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.

Friday
Jan182019

The Flimflam Affair by Bill Pronzini

Published by Forge Books on January 15, 2019

I’m a fan of Bill Pronzini’s noir-flavored thrillers and his Nameless Detective series. Pronzini manages to create tight plots and interesting characters with an economy of language that lesser crime writers should study. While Pronzini brings those qualities to the Carpenter & Quincannon series, I am less enthralled by his historical novels. The Flimflam Affair, set in 1897, nevertheless has some entertainment value and ends in a way that might make fans suspect it is the culmination of the series.

John Quincannon has gone north to a mining town to investigate the theft of gold from a railroad safe. He figures out how the thieves managed to open the safe, and thus solves the crime just in time to be summoned back to San Francisco to help his former boss in the Secret Service catch a counterfeiter who supposedly died a decade earlier.

While Quincannon is out of town, an investment broker, hires Sabrina Carpenter to determine whether a spiritualist who summons the dead is a charlatan. The fact that he’s a spiritualist would be a sufficient answer for most people, but the broker’s wife is convinced that communication with the dead is possible. Carpenter takes the case and enlists Quincannon's help when he's back in town. The story turns into a whodunit that the reader will probably solve as easily as Carpenter and Quincannon. More interesting are the secrets used by spiritualists to con their gullible audiences.

The third storyline — and the novel reads like three short stories that were fixed up into a novel — has Quincannon chasing the counterfeiters. The story moves quickly but comes across as something that Pronzini dashed off without putting much effort into the plot. And that may be what happened, because the way the novel ends suggests that he may have written the novel to bring the series to a close in a way that would satisfy fans of the two detectives.

The novel’s virtue lies in the ongoing struggle between Quincannon, who has something of an ego, and his female partner, who might be seen as an early feminist who deserves more glory than Quincannon can easily share. Unfortunately, Carpenter plays a minor role in two of the three stories, which focus on Quincannon’s tenacious investigative style. I probably would have enjoyed the novel more if the two characters had interacted more, but I liked it well enough to commend it to fans of the series. Readers who haven’t read a Carpenter and Quincannon novel probably won’t want to start with this one.

RECOMMENDED

Wednesday
Jan162019

Hark by Sam Lipsyte

Published by Simon & Schuster on January 15, 2019

At regular intervals, Hark made me burst into laughter because of its astonishing silliness. I love finding a novel that will do that. While Sam Lipsyte lost his way a bit in the last quarter of the story, the plot is only secondary to the wit. If you like clever goofiness for its own sake, you’ll probably enjoy Hark. Hardcore Christians, however, might find some of the humor near the end of the story to be distasteful, if not sacrilegious.

All of the characters in Hark are quirky. Hark Morner is sort of a self-help guru. His career began as a joke before he began to take it seriously. Inspired by a toy bow he found in the trash, Hark encourages people to think of themselves as archers shooting at targets. Mental archery is all about focus.

Fraz Penzig, having lost his teaching job, accompanies Hark on speaking tours when he’s not tutoring rich kids. He needs the idea of mental archery to give him hope in a dire world. Fraz is married to Tovah, but their relationship is troubled. Teal, who went to prison after playing Robin Hood with corporate funds, is now a therapist helping Fraz and Tovah with their marriage. Their domestic drama is an amusing diversion from the novel’s other amusing themes.

Kate Rumpler is one of Hark’s acolytes. Hark stays in her living space, although the nature of their relationship is ambiguous. They don’t have sex because sex would distract Hark from focus. Kate likes Harkism because she sees it as a tool rather than a philosophy, a way of achieving peace of mind that doesn’t yet invoke the tyranny of meditation or yoga.

Other characters want to monetize or market Hark. Some characters worship Hark; others hate him. Some place their faith in the power of mental archery in the way that some people place their faith in prayer; others have no faith in either one. Many believe that Hark has transformed their lives. Hark isn’t quite sure what to believe about himself. In fact, it is never quite clear from his speeches or notebook scribblings that Hark has any well-formed beliefs at all, which might make him the most honest character in the book. Still, his understanding of mental archery (and of himself) evolves during the course of the story.

The plot is silly in a way that is mildly twisted. I’m not sure that the chain of events recounted in Hark, from the musings of an angry catfish to the theft of bone marrow, even counts as a plot. The story takes a surprising turn with about a quarter of the novel remaining that eventually leads to a redefinition of Hark. It later becomes clear that the novel is taking place either in the future or in an alternate, war-torn present. Ironically, the novel loses its focus after the turning point. Lipsyte might have tried too hard at that point to be outrageous, but he still manages to deliver some laughs.

Hark touches upon moral issues, including whether turning self-help into a profit-generating enterprise is unethical, or whether it only seems that way to people who have adopted an outdated ethical model. “Ethics, after all, is merely a dance, a daring jig on morality’s wire, high above the lava lake of nihilism.” The book also raises questions about the nature of faith and belief, given how easy it is to eschew evidence in order to believe in a god, a healer, a shaman, a religion, or a self-help guru. Is one faith any less valid than any other, no matter how ridiculous it seems to people who have equal faith in something else that is equally untethered to evidence? Maybe faith qua faith has value even if the belief itself does not. Perhaps it is better to believe in something than to accept “the sour invitation to the void.” The novel makes no serious attempt to answer those questions. It chooses instead to be whacky and playful and that’s why I like it.

When Hark breaks down and babbles incoherently, people love him even more. And maybe that’s the point of the story. The idea of self-help, the idea that we’re doing something to improve ourselves by spending seven minutes listening to a lecture, might be more important to us than the actual self-help message, which we probably won’t internalize and might not even understand. Self-help messages can always be distilled to a few words — in Hark’s case, “You should focus” — and everything else is just salesmanship by “happiness hustlers” (a phrase coined by one of Hark’s acolytes). The pure form of a good idea is quickly commercialized and adulterated (who wouldn’t want an app that helps you focus?). Hark isn’t the only book to make that point, but it is one of the funniest.

RECOMMENDED

Monday
Jan142019

The Burglar by Thomas Perry

Published by Grove Atlantic/The Mysterious Press on January 8, 2019

Elle Stowell is 24 and, as the novel’s title suggests, a burglar. She enters homes in places like Bel Air and departs with jewels and other things that are small and worth stealing. While committing her most recent burglary, however, she discovers three dead bodies on a king size bed, each with a bullet hole in the head. A camera conveniently recorded the murders. Fearing that it might also have recorded her, Elle steals the camera, but her conscience forces her to return it after erasing the footage in which she appears.

Elle soon finds herself being chased, stalked, and attacked by a variety of strangers. She decides, for reasons that turn out to be plausible, that she should investigate the murders as a way of protecting herself. Her investigation (which relies heavily on her ability to break into buildings) leads her to uncover a criminal scheme that, while unlikely, is at least creative.

In the novel’s most bothersome scene, Elle eavesdrops on a conversation in which a criminal explains details of the scheme to another criminal who already knows those details, for no good reason other than to educate Elle (and the reader). That’s a poor writing technique, although it’s common enough among authors of B-level thrillers. Thomas Perry knows that the criminal has no need to impart information that the other criminal already has, but tries to cover that up by suggesting that the explanation amounts to “stalling” despite the absence of any clear reason to stall. The situation that leads to the explanation is plainly contrived to allow Elle (and the reader) to learn details that are central to resolving the plot. I didn’t buy the contrivance — nor did I buy that the criminals waited to reveal important information until after Elle returned from two breaks she had to take during her eavesdropping — but that’s my only large gripe about The Burglar.

Other gripes: Elle is likable enough but has little depth; the other characters have none at all. Perry’s writing style has little style; it is straightforward to the point of being sterile. Perry is very much a Joe Friday, “just the facts” writer. That kind of writing can be effective when a writer knows how to jazz up the prose, but Perry has never managed to elevate his game.

Still, Perry often conjures up a decent plot and he does that again in The Burglar. The story moves quickly and the breaking-and-entering scenes create enough tension to keep the reader engaged. As is often true of a Thomas Perry novel, the positives outweigh the negatives, but not by much.

RECOMMENDED

Friday
Jan112019

Invisible by Andrew Grant

Published by Ballantine Books on January 8, 2019

Invisible is another human trafficking novel, the haven of thriller writers who can’t concoct a fresh plot. Paul McGrath is the kind of thriller hero who can’t stop telling us how great he is. He doesn’t overlook any injustice, he won’t tolerate people who dishonor a military uniform, yada yada. I just didn’t like the guy, making it difficult to build enthusiasm for the story he tells. Readers who like characters like McGrath will probably like the book, because parts of the story will push their thriller buttons.

McGrath is a working-class hero who calls himself The Janitor. He’s cleaning up the city’s streets — get it? The Janitor? McGrath starts the novel as part of Military Intelligence (and we know what George Carlin said about that!). He’s suspected of a crime, so he quits the military and returns to the States to make peace with his dad. Part of the conflict might have stemmed from McGrath’s father telling McGrath that he was a psychopath who should seek treatment (McGrath joined the Army instead).

McGrath’s good intentions are foiled when he learns that his father died right after an argument with a business partner who was defrauding the business. A nitwit prosecutor charged the business partner with  homicide on the theory that the stress of the quarrel caused a heart attack due to a previously undiagnosed health condition. Andrew Grant apparently believes that’s a valid homicide theory, but even the most zealous Manhattan prosecutor would be too overworked to pursue such a nonsensical charge.

The prosecutor’s fraud case against the business partner tanked when files containing the evidence went missing. (Although the evidence consists of documents, the prosecutor doesn’t think she can prove the case with copies, which again demonstrates that she is a nitwit or that Grant doesn’t understand much about evidence.) McGrath learns that evidence has also gone missing in other cases. He makes it his mission to learn why.

McGrath takes a job as a courthouse janitor so he’ll have access to places where files might have been stashed. Since people are searched on their way into a courthouse, not on their way out, there’s no reason to stash the files where they might be found as opposed to taking them to a distant location and burning them. Still, McGrath is convinced that playing janitor will solve the mystery. That plot thread is only partially resolved because Grant wanted to set up a sequel.

While snooping around the courthouse, McGrath stumbles upon evidence of other possible crimes that he reports to the police, making a nuisance of himself when they fail to prioritize his reports. Naturally, he takes it upon himself to solve the world’s problems, which is smart because searching the courthouse while sweeping floors would have made for a less-than-riveting plot.

Some of McGrath’s plans to solve problems are just preposterous, but the whole story is pretty silly. So is McGrath. Like most action-thriller heroes, McGrath has utter contempt for bosses who (like most action-thriller writers) have never spent “time in the field.” Grant coughs up other reliable clichés: McGrath doesn’t “play by the rules”; McGrath had a sensei; McGrath tells war stories that, in his view, impart profound lessons; McGrath defeated countless terrorists when he was a military spy; McGrath drinks regular coffee with “nothing foamy in it” because he’s a regular guy; thriller heroes hate New York slumlords and Russian gangsters; thriller heroes who served in the military (didn’t they all?) are superior to people who didn’t. McGrath also follows the mold of thriller heroes who are appallingly self-righteous. And he plays an action role alongside the police, even though he’s not a cop, which would never happen in the real world.

The second half of the novel contains quite a bit of backstory regarding the bad guys. Lacking the Janitor to bring down the plot, that section of the book is actually pretty good. Grant’s writing style is serviceable, so Invisible is not painful to read. Fans of clichéd action heroes might enjoy it. Other thriller fans can easily find better choices. Clearly Grant has another Janitor novel in mind, but I'll be skipping it.

RECOMMENDED WITH RESERVATIONS

Wednesday
Jan092019

Old Newgate Road by Keith Scribner

Published by Knopf on January 8, 2019

Cole remodels homes in the Pacific Northwest, often using chestnut from the east coast. After thirty years, Cole is back in Connecticut, where he plans to dismantle a tobacco barn. He grew up on Old Newgate Road in East Granby where his childhood was tragic. He’s kept it locked away, but an unexpected family reunion threatens to unlock the gates of memory. A true memory, not the version of the truth that he has carefully constructed and reshaped and lived with for so many years.

In the present, Cole is separated from an unfaithful wife who wants more steam in the bedroom than Cole can generate. He’s having issues with his rebellious son Daniel, who is in the custody of his wife back in Portland — rebellious because he commits misdemeanors to save the world from greedy corporations — but Cole’s trip to East Granby diverts his attention from pressing problems at home. The last Cole knew, his father was in prison. Now he’s back in the family home, suffering from dementia.

Cole’s idea is to bring Daniel to East Granby where he can work on a tobacco farm and help care for Cole’s father — in other words, teach Daniel discipline by making his life hell. Daniel is the novel’s voice of honesty, a voice that speaks unpleasant truths to his father as the story nears its end.

Meanwhile, Cole tries to run his business and salvage his marriage while he’s on a different coast, an effort that proves to be untenable. It doesn’t help that his wife has found a therapist to validate her infidelity.

Flashbacks acquaint the reader with Cole’s childhood, his brother and sister, the marathon-obsessed uncle and unhappy aunt with whom he lived for a while in high school, and the alcoholic grandmother with whom he stayed before moving to the west coast. All have been touched by the same tragedy; each has reacted in a different way.

“The past only has the meaning we give it in the present,” one of the characters observes. Letting go of the past — or not — is the novel’s main theme, coupled with the theme of forgiveness. Cole unpacks a room full of guilt during the novel while victims of his transgressions are astonished that he even remembers the things for which he blames himself.

At the same time, Cole wonders just how far the apple has fallen from the tree. He has difficulty letting go of rage, even at small insults he suffered long ago. Is he more like his father than he is willing to admit? Is he capable of forgiving his father? Should he? And how will Daniel turn out? Does he have his grandfather’s lack of self-control? The answer to the last question comes in a dramatic scene near the novel’s end that seems to reprise an incident from Cole’s past.

Old Newgate Road is a powerful family drama, but the story avoids the melodrama that afflicts so many books about dysfunctional families. Its power derives from its honest depiction of violence against women and from the impact of violence not just on its female victims but on male family members who witness it, whether they choose to confront or deny it.

The story also illustrates the perils of raising children without first resolving long-standing anxieties and issues of self-doubt. As much as Cole worries about how Daniel will grow up, by the end of the novel Cole understands that he’s the one who needs to mature. Sometimes fathers have more to learn from sons than sons can learn from fathers. That realization gives both Cole and the reader hope that it is never too late to put aside the past and to focus on the present.

A dramatic ending that follows the dramatic moments that precedeS it brings the story full circle while suggesting how the lives of the primary characters might turn out. Purposeful prose, convincing characters, and a strong story make Old Newgate Road a novel that will linger in the reader’s memory.

RECOMMENDED