The Tzer Island book blog features book reviews written by TChris, the blog's founder.  I hope the blog will help readers discover good books and avoid bad books.  I am a reader, not a book publicist.  This blog does not exist to promote particular books, authors, or publishers.  I therefore do not participate in "virtual book tours" or conduct author interviews.  You will find no contests or giveaways here.

The blog's nonexclusive focus is on literary/mainstream fiction, thriller/crime/spy novels, and science fiction.  While the reviews cover books old and new, in and out of print, the blog does try to direct attention to books that have been recently published.  Reviews of new (or newly reprinted) books generally appear every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.  Reviews of older books appear on occasional weekends.  Readers are invited and encouraged to comment.  See About Tzer Island for more information about this blog, its categorization of reviews, and its rating system.

Wednesday
Sep182019

Girl Most Likely by Max Allan Collins

Published by Thomas & Mercer on April 1, 2019

The villain of Girl Most Likely is you, given that part of the novel is written in the second person. That almost never works and this novel is no exception. In this case, the “you” is a murderer, which didn’t seem convincing to me because I know for a fact that I have never murdered anyone.

You meet Sue and ask her not to talk about what happened in the past. She won’t commit to silence, so you stab her to death. That was probably your plan regardless of her answer. But who are you? If you care, you need to read to the end to discover your identity.

The story adopts the third person when it introduces the protagonist, Galena Chief of Police Krista Larson, the youngest female police chief in the country. Her father was a celebrated cop, she broke up with her reporter boyfriend, etc. Krista is a bundle of stereotypes. A high school reunion (Krista’s class) is coming to Galena, minus a woman named Sue, who was murdered in Florida.

After meandering through the first third of the novel, the plot focuses on a female reporter who was once the victim of sexual abuse. The reporter is apparently working on a story about sexual misconduct. She is reunited at the reunion with a man who abused her (the unidentified “you” of the chapters written in second person). The encounter leads to a crime that Krista is called upon to investigate, one that echoes the Florida murder of another classmate.

Krista and her dad solve the mystery, not by piecing together clues in an interesting way but by badgering people who attended the reunion until one of them says something that makes the killer’s identity reasonably clear. That’s an accurate reflection of police work but it isn’t very interesting. And that pretty much sums up my reaction to Girl Most Likely.

I generally like Max Allen Collins’ books — I particularly enjoy what he’s done as a successor to Mickey Spillane — but Girl Most Likely is uncharacteristically dull. Perhaps that’s because it is set in Galena, a city that fails to inspire excitement. Collins tries to work in a couple of action scenes, but they are predictable and do nothing to supply the novel with the energy it lacks.

The relationship between Krista and her father is typical of cop-father, cop-daughter thriller relationships. Neither character has enough pizazz to make me care about them. But they constantly make clear that they love and admire each other, and that is apparently meant to warm a reader’s heart. I prefer meaningful characterization to fuzzy heartedness.

Collins is a capable writer and there are readers who like dull mysteries with sweet protagonists. I’m not in that audience. Girl Most Likely isn’t bad enough to condemn, but I have serious reservations about recommending it to fans of Collins’ better novels or, for that matter, to most crime novel readers.

RECOMMENDED WITH RESERVATIONS

Monday
Sep162019

Night Boat to Tangier by Kevin Barry

First published in Great Britain in 2019; published by Doubleday on September 17, 2019

Night Boat to Tangier is a story of transitions, bonds broken and restored, losses and recovery. The focus is on two older men and a young woman, although flashbacks also reveal the life of a woman who was with one of the men for twenty years before deciding she had to become a different person.

Maurice Hearne and Charlie Redmond are in the Algeciras terminal, distributing pictures of Dilly, a pretty girl of 23 who, according to a reluctant source, might be on her way to Tangier. Dilly was raised as Maurice’s daughter and perhaps she is. The two aging Irishmen have not seen her in three years. They roughly question young tourists who look like they might know her, tourists with dreadlocks and dogs, the kind of people (according to a roughly questioned source) with whom she has been traveling.

Maurice and Charlie began to do business in Spain in 1994, the business involving a woman named Karima and some Moroccan hash bound for Cork. Maurice was warned away from the deal by the Brit who explained it to him, but the temptation of riches overcame good judgment. Maurice and Charlie rose above their station too quickly, leading them to hide from time to time. Maurice and his wife had Dilly, made bad investments, assuaged their fear with heroin.

The long friendship of these two men has not been untroubled. The best chapter in the book details a fierce quarrel between the two as seen from the perspective of a bartender in a seedy pub in Cork. Underlying the animosity is Cynthia, Dilly’s mother.

One chapter recounts a conversation between Dilly and Cynthia that changes the course of Dilly’s life, undoubtedly for the better. Another chapter focuses on Dilly in the present, who has changed so much that even if Maurice and Charlie spot her in Algeciras, they might not know her, or they might realize that she is better off without them.

Kevin Barry’s beguiling prose reveals the contradictory natures of Maurice and Charlie, setting them in the piratical history of the Barbary coast while keeping their roots in mythical Ireland: “Its smiling fiends. Its speaking rocks. Its haunted fields. Its sea memory. Its wildness and strife. Its haunt of melancholy. The way that it closes in.”

Maurice and Charlie are philosophers of crime who expound with equal ease upon the sweetness of life at its best and the darkness of people at their worst. As they reflect on their lives, Charlies says: “We all have our regrets, Maurice. As older gentlemen.” Both men have much to regret. Life goes by so quickly and so much of it is wasted. Yet life gives us memories we will never regret, and those are the memories that sustain the men as the years advance.

Perhaps the Irish are born with a lyrical prose gene that is unique to their nation. If only for the charm of its language, Night Boat to Tangier is a gift to readers. Its insightful exploration of difficult lives is a bonus.

RECOMMENDED

Friday
Sep132019

White Hot Silence by Henry Porter

First published in Great Britain in 2019; published by Grove Atlantic/Mysterious Press on September 3, 2019

White Hot Silence is a sequel to Firefly. It might also be the second novel in a series (I hope so), but it is a true sequel in the sense that a reader should read Firefly to have a full understanding of the situation in which the characters find themselves.

Denis Hisami is concerned that TangKi, a company in which he has invested, may be engaged in money laundering. Its CEO, Adam Crane, has disappeared. As Hisami is raising his concerns with other investors, his wife Anastasia is kidnapped in Italy.

The agency that employs Paul Samson had been hired to investigate Crane, who appears to have rented a penthouse under the name Ray Shepherd. In the novel’s early pages, a body identified as Shepherd’s is found on the penthouse balcony, its face obliterated by large bullets. Whenever a face is missing, the reader will suspect that the body might have been misidentified.

Samson, Anastasia, and Hisami all met in Firefly. Samson fell in love with Anastasia before the novel’s end (rescuing a damsel in distress has that effect on fictional heroes). Now Anastasia is married to Hisami, who wants Samson to rescue Anastasia — again. The starting point in that endeavor is to understand why she was kidnapped. Samson works with (or against) the CIA and various other intelligence and law enforcement agencies, as well as some criminal organizations, as he searches for answers.

The premise is that American money is being used to influence European politics (a reverse of the traditional use of Russian money to influence American politics). The story’s political background is informed by Henry Porter’s experience editing and reporting news and opinion stories regarding European politics. The plot has an aura of authenticity that is too often missing from international thrillers.

The scheme that underlies the kidnapping involves the timely issue of European nationalism. The mysteries that Samson and his associates must unravel are complex but never confusing.

Porter mixes action scenes into a fast-moving plot. Some of the best scenes involve Anastasia, who proves to be a capable captive as she confounds her captors on a freighter bound for Russia and again in a Russian forest. Samson has his own share of the action, but no character is portrayed as a superhero, in the manner of too many “tough guy” action thrillers.

While the action is fun, some of the novel’s best scenes occur during Anastasia’s captivity, as she debates Russian and American literature (including the meaning of Huckleberry Finn) with her captor. I also enjoyed the return of Naji, who was a focal point in the first novel as a young teen. He enriches this story as a young adult by mixing political idealism with pragmatic strategy.

I thought Firefly was one of the best thrillers I read in 2018. White Hot Silence is nearly as good, placing it near the top of my 2019 list of favorites.

RECOMMENDED

Wednesday
Sep112019

Gun Island by Amitav Ghosh

First published in Great Britain in 2019; published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux on September 10, 2019

Dinanath “Deen” Datta is a dealer in rare books and antiquities, a profession that does not help him attract the attention of women. He lives in Brooklyn but maintains a residence in Calcutta. When Deen was a student, he did doctoral research on Indian folklore, particularly the story of a conflict between a Merchant and Manasa Devi, the goddess of snakes.

An elderly aunt who founded a charity asks to see Deen as he is nearing the end of a trip to Calcutta. A marine biologist named Piya helps the aunt when she is not living in Oregon. Deen is immediately attracted to Piya, but as his therapist has told him, the hope of romance impairs his judgment.

Deen’s aunt tells him a story of the Merchant as she heard it from the caretaker of a shrine to Manasa Devi that stands in the middle of the Sundarbans, a mangrove forest in the Bay of Bengal. Paralleling the ancient story of Manasa Devi’s wrath, the story tells how a Merchant took refuge in a place devoid of snakes known as Gun Island, was later captured by pirates, and struck a deal with Manasa Devi to save himself. In return for freedom and prosperity, the Merchant built the shrine to Manasa Devi.

When Deen visits the shrine, a boy named Rafi fills in more of the Merchant's story. Bad luck befalls Deen, Rafi, and a boy named Tipu during the visit. With the help of a knowledgeable acquaintance and having examined markings on the shrine, Deen later reinterprets the legends that surround Gun Island.

The heart of the story begins when Deen is asked to interpret for a filmmaker who is making a documentary about migrants in Venice. He is surprised to learn how many residents of the Venetian Ghetto speak Bangla. He is also surprised to find Rafi working in Venice. When Piya contacts him to report that Tipu has disappeared from the Sundarbans, Deen suspects that Rafi knows more about Tipu’s whereabouts than he is willing to admit.

Snakes, spiders and legends about Italian sea monsters and the possession of souls begin to trouble Deen during his Venetian adventure. Yet other monsters are a more immediate threat, including worms that are eating the wooden foundations upon which Venice is built, a threat directly rated to warming seas caused by climate change. The story also draws interesting parallels between dolphins, who are forced to search for new hunting grounds when pollutants create “dead zones” in oceans where no fish survive, and people who leave the Sundarbans because the sea no longer supports fishermen. “No one knows where they belong any more, neither humans nor animals.”

In addition to addressing the impact of climate change, the novel focuses on refugees who are trying to make their way to Italy by boat. They encounter resistance from Italian authorities. That story, like the harrowing journey that Rafi and Tipu take from India, smuggled into Iran and running from shots fired by Turkish border guards, is a timely reminder of the dangers faced by unwelcome migrants everywhere. How the developed world treats impoverished refugees is one of the novel’s key themes.

The story’s weakness is its attempt to make events in Italy echo the legend of the Merchant, including creatures converging on the refugees from the sea and air. I won’t give away the ending, but it the kind of moral climax that might be found in a parable. Gun Island is too complex to classify as a parable, but it strains to combine elements of legend with the realities of the modern world. Still, Amitav Ghosh tells a moving story in graceful prose, making it easy for readers to sympathize with unfortunate characters and to admire characters who behave decently despite their financial success.

Transplanting symbols of the legend into Deen’s life is a clever concept that doesn’t quite work. I find it difficult to invest in stories that depend on elements of fantasy while making clear that the narrative is not a fantasy. Perhaps readers who are more willing to accept the miraculous will have a different opinion. Nevertheless, for its well-developed characters and its juxtaposition of the two most pressing social problems in the modern world (global warming and hostility to migrants), Gun Island is an important and intriguing novel.

RECOMMENDED

Monday
Sep092019

Tinfoil Butterfly by Rachel Eve Moulton

Published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux on Sept. 10, 2019

Tinfoil Butterfly is a disturbing novel about a young woman and a child, damaged in different ways, who share a harrowing experience. The story is simple — only four characters play a significant role — but simplicity amplifies the novel’s power.

Emma Powers flees from a hospital and gets a ride with a creep who doesn’t want to let her out of his van. Emma’s goal is to get to the Badlands. The creep has seen newspaper stories about Emma and Raymond, her stepbrother. The creep eventually regrets meeting her.

Emma is messed up. She narrates the story in the first person, eventually explaining why she is messed up and why she and Raymond made it into the newspaper.

Emma meets a kid named Earl after taking the creep’s van and running out of gas at an abandoned diner. Earl is also creepy, an imaginative child who has an unhealthy obsession with death. At the same time, Earl’s talent for creating creatures from tinfoil and seemingly bringing them to life suggests that life and death are struggling for dominance in Earl’s persona. Like Emma, Earl has secrets that the reader eventually discovers, one of which alters the reader’s fundamental understanding of the character.

Earl lives with an older fellow named George, a man whose health appears to be failing. George might be the creepiest of all the characters who enter Emma’s life.

Earl and George live in a deserted house in a ghost town. It’s the kind of house where no sensible person would want to visit the cellar. So, of course, Emma explores the cellar. She doesn’t like what she finds. Events in her life roll downhill from there.

Despite the visit to the cellar, Tinfoil Butterfly isn’t a traditional horror novel, although it is marketed in that genre. The novel’s true horror is not the fear of crazed killers in remote areas (although that fear is part of the story), but the horror of living a tragic life — a broken home, an abusive parent, drug addiction, unhealthy relationships. Ordinary horrors can lead to extraordinary evil, the novel seems to say.

Yet the story is not without hope. Emma is messed up, but she does not have an evil heart. The opportunity to bring some good into another person’s life might be her path to redemption. Rachel Eve Moulton conveys the immediacy of Emma’s conflicting emotions, creating empathy for a broken woman who deserves a second chance.

The story moves quickly and creates genuine anxiety, although the ending is one a reader might predict. Conflicts essential to the plot are resolved, but what will become of Emma after the story ends is unclear. Happy endings, Moulton implies, are too much to expect. The opportunity for a new beginning might be the best anyone with a difficult life can hope to find. What the novel’s surviving characters will make of that opportunity is a story waiting to be told.

RECOMMENDED