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 weekends.  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
Aug162019

The Unpassing by Chia-Chia Lin

Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux on May 7, 2019

Childhood shapes adulthood in this story of a transplanted family. Torn from his homeland, the young protagonist feels like he does not belong, a condition that will shape his entire life.

In the 1970s, Gavin’s family moved from Taiwan to Minnesota to Alaska, where his father (a former wastewater engineer) drills wells and does some plumbing to make ends meet. The story begins in 1986, near the time of the Challenger disaster, when Gavin comes out of a coma. His youngest sister has died from a meningitis infection that Gavin brought home from school. Gavin feels guilty for surviving.

Gavin’s father is a dreamer; his mother a pragmatist. Gavin’s parents often quarrel over the father’s apparent inability to accept that he will never work as an engineer in his new country, its reputation as a land of opportunity notwithstanding. Their marriage is further strained by a lawsuit accusing the father of causing a child’s death because of a defect in a well he constructed.

Gavin’s brother Natty is slow but artistic. His sister Pei-Pei is getting it on with a neighbor boy. Gavin is too young to get it on with his friend Ada and too shy to explore his budding feelings about the opposite sex. Ada’s brother bullies him, the universal experience of childhood.

The story follows family turmoil from Gavin’s sixth grade perspective. He mistakes an eviction for a vacation, wonders why his father so rarely works, doesn’t quite understand the concept of lawsuits, frets when Natty wanders into the woods, feels distress when his mother bickers with his father, and lives with the guilt of his sister’s death. His unease persists regardless of his circumstances, a condition that will afflict his entire life.

Gavin tells the story in a quiet, subdued voice that reflects his barely controlled fear of events that are beyond his control. Gavin’s language is simple, befitting a child of his age, but Chia-Chia Lin arranges his simple words into elegant sentences. The final chapter is written from Gavin’s adult perspective as he returns to Alaska and Taiwan. He apparently hopes to give context to his present by searching for roots that never took hold. This snapshot of formative moments in a child’s life makes a persuasive case that however well an adult might learn to cope with traumatic events of childhood, their impact on personality is profound and permanent.

RECOMMENDED

Wednesday
Aug142019

Inland by Téa Obreht

Published by Random House on August 13, 2019

After The Tiger’s Wife, a novel that mixes reality with myth in a Balkan country, it might seem odd that Téa Obreht would write an American western. Yet westerns are all about myth and Obeht has given the genre a twist. The ghosts who haunt the main characters are in keeping with the dead who populate the stories told by characters in The Tiger’s Wife.

The living characters in Inland arrive at stark truths in the desolate lands through which they roam. One character comes “to understand that extraordinary people are eroded by their worries while the useless are carried ever forward by their delusions.” Another character believes that “God, in His infinite wisdom, made it so that to live, generally, is to wound another. And He made every man blind to his own weapons, and too short-living to do anything but guard jealously his own small, wasted way.”

Want is a theme explored through several characters, one of whom concludes that it is best to always be a little discontent, because “too much contentment is apt to make you think you can have more. And worse, make you wonder: when will it be taken away?” The two central characters, Nora and Lurie, are both struck by the “vast and immutable want everybody, dead or alive, carried with them all the time.” A related theme is the rootlessness of men who believe that if they keep moving, what they want will be found at the next destination, while rooted women stay behind to raise children and build a home.

The story is also founded on the timeless theme that those who hold power will do anything they can to retain it. They reveal secrets, they spread lies, they make and carry out threats. Speaking truth to power is nothing but a slogan when the powerful have the ability to destroy truth tellers.

All of these themes are given context in a story that moves around in time and place as it chronicles the tumultuous lives of two main characters. Nora moves from Iowa to the Arizona Territory to be with her husband, Emmett Lark, who has taken on unmanageable debt to acquire a newspaper in a small town. Nora lost a daughter and lives in constant fear that she will lose her sons. She carries guilt and keeps a secret about that death from all but one person, a man who is not her husband. By 1893, in the midst of a drought and a raging dispute between two newspapers, she fears she will lose Emmett, who left in search of water and has not returned, leaving her to be comforted by the sheriff for whom she has long felt a guilty affection.

Nora’s life is shaped by hardship but she keeps resentment at bay by finding purpose in hard work. In her mind, she talks with her dead daughter, who ages as if she were alive, giving Nora “a glimpse of how all of life would have unfolded had the girl survived.”

Living with Nora is a young woman named Josie, who claims to communicate with the dead. She is adored by Nora’s youngest son and might be the future wife of an older son, although Nora treats her with contempt. Josie and Nora’s youngest son are convinced not just that ghosts walk among them, but that a demonic beast is lurking in the woods. Nora is never quite certain whether Josie has a psychic gift or a wild imagination ­­­­­— the evidence could go either way.

The second central character is Lurie, whose story begins decades before Nora’s. Lurie was born in Herzegovina to a father who is always angered to be mistaken for a Turk. At the age of six, running for his life in his father’s company, Lurie travels to New York, where he is soon orphaned. His adventures growing up teach him to be a thief; one of his tutors is the ghost of a boy named Hobb Mattie. In concert with Hobb’s living brother during the mid-1850s, Lurie regularly appears on Wanted posters in the South, where rebellion against the law of the North is celebrated. His nemesis is Marshal John Berger. Fleeing from Berger, Lurie makes his way to the West with a caravan of camels, intended as pack animals for the infantry.

The conflict that drives the plot concerns a proposal to move the county seat from Amargo, where Emmett and Nora live, to a town that is lobbying to be connected to the railroad. The loser of that conflict is doomed to remain forever inland. For reasons Nora does not understand, Emmett refuses to take on the rival town, its newspaper, and its most powerful rancher. When Emmet fails to return home after going in search of water, the conflict takes on a new dimension and leads to a series of surprising revelations.

The plot is engrossing and the way the two stories tie together is completely unexpected. Inland might not be quite as astonishing as The Tiger’s Wife, but Obreht again gives her readers the gift of luminous prose and again conjures a plot that is unlike anything I have read before. At 33, she is a relatively young writer, but she has an old soul. Eight years passed between The Tiger’s Wife and Inland. Since quality should always trump quantity, I will gladly wait another eight years to read her next book.

RECOMMENDED

Monday
Aug122019

Dahlia Black by Keith Thomas

Published by Atria/Leopoldo & Co. on August 13, 2019

Dahlia Black is written as the history of a world-changing event. The event begins when an astronomer named Dahlia Mitchell discovers a signal coming from space that contains a Pulse Code, which is like a computer virus except it alters the computers we refer to as brains. About 30% of humanity experiences an Elevation and those who are capable of handling it will experience a transitional event called the Finality. Fans of the old Stargate television series might be reminded of Daniel Jackson’s ascension to a higher place of existence.

When the Finality comes, civilization goes. The world’s population declines by five billion people in five years, leaving the survivors to rebuild. Some choose to rebuild while others decide to go live in the woods. Nobody has much interest in rebuilding the dysfunctional government in Washington D.C. Alabama and Texas seize the opportunity to split from the not-so-United States, but the postapocalyptic aspects of the novel are part of the background. This isn’t another story of moronic survivalists killing each other.

The story is told through FBI interview transcripts, journal entries, transcripts of White House meetings, and the author’s notes and interviews. We learn that Dahlia is not the first astronomer to detect such a signal. An obscure government agency and a stealthy group known as the Twelve became aware of what such signals can do and tried to exploit the information while keeping a lid on it. Dahlia isn’t the kind of person who keeps a lid on the truth.

Of course, governments that decide to tell their citizens an uncomfortable truth often put a spin on it. Keith Thomas images the American administration hiring marketing managers to sell the Elevation to the public, ostensibly without causing mass panic. True to her roots, the marketing guru recommends lying. The government describes the Elevation as something like the Rapture, although none of the Left Behind really understand the nature of the Finality. Whether it is right or wrong to instill false hope is left to the reader to decide.

And since it has become the American way to hate anything that people don’t understand, the story imagines that some Elevated are committed to institutions or placed in concentration camps. In the worst case, a small town mob sets a camp of Elevated people on fire. The message is that people fear change, particularly when they aren’t intellectually equipped to accept its inevitability.

While Dahlia Black tells an interesting story, its epistolary style creates a detachment that robs the story of its power. The ultimate lesson — find your own meaning in life, don’t expect a miracle to come along that gives it meaning — has merit, but the message is presented as if it were something from a self–help book. The last chapter reveals the purpose of the Pulse and the Finality, and while it is meant to be poignant, it left me unmoved.

In the end, the novel is more of a thought experiment than the emotional gut punch it could have been. I’m not sure whether that is good or bad — at least I did not feel emotionally manipulated by the story, but when I end a story with a shrug, feeling no attachment to any character and lacking an emotional connection to the plot, I’m generally disappointed. In the case of Dahlia Black, my disappointment was slight, given my interest in the story as it unfolded, but I cannot give the book an enthusiastic recommendation.

RECOMMENDED WITH RESERVATIONS

Friday
Aug092019

Death Is Hard Work by Khaled Khalifa

First published in Lebanon in 2016; published in translation by Farrar, Straus and Giroux on February 12, 2019

On his father’s deathbed, Bolbol promises to bury his father’s body in the grave of his father’s sister. It is a promise he will soon regret. The grave is in Anabiya, hundreds of miles from the Damascus hospital where his father died. People in Syria are dying in droves, their bodies occupying mass graves. The “martyrs” who die for the state are no longer given funerals; corpses line the streets. Bolbol has promised to give his father’s body the kind of attention that even wealthy families can no longer provide to their dead. “The exceptional had become habitual, and tragedies were simply mundane — perhaps that was the worst part of this war.”

Accompanied by his brother Hussein and sister Fatima, Bolbol begins a harrowing journey to Anabiya. If he survives the snipers and bombs, he wants the trip to be his last familial act. His dream is to escape to a peaceful country where he can “inter himself in snow.” But the journey is perilous, particularly when the Mukhabarat (Syrian Intelligence Service) arrest the corpse on the theory that Bolbol’s father was wanted, death not being a defense to his crimes. At later checkpoints, Bolbol is challenged to prove that his father is dead, the putrid corpse itself being insufficient evidence. Syrians are not dead, Bolbol learns, until the government proclaims them dead.

Death Is Hard Work paints a vivid picture of Syria in conflict, a seemingly constant state of affairs. Bolbol is caught in the middle of a Civil War, avoiding any action that might cause the regime to question his loyalty. He has even cancelled cable channels that are disfavored by Hezbollah. He was born in an area that is controlled by the opposition, a fact that has caused thousands like him to disappear. He is also the son of an enemy of the regime, but he has passed every security check. If he were living in an area controlled by the opposition, he would behave in exactly the opposite way to prolong his survival. “Holding onto their lives, despite the misery of them, was the real goal that everyone harbored.”

To illustrate the contrast in Syrian life before and after the civil war that began with the 2011 Arab Spring uprising, the story recounts the history of Bolbol’s father, Abdel Latif. As a teacher for 40 years and a respected member of his village, Latif clung to idealistic memories of the 1960s, another time of upheaval. He remembered the 1960s as a time of elegance and erudition, while professors in the current incarnation of Syria are accused of sedition if they speak out against nationalism.

While Death Is Hard Work illustrates the difficult and dangerous lives of Syrians in a divided country, it does so by telling a universal story. Latif's story is one of  love and loss, a story suggesting that age is no barrier to a fresh love. The story of Bolbol and Hussein is one of family conflict that could arise in any culture, although not often under such terrifying circumstances.

The journey through checkpoints on a sniper-infested road is tense. Traffic is frequently halted by gun battles. Bombs fall from the sky, sometimes hitting the highway instead of their intended targets. The army and rebels and bandits are all armed; different checkpoints are controlled by different extremist militias, some of whom are not from Syria. Bolbol and his family can only hope they will survive each day and night as Latif’s corpse bloats in the back seat. Khaled Khalifa makes their fear is palpable. “The calmest of the four was the corpse, of course, which knew no fear or worry; blue tinged, it swelled with perfect equanimity and didn’t care that it might explode at any moment.”

The story dramatizes how peaceful Syrians, like peaceful people all over the world, do their best to cope with a violent environment they had no part in creating. The story is intense and, while it is relatively short, it is difficult to read without taking frequent breaks to refresh a mind that is overwhelmed by the mental stench of a decaying corpse (I had the same reaction to Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, a novel I love although the imagery still troubles me, decades after reading it).

Death Is Hard Work tells a powerful story about sympathetic characters who undergo a life-changing experience in a dangerous place and time. Books like this are essential for readers who want to understand and reflect upon the trauma that so many of the world’s residents endure.

RECOMMENDED

Wednesday
Aug072019

City of Windows by Robert Pobi

Published by St. Martin's Press/Minotaur Books on August 6, 2019

Snipers are apparently the thriller flavor of the month. On the heels of Tzer Island’s review of Game of Snipers comes Tzer Island’s review of City of Windows, another thriller in which the villain is a sniper who shoots with amazing accuracy. While Game of Snipers will appeal to fans of gun porn and thrillers that feature terrorists from the Middle East, City of Windows recognizes that ill-named “patriot militias,” consisting of poorly educated white men, pose “the greatest threat that exists to American security.” As I was reading City of Windows, the accuracy of that observation was driven home by the white supremacist who killed 20 people in El Paso because of his irrational hatred of their national heritage. The recognition that the number of mass shootings in America committed by white American Christians dwarfs the number committed by Islamic extremists sets City of Windows apart from mainstream thrillers. Gun porn fans are likely to hate it.

Lucas Page is a math whiz. He goes into a place in his head that lets him see everything as data. He no longer works for the FBI, but when his former partner is killed by a sniper in New York City, Lucas is called upon to close his eyes and figure out the location from which the shot was fired. That isn’t easy in a city of windows.

Lucas is missing an arm, a leg, and an eye, the result of his former law enforcement career. Now he is a professor with a wife and five children who were adopted from shattered homes. He has no desire to work for the FBI again, so of course he will, notwithstanding the wife who initially complains about his misplaced priorities. All of that is standard thriller fare.

Lucas has an impatient attitude that makes him an interesting character, although you might not want him to be your co-worker. He tells a prison guard who insists on being called a corrections officer that air conditioner installers should not expect to be called refrigeration engineers. He has no patience for the dumbing down of America, which he blames on fact-challenged opinion makers of all political persuasions. He lambasts both the propaganda-disguised-as-news served up by Fox and the focus on talking heads rather than facts served up by CNN.

The administration wants the killing blamed on a Muslim terrorist. They have one in mind and the FBI has been ordered to find him. That seems sadly plausible in today’s political world. The agent in charge wants Lucas to focus his skills on finding the real killer while the rest of the Bureau is chasing wild geese for the administration.

A series of shootings follow, all seemingly impossible shots, mostly made in bad weather. Rightwing militias (described as dimwitted and emotionally unstable bullies who have been irradiated by rightwing media) eventually enter the investigative radar. The story illustrates the madness that ensues when individuals who refuse to submit to society’s laws clash with law enforcement officers who enforce laws blindly. As in Waco, where both cops and outlaws want to prove that they are the baddest men on the block, confrontations that could be managed nonviolently instead explode.

The novel becomes a bit preachy at times, but its timely condemnation of white supremacists and their gun culture is a message that needs to be preached. An ironic “live by the sword” moment involving an NRA leader might be criticized as heavy-handed. Still, the novel is a welcome change from all the thrillers that depict armed white men as saviors who protect America from Muslim terrorists.

City of Windows earns a recommendation not because of its politics (I recommended Game of Snipers despite its politics), but because it is a smart, engaging thriller. Lucas assembles all the clues in a Sherlockian effort to identify the killer. The plot takes a clever twist at the end when Lucas comes to a new understanding of the killer’s choice of targets. Lucas’ disability and gift with spatial reasoning might be a bit gimmicky, but he is an admirable character because he solves problems by using his intellect, not by being bigger and tougher than everyone else. The story moves quickly, and the ending is no less plausible than is typical in thrillers. If Robert Pobi continues to write at this level, the Lucas Page series will be attract a large following, even if gun porn enthusiasts are not likely to embrace the unarmed Lucas as a hero.

RECOMMENDED