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
Sep062019

If, Then by Kate Hope Day

Published by Random House on March 12, 2019

If, Then is populated by an ensemble cast of people who want to change their lives. The title suggests possibilities: if this happens, then that will happen. Bu it also suggests the counterfactual: if this had not happened, then other things might have happened instead of the things that did happen. If Cass had not forgotten her birth control pills on a camping weekend, then she would be finishing her dissertation instead of changing diapers. Our lives are filled with might be and what might have been, as the residents of a neighborhood discover.

Dr. Ginny McDonnell is married to Mark, a biologist with Fish and Wildlife. They have a young son named Noah. Ginny might be losing interest in Mark, or she might be gaining an interest in a female co-worker. Her confusion does not stop her from exploring the possibility of a physical relationship with another woman. Might that be what she needs, instead of (or in addition to) Mark?

Mark is a researcher who believes frog behavior can predict volcanic eruptions. Research for his funding is likely to be discontinued. He has been behaving strangely since he thought he saw himself, but older, in the woods (perhaps the self he might become?). Mark has taken it into his head to build a bunker, something like a fallout shelter, to protect his family from harm, including an unlikely volcanic eruption. Unsurprisingly, he causes harm in his desire to prevent it.

Samara has moved from Seattle to take up temporary residence in Ginny’s neighborhood. She has been helping with her mother’s real estate business since her mother died on Ginny’s operating table. Samara blames Ginny for the death, unfairly in the view of Samara’s father, who surprises Samara with news about his plans that his mother made and that he intends to execute. Her father’s plan leaves Samara with a choice about her future.

One of Samara’s listings is the home of Robby Kells, on whom Ginny performs life-saving surgery after he drank himself into a coma. Cass is the new neighbor of Ginny and Samara. She’s caring for a newborn while her husband Amar is on a research trip. Cass is writing a dissertation on counterfactual (if, then) statements. Kells is an authority on counterfactuals and served as Cass’ advisor before he ended up in the hospital. Kells thought Cass had the potential to be a gifted philosopher. Can she get that back? Cass believes her skill at abstract thinking vanished with childbirth, replaced by the endless distractions of breastfeeding, diapers, and baby monitors.

So where’s the plot in all this? Some of the story borders on the supernatural. Mark sees himself more than once. Samsara thinks she sees her mother in the front yard, but younger and not dead. And then there’s the mystery of the house that Samsara’s mother purchased without telling Samsara.

Most of the plot, however, consists of related domestic drama. The story is about connections: what we know and don’t know about our neighbors and family members. And obviously, the story is about choices, options pursued and options foregone. The story challenges the reader to look at life as a series of choices: If I do this, then I can’t do that, but maybe I can do that later. We cannot plan everything that will happen in our lives because life is too complex, too full of variables we cannot anticipate. Feelings change. People die. Shit happens. All we can know with certainty is that the future is uncertain. Possibilities, which perhaps can only be understood through counterfactuals, are infinite. Maybe they all exist in an unseen multiverse, but the possibilities that matter are those that we experience, possibilities that become fact.

While some aspects of the story are interesting, others are puzzling. Is Mark’s obsession with shelter construction evidence of precognition? Unexplained ghosts/duplicate people/time shifts appear throughout the story for no reason that I could discern. The most plausible theory, a cross-over of our perceived universe with some part of the multiverse that we don’t usually perceive, is too contrived to be convincing. Even some parts of the story that correspond to reality struck me as problematic. Are we supposed to agree with Ginny when she suspects she made a mistake by pursuing a career as a surgeon instead of staying home with her kid? Are we supposed to think that fathers should not play a primary parenting role because Mark is reckless and unbalanced? People must make choices in their lives but so must authors, and I didn't understand some of the choices that Kate Hope Day made.

It is difficult to care about the characters, except for Kells, who makes only brief appearances. The characters are largely whiny and self-absorbed. While that might be an accurate portrayal of most people, Day gave me too little reason to want to read about them.

Still, the novel held my interest, even if building a novel around the counterfactual is more interesting in concept than in execution. Day is a capable prose stylist. I didn’t dislike If, Then, but I didn’t like it well enough to give it an unqualified recommendation.

RECOMMENDED WITH RESERVATIONS

Wednesday
Sep042019

Nothing Ventured by Jeffrey Archer

Published by St. Martin's Press on September 3, 2019

Nothing Ventured is a very British novel. Etiquette are good taste are paramount, upper lips are resolvedly stiff, young men are exceedingly proper in their courtship of young women (unless an older woman sneaks into their bed at night). The novel’s protagonist, William Warwick, is the fictional creation of Harry Clifton, a fictional author in Jeffrey Archer’s Clifton Chronicles. Archer is now giving Warwick his own series, beginning with Nothing Ventured.

William Warwick’s father, Sir Julian, is a barrister who has made a successful career of defending the accused. William rebels, refusing his father’s demand that he read law at Oxford. William wants to be the accuser so he can lock up all the villains his father has freed. They compromise on an art history education, followed by police school.

The meat of the story begins with a two–year probationary period, during which William bonds with an old constable who teaches him the lore of a beat cop. Thanks to his art history education, Warwick soon becomes a Detective Constable assigned to Scotland Yard’s Arts and Antiquities division, where he takes on two crimes.

William's initial investigation involves forged signatures on first editions, an offense that Warwick solves with legwork and ingenuity. The second, more complex plot thread involves the theft of a Rembrandt. The latter crime leads Warwick to investigate an underhanded art collector with the eventual help of the collector’s unhappy and conniving wife. Along the way, Warwick falls in love with an employee of the museum that lost the Rembrandt.

The museum employee’s father was unjustly convicted of murder, leading to the plot’s third thread. Warwick enlists his father, who enlists William’s sister, to prove his future father-in-law’s innocence. The alleged murderer has long maintained that the arresting officer removed the middle page of his three-page statement to make the statement appear to be a confession. That is only possible because the first page (which ends mid-sentence) merges seamlessly with the mid-sentence beginning of the third page. The plot thread therefore rests on an unlikely contrivance that I could not convince myself to accept.

The art theft is a more plausible tale, although the last paragraph has the villain making an incriminating statement that seems remarkably stupid. Trial scenes are interesting but undramatic. Warwick doesn't testify in the art theft trial, robbing it of any hope of exceitement, while Warwick’s father, handling the proceeding for William's girlfriend's father, lacks the flair and fire of an in-the-trenches barrister (read a Rumpole novel if you want to be entertained by a British barrister).

Although the plot generates little tension, the story is pleasant. Archer always writes with grace. Warwick and his father are a bit stiff, but Warwick does indulge in a brief episode of naughtiness that suggests a real human being lurking somewhere beneath his veneer of resolute propriety. Nothing Ventured is nothing special, but it is a quick and easy read.

RECOMMENDED

Monday
Sep022019

Quichotte by Salman Rushdie

Published by Random House on September 3, 2019

Quichotte is about the quest for love, happiness, fulfillment, meaning, or whatever it is that people search for, often fruitlessly, even when the quest is delusional and obsessional. It is also about reconciliation or its absence in familial relationships, the “destructive, mind-numbing junk culture” in which we live, the twinned topics of immigration and racism, and “the intertwining of fictional and ‘real’ realities.” Salman Rushdie offers stories within stories, crossing and combining genres: a family saga bumps up against a search for alternate universes; a quixotic quest joins a love story with elements of fantasy and mystery. A little Cervantes, a bit of Camelot, some Arthur C. Clarke, a couple of parodied Lifetime movie plots, a sprinkling of mythology, any number of classic crime novel themes — Rushdie pulls it all together and makes it fresh and relevant to the contemporary world.

In a style he has perfected, Rushdie mixes references to Greek classics, Eastern religions, and American/Bollywood pop culture (music, television, movies, and sometimes even a book) in sentences that are surprising, entertaining, and insightful. Rushdie portrays America in all its complexity, illuminating each America — the one where education is valued and the one where education is brainwashing, the one where vaccines keep kids safe and the one where vaccines are a con game, the one where only white skins matter and the one that embraces diversity — by placing America today into a larger historical and cultural context.

He does this by nesting stories within stories. The central story revolves around Ismael Smile, a pharmaceutical salesman who retires involuntarily at the instruction of his employer-cousin, who still has Smile make occasional discreet deliveries. An Internal Event befuddled Smile’s memory, leaving him unable to separate constructed from actual reality. His life consists largely of watching television, a pastime that sparks his obsession with Salma R. He becomes “a brown man in America longing for a brown woman.” Thinking himself unworthy of Salma, Smile decides to write her a series of letters, using an assumed name, to recount his exploits and win her admiration. He eventually comes to understand that by becoming worthy of the woman he loves, he might feel worthy of being himself.

Smile writes his love letters using the pseudonym Quichotte, the French version of Quixote. Constructing an alternate reality is consistent with the age in which he lives, the Age of Anything-Can-Happen, where even the host of a scripted reality show can become president.

Salma R., a Bollywood actress who starred in an American television series before becoming America’s next Oprah, is further proof that Anything-Can-Happen. Rushdie gives her a full and amusing history and makes her smart, beguiling, and capable of foiling all the men who want to control her. Salma embarks on her own quest, one that she can only fulfill with opioids supplied, coincidentally, by Quichotte’s former employer.

The next nested story, a level removed from Smile’s, reveals that Smile is the imaginary construct of a writer who has turned his attention from spy novels to serious literature. The aging novelist, born in India and now living in New York, identifies himself as Brother but writes as Sam DuChamp. He tells the reader about his broken family and suggests that “broken families may be our best available lens through which to view this broken world.” Brother conceives Smile as his alter-ego, just as Brother is presumably Rushdie’s. Brother also confides in the reader that Smile’s encounter with apocalyptic oblivion is Brother’s attempt to explore the topic of death, which will soon enough visit Brother and everyone else, bringing an end to the world, or at least to its perception, a distinction that presumably has little relevance to the dead. Brother eventually travels to London to meet with Sister, from whom Brother has been estranged for 17 years, since a falling out over the division of their inheritance.

Smile imagines he has a son named Sancho. Some chapters are narrated by Sancho, who takes on a reality (and a quest) of his own. Sancho is vaguely aware of a creator lurking behind Smile, an entity he thinks must be God. Of course, Rushdie created Brother who created Smile who created Sancho, which must make Rushdie the father of all gods — or at least imaginary gods, since Smile does not believe in a deity, and thus neither does Sancho. Nor does Sancho believe in Jiminy Cricket, even when he finds himself taking (or rejecting) instructions from the Italian insect who wanted to be human.

So there’s the setup, all packed into the first quarter of a novel that, being one of Rushdie’s, is dense with ideas. In his delightfully meandering prose, Rushdie observes the world’s peoples and problems, including America’s ugly history of racism and white supremacy, and its British counterpart in Brexit. Rushdie (through DuChamp) opines that modern stories must sprawl to reflect a world connected by communication, travel, and immigration. His story suggests that migrants are made to feel unwelcome by those who do not travel, including English citizens who share a “wild nostalgia for an imaginary golden age when all attitudes were Anglo–Saxon and all English skins were white.” Characters discuss identity and the difficulty of preserving an old identity while absorbing a new one.

Rushdie touches upon the use of wealth to create OxyContin addicts (Smile’s cousin and former employer is modeled on, although a lesser version of, the Sackett family), Russian hackers, the hidden shame of child abuse in families that shelter abusers, fear of death, the loss of mental faculties, and whether family members can ever forgive unforgiveable offenses. Perhaps the novel is so multifaceted that no single story can be explored in depth. Perhaps the story’s treatment of the opioid epidemic and of racism directed at immigrants is too cursory to be revealing. Perhaps the characters are reflections of their times rather than realistic characters a reader will care about (Rushdie does not create sympathy for Smile in the way that Cervantes built sympathy for Don Quixote). Perhaps the plot is a mad swirl that never quite settles. Notwithstanding all the objections that, perhaps, a reader could lodge against Quichotte, the book stands as an absorbing and amusing indictment of a divisive “junk culture” that probably deserves the clever ending Rushdie imagines for it. Rushdie might leave a reader dazed, but he always dazzles.

RECOMMENDED

Friday
Aug302019

Longer by Michael Blumlein

Published by Tor.com on May 28, 2019

Most of us want to live as long as we can, and maybe just a little longer. Others reach a point where they are content with the fullness of their lives, a point where they “couldn’t possibly be any fuller” and any more life “would only push out what I already have, and cherish.” The latter is an unusual perspective, but science fiction at its best encourages readers to see their lives, or the lives of others, from perspectives not yet dreamt.

Longer imagines a future in which humanity is considerably more united than it is today, thanks in part to something called “the Hoax.” In this future, science has made it possible to give some people — people of means — two rejuvenations, a second and third lifespan. Gunjita wants Cav to take his second and last rejuvenation; Cav is resisting the idea. In fact, Cav is on the verge of deciding that he is ready to die, a decision that Gunjita takes personally, because it seems Cav would rather spend an eternity without her rather than another lifetime with her.

Gunjita and Cav are on a space station doing medical research when they discover that a returning probe has captured an object attached to a sliver that was once part of an asteroid. The object resembles vomit but Cav is convinced that the object is alive. They call it the Ooi. It might just be a rock clinging to a rock, but maybe aliens look like rocks. Or maybe they look like vomit.

Cav wants to touch it, smell it, taste it, all potentially dangerous activities. Gunjita wants to cut into it. For that, Cav thinks they need a surgeon — overkill, perhaps, if it is just a rock shaped like a pile of vomit.

The surgeon they have in mind, Dashaud Mikelson, has just enhanced his sense of touch. But Dash has a history with Gunjita that has left her feeling spiteful.

The exact nature of the ooi turns out to be … ambiguous. The resolution of Cav’s debate about living or dying is … ambiguous. The nature of the Hoax? Ambiguous. Very little about this story is clear cut, except for the very real emotions that it explores. And that seems fitting, because the story is a reminder that there is so much we don’t understand. Does alien life exist and, if so, what does it look like? We don’t know. What, if anything beyond physical decay, happens to us after death? We don’t know.

What we do know is that we must make choices based on imperfect information. We base some of those choices on emotions or intuition, also imperfect, but whether our choices are therefore right or wrong is again something we might never know. We might not know what meaning to assign to right and wrong, or whether the meaning we assign is any more valid than the meanings assigned by others, even others who are close to us and who feel hurt by our choices.

The characters in Longer explore those questions through contemplative dialog, while Michael Blumlein tells a philosophical story in elegant prose. I’ve never read anything quite like Longer. It showcases how a science fiction novella with a handful of characters can broaden a reader’s imaginings about the things we think we understand and the things that, even with a couple of extra lifespans, we will never understand.

RECOMMENDED

Wednesday
Aug282019

A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine

Published by Tor Books on March 26, 2019

Notable for its focus on the diplomatic and political interaction of different cultures, A Memory Called Empire reminds me of the work of C.J. Cherryh. The story explores a crisis within a human empire of the far future and the role that an ambassador from a small and relatively autonomous mining station plays in defusing it.

Arkady Martine is the penname of historian AnnaLinden Weller. An appreciation of the history of empires clearly informs the novel.

Teixcalaan, homeworld of the Empire, has demanded that Lsel Station provide a new ambassador without explaining what became of the last one. The former ambassador last downloaded his memories 15 years ago, so his successor, Mahit Dzmare, is going to Teixcalaan hardwired with an imago holding very dated memories of her predecessor (an imago being a memory storage device that, when implanted into another person’s brain, causes the memories of both to integrate).

The Teixcalaanli place a high value on poetry. Martine portrays Teixcalaanli culture through the lens of its art, and particularly the intersection of its poetry and politics. Just as national politics on Earth can be understood by analyzing political rhetoric, politics on Teixcalaan can be understood by analyzing political poetry — a more difficult task, given poetry’s reliance on allusion rather than directness (not that any political rhetoric can be taken at face value).

Lsel is a mining station. Its Council has a couple of problems. One, its ships are being lost at a jumpgate. Maybe there’s a new empire in town. Two, the old empire is expanding to a sector of space that lies beyond Lsel. The annexation force will likely sweep up Lsel Station as it expands, swallowing the republic as part of the conquest. Lsel will eventually ask Mahit to help it tackle both issues.

Mahit does not know about the war plan or the alien threat when she arrives on Teixcalaan, but before long she has a couple of other problems. One is that she is being held hostage during the prelude to an insurrection, although in a polite way. The other is that her imago has gone silent, so she does not have the benefit of the former ambassador’s memories. The former ambassador may have been shocked into catatonia when Mahit learned why Teixcalaan requested a new ambassador. There may also be a more nefarious explanation for her imago’s sudden failure.

A Memory Called Empire is not an action novel, but it generates excitement with political intrigue. The aging Emperor’s hold on the Empire is threatened, leaving Mahit caught in the middle of a growing schism that may end her life just as it ended her predecessor’s. The plot plays out to a satisfying resolution that completes the novel while setting the stage for the next book in the series.

Martine’s world-building is remarkable. The Teixcalaan culture, a mixture of bureaucratic formality and aesthetic appreciation, is unveiled in intricate detail. There’s even a glossary at the end to help readers keep track of words and place names, although I only discovered it after reading the last chapter.

Mahit is smart and likeable, as are the sympathetic Teixcalaani characters who assist her in her mission. Key characters struggle with internal conflicts that emphasize their human connection despite their very different cultural backgrounds. All of this adds up to a strong start to a series that is likely to be a valued addition to the science fiction genre.

RECOMMENDED