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.


Most Secret by Nevil Shute

First published in 1945

Nevil Shute is one of my favorite writers. Although he's best known for two fine novels -- A Town Like Alice and On the Beach -- he produced a number of other gems during his prolific career. Most Secret is one of them.

War plays a role, large or small, in many of Shute's novels. Most Secret was first published in 1945; the action begins in 1941. Bombs are raining down on London and England is fully engaged in the war. Three of the four main characters are in the Royal Navy. They devise and carry out an ingenious plan to attack a German ship off the coast of France. But while Most Secret can be accurately categorized as a war story, it's much more than that. Shute is one of the few writers who successfully blended character-oriented fiction with a plot-driven story. Ultimately, he wrote about people; not just their actions, but the impact those actions had on their lives. War has tragic consequences; death and sorrow are usually present in Shute's novels. It's difficult to read them with dry eyes. That's certainly true of Most Secret.

I don't need to like the characters in order to enjoy a novel, but that's never an issue with Nevil Shute. He nearly always wrote about decent, likable people who cope with catastrophe with their dignity intact. Most Secret introduces the reader to Oliver Boden, the carefree son of a wool-spinner, who marries his childhood sweetheart shortly before joining the Navy, the natural outgrowth of his love of sailing. Boden teams with Michael Rhodes, a shy, awkward young chemist whose best friend before joining the Navy and falling in love with a Leading Wren is a misbehaving dog. The Labrador makes only a brief appearance, albeit a pivotal one in Rhodes' character development. The third actor in the plot against the Germans is Charles Simon, a young British citizen whose mother was French and who is working as an engineer for a French concrete manufacturer when the war starts. As a civilian, Simon provides vital intelligence to the British about the German occupation of a French harbor before he's rewarded with a commission to the Royal Engineers. A former rum-runner named John Colvin signs onto the mission as navigator. Their joint venture is narrated by Commander Martin, who oversees the mission but generally stays in the background.

Most Secret has something for every reader: a wartime adventure that eventually develops the pace and tension of a thriller; a story of blossoming love and another of a love left behind; a series of character studies; a spy story; a survival adventure; an exploration of differing philosophies of life and war; an inspirational saga of courage and self-sacrifice. It has tenderness and tragedy and unforgettable characters. Most of all, it is a powerful, moving, heart-felt tale told in the quiet, unassuming prose that marked Shute's style. Most Secret is just as compelling now as it was when Shute wrote it.



Blood on the Forge by William Attaway

First published in 1941

Blood on the Forge tells the story of three brothers: Melody, who finds the music in every place and situation; Chinatown, who finds the humor; and Big Mat, a relentless worker who studies the Bible and tries to find an elusive inner peace. They work as sharecroppers in Kentucky, accustomed to poverty and racism, until circumstances brought on by Big Mat's quick temper compel their move to Pennsylvania, where they take jobs in a steel mill. Poverty is replaced by dangerous grueling labor that leaves them too exhausted to spend their wages on anything except alcohol, gambling, and whores. Racism is replaced by class division as black steelworkers join new immigrants from Ireland and Italy and Middle Europe, all viewed with disdain by those who inhabit the big houses overlooking the mill. By the novel's end, that conflict is defined by the workers' attempt to organize a union and by the owners' resort to violence to suppress that effort -- leaving the brothers caught in the middle of the conflict, and to some extent divided by it.

Although racism and class struggle are important themes in the novel, the story is about much more than that. If is fundamentally the story of three very different brothers, bonded by family ties and shared lives, but torn apart by their unique experiences. Chinatown must cope with injuries inflicted by hot steel, leaving him feeling less than whole. Big Mat must cope with his own feelings of inadequacy, his inability to give the Mexican woman who moves in with him the moneyed lifestyle that she craves, a feeling he can only overcome with the sense of power he derives from violent behavior. As he struggles to find his music, Melody must cope with the desire he feels for the woman who is living with Big Mat, and with the secret he learns about her.

Attaway tells the story from the perspectives of the brothers, using language that is eloquent in its simplicity. The story is powerful, sad and moving, unforgettable. At the end of the fast moving novel I literally said "Wow."



The Old Devils by Kingsley Amis


First published in 1986, Winner of Mann Booker Prize 1986

It took some time, but the characters in The Old Devils--elderly friends in South Wales who spend most of their time discussing the condition of being Welsh--grew on me as I worked my way through the chapters. Amis is a master of dry wit. I'm sure I would have a deeper appreciation of the humor in The Old Devils if I knew more about Wales or the Welsh. Fortunately, Amis found a number of other targets for his wit that transcend nationality: lecherous old men, the women who encourage them, gossips, hypocrites, drinkers, academics and poets among them. He also teases wonderfully comic moments from malfunctioning bowels, adulterous desires, social posturing, road trips, and inebriation.

Most of the central characters in the ensemble cast have full and distinct personalities and unique sets of behaviors. Some of the personalities are quirky, some introspective. Most are repressed but some manage to experience and display emotions. Some are funny and some are a little sad and most are sometimes a little annoying--but who isn't? That seems to be one of the points Amis explicitly attempted to make. It took me awhile to start caring about these people but by the middle of the novel I was hooked on them. They became kind of like the relative you care about but don't want to visit very often. I give Amis props for making them so convincing.

This isn't a plot-driven novel. The story unfolds at a leisurely pace, following slow-moving people with aging minds and bodies. Other than a couple of big events, both near the end of the book, nothing much happens. I wouldn't call it plodding but I wouldn't say the writing is lively either. If you are in a mood to be patient, the characters and the fun Amis has with them make the novel worth reading.



The Inheritors by William Golding

First published in 1955

The Inheritors tells the story of a small group of Neanderthals, primarily focusing on Lok and Fa, as they encounter strange "new people" who walk upright, have little body hair, shoot pointed twigs through the air, and ride across the water on hollow logs. The Neanderthal tribe includes a young girl and a baby ("the new one") who end up with the new people. Lok and Fa must face their fears of the new people as they try to bring the girl and baby home.

The word that kept coming to mind as I read and thought about this book was "clever." Writing about life from the Neanderthal perspective poses a challenge, and Golding used some clever devices to describe the limitations of primitive beings. Golding's Neanderthals communicate by gesture and empathy as much as by language. Their names are simple compared to the polysyllabic names of the humans. The Neanderthals live very much in the here and now; they aren't good at planning; when they talk about doing something new they say they have a "picture" of it, as if they are having a vision. They search for food only when they feel hunger; if they're sated they don't bother to store food for the future. They prefer not to eat meat but they will if one animal has been killed by another; they don't want the "blame" of causing an animal's death. They have a touching burial ritual but they don't appear to contemplate the possibility of an afterlife.

A startling event occurs toward the end of the novel that makes the whole thing rather depressing, particularly for those who (perhaps unrealistically) expect humans to behave more civilly than Neanderthals. Golding may be saying that the simple decency of primitive life was supplanted by early humans who (like those who followed them) lacked respect for other forms of life, killed ruthlessly, and used their wits to advance at the expense of others. If Golding is saying that these are human traits, the product of an evolutionary imperative, I don't know that the point is particularly profound (although it might have seemed so in 1955 when the book was first published). Still, the story illustrates that lesson in an entertaining way. The last chapter shifts to the point of view of the humans: again, a clever way to distinguish between the dying past and the evolving present, and a device that adds insight by demonstrating that the human's view of the Neanderthal may not have been much different than the Neanderthal's view of the human.

According to the cover blurb, some critics think The Inheritors is Golding's best work (and Golding apparently thought so himself).   I prefer Lord of the Flies, but The Inheritors is certainly worth reading.



Life and Times of Michael K by J.M. Coetzee

First published in 1983

Oppression is a recurring theme in Coetzee novels, and it is the theme that drives Life and Times of Michael K. While the novel is set in South Africa, it is not explicitly (perhaps not even impliedly) a novel about racial oppression. Rather, Michael is treated as an outsider, as subservient, because he is disfigured and mentally dull. Having been raised in an institution where he was taught to peel potatoes before being given a job as a municipal gardener, Michael wants nothing more than to be left alone, nose to the ground, to work the fertile land of his ancestry. He is a simple man with simple needs and the simplest of those--freedom--is bedeviled by travel permits and curfews and work camps, by a civil war he does not understand, by societal demands that do not concern him. Throughout the novel, Coetzee illustrates the oppression of war, of institutions and bureaucracies, of demanding parents, of uncaring employers and landowners. Even the doctor who envisions himself as Michael's savior wants to bend Michael to his own will.

Using prose that is plain yet elegant, Coetzee creates empathy for Michael's plight--we feel for him when his crops are trampled, when he is removed from the land he loves, when he is forced to do physical labor for the benefit of those who have political pull with the authorities, when he is badgered to talk about his past, when he is not permitted to indulge the simple pleasures of sleeping and eating as he chooses. Michael thinks of himself as an earthworm, but he lacks an earthworm's freedom to be true to itself. The last few pages of the novel are almost an ode to simplicity, to the freedom of living off the land, unencumbered by the dictates of those who would imprison nonconformists.

Life and Times of Michael K is an important contribution to world literature. It is also a moving, beautifully written novel.