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
Jul312017

Grief Cottage by Gail Godwin

Published by Bloomsbury USA on June 6, 2017

Marcus is ten when his mother dies in an accident. He is sent to live with his great aunt Charlotte, a woman he has never met. Charlotte lives in a beach cottage on a South Carolina island and makes a living painting island landscapes. One of her most popular paintings is of Grief Cottage at the far end of the beach. Before it was partially destroyed in a fire, the cottage was occupied for the summer by a young boy and his parents. The parents died in a storm while searching for the boy, whose body was never found.

Charlotte is reclusive and not particularly interested in, or capable of, raising a ten-year-old boy. Marcus knows he is intruding on her privacy, and while Charlotte does not intend to make Marcus feel unwelcome in her home, Marcus has reason to believe that he is a burden, no matter how helpful he tries to be. Mostly, he tries to stay away so Charlotte can enjoy her solitude. Long walks on the beach to Grief Cottage are a logical way to spend his time.

Gail Godwin’s cover blurb warns the reader that Grief Cottage is a ghost story, but it is primarily the story of Marcus’ struggle to understand his life. Marcus was uprooted once, while his mother was still alive, after he inflicted a savage beating on a friend. This new change in his life, following his mother’s death, might in some ways be welcome as a new beginning.

Is Grief Cottage haunted? Marcus sees the ghost of a boy at the ruins of the cottage, but perhaps he is seeing the manifestation of his own grief. The ghost makes only rare appearances, creating a frame for the rest of Marcus’ experiences on the island.

The reader encounters quite a few digressions in Grief Cottage, from biographical snippets about Alec Guinness (who, like Marcus, did not know his father’s identity) to details of the invented island and its history. Some of the digressions help build setting and flesh out characters, but after a point, they impede the story’s development. On the other hand, information about erosion of the beach and (sometimes futile) efforts to preserve historic places establish the themes of change and resistance to change by hanging onto the past that pervade the novel.

Some aspects of Grief Cottage, particularly certain characters, are a wee bit too pretentious. For example, Marcus spends time with an aging bedridden woman who is engaged in a self-absorbed archeology of herself and has a good cry when she realizes that no self can ever share their entire being with another self. Similar wisdom imparted by other island inhabitants is difficult to endure, simply because it is unrelenting.

Aunt Charlotte often tells Marcus that he is too good to be true. I shared that sentiment. Too good, too thoughtful, too helpful, too courteous. Godwin makes clear that his goodness is motivated by fear of rejection (and by being raised by a caring mother), but his goodness also makes Marcus dull, despite the drama he has endured.

Other aspects of Grief Cottage just didn’t work for me. After spending the novel being a tortured model of goodness, Marcus is inhabited by an imaginary gremlin who coaxes him to do something mildly bad and then punishes him with a self-destructive impulse. The gremlin, unlike the ghost, struck me as a plot device rather than a mental construct that Marcus would actually devise. And since Marcus’ voice, or at least his internal voice, is that of adult with an Ivy League education, I couldn’t accept it as belonging to a middle school boy. In fact, everyone in the novel speaks in the same voice, which seems false given their varying backgrounds.

Still, there is no doubt that Gail Godwin is among the most elegant writers in current literature, and the novel bears reading simply for its graceful language. Despite my reservations about Marcus, I appreciated Godwin’s insights into the island and the people who inhabit it.

RECOMMENDED

Friday
Jul282017

The Fallen by Ace Atkins

Published by G.P. Putnam's Sons on July 18, 2017

Ace Atkins always makes me laugh. He brings intelligence and fair-minded wit to his portrayal of a South that cloaks bigotry and hypocrisy in the language of “old-fashioned values” and “a Christian way of life.” Atkins doesn’t paint all residents of rural Mississippi with the same brush, but he isn’t afraid to expose persistent ugliness. Of course, readers who think that bigotry is a Christian value will probably dislike this novel, but there are plenty of "values" novels by lesser authors with which they can entertain themselves.

Values aside, Atkins always tells a good story, mixing strong characters with a convincing plot. He does all that again in The Fallen, his latest Quinn Colson novel.

In true southern tradition, the residents of Tibbehah County blamed acting Sheriff Lillie Virgil for arresting a coach who was molesting kids (rather than blaming the coach), paving the way for a reluctant Quinn Colson to win his old position as sheriff. Now the county supervisors want to take Tibbehah back to its godly roots. To do that, they want to enforce an ordinance constraining activities at the local titty bar by proclaiming their adherence to wholesome southern values, notwithstanding the county’s long tradition of prostitution, moonshine, and support for the Klan — but their concerns have more to do with greed than morality.

Apart from the normal problems caused by rednecks at the local titty bar, the crime that occupies Quinn in The Fallen is a bank robbery. The robbers are three veterans who haven’t adjusted to civilian life and enjoy the thrill of robbing small town banks. A subplot involves two teenage girls (last seen in The Innocents) who have gone missing.

All of those storylines intertwine. Apart from the bank robberies, the storylines are a continuation of events developed in earlier novels. While novels in some series can be read in any order, that’s not true of the Quinn Colson series. To follow the story, it’s best to start at the beginning and watch the characters and their situations evolve over time. It might be possible to read The Fallen as a stand-alone, but the novel assumes a familiarity with the series. It doesn’t summarize past events in any detail, which might leave new readers wondering what’s going on with some of the characters.

Reliable supporting characters in the series return in The Fallen. In addition to Lillie, other returning characters include Boom Kimbrough, Quinn’s sister Caddie and mother Jean, and titty bar owner Fannie Hathcock. Some aspects of the story are sad, reflecting the reality that life doesn’t always come with a happy ending and that bad guys don’t always get their just deserts. That might turn off readers who are looking for a happier world in their fiction, but the redeeming qualities of the Quinn Colson series are found in Quinn, Lillie, Caddie, and Boom, who are never afraid to stand for what’s right, and who know that what’s right has to do with how people treat each other, as opposed to hypocritical posturing about “old-fashioned values."

RECOMMENDED

Wednesday
Jul262017

The Shipshape Miracle and Other Stories by Clifford D. Simak

Published by Open Road Media on July 4, 2017

The Shipshape Miracle and Other Stories is volume 10 in the Complete Short Fiction of Clifford D. Simak. It doesn’t include Simak’s best stories, but all of the stories are good, making it one of the best volumes in the series.

In “The Money Tree,” money does grow on trees. Rich people have them, which is why they have walls and fences surrounding their property. But as Chuck Doyle learns, stealing from a money tree isn’t easy when it is protected by an alien. This is a light and amusing story and, like many Simak stories, it comes with a moral. It is also one of Simak’s many stories about kind aliens who are better than the Earth deserves.

“Shotgun Cure” is typical Simak in its focus on small towns and simple lives. A “one-horse doctor in a one-horse town” is approached by an alien who gives him the cure for all disease. Soon the entire planet is vaccinated, but it turns out that the cure comes with a price.

“Paradise” is one of the stories that comprises City. This is the story in which Fowler returns to human form to spread a utopian message about humanity’s future that is suppressed for fear that people will listen to it.

“The Gravestone Rebels Ride by Night!” might be the longest of Simak’s westerns. The hero is a frontier lawyer.

“How-2” imagines a future in which “how to” kits supply instructions and materials for everything from home dentistry to making a robotic dog. A fellow named Knight plans to build a dog but he gets a kit for a robotic person by mistake. Lawyers also play a role in this story, although they are robot lawyers who bring much needed logic and reason to the law. The courtroom scene echoes themes from some of Asimov’s robot stories, but with a unique spin. A moral of many Simak stories, including this one, is that honest hard work is a good thing, and that trying to avoid it will only lead to trouble. Too much leisure may even take the value out of life. This story was new to me, but it is on my growing list of favorite Simak stories.

“The Shipshape Miracle” tells of a lawless man who needs a miracle to leave the isolated planet on which he is stranded. The miracle comes in the form of a ship that has merged with a human (an early example of transhumanism in science fiction), but all miracles come with a price. The story has the sort of ironic ending that would have made a good Twilight Zone episode.

“Rim of the Deep” is one of Simak’s early stories, and for that reason is written in a pulp style that he largely abandoned in his later years. The story is sort of an underwater western with a gangster element and a Venusian.

Simak hinged more than one story on the relationship between immortality (or longevity) and the need to find a place to put all the people who haven’t died. Like other Simak stories that explore the theme, “Eternity Lost” (a story about a corrupt politician’s attempt to gain another life extension) asks whether longevity is a blessing or a curse and suggests that people only appreciate life because they know it has a relatively short span. Simak often gave his stories a twist ending, and is one of the better twists.

The future of an evolving mankind was another frequent Simak theme. In “Immigrant,” Seldon Bishop visits Kimon, a world that only welcomes the smartest immigrants from Earth and that has eschewed foreign trade or diplomatic relationships with other planets. Earth’s government hopes that Bishop will explain why that’s true, although no other emigrant to Kimon has chosen to do so. While aliens in Simak’s stories are usually kinder and wiser than humans, the aliens on Kimon are smug and condescending, perhaps an inevitable trait of a highly-evolved race. But the story is about the human qualities of vanity and pride, as well as the human capacity to set those qualities aside in order to gain knowledge and wisdom.

RECOMMENDED

Monday
Jul242017

Mrs. Fletcher by Tom Perrotta

Published by Scribner on August 1, 2017

The point of Mrs. Fletcher, I think, is that life is always changing, no matter what stage our lives have reached; that we are always called upon to make choices as our circumstances change; that a fair percentage of those choices will turn out to be bad; and that we do the best we can with the choices we make. Of course, unfortunate choices can be really funny when they’re made by other people, and the only point of Mrs. Fletcher might be the laughter it inspires as the characters blunder forward with their lives.

Eve Fletcher works in a community center for the elderly, a fertile source for Tom Perrotta’s brand of comedy. Eve’s self-absorbed son Brendan is off to college, leaving behind his self-absorbed girlfriend after breaking up with her by text. For a few years, Eve has been divorced from her selfish husband Ted, who left her after meeting a Casual Encounter on Craigslist. Eve is now preparing for an empty nest by posting positive messages on her Facebook status and waiting for encouraging “likes” from her 221 friends. But Eve is needy and immediately feels abandoned, particularly when (after day 3) she stops receiving her promised daily text messages from Brendan. All of this motivates Eve's desire to leave her old self behind, a desire that manifests in sexual interests beyond her limited experience, as she considers sex with a young college student, sex with a woman, and sex in a threesome.

In the first part of the story, Perrotta alternates his focus between Eve and Brendan, telling Brendan’s story in the first person. Brendan’s introduction to college life gives Perrotta a chance to show off his ear for youthful dialog. Brendan’s college goals are to party as much as possible, study as little as possible, and get a degree (maybe in Econ) that will allow him to earn six figures as soon as possible. As his college advisor tells him, “Good luck with that.”

Where Eve’s life has changed by becoming an empty nester and Brendan’s has changed by losing the security of living at home, a third changed life is represented in Amanda Olney, the activities director in the senior center where Eve works. Unlike Eve, who has learned to fulfill her needs by surfing porn, Amanda hooks up for one night stands that make her feel good at the time but sad the next day. The novel eventually turns into a romp as the characters pair up in expected ways to engage in unconventional acts.

Perrotta’s socially observant humor shines in his depiction of Eve’s gender studies class (an evening class that gets her out of her house) and her emerging interest in MILF pornography; the casual racism and homophobia of seniors who are stuck in the 1950s; the tribulations of middle-age dating (and the dilemma faced by women of a certain age whose standards for men exceed their ability to attract those men); and Brendan’s politically incorrect cluelessness about women.

The story’s mildly serious elements include Brendan’s autistic half-brother; Brendan’s jealousy at the relationship his father has forged with his new family; the social construction of gender; the judgmental social convention of “age appropriate” relationships; high school bullying; the inability to let go of insignificant marital grievances; and the difficulty of moving forward after making a bad decision about life.

All of that comes together in a playful novel that is fun to read even if follows a formula that leads to predictable outcomes. Characters will do something foolish, learn a lesson from their foolish behavior, and perhaps find true romance in unexpected places. The novel flirts with unconventional thought while taking few chances, but it delivers the laughter and familiar insights that Perrotta fans expect.

RECOMMENDED

Friday
Jul212017

The Devil and Webster by Jean Hanff Korelitz

Published by Grand Central Publishing on March 21, 2017

The Devil and Webster is a fascinating (if not entirely convincing) look at the liberal president of a highly-regarded liberal arts college as she is confronted with a crisis involving well-meaning students, a manipulative student activist, a professor who is denied tenure, and trustees who (apart from the right-wing trustee who despises her) are guardedly supportive of the president’s inclusive and understanding management style.

Naomi Roth is president of Webster College, a highly regarded institution that began to evolve a liberal tradition in the 1960s after departing from its former tradition as a party school for underperforming white racist males. As Dean of Women, Naomi gained respect by managing her first crisis: a biological woman who identifieD as a man chose to live in a traditionally all-female housing unit to the dismay of two of its other residents. After nine years as president, a new crisis emerges, one in which a Webster student named Hannah, who happens to be Naomi’s daughter, becomes deeply involved. Also involved is Omar Khayal, a student who was admitted because of his apparent ability to overcome hardships in the Middle East, but who isn’t doing well in most of his courses — apart from the top grades he receives from a professor who is being denied tenure due to lax scholarship and plagiarism.

Naomi is frustrated because the protesting students won’t meet with her and the tenure denial they are protesting is not something Naomi can explain without violating confidentiality rules and exposing Webster to a lawsuit. Much of the novel is devoted to Naomi’s response to the growing protest, an ugly campus incident, her deteriorating relationship with her daughter, and a collateral issue that is affecting her friendship with Webster’s Dean of Admissions.

Naomi is a decent person with strong progressive values, but she’s come up in an academic tradition that has blinded her to certain realities. She’s living a sheltered academic existence and while she is justly proud that Webster is tolerant and diverse and culturally sensitive, she’s not aware of what students are actually thinking. Only near the end of the novel, when a Native American conference that is meant to celebrate the school’s transformation is finally held, does Naomi come to realize that, despite her liberal values, she may be clueless about the lives of people who are not like her.

Or it may be that young people yearn to feel special, and airing unfounded grievances is a way to accomplish that goal. Naomi isn’t sure what to believe, but that’s the quandary we all share, living inside heads that can only hold one mind. And the point of higher education, the novel reminds us, is to make sure that mind is open to new ideas and possibilities. The important thing, one character suggests, is to take the long view, to realize we do what we can to make the world better, and that the world will keep on changing, and hopefully improving, long after we are gone.

I admire the story’s sense of atmosphere, its elegant prose, the careful attention to character. I felt little emotional connection to the plot. Like Naomi, the book is engulfed in its academic setting and perhaps a bit detached from life outside of that narrow prism. The plot is so carefully constructed that it never quite resonates as real. Some conflicts, particularly involving Omar, seem contrived, although other conflicts are more convincing. In the end, however, the storytelling has enough power and grace to earn an easy recommendation.

RECOMMENDED