Maximum Shelf: Fives and Twenty-Fives by Michael Pitre

Maximum Shelf is the weekly Shelf Awareness feature focusing on an upcoming title we love and believe will be a great handselling opportunity for booksellers everywhere. The features are written by our editors and reviewers and the publisher has helped support the issue.

This review was published by Shelf Awareness on July 23, 2014.


fives and twenty

When a road repair convoy stops to check for roadside bombs, their first duty is to scan five meters in all directions from within the vehicle. A bomb inside this perimeter can penetrate the vehicle’s armor and kill everyone inside. Once five meters are cleared, scouts step outside and sweep an area 25 yards in every direction, before the convoy can move forward. These are the defining dimensions of a road repair platoon’s daily work. Filling potholes in Iraq means clearing bombs.

Michael Pitre’s debut novel, Fives and Twenty-Fives, follows three men from a road repair platoon in Iraq through their lives after their service has ended, alternating among their first-person voices. In disjointed chronology, the story switches between the present, when each man has either returned home or tried to create a new one, and their far more vivid past, in the Iraqi war zone.

Lieutenant Donovan is the platoon’s leader, although he knows he relies overmuch on his highly competent sergeant and corporal. Both his rank and his natural reserve inhibit Donovan’s relationships with the men and women assigned to him. “A real southern college boy, the Lieutenant. Like he was on his way to an outdoor jam band festival one day, took a wrong turn, and somehow ended up in the Marines.” Corpsman Lester “Doc” Pleasant is from the wrong side of the tracks, but discovers a gift for medical work. The platoon’s losses, which he is meant to prevent, hit him hard. Their “terp,” or local-native interpreter, is a Baghdadi university student code-named Dodge (“a dependable car”), who carries a copy of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in his back pocket, filled with copious marginalia in both Arabic and English. He is assigned to Donovan’s platoon but not allowed to talk with the Americans about his past–not that he wants to. In the aftermath of their war, the reader watches these three men try to navigate a world that no longer makes sense to them or of them.

In a post-Katrina New Orleans (and vomit-soaked French Quarter) as stark as the wartime Iraqi desert, Donovan goes back to school to pursue a business degree, but his professors don’t feel that officer training should exempt him from coursework in “leadership dynamics and business ethics.” He struggles to find relevance in school and work, and is haunted by the fates of the men and women of his platoon. Doc returns home to Houma, Louisiana, his military service having failed to offer the opportunity he sought. He can’t stop worrying about his father working out in the shed late at night, and still carries his trauma bag everywhere he goes. Dodge is lost to his American friends, his postwar experience known only to the reader.

In flashbacks, the reader witnesses these men and others in their day-to-day work in Iraq: repairing potholes, each and every one of which reliably contains an IED; trying to keep the roads safe for military and civilian travel; balancing humanity against the ugly work of war; and riding out the senselessness of military politics. Relationships grow and fade. Their homes seem very far away, and are rarely mentioned. One exception is Donovan’s phone call to his parents on his birthday, an effort that costs him dearly. Additional members of the platoon are revealed only in these flashbacks. The strong characters of Corporal Zahn and uber-capable Sergeant Gomez, for example, don’t get first-person treatment; the reader has to work a little harder to puzzle out the endings to their stories, with an increasing sense of foreboding.

Meanwhile, in the present-tense sections, Donovan struggles with the social interactions required by work, school and the possibility of dating. He is hailed as a military hero but holds himself responsible for a range of less salutary personal postwar outcomes. Doc is back at the oil-change place where he worked in high school, his society consisting of a father he can hardly speak to and two friends in a band in New Orleans. Dodge inhabits a precarious position in Tunisia, a society teetering at the brink of violent protests and social upheaval; his pleas to come to the United States have been denied.

These young people come home from a deeply traumatic foreign war to a society totally unprepared to understand them. When Doc ventures out with a girl to see the fireworks on New Year’s Eve, he reacts badly to the sounds of explosions and lashes out, wanting to protect those around him; but his companions, who barely know him, judge him to be unstable. Donovan carefully avoids playing the part of the “stereotypical brooding vet.” The experiences of Donovan, Doc and Dodge are heartwrenching in both theaters; it is Pitre’s greatest feat that they remain viscerally real people, not black-and-white cut-outs. From the perspective of his characters, there are perhaps no heroes here.

The quiet pathos of war, its aftermath and the individuals affected by it, and the inability of a tone-deaf society to relate to them, is rendered with poignancy and stark honesty in Fives and Twenty-Fives. Readers will be floored by Pitre’s spare literary style, the authenticity of each of his characters’ three different voices, and those mesmerizing characters themselves, who are not perfect but demand our compassion for their very reality. The story of Fives and Twenty-Fives is sometimes difficult to abide, but is also necessary; we are lucky to have such a fine voice as Pitre’s to tell it.


Rating: 9 potholes.

Come back tomorrow for my interview with Pitre.

Land of Love and Drowning by Tiphanie Yanique

Ghosts, curses, blessings, loves, births, deaths and family in a lush Caribbean setting.

land

Tiphanie Yanique (How to Escape from a Leper Colony) constructs a wide and magical world spanning three generations on the island of St. Thomas in Land of Love and Drowning. In the early 1900s, as the Danish Virgin Islands are poised to transfer to U.S. rule, Owen Arthur Bradshaw divides his love between his wife, Antoinette, who is beautiful but a reluctant mother; his daughter Eeona, still more lovely and also inveterately jealous; and Rebekah, an obeah (sorceress) married to another man. Antoinette gives Owen one more daughter, Annette, just as Rebekah gives him a son, Jacob Esau. The three children grow up relating to one another in unusual ways. War and American influence broaden their world somewhat, and the forces of nature and island magic both influence and are influenced by the disparate forces that are Eeona, Annette and Jacob Esau.

The story begins with Owen Arthur and his women, then follows his children’s and his grandchildren’s lives. Perspective shifts among the voices of the three children, but Annette, who grows up to be a historian, speaks the loudest. Her island patois persists even as Eeona nags her to “use proper English.” As she writes, “is just a story I telling, but put it in your glass and drink it.”

The compelling history of the U.S. Virgin Islands as told through this family’s intimacies is multiethnic, colorful and vital. Yanique’s diverse characters become doctors, architects, teachers, parents, lovers and fighters; their collective story is haunting and exquisite, told with grace, vibrancy and magic.


This review originally ran in the July 18, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 7 red dresses.

book beginnings on Friday: Maya’s Notebook by Isabel Allende

Thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting this meme. To participate, share the first line or two of the book you are currently reading and, if you feel so moved, let us know what your first impressions were based on that first line.

maya

Recently, after trying so hard to be patient, I finally gave up on The Aviator’s Wife (more on that next week), and breathed a sigh of relief and pleasure as I hit “play” on this novel by Isabel Allende. Her language is so lovely, rhythmic and perfectly chosen; her sentences, translated from Spanish by Anne McLean, are both short and simple, and lyrical. Also, I am very much enjoying this reading by Maria Cabezas.

The book begins with a quotation that I can’t help but share:

Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
With your one wild and precious life?

–Mary Oliver, “The Summer Day”

And then Allende begins writing, in the voice of 19-year-old Maya Vidal:

A week ago my grandmother gave me a dry-eyed hug at the San Francisco airport and told me again that if I valued my life at all, I should not get in touch with anyone I knew until we could be sure my enemies were no longer looking for me. My Nini is paranoid, as the residents of the People’s Independent Republic of Berkeley tend to be, persecuted as they are by the government and extraterrestrials, but in my case she wasn’t exaggerating…

Isn’t that a wonderful beginning? We have a precipitous moment, as Maya sets off on what is clearly a fraught journey, to an unknown destination; the colorful character of Nini; the suspense of this 19-year-old girl’s “enemies”; and the humor involved with the “People’s Independent Republic of Berkeley.” I’m so happy to be back in Allende’s capable hands.

Last Night at the Blue Angel by Rebecca Rotert

The vivid jazz scene in ’60s Chicago, an unconventional family and an utterly heart-stealing child.

last night

In early 1960s Chicago, 10-year-old Sophia has no friends her own age. Her society is Jim, a photographer in love with her mother; Rita and Sister Eye, her mother’s former roommates; and, occasionally, her mother, Naomi, a lounge singer aspiring to fame. “Mother’s feelings are the curb I walk, trying to keep my balance… when she notices me, all the times she doesn’t notice me get erased.” Rebecca Rotert’s debut novel, Last Night at the Blue Angel, alternates between Sophia’s perspective and that of a younger Naomi, discovering herself and escaping Kansas.

The city’s colorful ’60s jazz scene is a playground for a woman as beautiful and talented as Naomi, and its architecture provides focus for Jim’s photography (when he’s not focused on Naomi), set against the background of segregation and the Cold War. Sophia is precocious, wise beyond her years and profoundly nervous. She keeps lists: of her mother’s conquests, of the many practicalities she’ll need to reinvent after the bomb is dropped. But routine is disrupted when a man resurfaces from Naomi’s past just as she gets her shot at stardom after 10 years of hope and effort. Her final performance at the once-proud jazz club the Blue Angel holds promise, but will come at immense cost for both mother and daughter.

Rotert, an accomplished singer herself, beautifully evokes the vibrancy of this setting. But her true artistry lies in the complex mother-daughter relationship at the center of this story, and the deeply sympathetic, nuanced, heartbreaking character of Sophia, a child in an adult world on the brink of enormous change.


This review originally ran in the July 8, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 8 radios.

Teaser Tuesdays: Alone in the Classroom by Elizabeth Hay

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.

alone

What an intriguingly written, disquieting, riveting tale this is. I’ve only just begun it, but I’m fascinated. The story itself is rather magnetic; and on top of that, I find the writing curious and remarkable. For an example, check out this paragraph of characterization:

Given what Parley Burns did and what happened to him in the end, Connie never tired of mulling over what kind of person he was deep down. He wasn’t handsome, she told me, but he was distinguished and very attractive to lonely women. Something fashionable, almost feminine in his manner unsettled and excited them – a sensitivity channeled into the dry-bed of bachelorhood. Yet he was far from dry. He was an intricately wired man. The smell of eggs turned his stomach.

The smell of eggs!

And no, we don’t yet know what he did. Are you drawn by this, as well?

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

The Vacationers by Emma Straub

An eccentrically fun family vacation, with far more style and spunk than your average beach read.

straub

The Vacationers by Emma Straub (Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures) is peopled by charming, funny, expertly portrayed characters who feel very real and yet slightly fantastical.

The Post family is headed from Manhattan to Mallorca for a two-week vacation, ostensibly to celebrate: Franny and Jim are approaching their 35th anniversary, and their daughter, Sylvia, has just graduated from high school. Joining them will be their son, Bobby, with his girlfriend, Carmen, and Franny’s BFF Charles and his husband, Lawrence. However, Jim has recently left his decades-long career at Gallant magazine amidst shame and scandal, and his transgressions at work have followed him home. Sylvia’s big goal of the summer is to lose her virginity before starting college in the fall. Charles and Lawrence’s is to adopt a baby–a plan they haven’t yet shared with the Posts. Bobby and Carmen are on uneven ground; they have a secret to break to his parents, and it doesn’t help that the Posts have never liked Carmen. More secrets and scandals, new and old, will come to light under the Spanish sun.

Straub’s greatest strengths are her endearingly quirky protagonists and a plot with more twists than a European mountain road, but her secondary characters are also cleverly wrought. The Posts’ absent hostess, Gemma, is Charles’s second-best friend; Franny tries not to let that annoy her. Sylvia’s local Spanish tutor, Joan (“pronounced Joe-ahhhn”), is a delectable temptation for both Sylvia and Franny, but it’s a retired tennis pro who really turns Franny’s head. Luckily, a motorcycle-riding pediatrician becomes Jim’s ally in trying to re-win his wife’s heart. Despite the considerable dysfunction of this family, this tale about them has a surprisingly happy ending.


This review originally ran in the May 30, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 9 olives.

did not finish: Tantric Coconuts by Gregory D. Kincaid

tantricOh dear. I had such high hopes for this one. And with such a great title!

Ted Day is a workaholic small-town Kansas lawyer who gets carsick. Wild Bill Raines, Ted’s grandfather, demanded that Ted finally take a vacation – and then died suddenly, leaving Ted his old beat-up RV. Against his better judgment, Ted resigns himself to a road trip with his elderly terrier, Argo.

Angel Two Sparrow is a spiritual consultant whose father fears she has inherited the “loco gene” of the women in their Lakota family. She has just inherited No Barks, a half-wolf dog, and a converted Bookmobile (converted into what, it is unclear) from her father’s Aunt Lilly – not upon that lady’s death but upon her imprisonment, having shot and killed her ex-husband because a bear told her to in her dreams. Angel’s ambition is to be a traveling spiritual consultant, so No Barks will accompany her in the Bookmobile.

The two bump into each other, hard, and literally, at a campground in New Mexico. They exchange a few witty and vaguely flirtatious lines and then get into the meat of it: Ted agrees to be Angel’s student (her first, though he doesn’t know this), and he and Argo join her and No Barks in the Bookmobile for a two-week course of study. At which point this intriguing and charmingly odd (if slightly over-cute and dialog-challenged) story takes a turn for the worse. I was dismayed to find myself reminded of Sophie’s World all over again: Ted and Angel turn out to be mere vehicles for the expression of simplified spiritual philosophies, and the dialog becomes downright atrocious. (“I’m glad you mentioned this, and I want you to know I’ve taken your observation very seriously,” intones Angel on page 85, as if she had just completed a series of classes in management-speak. I made it five more pages before quitting on page 90.) Author Kincaid also includes the occasional footnote recommending further reading, including one pointing his reader to the Wikipedia page on neuroplasticity.

I was taken by Ted and Angel’s contrasts and the possibility for a rather silly romance, which may indeed be where they are heading, but terrible dialog and a transparent use of these characters to teach Philosophy 101 will not allow me to follow them there. Best of luck to them, and the dogs too.

The Falling Sky by Pippa Goldschmidt

My father also reviewed this book here.


An astronomer’s professional and personal journey, both eased and challenged by her scientific mind.

falling sky

Pippa Goldschmidt’s The Falling Sky revolves around Jeanette, a young astronomer deeply dedicated to her work but uninspired by the competitive bureaucracy of postdoctoral research. The stars and galaxies make sense to her in a way that people do not; she is a talented and intelligent scientist whose rational lens often fails her in navigating the world of human relationships. In a Chilean observatory, she makes a discovery that could turn the scientific world on its head; what she will do with this new and disruptive evidence will similarly upend her personal life. Amid the commotion, a new love affair with an old friend and the disorder of her professional ambitions combine to reawaken a childhood trauma, a tragedy from which her family has never recovered.

The Falling Sky incorporates hard science (Goldschmidt is an astronomer as well as an accomplished writer) with the story of a young woman struggling to find and establish her own place in the world. Artists, romantics, philosophers, mystics, feminists, photographers and scientists will all identify with aspects of Jeanette’s journey. Those familiar with the Edinburgh setting will be pleased by its evocation. But perhaps the most remarkable and unusual element of Goldschmidt’s striking debut novel is Jeanette’s perspective: the reader sees her world as she does, with an emphasis on objectivity, data points, the relativity of time and space, and the search for connections between distant galaxies. As Jeanette sighs, “the lack of information is appalling,” but her story comes around to a satisfying conclusion nonetheless.


This review originally ran in the May 20, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 6 connections.

Teaser Tuesdays: Last Night at the Blue Angel by Rebecca Rotert

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.

last night

This lovely novel set in Chicago’s jazz scene in the 1960’s stars a heartbreaking ten-year-old girl, backed up by her mother, a self-absorbed but sympathetic aspiring singer. Their relationship is rendered perfectly.

Mother’s feelings are the curb I walk, trying to keep my balance, and I get tired of it, being careful, and mad at her at the same time. But then she takes my hand and smiles at me.

And on the next page,

When she notices me, all the times she doesn’t notice me get erased.

We learn a great deal there, don’t we? The rest of the book is written with equal skill, and the mother is far more complex than these lines might indicate. Do check it out.

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

The Untold by Courtney Collins

An astonishingly fresh and surprising novel of adventure, heartbreak, grit and love, set in the Australian bush.

untold
In the bush of 1920s New South Wales in Australia, readers observe a young woman digging by a river and then running for the hills. Her story unfolds slowly, in fractured time and brief views, in The Untold, a dreamy debut novel by Courtney Collins based on the life of legendary Australian wild woman Jessie Hickman.

Jessie’s past is varied and often tragic. She left home at 12 to join the circus, then moved on to an illustrious and mostly successful career rustling horses. At age 21, she was convicted for stealing two chickens. Upon her release from prison, she fell in with a rancher who put her back to work stealing horses and cattle, then forced her into a profoundly miserable and violent marriage. Her latest traumas have now sent her, and her beloved horse, Houdini, crashing uphill. They are headed for the top of the highest mountain she can see, through driving rain and flowing blood, in the scene that opens the novel.

Jessie will encounter gangs of men and boys, some friendly, some not: there is a bounty on her head and the residents of the town and the bush have turned out for the hunt. Among those pursuing her are a former lover–an Aboriginal tracker–and a police sergeant, purportedly working together but each unclear which side he’s really on; their quarry exerts a strange magnetic pull and counter-pull. As the reader is increasingly drawn into the story, The Untold rushes precipitously toward a heady convergence among Jessie, Houdini, the gangs and the two men with more personal business to conduct.

Collins has composed a truly startling and singular saga, set in a wild and brushy backdrop of mountains and elemental forces, peopled with hard-edged creatures of all sorts who each have a savage mood and a desperate will to live. Death is a consistent theme in Jessie’s life, beginning as early as we can know, but she has a surprising ally. In fact, while Collins keeps her reader guessing throughout, the biggest surprise of all is the narrator’s role in Jessie’s story.

The Untold is lyrical and untamed, with a firm emphasis on survival and redemption and a full array of improbably charming characters, none with an unstoried past but few as feral as Jessie herself. The reader will be as exhilarated as the protagonist by her struggles, and quite possibly come up gasping for air.


This review originally ran in the May 8, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 9 handfuls of mud.
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