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Combat Camera [Paperback]

A. J. Somerset
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
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Book Description

Sept. 15 2010
The most alarming development now confronting Zane was his suddenly frangible reality. Even his routine moments had become fraught with risk. Suppose, for example, a glint of sunlight was to catch the crack traversing his grime-smeared windshield; a disturbance as trivial as this could inexplicably fracture the entire tableau, could set fragments of his past tilting and sliding through his mind like pieces of coloured glass in a broken kaleidoscope. Things finally come to rest in a jagged landscape of unwelcome memories, and then where in hell are you?

On checking his rear-view mirror, Zane might find his back seat now occupied by Liberian child soldiers, their eyes glassy with drugs, their small hands grasping hand-me-down Russian assault rifles approximately four sizes too large. A West African horizon might replace outer Mississauga's industrial wasteland, under the same dissipating sun. A dead man, installing himself uninvited in the passenger seat, might speak. Panic rushes in, sweat popping from cold pores, the sour taste of bile and adrenalin, pain in the guts. --from Combat Camera

Combat Camera by A. J. Somerset is that very rare thing, a really superbly realized Canadian novel. It concerns Lucas Zane, a celebrated photographer who has burned out emotionally after covering battles in most of the wars of the late twentieth century. He has come to the end in Toronto, drunk, hallucinatory, all ambition fled. He earns the rent by taking photographs for Richard Barker, an impresario of shoestring-budget pornographic movies. On the set he meets “Melissa” and the novel explores their involvement.

After a horrific assault, Zane tries to rescue Melissa and bring her back home to Vancouver, while trying to mount a comeback by constructing a photo-essay about "Melissa's" life. Zane's reflections on camera angles, available light, film stock and shutter speeds - all the by-now obsolete technology of his years of fame - form a hymn to the beauty of art. Though Zane himself would deny that.

But the power of the book lies in its voice, a voice that is restless, ceaseless, meandering, tragic, sometimes very funny, a mind and a voice maintain an almost hypnotic grip on the reader.

Product Details

Product Description

Quill & Quire

Mentally and physically wounded after years of covering wars, photographer Lucas Zane, the main character in A.J. Somerset’s debut novel (winner of the 2010 Metcalf-Rooke Award for an unpublished manuscript), finds himself down and out in Toronto. He lands a job taking photos for a pornographer, a gig that leads him to witness horrors of another kind. While in the studio, he meets Melissa, a young stripper whose life is careening off track. Zane needs a subject and Melissa needs a father figure, and the two form an odd partnership that takes them to Vancouver.

Somerset, who has worked as a soldier, journalist, and freelance photographer, seems well versed in his subject matter. The book is filled with vivid descriptions of light and even provides a good practical lesson on developing a roll of film in a bathtub, which is sure to thrill anyone with a penchant for the pre-digital days.

A book about a wounded alcoholic and a battered porn star might sound like a grim read, and in some ways that is just what Combat Camera is. Full of violence, both domestic and international, the story is gritty and raw. But Somerset draws connections between disparate places to uncover universal truths about our reactions to violence; in one instance, a smashed mirror in a rundown Toronto apartment seamlessly segues into a broken window in Sarajevo. The writing, however, is occasionally overdone. For example, when relations with his agent go awry, Zane repeatedly thinks to himself that the conversation is not going according to the script he has in mind: “has no one read his lines?” An author as adept as Somerset at drawing characters can afford to let them speak for themselves.

Ultimately, Zane is a rambling, tragic, and suprisingly funny figure, and his tragic circumstances take on a strange kind of beauty. What this novel successfully shows is the way in which art can exist in the midst of mayhem.


Combat Camera is one of the finest Canadian novels I have ever read (John Metcalfe).

"A confident, gifted writer" (The Toronto Star).

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4.0 out of 5 stars Darkly funny, but ultimately uplifting March 22 2011
Really dark and unpredictable, with characters that aren't necessarily likeable, but which we do come to care about and feel compelled to follow through their misadventures. Somerset's writing style is tight and far more accomplished than his one novel list would suggest. Maybe it's the prize the book won, but I kept feeling there were similarities between his and John Metcalf's style. The same technical brilliance with hints of the trademark Metcalf sardonic wit. There were some genuinely touching, funny scenes between the stripper with the heart of gold and the cynical, world-weary photographer.

I get a sense that the author has a great sense of humour in these moments, in the book's hilarious video trailer and his affable, self-effacing style when he reads his work in public. If anything, I wanted more humour from this book to lighten the mood. It's dark, pessimistic tone is a bit oppressive at times and it relies on some humour, some action and some prurient interest to fuel reader interest. Effectively, yes, but disquietingly so. You feel somehow worse about yourself in the same way the hero does.

Lucas Zane is not an uplifting hero, but his attempts at some kind of redemption, as pathetic as they seem, are ultimately inspiring. A well-written, engaging and thought-provoking novel, Combat Camera makes me look forward to future offerings from this author.
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4.0 out of 5 stars The aftermath of too many wars Dec 8 2010
A.J. Somerset's COMBAT CAMERA features a protagonist who has seen what remains after the dogs of war have been loosed--not only has he seen it, Lucas Zane has made a living, secured fame and a better than average lifestyle, photographing the grim tableaux of combat and selling those images to anyone willing to pay the price.

But the accumulation of horror takes its toll and Zane loses everything, including his unerring eye. No longer employable, mentally fragile, he slips closer and closer to dissolution, his dreams invaded by a parade of corpses that stretch from El Salvador to Liberia. He is finally reduced to earning his bread and butter by shooting low-budget porn set-ups...and that's where he meets Melissa, a casualty of a different kind of war. Thrown together, their prickly relationship a high point of the novel, Melissa and Zane drive cross-country, in search of closure...and maybe some kind of new beginning. Happily, Somerset doesn't let them off so easily and the conclusion of COMBAT CAMERA is sobering, thoughtful, but hardly redemptive.

COMBAT CAMERA is a first novel, an assured and confident effort. It is a beguiling, engaging book, a meditation on the effects of trauma on men and women, an acknowledgment of the enormous pain we are capable of absorbing, the courage that is sometimes required to face each dawning day.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.0 out of 5 stars  1 review
0 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Combat Camera Feb. 20 2012
By BarbM - Published on
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
After 20 years of photographing the worst of the world in wars all over the globe, Lucas Zane has just barely survived physically. The question is if he has survived mentally. Through some truly outstanding writing, A.J. Somerset had me turning the pages over two days of semi-constant reading to find out if he did. At the outset, Zane is doing pornographic photography to make ends meet and I wasn't quite as involved. But, when he took off across Canada to take a young stripper/porno actress home, I was hooked. There were many flashbacks to his days as a famous photographer and most gave a good idea of why he came to be where he was in the end. However, the memories of the Berlin Wall coming down were the exception and some of the best writing I've read about that period.
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