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.

Monday
Oct092017

The Shape of Bones by Daniel Galera

First published in Brazil in 2006; published in translation by Penguin Press on August 15, 2017

The Shape of Bones reads like a collection of related stories that follow a group of characters in Brazil, but the stories eventually shape themselves into a novel. Each episode/chapter has a title and most can be read as a discrete story. Each is narrated by Hermano. The developing story in the present interweaves with memories of Hermano’s past.

The episodes in the past are set in Esplanada, a city in Northeast Brazil. They give shape to Hermano’s life. For example, “The Urban Cyclist” is Hermano as a ten-year-old boy who rides his bicycle at high speeds on the tricky pavements of suburban streets. The story tells of Hermano’s encounter with an old woman who explains the blood that is spilling from his knee after a tumble. Other cycling stories make clear that Hermano craves attention and is jealous of friends who receive more accolades than he can manage. The memories serve to establish Hermano’s character and to fix the city of Esplanada firmly in the reader’s mind.

Hermano’s memories of the past involve the people he hung with, the ones he liked and those he regarded as threats. The first story that features Bonobo is about a collision and its dangerous repercussions on a soccer field. In later memories, Bonobo becomes an important (but not well liked) figure in Hermano’s life, someone Hermano envies for the wrong reasons. Bonobo is eventually involved in the key dramatic moment that defines Hermano’s past, a moment that changes to suit Hermano as he retells it.

Other episodes reveal additional stages of Hermano’s life. In one, we see Hermano’s high school insecurity as he attends a girl’s birthday party, unsure whether he wants to dance, hesitant to make eye contact with girls, unable to intervene when another boy at the party is giving a girl a hard time. Cowardice is a recurring theme.

In the present, we discover that Hermano is a cosmetic surgeon, married with child, the completion of a goal-driven life. Most of the episodes set in the present take place minutes apart from each other. They tell of Hermano’s plan to join his friend Renan on an expedition to climb a mountain that has never been climbed. Each episode is titled with a time (such as “6:08 a.m.”) and each is told in long paragraph, which I imagine is meant to give them a sense of onrushing immediacy. That doesn’t work very well, since the content is often too contemplative to justify the form.

How are we to understand Hermano? I’m not sure we can, because Hermano does not understand why he has suddenly chosen to become “a solitary renegade deserting all ties to his life to seek something in his origins.” He has made a sudden, fateful and impulsive decision that will change his life for no obvious purpose. He is a quixotic character, perhaps in the grip of self-delusion. He briefly fancies himself a hero although he’s really kind of a dick. But maybe he’s just changing in a belated reaction to the dramatic moment that took place fifteen years earlier. The past always catches up to the present no matter how quickly we try to run from it, and that might be the ultimate point of The Shape of Bones.

RECOMMENDED

Friday
Oct062017

Affections by Rodrigo Hasbún

Published in Spanish in 2015; published in translation in 2016; published by Simon & Schuster on September 12, 2017

A German family relocates to La Paz after World War II. The father, Hans Ertl, was a cameraman for Nazi filmmaker/propagandist Leni Riefenstahl. By the 1950s, Hans has reinvented himself as an explorer/photographer/documentarian. He disappears for months at a time, usually to climb mountains, but his goal as the novel starts is to find the lost city of Paitití. His daughter Monica, who doesn’t want to be in La Paz, agrees to join him on his quest, as does her sister Heidi. Point of view shifts from Heidi to her sister Trixi, who stays home with their mother Aurelia while Monica and Heidi are in the jungle with their father.

The novel tracks the family over a period of decades, but this is a short novel, so there are significant gaps in the family history after the search for Paititi. The story is set against a background that includes the Bolivian revolution, the military dictatorships that followed, and the unsuccessful guerrilla war waged by Che Guevara and others to bring down the dictatorships.

The background moves into the forefront when the novel focuses on Monica’s lover Reinhard, who is also the brother of her husband. Chapters devoted to Reinhard are told in Reinhard's voice, in the form of answers to questions, conveying the impression that Reinhard is being interrogated as he talks about Monica, who fell in love with a Bolivian guerrilla named Inti and became an indispensable part of the revolutionary movement. A brief chapter gives us the perspective of Inti before he becomes the ill-fated leader of Che’s National Liberation Army.

Toward the end of the 1960s, in the aftermath of Monica’s relationship with Inti, the story again touches upon Hans and his daughters. Hans has reinvented himself (again) after a failed expedition. His relationship with his family is strained, including an inevitable confrontation with Monica who (given her father’s history) should not be surprised by his willingness to tolerate a fascist government.

Affections tells an intense but ambiguous story, based in large part on real people. The events in family members' life are presented superficially but the characters (at least Monica and her father) are drawn in greater depth than the plot. Other characters have a tendency to drift away, giving the novel an episodic and unfinished feel. Rodrigo Hasbún leaves many questions unanswered, the kind of questions a literature professor might ask (What was Hasbún saying when Hans hired workers to dig a deep hole on his property?) and that have no clear answers. I found that mildly frustrating, probably due to my lack of imagination or an anal desire to have all questions firmly answered. But life is frustratingly full of unanswered questions and literature should reflect life, so I can’t fault the novel for doing that. In the end, I admired the novel’s atmosphere, its portrayal of key characters, and Hasbún’s prose. That’s enough to overcome my puzzlement and to earn a recommendation.

RECOMMENDED

Wednesday
Oct042017

Small Hours by Jennifer Kitses

Published by Grand Central Publishing on June 13, 2017

Small Hours is a slice-of-married-life family drama. The slice consists of an eventful, life-changing day for both spouses, although since they spend little of that day together. They make independent decisions after experiencing unrelated events, but their decisions are ultimately connected.

Tom and Helen Foster have moved to the “achingly quiet” town of Devon in the Hudson Valley to raise their two daughters. Tom, a wire service editor, is increasingly overwhelmed by anxiety while Helen, a graphic designer, works off her anger by punching a bag at the local gym.

Tom and Helen are keeping secrets. Tom’s anxiety concerns a recently born daughter Helen doesn’t know about. Tom would like to play an active parenting role with that daughter, just as he does with his other daughters, but he fears Helen would leave him if he told her the truth.

Helen knows about Tom’s affair and thinks she has moved past it. Still, Helen is consumed with anger. The anger is partly driven by credit card balances she hasn’t told Tom about, and partly by the difficulty of balancing the demands of her underpaid work-at-home job with the demands of her daughters. But Helen also feels her life spinning out of control in small ways that make her question her fitness as a mother, including her run-in with a couple of teenage girls she dismisses as white trash.

The slow build of tension makes the reader understand that the situations in which Tom and Helen find themselves are unsustainable. Tom’s bond with Donna’s child is growing, as is Donna’s concern about her daughter’s “secret daddy.” Tom and Helen are increasingly on edge as the story progresses. The characters are searching for a happy ending to their stories, but it seems likely that one character's happiness will hurt at least one other character. How all of that will shake out is the primary question that drive the plot.

Neither Helen nor Tom are ideal people. Helen is remarkably needy. Her needs are unfulfilled, and probably incapable of being fulfilled. Tom is remarkably selfish, as he demonstrates repeatedly. The story doesn’t make for pleasant reading because Helen and Tom are at their worst and I can’t imagine wanting to know either of them. The story nevertheless has value because Jennifer Kitses opens a window on the problems and attitudes of realistic characters. Even the secondary characters (particularly a teenage boy who stands up for Helen, a “good kid who made bad choices”) are recognizable as people, not just stereotypes inserted to move the story along.

The novel ends with Helen and Tom making decisions. They have more decisions to make, and their decisions will have consequences, but Kitses leaves it to the reader to imagine how it will all play out. Small Hours is a novel of small moments, but it offers big insights into the choices that are forced upon people as they struggle to decide how their lives should proceed.

RECOMMENDED

Monday
Oct022017

Deep Freeze by John Sandford

Published by G.P. Putnam's Sons on October 17, 2017

David Birkmann starts Deep Freeze by killing a woman he was hoping to seduce. The killing is unplanned, not quite an accident but certainly not premeditated. After arranging the body to make the death appear to have been accidental, Dave the Bug Boy (exterminator by trade) bugs out. But why does the dead woman’s body turn up in the water by the sewage treatment plant?

Virgil Flowers’ latest mystery involves small town secrets, and there are a lot of those in Deep Freeze. Some involve affairs, some involve adventurous sex, some involve rivalries and jealousies. Of course, nothing is really a secret in a small Minnesota town that craves gossip.

A subplot involves Barbie and Ken dolls that have been modified in ways that … well, let’s just say that Mattel doesn’t like it. That’s a fun diversion from the main story, although the subplot raises serious questions about whether law enforcement agencies (at the bidding of politicians) should use their scarce resources to help corporations with civil matters like copyright infringement. Virgil doesn’t dwell on the issue, but he’s clearly annoyed to have his murder investigation interrupted by an investigation of people who really aren’t harming anyone (unless you count Barbie’s reputation).

The plot hustles along as Virgil interviews one town resident after another, matching stories, discarding theories, trying to figure out who is telling the truth and whether their lies relate to the murder. A couple of brawls enliven the story, but this is more a police procedural, a detective at work, than anything else. It isn’t a whodunit (we know whodunit from the opening pages) and the mystery of the displaced body gets solved well before the ending, so Deep Freeze is less a novel of suspense than an entertaining slice of Virgil Flowers’ life. To be fair, there are some tense moments at the end, but this isn’t an action novel. Since Virgil is an entertaining character who surrounds himself with entertaining characters, I’m fine with the story’s low-key nature.

I love John Sandford’s deadly accurate portrayal of small town politics, including the sheriff who doesn’t want to investigate anyone if the investigation might irritate influential people or cost him votes. I also love the friendly insults that characters exchange. Sandford’s novels are worth reading for the banter, apart from the plots. Readers searching for a traditional mystery will need to search elsewhere, but Sandford fans who want to spend time with an old friend will find little to complain about in Deep Freeze.

RECOMMENDED

Friday
Sep292017

Dunbar by Edward St, Aubyn

Published by Crown Publishing/Hogarth on Oct. 3, 2017

Dunbar is part of the Hogarth Shakespeare series of novels that are — based on? inspired by? completely unrelated to? — a Shakespeare play. The publisher’s website uses the word “retelling” but that isn’t the most accurate descriptor, based on the novels in the series that I’ve read.

Dunbar shares some elements with King Lear (descent into madness, bequeathing a kingdom to two daughters while ignoring a third, family strife), but the story is more comedy than tragedy. The kingdom is a corporate empire; battles are waged by trading firms and corporate raiders rather than armies. Since no author is going to improve on Shakespeare, I think it best to view Dunbar as “inspired by” Lear and then ignore the inspiration entirely, reading the novel as a literary work that stands on its own. From that perspective, I give Edward St. Aubyn credit for writing a story that is amusing and entertaining if not particularly deep.

Henry Dunbar is off his meds, but only because he spit them into a plant next to his institutional bed. Dunbar is a media mogul, perhaps the world’s most powerful person, but his haughty daughters Abigail and Megan are making him take a “lovely long holiday” at a psychiatric hospital. Their goal is to take the Dunbar Trust private again, giving them control over the vast media organization. Dunbar’s daughter Florence, half-sister of Abigail and Megan, is kept in the dark about her father’s location as well as the future of the family business.

Complicit in Henry’s institutionalization is Dr. Bob, with whom both Megan and Abigail are enjoying sadistic sex, and who has been promised a seat on the Board and a healthy salary. But Dr. Bob is even more Machiavellian than the sisters, setting up a troika of self-interested villains for the reader to root against.

Not that Dunbar deserves the reader’s cheers. Dunbar might deserve a measure of pity, but his lifelong narcissism is largely to blame for his current state of lonely emptiness. His only friend (he’s betrayed all his past friends) is newly acquired, another patient who has gone off his meds and who facilitates Dunbar’s escape. But the friend only wants to escape to the nearest pub, while Dunbar (as always) has grander ambitions.

St. Aubyn uses dry British wit to make Dunbar the kind of modern family drama that exposes the dark side of each relevant family member. The two evil daughters only have a dark side, and St. Aubyn exploits their pettiness and self-absorption to substantial comedic effect, while never quite making them convincing characters. Characters in comedies are often exaggerated to make a point, but one downside to turning a Shakespearean tragedy into a comedy is that the story’s tragic aspects demand true villains and a truly tragic hero, not caricatures.

The plot involves a good bit of corporate intrigue, back-stabbing, and betrayal as various forces vie for control of Dunbar Trust. The plot’s focus, however, is on family intrigue. The ending abruptly veers toward darkness (St. Aubyn didn’t have much choice about that if he wanted to do even the most abstract retelling of Lear), but the darkness is incongruous, given that the story is played for laughs until that point. Nor is Dunbar a particularly meaty novel, despite its themes of betrayal. As a comedy, however, the story succeeds, and St. Aubyn’s prose is always a pleasure to read.

RECOMMENDED