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 Sundays.  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
Feb202019

The White Book by Han Kang

First published in South Korea in 2016; published in translation in Great Britain in 2017; published by Crown/Hogarth on February 19, 2019

The unnamed narrator of The White Book decides to write about white things, expecting to be transformed by the experience. Most chapters of The White Book revolve around a white item on the list. The white door on an apartment she rented. Rice cakes before they are steamed. A handkerchief falling from a balcony rail. The Korean phrase “laughing whitely,” meaning cheerless or forced laughter. Frost that causes leaves to fall from trees, “incrementally lightening their burden.” The chapters are short, sometimes only a single paragraph. A couple of sections are written in verse.

The narrator associates some of the white objects with “oppressive fragments of memory” that “constantly drift to the surface” as she walks the streets of a bleak and unfamiliar city (presumably Warsaw) that is cloaked in white fog. She has seen footage taken by American aircraft showing how the rubble of the bombed city looked like white snow.

Sugar cubes remind the narrator of her of her childhood. From her mother, she learned of the white newborn gown that was used during the premature birth of her mother’s first baby. The baby died after two hours and the birthing gown became a white burial shroud. She imagines her mother’s white breast milk that the baby will never consume. Had that death not occurred, the narrator would not have been born. For that reason and others, the narrator is living a haunted life.

To some extent, The White Book is a meditation on color and light: the way objects in the dark may appear as a hazy white glow; the way the moon can be bright white or pale blue or mottled; the way a stage becomes an island of white light surrounded by a dark sea. It is also a meditation on culture. The narrator spreads a white skirt on her mother’s grave and burns it, white smoke ascending so that her mother’s spirit will be able to wear it. She performs the ritual while wondering whether anyone believes in its literal truth, but appreciates the silent solemnity of the act.

Some topics suggest the transitory and impermanent nature of all things: pristine snow that darkens with a city’s grime or mutely disappears; waves that become “dazzlingly white” before shattering in “a spray of white:” a white dog that sickens and dies; sturdy white bones that shatter and turn to sand; the ash of a cremated body; the white hair of lovers who will soon part from each other forever. Small white pills ease pain, impeding the body’s progress toward the white light that is said to be death. Yet sugar cubes remind her of her childhood, memories that “remain inviolate to the ravages of time,” evidence that time and suffering do not bring everything to ruin.

We come to understand that the narrator has suffered losses, including a lost love that makes her fearful of loving again, and that she was once on the brink of suicide, but now holds those thoughts in reserve. She is surrounded by dreariness but also delicacy — a white butterfly, white reeds growing in a marsh — and that balance between light and dark is one that could change at any moment, in either direction. Through abstract associations of light and whiteness, The White Book portrays a woman who has lived on the edge between life and death, but who is slowly reconstructing herself, as the city to which she has traveled is still reconstructing itself after the bombings that failed to destroy it completely.

Fragmented storytelling risks a loss of the narrative cohesion upon which readers depend to help them find a story’s meaning. Han Kang wields the form with great skill, allowing meaning to coalesce as the fragments accumulate. It the story is sometimes depressing, it is ultimately uplifting, and the prose (for which the translator, Deborah Smith, presumably deserves some credit) is always exquisite.

RECOMMENDED

Monday
Feb182019

Who Killed the Fonz? by James Boice

Published by Simon & Schuster on February 19, 2019

Who Killed the Fonz? is simple, amusing, a little schmaltzy, and somewhat predictable. In other words, it’s like a typical episode of Happy Days.

Richard (no longer Richie) Cunningham has grown up. He has a wife and children. Joanie and Chachi are still in Milwaukee. His father has died but his mother moved to the LA area and lives with him. He is a screenwriter who, despite an Oscar nomination, is widely seen as washed up. Nobody wants to make the movie he’s been working on for three years. His agent is giving him a chance to write a movie called Space Battles (a Star Wars knockoff with blood and boobs), calling it Richard’s last chance.

On the day he gets that news, he learns that Fonzie crashed his motorcycle into a guardrail and plummeted into a river. His body was not recovered but his funeral has been scheduled. And so Richard goes back to Milwaukee, attends the funeral with Potsie and Ralph, and pokes his nose into Fonzie’s mysterious death. He also meets a friendly fellow who is running for governor and gets (he hopes) a career jumpstart by writing and directing the guy’s campaign commercial. The candidate and his wife, of course, were great fans of Fonzie, who had a lot of admirers despite being a loner who refused to abandon his greaser image.

Fonzie, the story tells us, was always true to himself, in many ways helping Richie find the courage to be who he wanted and needed to be. To thine own self be true is the novel’s theme, although spoken in Fonzie’s voice. So this simple story teaches a simple lesson just like a Happy Days episode. That’s not all bad.

I won’t say anything about the mystery surrounding Fonzie’s death or the other plot elements. I could complain that the ending is predictable, but this is the kind of book that, like a Happy Days episode, demands a predictable ending. I will say that an appreciation of the story demands a familiarity with the television series. It wouldn’t be meaningful for a reader to think about Richie’s adult life or his relationship with Fonzie without having seen some episodes, a few of which the novel describes.

I don’t remember when I stopped watching the show (it was before the 10-year run ended), and I have to admit that the only described episode I remember involved Fonzie locking a burglar in a closet. Fonzie was more memorable than the plots, at least to me. That might be true of this book, as well. The plot is amusing but it primarily serves as a vehicle for bringing Fonzie back into the lives of readers who watched Happy Days 40 years ago (or younger readers who watched it in reruns).

Fonzie is a television icon and the characters in the novel remember him in an idealized way — “the tough guy with impeccable virtue, the philosopher with grease-covered hands, the lone wolf whose loyalty to those he considered a friend was unbreakable” — the way in which icons deserve to be remembered. Like most Happy Days episodes, Who Killed the Fonz is pleasant but forgettable, while reminding us that Fonzie was one of the most entertaining television characters to emerge from the 1970s.

RECOMMENDED

Friday
Feb152019

This Shall Be a House of Peace by Phil Halton

Published by Dundurn on February 5, 2019

This Shall Be a House of Peace is a remarkable novel that imagines the birth of the Taliban as a social movement in Afghanistan. Over a relatively short span of time, the novel chronicles the transformation of a Mullah from a simple man who teaches the Quran to children in a madrassa to a warrior who makes it his mission to bring peace and justice to Afghanistan, a country where authority “stemmed from the barrel of a gun.” The Mullah is determined to make Afghanistan “a land under Islam, and a house of peace.” To create a house of peace, he paradoxically declares a violent war against all men who fail to “submit the will of God” as the Mullah interprets that will.

The novel takes place shortly after the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan. The Mullah fought against the Soviets as a mujahid. Now he lives a quiet life, feeding and sheltering orphans in a madrassa while teaching them the word of Allah. The houses near the madrassa have been abandoned and the few villagers who live nearby are plagued by bandits. The Mullah initially protects his students and then is asked to protect the village. As a spiritual leader, he provided guidance and recruits men with practical skills that will allow the village to grow and flourish. But as word of his success spreads, the Mullah, his madrassa, and the village become the target of wealthy criminals (the modern version of warlords) who do not appreciate the Mullah’s efforts to resist their “road tolls” and other forms of thievery.

The Mullah confronts difficult choices: should he ally himself with criminals to protect his followers from bandits or is the loss of righteousness too heavy a price to pay in exchange for peace? The novel suggests that Afghanis who are educated or pious are also detached from the real world, in that prayers and education and righteous living do not change the behavior of warlords and bandits. Setting an example does not prevent chaos and mayhem. So should the righteous man take up arms to improve his part of the world, or is it best “to be content and solid in one’s place”? That is the moral conflict that drives the plot.

The plot, by the way, is excellent. While the novel is important because of the light it sheds on the motivations that might have given birth to the Taliban and similar movements, This Shall Be a House of Peace tells a riveting story. The characters, ranging from the Mullah’s students to members of a nomadic tribe, from frightened villagers to duplicitous landowners, give the Mullah a surrounding cast that readers can alternately cheer and despise.

The atmosphere, including tribal customs and perceptions of how life should be lived, is impressively detailed without ever becoming pedantic. Cultural events, such as camel fights and a jirga (sort of a town hall meeting), are fascinating. The novel explores local politics (as in every culture, a struggle for power) and the stupidity that leads to disputes (their sheep are drinking our river water; they cast an evil eye on our daughters). In every society, it seems, there are men who are only happy when they are shouting at each other.

The story works on a number of levels, combining aspects of a thriller with historical fiction while providing a detailed anthropological examination of life in Afghanistan. The simplicity and quick pace of the narrative mask the story’s complexity, making it the kind of book that merits a second reading.

There are too many takeaways from This Shall Be a House of Peace to discuss in detail, and in the novel’s richness, each reader is likely to find something that others will miss. The novel illustrates the ease with which adherents to a religion can interpret religious teachings in whatever way seems most convenient. The Mullah believes in peace and justice within the parameters of “the will of God,” but anyone who rejects the teachings of Islam, as the Mullah understands them, has rejected the will of God and forfeited the opportunity to be treated with mercy. The notion that “all men are brothers” quickly becomes “all men of whom we approve are brothers.” When another Muslim rejects violence and says, “My faith is telling me something different from yours, perhaps,” he encapsulates the tension between believers who interpret the same text in fundamentally different ways. One lesson I derived from the novel is that people who believe they can discern and carry out “the will of God” based on an ancient text should be more humble about their ability to know the unknowable.

At the same time, the Mullah’s cause often seems just, given that his enemies are bandits and warlords who use violence to extort what little wealth others might have, men who rape young girls under the guise of marrying them before casting them aside. What the Mullah views as religious justice, others might see as freeing a people from their oppressors. Yet the Mullah approves of forced marriage of young girls, approves of oppressive rules that require women to cover themselves in a challah from head to toe, approves of destroying the shop of a man who sells Bollywood DVDs, and approves of an “eye for an eye” philosophy that is tempered by the quaint notion that payment of a negotiated “blood price,” if accepted by the victim’s family, will allow a murderer to avoid punishment. What seems like a fundamentalist reading of the Quran to some will be regarded as a warped and antiquated view of Islam by others — just as competing interpretations of religious texts produce clashes within every religion.

A reader might admire the Mullah’s dedication to ridding his country of evil, if not for the knowledge of the evil that the Taliban later visited upon innocent people who do not share their understanding of the will of God. A reader is much more likely to admire Phil Halton for crafting a novel that so carefully imagines how the lawless conditions in Afghanistan and longstanding suffering of its people could spark the rise to power of religious leaders who support violence against the people they define as infidels. By casting the Mullah in sympathetic albeit realistic terms, Halton offers insight into the old adage that one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter by illustrating how violence might be viewed as justifiable in a society where ordinary people are motivated to fight against the violence that oppresses them daily. Shaking up one’s understanding of the world is what good literature should do, and This Shall Be a House of Peace does that in memorable ways.

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Wednesday
Feb132019

Territory of Light by Yuko Tsushima

Published in Japan in 1993; published in translation by Farrar, Straus and Giroux on February 12, 2019

Territory of Light is a short novel set in the mid-1970s that covers one year in the life of a woman whose husband unexpectedly announces his separation from her life. The unnamed narrator has always considered herself a loser, and her husband’s decision to leave her alone with their daughter does nothing to improve her self-esteem. After an initial period of denial, confident of her husband’s return, she is jolted to reality by a poem that begins “Give up this idle pondering” and thinks about moving forward with her life. Yet many people tell her that women never get a better deal by divorcing, and that the quality of men she will meet will steadily decline. Society erects a barrier to the woman’s progress, and presumably to the progress of all divorcing women of that era in Japan.

Moving forward is hampered by the reality that the narrator isn’t much of a mother. She gives her daughter minimal attention. At least once, she leaves her kid home in bed while she goes out to get drunk. She drinks before sleeping in the hope that her daughter’s crying during the night won’t wake her up. She blames her daughter for problems of her own making. She is obviously suffering from depression and hasn’t figured out how to cope with it. It isn’t surprising that the daughter would like to live with her father, but he has a new woman and only wants to see his daughter for short periods, if at all, although he criticizes his wife’s parenting (with some justification, apart from his hypocrisy). Predictably, given her parenting, the kid has turned into a destructive brat.

The narrator spends a good bit of time (too much in my view) discussing her morbid dreams and the funerals she passes in her daily travels. All the death she witnesses or imagines or dreams about eventually causes an epiphany. Since that epiphany is probably the novel’s point, I won’t spoil it by revealing it. I will only say that, as revelations go, this one struck me as a strange way to look at life. Still, there is no right or wrong way to look at life, and other readers might find the epiphany to be inspirational.

The narrator has a good bit of anxiety about raising a child on her own, particularly when she hears stories of parenting gone wrong. She often has libidinous dreams and wonders why she never dreams of hugging her child. Stories like this make it possible for readers to understand the emotional impact of domestic drama in a culture that they haven’t experienced, but I often found myself cringing at the narrator’s self-pity rather than developing empathy for her struggle. A novel like this should make me understand the protagonist, but I became ever more perplexed by her behaviors and attitudes as the year in her life unfolded.

I suspect that this is a book that appeals to Japanese divorcing mothers. Perhaps it appeals to other readers because they empathize with Japanese divorcing mothers who dealt with cultural burdens that were in place fifty years ago. It might appeal to fans of bleakness, whether or not they are Japanese. Yuko Tsushima’s prose is often elegant without quite becoming pretentious, and the protagonist’s character is developed in detail, so the novel has literary value. I can’t recommend Territory of Light without reservations because the novel did little for me, but I can recommend it with reservations because I can understand why it might speak to other readers.

RECOMMENDED WITH RESERVATIONS 

Monday
Feb112019

The Moroccan Girl by Charles Cumming

Published by St. Martin's Press on February 12, 2019

I always count on Charles Cumming to tell a good story. Like Kit Carradine, the protagonist in The Moroccan Girl, Cumming writes spy novels that occupy a space “between the kiss-kiss-bang-bang of Ludlum and the slow-burn chess game of le Carré.” The Moroccan Girl fits nicely in that niche.

The novel is set against the background of a social protest movement known as Resurrection. Unlike Occupy or Antifa, Resurrection takes direct action against specific individuals who exemplify greed and social injustice, sometimes by kidnapping or killing them. The group’s founders included a Russian named Ivan Simakov and his girlfriend, Lara Bartok, who was born in Hungary. By the time Simakov died in an explosion in Moscow, the movement had thousands of members.

Lara begins the novel by making a statement to the Secret Intelligence Service. Her statement is divided into five parts. Between each part, Cumming reveals the backstory.

By chance (or not), Kit Carradine meets Robert Mantis, who identifies himself as a British spy. Kit has been invited to attend a literary event in Marrakech. Mantis recruits him to pass some money to an asset in Casablanca and to look for a woman in Marrakech who has gone missing. It does not take Kit long to discern the woman’s identity. She is, of course, Lara Bartok.

Kit sees the invitation as the opportunity to follow in his father’s footsteps by doing real work as a spy and hopes that a successful mission might spark a secondary career as a clandestine asset for the SIS. He feels inspired by Maugham, Greene, and Forsyth, all of whom mixed the reality of espionage with their fictional creations. That’s a clever and credible premise, because what spy fiction fan doesn’t imagine being a spy?

Kit enjoys the intrigue of Casablanca until a series of encounters with people who might also be spies convince him that his amateurism has screwed up his mission. Kit’s ego and his desire for future assignments then overcome his good judgment. He decides to prove his value by ignoring instructions and continuing to search for Lara. Along the way, Kit meets a number of shady characters, any or all of whom might be spies working for America or Great Britain or Russia.

In the tradition of spy novels, the reader is asked to question whether each character is who or what the character purports to be. Some of the answers are surprising, as they should be in a spy novel, but the story is sufficiently plausible to be convincing.

I enjoyed the ideological clashes between people who have competing viewpoints: those who want to save the world from oppressors and those who believe that most people want to join the oppressors at the seat of power; those who view violence as a revolutionary tool and those who reject violence regardless of the ideology that provokes its use. I also appreciated the timeliness of The Moroccan Girl, although to avoid spoilers, I will leave it to the reader to discover the way in which Cumming has crafted a story that parallels current events.

Cumming builds suspense nicely and caps the plot with an action scene as the suspense reaches its climax. The pace is appropriate to a novel that falls between kiss-kiss-bang-bang and slow-burn chess game. The story is never dull but it takes time to establish interest in the characters and to create the kind of atmosphere that makes events in Casablanca and Marrakech seem real. In its plot, characterization, and atmosphere, The Moroccan Girl stands among Cumming’s best spy novels.

RECOMMENDED