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.


A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

Published by Viking on September 6, 2016

A Gentleman in Moscow is an exercise in elegance. Everything about it is elegant: the characters, the hotel where the novel takes place, and most of all, the prose. Take this sentence: “He said that our lives are steered by uncertainties, many of which are disruptive or even daunting, but that if we persevere and remain generous of heart, we may be granted a moment of supreme lucidity — a moment in which all that has happened to us comes into focus as a necessary course of events, even as we find ourselves on the threshold of the life that we had been meant to lead all along.” This is a story that, for most of the novel, seems to be about one thing, and it suddenly becomes something else — the story it was meant to be all along.

In 1922, Count Alexander Rostov appears before the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs and is asked whether his return to Moscow from Paris in 1918 was motivated by a desire to take up arms against the revolution. With charm, Rostov claims to be too old to take up arms against anything. The Party concludes that Rostov has succumbed to the corruptions of class but, instead of putting him against a wall to be shot, he is placed under house arrest in the Metropol Hotel, in recognition of his poetic service to the prerevolutionary cause. As a Former Person, Rostov must vacate his former Metropol suite and relocate to a small room that will not hold all of his possessions.

We eventually learn of Rostov’s past, the reason he left Russia, and the reason he returned, but for the most part, we watch Rostov’s life unfold over decades in the Metropol. A man of books, newspapers, and conversation (and the lover of a famous actress), Rostov lives a pleasant but uneventful life until he meets a nine-year-old girl named Nina, who offers to teach him the hotel’s secrets if he will explain the rules of being a princess.

As the years pass, Rostov takes a position as head waiter in the hotel’s exceptional restaurant. Nina grows up, and another little girl takes her place. A philosophical friend makes a surreptitious visit after his release from a gulag. Other friendships are forged. Those friendships prove to be integral in the last quarter of a leisurely novel that makes a sudden and surprising turn.

The history of Rostov’s stay at the hotel is a microcosmic history of life in the new Soviet Union, as labels are stripped from wine bottles (thus eliminating class distinctions), as Nina’s faith in the Revolution is tested, as purges and starvation change Russia’s face, as Soviet leaders dictate art and fashion, as censors remove criticism of Russian bread from Chekov’s letters, as the state imprisons those who indulge in free thought. Counterbalancing the bleakness of Soviet rule is a story of hope and perseverence.

A Gentleman in Moscow is a celebration of hotels (not just the Metropol) and food and friendship. But more, it is a celebration of life. Even within the confines of a hotel — especially within those confines, if the hotel is a landmark — life happens. Life is sneaky, Rostov observes. It disrupts routines, it forces change, it gives reason to marvel. “What a world,” Rostov observes, even if he observes only one small part of it inside the walls of the Metropol. And as a friend who experienced the true horror of confinement in Siberia tells him, his captivity and the friendships it has forged have made him the luckiest person in the world.

Rostov is a perfect gentleman, polite, congenial, unselfish, able to converse about nearly any topic. He is one of the most likable characters in modern literature. And Amor Towles is among the most elegant writers in modern literature, capable of spinning exquisite sentences that evoke a full gamut of emotions. He manages to do that exquisitely in A Gentleman in Moscow. On the strength of just two novels, Towles has cemented his position as one of American’s most gifted novelists.



Ill Will by Dan Chaon

Published by Ballantine Books on March 7, 2017

Two brothers are married to two sisters, which is weird for their children (the biological and an adopted son of one couple, twin daughters of the other), who are cousins and nieces/nephews at the same time. When the youngest child, Dustin Tillman, is still fairly young, both sets of parents are murdered. Dustin’s adopted brother Rusty is convicted of the murders and sent to prison.

The murders occur in the 1980s, when juries eagerly believed in nonsense about “Satanic ritual abuse” that (like many of the sensationalistic phenomena reported by Geraldo Rivera) turned out to be nonexistent. One of the key witnesses regarding Rusty’s satanic tendencies was Dustin. How that came to happen is revealed slowly as the story unfolds.

Now middle-aged, Dustin is a psychologist. Like many psychologists, he’s a mess. He once worked as a forensic expert, specializing in Satanic ritual abuse and recovered memories, two fields that were widely discredited in the years that followed. He reinvented himself as a conventional psychologist who hypnotizes patients to help them stop smoking and deal with chronic pain.

As the story begins, Rusty has been released from prison, having finally established his innocence. Some of Ill Will recaps Dustin’s childhood and his relationship with Rusty and his twin cousins, Kate and Waverly. Some of the novel follows Rusty’s telephonic relationship with Dustin’s son Aaron, a young junkie who can’t find any motivation to make a life for himself. It is a challenge to decide whether Dustin or Aaron is more damaged. A small part of the story focuses on Aaron’s brother, who sensibly wants nothing to do with his family.

And some of the story centers upon Dustin’s relationship with a patient, Aqil Ozorowski, a police officer on medical leave, who is preoccupied with the deaths by drowning of several intoxicated students in Ohio. Ozorowski believes they are part of a pattern. An urban legend has grown around that theory, giving birth to a hypothesized killer known as Jack Daniels. If Jack Daniels exists, is he responsible for the death of Aaron’s friend Rabbit?

The key theme of Ill Will is that events have the meaning we choose to give them. Truth is ambiguous. Truth is whatever we believe truth to be. If we choose to see a pattern, one exists. If we choose to give the relationship between events no meaning, the events are unrelated. Seeing patterns where none exist explains why conspiracy theorists are so troubled about unrelated facts, but not seeing patterns between connected events (perhaps for fear of being labeled a conspiracy theorist) can lead to false conclusions. Untrue things (like the spread of Satanic cults) become true when enough people believe them to be true — at least until most people finally realize that they never were true.

Other themes include the power of suggestion, the malleability of memory, the ease with which children can be manipulated (and their unreliability as witnesses for that reason), how abuse is like a virus that turns the abused into abusers, how “accidental and random” life can be, and how bullying can have unexpected consequences.

Dan Chaon’s prose style is often unconventional. Some sentences trail off or have extra spaces between words, reflecting the way people pause or stop talking when they don’t know what to say. Some of the story appears in text balloons. One section is written in three adjacent columns representing three different points of view. None of that put me off and some of it is clever, although the columns are hard to read in digital format. This is yet another reason to believe that print editions of a book make for better reading, even if they are less convenient.

The first half of Ill Will builds characters and background, while the second half builds tension. The plot is based on a series of misunderstandings and mistaken conclusions that prompt characters to take unsound actions ... or malicious actions that are true to their nature.

I didn’t care much for Ill Will’s unlikable characters and strange plot until it began to grow on me. By the time the story reached its conclusion, after I realized what Chaon intended and how effectively he accomplished that intent, I became a believer.



Friendly Fire by John Gilstrap

Published by Pinnacle Books on June 28, 2016

Scorpion begins Friendly Fire by rescuing a congressman’s daughter who has been kidnapped (the details of how he finds her are conveniently unreported). Ethan Falk begins Friendly Fire by murdering the man who abused him as a child. He was rescued from that man eleven years earlier (by Scorpion, of course), but since there is no record of the kidnapping or the rescue, the police don’t believe him. That puts Scorpion, who keeps his daring and extra-legal rescues confidential, in a sticky situation.

Scorpion is Jonathan Grave, who sometimes accepts assignments from Irene Rivers, a/k/a Wolverine, who also happens to be director of the FBI. Calling in a favor, Grave wants Rivers to explain why the man Falk killed, James Stepahin, appears never to have existed. That leads to an improbable storyline about terrorists and their hired guns who plan to cause havoc in Virginia.

I don’t hold its improbability against Friendly Fire because improbability is the new norm in the world of thrillers and the novel is not so outlandish as to be laughable. The fuzziness of the background (neither the team of killers/kidnappers who cause havoc throughout the novel nor the people who hire them are well developed) is offset by the action scenes, which are tense if fairly standard for an action thriller. Scorpion and his sidekick Big Guy manage to kill dozens of bad guys without breaking a sweat, about what you’d expect from the action genre. Fortunately, the quality of John Gilstrap’s prose is better than average for the genre, making Friendly Fire a fast and pleasant read.

The strength of the novel lies in a subplot involving Falk who, while confined to jail, grudgingly agrees to open himself up to the therapist who wants to explore his story about being kidnapped and abused before being rescued by Scorpion (a story that people in authority regard as a fantasy, except for a lone cop who does the legwork to dig up corroborating evidence). The facts underlying the kidnapping and the mystery surrounding the kidnapper again veer toward the improbable, but the scenes involving Falk and the therapist are quite compelling. They are, I think, the glue that holds the novel together and that distinguish Friendly Fire from the glut of action thrillers that scream for a reader’s attention.



Universal Harvester by John Darnielle

Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux on February 7, 2017

Jeremy Heldt works in a video store in Iowa in the late 90s, when video stores still exist. Customers are complaining that the videos have scenes that don’t belong in the movie. The scenes generally don’t amount to much, but they are unsettling. Jeremy becomes a bit obsessed about the scenes, which are vaguely chilling but mostly just vague. One of the customers, Stephanie Parsons, shares that obsession. The owner, Sarah Jane Shepherd, doesn’t know what to do. Reporting the problem to the police would be a waste of time because the scenes, while ominous, don’t actually show any illegal activity. Or at least, nothing that they notice right away.

For some time, this is a story of people in a small Iowa town who are trying to work out what to do with their lives. From time to time, however, a first-person narrator intrudes — a change of pace from the voice that relates most of the events in the novel. The narrator’s identity is not immediately clear, but enough clues are planted to allow the reader to make an eventual guess. At some points, the narration seems to change from that of an omniscient observer in the present to an historian who is relating facts that are known and commenting on facts that might never be known. I liked the way the jarring changes in narration contribute to the puzzling nature of the story.

The novel alters course when it begins to describe the small town life some years earlier of a woman named Irene Sample, who eventually marries, has a daughter, and begins to receive religious tracts that clearly (to the reader, if not Irene) have special significance. As Irene begins to pay attention to what might be a religious cult, it becomes clear that a character in Irene’s story also played a role in Jeremy’s story. And then the novel changes again, to a time that is relatively current.

Universal Harvester creates the suspense of a horror story without delivering the predictable scenes of a horror story. In the novel’s last section, the reader’s questions are answered in surprising ways.

The novel reminds us that life is filled with sad moments. If they aren’t necessarily horrifying, if they do not involve gore and malice, they can nevertheless have lasting impacts. This isn’t really a horror novel because horror is a manifestation of evil, and Universal Harvester isn’t about evil. Some of the characters might be misguided, some might be mentally unsound, but they are not truly evil. Rather, Universal Harvester is about good people making the best they can out of life. It is about how much people have in common even when they seem to have nothing in common. The novel is surprising and heartening and distressing. It is, in other words, a reflection of life.



What You Break by Reed Farrel Coleman

Published by G.P. Putnam's Sons on February 7, 2017

The prolific Reed Farrell Coleman has developed or contributed to six series of novels. What You Break is the second installment of the Gus Murphy series. Enough background from Where It Hurts appears in What You Break to make it easily read as a standalone book.

Gus is a retired cop who works hotel security in Suffolk County, New York, which sometimes requires him to drive a hotel shuttle. The doorman, Gus’ good friend Slava Podalak, has a mysterious past. Gus is trying to rebuild his life after his son’s death. He regrets the end of his marriage but he knows better than to pretend he can save it.

Gus has a history with a priest who saved his life by killing someone. The priest introduces Gus to a wealthy fellow named Micah Spears, whose granddaughter, Linh Trang Spears, has been murdered. The police arrested the murderer but they don’t understand his motive. Spears wants Gus to find out why the crime was committed.

Quickly enough, Gus encounters a professional hit man, gets beaten up by a big guy, gets beaten up by a cop, dodges Russians who are trying to find Slava, is chased by thugs in a car, and has a conflict with his girlfriend. It’s a dangerous life Gus leads, although his tour of Long Island pizza joints might make it bearable.

Gus eventually decides that he won’t learn anything until he learns more about Micah Spears, who turns out to be at least as mysterious as Slava. Coleman makes a big deal out of the contrast between Slava, who did something bad and carries enormous guilt, and Spears, who did something bad and feels no remorse. Both of the characters seem contrived, created expressly for the purpose of demonstrating that contrast, but neither of them has much substance.

Gus reminds us about once every three pages that his son died and that the death changed him. That’s a fine characterization, but I got it the first time. By the tenth time, I was ready for Gus to find something else to talk about. Unfortunately, Gus is too dull to talk about anything interesting. The other main character, a former priest who lost his faith, is a standard stereotype too often found in crime fiction to be interesting.

The plot is plausible and reasonably entertaining. I liked the ending. The novel’s merits outweigh its shortcomings but this certainly isn’t Coleman’s best work.