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.

Wednesday
Jan232019

Talk to Me by John Kenney

Published by G.P. Putnam's Sons on January 15, 2019

“I made a mistake. I apologized.” Why isn’t that enough? Ted Grayson, a long-time network anchor, asks that question after a bad birthday leads to a moment of bad behavior. The aftermath spirals out of control. The incident says something about Ted but it does not reflect a pattern of behavior. Balanced against a distinguished twenty-year career, the incident seems, if not trifling, at least an aberration. Should Ted be fired? I don’t know. And I like the fact that Talk to Me presents that question in a way that allows the reader to consider the pros and cons without demanding a knee-jerk decision.

Ted is depressed because nightly news anchors are unimportant in the internet age. He feels he is “a vapid, empty shell of a person, with no real relationships and little to no integrity” who had “given up long ago on being a journalist.” Ted lives entirely inside his own head, which is not a pleasant residence. He substitutes petulance for an expression of honest feelings. He loves his wife and daughter and he shows his love in his own way, but it isn’t in him to give them the constant attention and affirmation they crave. He is far from being a sociopath, but he has never been good at empathy or kindness. His ability to distance himself from life is why he can be an objective news anchor.

Ted’s wife, Claire, offers a first-person soliloquy about marriage and the (in her view) inevitable deadening of spirit caused by accumulated years of monogamy. She wants to be the only priority in her husband’s life despite enjoying the fruits of his demanding career. She doesn’t want to recognize that the new man she met after all those disappointing years, the one she’s counting on to save her life, is just another man who will inevitably fail to meet her long-term demands. But he’s happy and attentive, at least for the moment, and Ted isn’t, so that makes the new guy attractive. It is easy to see Claire’s point of view, just as it is easy to understand Ted’s.

Ted has a meltdown on his birthday during a commercial break. He calls a young intern a Russian whore because she has broken his rule against standing in his line of sight. She is actually Polish and has given Ted no reason to question her character. In true corporate fashion, the network fires the intern because she responded by giving Ted the finger. But the network is old media and it doesn’t realize that everything that happens in the world is captured on someone’s cellphone video and eventually ends up on Facebook or YouTube, where privileged men who never stopped being frat boys will laugh at it while decent people will be appalled.

The story, as they say, is drawn from the headlines, but unlike Matt Lauer or Bill O’Reilly, Ted does not have a history of abusing women. His wife doesn’t like Ted much, but she knows he’s not a misogynist. He’s just a guy who is coming apart at the seams. The reader is therefore left to wonder whether an uncharacteristic but ugly incident of inappropriate language should cost Ted his job. I assume different readers will have different opinions, which is one of the reasons Talk to Me tells such a fascinating story.

In fact, while Ted is plagued by his own demons, the novel refuses to demonize him. His teenage daughter is a mess, but the extent to which Ted is to blame is unclear. Ted might behave like an asshole, but doesn’t act like a privileged asshole despite the wealth and prestige that comes from being a network anchor.

The novel contrasts old media with internet reporting by introducing Henke Tessmer, whose website operates on the principle that objective truth is unimportant. Clicks are important. Clicks generate advertising revenue. The more outrageous a story might be, the more clicks it will receive. Responsible journalism, according to Tessmer, is a thing of the past. Website owners make their own rules. Adults should take responsibility for deciding whether a story is true, a view that leaves Tessmer’s website free to disguise click-bait lies as news. Clickeat emptor is Tessmer’s motto.

Ted’s daughter Franny works for Tessmer. Her reaction to the viral video of her father — and Tessmer’s request that she write a story about it — kicks off another plot thread that will contribute to Ted’s destruction. Claire’s reaction to the video kicks off another. None of the characters in Talk to Me are entirely sympathetic — Claire and Franny are intensely focused on their petty complaints about Ted and seem oblivious to the harm they have caused him — and none are without fault.

The novel touches on a variety of timely issues. Misogyny. Underrepresentation of women in the news media. The clash between free speech and morally offensive speech. Whether hecklers should be empowered to prevent people they dislike from explaining their actions. Whether campuses should disinvite unpopular speakers in response to student or faculty protests. Whether there are, or should be, any rules in the age of the internet. Whether social media, designed to promote interaction, has ironically raised the heat level of discourse to a degree that makes it impossible for people who disagree to talk to each other. Whether society is now so sanctimonious that none of us are allowed to make a mistake. Whether the collective willingness to forgive mistakes has been lost because the internet has become a permanent, easily accessed record of those mistakes. Whether self-righteous commentators and bloggers will never forgive because, secretly, they are happy that their own secrets have not been exposed.

The story tells some hard truths about redemption. It might be desirable but, contrary to what we are told in novels and movies, it isn’t always possible. Not every broken relationship between child and parent can be repaired. “Because with enough pain, with enough time, we close the door on those people and we do not let them back in.” Yet some people in the novel, generally broken people or people who are recovering from broken lives, find it possible to feel empathy for Ted, and the story suggests that in the end, forgiveness might still be the best response to sincere remorse.

Talk to Me occasionally depicts political correctness in a way that is unnecessarily exaggerated. There were times when I had the suspicion that John Kenney was trying to soft-peddle headline-grabbing misconduct that clearly merits the termination of employment by equating Ted’s transgression with talking heads who engaged in a long pattern of sexual harassment. On balance, I think Kenney took care not to do that. There are lines that need to be drawn and I don’t think Talk to Me suggests otherwise. It does suggest that not all misconduct deserves the equal condemnation that it so often receives.

There are also times when Talk to Me gains power through exaggeration. I didn’t quite buy Claire or Franny, two good people who, at times, behave atrociously toward Ted, knowing that he doesn’t deserve to lose everything important in his life while contributing to his loss. That seemed a bit over the top, but it also adds layers of drama to the story’s depth.

Bad actions should have consequences, but people generally deserve forgiveness. How can those competing values be reconciled? I don’t know the answers to the most difficult questions that Talk to Me asks. I appreciate the fact that Kenney asked them because the questions are important. I also appreciate that he asked the questions in elegant prose that he used to tell a fascinating story.

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Monday
Jan212019

The Rule of Law by John Lescroart

Published by Atria Books on January 22, 2019

The new Dismas Hardy novel begins with an avalanche of change. Ron Jameson, who got away with murder, has protected himself by getting elevated to a position of power that allows him to deflect suspicions. Jameson has been elected District Attorney, defeating Hardy’s friend and former law partner, Wes Farrell. Hardy invites Farrell back into the firm, along with Gina Roake, who quit the practice to write novels, only to find that writing novels doesn’t pay the bills as easily as practicing law. Hardy’s friend Abe Glitsky retired from his job as an investigator in the DA’s office when Farrell was defeated. Glitsky’s wife Treya, who had been Farrell’s secretary, also retired. Now that Hardy has two new partners, he’s hoping he won’t need to work as many hours.

Things seem to be going well until Hardy’s loyal secretary, Phyllis McGowan, mysteriously vanishes for a couple of days. Hardy noses around and discovers that her brother was recently released from prison. A few days later, things seem back to normal until some goons from the police department show up with an arrest warrant and haul Phyllis off to jail. Hardy, naturally, represents her.

Jameson charges Phyllis with the rare crime of being an accessory after the fact — in this case, an accessory to murder. The alleged murderer is Celia Montoya and the victim is Hector Valdez, who was allegedly trafficking women. Phyllis’ brother was allegedly a witness to the murder and is the reason for Phyllis’ arrest. Hardy suspects she’s in jail because she works for the firm that now employs Farrell, the DA who lost his election to Jameson. Professional courtesies, like allowing Hardy to surrender Phyllis voluntarily, have gone out the window.

Jameson got elected as a “tough on crime” candidate, which is the first sign that he’s a jerk. I mean, is anyone in favor of crime? Of course not. “Tough on crime” always means “tough on the Constitution.”

When Hardy and Jameson go to war, one of Jameson’s investigators decides to reinvestigate the Dockside Massacres. Series fans will know why Hardy and his friends don’t want to draw attention to that particular episode, which unfolds in three novels (The First Law, The Second Chair, and The Motive) and is revisited in The Ophelia Cut. New readers might want to check out The Ophelia Cut before reading The Rule of Law. It isn’t essential to do so, but The Ophelia Cut is one of the best entries in the series, so it won’t be wasted time.

In some Dismas Hardy novels, including this one, John Lescroart gives the reader information right away that Hardy only learns or suspects later in the story. In this case, the reader knows from page one that Jameson committed murder, so this isn’t a whodunit. The plot instead focuses on the efforts of Hardy, Glitsky, and the rest of the team to prove Jameson’s guilt while exonerating (more or less) Phyllis and worrying about their exposure in the Dockside Massacres.

The case is timely in that it involves San Francisco’s status as a sanctuary city and the political aspirations of people (like Jameson) who want to want to make headlines by being either for or against local resistance to the hardball tactics of ICE. Jameson is happy to play both sides of the debate as long as he gets headlines. The Rule of Law takes on the Trump administration’s immoral and heavy-handed approach to immigration enforcement — an approach that discourages immigrants from reporting crimes or cooperating in criminal investigations for fear that they will be taken into custody and deported. If you are a Trump fan, you’ll probably hate this book, as well as most books that reflect a realistic and compassionate view of how America’s leadership has betrayed its values. If you are a crime fiction fan, you’ll probably regard The Rule of Law as another winning entry in the Dismas Hardy series.

RECOMMENDED

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