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.


The Graybar Hotel by Curtis Dawkins

Published by Scribner on July 4, 2017

The Graybar Hotel is a collection of stories about men in jail or prison. Most are told in the first person, although not always by the same narrator. They generally progress from the Kalamazoo Jail to a Michigan prison, although “The Boy Who Dreams Too Much” takes place in a transitional facility where prisoners are transferred after leaving jail as they await an assignment to a prison. “Swans,” which tells of a friendship that the narrator had before he was incarcerated, takes place in a reformatory, although it is narrated by an adult who is eight years into a life sentence. The last story, “Leche Quemada,” is told in the third person and focuses on a man who, having just been released from prison, soon realizes that a part of his mind will always live behind bars.

The tone is set in “County,” the collection’s first story. The narrator’s new cellmate in the Kalamazoo Jail describes being hit by a Cadillac, the conversation being one more way to pass time in days that are filled with emptiness, just like the fake suicide attempt that hastens the new inmate’s desired path back to prison.

Some of the stories deal with the theme of alienation, an inmate’s desire to connect in some way with the outside world. The narrator of “The Human Number” makes random collect calls from jail, connecting with people so lonely or bored that they are willing to chat with an inmate they don’t know. The narrator of “The World Out There” makes up a story about a girl who is sitting in the stands of a baseball game he’s watching on television.

Many of the stories are slices of life behind bars. “Sunshine” is a vignette about an inmate whose sister may or may not have cancer. “In the Dayroom with Stinky” relates a series of conversations between inmates. “Daytime Drama” focuses on an inmate who seems to be having mental health issues. “Depakote” talks about cigarettes, prison scams, and the perils of owing debts to other prisoners. A goose gets caught in the prison’s razor wire in “Brother Goose.”

A couple of stories discuss the lives that inmates led before they entered prison. “Six Pictures of a Fire at Night” spotlights Catfish, who cleaned up suicides and other dead bodies for a living and who may or may not have killed his wife. But “Engulfed” suggests that the inmates who talk about their outside lives are probably lying, and that the lies are an essential means for inmates to feel less bad about themselves, to construct a more productive past than the one they lived.

The most poignant story, “573543,” mixes memories of the narrator’s time as an addict with the arbitrariness of prison guards who are eager to dehumanize inmates in ways that drugs never manage to accomplish.

This is a strong collection and a valuable contribution to the genre of prison literature. Incarceration is challenging and dehumanizing, but Curtis Dawkins makes the reader remember that the majority of prisoners are ordinary people who, like most of us, are trying to make the best of our circumstances.



Sourdough by Robin Sloan

Published by MCD/Farrar, Straus & Giroux on Sept. 5, 2017

Sourdough is partly about connections that join the past, present and future. The novel explores food as a connecting force, in the form of cultural migration of foods and recipes that are handed down through generations. The novel suggests “food is history of the deepest kind,” a record of both tradition and evolution as tastes and mechanisms of production have changed from decade to decade, stretching back to "the dawn of hunger." Food also connects people and cultures in the present, at least for those who are gastronomically adventurous and open to the world.

The way we eat has also evolved (changes in packaging and the development of interstate highways created fast food in the 1950s) and that evolution continues as consumers embrace (for example) organic alternatives to processed foods. But evolution can bring about drastic change. Robin Sloan imagines a food product called Slurry that provides all of the body’s nutritional needs. It’s all anyone needs to eat and it’s so much healthier than potato chips. It can feed the world if people don’t mind eating goo, and it is inexpensive to produce. Feeding the world is undeniably a worthy goal, but nutrition without pleasure is a tough choice to make.

Sourdough’s central character, Lois Clary, is a programmer in a robotic industry who is on a mission to replace manual workers, but the demanding work ties her stomach in knots. Only a specific soup and sandwich combo from a delivery service can relax her, but the place operates illegally and is soon out of business. Luckily for Lois, however, the owners have dubbed her their “number one eater” and make a gift to her of their special starter for sourdough bread. It is, they say, a part of their culture (they are Mazg from some mysterious part of the world that Lois cannot identify). Unlike any other starter, this one carves a recognizable face into the crust of each loaf. The face depends on the music that is playing as the bread rises.

Lois lives in ultramodern San Francisco, doing an ultramodern high tech job, but her newfound ability to make sourdough, her “serendipity bread,” provides her with a connection to a task that countless people have performed for generations. She also finds a connection to the bread itself when she ponders the living organism that changes flour into bread. The story’s point might be that Lois, who as a programmer is working to make repetitive labor obsolete, finds greater satisfaction in the repetitive labor of baking bread.

Yet Sourdough does not reject the inevitability of change. The novel is also an appreciation of imaginative, science-based food. Lois joins a cross between a farmer’s market and a food fair that hosts people who take an experimental, edgy approach to food production. The chapter that describes “Lembas cakes manufactured whole by living organisms” and “algorithmically optimized bagels” and cookies made from bugs made me want to visit the place.

But the novel might also send the message that technology is no match for nature. I thoroughly enjoyed Sloan’s descriptions of the wars that bacteria fight, the extent to which they work together to defeat enemies and achieve common goals, and the ability of humans to benefit from those wars when they bake bread. The descriptions of bacteria engaged in a clash of civilizations might seem fanciful at first blush, but the novel opens up a microscopic world to the reader’s imagination in a way that rings true.

There are people who embrace the past and fear the future. There are people who embrace the future and reject the past. The ultimate point of Sourdough might be that the past and future coexist, that it is possible to embrace them both in the present. All by thinking about bread.

The novel’s plot is engaging, its characters are fittingly quirky, and its ending is endearingly whimsical. As a work of philosophy, food history, or just entertainment, I cannot find any fault in Sourdough.



Modern Gods by Nick Laird

Published by Viking on June 27, 2017

In addition to its subordinate themes, Modern Gods is a story about religious conflict, told from two perspectives. One involves the ongoing consequences of the violent clash between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland. The other involves a violent clash between Christianity and an emerging religion.

Liz Donnelly isn’t happy teaching in America, particularly when she catches her latest boyfriend in bed with another man. She accepts an invitation to work on a documentary about a new religious movement in the South Pacific, but first she returns to her hometown in Ulster for her sister’s wedding.

The first third of the novel introduces Liz’ family. Her brother Spencer is having an affair with Trish Hutchinson, whose husband is probably having his own affairs when he’s not golfing with Spencer. Liz’ sister Alison frets about motherhood and her mother Judith frets about her empty nest. At least her father Kenneth, who is in poor health and has reason to fret, keeps his anxieties about himself to himself.

The early drama involves Alison’s marriage to Stephen McLean, who seems an improvement on her abusive ex-husband despite his mysterious past. Only after the wedding does the family learn — by reading it in a newspaper — the truth about McLean’s actions as a member of the Ulster Freedom Fighters during the Troubles twenty years earlier.

The story then shifts settings as it follows Liz to an island called New Ulster off the coast of Papau New Guinea. She is with a documentary team that wants to tell the story of a woman who has founded a new religion. The best part of that plot thread focuses on the megalomania of the alt-religious leader, the destructive influence she has on the weak minds that follow her teachings, and the mainstream Christian missionaries who are scarcely better.

In some respects, the story in New Ulster seems contrived, particularly when Liz takes a more participatory role in tribal life than is appropriate for a documentarian. Still, I like the message the story sends about the threat that mainstream religions feel from emerging religions, particularly when they coexist in a community and are competing for members. That story ends tragically, and I like the questions the novel asks about whether such tragedies are inevitable and how blame for them should be shared.

The novel’s best moments come when Stephen tells his story. He makes it easy to understand why people who consider themselves to be the victims of injustice take unjust actions, even if those actions are inexcusable. His story also makes clear that there was plenty of injustice on both sides in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. Stephen’s recollections lead to a powerful confrontation that reveals the needless cruelty caused by religious conflict.

The story of violence in Ulster echoes a moment of violence in New Ulster, honing the theme that religious conflict in all parts of the globe is ultimately pointless, regardless of the religious beliefs that compel one person to treat another as unworthy of life. Perhaps that parallel is a bit obvious, and I’m not sure why it was illustrated with a fictional religion in a fictional place when the reality of religious strife is everywhere, but the parallel stories nevertheless serve to make a compelling point.

The small stories of the Donnelly family, their way of talking without communicating, their reliance on familiar conversations about the past as a way of avoiding the present, root the novel in a sense of reality that makes the larger stories seem plausible. The small stories about family members battling loneliness and their desperation for love balance the larger stories of religious conflict.

Nick Laird writes with the graceful assurance that reflects his training as a poet. There is a lot going on Modern Gods, and if the story is a bit uneven, its best moments truly shine.



The State Counsellor by Boris Akunin

First published in Russia in 1998; published in translation in Great Britain in 1999; published by Grove Atlantic/Mysterious Press on July 4, 2017

The State Counsellor is a man named Erast Petrovich Fandorin. The novel, set in Tsarist Russia, is the sixth in a series by Boris Akunin.

Fandorin has been assigned responsibility for the safety of General Khrapov in Moscow. The revolutionaries blame Khrapov for the brutal flogging and suicide of a young woman before he was made the Governor of Siberia. Khrapov, who claims it wasn’t his fault and doesn’t understand all the fuss about “an ordinary bourgeois girl,” has been hidden away in Siberia for his own protection, but the time has come to return him to Moscow. His return is brief, however, as a revolutionary assassin who goes by the name Green enters the train, posing as Fandorin, and dispatches Khrapov in the opening pages.

The real Fandorin is briefly arrested, but it soon becomes clear that the murderer was in imposter. It then becomes Fandorin’s duty to find the villain who killed the villain. Only a few people in various security roles knew that Fandorin was assigned to protect Khrapov, so Fandorin begins his inquiry by asking whether any of those might have leaked the information.

A seductress named Diana becomes a key character. She adds flavor to the novel by expounding on the weaknesses of men and the various ways in which women can exploit those weaknesses. A seductress named Esfir, clearly sympathetic to the revolution, wastes no time in taking Fandorin to bed. Modern women are a true mystery to poor Fandorin, but they are considered outrageous by high society women (even as they are admired by high society men).

The novel explores the utility of terrorism as an instrument of revolution — in this case, to spark a revolution that will overthrow Tsarist rule. Green is the novel’s philosopher of terror. But the plot explores the corruption of power and the ruthlessness of people who seize it. The mystery involves the identity of the person who is betraying the police by helping Green, and while the truth is telegraphed in a way that makes it easy to guess the betrayer’s identity before it is revealed, I prefer that to mystery stories that plant no clues at all.

Fandorin is an interesting, stuttering detective who is forced to cope with a doomed political structure that hampers his ability to do his job. The story is cerebral, but it has spurts of action that keep it lively. Life in Tsarist Russia is well imagined. I haven’t read other entries in the series but it is easy to enjoy The State Counsellor as a stand-alone mystery novel.



The Delirium Brief by Charles Stross

Published by Macmillan/ on July 11, 2017

As a necromancer working for the government’s occult secret service, Bob “Eater of Souls” Howard is not a happy guy. His agency is no longer a secret. He’s been given a new title — Departmental Public Relations Officer — and his first assignment is an interview on Newsnight. His objective is to make his job at the Laundry sound boring. As series readers know, Bob’s job is far from boring. But much to Bob’s consternation, the Laundry is about to be disbanded in order to pave the way for an evil alien takeover, disguised a privatization.

The American Postal Service has been privatized in a conspiracy orchestrated by Nazgûl (a/k/a the Black Chamber a/k/a the Operational Phenomenology Agency) to shut down the Postal Inspector’s Occult Texts Division. The scheme calls for the Laundry to be the next victim of privatization, a plan that is embraced by the Prime Minister, who blames the Laundry for bringing ridicule upon his administration. Of course, it isn’t entirely Howard’s fault that the fight against occult horrors, once largely hidden from public view, gained public attention in The Nightmare Stacks.

After an attempted snatch-and-grab by the entity who calls himself Raymond Schiller — whose mind is now occupied by the sleeping god he awakened — Bob realizes he’s in more danger than usual. Bob’s new mission is to find out what Schiller is up to and to stop him, all without the official help of the Laundry, which on paper no longer exists.

The story turns Bob’s world upside down, forcing him to join forces with the sort of people he usually locks up, including a vampire and the Mandate. When he isn’t preoccupied by evil, he’s preoccupied by love, trying to find a way to stay married to Mo without inadvertently eating her soul. Which, I think, is pretty much a metaphor for marriage.

Eventually the story turns into a furious occult action novel, as various entities wield their various powers while trying to ward off the powers of other entities, all in an effort (depending on the entity’s perspective) to take over the British government or to prevent that from happening. The scheme involves an orgy (the evil worms that take control of Cabinet members are sexually impregnated in their victims), adding some extra chuckles to the novel’s dark humor. But darkness reigns in a world that is very different at the novel’s end, setting up a new and unpleasant reality with which Bob will need to contend in the next installment. That darkness, I suspect, can be taken as a commentary on Brexit.

Charles Stross’ tongue-in-cheek Laundry Files novels are always fun. Stross loves to mock bureaucrats, and The Delirium Brief pokes fun at politicians who supposedly oversee government agencies while doing as little as possible to provide actual oversight. There is more complexity to Laundry novels than is typical of the action-fantasy-horror genre, and Stross’ prose is well above the genre’s standard. The Delirium Brief is another strong entry in an entertaining series.