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.


Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome


First published in 1889.

Three Men in a Boat tells the story of George, Harris, and J., who, accompanied by Montmorency (a misbehaving dog), take a boating trip up the Thames. Narrated in the first person by J., the novel is hilarious, touching, and occasionally profound. The humor ranges from dry wit to slapstick as J. recounts the trio's hapless efforts to row their way up the river.

Digression follows digression as the story unfolds. Passing Runnymede reminds J. of King John which reminds him of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, which prompts him to complain of the nuisance that young lovers make of themselves, which leads him to imagine coming upon Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn canoodling in a royal garden. During the course of the novel, J. turns his attention to the pleasures of food and idleness, to fish stories, to music and dogs and friendship and dozens of other topics.

Although Three Men in a Boat is a very funny comedy, the novel also offers a glimpse of British history as J. comments upon the various villages and towns they pass on their journey (the book was originally intended as a travel guide, a purpose that is hidden in its many levels). J. has his philosophical moments, as well; as they pass a monastery, he observes that the monks, vowed to silence and cloistered in their building so that they can hear the voice of God, are unable to hear that voice in the splashing water and in the wind whispering through the river grass. Indeed, some passages of this short novel are so beautifully written that I didn't want the excursion to come to an end.

Three Men in a Boat inspired the equally funny To Say Nothing of the Dog, a time travel story written by Connie Willis. Readers looking for a more modern version of Three Men in a Boat might want to try Willis' novel. I recommend reading them both for an interesting contrast of perspectives on boating the Thames, and for double the laughter.



The Road by Cormac McCarthy

Published by Knopf on September 26, 2006

Cormac McCarthy reduced this story to its raw elements: no names, not many characters, dialog that barely rises above a series of grunts. We don't see the apocalypse happen, we never learn its cause; we see only a journey through a dying world. The Road is a story of survival in desperate times, of a father's love for his son, and of a sort of honor or integrity that the man wants to instill or preserve in his son (represented by the man's insistence that they are "carrying the fire" as they travel down the road). I think McCarthy accomplished the task he set for himself: by telling a simple, elemental story, he got his point across. The doesn't necessarily mean that he wrote a great novel.

These are the reservations that keep me from giving the novel my highest recommendation: I think reducing the story to its raw elements left the reader with too little. With so few characters and so little character development, the story hinges on the man, and I don't think he's sufficiently interesting to carry the novel. The man's character depends almost entirely on machismo: Man strong. Man protect child. Man carry fire. McCarthy's portrait of the ideal man as a strong, silent warrior (represented by the boy's father and by the man who comes along at the novel's end) was just a little much for me. That's particularly true when the man is contrasted with his wife. She's portrayed as too weak-willed to struggle, too lacking in courage to assure her child's survival. Man strong, woman weak: at least that's the message I got. And the "carry the fire" metaphor (in the boy's words, "we're the good guys") was too simplistic to resonate with me. The novel gives us only binary choices: survival or suicide, good guys or cannibals. Reducing the world to a few good people and a lot of monsters might be a useful way of making a point about the difference between good and evil, but the world is a whole lot more complex than that -- and it continues to be more complex than that even in the face of disaster, as the multiple responses to events like Hurricane Katrina reveal. Finally, McCarthy's attempts at philosophy -- the suggestion, for instance, that people who would destroy their planet are unworthy of God -- are stale, recycled from countless other novels.

There is nonetheless much to admire in The Road: vivid writing; beautifully described scenes of desolation; honest depictions of love and fear; the boy's purity as he stands in for his father's conscience; haunting images and tender moments that stuck with me long after I finished the novel. I can't give The Road my strongest recommendation (I actually prefer a more inspirational and, I think, more complex post-apocalyptic novel, The Postman, even if David Brin's writing isn't as powerful) but there are enough memorable moments in The Road to make it worth reading.



The Cage by Kenzo Kitakata

First published in Japan in 1983; English translation published by Vertical on September 5, 2006

If you can get past the cliché-peppered prose -- everything from "listen and listen good" to a character who "cased the joint" -- The Cage tells an appealing story about Japanese gangsters and cops that's fun to read. I don't know whether to blame the clichés on Kenzo Kitakata (maybe familiar phrases from 1940's gangster movies aren't clichés in Japanese) or on a lazy translator (the more likely culprit), but they are an irritating impediment to full enjoyment of the novel's lively plot.

Takino owns a supermarket; his wife runs a coffee shop on the building's second floor. We suspect that Takino is a dangerous man with an interesting past when a supermarket chain tries to force him to sell his business -- an action the chain's representatives soon regret. Resolving that problem seems to give Takino a taste for the violence he thought he had left in the past. When Takino learns that his friend Takayasu is in a jam, he volunteers to help. The police are trying to find a yakuza named Sugimura because they want him to testify against the Maruwa gang concerning an apparent drug-related murder. For reasons that are not made clear until midway through the novel, the Murawa gang is also after Sugimura. To further complicate the story, Sugimura's lover Reiko is the daughter of a Murawa boss. Takayasu has agreed to smuggle Sugimura and Reiko out of Japan but he's being watched by the police and the gang. Takino takes over the job.

Kitakata reveals Takino's checkered past as the story unfolds. Although Takino's life as a supermarket owner is superficially bland (he drinks plenty of cold coffee and carves pipes out of briar in scenes that slow the action a bit too much), Takino occupies the remainder of his free time with a more interesting pursuit -- cheating on his wife. Readers who need to like the characters in order to enjoy a book might want to skip The Cage because Takino isn't a particularly sympathetic guy. He feels intense loyalty to his friend Takayasu but doesn't seem to feel much of anything for his wife or girlfriend. Apart from Takino, the characters (including a hard-drinking police detective, a private investigator who is a reformed criminal, and women who seem to specialize in worshiping their men without griping about what jerks they are) aren't particularly fresh. The main attraction of this novel is the plot, which includes some fast-paced action scenes, interesting twists, and a suspenseful climax.

Given the novel's uneven pace, lackluster characters, and trite noir prose, it's difficult to work up much enthusiasm for the novel, even though the story is excellent.



Atonement by Ian McEwan

First published in 2001

In the first and best of Atonement's three parts, thirteen-year-old Briony Tallis (a precocious, dramatic, attention-seeking kid) sees her older sister flirting with Robbie Turner, the son of their servant, and imagines that something adult is happening, something she fears and doesn’t quite understand.  She later intercepts a letter Robbie has written to her sister that describes some lewd fantasies.  Convinced that Robbie is deranged, and later seeing him alone with her sister in the family library, Briony makes an accusation that unjustly derails Robbie's life.  The novel's second part follows Robbie for a period of time during his war service.  The third part brings us back to Briony and her act of atonement that gives the novel its title.

The novel's first section, with its familiar description of British aristocracy, builds suspense as sharply written characters follow inexorable paths to tragedy. It places interesting characters in conflict, it creates dramatic tension, and the writing is brilliant. The second section is less impressive:  a conventional war story, well told but in a familiar way. The characters have a dusty feel, as if they had already slogged through other war novels and were getting tired of it. The final section -- the atonement  -- made use of an annoying plot device and ultimately seemed anticlimactic.

Atonement never regains the momentum it loses when it switches its focus from the accusation to the war. The novel seems to be setting up a dramatic payoff in the final section that never comes; it didn't grab me or move me, didn't convince me that real people would behave as the characters do. On the strength of its first section and occasional passages of strong writing in the second and third, I recommend the novel, but the disappointing finish prevents me from recommending it highly.



An Accidental American by Alex Carr

Published by Random House Trade Paperbacks on April 17, 2007

Nicole Blake should not be in France. She was invited to leave the country -- permanently -- after she finished serving her sentence at the Maison des Baumettes prison in Marseille. Nonetheless she lives with a rescued dog in an old farmhouse with a chicken coop in the Pyrenees, enjoying fresh eggs for breakfast while doing contract work for a document security firm (her expertise in forgery is the cause of her unwelcome status in France). Nicole's life is good until John Valsamis shows up with a photo of her former lover, Rahim Ali. Valsamis claims Rahim is assisting Saddam Hussein's cohorts with terrorist bombings. Valsamis, who works for the shadowy Dick Morrow, a member of a clandestine agency unknown to the CIA that is affiliated with the Defense Department, threatens to expose Nicole if she doesn't help him find Rahim. Off to Lisbon Nicole goes and the adventure begins.

The story plays out against the backdrop of the American invasion of Iraq and the search for elusive WMD's. From the first page, Carr creates a sense of foreboding that compels the reader's attention. Point of view shifts between Nicole's first person account and third person narration that follows other characters. From time to time Nicole fills in her backstory with memories of her childhood in Beirut, her mother's defiance of the city's violence, and the time she spent with Rahim in Lisbon (a time when she had "surrendered to the fetish of longing," one of the novel's many striking phrases).

An Accidental American is structured as an intricate puzzle, pieces falling into place as the story unfolds. Early passages gain meaning as later passages impart new information. The ending is unexpected. The structure commands the reader's attention without becoming Byzantine (as it tends to do in Carr's second novel, The Prince of Bagram Prison). At one point Nicole takes a dangerously stupid action that advances the plot but doesn't seem credible. For the most part, however, the story is plausible; in any event it is suspenseful. Carr's writing style is stark yet evocative -- the novel reads like serious literature in a way that most thrillers do not.

Carr paints a grim picture of American intelligence operations in the Mideast. Readers who supported the invasion and occupation of Iraq and those who revile unsympathetic portrayals of America's foreign policy will probably dislike An Accidental American. Readers who base their judgments on the quality of the writing rather than disagreement with the novel's political stance will probably enjoy it. Carr appended an "author's note" at the novel's end discussing the 1983 embassy bombing in Beirut and the relationship between fact and fiction. Readers may or may not agree with her historical view but that should be (although it probably isn't) irrelevant to how they experience the novel. In her note, Carr writes that she struggled to create realistic characters "whose motives are often less than pure and always complicated." Many readers have no patience with characters who are not morally pure; they prefer simple characters who "know right from wrong" to characters with a more nuanced perspective. Those readers should probably avoid this novel. Readers who believe fiction should reflect the complexity of the world and its peoples are more likely to appreciate An Accidental American.

Alex Carr is the penname of Jenny Siler. The character of Dick Morrow connects this novel to The Prince of Bagram Prison. An Accidental American is the more successful of the two novels.