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.

Friday
Mar272015

The Alphabet House by Jussi Adler-Olsen 

Published by Dutton on February 24, 2015

In a departure from the Department Q police procedurals that Jussi Alder-Olsen usually writes, The Alphabet House combines a war story with a modern crime thriller. At the same time, it does not fit within either genre. The Alphabet House is more a psychological novel, an in-depth exploration of two personalities. For the most part, I enjoyed reading it. I appreciated the thought that went into it. I admired the writing style. I just didn't buy it.

Bryan and James, a pilot British pilot and navigator, are shot down behind enemy lines. Fleeing from pursuers, they board a passing hospital train full of wounded SS officers. They assume the guise of unconscious patients in a car that is mysteriously crowded with comatose officers who do not appear to be wounded. They wind up in a hospital ward, known as the Alphabet House, where their survival depends upon passing themselves off as shell-shocked Nazi officers.

Bryan and James are not the only patients faking mental illness. A long stretch of the book deals with German malingerers who make trouble for James. Why they do so is never quite clear and, while this section of the book is not dull, I'm not sure its contribution to the story justifies the number of words that are devoted to it. The malingerers do add to the action in a tense scene at the end of Part One.

Part Two begins in 1972. Bryan is now a grumpy specialist in gastric diseases and sports medicine. The plot takes Bryan back to Germany in search of a past from which he has not fully recovered. His impersonation of an SS officer during the war comes back to haunt him.

The Alphabet House is interesting but not particularly exciting or emotionally engaging. Its length works against it. The book could easily have been condensed. Two guys lying in bed thinking "I hope we don't get caught" is less than thrilling even with an occasional break the monotony. Only the beginning and the end of Part One generate any tension. Part Two is better, particularly toward the end, but the actions of the German malingers (particularly in Part Two) almost always struck me as contrived, if not abysmally stupid. I just didn't buy the story that Adler-Olsen eventually got around to telling. The narrative drags on long after the climax and some of the last chapters add little of value. I did, however, like the way the story finally ends. The ending has the virtue of honesty.

The quality of Adler-Olsen's prose and the interesting characters he crafted kept me reading. Still, I formed no emotional connection with the characters, in part because I didn't buy into their reality (particularly James) any more than I believed the German malingerers were real. None of that stopped me from wondering what would happen next.

The story is not quite like anything else I've read, so Adler-Olsen scores points for originality. If this had been a shorter, tighter novel with characters who behaved in ways I could accept, I would give it a stronger recommendation. As it stands, I'm not sorry I read it, but I'm disappointed that it did not realize its potential to be an outstanding novel.

RECOMMENDED

Wednesday
Mar252015

The Salt Roads by Nalo Hopkinson

Published in Canada in 2003; published digitally by Open Road Media on January 27, 2015

Nalo Hopkinson is a Jamaican-born Canadian. Some aspects of The Salt Roads incorporate Carribean (particulalry Haitian) mythology. For that reason, The Salt Roads is marketed as a fantasy. Oddly enough, it would be a better novel without the fantasy elements.

The Salt Roads struck me as three separate novels welded together with bulging seams, never quite aligning into a well-constructed whole. Most of The Salt Roads takes place in the mid-nineteenth century. A large part follows slaves on a plantation in Saint-Domingue, the former French colony in the Caribbean. Another large part takes place in the same time frame in Paris. The smallest part takes place in fourth century Egypt. That part is told from the perspective of a Nubian-Greek slave known (among other names) as Meri. Much of the novel is quite strong but it too often adopts elements of mythology that I found distracting.

The best of the stories is the one set in Saint-Domingue. A fellow named Makandal is, depending upon one's perspective, a freedom-fighter or a troublemaker who wants to free slaves by murdering their masters, but the central character in Saint-Domingue is Mer, an aging woman who helps enslaved women give birth and uses traditional remedies to tend wounds and treat illnesses. Part of the story involves a love triangle as Mer and a man named Patrice both hope to bask in the light that radiates from a slave named Tipingee.

A less interesting story concerns a woman in Paris named Jeanne, a third generation whore who hopes that the poet Baudelaire will rescue her from her unfortunate life. The poet's mother, who controls the family's money, does not appreciate Jeanne's dark skin. This is Paris, so writers wander through the text, including Verne and Dumas. That seemed like name-dropping to me; little of it contributes to the story.

In the third plotline, Meri travels to Jerusalem with her gay slave friend. Meri's story in Egypt and Jerusalem provides a mildly interest contrast to the stories in Saint-Domingue and Paris but doesn't amount to much, even after we learn the role that Meri played in Catholic history.

A spirit that is initially hitchhiking within Jeanne's body occasionally narrates short sections of the novel. The opinionated spirit sometimes controls Jeanne's body, sometimes leaves the body entirely to roam free, sometimes travels back in time to inhabit Meri's body, sometimes talks to Mer, but mostly feels trapped, longing to be "liberated to dance forever" with other Africans. The spirit lives in a "flowing world of stories" and her apparent role is to tie the three stories together. I gather that the narrative voice belongs to one of many spirits collectively known as Ezili, the Haitian Vodou spirit of single motherhood (thank you, Google).

Salt -- in the sea, in sweat, as a spice, as the subject of parables, as a substance that weakens the force of magic -- is a symbol that seasons the novel. It is apparently intended as a symbol of defiance and resistance. Salt, we are told, forms the roads of power that will set slaves free.

The quality of Hopkinson's prose is excellent. Like most well-written stories of slavery, parts of The Salt Roads are heartbreaking. Other parts are just strange. Apart from the traveling spirit, the novel gives us talking birds and mermaids that convey messages and warnings. The mermaid is evidently Lasirèn, a mermaid of Haitian mythology (thanks again, Google). Makandal can transform into a bird or animal. He is possessed by Papa Ogu, the Haitian spirit father. I'm always a little rattled when realistic novels suddenly give way to pure fantasy. Using mythology to represent the unifying spirit of all women, the spirit that resists subjugation, is a nice idea but Hopkinson didn't make it work for me, perhaps because I suffer from a literary aversion to Voudu and mermaids. Fans of traditional fantasy may have a different reaction.

The Salt Roads gave me the sense that Hopkinson, overly ambitious, wrote three partial stories, didn't know how to finish any of them, so threw them together with a traveling spirit and called it a novel. Maybe that's harsh since I liked quite a bit of The Salt Roads, but I liked its best elements more than I liked the whole.

RECOMMENDED

Monday
Mar232015

The Stranger by Harlan Coben

Published by Dutton on March 24, 2015

Adam Price is living the dream. He has a wife and two sons and he earns a decent income. He is convinced that he would do everything in his power to keep his family safe and happy. But the dream gives way to reality when a stranger tells Adam that his wife faked her pregnancy and miscarriage to keep him from leaving. The stranger provides evidence of that contention and then suggests, while admitting that he's only speculating, that Adam might want to do a DNA test to be sure that he's really the father of his sons.

The stranger's next encounters are with Heidi Dann, who learns something unpleasant about a family member, and Michaela Siegel, who learns the truth about an incident that had a serious impact upon her young life. Why the stranger drops bombshells on people and how he learns their secrets remain a mystery through much of the novel. What seems like a fairly straightforward crime in the novel's first half becomes more complex as the second half of the story begins to unfold.

Saying much more about the plot would be a crime in itself, so I won't. The novel's background details, ranging from female bodybuilding competition to Adam's attempt to prevent the city from seizing a client's home are just as interesting as the main story. I wasn't entirely convinced by the stranger's motivation for messing with people's lives, but the world is full of people who are motivated by odd beliefs so it was easy to set those doubts aside.

The ending comes as something of an anti-climax, in part because the reveal of the main bad guy is fairly obvious and in part because the actions of a supporting character at the end of the novel struck me as unlikely. Despite a mildly disappointing ending, I enjoyed reading The Stranger. The pace is brisk, the characters are likable, and my interest in the plot never abated.

RECOMMENDED

Friday
Mar202015

Frog by Mo Yan

Published in China in 2009; published in translation by Viking on January 22, 2015

Wan Zu (also known as Tadpole, among other names) writes to a man he addresses as sensei, who gave a lecture on "Literature in Life" in Wan Zu's remote village. Impressed by his meeting with an obstetrician who is Wan Zu's aunt, the scholar asks Wan Zu to send him the story of his aunt's life. Frog tells Gugu's story, but it is also the story of China over the course of Gugu's lifetime.

While she is still a young village girl, Gugu learns the healing arts from a visiting westerner. Her knowledge of obstetrics soon shames the elderly midwives who are more likely to kill their patients than to help them give birth. At the age of 70, forty years after leaving the village, Gugu returns for a celebration.

The politics of China are inseparable from Gugu's story. The background to Book One is the struggle between Mao and Chiang Kai-shek. Gugu is a steadfast Communist. Her advocacy of planned pregnancies and of treating male and female babies as equals impairs her popularity despite its consistency with Mao's edicts. Living in changing times, Gugu discovers that it is possible to a friend of the revolution one moment and an enemy of the masses a moment later.

Book Two begins in 1979. The Cultural Revolution is an unhappy memory but Gugu is still a devoted Party member who is even more committed to the policy of one child per family. The policy of enforced birth control also shapes the story in Book Three. While much of the focus remains on Gugu, the "one child" policy also plays a defining role in the life of Wan Zu.

China has undergone more changes by 2005, when Book Four begins. People are free to live where they please (as long as they live in China). The entrepreneurial spirit prevails, which means family planning rules apply to the poor more than they apply to the nouveau riche. Gugu has also changed, or at least her opinions have changed. Despite her regrets, she remains determined to follow her principles (even as they shift), while Wan Zu has always felt that his life is subject to the whims of fate. Those whims take his life in interesting directions (which, as we all know, is a Chinese curse). By the time Book Five rolls around, Wan Zu has been inspired to write a play that he aptly entitles "Frog." The play adds a new dimension to the story and sheds additional light on some of the characters.

Naturally, frog imagery pervades the novel. Frogs have an impact on the lives of several characters, while other characters recount the role that frogs play in Chinese mythology. Appropriately, given the novel's subject matter, Wan Zu tells us that the title (wa) can be taken as either qingwa (frog) or wawa (baby).

Wan Zu discusses his struggle to write the play throughout the course of the novel. He talks about the darkness of the play when his thoughts are dark, how he wants to write about life rather than death, about hope rather than despair. But life includes all of those things, as does the novel. The story Mo Yan delivers is about persevering in the face of adversity, about feeling and releasing guilt, about adapting to and instigating change. It is also about the value of freedom, even if freedom introduces disharmony into a society that values harmony (and that institutionalizes anyone who threatens that harmony). Frog is a novel of great breadth and depth. It is nothing less than the story of modern China told with humor and compassion.

RECOMMENDED

Wednesday
Mar182015

Get in Trouble by Kelly Link

Published by Random House on February 3, 2015

There's something a little out of whack about the worlds in which Kelly Link's characters live. Babies are born without shadows or with an extra shadow. Superheroes have useless powers like the ability to know the correct time without looking at a clock. Strangeness is the background but never the focus of Link's stories. Well, almost never. Instead, Link's characters are strange in perfectly normal ways. They are motivated by the same jealousies and insecurities and resentments as people who live in more familiar environments.

The genre-bending stories collected in Get in Trouble are wildly inventive. They are invariably witty. Link's economical language has deeper meaning than is apparent on the surface although some observations, like telling us there is there is "a fine line between being cuddled and squeezed like a juice box," are just funny.

"When he wasn't getting right with God, Fran's daddy got up to all kinds of trouble." Fran has her own trouble as she carries on the family tradition of serving "The Summer People," my favorite story in the collection.

Lame superheroes lurk in the background of two stories. In "Secret Identity," the author of a letter to someone she met in an online game tries to explain why she is not the person she appears to be. The story's moral is that you can learn a lot about yourself by pretending to be someone else, but you can learn even more by being yourself. "Origin Story" is apparently set in the same universe as "Secret Identity," but I found "Origin Story to be less appealing.

Ghosts provide the theme for two stories. "Two Houses" is a ghost story about astronauts on a spaceship who tell ghost stories. "I Can See Right Through You" is about the lives of two actors who once kissed in a popular vampire movie. The kiss, portending a real-life relationship, is the male actor's defining moment -- unless you count the sex tape or a version of Ghost Hunters that searches for a lost nudist colony. This is my second favorite, thanks to a neat twist at the end that forces the reader to reinterpret much of what has gone before.

Is it better to have something that is perfect but fake or imperfect but real? A girl in "The New Boyfriend" gets a fake boyfriend for her birthday -- a ghost vampire boyfriend that has been recalled by the manufacturer. But what happens when her friend falls in love with her fake boyfriend? Just like having a fake identity can help you learn about yourself, it seems that having a fake boyfriend can help you learn about real relationships.

Mummies, pyramids, pool parties, Raves on the moon, and Faces programmed to replace children so parents can avoid public embarrassment all appear in "Valley of the Girls," a tragic love story that might be a futuristic version of Romeo & Juliet if Shakespeare had been dropping acid. Even stranger is the background of "Light" -- pocket universes, warehouses full of sleeping people -- a domestic drama about a woman, her missing husband, and her gay brother. "Light" is my least favorite in the collection, primarily because I don't know what to make of it, but none of the entries in this odd collection of light-but-serious fantasy stories are bad.

RECOMMENDED