The OF Blog: Final nine 2014 releases reviewed

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Final nine 2014 releases reviewed

Although there were times that I wasn't for sure if I would be able to do it, I've finally managed to write something about each of the 165 books listed on this 2014 releases post.  Although these will be barely 100-150 words in comparison to the 750-1200 word reviews I typically write, I believe they will represent in full my reactions to these works.  Now onto the capsule reviews, presented in a rough chronological release order, starting with  August (1), September (1), then October (3), November (3), and December (1):

 Lydie Salvayre, Pas pleurer (winner of the 2014 Prix Goncourt)

This was the last 2014 release that I read.  Pas pleurer by all rights should not have succeeded as well as it did, as it combines two vastly different narratives, a personal account of a daughter putting into print what her mother experienced during the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939 along with a third-person description of French writer/politician George Bernanos' evolution of thought regarding the conflict.  Salvayre does an outstanding job in mixing the two together, as scenes described by the mother dovetail nicely into the horrors that Bernanos experiences when he visits Majorca soon after Franco's forces have taken control of the island.  The prose is exquisite and the characterizations are very well done.  This is a fairly original way of melding a slight fictionalization of a family history with a psychological portrait of a famous writer and his crisis of thought as he comes to see Franco, whose side he initially championed, for a sort of monster.  Well deserving of the literary accolades it has already received, including France's most prestigious literary prize.

Robert Jackson Bennett, City of Stairs

This was my first introduction to Bennett's work, but I highly doubt it will be my last.  Although it took awhile for the narrative to move into high gear, considering the amount of time Bennett devoted to establishing the backdrop for this secondary world fantasy, by novel's end, there was an interesting mystery plot that had unfolded better than I had anticipated.  The sometimes uneven narrative developments of the first half were smoothed out by later revelations, making for a surprisingly enjoyable conclusion.  I am curious to see where Bennett goes from here, as there are enough positive elements (in particular, the purposeful avoidance of anything that might be construed as an analogue for Western European medieval mores or culture) in this novel to allow me to forgive the author for the unevenness of the opening chapters.

Keith Donohue, The Boy Who Drew Monsters

The Boy Who Drew Monsters is one of the best literary horror novels that I have read in quite some time.  Featuring a ten year-old boy with high-functioning autism who steadily withdraws from the outside "real" world in order to create disturbingly creative monsters that appear to populate the local environs as the novel progresses, the novel strikes a near-perfect balance between creating psychological tension (just how real are these monsters?) and fantastical effect.  Donohue is a superb writer and each element feels carefully crafted to achieve the maximum narrative effect.  The concluding chapter is perhaps one of the more profound and chilling plot twists that I've read in a while.   The Boy Who Drew Monsters is the sort of novel that I could gift to people who rarely read either horror or literary fiction, as there are enough strong elements of both to facilitate a quicker, more complete understanding of just what Donohue manages to accomplish here with aplomb.

Nuruddin Farah, Hiding in Plain Slight

Farah has long been rumored as a potential Nobel Prize candidate and there are certainly some weighty themes explored in his latest novel:  dealing with the aftermath of a terrorist attack; internal struggle of a young female professional/ex-pat Somali who suddenly finds herself dealing with her dead brother's adolescent children; confronting "difficult" relatives; homosexuality in East African societies; and balancing career against personal desires.  Each of these could make for an intriguing novel and for the most part, Farah manages to juggle these themes while making it seem as though it were effortless.  Yet there are times where the prose or dialogue fails to capture the potential full power of certain scenes, thus reducing the novel at times to a display of restraint at the expense of explosive yet vital narrative and character development.  Hiding in Plain Sight is far from a poor effort, yet its occasional failure to go beyond the constraints of the characters and scene situations make it feel as though Farah pulled a few of his punches.

David Nicholls, Us (longlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize)

This is the story of a slowly failing marriage, seen mostly through the perspective of the husband.  There are no sudden downturns or bitter conflicts.  Instead, what Nicholls presents is a gentle descent into estrangement, as personal differences, long buried under the bonds of common interests and affection, slowly rise to the top.  At first, it is not apparent that Nicholls is indeed describing a failing marriage, as it feels more like any of the usual marriages after a long period of familiarity.  It is only in the latter half of the novel that these long-simmering disputes begin bubbling over.  Us is a smartly constructed novel, utilizing its dozens of short chapters detailing individual scenes to great effect.  The prose, while not sparkling, is certainly fitting for the narrative and the characterizations, warts and all, are well-developed.  It is not the "sexiest" of narratives, yet it is one that achieves virtually all of its objectives.

Denis Johnson, The Laughing Monsters

Like a Resident Evil zombie that has been plugged several times and yet somehow still manages to rise again, colonialism is undead and not so well in Johnson's latest novel.  Following three ex-pat characters as they travel across the African continent, The Laughing Monsters contains some brilliant lines.  Yet despite Johnson's talents as a prose writer, The Laughing Monsters does not feel as substantive as many of his earlier works.  Perhaps it is the problematic subject matter (it is hard to tell a story of European-descended people in Africa without there being some sort of exoticism on display, it seems) or perhaps it is simply that the narrative as a whole is just not as developed as it could have been.  Regardless of what the primary cause might be, The Laughing Monsters is a mild disappointment, as readers of his previous works likely will expect great things and anything less, such as this good but flawed novel, will be a letdown.

Ron Rash, Something Rich and Strange

This is a collection of thirty-four of Rash's best stories, mostly taken from previous collections.  These tales, mostly set in rural Southern Appalachia, focus on the lives of drifters, addicts, and those who seem adrift from the mainstream of contemporary American live.  Rash's characters feel like people I've known most of my life; they are that true to Southern life.  His stories vary in style and theme, yet there is a common focus on the lives that these characters have chosen (or in some cases, had chosen for them after a bender or tweaking experience).  It is hard to pick out a singular story, as there were so many that I enjoyed.  Something Rich and Strange serves as an excellent primer to the works of one of the best Southern writers telling tales today.

Paul Theroux, Mr. Bones

This collection of twenty stories touches upon violence and how that shapes and reshapes American culture.  Theroux particularly seems interested in exploring conceptualizations of beauty and how increasingly outdated views of what constitutes "masculinity" may be the impetus for acts of desperation, if not outright violence toward self or others.  He is a very talented writer and his characters are vividly drawn.  Some of the tales might be unsettling to read, but I suspect that is precisely the point, to make the reader react strongly to the questions he is exploring within his tales.  Although some stories are slighter in content or are not as well-polished as others, on the whole Mr. Bones is another fine effort from one of the more well-known American short story writers of the past half-century.

S. Yizhar, Khirbet Khizeh (translated by Nicholas de Lange and Yaacob Dweck)

This translation of a 1949 Israeli novella that deals with the clearing of a Palestinian village in the immediate aftermath of the 1948-1949 war that created the state of Israel is perhaps one of the more harrowing stories that I've read this year.  The narrative follows the lives of a handful of young Israelis sent to a hilltop to await orders.  They want action, violent action even.  Yet what transpires against a vividly-described backdrop, is one of the more heartwrenching scenes written in the past century.  The language itself serves to illustrate the dualities of Israeli-Jewish identity and how the very experiences of the Holocaust are turned upon their heads as the exiles become the exilers, the eternally dispossessed dispossess villagers who had lived on that historical land for millennia.  The US English publication is long overdue, as this should have been part of the decades-old dialogue over the Israeli-Palestinian issue.

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