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
Nov162018

Heads You Win by Jeffrey Archer

Published by St. Martin's Press on November 6, 2018

Stories about immigrants are particularly important in a time when so many American nationalists seem to have forgotten that they are only Americans because their ancestors were once welcomed as immigrants. Too many Americans also forget the role that immigrants have played in fighting the nation’s wars. Jeffrey Archer provides a powerful reminder of those facts in Heads You Win, a unique novel that explores the two paths a Russian refugee’s life might have followed, depending on whether he boarded a ship bound for England or the United States.

In 1968, Alexander Karpenko’s father, Konstantin, is secretly attempting to organize a trade union when Alex’s friend, Vladimir, betrays Konstantin to the KGB. The betrayal produces Konstantin’s “accidental” death and fuels Alexander’s suspicion that Vladimir bought his way into the KGB by being a weasel. As a result of his treachery, Vladimir is given an education he doesn’t deserve, while the more capable Alex is given a job at the docks. Alex’s mother Elena, with an assist from her brother, decide that Alex will only have a future if he escapes from the Soviet Union.

There are two ships, two choices: England or the United States. He flips a coin. So where does he go? Archer imagines both fates, splitting Alexander in two and exploring both lives. In half of the novel, Alex and Elena travel to the United States. In the other half, Sasha and Elena disembark in England. Sasha’s voyage is more pleasant than Alex’s, perhaps because British seamen more civilized than Americans, but both versions of Alexander manage to survive and prosper, combining their natural talent with hard work to forge successful lives in their adopted countries.

In fact, thanks to his goalkeeping and math skills, Sasha lives something of a charmed life, despite discovering the trouble that a privileged kid can cause for a Russian immigrant. A bit of adversity, however, doesn’t prevent Sasha from helping his mother move over the course of time from chef to acclaimed restaurant owner.

In America, Alex and his mother are dependent on the apparent kindness of a Russian named Dimitri, a man Alex suspects to be a spy. But Alex’s biggest problem, apart from pursuing his dream of wealth while attending NYU, is the draft and Vietnam, a war that will haunt him for the rest of his life. This being America, Elena does not open a posh restaurant, but puts together a chain of pizza parlors.

At Cambridge, Vietnam isn’t on the horizon for Sasha, but a political career seems to be beckoning. Alex, on the other hand, pursues a business career. Both versions of the Russian immigrant would like to return to Russia to run for president and bring true democracy to the country.

The parallel stories are an unusual device. When Alex eventually travels to London and Sasha to New York, we learn that Alex and Sasha both exist, not in separate realities but (within the logic of the story) as two separate people inhabiting the same world, apparently having split in two at the moment of the coin flip. That element of fantasy requires the reader to suspend disbelief, but the twinned stories are so absorbing that I easily accepted the premise that made them possible.

As an idealized story of how an immigrant can make a difference, Heads You Win is admirable. Life for both Alex and Sasha might be too easy — certainly easier than the lives of most immigrants, whose families typically benefit from their hard work after a generation or two — but Horatio Alger stories are inspiring, and this one is captivating thanks to the wealth of detail that Archer brings to both lives. Some parts of the story (including a clever plot that Alex orchestrates near the end) are too improbable to be credible, but in a story that is ultimately a fantasy, improbability can be forgiven. The ending of one story is a surprise, but it might have been the only ending that would not do violence to history as we know it.

The story is one of hope, albeit tempered by realism. It is largely apolitical, although it pointedly rejects nationalism as both versions of Alexander strive to build a world that emphasizes our commonality rather than our differences, a world based on principles of equality and cooperation. In the atmosphere of America First and Brexit, any story that reminds us of the value immigrants bring to a nation and of the evils of nationalism is easy to recommend, particularly when it is executed with the storytelling skill for which Archer is known.

RECOMMENDED

Wednesday
Nov142018

Irontown Blues by John Varley

Published by Ace on August 28, 2018

Much of Irontown Blues is told from the perspective of Sherlock, a cybernetically enhanced bloodhound. Sherlock is honest and a bit snarky. His thoughts are translated by a human who has been trained to interpret communications from cybernetically enhanced animals.

The story starts with Mary Smith visiting Chris Bach. She believes she was deliberately infected with a designer form of leprosy and wants Bach to find the man who infected her. The Sherlock & Bach detective agency is located on the moon, one of the places where humans have dwelled since the alien invasion that claimed Earth.

Bach’s investigation takes him to Irontown, where the dregs of Lunar society live. The story delves into Bach’s past, to a time when the central computer went bonkers, which caused Bach to participate in unfortunate events in Irontown. (A subset of Irontown residents are known as Heinleiners. Unsurprisingly, they are libertarians. Fortunately, John Varley makes clear that he understands the limits of libertarianism. So did Heinlein, but Heinlein's reliance on “personal responsibility” as an alternative to a responsible government is too often honored in the breach by people who think libertarianism means "every man for himself.")

Eventually an organized crime group wants to kill Bach for convoluted reasons that aren’t quite plausible. All the background elements, including the alien takeover of Earth, the revolt of the central computer, the Heinleiners, and the organized crime angle, will probably seem confusing, or at least underdeveloped, to readers who are unfamiliar with Varley’s Eight Worlds universe of novels and stories. I recognized most of the references but the novel still seemed disjointed to me.

I set aside my difficulty suspending disbelief in major plot elements of Irontown Blues for the sake of digging the parts of the story that focus on Sherlock. I’m a sucker for stories told from a dog’s point of view, and while Irontown Blues isn’t one of Varley’s better efforts, I enjoyed it simply because a snarky bloodhound plays a dominant role. Varley captures the sense of loyalty and devotion, the need to be part of a pack and the willingness to view humans as the alpha dog, that makes dogs so special. The novel leaves room for a sequel, and as long as Sherlock is part of it, I’ll advance it to the front of my reading list.

RECOMMENDED

Monday
Nov122018

In the Galway Silence by Ken Bruen

Published by Grove Atlantic/Mysterious Press on November 13, 2018

Here’s how one of the characters in Ken Bruen’s In the Galway Silence describes Jack Taylor: “Not fully nuts but circling.” The description is apt, but the misfortunes that befall Taylor would make anyone nuts.

Two young and obnoxious men are killed by a man who superglues their mouths shut and pins a sign on their bodies that says “Silence.” Their father wants to hire Jack to bring him the killer. Jack, who seems to have entered into a steady relationship and is happy for the first time in a long time, wants no ugliness to disturb his new state of mind. Being Jack, he nevertheless commences an investigation. More “Silence” killings ensue, the apparent work of a vigilante.

As Jack investigates, he saves a man who jumped into the sea, an act of kindness that he might come to regret. A child molester, a dog killer, an annoying documentary maker, and a black swan all contribute to the plot.

In his personal life, Jack finds himself stuck with childcare duties, the downside of dating a woman who has a child. As series fans will understand, Jack is probably the least qualified person in the universe to provide childcare, with the exception of the various pedophiles the story touches upon. In Jack’s words, concerning the boy he is watching: “I’d have sold his miserable hide for one shot of Jameson.” Series readers might also remember an unfortunate mishap some books ago involving a baby and a window. There’s a reason Jack has little success in relationships.

But he misses his dog, so it is clear that a good heart beats in Jack’s chest. This novel proves Jack’s fundamental decency in multiple ways, not the least in a scene that leaves him briefly thankful for a respite from the bitterness that engulfs him.

As usual, Jack glides through the novel, taking frequent drinks, suppressing or (more often) making snarky comments to people who haven’t learned to leave him alone, and reviewing his growing list of mistakes. He also learns from an ex-wife that his past holds a surprise. But series readers know that anything good in Jack’s life will soon be destroyed and the descending darkness will again seem unbearable. There is no protagonist in fiction more tragic than Jack Taylor.

Jack provides the running commentary on current events, television shows, pop music, and crime novels for which Bruen is famed. I always find something new to read or watch in a Bruen novel, because Bruen understands that good writing isn’t the exclusive province of Booker prize winners. Bruen also incorporates a chess theme into the plot, strategies of the game informing Jack’s investigation in the same blurry way that Jack approaches life. But what Bruen does best is the punch-in-the-gut moment that makes Jack Taylor novels special. In the Galway Silence delivers a stronger punch than most, making it one of the best in the series.

RECOMMENDED

Friday
Nov092018

Paris Echo by Sebastian Faulks

Published by Henry Holt and Co. on November 6, 2018

Tariq Zafar lives in Morocco but, at the age of 19, quits college in defiance of his widowed father, smuggles himself into France in the back of a truck, and hitchhikes to Paris, where his Algerian-French mother grew up. A streetwise young woman named Sandrine joins him for part of the trip and hangs out with him in Paris before wandering out of the story.

Hannah, an American in her early 30s, is making her second trip to Paris. She is turning her postgraduate thesis into a book chapter on French women in occupied Paris. She hopes her stay in Paris will be one of “pure thought,” but the reader knows that isn’t likely.

Hannah encounters Sandrine and, through her, meets Tariq. Hannah and Tariq become friends of a sort, but their greater connection comes from the photograph of a woman they see in a book, a woman they name Clémence. When Tariq begins to encounter Clémence in person, the encounters seem too surreal to be real. I’m actually not sure what to make of those scenes; perhaps more astute readers can educate me.

Tariq’s fantasies of the city do not match the reality it offers to a penniless Moroccan, but over the course of the novel, Tariq’s observations of diverse Parisians teach him that there are many ways of living. His experiences (both positive and negative) encourage him to think about the future that might be best for him. When Tariq ponders whether he should return to Morocco, he can make that decision as someone who has gained confidence, a bit of worldliness, and a sense of history, so in that sense Paris Echo is a coming of age novel.

Hannah has already come of age, but it is never too late to grow, and Hannah does that by the novel’s end. Her investigation of the past introduces her to the French resistance and the much larger population of French collaborationists, but her focus is on ordinary women who simply wanted to survive the occupation, sometimes by cozying up to German soldiers, sometimes by avoiding them. Hannah identifies with a woman named Mathilde as she listens to her recorded history, until Mathilde admits to having taken an act of revenge after being betrayed by her boyfriend. She also feels sympathy for a woman named Juliette, who befriended a German at a time when most Parisians supported Germany and hated the British, but was later denounced as a collaborator after Parisians switched their allegiance following France’s liberation.

Much of Hannah’s intellectual story is about remembering the past (rather than ignoring it or, worse, altering history to make it more comforting) and understanding the connection between the past and the present. But as much as Hannah wants to live a life of pure thought in Paris, her story parallels Tariq’s in her realization that there are many ways to live. Hannah must decide whether emotion should balance thought as she chooses her future.

Sebastian Faulk’s prose is notable for its fluid intelligence. The plot of Paris Echo can be seen as the two separate stories of Hannah and Tariq, stories that happen to intersect but that only influence each other in limited ways. Tariq’s story appealed to me more than Hannah’s, perhaps because the outcome of Hannah’s story is predictable, but Hannah’s research into the ways that Parisian women lived during the German occupation of Paris gives her story added depth. Paris Echo created too little dramatic tension to trigger my “wow” response, but the story succeeds on multiple levels, making it easy to recommend as a rewarding investment of a reader’s time.

RECOMMENDED

Wednesday
Nov072018

A Terrible Country by Keith Gessen

Published by Viking on July 10, 2018

The terrible country in the title of Keith Gessen’s novel is Russia. Terrible because of its political leaders, its oligarchs, and its economy, not because of its people, most of whom, like people everywhere in the world, are just trying to find a route to happiness, or at least survival. The novel is political in a personal way, but it also tells a moving family story that focuses on a young man’s conflict as he decides what to do about an elderly Russian grandmother who, while no longer capable of living alone, does not want to move from the apartment where she has lived for fifty years. Many of her memories are being lost to dementia, but the apartment is her anchor, where familiar streets and markets provide safety and comfort.

When his older brother Dima asks Andrei Kaplan to come to Moscow to stay with their grandmother, Andrei decides he has no reason to remain in New York, where he has lived since the age of six. He has a graduate degree in Russian literature but no real job. Dima has gone to London and needs Andrei to help their grandmother because she is experiencing the early stages of dementia. Andrei is hoping to find something sufficiently interesting and specialized that he can focus on in Russia to jumpstart his American academic career, something that might lead to a series of esoteric journal articles that would catch the attention of a hiring committee. His experiences eventually affect his professional life in ways he did not anticipate.

Andrei’s impression of Moscow in 2008 gives credence to the novel’s title. It is dingy, dilapidated, and dysfunctional, populated by people who are even ruder than New Yorkers. Goods are overpriced; residents are either wealthy swindlers who have mastered capitalism or their impoverished victims. Andrei’s life in Moscow is also terrible. His American girlfriend broke up with him, and he has no success with women in Russia until he meets a young idealist named Yulia. A thug beats him with a pistol, he can’t find a pickup hockey game that will allow him to play, he doesn’t like the people with whom he tries to make friends, he feels like he is failing his grandmother, and he hates the online teaching he’s doing to earn a meager living. On top of all that, Dima does not seem to have a clear plan to return to Russia to take over the burden of caring for their grandmother. Having created debt he cannot repay without selling the grandmother’s apartment, Dima might be in trouble if he does return.

The political aspects of the story illustrate the fundamental disagreements among intellectuals inside and outside of Russia. Liberal reformers focus on free speech and due process, both of which are jokes in a country ruled by an autocrat who has dissenters killed. Socialist reformers seek economic justice, but as it was last practiced in Russia, communism benefitted rulers, not the masses. A Terrible Country makes the point that ordinary Russians might be influenced to support nationalist appeals to view outsiders as the enemy, but for the most part regard debates about political reform as irrelevant to a country that never changes.

The story of Andrei’s grandmother is sad but universal. While Muscovites can adapt to the hardship of living in Russia, the hardship of living with dementia knows no boundaries. In other respects, the story is intellectually intriguing rather than emotionally gripping. Gessen creates Andrei in detail, giving him the kind of complexity and inner turmoil that makes a character believable, but he is drifting through life and can’t seem to seize opportunities for personal growth. It is only his dedication to his grandmother that makes him sympathetic.

Andrei’s love story with Yulia is wrapped up in the larger political story, and they are such strange bedfellows that it is difficult to believe they will stay together — which makes it difficult to care whether they do or don’t. Even if A Terrible Country doesn’t resonate on an emotional level, Gessen’s strong prose style conveys a convincing sense of Moscow in the Putin era while encouraging readers to think about how meaningless labels like “communism” and “capitalism” are when applied to a nation ruled by autocrats and thieves.

RECOMMENDED