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.


In a House of Lies by Ian Rankin

First published in the UK in 2018; published by Little, Brown and Company on December 31, 2018

A dead body in the trunk of a car, ankles handcuffed together, brings John Rebus out of retirement (again). In 2006, he investigated the disappearance of private investigator Stuart Bloom. Rebus and the other assigned police detectives caught quite a bit of flack for botching the investigation. The dead body that has just been discovered is Bloom’s. Siobhan Clarke is assigned to the team that investigates Bloom’s death. Malcolm Fox is assigned to examine the adequacy of the original investigation.

Ian Rankin offers a full plate of suspects. Two business rivals, one of whom hired Bloom to investigate the other, are primary suspects. Bloom’s lover was the son of a Glasgow police detective. The lover and his father are both suspects. And then there are some gangsters and some people who hung out at a gay club and an overlapping group of people who were part of the local movie industry, Bloom having appeared as an extra in a low-budget horror film before he disappeared.

A couple of cops who investigated Bloom’s disappearance later investigated unfounded complaints against Clarke. One of those cops was employed after hours by one of the business rivals. Their presence contributes to personality clashes and increases the number of suspects who might have done in Bloom.

A subplot involves nuisance calls to Clarke that she assumes are related to a case that she recently closed. Rebus begins nosing into a closed murder investigation as a result of those calls. What he finds leads to a challenging question — when is justice best served by allowing the truth about a crime to remain concealed?

Rebus is interesting because, when he was still on the force, his approach to law enforcement was unorthodox. He got results, but by modern standards, his habit of trading favors with criminals and of protecting his friends is considered bad form. Of course, the true bad guys in this story (apart from the person who killed Bloom) are the dirty cops who hypocritically investigate other cops while covering up their own transgressions. They make Rebus look good by comparison.

The plot is intricate, as a Rankin fan would expect. Everything ties together by the end in ways that make sense. That’s become uncommon in the modern world of crime novels. Rankin also avoids chase scenes and preposterous coincidences and the other pitfalls that mar most of today's thrillers. His technique is to create a mystery and allow the characters he has crafted so carefully over the years to go about their business. Each novel adds a bit of character development (this one suggests the possibility of a romance between Fox and Tess Leighton) while allowing the reader to enjoy the interaction of characters who remain fond of each other, no matter how infuriated at each other they might become.



Happy New Year!

Tzer Island will return on Wednesday with a new review.


The O. Henry Prize Stories 2018 by Laura Furman (ed.)

Published by Vintage Anchor on September 4, 2018

None of the stories in the 2018 edition of the O. Henry Prize Stories resemble an O. Henry story. Fewer than half impressed me as worthy of being anthologized. I suppose my taste differs from the editor and jurors who selected the stories. The editor made an attempt to be diverse and inclusive, but the stories are determinedly literary (I suppose because they are chosen from literary magazines) and most are rather bland.

Some of the best stories in this collection are told from the perspective of a child. In “Lucky Dragon,” Viet Dinh describes the radiation poisoning of a boat filled with fishermen after Americans test an atomic bomb on the Bikini Atoll. The story is an effective indictment of inhumanity because it focuses not on massive destruction, but on the very personal effects of a single explosion upon a former POW who has been destroyed by war (and by Japanese traditions of honor) in many ways.

“Nights in Logar” by Jamil Jan Kochai is told by a child who has moved to Afghanistan from America. In the company of friends, he searches for a missing dog, exacts a form of cultural retribution on a young man he doesn’t know, and gets a lesson in village history as he roams past landmarks of local and international conflict. While the story is a brief slice-of-life, it reveals more than the moment it captures.

Another story told from a child’s perspective, Mark Jude Poirer’s “How We Eat,” is a very funny look at the mother from hell. The story suggests that even bad parenting might be insufficient to muffle a child’s essential goodness.

The young girl who narrates Jenny Zhang’s “Why Were They Throwing Bricks?” recounts her relationship with her overbearing grandmother during the four occasions that the grandmother visits America. The story is funny (because the girl, in her teen years, becomes just as overbearing as the grandmother) while offering a sensitive portrayal of an aging woman who is trying to find ways to deal with her fears.

On the other hand, not every story that reveals the world from a child’s viewpoint succeeded in saying something worthwhile. “Inversion of Marcia” by Thomas Bolt, a story written from the perspective of a 14-year-old girl on vacation in Italy, would probably be of greater interest to 14-year-old girls than it was to me. A friend of the mother of the young girl who narrates Lara Vapnyar’s “Deaf and Blind” is having an affair with a deaf and blind lover in Moscow. The story is well written and I guess it tries to say something about love, but I’m not sure it says anything at all.

My favorite story, “Queen Elizabeth” by Brad Felver, distills the relationship between a math professor and a furniture maker and their lost child to its essence in a series of defining moments. The story draws its power from its sparseness.

The saddest story, “Up Here” by Tristan Hughes, is about a relationship and a decision to end an old dog’s life. The story’s ending, together with carefully planted facts as the story unfolds, implies an additional reason for the narrator’s sadness. I like the way the story says so much by leaving so much untold.

A woman in (I think) Paraguay writes letters for pay by channeling the spirit of the letter’s dead author. The story suggests that the spirits of people who are tortured by authoritarian governments continue to suffer after the body dies. The narrator of Stephanie A. Vega’s “We Keep Them Anyway” has enough pain of her own and doesn’t want to know about the pain of the dead — perhaps with good cause, when the oppressors come searching for the incriminating letters.

The rest of the stories are of lesser quality. Youmna Chlala’s “Nayla” is a slice in the lives of two young women dealing with loss in ways that their culture permits. Another slice of life, Michael Parker’s “Stop ‘n’ Go,” introduces a man who reflects on how life has changed since the war. Ann Enright’s “Solstice” focuses on an Irish man’s frustration with his inability to shield his family from his grief and detachment. All three slices are too small to allow the reader to know the characters, but they at least convey something meaningful.

Marjorie Celona’s “Counterblast” features a woman who is filled with complaints about her husband, even after divorcing him, and with self-satisfied memories about how much she loved her baby, followed by a litany of complaints about how hard it is to be a mother. The protagonist is so full of anxieties and woes that I wanted to shout “Get over yourself!” Dounia Choukri’s “Past Perfect Continuous” is told by a woman who remembers her bitter German aunt whose past was stolen from her. The story is big on bromides but short on insights.

Lauren Alwan’s “An Amount of Discretion” is about a woman who wants to bond with her stepson after her husband’s death while making a decision about the disposition of the art her husband made. The stepson has a free-spirited stepdaughter. The story invites, but does not answer, the question: “Why are you making such as big deal out of this?”

“The Stamp Collector” by Dave King is about a self-pitying alcoholic who visits his former boyfriend in the hospital after the ex-boyfriend’s alcoholic mother crashes a car. This is another story that’s well-written but not very interesting, perhaps because I’ve had my fill of stories about self-pitying drunks.

Jo Lloyd's “The Earth, thy Great Exchequer, Ready Lies” is a tongue-in-cheek fantasy that I guess is supposed to be an indictment of capitalism. The title seems to come from a poem by Thomas Yalden that is dedicated to the explorer Humphry Mackworth, which is a little more research into the obscure than I think I should need to do to figure out the meaning of a mediocre story.

Stories that struck me as pointless and/or senseless: “The Tomb of Wrestling” by Jo Ann Beard; “The Houses that Are Left Behind” by Brenda Walker; and “More or Less Like a Man” by Michael Powers.



The Day the Sun Died by Yan Lianke

First published in China in 2015; published in translation by Grove Press on December 11, 2018

Li Niannian does not sleep deeply enough to dreamwalk, but on one eventful night, the kind of night that only happens once in a century, most residents of his village suddenly suffer from somnambulism. They behave differently than normal sleepwalkers, because they act out their dreams for hours and resist attempts to awaken them. Some villagers are walking into the river and committing suicide in their sleep. Others die accidental deaths; still others are murdered. Dreamwalkers confess their sins and commit new sins. Some dreamwalkers beat each other to death or plot the murder of spouses. The mayor dreams that he is an emperor.

Niannian’s family makes funeral wreaths and other decorations for the dead. One of his uncles operates the crematorium. As cremation is required by law, it appears that business will be booming for both family businesses after the night of dreamwalking comes to an end. In flashbacks, we learn of controversies surrounding Niannian’s father (a good man who made questionable decisions) and uncle (a questionable man who might be capable of good decisions). One controversy surrounds the proper use of the corpse oil that bodies expel when they are cremated.

The long night of somnambulism is extended by a sunless, cloudy morning — hence the title. Outsiders who learn that villagers are unable to wake up pour into town, breaking into stores and homes and carrying off their loot. Bedlam ensues, and the prolonged lack of sunlight leaves Niannian wondering whether it will ever end. It is up to Niannian’s father to devise an ingenious plan to save the village.

Yan Liane is a character in the novel. He is portrayed as a famous author who occasionally returns to the village for new story ideas. Niannian makes frequent refences to Yan’s other novels (whether those books are real or imagined, I’m not sure), which he claims recount the entire history of the narrator’s family. Yan’s mother fears he will die inside his story if he writes while dreamwalking. Yet writing stories is very much like dreamwalking and Yan would prefer to die than to stop writing.

This brief overview cannot capture the novel’s texture or the richness of its characterization. The story suggests that dreamwalkers expose their true selves when they are free to do whatever they desire. Greed and jealousy become primary motivators of rich dreamwalkers, while despair governs the action of the poor. The story invites readers to wonder what they might do while dreamwalking.

Yan Liane’s writing attempts to make a virtue of redundancy. He repeats sentences or parts of sentences, sometimes adding a new word or slightly rephrasing his thoughts. Whether he does that for emphasis or to create a rhythm, I don’t know. Maybe the style is more successful in Chinese than in translation. I enjoyed the story more than the prose, although Yan’s writing style is otherwise fine.

The story is entertaining while offering interesting thoughts about Chinese history, philosophies, and culture. The novel says something about fate — its disregard of whether someone has lived a good or bad life — and the random nature of death. It also says something about the ability of survivors to accept that randomness and endure. Freshly dug graves are “covered by a layer of new grass, but apart from the fact that this grass was lighter, thinner, and more tender than the surrounding grass, these new graves were scarcely different from the older ones.” Death is every person’s fate, but life continues, new wheat sprouting where the old has been trampled. People and their sacrifices are easily forgotten. All events will be lost to the depths of time, but new events will replace them.  The Day the Sun Died is both death-affirming and life-affirming, telling a timeless and universal story by focusing on a single night in a small village.



Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays

Tzer Island will return on Wednesday with a new review.