Review: SONGS IN URSA MAJOR by Emma Brodie (Knopf)

BrodieE-SongsInUrsaMajorUSA young singer finds herself experiencing the highs and lows of the music industry

The year is 1969, and the Bayleen Island Folk Fest is abuzz with one name: Jesse Reid. Tall and soft-spoken, with eyes blue as stone-washed denim, Jesse Reid’s intricate guitar riffs and supple baritone are poised to tip from fame to legend with this one headlining performance. That is, until his motorcycle crashes on the way to the show.

Jane Quinn is a Bayleen Island local whose music flows as naturally as her long blond hair. When she and her bandmates are asked to play in Jesse Reid’s place at the festival, it almost doesn’t seem real. But Jane plants her bare feet on the Main Stage and delivers the performance of a lifetime, stopping Jesse’s disappointed fans in their tracks: A star is born.

Jesse stays on the island to recover from his near-fatal accident and he strikes up a friendship with Jane, coaching her through the production of her first record. As Jane contends with the music industry’s sexism, Jesse becomes her advocate, and what starts as a shared calling soon becomes a passionate love affair. On tour with Jesse, Jane is so captivated by the giant stadiums, the late nights, the wild parties, and the media attention, that she is blind-sided when she stumbles on the dark secret beneath Jesse’s music. With nowhere to turn, Jane must reckon with the shadows of her own past; what follows is the birth of one of most iconic albums of all time.

Shot through with the lyrics, the icons, the lore, the adrenaline of the early 70s music scene, Songs in Ursa Major pulses with romantic longing and asks the question so many female artists must face: What are we willing to sacrifice for our dreams?

There’s been a bit of an uptick in the number of nostalgic, music-related novels published recently — in part, no doubt, to the considerable success of Daisy Jones & the Six. This is no bad thing, given that I’m a fan of the sub-genre. Emma Brodie’s Songs in Ursa Major is the latest, buzzed-about novel in this oeuvre, and it’s not hard to see why. It ticks all the boxes, and is an enjoyable (if slightly flawed) read. Continue reading

Quick Review: STEVE KERR by Scott Howard-Cooper (William Morrow)

HowardCooperS-SteveKerrUSHCThe definitive biography of Steve Kerr, the championship-winning basketball player and head coach of the record-breaking Golden State Warriors

Few individuals have had a career as storied, and improbable, as Steve Kerr. He has won eight NBA titles — five as a player and three as a coach — for three different franchises. He played alongside the best players of a generation, from Michael Jordan to Shaquille O’Neal to Tim Duncan, and learned the craft of basketball under four legendary coaches. He was an integral part of two famed NBA dynasties. Perhaps no other figure in basketball history has had a hand in such greatness.

In Steve Kerr, award-winning sports journalist Scott Howard-Cooper uncovers the fascinating life story of a basketball legend. Kerr did not follow a traditional path to the NBA. He was born in Beirut to two academics and split his childhood between California and the Middle East. Though he was an impressive shooter, the undersized Kerr garnered almost no attention from major college programs, managing only at the last moment to snag the final scholarship at the University of Arizona. Then, during his freshman season at Arizona, tragedy struck. His father, Malcolm, then the president of the American University of Beirut, was assassinated in Lebanon by terrorists. Forged by the crucible of this family saga, Steve went on to chart an unparalleled life in basketball, on the court and on the sidelines.

The only coach other than Red Auerbach to lead a team to the Finals five consecutive seasons, Kerr seems destined for the Basketball Hall of Fame. Steve Kerr is his incredible story, offering insights into the man and what it takes to be — and make — a champion. Drawing upon Scott Howard-Cooper’s years covering the Warriors, deep archival research, and original interviews with more than one hundred of the central characters in Kerr’s life, this is basketball biography at its finest.

I first learned who Steve Kerr was during the Golden State Warriors’ championship runs from 2014-19 (a run the Raptors ended). Over those years, I picked up bits and pieces of information about his playing career — specifically, that he was on the Chicago Bulls during Michael Jordan’s post-baseball years back on the team. It wasn’t until The Last Dance docu-series that I learned a bit more about his pre-Warriors life. With Scott Howard-Cooper’s Steve Kerr: A Life, I’ve been able to fill in the gaps. This is a very good picture of Kerr’s fascinating life, on and off the court. Continue reading

Quick Review: THE VIEW WAS EXHAUSTING by Mikaella Clements & Onjuli Datta (Grand Central Publishing)

ClementsDatta-ViewWasExhaustingUSAn interesting, engaging look at the psychological impacts of living your life in the public eye

Faking a love story is a whole lot easier than being in love…

The world can see that international A-list actress Whitman (“Win”) Tagore and jet-setting playboy Leo Milanowski are made for each other. Their kisses start Twitter trends and their fights break the internet. From red carpet appearances to Met Gala mishaps, their on-again, off-again romance has titillated the public and the press for almost a decade. But it’s all a lie.

As a woman of color, Win knows the Hollywood deck is stacked against her, so she’s perfected the art of controlling her public persona. Whenever she nears scandal, she calls in Leo, with his endearingly reckless attitude, for a staged date. Each public display of affection shifts the headlines back in Win’s favor, and Leo uses the good press to draw attention away from his dysfunctional family.

Pretending to be in a passionate romance is one thing, but Win knows that a real relationship would lead to nothing but trouble. So instead they settle for friendship, with a side of sky-rocketing chemistry. Except this time, on the French Riviera, something is off. A shocking secret in Leo’s past sets Win’s personal and professional lives on a catastrophic collision course. Behind the scenes of their yacht-trips and PDA, the world’s favorite couple is at each other’s throats. Now they must finally confront the many truths and lies of their relationship, and Win is forced to consider what is more important: a rising career, or a risky shot at real love?

An interesting behind-the-curtain look at “crisis” management, the industry and lifestyle of Hollywood, and the ways in which is alters its inhabitants’ perceptions of reality, love, and life. Populated by interesting and varied characters, it’s a well-constructed, slightly predictable, but enjoyable read. Continue reading

Quick Review: MURAKAMI T:THE T-SHIRTS I LOVE by Haruki Murakami (Knopf)

MurakamiH-MurakamiTUSHCAn engaging, enjoyable trip through Murakami’s t-shirt collection

The international literary icon opens his eclectic closet: Here are photographs of Murakami’s extensive and personal T-shirt collection, accompanied by essays that reveal a side of the writer rarely seen by the public. 

Considered “the world’s most popular cult novelist” (The Guardian), Haruki Murakami has written books that have galvanized millions around the world. Many of his fans know about his 10,000-vinyl-record collection, and his obsession with running, but few have heard about a more intimate, and perhaps more unique, passion: his T-shirt-collecting habit.

In Murakami T, the famously reclusive novelist shows us his T-shirts — including gems from the Springsteen on Broadway show in NYC, to the Beach Boys concert in Honolulu, to the shirt that inspired the beloved short story “Tony Takitani.” Accompanied by short, frank essays that have been translated into English for the first time, these photographs reveal much about Murakami’s multifaceted and wonderfully eccentric persona.

This is, strangely, the first of Haruki Murakami’s books that I’ve read. However, I find that he and I have very similar thoughts when it comes to t-shirts and what they mean for us/people in general. In this slim volume, Murakami collects the short essays he wrote for a Japanese fashion magazine about some of his (many, many) t-shirts. They are grouped by theme, and offer some interesting and endearing digressions on various topics. I really enjoyed it. Continue reading

Very Quick Review: WALK AMONG US by Genevieve Gornichec, Cassandra Khaw & Caitlin Starling (Voyager)

KhawC-VM-WalkAmongUSAn interesting and varied collection of novellas

One of the most popular role-playing properties in the world gets new life with this trio of horror novellas set in Vampire: The Masquerade’s World of Darkness by three brilliant talents: Genevieve Gornichec, Cassandra Khaw, and Caitlin Starling

The subtle horror and infernal politics of the World of Darkness are shown in a new light in Vampire: The Masquerade: Walk Among Us, a collection of three novellas that show the terror, hunger, and power of the Kindred as you’ve never seen them before.

I’ve been interested in the Vampire: The Masquerade setting for years. However, I’ve never played a game of the pen-and-paper RPG. In fact, despite buying some of the 1990s-early 2000s novels (which I haven’t had a chance to read, yet), I have quite limited experience with the setting. I played and loved the Redemption video game (I really want them to update it for newer platforms!), and also the first Bloodlines game. Aside from that, before 2021, I had no other experience with it. When Walk Among Us was first announced, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it. I’m happy to report that it is a very good, varied collection. Continue reading

Quick Review: WHILE JUSTICE SLEEPS by Stacey Abrams (Harper/Doubleday)

AbramsS-WhileJusticeSleepsUKA twisty political thriller, set in the halls of the Supreme Court and corridors of power in DC

An explosive secret

When legendary Washington judge Justice Wynn falls into a coma and puts his law clerk, Avery, in control, Avery’s world is turned upside down. Because Justice Wynn had a secret. One that nobody wants to come out…

A life in the balance

As Wynn lies in hospital, Avery begins to unravel a sequence of clues, and realizes the puzzle will lead her directly into danger.

A showdown that will change everything

But how high a price can you put on the truth? And is Avery brave enough to expose the White House itself?

I’ve been looking forward to reading this ever since it was announced. I was lucky enough to get an advance review copy, and dove in as soon as I could. I’m very glad to report that it is great: an excellent example of the genre, well-written and gripping. Continue reading