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
Jan182017

The Winter in Anna by Reed Karaim

Published by W. W. Norton & Company on January 17, 2017

We are told in the first paragraph of The Winter in Anna that Anna died a gruesome, self-inflicted death. The next paragraphs reveal that Eric, the narrator, will tell us Anna’s story, letting us decide for ourselves whether it is a tragedy. I’d vote yes, because even self-made disasters can be tragic and because the real tragedy is that, for some people, both life and death require unimaginable courage.

Eric met Anna while he was a young man covering high school athletic events for a weekly newspaper in Shannon, a small North Dakota town. He is quickly elevated to the position of editor (which also requires him to be a news reporter), a position he doesn’t want because it forces him to deal with the reality of life. Anna writes the middle page stories “that pretend to be news,” and Eric admires her ability to observe and describe without intruding, a skill he believes has vanished from modern journalism.

Eric’s story of meeting Anna segues into the story of Anna’s life, as Eric pieced it together from Anna’s memories and those of her acquaintances and co-workers. Something is a bit off about Anna, and as Eric learns more about her life, it is clear that essential facts are being withheld or misstated. All we know at first is that Anna (as she frequently tells Eric) is “done with men.” Eventually we learn why.

We also learn about Eric’s past and present, including the fallback college girlfriend who reenters his life in North Dakota. But while so much of the story is about the past, it is really about letting go of the past. Anna’s advice to Eric is: “Just let everything heal. Don’t turn it into a badge.” Having turned her own scars into a badge, Anna speaks from experience. As the novel unfolds, both Eric and Anna struggle to find a path to move forward, to find a way to live a bearable life.

And we learn about other characters, their surfaces and depths, their superficial smiles and hidden pain. Eric lives in a small town that holds small town secrets, indiscretions that urban dwellers wouldn’t notice or care about. One of the novel’s lessons is “Don’t judge what you don’t understand” -- a timely and sorely needed lesson about staying out of other people’s business.

Some of the characters actually find happiness, and perhaps a chance at lasting happiness. Good for them. Yet the fundamental question that The Winter in Anna asks is “how the gentle, sustaining light leaks out of life.” Anna is like millions of other single mothers. She doesn’t have much but she has her children and she loves them fiercely. Why, then, is her story tragic? Read the book to learn the answer.

Tragedy aside, The Winter in Anna is ultimately about a sliver of time, unplanned circumstances that bring two people together for less than an eyeblink in the history of humanity. We’re here and then we’re gone, the novel seems to say, and what we do when we’re here really doesn’t matter in the larger scheme of things. Unless it does. One human can touch another in ways we never appreciate until years have passed. The questions Reed Karaim raises in elegant prose have many possible answers, and the beauty of this surprising and touching novel lies in the opportunity it gives readers to choose among them.

RECOMMENDED

Monday
Jan162017

The Nowhere Man by Gregg Hurwitz

Published by Minotaur Books on January 17, 2017

As an action novel, The Nowhere Man rocks. It’s full of chase scenes, explosions, shoot-outs, and fistfights, some of them quite clever. As an action novel that makes sense, The Nowhere Man is lacking. I took a sort of guilty pleasure in enjoying it, but I found the enjoyment to be almost equally balanced by aggravation.

Fiction often demands the willing suspension of disbelief and I’m happy to do that for the sake of a good story, but sometimes the challenge of believing the impossible impairs my ability to lose myself in the book. That was the case with The Nowhere Man. I liked the action but I have serious reservations about the plot.

Kidnapped American girls who are sold as sex slaves is the latest fad in thriller crimes. Investigate the real-world statistics and you’ll find the crime almost never happens, but exploiting every parent’s nightmare is this year’s way to sell books, and Gregg Hurwitz has jumped on the bandwagon.

Fortunately for teenage American girls who are about to be shipped to Serbia, Evan Smoak, the Nowhere Man, is there to help. Evan is one of those thriller heroes who was recruited by the military from an orphanage and turned into a killing machine. There are so many of them in thriller world that one of them is probably your neighbor. And, of course, the government is trying to track him down and kill him, because that’s always what happens to government-produced killing machines in thriller world.

If it’s easy for abused kids who have nothing to contact Evan, it shouldn’t be all that difficult for the government, with all its resources, to find him. Evan’s ability to stay beyond the reach of his pursuers while spreading word of his existence to anyone who might know an abused kid is my first reservation about the plot.

As Evan is working against a deadline to rescue a kidnapped girl from a container ship, he is himself kidnapped. That leads to a lengthy story that departs from the “dark hero rescues abused kids” theme, changing the plot into “dark hero rescues himself.” While the reason for Evan’s captivity is improbable, the story moves fast and it gives Evan a chance to show off his talent for killing bad guys. The fact that he is given so many chances to kill bad guys instead of being hogtied is ridiculously improbable. In fact, the bad guys almost make it easy for him to kill bad guys, and that detracts from the story.

Near the end, Evan twice shows up in a spot that allows him to inflict mayhem on bad guys with no explanation at all (probably because none could be imagined) of how he got there.

Evan is a little crazy and that’s always an interesting feature in a protagonist, but his craziness is forced. None of the other characters exist in more than one dimension. The primary villain is a bigger cartoon than Snidely Whiplash.

I like the pace of The Nowhere Man. Most of the action scenes are very well done and I enjoyed reading them. The story would probably make a great action movie, because the special effects would distract the reader from all the implausible things the reader is asked to accept. In a book, however, the reader has time to think about those things. On too many occasions, I thought “Why is this bad guy being so stupid?” or “How could that possibly happen?” That makes it difficult to recommend the book with any degree of enthusiasm, despite my appreciation of some of its parts.

RECOMMENDED WITH RESERVATIONS

Sunday
Jan152017

Pursuit of a Parcel by Patricia Wentworth

First published in 1942; published digitally by Open Road Media on April 26, 2016

Pursuit of a Parcel is an old-school British mystery with an espionage theme, the kind of story where spies say “I say, old chap” and take a break from spying to have a spot of tea and never miss breakfast. It’s all very civilized, as a reader might expect from Patricia Wentworth. Although billed as an Ernest Lamb mystery, there were (I think) only three books in that series, and Lamb plays a limited role in Pursuit of a Parcel, the last of the three.

A Nazi who is receiving intelligence from Cornelis Roos in 1940 suspects he might be a double agent. A British colonel who is receiving intelligence from Cornelius Rossiter wonders whether he might be a double agent.

Cornelius was adopted but Antony Rossiter still thinks of him as a brother. The colonel sends Antony to track down Cornelius/Cornelis and find out what’s what. Antony learns that Cornelius has sent him a parcel, although the contents are unknown. The parcel ends up in the hands of Antony’s lady friend Delia, with whom Antony has a chaste and civilized relationship that mostly involves drinking tea. But soon many people want to get the parcel from Delia.

Of course, Antony is dashing and sophisticated and all the women in the novel want to kiss him. Antony wouldn’t mind kissing them but he won’t because he’s engaged to Delia. Patricia Wentworth gives all of her characters a good dose of personality, but she excels at portraying the life of a small village. Gossip and an obsession with manners, as well as gossip about people with bad manners, abound.

The novel has some action (nothing too graphic, of course) and the story proceeds at a good pace, but with enough leisure that readers can always take a break for tea before moving on to the next chapter. It’s the kind of novel that a cozy mystery fan can breeze through in a day or two.

There isn’t much mystery to the mystery but there’s a bit of identity confusion that keeps characters guessing about who is doing what. It’s all fairly obvious to the reader, which makes this a lesser example of a mid-century British mystery, but Wentworth’s prose is lively and her characters are convincing.

RECOMMENDED

Friday
Jan132017

The Last Days of Night by Graham Moore

Published by Random House on August 16, 2016

The Last Days of Night is a fictionalized story of invention, but how much of the story is invented and how much is true to history I cannot say. The bare bones of the story are certainly true, and the inventors — Thomas Edison, George Westinghouse, and Nicolai Tesla — are real, as is Paul Cravath, who began a storied legal career by representing Westinghouse. How many of the novel’s details are fabricated is a question for historians. From a reader’s perspective, all that matters is the compelling nature of the story.

Young Cravath, fresh out of law school, has the formidable task of taking on Edison, whose Edison General Electric holds the light bulb patent and intends to be the sole electric company to wire the nation. Westinghouse hires Cravath to defend a lawsuit that Edison filed, claiming Westinghouse infringed his lightbulb patent. Westinghouse, on the other hand, initially relies on the dubious claim that he invented a better bulb.

Edison versus Westinghouse is the clash of two enormous egos, one of the century’s greatest inventors in competition with one of the century’s greatest engineers. According to the book, Cravath was instrumental in introducing Westinghouse to Tesla, one of the few scientists who was smarter than Edison. By inventing a practical way to make use of alternating current, Tesla solved the problem of transmitting electricity over long distances that had bedeviled both Edison and Westinghouse. Ah, but there was still the problem of building a better lightbulb, the only sure way that Westinghouse could avoid infringing Edison’s patent. Until Cravath had a better idea.

The book is a fictional look at one of history’s most engaging legal battles, but it spotlights real-world issues that continue to vex courts and politicians. What does it mean to “invent” something? When does the improvement of an old invention become a new invention? Should it be possible to patent an idea, or only the application of an idea? Isn’t there a risk that patents will stifle competition and innovation, at least if they are applied too broadly?

In the modern world, patent and copyright lawyers are kept fully employed as Google and Oracle and HP and hundreds of other high tech companies sue each other over allegedly misappropriated designs and lines of code. All of that results in money moving back and forth between corporations without doing much good for the public, which foots the bill for judges and court staff to deal with greedy businesses trying to take money from each other. And that’s what a large part of the novel is about.

The book also explores the relationship between big businesses and their allies: politicians and the press. By spreading out his considerable influence, Edison was able to buy editorials condemning Westinghouse’s new innovation (alternating current) while working to persuade legislatures to prohibit its use. Sniping between Edison and Westinghouse even led to the invention of the electric chair, providing a grim interlude in this fascinating story.

The novel is not kind to Edison, who seeks to destroy any invention he does not own, as well as the people who compete against him. Nor is it kind to J.P. Morgan, who places his own profit ahead of the common good. The most decent characters in the novel are two inventors — Tesla and Alexander Graham Bell — who both invent for the joy of inventing. Whether those characterizations are historically accurate I don’t know, but this is a work of fiction so I don’t really care.

In addition to corporate intrigue, the novel melds a crime story and a love story into the narrative. The love story involves Cravath’s second client, a woman of high society who has a surprising backstory. The novel defies categorization, but “literary historical legal thriller” probably describes it best. I’m tempted to call The Last Days of Night electrifying, but I don’t want to ascribe a poor pun to an excellent novel.

RECOMMENDED

Wednesday
Jan112017

The Afterlife of Stars by Joseph Kertes

First published in Canada in 2014; published by Little, Brown and Company on January 10, 2017

Russian soldiers are hanging Hungarian soldiers from lamp posts as young Robert Beck looks on. Russian soldiers loot his home and evict his family from their apartment. Robert, his brother Attila, and the rest of his Jewish family have no choice but to flee. So begins a perilous journey to the Austrian border, dodging Russians and hoping for the best when crossing a minefield.

Their destination is Paris, where an aunt lives, and ultimately New York. The boys encounter an interesting variety of people on their journey, as well as a monkey. Lives intersect briefly, people come and go, an experience that is common to the displaced. The aunt has her own story of atrocities to tell.

Familiar arguments about the merits of racial purity and ethnic cleansing spark the second half, followed by arguments among people who spout nonsense like “You can’t have Handel without Hitler.” Eventually the boys have a far-fetched adventure that seems to have been included only to give the story a contrived ending.

Robert, who narrates the story, is cautious and contemplative. Attila is wild and seemingly intent on living up to his name. Some passages attribute a graduate student’s level of sophistication to Attila (particularly when he discusses opera), which I found hard to accept.

Their father has a mysterious cousin named Paul who is wanted by the police for reasons that are hidden from the children. In fact, a good bit is hidden from the children, but Robert is able to piece together clues about the world’s harsh realities during the long trip to Paris. Attila insists on knowing the dark family secret concerning Paul, but the adults are unwilling to share it. When the dark secret is finally revealed, the remaining question is what the boys will do with the knowledge. The answer is disappointing.

The Afterlife of Stars is filled with interesting scenes and conversations, even if the story as a whole isn’t terribly interesting and not nearly as moving as other stories of oppressed refugees in the Second World War. Dramatic tension is oddly absent from a setting that should be filled with drama and tension. I admired the quality of Joseph Kertes’ prose, but the novel’s humor is forced and the story doesn’t seem to know where it wants to go. It ultimately goes nowhere, although the journey has some compelling moments.

RECOMMENDED WITH RESERVATIONS