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.

Monday
Dec172018

Yard Dog by A.G. Pasquella

Published in Canada by Dundurn on November 24, 2018

In the tradition of The Sopranos, Yard Dog is propelled by violence but fueled by characterization. Jack Palace is out of jail. A gangster named Tommy wants to get him back into the life, going on routes with his men as they collect debts. In the tradition of stories about aging gangsters, Jack is tired of the life. He’s at war with his sense of fatalism. Another character calls him delusional for believing that he’s not a gangster. He probably is delusional but his attempt to discern a faint line between right and wrong makes him an interesting guy.

It doesn’t take long for Jack to improve the way Tommy does business, but problems arise when Tommy wants Jack to collect debts that are owed to Tommy’s father, particularly a debt owed by a hit man who isn’t inclined to recognize Tommy’s authority to collect on his father’s behalf. A struggle for power dictated by mob politics threatens Tommy’s position as dueling mobsters wait for Tommy’s hospitalized father to draw his last breath.

One thing leads to another in this fast-moving story, and before the novel’s midway point mobsters are at war with other mobsters — or at least they’re at war with Jack, who can do more damage with a bag full of knives than most platoons can do with serious weaponry. Jack prefers knives because they’re clean and accurate; innocent people don’t get killed in the crossfire.

The plot in Yard Dog isn’t complex — lots of people want to kill Jack and he needs to solve that problem, sometimes by killing his assailants — but the point of a crime novel like Yard Dog is to raise the reader’s adrenalin level without making the reader leave the couch. The story easily accomplishes that goal. The ending is satisfying if not entirely unexpected.

Yard Dog isn’t a comedy but it has some very funny moments, at least for readers who aren’t disturbed by the humor of psychopaths. Some of the creative rants in which gangsters indulge made me laugh out loud. The story is also written with some heart. The fact that people find themselves in positions that require a certain amount of killing doesn’t necessarily make them incapable of feeling emotions or of following an ethical code. A.G. Pasquella imagines stone cold killers who have a sensitive side, killers who pursue revenge killings not from a sense of tradition but because they loved the people for whom they exact revenge. That doesn’t make revenge a morally sound choice, but it humanizes the characters who decide to pursue it. On the other hand, some of the characters are just being true to their violent natures.

Yard Dog features a few brief but graphic sex scenes. Readers who are disturbed by the thought of other people enjoying sex might want to find something else to read. Readers who are disturbed by violence probably won’t want to pick up a crime novel, much less this one. On the other hand, readers who enjoy an intelligent take on gangster fiction might want to give Yard Dog a try.

RECOMMENDED

Friday
Dec142018

The New Inheritors by Kent Wascom

Published by Grove Press on July 10, 2018

The New Inheritors combines a love story with a family drama that focuses on a couple of decades in the lives of people who are family by blood or marriage. It is the third in a series of connected novels, but the story is self-contained. Some of the story is a tale of sibling rivalry, or at least siblings who have homicidal intent. Another aspect of the story addresses an outsider who joins the family but is never part of it. The novel echoes Dickens in its juxtaposition of wealth and poverty, of innocence and those who prey on the innocent, but The New Inheritors is far from a melodrama.

A child named Isaac is born in a New Orleans tenement. His mother, caught up in religious fervor, takes him to Tallahassee in 1891 to await the end of the world. They are accompanied by a woman who loves Isaac’s mother but, because she loves Isaac more, rescues him from the clutches of a religious cult. Fate separates them and, at age four, Isaac encounters religion again, this time at a Baptist school where charity is accompanied by the belief “that behind each life was a sin-steeped story ending in either redemption or damnation — more often, the latter.”

A bit later in the story, having been adopted by the Pattersons, Isaac is back in New Orleans. Thanks to a capsized sailboat, he finds himself on the private island of the Woolsacks, a rich family consisting of a Prussian husband, his Cuban wife, and their three children. Much of the story’s drama centers on the Woolsack family.

By 1914, Isaac is getting involved with Kemper Woolsack, who is a bit of a mess, like many rebellious children of wealthy and judgmental parents. With a bit of help, Isaac is able to study art. He shows promise until World War I when the zealots in Biloxi who take note of Isaac’s refusal to register for the draft delay any hope that Isaac might have for a better life. The bulk of the story finishes in 1919, although the novel ends with glimpse of the characters’ futures.

Key characters in addition to Isaac and Kemper include Angel Woolsack, who hides his secrets by reinventing himself; Rule Chandler, who is smarter than a black man in the South is allowed to be at the end of World War I; and Red Woolsack, whose resentment that his sister Kemper controls part of the family fortune becomes a driving force toward the novel’s end.

The New Inheritors is a solid novel, but it never quite soars in the imagination. Its evocative prose captures the spirit of the early twentieth century and its characters are convincing, but the wandering plot at times seems lost. The story appears to be headed toward a powerful moment that, upon arrival, is surprisingly subdued. Kent Wascom’s robust prose and strong characterization is a sufficient reason to admire The New Inheritors, but the prose masks a detachment from the story’s potential power. None of that dissuades me from recommending The New Inheritors to readers who admire the beauty of language for its own sake.

RECOMMENDED

Wednesday
Dec122018

The Red House by Derek Lambert

First published in Great Britain in 1972; published by HarperCollins Crime Club on November 2, 2017

The Red House is a novel of cold war intrigue, published at a time when the cold war was still raging. It isn’t a traditional spy novel, although the KGB and CIA play important roles in the story. Rather, The Red House is the story of a Russian’s disillusionment with the Soviet system and a young American’s disillusionment with a government (and father) who want him to put patriotism ahead of love.

Diplomat Vladimir Zhukov arrives in United States in 1968, newly appointed as the Soviet Union’s second secretary. Two KGB minders are determined to keep Zhukov from enjoying the decadent American pleasures that might tempt him to defect. The Soviet ambassador, on the other hand, is a bit more trusting — but not so trusting that he forgets how the game is played.

Zhukov is asked to spy on anyone of interest, while the Americans ask a Brit named Massingham to cozy up to Zhukov. Massingham’s bored wife wants to cozy up to Zhukov for reasons of her own. Her taste for seduction has served Massingham well in the past.

Meanwhile, Zhukov’s daughter Natasha is trying to adjust to her time in decadent D.C., including the unexpected attention of the dashing Charlie Hardin, who is doing a favor for his father, an FBI agent. Natasha appreciates the freedom the US offers, despite her reservations about American politics and poverty. Feelings traditionally get in the way of duty in spy novels that feature a spy who becomes sexually involved with a target, and that theme eventually animates the novel’s plot.

The novel reflects the hawk/dove division of 1968, the fear that southeast Asian governments will fall to communism like dominos in the absence of an American presence in Vietnam versus rejection of such a dubious theory as justification for so many pointless American deaths. The hawk/dove division is also represented by the justifiable concern that the Soviet Union would use military force to suppress dissenters in Czechoslovakia. Those issues contribute to the respective moral dilemmas that Charlie and Zhukov experience as the novel gains steam.

The Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia, in fact, gives Zhukov reason to question his patriotism as he watches tanks roll into Prague on televisions in various New York bars, seeing hope in the faces of young men standing up for change. The novel makes the point that in a city like New York, a city built by the labor of immigrants, a Russian can sit in a certain kind of bar with Germans and Americans and Australians and enjoy the alcohol-fueled fellowship of humanity, a fellowship that is unimpaired by the political differences of their nations’ rulers. In a different kind of bar, however, political philosophies mix less easily, as Zhukov discovers in one of the plot’s turning points.

The Red House is about nationalism and loyalty, political conflict and conflicts of the heart. The novel moves at a deliberate pace — too deliberate in the first half, as the story meanders while establishing the characters in an abundance of detail. Yet tension begins to mount in the last third of the novel as Zhukov finds himself cornered both by his reaction to world events and by a moment of poor judgment. Derek Lambert avoids tugging at the reader’s heartstrings, but there is both sadness and satisfaction in an ending that allows the power of love and the ugliness of politics to coexist.

RECOMMENDED

Monday
Dec102018

In Our Mad and Furious City by Guy Gunaratne

First published in Great Britain in 2018; published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux on December 11, 2018

Conflict among cultures is not the Clash of Civilizations that hysteria-fueled commentators anxiously await, but there is little doubt that people holding different worldviews sometimes view each other with hostility rather than understanding. In Our Mad and Furious City examines those divides and the bridges that cross them in a story that covers the lives of a few diverse characters in London over a short period of time.

The London of In Our Mad and Furious City is divided in many ways, including the division between those who live off-Estate and those who don’t. “What makes me off-Estate is where I live,” Selvon says, “but truthfully what makes me off-Estate is more than that, ennet.”

The lives of several characters are simultaneously revealed in the novel. Some live in Stones Estate, others do not, but all perceive boundaries that are not easily crossed.

Nelson, once homesick for the West Indies, now worries about his son as he rolls his wheelchair past the Estate. Nelson still remembers the first time he saw KBW (“Keep Britain White”) graffiti. “Was an ugliness in this Britain, I feel it then. But I had not learn it yet. … To see it there, writ across the brick, it have me numb and leave me feeling a sorta deep-down shame. Sorta shame the Lord give you when you love a wretched thing. Was how it feel like when I realize that this Britain here did not love me back, no matter how much I feel for it.”

The tension has expanded since Nelson came to London, driven by divisions not just of color but of religion. Guy Gunaratne explores those divisions from the perspectives of his diverse characters, none of whom particularly want to be divided. As Nelson learned in his youth, hate breeds hate, turning good people bad unless good people can find a way to resist.

Nelson’s son Selvon plays football in the Estate with his friends Yusuf and Ardan. Selvon is smart and plans to go to university. Whether he has a future will depend in part on how he lives his life and in part on fate. Selvon and all the other characters are living in a dangerous world.

Yusuf lives in the Estate. He keeps his head down, avoiding both the imams and the anti-Muslim marches. To Yusuf, the Estate is a world away from Pakistan, but Pakistan is a world to which he might be forced to return.

Ardan, a lover of rap in any language, sits on the West Block rooftop to write music. If Ardan has a future beyond minimum wage, it is in music, but to reach that future he’ll need to overcome his fear. Ardan’s father has disappeared. His mother Caroline, a Belfast transplant who had a complicated relationship alcohol as well as history, lives with him in West Block. She has disturbing memories of the Troubles that, in some ways, parallel her current life in London. She is certain that violence follows her and that God doesn’t care.

In Our Mad and Furious City raises enduring questions about the awful things people do in the name of religion or because of another person’s religion. If religion is so often perceived as a vehicle that justifies hatred and violence, would the world be better off without it? The same questions, seemingly relevant to every time and place, relate to violence based on race and ethnicity. The riots that Nelson experienced in the West Indies, that Caroline feared in Northern Ireland, and that affect the lives of the characters as the novel nears its end all echo the same lunacy. At the same time, the story suggests that cause and effect can be more complex issues than observers might assume.

Characters speak in dialects that may require the reader to guess at word meanings (or, when all else fails, to Google). Most of the characters are young and they share the common language of youth. The dialects add to the story’s authenticity and give the book a nice rhythm.

The plot is eventful in an understated way. Gunaratne could have taken the plot over the top but he allowed himself only one large moment of drama. It is dramatic in a way that seems inevitable given the story that precede it. For the most part, the story is very personal, told from the perspectives of people who want to come together, to avoid the senseless divisions that seem to require them to take a side. The story’s sadness is balanced by hope, the possibility that the world can become a better place, one human at a time

RECOMMENDED

Friday
Dec072018

The Mansion by Ezekiel Boone

Published by Atria/Emily Bestler Books on December 4, 2018

The Mansion is a horror novel that faintly echoes The Shining, in that the action takes place in an older multiple-room building occupied in its winter months by a husband and wife that, come spring, will be placed in the service of guests. The story is also similar in that the protagonist struggles with his sanity — perhaps he was a bit unhinged before beginning his stay; perhaps his perceptions are altered by the environment in which he dwells. In most respects, however, The Mansion and The Shining are quite different.

Billy Stafford and Shawn Eagle developed a new kind of smartphone operating system by working intensely in a cabin near a dilapidated mansion in the woods for 23 months. A third fellow who joined them, Takata, they try not to think about. Billy didn’t think about much of anything except drugs and booze after Shawn stole the company from him. Billy won Emily, the woman they both wanted, but Shawn became one of the richest men in the world, leaving Billy with a small amount of stock that he sold to support his addictions.

Years earlier, Shawn’s parents died in a fire on the property where the mansion sat. It has always had a reputation for being haunted. Shawn is rennovating to create a retreat for the ultra-wealthy, but construction accidents have only added to the legend of the haunted mansion.

Shawn has equipped the mansion with a program called Nellie that he and Billy imagined but never made a reality. Billy wrote most of the code; Shawn’s engineers tried to plug the gaps. Nellie is not quite an Artificial Intelligence, but it is meant to anticipate needs and to take action, without being prompted, to make its users happy. Shawn wants Nellie to run the mansion but there’s a ghost in the machine and Shawn needs Billy to perform an exorcism. Nellie, it seems, has a temper.

The final plot element involves Emily’s sister Beth, her husband Rothko, and their spooky twin daughters. That’s the only plot element that didn’t work for me. At some point, enough is enough and more is too much. The twins play a significant role in the story but they don’t fit snugly into the concept and their presence is just too convenient. Eziekiel Boone could have told the story without them and their omission would have improved the novel’s focus. The science fiction rule that it's fine to imagine one, but only one, impossible thing should also bind horror writers.

Despite my sense that The Mansion is an inspired amalgamation of two or three Stephen King plots, it stands comfortably on its own merits. Horror succeeds when it’s convincing. Apart from the bewitched twins, Boone does a masterful job of placing real people in real danger. Even if the danger is combination of supernatural forces and a computer gone mad, Boone does what good horror writers do — he makes the reader forget how divorced from reality the story’s premise might be so that the reader can worry about Billy and Emily and experience vicarious fear. The novel has a good pace, develops sympathetic characters in a reasonable amount of detail, and works its way to a satisfying climax.

RECOMMENDED