The OF Blog: Five September releases reviewed

Sunday, December 07, 2014

Five September releases reviewed

The five books discussed below offer a nice diversity of narrative styles, themes, and characterization choices.  There are historical novels butting up against psychological portraits, with war being a catalyst for some surprising changes.  I enjoyed reading each one of these books, usually for different reasons, and while I do not have the time this month to write detailed individual reviews for the remaining 2014 releases I want to cover (there will be a handful of exceptions, perhaps), many of these are just as well-written and memorable as several that I have lauded before.

Lin Enger, The High Divide

It is tempting to view Enger's novel as an updated Western (it is set in the late 19th century prairies of western Minnesota, the Dakotas, and Montana) or, with a protagonist with the name of Ulysses Pope, as a riff off of Homer.  Yet despite the wealth of historical detail and a mystery surrounding Ulysses' disappearance, The High Divide is a sharp, penetrating look into family dynamics and the effects that one's past can have in shaping future decisions.  Enger's characters are well-developed, with motivations and weaknesses that make them dynamic, well-rounded personalities.  Couple this with Enger's detailed, evocative descriptions of a vanishing way of life and The High Divide is one of the more captivating novels of the late 19th century American West that has been released in recent years.

Brian Francis Slattery, The Family Hightower

I have been impressed with Slattery's previous novels, so I was intrigued by a pre-release description of this book as being about family and mob crime.  A multi-generational tale of how a Ukrainian immigrant changed his name and fortune by becoming involved in the Cleveland crime scene in the early 20th century and how this affected two similarly-named descendants captivates because Slattery has created a gripping mystery peppered with nuanced characterizations.  As the story unfolds and a journalist grandson delves into why he has become the target of hit men, I found myself more and more entranced by the narrative.  There are no longeurs and as the action built to an explosive climax, I found myself reading this even faster than usual.  Simply put, this is a fast-paced crime/mystery novel that has embedded within it an intriguing family history, all integrated almost seamlessly.

Michael Pitre, Fives and Twenty-Fives

I noted in a previous review that 2014 has seen a bumper crop of Iraq/Afghan War-related fictions.  In Iraq War vet Michael Pitre's debut novel, Fives and Twenty-Fives (the title references the IED's danger range for convoy vehicles and soldiers on foot), the Iraq War is shown not so much as a series of battles and ambushes as more akin to the hellishness found in Flann O'Brien's The Third Policeman.  Day after day, week after week, the soldiers protecting convoys through the Anbar Province have to stop, investigate any potholes, patch them up after any detected IEDs have been blown up, and then travel on through, knowing that they will have to repeat this frequently in the same spots on the same roads.  Pitre does an outstanding job showing the effects of this monotonous yet dangerous military assignment on the soldiers during and after their tours of duty.  A worthy complement to Phil Klay's National Book Award-winning Redeployment.

Joseph O'Neill, The Dog (longlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize)

The Dog is one of those novels that, if individual elements are considered in isolation, would seem to be a much better novel than what the actual narrative ends up being.  The prose is mostly fine (except where certain incidents and character foibles feel as though the author lingers over-long on them), the characterizations are good (except when there's too much harping on certain character defects), the wit is amusing (except, of course when it continues too long).  The result is a tale of a Western lawyer in Dubai that feels like it almost is a great tale, but ultimately it is a narrative that appears to suffer from O'Neill just adding a surfeit of details and redundancies that weaken the impact of what otherwise could have been one of the more powerful examinations of Western and Gulf State morality/greed collisions written this century.  As it stands, The Dog is not by any stretch a horrible novel, but its flaws are magnified by its numerous good traits being over-presented.

Dylan Landis, Rainey Royal

Rainey Royal was a difficult book for me to read.  Not because Landis doesn't write memorable scenes filled with subtle details and dynamic characters, but because she captures too well in prose a spoiled yet neglected teen girl growing up in 1970s New York.  Rainey's sometimes-tortured, sometimes-carefree adolescence, seen through chapters that feel more like a melding of short stories rather than tight, cohesive novel chapters, alternates between fascinating and horrifying the reader, depending on what happens to her.  All the while, Landis's characters stay true to themselves, even when things as horrific as a rape at the hands of a star pupil of her father's is in turn dismissed by him.  It is amazing that this character manages to survive to become something more than a testimony to youth wasted and abused, but Landis manages to pull this off with aplomb.  While the subject matter occasionally made me uncomfortable, Landis's talent in developing characters and creating vivid scenes shines through on almost every page.

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