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
Jun222018

The Judge Hunter by Christopher Buckley

Published by Simon & Schuster on May 1, 2018

The Judge Hunter tells the story of how New Amsterdam became New York, but tells it sideways, as the tale of an unwitting spy who is purportedly searching for two regicides who fled to New England because of their involvement in the death of King Charles I. A history lesson has never been funnier, even if the funny bits are invented.

Samuel Pepys is Clerk of the Royal Navy, giving him the means to support, albeit reluctantly, his unemployed relatives, including his feckless brother-in-law, Balthasar de St. Michel. When Lord Downing hatches a plan to annoy the colonial Puritans who have sheltered two regicide judges (Whalley and Goffe), Pepys recommends sending Balthasar (“Balty”) to the colonies, because he knows of no one with a greater natural talent for annoyance.

In Massachusetts, Balty is both annoying and annoyed. He has little in common with Puritans, who immediately threaten to skewer his tongue with a hot poker for his blasphemous manner of speech. But as he learns from Colonel Huncks, who has been assigned to assist him in judge hunting, the Puritans would happily murder him rather than give up Whalley and Goffe, given that Whalley and Goffe did God’s work (in the Puritans’ eyes) by ridding England of Charles I, who was no friend of Puritans.

Unlike Balty, Huncks is competent. He’s also a British spy. Much of the novel’s humor comes from the contrast between Balty’s bumbling and Huncks’ efforts to keep him alive as they pursue their mission. Huncks’ true mission is not to find the regicides but to gather information in anticipation of the arrival of the British Navy, which plans to attack the Dutch colonists in New Amsterdam, a plan that Pepys opposes on the ground that the Navy is not equipped to win a war.

With that setup, the story proceeds on two fronts: in England, Pepys faces accusations of disloyalty, much like the colonists who are harboring Whalley and Goffe, while in New England, Balty hastens forward on a mission that never seems to be supported by a plan. In blissful ignorance of political matters, Balty goes about his business, inadvertently saving a pretty Quaker named Thankful from being flogged to death after she wanders nude into a Puritan church nude as an act of protest.

Balty might be annoying but he isn’t rude, and his unwarranted sense of self-importance adds to his charm as a character. He also has a good heart, which makes him a likable character. Balty finds himself drawn to Thankful, perhaps because he has seen her in the nude, but Thankful also has a good heart and is another character the reader will easily like. A bit of romantic comedy adds spice to the historical comedy, with familiar figures of colonial history making cameo appearances. In fact, Christopher Buckley appended a short discussion of actual history to the novel, giving context to the story’s characters and events.

The Judge Hunter isn’t an action novel, but it has enough action to keep the story energized, and more than enough silliness to keep the reader laughing. At the same time, parts of the story are gruesome. Some scenes are sad and some of those are poignant. That’s what happens when fiction is based on history: reality intrudes. That isn’t a bad thing, because one of the novel’s points is that life and the people who live it can be quite funny, even clownish, but that the incalculable value of life can only be measured against the certainty of death. And if we must die, we might as well die laughing.

RECOMMENDED

Thursday
Jun212018

My Purple Scented Novel by Ian McEwan

First published in 2016; published by Vintage on June 19, 2018

“My Purple Scented Novel” is a short story of literary evil, the worst kind of evil imaginable in the world of serious literature: plagiarism. Two lifelong friends have known each other since college. Both are writers. One turned out to be successful. The other had children. Eventually, the world believes that one stole a novel from the other, and in fact that’s what happened, but the theft is not what it appears to be.

The reader might wonder what motivated the evil writer to act as he did. Jealousy? He denies it. A desire for wealth and fame? He claims to be content with a drafty house, a professorship that is dragging its way to tenure, and a legacy of out-of-print novels. But given his fiendish conduct, the reader might be disinclined to believe a word he says.

Maybe the evil deed is something that Ian McEwan could imagine himself doing if not for the talent that assured he would never be a mid-list, out-of-print author. Perhaps all great writers are a bit evil, at least in their imaginations.

Perhaps the point of the story is not so much the writer’s motivation as the deed itself, the audacity of behaving in such a selfish way and getting away with it. If it weren’t so awful, the display of chutzpah would almost be admirable.

“My Purple Scented Novel” was first published in the New Yorker and is now available as a Vintage Short. It is quite short, but McEwan fans who don’t want to read it (or listen to McEwan read it) on the New Yorker website now have the option of downloading it to a reading gadget. The story is worth a reader’s time regardless of how the reader decides to experience it.

RECOMMENDED

Wednesday
Jun202018

The Melody by Jim Crace

Published by Doubleday/Nan A. Talese on June 19, 2018

Alfred (Mr. Al) Busi, a widowed, retired singer of modest fame, is at war with the realtors (including his nephew) who want him to sell the villa he has occupied his entire life and with the animals that tip over his garbage containers at night. Responding to frightening noises, he is clawed and bitten, perhaps by a cat or a feral child, and is nursed by the sister of his deceased wife as he tries to decide whether he longs for her or just for a life that isn’t lonely. The attack is only the start of a bad day that will soon include a robbery with another beating and an apparent end to Busi’s legacy as the town’s most valued singer.

Busi is philosophical rather than self-pitying as he considers the unfavorable ways in which his life is changing as he grows old. It certainly isn’t improved by the rabies shot he endures, by his nagging fear of a painful death after refusing the rest of the shots in the series, or by the journalist who mocks his belief that he was mauled by a naked boy. Where Busi was once greeted by smiles as he strolled through town, people look at his bandages, see him hunched over from the rabies shot as he walks, and view him with suspicion, if not derision. He has become “a sack of grimaces and reflexes, of tics and twitches, spasms and convulsions.”

His neighbors and nephew assure Busi that his home is about to be torn down, to be replaced by a planned development of pricey homes with ocean views known as The Grove, one of which has been promised to Busi. But it is Busi’s life that will be torn down when the journalist writes his article. Busi might be an icon, but the town discovers that icons are easily replaced. How Busi deals with his many losses, and how (by extension) the elderly cope with loss, is an underlying theme.

Property development that benefits developers at the expense of people who lose their homes (and at the expense of habitats for local fauna) is another theme. Local media cannot focus on “disparities between the ways in which the poor were treated in town and how the prosperous were sheltered and defended” because media cannot survive if they attack wealth and privilege. While “each gain is paid for with a loss,” only the gains are reported. The developers scheme to destroy the woods in which the ironically named The Grove will be built, while touting themselves as environmental champions. The homeless are evacuated from the aptly named Poverty Park, unseen and unremembered, so that the park can become a refuge for the wildlife displaced by the construction of The Grove. On the bright side, if one exists, the novel suggests that the people who are best positioned to survive an inevitable apocalypse are those who have been given “the gift of poverty,” for they have learned to scrounge like wild animals.

The first part of The Melody seems to be written in the third person, as an omniscient narrator tells us the inner workings of Busi’s mind, but there are hints that we are, in fact, hearing the first person perspective of a narrator who has been observing Busi closely. The second part, much shorter, takes place six years later, when Busi has turned 70. It is written in the first person, likely by the narrator of the novel’s first part. Jim Crace’s willingness to play with the conventions of the novel, perhaps to play with reader, is both interesting and unsettling. In the novel’s first part, we think we know Busi’s innermost thoughts, but perhaps we only know what the narrator has imagined those thoughts to be. The idea seems to be that we cannot be sure we know any person's thoughts, maybe not even our own.

The story’s many ambiguities (was Busi really attacked by a feral child? how reliable is the narrator’s account of Busi’s life?) give the reader ample opportunity to reshape the narrative, to decide what is true and false. Crace’s evocative prose makes it easy to picture the town, its quarrelsome residents, its flat-winged hawks and scavenging dogs. I’m not quite sure what point is served by the novel’s second part — the story could have ended without muddling it by shifting the point of view — but on the whole, I found great value in the contemplation of Busi’s senior years, reflective as they are of the fears and regrets and loneliness of so many people who are watching their productive life and relationships fade away in the rear-view mirror.

RECOMMENDED

Monday
Jun182018

Number One Chinese Restaurant by Lillian Li

Published by Henry Holt and Co. on June 19, 2018

At the age of 40, Jimmy is one of the youngest workers at the Duck House, a D.C. restaurant that he and his brother Johnny inherited from their father. Jimmy is known to his staff as “the little leader.” The restaurant manager is Nan, whose plan to spend more time with her son Pat by hiring him a dishwasher has been a disaster. Johnny is teaching a class in Hong Kong, taking a break from the restaurant business, but events force Johnny’s premature return to D.C., where he must listen to his mother’s remonstrations about what a bad son he has been.

Based on a brief internship in a fancy restaurant, Jimmy yearns to prepare gourmet fusion dishes of his own creation, not his father’s Americanized Chinese dishes that are so popular with his customers. Jimmy plans to open a new restaurant with the help of a real estate agent (and new lover) named Janine, an idea that initially had the support of Jimmy’s Uncle Pang, for whom Jimmy used to deal drugs. When Jimmy learns just what kind of shady help Pang has planned, Jimmy has second thoughts. But Pang is not so easily put off, and he soon ignites family turmoil in his scheme to undermine Jimmy.

Number One Chinese Restaurant is very much a family novel; if characters are not related by blood, they have become part of the family by virtue of working for decades at the Duck House. As is common in family novels, marriages are troubled, siblings are at odds, and children are rebellious. Family members form and dissolve alliances, plot against each other, and come together when it counts — unless they don’t.

A good bit of the novel is also a love story involving elderly Duck House waiter Ah-Jack, whose wife has found a younger man, and Nan, whose husband lives in California, and who worries that her friendship with Ah-Jack might jeopardize her friendship with Ah-Jack’s wife. The Ah-Jack love triangle offers the novel’s best insights into how married life evolves over time, how love might endure even if a marriage doesn’t. Some insights are serious and others are not. This is Ah-Jack on the secret of a long marriage: “A strong marriage came when the wedded stopped trying to plumb their partner’s depths. Life became easier when one passed the years with an amiable stranger and not a mirror that reflected back all of one’s flaws.” I put that one in the pile of serious insights, but other readers might disagree.

Finally, as the title implies, Number One Chinese Restaurant is a restaurant novel, one that spends a bit of time in the kitchen, explaining how a well-oiled restaurant prepares meals efficiently and flawlessly, how waiters serve them without crashing into each other, and how owners and managers woo important customers. I don’t spend much time in the kitchen but I like to eat, and I’m a fan of restaurants and of restaurant novels. The nuts-and-bolts of operating a restaurant is a small but essential part of the story.

The combination of geriatric love story, family drama, and restaurant novel is a tough balance, but Lillian Li mixes the elements with light and dark humor, combining sweetness with sadness, love with backbiting, honesty with evil schemes. Li’s light touch makes Number One Chinese Restaurant a fun and easy read, but the story offers serious life lessons as memorable characters make difficult choices and uneasy compromises, confronting problems that are common to every family, whether or not they operate a restaurant.

RECOMMENDED

Friday
Jun152018

Blown by Mark Haskell Smith

Published by Grove Press/Black Cat on June 12, 2018

Bryan LeBlanc is a currency trader for an investment bank. Bryan has gone on vacation to the Dominican Republic, ditching his girlfriend and leaving his department manager, Seo-yun Kim, to handle the blowback when clients discover that money drawn on margin from their accounts has vanished into a bewildering network of transactions. Bryan has about $17 million to finance a comfortable lifestyle if he can avoid getting caught.

Neal Nathanson works for LeBlanc’s employer. Neal’s job is to track down investors who have skipped out on their margin calls. He’s been assigned to track down Bryan. Neal teams with Seo-yun to accomplish that mission. Seo-yun’s relationship with her irritating fiancé (he calls her forty times a day to discuss wedding plans) adds an additional layer of humor to this light crime story.

Bryan’s troubles compound as he makes his way to Grand Cayman, where his accomplice is holding his cash. His accomplice is untrustworthy, and a diminutive but well-endowed private detective from Curaçao named Piet Room has taken a break from seducing tourists to help Neal and Seo-yun track Bryan. Less scrupulous people on the scent of easy money, including a frustrated seascape painter, are also trying to find Bryan. When his situation becomes precarious, Bryan finds his personality changing in ways he doesn’t much like as he adapts to a dangerous lifestyle.

The novel actually begins at the end, with Neal adrift in a broken boat with no food or water until he’s rescued by Chlöe, who is sailing around the world solo to raise awareness of some disease she doesn’t care about. So what happened to Bryan and Seo-yun and the well-endowed Piet and the seascape painter who has stirred Neal’s erotic fantasies? It’s obvious from the beginning that something has gone wrong for someone. Maybe something has gone wrong for nearly everyone. The fun lies in following the well-paced plot until it catches up to the opening pages.

I would classify Blown as thriller light. It mixes comedy with suspense, and while the story is more chuckle-out-loud funny than belly-laugh funny, the comedy dominates. As thieves go, it is easy enough to like Bryan because he’s a decent guy despite his decision to gain freedom through larceny. It’s also easy to like Seo-yun and Neal, two wildly different characters who are both distracted by relationship problems as they chase after Bryan. All of the characters are flawed in ways that make them plausible human beings. With the exception of Neal, none are particularly virtuous — they tend to be enslaved by their temptations and then to be haunted by guilt — but that only enhances their amusement value. And a couple of the characters seem to be discovering themselves as the story moves forward. It’s nice to believe that it is never too late for that to happen.

Even though part of the ending is revealed at the novel’s beginning, the ending holds some surprises. Readers who want novels to reflect a better world than the one we inhabit might be disappointed in the novel’s outcomes, but the fates of the various characters come together in such unexpected and amusing ways that the story’s reminder that reality is frequently unjust doesn’t feel oppressive. At the same time, the ending suggests the possibility of redemption. Blown is a difficult balancing act, pitting good against evil and acknowledging all the gray area in between, but it finds a balance that is both satisfying and entertaining, all captured by the final line of dialog: “Everything is shit and everything is beautiful.”

RECOMMENDED