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.

Friday
Feb042011

Even the Dogs by Jon McGregor

Published by Bloomsbury on February 16, 2010

The police discover Robert's decaying body on the floor of his flat. Robert's friends have been dropping by for a week, leaving after banging on the unanswered door. Robert's friend Danny finally breaks in and discovers the corpse before fleeing in a panic. Danny searches for someone to tell -- Robert's daughter Laura or his friend Mike -- but gives a greater priority to scoring drugs. As the novel progresses we meet other people in Robert's world and learn about his past. We also hear about the wartime experiences of two characters, one of whom became addicted after losing a leg. The novel ends with a coroner's inquest into the cause of Robert's death.

Even the Dogs is a story of wasted lives, of lives spent waiting: for drugs, for government checks, for the soup van, for group therapy to be over, for death. Most of the first part of the novel is told from Danny's point of view. The remainder is narrated by Robert's friends: unseen, ghostlike observers of his death's aftermath. Other than Robert, who drinks heavily but doesn't take drugs, the characters tend to blend together: each is driven by the same desire to get high, each is mired in a dreary existence.

The novel's narrative style is fractured, as are the characters. When Danny is narrating, paragraphs typically end with unfinished sentences. Yet portions of this novel are written in achingly beautiful prose. For that, I recommend the novel, but I can't say that it was a complete pleasure to read. It's important for novels like this to be written, to reflect the dark and dismal realities of life, but dismal reading isn't fun reading. If you're looking for a story of redemption or personal growth, you won't find it here. If you don't want to be depressed by your reading, find a different book. Even the Dogs is a well-written chronicle of hopelessness, but it's a story that has been told many times before. This snapshot of life's forgotten, invisible people is better than most, but for all the power of McGregor's writing, I found myself reading it in small doses and was glad when it came to an end.

RECOMMENDED

Thursday
Feb032011

Dog War by Anthony C. Winkler

Published by Akashic Books on June 1, 2007,  first published in the UK by Macmillan Carribbean in 2006.

Precious is 47 years old, content with her life in Runaway Bay and with her marriage to Theophilus. As a dutiful wife, however, she agrees to move to the country so that Theophilus can enjoy a view of the mountains. When Theophilus dies in a traffic accident, Precious must begin her life anew, and she doesn't want to live it in her country home where (despite the company of Red Dog and White Dog) she feels isolated, convinced that rapists and murderers will attack her at night (and worried that her corpse won't be dressed properly when it's eventually discovered). Dog War follows Precious as she tries living in Kingston with her son the dentist (where she is at war with her daughter-in-law) and in Miami with her daughter the cop (where she must fend off the unwelcome attention of her son-in-law) before taking a housekeeping position in Fort Lauderdale. There Precious must cope with a wealthy widow who takes a greater interest in the rights of animals than the needs of people, with the widow's spoiled, amorous dog, and with a chauffeur who is convinced that he is repaying a debt for camels he stole in a life he lived seven hundred years earlier. Despite clinging to her beliefs (reinforced by her consultations with Jamaican Jesus underneath her bed), Precious manages to learn some difficult but valuable lessons about life by the time the novel ends.

Dog War is a very funny book. Nearly every page made me laugh out loud; on some pages nearly every paragraph made me laugh out loud. The characters are charming; to the extent that they are stereotypes, Anthony Winkler somehow found a way to make them fresh. The story is sweet and the lessons it teaches are familiar but nonetheless valuable. The pace is quick and the novel is the perfect length; it tells a fun story without trying to do too much. There isn't anything terribly profound about Dog War, but the novel is meant to make you smile and to nod at its conventional wisdom, not to change your life. On that basis, it succeeds admirably.

RECOMMENDED

Wednesday
Feb022011

The Hunter by Asa Nonami

 First published in Japan in 1996.  This review is of the English translation by Juliet Winters Carpenter published by Kodansha International in 2006.

 Takako Otomichi is a female cop in a man's Japan. When a murder victim dies in a fire started by an incendiary device hidden in his belt, Takako is among the detectives assigned to the case. She's partnered with a male detective sergeant who views her as an ornament. The investigation seems to be running out of steam when a second gruesome death occurs, this one apparently caused by a wild dog or a domesticated wolf. The relationship between the killings is the mystery that occupies Takako professionally. Divorced and living alone until her annoying sister shows up, Takako's personal life frustrates her as much as her job.

Takako's perseverance makes her a sympathetic character, but she is also easy to like: she's smart, she's tenacious, and she has a biting sense of humor (although, for the most part, she keeps her sarcasm to herself). She thinks of her partner as "the emperor penguin." Her partner fits the stereotype of the career cop who has sacrificed his family to his job, who drinks too much and doesn't trust women. Although most of the story is presented from Takako's point of view, we sometimes see the novel's events through her male partner's eyes. The differing perspectives offer insight into the failure of the partners to communicate -- the two characters make assumptions about each other that, left unspoken, make it impossible for them to work as a team.

The subordinate role of women in Japanese society is a recurring theme in Japanese crime fiction (it appears in Out and The Cage among other novels); in The Hunter, Takako does her best to ignore the persistent sexism she encounters, even when it hobbles her investigation. She also tries to ignore her domineering mother and hapless sister, but doing so only adds to her stress. She feels best about herself when she's riding her motorcycle. Her connection to the mysterious animal she ends up tracking (as well as her love of riding) suggests her desire for freedom, a desire that is only a dream given the relentless demands of her job and family.

Readers looking for a strong female character should enjoy The Hunter. The novel isn't a whodunit -- there isn't much in the way of clues for the reader to piece together -- but the story moves quickly and in unexpected directions. The connection between the crimes is a bit farfetched, but that's common enough in thrillers. It's interesting to compare issues of gender equality across cultural lines, but it's even more interesting to read about Takako battling the kind of personal demons that afflict people in every culture. The prose in The Hunter flows more naturally than it does in some other novels translated from Japanese that I've read. For its intriguing central character and enjoyable story, I recommend The Hunter to fans of thrillers, police procedurals, and Japanese fiction.

RECOMMENDED

Tuesday
Feb012011

The Jupiter Theft by Donald Moffitt

First published in 1977

An object the size of a large planet moves into the solar system at nearly the speed of light. Shortly after astronomers on the moon detect the object, however, it slows and shrinks. It seems to be entering a solar orbit when it suddenly changes course and begins to orbit Jupiter. Coincidentally, a planned scientific mission to a Jovian moon has been preparing for departure. A hastily assembled military force armed with nuclear weapons joins the team of scientists on its voyage. What they discover, of course, are aliens who appear to be moving into the neighborhood. It turns out that the aliens aren't interested in being good neighbors.

The Jupiter Theft is a plot-centered story that revolves around two alien species (with another playing a minor background role), although one of the species doesn't appear until the novel is nearing its end. Moffitt devoted considerable effort to alien building and ship building but gave less attention to character building -- a common enough failing in hard sf stories. Military characters are militaristic, government officials are bureaucratic, scientists are smart, and everyone else suffers from thought deficiency. If some of the loving care devoted to the novel's science had been diverted to character development, this would be a better book. Fortunately, the central idea (revealed about halfway through the story) is creative and the plot is entertaining.

Moffitt's prose style is less than scintillating and the dialog is wooden, sometimes silly. From time to time the story gives way to a science lecture -- another common failing of hard sf novels, but fortunately not a frequent occurrence in The Jupiter Theft. Some of the storyline is all too familiar, as when an alien tells a human: "You are too puny to interfere with our purpose." There's nothing very original about puny humans encountering (and being held captive by) technologically superior aliens. Moffitt's attempt to add a political dimension to the novel by commingling Americans and devoutly socialist Chinese in the crew adds unintended humor to the story.

Nonetheless, some aspects of the story are clever, some chapters are exciting, and most of the time the novel is sufficiently fast-paced to keep the reader soldiering on despite the novel's flaws. The ending is satisfying. There's enough fun here to entertain fans of alien cultures, hard sf, and fast action.

RECOMMENDED WITH RESERVATIONS

Sunday
Jan302011

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.

RECOMMENDED