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 weekends.  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
Aug262019

Bottle Grove by Daniel Handler

Published by Bloomsbury Publishing on August 27, 2019

Novels about marriage (as opposed to romance) seem intended to persuade readers to remain single, which in my experience is good advice. Bottle Grove merges a giddiness of romance theme with a suffocation by marriage theme and adds a bit of crime to darken the plot. The overarching theme is that nothing remains static, no matter how much you might want your life to be untouched by change, a theme that is summarized in these lines: “You meet people and you tell them stories. You meet someone, you marry them, and they’re not part of the story you’re in. They are it. You’re the same story and it changes, every living day, you can never, never keep up.”

The story involves two married couples but it begins with two single men. Martin Icke and Stanford Bell own a bar called Bottle Grove in a place called Bottle Grove, a wooded area in San Francisco. The novel Bottle Grove is set during the height of the dot com years. A couple of wealthy characters work in the tech industry, early developers of the phone technology that allows phones to be tracked, making it possible for obsessive husbands to keep an electronic eye on their wives’ travels.

The story starts with a wedding at the bar. Martin meets Padgett, a drunken waitress supplied by the caterer. Stanford meets Reynard, a philandering vicar who disappears after a drunk driving accident. The groom is Ben Nickels and his bride is Rachel, who watches Reynard’s fiancé Nina scream at Reynard during the reception and wonders how much time will pass before she is screaming at Ben. He has not seen her true self because if people saw each other’s true selves before marriage, they would never wed. Rachel’s hope is to continue deceiving Ben “even, especially, when I want to tear my own eyes out and cannot sleep from trouble.”

Martin and Padgett are only together for a few days before a fellow known as the Vic intrudes on their budding relationship. The Vic’s life has intersected with Rachel’s in a depressing way that ties the stories together. Oddly enough — although it turns out to be not so odd at all — Martin is undisturbed by the Vic muscling in on Padgett. After all, Martin’s bar needs an infusion of money and the Vic has a lot of it, even if it is mostly the pretend money that fueled the dot com days. Martin suggests that Padgett move some of the Vic’s money in Martin’s direction. “She stands up then and there it is, plain in front of her, the two of them and how desperate they are.”

Bottle Grove is a novel of snappy dialog and witty prose. The main characters have complicated personalities. Shallow characters lurk in the novel’s background as comic foils. Rachel (complicated) comes into the bar twice a week to complain about Ben (foil), who needs an app to remind him to be spontaneous. Reynard is like Jekyll and Hyde, both shallow and complicated as he ghosts through the story. Nina is a shallower version of Padgett, with whom she bonds over alcohol and her need for the security that (she believes) only a husband can provide.

Readers who do not like a book unless they like the characters should probably avoid Bottle Grove, as the characters tend to be self-centered and ethically challenged. Some are impulsive, some drink too much, most are barely in control of their lives, except for two tech moguls who control everyone else. None of the characters are admirable but they are recognizably human, doing their best to keep up with a rapidly changing world.

The story is dark, sometimes suggesting that horrors lurk just over the horizon. The plot moves forcefully, surprising the reader with sudden changes of direction, looping in ways that define new and unexpected relationships between the characters. Unpredictability is both the novel’s strength and the antidote to stagnation. Life is always changing in unexpected ways. The novel argues that even if the changes are not always positive, people who embrace the inevitability of change will never want it to end.

RECOMMENDED

Friday
Aug232019

Dawn by Selahattin Demirtaş

Published in Turkey in 2017; published in translation by Hogarth on April 23, 2019

Selahattin Demirtaş’ preface explains that he is a human rights lawyer and a dissident who is held in a Turkish prison. He wrote these stories while awaiting trial for acts of opposition to an authoritarian government that classified his speeches as criminal provocations. Americans who chant “lock her up” either have no idea or do not care that they want political opposition to be criminalized in the United States just is it is in the world’s most oppressive nations.

Demirtaş was a Turkish politician before (and even after) his arrest. The last story in this collection describes a utopian society that is presumably his vision for what Turkey can become. Many of the stories explain how far the nation is removed from that utopian vision.

In “The Man Inside,” a prisoner watching sparrows building a nest imagines them standing up to law enforcement sparrows that want them to tear the nest down. “Seher” tells of a girl who must keep her date with a man a secret, lest her father break her legs. When she is raped, she receives a punishment commanded by her father (in the name of defending the family’s “honor”) that is even worse. “The Mermaid” is about a woman who flees from Hama with her daughter and comes to an unfortunate end.

“Nazan the Cleaning Lady” is arrested after being injured by people fleeing tear gas that the police used to break up a demonstration. She imagines what kind of vehicles the people she meets drive based on their social status. “Greetings to Those Dark Eyes” considers the consequences of villages that promote child labor and child brides. One story is written in the form of a letter to the prison guards who read letters written by prisoners.

While the stories lack the complex subtlety that a more experienced writer might provide, the subject matter is inherently powerful. Demirtaş’ best story uses indirection to reinforce the impact of violence on innocent lives. “Kebab Halabi” is set in a marketplace where a man who is famed for his cheese-filled pastry künefe feels doomed love for a woman he cannot have, not realizing the woman is doomed to die at the hand of a suicide bomber. The emphasis on the normalcy of life with its simple joys and longings, contrasted with the sudden violence that rips those lives apart, makes the story memorable.

When Demirtaş departs from the theme of oppression, his stories are less successful. A story about a love triangle that does not end well is mundane. “As Lonely as History,” about a couple who learn a lesson about placing work and wealth ahead of love and family is pleasant but contrived. It is so obvious that it might be considered a parable rather than a literary story.

I could not find the point in “Asuman, Look What You’ve Done,” in which a bus driver tells a telenovela-type story to a young passenger and years later hires the passenger as his son’s lawyer. The stories of growing up told in “Settling Scores” also fail to impress.

The collection features one strong story and several stories that illustrate Turkey’s human rights violations. Collections like this are always an important reminder that authoritarian governments endure, and that free countries must always be vigilant to guard against leaders who mimic authoritarian rulers. I recommend it for the political stories; the others are less interesting.

RECOMMENDED WITH RESERVATIONS

Wednesday
Aug212019

The Study of Animal Languages by Lindsay Stern

Published by Viking on February 19, 2019

The Study of Animal Languages is a domestic drama. In most respects, it follows the conventions of a domestic drama. A couple grows apart. Infidelity is suspected. The husband is likely having a midlife crisis and must come to terms with the causes of his unhappiness. Nothing in this novel surprises, other than quality of the writing, which saves the novel from being a novelized Lifetime movie.

Ivan Link’s wife Prue has completed a study of animal communication that suggests birdsongs may be a form of language. Ivan is a philosophy professor. He studies epistemology, the gap between data and truth. He doesn’t think Prue’s study proves anything. He may be right about that, but academic research can advance understanding even if it fails to produce a startling breakthrough. Since Ivan presumably understands that, his complaints about his wife’s research must stem from something other than a belief that birdsongs are not a language.

The reader will quickly suspect that Ivan is jealous of Prue. She is likable and thus well liked in the academic community while Ivan, who is pedantic and self-isolating, is treated more as a respected colleague than a friend. Cracks are forming in their marriage, including disagreements about fellowships and foreign travel (Prue has opportunities; Ivan likes to stay at home) and stress caused by Frank, Prue’s bipolar father.

The conflict between Ivan and Prue begins to reach a climax when Prue presents a paper that includes a fascinating discussion of the barriers to proving that sounds are part of a language when the listener has no way to assign meaning to the sounds. During her presentation, Prue asks how scientists can consider the emotional responses of voles to be sufficiently akin to human responses to use voles for biomedical research, while at the same time terrorizing them to determine how they respond to terror. I am not a particular friend of voles but the question merits serious consideration. Ivan, however, thinks Prue is a fool to question the ethics of animal research in a presentation to an audience that consists largely of animal researchers. The opportunity to gain tenure, Ivan believes, depends in large part on not pissing off faculty members who might end up on a tenure committee. Yet Ivan later proves that he can be just as career–destructive as his wife. His midlife meltdown is classic.

At other points, the novel’s focus is on Frank and on the differing efforts that Ivan and Prue make to cope with his dementia. Frank believes that sharks in an aquarium are speaking to him, conveying feelings rather than words. The story draws parallels between animal suffering, which animals are unable to articulate with words because they have no human vocabulary, and Frank’s suffering, which he is unable to articulate in a way that others understand because of his mental illness.

Ultimately, the plot makes its way to the well-trampled ground of marital infidelity, or at least to suspicion that it might be occurring. Joyless sex, odd telephone calls, a new acquisition that might have been a gift from an admirer, and absences from home are all clues, but do they justify the conclusion that hanky–panky is afoot? And if the suspicion is correct (or even if it is not), what is the correct response? Confrontation? Retaliation? Maintaining the unhappy status quo for fear that change will be worse?

Throw Ivan’s impressive meltdown into the mix and you have the familiar ingredients of a domestic drama.  Despite its familiar subject matter, the story’s background details and observant prose set The Study of Animal Languages apart from other novels that dissect marriages. The novel offers a focused examination of two people on a collision course and the choice they must make about their respective (or joint) futures.

The depiction of the unbalanced Ivan at midlife is a bit over-the-top, particularly when contrasted with the blameless Prue. While Prue purports to share responsibility for the wall that has arisen between them, it is clear that all the fault all rests with Ivan. I suspect that shared fault is more typical, but I can't condemn a novel for depicting an atypical marriage.

Since Ivan is a philosopher, the reader should expect a bit of philosophy. The novel’s big lesson is that life is not about figuring out what really matters (unless you're a philosopher), but “figuring out that your life was never even about you to begin with. You’re not the hero. You’re just someone in the cast.” That is a lesson everyone should learn.

RECOMMENDED

Monday
Aug192019

Old Bones by Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child

Published by Grand Central Publishing on August 20, 2019

Dr. Nora Kelly is an archeologist who has appeared in the authors’ Pendergast novels. Clive Benton has studied the history of the Donner Party, whose ill-fated trip to the Sierra Nevada included cannibalism. After acquiring Tamzene Donner’s lost journal, Benton wants Nora to lead an expedition to find the Lost Camp, the only camp of stranded Donner Party members that was never found. Benton also hopes to find a large quantity of gold coins.

Corrine Swanson is a new FBI agent, although she is also in the Pendergast stable of characters. She’s assigned to investigate a murder at a Civil War graveyard on federal property. The victim was hired to dig up a grave and was killed by his employers after they stole half of the body he uncovered. Further investigation reveals that graves of other individuals of common ancestry have been disinterred, that a woman in that same genealogical line has gone missing, and that another person in that line, Albert Parkin, was part of the Donner Party.

Old Bones tells a familiar story of an archeological dig, conducted by Nora and a couple of archeology students, with Benton acting as an advisor. A few additional characters guide the archeologists into the mountains and help them set up camp. Eventually, someone disturbs the bones they find, some bones are stolen, someone dies, and Swanson rides in on horseback to investigate.

Also familiar is Swanson’s status as a plucky rookie who pieces together information about grave robbers and is certain she’s on the trail of a serious crime, while her jaded boss wants her to end the investigation and devote her time to provable crimes. The story takes a supernatural twist when a character claims to have seen a ghost, presumably the ghost of a child who was unhappy she didn’t receive a proper burial after her leg was eaten. The ghost (or at least a floating green light) helps out the characters on a couple of occasions. I guess readers who like ghosts will appreciate the spectral addition, but it seemed out of place to me.

The plot generates little suspense. The wrongdoer’s identity is fairly obvious. Preston and Child make a halfhearted attempt to mislead the reader as to the wrongdoer’s motivation, but the reader would have to ignore half the plot to fall for it. Old Bones does manage a couple of surprises near the end, although the eventual explanation for the disinterred bodies is too farfetched to take seriously.

I’ve enjoyed most of Preston & Child’s Pendergast novels (Pendergast makes a cameo in the epilog, and his brief appearance is the best part of the story). I’ve been less satisfied by their other offerings, most of which are weaker than the Pendergast series. They have a tendency in those novels to fuel formulaic stories with stock characters and stale ideas. Characters are made sympathetic in predictable ways (Carrie’s unfortunate childhood makes her reach out to another kid with an unfortunate childhood, an unimaginative way of encouraging the reader to feel good about her) but they suffer from a lack of multiple dimensions.

Still, character development isn’t terribly important in a thriller if the plot excites. This one doesn’t. Preston & Child wield the thriller formula with skill, so their novels are always easy to read. Dedicated Preston & Child fans might enjoy Old Bones, but there are better choices on the thriller market.

RECOMMENDED WITH RESERVATIONS

Friday
Aug162019

The Unpassing by Chia-Chia Lin

Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux on May 7, 2019

Childhood shapes adulthood in this story of a transplanted family. Torn from his homeland, the young protagonist feels like he does not belong, a condition that will shape his entire life.

In the 1970s, Gavin’s family moved from Taiwan to Minnesota to Alaska, where his father (a former wastewater engineer) drills wells and does some plumbing to make ends meet. The story begins in 1986, near the time of the Challenger disaster, when Gavin comes out of a coma. His youngest sister has died from a meningitis infection that Gavin brought home from school. Gavin feels guilty for surviving.

Gavin’s father is a dreamer; his mother a pragmatist. Gavin’s parents often quarrel over the father’s apparent inability to accept that he will never work as an engineer in his new country, its reputation as a land of opportunity notwithstanding. Their marriage is further strained by a lawsuit accusing the father of causing a child’s death because of a defect in a well he constructed.

Gavin’s brother Natty is slow but artistic. His sister Pei-Pei is getting it on with a neighbor boy. Gavin is too young to get it on with his friend Ada and too shy to explore his budding feelings about the opposite sex. Ada’s brother bullies him, the universal experience of childhood.

The story follows family turmoil from Gavin’s sixth grade perspective. He mistakes an eviction for a vacation, wonders why his father so rarely works, doesn’t quite understand the concept of lawsuits, frets when Natty wanders into the woods, feels distress when his mother bickers with his father, and lives with the guilt of his sister’s death. His unease persists regardless of his circumstances, a condition that will afflict his entire life.

Gavin tells the story in a quiet, subdued voice that reflects his barely controlled fear of events that are beyond his control. Gavin’s language is simple, befitting a child of his age, but Chia-Chia Lin arranges his simple words into elegant sentences. The final chapter is written from Gavin’s adult perspective as he returns to Alaska and Taiwan. He apparently hopes to give context to his present by searching for roots that never took hold. This snapshot of formative moments in a child’s life makes a persuasive case that however well an adult might learn to cope with traumatic events of childhood, their impact on personality is profound and permanent.

RECOMMENDED