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.

Monday
Dec112017

Autumn by Ali Smith

First published in Great Britain in 2016; published by Penguin Random House/Anchor on October 17, 2017

Autumn is set in England, where “Thatcher taught us to be selfish and not just to think but to believe that there’s no such thing as society.” Issues like immigration and Brexit divide people, and it “has become a time of people saying stuff to each other and none of it actually becoming dialog.” Anger is worn like a shield and race hatred is prevalent. The news “makes things spectacular that aren’t, and deals so simplistically with what’s truly appalling.”

Against that backdrop, Daniel Gluck, having reached the age of 101, lies in a hospital bed, sometimes believing he’s on a beach littered with corpses, sometimes believing he’s inside the trunk of a Scotch Pine. Daniel once wrote songs that are no longer remembered. He seems unaware that Elisabeth Demand visits him daily, reading to him during the “increased sleep periods” that his nurses consider a prelude to death.

Elisabeth’s friendship with Daniel began when she was his 8-year-old neighbor. In flashbacks, we see Daniel as an aging man with an obvious interest in linguistics and art who imparts bits of wisdom dressed up in the kind of silliness that might appeal to a young girl whose mother is less than an ideal parent. Daniel taught Elisabeth how to make up stories that would help her understand the ways in which life can be shaped and the world can be changed. That makes him a pretty wonderful character, the opposite of selfish people who do not believe in society and prefer to shout their own opinions instead of listening to the opinions of others.

Daniel represents an earlier time, while Elisabeth, now a lecturer in art history, is just coming to comprehend the role that time plays in life. Daniel’s descriptions of paintings when Elisabeth was a child eventually lead Elisabeth to understand Daniel’s great secret, which helps her understand something about life. Through Daniel, Elisabeth becomes interested in the pop art of Pauline Boty, which leads her to contemplate Christine Keeler, who was central to the Profumo Affair. The sexual liberation that began in the 1960s came to be manifested in many ways, one of which is expressed by this thought: “A great many men don’t understand a woman full of joy, even more don’t understand paintings full of joy by a woman.”

Both Daniel and Elisabeth are perfectly drawn characters. Daniel is one of those gentle souls from a kinder era who dispense wise words in unexpected moments, drawing on their vast life experiences to apply the lessons they’ve learned to a new generation’s circumstances. Those characters exist in literature more than reality, but they are always a joy to encounter, in person or in the pages of a well-written story. We never learn much of Daniel’s life, but we learn enough to know his essence.

Daniel’s life is ending and, in a sense, Elisabeth’s is still beginning. By dealing with the mundane (repeated trips to bureaucrats who reject her passport photos because they do not match their precise requirements) and thinking about Boty, she learns to question the value of rules and norms of behavior, including rules that once defined the subservience of women, that are ultimately meaningless. She discovers that the past (Daniel’s song lyrics, for example) can be relevant to the present, even as people and events fade in and out of collective memory, to be lost and rediscovered, again and again.

Time flies, Daniel says, demonstrating by throwing his watch off a bridge. The past is replaced by the present which will be replaced by the unstoppable future. The immigrants who are reviled today will become the bedrock citizens of tomorrow. When so many people see change as something to be resisted, Autumn suggests that the march of time is to embraced, that the present and future can be shaped “with people’s histories and with the artefacts of less cruel and more philanthropic times.” But whether we can shape it or not, Autumn reminds us, time remains in motion. We can join it or we can be stuck. And if we join it, we can choose to bring the best parts of the past into the present, and to create the present in a way that will build a better future. Those lessons, taught in joyful and lyrical prose, make Autumn a valuable addition to the literature of time.

RECOMMENDED

Friday
Dec082017

The End We Start From by Megan Hunter

First published in Great Britain in 2017; published by Grove Press on November 7, 2017

The End We Start From imagines that a mother gave birth to a baby, known in the novel as Z, during an apocalyptic event that, at the moment of birth, is characterized by rising flood waters. The brief novel combines mommy lit with post-apocalyptic fiction, two popular genres that, in this case at least, do not merge well. Babies are not interesting characters and the mother who narrates the novel doesn’t have much more personality than Z.

The exact nature of the catastrophe is ill-defined. The flooding might have been brought about by global warming, but it seems quite sudden and there are bullet holes in buildings, which might or might not have something to do with the crisis. Television persists for a time, but the news has suddenly become depressingly relevant to the characters’ lives, so they take a brief pause from watching the talent show channel to get a sense of what’s happening in the world. Floods lead to famine and the loss of internet and cellular service. Why? We’re never told.

The end of life as she knows it has apparently been coming for some time and, while the narrator lived in fear of it, she thought that having a baby would make the fear go away. It might have been more rational to fear bringing a baby into a world that is ending. Or to establish a residence in higher ground.

Eventually the protagonist and Z and Z’s daddy R all travel north from London, where they find refugee camps. R goes off in search of a better place to raise the family, leaving the narrator and their baby to make it on their own. After that, the narrator misses R, although I wondered why since abandoning his family in a crisis seems unhelpful.

The narrator starts to travel with O and O’s baby C. O knows about a boat they can take (presumably to Scotland). How she knows where and when to meet the boat in the absence of cell service is one of many mysteries the novel fails to explain.

Given the apocalyptic setting, the journey from London to Scotland seems remarkably easy, as does the eventual resolution of the crisis. The narrator spends most of her time fretting, but her fretting is more about motherhood than starvation or flooding or gang violence or the other terrors that vaguely lurk in the novel’s background but that never seem to pose an actual threat. Those distant concerns appear to have no impact on our intrepid mommy as she waits for baby’s next bowel movement.

There is something to be said for exploring the mundane (baby’s first tooth, baby's first step) in a chaotic environment, to focus the reader on a new mother’s myopic focus on her baby as a defining characteristic of motherhood. Motherhood has apparently opened the narrator’s heart to love; she loves everyone she does not fear. The novel has some value in the way it delivers messages about motherhood, but the messages would have been more powerful if the external world had been more fully or carefully developed.

The novel also doles out mommy wisdom, like “There is no skill. There is only another person, smaller than you.” Mommy lit is replete with similar mommy wisdom; no fresh insights are to be found here.

The novel is short, the story told in snippets. The minimalist style is probably meant to cut out all that is unimportant in favor of descriptions of how Z feels to the narrator while Z is drinking from the narrator’s nipple, or how Z’s eyes are starting to look like R’s, or the things that Z picks up and drops. I got the sense that some of the gaps in information would have been a good bit more interesting than what the narrator chose to tell us. I also got the sense that the missing information is missing because Megan Hunter couldn’t imagine plausible details with which to plug the gaps, or didn’t want to be bothered. The snippet form of storytelling sometimes works well (I recently read Ultraluminous, where the form is used to great advantage), but The End We Start From puts so little flesh on the skeleton that it feels like an outline for a novel, not a finished product.

The novel’s strength is its prose. In Scotland, where seeds still grow, the narrator remarks, “We have arrived at the non-happening, it seems: the invisible growth of Z’s body, the tiny increments of our meals coming out of the soil.” But in the end, the book seems like a collection of strong sentences that never give birth to a living story.

NOT RECOMMENDED

Wednesday
Dec062017

Uncommon People by David Hepworth

Published by Henry Holt and Co. on November 21, 2017

David Hepworth argues that the era of the rock star has passed. Uncommon People chronicles their rise and fall, from 1955 to 1994. After talking about what makes someone a rock star and what we expect from a rock star, Hepworth explains that he wants to profile individual rock stars: who they were before they achieved rock fame, how that happened, and what it did to them. He does that by selecting and discussing an important day in rock history and using that day to provide a window into the star’s life. Targeting a single day is presumably a strategy to keep the book from becoming unwieldy.

Hepworth’s method is to talk about that significant event, and then to provide some background about the rock star in question. He often discusses other significant events in that year, or trends that began in that year. At the end of each chapter, he provides a playlist of 10 songs or albums from that year.

Many excellent and influential rock musicians are left out of the book, presumably because they don’t meet Hepworth’s loose definition of a rock star, which includes glamour, authenticity, late nights, recklessness (at least in image), swagger, sexual charisma, self-assuredness, good hair, and a bunch of other qualities that Hepworth scatters through his introduction. In the end, a rock star is whatever you want a rock star to be, and you know one when you see one.

Readers can quibble with his choices. My quibble is that the Beatles, individually or collectively, are given four entries, but Neil Young receives only some passing mentions. What, he doesn’t have good hair? And Eric Clapton gets mentioned over and over but doesn’t deserve his own chapter?

Readers can also quibble about whether all of his chosen rock stars perform rock music, which might or might not be fundamental to the definition of a rock star. I think of Madonna as a pop star, of Bob Marley as a reggae star, of Bob Dylan as a folk-rock star, and of Kurt Cobain as a punk-rock star, yet they all get chapters. Readers might disagree with Hepworth’s choices, but that’s part of the fun of reading a book like this.

Uncommon People provides a bunch of interesting, gossipy information. Aging rock fans will probably have heard many of the stories before, but it’s fun to hear them again, and anyone who isn’t a rock historian will probably learn something new by reading the book. Some of the significant events seem to have been chosen because Hepworth happened to be there, but I suppose that’s inevitable when a book is written by a rock journalist.

Will you learn anything particularly insightful about the phenomenon of rock stardom or the commonalities that link rock stars together? Probably not. They are what they are, and once again, you know one when you see one.

The profiled rock stars and their significant days are:

1955 - Little Richard (creates the “clean” version of Tutti Frutti which, in its original version, was pretty far from clean); 1956 - Elvis (drives from Memphis to Tupelo and realizes just how much his life had changed); 1957 - Paul McCartney and John Lennon (meet for the first time); 1958 - Jerry Lee Lewis (unsuccessfully explains his 13-year-old wife to the London press); 1959 - Buddy Holly (dies in a plane crash, creating the first full-length rock star story).

1960 - Brian Rankin, a/k/a Lee Marvin (the Shadows release the guitar-hero single “Apache”); 1961 - Bob Dylan (earns his first review by performing at Gerde’s Folk City); 1962 - Ringo Starr (replaces Pete Best as the Beatles’ drummer); 1963 - Rolling Stones (a new manager kicks Ian Stewart out of the group and thus fashions the band’s lasting image); 1964 - Brian Wilson (melts down and stops touring with the Beach Boys).

1965 - Roger Daltrey (punches Keith Moon in a dressing room in Denmark as The Who makes chaos a trademark of rock bands); 1966 - Jimi Hendrix (plays in London with Eric Clapton and Cream); 1967 - Janis Joplin (plays at Monterey and redefines the rock star image); 1968 - The Beatles (begin their ending as John gets with Yoko and Paul gets with Linda); 1969 - Black Sabbath (changes the band’s name from Earth).

1970 - Jim Morrison (reinforces the role of the crotch in rock and roll); 1971 - Lou Reed (makes a comeback); 1972 - Rolling Stones (bring the concept of “big” to concert tours); 1973 - David Bowie (retires after inventing the rock star as an art project); 1974 - Bruce Springsteen (writes “Born to Run” and creates a legacy).

1975 - Bob Marley (records a live concert that Hepworth attended); 1976 - Stevie Nicks (is worshipped by fans at a Fleetwood Mac concert in Tampa); 1977 - Elvis (dies); 1978 - Ian Dury (records “Hit Me with Your Rhythm Stick”); 1979 - Led Zepplin (plays a weekend concert over two weekends and proves that Robert Plant and Jimmy Page have turned into dinosaurs).

1980 - John Lennon (dies); 1981 - Duran Duran (give birth to the intersection of sex and music videos); 1982 - Ozzie Osborne (sleeps on the bus while his guitarist crashes a stolen plane, although the chapter is mostly about the use of cocaine by rock and Hollywood stars); 1983 - This is Spinal Tap (spoofs but captures the sad reality of rock star wannabes); 1984 - Michael Jackson (sets fire to his hair).

1985 - Bob Geldof (makes rock noble by creating Band Aid, which spawned Live Aid and cemented U2 as rock stars); 1986 - Bob Dylan (makes a comeback, although the chapter is mostly about the interview that Dylan gave to Hepworth); 1987 - Axl Rose (makes the “Welcome to the Jungle” video emblematic of the sensationalist ethic of hard rock); 1988 - Elton John (auctions his old stuff so he can acquire new stuff); 1989 - Bonnie Raitt (goes to rehab while confronting middle age, as do Eric Clapton, Ringo Starr, and about half the rock world).

1990 - Madonna (touches herself on stage in Toronto); 1991 - Freddie Mercury (dies of AIDS); 1992 - Red Hot Chili Peppers (appear naked on the cover of Rolling Stone without guitarist John Fruscuiante, who went a bit bonkers); 1993 - Prince (changes his name to a symbol); 1994 - Kurt Cobain (dies, bringing the rock star era to an end).

One can argue that rock stars didn’t end with Cobain. If Madonna is a rock star, why isn’t Beyoncé? If Bob Marley was a rock star, why isn't Jay Z? Hepworth suggests that pop stars in the digital age are the product of marketing and have less purity than those in the 40 years that the book covers. Maybe that’s true, although whether that should disqualify recent artists from being regarded as rock stars is less clear.

More to the point, books have to end, even if music doesn’t. The 40 years covered by Uncommon People produced some great music, and the book captures some great moments.

RECOMMENDED

Monday
Dec042017

Ms Ice Sandwich by Mieko Kawakami

First published in Japan in 2013 (in a literary journal) and in 2014 (as part of a novel); published in translation by Pushkin Press on January 23, 2018

Ms. Ice Sandwich is the name bestowed upon a sandwich seller with large eyes and a damaged face by the novel’s young narrator. The narrator is fascinated by Ms. Ice Sandwich; he has a crush or the first experience of love from afar. He sketches her endlessly but never speaks to her except to order a sandwich.

Other kids, and some adults, view Ms. Ice Sandwich as a monster or a freak. She is apparently a victim of surgical malpractice, but whatever the cause of her unusual appearance, the young narrator feels saddened by the meanness that surrounds her. At the same time, when other kids question his obsession with the woman, he stops seeing her, a solution that saddens him until his new friend Tutti gives him some worldly advice that she figured out in the first grade. I won’t spoil the advice, but it is the kind of wisdom that is easily forgotten and from which everyone would benefit.

The novella offers the narrator’s amusing insights into his fourth-grade life as he reacts to a world he is trying to comprehend. His grandmother is dying. He isn’t sure what to make of concepts like aging and death. Girls and adults are mysterious, but Ms. Ice Sandwich is the most mysterious of all.

The story is obviously about growing up, but it is also about friendship. The narrator’s blossoming friendship with Tutti contrasts with the infatuation he feels for Ms. Ice Sandwich. Part of growing up is learning the value of genuine friendship, as is learning that physical appearance is not the standard that should be used to select friends — a lesson that comes late in life to many, if it comes at all.

Ms Ice Sandwich brilliantly captures the wonder and puzzlement of childhood, the burning desire to figure things out and the sense of loss when reality replaces imagination. Learning to say goodbye and coping with loss, real and imagined, is another important part of growing up, one that Mieko Kawakami illustrates in a variety of contexts. But for every loss there is a gain; for every goodbye, there is a hello. That’s another lesson that comes as we experience life, and one that the narrator’s experience will eventually cause him to recognize.

Ms Ice Sandwich is a story of emotions and feelings more than events. The novel’s limitations are also its strengths. The novella uses no more words than it needs. It does not pretend to be epic. Its focus is narrow, but the small world that the narrator inhabits is rich with the kind of details that children notice and that adults take for granted, like the sensation of falling snowflakes. The story is small but the novella’s lessons are large. That’s quite an achievement.

RECOMMENDED

Friday
Dec012017

Immortal Life by Stanley Bing

Published by Simon & Schuster on December 5, 2017

Immortality has been a dream since legends of the Fountain of Youth appeared in fifth century BC, and probably earlier. Modern dreamers focus on science rather than myth, including the possibility of downloading the contents of a mind for transference into a new body. That concept raises a number of intriguing questions, some of which receive tongue-in-cheek attention in Immortal Life.

Arthur Vogel is looking for a solution to the problem of death. Body parts can be replaced if you can afford the technology. The Mighty Vog invented a switch that makes Artificial Intelligence possible and became the richest man in the solar system.

Meanwhile, a fellow named Gene wakes up with no real recollection of his life. He does, however, have a huge supply of facts. A doctor named Bob knows more about Gene than Gene, as does a woman named Bronwyn, but they give him little insight into his background or why he has an implant in his finger. The reader quickly understands, even if Gene doesn’t, that Gene has no memories because has been rebooted. Again.

Gene was made to fill a role, but when Gene realizes the nature of that role, he balks. That’s considered a flaw, as is the fact that Gene yearns for a woman named Livia despite having no memory of her. The glitches need to be fixed but the project is already overbudget and Gene keeps going off on a frolic of his own. The problem with artificial humans is that they behave like humans. You really can't trust them.

But more importantly, you can’t trust mega-size corporations. One of the serious questions the novel asks is whether the privatization of the Cloud will eventually result in its control by one company, or perhaps one person. Another question is: If life extension allows the powerful to remain in power longer, forcing the younger generations to remain in the cheap seats, will immortality impose a glass ceiling on the ambitions of the young?

Serious questions aside, Immortal Life pokes fun at the present by lampooning an imagined future that is based on present trends (infotainment, synthesized food, life extension technologies, a Civil War between red and blue states, the radioactive wasteland that used to be Korea, Amazon’s desire to own everything, and Alexa’s continuing inability to get anything right).

Immortal Life delivers an amusing series of goofy moments. Robots and humans alike are exposed as victims of imperfect programming. But when the story isn’t being funny (and even when it is), characters make some well-stated points about how the Singularity anticipated by science fiction writers might be the “tragic conclusion to the great pageant of human history,” not the next step in human evolution so much as a repudiation of what it means to be human. As Gene says, “that would be a bummer.”

As a comedy, the story can get by with underdeveloped and somewhat stereotypical characters. Some of the humor might be a bit shallow (yes, we know our wireless devices have made us dependent and lazy, but we’ve known that for some time now), and a couple of paragraphs won’t appeal to supporters of the current presidential administration, but the story’s silliness made me laugh often enough to win my recommendation.

RECOMMENDED