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.

Wednesday
Mar162011

When the Thrill Is Gone by Walter Mosley

Published by Riverhead on March 8, 2011

A woman who claims to be Cyril Tyler's wife tells private detective Leonid McGill that her wealthy husband is responsible for the deaths of his first two wives. She wants McGill to save her from becoming his next victim. In need of money, McGill accepts the case but soon suspects that the woman is not in fact Chrystal Tyler. His attempt to resolve the mystery brings him into contact with the rich and poor, cops and thugs, captive children and corpses. Along the way his own children and other members of his unconventional family add to his angst.

Walter Mosley populates his sentences with observations as bright and multifaceted as gemstones. He's as much a philosopher as a mystery writer. Mosley describes a deceased character in When the Thrill Is Gone as "a complex thinker who worried about a pedestrian world." He might have been describing himself. Mosley understands human nature in all its wonderful variation. He writes eloquently but succinctly about love and betrayal, race and poverty, hard life and bitter death. Mosley gives depth to his characters while honing his story to its essentials, never miring the plot in wasted words. His dialog is snappy; his descriptions are vivid. Although the story moves with blazing speed, I found myself reading sentences and paragraphs two or three times, slowing the pace of my reading to savor Mosley's prose.

Mosley sprinkles effective doses of humor into the narrative. The story feels authentic, as do the characters: quirky enough to be interesting but grounded in life's daily pleasures and misfortunes. The mystery itself, including its resolution, is rather ordinary; the plot is engaging but unspectacular. The tale Mosley tells in When the Thrill Is Gone almost seems secondary to the writing itself. Its value is as a vehicle to drive the story of McGill's life, a fascinating life we glimpse over the course of a few days. The mystery of McGill is more interesting than the mystery he solves.

This is Mosley's third novel featuring Leonid McGill but the first I've read. The narrative makes repeated references to past events in McGill's life, some of which I assume were chronicled in the first two books. Not having read them didn't impair my understanding of the story Mosley tells in When the Thrill is Gone, but I suspect that reading them would have given me a deeper understanding of McGill. That's an omission I intend to rectify: Leonid McGill is an intriguing character -- a literate man who prefers the "rough-and-tumble of brutish men and their misplaced confidence" -- and I want to know him better.

McGill's father was a Marxist and although McGill seems rather apolitical, he likes to reminisce about his father's lessons, many of which pit working class heroes against corporate versions of robber barons. That might disturb those readers who don't want to read about political opinions in a mystery, or those who assume that a character's opinions necessarily reflect those of the author. Those readers might want to avoid this novel. To all other readers -- not just mystery fans but anyone who enjoys strong writing -- I recommend When the Thrill Is Gone

RECOMMENDED

Tuesday
Mar152011

Moondogs by Alexander Yates

Published by Doubleday on March 15, 2011

Moondogs has the feel of a movie with an ensemble cast. Monique Thomas works at the American Embassy in Manila. Her marriage to her "trailing spouse," Joseph, is troubled, and Monique's secretive extramarital activities aren't helping. Benicio Bridgewater has a difficult relationship with his father, Howard, but is working to rehabilitate it after his mother's death. He travels to the Philippines to visit Howard but shortly before his arrival, Howard is kidnapped by Ignacio, a taxi driver who is always accompanied by his cigarette smoking rooster. Efrem Khalid Bakkar is a Muslim soldier, the best sharpshooter in the Armed Forces of the Philippines, until he's traded to an elite group of law enforcement agents led by the legendary Reynato Ocampo, whose exploits are chronicled in a series of popular films known as Ocampo Justice. In the movies, Ocampo is played by the charismatic Charlie Fuentes, a friend of Howard's who is running for a senate seat. The real Ocampo is working on Fuentes' campaign when he's not fighting crime with his agents, each of whom wields a magic power. The novel bounces from character to character, eventually merging their stories into an engaging plot that centers around Howard Bridgewater's kidnapping.

There are many things to like about Moondogs. Yates writes about the Philippines with obvious affection and good humor but never whitewashes the country's problems (corruption chief among them). He creates lively, multidimensional characters. He tells a good story. Although I wouldn't say the novel delivers "laugh out loud" humor, it's quite amusing. The pace is brisk and the action scenes are exciting. By the time I reached the last third of the novel, I was completely absorbed.

Yet Moondogs is not without its flaws. Yates' writing style, although mostly competent, is sometimes unpolished, occasionally bordering on amateurish. An episode of family drama involving Monique's son doesn't work very well; it's a distraction that doesn't advance the plot. One of the concluding chapters is a little cheesy. The ending drags a bit. Finally, while Yates tries to trade on superstitions harbored by some Filipinos, it's difficult to integrate magic into a novel that isn't grounded in magic (like Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter). It takes a skilled hand to mix fantasy into a reality-based novel (Haruki Murakami does it beautifully in Kafka on the Shore); Yates doesn't quite demonstrate the ability to make it work.

Despite those flaws, I enjoyed the novel and its characters. I recommend it to readers looking for an offbeat, lighthearted thriller.  

RECOMMENDED

Monday
Mar142011

You Don't Love This Man by Dan DeWeese

Published by Harper Perennial on March 1, 2011

At some point in You Don't Love This Man, Paul asks himself why he even tries to interact with other people. It's a good question because Paul isn't very good at it. Throughout the day that the novel chronicles, Paul antagonizes nearly everyone he meets (and the pattern continues in his memories of past encounters). The snapshot of his life makes for a worthwhile but not wholly pleasant reading experience. This is Paul having a bad day, but it left me wondering whether Paul has ever had a good day.

When the bank Paul manages is robbed on the day of his daughter's wedding, it brings back memories of an earlier robbery when he was a younger man, a teller whose encounter with the robber interrupted his fantasy about Gina, a former girlfriend who (with Grant, her new boyfriend) had visited the bank earlier that day. Paul had been dating Sandra at the time; now she's his ex-wife. Grant and Paul became friends; now Grant is about to marry Paul's daughter Miranda. Dealing with the aftermath of the current robbery occupies Paul's time as he wonders where Miranda has gone, why she hasn't appeared to begin the pre-wedding preparations. The narrative alternates between the past and present as the mystery of the missing bride unfolds and it soon becomes apparent that the two bank robberies are in some way connected. As Paul drifts through the day, he recalls seemingly random moments in his life: a confrontation with a boy Miranda invited to the house when she was fifteen; a conversation with Miranda after the boy kicks in the front door; a birthday dinner for Miranda that Grant unexpectedly joins; a barbecue for Sandra's tennis team in the final stages of their marriage.

A fair amount of this novel consists of Paul bickering with other people: most notably his ex-wife Sandra, his co-worker Catherine, Miranda and Grant. After awhile it becomes tiresome; the arguments all seem to run together. Anger is Paul's default emotion, although it's a low-key anger, fueled by angst that's driven by his inability to control everything and everyone around him, particularly his daughter (he's an archetype of the overprotective parent). He's sort of a self-aware jerk: he knows when he's being a jerk but can't seem to stop. He doesn't much like himself but he seems incapable of change. Although he doesn't try very hard to connect with people, it's obvious that he deeply regrets his inability to connect with his daughter -- and it's that regret that creates some hope for Paul's redemption.

If Dan DeWeese's purpose was to show a man in full as filtered through the prism of a single day, he created a man who seems crabbed, lacking any dimension beyond frustration and quiet rage. Maybe his purpose was to show a man in the late stages of disintegration. Difficult though it may be, there is value in reading about (and trying to understand) people we would rather not know. If nothing else, the novel might serve to heighten our awareness of unhealthy character traits that we might see in ourselves, or to guard against them.

I like DeWeese's writing style and I give him credit for bringing difficult personalities to life. His characters and their conflicts seemed very real: these are people who could (and probably do) live next door. The novel gains momentum as it moves along and the ending is strong. Some of the writing, particularly near the novel's end, is quite powerful. DeWeese creates moments that are illuminating and poignant. As much as I disliked Paul, I liked the book, and I look forward to reading more from DeWeese. I just hope his next novel features a main character whose life is more complete than Paul's.

RECOMMENDED

Sunday
Mar132011

Satori by Don Winslow

Published by Grand Central Publishing on March 7, 2011

At one point in Satori, the word satori is defined as "to see things as they really are." It's easy to see the novel for what it really is: an old school thriller. It isn't sophisticated or terribly imaginative, but its throwback plot is fun. Satori begins in 1951 with the release of Nicholai Hel (the protagonist in Trevanian's Shibumi) from American custody in Japan. Hel is given a new face, a new identity, and an assignment: to assassinate Yuri Voroshenin, the Soviet commissioner to China. In preparation, Hel is coached in the accent of southern France by the lovely Solange. The first half of the novel follows Hel into China as he pursues his mission. The second half takes him through Southeast Asia and into Saigon where, dodging foreign and domestic killers, he becomes entangled with the mysterious Operation X. Along the way, Hel manages to take on the Russians, the Chinese, the French, the Viet Minh, the Mafia, a Vietnamese crime organization, the Vietnamese emperor, and an assassin known as the Cobra.

Although I liked Satori, several things troubled me about the novel. The characters are caricatures: Voroshenin and the head of the Chinese secret police are cartoonish sadists while Nicholai Hel is the most honorable assassin ever envisioned. Every character in this novel has a story and every story is a cliché: the woman who spies for the French Resistance by selling her body to German soldiers; the woman who gives her body to a Russian officer to save her home from confiscation; the Russian and Chinese officers who torture for pleasure; the intelligence officers waging turf wars; the intelligence officer working for his own (rather than his government's) purposes; the journalist/informant who is a slave to gluttony -- all are familiar characters. The plot depends upon Voroshenin coming to a conclusion that is unsupported by evidence, logic, or the reasonable exercise of intuition. The discussion of Zen philosophy is cheesy. Every now and then the story is slowed by a dull lecture about the evils of communism. The fight scenes are too similar to each other and there must be a half dozen occasions on which Hel is saved from harm by his "proximity sense" (something he apparently borrowed from Spiderman). The women in this novel who aren't selling their bodies to men are being tortured or abused. As I said: old school.

If the novel is so flawed, why was I unable to tear myself away from it? The answer, I suppose, is that Winslow pushed all the right buttons. The story is like comfort food: predictable but tasty. The plot may be formulaic, but it's a good formula: a story in which betrayal is everywhere, challenging both Hel and the reader "to see things as they really are." When the novel turns to action (which is fairly often), the pace is relentless. The ending, while contrived, contains a satisfying twist. Fans of old school thriller writers like Forsyth and Trevanian should like Satori, even if the novel doesn't quite reach the standards set by those writers. 

RECOMMENDED WITH RESERVATIONS

Saturday
Mar122011

Abbott Awaits by Chris Bachelder

Published by Louisiana State University Press on March 1, 2011

Abbott Awaits is a snapshot of Abbott's life at thirty-seven, a three month record of his wonderfully scattered thoughts about marriage and parenthood, neighbors and home repairs, freedom and constraint. Abbott feels entrapped by "his small beseeching world," by "the broken hinge, the moldy tub, the dog who has to pee." It's difficult to tell whether his marriage is troubled or typical. His experiences often make him despondent, yet he's moved by motorists who cooperate with each other when the traffic light fails. Believing that children need stability, he wonders whether he should consistently appear sullen and unresponsive to his daughter at breakfast despite her preference for the few mornings when he manages to be interactive and entertaining. Abbott thinks he has a responsibility to enjoy life, an obligation to delight in his existence, but he's distracted in his effort to do so by a branch leaning on a power line. Sometimes the only thing Abbott wants "is to be knocked unconscious by the long wooden handle of a lawn tool." On the other hand, watching his two-year-old daughter take in the passing world through a car window with wonder and amazement makes Abbott feel that he, like his daughter, is "living fully and directly." In short, Abbott is a complex individual in the very ways we are all complex. I suspect many readers will recognize a bit of themselves in Abbott; I certainly did.

Although quite different in style and subject matter, there's an eccentricity and playfulness to Chris Bachelder's storytelling that reminded me of Kurt Vonnegut. Other comparisons also come to mind. Like Seinfeld, Bachelder chronicles the mundane and makes it funny. Like Woody Allen, Bachelder finds the humor in a character who is preoccupied with human suffering and with the possibility of his own death (particularly while cleaning the gutters). Yet Bachelder writes in a voice that is all his own, sometimes whimsical, often evocative, always precise. This is a writer who knows what he wants to say. And if what he has to say isn't always profound, it's nearly always amusing and often thought-provoking.

Readers who dislike fiction that isn't plot-driven should avoid Abbott Awaits. There is no plot to speak of; the novel is written as a series of introspective vignettes addressing seemingly random events in Abbott's life or thoughts in his head: his reaction to something he has seen on television or read in the newspaper; his interaction with his wife and daughter; his chores, his health, his fears, his neurotic dog ... in short, his life, reduced to bite-sized morsels. Some of the vignettes are quite funny, some are insightful, a few seem a little pointless, but they sum up to a greater whole, a life defined by the small things that comprise it. I enjoyed reading about Abbott and wondering how his life will turn out. Maybe ten years from now Bachelder will give us another glimpse of Abbott's life. If so, I'll read it. 

 RECOMMENDED