The Tzer Island author blog is a forum for discussion of writers whose works have been reviewed in the Tzer Island book blog.  It may call attention to a new or relatively unknown author or to an established author's lesser known works.  Readers are invited and encouraged to comment on the writers featured on this blog, to discuss books that the author has written that aren't reviewed here, or to chat about anything else of relevance to the featured author.  As is true of the Tzer Island book blog, the author blog is an ongoing project, a work in progress that will forever be unfinished.


Jim Harrison

Jim Harrison’s death on March 26, 2016 at the age of 78 removes a sparkling light from the literary world. Harrison’s fiction celebrated pleasure, often including the joys to be found in nature, dogs, food, and sex. At the same time, his characters were typically befuddled by a world they could not quite grasp. They were mixed bags of pessimism and optimism, wisdom and foolishness, virtue and vice. They were deeply wounded by life’s injustices, including failed relationships and the deaths of friends and pets, and they were prone to self-inflicted wounds. Sometimes the characters learned lessons, sometimes they failed to learn anything, but the lessons were always there to benefit the reader.

Because it was made into a movie, Harrison is best known for the novella Legends of the Fall. Novellas were, in fact, a form at which Harrison excelled. His last book to see publication before his death, The Ancient Minstrel, collects three excellent novellas. The book proves that even in the last years of his life, Harrison never lost his creative spark or his wry sense of humor.

Fittingly, a novella included in The Ancient Minstrel brings to a close the story of Sunderson, a recurring character in Harrison’s fiction. Sunderson was a misbehaving horndog who, despite his attraction to teenage girls and his perpetual ability to disappoint himself, followed an internal code of decency and honor that give actual meaning to those terms in ways that most fictional heroes don’t really understand.

Sunderson is the kind of aging male character that Harrison did so well. Harrison might be the most insightful analyst of the older male mind that the literary world has produced.

Like many of Harrison’s characters, Sunderson loved to fish. Harrison, like his characters, preferred the country to the city. He attributed his appreciation of the natural world to having lost his left eye when he was a child. Many of his stories are set in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, or in Montana, Arizona, and other places where the night sky is clear. Despite those settings, Harrison did not glorify rural residents. In one of his last novellas, he made a point of lampooning writers who depict country folk as noble yokels. His characters were simply people who happened to enjoy nature and quiet lives, with all the complexity but not so much pretension as city dwellers.

Harrison had a literary style that was all his own. He was no friend of the comma. His prose was folksy without ever losing its elegance. Harrison wrote poetry, screenplays, and nonfiction (which tended to focus on food) in addition to novels and novellas.

Harrison’s obituary in The Washington Post gives a good overview of his life and work.

The Wikipedia bibliography of Harrison’s work is the most complete that I’ve found.

The Jim Harrison books reviewed on Tzer Island are:

The Great Leader (2011) is a Sunderson novel. Sunderson retires from his job as a police detective, travels to Arizona to investigate “the crime of religion,” and has (or fantasizes about) sex with a variety of women. Harrison makes pithy observations about a number of topics, including sex and religion, but also money, divorce, and retirement. Harrison’s willingness to skewer conventional thought in The Great Leader is priceless, provided you aren’t wedded to conventional thought.

The River Swimmer (2013) contains two novellas. “The Land of Unlikeness” features a typical Harrison character, an aging male who still hasn’t gotten his life together. Balancing missed opportunities and mild regrets with cautious optimism, the man moves forward to the unknown, ready to face the challenges and rewards of his life’s last phase. The second novella, one of Harrison’s best, is about a man who swims the hundred miles from Muskegon to Chicago. Unlike the protagonist in the first story, the young man in the second story has most of his life ahead of him. The lesson he learns is that life can’t be planned, a recurring theme in Harrison’s work.

The Big Seven (2015) is another Sunderson novel. While pursuing a “faux mystery” involving a number of deaths within a family, Sunderson sets an “all-around record for sloppy behavior.” Most of the sloppiness involves women, teenage girls, and alcohol. The novel’s meandering plot emphasizes the randomness of life and the unexpected adventures that are waiting to please or plague people who get off their butts and go fishing (actually or metaphorically).

The Ancient Minstrel (2016) collects three novellas. “The Case of the Howling Buddhas” brings Sunderson’s story to a surprising conclusion. “Eggs” follows a woman from her childhood to World War II London to Palm Beach to the Montana farm where she indulges her lifelong fascination with chickens. The protagonist of “The Ancient Minstrel” is a 70-year-old writer of novels, novellas, poetry, and screenplays. To the extent that the story might be autobiographical, it never shies away from Harrison’s portrayal of aging men as faintly ridiculous creatures who have a lot to learn.


Iain Banks

Iain Banks (1954-2013) is notable for his success as an author of both mainstream literary fiction and science fiction. The Scottish writer differentiated his science fiction from his mainstream fiction by adding his middle initial to his name on works of science fiction, which he wrote as Iain M. Banks.

The British newspaper The Times named Banks one of the 50 greatest British writers since 1945, listing him alongside such venerable writers as George Orwell, William Golding, Iris Murdoch, Salman Rushdie, and Kazuo Ishiguro. In the year of his death, Banks was named an Honorary Fellow of the Association for Scottish Literary Studies.

Struggling to get his science fiction published, Banks decided to try his hand at a mainstream novel. The Wasp Factory, published in 1984, graphically described a teenager’s violent childhood. It earned a scathing review in The Irish Times (“a work of unparalleled depravity”) which might have contributed to its cult status and enduring sales. Other notable mainstream novels include The Crow Road and the “compulsively disturbing” Complicity. My favorite is Stonemouth, a more recent literary effort that showcases Banks’ maturity as an author.

Banks’ first published science fiction novel, Consider Phlebas (1987), began a popular series of novels set in the Culture universe. The Culture is one of several civilizations sharing (or not) the galaxy. The Culture tends to have a stronger moral sense than other civilizations, and its members have a strong belief in personal freedom, preferring to live as they please on spaceships and satellites rather than dealing with the authoritarian conflicts that naturally arise in planet-based economies. At the same time, the Culture’s sense of humanity often drives its intervention when less advanced civilizations behave badly, although not all members of the Culture agree with the interventionist strategies implemented by the artificial intelligences known as The Minds.

Banks intended The Culture series to act as a counterpoint to American science fiction, which he regarded as too right-wing, and to British science fiction, which he described as “miserablist.” Members of the Culture tend to share Banks’ humanist values, which he described as “non-religious, non-superstitious, basing morality on shared human values of decency, tolerance, reason, justice, the search for truth, and so on.” The Culture series combines optimism, humor, action, and intellect. The stories are fun and exciting without becoming shallow. Banks suggested that the Culture “represents the place we might hope to get to after we've dealt with all our stupidities.”

Ironically, Banks’ last novel, The Quarry, is about a man who is dying of cancer, the disease that claimed Banks’ life, although he did not know he had cancer until he had completed about 90 percent of the book. Banks died 3 months after he was diagnosed, although not before asking his partner, Adele Hartley, to “do me the honour of becoming my widow.” The grace with which Banks accepted death is characteristic of the way he lived his life, and of the values he portrayed in his fiction.

Banks’ obituary in The Guardian is here. It points out that Banks used the internet to keep in touch with his readers, and in fact blogged the news of his cancer shortly after he became aware of his prognosis.

Bibliographies of Banks’ mainstream and science fiction novels can be found here.

The Banks novels reviewed on the Tzer Island book blog are:

Consider Phlebas (1987) - The first Culture novel sets up the universe in which subsequent novels in the series were grounded (although “grounded” might be the wrong word since characters spend more time in space than on the ground). I liked this novel less than subsequent entries in the series, but I admired the purposefulness and humor in the story.

The Player of Games (1988) - The second Culture novel is one of Banks' best works. It uses a human game player's invitation to play games on an alien world to explore the (often unfortunate) role that ruthless competition plays in politics and society. The story is more serious than some other Culture novels although it incorporates characteristic elements of Banks' humor.

The Hydrogen Sonata (2012) - The final Culture novel is fun, intelligent, playful, fast-moving, and wildly imaginative. Banks effectively conveyed a sense of the age and vastness of the universe, played with theories about other universes/dimensions that might exist, and peppered the story with a wonderful array of gadgetry. The moral quandary that ends the story is typical of Banks’ effort to blend substance with entertaining space opera.

Stonemouth (2012) - A small gem of a novel, Stonemouth describes a man’s reluctant return to his hometown in northern Scotland. He learns the truth about a defining moment from his past and, in the process, learns some truths about himself. This engrossing novel combines a gentle loves story with intermittent violence to build dramatic tension that leads to a thundering climax.

The Quarry (2013) - Banks lightened this serious story about death with characteristic touches of humor. The plot involves a gathering of friends for a weekend of talking, drinking, and doing drugs. The novel suggests that people have reunions as a way of measuring themselves. While this is far from Banks’ best novel, scenes involving a disagreeable man who is dying of cancer are realistic and moving.


Joe Gores

Joe Gores (1931-2011) wrote sixteen novels and dozens of short stories.  Although his legacy as a crime writer is substantial, he is probably best known for his DKA (Dan Kearney and Associates) novels.  Kearney and his unforgettable collection of employees repossessed cars and did skip traces … the mundane, real-world work of private detectives.  Yet mundane is never an apt descriptor of Gores’ writing.  His fiction is tight, authentic, and memorable.

Educated at Notre Dame and Stanford (where he earned a master’s in English), Gores’ work experience included stints as a truck driver, a logger, and an assistant motel manager.  He also taught English in Kenya.  Yet it was the dozen years he spent working as a private detective (where he learned the art of repossessing cars) that most informs his crime fiction.  More information about Gores’ life and his work is available in this Thrilling Detective entry.

Gores began writing crime fiction in 1957 and continued until shortly before his death.  A multiple winner of the Edgar Award, Gores wrote television scripts in addition to books and stories.  His novel Hammett (inspired by his long devotion to the work of Dashiell Hammett) was adapted to film in 1982.  His love of Hammett’s writing led him to revive Sam Spade (after convincing Hammett’s family) in his last published work, a prequel to The Maltese Falcon titled Spade & Archer.  The story behind that novel, and another glimpse of Gores’ rich life, is found in this article from Stanford Magazine.

Gores wrote engagingly (and too briefly) about his life and career hereThe New York Times obituary also offers insight into the man and his work.  This remembrance of Gores was penned by his friend Mark Coggins.

The Thrilling Detective website provides this bibliography.

If he were still alive, Joe Gores could be teaching a workshop for aspiring authors of crime novels.  He did everything right.  He gave his characters full, quirky, and recognizable personalities, he wrote with a sharp eye for detail, he maintained a steady pace, and he told credible, interesting stories that maintain interest from beginning to end.  And he did all this with an amazing economy of language.  Not one word of a Joe Gores novel is superfluous.

The Joe Gores novels reviewed on the Tzer Island book blog are:

Dead Skip - the first DKA novel, published in 1972, sends Dan Kearney and Larry Ballard on a fast-paced mission to find the man who nearly killed Barton Heslip.

Final Notice - the second DKA novel, published in 1973, again begins with the beating of a DKA employee (Ed Dorsey), and again follows Kearney and his crew as they solve the mystery behind the beating.

Gone, No Forwarding - the third DKA novel, published in 1978, involves a conspiracy that may lead to the loss of Kearney’s license as a private detective.


Peter Cunningham

Peter Cunningham (b. 1947) is an Irish writer living in County Kildare whose novels (at least as measured by Amazon’s sales figures) seem to be overlooked by American readers.  That’s unfortunate.  Cunningham is a dynamic novelist who tells engaging stories in an elegant style.  His characters are fully developed, his plots are absorbing, and his themes are timeless.

Caveat:  I say all this having read only three of Cunningham’s novels.  Those three have nonetheless made me a fan.  My reviews (linked below) explain my admiration of his work.  Cunningham’s Monument novels, set in rural Ireland during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, bring life to richly detailed characters while capturing the essence of a time and place.  Although the two I most admire are “serious” novels of literary merit, Cunningham has also written several thrillers, one of which, The Snow Bees, I have read and reviewed.

Before he became a novelist, Cunningham gained writing experience as a journalist and newspaper columnist.  Cunningham also pursued careers as an accountant and as a commodities trader.  According to his website, Cunningham’s varied work experience has included laboring as a barge painter, a kitchen porter, a clerk on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, and a sheep farmer.

Cunningham wrote his first novel in 1986 and began writing full-time in 1989.  In addition to the books he has published under his own name, he’s written thrillers under the pen names Peter Lauder and Peter Benjamin.

This is Peter Cunningham’s bibliography.

The Peter Cunningham novels reviewed on the Tzer Island book blog are:

The Snow Bees - first published in 1988, the novel is an entertaining (albeit typical) thriller involving drug dealers and Basque terrorists.

Consequences of the Heart - the second novel in the Monument series, first published in 1998, chronicles the loves and conflicts of two Irish families from the late nineteenth century to the end of the twentieth century.

The Sea and the Silence - first published in 2008, the fourth and most recent installment of the Monument series follows the troubled life of an Irish woman from 1943 to 1963, focusing primarily on the World War II years.


Eva Figes

Often described as a feminist author, Eva Figes (b. 1932) has written at least fourteen works of fiction and six of nonfiction, including the "feminist classic" Patriarchal Attitudes:  Women in Society.  She spent her childhood in Berlin and, in 1939, traveled to England as a refugee.  Since then, she has lived in London.  She graduated with honors from London's Queen Mary's College in 1953.  Figes worked in the publishing industry until 1967 when she became a full-time writer and translator.  Her most recent novel, The Knot, was published in 1996.

Figes' novels are often characterized as "experimental," a counterpoint to the realistic tradition of mainstream British literature.  Her novels tend to focus on the inner turmoil experienced by female characters set adrift from conventional life.  Figes mastered the ability to create a sense of psychological dread, a fact that might make her work too downbeat for readers looking for a sunnier, more life-affirming view of the world.  Figes cites Kafka as a source of her inspiration and his influence on her work is evident, as are the writings of Virginia Woolf.

This is Eva Figes' bibliography.

The Eva Figes novels reviewed on the Tzer Island book blog are:

Nelly's Version - her excellent 1977 novel about a woman who finds herself at an inn, uncertain of her own identity, with no memory of how she arrived there.

The Tenancy - a 1993 angst-driven novel about a tenant battling forces beyond her control.