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.


The Girl from Venice by Martin Cruz Smith

Published by Simon & Schuster on October 18, 2016

The Girl from Venice is a standalone novel. I love Martin Cruz Smith’s Arkady Renko series and I wish he had dished out another Renko novel (if only because I prefer his crime stories to his war stories), but I nevertheless enjoyed this story of an Italian fisherman who must deal with his love for his dead wife, his unwanted commitment to his dead brother’s wife, his animosity toward his living brother, and his unexpected attachment to a younger woman.

Innocenzo Vianello (known to friends as Cenzo) has taken up the family tradition of earning a living from the sea. World War II is coming to an end and Cenzo, who finds it confusing for a nation to change sides in the middle of a war, has no use for the Germans, the Americans, the partisans, or the Italian government. The war claimed the life of his wife and one of his two brothers. Cenzo’s mother wants him to marry his dead brother’s beautiful widow (it’s customary in his village), but Cenzo feels no desire for her. Before she died, his wife left him for his living brother (an actor who manages propaganda for Mussolini) and, even if Cenzo had a taste for a new relationship, his dead brother’s widow bores him.

While fishing one night, Cenzo encounters a young woman named Giulia who is being hunted by Nazis. For reasons he does not quite understand, Cenzo hides Giulia in his fishing shack. Giulia is from a prosperous Jewish family in Venice. Cenzo is from Pellestrina, “which was like saying they were not only from opposite sides of the lagoon but from different worlds.” Giulia’s father was working to end the war, but he was the victim of treachery. The man responsible for her father’s death cannot rest safely unless Giulia dies, as well.

The Girl from Venice is a love story and a war story, but as you would expect from Smith, it is more than that. Circumstances converge to roil Cenzo’s life at the end of the war, forcing him to make difficult choices when he wants nothing more than to be left alone. Although a veteran of the Italian army, Cenzo is far from heroic. He makes sarcastic remarks about Mussolini (particularly when he’s drunk) but he isn’t about to take an active role in resisting the fascists. His goal is to survive the war in peace, yet he risks his life early in the novel by acting with uncharacteristic violence.

Smith gives authenticity to the characters and to the story with an impressive display of fishing lore. I like the contrasts Smith draws -- between brothers, between the different worlds of city life and village life, between the knowledge acquired in school and the knowledge acquired by a lifetime of fishing, between a world that seems small to a traveler and a lagoon that seems big to someone who has always lived next to it. I also like Cenzo’s view of Italy as a crab pot, its occupants “climbing over each other and shedding our own shells, Fascists one moment, Reds the next.”

The story is less suspenseful than a Renko novel. It didn’t trigger the same emotional response that I expect from a Renko story. Its ending is broadly predictable, although the details are unexpected. Still, The Girl from Venice tells an intriguing story about a likable man who needs to put the past in the past and find a way to move forward.



A Gambler's Anatomy by Jonathan Lethem

Published by Doubleday on October 18, 2016

A Gambler’s Anatomy might be read as a political novel in disguise, a story that pits capitalism against anarchy. Or it might be read as a more personal struggle against oppression, the story of a man who is oppressed, not by a political system, but by his own thoughts and behaviors.

Bruno is a gambler. He plays backgammon in private matches against wealthy opponents. In backgammon, a “blot” is an “unprotected checker, sitting singly on a point,” but Bruno has his own blot. It may just be an eye floater, but it has been growing, obscuring his ability to see directly, forcing him to cock his head and view the world peripherally. The blot may also be impairing Bruno’s ability to read minds (more precisely, to see the world through another person’s eyes), which is a useful trait for a gambler but an unpleasant way to live. On the other hand, another character tells him he might be “the least telepathic creature stalking the earth,” and the reader, like that character, might wonder whether Bruno’s belief in telepathy isn’t a symptom of a deeper emotional problem.

Bruno had a streak of bad luck in Singapore. He hopes to reverse his fortune in Berlin, but a nosebleed and more alarming symptoms send him to Germany’s health care system where Bruno learns that the “blot” is caused by a growth that can only be removed by opening his face, as if it were on a hinge.

A Gambler’s Anatomy
is worth reading for the imagery alone. For example, the hospital in which Bruno is treated is located within a former plague asylum. The buildings and streets are named after former Nazi doctors. Red footprints, painted on the floors, show the seriously ill where they should go in the event of an unspecified catastrophe, yet the footprints lead to nowhere. With true German efficiency, yellow footprints lead to a different nowhere for those who suffer from minor conditions.

Some of Bruno’s ties to his past unravel after Singapore and Berlin, but his new circumstances ironically send him to San Francisco, where his past awaits him in Berkeley. After blot-removing surgery, Bruno begins a journey of self-discovery while living life behind a mask, repaying a debt to a childhood chum who is now his malicious benefactor, surrounded by engaging misfits. Those countercultural characters and the Machiavellian friend provide another reason to read A Gambler’s Anatomy.

A Gambler’s Anatomy works because for much of the novel, the reader is never quite sure whether Bruno really can see through the eyes of others. He might just be a little crazy. His attachment to the blot might be one of necessity or, as his doctor believes, he might be suffering from a marvelous delusion. The only thing that’s clear is that Bruno is a different person at the end of the novel than he was at the beginning.

Lively prose and an unpredictable plot add to the list of reasons that make A Gambler’s Anatomy a worthwhile read. I didn’t form a strong attachment to the characters, although as Bruno moves from one bizarre setting to another, it is at least easy to sympathize with him. The opening of Bruno’s face might be a metaphor for opening Bruno so the reader can see inside the man, but I’m not sure that Jonathan Lethem delivered much insight into what makes Bruno tick. I got the sense that Lethem was trying to make a larger point in A Gambler's Anatomy but I confess that it eluded me. Other readers might have better luck finding it. Those shortcomings are easy to set aside in the joy of exploring Bruno’s strange life and the strange people who occupy it, but in the end I was left scratching my head and wondering what I missed.



Escape Clause by John Sandford

Published by G.P. Putnam's Sons on October 18, 2016

Escape Clause is a Virgil Flowers novel, the ninth in that series by the prolific John Sandford. The novel follows on the heels of Sandford’s last Lucas Davenport novel, Extreme Prey. Davenport, Virgil’s former boss, chats with Virgil occasionally and the novel includes some references to events that occurred in Extreme Prey, but you don’t need to read Extreme Prey to understand Escape Clause. The two novels tell independent stories. Amazon reviewers who complained that Extreme Prey was “too political” (it really isn’t) need not worry about Escape Clause, which has nothing to do with politics apart from Virgil’s encounter with an animal rights activist.

The novel opens with the theft of two tigers from the Minnesota Zoo. Yes, tigers. The thieves want the tigers for their medicinal properties. Among other health benefits reputed to derive from tiger pills, certain parts of endangered Amur tigers are believed to be more effective than Viagra. Zoo officials are worried that the tigers will be killed before they can be recovered. Virgil is therefore under a time crunch to find them.

A subplot involves Virgil’s girlfriend Frankie and her sister Sparkle, whose dissertation research about migrant workers in a pickle factory is attracting the wrong kind of attention. They both meet with rough treatment during the course of the story. Virgil’s colleague Catrin Mattson is called in to investigate (and to keep Virgil from killing the guy who beat up Frankie).

Escape Clause delivers exactly what a fan would expect from Sandford:  a lively story seasoned with humor, quirky criminals, and an abundance of local (Minnesota and Wisconsin) color. Virgil methodically works his way through potential suspects, including a drug-addicted doctor, a Chinese father and son who have little regard for each other, a couple of Armenian brothers who have an exceedingly protective family, and the animal rights activist. The reader knows who committed the tiger theft right from the start, so this is more of a police procedural than a mystery.

Like many Sandford novels, Escape Clause is more amusing than exciting, although it does have some suspenseful moments and occasional gunfire. For the most part, however, the novel is light and breezy. The ending -- well, you know before finishing the first chapter how the novel will end, but no other ending would be quite as satisfying. I imagine that most readers who have enjoyed other Sandford novels will also enjoy this one.



Lions by Bonnie Nadzam

Published by Grove/Black Cat on July 5, 2016

A jokester put a “living ghost town” sign on the highway, pointing to Lions, a small town in eastern Colorado. The sign attracts some tourists to the local diner, but as jokes go, this one is uncomfortably close to the truth. Lions is a place where big stories are told, where legends build, but in the end, there is only the bleak reality of entropy.

John Walker is a welder in Lions. His son, Gordon, has only one friend his age, a girl named Leigh who wants nothing more than to leave. Lions is a dying town of wind and dust that can no longer support the welding business that Gordon is destined to inherit. The people who haven’t left Lions are hanging on, but the town has no future. When Gordon disappears for several days, the town residents wonder if he’s gone for good. While he’s gone, something happens in Lions -- a place where nothing ever happens.

The novel might be seen as Gordon’s coming of age story. Will he stay in Lions, consigned to a dead-end fate, or will he make his way in the world? It could also be seen as Leigh’s coming of age story, her struggle with people who are determined to hold her back. Unlike Gordon, Leigh yearns for something new and different, but nearly everyone in her life tells her that “there’s nowhere to go,” that she’ll eventually get over her belief that life can be better than it is in Lions.

But Lions is also a story of death -- not just the death of a few characters (either before or during the unfolding story), but the death of a town. Each new death seems to inspire another resident to think about leaving Lions. But a few are determined to stay, because home is where roots are planted, even if the roots are desperate for water. Or because a choice, once made, must be honored. Or because death has already claimed the living. They are dead inside. Life in Lions has killed their aspirations and joy.

In the end, Lions is a book about people who think about their lives -- their pasts and futures and where they are right now. It is not a particularly dramatic book -- although it has moments of quiet drama -- but is filled with contemplative characters and elegant prose. The ending is ambiguous, but life often keeps us guessing about what will happen next.



In the Presence of Enemies by William J. Coughlin

First published in 1989; published digitally by Endeavour Press on July 18, 2016

In the Presence of Enemies departs from traditional legal thrillers by focusing not on a criminal lawyer but on a trusts and estates lawyer. As a general rule, wills and probate are about as boring as the law can get, but William J. Coughlin manages to combine family drama with law firm drama to tell an entertaining tale.

Jake Martin is a fifth year associate at a prestigious Detroit law firm. He will either make partner soon or be tossed out to look for new, less lucrative employment. Two other associates are vying for the coveted partnership slot.

The partners ask Jake, a trusts and estates lawyer, to join the team that will handle the probate of a rich client who just died. The firm fears that the relatives of Augustus Daren will challenge his will. Perhaps not coincidentally, the other two associates who want to make partner are also on the team.

Daren controlled a powerful Detroit bank until he had a stroke. After that, Elizabeth, his wife, called most of the shots. Claude deSalle, the bank’s president, also in the control of Daren, isn’t sorry to see him go because he wants to merge the bank with a powerful German bank, something Daren would not have allowed. Claude is shocked, however, to learn that Elizabeth has been given the right to vote all of Daren’s shares in the bank. That news is also upsetting to Daren’s two children by two previous wives.

With that setup, the plot follows the Machiavellian moves of bankers and lawyers, and of Darren’s widow and children, as they fight for control of the bank. Jake is a bit innocent and naïve compared to nearly everyone else in the book, but he finds himself fighting against a hidden enemy (a circumstance that gives the novel its title).

The “hidden enemy” is perhaps too obvious. Few readers will have difficulty guessing why so many roadblocks are placed in Jake’s way as he fights for his client. The novel’s eventual outcome might also be criticized for its predictability. Yet those weaknesses are easily overcome by the novel’s strengths. The plot is credible and engaging. Characters are realistic and the lawyers on both sides of the case are easy to like. The trial scenes are full of the “inside baseball” discussions of strategies and tactics that make legal thrillers fun to read. Fans of the genre are likely to be pleased that this 1989 novel is now available in a digital format.