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.

Wednesday
Mar062019

My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite

Published by Doubleday on November 20, 2018

Ayoola and her sister Korede begin My Sister, the Serial Killer by disposing of a body . . . again. Ayoola stabbed her boyfriend in the heart. His name was Femi. Ayoola can’t remember his last name.

Ayoola has killed two other men. She contends that she killed them in self-defense. When she feels Korede is reproaching her for being a serial killer, she accuses Korede of victim-shaming. Still, Ayoola isn’t all bad; she would take the most recent stabbing back if she could.

Korede works in a hospital. When Dr. Tade asks Korede if he can have her sister’s number, Korede tells him that Ayoola’s relationships tend to end badly. Korede has a thing of her own for Dr. Tade, but she lacks Ayoola’s beauty and effortless ability to ensnare men. Dr. Tade believes Korede should stop undermining Ayoola. Little does he know.

The reader, of course wonders whether Dr. Tade, who seems like a nice enough fellow, will be the next to die. Or perhaps it will be Gboyega, a married man who is financing Ayoola’s fashion business.

The reader also wonders if Korede will make trouble for herself by chatting with a comatose patient named Muhtar. She confides her sister’s murderous actions, then frets when Muhtar awakens. Will he recall her confessions and, if so, what will he do about them?

Korede’s low self-esteem, her complicated relationships with Ayoola and her father, and her longing for Dr. Tade all coalesce to make Korede a sympathetic character. She is a voice of reason compared to most of the other characters, who seem to live in a world of frivolity and needless drama, a world that fails to value the truly valuable. At the same time, Korede is an enabler and has an obsessive moment in which her own behavior is less than exemplary. The novel thus reflects the reality that even good people have their bad moments.

Told in deadpan prose, most of the story is light and amusing despite the rising body count. Oyinkan Braithwaite invites chuckles with her observant wit and clever dialog. For example: “‘Hey! I hate stingy men!’ Chichi repeatedly snaps her fingers over her head, warding off any stingy man who might be tempted to come near her.” And: “She has used juju to useless my husband!”

At the same time, the story is serious when it focuses on Korede’s abusive father, who beats his daughters and offers Ayoola’s virginity to induce a business deal. Perhaps it is with good reason that Ayoola is quick to kill men. The patriarchal nature of Nigerian society and its tendency to treat women as property is one of the two serious themes of My Sister, the Serial Killer.

At the end, as is often the case with people who do not live up to their own expectations, Korede has to make a decision about what kind of person she really is. Whether or not the reader approves of that choice, the novel makes clear that she is the only person who has the right to determine her future. Nobody can decide who someone else should be. That’s the novel’s second serious theme, and it serves to balance a story that is in other respects goofy and fun.

By the way, I thought it was interesting that in Nigeria, the word MAGA means fool. Sounds about right.

RECOMMENDED

Monday
Mar042019

The River by Peter Heller

Published by Knopf on March 5, 2019

The River alternates a story of man against nature with a story of man against man. It is at times a wilderness adventure, a story of man against fire, and at other times a thriller that pits two young men against a human adversary. The novel delivers the pleasures of genre fiction while remaining a work of serious literature.

The young men have bonded over their love of the outdoors and their shared passion for reading. Jack and Wynn are Dartmouth students who work as wilderness instructors in the summer. At summer’s end, they are paddling along rivers and lakes on a journey to Hudson Bay. Guiding a canoe through storms and rapids is their idea of a vacation, risks balanced against serenity defining well-being: “life was about being agile in spirit and adapting quickly.”

Jack and Wynn eventually discover that they have a wildfire at their backs. They come across two men who are camping and try to warn them about the fire, but the men are too drunk and obnoxious to be concerned. Later, while paddling in the fog and rain, they hear a man and woman arguing. When the rain stops, they decide to go back to warn the couple of the approaching fire, but the man and woman are gone.

An undercurrent of tension comes to the forefront when they discover that the fire is larger and moving faster than they realized, placing them at risk as they approach the rapids that is their only route to safety. Before they can attack the rapids, however, they encounter the man they saw arguing with the woman. He explains that his wife disappeared during the night.

Was the woman attacked by a bear? Was she captured by the drunken men, who seemed to be exactly the sort of creatures who would kidnap a woman? The unanswered questions create a heightened sense of dread that carries the story forward.

Man against nature themes work when an author has a gift for describing both the beauty and the danger inherent in a wilderness setting. Peter Heller has that gift. Man against man themes work when the author creates a moral dilemma for a protagonist to confront. In The River, Jack suspects that a character wants to kill them and is in favor of killing the character first. Wynn acknowledges the possibility that the character is a killer, but is open to other interpretations of the available evidence, and is less willing to attack without clear proof of the character’s homicidal intent. Do they take the life of a possibly innocent person to assure their own safety or do they risk their own lives to spare someone who might be innocent?

Jack and Wynn are similar in many ways, but are differentiated by their philosophy — Wynn believes in the essential goodness of people, Jack believes in himself. The novel suggests that there are reasons to admire both philosophies: Wynn is content, at peace with the world; Jack is more likely to recognize and survive threats from others. Their harrowing experiences test their friendship by causing each to evaluate the other in a different light. Has Jack been masking a dark side that speaks to his character? Is Wynn so Pollyannaish as to place them both at risk?

The River combines the intensity of a thriller with the careful observation, astute characterization, and graceful prose of fine literature. At the end, the story produces the intense emotion that only an honest examination of life can deliver.

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Friday
Mar012019

Destroy All Monsters by Jeff Jackson

Published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux on October 16, 2018

I started reading Destroy All Monsters three times before I found myself in the right mood to settle into the story. When I did, the novel wouldn’t let me go. The plot is strange and disturbing, but disturbance is sometimes necessary to shake us out of our complacency, to make us see the world in a different way. Make of the story what you will — and I’m certain that different readers will interpret it in different ways — I found it to be compelling even as I wondered whether I was truly grasping its intended meaning.

The first and longer installment of Destroy All Monsters is "My Dark Ages." It imagines that apparently random shootings at music venues are a national epidemic — a discomforting thought that requires little imagination. The killings serve no obvious agenda (they do not appear to be political) but they might be inspired by the dark rage that lurks within high-energy rock.

The first section of "My Dark Ages" focuses on an industrial city called Arcadia, where a shooter enters a club and targets a band. The second section focuses on a different Arcadia band in the aftermath of the shooting. Its guitar player, Florian, was the best friend of a band member who dies in the first section. The novel begins to gain power as it describes Florian and his band coping with their emotional turmoil. They need to decide whether to play again, not because they are afraid of being shot, but because they might prove unworthy. At the same time, they are conflicted: should they play as a tribute to the fallen, or should they make the moment their own?

Xenie, the dead musician’s girlfriend, plays a key role. Hanging out with a band manager, she ponders whether the attacks on bands are connected. Are they a commentary, she wonders, on how bad local bands have become (“The smarmy bluegrass revivalists in the Deep South. The listless jam band in the Midwest”)? Has music been destroyed by its performance and consumption?

The story becomes tense as Florian’s band prepares to play in the newly reopened club. Florian and Xenie are at odds about what this performance should be and how the dead musician should be remembered. The story takes an unexpected turn at that point. It becomes a meditation on the meaning of courage as Xenie and Florian each contemplate an act that might be seen as courageous or cowardly.

In the print version of Destroy All Monsters, the last third of the novel, in the form of a novella titled “Kill City,” has a separate cover, like an old Ace Double. Flip the book over and you get a new book, or at least a new novella that tells a different version of "My Dark Ages." I assume the idea is that the book, like an old record, has an A-side and a B-side, hence the picture of a vinyl 45 next to the subtitles.

"Kill City" begins with a noticeably confused boy who pulls a pistol and starts firing in a North Carolina veterans’ hall filled with garage and jam bands. We start to see a pattern in killings that spread through decaying industrial cities. The killers are dazed, detached loners who might be aching for a performance of their own. One of them claims to be shooting in self-defense.

The final shooting in “Kill City” is the same Arcadia shooting that opens the novel, except that the victims are different. The mourner in the first story becomes the mourned in the second and the band manager is a different gender. What should the reader make of that? I’m not certain, although seeing what is essentially the same story through the eyes of altered characters contributes to a greater understanding of the novel’s themes. The changes are important: a funeral in the first novel is very different from the counterpart’s funeral in the second novel, leading to meaningful questions about the nature and purpose of death rituals.

The aftermath of death is one of the novel’s primary themes. When do we let go? Do we let go of too much of our loved ones or not enough? The characters understandably spend a good bit of time thinking about death and their insights are valuable. Guns are another theme, from hunters gleefully culling the deer population to killers who behave like zombies when they pick up a gun. America’s fascination with killers, the ease with which they become celebrities, is a related theme.

Destroy All Monsters is told in matter-of-fact sentences that sometimes achieve an elegant purity of storytelling. Point of view shifts, sometimes relating events in the second person, as if a narrator is describing actions to the character who performs them. Both in style and content, Destroy All Monsters is interesting and edgy. I think it is also rewarding, although working out its meaning may require a second close reading.

RECOMMENDED

Wednesday
Feb272019

More Walls Broken by Tim Powers

Published by Subterranean Press on February 28, 2019

More Walls Broken is a short and sweet novella. It is to Tim Powers’ credit that he didn’t try to pad the story. The story has just enough substance to work as a novella but not enough to sustain a full-length novel.

Clive Cobb wants to get tenure. To that end, he’s been roped into helping two other professors in the Consciousness Research Department as they try to raise and capture the consciousness of their recently deceased department head. They want him to share knowledge that he took to the grave. Trapping his soul in a concoction of chocolate and rum (who could resist?) might not be the most ethical way of uncovering that information, which is one reason Cobb feels dicey about helping his colleagues.

The experiment goes awry when the deceased professor’s daughter appears. Did the dead professor’s soul transmigrate into his daughter? Transmigration of souls was one of the professor’s theories. Cobb has his doubts.

The mystery deepens when the professor’s daughter claims to have just left her father, who was very much alive. Perhaps she is not the person she appears to be.

The heart of the story examines the fork in a life, illustrating how one decision can have unintended and unexpected consequences that change not only our own lives, but the lives of others. It is both a story of regret and of second chances. It isn’t a complex or particularly deep story, but it doesn’t pretend to be. In its simplicity, however, it reveals simple truths about the need to live your best life in a way that doesn’t ruin other lives or produce uncorrectable regrets.

RECOMMENDED

Monday
Feb252019

Vacuum in the Dark by Jen Beagin

Published by Scribner on February 26, 2019

Mona Boyle, the beleaguered cleaning lady from Pretend I’m Dead, returns in Vacuum in the Dark. Someone is leaving hidden poops in one of the houses she cleans. That’s Mona’s life in a nutshell. Mona has an affinity for certain vacuum cleaners and an obsession with cleanliness that is probably symbolic of an unfulfilled desire to clean up her messy life.

The new imaginary companion in Mona’s head is Terry Gross, a sympathetic but honest companion, as one might expect her to be. Mona has gotten over Mr. Disgusting, more or less, but has replaced him with a new man she calls Dark. Of course, Dark is a less than perfect boyfriend, if being married and dishonest count as imperfections.

Mona believes she occupies a “very real place” between straight and gay, real because it isn’t the “fake, slutty island or amusement park” that bisexuality is often imagined to be. She has a new house to clean, owned by Hungarian artists with too many cats, and is attracted both to the wife and to the couple’s furniture, which she likes to fondle. Like her other clients, the Hungarians either want to have sex with Mona or include her in an art project.

Mona’s life continues to be isolated, despite her intimate interaction with various clients, but she finds a friend and kindred spirit in Maria Maria, another cleaner with whom she bonds. Late in the novel she meets yet another man and her life changes, as lives must. Whether the change is an improvement is unclear, as changes often are. When confronted with a choice between boring and stable or exciting and life-shattering, Mona always knows that whatever choice she makes will be wrong.

Vacuum in the Dark explores Mona’s experiences before she came to Taos. Some of those incidents are distressing, but the drama is wisely underplayed, preventing the story from becoming maudlin. At some point, Mona returns for a visit to her mother, giving the reader additional insight into Mona’s formative relationships. All the details of Mona’s past inform the reader’s understanding of the quirky person Mona has become. The reader can sympathize with Mona while appreciating her ability to cope, however shakily, with the life into which she has been thrust.

Jen Beagin has the kind of wit that sneaks up on a reader. She assembles sentences that seem to be informative until they suddenly become absurdly funny. Vacuum in the Dark is perfect for fans of dark humor. Mona’s observant nature, along with her snooping through the houses she cleans, gives her more knowledge about her clients than a cleaner should probably have, but her discoveries are a fertile source of laughter. Her self-discoveries are also amusing, but they add humanizing depth to the ongoing story of Mona’s life. It is an engaging story that could easily continue to entertain readers throughout upcoming stages of Mona’s life.

RECOMMENDED