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
Oct222018

The Fox by Frederick Forsyth

Published by G.P. Putnam's Sons on October 23, 2018

The writer who started the trend of giving villains a cool nickname with The Day of the Jackal has returned with The Fox. Except that the Fox isn’t a villain. He’s an autistic teen hacker who is pretty much indifferent to, or intimidated by, the non-digital world. In that regard, Frederick Forsyth is following the trend of creating a hacker with an emotional disorder. The Fox, we soon learn, is the best hacker in the world.

After months of investigation, a harmless breach of the NSA database is traced to a house in a suburb north of London. The Americans, certain that the hacker will be protected by armed terrorists, want to send in SEALs with guns blazing, but the British insist on a more subtle, clandestine operation to occupy the house. Thus they manage to avoid killing the Fox, a teenager with Asperger’s syndrome, and his innocent family.

The Fox simply wanted to meet the challenge of breaking into an NSA’s database, but the Americans claimed he caused millions of dollars of “damage,” meaning it will cost millions to fix the flaw that he exploited and exposed but did not create. As is often true of cybercrimes that do not involve theft, the damage the Fox caused was to egos, not cybersystems.

Forsyth thus sets up a vulnerable teenager as a standard but sympathetic character. Wielding flattery as a weapon, Sir Adrian Weston convinces the American president (who is easily manipulated by flattery) to let Britain hang onto the Fox, where he will become a key player in Operation Troy. One of his first tasks proves to be supremely embarrassing to Russia, which prompts a call for revenge against the Fox. He later takes on Iran, North Korea (twice) and Russia again.

Forsyth portrays the United States (or more particularly Trump, although not by name) as extraordinarily gullible in trusting North Korea, making decisions based on ego (including the desire for a Nobel peace prize) rather than facts. Some readers might disagree with that assessment. Those readers may find themselves disliking The Fox for political reasons (assuming that they understand Forsyth is disparaging their favorite president). On the other hand, readers who get their news from a wide range of apolitical sources will likely regard Forsyth’s portrayal of the administration as spot on.

Forsyth’s political digs at America are amusing, but the plot comes across as more fantasy than thriller. In a fairly nonviolent way, the Fox manages to do serious but lasting damage to three totalitarian regimes. If only it were so, the world would be a safer place today. Yet the plot leads to those results without generating much tension (certainly nothing like Forsyth has managed in his better novels). Forsyth injects some action scenes as Britain’s best are assigned to protect the Fox from snipers and assault teams, but their success depends on luck as much as skill. This is far from an edge-of-the seat thriller, although Forsyth’s novels always move with good pace.

Wesley is portrayed as a typically competent strategist, an exemplar of British reserve, while the Fox is an insular hacker stereotype. A couple of collateral characters have a subdued romance, but nothing particularly surprising happens during the course of the novel. It is fun, however, to imagine that one autistic kid (with some stalwart Brits on his side) could make the world such a better place. I find it hard to dislike such an optimistic novel.

RECOMMENDED

Friday
Oct192018

Albert Einstein Speaking by R.J. Gadney

Published by Canongate Books on June 12, 2018

Albert Einstein Speaking begins with a wrong number dialed by 17-year-old Mimi Beaufort in Princeton, who finds herself speaking to the most famous scientist in the world on his 75th birthday. Einstein likes her voice and tells her to call back. Then he begins dictating correspondence and random thoughts to his secretary, reflecting on war, the horrible treatment of Jews in Germany, the horrible treatment of blacks in America, and his own inadequacies as a parent and husband.

A story that begins as fiction and quickly transitions to a fictional autobiography soon becomes a biography. It briefly recounts Einstein’s life from childhood (his mother thought he was a strange boy who would amount to nothing), with little touches that foreshadow the man he would become (including his awe and fear of the mysterious forces that prevented him from tricking his compass to point in a direction other than north, his first inkling that “there’s something behind things, something deeply hidden”). Later he confronts antisemitism at a Catholic school. It’s no wonder he preferred the glory of his own mind to an educational system that was nothing but a distraction from intellect.

We follow Einstein through his career (first in the patent office and later in various academic positions), his relationships, his battles with anti-Semites in the European scientific establishment, and his remarkable ability to make deductions about how the world works. We learn that he is a terrible husband and not much of a father but hey, he’s Einstein, he doesn’t have time for conventional ways of living.

The story emphasizes how Einstein was belittled, and his theory of relativity mocked, because he was Jewish. Later in life we get a glimpse of his regret for suggesting to Roosevelt that he pursue an atomic bomb, and learn that Einstein was not immune to the FBI’s misguided pursuit of communists during the age of McCarthyism.

Most of the story consists of one abbreviated event following another. In fact, Albert Einstein Speaking often reads like an abbreviated biography that lists facts while minimizing context or analysis. Pages and pages go by without a hint that the book is a work of fiction, so resolutely does it recount Einstein’s travels, lectures, letters, meetings, and decisions. That doesn’t mean the book lacks interest, but it isn’t what a reader expects from a novel. Only when the story returns to Mimi does the book really come alive.

Albert Einstein Speaking reminds us that closed minds will happily reject the rigors of scientific inquiry when inquiry leads to results that get in the way of politics or prejudices (not that a reminder is needed, given the prevalence of global warming deniers). An openness to inquiry and free thought is an openness to people, and hence a rejection of racism, of religious prejudice, and of all notions of national superiority or exceptionalism. Humility and compassion on a global scale were Einstein’s great virtues, apart from his intellect. The virtue of Albert Einstein Speaking is its reminder that true genius lies in learning how to live harmlessly, in harmony with nature and with all the people who are not us.

RECOMMENDED

Wednesday
Oct172018

The World Is a Narrow Bridge by Aaron Thier

Published by Bloomsbury on July 3, 2018

The World Is a Narrow Bridge is surprising, funny, and a delight to read. The story is bizarre, the surrealistic stuff of fantasy, yet it is told in such a matter-of-fact style and follows such charming characters (if you don’t count Yahweh) that it all seems very real. In the 21st century, the book teaches, we take our prophets where we can find them, although most of us only listen to the prophets who tell us what we already believe.

Murphy and Eva live in Miami and have no prospect of finding real jobs.  Eva is a secular humanist and ill-suited for visits by Yahweh, who wants her to travel around saying the Lord’s name and persuading others to do the same. Eva declines until, seeing Yahweh behind the wheel of a Lamborghini, she realizes she needs a break. A road novel follows. In fact, the story discusses other road novels, including On the Road and Huckleberry Finn and (rather improbably) Moby-Dick. The path Murphy and Eva follow (dictated by Yahweh) seems aimless and drifting, which Eva regards as a metaphor for the life she shares with Murphy.

The road trip yields a long string of funny moments, including Murphy’s realization that he and Eva have decided to have a baby, although he can’t quite recall making that decision, and knows he will eventually recall, not the moment that the decision was made, but “the moment when he realized that he didn’t notice the moment when they decided to have a baby.” I also enjoyed Eva’s observation of how models walk with “head and face absolutely still, chin lifted, eyes closed, lips pressed together in a rictus of neutral sensuality.” During the road trip, Eve and Murphy explore “the geography of hope” (Wallace Stegnar’s phrase), as opposed to “the geography of realistic expectations.” Those examples give a flavor of the humor and clever prose that pervades The World Is a Narrow Bridge.

Yahweh apparently has no policy goal beyond recognition as the one true God. Satan, on the other hand (who bears a striking resemblance to Salman Rushdie) is all about undermining Yahweh. Murphy and Eva aren’t sure which one is preferable, although the get a bundle of money from Yahweh that they are supposed to use to acquire a trash mountain and convert it into a temple of worship.

The World Is a Narrow Bridge is a novel of digressions. Eva and Murphy visit Eva’s family in North Carolina (no questions are asked in the family home “because everyone knows that if you ask questions, you’re likely to get answers that upset you”), but after that, their trip is a long meander. Their conversations are the same. One topic leads to another and then another. The story is full of factoids about buffalo and Bible verses and movie plots and the decay of small Midwestern towns and precipitation averages in semiarid climates. Murphy and Eva made frequent observations about the sameness of life as they make their road trip — the same Super 8 rooms that might just be a memory of the last Super 8 rooms; the same sports clichés echoed by basketball players before each playoff game — but they also ponder the “huge intractable Why of it all” and other mysteries of life: Is Heaven a place beyond the memory horizon, where new memories are not formed, but each moment is “a sweet memory of itself”? If God exists, how does one live a good life, despite all the evil God creates or tolerates? Is goodness in the service of a divine being (as opposed to goodness for its own sake) a form of moral abdication?

The book makes note of profound questions of free will and accountability — if free will exists, we are responsible for our own awfulness, making it more comforting to blame God for making us in His violent image — but it recognizes that the questions are unanswerable, or at least that no answer is capable of proof, making this whole business of living and thinking a frustrating exercise. Ultimately, trying to understand the big picture, or even most small pictures, is futile, because we lack sufficient verifiable data to permit rational conclusions. And while it is often said that everyone is entitled to their opinion, the book suggests that opinions are based on the responsible consideration of available facts, and that opinions based on prejudice or poor information are not opinions at all. “When in doubt, laugh” is the healthy message I take from The World Is a Narrow Bridge.

RECOMMENDED

Monday
Oct152018

Shell by Kristina Olsson

First published in Australia in 2018; published by Atria Books on October 9, 2018

Shell is about finding the shapes of the world. Pearl Keogh learned from her father to see the world as a triangle, the privileged residing at the apex, the masses providing the support that allows the privileged to stay on top. Axel Lindquist is searching to find the shapes that will express the identify of Sydney, Australia by examining its history, geography, and litter.

In 1965, Australia is about to start drafting soldiers to fight in Vietnam. Because she joined a protest against the draft, the newspaper that employs Pearl questioned her objectivity and relegated her to the women’s section.

Pearl’s younger brothers are draft age, but they ran away from the nuns that were minding them after their mother died. Now Pearl wants to find them, to protect them from the war. She does not think of them as missing. It is her old self that has gone missing, hidden behind “a veneer to protect herself, a shell she could slip beneath, to hide from the predatory world.” That’s one of several instances in which the novel’s title is used as a metaphor.

Kristina Olsson develops Pearl’s pain-filled backstory in detail, making clear her need for a purpose in a life that has closed all doors to opportunity. Pearl doesn’t realize that in the years since she last saw her brothers, they might have developed opinions about how to live their lives that she does not share.

Pearl’s story alternates with that of Axel, a glassmaker from Sweden who has been commissioned to make a piece for the foyer of Sydney’s controversial opera house. The architect who designed the opera house, Jørn Utzon, is a Dane who apparently became acquainted with Axel’s parents two decades earlier when Utzon helped smuggle Jews out of Denmark. Axel explains to Pearl that his father went missing in those years. That Pearl and Axel will get to know each other intimately is inevitable.

The story of conflict over Vietnam, turning neighbors against each other and causing pro-government Australians to spy on resisters, parallels the story of America, both during Vietnam and in our current climate of division. So does the story of art’s intersection with politics, as many come to view the opera house as a waste of money because conservative politicians oppose public art, preferring to fund bombs instead than beauty.

Other pervasive themes include the role of women in Australia’s male-dominated professions (particularly news media) during the 1960s; the way cultures sit atop each other, the new burying the old; the way architecture that “aspires to myth and dream” creates a “spirit of inquiry” that confronts or threatens residents who cling to parochial perspectives of their city; the way men and women around the world toil “without choice and little reward” while gaining strength and dignity from labor; the heavy weight of the past; and how intense experiences influence the creative process.

Olsson uses evocative prose to paint Sydney during the 1960s as a city divided by age and politics, while stressing the Australian quality of “mateness” that binds together its male residents. The resistance to Utzon’s design of the opera house is fascinating. My only criticism of Shell is that the story is too often dull. Pearl and Axel both live largely inside their sedate heads, and despite its attempt to make gain mileage from a late-blossoming plot twist, the novel builds no tension until its final pages. Still, the ending is dramatic, and for the ideas the story conveys, as well as the language that conveys them, Shell is worthy of a reader’s time.

RECOMMENDED

Friday
Oct122018

Suicide Club by Rachel Heng

Published by Henry Holt and Co. on July 10, 2018

Suicide Club takes the concept of “pro-life” to its logical extreme by imaging a near future in which severe consequences attach to any behavior that might shorten a lifespan: eating red meat, drinking alcohol, listening to jazz, failing to exercise, exercising too much. Americans are genetically assessed at birth. Those who are designated as “lifers” become vegetarians and meditate daily. They avoid stress because cortisol is harmful, but they don’t run because running is bad for the knees.

As long as lifers return a value to society that exceeds the cost of keeping them alive, they are entitled to enhanced skin and tissues and organs, at least until they reach the end of their allotted extended lifespan, when maintenance is withdrawn and the enhancements begin to atrophy, leaving lifers trapped inside a decaying body that does not easily die. Life extension is an instrument of control; Americans who fear death behave as the government wants them to behave, for fear of losing their enhancements.

Why all of this is true is unclear. The concept is interesting, but the political environment that would allocate life extension is not developed. Governments have a tendency to control their populations and to help the powerful retain power, but all of that would happen naturally as a function of wealth, without government-imposed genetic assessments. One of the novel’s weaknesses is its failure to explore the political conditions that would allow the imagined society to exist.

In any event, Anja’s mother has reached the end of her allotted life extension; having lost her health subsidies, she is lying in bed, waiting but unable to die. Anja turns to the Suicide Club for help because, when enhanced skin and muscles are almost impossible to cut, suicide is a challenge. The government opposes the Suicide Club because, with its low birth rates, American supremacy would be challenged if people choose when to die rather than letting the government decide that they are no longer useful. That premise seems doubtful (if population were the key to supremacy, India would be more powerful than the United States), but I rolled with it for the sake of enjoying the novel.

At the age of 100, Lea Kirino still has her original body. Lea’s father Kaito has been gone for 90 years. He’s regarded as an enemy of the state. Lea works for HealthFin and follows all of society’s rules. Believing she sees her father, or perhaps his ghost, she steps into traffic to cross the street and finds herself placed on an Observation List, her Tender having concluded that she tried to commit suicide. The conformist Lea is thus assigned to the Wecovery group, where she meets the subversive Anja. How that will work out is the dynamic that drives the story.

Suicide Club rests upon intriguing themes. Healthy living, at some point, removes the flavor from life (and from food). What’s the point of living a longer life if the joy of living must be sacrificed? Sex can be risky, but it’s also fun. Taken to its extreme, as this novel suggests, healthy living might preclude attending live concerts (although current thinking is that regular attendance at live concerts actually helps people live longer). As the novel points out, notions about what is or is not healthy regularly change and are often contradictory. Still, America’s most repressive traditions have always held that if something feels good, it must be bad for you and should be forbidden.

As is customary in novels, key characters cast off the assumptions that have driven their lives and discover important truths. At the same time, I can’t say that Rachel Heng made me care whether the key characters lived or died. Anja and Lea are both too lifeless to worry about; they might as well be dead already.

There are times when the plot seems forced, as if it is meant to teach lessons rather than to tell a story. Even the subtitle (A Novel about Living) force-feeds the novel’s lessons to the reader. For those reasons, while Suicide Club is interesting and while Rachel Heng’s writing style makes the novel easy to read, the story falls short of being compelling.

RECOMMENDED WITH RESERVATIONS