Review: Grunt by Mary Roach

Grunt by Mary Roach, ARC, Oneworld, November 2016, 285p.

4 out of 5 stars.

Grunt is a book about war unlike any other I have encountered – and I’ve certainly read my fair share of war books. Mary Roach goes behind the science and technology of modern soldiering, and the issues and advances that scientists are making for the men and women on the front line. This is not a book for the faint hearted, it is full of blood, gore and swearing and doesn’t shy away from some hard truths about the US Defence Force. Grunt is a book for those curious about how uniforms come to be, what happens when you take shrapnel to your, uh, nether regions? Do soldiers get travellers’ diarrhoea like the rest of us? What is life aboard a submarine like?

Roach, of course, has investigated and researched all these topics and more and written a brilliant non-fiction book that is very accessible. Much of the research is communicated by descriptions of her conversations with people in the military, and her experiences while researching. Sometimes Roach throws in a reference from a medical or scientific journal, but most of her evidence takes the form of interviews with experts and those who are actually experiencing the technology and science – the grunts. This makes this book very easy to read and digest, but not something I would be reaching for as a reference text. Its value is purely entertainment, and on that score, it delivers.

Grunt is richly and at times, darkly humorous. There were quite a few times that I was laughing at a dead body or something that may have killed someone – most of the book is framed in a humorous fashion, with quips and hilarious facts accompanying the science and evidence. Grunt is also the first book that I felt physically ill reading (I don’t recommend eating BBQ meat while reading Chapter 9: The Maggot Paradox). I imagine some men would also feel a bit delicate reading through chapters 4 & 5, both of which deal with damage and recovery from injury to the male groin. Entertaining and informative for a woman, but when I read a couple selected paragraphs to my boyfriend, he promptly asked me to stop and made pained wincing facial expressions.

A could of years ago I added Roach’s book Stiff, which is all about the science of dead bodies, to my Goodreads TBR. I’m not sure when I removed it, but I certainly didn’t read it, but I will now be adding that back onto my TBR – Grunt sold me on Roach’s style and approach to writing and science. I’m looking forward to working my way through her back catalogue of weird and wonderful books full of strange and surreal facts. And I’ll be buying Grunt as a Christmas present for a family member who loves war non-fiction and has a really twisted sense of humour. I want to see his reaction to chapters 4 through 5. I might also put a putrid scratch and sniff at the start of Chapter 10: What Doesn’t Kill You Will Make You Reek.

Thankyou Oneworld publishers for the review copy. This book was provided to me in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: Free Bird by Kevin Cooley


Free Bird by Kevin Cooley, Netgalley edition, published 26 April 2014, 245p

Sean Murphy is a U.S. Marine in a K-9 bomb-sniffing unit in Iraq and is the handler and best friend to a German shepherd named Free Bird. In a Baghdad firefight inside a hallway raining gunfire, Sean makes the ultimate sacrifice when he falls on a grenade to save his fellow soldiers. Free Bird, also mortally wounded, climbs over Sean to protect him, unaware of the transformation about to take place.
On his final journey, Sean encounters two paths. He can either follow a light or go with Free Bird. Sean chooses his canine companion with complete trust.
When Sean awakes he finds himself in a kennel inside Free Bird’s body. As Free Bird, Sean returns home and sees how his family is devastated by his death and the aftermath of war. His parents are flirting with alcoholism and an affair, one brother is an outcast in school for flunking kindergarten, while his other brother conceals a secret.
Feeling guilty for the choices he made, Sean/Free Bird guides his family through the mourning process so they can move forward. In two forms, Sean discovers one truth.
He was meant to come home.
– Book Description from Amazon.com

Overall Enjoyment Rating: 8 golden stars

Favourite Quote: “They would always hurt for Sean till their own final moments, but now they realized having him in their lives was worth the pain.”

Free Bird is a wonderful contemporary novel, and I really enjoyed reading it. I picked it to read because it had war themes in it, and I am a sucker for a good war novel. I would recommend this novel for people who aren’t fans of war stories as well as because it explores the dynamics of a family in mourning.

Cooley writes the Murphy family well, and each character is strong and well-drawn. More importantly they were believable. The struggle that the family go through when they receive a dog from the Marine core and not their son, is incredible. Free Bird’s attempts to bring the family together are heartwarming and feel honest. There is a point at which you need to suspend your disbelief and accept the premise of the story, but once I did I was rewarded with an emotional journey.

The author uses a colloquial voice for Sean and Free Bird, which is fitting and appropriate for the characters. One of my biggest pet peeves is when characters speak in ways that are above their level – for example street kids speaking like scholars, but Sean speaks (and thinks) like a young man and soldier, if a little cleaned up.

My biggest gripe concerning Free Bird was that the settings didn’t pop in my head – the characters were so strong but the descriptions of the city were somewhat lacking. They normally constituted of the name of the street/place and then a story of something that happened to Sean in that location. I would have liked some more description (mainly adjectives) of setting and place, but that is my personal preference.

The ending of Free Bird was perfect, and left me with that feeling of satisfaction. I recommend anyone who is interested in family drama or war fiction to read this book!