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
Aug172018

Bring Out the Dog by Will Mackin

Published by Random House on March 6, 2018

Bring Out the Dog is an uneven collection of war stories told by the same narrator and generally featuring the same characters. Some stories take place while the combatants are training; others take place in Iraq or Afghanistan. My impression is that Will Mackin followed the model of other war writers without reflecting deeply on his own experiences, or at least without translating that reflection into soul-searching fiction.

It is a staple of war fiction that fighters in the field believe they know more than commanders who occupy desks. When Mackin writes, “As Seal Team Six . . . [o]ur ideas about the war were the war,” his narrator’s hubris reflects a common mindset in war fiction. The best war stories, as exemplified by The Things They Carried, explore the strengths and weaknesses of combatants and the horror of war without being self-aggrandizing. Macen occasionally reaches that pinnacle, but many of the stories in Bring Out the Dog fall short. Too many strained similes (“Static poured out of its speaker like sugar”) come across as ill-advised attempts to be literary. At his best, Mackin tells his stories in a natural voice. At his worst, he’s pretentious.

The best story, “The Great Circle Route Westward Through Perpetual Night,” is about a dog’s funeral, but it is also about two enduring themes of war fiction: fear and futility. Another story that gains strength from its honesty, “Rib Night,” talks about soldiers who become addicted to sleeping pills so they can forget about the people they killed. One soldier in particular makes a point of being a testosterone-driven asshole who clearly joined the service so that he could kill people. He takes the pills for fun and doesn’t seem interested in forgetting the deaths he caused.

One of the better stories isn’t really a war story at all, although it might explain something about the mindset that drives men to volunteer for combat. “Baker’s Strong Point” deals with the narrator’s friend, who hangs out with a stripper when he and the narrator aren’t practicing their skills in the Utah desert. The stripper’s unfortunate boyfriend has an encounter with the soldier and his baseball bat when he wonders whether the stripper might be cheating on him.

Many of Mackin’s themes are common in war fiction, including the boredom that combatants share when they aren’t in combat. “The Lost Troop” is about the things a bored soldier imagines (the war is over and nobody told them, an asteroid is about to wipe out all life on the planet) before he and his troop find a spot to scatter the ashes of a soldier who died. To cope with boredom, the troop pays a visit to their interpreter’s mean grade school teacher and recites the lyrics of Pink Floyd’s The Wall, an act that hardly seems destined to win the hearts and minds of Afghanis. The story is probably the most creative effort in the collection.

On the other hand, boredom is never something that a writer should inflict on a reader. “Welcome Man Will Never Fly” starts out with a former pilot and current Joint Terminal Attack Controller (JTAC) who is training a SEAL to be a JTAC, a job the SEAL is clearly incapable of learning. If the story has a point, I missed it. I finished “Kattekoppen,” about a rescue mission for kidnapped soldiers that focuses on whether a Dutch soldier will “fit in,” with a similar sense that I had read a collection of events and thoughts in search of a unifying purpose.

Other stories that didn’t do much for me essentially focused on the rituals of combat without providing any unusual insight into the characters’ lives or the lives of those with whom they interacted. One story involved bombing a fire truck on the practice range, and its only point seemed to be that a fire truck is an odd choice of targets. “Crossing the River No Name” muddles up the usual memes of war fiction (religion, football, camaraderie, risk) but the memes never add up to a coherent point.

“Remain Over Day” is mostly about bickering. “Yankee Two” is about bickering between soldiers who debate their failure to kill a twelve-year-old, apparently accepting as a given that nobody should feel bad about killing a twelve-year-old. “Backmask” explains that the code word for women is “feathers” because, I guess, calling them women would be recognizing that they are human beings — a thought that could have been profitably explored, but the story is mostly about breaking down doors and conversing with wild dogs.

In the end, a few of the stories in this collection show promise, but most come across as “I have war experience so I should write war fiction, even if I don’t know what I want to say.”

RECOMMENDED WITH RESERVATIONS

Wednesday
Aug152018

Connect by Julian Gough

First published in Great Britain in 2018; published by Doubleday/Nan A. Talese on August 14, 2018

Without much subtlety, Connect makes the point that different systems (the human body, society, the universe itself) are organized in similar ways, and ponders the connection that results in that commonality. To make sure we get it, Julian Gough quotes the Upanishads and scientists and philosophers and poets and Philip K. Dick, all noting that so many vastly different things in the universe, including its vastly different people, are all fundamentally alike. That’s an interesting premise for a novel, but Connect is only partially successful in conveying it, as opposed to explaining it.

Colt is an autistic 18-year-old boy. He freaks out when he’s touched. He is homeschooled (unconventionally) by his mother Naomi because he can’t be around other kids without fighting them. Colt spends most of his life engrossed in videogame environments. Naomi wants him to live in the moment; he argues that living in the moment is impossible. Naomi wants him to engage with the real world; Colt argues that reality is a matter of perception, and what he perceives online is just as real as anything he perceives when he takes off his visor. On the other hand, Colt meets a damaged girl online named Sasha, for whom he feels the kind of desire that can’t be satisfactorily acquitted online.

Naomi is a scientist who was once a porn star who is into S&M, a character trait that isn’t entirely gratuitous. She’s working on a project to regrow limbs. It isn’t ready for human experimentation but it has shown promise in rats. Colt, who has a genius for coding, steals Naomi’s work and offers it for publication at a conference, forcing Naomi to attend when the paper is accepted. That gets Naomi out of the house, clearing the way for Colt to use the research to enlarge his corpus callosum in the hope that he will become normal, or at least able to understand people, Sasha.

The research has military implications, however, and Naomi finds herself trouble with her ex-husband and the government for publishing the paper without the military’s approval. Fortunately for the government, the next incarnation of the NSA can make information disappear pretty easily by taking control of electronic devices (a trick that is only a small step away from tricks the government already performs).

All of this sets up a plot that involves the military’s (primarily Colt’s father’s) desire to use Colt’s newfound abilities as a human supercomputer to better identify and kill America’s enemies. The plot pits Colt against his father and against an automated defense system that is designed to kill America’s enemies, one of whom (it decides) is Colt. A good chunk of the story consists of Colt using his gaming environment in an attempt to thwart the defense system.

One of the story’s more pedestrian themes involves the power of love, which (surprise, surprise) conquers all. I appreciate the sentiment but Gough’s execution of that theme is a bit heavy-handed. To Gough’s credit, the novel gives a new twist to the romantic comedy formula by digitizing it in an epic battle between Colt’s game world and the immune system (they hate each other, they need each other, they love each other), but the related coming-of-age theme seems artificial because Colt only learns lessons because his mother’s neural experimentation allowed him to overcome his autism — hardly a formula that younger socially-challenged readers will be able to follow as they come of age.

The book isn’t any more successful in addressing the theme of connection. One logical extension of recognizing that we are all fundamentally the same is to stop thinking in terms of “us” and “them” because there is no “them,” there is only an all-encompassing “us.” The novel tries to advance that thought by anticipating the emergence of a new consciousness, something godlike. While other writers projecting the rise of a godlike machine intelligence have done so with dread, Connect speculates that a godlike consciousness making decisions based on reason rather than fear might be just what an angry world needs. It’s an appealing thought, although surrendering autonomy (assuming we have any) to an artificial consciousness might be more crippling than the disease it cures.

While Connect scores points for grappling with big ideas, it becomes excessively preachy at the end. I agree with the message of unity that’s preached and I think the message is well-intentioned, but the final chapters read more like an essay than a work of fiction. They are written from the perspective of a machine intelligence (the System of Systems) that didn’t strike me as the voice of an intelligent machine. It’s constantly “digging deeper” and going to “another level” as it explores dominant themes of religion and philosophy and myth, but the superficial conclusions it draws hardly seem to justify the intellectual effort (e.g., killing a large chunk of the Earth’s inhabitants would be bad for the Earth’s inhabitants; inequitable distribution of resources is unfair and something should be done about that). On the whole, Connect works as an adventure story, but it fizzles out when it tries to become a deep philosophical tome. I can recommend the novel as high tech thriller that might particularly appeal to fans of gaming, but I would suggest skimming through or skipping the mundane pages that are narrated by the godlike System of Systems.

RECOMMENDED WITH RESERVATIONS

Monday
Aug132018

Blood Standard by Laird Barron

Published by G.P. Putnam's Sons on May 29, 2018

Some of my favorite crime novels focus on criminals, who tend to be more interesting and less self-righteous than cops or private detectives or lawyers. Isaiah Coleridge, a big guy of Maori descent, falls into the category of interesting criminal. He fancies himself as the broad shouldered bad guy in a Bond film who kills people on behalf of the archvillain (presumably he has Oddjob in mind). He’s been dispatched to Alaska, an outpost of the Chicago mob, to help Vitale Night intimidate some underperforming subordinates.

Coleridge makes trouble for himself by punching Night in the throat when Night’s crew begins to slaughter walruses for their ivory. Only his father’s intercession keeps Coleridge alive after the incident with Night. Coleridge has an iffy relationship with his father, who was involved in the death of Coleridge’s mother. That’s one of many features of Coleridge’s past that add complexity to his character.

No longer welcome in Alaska, Coleridge is exiled to New York because the New York mob, unlike the Chicago mob, doesn’t want to kill him. He ends up on a farm in the Hudson Valley owned by Virgil and Jade Walker, two scholars who lecture about the classics when they aren’t bailing hay. The other hired hand is an ex-soldier named Lionel Robard. The Walkers’ granddaughter, Reba, spends weekends on the farm while she “gets over some troubles” from the city. Most of the plot is driven by Coleridge’s attempt (sometimes assisted by Robard) to get to the bottom of Reba’s disappearance while looking over his shoulder to see if Night has landed in New York.

The meandering plot in Blood Standard might inspire a reader to create a flowchart to sort out the relationships between the characters. It draws on a lesson moviegoers learned from The Godfather: just when Coleridge thinks he’s out, the mob pulls him back in. Or at least it tries. But so do other criminal gangs, because criminals with Coleridge’s skills and size aren’t easy to find. Coleridge’s problems with the mob are compounded by problems with the local cops and the FBI and a group of mercenaries and some wealthy New York socialites, not to mention getting himself into the middle of an ethnic gang war. It’s hard to say which adversary is a greater menace. Fortunately, Coleridge has tough skin, a hard head, and a whole lot of fat protecting his vital organs.

Blood Standard mixes dark humor with crime drama. Coleridge is a fun character, if you think a man who is “the essence of violence” can be fun. As criminals go, Coleridge at least has the virtue of being incorruptible, which can’t be said of most of the novel’s law enforcement characters. He’s fond of quoting the classics, perhaps because epic heroes tend to be very violent dudes. He loves and protects dogs (and walruses), a virtue that (to my way of thinking) offsets a good bit of the harm he does to humans, most of whom deserve it. He stands up for his friends even if he knows he’ll pay a price. It’s hard not to like the guy.

The story has moments of action — violent action, to establish Coleridge’s credentials — but the story doesn’t depend on gratuitous violence for its pace. The violence comes at the right moments, punctuating a story that is more about the anticipation of violence than violence itself. The resolution of Reba’s disappearance is almost beside the point, but the plotline does get resolved. The resolution of Coleridge’s problem with Night is tense, surprising, and satisfying. If you enjoy rooting for the criminal in a crime novel, Blood Standard is a good choice.

RECOMMENDED

Friday
Aug102018

We Begin Our Ascent by Joe Mungo Reed

Published by Simon & Schuster on June 19, 2018

In part, We Begin Our Ascent is about wanting things we can’t have precisely because we can’t have them. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be the best, but the desire for the unattainable pushes good people to make bad choices.

We Begin Our Ascent is also about recognizing and celebrating the things that are more important than accomplishment. Being alive and in good health. Loving and being loved. Living with honor and acquiring wisdom.

To frame those themes, Joe Mungo Reed wrote We Begin Our Ascent as the Inside Baseball of bicycle racing. Without becoming a racing manual, the story integrates information about how racers prepare, how they work as a team, how they decide which performance enhancing drugs are best. The novel conveys an understanding that the sport of bicycle racing at the professional level is more than a game, that “the dedication, the logic and attention applied make it vivid, real and meaningful.”

Solomon is part of a bicycle racing team that is sponsored by a poultry company. His job is to help Fabrice, the strongest mountain rider, win. Sol’s job is not to win; he knows he cannot win. But the longer he can sustain the pace while riding in front of Fabrice, the more energy Fabrice will conserve, and the better will be Fabrice’s chance of powering up the mountain ahead of everyone else at the end of the toughest stretches in the race. The crowds cheer for each rider without realizing that most of them are not trying to win as individuals, but as a team.

Sol is happiest when he is part of the peloton, the mass of bicycles that race in a clump until the best riders pull out and compete for victory. Sol knows his place in the universe, and his place is in the peloton. At the same time, he learns that helping the team will require him to engage in the rampant doping that gives his competitors an edge.

Sol’s wife studies the genetics of zebra fish. She admires Sol’s dedication, while her mother wonders what kind of career can be made of riding a bicycle. They are balancing recent parenthood with their dedication to busy careers that keep them apart for much of the year.

Part of the novel’s drama comes from pressure to involve Sol’s wife in the transportation of performance enhancing drugs and the oxygen-rich blood that riders use to restore their vigor.

Of course, the race itself delivers the inherent drama of competition. Riding down mountains at speed is both exhilarating and dangerous. Joe Mungo Reed makes sure the reader is always conscious of the risk that a rider takes.

Both racing and doping carry risks, and those risks generate a surprising amount of suspense. The reader’s anticipation of the novel’s climax makes it even more powerful.

We Begin Our Ascent is a quiet and elegant novel. The story is interesting and entertaining until, like a bicycle racer who has found his rhythm, it shifts gears and reaches another level. The novel raises profound questions about balancing competition against our other drives, balancing winning against integrity, balancing success against loss. The novel spotlights the difficulty of making life-changing choices (not just deciding what is morally right, but what is right for our lives) and illustrates both the profound consequences of making the wrong choice and the randomness that might determine whether a choice is right or wrong.

In a climax that is deeply moving, We Begin Our Ascent reminds us that our lives are different from the stories we tell ourselves about our lives. Discovering what is at the root of our lives, the things that are truly important, is an even bigger struggle than peddling up a mountain. Few novels have made that argument as persuasively as We Begin Our Ascent.

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Wednesday
Aug082018

The Third Hotel by Laura van den Berg

Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux on August 7, 2018

The Third Hotel is about the transitions in life that relate to death and loss. Clare is 37 and alone in Havana. She had planned to go there with her husband Richard to attend the screening of a zombie apocalypse movie, but Richard (a horror film scholar) died in an accident five weeks earlier. As will the reader, Clare finds herself wondering why she came to Havana without him. She seems to think she will see him in Havana, and from time to time she does.

Richard was carrying a wrapped box at the time of his death that Clare brings to Havana but refuses to open. Instead, she wanders the streets, visits tourist attractions, and remembers Richard’s theories about horror films, all the while keeping an eye out for Richard. She also thinks about how Richard changed during their marriage. From her description of his new self, she might be better off without him, although the novel encourages the reader to wonder whether Richard might have thought that Clare was the one who changed.

The story draws a parallel between the “undead” movies that Richard analyzed and Clare’s perception of her suddenly “undead” husband. The undead have power over the living precisely because they cannot be killed; they are “free to rage and rage.” In Clare’s case, the ghost of her undead husband has power over her because he will not let her move on with her life — unless his undead presence is telling her that she needs to move on.

Clare also ponders the horror film tradition of killing “bad girls” while the virginal good girl survives, and compares it to her own experience. She talks to a professor about explanations of death that appear to reject death as a concept, given the multiverse theory that all things are simultaneously possible (e.g., death and undeath coexist). Bizarre things happen in Cuba, apart from Clare’s stalking of her dead husband. Yet if all things are possible, Clare might not be a reliable narrator, even as she remembers events from a past that seem real to her.

Later in the novel, when Clare interacts more fully with her dead husband — chatting with him in a hotel room and in a cave — it isn’t clear whether her mind is taking a break from reality or whether, as she believes, an event has occurred that cannot be explained by the laws of the familiar world. Since Richard lectures her on the dangers of grieving and talks to her about how strange her behavior had been in the months before he died, one might think all of this happens inside Clare’s head, but perhaps all things are possible, so readers can draw their own conclusions.

Clare’s contemplation of death extends to her still-living father, who has asked her to do something when he nears death that his growing dementia will not allow him to do himself. She considers his request an unfair burden. Whether we are chasing ghosts of the people we love or are dreading their demise, death is a burden to the living, and that is the novel’s theme.

A good bit of ambiguity remains at the novel’s end (particularly concerning the contents of the mysterious box and Richard’s actions at the time of his death), but the novel emphasizes that life and death are necessarily ambiguous, that we are all on a journey that may end at any time or that may continue for eternity. Maybe Richard is alive and Clare is dead. Maybe we are all simultaneously dead and undead. The story is unsettling but it is told in such effortless prose that it is easy to be swept along before pausing to wonder about its hidden depths. Readers who hate ambiguous literature will hate The Third Hotel, but readers who wonder about the wonder of existence will enjoy the novel’s challenges.

RECOMMENDED