Just the Facts: by Peter Godwin. 384 p. Published March 2011 by Hachette Books. Advanced review copy received in electronic format courtesy of the publisher, through NetGalley.
Who Cares? Adult Political Non-Fiction
Short Bio: Peter Godwin relays the stories he gleans from several trips through Zimbabwe in the aftermath of the 2008 election, chronicling the unbelievable stories of assault, torture, intimidation, and murder of President Robert Mugabe’s regime against their opposition. Mugabe, who helped lead Zimbabwe’s fight to independence 30 years ago, ruthlessly held his power in a “democratic” society by employing brutal intimidation tactics against all opposing political parties and supporters. Although the main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), claims they won the presidential vote in 2008, Mugabe refused to abdicate his power to their candidate, Morgan Tsvangirai, and stepped up the incredible violence perpetrated against MDC supporters. He is currently still the President of Zimbabwe.
Eyewitness Account: I don’t think I’ve read such a shocking narrative since I read about the Rwanda genocide in We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Shall All Be Killed With Our Families. Godwin isn’t chronicling a genocide so much as he is detailing a politicide – the systematic wiping out of all who did not support Robert Mugabe’s regime. I have never before been so utterly grateful to live in a country where the worst a presidential election degrades to is a smear campaign; I can vote for whomever I please without wondering at the polling booth, “Should I return home to the thugs waiting to torture and kill me, or simply flee for my life now?” I had no idea what the state of welfare for the average person was in Zimbabwe – the fact that almost their entire population relies on food from foreign aid agencies because all the farmers have been run off their land, that torture victims would die from sepsis because they wait two weeks to seek medical help from their wounds out of fear of further attacks if they are seen at a clinic, and that their currency was so hyperflated that you had to bundle the bills in bricks of millions to buy bread.
Although I give this book a full 5 stars for its incredibly compelling narrative, I hesitate to recommend it unilaterally – because story after story contains descriptions of some of the most inhumane torture I have ever heard described. The book is aptly named, as Mugabe’s regime truly imploys every possible way to instill immobilizing fear in the heart of all voting Zimbabweans. If you can get past the descriptions of horrendously brutal torture and truly heartrending situations faced by thousands of ordinary citizens, I highly recommend this book as a snapshot of how one man has catalyzed the utter collapse and ruination of a country and of the many brave people who have stood proudly in defiance of him.
“And now the murders here are accompanied by torture and rape on an industrial scale, committed on a catch-and-release basis. When those who survive, terribly injured, limp home, or are carried or pushed in wheelbarrows, or on the backs of pickup trucks, they act like human billboards, advertising the appalling consequences of opposition to the tyranny, bearing their gruesome political stigmata. And in their home communities, their return causes ripples of anxiety to spread. The people have given this time of violence and suffering its own name, which I hear for the first time tonight. They are calling it chidudu. It means, simply, “The Fear.”
“I wish there were a better word than “victims” to describe what these people are. It seems so inert, so passive, and weak. And that is not what they are at all. There is dignity to their suffering. Even as they tell me how they have fled, how they have hidden, how they have been humiliated and mocked, there is little self-pity here. Survivors, I suppose, defines them better. Again, and again, as I play stenographer to their suffering, I offer to conceal their names or geographical districts to prevent them being identified. But again, and again, they volunteer their names, and make sure I spell them correctly. They are proud of their roles in all of this, at the significance of their sacrifice. And they want it recorded.”
Other Books Read by This Author: None.
★★★★★ Writing Style
★★★★★ Original Idea
★★★★★ Page Turner
Who Cares? Adult Steampunk (Victorian Era Alternate History)
Not-So-Short Bio: There is no good short bio of this book out in the interwebs . . . probably because the plot is so quirky that it doesn’t distill well into a blurb! So, I’ll give it a shot myself: Milady de Winter (of Dumas fame) serves the “Quiet Council” of the French underworld as a secret agent in an alternate Victorian era full of familiar literary figures (Viktor Frankenstein and Quasimodo to name a few) as well as characters who are rather unfamiliar (unless you’ve read Tidhar’s previous novel, The Bookman). Milady’s directive is to track down a murderer and locate an object stolen from the scene of the crime. She quickly realizes that the Council must not be telling her the entire story as other factions begin to gather in Paris who hold the same objective. Milady must ultimately decide whether to fulfill her own personal quest for vengeance or complete the task set before her by the Council.
Eyewitness Account: So, personal caveat: this is my first “steampunk” novel – if you’re new to the genre, it describes a mesh of fantasy and historical fiction (usually set in Victorian-era industrial age) with the key element of including machines/automatons/robots that rival humans. Camera Obscura is actually the sequel to The Bookman, but it can be read as a stand-alone (it took me about half the book to realize that Vespuccia was the alternate name for America, which was probably introduced in the The Bookman.)
Added to the coolness factor: strong and mysterious female protagonist, literary characters galore, alternate history revisions, eastern oriental secret societies, and nuns with guns.
Didn’t quite float my boat: female protagonist didn’t sound or act female (most male writers seem to struggle with this, especially in action/adventure stories), most characters felt shallow/underdeveloped, and plot was too slow at the beginning and too fast at the end (now don’t I sound picky?).
This was a pickle of a review for me to write. For all the clever and creative pieces of the story I liked, there were an almost equal number of things that either annoyed me or just fell flat. Ironically, the closest books I can compare them to are not steampunk at all – Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series. Fforde also writes a female protagonist in an alternate history with a plot full of literary characters. However, where Fforde’s books are chock full of wit and whimsy in addition to evil villains and mass mayhem, Tidhar’s writing relies heavily on plot while skimping on dialogue and characterization.
So, if what you love is a good action film where lots of things get blown up and the superhero defeats all odds to save the day – definitely grab this book! You’ll be astounded by the unusual mix of plot elements that Tidhar throws at you, and he should really try to market it as a film script. If characters and writing style are really your thing, you should probably pick up The Eyre Affair instead.
“The corridor was dark. As she ran ghostly figures materialised at the end.
Nuns with guns.”
Other Books Read by This Author: None.
★★★☆☆ Plot Development
★★★☆☆ Writing Style
★★★★☆ Original Idea
★★★☆☆ Page Turner