Our final fiction reviews for 2017, in time for your holiday shopping (or your literary escape from the season). They’re in order of reading value and satisfaction. Prices are provided by the publishers; you may find better deals as the holidays approach.
Nonfiction fans, head here.
The Battle Within by Alistair Luft, Inkshares, 350 pages, $16.
The debut novelist is a Canadian Army lieutenant colonel who opens with Tim O’Brien’s admonition that an “uplifting” war story is “a very old and terrible lie.” To tell the truth, Luft centers on Major Hugh Degare, a combat veteran (Afghanistan thrice) on desk duty at headquarters in Ottawa.
He suffers from post-traumatic stress, which he is reluctant to admit despite offers of help from his wife and a shrink. After all, “what kind of soldier couldn’t handle a few bad dreams?”
His dreams become vivid nightmares, and he feels like he can “no longer fit in to the very society he thought he’d been protecting.” His disengagement stems from pressures within and without. Another officer callously says “a soldier who’d kill themselves over a made-up reason like PTSD should never have been let into the military in the first place.”
What at the start seems like a fictionalized, Army-issued training treatise on coping with PTSD spirals into a suspenseful and sad situation that is uncannily close to daily news headlines.
Wolf Season by Helen Benedict, Bellevue, 320 pages, $17.
A sheep in wolf’s clothing and three illegally kept wolves populate a small, rural town that suffers the effects of a hurricane and an epidemic of post-traumatic stress.
Veteran and Army widow Rin is a “pit bull of a woman” who keeps an M16 above her kitchen window, suffers “a clusterbomb of paranoias,” and prances with wolves. Studio dancer Beth uses alcohol to stem her fear that her Marine husband will return from Afghanistan only to wear out her welcome mat. Physician Naema escapes from Baghdad to Syria to the U.S., but war follows her “all the way her to her bedroom in Huntsville, N.Y., and her very own bed.”
The doctor says people can use up their supply of compassion, and this is a town without much pity. As Rin says, “thank the Lord, Allah, Krishna, Buddha, and Santa Claus, too, that the Iraq War wasn’t fought in woods like these.”
The story is provocative if not always pleasant, with characters that require equal doses of empathy and endurance.
Into a Dark Frontier by John Mangan, Oceanview, 323 pages, $27.
In 74 short chapters, the Air Force pilot and “coffee house poet” debuts notably with a thriller about how an ex-Navy SEAL’s actions — plural — might save the world, starting with one continent.
When his government frames Slade (and his sister Summer), the only recourse is for him and his horse, Sig, to cooperate with an Army colonel who insists he covertly — how else in a thriller? — get to the bottom of the horror in a future, post-holocaust Africa.
Stir in an American religious sect (the Judeans), a murderous cult (the Penitents), our hero’s incredible prowess (mental and physical), and a beautiful woman (with “Indian-ink” hair) who is in danger and in Slade’s thoughts. Things happen fast and with occasional fun: “The worst thing about life is that there’s no theme music.”
A subtheme that is either naive or disingenuous will make some readers squirm, starting with the title’s archaic reference to Africa. There’s an anti-gay slur and “joke.” Empathy for people who depart the U.S. because “if we stood up for our biblical beliefs, we were accused of hate-speech.” And the threat of “One World Government” created by things such as international trade deals.
The ending implies Slade will be back, and perhaps then the plot — not the politics — will thicken.
NOTED, NOT REVIEWED
- Hunter Killer: The War with China — the Battle for the Central Pacific by David Poyer, St. Martin’s, 320 pages, $28. Admiral and hero Dan Lenson returns in the 17th thriller in the series by a retired Navy officer, and this time China, Pakistan, Iran and North Korea go up against the U.S. fleet.
- Curse of the Coloring Book: A Novel Inspired by a True Story by Howard L. Hibbard, Ghost Dog, 384 pages, $17. An attorney fights a legal malpractice suit while he treats his post-traumatic stress and combat flashbacks with alcohol — in a story by an Army veteran of Vietnam and a lawyer.