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.

Sunday
Feb242019

Long Road to Liquor City by Macon Blair (Joe Flood, illus.)

Published by Oni Press on February 19, 2019

Liquor City is a legend, a place of which hobos can only dream. Until, that is, a legendary hobo bequeaths a map to Jed and Nathaniel. They follow the map as best they can, although they aren’t much for map reading. And while even other hobos tell him there’s no such place as Liquor City, Jed has faith. Without faith, Jed says, he has nothing. On the other hand, a woman tells Nathaniel that where you’re heading might not be as important as where you are. The differences between those two points of view drive the amusing but surprisingly serious story told in this graphic novel.

Jed and Nathaniel take an American journey, the kind of journey Mark Twain might have imagined, populated by fools and the scoundrels who fool them. Chased by a railroad guard who holds them responsible for his wife’s death, the hobos make their way to a tent revival and then to a hobo jungle where transgressions are punished by fighting a rooster to the death. (The king of the hobo jungle is thinking of franchising.) They search the swamp for a woman who knows ancient secrets (map reading perhaps being among them) and encounter a human trafficker of circus freaks.

The story is fanciful but entertaining. Nathaniel might prefer a less dangerous journey to New York (he has heard tales of hot dogs on every corner in this magical land) but Jed has been there and the residents are too strange for him — unlike the hobos and circus freaks with whom he travels.

Long Road to Liquor City blends action and laughs, all suitably rendered in an artistic style that straddles the line between cartoonish and noir-inspired realism. While the story features a variety of offbeat characters, it finds its heart in Jed and Nathaniel. The journey tests both their endurance and their bond of friendship. Whether Jed and Nathaniel will overcome their philosophical differences is the question that readers will ponder between chuckles.

RECOMMENDED

Friday
Feb222019

House Arrest by Mike Lawson

Published by Grove/Atlantic Monthly Press on February 5, 2019

House Arrest is, I think, the thirteenth Joe DeMarco novel. I haven’t kept up with the series because I can’t read everything, and the couple I did read struck me as being okay but nothing special. House Arrest, on the other end, is a book I truly enjoyed.

DeMarco is a lawyer who does off-the-books projects of various kinds for John Mahoney, the Democratic majority leader in the House. He’s occasionally loaned to other politicians who need help. The books are set in the current political world (it is clear that the unnamed president in this book is Trump and that the unnamed House Speaker is Paul Ryan), but the key political characters are fictional. The novel takes place before the 2018 midterms, so Republicans still control the House.

As the novel opens, someone wearing a wig and a Capitol Police uniform kills Congressman Lyle Canton, the Republican Whip, in his Capitol office. Nobody liked Canton, but his biggest enemy was Sebastian Spear, a billionaire who had an affair with Canton’s wife before she got drunk and drove into a tree.

Joe DeMarco was in his office in the subbasement of the Capitol when the murder occurred. An FBI agent interviews him and finds his explanation for being in his office late on a Friday night unconvincing. It doesn’t help that DeMarco’s father was a Mafia hit man and that the FBI can’t figure out what DeMarco’s job is. A search of his office reveals evidence that links him to Canton’s murder. A dozen heavily armed agents in full body armor smash into DeMarco’s home as he’s making dinner and, as the novel’s title suggests, place him under arrest.

It’s good to have friends in high places, including the House leader of the Democratic Party. While Joe languishes in jail, his friend Emma, a retired-but-still-active spook with the DIA, pulls some strings and takes a look at the formidable evidence accumulated by the FBI. But even friends in high places might be an inadequate shield when DeMarco is attacked by prisoners attached to MS-13.

The novel rather drastically changes DeMarco’s life, in that his career has always depended on keeping a law profile. After his arrest for killing a congressman, DeMarco is front page news and will not be able to play the same invisible role for his boss. Whether he will even have a job depends on the election result, which Mike Lawson notes in an afterword was unknown to him when he finished writing the book. Series fans can breathe a sigh of relief that DeMarco might not be evicted from his basement office.

DeMarco actually lurks in the background (he’s either in jail or in a hospital bed) during most of the novel, but Lawson managed to craft a tight, imaginative plot without him. When DeMarco finally returns to action, the story reaches a satisfying climax. The DeMarco novels I’ve read have been uneven, which is why I haven’t tried to read them all. House Arrest, however, benefits from a creative plot that encouraged me to renew my interest in the series.

RECOMMENDED

Wednesday
Feb202019

The White Book by Han Kang

First published in South Korea in 2016; published in translation in Great Britain in 2017; published by Crown/Hogarth on February 19, 2019

The unnamed narrator of The White Book decides to write about white things, expecting to be transformed by the experience. Most chapters of The White Book revolve around a white item on the list. The white door on an apartment she rented. Rice cakes before they are steamed. A handkerchief falling from a balcony rail. The Korean phrase “laughing whitely,” meaning cheerless or forced laughter. Frost that causes leaves to fall from trees, “incrementally lightening their burden.” The chapters are short, sometimes only a single paragraph. A couple of sections are written in verse.

The narrator associates some of the white objects with “oppressive fragments of memory” that “constantly drift to the surface” as she walks the streets of a bleak and unfamiliar city (presumably Warsaw) that is cloaked in white fog. She has seen footage taken by American aircraft showing how the rubble of the bombed city looked like white snow.

Sugar cubes remind the narrator of her of her childhood. From her mother, she learned of the white newborn gown that was used during the premature birth of her mother’s first baby. The baby died after two hours and the birthing gown became a white burial shroud. She imagines her mother’s white breast milk that the baby will never consume. Had that death not occurred, the narrator would not have been born. For that reason and others, the narrator is living a haunted life.

To some extent, The White Book is a meditation on color and light: the way objects in the dark may appear as a hazy white glow; the way the moon can be bright white or pale blue or mottled; the way a stage becomes an island of white light surrounded by a dark sea. It is also a meditation on culture. The narrator spreads a white skirt on her mother’s grave and burns it, white smoke ascending so that her mother’s spirit will be able to wear it. She performs the ritual while wondering whether anyone believes in its literal truth, but appreciates the silent solemnity of the act.

Some topics suggest the transitory and impermanent nature of all things: pristine snow that darkens with a city’s grime or mutely disappears; waves that become “dazzlingly white” before shattering in “a spray of white:” a white dog that sickens and dies; sturdy white bones that shatter and turn to sand; the ash of a cremated body; the white hair of lovers who will soon part from each other forever. Small white pills ease pain, impeding the body’s progress toward the white light that is said to be death. Yet sugar cubes remind her of her childhood, memories that “remain inviolate to the ravages of time,” evidence that time and suffering do not bring everything to ruin.

We come to understand that the narrator has suffered losses, including a lost love that makes her fearful of loving again, and that she was once on the brink of suicide, but now holds those thoughts in reserve. She is surrounded by dreariness but also delicacy — a white butterfly, white reeds growing in a marsh — and that balance between light and dark is one that could change at any moment, in either direction. Through abstract associations of light and whiteness, The White Book portrays a woman who has lived on the edge between life and death, but who is slowly reconstructing herself, as the city to which she has traveled is still reconstructing itself after the bombings that failed to destroy it completely.

Fragmented storytelling risks a loss of the narrative cohesion upon which readers depend to help them find a story’s meaning. Han Kang wields the form with great skill, allowing meaning to coalesce as the fragments accumulate. If the story is sometimes depressing, it is ultimately uplifting, and the prose (for which the translator, Deborah Smith, presumably deserves some credit) is always exquisite.

RECOMMENDED

Monday
Feb182019

Who Killed the Fonz? by James Boice

Published by Simon & Schuster on February 19, 2019

Who Killed the Fonz? is simple, amusing, a little schmaltzy, and somewhat predictable. In other words, it’s like a typical episode of Happy Days.

Richard (no longer Richie) Cunningham has grown up. He has a wife and children. Joanie and Chachi are still in Milwaukee. His father has died but his mother moved to the LA area and lives with him. He is a screenwriter who, despite an Oscar nomination, is widely seen as washed up. Nobody wants to make the movie he’s been working on for three years. His agent is giving him a chance to write a movie called Space Battles (a Star Wars knockoff with blood and boobs), calling it Richard’s last chance.

On the day he gets that news, he learns that Fonzie crashed his motorcycle into a guardrail and plummeted into a river. His body was not recovered but his funeral has been scheduled. And so Richard goes back to Milwaukee, attends the funeral with Potsie and Ralph, and pokes his nose into Fonzie’s mysterious death. He also meets a friendly fellow who is running for governor and gets (he hopes) a career jumpstart by writing and directing the guy’s campaign commercial. The candidate and his wife, of course, were great fans of Fonzie, who had a lot of admirers despite being a loner who refused to abandon his greaser image.

Fonzie, the story tells us, was always true to himself, in many ways helping Richie find the courage to be who he wanted and needed to be. To thine own self be true is the novel’s theme, although spoken in Fonzie’s voice. So this simple story teaches a simple lesson just like a Happy Days episode. That’s not all bad.

I won’t say anything about the mystery surrounding Fonzie’s death or the other plot elements. I could complain that the ending is predictable, but this is the kind of book that, like a Happy Days episode, demands a predictable ending. I will say that an appreciation of the story demands a familiarity with the television series. It wouldn’t be meaningful for a reader to think about Richie’s adult life or his relationship with Fonzie without having seen some episodes, a few of which the novel describes.

I don’t remember when I stopped watching the show (it was before the 10-year run ended), and I have to admit that the only described episode I remember involved Fonzie locking a burglar in a closet. Fonzie was more memorable than the plots, at least to me. That might be true of this book, as well. The plot is amusing but it primarily serves as a vehicle for bringing Fonzie back into the lives of readers who watched Happy Days 40 years ago (or younger readers who watched it in reruns).

Fonzie is a television icon and the characters in the novel remember him in an idealized way — “the tough guy with impeccable virtue, the philosopher with grease-covered hands, the lone wolf whose loyalty to those he considered a friend was unbreakable” — the way in which icons deserve to be remembered. Like most Happy Days episodes, Who Killed the Fonz is pleasant but forgettable, while reminding us that Fonzie was one of the most entertaining television characters to emerge from the 1970s.

RECOMMENDED

Friday
Feb152019

This Shall Be a House of Peace by Phil Halton

Published by Dundurn on February 5, 2019

This Shall Be a House of Peace is a remarkable novel that imagines the birth of the Taliban as a social movement in Afghanistan. Over a relatively short span of time, the novel chronicles the transformation of a Mullah from a simple man who teaches the Quran to children in a madrassa to a warrior who makes it his mission to bring peace and justice to Afghanistan, a country where authority “stemmed from the barrel of a gun.” The Mullah is determined to make Afghanistan “a land under Islam, and a house of peace.” To create a house of peace, he paradoxically declares a violent war against all men who fail to “submit the will of God” as the Mullah interprets that will.

The novel takes place shortly after the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan. The Mullah fought against the Soviets as a mujahid. Now he lives a quiet life, feeding and sheltering orphans in a madrassa while teaching them the word of Allah. The houses near the madrassa have been abandoned and the few villagers who live nearby are plagued by bandits. The Mullah initially protects his students and then is asked to protect the village. As a spiritual leader, he provided guidance and recruits men with practical skills that will allow the village to grow and flourish. But as word of his success spreads, the Mullah, his madrassa, and the village become the target of wealthy criminals (the modern version of warlords) who do not appreciate the Mullah’s efforts to resist their “road tolls” and other forms of thievery.

The Mullah confronts difficult choices: should he ally himself with criminals to protect his followers from bandits or is the loss of righteousness too heavy a price to pay in exchange for peace? The novel suggests that Afghanis who are educated or pious are also detached from the real world, in that prayers and education and righteous living do not change the behavior of warlords and bandits. Setting an example does not prevent chaos and mayhem. So should the righteous man take up arms to improve his part of the world, or is it best “to be content and solid in one’s place”? That is the moral conflict that drives the plot.

The plot, by the way, is excellent. While the novel is important because of the light it sheds on the motivations that might have given birth to the Taliban and similar movements, This Shall Be a House of Peace tells a riveting story. The characters, ranging from the Mullah’s students to members of a nomadic tribe, from frightened villagers to duplicitous landowners, give the Mullah a surrounding cast that readers can alternately cheer and despise.

The atmosphere, including tribal customs and perceptions of how life should be lived, is impressively detailed without ever becoming pedantic. Cultural events, such as camel fights and a jirga (sort of a town hall meeting), are fascinating. The novel explores local politics (as in every culture, a struggle for power) and the stupidity that leads to disputes (their sheep are drinking our river water; they cast an evil eye on our daughters). In every society, it seems, there are men who are only happy when they are shouting at each other.

The story works on a number of levels, combining aspects of a thriller with historical fiction while providing a detailed anthropological examination of life in Afghanistan. The simplicity and quick pace of the narrative mask the story’s complexity, making it the kind of book that merits a second reading.

There are too many takeaways from This Shall Be a House of Peace to discuss in detail, and in the novel’s richness, each reader is likely to find something that others will miss. The novel illustrates the ease with which adherents to a religion can interpret religious teachings in whatever way seems most convenient. The Mullah believes in peace and justice within the parameters of “the will of God,” but anyone who rejects the teachings of Islam, as the Mullah understands them, has rejected the will of God and forfeited the opportunity to be treated with mercy. The notion that “all men are brothers” quickly becomes “all men of whom we approve are brothers.” When another Muslim rejects violence and says, “My faith is telling me something different from yours, perhaps,” he encapsulates the tension between believers who interpret the same text in fundamentally different ways. One lesson I derived from the novel is that people who believe they can discern and carry out “the will of God” based on an ancient text should be more humble about their ability to know the unknowable.

At the same time, the Mullah’s cause often seems just, given that his enemies are bandits and warlords who use violence to extort what little wealth others might have, men who rape young girls under the guise of marrying them before casting them aside. What the Mullah views as religious justice, others might see as freeing a people from their oppressors. Yet the Mullah approves of forced marriage of young girls, approves of oppressive rules that require women to cover themselves in a challah from head to toe, approves of destroying the shop of a man who sells Bollywood DVDs, and approves of an “eye for an eye” philosophy that is tempered by the quaint notion that payment of a negotiated “blood price,” if accepted by the victim’s family, will allow a murderer to avoid punishment. What seems like a fundamentalist reading of the Quran to some will be regarded as a warped and antiquated view of Islam by others — just as competing interpretations of religious texts produce clashes within every religion.

A reader might admire the Mullah’s dedication to ridding his country of evil, if not for the knowledge of the evil that the Taliban later visited upon innocent people who do not share their understanding of the will of God. A reader is much more likely to admire Phil Halton for crafting a novel that so carefully imagines how the lawless conditions in Afghanistan and longstanding suffering of its people could spark the rise to power of religious leaders who support violence against the people they define as infidels. By casting the Mullah in sympathetic albeit realistic terms, Halton offers insight into the old adage that one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter by illustrating how violence might be viewed as justifiable in a society where ordinary people are motivated to fight against the violence that oppresses them daily. Shaking up one’s understanding of the world is what good literature should do, and This Shall Be a House of Peace does that in memorable ways.

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED