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.

Friday
Jun212019

Rosewater by Tade Thompson

Published in small press edition in 2016; published by Orbit on September 18, 2018

An alien blob landed in London in 2012, wiping out part of the city and releasing a bunch of microorganisms into the biosphere. The government decided to call the blob Wormwood. The British attacked Wormwood because humans always attack what they don’t understand. They succeeded only in driving Wormwood underground, where it tunneled itself around the planet.

Eventually, a biodome grew out of the ground in Nigeria. A donut-shaped city developed around the biodome. The dome opens once a year, emitting microbes that cure bystanders of diseases, disabilities, and some mental impairments. Sometimes the cure takes; other times it causes problems down the road. Some people seem to be rebuilt in grotesque ways. The microbes also raise the dead, but the aliens apparently don’t appreciate, or don’t care, that animated corpses are zombies and not really welcomed by the living. Fortunately, Rosewater is not a zombie novel.

The planet has been laced with something like a fungus that allows some humans, dubbed sensitives, to tap into a psychic link comprised of fungal filaments and neurotransmitters. The tiny filaments attach to nerve endings and are constantly transmitting information to a worldmind. Sensitives can access the worldmind, also known as the xenosphere, which exists in the realm of quantum physics. Which means it is cool but too complicated to understand.

So that’s the background. The story jumps around in time as it follows Kaaro. Kaaro is a sensitive. He used to be a thief because he could sense where people hid their valuables. That career did not go well after his mother kicked him out of her house and a mob tried to set him on fire. Later he was trained by a government agency called S45 and developed the ability to probe minds. Now he uses his abilities to augment a firewall, protecting customers who conduct banking transactions from black hat sensitives who try to pluck identifying information from their thoughts. His second job is for S45, which uses his talents to pry into the minds of prisoners.

Working with or against Kaaro, depending on the year, are two women: Femi, who runs S45, and Oyin Da (a/k/a Bicycle Girl), who knows how to enter different dimensions in time and space. Another woman in Kaaro’s life is Aminat, his girlfriend in 2066. It is too simplistic to say that he is transformed by love, but Aminat at least forces him to look at himself, to deal with his guilt (or to examine why he does not feel more guilt), and to confront his demons.

The chapters shift between 2055 (then), 2066 (now), and some interludes between then and now. In 2055, Kaaro is looking into a village that vanished, attributed by some to tribal genocide, a theory that does not explain the absence of bodies.

The time jumps impose a burden on the reader to keep track of the story’s pieces and reorder them chronologically so that they make sense. Some of the shifts are so abrupt and untethered that they breed momentary confusion. There’s nothing wrong with burdening a reader and Rosewater isn’t nearly as complex as The Sound and the Fury (chapter headings and dates give the Rosewater reader some help), but readers who have poor memories might want to opt for a digital version so they can quickly jump back and refresh their understanding of what happened in each time frame.

Rosewater has a good bit of intellectual appeal but it falls short on emotional appeal. I like the concept and the background detail, but the character of Kaaro failed to resonate with me. I had little interest in whether he lived or died, succeeded or failed, had success with his love interests or fell on his face. The plot is intriguing and, as the opening novel of a trilogy, Rosewater offered enough substance to whet my interest in the next installment.

RECOMMENDED

Wednesday
Jun192019

The Scholar by Dervla McTiernan

Published by Penguin Books on May 14, 2019

The Scholar is an Irish police procedural. It follows The Ruin, which introduced the series protagonist, DS Cormac Reilly. The novels are set in Galway, where Cormac has been transferred from Dublin and assigned to cold cases as punishment for his justifiable shooting of another cop. In The Scholar, DS Carrie O’Halloran prevails upon her superior to move Cormac from cold cases to open investigations because her department is severely understaffed.

Cormac’s first major case seems destined to end with his return to the basement, if not fired. Cormac lives with Dr. Emma Sweeney, a fragile woman who is haunted by her past. Emma calls Cormac when she finds a dead woman in a road, the apparent victim of a hit-and-run. Cormac can see that the driver ran over the victim twice, likely wanting to make sure she was dead. The victim’s face is mangled but she is carrying a student ID with the name Carline Darcy.

Emma works as a research scientist for a pharmaceutical company that was founded by Carline Darcy’s wealthy grandfather. Carline wants to follow in her father’s footsteps and is widely seen in her college a having inherited her grandfather’s genius. Not everyone shares that assessment, including her grandfather, but she was given a chance to prove herself with an internship in her grandfather’s Galway lab.

Carline seems to have come to an unhappy end, leading Cormac to be surprised and a bit embarrassed when he discovers that Carline is alive and well. Carline has a story about how she lost her ID some months earlier. Cormac’s powerful grandfather, unhappy to be bothered by news of Carline’s death, makes clear that he wants the inquiry to end, as least as it involves his family. Cormac’s politically attuned superior is happy to oblige; Cormac, not so much.

Carline’s relationship with her family contributes one layer of intrigue to the story. Office politics relating to Cormac’s past adds another layer. Since Emma discovered the dead body, Cormac probably shouldn’t stay on the case, but nobody regards Emma as a suspect so he continues the investigation. That turns out to be a misjudgment that Cormac’s enemies in the garda use against him. Whether Emma is or isn’t involved in the murder is the key question the reader is asked to consider, while the impact that question has on her relationship with Cormac adds a bit of domestic drama to the plot.

The Scholar is a straightforward procedural as Cormac works with and against colleagues to solve the murder (as well as a second murder) while hoping that the murderer is not Emma. The plot moves quickly. The reader is given enough information to work out the motive for the murders, although perhaps not the killer’s identity.

Cormac is the kind of character who is a staple of police procedurals: the beleaguered cop who is haunted by his past, doggedly competent and driven by a desire for the truth. Unlike many American police procedurals that make detectives in that mold too sanctimonious to stomach, Cormac is humble and self-doubting, which makes him an appealing character. Minor characters, particularly the first murder victim’s family members, are developed in enough detail to make Cormac’s varying reactions to them seem authentic. The combination of sympathetic characters and an enjoyable story make The Scholar a good choice for fans of police procedurals.

RECOMMENDED

Monday
Jun172019

The Porpoise by Mark Haddon

Published by Doubleday on June 18, 2019

It would be difficult for a novel to be more determinedly literary than The Porpoise. Fortunately, the novel manages to be literary without becoming pretentious. Much of the plot tracks Pericles, Prince of Tyre, a play based on the Greek legend of Apollonius of Tyre. The play was at least partially written by Shakespeare (royalty goes mad, so you know it’s Shakespeare). Shakespeare’s ghost appears as a character in The Porpoise, as does the tormented ghost of the play’s likely co-creator, George Wilkins.

Before it morphs into a story of the ancient world (and a lesser story about the ghosts of the creators of that story), the plot echoes Nabokov’s Lolita. Unlike Lolita, however, the young protagonist in The Porpoise is not a seductress, but a victim. The victimization of women and the possibility of empowerment through struggle is, in fact, the thread that ties the storylines together.

The most vital characters in both stories are women. In the modern world, Angelica is cut from the womb of an actress who dies in a plane crash. The actress’ wealthy husband grieves his loss but views his daughter as a marvel. Philippe is tormented by the fear that in his own despair, he will be unable to make his daughter happy.

This seems like the opening to a sweet but melancholy story. Not long into the narrative, however, Philippe becomes creepy. “When does Philippe’s touching turn from innocence into something more sinister?” That sentence telegraphs what is to come.

But Philippe is wealthy and he cannot imagine that there will be any consequence for behavior that he considers to be his right. As she grows into her teen years, Angelica knows that “the law bends before wealth.” The ability of the wealthy (or royalty, in the Pericles story) to live without fear of consequences is one of the novel’s timely themes.

The notion that the wealthy are different (or believe themselves to be) is played out in different ways. One of the most interesting moments in the book comes when Pericles, who has always believed in his ability to shape his own destiny, realizes that he was deluded by the advantages that accompanied his position. When an uncontrollable tragedy strikes his life, he comes to “finally understand that what he thought was weakness in others is not weakness at all; it is simply the structure of the world.” His wife, after an equal tragedy, has a similar epiphany: “Everyone inhabits a different world.” Perhaps the novel and play reveal that we all inclined to live inside our own heads, and that it may require a tragic event to make us recognize how much we have in common with others who are less fortunate.

Given Philippe’s wealth and power, the only person who tries to help Angelica is a young man named Darius. He pays a price for trying. The story diverts from Angelica’s plight to follow Darius as he hitches a ride on a restored yacht called The Porpoise that is being delivered by his friend Helena. Somehow Darius finds himself transformed into Pericles, the Prince of Tyre. In the Shakespeare/Wilkins play, Antiochus is engaged in an incestuous relationship with his daughter — the bridge that connects the two stories.

Pericles is being pursued by an assassin who wants to keep Pericles from spreading the truth about Antiochus (a circumstance similar to one that Darius briefly occupies). Pericles eventually takes a wife who apparently dies while giving birth to Marina. In his grief, Pericles seems to lose touch with his sanity. But the wife is not dead. After being sealed in a coffin and dumped into the sea, she has survival adventures of her own. She uses her wits to adapt and make a new life.

Late in the book, Marina makes her own difficult journey, gaining strength through adversity while becoming disgusted with a pampered friend’s “need for comfort and luxury, her desire to be liked, her affected weakness.” Events in the novel suggest that she has embodied the spirit of the goddess Diana, the deadly hunter, master of woodland creatures and protector of women giving birth.

Female empowerment (and its resistance by males) is the novel’s primary theme. Pericles wonders how, after his father’s death and in his absence, his sisters could possibly rule a city. A man who intends to kill a female child is frightened by the power of women when he encounters Diana (“The world turned upside down; the weak given power.”). Wilkins is haunted in death by all the women he abused during his life (“to discover that the sex too weak to have dominion in the physical world are possessed of demonic powers in the other is hard to bear”).

While male characters disparage the weakness of women (and in turn are frightened by their strength), it is women to whom they turn when they need care. Pericles’ wife, in her reborn life, is tired of caring for men: “she is tired of being the first port of call.” She is also tired of feeling threatened by men. She knows that the ability to read and write is not enough to make her safe. Yet at the end of the novel, she cannot turn away an injured man in need, a man she does not yet recognize, because the most damaged of men still have a soul.

The story depends heavily on coincidence, but coincidence in a Shakespeare play is usually evidence of fate. While the ending of the Pericles story is untold, events that shape the ending a reader might imagine are rooted in fate. The ending of the modern story, which ties the goddess Dianne to Angelica, might also be ascribed to fate. The ending is a surprise, but perhaps believers in fate won’t find it surprising at all.

Oddly, I started out liking the modern story more than the ancient one, in part because the shift to Pericles is jarring. By the end, I was quite taken with the ancient story and thought that the drama was milked out of the modern one. Angelica’s story is sad but a bit forced, while the reimagining of Pericles is fascinating. Both stories are nevertheless told in lush prose and the interwoven plots have all the excitement, tragedy, and insight that fans of literature love.

RECOMMENDED

Friday
Jun142019

Correspondents by Tim Murphy

Published by Grove Atlantic on May 15, 2019

I hate to use a book review cliché like “riveting,” but it fits. Correspondents tells a story that is intensely personal, while illuminating larger social, cultural, and political conflicts that have come to define America. The novel also brings to life the pain that America brought to Iraq and to its refugees when it bungled an invasion that was conducted under false pretenses, an invasion that was intended solely to advance American interests, not the interests of Iraqis.

Most of the novel covers a span from 2002 to 2009, but the story begins as a generational saga centered on the fictional Massachusetts town of Lawton, described as a melting pot that draws immigrants who work in mills so they can send wages to the families they left behind. The first chapter introduces the ancestors and siblings of Mary Jo Coughlin (a Catholic from Ireland) and George Khoury (a Lebanese Maronite), while the second describes their lives in the 1960s and 1970s. The third chapter, set in the 1980s, introduces their brainy and ambitious daughter Rita and her cousin Bobby, a descendent of the Coughlin branch. In a 2008 prologue, Rita brings her Jewish boyfriend Jonah to a Mahrajan in Lawton.

All of that is background to a larger story that begins in Iraq in 2002, where Nabil is a young man who is desperate to make a good life. His cousin is Asmaa, a bright and restless woman who teaches Nabil English. Both want life to change, but Nabil, unlike Asmaa, is not sure that it will change for the better if America invades the country.

Rita is in Beirut in 2002 as a Harvard-trained foreign correspondent. Bobby has enlisted in the military as a response to 9/11. As the invasion of Iraq seems imminent, Rita gets her career-making wish and is sent to Iraq to cover the war. Nabil is her warzone interpreter. Bobby is later sent to Iraq to assist with the occupation.

Most of the story takes place in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein. Rita’s interviews reveal the mess that America made. The plan to win the hearts and minds of Iraqis was sabotaged by the indiscriminate bombing of neighborhoods, the mass incarceration of innocent people, and the failure to implement a post-invasion strategy to control the chaos of looters, car thieves, and random killings. All of that is depicted in vivid detail. The notion that deposing Saddam made Iraq free is debunked by characters who tell Rita that they are no longer free to walk on the streets without fear of being killed.

Americans learned some of that from journalists who were allowed to report the story, but as the novel suggests, many American journalists pulled their punches in the immediate aftermath of the supposed “victory.” Only later did they report the hypocrisy of imposing American-style democracy by force on people who were not allowed to decide for themselves whether they wanted a democracy. Almost two decades later, Iraq is still unstable, thanks to American interference with the country's governance. Rita’s realization that American foreign policy is toxic is one of the novel’s strongest moments.

The story is filled with dramatic moments, some involving Rita, others advancing Nabil’s story. One of the later chapters, set in the United States shortly before the 2008 election, focuses on a birther with mental health issues and a newly purchased gun, whose actions lead to a tragic moment that has an impact on Rita, Bobby, and the nation. The last few chapters touch upon important issues involving gun control (or its absence), PTSD, the darkness the pervades the lives of war survivors, the difficulty that refugees have while transitioning to American life, and the love of country (which many Americans can’t seem to fathom when the country isn’t their own).

Correspondents is smart, nuanced, and powerful. A key moment occurs when Rita inadvertently reveals the truth as she sees it — not a “balanced” story about post-invasion successes and failures, but an unvarnished, personal account of how devastating the invasion had been to people who, in its aftermath, lived in daily fear of kidnappers, looters, car bombers, and retribution. Correspondents dramatizes how journalism lost its way by refusing to report the truth from Iraq for fear of appearing biased, as if enabling propaganda by uncritical reporting of an administration’s statements is not itself a form of biased reporting. It tells that story — and the story of the war’s impact on Nabil and his family — in scenes that are all the more moving because of their realism.

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Wednesday
Jun122019

Sing to It by Amy Hempel

Published by Scribner on March 26, 2019

Several of the stories in Sing to It are the shortest of short stories. Perhaps discerning readers will appreciate their depth of feeling or discern their hidden intent. Most of them left me cold. The title story, just a few sentences long, begins with “At the end, he said, No metaphors.” The story is, I guess, a metaphor, but not one that I grasped.

Amy Hempel’s style is to convey intense feelings using as few words as possible. That’ an admirable goal. When she uses too few words, however, I find myself missing all the rich flavor that she seems to have excised in order to get to the story’s core. I’m not sure that all of these stories are really stories at all, but I know that Hempel is popular in literary circles and that other readers are likely to disagree with me about the value of her brief glimpses of life.

As for the longer stories, I loved “A Full-Service Shelter,” which has the indirect storytelling feel of “The Things They Carried” in its heartbreaking description of how dogs perceived the volunteers at a humane society shelter. No dog lover could read the story without being moved.

The longest story, “Cloudland,” is told by a teacher who did cocaine with her students and moved to Florida to make a new life, although not the kind of life that depends on ambition. The protagonist has an abundance of random thoughts and memories and she isn’t shy about sharing them with the reader. Her most substantive memory is about giving up a child for adoption. “For safekeeping. For peace of mind.” Some of her current thoughts are fantasies about seeing or spending time with her daughter; others are about the emptiness she feels. In contrast with Hempel’s other stories, “Cloudland” might have been told more powerfully with fewer words.

The women in these stories are not living happy lives. The narrator of “The Chicane” tells the story of an an American woman who got pregnant by a French actor, then married a guy from Portugal and labored to turn him into an American after she got pregnant again. Neither relationship works out well for her. “Greed” is narrated by a destructive woman whose husband has an affair with an older woman. In “The Correct Grip,” a woman who was attacked by a man with a knife chats amiably with her attacker’s wife.

Only one of the stories in this collection appealed to me, so I cannot recommend the volume to readers who share my tastes. Your mileage may vary. Other than “A Full Service Shelter,” I was largely indifferent to the book’s contents. Even the stories with more substance, such as “Cloudland,” came across to me as pointless. Maybe pointlessness is the point, but it isn’t a point that makes me want to read story after story. The quality of Hempel’s prose, on the other hand, made the stories easy to read, even when I lost interest in the narrative.

RECOMMENDED WITH RESERVATIONS

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