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
Jul092018

Half Moon Bay by Alice LaPlante

Published by Scribner on July 10, 2018

Half Moon Bay is a town in northern California. Early in the novel that Alice LaPlante named after the town, LaPlante describes the place and the nature of the people who inhabit it in photographic detail.

A mile north of Half Moon Bay is Princeton-by-the-Sea, where 39-year-old Jane O’Malley lives in a cottage. A year and two months after the death of her daughter Angela, Jane is still shattered. She claims to be building a new life, but she cannot overcome the sense that she has been punished for daring to experience brief moments of happiness. If anything, she might be coming apart even more as she tries to hide from everyone who knows her.

Jane blames herself for her daughter’s death. Jane’s relationship with her rebellious teenage daughter was typical, meaning not good, and the bad memories impair Jane’s ability to come to terms with her death.

Much of Half Moon Bay is about Jane’s efforts to escape from her pain, including the joy she experiences when she spends time with a new couple in town. Jane bonds with Alma, who has lost children, although Alma lost hers voluntarily, leaving them behind when she found Edward. Jane bonds with Edward in a different way. The young surfer dude who helps her tend plants at the local nursery seems oddly attentive, and his interaction with Jane is just a little creepy.

The novel’s plot revolves around the abduction and murder of children at various intervals. When the bodies are found, each child (always a girl) is wearing makeup, her hair is styled, and she is posed as if she is enjoying the day. The media begin to overwhelm the locals because readers will always click news stories about dead children. The locals are suspicious of the newcomers in town (the ones who weren’t born there) and of single or newly divorced men. The town’s mood becomes grim as the pattern continues and the horror grows.

A number of town residents are offered as suspects, including Jane, who might be dealing with her grief by taking children from other parents. The novel creates a mystery by asking the reader to identify the killer from among those suspects, but it also creates a sense of foreboding. Danger for Jane seems to be lurking everywhere in the idyllic community where suspicion grows that she is a serial killer of children.

The story gains power from its realism: the media frenzy surrounding the murders; the judgmental townspeople who are quick to condemn on suspicion alone; the FBI agents who bully everyone who might be a suspect; the fear that overpowers parents; the guilt that parents feel when a child dies. Whether the novel’s resolution is realistic is questionable (the killer’s motivation is not entirely convincing, the mystery’s resolution is disappointingly obvious, and the final threat is too easily overcome), but by the time the last pages arrive, the reader simply wants a release from the suspense, and any release will do. In fact, my  disappointment with the resolution did not arrive until I began to think about the novel, having been released from its spell. But the spell is the thing. The atmosphere, the depth of the characters, the tension — all of those elements are assembled with a master artisan’s care.

In addition to the suspenseful plot and strong characters, Half Moon Bay is worth reading for LaPlante’s perfectly pitched prose and for the characters’ differing perspectives of loss and motherhood. One perspective is that motherhood is a series of losses: a mother loses her baby when she stops nursing; a mother loses her child when she is able to focus on a task for three hours without once thinking about the child. The losses come again and again; each time the child changes into something new and less innocent, each time the child attains more independence. There are, of course, happier ways to look at parenthood, but Half Moon Bay reminds the reader that people process pain and loss in different ways, and that some people may be damaged beyond our understanding.

RECOMMENDED

Friday
Jul062018

The Upper Hand by Johnny Shaw

Published by Thomas & Mercer on July 3, 2018

The Upper Hand is the kind of crime novel that encourages the reader to root for the criminals. Those tend to be my favorite crime novels, at least when the criminal has a good heart. Most of the characters in The Upper Hand are guided by a basic sense of decency, even when they are also guided by criminal impulses.

Axel Ucker plans crimes as a hobby. His sister Gretchen burgles homes as a hobby, usually stealing valuable comic books from collectors. Axel’s brother Kurt is law-abiding but a bit nerdish. Their father was a professional thief until he was killed after a jewelry heist. Axel works for a bank that has just promoted him to a position of con man, selling investments to customers that won’t meet their needs but earn the bank a ton of money in hidden fees. That’s a kind of criminality that is just too dishonest for Axel.

Axel’s girlfriend Stephanie (he thinks her name is Priscilla) scams him out of his house and then dumps him, the first of a series of personal crises that play out over a couple of days, including the death of his mother and the loss of his job. The crime plot begins at the funeral of Axel’s mother, where a large woman identifies herself as Axel’s aunt (“Everyone calls me Mother Ucker”). The aunt wants to bring the Ucker children back into the fold of their father’s family. They have few options, since their mother’s will left the family home to a televangelist.

Scamming is a central theme of The Upper Hand. The Uckers have a natural talent for scamming, as they prove when they decide to scam the televangelist. Another theme is family, or more precisely, “a family is what you make of it.” What the Uckers will make of their newly-discovered extended family (and how the Ucker family should be defined) is a key plot point.

A bit of romantic comedy runs through the novel, with a stronger emphasis on comedy than romance. As in life, some romantic relationships work out and some don’t. Other objects of humor (if not outright mockery) include Christian rock and prosperity theology (“sermons were high-energy events that felt like a mash-up of a rock concert, a self-help seminar, and a time-share pitch.”).

The plot delivers a few surprises and a steady supply of chuckles. The main characters are likeable, despite the larcenous natures that some of them embrace. Even the villainous characters are too amusing to be unlikable. Readers who don’t understand that prosperity theology is all about enhancing the prosperity of preachers at the expense of their followers will probably dislike The Upper Hand, but open-minded readers who can relate to kind-hearted criminals should enjoy it.

RECOMMENDED

Wednesday
Jul042018

Safe Houses by Dan Fesperman

Published by Knopf on July 3, 2018

Safe Houses draws some of its background from a government spy agency called the Pond that was in a rivalry with the OSS (and later the CIA) before the government disbanded it in 1955. The Pond then continued its existence as a private organization because people who like to think they are doing important work sometimes have difficulty admitting that they are no longer the center of the universe.

Safe Houses is told in two alternating time frames. Part of the story takes place in 1979, when Helen Abell, new to her CIA posting in Berlin, is placed in charge of safe houses, an administrative duty deemed suitable for a woman. While making an unscheduled inspection of a safe house, visitors arrive and she overhears (and accidentally records) part of their conversation. She doesn’t know who they are or how one of them got a key; neither man is one of the six people who are authorized to have one. They seem to be talking in a sort of code. Later, she tells Clark Baucom about it. Baucom is her lover and a much older field agent. He tells her to burn the tape and never disclose what she heard to anyone. Of course, the obscure references on the tape to “the Pond” eventually gain clarity.

When she returns to the safe house to retrieve the tape, another visitor shows up (an agent she knows) and she overhears a sexual assault in progress. Helen intervenes, but her intervention puts her career is in jeopardy. Her life is also in jeopardy after it becomes clear that she intends to expose a CIA assassin who is also a serial rapist. That part of the story has Helen fleeing Berlin and making contact with a couple of female CIA employees who may or may not be on her side.

The other part of the story begins in 2014, when a Maryland woman and her husband are shot dead in their bed by their developmentally disabled son, Willard. Henry Mattick is in town when it happens, conducting a clandestine investigation into the family for a reason he doesn’t understand. When the son’s sister Anna wants to hire Henry to find the reason for the murders, Henry’s employer tells him to accept the assignment, to get inside the house, and to make copies of any documents he can find. It won’t be surprising to the reader that the 2014 story quickly links to the 1979 story.

Despite its lurid subject matter, Safe Houses is told in a measured style that lends credibility to the narrative. The plot blends suspense with enough action to keep the story moving at a good pace, but Dan Fesperman doesn’t short-change characterization. The novel is a bit short of atmosphere (other than place names, it doesn’t convey much sense of being in Berlin or any of the novel’s other locations), although Fesperman does an excellent job of conveying the limitations that were placed on women in society (and particularly in male-dominated organizations like the CIA) in 1979. In a time when the #MeToo movement is focusing attention on how powerful men feel empowered to abuse women, Safe Houses shines a spotlight on the importance of standing up for what’s right, and on the risks that people take when they decide to do the right thing.

RECOMMENDED

Monday
Jul022018

A Long Island Story by Rick Gekoski

Published by Canongate Books on July 3, 2018

Rick Gekoski's first novel, Darke, was published when Gekoski was 72 years old, which makes me think there is hope for me yet. A Long Island Story is his second novel.

Is it bad to give up a dream? Or can giving up a dream be an important step toward getting on with life? That’s one of the central questions the reader of A Long Island Story is invited to ponder.

Ben Grossman works for the Department of Justice during the dark days of McCarthy, barely hanging onto his job but living in fear that, like so many of his innocent colleagues, he will be denounced as a Communist. Ben and Addie live in Alexandria and are raising their two children to respect the struggle for civil rights. Their liberal political views make it only a matter of time before Ben is purged from an intolerant government.

Ben and Addie generally agree on political goals, if not strategies, but passion has bled from their marriage. Addie and the kids are spending a seven-week summer vacation with Addie’s parents, Maurice and Pearl, at their Long Island bungalow. Addie’s brother Frankie and Frank’s wife Michelle join them, as does Ben briefly, during his vacation from work. But the stay with Addie’s parents is prefatory to a move to Long Island that Addie dreads: public schools for the kids, a suburban apartment instead of a home in Virginia’s farmlands. Ben plans to open a law practice in Huntington, a stifling place for women. Addie can barely tolerate Long Island for the summer and has no desire to return to the childhood home from which she escaped. The stress is one of many forces that might tear their marriage apart.

Also having an impact on their marriage is the affair Ben is having with a wealthy woman who wants to support him while he pursues his dream of being a writer. Addie is about as unsupportive as a wife could be, choosing her family’s lifestyle over her husband’s happiness. She thinks it is bad enough that he wants to abandon his job before being fired; she views his desire to write, even in his free time, as frivolous and regressive. Ben and Addie spend much of the novel competing to see who can be more selfish, leading to novel’s most confrontational (and strongest) moment.

Maurice has his own problems, giving rise to a subplot that relates to a side business he operates — a legitimate business, but one that leaves him indebted to an Italian with mob connections. Ben and Addie’s children have their own anxieties, the uncertainties and fears that children have when parents aren’t getting along.

Some of the story is taken up by kids building forts and letting the day drift by, which might be a nice way to spend time but dull to read about. More interesting are the typical fears that parents experience: the brief disappearance of a child, the polio epidemic, whether to risk taking the children to a polluted but convenient beach.

Characters are assembled in detail, perhaps excessive detail, not all of it terribly interesting. It is good to know about the family history and the longings and failings and triumphs that shaped their personalities, but their individual reactions to the latest hit song and their meal preferences and the inevitable fights and illnesses among the children who crowd into the back of a car are less enlightening.

The setting is also carefully rendered. Ben’s job sends him to the South and Midwest, where he makes legal arguments in support of rural electrification to local judges who (as Ben imagines it) are put off by the eloquent “Yankee Jewboy bigshot who thought he could hornswoggle a bunch of rednecks.” The country has readily swallowed McCarthyism because the American public “has an insatiable need for someone to blame.” How little the country has changed.

While A Long Island Story did not consistently hold my interest, the novel’s best moments are compelling. The main story could have resolved in many different ways, but Gekoski bucks the modern trend of leaving stories unfinished. Given that the story is set in 1953, following the conventions of less modern novels seems appropriate, but the ending benefits from a modernist realism, shedding light on what a conventional ending to a 1950s story really means. If I didn’t like A Long Island Story as much as I liked Darke, the honesty with which the characters are rendered, the subtlety of the ending, and the theme of pursuing or abandoning dreams combine to earn A Long Island Story an easy recommendation.

RECOMMENDED

Friday
Jun292018

Warning Light by David Ricciardi

Published by Berkley on April 17, 2018

Iran has a “secret” nuclear facility near the site of a recent earthquake, but not so secret that the CIA is unaware of its existence. A British Airways flight with apparent engine and hydraulic problems approaches the airspace over the facility and makes an emergency landing at Sirjan, much to the consternation of the Iranian military, given the flight’s intrusion into prohibited airspace. However, shooting down a crippled civilian craft with a large number of passengers would be bad for Iran’s image, so Zac Miller, an American passenger, finds himself on the ground at an airport that was shut down due to the earthquake. Not long after that, he’s taken prisoner as a suspected spy because he took some pictures of a mountain sunset.

Of course, the Iranians are right. Miller is a spy, but not a field agent. He’s an analyst who is slotted into the mission at the last moment, after the real spy had to drop out. The CIA’s brilliant scheme is to have him take pictures of the “secret” nuclear facility as he strolls across the airport tarmac. And for this they put the lives of everyone on the British Airways flight at risk. The idea is just dumb enough to be real.

Miller is taken prisoner because he’s the only passenger taking pictures of the “secret” facility. With improbable speed, the Iranians set up Miller as a suspect in murders committed in Singapore and Paris. Also improbable is Miller’s escape from custody, but it sets up the cross-country trek that takes up a good part of the story, as Miller tries to evade Iran’s military and make his way to a friendlier environment.

The story takes Miller to Iranian goat herders and later puts him in the hands of Dubai police officers, one of whom lost his wife when the U.S.S. Vincennes, an American naval vessel unlawfully operating in Iranian waters, shot down a civilian aircraft that was leaving Iran. The police officer believes the military action was deliberate; Miller believes it was a mistake. The truth is less clear, but the novel acknowledges that the incident shaped the way many Iranians view the American government.

In any event, Miller feels abandoned by the CIA, which decides that he has gone rogue and turned into a serial killer. The CIA wants to kill Miller because that’s how the CIA solves problems. That creates a classic "good guy must prove his innocence before other good guys kill him unless the bad guys kill him first" plot that is standard in thrillers.

An elderly high society British woman also plays a key role in the story, having taken a shine to Miller while sitting next to him on the British Airways flight. I wasn’t persuaded that she would be so obsessed about a man she knew for such a short time, particularly after she learns that he’s accused of multiple murders.

The plot struck me as a bit farfetched, from the scheme to put civilian passengers on British Airways at risk to the Iranians’ immediate and successful effort to make Miller look like a murderer (maybe Iran has a contingency plan to frame CIA agents). More troubling is that Miller’s adventure is just too easy. He readily evades capture, crosses borders at will, and never faces a threat of death sufficiently serious to cause the reader to worry about his survival. The story lacks tension and suspense. Not all thrillers need to be thrilling, but this one was clearly meant to be, and it falls short of the mark.

The promotional materials for Warning Light emphasize that David Ricciardi incorporated his personal experiences into the novel, including backpacking through the mountains of the western United States. Backpacking in mountains in the US is fun and not particularly dangerous. That’s kind of how Miller’s trip through the mountains in Iran comes across, but for the occasional battle to the death.

Having said that, Ricciardi delivers one good scene involving a sailboat trying to cross the English Channel in a storm that conveys a true sense of excitement and danger. If the novel had done that more often, I would have no reservations about recommending it. Ricciardi’s prose and pace are fine and, as first novels go, Warning Light isn’t a bad effort, although the ending (which sets up the next novel) is weak. I would chalk this up as decent first draft that wasn’t quite ready to be published.

RECOMMENDED WITH RESERVATIONS