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.

Wednesday
Jun242015

The Wisdom of Perversity by Rafael Yglesias

Published by Algonquin Books on March 24, 2015

Too many novels that address the impact of child molestation on adult life turn into weepy, melodramatic stories that have all the depth of a Jerry Springer interview. The Wisdom of Perversity offers a lucid and subtle view of the subject, recognizing that lives are shaped by many experiences, not just one; that similar experiences affect different lives in different ways; that different people adopt different strategies for moving past the past; and that undoing damage often requires creative thinking that you won't get from Dr. Phil.

The Wisdom of Perversity takes place in two time settings. The first, beginning in 1966, involves two kids: Brian Moran and his friend Jeff Mark. Jeff's family is (to use Jeff's expression) weird. Jeff's wealthy cousin, Richard Klein, is an executive at NBC. Klein rudely introduces Brian to the adult world while Jeff's mother manipulates family members for Jeff's benefit.

A third child, Julie Mark, eventually enters the 1960s story, but she makes her first appearance in 2008. She is married to Gary Rosen and has a son named Zach. Gary is a legal analyst who is covering accusations that Sam Rydel, a former NBC page who worked under Richard Klein, is a child molester. Julie reconnects with her cousin Jeff, who is now the most beloved director in Hollywood, and with Gary, who is now a screenwriter/playwright, after learning that ugly secrets they have all been keeping for 40 years might soon be exposed. Or, if not, it might be time for all of them to expose their secrets to the world.

A number of Rafael Yglesias' characters are "scarred veterans of a nearly invisible trauma whose aftereffects had no true experts." They confront substantial questions: When should the past stay buried? Should private horrors be made public long after they have ended? Is exposing the truth worth the price of exposure? Which is worse: a child molester or an adult who enables a child molester? Can we judge people for what they become when they have no control over what they become? Is it possible to make something healthy out of desires that were kindled by "perversion"?

By being honest without becoming cheap and maudlin, The Wisdom of Perversity tells an emotionally affecting story. Yglesias changes pace with humor at unexpected moments. The humor serves to keep the drama from becoming oppressive. It works because, after all, life is pretty funny during the moments when it isn't tragic.

The Hollywood glitz takes a bit of edge off the story, which I view as the novel's primary weakness, but Yglesias makes it possible for the reader to feel compassion for Jeff despite the fact that Jeff's woes are softened by his fame and fortune. Some of the secondary characters (including Zach, Gary, and Sam Rydel) are underdeveloped, but that is a small quibble. This is one of the smartest, most engaging novels I've read that focuses on issues of child sexual abuse.

RECOMMENDED

Monday
Jun222015

Here Are the Young Men by Rob Doyle

Published in Ireland in 2014; published in the United States by Bloomsbury on June 16, 2015

A common theme of literary novels is that people are all the same in fundamental ways. The theme of Here Are the Young Men is that people are fundamentally different.

The young men to which the title refers have been raised in the suburbs of Dublin. They are friends. They share common experiences, anxieties, and cynicism -- a feeling of emptiness, exiles in their own country -- yet despite their commonalities, they make individual choices that set them apart from each other. They also evolve during a pivotal summer in their young lives, setting paths for themselves that inevitably strain the bond that has held them together.

Joseph Kearney, a nihilist who is obsessed by sex and violence, spends much of his time wanking, fantasizing about mass murder, and thinking up bloody video games (including "Orgasm of Hate") that, if they existed, would -- sadly enough -- likely sell by the millions. Kearney's fantasies become progressively more revolting as the novel progresses, as do his actions.

Richard Tooley ("Rez") is engulfed in numbness. He want to eradicate from his life those feelings that are "expected" or "programmed," leaving only those that are genuine. Rez is a philosopher of despair, the one emotion he regards as honest. He believes his mind is a virus that is killing him with unstoppable thoughts, producing a darkness of the soul.

In many respects, Kearney and Rez are mirror images. Kearney sees all the darkness in the world and embraces it. Rez sees all the darkness and is horrified by his inability to turn away from it.

The third significant character, and probably the most well-adjusted (although that is meager praise given his choice of friends), is Matthew Connelly. Matthew holds out hope of college acceptance as an alternative to work, which he detests, but having devoted his young life to alcohol and drugs, he worries about his performance on his Leaving Certificate examination. He spends the summer drifting, getting high and drunk as he frets about his friends, his lover, and his future while awaiting the test results.

All three men are friends of Jen, the only character with a definite plan to attend college. Jen also feels deadened by the dullness of Dublin and plans to travel first, but she believes "there's more to life than only hate and rage." Unfortunately, her attempt to connect with Matthew is filled with obstacles.

All of the characters regard Dublin as drab and joyless. Despite being drunk or high most of the time -- the only way they seem capable of responding to the challenges of life -- they voice some fascinating thoughts. The thoughts reflect confusion and existential angst as the characters try to find the point of a universe built on entropy, but they also reflect a time and place in which nothing seems original or meaningful. Rez, for instance, loves The Clash, but he believes their music originated in a time when it was possible for music to express something new. Rez equates current music to the life he is living: derivative, stale, repeating what others have already done.

Here Are the Young Men is neither an easy nor a fun read. A couple of dark events near the summer's end add drama to a story that is otherwise focused on drugs, alcohol, sex, and disintegration. The ending comes as a shock but it is oddly gratifying and true to the story that precedes it.

Few readers would want to know the protagonists. No rational person would want to live their lives. For that reason, many readers will find Here Are the Young Men unappealing. The novel is nevertheless compelling in its brutally honest view of alienated young men who are struggling to make sense of life in an environment they regard as irrelevant and hopeless.

RECOMMENDED

Sunday
Jun212015

The Blue Room by Georges Simenon

First published in France in 1963; published in translation in the UK by Penguin Classics on January 1, 2015; Penguin Classics U.S. digital edition forthcoming in 2016

Tense and surprising, The Blue Room is the account of a man named Tony who is being interrogated and will soon be brought to trial for a crime. For most of the novel, the reader is uncertain of the crime's victim and of Tony's guilt or innocence.

What the reader does learn is that Tony had an affair with the grocer's wife, that the grocer's wife was deeply in love with Tony, and that Tony was careless in the way he responded to the woman's affections. When he answers "of course" to the question "Would you like to spend the rest of your life with me?" he does not realize that his offhand remark, tossed out without a moment of thought, will have profound implications. It is a moment that returns to haunt his memory again and again throughout the course of the brief novel.

Georges Simenon's mastery of psychological suspense. In the spare prose of a defeated man -- defeated by life, defeated by himself -- Tony examines his life, ponders the interrogator's questions, and never quite manages to voice his inevitable regret. Simenon creates a vivid sense of place (even of the blue hotel room in which Tony and the grocer's wife make love), captures the textures and scents of the world, and makes each character meaningful.

The Blue Room is a haunting novel that teaches powerful lessons. The crime(s), once revealed, are less important than the real crime -- to act for one's own pleasure, to speak without thinking, without regard to the consequences that selfish acts and words have upon others, and ultimately, upon oneself.

RECOMMENDED

Friday
Jun192015

Dead Girl Walking by Christopher Brookmyre

Published by Atlantic Monthly Press on April 21, 2015

On the strength of his Jasmine Sharp/Catherine McLeod novels, Christopher Brookmyre is near the top of my growing list of Scottish writers whose crime fiction I admire (only in part due to the joyfully creative swearing that seems to characterize Scottish crime fiction). I particularly enjoy Brookmyre's ability to craft clever sentences. In Dead Girl Walking, he describes one of the bad guys as having "a domed head you could smack with a fence post for hours before you got bored." Gotta love that.

Unfortunately, I did not love Dead Girl Walking as much as I enjoy the Sharp/McLeod books. Dead Girl Walking stars beleaguered journalist Jack Parlabane. DS Catherine McLeod makes a cameo appearance but not until 300 pages have gone by. I have not read the earlier Parlabane novels so that might explain my reaction to this one, although Dead Girl Walking works well as a stand-alone novel.

Heike Gunn is the temperemental lead singer for Savage Earth Heart, a Scottish band that achieved fame on the basis of a song that became a hit after it was played on an American TV show. When Heike failed to appear at the last show of their most recent tour, the band's publicist, Mairi Lafferty, covered her absence by making an excuse about a throat infection. In truth, Mairi has no idea why Heike disappeared. It quickly becomes apparent to the reader (from her unpublished blog entries) that the band's new fiddler, Monica Halcrow, knows something about Heike's disappearance, but Monica has also made herself scarce.

Mairi hires Parlabane to find Heike. Parlabane is an investigative journalist who has been unemployed since he upset the government by refusing to divulge his sources. His history of resorting to burglary and hacking also makes him unpopular with certain police officers. Since Parlabane once covered the music industry, Mairi figures he will be the perfect undercover investigator.

Chapters alternate between the perspectives of Parlabane as he investigates Heike's disappearance and those of Monica, who blogs her experiences in the band. Both characters learn that Heike was widely seen as a self-absorbed user who gets what she can from people and abandons them. Heike has the ability to make both women and men desire her, an ability that might provoke jealousy or worse. While waiting for the two stories to converge, the reader will assemble a list of characters who might have a motive for doing something bad to Heike.

The plot is full of complications. Some women who join the Savage Earth Heart tour bus, allegedly part of a marketing scheme for a promoter, are not what they appear to be. Monica's deteriorating relationship with her fiancé, Heike's busted relationship with the band's former fiddler, and the dissatisfaction of current band members with Heike may or may not have something to do with Heike's disappearance.

The plot is solid, the characters are engaging, the prose is fine. So why didn't I love Dead Girl Walking? It lacks energy. I am surprised the story was not told with greater urgency and intensity. The pace is never plodding, but it is too deliberate. While I enjoyed Dead Girl Walking, Brookmyre didn't excite me in the way that he has in the Sharp/McLeod novels. Dead Girl Walking still earns my recommendation, and an intriguing ending sets up the next book in the series, which I'll probably read. I just hope it is a bit more energetic than this one.

RECOMMENDED

Wednesday
Jun172015

Colossus by Colin Falconer

Published by St. Martin's Press on May 26, 2015

To an extent, Colossus reads like a Disney animated film, except that the elephants defecate. There are elements of a fairy tale romance (will the elephant whisperer win the princess?) although the story is more R-rated (for both sex and violence) than a Disney film would be.

Gajendra is a mahavat, an elephant handler in Alexander's army. He is the only mahavat who can control Colossus, the largest of Alexander's elephants. Alexander is pleased with Gajendra, less so with his elephant captain, whose cruelty toward Colossus would lead to his death by trampling but for Gajendra's repeated interventions to calm the elephant's rage.

The novel begins in Babylon as Alexander's army trains for an attack upon Carthage. Gajendra deals with a case of elephant rivalry, uncovers a plot, and chastely pursues the woman of his dreams before marching Colossus off to war. Gajendra naturally proves to be a brilliant tactician as well a wizard with elephants.

Another part of the story begins in Carthage, where Mara has just lost her baby. Her father, Hanno, is charged with defending Carthage from Alexander's army. Knowing he cannot stand up to Alexander, Hanno is more interested in the defense of his daughter. The two storylines mate about a third of the way into the novel.

The battle imagery is vivid. I had never given much thought to fighting a war with elephants but Colin Falconer clearly has. The tactical discussions are lucid and the descriptions of elephants in combat are exciting. If nothing else, Colossus inspires an appreciation of elephants. It is easy to understand why Alexander found them to be fearsome instruments of war, but using them in that way was a cruel exploitation of such remarkable creatures.

Colossus is not a deep novel and the plot is not particularly surprising. The story is not historically accurate (at least according to Plutarch) but this is a work of fiction -- a "what might have happened" view of history -- so that didn't matter to me. Given the clear intent to manipulate the reader in obvious ways, I was surprised by my willingness to be manipulated. Colossus is a "feel good" novel that pushes all the right buttons.

RECOMMENDED