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.

Wednesday
Aug212019

The Study of Animal Languages by Lindsay Stern

Published by Viking on February 19, 2019

The Study of Animal Languages is a domestic drama. In most respects, it follows the conventions of a domestic drama. A couple grows apart. Infidelity is suspected. The husband is likely having a midlife crisis and must come to terms with the causes of his unhappiness. Nothing in this novel surprises, other than quality of the writing, which saves the novel from being a novelized Lifetime movie.

Ivan Link’s wife Prue has completed a study of animal communication that suggests birdsongs may be a form of language. Ivan is a philosophy professor. He studies epistemology, the gap between data and truth. He doesn’t think Prue’s study proves anything. He may be right about that, but academic research can advance understanding even if it fails to produce a startling breakthrough. Since Ivan presumably understands that, his complaints about his wife’s research must stem from something other than a belief that birdsongs are not a language.

The reader will quickly suspect that Ivan is jealous of Prue. She is likable and thus well liked in the academic community while Ivan, who is pedantic and self-isolating, is treated more as a respected colleague than a friend. Cracks are forming in their marriage, including disagreements about fellowships and foreign travel (Prue has opportunities; Ivan likes to stay at home) and stress caused by Frank, Prue’s bipolar father.

The conflict between Ivan and Prue begins to reach a climax when Prue presents a paper that includes a fascinating discussion of the barriers to proving that sounds are part of a language when the listener has no way to assign meaning to the sounds. During her presentation, Prue asks how scientists can consider the emotional responses of voles to be sufficiently akin to human responses to use voles for biomedical research, while at the same time terrorizing them to determine how they respond to terror. I am not a particular friend of voles but the question merits serious consideration. Ivan, however, thinks Prue is a fool to question the ethics of animal research in a presentation to an audience that consists largely of animal researchers. The opportunity to gain tenure, Ivan believes, depends in large part on not pissing off faculty members who might end up on a tenure committee. Yet Ivan later proves that he can be just as career–destructive as his wife. His midlife meltdown is classic.

At other points, the novel’s focus is on Frank and on the differing efforts that Ivan and Prue make to cope with his dementia. Frank believes that sharks in an aquarium are speaking to him, conveying feelings rather than words. The story draws parallels between animal suffering, which animals are unable to articulate with words because they have no human vocabulary, and Frank’s suffering, which he is unable to articulate in a way that others understand because of his mental illness.

Ultimately, the plot makes its way to the well-trampled ground of marital infidelity, or at least to suspicion that it might be occurring. Joyless sex, odd telephone calls, a new acquisition that might have been a gift from an admirer, and absences from home are all clues, but do they justify the conclusion that hanky–panky is afoot? And if the suspicion is correct (or even if it is not), what is the correct response? Confrontation? Retaliation? Maintaining the unhappy status quo for fear that change will be worse?

Throw Ivan’s impressive meltdown into the mix and you have the familiar ingredients of a domestic drama.  Despite its familiar subject matter, the story’s background details and observant prose set The Study of Animal Languages apart from other novels that dissect marriages. The novel offers a focused examination of two people on a collision course and the choice they must make about their respective (or joint) futures.

The depiction of the unbalanced Ivan at midlife is a bit over-the-top, particularly when contrasted with the blameless Prue. While Prue purports to share responsibility for the wall that has arisen between them, it is clear that all the fault all rests with Ivan. I suspect that shared fault is more typical, but I can't condemn a novel for depicting an atypical marriage.

Since Ivan is a philosopher, the reader should expect a bit of philosophy. The novel’s big lesson is that life is not about figuring out what really matters (unless you're a philosopher), but “figuring out that your life was never even about you to begin with. You’re not the hero. You’re just someone in the cast.” That is a lesson everyone should learn.

RECOMMENDED

Monday
Aug192019

Old Bones by Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child

Published by Grand Central Publishing on August 20, 2019

Dr. Nora Kelly is an archeologist who has appeared in the authors’ Pendergast novels. Clive Benton has studied the history of the Donner Party, whose ill-fated trip to the Sierra Nevada included cannibalism. After acquiring Tamzene Donner’s lost journal, Benton wants Nora to lead an expedition to find the Lost Camp, the only camp of stranded Donner Party members that was never found. Benton also hopes to find a large quantity of gold coins.

Corrine Swanson is a new FBI agent, although she is also in the Pendergast stable of characters. She’s assigned to investigate a murder at a Civil War graveyard on federal property. The victim was hired to dig up a grave and was killed by his employers after they stole half of the body he uncovered. Further investigation reveals that graves of other individuals of common ancestry have been disinterred, that a woman in that same genealogical line has gone missing, and that another person in that line, Albert Parkin, was part of the Donner Party.

Old Bones tells a familiar story of an archeological dig, conducted by Nora and a couple of archeology students, with Benton acting as an advisor. A few additional characters guide the archeologists into the mountains and help them set up camp. Eventually, someone disturbs the bones they find, some bones are stolen, someone dies, and Swanson rides in on horseback to investigate.

Also familiar is Swanson’s status as a plucky rookie who pieces together information about grave robbers and is certain she’s on the trail of a serious crime, while her jaded boss wants her to end the investigation and devote her time to provable crimes. The story takes a supernatural twist when a character claims to have seen a ghost, presumably the ghost of a child who was unhappy she didn’t receive a proper burial after her leg was eaten. The ghost (or at least a floating green light) helps out the characters on a couple of occasions. I guess readers who like ghosts will appreciate the spectral addition, but it seemed out of place to me.

The plot generates little suspense. The wrongdoer’s identity is fairly obvious. Preston and Child make a halfhearted attempt to mislead the reader as to the wrongdoer’s motivation, but the reader would have to ignore half the plot to fall for it. Old Bones does manage a couple of surprises near the end, although the eventual explanation for the disinterred bodies is too farfetched to take seriously.

I’ve enjoyed most of Preston & Child’s Pendergast novels (Pendergast makes a cameo in the epilog, and his brief appearance is the best part of the story). I’ve been less satisfied by their other offerings, most of which are weaker than the Pendergast series. They have a tendency in those novels to fuel formulaic stories with stock characters and stale ideas. Characters are made sympathetic in predictable ways (Carrie’s unfortunate childhood makes her reach out to another kid with an unfortunate childhood, an unimaginative way of encouraging the reader to feel good about her) but they suffer from a lack of multiple dimensions.

Still, character development isn’t terribly important in a thriller if the plot excites. This one doesn’t. Preston & Child wield the thriller formula with skill, so their novels are always easy to read. Dedicated Preston & Child fans might enjoy Old Bones, but there are better choices on the thriller market.

RECOMMENDED WITH RESERVATIONS

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