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 nonexlusive focus is on literary/mainsteam 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
Sep292014

Rose Gold by Walter Mosley

Published by Doubleday on September 23, 2014

Easy Rawlins has lost interest in being a private detective (not surprising, given his loss of interest in life that recent novels chronicle) but his daughter has a chance to go to an expensive private school so he can't turn down a lucrative offer to investigate the disappearance and potential kidnapping of Rosemary Goldsmith, the daughter of a prominent weapons manufacturer. The mayor and the chief of police want Rawlins on the case and give him little opportunity to turn it down despite Easy's uneasy feeling about it. They need Rawlins because he's black. They believe his race will give him access to Bob Mantle, a black boxer-turned-revolutionary who has been seen with Rosemary in Los Angeles.

There are, of course, additional complications to the assignment that become apparent only after Easy's work is well underway. Patty Hearst echoes in the story, as do other events from the time in which the novel is set. Along the way Easy does a favor for his cop friend, Melvin Suggs, who is experiencing difficulties of his own. Several other series regulars return in small supporting roles.

Walter Mosely always tells a good story. This isn't the most compelling plot in the Easy Rawlins series but it is credible and entertaining. There are so many other things to like about a Mosely novel, however, that the plot often takes a back seat. Easy always peppers his first-person narrative with observations about the state of the nation and the changing world, a world that cannot change fast enough to suit him. As always, Easy's observations of racial injustice are pointed and personal. Easy is always a half step away from being beaten, murdered, or jailed because of his skin color. In his world, race is more likely than guilt or innocence to determine who will be arrested and punished.

At the same time, Rose Gold, like the other novels in the Easy Rawlins series, emphasizes the importance of family and friendships as a refuge from racism. Easy is renewed and restored by the insights he gains during his investigation, a welcome change from the darkness he's experienced in the last couple of novels. Even without the engaging characters, poignant moments, and sharp prose, Easy's renewal would be reason enough for an Easy Rawlins fan -- which I am -- to embrace Rose Gold.

RECOMMENDED

Friday
Sep262014

Brief Space Between Color and Shade by Cristovão Tezza

First published in Brazil in 1998 and revised in 2013; published in translation by AmazonCrossing on August 19, 2014

Tato Simmone is a painter in Curitiba who exists on the monthly allowance he receives from his mother, an art and antiques dealer in New York. He has little interest in his mother, or in his father (who resents not receiving a similar allowance), or in the half-sister he hopes never to meet again. A year earlier, he had an ambiguous encounter with an older woman who now writes to him from Italy -- pages from her lengthy melancholic "testament" appear during the novel at regular intervals -- but the only significant friend in his life, a painter who was also his mentor, has just died.

At his mentor's funeral, Tato meets Richard Constantin, an art dealer with a shady reputation. He also meets a woman Constantin describes as a vampire. She can no longer suck the life out of Tato's mentor and seems intent on latching onto Tato as a substitute. Tato gives some of his time to the woman but never bothers to learn her name, referring to her only as "the vampire."

The novel's scattered moments of intrigue begin after the funeral, when Tato discovers that someone has broken into his home. On a later occasion, an unseen burglar in his studio punches him in the eye, yet nothing is taken. Threats he does not understand are left on his answering machine. As Tato ponders that mystery, another pops up. His mother, his father, the Italian, and Constantin all have a puzzling interest in a bust by Modigliani -- or is it a fake? And if it is a fake, why are the interested parties so interested in it? I would have been happier with this novel if it had produced more satisfactory answers to those questions. Instead, the abrupt ending leaves many questions hanging in the air. The novel is like an unfinished painting (the kind that Tato most often produces).

Tato is clearly not a happy guy. Transfixed in the composition of a painting, Tato experiences "a powerful illusion of forgetting, which, if I give in to it, I would call happiness." Tato's pompous and judgmental personality is so grating that it is difficult to work up any sympathy for him. Like his Italian friend, Tato seems intent on being miserable and prefers to wallow in self-pity rather than pursuing happiness. Still, he derives a measure of happiness by engaging in pretentious discussions of art and literature and love that seem designed to impress more than to illuminate.

Brief Space is a novel of lush prose employed to tell a story that is too often tedious. Gorgeous sentences unfurl but, in the end, say too little that I found meaningful. Tato's narration of his self-obsessed life is occasionally interrupted by communications (in the same voice) from Tato's self-obsessed mother and from his self-obsessed Italian friend, but those characters made me want to kill myself. Tato at least indulges in unexpected behavior when he tries to steal the Modigliani, but there are too few of those interesting moments to offset all the tiresome angst.

On several occasions, characters in the novel compare painting to literature. If I were to make that comparison, I would describe Brief Space Between Color and Shade as surrealist. In the last several pages, the artist and works of art conflate, as if the artist is inhabiting the art. What do those pages mean? I could guess, but your guess is as good as (probably better than) mine. There are many ways to interpret a work of literature, just as there are many ways to interpret an abstract painting. If you like the kind of novel that is open to interpretation, Brief Space is a novel you might enjoy. I generally admire that kind of novel, but Brief Space left me so perplexed (not entirely in a good way) that I don't know how to feel about it. I'm therefore recommending it with reservations but with the recognition that a discerning reader might find more value here than I did.

RECOMMENDED WITH RESERVATIONS

Wednesday
Sep242014

Em and the Big Hoom by Jerry Pinto

First published in India in 2012; published by Penguin Books on June 24, 2014

Imelda's son calls his mother Em; his father, Augustine, is the Big Hoom. Em is apparently a suicidal manic-depressive who sometimes hears voices and suffers from paranoia, but in the vernacular of her family, she has "gone mad," a condition that has existed for some time. In their effort to experience a normal childhood, her children "snatched at her during the intervals" between up and down. Other than the two years during which lithium seemed to stabilize her, those intervals were infrequent. We are told that Em's illness often sealed her off from her family.

Em's son, a cultural journalist, narrates the novel, which is partially about the impact Em's mental illness has had upon him and his fear that he has a genetic predisposition to the same disease. The novel is also the story of Em, who talks to her son about her life in uncensored candor. Em's son listens and questions carefully, looking for clues to the origin of his mother's breakdown. The conversations follow a winding and amusing path.

To a lesser extent, the novel is the story of the Big Hoom, as his son pieces it together from stories told by each of his parents. The combined story of Em and the Big Hoom is one of a lengthy but traditional courtship (complete with conniving families), but it is also a story of love and obligation which, from the Big Hoom's perspective, are the same thing.

Jerry Pinto writes effortless prose with a light touch that emphasizes the quirky behaviors and conflicting beliefs of each character. As a general rule, the characters find a way to do what they want, traditions and religions and castes and social opprobrium notwithstanding. They also find, to the extent they can, ways not just to cope, but to find pleasure in an environment of misery. Much of that comes from caring about each other, even when Em's provocative behavior might make it difficult for her family to care about her.

Of course, it helps that Em is delightful, as are her idiosyncratic relatives. Whether in or out of "madness," Em's brash humor is unfailing. That makes the novel a fun read but it also minimizes the tragic aspect of the story. The adverse impact that mental illness has on the family members is less apparent than the humor that bond them. Em's son talks about the anguish he has experienced but the novel did not give me a good sense of his pain. Perhaps this light novel is therefore too light, but that also makes it an easy and enjoyable read.

RECOMMENDED

Monday
Sep222014

Soulminder by Timothy Zahn

Published by Open Road Media on September 23, 2014

Jessica Sands and Adrian Sommer are trying to trap the life forces (or souls) of people as they die. Preserving a soul, Sommer thinks, might allow its return to a body that is not beyond repair. When the technology finally works, they find they've created a resurrection machine -- or maybe the ticket to immortality -- but they fail to foresee all the ways in which their creation will be misused.

The technology here seems suspiciously shaky but I'm not a neuroscientist so I was willing to let that slide. The notion of a soul (or life force) that can be trapped seems equally shaky but that's the premise so I was willing to let that slide also. As long as I can swallow the story, my concern is whether the story is any good. Timothy Zahn has crafted an adequate story, although the novel suffers from being scattered.

A popular televangelist, confident that souls exist, is equally confident that mortals like Sommer and Sands should not be messing with them. Religious and ethical discussions about whether God objects to using technology to save lives follow paths charted by the stem cell debates. It eventually becomes apparent that souls can be returned not just to their own bodies, but to any soulless body, which raises all sorts of interesting ethical issues. The possibility of gaining immortality by repeatedly entering new bodies is an obvious one, but what will people give up in exchange for that opportunity? Other uses for the technology include allowing the soul from a murder victim to inhabit a living body long enough to testify against the murderer, allowing disabled people to occupy a living body temporarily or a soulless dead body permanently, and renting out a living body to other living people who want to use it to experience vicarious thrills without putting their own bodies at risk.

All of these (and a few others) are interesting ideas with ethical implications that Zahn explores in enough detail to provoke some serious thought. Like all technologies, the soulminder is capable of being abused, particularly to benefit the rich while exploiting the poor (the most likely to rent out their bodies), but this technology raises more concerns than most. Soulminder, for instance, allows the government to torture a suspect to death, to revive the corpse, and to cause death by torture again and again. If a government has that ability, you know it will eventually use it. Zahn deserves credit for thinking through the many ways his imagined technology might be used and misused.

My complaint about Soulminder, other than its slow start, is that it tends to bounce from one ethical issue to another, from character to character, in a disjointed plot that never permits the full development of any storyline. That makes Soulminder more intellectually than emotionally satisfying, although a satisfying resolution adds some cohesion to the story. Another novel that explores the separation of body and soul, Ian Watson's Deathhunter, is a better literary effort with stronger characters and equally intriguing discussions of philosophy. I nonetheless recommend Soulminder to science fiction fans who want to take a break from space opera and more conventional sf themes.

RECOMMENDED

Sunday
Sep212014

Duffy by Dan Kavanagh

First published in the UK in 1980; published digitally by Open Road Media on February 4, 2014

Two men enter Rosie McKechnie's home, bind her, and make a precise three inch cut on her back. They mention the name Barbara, which means nothing to Rosie but has significance to her husband Brian, who has good reason to keep Barbara's existence a secret from Rosie. Brian is soon being blackmailed and when the police prove to be useless, he turns to Nick Duffy, a former vice officer who is a bit touchy about his reason for leaving that job.

Duffy spends quite a bit of time trolling the sleazy side of Soho, an area he got to know well when he was working vice. His investigation takes him to peep shows and massage parlors and places that show dirty movies (this is before video rentals and the internet put X-rated theaters out of business). A few chapters explore Duffy's diverse sexual interests and his frustratingly impotent relationship with the woman in his life. There aren't many bisexual detectives in mainstream crime fiction (at least, not that I've seen) and Duffy offers an interesting perspective on such issues as the difference between one night stands with men and women.

With crooked cops, gangsters, and the denizens of Soho's underbelly, Dan Kavanagh (the pen name used by Julian Barnes) provides a colorful cast of unsavory characters to enliven Duffy's life -- although it is exactly the sort of life in which Duffy wants to wallow. The sharply written story moves quickly and reaches a satisfying resolution. This novel (and presumably the short series) would not be a good fit for cozy mystery fans, but readers who like their detective fiction served with a side order of raunchiness should enjoy it.

RECOMMENDED