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.


There Must Be Some Mistake by Frederick Barthelme

Published by Little, Brown and Company on October 7, 2014

Wallace Webster has been sacked from the design firm he helped found. Divorced from his second wife who now has their house in Houston, Wallace is living in their former vacation condo in Kemah near Galveston Bay. He sleeps most of the day and is usually in a state of malaise, occasionally lapsing into severe depression. Wallace is often visited by Jilly Rudolph, his platonic friend and former employee. Jilly's ex-husband has been arrested for having sex with a minor, but he's also having sex with Wallace's ex-wife. It's a small world.

The condo development seems to be an unlucky place to live. Wallace's neighbor dies in a car crash; another condo owner is attacked and painted blue; another commits suicide. All of this Wallace describes in an amusingly laconic style, including his uncomfortable interaction with a cop who happens to live in the development.

The woman who was painted blue, Chantal White, has a dark past that frightens Wallace. Her daughter is even creepier. Wallace hangs out with Chantal but prefers the company of Jilly, who is less age-appropriate but better at kindling his dwindling interest in life. Wallace engages affably but superficially with other odd characters as the novel charts its meandering course.

The novel's strength is Wallace's first-person narration. Wallace muses about art, relationships, culture, fireworks, lawns, and pretty much everything else that pops into his mind. He's feeling old, watching life go by, a wry observer more than a participant, the kind of guy who wonders "what's next" but is in no hurry to find out. The reader, on the other hand, will spend much of the novel wondering where the story is going, if anywhere. That didn't bother me because I enjoyed the sharply defined characters and their witty dialog while taking a voyeuristic interest in the everyday drama of their lives. Much of the novel amounts to listening to gossipy people gossip. Fortunately, they are gossiping about the kind of people and events that whet the reader's imagination.

The reader also wonders (and eventually discovers) whether Wallace will take a more active role in the management of his life. Through Wallace, Frederick Barthelme explores the rush of time, how easily we let it slip by while we neglect to say or do the things we know are important. He also has some insightful things to say about relationships and aging. Not all of the unusual events that occur are explained, not all plot threads are knotted off, but that's an accurate reflection of life.

Barthelme's characters are wonderful, sharper than real people would have any right to be. Readers who are looking for plot-heavy fiction might be put off by There Must Be Some Mistake -- none of the novel's mysteries evolve as they would in a mystery novel. The ending is startling and not really an ending at all, just as we never know how or when our own lives will end. Readers who agree that "the unexpected course of a life" can be all the plot that a novel needs, at least when the story is combined with amusing characters, enriching insight, and solid prose, should find There Must Be Some Mistake to be worthy of their time.



The Case Against the Supreme Court by Erwin Chemerinsky

Published by Viking on September 25, 2014

Erwin Chemerinksy says that his goal in writing The Case Against the Supreme Court was to determine whether the Supreme Court has made society better or worse. I would argue that legislatures have the primary job of making society better or worse since "better" and "worse" usually involve policy judgments that elected officials should make. The Supreme Court's job is not to make policy but to enforce the values that underlie the Constitution by assuring that the other branches of government do not exceed their constitutional authority or violate rights that the Constitution protects. I understand Chemerinsky's point -- when the Court does those things, it makes society better; when it fails, it makes society worse -- but I'm not sure I agree with his larger point that the institution should be faulted because the Justices who serve on it have so often been gutless and short-sighted.

I can't fault Chemerinksy's observation that the Supreme Court has often failed in its critical tasks. The Court too often sides with the government in conflicts with individuals, even when the government abuses it power, and with corporations in conflicts with consumers. The Justices often give too little weight to the Constitution's core values and too much to popular political opinion. But a different outcome in a couple of close presidential elections (including the election that the Court shamefully decided in Bush v. Gore) would have resulted in majorities on the Court that would probably have produced fewer disappointing decisions. Chemerinsky recognizes that, of course, but I think his disappointment with the Court as an institution is really a disappointment with the majorities that have often controlled it.

To illustrate his argument, Chemerinsky claims to set aside ideology and to concentrate on decisions the Court rendered that are contrary to American values as understood by liberals and conservatives alike. He is only partially successful in that endeavor. Yes, nearly everyone agrees that Dred Scott (requiring the return of a slave who reached a "free" state) and Korematsu (upholding Japanese internment camps) and Plessy (upholding racial segregation) and Buck (permitting the involuntary sterilization of the "feeble minded") were not only incorrect but horrible decisions. There is less consensus about the Lochner era decisions (invalidating government regulation of wages and hours and child labor) but most people now agree that the power to regulate interstate commerce includes the power to police employment practices and workplace safety. Nearly half the book, however, is devoted to more recent cases that sharply divide the right and the left. I can't say that Chemerinsky is able to set ideology aside when he discusses the Roberts court, but that discussion takes up a good bit of the book.

Although I largely agree with Chemerinsky on questions of social policy, I have trouble with his reasoning. Chererinsky rarely asks whether the Court's decisions followed the law, but asks instead whether the Court made society better or worse by upholding or striking down particular laws. I found it easy to agree with many of his conclusions but not so easy to agree that it the Court's job to decide a case based on whether its decision will make society better or worse. The real question is whether a law or act is consistent with the Constitution and with the values the Framers embodied within it. Keeping guns out of schools is good social policy but using the Commerce Clause to regulate conduct that has nothing to do with interstate commerce is not.

It also strikes me that the Court has, in the recent past, made some important yet controversial decisions that Chemerinsky would probably agree make society better (such as protecting the right to confront witnesses and striking down mandatory sentencing laws that deprive defendants of jury trials). Chemerinsky ignores many of those cases, although he does acknowledge the decision to uphold Obamacare and to strike down laws that discriminate against same-sex couples -- cases that undermine his argument that "the Court" (rather than specific majorities) has failed the country as an institution.

Part 3 looks into the future and asks what we can do about the Supreme Court, a question that seems largely rhetorical. He comes down against the notion of doing away with the Supreme Court, a disastrous view that is advocated by some respected law professors and a whole lot of yahoos. Even a bad Supreme Court is better than no Supreme Court, given the frequency with which legislatures try to circumvent the Constitution. His primary arguments for reform (merit selection for Justices, stop pretending that ideology plays no role in the confirmation process, and term limits), if implemented, would provide no guarantee that the Court's decisions would be any better.

Despite my reservations about the conclusions it draws, I enjoyed reading The Case Against the Supreme Court. It is particularly useful as a cathartic howl of pain regarding court decisions that elevate corporate interests above human interests. The book is lively and free of legal jargon. Anyone with at least a moderate interest in politics, history, or law should find the book to be useful and engaging, even if (like me) they do not necessarily agree with its premise.



Duke City Hit by Max Austin

Published by Alibi on December 16, 2014

Max Austin returns to the world of Albuquerque crime in this second novel set in "Duke City." Vic Walters is an old school hit man, or maybe he's just an old hit man. He thinks men should wear suits and keep their shoes shined. He doesn't like cell phones and doesn't understand why people are obsessed with reporting the trivia of their day to the recipients of their mobile phone calls. He regards "low overhead and few demands" as the secret to happiness. Work a few days a month, kill a few people, enjoy your life. Murder is more thrilling than playing golf.

Life seems be getting easier for Vic when a mysterious helper begins to show up during the course of his assassinations. The helper's identity is a shocking and potentially life-changing revelation to Vic. At the same time, Vic finds himself in caught in the middle of an apparent mob war. That's exactly the kind of thing he tries to avoid but when you live the life of a hit man, these things happen.

Duke City Hit
is written with a light touch. The novel that isn't meant to be taken too seriously. In that sense it is comparable to Lawrence Block's novels about J.P. Keller, another assassin who is just sort of a normal guy dealing with life's normal problems, some of which are compounded by his line of work. Vic is a sympathetic character despite his unsavory profession.

Austin (a pen name of Steve Brewer) writes snappy prose and knows how to tell a good story that moves quickly. A shootout near the end defies belief but it contributes to the fun. The novel's resolution brings a surprising plot twist that is more credible than most thriller surprises. On the whole, Duke City Hit would be a good choice for crime fiction fans looking for a summer beach read that substitutes pace, action and an engaging protagonist for a weighty plot.



The Rabbit Back Literature Society by Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen

Published in Finland in 2006. Published in translation in Great Britain in 2013. Published by St. Martin's Press/Thomas Dunne Books on January 20, 2015

Where do writers get their ideas? The Rabbit Back Literature Society provides an amusing answer to the oft-asked question, although in the end it is not an answer that would apply to any writer expect the Society's members -- or, if the answer boils down to "from their imaginations," the answer is obvious. Fortunately, the story that explores that question is far from obvious.

Ella Milana is a literary researcher who wrote her thesis on the mythical aspects of Laura White's children's books. While pondering how to get her career back on track, Ella is working as substitute teacher of Finnish literature in Rabbit Back, the town in which the revered Laura White lives. White determines membership in the Rabbit Back Literature Society, which has not accepted a new member in three decades. At least, not until Ella joins.

The Society's members are the novel's key characters. They most important of them are Marrti Winter, who finds liberation in gluttony; Ingrid Katz, who doubles as the town's librarian; and Aura Jokinen, the housewife who writes sci-fi.

The initial "drama" in this amusing novel stems from Ella's attempt to get to the bottom of a student essay that describes a version of Crime and Punishment in which Raskolnikov commits his murder with piano wire rather than an axe and is shot dead at the end. Ella finds that the content of other library books has changed. The plot twists after attends a party where "the Laura White incident" occurs, which leads to the bulk of the story.

Membership in the Society involves a commitment to play The Game. It is meant to be a source of inspiration for the writers but is more often a source of torment. The Game gives the story its framework and leads to revelations about a dark secret harbored by the Society's members. Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen plays with the form of a murder mystery as Ella works to uncover the Society's secrets. Her inquiries eventually force her to decide whether to betray the Society by revealing a fact that would shock the literary world -- although the revelation must be reinterpreted by the novel's end.

Ella many theories of life (for example, "all people have an inborn need to make their personalities and ideas known to the world, but as a rule no one is interested in what is going on in anyone else's head") add weight to this amusing novel. In addition to propounding her own theories, Ella learns some vital truths as she plays The Game. The greatest truth is that "we all dress ourselves in stories." We shock ourselves with truths when we are stripped naked of our comfortable inventions. The novel can be read as a primer for writers -- Laura White teaches the Society members the tricks of the trade and Jääskeläinen shares them with the reader -- but it is more deeply a story about the many aspects of human nature and the need to guard against our personal disintegration.

In addition to playing with the form of a mystery novel, Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen less successfully adds elements of a supernatural fantasy novel to the plot. I think the mutating library books are intended to symbolize the shifting nature of reality or our attempt to construct our own realities, but the books, together with a phantom and dogs and bees that harass Winter, a miraculous event in White's young life, and the miraculous nature of her disappearance, just didn't work for me. Ella's efforts to construct the "real" Laura White by playing The Game, on the other hand, provides some clever insights into the ambiguous difference between our stories and our reality. The novel's resolution doesn't resolve every plotline neatly, but it does engage the reader's imagination, which is probably the point.



The Skeleton Road by Val McDermid

First published in the UK by Little, Brown in 2014; published by Atlantic Monthly Press on December 2, 2014

I tend to like Val McDermid's plots while disliking her characters. That pattern held true with The Skeleton Road, which is either a stand-alone novel or (more likely) the first in a series.

As has become common in a certain kind of crime novel, DCI Karen Pirie is quick to tell everyone that she cares about crime victims and their grieving families more than anyone else in the police, or possibly the world. Pirie is a self-righteous, judgmental, self-important bully, which makes her a realistic police detective but an annoying character. Pirie is a clone of Paula McIntyre from McDermid's Tony Hill/Carol Jordan series, another character I find it difficult to stomach. Fortunately, while Pirie's personality never improves, it becomes more tolerable late in the novel as she encounters the kind of misfortune that builds sympathy for even an unsympathetic character.

McDermid follows the fashion trend of adding a forensic anthropologist to the story. The third woman who takes a leading role is Oxford Professor Maggie Blake, who is haunted by memories of the Balkans and is pining for Mitja Petrovic, a Croatian who disappeared from her life eight years earlier. The fourth central female character is a human rights lawyer who is Blake's best friend. In contrast to the brilliant women who carry the story, most male characters are lazy dullards, officious a-holes, or murderers.

While I wasn't fond of the characters, I enjoyed the two intersecting plotlines. The first requires Pirie to solve the mystery of a skeleton with a bullet hole in its skull, found on the roof of an abandoned building. The second involves Balkan war criminals who are being assassinated before they can be hauled into international court, leading some to suspect that there is a leak in the office that investigates and prosecutes the crimes. They also suspect that Petrovic might be the assassin. Two bumbling and bickering Foreign Office lawyers are assigned to track down the leak.

Early chapters generally alternate the development of the separate plotlines, with interludes narrated by Blake as she recalls the romance with Petrovic that began while she was teaching feminist geopolitics in Croatia. The romance (which leaves Blake "weak in the knees") is too predictable and cheesy to be interesting. On the other hand, various scenes that take place in the Balkans give McDermid the opportunity to showcase the power with which she is capable of writing.

Substantial parts of The Skeleton Road are slow moving. That doesn't bother me when a book's setting, characters, or prose capture my attention, but some stretches of the novel struck me as being dull and unnecessary. Had this been a tighter novel, I would have been a happier reader.

Despite its flaws, The Skeleton Road's plot threads eventually cohere into a strong, engaging story. Some aspects -- particularly the willingness of Police Scotland to send Pirie to Croatia in pursuit of a cold case that has generated no particular suspect -- struck me as wildly implausible, but that's common in modern thrillers. The resolution to the novel's key mystery is telegraphed early and I didn't quite believe the killer's motivation for the killings (much less the killer's ability to commit them, a detail that McDermid ignores). Still, I got caught up in the story during the final chapters and that, together with McDermid's fluid prose, is enough to earn my recommendation.