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.

Tuesday
Jan252011

Deathhunter by Ian Watson

First published in 1981

In Ian Watson's 1981 novel Deathhunter, western nations have ended war and violence by embracing death rather than fearing it. When it is time to die (as determined by disease or the census office), the designated decedents-to-be report to a House of Death where a death counselor guides them to a peaceful end. Jim Todhunter is a death counselor who is transferred to a new location just before a ceremony will be held to honor the poet who is largely responsible for the public's welcoming acceptance of voluntary death. The poet is scheduled to die but his death does not occur as planned (there's nothing peaceful about it). Todhunter must deal with the aftermath of the poet's death.

Deathhunter is an unfortunate title, conveying a pulpish feel that doesn't do justice to the novel's philosophical and literary ambition. The story jets off in unexpected directions involving out-of-body experiences and the destination of souls. Lest you think that its use of souls makes this a religious tract rather than a novel, be assured that a satisfying twist at the end calls into question everything that transpires earlier in the story. The novel is creative, offbeat, funny (the schmaltzy poetry that the public adores is hilarious) and smart.

When so many science fiction novelists produce epic sagas of interstellar conflict and are busy building worlds and universes, it's worth revisiting the writers who exercised their powerful imaginations on a smaller scale. Watson expanded the genre's boundaries with unconventional novels in the 1970's and 1980's. Deathhunter is one of his more successful efforts.

RECOMMENDED

Monday
Jan242011

A Time Gone By by William Heffernan

Published by Simon & Schuster on August 1, 2003

New York City, 1945. A prominent judge is murdered in his home. Jake Downing and Jimmy Finn are the detectives assigned to the case. By the time they arrive at the murder scene, the police commissioner and Manny Troy are already there. Troy is "the boss of the city's Democrats." He makes sure that Downing and Finn provide round-the-clock protection for Cynthia, the judge's young widow, in addition to investigating the murder. Although Downing is married and about to have a baby, he becomes intimately involved with the woman he's supposed to be protecting.

New York City, 30 years later. Finn is retired and Downing, now chief of detectives, having laid his wife to rest, reopens the investigation of the judge's death. Downing has never wavered in his belief that an innocent man was executed for the crime.

The novel shifts between those two time frames, telling the story of the 1945 murder investigation and the story of its impact on Downing's life after three decades have passed. The story is also told from shifting points of view: sometimes as a third person narrative, sometimes in the first person from Downing's perspective. A couple of times the story is told in first person from Finn's perspective -- an odd choice that seems out of place, given that this is Downing's story, not Finn's.

A Time Gone By is a competent mystery that, unfortunately, seems too familiar. The scenes from 1945 attempt to develop a sense of noir that is overly reminiscent of a Bogart movie. The supporting characters are stereotypes: the Irish cop who speaks in a brogue; the beautiful young woman who is a hat check girl before she marries an older, powerful, abusive man; the corrupt politicians and nasty thugs. Only Downing is given a unique personality, and it isn't much of a personality. The investigation unfolds as the reader might expect, with few surprises at the end. The one twist that Heffernan provides in the last pages seems forced.

One last gripe: Downing tells the reader early on that the man who was executed for the judge's death didn't commit the crime but Heffernan beats the reader over the head with the claim that the guy deserved to die anyway ... for other unspecified crimes. That information is apparently intended to allow the reader to maintain sympathy for Downing, who is complicit in the wrongful execution, but it seemed to me to be an all-too-obvious device. If Downing let an innocent man die, after all, we shouldn't feel good about him; manipulating the reader's emotions by making us think the guy deserved his death just masks the impact of Downing's reprehensible actions. Heffernan engages in similar manipulation of the reader's feelings about Cynthia toward the novel's end. It was all just a little too contrived for me.

Having said all that, there are things I liked about A Time Gone By. Heffernan's prose fluid prose is often a pleasure to read. The story unfolds at a nice pace. The sense of place and of the post-war era is realistic. This isn't a bad novel at all, but it didn't grab me.

RECOMMENDED WITH RESERVATIONS

Sunday
Jan232011

Rashomon and Other Stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa

Translation by Takashi Kojima.  Introduction by Howard Hibbett.  First published by Tuttle Publishing in 1952.  Akutagawa's stories were written in the first quarter of the Twentieth Century.

The Tuttle Classics edition of Rashomon contains six stories. "In a Grove" recounts a woman's rape and her husband's death from the conflicting perspectives of the rapist, the woman, and the husband, each of whom provides a different account of how the husband died. Akutagawa employs the same device -- telling a story from different perspectives -- in "Kesa and Morito": after a married woman has sex with a man who loathes her, they agree to murder her husband -- but the woman's vision of that crime is quite different from the man's.

"Rashomon" -- a meditation on good and evil, on desperation and hypocrisy -- tells of a servant who cannot decide whether to steal or starve until he meets an old woman who is pulling the hair out of corpses. Lacking compassion or empathy, he fails to recognize himself in her. Similarly, the Christian values of charity and forgiveness give way to hypocrisy in "The Martyr," as Jesuit missionaries and members of the Christian church in Nagasaki condemn a devout parishioner (Lorenzo) on the strength of rumored sin -- only later to declare Lorenzo a martyr after an act of self-sacrifice reveals Lorenzo's true (and surprising) nature.

"Yam Gruel" is the story of an aging samurai who, having been treated with contempt his whole life, clings to a dream -- to eat his fill of yam gruel -- until, finally given the opportunity to fulfill his desire, he questions whether he really wants to do so. In "The Dragon," a priest who is ridiculed because of his long nose decides to pull a prank on his fellow priests by posting a notice board that says "On March third a dragon shall ascend from this pond," only to find the prank taking on a life of its own.

I view these stories as the Japanese equivalent of western fables: teaching life's hard lessons by illustrating the misfortunes that come to those who behave badly. Each story has a moral. The lessons they teach transcend the differences between east and west: the seven deadly sins are just as deadly in Japan as they are in the United States.

Hibbet makes a convincing case that the stories in translation lose the nuances of language that convey the essence of the author's thought. While it is likely true that the stories are richer in Japanese, translation into English does not rob them of their power and vitality. They are a joy to read.

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Saturday
Jan222011

Chocky by John Wyndham

First published in 1968

Eleven-year-old Matthew Gore appears to have an inquisitive imaginary friend of uncertain gender named Chocky. Matthew's adoptive parents become concerned when Matthew's teacher reports that Matthew has started doing math in base two instead of base ten. Their concern increases when his art teacher notices a sudden improvement in Matthew's drawing ability. Matthew attributes those newfound skills to Chocky. The question soon becomes whether Chocky is imaginary or whether Matthew is communicating with an internal consciousness separate from his own. Chocky's impact on Matthew's life quickly turns the Gore family's life into a circus. The last portion of the novel resembles a mystery and the conclusion is quite satisfactory.

Chocky is a relatively short novel that lacks the scope and drama of Wyndham's The Day of the Triffids, but it is nonetheless an enjoyable read. Matthew's reaction to Chocky and his parents' reaction to Matthew create a believable family dynamic -- particularly with the addition of Matthew's little sister Polly, who adds a note of comic relief. Chocky is a clever and surprisingly credible version of a first contact story, one that nicely balances the ideas that make science fiction worthwhile with the carefully constructed characters that define good literature.

 RECOMMENDED

Friday
Jan212011

The Show That Smells by Derek McCormack

 

Published by Akashic Books on July 1, 2009

The Show That Smells is a short novel (more novella length, if that) that casts its author, Derek McCormack, as a reporter for Vampire Vogue ("the bible of the fashionable fiend"). Vampire Vogue is published by Elsa Schiaparelli, an Italian fashion designer who (Wikipedia tells me) was Coco Chanel's most prominent rival between the two world wars. Coco Chanel is also a character in the novel; Chanel No. 5, being blessed, is as effective against vampires as holy water. Singer Jimmie Rogers, actor Lon Chaney, and the vampire hunting, gospel singing Carter family round out the cast ... unless you count the carnival freaks (but they only show up as dressmakers).

The novel is part of the Little House on the Bowery series so you know there's going to be blood ... but you knew that as soon as you heard about the vampires, didn't you? There's very little true gore, however, even during the descriptions of a vampire carnival (where babies are awarded as ring toss prizes).

This is a fun if slightly bizarre story. I am probably not a member of this novel's target audience. I know nothing about the world of women's fashion, and according to Schiaparelli, vampires are gay (this should come as a shock to the millions of women who elevate ridiculously bad vampire novels to the top of the best seller's lists).  I don't know that I related to the novel as well as other readers might, but I thought it was quite funny (most of the time) and I appreciated the luxurious rhythm of the sentences (all of the time). Open minded readers of offbeat fiction should enjoy it.

RECOMMENDED