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 weekends.  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
Jul192019

Tall Oaks by Chris Whitaker

Published in the UK in 2016; published by Dover Publications on March 20, 2019

Tall Oaks is a place where people keep their scars hidden from view. The story’s first dramatic event, however, creates a shocking mystery for everyone to see. While Tall Oaks is both a crime novel and an ensemble domestic drama, the plot and its multiple threads are almost secondary to the carefully constructed characters.

Jessica Monroe tells Sergeant Jim Young that she saw a man wearing a clown mask on her baby monitor. When she ran to the boy’s room, the clown had disappeared with her three-year-old son Harry. Jim launches an investigation that rocks the sleepy town of Tall Oaks. He feel protective toward Jessica. She is needy and unstable, separated from her husband Michael, and losing Harry might just push her over the edge. No evidence ties Michael to the kidnapping, but the idea of a child snatcher in Tall Oaks is difficult for anyone to believe. Michael soon becomes a pariah.

A bunch of other characters are tangential to the kidnapping but play key roles in the plot. One is a teen named Manny who fancies himself to be a gangster. His mother, Elena, works hard to keep Manny under control, not that anyone takes him seriously. Manny is interested in a girl named Furat, who finds him amusing despite (or because of) his insistence on aping the language of a 1940s mobster. As a foul-mouthed kid with delusions of badness, Manny adds a dimension of comic relief to the story.

In fact, I loved Manny. He’s a liar who has a knack for telling the truth when the truth needs to be told. He’s also good to Furat, one of the few high school kids who does not regard her as a terrorist because of her national origin.

Manny doesn’t like Jared Martin, the third man his mother has dated since his father left her. Jared is plainly punishing himself. In a novel about people with secrets, the truth about Jared comes as one of Tall Oaks’ largest surprises.

Max owns a camera shop. Jerry is his developmentally disabled employee. Their interest in photography seems destined to play a role in the novel’s outcome. While Jerry is fearful and kind-hearted, he turns out to be more complex than the stereotype he initially seems to be.

Jessica’s Aunt Henrietta is married to Roger but interested in Richard because he’s a “real man.” She’s also interested in Eddie because he’s a hunk. Roger is having an affair of his own, so he might be a “real man” in his own way. Roger is from London and treats marital discord in the reserved and civilized fashion that only the British can muster. How the marriage will turn out is one of many subplots in the story.

While multiple plot threads bind the story in Tall Oaks, they all find resolutions, more or less, as the story winds down. Secrets are revealed, characters reconcile (unless they don’t), and as a mystery should, the story ends with a surprise. The plot offers many suspects for the reader’s consideration, but Chris Whitaker plays fair. The clues to the mystery are scattered through the story and the answer makes sense.

While the story is excellent, Whitaker’s ability to create memorable characters gives the novel its heart. With its delicate mix of comedy and drama, Tall Oaks is one of the most entertaining crime novels I’ve read this year.

RECOMMENDED

Wednesday
Jul172019

Turbulence by David Szalay

Published by Scribner on July 16, 2019

A woman who becomes ill on a flight from London to Madrid hopes that the life of a man who has cancer will be spared in exchange for her death. A man sitting next to her spills a Coke on his trousers. From Madrid, that man flies home to Dakar. After witnessing the death of a child in a traffic accident, a pilot flies from Dakar to São Paulo, wondering whether his girlfriend in Frankfurt is alone.

Turbulence is a series of connected stories, each beginning with a flight from the city in which the preceding story was set and taking place in the destination city. As the characters jet from one city to another, they encounter the turbulence of life. A mother does not know how to respond when her daughter’s baby is born blind. A married senior tells her husband that she is in love with another man, causing their life to proceed “outwardly as normal for a while after that, though with a kind of silence at the heart of it.” A debt between friends sparks an argument, although the lender’s anger can be traced to an unrelated circumstance described in an earlier story. A woman’s husband flies home to abuse her, then flies back to Qatar where he is living a secret life.

The story about the married woman in her sixties who has an affair is my favorite. She loved her husband intensely once and knows that the intense love she feels for the new man will fade, just as her intense love for her husband did, but she surrenders to it anyway. Falling in love again somehow makes her marriage seem untrue, and she “did not want to live with something untrue.” The question is whether she should abandon her husband or work with him to restore truth to their marriage.

The novel is one of relentless motion; the stories are fleeting. Taken together, the overlapping chapters illustrate how people around the world make connections with each other, sometimes unnoticed or quickly forgotten as they move on to their next destination. The novel also emphasizes the similarities of people around the world. A troubled marriage in India echoes another in Hong Kong. Tensions between a parent and child in Budapest echo a relationship in Madrid. The man who lives multiple lives in India and Qatar sparks concern that a man who is about to marry in Budapest has another life in Syria.

David Szalay writes with surgical precision about the darkness that so often betrays the better self. Most books about connections focus on love, childbirth, and the other joys that bind humanity. Yet it is also true that humans everywhere face the same fears and burdens: death, duplicity, the exposure of embarrassing secrets. Turbulence is not a life-affirming novel — its bleakness may put off some readers — but Szalay offers an honest glimpse of the trauma and despair that people of all social classes, races, ages, and nationalities share in all parts of the world.

RECOMMENDED

Monday
Jul152019

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

Published by Doubleday on July 16, 2019

The Nickel Boys is set in the 1960s, while Jim Crow was still the rule in the South. Blacks are jailed because of their skin color. They die in jail because of their skin color. They are beaten for wearing a military uniform because of their skin color. They are denied educational opportunities because of their skin color. They get sent to reform school for the offense of homelessness because of their skin color. An atmosphere of fear and injustice permeates the novel.

The story follows Elwood Curtis, who begins the novel as a dishwasher in Tallahassee. Elwood istens to recordings of speeches by Martin Luther King Jr. and looks forward to the day when Dr. Kinng's dream of equal opportunity will come true. In high school, Elwood moves on to a job in a tobacco shop, hoping to save money for college. Dr. King’s admonition that “we must walk the streets of life every day with this sense of dignity” inform the life Elwood is trying to achieve.

Elwood lives with his grandmother, who fears the civil rights movement as much as she appreciates its achievements, including being able to sit wherever she wants on the bus. When Elwood marches with college students to protest a theater that won’t serve black customers, his grandmother worries that he is putting his life at risk. She is “a survivor but the world took her in bites.”

Elwood enrolls in a junior college and seems be walking the streets with a sense of dignity when he hitches a ride with a man who is driving a stolen car. That misfortune sets the scene for the heart of the novel.

Elwood is sent to Nickel Reform School. A prelude, set in the present, explains that archeology students have interred bodies in the Nickel Reform School cemetery that show clear evidence of abuse. Even more troubling are the bodies buried on school property, outside of the cemetery, the unacknowledged dead. The prelude foreshadows a difficult time for Elwood as a Nickel boy.

In his acknowledgements, Colson Whitehead tells the reader that Nickel Reform School is inspired by the story of Florida’s Dozier School for Boys. Whitehead’s fictional account of the Nickel Reform School echoes the horrific reality of Dozier, including the investigation of grave sites.

Like Dozier, the fictional Nickel Reform School separates black and white inmates. Its purpose is to instill docility and obedience. Elwood learns that standing up for the weak against the bullies is likely to lead to a beating by the bullies and another by the staff. Such are the moral values instilled by reform schools.

The novel explains the fate of a boy whose body is disinterred fifty years later. His story is still told by rings screwed into trees in the woods, rings to which boys were shackled before being whipped: “Testifying to anyone who cares to listen.”

Inspired by the teachings of Dr. King and the actions of Rosa Parks, Elwood wants to do his part to encourage nonviolent reform of the evils he sees at Nickel. Will he have the courage? The novel suggests that the unlikeliest people, when oppressed, can find courage. Even fruitless efforts can inspire the kind of dignity that Dr. King deemed essential to the human spirit.

The Nickle Boys is not a feel-good fantasy about a young man who overcomes adversity, although it does acknowledge the possibility of defeating internalized demons. Places like Nickel ­— described as one of hundreds “scattered across the land like pain factories” — existed to break an inmate’s spirt. Opportunities lost might never be regained. With perseverance and luck, an intelligent person can build a life, even achieve a semblance of success, but that life will be shackled to the past. Survivors of institutions are “denied even the simple pleasure of being ordinary.”

This is a short novel, all the fat trimmed away to tell a compact but far-reaching story. The ending comes as a complete surprise. It is a fitting resolution to a captivating novel. Like The Underground Railroad, The Nickel Boys illustrates Colson Whitehead’s ability to personalize the history of injustice. The story is gut-wrenching and emotionally charged. The Nickel Boys reminds readers of how far the nation has come and how much farther it must go to honor its promise of equal justice under the law.

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Friday
Jul122019

When All Is Said by Anne Griffin

First published in Great Britain in 2019; published by St. Martin's/Thomas Dunne Books on March 5, 2019

When All Is Said is told from the perspective of a lonely, grieving, guilt-driven man who left much unsaid to the few people he cared about. Maurice Hannigan, once known as Big Man, is 84. He starts the novel with a visit to a bar. While he interacts with the staff, his interior monologue tells his life story to his son in New Jersey. He wonders how his son grew up to be “so sure and happy” in his life, given Maurice’s inability to be happy with anything, least of all himself. He has been a widow for two years and just sold his farm outside of Dublin. He misses his wife desperately. Maurice is in the bar “to remember — all that I have been and all that I will never be again.”

His memories begin in Ireland when, apparently dyslexic, Maurice is a poor student but a determined football player. At the age of ten, he is encouraged to drop out and learn to be a farmer. He and his family suffer abuse by the wealthy landowner who employs them; Maurice is also abused by landowner’s son Thomas despite their similar ages. Thomas’ father beats him and Thomas can only gain self-respect by beating Maurice. When the opportunity for revenge in an unexpected form arrives, Maurice seizes it, changing lives in a way he cannot imagine. In the present, he is just coming to understand the consequences of his actions, and his attempt to make amends for his petty vengeance might only make things worse.

The story follows Maurice through a life that is materially successful and emotionally cabined. He falls desperately in love with Sadie, marries and has children, but he will experience multiple losses and will never acquire the tools to address them. By the end of his life, he prefers solitude. He cannot abide the thought of opening himself to others. Others see him as a mean and unyielding man because that is the only face he shows; few can guess that his heart longs to be open and humane.

The novel’s other key character is Emily, part of Thomas’ family and an unintended victim of Maurice’s small act of revenge. Maurice sees Emily as a gracious and courageous woman, the kind of woman he hopes his own daughter would have been. Maurice's interaction with Emily is a form of atonement, although not everyone in the novel sees it that way. Surprising facts that have shaped their relationship are unknown to Maurice until the are revealed in the final chapters.

At times, the narrative is not written in a persuasively male voice, but that flaw is not often noticeable. Most of the time the voice is appropriately gruff while elegantly expressing the regrets that Maurice admits to himself when drunkenness encourages insight. In its best moments, when Maurice’s monologue addresses his failure to open himself to his son, when he recalls awkward moments and details his failings, the story perfectly captures his masculine heartache, his inability to express his the warmth he feels. The novel is so rich in the layers of personality that define Maurice, and is told with such conviction, that it is difficult to believe this is Anne Griffin’s debut novel.

RECOMMENDED

Wednesday
Jul102019

The Last Act by Brad Parks

Published by Dutton on March 12, 2019

Many works of fiction ask the reader to suspend disbelief for the sake of enjoying the story. Some ask more than others. The Last Act asks too much.

Having said that, I hasten to add that I liked the characters and enjoyed some of the story. I am tempted to recommend The Last Act for the introduction alone, which asks why the drug war has resulted in the lengthy incarceration of impoverished people for petty offenses while the money laundering offenses performed by Wachovia Bank, which enabled Mexican drug cartels to do business in the United States, resulted in no sentences at all. Another part of the books lambasts prosecutors who seek jail sentences for Medicaid fraud that is committed to obtain healthcare that would otherwise be unavailable. The book’s heart is in the right place.

Here’s the plot in a nutshell. Former child actor Tommy Jump is now 27, too big for child roles, too small to be a leading man. A high school buddy who is now in the FBI hires him to pose as a federal prisoner so he can cozy up to an incarcerated banker and learn where the banker has stashed documents that he’s hidden as insurance against reprisals by a cartel. The FBI agent tells him that the documents will let them bring down the cartel. Tommy’s wife is newly pregnant, he has no job, and the chance to earn a large chunk of cash seems too good to pass up. After all, it’s only six months in a federal prison. What could go wrong?

Before we get to what could go wrong, let’s examine what’s wrong with the premise. The reader will quickly suspect that things are not as they seem and will wonder why Tommy doesn’t realize that. But setting that aside, the scheme requires Tommy to go to court and plead guilty to a bank robbery that never happened. Nobody in the system — not the judge, not the Marshals (who would tend to know about bank robberies within their districts), not Pretrial Services — questions why nobody has ever heard of this bank robbery prior to Tommy’s confession. No grand jury testimony, no FBI reports, no victim, no evidence that any bank lost a penny. Our system is flawed, but federal judges do not send people to prison for bank robbery in the absence of evidence that a bank was actually robbed, notwithstanding the alleged bank robber’s confession. Granted, the story eventually explains why things are not as they appear, but the plot never explains how Tommy could be sent to prison in the absence of any evidence that a crime actually occurred.

And the notion that Tommy can’t get himself out of this mess just by hiring a halfway competent lawyer is preposterous. An affidavit from the bank manager explaining that the bank wasn't robbed would persuade even the most hardened judge to ask why the government sent Tommy to jail.

Anyway, Tommy goes off to prison, and of course the plan goes awry. Fortunately, he quickly learns how he can come and go at will. I think it is doubtful that an 8-year sentence for bank robbery would immediately be served in a minimum-security prison or that security would be quite as lax as the novel imagines, but I gave up on the premise long before Tommy got to prison. The ending also depends on the unlikely coincidence of a particular person being in the right place at the right time. It's all too much to swallow.

I liked Tommy. I liked his cellmate. I liked the banker. I didn’t accept the premise, but I liked the humanity with which the story is told. I admired the fluid prose and appreciated that the story moves quickly. Readers who are less troubled by the plot’s impossibility will find reasons to enjoy The Last Act. Readers who expect verisimilitude from storytellers will be disappointed.

RECOMMENDED WITH RESERVATIONS