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.

Monday
Mar022015

Blood Brothers by Ernst Haffner

Published in Germany in 1932; published in translation by Other Press on March 3, 2015

The Blood Brothers are a group of boys (mostly in their teens) living rough and dispensing rough justice in Berlin in the early 1930s. They're all running from something -- from home, from an institution, from the law. They live in fear of apprehension, of being asked for their papers, of spending a night without food or shelter. Like hundreds of other boys in Berlin, they "prefer to starve at liberty to being half-fed in welfare."

Willi Kludas, older than the rest, jumps the wall and escapes an institution after beating one of the staff members. He takes a harrowing trip to Berlin, then scrounges for money so he can pay to sleep in a basement, buy cigarettes, or purchase the affection of a girl. His story is similar to Ludwig's, who is also arrested as a runaway. When Ludwig escapes, he is arrested for a crime he didn't commit. Of course, he runs again at his first opportunity, but not before spending time in various institutions. It is Ludwig who introduces Willi to the rest of the gang.

Willi and Ludwig are the primary characters but other gang members make regular appearances. Fred joins the gang after escaping from the room into which his father has locked him. Walter is frail but is deemed heroic after being shot in a dustup with a rival gang. Heinz can't hold his liquor. Fred cooks up most of the illegal schemes to keep the gang in money. Konrad and Jonny provide the gang's muscle. Ulli leads (more or less) an "affiliated" gang.

The novel's moral focus sharpens when the gang turns to picking pockets and stealing purses for survival. Not all gang members are comfortable with theft. Even the ones who steal tend to be decent young men who did not choose their lives, who commit crimes as a last resort, preferring to work when they can -- although, without papers, their work is limited to shoveling snow and mending shoes. But what can gang members do who disagree with the crimes the gang commits? The Blood Brothers take care of each other with a fierce loyalty that was missing in their own families. Refusing to participate would be an unforgivable measure of disloyalty. Is it worth leaving the gang in order to hold one's moral center, even if that means losing the protection and companionship that are essential to surviving on the street? Are the other means of survival even worse than stealing?

Blood Brothers conveys a strong sense of realism. Ernst Haffner draws a sharp contrast between the Alexanderplatz portrayed in the cinema, a place full of cheap thrills and champagne lounges where "aristocratic gangsters won't do a job except in tops and tails," and the reality of homeless drifters, desperate prostitutes, brutal pimps, brutal police, and the unemployed who depend on casual crime for food. Poverty bedevils youth and the elderly alike.

Blood Brothers doesn't quite achieve the dramatic impact that Haffner must have intended but it does generate sympathy for its unfortunate characters. Except for Willi and Ludwig, there is too little to differentiate the characters from each other. The novel does a better job of depicting the impact of poverty on groups of young men than it does of telling individual stories. The ending is a bit rushed and a tad preachy. The novel is nonetheless an effective condemnation of a system that it more interested in whether people have "papers" than jobs. It's also a testament to the human spirit -- the drive not just to survive but to live free -- and to the bonds of friendship forged by hardship.

RECOMMENDED

Friday
Feb272015

The Deep by Nick Cutter

Published by Gallery Books on January 13, 2015

If this is the apocalypse, Luke Nelson thinks, at least it is orderly. People get the Spots, then they get the `Gets, then they wander away with blank minds. Luke's brother Clay, eight miles deep in the ocean near Guam, might have the answer to the phenomenon.

The Deep falls into the "strange entity discovered at the bottom of the ocean" subgenre of horror novels. The entity, nicknamed "ambrosia," has properties unlike any substance known to science. Ambrosia appears to have the curative powers that humanity needs in a time of crisis. Of course, this is a horror novel so the reader knows better, thanks in part to clues that Nick Cutter plants about its true nature. One of those clues is delivered in mysterious messages written in a submarine that returns from Clay's base in the Mariana Trench.

Cutter does a reasonable amount of character building although he sometimes slows the story's pace with flashbacks to Luke's past. Luke carries the scars of a difficult childhood and the guilt of allowing his son to go missing under his care, events that make him wish he would become afflicted with `Gets and forget everything that haunts him. I understand the technique of prolonging tension by cutting away from the present to talk about the past, but Cutter's frequent resort to that device is sometimes frustrating. For the most part, however, Cutter steadily builds a sense of dread, conjuring primal fears and encouraging the reader to share them with Luke.

A few too many scenes tell us about the characters' dreams. That often strikes me as something writers toss into a book to fill pages when they can't think of a creative way to advance the plot. The dreams are relevant here because they are presumably influenced by sinister forces at the bottom of the ocean, but horror-filled dreams seem like a cheap way to fill the pages of a horror novel. The characters' waking fantasies ("did I see/feel/hear that or am I hallucinating?") do a better job of provoking shivers.

But what about the bottom line? Parts of the book (particularly a diary written by one of the scientists on the ocean floor) are decidedly creepy. Parts of the book are at least borderline scary. The plot threads connect in a way that might be difficult to accept, but horror novels demand that disbelief be suspended before opening the book so that did not bother me. The nemesis that threatens Luke and the rest of humankind is formulaic -- in fact, it echoes the nemesis in Cutter's last novel, The Troop -- but Cutter wields the formula deftly.

A passage that describes Luke's work with stray dogs is quite moving. Other parts of the book that attempt to explain characters and their motivations are founded on clichés. But still, the ending -- the explanation for all the horror -- is clever. I like the way it plays with the meaning of evil. This isn't a deep book but, as horror novels go, it is at least slightly better than average.

RECOMMENDED

Wednesday
Feb252015

The Room by Jonas Karlsson

Published in Sweden in 2009; published in translation by Hogarth on February 17, 2015

Björn, an ambitious new employee at the Authority, is a manipulative, narcissistic, anti-social jerk who nurtures his own sense of superiority while belittling everyone around him. But, as the reader soon learns, he is more than that. Just what additional labels should be applied to Björn -- paranoid? delusional? dangerous? -- is open to debate, but if ever a person deserved labeling, it is Björn. He is the sort of co-worker who makes people abandon the workplace in favor of working at home.

Björn stumbles upon an unoccupied room in his office building and comes to regard it as his lair, using it to give a private scolding to the worker who sits across from him and to enjoy an ambiguous assignation with the receptionist during an office party. He eventually comes to believe that the room does not fit within the confines of the building, a belief apparently confirmed by measurements showing that one side of the hallway is longer than the other.

Björn's co-workers perceive Björn to be standing in the hallway, staring at the wall. They say there is no room. Björn, on the other hand, believes himself to be the victim of a conspiracy to deny the room's existence. Bjorn believes he is "the only person who can see the truth in this gullible world."

Entering the room gives Björn a restful sense of freedom where "everything messy and unsettling vanished." We all need a room like that. On the other hand, we might want people like Björn to go inside their peaceful room (imaginary or not), lock the door, and stay there.

To the dismay of his co-workers, Björn's unconventional thinking also makes him well suited to the primary task of his office. His ability to "think outside the box" gives him an edge that co-workers lack. So how should the Authority deal with a supremely capable employee who is widely perceived as "a nutter"? Especially one who does his best work inside a nonexistent room? That is the key question posed by Jonas Karlsson's intriguing novel.

As irritating as Björn might be, his co-workers seem incapable of empathy or sensitivity. It is easy to forgive them for that -- nothing is more annoying than when annoying people achieve success -- but their insular and cliquish behavior actually lends support to Björn's paranoid sense that he is being persecuted. I think Karlsson is making the point that not everyone sees the world in the same way and that we need to make room for people who annoy us. Easier said than done but the lesson is a good one. The Authority needs to decide whether to take the good with the bad. Whether it makes the right decision in the novel's delicious ending is a question for the reader to ponder.

Karlsson's story is layered in subtle ways. It moves quickly, paying little attention to the development of characters other than Björn. The Room is a fresh, provocative novel, but it won't appeal to readers looking for straightforward storytelling and likable characters. It works well as a parable (although it is more complex than a typical parable) but it can also be taken as an entertaining work of absurdist or philosophical fiction.

RECOMMENDED

Monday
Feb232015

Lucky Alan by Jonathan Lethem

Published by Doubleday on February 24, 2015

Jonathan Lethem pushes the boundaries of the short story in this innovative collection. Some stories take a conventional form, others are more experimental. Many are quite funny. Not all the stories are successful but I admire Lethem's vivid imagination and his willingness to take chances.

Two conventional stories are the least interesting in the collection. "Lucky Alan" is about the growth and decline of a New York friendship and its impact on a director's ability to stage manage his life. An empty room in his parents' house is the focal point of "The Empty Room" as a young man returns home with his girlfriend for a visit. While both stories are weaker than others in the collection, the characters are sharply drawn.

"Procedure in Plain Air" is a story only Lethem could write -- other than, maybe, Franz Kafka. Workers dig a hole, drop a bound man into it, cover the hole loosely with boards, and give an umbrella to the narrator with instructions to keep the man in the hole dry if it rains. This wonderfully absurd story suggests that people behave ridiculously because "someone has to step up" and, in stepping up, feel compelled to defend the indefensible.

"The King of Sentences" is an ode to books and the "astonishingly unprecedented and charming sentences" they contain. Lethem write plenty of those, including "I saw him the other day in the pharmacy, buying one of those inflatable doughnuts for sitting on when you've got anal discomfort."

Two stories in particular made me smile. The narrator of "Pending Vegan" is "pending" because he fears his children will accuse him of "childlike moral absolutism" if he commits. That's part of the biting humor in this very funny story about a man bewildered by life and the dog he once abandoned. "The Porn Critic" is about a porn shop clerk whose apartment is cluttered with the movies he reviews for the shop's newsletter. The story's humor comes from the reaction that women have to his living environment and reputation, "his life a site where others came to test their readiness for what they feared were their disallowed yearnings."

The narrator of "The Salivating Ear" killed a man at the entrance to his blog. The story suggests that bloggers will take extreme measures to protect their blog and its one or two readers from haters. It is a charming look at lonely bloggers who dream of the day when busloads of tourists will visit their blogs.

Two other stories didn't quite work for me. "Traveler Home" is written as an internal monologue (despite its third person voice) in an abbreviated style, stripped of definite articles and other nonessential words. The story, of wolves that deliver a baby in a basket, is interesting although I'm not quite sure that I caught the point of it. Similarly, I don't know what to make of "The Back Pages," a tale of characters "who live on the margins of cartoon lore." Their plane has crashed on an island, stranding them. The story is told in panels, journal entries, notes to the artist, silly songs and poems, and traditional narrative. It's sort of Lost meets Lord of the Flies meets Pogo and Prince Valiant. I like the concept but I think it works better as a concept than it does as an actual story.

RECOMMENDED

Friday
Feb202015

Scarred by Thomas Enger

Published in Norway in 2013; published in translation in Great Britain in 2014; published digitally by Atria Books on November 4, 2014

Ole Christian Sund works in an eldercare home where his young son discovers that a resident has been murdered and mutilated. Journalist Henning Juul covers the story. Oslo Police Detective Bjarne Brogeland conducts the police investigation. Early chapters of Scarred develop the plot by focusing on either Juul or Brogeland.

The third primary character is Juul's sister, Trine Juul-Osmundsen, who is Norway's Secretary of State for Justice. She merits chapters of her own as she deals with an alleged sex scandal that is both personal and political. Other chapters focus on a killer and his victims.

As is often true of crime novels involving multiple murders, the detective's challenge (and the reader's) is to deduce the factor that links the victims. In addition to that plot thread, part of the story focuses on Juul's efforts to learn about the fire that killed his son (about which a source promised to divulge information before being killed in prison). The fire presumably occurred in an earlier novel, but this is the first in the series that I've read.

Another plot thread, of course, has the reader wondering if someone is setting up Juul-Osmundsen, who clearly did something that she wants to conceal but perhaps not what she is accused of doing. The behavior of which she is accused struck me as too improbable for the public to take seriously, but perhaps the public in Norway is just as eager as in America to read scandalous accusations from anonymous sources that no respectable news organization would report.

Thomas Enger's depiction of Norway's political system is filled with the back-stabbing and pettiness that probably characterizes political systems everywhere. It is also describes irresponsible news media that are familiar features of many countries. I enjoyed the setting and background of Scarred. The characters are reasonably interesting although the evolution of the novel's serial killer is disappointingly familiar.

This isn't the kind of novel that lets the reader guess the killer's identity (at least, not until shortly before it is revealed) so if that's the kind of whodunit you like, Scarred might not be the right book for you. The reader is, however, challenged to guess the identity of Juul-Osmundsen's nemesis. Not every plot thread is tied off in this novel and, as in many series, it is probably better to read the books in order rather than starting with this one. Scarred can nevertheless be read as an entertaining stand-alone. Plot twists are creative and unexpected, characters are well-developed, and the translated prose is smooth.

RECOMMENDED