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
Jun272018

Remind Me Again What Happened by Joanna Luloff

Published by Algonquin Books on June 26, 2018

Claire Scott contracted Japanese encephalitis from a mosquito bite in India. She is hospitalized with a high fever in a Florida hospital before her panicked husband Charlie finds her. Charlie was in love with Claire once, but they have been separated for some time. When Claire comes out of her coma, her seizures and memory loss cause them to reunite, soon to be joined in Boston by their old friend Rachel. The novel explores the evolution and disintegration of their triangular relationship, and the discomfort that comes from their reunion.

Claire’s memories from age 17 to 34 are gone, and her ability to form new memories is impaired. She doesn’t recall living with Rachel and Charlie after the death of Rachel’s parents. Rachel is helping Claire sift through memories with old photographs and boxes that Claire packed away, but Claire spends most of her time keeping track of Charlie’s sighs and unspoken criticisms of her endless questions about her past. Charlie does not respond well to not being remembered. He wonders if Claire, who traveled the world as a journalist, was sleeping with Michael, her photographer, during their separation. Claire wonders whether Charlie was sleeping with his co-worker Sophie. Neither of them seem capable of recapturing the love that united them in marriage.

Remind Me Again What Happened is told from the perspectives of its three primary characters. Claire’s and Charlie’s chapters explain why each is irritated by the other. Claire feels suffocated by Charlie, who fears that she will suffer a seizure if she leaves the house and does not understand why she resists his desire to keep her safe. Claire feels Charlie blames her for her memory loss and that he resents the time he spends filling in the gaps, reminding her of events again and again because memories refuse to form. Those perceptions are accurate, as Charlie tells us that he is “still too twisted up with old anger and hurts” to treat Claire, who clearly feels no desire for him, as anything other than an obligation.

From the photographs and Claire’s stories, the reader learns about Claire’s childhood, which she remembers vividly. Recalling stories told by her parents shapes her current understanding of how she should be living her life. It is easy to feel sympathy for Claire, both because her memory loss has robbed her of an identity and because her seizures have robbed her of the opportunity to leave home long enough to gain new experiences and build a new identity. It is harder to sympathize with Charlie, because he is controlling and selfish (at least from Claire’s perspective), but the chapters that are told from Charlie’s point of view make it possible to understand that he also feels trapped in a situation that is beyond his control.

Rachel’s chapters focus on the relationship she once had with Charlie and the difficulty she has deciding whether to forgive Claire for an act that she views as a betrayal. She also recalls her anxiety when Claire and Charlie began to date, signaling the time when Charlie and Claire would move out and leave Rachel alone. She wonders if Charlie is correct in saying that Claire has not forgotten the past but is trying to rewrite it, to make it more palatable. Rachel finds herself caught in the middle, her loyalty to two friends divided, wondering if she will eventually choose sides in the growing divide between Charlie and Claire. Joanna Luloff builds sympathy for Rachel, as she does with the other characters, but like all people, Rachel sometimes lets undefined anger overcome her better nature. The reader likes Rachel in her better moments and is able to understand why there are times when her conduct is less than exemplary.

As is usually true in memory loss novels, the plot feels a bit contrived, but this relationship drama is character-driven. The plot is just a framework to reunite the characters after they have drifted apart. The reader wonders whether the characters will be able to reconcile their feelings, to gain insight into their own behaviors rather than blaming each other for making them act as they do. They all have secrets (even if Claire does not remember her secrets), and the reader wonders whether they will finally reveal their secrets to each other, or whether some secrets are better left concealed.

As is common in character-driven novels, the ending provides little closure because the lives of the characters will continue to evolve even after the story ends. That can be frustrating, but even if the ending of Remind Me Again What Happened isn’t entirely satisfying, it allows the reader to imagine any number of ways the story might continue by opening the doors to potential futures, just as all of us are engaged in a constant process of reinventing our own futures. Luloff scores points for reminding the reader of life’s uncertainty and of the struggle we should undertake to be good to each other, even if we do not ultimately succeed. She also scores points for telling the story in elegant, understated prose that brings the characters fully to life.

RECOMMENDED

Monday
Jun252018

For Honor by Jeff Rovin

Published by St. Martin's Griffin on May 29, 2018

The full title of this book is Tom Clancy’s Op-Center: For Honor. Tom Clancy died in 2013, but his name appears in the largest font on the cover. The name of the actual author, Jeff Rovin, appears in the smallest font, despite the fact that Rovin has written most of the Op-Center novels and Clancy wrote none of them. Regardless, you can bet that some gullible readers will write Amazon reviews complaining that Tom Clancy doesn’t write as well as he once did, or praising Tom Clancy for his continued literary excellence. I don’t know if publishers intend to deceive readers when a dead author’s name dominates the cover, but the practice has a bad smell. I like to see the writer who actually wrote the book get top billing.

The Op-Center series was relaunched in an excruciatingly dull 2014 book by Dick Couch and Steve Pieczenik. Returning Rovin to the helm was a wise decision. Rovin at least makes things happen in For Honor. Not everything that happens is interesting or credible, but enough of the novel works to earn a very guarded recommendation.

The plot follows a theme that have become popular in current thrillers: Russia is teaming up with Iran to cause mass destruction in the United States. The story throws in some action in Cuba involving series regular Kent McCord, but the Cuba plotline comes across as filler. It adds nothing of value to the story.

The better plot thread involves Konstantin Bolshakov, who disappeared from Soviet military records in 1962 and resurfaced after the Soviet Union broke up, having transitioned from naval officer to arms dealer. Bolshakov went into hiding after a rival arms dealer killed his wife, but only after taking the eye of the rival’s daughter. Bolshakov placed his son Yuri in a place of safety before he went into hiding. Entering adulthood, Yuri vowed never to have contact with the man whose career caused his mother’s death. That vow is broken when Yuri, now a faithful member of the GRU, needs his father’s knowledge about nuclear weapons that were stored and sort of forgotten in Anadyr, a Russian city in cozy proximity to Alaska.

Thanks to a snazzy Ops-Center computer program that scans social media posts worldwide, Kathleen Hays spots the elder Bolshakov in a photo at a Moscow parade, and spots him again catching a flight to the port city of Anadyr, where no sane person would go. Why she cares about a has-been arms dealer is unclear. With a bit of snooping, she finds that Yuri is also going to Anadyr. From this she deduces that world peace is once again threatened.

Meanwhile, the Ops-Center is helping with the interview of an Iranian defector named Ghasemi, who claims to be a closet Christian who is being persecuted by the Russians, but quickly admits that he has been planted to provide disinformation to the Americans, and claims that his daughter will be killed if he does not cooperate. A video showing the daughter being tortured is offered as proof of his story. Chase Williams, who heads the Ops-Center, is suspicious of Ghasemi, while Ghasemi’s daughter, a nuclear physicist named Parand, eventually comes to play a role in story other than that of a helpless torture victim. Unfortunately, the father-daughter relationship involving Ghasemi and Parand is less well developed than the father-son relationship involving Konstantin and Yuri. In the end, the father-daughter story just sort of fizzles out.

Naturally, the good guys quickly albeit improbably draw a connection between the Russian and Iranian storylines. In support of the Cuban storyline, we’re told that “planes, ships, and even submarines” from Cuba are “constantly shuttling senior planners of terror groups to Florida and the Gulf Coast.” Homeland Security knows about most of these trips but lets them happen because it prefers to “watch and listen” rather than disrupting “terror groups” by arresting their “senior planners.” This is an astonishingly paranoid view of Cuba, but it’s red meat for a certain kind of reader. It also suggests a certain ineptness on the part of Homeland Security that, at least, isn't difficult to believe.

The reader will need to tolerate the usual thriller veneration of “men of action” (i.e., guys with guns) who do what needs to be done while “bureaucrats” and “academics” (i.e., people who solve problems by thinking rather than shooting) never understand anything and should really just keep their mouths shut and listen to the guys with guns. I particularly laughed at the notion that soldiers who fought in Iraq know more about Iran than a scholar who has devoted a career to studying the country. Iran is ruled by a theocracy, Iraq by something that passes for sectarian government. “Boots on the ground” in Iraq won’t give anyone useful information about Iran, but extolling the virtues of soldiers while bashing academics and politicians is standard fare in novels like this one. Again, red meat.

Rovin also tosses in some Krav Maga workouts and fights, including one at a pointless NATO war games digression in Poland. Krav Maga is a trendy form of martial arts in thrillers and Rovin is nothing if not trendy. Unfortunately, the fights add nothing to the plot, which meanders a bit before Americans rush in to save the day. In the end, I found the Bolshakovs to be more compelling than the American characters, simply because their disagreements were based on substance while the Americans are busy mouthing talking points. The novel offers little in the way of tension or suspense, and action scenes are too standard to be exciting. Rovin knows how to keep a story moving, so it is easy to breeze through the chapters. I found For Honor worthwhile for the Russian father-son dynamic, but the rest of the novel lacks sufficient energy to be work as a thriller.

RECOMMENDED WITH RESERVATIONS

Friday
Jun222018

The Judge Hunter by Christopher Buckley

Published by Simon & Schuster on May 1, 2018

The Judge Hunter tells the story of how New Amsterdam became New York, but tells it sideways, as the tale of an unwitting spy who is purportedly searching for two regicides who fled to New England because of their involvement in the death of King Charles I. A history lesson has never been funnier, even if the funny bits are invented.

Samuel Pepys is Clerk of the Royal Navy, giving him the means to support, albeit reluctantly, his unemployed relatives, including his feckless brother-in-law, Balthasar de St. Michel. When Lord Downing hatches a plan to annoy the colonial Puritans who have sheltered two regicide judges (Whalley and Goffe), Pepys recommends sending Balthasar (“Balty”) to the colonies, because he knows of no one with a greater natural talent for annoyance.

In Massachusetts, Balty is both annoying and annoyed. He has little in common with Puritans, who immediately threaten to skewer his tongue with a hot poker for his blasphemous manner of speech. But as he learns from Colonel Huncks, who has been assigned to assist him in judge hunting, the Puritans would happily murder him rather than give up Whalley and Goffe, given that Whalley and Goffe did God’s work (in the Puritans’ eyes) by ridding England of Charles I, who was no friend of Puritans.

Unlike Balty, Huncks is competent. He’s also a British spy. Much of the novel’s humor comes from the contrast between Balty’s bumbling and Huncks’ efforts to keep him alive as they pursue their mission. Huncks’ true mission is not to find the regicides but to gather information in anticipation of the arrival of the British Navy, which plans to attack the Dutch colonists in New Amsterdam, a plan that Pepys opposes on the ground that the Navy is not equipped to win a war.

With that setup, the story proceeds on two fronts: in England, Pepys faces accusations of disloyalty, much like the colonists who are harboring Whalley and Goffe, while in New England, Balty hastens forward on a mission that never seems to be supported by a plan. In blissful ignorance of political matters, Balty goes about his business, inadvertently saving a pretty Quaker named Thankful from being flogged to death after she wanders nude into a Puritan church nude as an act of protest.

Balty might be annoying but he isn’t rude, and his unwarranted sense of self-importance adds to his charm as a character. He also has a good heart, which makes him a likable character. Balty finds himself drawn to Thankful, perhaps because he has seen her in the nude, but Thankful also has a good heart and is another character the reader will easily like. A bit of romantic comedy adds spice to the historical comedy, with familiar figures of colonial history making cameo appearances. In fact, Christopher Buckley appended a short discussion of actual history to the novel, giving context to the story’s characters and events.

The Judge Hunter isn’t an action novel, but it has enough action to keep the story energized, and more than enough silliness to keep the reader laughing. At the same time, parts of the story are gruesome. Some scenes are sad and some of those are poignant. That’s what happens when fiction is based on history: reality intrudes. That isn’t a bad thing, because one of the novel’s points is that life and the people who live it can be quite funny, even clownish, but that the incalculable value of life can only be measured against the certainty of death. And if we must die, we might as well die laughing.

RECOMMENDED

Thursday
Jun212018

My Purple Scented Novel by Ian McEwan

First published in 2016; published by Vintage on June 19, 2018

“My Purple Scented Novel” is a short story of literary evil, the worst kind of evil imaginable in the world of serious literature: plagiarism. Two lifelong friends have known each other since college. Both are writers. One turned out to be successful. The other had children. Eventually, the world believes that one stole a novel from the other, and in fact that’s what happened, but the theft is not what it appears to be.

The reader might wonder what motivated the evil writer to act as he did. Jealousy? He denies it. A desire for wealth and fame? He claims to be content with a drafty house, a professorship that is dragging its way to tenure, and a legacy of out-of-print novels. But given his fiendish conduct, the reader might be disinclined to believe a word he says.

Maybe the evil deed is something that Ian McEwan could imagine himself doing if not for the talent that assured he would never be a mid-list, out-of-print author. Perhaps all great writers are a bit evil, at least in their imaginations.

Perhaps the point of the story is not so much the writer’s motivation as the deed itself, the audacity of behaving in such a selfish way and getting away with it. If it weren’t so awful, the display of chutzpah would almost be admirable.

“My Purple Scented Novel” was first published in the New Yorker and is now available as a Vintage Short. It is quite short, but McEwan fans who don’t want to read it (or listen to McEwan read it) on the New Yorker website now have the option of downloading it to a reading gadget. The story is worth a reader’s time regardless of how the reader decides to experience it.

RECOMMENDED

Wednesday
Jun202018

The Melody by Jim Crace

Published by Doubleday/Nan A. Talese on June 19, 2018

Alfred (Mr. Al) Busi, a widowed, retired singer of modest fame, is at war with the realtors (including his nephew) who want him to sell the villa he has occupied his entire life and with the animals that tip over his garbage containers at night. Responding to frightening noises, he is clawed and bitten, perhaps by a cat or a feral child, and is nursed by the sister of his deceased wife as he tries to decide whether he longs for her or just for a life that isn’t lonely. The attack is only the start of a bad day that will soon include a robbery with another beating and an apparent end to Busi’s legacy as the town’s most valued singer.

Busi is philosophical rather than self-pitying as he considers the unfavorable ways in which his life is changing as he grows old. It certainly isn’t improved by the rabies shot he endures, by his nagging fear of a painful death after refusing the rest of the shots in the series, or by the journalist who mocks his belief that he was mauled by a naked boy. Where Busi was once greeted by smiles as he strolled through town, people look at his bandages, see him hunched over from the rabies shot as he walks, and view him with suspicion, if not derision. He has become “a sack of grimaces and reflexes, of tics and twitches, spasms and convulsions.”

His neighbors and nephew assure Busi that his home is about to be torn down, to be replaced by a planned development of pricey homes with ocean views known as The Grove, one of which has been promised to Busi. But it is Busi’s life that will be torn down when the journalist writes his article. Busi might be an icon, but the town discovers that icons are easily replaced. How Busi deals with his many losses, and how (by extension) the elderly cope with loss, is an underlying theme.

Property development that benefits developers at the expense of people who lose their homes (and at the expense of habitats for local fauna) is another theme. Local media cannot focus on “disparities between the ways in which the poor were treated in town and how the prosperous were sheltered and defended” because media cannot survive if they attack wealth and privilege. While “each gain is paid for with a loss,” only the gains are reported. The developers scheme to destroy the woods in which the ironically named The Grove will be built, while touting themselves as environmental champions. The homeless are evacuated from the aptly named Poverty Park, unseen and unremembered, so that the park can become a refuge for the wildlife displaced by the construction of The Grove. On the bright side, if one exists, the novel suggests that the people who are best positioned to survive an inevitable apocalypse are those who have been given “the gift of poverty,” for they have learned to scrounge like wild animals.

The first part of The Melody seems to be written in the third person, as an omniscient narrator tells us the inner workings of Busi’s mind, but there are hints that we are, in fact, hearing the first person perspective of a narrator who has been observing Busi closely. The second part, much shorter, takes place six years later, when Busi has turned 70. It is written in the first person, likely by the narrator of the novel’s first part. Jim Crace’s willingness to play with the conventions of the novel, perhaps to play with reader, is both interesting and unsettling. In the novel’s first part, we think we know Busi’s innermost thoughts, but perhaps we only know what the narrator has imagined those thoughts to be. The idea seems to be that we cannot be sure we know any person's thoughts, maybe not even our own.

The story’s many ambiguities (was Busi really attacked by a feral child? how reliable is the narrator’s account of Busi’s life?) give the reader ample opportunity to reshape the narrative, to decide what is true and false. Crace’s evocative prose makes it easy to picture the town, its quarrelsome residents, its flat-winged hawks and scavenging dogs. I’m not quite sure what point is served by the novel’s second part — the story could have ended without muddling it by shifting the point of view — but on the whole, I found great value in the contemplation of Busi’s senior years, reflective as they are of the fears and regrets and loneliness of so many people who are watching their productive life and relationships fade away in the rear-view mirror.

RECOMMENDED